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Leaving Breezy Street: A Memoir

Brenda Myers-Powell, with April Reynolds. Holt, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-15169-0

Myers-Powell pulls no punches in her piercing debut, an account of how she got out of a life of prostitution and drug use, and used the experience to get others off the street. In 1997, after a run-in with a john who hit her and dragged her with his car, she landed in the hospital pummeled so badly that, she writes, “I didn’t have no face.” At age 39, that was a wake-up call for Myers-Powell—who got clean soon after and has been advocating for victims of sex trafficking ever since. But it wasn’t the first time she’d suffered at the hands of another man. Raised by an alcoholic grandmother in Chicago, she was sexually abused at a young age by her uncle and his friends. By the time she turned 14, she was addicted to crack and working as a prostitute to support her two infants. In the 25 years that followed, she was stabbed 13 times and shot five times. “Folks tell me, ain’t all that happen to you,” she writes. “I wish to God I was lying my head off.” Myers-Powell isn’t shy describing her gritty past (“I done seen some girls do some pretty awful things...that crack had tore my ass up”) and the delivery is stirring. This page-turner impresses from start to finish. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology

Susan Shapiro. Skyhorse, $22.99 (264p) ISBN 978-1-510-76271-8

Journalist Shapiro (Lighting Up) chronicles her search for ways to heal after a devastating betrayal in this magnificent work. Her previous memoir recounted her successful therapy with addiction specialist Daniel Winters. Here, she wrestles with the revelation that their 15-year therapeutic relationship was founded on lies, when she finds out he’s been treating someone she’d asked him not to see. Winters’s refusal to explain or show remorse infuriated her and led her to set out on a quest to determine how to forgive someone who won’t apologize. Shapiro interviews colleagues, students, and religious leaders to probe universal questions around hurt, absolution, and contrition. Analyzing Jesus’s plea, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” a Presbyterian minister posits that “forgiving can get you out of pain.” A colleague tells her, “Jewish law requires a person to ask heartfelt forgiveness three times,” and that “if the injured party won’t respond...the non-forgiver has to seek forgiveness for not forgiving.” A Hindu guru, meanwhile, warns that an “angry grudge... burns your own heart first.” Their wisdom moves her to realize “how small my saga was” and to forgive Winters (who apologized first). By blending these stories with her own experiences and writing with insight, humor, and grace, Shapiro’s elegant survey becomes one largely about plumbing the boundless depths of the human heart. This is essential reading. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Seventies: The Decade That Changed American Film Forever

Vincent LoBrutto. Rowman & Littlefield, $36 (264p) ISBN 978-1-538-13718-5

Film buff LoBrutto (Stanley Kubrick) takes a revealing look at the cinematic movement that grew out of the turbulent 1970s. He presents a detailed analysis of the film world year by year, starting with “a long string of failures” of big budget films in the ’60s that indicated the “Golden Age of Hollywood” was over. From this came a vanguard of young, innovative directors who subverted the “beauty and glamour” of the first half of 20th-century film and created complex movies that treated the medium more like art, reacting to the fraught political and social climate caused by the war in Vietnam. These films “were unflinching in their approach to difficult content,” LoBrutto writes, and yielded a more realistic, if sometimes somber, style, bringing to the fore such talents as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese and encompasing cult classic movies like The Exorcist (1973), Chinatown (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976). Charting the rise of stars including Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and Jane Fonda, LoBrutto leaves no stone unturned in making his case, though the heavy barrage of movie titles and dates can get a bit tedious. Movie geeks won’t be disappointed. (May)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books

Jess McHugh. Dutton, $28 (432p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4663-6

Journalist McHugh’s appealing cultural history dissects the American character through a close examination of “ordinary, instructional books that average Americans have consulted every day.” Contending that the most popular of these books, including The Old Farmer’s Almanac, continuously published since 1792; Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, “the bestselling U.S. cookbook of all time”; and Stephen R. Covey’s 1989 self-help phenomenon, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, taught readers “about their role in society and their responsibilities to family and country,” McHugh examines how changes in American values over the past 245 years have been reflected in and spurred by “dog-eared books for daily life.” Discussing Emily Post’s 1922 guidebook Etiquette in Society, McHugh notes that Post turned to writing after divorcing her husband over his adulterous affairs, and reflects on how the ambiguity of class divisions in America fueled anxiety over the rules for social conduct. Other books that come under McHugh’s expert gaze include Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (inspired by the author overcoming his “inferiority complex” by joining the speech team at a Missouri teacher’s college) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). Brisk publication histories and author profiles enrich the cultural analysis, which is consistently on-point. This lucid survey entertains and enlightens. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Still Mad: American Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1950–2020

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Norton, $27.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-393-65171-3

Literary critics Gilbert and Gubar analyze the cultural legacy of feminism’s second wave in this comprehensive if uneven update to The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). They place major works by Sylvia Plath, Diane DiPrima, and Audre Lorde in the cultural context of the 1950s and ’60s, and dive deep into the feminist literature of the ’70s, including the antipatriarchal writings of Kate Millett, the poetry of Adrienne Rich, and the speculative fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Reactionary conservatism inspired the emergence of queer theory in the ’90s, though the knotty philosophical formulations of scholars including Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick reflected a “growing divide between feminists inside the academy and those outside it.” Casting contemporary feminism as a resurgence of the second wave filtered through a broader set of concerns, Gilbert and Gubar discuss Rebecca Solnit’s response to mansplaining, Claudia Rankine’s emotional connections to the Black Lives Matter movement, and N.K. Jemisin’s environmentally centered feminist fantasies. The authors’ astute selections and skilled close readings are rewarding, but their devaluing of ideas that have emerged since the ’70s will frustrate younger feminists. Still, this is a well-informed and accessible survey of the literature of modern feminism. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution

David Talbot and Margaret Talbot. Harper, $28.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-282039-6

Charismatic but flawed figures dominate this vibrant portrait of 1960s radical movements. Salon founder David Talbot (The Devil’s Chessboard) and his sister, New Yorker scribe Margaret Talbot (The Entertainer), profile well-known leaders of Vietnam-era liberation groups, including Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, whose strategy of armed confrontation with police devolved into criminality; Heather Booth, founder of the underground abortion services collective Jane; United Farm Workers chief Cesar Chavez, whose tactics of nonviolence, fasting, and boycotts curdled into an authoritarian spiritual cult; Craig Rodwell, who raised the cry of “Gay Power!” at the Stonewall riot; and American Indian Movement activists Dennis Banks and Russell Means, who held off federal agents at the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee. The authors duly delve into the period’s excesses and indulge in a few of their own, speculating, for example, that Beatle John Lennon was assassinated as part of a government conspiracy. Still, their vivid depictions of the era’s mix of revolutionary organizing and heady breakthroughs—at New York’s first Gay Pride Parade, “marchers strode up Sixth Avenue arm in arm, three or four across; some practically danced, spinning around, half delirious, half determined”—make for an exhilarating, inspiring outing. Agent: Sloan Harris, ICM Partners. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Artful Dickens: The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist

John Mullan. Bloomsbury, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-1-4088-6681-8

Mullan (What Matters in Jane Austen?) deconstructs Charles Dickens in this incisive essay collection. Astute observations abound in 13 pieces that attempt to “do justice to Dickens’s inventiveness, ingenuity, and experimentalism. The essay “Fantasising” examines the number of times “as if” appears as an idiomatic tic that “unlocks the novelist’s fantastic vision of the sheer strangeness of reality.” “Smelling” describes the grim “whiff” of London sewage and horse dung in Dickens’s work, as well as the odors of his characters. “Changing Tenses” provides a chance to “share the sharpness of childhood memory,” while “Naming” proves that Dickens’s characters got their names from lists of advisers to the royal family. “Speaking” digs into Dickens’s use of dialogue, and “Breaking the Rules” shows that the novelist’s use of repetition was the “simplest and the best of his tricks.” Mullan convincingly suggests that writers including Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, and Muriel Sparks draw from the best of Dickens’s techniques—in fact, he writes, Dickens anticipated the “narrative experiments” of modern novelists. This superlative, fresh collection will please stalwart fans and bring new readers to the Dickens canon. (May)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Memory Thief and the Secrets Behind How We Remember: A Medical Mystery

Lauren Aguirre. Pegasus, $28.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-64313-652-3

Filmmaker Aguirre debuts with an insightful look at the inner workings of memory and the research of neurologist Jed Barash, who has for nearly a decade looked for a link between opioid abuse and memory damage. In 2012, Barash reviewed the MRI of a 22-year-old opiate overdose survivor whose hippocampus, “the place that holds the keys to memory,” had been completely obliterated. The experience launched Barash’s quest, which Aguirre embellishes with accounts of what is presently known about how memories are created and stored, a discussion of amnesia syndrome case studies that Barash believes are fentanyl-related, and a sobering look at the costs of the opioid crisis. Barash’s work with memory extends beyond opioids: his team also wondered, Aguirre writes, if their discoveries “could turn out to be a tiny piece of the giant puzzle that is Alzheimer’s disease.” Aguirre has a knack for explaining science in accessible detail, and paints a sympathetic and intimate picture of Barash through his tireless “years of study and obsession,” all the while illuminating the reality of former fentanyl users who struggle with profound amnesia. The blend of science and deeply felt humanity will leave readers thinking about this one long after they finish. Agent: Justin Brouckert, Aevitas Creative. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

Patrick Radden Keefe. Doubleday, $32.50 (560p) ISBN 978-0-385-54568-6

History repeats itself and disaster ensues in this sweeping saga of the rise and fall of the family behind OxyContin, the painkiller widely credited with sparking the opioid epidemic in America. New Yorker staff writer Keefe (Say Nothing) brings three generations of the secretive Sacklers into the light, detailing how marketing techniques—including the co-opting of doctors and FDA regulators, the placement of misleading advertisements and articles in medical journals, and the discrediting of evidence of addiction—pioneered by patriarch Arthur Sackler in the 1960s to sell the tranquilizers Librium and Valium were enhanced by his nephew, Richard Sackler, in the '90s and 2000s to make OxyContin "one of the biggest blockbusters in pharmaceutical history, generating some $35 billion in revenue." Keefe also delves into the Sacklers' "mania" for donating millions to "arts and education institutions," the family's cover-up of a drug-addled son's suicide in 1975, their role in a 1995 New Jersey chemical plant explosion that killed five people, and their draining of company funds as lawsuits related to the opioid crisis mounted. It's an altogether damning portrait ("Unlike a lot of human beings," Keefe writes, "[the Sacklers] didn't seem to learn from what they saw transpiring in the world around them"), richly detailed and vividly written. Readers will be outraged and enthralled in equal measure. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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As a Woman: What I Learned About Power, Sex, and Patriarchy After I Transitioned

Paula Stone Williams. Atria, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-982-15334-2

In this earnest, empathetic debut, Williams aims to bridge her Christian faith with her transgender identity as she reconciles these aspects of her life. Raised by a pastor father and emotionally volatile mother, her path in ministry was all but preordained. Early on, she was ambivalent about her assigned (male) gender. “I did not dislike being a boy,” she recalls, and yet she felt she was meant to be a girl. She married her college sweetheart, Cathy, in 1972, and moved up in the evangelical church, raising three children and becoming CEO of the Orchard Group, a “church planting” ministry. But the call to transition was impossible to ignore, so she began hormone therapy. Her transition was met by a harsh rejection from the Orchard Group and eventually a divorce from Cathy. After making her living as part of an institution built on condemning LGBTQ individuals, she discovered that the authority she enjoyed as a straight white man was unavailable to her as a trans lesbian. She did manage, though, to carve out new leadership roles in affirming churches and continues to work as a pastor. While she examines her new perspective with humility and grace, Williams’s observations about patriarchy won’t come as revelations to most women and LGBTQ readers. Those haunted by evangelical culture will find much to ponder in this story. Agent: Roger Freet, Foundry Literary + Media. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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