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El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord

Noah Hurowitz. Atria, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-1-9821-3375-7

Rolling Stone journalist Hurowitz debuts with a granular yet familiar account of the rise and fall of Sinaloa cartel boss El Chapo. Born Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera in La Tuna, Mexico, in 1957, El Chapo (“Shorty”) was first arrested in 1993, after a botched assassination attempt by a rival cartel instead killed a popular Roman Catholic cardinal. Extensive bribery of prison officials enabled El Chapo to continue his trafficking from behind bars. He escaped in 2001, and, after being rearrested on new charges in 2014, escaped again, before being apprehended and extradited to the U.S. in 2016. (He’s now serving a life sentence at a Colorado prison.) Hurowitz fleshes out the harrowing details of Mexico’s drug violence and high-level corruption, and draws on interviews with former cartel insiders to document El Chapo’s staggering ambitions and deep-seated paranoia—at one point, he explored installing spyware on every public computer in a city of 800,000 people. Unfortunately, the catalog of slaughter, which includes pages listing the names of El Chapo’s victims, is more numbing than illuminating. Though Hurowitz’s access to players on both sides of the drug war impresses, readers hoping for a deep dive into the political and social circumstances that enabled El Chapo to evade justice for so long will be disappointed. Agent: Richard Abate, 3 Arts. (July)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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All Made Up: The Power and Pitfalls of Beauty Culture from Cleopatra to Kim Kardashian

Rae Nudson. Beacon, $26.95 (216p) ISBN 978-0-8070-5968-5

Journalist Nudson debuts with a wide-ranging survey of “people’s use of makeup throughout history and the influence it has had on culture and social structures.” Refuting patriarchal attitudes that dismiss beauty culture as only for women, Nudson notes that men and women in ancient Egypt wore eyeliner, and that gay men in the U.S. during Prohibition used lipstick to “flout expectations of masculinity.” Nudson also discusses how Japan’s economic downturn in the 1990s gave rise to the phenomenon of androgynous “herbivore men,” some of whom wear makeup to promote a “softer” version of their baby boomer fathers’ “overworked masculinity,” and explains how Venezuela’s “transformistas,” a subculture of trans women, leverage the national obsession with glamour to “create an image to be in control of their sexuality, gender, and lives.” In 1920s Chicago, a female lawyer helped get a convicted murderer released by using hair dye, makeup, and lessons in “American mannerisms” to give her the look of a “proper” woman, while Josephine Baker’s fame, sexuality, and “beautiful appearance” made her an ideal spy for the Allies during WWII. Full of intriguing anecdotes and trenchant commentary on the relationship between conventional beauty standards and misogyny, classism, and racism, this is an invigorating examination of the “rules and assumptions that govern appearance.” (July)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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This Is Your Mind on Plants

Michael Pollan. Penguin Press, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-0-593-29690-5

Pollan (How to Change Your Mind) centers this lucid exploration of the psycho-social impact of mind-altering plants on his personal experiences with opium, mescaline, and, most intensely, caffeine. He starts with an extended version of his 1997 Harper’s piece about brewing opium tea from poppies, which produced mild euphoria—“the tea seemed to subtract things: anxiety, melancholy, worry, grief”—apart from his apprehension over the DEA’s crackdown on poppy horticulture. The second chapter, an expanded version of a piece first published as an Audibles Original, describes a monthslong abstention from caffeine, which precipitated persistent feelings of mental dullness, and his triumphal return to coffee drinking (“Whatever I focused on, I focused on zealously and single-mindedly”); Pollan connects these experiences to the importance of ubiquitous caffeine consumption during the Enlightenment and the rise of capitalism. Less successful is Pollan’s final chapter, in which he imbibes mescaline during a Native American peyote ceremony, with the predictable outcome of maudlin, psychedelic emoting (“What follows forgiveness is gratitude, which I now felt break over me in a warm wave of tears”). Blending artful exposition of the evolution and neurochemistry of botanical drugs, erudite history, and (usually) precise and evocative prose, this is an insightful take on plants’ beguiling sway over the human psyche. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM Partners. (July)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood

Danny Trejo with Donal Logue. Atria, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-982-15082-2

Quintessential Hollywood bad guy Trejo delivers a powerful and expertly crafted memoir that is tougher, more frightening, and more memorable than any of his films. Born in Los Angeles in 1944, Trejo struggled with heroin addiction in his early 20s and was in and out of prison throughout the ’60s. His account of life in San Quentin and Folsom prisons, where “hopelessness is carved in men’s faces,” is unsparing in its depiction of violence. Trejo avoided the pitfalls of inmate life by becoming an excellent boxer and finding AA, and he eventually found work in films thanks to his “hard-looking” style: “I was cast as a convict (surprise).” Tracing his success as an actor, he shares fascinating behind-the-scenes views of working with stars such as Robert DeNiro, whose mobster acting was unmatched but who was “so patient” on the set of Heat. Even in recounting his rise to fame with films such as Machete, Trejo never veers from the story of how his hard work paid off by allowing him to support his family, overcome the “environment of toxic masculinity that I was raised in,” and “spread the message of recovery.” This page-turner will thrill the legend’s huge fan base. Agent: Gloria Hinojosa, Amsel, Eisenstadt, Frazier & Hinojosa. (July)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Appalachian Trail: A Biography

Philip D’Anieri. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-0-3581-7199-7

In this engrossing debut, urban planning professor D’Anieri takes a breezy trek through the century-long history of the Appalachian Trail. To provide a glimpse of the life of this well-traversed place as it’s developed over time, he compiles profiles of the individuals who shaped it. In the late 1920s, for example, Horace Kephart—who helped establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—was instrumental in devising the trail’s southern end, after its founding by Benton MacKaye in 1921, who saw it as “a recreational preserve to serve the people.” D’Anieri also chronicles the trail’s early hikers, among them Earl Shaffer—a “young loner” who charted paths in 1948 for others to follow—and Emma Gatewood, a septuagenarian who cared less about the “purity of nature” than the freedom the walk provided. Meanwhile, Bill Bryson’s influential book A Walk in the Woods—about his time on the trail—is given a local interpretation with criticism from the Appalachian Trail Club for its “apparent disinterest in the trail’s larger ideals.” In genial prose, D’Anieri captures the trail’s majesty and its power to inspire those who ramble on it. Hikers will be captivated by the rich history, as well as those in need of inspiration for their next escape. Agent: Regina Ryan, Regina Ryan Books. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Blind Man’s Bluff: A Memoir

James Tate Hill. Norton, $25.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-393-86717-6

Essayist Hill (Academy Gothic) shares a stirring if meandering story about losing his sight. At age 16, he was diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy and deemed legally blind. When asked about what he can and can’t see, Hill writes, “The short answer is this: I don’t see what I directly look at.” While his narrative sometimes digresses into tangents about unrelated childhood crushes and his mom’s Weight Watchers meetings, humor buoys his account as he lays bare his attempts hide his legal blindness in a sighted world. He’d arrive early for dates so he could be found first; memorized buttons on the microwave and the route to the convenience store; and even entered a creative writing program where classmates, unaware of his blindness, attributed his unapproachability to him being “an asshole.” Eventually he met and married a fellow MFA student, but their relationship buckled under his denial about his disability (“I will not help you hide your blindness from the world,” his wife wrote to him before their divorce). In the wake of their split, Hill struggled to write about his condition—“the thought of readers... knowing I was blind, disabled, felt like the opposite of why I chose to be a writer”—but after finding love again, his reluctance gave way to self-acceptance. This moving account doesn’t disappoint. (July)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal

Rachel Greenwald Smith. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-64445-060-4

Literary critic Smith (Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism) explores the intersection of compromise, politics, and aesthetic movements in this insightful collection. Most of the essays are grounded in personal experience—in “Call and Response: An Introduction,” Smith writes of attending the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., on the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration and feeling as though she had “compromised on [her] distrust of mainstream white feminism” while still appreciating the solidarity she felt. This evolves into a critique of experimental “hybrid” works of contemporary literature, which she views as “compromise aesthetics” that maintains the status quo. In “Welcome to the Jungle,” she considers MFA programs as an exercise in compromise between the individualism inherent in art and the uniformity of an institution, and recaps recent criticism of Poetry magazine for its “tokenism,” wondering what a truly “open” magazine would look like (free from liberalism, which rewards competition and individualism). While some essays can meander, Greenwald Smith takes a commendably expansive view of the idea and practice of compromise, creating a nuanced look at a thorny subject. The result is a work of criticism as thoughtful as it is relevant. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Scale for Success: Expert Insights into Growing Your Business

Jan Cavelle. Bloomsbury Business, $30 (228p) ISBN 978-1-4729-8555-2

“Starting a business is hard and scaling a business harder,” warns blogger Cavelle in her wide-ranging debut. In order to grow a business, an entrepreneur can’t do “more of what [they’ve] been doing,” but must find new methods. Cavelle’s suggestions for doing so are broken into seven sections (planning, funding, leadership, marketing, sales, value, and success) and are accompanied by interviews with a variety of business experts on such scaling challenges as faulty websites and missed sales opportunities. In a chapter on strategy, Stephen Kelly, the chair of Tech Nation, a network for tech entrepreneurs, for example, warns against “founder’s syndrome,” in which egos get in the way of the company’s best interests, and James Davidson, cofounder of dog food site tails.com, describes how to create a memorable customer experience: “Never fall into the trap of assuming you know what they think or feel.... Ask customers what they want.” Each chapter covers the entrepreneurs’ personal stories, as well, and conclude with business strategy highlights and each entrepreneur’s definition of personal success. While the profiles and interviews offer a wealth of different perspectives, the episodic nature leaves things feeling a bit disjointed. Still, the advice is concise, and entrepreneurs will find the thumbnail profiles worth returning to. (July)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Black Nerd Problems: Essays

William Evans and Omar Holmon. Gallery, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-1-982150-23-5

Evans and Holmon, cofounders of the website Black Nerd Problems, bring their pop culture criticism to this wide-ranging, compulsively readable debut collection. Touching on such topics as the hidden depths of boxing-inspired anime Hajime no Ippo, the irony of Hamilton’s steep ticket prices, and Game of Thrones’s one Black character, Evans and Holman are often hilarious (The Lion King’s “Simba... is straight up landfill. Trash. Rubbage”) and always original. In addition to straightforward essays, some entries come in the form of high-octane, joyful dialogue between the authors, as in “Two Dope Boys and an—Oh My God, the Flash Got Fucked Up!” for example, in which the authors discuss the Flash: “I ain’t ever seen a hero get their body Earth’d like that since Superman’s funeral.” The most gripping essays use cultural events as an entry point to discuss larger topics: Evans’s “The Sobering Reality of Actual Black Nerd Problems” poignantly uses a local comics convention to open a conversation about the ongoing violence against and oppression of Black people, and “Go On: An Evergreen Comedic Series That Helped Me Navigate Loss” sees Holmon processing the grief of his mother’s death with the help of a short-lived NBC sitcom. This hugely entertaining, eminently thoughtful collection is a master class in how powerful—and fun—cultural criticism can be. Agent: Katherine Latshaw, Folio Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Permission Granted: Kick-Ass Strategies to Bootstrap Your Way to Unconditional Self-Love

Regina Louise. New World Library, $16.95 ISBN 978-1-60868-726-8

Memoirist Louise (Someone Has Led This Child to Believe) returns with an impressive collection of tenets intended to help build self-esteem. She begins by urging readers to identify their passions and to make a “pact with personal freedom.” Readers are instructed to give themselves permission, because doing so, Louise writes, allows the mind to focus on change and growth. Louise argues that by opening up to others, one can become more courageous and allow one’s “innate self-worth to shine through.” She also provides exercises for acknowledging aspects of one’s character that may not be ideal, as well as for accepting and moving on from difficult experiences. Throughout, there are questions for reflection, mindfulness practices, and affirmations, and Louise’s upbeat tone is undeniably motivational: “There is no need to wait for someone to grant us entry into our best selves and our best lives.” Readers will discover simple, effective ways for defining a personal sense of purpose here. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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