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Invisible Scars of War: A Veteran’s Struggle with Moral Injury

Dick Hattan. Woodstock Square, $16.95 trade paper (188p) ISBN 978-1-7327-4100-3

In a moving and thoughtful debut, Hattan, a priest in the Independent Catholic Church, analyzes the cultural cost of the Vietnam War while reflecting on the spiritual damage one suffers in war. Hattan, a native of Chicago, examines his powerful emotional crisis of faith and morality when he served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1971 at age 24. Describing himself as “a young white Catholic boy,” he had long been drawn to the church and, during the war, felt torn between following the “nonviolent Jesus I read about in the Gospels” and acting on his love of country. Hattan ponders what he believes to be the church’s inconsistent teachings—“If all life is sacred, why did the Church go to the mat on abortion, but not on war?”—and charges the church with having failed to support those returning home from tours of duty. With no welcome home parade or acceptance, Hattan describes how veterans suffered moral and literal injuries, and suggests that a National Day of Forgiveness could serve as a kind of spiritual healing. With candor and insight, Hattan offers options to those who seek inner peace from war’s personal demons. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/06/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope into Action

David Fajgenbaum. Ballantine, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-1-5247-9961-8

Fajgenbaum, a fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, chronicles a mysterious disease previously neglected by the medical community in this remarkable memoir. When Fajgenbaum, the son of an orthopedic surgeon father, entered the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, he still believed strongly in the power of medicine “to find answers and cures,” despite the recent death of his mother from brain cancer. However, during his medical studies, he began feeling fatigued, and was eventually diagnosed with Castleman Disease, a rare malady that attacks the vital organs. Fajgenbaum writes lucidly and movingly as both a patient and physician. He was placed on a regimen of one of the only drugs available for the disease, but became bereft when he suffered a relapse; he then vividly recalls his decision—along with a team of cutting-edge researchers—to infuse himself with the experimental drug siltuximab, which had not yet been approved by the FDA. Five years later, he now serves as an advocate for research into a disease that affects 6,000 people a year. Fajgenbaum’s stirring account of his illness will inspire readers. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/06/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Stand of Payne Stewart: The Year Golf Changed Forever

Kevin Robbins. Hachette, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-0-316-48530-2

Sportswriter Robbins (Harvey Penick) delivers a riveting and heartbreaking biography of celebrated golfer Payne Stewart (1957–1999) that celebrates Stewart’s individuality (“a Jay Gatsby among the indistinguishable Tom Buchanans” of the golfing world) as well as his showmanship. Opening with the plane crash that killed Stewart just months after his legendary 1999 U.S. Open victory, Robbins focuses on the final year of Stewart’s life while expertly weaving in biographical details, from his time at Southern Methodist University through his PGA Tour success and rising popularity. Robbins provides both highly detailed and memorable accounts of Stewart’s tournaments that year, including the U.S. Open, but also explores the time as a transitional one for professional golf, in which the era of classic shotmaking gave way to the devastating power embodied by the likes of a young Tiger Woods. In his powerful closing chapters, Robbins explores the memorials and remembrances for Stewart while lamenting that Sundays without him “would never be the same.” This excellent biography is sure to please many a golf aficionado. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/06/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Movie Musical!

Jeanine Basinger. Knopf, $40 (656p) ISBN 978-1-101-87406-6

Film historian Basinger (I Do and I Don’t) returns with this exhaustive and exhilarating survey of the American musical. Basinger starts by discussing the filmed vaudeville shorts that played in theaters even before Hollywood switched over to exclusively producing sound features in 1929, and goes all the way up to 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody. All the while, she examines each major development in musical film, such as how, in the early 1930s, the innovative use of sound and camera movement by directors Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian made “what formerly had been a stage-bound tradition” into a viable Hollywood genre. Basinger is informative and insightful on everything from celebrated classics such as Meet Me in St. Louis and Singin’ in the Rain, to forgotten—yet once surprisingly popular—“singing cowboy” films such as Melody Ranch and Boots and Saddles. Because of the rigorous scholarship, readers will feel they are in good hands when Basinger digresses from strict facts into opinion—for instance, her scorching dislike for the 2016 Oscar-winner La La Land, which, unlike classic-era musicals, is “not energetic, optimistic, or determined to pin down joy for its characters”—in short, “it’s not American.” The depth of her dislike feels telling: this is a passion project for her. That passion should be infectious for all readers of Basinger’s monumental but fleet-footed epic. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/06/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Depositions: New and Selected Essays on Being and Ceasing to Be

Thomas Lynch. Norton, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-324-00397-7

This meditative, often emotionally affecting collection from funeral director, poet, and essayist Lynch (Whence and Whither) explores, with personal honesty and philosophical curiosity, the intersection of faith, death, family, and vocation. It features selections from Lynch’s four previous collections, along with five new pieces. It begins with “The Undertaking,” an introduction to his trade that is moving and humorous in turns—the latter, particularly, as Lynch considers people’s frequent discomfort with his profession, noting, “I am no more attracted to the dead than the dentist is to your bad gums.” Despite this flippant remark, Lynch explores his work as a spiritual one. In “How We Come to Be the Ones We Are,” he recalls how learning Catholicism’s language and rituals in childhood informed his work. In “Y2Kat,” one of the standout pieces, Lynch views his first marriage’s collapse through the metaphor of the ancient, seemingly immortal family cat that hates him, again expertly straddling the line between comedy and tragedy. In the new essays, Lynch contemplates the potential collapse of his second marriage and the challenge of maintaining sobriety during dark days, among other topics. Providing an excellent entry point for newcomers to Lynch’s work, this assemblage is an erudite but unpretentious discussion of life and mortality by a master craftsman of language. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/06/2019 | Details & Permalink

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All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard—Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy

Phil Keith and Tom Clavin. Hanover Square, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-335-00556-4

This dazzling biography, drawing on the subject’s unpublished memoir, explores the incredible life and times of the first African-American fighter pilot: Eugene “Gene” Bullard. At 12, he ran away from Columbus, Ga., to escape the vicious racism of the early-20th-century South for France, the country revered by his formerly enslaved father. He crossed the Atlantic straight into minor fame as a boxer in Liverpool and Paris, and experienced partial freedom from the scorn and hatred of whites. In WWI, he joined the French Foreign Legion, fighting for his adopted homeland as a pilot. After a brief interwar interlude as a nightclub band drummer, manager, and owner—rubbing shoulders with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and Pablo Picasso, and spying on Germans for the French—he volunteered again with the French military when WWII broke out. After being injured as the Germans advanced into France, military and consular personnel advised him to flee the country to avoid being executed by the Nazis. He settled in New York City with his teenage daughters and became variously a longshoreman, a traveling salesman of French perfumes, and an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center. Keith vividly describes Bullard’s experiences—including his medal-worthy military exploits, the luck that allowed him to cheat death repeatedly, and the bizarre parallels between his life and the movie Casablanca. This may be a biography, but it reads like a novel. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Heirs of an Honored Name: The Decline of the Adams Family and the Rise of Modern America

Douglas R. Egerton. Basic, $35 (480p) ISBN 978-0-465-09388-5

Le Moyne College history professor Egerton (Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America) offers a new lens through which to view the 19th-century U.S. in this solid look at the descendants of John Quincy Adams. Adams, a president’s son and a president himself, continued his distinguished career as a public servant and antislavery advocate after leaving the White House. His children and grandchildren were, inevitably, less accomplished. His son Charles Francis Sr., who was also elected to Congress, is the focal character here; Egerton traces his political career, which fell short of his hopes to become a third President Adams despite opportunities in 1872 and 1876, as well as his private life. Of the descendants as a group, Egerton writes, “although talented and highly educated, they all grew to dislike themselves, detest one another, and loathe their lineage.” They turned their backs on John Quincy’s politics as well, abandoning his progressive principles in favor of “the political culture of an earlier age, in which every man knew his place, and women were silent.” By judiciously mining what he terms a “small mountain of highly quotable documentation,” including diaries, letters, and essays, Egerton brings to life the third and fourth generations of America’s first political dynasty. Readers interested in 19th-century culture or the dynamics of American political families will find food for thought here. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Defending Israel: The Story of My Relationship with My Most Challenging Client

Alan M. Dershowitz. All Points, $28.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-17996-8

Lawyer Dershowitz (The Case Against BDS: Why Singling Out Israel for Boycott Is Anti-Semitic and Anti-Peace) clunkily combines memoir and advocacy for the state of Israel in this look at his decades as a highly visible defender of the country. He starts in 1948, when he was 10 and the modern state of Israel declared its independence, and continues through the April 2019 Israeli elections. While he doesn’t shy away from criticizing Israeli policies, such as the building of settlements in the West Bank, he acidly rebuts criticisms of the Jewish state, noting that, contrary to accusations, Israel has made repeated and rejected peace proposals that would have returned most of the occupied territories to the Palestinians. The other strain of the book recounts personal experience, much of it with big names; Dershowitz recounts being asked by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu if O.J. Simpson was really guilty, answering his cellphone while meeting with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, and playing basketball with Ralph Lauren. He sometimes assumes knowledge about Israel’s history that not all readers will have, and those who do have it may be put off by the focus on anecdotes about famous people. To achieve Dershowitz’s advocacy goals, an update of his 2003 book The Case for Israel might have been more effective. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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To Build a Better World: Choices to End the Cold War and Create a Global Commonwealth

Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice. Twelve, $35 (528p) ISBN 978-1-5387-6467-1

Diplomat and professor Zelikow and former secretary of state Rice follow their joint work on German reunification, Germany United and Europe Transformed, with an exploration of the policy decisions, made and unmade, that led to the end of the Cold War and the creation of a unified Europe in 1988–1992. The authors, who were both involved in these decisions, excel at analytical history, breaking down various political, diplomatic, and economic factors in Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic reforms (which hastened the end of the Soviet Union through a failed 1991 coup), the opening of the Berlin Wall, and the development of the E.U. as it exists today. Insights into the personalities of the main political players are scant, but the reader is given occasional reassessments of the conventional wisdom on figures such as President George H. W. Bush, and the authors intersperse brief firsthand perspectives from key decision makers, such as Secretary of State James A. Baker and national security advisor Brent Scowcroft. Zelikow and Rice’s thoughtful and honest assessment, largely avoiding wonkishness, lays a clear through line from the diplomatic successes of the 1980s and ’90s to the political environment of today. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Chasing the Bright Side: Embrace Optimism, Activate Your Purpose, and Write Your Own Story

Jess Ekstrom. Thomas Nelson, $26.99 (230p) ISBN 978-0-7852-2932-2

In this spectacular debut, Ekstrom, founder of Headbands of Hope, which donates to cancer research for every headband sale, provides a delightful guide to making one’s dreams come true. “I’m not going to tell you to put on a happy face and skip down the street high-fiving everyone who walks by,” she promises in her opener. Instead, she offers strategies for embracing optimism—where one can see and understand the bad, but still believe there can be good—and learning to feel comfortable with its twin qualities of fear and possibility. Ekstrom, great-niece of Bernie Madoff, developed this attitude after her family lost all of its money to the disgraced financier. After interning at Disney World and Make-a-Wish, Ekstrom noticed many girls with cancer wearing headbands instead of wigs and hats, and founded her company from her dorm room at North Carolina State University. She shares the ideas that propelled her: letting the wonder be bigger than the limits, documenting and celebrating “the wins,” having self-confidence, and getting motivated “just for today” every day. Ekstrom’s winding life story and uplifting message of betting on oneself in all situations will appeal to readers at any stage of their life or career. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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