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Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution

Jared Diamond. Morrow, $28.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-287210-4

Wall Street Journal baseball writer Diamond delivers a rollicking account of the recent shift in that most joyous and elemental moment in sports: the home run. Diamond explores how changes in how players swing the bat have resulted in record-setting numbers of home runs, leading him to conclude: “Baseball today is about one thing: power—and how to cultivate it.” But rather than digressing into statistics and data analytics, Diamond focuses on the work of such players as Boston Red Sox outfielder J.D. Martinez, who, after suffering a freak injury and on the disabled list in 2013, changed his swing with the help of “hitting pioneer” Craig Wallenbrock, which resulted in multiple All-Star appearances and Silver Slugger awards. In addition to providing the background story of this swing guru, Diamond provides historical anecdotes about the cultural and strategic significance of the home run and the history of batting strategy and training, such as the famed contrast between Babe Ruth’s home-run slugging and Ty Cobb’s “small ball” game of bunting and hitting singles. Diamond also talks about his own life in amateur baseball, including a colorful story of his work to improve his swing before the annual New York vs. Boston media game. This breezy and engaging history will be a hit with baseball aficionados and casual fans alike. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Miss Aluminum: A Memoir

Susanna Moore. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-27971-4

Novelist Moore (My Old Objects) recounts drifting aimlessly through young adulthood after her mother’s death in this affecting coming-of-age story. Moore’s mother mysteriously died in her sleep when the author was 12; Moore, raised near Honolulu by a handsome, self-absorbed physician father, led a privileged life but was emotionally abused by her cruel stepmother. She befriended a wealthy neighbor, Ale Kaiser, and their friendship continued after a rebellious 17-year-old Moore was sent to live in Philadelphia in 1963. Moore impulsively changed careers and cities— “I had no sense of a future.... My mother’s death had deprived me of the ability to think more than a few weeks ahead.” She began working as a model, and in 1966 she was hired by fashion designer Oleg Cassini, who later raped her, then gave her a role in a movie he was working on called The Ambushers; to protect herself from Cassini she became the mistress of the film’s associate producer. While living in late 1960s Los Angeles, she thrived and befriended Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and writer Joan Didion. In reflecting on her mother’s madness, she realizes, “I no longer thought I was like her, too fragile, too crazy to survive.” Moore’s search for stability during a free-spirited decade is a whirlwind of celebrity encounters and a lyrical exploration of the lingering effects of a mother’s death. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Heart: Frida Kahlo in Paris

Marc Pettijean. Other Press, $25 (176p) ISBN 978-1-59051-990-5

Documentary filmmaker Pettijean examines the little-known story of Frida Kahlo’s time in pre-WWII France and her whirlwind romance with his father, Michel Pettijean, in this captivating biography. Preparing to leave Mexico in 1938 for her first solo exhibition in New York, Kahlo discovered that her husband, painter Diego Rivera, was having an affair and intended to divorce her. Seeking consolation, Kahlo sailed to France in early 1939 at the invitation of surrealist Andre Breton, who had recognized her talent during a 1938 visit to Mexico. While in Paris, Kahlo socialized with Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Elsa Schiaparelli; celebrated the exhibition of her work with other Mexican art at the Pierre Colle Gallery; and enjoyed a passionate affair with art journalist Michel Pettijean, before giving him her self-portrait of heartbreak called The Heart, “so you don’t forget me.” What emerges is a perceptive portrait of an artist finding herself and learning to love and paint again. Fans of Kahlo’s art and of the surrealist movement will want to give this thoughtful and illuminating work a look. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political

Judith Butler. Verso, $26.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-78873-276-5

UC Berkeley philosopher and gender theorist Butler (Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly) explores the meaning and ethics of nonviolence and its relationship to systemic racism and other repressive social structures in this scholarly yet boldly articulated essay collection. In contrast to prevailing associations of nonviolence with calmness and passivity, Butler redefines it as an “aggressive” and “sustained” form of resistance to social inequality. She reveals how racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny render certain lives “grievable” while others are deemed unworthy of grief, and applies that theoretical framework to discussions of the Black Lives Matter movement, various refugee crises, and violence against cisgender and trans women in Latin America. A piece on Freud’s development of the concept of the “death drive” (Thanatos) in the aftermath of WWI veers somewhat from Butler’s core theses, but intriguingly describes how “aggression and hatred” might be channeled to oppose nationalism and “war-mongering authority.” Butler’s academic prose and close readings of Foucault, Frantz Fanon, and other theorists may be difficult for general readers to follow, but her avowal of “global interdependency” as a positive force for equality resonates, as does her discussion of the ways in which state powers twist the definition of “violence” to stifle protest. Political activists with a background in philosophy will appreciate Butler’s insights. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Storm Before the Calm: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond

George Friedman. Doubleday, $30 (256p) ISBN 978-0-385-54049-0

The vitriol of the Trump era masks crises in our economy and governing institutions that will deepen before resolving themselves, according to this probing and ultimately hopeful diagnosis of America’s discontents. Friedman (The Next 100 Years), chairman of the forecasting organization Geopolitical Futures, argues that the country is ending the third installment of a recurring 80-year cycle of stress and reform in the federal government—the first ended when the Civil War established federal supremacy over states, the second when the New Deal and WWII cemented federal control over the economy; the third has been caused by a federal bureaucracy too “vast” and tangled to solve problems—and the turn of a 50-year economic cycle currently dominated by investor-friendly economics. These coinciding cycles, he contends, will cause upheaval in the 2020s before the 2030s stabilize around a new regime of efficient government and a fairer economy. Though Friedman’s cycles feel artificial and his prophecies Nostradamian (“In 2024 a new president will emerge who represents the values of the declining era”), they frame cogent analyses of America’s dysfunctions, including the demoralizing decline of middle-class incomes and working-class whites’ resentment of an arrogant ruling technocracy formed by elite universities they can’t get into. Crystal ball-gazing aside, Friedman offers a lucid, stimulating assessment of which way the wind is blowing. Agent: Jim Hornfischer, Hornfischer Literary Management. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Great Society: A New History

Amity Shlaes. Harper, $32.50 (528p) ISBN 978-0-06-170642-4

Former Financial Times columnist Shlaes (The Forgotten Man) contends, in this dense yet fluidly written account, that U.S. government efforts to eradicate poverty, increase worker protections, expand medical coverage, and establish environmental regulations during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations led to “economic tragedy.” According to Shlaes, federal entitlement programs instituted or expanded during the 1960s failed to win the War on Poverty and established “a permanent sense of downtroddenness” among the poor. She credits Job Corps founder Sargent Shriver and Housing and Urban Development secretary George Romney with attempting to remedy youth unemployment and housing segregation, respectively, but claims that the private sector and local initiatives were more effective in those and other goals. Shlaes praises business executives, governors, and mayors for pushing back against “the incursions of the federal government,” and blames union bosses for winning so many employee benefits that U.S. companies could no longer compete with foreign rivals. While Shlaes mainly succeeds in keeping the narrative from bogging down in the nitty-gritty of policy making, her ideological slant leads to some questionable interpretations, as when she claims, “[Watergate] was an indictment of executive overreach generally.” The result is more of a backwards-looking polemic against democratic socialism than an essential history of the Great Society era. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, the Wylie Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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On Shirley Hazzard

Michelle de Kretser. Catapult, $14.95 (112p) ISBN 978-1-948226-82-0

In this compact, intriguing work, de Kretser (The Life to Come) offers a series of short appreciations of fellow Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard (1931–2016). Making no attempt to be exhaustive, de Kretser carefully chooses what interests her about Hazzard’s work, covering such topics as the late author’s “unwavering belief” in the transformational potential of art, her strong sense of place, and her politics—Hazzard, de Kretser states, “reserves solidarity for the vulnerable,” making the political personal. To convey a sense of who Hazzard was in her own words, de Kretser quotes heavily from her work, inviting the reader to linger over such vivid images as the “hard apple” of a cat’s head rubbing against an arm. She also discusses characterization and “echo patterning” in Hazzard’s work, particularly in The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire. These disparate subjects are unified by the deep attachment de Kretser feels to Hazzard’s work, and the author herself. While this is unlikely to be accessible to those who aren’t familiar with Hazzard’s oeuvre, it stands as a deeply felt if idiosyncratic tribute. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Case for Climate Capitalism: Economic Solutions for a Planet in Crisis

Tom Rand. ECW, $27.95 (264p) ISBN 978-1-77041-523-2

Capitalism can save a burning planet—if the left and right can bury the hatchet long enough to acknowledge that humanity needs both robust business and regulation, cautions investor Rand (Waking the Frog) in his thoughtful treatise. With climate disruption threatening social upheaval, he believes humans need “a pragmatic response to a messy problem.” Rand looks at how the current ideological impasse arose, warning that adherence to dogmas—either staunchly pro– or anti–free market—will prevent building the new economy that might solve the problem. On possible solutions, he stresses the need to get corporate leaders on the right side and to carry out market interventions to encourage the adoption of clean technologies. Much of the book’s strength is in its practicality. Most of the necessary technology already exists, he notes—it just needs to be commercialized and deployed before the world goes up in flames. A slightly panicky tone and a cutesy concluding letter to his newborn son detract somewhat from the gravity of the whole. However, this is largely a strong, well-reasoned argument for the left and right to work together for the common good. Agent: Arnold Gosewich, Arnold Gosewich Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another

Ainissa Ramirez. MIT, $27.95 (328p) ISBN 978-0-2620-4380-9

Ramirez, a materials scientist and science writer, devotes her fine debut to the impact of eight inventions. While some might seem obvious—steel railroad tracks, light bulbs, telegraph wires, and silicon chips—Ramirez has a knack for finding unexpected examples of their impact. Railway lines, she argues, by making consumer products newly available on a national scale, enabled the transformation of Christmas, with big business’s connivance, into today’s gift-giving occasion: “The Christmas we know was born in a boardroom, swaddled in steel.” Some of her choices may seem less obvious, including clocks and scientific glassware. But here, too, Ramirez makes a persuasive case for their transformative power. Standardizing and improving glass’s chemical configuration made it an invaluable material in scientific laboratories, thus leading to “an understanding of how our bodies work, how the heavens move, and how other worlds exist in a drop of water.” Making clocks more accurate, meanwhile, helped end the once-widespread practice of “segmented sleep,” in which people customarily slept in two separate phases over the course of a night. By explaining how inventions both exotic and mundane transformed society, Ramirez’s ingenious survey illuminates the effect of science in a manner accessible to a wide readership. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight over a Modernist Masterpiece

Alex Beam. Random House, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-399-59271-3

Beam (The Feud) interweaves architectural history and personal drama in this enthralling account of the construction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, revealing how two friends designed one of America's most widely recognized residences before descending into bitterness and strife. At a 1945 dinner party, physician Edith Farnsworth asked renowned avant-garde architect Mies van der Rohe to design her a weekend home on a beautiful wooded plot next to the Fox River in Plano, Ill. Inspired, he designed a transparent home composed almost entirely of glass and steel to "let the outside in." The two became intimately involved, spending weekends together crafting the design and motivating rival architect Philip Johnson to design the Glass House in New Canaan, Conn. Architectural problems and skyrocketing costs (the total cost ballooned from $40,000 to over $70,000) drove a wedge between Farnsworth and Mies van der Rohe, with Farnsworth publicly denigrating Mies van der Rohe's work before he sued her for unpaid fees, which turned into four years of legal wrangling after the house was completed in 1951. This engrossing page turner is a portrait of two complex people and a fascinating history of a modern architectural masterpiece. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/06/2019 | Details & Permalink

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