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Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny

Ann Marks. Atria, $40 (368p) ISBN 978-1-982166-72-4

With the keen eye of a detective and persistence of a genealogist, researcher Marks unravels the complicated story of “nanny wonder” Vivian Maier (1926–2009), one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic street photographers. When Maier’s photographs first came to light in 2007, she quickly became a phenomenon in the art world for her “keen grasp of the serendipitous choreography of daily life,” and, until now, her mysterious personal history. Here, Marks paints the “full picture” of Maier’s life, from a fraught childhood with her single mother in France, to her teenage years in New York City in the 1930s, and, later, her 40-year avocation as a photographer, which she juggled alongside her job as a caregiver for various families (“Vivian had a foot in each world”). Drawing from her extensive access to Maier’s archives, Marks vividly evokes a woman full of both tragic and amusing complexities, who struggled with paranoia and a hoarding disorder, was a tireless civil rights advocate, and had as much of an affinity for photographing moments of “human affection” as she did the “oft-ignored elderly.” In doing so, the author shines a light on the “intelligence, creativity, [and] passion” behind Maier’s preternatural ability to capture “the universality of the human condition.” This definitive account will leave readers in awe. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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My Life in Dire Straits: The Inside Story of One of the Biggest Rock Bands in History

John Illsley. Diversion, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-63576-915-9

Illsley, bass player of the British rock band Dire Straits, delivers a fascinating take on the band’s history. Following his rock-crazed youth in Leicestershire, he details his eventful meeting in the mid-1970s with guitar playing brothers David and Mark Knopfler in London’s Deptford district, a bleak area that, during a decade marked by “crippling strikes,” was “far ahead in the race to the bottom.” But it was the ideal place to form a band, as Illsey ably illustrates, recalling how it enabled Dire Straits to develop a unique sound away from the punk scene that dominated London at the time. Once the band’s demo tape landed with popular disc jockey Charlie Gillett in 1977, who began playing their song “Sultans of Swing” on repeat during the summer of 1977, the group shot to superstardom. Illsley breathlessly recounts the nonstop touring that began after they signed with Warner Records, the ascendancy of “Sultans” to worldwide hit status, and the increasingly popular records that followed, among them 1985’s Brothers in Arms, whose breakout song “Money for Nothing” led to a prominent performance at Live Aid. Along the way, Illsley is brutally frank about the toll that the band’s fame had on his relationships, most notably his marriage (“a victim,” he writes, “of my life on the road”). Fans will be mesmerized. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe in Contemporary Culture

Mark Bould. Verso, $19.95 (176p) ISBN 978-1-83976-047-1

Film critic and theorist Bould (Solaris) presents a wide-ranging if bumbling survey of the ways climate change is “unconsciously” addressed in culture. He uses as his foil Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, which, he writes, maintains that much of contemporary art and literature has failed to confront catastrophic climate change. Though he shares Ghosh’s belief that literary fiction has faltered in this area, Bould argues that he doesn’t agree these shortcomings are “near-universal,” and instead suggests that, on the contrary, many contemporary works indirectly wrestle with the reality of global warming. “Is there no room for the symbolic?” he asks. Among the many texts he references are the Sharknado movie series, zombie films such as 28 Days Later, and such prescient sci-fi novels as J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, which, in 1962, imagined that rising temperatures would lead to rising tides. Still, not all of his examples are convincing; the closing section on the Fast and the Furious franchise, for example, falls short of effectively linking plots most notable for stunt driving to anything deeper. But Bould doesn’t seem too concerned about making claims that seem “tenuous”: “That’s the dice you roll when you hazard criticism: you make judgments for which you can only offer support, never proof.” Unfortunately, this misses the mark. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling

Esi Edugyan. House of Anansi, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4870-1050-8

Novelist Edugyan (Washington Black) delivers a fascinating study of the “world of shadows [that] edges our written histories.” Originally delivered as the 2020 Massey Lectures, Edugyan’s reflections take a region and a theme as a starting point—“Europe and the Art of Seeing,” “America and the Art of Empathy”—and interweave cultural criticism; sketches of obscure historical episodes, including the forced removal of the Black families who settled Priceville, Ontario, in the 1830s and the desecration of their cemetery; and autobiographical details about her life as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants to Canada. Discussing artist Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of contemporary Black men in poses that evoke European aristocrats and painters, Edugyan astutely pinpoints “a plea to have an essential humanity acknowledged.” Elsewhere, she shares the fascinating stories of Clarence King, a white adventurer in 19th-century America who led a double life as a Black Pullman porter married to a woman born into slavery, and Edward Nkoloso, a Zambian scientist whose plans to send “Afronauts” to Mars in the 1960s may have been “part of a covert resistance movement against the tyrannical colonial and native authorities.” Distinguished by its erudite yet unpretentious prose and probing viewpoints, this is an essential reckoning with how history is made. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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PEN: An Illustrated History

Edited by Carles Torner and Jan Martens. Interlink, $59.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-62371-902-9

Poet Torner (Babel’s Arch) and publisher Martens curate a comprehensive and lavishly illustrated history of the literary organization PEN International to mark its 100th anniversary. Contributors trace the association’s evolution from its founding in London in 1921 by poet Catharine Amy Dawson Scott as a “dinner-club” where “well-known writers of both sexes can meet socially” to the “major shift in [its] thinking” that occurred in 1933, when president H.G. Wells invited exiled German writer Ernst Toller to “speak about the realities of Nazi rule” and PEN’s German chapter was expelled for “excluding members on political grounds.” In 1937, PEN launched its “first successful campaign on behalf of a writer in prison,” helping to free Arthur Koestler from a Spanish jail. In recent years, PEN has worked to repeal overly broad defamation laws in Africa, protested the kidnapping and imprisonment of Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai by Chinese authorities, and campaigned on behalf of Iraqi translators who have worked with the U.S. military and aid groups. Enriched by a wealth of archival material, including the dinner menu from the first meeting, texts of important speeches, and artwork from PEN conferences and publications, this is a fitting tribute to a crucial defender of the freedom of expression. Illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics

Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb. Oxford Univ, $27.95 (344p) ISBN 978-0-19754-107-4

Four women mapped “a route for themselves where none existed” and changed the field of ethics, according to this refreshing group biography. Lipscomb, a philosophy professor at Houghton College, focuses on the philosophers Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch, who, despite their differences, were close friends and did “something revolutionary” by reintegrating ethics into philosophy at a time when it was out of fashion. Beginning at the oustet of WWII, the narrative traces how each thinker forged a place for themselves in a male-dominated world: they all studied at Oxford, where they met in 1940, were trained in analytic philosophy, and were fiercely dedicated to their field. Together, Lipscomb writes, they “diagnosed” the prevailing moral philosophy of the day, that there’s no objective good or bad, as an “intellectual fad,” and countered by proposing there are indeed moral truths. Lipscomb keeps things centered on their friendship, making powerful use of newly opened archives and the philosophers’ unpublished correspondence, as when he brings Oxford to life using Murdoch’s letters to friends. This credible corrective couldn’t have arrived at a better time. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Fixed: The Fine Art of Problem Solving

Amy E. Herman. Harper Wave, $32.50 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-300484-9

Art historian Herman (Visual Intelligence) suggests in this accessible survey that people can be better problem-solvers by following the examples of artists. Herman studies the way artists prepare, approach, and complete their works, starting with Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, which depicts the aftermath of a shipwreck caused by terrible decision-making. She writes that the painting is the key to the “critical survival skill” that is problem-solving—which is often as simple as nurturing relationships with others and leaning on them when problems arise (“When in doubt, we must default to our humanity”). Herman presents a series of images and follow-up questions to help readers learn their tastes (which can “lead to better self-realization”), and offers a study in perspective intended to help one adopt different “vantage points.” Along the way, Herman analyzes various works and their creators—Artemisia Gentileschi (from which the author draws lessons on “shifting... how others people see us”), Ai Weiwei, who dealt with much adversity before triumphing—and provides a wealth of context and art history. Timely and passionate, this candid look at generating solutions will please the creatively inclined. Agent: Susan Ginsburg, Writers House. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School

Kendra James. Grand Central, $29 (304p) ISBN 978-1-5387-5348-4

In this scintillating debut, former Shondaland editor James intertwines her own coming-of-age story with a searing indictment of elite academia. “To be Black in a New England boarding school,” she writes, “is to be touted for your statistical presence... and ignored everywhere else.” The first Black American legacy to graduate from Taft School in 2006, James recounts her rude awakening when the “freedom and independence” she was promised as a student turned out to be the opposite. Taft, she recalls, was a school both uniquely attuned to and openly hostile to her development and that of other “expert, if involuntary, pioneers” who were forced to navigate the constraints of an institution that catered to its “white majority.” Notably, she recalls an unfounded accusation of theft by a classmate, that—after being threatened with police intervention—James was pressured to confess to. Despite the challenges she faced, James reflects on the paradoxical sense of safety she felt as a “Talented-Tenth-respectability-obsessed-snob” and how, after graduating, she worked as an independent school admissions counselor peddling the “myths of American upward mobility” to low-income families, before finally confronting her trauma and speaking out about the pervasive racism in boarding schools. The result is an eye-opening examination of race, class, and privilege in America. Agent: Jane von Mehren, Aevitas Creative Management. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Fun City Cinema: New York City and the Movies That Made It

Jason Bailey. Abrams, $40 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4781-6

Film critic and historian Bailey (It’s Okay with Me) takes an exhilarating look at the history of New York City through films spanning the past 100 years that have become “valuable reminder[s] of what once was.” Combining his impressive knowledge of cinema with fascinating historical context of the cultural moments that gave rise to each film, Bailey illuminates how movies functioned as an “act of preservation” and “a conversation of connections and reflections between the fictional lives in their foregrounds and the real lives happening behind them.” In the 1920s, as filmmakers relocated from Hollywood to the Big Apple, the lurid grit of the city became the ultimate backlot for “quick, dirty” 1940s film noirs, such as 1948’s The Naked City, which was filmed in 107 locations over one summer; 1950s riffs on the brutal postwar business world (Sweet Smell of Success); 1960s and ’70s views of the city’s urban decay (as an antidote to the “bloated, lumbering musical extravaganzas of mainstream studios” in the ’50s) in such seminal films as Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Taxi Driver (1976); and, later, trips beneath the “shiny, cleaned-up surface of the city” that explore the excesses of wealth, including the 2019 drama Uncut Gems. Cinephiles will relish every stop of this entertaining tour of the big city. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Through the Banks of the Red Cedar: My Father and the Team That Changed the Game

Maya Washington. Little A, $24.95 (230p) ISBN 978-1-5420-1667-4

Documentary filmmaker Washington debuts with an immensely moving tribute to her father, former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Gene Washington. She notes that, as a young girl growing up in Minneapolis’s suburbs, “football and the backdrop of sweeping civil rights legislation were the vehicles that made it possible for my sisters and I to live an integrated life of access and opportunity.” She pins her fortune particularly to her father’s sports career, which began in his teens in the Jim Crow South and took off after he earned a scholarship in 1963 to play for Michigan State, one of the nation’s first integrated college football teams, along with other Black recruits, including his close friend, defensive lineman Bubba Smith. By the time he made history as a first-round draft pick for the Vikings in 1967, Gene had “earned more medals... and championships,” Washington writes, “than I could ever conceive of acquiring.” Though his career on the field ended before she was born, Washington passionately reflects on how he changed the game—as a Black pioneer whose fight for players’ rights in the 1970s paved the way for future athletes to be compensated fairly—and his legacy informed her own mission “to bring stories of diversity forward” with her films, including the feature-length documentary that inspired this book. Readers will be enthralled and heartened by this unique look at the way sports can influence society. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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