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Czesław Miłosz: A California Life

Cynthia L. Haven. Heyday, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-59714-553-4

“The irony is that the greatest Californian poet... could well be a Pole who wrote a single poem in English,” suggests journalist Haven (Evolution of Desire) in this detailed biography of Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004). California was crucial to Miłosz’s life and work, Haven argues, and notes that the Polish poet had a complicated relationship with the U.S.: “He longed for America yet loathed it, too.” The narrative follows Miłosz as he worked in U.C. Berkeley’s Slavic department starting in 1960 and taught Polish literature, during which he found American students “unreliable and undisciplined.” Haven also traces the poet’s relationship to his home country: when he returned for the first time in 30 years after he won the Nobel Prize in 1980, he had questioned “whether he still had any audience in his native land—after the censorship, after the years in exile—and so the crowds stunned him.” Much has been written about the poet, and Haven finds new ways into his life by inserting herself into the narrative—discovering Miłosz’s Bells in Winter in a Palo Alto Bookstore, visiting him in his Grizzly Peak home, attending his packed last public reading at Berkeley—and her examinations of the influence of place on his poetry are insightful. Fans of Miłosz’s work should give this a look. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home

Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen. Knopf, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-32009-9

While remote work “promises to liberate workers,” write journalists Warzel and Peterson (Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud) in this insightful and timely survey, “...in practice it capitalizes on the total collapse of work-life balance.” To dig into a shifting employment landscape in which “work has taken on such a place of primacy in our lives that it has subsumed our identities, diluted our friendships, and disconnected us from our communities,” the authors explore four key concepts as they’ve evolved: flexibility (considering “how many days we’d like people to be in an office, and for how long, and for what purpose”), workplace culture, office technologies, and community. They discuss how the ubiquity of laptops and email, for example, have resulted in increased pressure for “performative work,” such as sending emails and arranging meetings that aren’t especially productive, and they make a case that remote work can be a boon to inclusivity as it takes into account individuals’ different abilities, home lives, and work styles. Passages of advice for bosses (“stop thinking short term) and workers (“what do you actually like to do?”) round things out. Never sacrificing meaningful analysis for easy answers, this is a remarkable examination of the rapidly-changing workplace. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy

Gayle Jessup White. Amistad, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-302865-4

White, a former journalist who now works in public relations at Monticello, debuts with a vivid account of her search for proof that she is related to Thomas Jefferson and two of the families he enslaved, the Hemingses and the Hubbards. Mixing memoir and history, White describes growing up “Negro rich” in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, her parents’ tumultuous marriage, and her first brush with racism during a trip to Las Vegas at age 13. She learned from her older sister—who had heard it from a great aunt—that the family was somehow related to Thomas Jefferson, and was inspired to investigate the connection by Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, which detailed the relationship between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, who was also his wife’s half-sister, and the TV series Roots. She recreated her family’s genealogy by scouring the few historical records available, meeting with distant relatives and Jefferson scholars, and, with the help of DNA evidence, she eventually determined that she is a direct descendant of Sally Hemings’s brother, Peter, and the great-granddaughter of Moncure Robinson Taylor, Jefferson’s great-great grandson. Noting that the lives of Monticello’s enslaved families were ignored in the plantation’s exhibitions until recently, White issues a powerful call for reconsidering Jefferson’s legacy and centering the Black experience in American history. This spirited memoir charts a hopeful path for a more honest reckoning with the legacy of slavery. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Letters to the Sons of Society: A Father’s Invitation to Love, Honesty, and Freedom

Shaka Senghor. Convergent, $27 (240p) ISBN 978-0-593-23801-1

Criminal justice activist Senghor (Writing My Wrongs) explores in these raw and intimate letters to his two sons themes of masculinity, fatherhood, trauma, and redemption. Convicted of murder at age 19, Senghor spent nearly 20 years behind bars. He describes meeting his older son, Jay, for the first time in prison (“there you were, just ten months old, a beautiful brown ball of curiosity and energy”); the mistakes he made when he was finally released and “showed up as a mentor, not a father”; and the wake-up call that came when he mistakenly believed that Jay had been murdered. Addressing his younger son, Sekou, Senghor reflects on how Black men in America are seen “as trouble or danger or a problem to solve.” Elsewhere, he recounts a visit to San Quentin’s death row, and admits to using sex to help “fill the void” he felt during his first five years out of prison, when publicizing his first book meant being “repeatedly dragged back into my worst experiences, reopening and revisiting profound traumas with no idea how to process them.” Shot through with evocative language and openhearted authenticity, this is a memorable tribute to the pain and joy of Black fatherhood. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Coming Clean: A True Story of Love, Addiction and Recovery

Liz Fraser. Green Tree, $22 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4729-8637-5

Journalist Fraser (The Middle Years) sheds light on the reverberating effects of addiction and sobriety in this glowing memoir that unravels her experience falling in—and at times, out of—love with an alcoholic. As she writes, “There’s no point trying to describe how two people fall in love. They just do.” That matter-of-fact tone drives much of the narrative, as Fraser describes meeting and settling down with her partner Mike, moving to Venice with him and their newborn daughter in 2018, and quickly realizing the extent to which his alcoholism was shaping and shifting their lives. As Mike’s relationship with drinking escalated to catastrophic extremes, he became abusive, unpredictable, and dangerous. Even in describing his destructive behavior and gaslighting, though, Fraser illuminates the complexities of loving an addict and why she “didn’t run a mile” when his illness became apparent: “I know it may never make sense to anyone who’s not been in this position, but bad can exist next to good, cruelty next to kindness, anger next to love.” In the end, her wry prose, sharp self-reflection, and affinity for the uncertain reshapes her fraught experience into a nuanced story of resilience. This will be a beacon of hope for those whose lives have been touched by addiction. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir

Edgar Gomez. Soft Skull, $16.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-59376-705-1

In this crackling debut, Gomez recounts his coming-of-age as a queer man, passionately exploring what it means to celebrate one’s identities and to make space for joy in the most unlikely places. “In a world desperate to erase us, queer Latinx men must find ways to hold on to pride for survival,” he writes, “but excessive male pride is often what we are battling, both in ourselves and in others.” In essays packed with dry wit and searing cultural insight, Gomez blows open this paradox as he contends with the difficulties and traumas of compulsory heterosexuality that were forced upon him growing up in his Nicaraguan family. He brings readers on an exhilarating trip through his teens in Central America, where bloody cockfights at his uncle’s bar pulsated with machismo; reflects on meeting a group of encouraging trans sex workers, whose simple freedom both terrified and enticed him as a young gay person; recounts his awkward attempts to navigate hookup culture in his early 20s in Florida; and reflects on how taking PrEP instantly labeled him medically as a “high-risk homosexual.” The result transcends a simple coming-out story to instead offer a brilliant and provocative interrogation of sex, gender, race, and love. Agent: Danielle Bukowski, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Free the Press: The Death of American Journalism and How to Revive It

Brian J. Karem. Prometheus, $29.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-63388-766-4

Karem, the senior White House correspondent for Playboy, blends memoir, history, and call to action in this impassioned look at how government manipulation and economic pressures have led to the decline of U.S. journalism over the past few decades. He notes that most of the newspapers and television stations where he worked over the past 37 years have been closed or dramatically altered, and details steps government officials have taken since the Vietnam War to make it more difficult for reporters to obtain public information. He also criticizes the 1987 elimination of the fairness doctrine that required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial matters of public interest in a manner that was “honest, equitable, and balanced,” the 1996 Telecommunications Act that set off a wave of corporate mergers and takeovers, and the Obama administration’s aggressive use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers who leak to journalists. Karem also notes that politicians including Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump have scored points with their supporters by attacking the “media elite,” and calls on lawmakers to enforce antitrust laws to “break up media monopolies.” Enlivened by Karem’s vivid memories of the “good old days,” this is a trenchant study of what ails the American press. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Watching Darkness Fall: FDR, His Ambassadors and the Rise of Adolph Hitler

David McKean. St Martin’s, $29.99 (416p) ISBN 978-1-250-20696-1

McKean (Suspected of Independence), the former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, delivers a perceptive group biography of four American diplomats as they witnessed—and struggled to handle—the rise of fascism in Europe from 1933 to 1941. Drawing on diaries, letters, and meeting records, McKean reveals how much President Franklin Roosevelt relied on information collected on the ground by his ambassadors in France (William Bullitt), Germany (William Dodd), Great Britain (Joseph P. Kennedy), and Italy (Breckinridge Long). Dodd, a former history professor, was the first to warn about the dangers of Hitler and “the depraved” officials around him. Bullitt, who had been the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union before arriving in France, is credited with saving Paris from being bombed by the Germans in June 1940. Meanwhile, Long greatly admired Mussolini and urged the U.S. to stay out of the war in Europe, and Kennedy supported appeasement and sought ways to deepen the economic ties between Germany and the U.S. McKean illuminates the differences in his subjects’ backgrounds and temperaments, and lucidly documents Hitler’s relentless militarization and aggression and FDR’s struggles to convince a reluctant American public—and Congress—to come to the aid of its European allies. This is a lively, immersive history of a pivotal time. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing

Peter Robison. Doubleday, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-0-385-54649-2

Bloomberg reporter Robison debuts with a chilling account of the corporate mismanagement and regulatory failures that led to the crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplanes and the deaths of 346 people in 2018 and 2019. According to Robison, Boeing underwent a cultural shift in the 1990s and early 2000s, abandoning its technically proficient and ethically transparent production culture in favor of a shareholder-focused structure in which safety took a back seat to profit. The new strategy of pursuing “more for less” guided Boeing’s redesign of the 737: to save time and money, technical complications were fixed with software solutions that pilots found difficult to troubleshoot, even though Boeing promised airlines the 737 MAX wouldn’t require additional pilot training. Robison highlights how the Clinton and Bush administrations’ restructuring of the FAA to adopt a more “customer service” approach to manufacturers allowed these and other issues to fly under the radar, until two crashes in the span of five months led to the grounding of the entire 737 MAX fleet for 20 months to make crucial fixes. Robison also profiles grieving family members who fought for a proper investigation into the crashes and successfully sued Boeing for damages. The result is a vital and enraging portrait of an avoidable tragedy. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Stickler’s Guide to Science in the Age of Misinformation: The Real Science Behind Hacky Headlines, Crappy Clickbait, and Suspect Sources

R. Philip Bouchard. Timber, $19.95 trade paper (276p) ISBN 978-1-64326-042-6

Software engineer Bouchard, a self-described “stickler” and designer of the 1980s computer game The Oregon Trail, analyzes 13 popular science phrases and the misconceptions they promote in this accessible if uneven survey. The problem, he argues, is that the shorthand used by the media to talk about science too often oversimplifies things to the point of inaccuracy. Bouchard offers a corrective, providing context for such concepts as the “ascent of man” image (inaccurate based on the current understanding of evolution), “superfoods” (a marketing term, not a scientific one), and the notion that people are either right-brained or left-brained (a myth). But readers expecting a hard-hitting attack on quackery will be disappointed by Bouchard’s mild quibbles with such phrases as “the blueprint of life” (“list of ingredients” would more accurately describe DNA) and “the five senses” (by his count, there are nine). He’s at his best on the issue of global warming, where the stakes are clear: even as life on Earth is threatened by it, it can be interpreted in a way that “allows you to say that the entire concept of global warming is hogwash.” Readers interested in an breezy pop science primer will find it, but those looking for a serious consideration of the dangers of misinformation will be better served elsewhere. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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