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The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World

Samuel Zipp. Belknap, $35 (380p) ISBN 978-0-674-73751-8

Brown University American Studies professor Zipp (Manhattan Projects) chronicles Republican politician Wendell Willkie’s 1942 trip around the world as President Franklin Roosevelt’s unofficial WWII envoy in this admiring and exhaustive deep dive. After squaring off in the 1940 presidential election (which Roosevelt won), Willkie supported his former rival’s Lend-Lease Program and made a morale-boosting trip to England during the Blitz. Hoping to showcase America’s bipartisan resolve in the international war effort, Wilkie carried personal letters from Roosevelt to Soviet premier Joseph Stalin and Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kei-Shek, visited the front lines of the Allied fight against Germany in North Africa, and witnessed the rise of “anti-imperial nationalism” in French-controlled Syria and Lebanon. After returning home, he wrote a bestselling account of the journey and came to believe, according to Zipp, that America must confront its own history of imperialism and racism in order to forge a “more cooperative relationship with the world.” Zipp’s frequent asides explaining the geopolitics of each stop on Willkie’s journey provide crucial information but slow the narrative down somewhat, and readers not well-versed in foreign policy may find the level of detail dizzying. Nevertheless, this insightful and nuanced portrayal successfully elucidates Willkie’s globalist politics and America’s emergence as a world leader. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump

David Plouffe. Viking, $25 (216p) ISBN 978-1-9848-7949-3

Plouffe (The Audacity to Win), former campaign manager for Barack Obama, delivers an underwhelming guide to what Democratic voters and campaign volunteers can do to see that Donald Trump doesn’t win a second term. Noting that the 2016 presidential election was “decided by less than 70,000 votes in three states,” Plouffe urges readers to “get down in the trenches” and convince “gettable” voters, including those who lean toward third-party candidates and former Obama supporters who switched allegiances to Trump, that the Democratic candidate will “make decision after decision aimed at bettering their lives and the lives of their families.” He withholds judgment on the Democratic primary field, but stresses the importance of the connection between the eventual nominee and his or her campaign volunteers: “It’s your spirit and commitment that are the real wind beneath the candidate’s wings.” Such banal sentiments undermine the efficacy of Plouffe’s call to action, and for a slim book, there’s plenty of filler, including tips for watching election returns and a section addressed to “Angelina, Brad, LeBron, George, Jennifer, and all you other A-listers” on the best use of their “social media assets.” Though Plouffe includes a few noteworthy insights about the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, this feels like a missed opportunity by a savvy political strategist. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Only in Tokyo: Two Chefs, 24 Hours, the Ultimate Food City

Michael Ryan and Luke Burgess. Hardie Grant, $29.99 (224p) ISBN 978-174379479-1

Australian chefs Ryan and Burgess bring readers on a daylong escapade through the thrumming streets of Tokyo in this vibrantly photographed debut. Enrolling a cast of industry insiders for guidance, the chefs make their way from cramped coffee shops to back alley bars, profiling their favorite haunts. The book is roughly organized by the progression of the day, divided into morning destinations such as the “idiosyncratic” Artless Coffee, where one should “savor the wait” for an excellent pour-over coffee, and sundown spots such as Kokoromai (meaning “heart of rice”), where delicate meals center on a selection of eight regional varieties of pearly Japanese grains. Each concise profile begins with essential information: the informant who tipped the chefs off on each destination, the location, the hours of operation, why to seek it out, and what to order. The book is less an attempt to unravel the tangled net of the Tokyo dining scene than to pick glittering delicacies from its knotted folds. But the authors insist that in Tokyo, one must always allow for the unexpected: “Following these threads will often lead to your fondest memories.” This is a standout culinary guide for foodies traveling to or living in Tokyo. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest

Ian Zack. Beacon, $28.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8070-3532-0

Zack (Say No to the Devil) celebrates the life of guitarist-vocalist-lyricist Odetta Holmes (1930–2008) in this fascinating first full-length biography of the musician. Odetta blended jazz, blues, country, and folk and influenced generations of musicians, including Joan Baez, Miley Cyrus, Bob Dylan, and Rhiannon Giddens. “Her soaring vocals and preternatural ability to inhabit the characters she sang about left her predominantly white audiences spellbound,” Zack writes. He traces Odetta’s life from her birthplace in Birmingham, Ala., to Los Angeles, where she received opera lessons at 13 and performed in musical and theatrical ensembles. By the mid-1950s, she was performing folk music in San Francisco and New York City nightclubs. Zack provides a complete discography of her seminal recordings, which includes Odetta Sings Ballads and Odetta at the Gate of Horn. Throughout this expertly researched biography, Zack shares testimonies of friends and fellow musicians, including Harry Belafonte: “the people who heard her became deeply committed to a force and something that she brought to the table that was so artful.” A political activist, Odetta performed at the 1963 March on Washington, after which she would earn the moniker “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” Odetta fans will delight in this timely biography. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dressed: A Philosophy of Clothes

Shahidha Bari. Basic, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5416-4598-1

Bari (Keats and Philosophy), a professor at the London College of Fashion, skillfully deconstructs the language of clothes in this philosophical examination of the items people wear. She observes that the “making and wearing of clothes is an art form” for some, including for Sylvia Plath, whose writing shows a keen awareness of “how a certain ensemble might be sympathetic to the certain person you imagined yourself to be.” Bari’s analysis is at times Freudian (“And who dares deny that the pliant foot mimics the penis when it enters that dark, contracted space of the shoe”?) and at others literary, as when she muses about the significance of the worn coat in Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat,” or of the white cropped mess jacket in P.G. Wodehouse’s novel Right Ho, Jeeves. Clothes in Hitchcock classics are also lovingly scrutinized (Cary Grant’s classic example of mid-20th-century executive-wear, a gray flannel suit, in North by Northwest, or the elegant outfits of Tippi Hedren’s socialite heroine in The Birds), as are the clothing shown in classic works of art (the elegant black gown in John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X) or on fashion catwalks, such as those of famed minimalist Yohji Yamamoto. Devoted fashion students will eagerly eat up every word of Bari’s well-researched and passionate work. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Hacking Planet Earth: How Geoengineering Can Help Us Reimagine the Future

Thomas Kostigen. Tarcher, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-18754-8

Journalist Kostigen (Extreme Weather) reviews dozens of projects designed to mitigate global warming’s deleterious effects in this stimulating survey. Some of the plans—solar and wind farms—are quotidian, but others—a laser that can make it rain, an outer space parasol that would deflect the sun’s energy before it reaches Earth, and metal trees that capture carbon emissions—stretch the imagination. Joven Santos’s whimsical sketches and Kostigen’s interviews with the “mad geniuses” behind these bizarre ideas together provide food for thought and cause for optimism that some climate disasters might be avoided. Some of the projects, such as shingles made with “smog-reducing granules,” get only a brief mention as Kostigen casts a wide net, exploring projects throughout the globe, in China, Morocco, and elsewhere. What’s missing are reality checks, such as how much investment would be needed to put these prototypes into action and how effective they would be. Some ideas—for example, a Brazilian tunnel project to move water over hundreds of miles to drought-prone regions—sound potentially more environmentally harmful than useful. Overall, though, this is an intriguing overview of what science and engineering could do to help keep the planet livable. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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We Will Rise: A True Story of Tragedy and Resurrection in the American Heartland

Steve Beaven. Little A, $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-50394-222-6

In this uneven portrait, Beaven, a former staff writer for the Oregonian, captures the events surrounding the 1977 plane crash that killed the entire men’s basketball team at the University of Evansville in Indiana. That year’s team, featuring charismatic coach Bobby Watson and led by Indiana phenom forward Mike Duff, had a bright future and a firm place in the community. For years, the Purple Aces had an outsize importance in the small industrial town, and the tragedy “forever stained the school and the sky.” Beaven diligently tracks the events leading up to and immediately following the crash. The narrative slows, however, as Beaven covers the team’s rebuilding under new coach Dick Walters and a roster of new players, but it picks up in the closing chapters when, just four and half years after the crash, Walters leads the team to the NCAA playoffs. Beaven’s treatment of the tragedy is earnestly written, but it does little to save a sluggish narrative. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Upside of Being Down

Jen Gotch, with Rachel Bertsche. Gallery, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-9821-0881-6

Gotch, the founder of clothing and accessory lifestyle website Ban.do, chronicles a lifetime of mental health challenges in her self-deprecating and witty debut. After bouncing from job to job, Gotch writes of finding her niche in commercial photography and styling in her early 20s, then diving into therapy in an effort to face her demons. After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety, and attention deficit disorder—and being properly medicated—Gotch realizes that her challenges have fueled her creative endeavors (though not always in a healthy way, she admits, noting her tendencies toward workaholism). Gotch unflinchingly explores her past, recounting her suicidal thoughts and a time she hallucinated that her skin had turned green, and sharing stories from her failed marriage. “Here’s the thing about writing a memoir,” she writes. “The person you are when you start and the person you are when you finish are practically strangers.” Throughout, Gotch is unequivocal in delivering her message that mental health is every bit as important as physical health (and that the two are interrelated), and her often humorous delivery underscores her belief that sometimes a laugh truly is the best medicine. Anyone who’s ever dealt with mental illness will appreciate this forthcoming and empathetic volume. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War

Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith. Basic, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-1-5416-7266-6

Roberts and Smith, history professors at Purdue University and Georgia Tech respectively, portray the lives of three German-American men from Boston during WWI in this well-researched if flimsily connected sports history. The fever of the title refers to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which killed millions worldwide, as well as to America’s frenzy to find German sympathizers and the country’s passion for baseball. At the center of this perfect storm of disease, war, politics, and sports are Karl Muck, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s German-speaking immigrant conductor; Harvard-educated lawyer Charles Whittlesey; and Red Sox player Babe Ruth. Muck, who refused to play the National Anthem before a concert, was later accused of siding with Germany and interned in a Georgia prison camp. Whittlesey enlisted in the Army and became a hero for saving his “lost battalion.” Despite Ruth’s hardscrabble upbringing and German roots, he escaped anti-German sentiment and was on his way to becoming an American baseball legend by 1919. The authors combine detailed research and solid storytelling to illustrate the ways in which these three German-Americans, however tangentially connected, were defined—as “war hero, war villain, and war athlete.” Despite the tenuous connections between the main characters, this is a solid story of early-20th-century immigrant life. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Pretty Bitches: On Being Called Crazy, Angry, Bossy, Frumpy, Feisty, and All the Other Words That are Used to Undermine Women

Edited by Lizzie Skurnick. Seal, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-58005-919-0

Journalist Skurnick (That Should Be a Word) curates a sharp-witted and intimate essay collection examining how language is used to disempower women. Each piece addresses a single word, as writers including Laura Lippman, Dahlia Lithwick, Rebecca Traister, and Meg Wolitzer take on ostensibly admiring adjectives (nurturing, sweet), outright slurs (shrill; crazy), and veiled insults (ambitious; feisty). Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch’s “Professional” explores how women are viewed in the workplace, while essays by South African writer Lihle Z. Mtshali and Asian-American memoirist Beth Bich Minh Nguyen address the cultural stereotypes behind yellow-bone and small, respectively. The collection’s confessional nature—feminist critic Kate Harding wrestles with identifying as a victim after a sexual assault, and novelist Jennifer Weiner admits that being called fat has the power to “shut me up and shut me down”—packs a punch but leaves little room for charting concrete solutions. The diverse contributor list offers new perspectives on mainstream, white-dominant culture, even though the essays largely share a similar and somewhat traditional notion of what femininity connotes. Nevertheless, this eloquent inquiry into how language enshrines gender stereotypes will resonate with feminists, wordsmiths, and fans of the personal essay. Agent: Victoria Skurnick, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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