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42 Today: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy

Edited by Michael G. Long. NYU Press, $27.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4798-0562-4

Biographer Long (Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography), along with 13 contributors, explore lesser-known aspects of the life of Jackie Robinson, who became the first Black American to play Major League Baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson’s Methodist faith is explored in Randal Maurice Jelk’s “A Methodist Life,” which examines how Robinson’s wife Rachel’s connection with the AME Church—and its message of “self-determination, self-sufficiency, and black independence”—influenced Robinson. The “First Famous Jock for Justice” catalogs the athletes who followed Robinson’s efforts on behalf of racial equality with their own social justice activism. Other notable essays include “Before the World Failed Him,” which discusses Robinson in context with other civil rights leaders, and “On Retirement,” about his life after hanging up his glove. Even those who know nothing about Robinson will take something inpsiring away from this excellent anthology. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Barack Before Obama: Life Before the Presidency

David Katz. Ecco, $39.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06302-874-6

Photographer Katz chronicles the career of Barack Obama from 2004 to 2008 in this remarkable photo collection. His pragmatic approach to photography (“Pictures come alive when your subjects are so comfortable with you that they do not even notice you,” he writes) is evidenced in photos of Obama casually strolling through Central Park or sharing a laugh with his wife and daughters. In documenting Obama’s activities on the campaign trail, Katz captures the energy of a small crowd behind a house in Southern Illinois and a gigantic rally held during a heavy rainstorm in Virginia. Stunning crowd shots and photos of the grassroots campaign make clear the sheer number of individuals who were inspired by Obama’s message. A poignant anecdote by speechwriter Jon Favreau recalls him working with Obama on a speech for the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “He choked up, went to the bathroom to compose himself. When he returned, he told us that it finally hit him that he was going to be the first African American nominee of the party.” This historic collection captures the transformation of Barack Obama from hopeful candidate to 44th president of the United States. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Sonata

Charles Bowden. Univ. of Texas, $24.95 (152p) ISBN 978-1-4773-2223-9

Journalist Bowden (1945–2014) concludes his six-part “Unnatural History of America” series with this fragmentary meditation on life and art in the American Southwest. Blending elements of fiction and nonfiction, Bowden recounts conversations with border agents and smugglers, including a man who once charged $650 to bring undocumented immigrants from the border to stash houses 40 miles north; shares stories of deportees kidnapped and tortured by Mexican cartels seeking ransom money from their U.S. relatives; and details encounters between Spanish conquistadors and indigenous peoples. Evocative descriptions of sandhill cranes, hawks, herons, and other Southwestern flora and fauna brush up against harrowing reports of drug-related violence and ruminations on the creative process. In a series of interludes, Bowden seems to find a kinship with Vincent van Gogh, who “tries to dream a life of color... but the fears and dark things drag him down.” Themes of borders, memory, and trauma appear throughout, as Bowden probes the relationship between beauty and pain, sanity and art. Steeped in imagination and the lived experience of life in the borderlands, this mournful, achingly poetic account is a fitting capstone to Bowden’s career. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Speaking of Race: Constructive Conversations About an Explosive Topic

Patricia Roberts-Miller. The Experiment, $7.95 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-61519-732-3

Roberts-Miller (Rhetoric and Demagoguery), a professor of rhetoric at the University of Texas, breaks down the reasons why disagreements about racism go off the rails so quickly, and explains how to get them back on track, in this useful and well-articulated guide. The core issue, according to Roberts-Miller, is that many people “misunderstand what racism is and how it works.” She contends that “liking or saying something racist doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a horrible and hateful person,” and compares systemic racism to wheelchair-inaccessible buildings (“a sort of bigotry that is so widespread that participating in it doesn’t require conscious thought—it can rely on thoughtlessness”). By finding common ground on the idea that racism can be unintentional, Roberts-Miller writes, people can avoid the first mistake in arguments about racism: “making it about how stupid/misguided/ignorant the other person is for having the position they do.” She also discusses how confirmation bias and in-group favoritism lead to racist stereotyping, and advises readers on how to “consider context” and “understand the role of privilege” when interrogating their own beliefs and actions. Packed with helpful examples and analogies, this lucid account takes a meaningful step toward “reducing racism in our world.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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An Outsider’s Guide to Humans: What Science Taught Me About What We Do and Who We Are

Camilla Pang. Viking, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-1-984881-63-2

First-time author Pang draws on her expertise as a scientist and on her experience as a person with autism spectrum disorder and generalized anxiety disorder to create an enlightening hybrid of popular science, memoir, and self-help. She begins by describing how, when younger, she found negotiating the world around her—and particularly the behavior of other people—baffling. Science, she writes, was “the key to unlocking a world whose door was otherwise closed to me,” and she believes the neurotypical and neurodiverse alike can benefit from looking at human nature scientifically. In tying scientific phenomena to human behaviors, she posits, for instance, that understanding thermodynamics can ease perfectionism, writing: “our efforts to create order in our lives do not exist in isolation, but in a messy context of people and inanimate objects, all with their own energetic needs”; and that cellular evolution offers a useful perspective on relationships, because, “like a stem cell, every relationship essentially begins as a generic, unspecialized entity.” By leavening scientific theory with personal anecdotes, Pang draws up a life guide that’s accessible and entertaining if not entirely applicable to all. Nevertheless, this is a unique take on life’s big questions. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Let Me Tell You What I Mean

Joan Didion. Knopf, $23 (192p) ISBN 978-0-593-31848-5

This wide-ranging essay collection from Didion (South and West: From a Notebook) showcases her strengths as a short form writer. Organized chronologically from 1968 to 2000, the pieces trace Didion’s development as an essayist and offer glimpses of late-20th-century social history. In 1968’s “Alicia and the Underground Press,” Didion writes of “tabloid-sized papers that respect the special interests of the young and the disaffiliated,” praising their ability to speak directly to their readers; “The Long-Distance Runner,” from 1993, is an ode to filmmaker Tony Richardson: “I never knew anyone who so loved to make things,” she writes; and “Everywoman.com,” from 2000, examines the “cultural meaning of Martha Stewart’s success,” who “branded herself not as Superwoman but as Everywoman.” As always, the writing is captivating—in the early “Getting Serenity,” she writes about attending a Gamblers Anonymous meeting (“I got out fast then, before anyone could say ‘serenity’ again, for it is a word I associate with death”) and finds just the right details to nail down the feeling of a bygone era—for example, the mix of “plastic hydrangeas” and cigarette smoke at the GA meeting. Didion fans new and old will be delighted. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Bears Ears: A Human History of America’s Most Endangered Wilderness

David Roberts. Norton, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-324-00481-3

Embedded in the land surrounding Utah’s Bears Ears are “all kinds of poignant ironies and surprising contradictions,” writes adventurer Roberts (Limits of the Known) in this engrossing history of an area that’s become enveloped in controversy. Roberts’s episodic “human history” ignores chronology to “jump around among the ages” and stretches back to the Ancestral Puebloans, who “flourished through all four seasons” on Cedar Mesa, near the two buttes called Bears Ears around 1250 CE. From there, he recounts the “first mention in print of any part of the greater Bears Ears domain” by a Franciscan priest and explorer in 1776; “British born aristocrats” who “exploited the fertile terrain” around Bears Ears with their team of Mormon ranchers in the 1880s; a 1970s county commissioner who “locked horns for decades with the writer Edward Abbey”; the campaign of Mark Maryboy, the “Navajo activist who got the snowball rolling that would become Obama’s Bears Ears National Monument” in 2016; and the Trump administration’s subsequent moves to greatly reduce the size of the Bears Ears protected area. Roberts intersperses his own exploration of the land as he surveys a place with great historical significance, physical beauty, and expansive cultural import. The result is a masterfully rendered portrait of Bears Ears as an endangered land worth celebrating and protecting. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Speed Game: My Fast Times in Basketball

Paul Westhead. Univ. of Nebraska, $29.95 (216p) ISBN 978-1-49622-260-2

Former NBA coach Westhead, who coached the L.A. Lakers to an NBA championship in 1980, provides a cursory look at his professional life in this underwhelming memoir. Westhead grew up in Philadelphia and became an assistant coach at St. Joseph’s College in 1961. When his boss, Jack McKinney, was hired by the Lakers in 1979, Magic Johnson’s rookie year, he brought Westhead along. Westhead soon became the acting head coach after McKinney suffered a serious injury, and was at the helm when Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar brought home the title. The championship clinched Westhead the permanent coach position, but due to an early playoff exit in 1981 and criticism from Johnson, Westhead was fired. He subsequently coached in college, the NBA, and the WNBA. Westhead provides exhaustive details on his jobs but is strangely casual when recalling a plan by disgruntled former player Spencer Haywood to have him killed. (“That was the last time I saw Spencer Haywood for several years, until he came to my office at Loyola Marymount to apologize for attempting to have me killed”). Readers won’t get a very good sense of Westhead’s non-professional life, and the overall feel of the work is one of a superficial career overview. Only die-hard hoops fans need apply. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Narratives, Nerdfighters, and New Media

Jennifer Burek Pierce. Univ. of Iowa, $39.95 trade paper (210p) ISBN 978-1-60938-718-1

Burek Pierce (Sex, Brains, and Video Games), a professor of library and information science at the University of Iowa, confuses rather than enlightens in this look at how YA author John Green and his fans interact, and what that means for the future of reading. Burek Pierce assumes an enormous amount of knowledge that Green’s fans may have, but the general public won’t. The introduction is titled “Toward an Anticipatory History of Nerdfighteria,” but unless readers are already part of the Nerdfighteria online community (which Green and his brother, Hank, launched in 2007), they may quickly feel out at sea. Burek discusses how the Greens built a several-million-strong following by sharing YouTube videos in which they discuss literature. Over time, their followers generated their own media in response, and thus the Nerdfighteria was born. In tedious detail, Burek Pierce explores the history of Nerdfighteria and uses its success to argue that the future of reading lies in this communal experience. Green’s fans will certainly enjoy this, but the uninitiated will largely be perplexed. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility

Alex Zamalin. Beacon, $27.95 (176p) ISBN 978-0-8070-2654-0

Zamalin (Antiracism: An Introduction), director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Detroit Mercy, argues in this brisk and provocative treatise that “civility is the central term through which racial inequality has been maintained” in America. According to Zamalin, pundits and politicians who view civility as the most effective means of opposing President Trump are echoing the language of “slaveholders, segregationists, lynch mobs, and eugenicists.” Zamalin notes that proslavery politicians described the debate over slavery as a “lovers’ quarrel between a hostile, hateful North and a genteel South,” examines how conservatives in the 1970s and ’80s justified severe cuts to welfare programs by drawing public attention to “uncivil black citizens” like “welfare queen” Linda Taylor, and discusses how George W. Bush evoked “compassionate conservatism” to facilitate the gentrification of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Zamalin’s alternative to civility is “civic radicalism,” a somewhat amorphous concept of disruption and resistance that he locates in the activism of Martin Luther King Jr., radical abolitionist John Brown, poet Audre Lorde, and the Black Lives Matter movement, among others. Progressives will be galvanized by this urgent and incisive call for a stiffer resistance to the status quo. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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