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What you Have Heard Is True

Carolyn Forché. Penguin Press, $28 (392p) ISBN 978-0-525-56037-1

Poet Forché (Blue Hour) writes intensely about her visits to El Salvador as the country edged toward civil war in the late 1970s. A poetry professor in Southern California, Forché knew little of El Salvador and its “silence of misery endured,” until Leonel Gómez Vides—a friend’s cousin, coffee farmer, and rumored CIA operative “too mysterious for most people”—appeared on her doorstep in 1977 and, inspired by her writing, invited her to visit and learn about his homeland . Arriving in El Salvador four months later, she and Leonel met with political and military figures—saying she was a poet, journalist, and professor on a fellowship to the country—to create an illusion of influence, which he explained “might save your life” as the nation slid into chaos. Working alongside an overtaxed rural doctor with few medical supplies, farmers barely subsisting off the land, and a wealthy socialite involved in the resistance, she documented the growing brutality, hoping to translate it into poetry, spurred by Leonel’s insistence that “This place is a symphony of illusion... and an orchestra needs a conductor.” These notes became the basis of The Country Between Us, her 1981 poetry collection that addressed the atrocities in El Salvador. Forché’s astute, lyrical memoir offer glimpses into life in a war-torn country and contextualizes her early works of poetry. Agent: Bill Clegg, The Clegg Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years

Julie Andrews, with Emma Walton Hamilton. Hachette, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-0-316-34925-3

Singer and actor Andrews, writing with her daughter Hamilton, offers a sincere and inspiring account of her life, focusing on her Hollywood years beginning in 1962. After a brief recap of her youth in England (covered in more detail in her earlier memoir, Home), Andrews recounts her first movie role in Mary Poppins and her experiences in the Disney studios, where Walt Disney himself offered “fatherly kindness” to the young actress, who was newly a mother and married to her childhood sweetheart, set and costume designer Tony Walton. Her next big role—again, as a nanny—was in The Sound of Music. Writing of her role in 1966’s Torn Curtain, she shares behind-the-scenes tales of Alfred Hitchcock’s wry humor, as well as shooting an “anything but dreamy” love scene with Paul Newman. Her marriage collapsed from the strain of work and travel, but in 1969 she met the mercurial producer Blake Edwards at a traffic intersection on Sunset Boulevard. Andrews shares tales of her colleagues (Peter Sellers was testy on The Pink Panther set; Dudley Moore charmed her in Ten) as well as her efforts to stabilize her marriage to Edwards (they remained married until his death in 2010). This charming account of Andrews’s professional and personal life will no doubt serve to make the venerated performer all the more beloved. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Rocket Man: The Life of Elton John

Mark Bego. Pegasus, $28.95 (416p) ISBN 978-1-64313-313-3

Bego (Michael!) narrates the ups and downs of musician Elton John’s career and music in this fawning set of fan’s notes. Drawing on interviews with John’s colleagues and on archival research, Bego chronicles Reginald Dwight’s (he would become Elton John in 1967) childhood in 1940s and ’50s Middlesex, England, where he developed a love of piano and rock and roll, and overcame his shyness through his outrageous performances. He experienced early musical success in the late 1960s with Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart, before gaining international acclaim in the 1970s, fueled by albums such as Madman Across the Water, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and 11-17-70. In the 1980s, John fell into alcohol and cocaine abuse, encountered financial problems, and struggled in his relationships; by the 1990s, however, he recovered and began playing sold-out stadium tours with Billy Joel, and found a younger audience when he performed “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. Bego marches rapidly through John’s career in the 21st century, highlighting albums such as 2004’s Peachtree Road and the 2019 biopic Rocketman. In breathless prose, Bego cheerleads for John: “Is he a musical genius? Definitely. Is there more great music coming from Elton John? Years worth... Is he a ‘mad genius’? Absolutely.” This will be of most interest to diehard John fans. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Democracy: How to Fix Our Politics, Unite the Economy & Unite America

Ganesh Sitaraman. Basic, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-1-5416-1811-4

Vanderbilt Law School professor Sitaraman (The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution) delivers a thoughtful, forward-thinking study of the state of American democracy. He argues that the four pillars of neoliberalism (global trade, industry deregulation, privatization of public services, and budget austerity) have created levels of economic inequality that pose a mortal threat to the country. Without systematic reform, Sitaraman argues, America will become a “nationalist oligarchy” in which a small group of elites controls the government and the economy by means of unlimited political spending, gerrymandering, voting restrictions, and media manipulation. To avoid this outcome, Sitaraman urges the forging of a new sense of American community, the dismantling of excessive corporate power, and the increased participation of “ordinary people” in the political system. He suggests a dizzying number of policies to further these goals, including the merging of the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and VISTA into one national service program, the aggressive application of antitrust laws, and such “radical” changes to the Supreme Court as the appointment of all federal appeals judges to the court as associate justices. Sitaraman’s clear prose and willingness to tackle thorny problems are admirable, even if some of his proposals seem farfetched. Progressives will savor this idealistic blueprint for the future. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump’s War on the World’s Most Powerful Office

Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (404p) ISBN 978-0-374-17536-8

Hennessey and Wittes (The Future of Violence), editors of national security website Lawfare, deliver a penetrating partisan analysis of President Trump’s first term in office. Part catalogue of current events, part historical study, the book draws unflattering comparisons between Trump and former presidents, including George Washington, whose statement condemning the razing of a Cherokee town by Georgia settlers in 1792 is set alongside Trump’s comment there were “very fine people—on both sides” of a 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a white supremacist killed a counterprotester. Hennessey and Wittes illuminate how the constitutional system of checks and balances has stymied Trump’s “processless brand of decision-making,” noting that his first two executive orders restricting travel to the U.S. from Muslim-majority countries were struck down by federal courts, and recounting instances in which officials in the State and Justice departments contradicted presidential statements. The book’s wealth of factoids (“President Grover Cleveland answered the White House telephone each time it rang”) and keen insights into Trump’s character (“a man who wore his propensity to abuse power on his sleeve”) provide much food for thought. Liberals and independent-minded readers of presidential histories will savor this thorough, lucidly written account. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy

James Hankins. Belknap, $45 (752p) ISBN 978-0-674-23755-1

Harvard University history professor Hankins, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy, illuminates the political theories of Italian Renaissance humanists in this exhaustive study. Modern scholars of the era have focused on anachronistic “ideas of liberty” and neglected other important strains of humanist thought, Hankins contends. Renaissance theorists conceived of freedom as a “fruit of virtue,” rather than a “natural right,” he claims, linking the concept of “virtue politics” to widespread corruption in 15th- and 16th-century Italy. Such philosophers as Flavio Biondo and Leonardo Brundi, Hankins writes, sought systematic political reform by reviving classical Greek and Roman culture, displacing heredity as the primary source of authority, and positing that laws were dependent on the “moral character” of rulers. Turning to Florentine statesman Niccolò Machiavelli, Hankins argues that his masterworks The Prince and Discourses are not as contradictory as they seem. In the former, Hankins writes, a “prudent ruler” foregoes his aspirations to moral probity in order to save his regime from external and internal threats. In the latter, a different set of needs (“to achieve great and long-lasting security and empire”) requires a more classically humanistic approach. Hankins’s clear chronology of events and tireless research lend credence to his analysis. This is a worthy contribution to the field of Renaissance studies. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better than Any Machine... for Now

Stanislas Dehaene. Viking, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-525-55988-7

Dehaene (Consciousness in the Brain), a professor of experimental psychology at the Collège de France, devotes this detailed, sometimes hard-going, but stimulating study to the science of learning. The first half largely concerns brain physiology, touching on, among other subjects, how learning can physically change the brain, such as by thickening the cortex. Dehaene also refutes the idea of the “blank slate” infant brain, noting that “even a baby... encodes the external world using abstract and systematic rules—an ability that eludes... conventional artificial neural networks.” The book’s second, less technical and more widely accessible half explores the “four pillars” of learning: attention, active engagement, error feedback, and consolidation of information (for which REM sleep is especially key) and discusses how enjoyment can assist learning—Dehaene notes that laughter seems to enhance curiosity and memory. While calling for more research into the field, he issues his most potentially controversial pronouncement, at least for neurodiversity advocates: “We all face similar hurdles in learning and the same teaching methods can surmount them.” At times not an easy book to comprehend, it will nonetheless be a richly instructive one for educators, parents, and others interested how to most effectively foster the pursuit of knowledge. Agent: Max Brockman, Brockman, Inc. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Bagels, Bumf, and Buses: A Day in the Life of the English Language

Simon Horobin. . Hurst, $21.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-19-883227-0

Horobin (How English Became English), an Oxford professor of English language and literature, dives into word origins in this enjoyable, fast-paced survey. He structures his book according to aspects of everyday life, offering up a litany of words related to each topic. In a section on eating, Horobin traces the ancestry of the word pudding back to the Anglo-Norman bodeyn, meaning “sausage” (because puddings were once cooked in sausage-like casings), itself deriving from the Latin botellus, meaning “small intestine.” (And upon discovering this, he observes, “you may find yourself suddenly feeling unexpectedly full.”) Regarding money, he shows how words in use today preserve traces of past cultures’ physical artifacts: coin derives from the Latin cuneus, or “wedge,” referring to the Romans’ wedge-shaped coin stamper, while the Greek word for the equivalent device, kharakter, gives English character, meaning a person’s mark or trait. In addition to ancient history, Horobin delves into the modern language of social media and illustrates its deficiencies by explaining how Moby-Dick’s famous opening sentence was rendered in the adaptation Emoji Dick: as a string of symbols representing a telephone, a man with a mustache, a boat, a whale, and an “okay” hand signal. Horobin’s often humorous and always enthusiastic work will entertain readers by revealing the dynamic nature of language. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Eat Sleep Work Repeat: 30 Hacks for Bringing Joy to Your Job

Bruce Daisley. HarperOne, $24.99 (310p) ISBN 978-0-06-294450-4

“Modern work is getting worse,” laments Daisley, European vice president for Twitter and creator of the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast, in this limp edition of the U.K. bestseller The Joy of Work. With 83% of Americans reporting being stressed out by their jobs, Daisley sees a situation that isn’t good for anyone, either labor or management: overwork doesn’t lead to higher profit, and companies would do well to remember that treating employees well is good business. With a surplus of enthusiasm but a dearth of data, Daisley argues that “the evidence on working is about to transform the way we work,” and guides readers through 30 ideas for improving their work, their workplaces, and their teams. As presented in three categories—recharge to unplug and perform self-care, sync to build relationships offline, and create buzz to encourage a “sense of engagement and positive energy” that will inspire one’s team—the advice given (“halve your meetings”; “keep teams lean”; “suggest a coffee break”) is too stale to ever escape cliché. His complaints, too, about the drain of constant connectivity and the threat of artificial intelligence feel old hat. Readers facing burnout should stick with the podcast and avoid its tepid print analog. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

Ronan Farrow. Little, Brown, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-0-316-48663-7

A groundbreaking #MeToo journalist finds his own news organization to be the greatest obstacle to the truth in this vivid, labyrinthine memoir. New Yorker scribe and ex-NBC News correspondent Farrow (War on Peace) revisits his 2017 reporting on sexual assault and harassment allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein by actresses and employees, an investigation begun but then killed by NBC and eventually published in the New Yorker. Farrow then probes sexual misconduct complaints at NBC itself, including an explosive new claim that Today host Matt Lauer raped NBC news staffer Brooke Nevils. He describes coaxing frightened women to break nondisclosure agreements and go public with their traumas, as well as more sinister currents of intrigue and betrayal. He unearths Weinstein's use of secret agents from the Israeli firm Black Cube to spy on sources—and on Farrow himself. Worse, he contends, NBC executives, some with personal and business ties to Weinstein and pressured by his lobbying and legal threats, started unaccountably turning against Farrow's story as the evidence supporting it mounted. Though a bit baggy, the narrative combines the intricate reporting of All the President's Men with Kafkaesque atmosphere to reveal troubling collusion between the media and the powerful interests they cover. This is a crackerjack journalistic thriller. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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