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Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land

Toni Jensen. Ballantine, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-1-98482-118-8

In this stirring series of essays, Jensen, a Métis writer and English professor at the University of Arkansas, muses on an expansive range of pressing issues facing America today. The unifying theme is violence: domestic violence; violence against Indigenous people; violence linked to mental health and poverty; and the violence of erasure via white supremacy. In the title essay, Jensen writes that in 2018 “according to a new law, anyone who’s licensed can come to Kimpel Hall carrying a handgun, to my office, Kimpel 221, carrying a handgun, to my classroom, carrying a handgun.” She then reveals, in a chilling turn, that she sits down the hall from where, in 2000, “a graduate student, recently expelled from the program,” shot a professor. In another notable essay, “Dog Days,” Jensen tells of her abusive father and how after many years they “have made a sort of peace with each other.” Jensen also provides an inside look into Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in the powerful “Women in the Fracklands.” This beautiful assemblage of essays braids a visceral reminder of America’s current troubles, and a deeper understanding of how they came to be. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan

Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson. Univ. of Texas, $26.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-47731-313-8

Sportswriters Luther (Unsportsmanlike Conduct) and Davidson offer a fascinating take on the myriad ethical issues facing sports fans today. From watching the NFL while knowing the damage concussions can wreak on players, navigating fandom while disliking a bigoted team owner , and cheering for teams with racist mascots, Luther and Davidson cut a wide swath. They offer stringent commentary on the dangers of capitalism running amok in cultural activities: “Sports are big business, and with that comes the dirtiness of any major moneymaking thing that holds cultural significance.” Notable chapters include a discussion of the gender gap in CTE research (“female athletes report more concussions than their male counterparts and are suffering severe brain trauma, too”) and coverage of the Spokane woman who led an attempt in the 1990s to make the University of Illinois drop its “Fightin’ Illini” team name.Among the remedies they propose are having kids play flag football instead of full-contact to protect them from head injuries, and for sports organizations to be more open to hearing dissenting views and opinions. Meticulously researched, this is enlightening reading for the 21st-century sports fan. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Love, Zac: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy

Reid Forgrave. Algonquin, $27.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-61620-908-7

Sportswriter Forgrave stuns in this moving debut about the life of Zac Easter, a former high school football player from small-town Iowa who committed suicide following a lengthy struggle with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a “disease that seemed to be eating his brain from the inside.” Forgrave charts how Zac, a friendly and fun-loving young man who was emblematic of “the very archetype of the American male that football creates and represents,” deteriorated following the repeated concussions suffered high school football games, which led to the development of CTE. Forgrave draws from Zac’s own words in text messages, emails, and journals, to paint an intimate portrait of his inability to understand what was happening to his brain and why he no longer felt like himself (“I kept up the super muscle image to look tough on the outside when I was really crying everyday on the inside”). Along the way, Forgrave weaves a cultural history of football in America, from its early hold on college campuses in the late 19th century to current fears over concussions and brain damage, and professional football’s willful ignorance of what the author calls “sport’s biggest existential crisis in a century.” Forgrave shares his insights in a manner that educates, but never patronizes, his audience. This unflinching exposé is one anyone who loves the sport should pick up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Inventing Equality: Reconstructing the Constitution in the Aftermath of the Civil War

Michael Bellesiles. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-09191-8

Historian Bellesiles (A People’s History of the U.S. Military) takes a stirring look at the fight to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and their subsequent circumvention by Supreme Court rulings. He examines how the framers of the Constitution failed to “address the nature of citizenship” and caved to the demands of wealthy slaveholders from Georgia and South Carolina with the three-fifths compromise, and contends that the participation of Black soldiers in the Civil War contributed to the swift passage of the “equality amendments.” The phrasing of those amendments, however, excluded women, many of whom had fought to achieve equality for Black men with the understanding that they too, would be granted the same rights. Bellesiles traces Supreme Court decisions that shaped the ebb and flow of equality, including the 1857 Dred Scott ruling that led to the Civil War, and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which established the deceptive principle of “separate but equal.” In the epilogue, he draws a clear line from the struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to today’s battles for equality. The result is a worthy historical primer for today’s progressive activists. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Prisoners of History: What Monuments to World War II Tell Us about Our History and Ourselves

Keith Lowe. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-250-23502-2

Historian Lowe (Savage Continent) examines WWII monuments around the world in this thought-provoking survey. “Hero” monuments, such as the Douglas MacArthur Landing Memorial in the Philippines, are less about historical reality than “our mythological idea of what it means to be a hero,” according to Lowe. The “comfort woman” statue in Seoul, South Korea (officially known as the Peace Statue), shows how “martyr” monuments can be politicized, while the destruction of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin “feels like an exercise in denial.” Ridicule might be a better way to deal with the “monsters of our past,” Lowe suggests, describing a Lithuanian sculpture park where busts of Communist leaders have been enclosed in a llama pen. Lowe also reflects on visions of “apocalypse” and “rebirth” in WWII memorials, including the balcony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which offers visitors a “remarkably soothing” view of the Judean hills after they’ve gone through exhibits on the horrors of the Holocaust. Lowe’s nuanced readings of these and other monuments support his argument that they should be protected from the whims of “contemporary politics.” (He notes that anti-USSR sentiment has brought down monuments to WWII heroes in Eastern Europe.) The result is a perceptive and persuasive call for remembering the tragedies and triumphs of the past. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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You Are Not American: Citizenship Stripping from Dred Scott to the Dreamers

Amanda Frost. Beacon, $28.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8070-5142-9

American University law professor Frost debuts with an impressively researched survey of the U.S. government revoking, or failing to recognize, the citizenship of native-born and naturalized citizens. “Citizenship stripping,” Frost writes, “embodies the view that society can cast out its unwanted and use that process to redefine itself and all those allowed to remain.” She contends that millions of people—including American women who married noncitizens, and Japanese Americans interned during WWII—have been denied their citizenship rights over the past two centuries, and delves into the legal and political issues behind those rulings. She points out that the 1857 Supreme Court decision denying citizenship to African Americans began as a case over whether Dred Scott’s family were slaves or free; reveals how the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act threatened birthright citizenship as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment; and explains how an Obama administration effort to correct a technical error in the government’s immigration database has become a “mass denaturalization campaign” during the Trump presidency. Frost enlivens her case histories with vivid sketches of key litigants, and makes a convincing case that citizenship stripping has “serv[ed] as a proxy for overt discrimination” based on race and ethnicity. This troubling investigation of American exclusionism hits the mark. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture

Amelia Abraham. Picador UK, $16.95 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-5098-6617-5

Journalist Abraham debuts with an astute and freewheeling survey of LGBTQ communities in Europe and America. Forced by a painful breakup to contend with the choice between “queerer ways of living” and conformist “heteronormativity” in her own life, Abraham set out to better understand “what the LGBTQ+ people before me had been fighting for: our right to be the same as everyone else, or to be different.” Her profile subjects include a drag queen in L.A. who bemoans the commercialization of drag; a 50-something DJ in London’s gay club scene; a Serbian trans-rights activist; and a “queer, genderless, three-parent commune” in Sweden. Abraham’s conversations touch on same-sex marriage, pride parades, the disappearance of gay bars, YouTube vloggers (“one of the places where young people were going to learn to be gay”), and the phenomenon of RuPaul’s Drag Race. An excellent interviewer, Abraham gives her subjects the space to reveal themselves, then mines their discursive conversations for astute insights, such as the importance of gay bars in providing “a place to actually do gay rather than simply be gay.” The result is a stimulating and authentic account of queer life today. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto

Edited by Miren Arzalluz and Véronique Belloir. Thames & Hudson, $60 (304p) ISBN 978-0-50002-346-4

Arzalluz and Belloir, director and curator, respectively, of the Palais Galliera in Paris, present a lush and revealing catalog to accompany the museum’s exhibition on French fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971). They credit Chanel with helping to emancipate women from the corset by manipulating fabrics, including jersey and tweed, so that women’s dresses and suits were allowed the same freedom of movement as menswear. Throughout, French fashion historians and journalists celebrate Chanel’s tailoring skills and examine her start as a milliner, the opening of her first maison de couture in 1915 Biarritz, and her time creating costumes for the stage. Chanel’s personal style totems (the cropped haircut, the knitwear, the perfume) are also explored, as is her influence on successive generations of designers, most profoundly Yves Saint Laurent and André Courrèges. The abundant archival photographs include many rare images, and well-selected quotations capture Chanel’s wit and revolutionary aims: When the couturier Paul Poiret, who hobbled women with his tight-bottomed skirt, once encountered Chanel dressed all in black, he asked for whom she was in mourning. “For you, Monsieur,” she replied. The fashion icon’s many fans will cherish this engrossing retrospective of her life and work. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Reading, Writing, and Racism: Disrupting Whiteness in Teacher Education and in the Classroom

Bree Picower. Beacon, $24.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-8070-3370-8

Picower (What’s Race Got to Do with It?), an education professor at Montclair State University, delivers an impassioned and well-documented look at how racism becomes embedded in American classrooms, and what can be done to root it out. Assignments that ask students to “identify the positive and negative aspects of slavery” and textbooks that remove references to Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan are not “random, singular examples of poor judgment,” Picower writes, but evidence of a “broader system of racism” in U.S. schools that actively harms students of color. She explains how standard curricula upholds white supremacy by erasing the actual history of slavery and oppression, and “paint[ing] a false narrative of equality”; she then presents case studies of white student teachers learning to “reframe their understandings about race” and become active “co-conspirators” in the project of “dismantling Whiteness.” Picower also discusses how to handle “White fragility,” and notes the harm white people can do while “bumbling through learning about racism in cross-racial groups.” She skillfully combines theory and practice, and draws on firsthand testimony and expert evidence to bolster her case. Education scholars, classroom teachers, and school administrators will heed this urgent call to dedicate themselves to racial justice. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Sanity of Satire: Surviving Politics One Joke at a Time

Al Gini and Abraham Singer. Rowman & Littlefield, $30 (128p) ISBN 978-1-53812-971-5

Retired business professor Gini (The Importance of Being Funny) and Singer, professor of business ethics at Loyola University, disappoint in this confused and unenlightening volume. Mislabeled as an analysis of political satire, the authors provide dueling objectives, asserting first that they are focusing on political satire (“If there is anything like a thesis to our book” it is that “satire isn’t just something we do in response to politics, but something basic to the types of beings we are”) but then later expand to include humor in general. The narrative includes a look at comedian Phyllis Diller, who is generally not considered a satirist; a summary of Dave Chappelle’s career, which reduces his comedic gifts to a laundry list of his on-screen roles; and an awkward chapter in which the authors debate whether subjects such as school shootings and rape should be off-limits for comics. The text is rife with banalities (“Humor gives us another way of looking at things”), the prose tends to the purple (“VEEP can be seen as the original flagship of the media flotilla engaged in the satirical assault against USS Trump”), and the point that satire can take the edge off of life’s inevitable difficulties is recited to the point of redundancy. This adds little to the understanding of satire’s place in culture. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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