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Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020

Salman Rushdie. Random House, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-59313-317-0

“Before there were books, there were stories,” writes Rushdie (Quichotte) in this mesmerizing collection. In the first of four sections, Rushdie explores how the “stories we fall in love with make us who we are”: “Wonder Tales” sees him praising fiction for containing “profound truths.” The second section focuses on writers: both Cervantes and Shakespeare, Rushdie writes, showed that fiction could be “many things at the same time.” A piece about playwright Harold Pinter, a staunch friend of Rushdie’s who stood up for him during the furor over his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, highlights Pinter’s notorious disdain for explaining his work. The third recounts Rushdie’s work as president of PEN America: in “Courage,” he challenges the notion that “writers, scholars, and artists who stand against orthodoxy or bigotry are to blame for upsetting people.” The final section assembles Rushdie’s writing on the visual arts, as in an essay on painter Amrita Sher-Gil’s “ferocity of mind.” (Rushdie’s answers to the famous Proust questionnaire caps things off.) Rushdie’s writing is erudite and full of sympathy, brimming with insight and wit: “Literature has never lost sight of what our quarrelsome world is trying to force us to forget. Literature rejoices in contradiction.” Rushdie’s fans will be delighted. Agent: Andrew Wylie, the Wylie Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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I Am Invincible

Norma Kamali with Sarah Brown. Abrams, $35 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4740-3

Fashion designer Kamali (Facing East) shares valuable wisdom for women on building a healthy lifestyle in this empowering handbook. To create a more replenishing routine, Kamali recommends holistic solutions (such as acupuncture treatments and regular meditation) as well as quick fixes (like giving oneself a morning massage). She shares tips for sleeping, such as investing in one’s bed, creating the perfect space, and limiting screen time at night, and provides wellness recommendations and immune boosting tips from celebrity doctor Andrew Weil, including to follow a plant-based diet, avoid sugar and GMOs, and take probiotics. For exercise, Kamali suggests a mix of simple practices (among them, dancing) and more structured routines of at-home exercises and stretches. In the book’s second half, she dispenses hard-won advice and observations (“If you look good and feel good, your actual age makes no difference for all you are able to do”) alongside her own life story, including a toxic first marriage, becoming a designer to celebrities, finding “reinvention” in her 50s, and meeting her soul mate at age 65. The beautiful design is a standout feature, with gorgeously rendered affirmations (“Little girls with dreams become women with vision”) and delightful photos peppered throughout. Kamali’s message of positivity will be a treat for women of all ages. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier

Tom Clavin and Bob Drury. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-24713-1

Clavin and Drury return (after Valley Forge) with an enlightening biography of Daniel Boone set against the backdrop of 18th-century America’s conflicts with England and Native tribes. Born in 1734 to English immigrants in Pennsylvania, Boone was drawn “to the backcountry’s contours and creatures,” and became a proficient hunter at a young age. As a husband and father, Boone’s restlessness and need for adventure caused him to relocate his family several times, and in 1773 he led a group of colonists in the first attempt to establish a British settlement in present-day Kentucky. The immigrants met with fierce resistance from the Shawnee and other local tribes; Boone’s 16-year-old son, James, was killed in an ambush. Clavin and Drury detail numerous atrocities committed by colonists and Natives during the settling of Kentucky and describe how Boone rescued his kidnapped daughter and her two friends from a Shawnee camp in 1776. The authors also pay close attention to Boone’s June 1778 escape from the Shawnee after months of captivity; his four-day, 160-mile journey to warn his namesake settlement, Boonesborough, of an impending attack; and successful leadership of the outpost’s defenses during the siege. Clavin and Drury successfully separate fact from fiction while keeping the pages turning. History buffs will be entertained. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Citadels of Pride: Sexual Assault, Accountability, and Reconciliation

Martha C. Nussbaum. Norton, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-324-00411-0

Nussbaum (The Cosmopolitan Tradition), a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, examines in this scholarly yet impassioned account the “culture of sexual violence and sexual harassment” in America and the “institutional and structural solutions” necessary to reform it. She explores the concept of objectification and the harms it causes, and how male pride fuels the denial of a woman’s autonomy and subjectivity. Nussbaum also digs into changing standards of consent and accountability as she tracks the history of legal efforts to combat sexual harassment from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which defined sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination) to the #MeToo movement. Probing systemic failures that cause sexual misconduct to go unaddressed, Nussbaum discusses cases from the federal judiciary, where clerks are held to strict standards of confidentiality; the performing arts, where “certain people with great power and wealth can influence everyone’s chances”; and Division I college sports, where the system is so structurally corrupt, Nussbaum argues, that it should be done away with altogether. Though some sections may be too dense for lay readers, Nussbaum persuasively argues that the law, when applied correctly, can provide justice “that seeks reconciliation and a shared future” for men and women. This carefully reasoned account convinces. (May)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter

Kai Bird. Crown, $38 (784p) ISBN 978-0-451-49523-5

The 39th president stood apart for “challeng[ing] the myths of American innocence and American exceptionalism,” according to this admiring biography. Pulitzer-winning historian Bird (The Good Spy) discerns much positive achievement in Carter’s one-term presidency, including airline deregulation that made flying cheap; prescient energy policies that boosted domestic energy supplies and solar power; human rights initiatives that “played a role” in Latin America’s trend toward “popularly elected regimes” in the decade after he left office; and the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. (The book’s centerpiece is a gripping recap of Carter’s wranglings with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin—whom Carter privately called “a psycho”—at Camp David.) Among the factors that contributed to Carter’s downfall, Bird examines his fixation on taking the morally and intellectually correct stance, despite political realities; his insistence, especially in his infamous “malaise” speech, that Americans recognize limits to prosperity and global power; and the contradictions between his Southern populism and his racial progressivism, as well as between his liberal socioeconomic commitments and his deficit hawkery. Bird skillfully paints Carter as a mix of genuine idealism and “clear-eyed ruthlessness” behind a folksy facade, and shrewdly analyzes the forces of stagflation, deindustrialization, and U.S. imperial decline—capped by the Iran hostage crisis—that hobbled him. The result is a lucid, penetrating portrait that should spur reconsideration of Carter’s much-maligned presidency. Agent: Gail Ross, Ross Yoon. (May)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Photographic Presidents: Making History from Daguerreotypes to Digital

Cara A. Finnegan. Univ. of Illinois, $22.95 (296p) ISBN 978-0-25208-578-9

Finnegan (Making Photography Matter), a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, demonstrates in this captivating work how photographs of U.S. presidents both shape public experience and have served as catalysts for “dramatic transformations” in the history of photography. “Presidential photographs represented elite leaders and became prominent contexts in which the implications of new visual values played out,” she writes. She begins with daguerreotypes from the 1840s depicting John Quincy Adams, whom, she notes, often lamented that they were “hideous.” (The technology was replaced by film in the 1880s.) She then moves to the “snapshot” presidents around the turn of the century, and writes of how the 1901 assassination of William McKinley led to a public “morbid race to publish his last photographs.” The “candid camera” era that followed found Herbert Hoover and FDR to be the first presidents to have an official White House photographer document their daily activities. Finnegan’s discussion of contemporary methods zeros in on the Obama administration’s use of Flickr, which allowed presidential photographer Pete Souza to share more than 6,000 images on social media. Broad in scope and rich in anecdotal detail, this will please photography and history buffs. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?: Essays

Jenny Diski. Bloomsbury, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-1-5266-2190-0

This effortlessly readable posthumous essay collection from Diski (1947–2016) (In Gratitude) shows her at her best. In “A Feeling for Ice,” she writes about her troubled childhood and her longing to visit Antarctica: “I wanted white and ice as far as the eye could see.” “It Wasn’t Him, It Was Her” explores the reputation of Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, known primarily for having “corrupted Nietzsche’s work.” “He Could Afford It” investigates Howard Hughes’s obsessive compulsions: “What made Hughes remarkable,” she writes, is that “there was no practical reason for him to try to control his madness.” In “I Haven’t Been Nearly Mad Enough,” she compares writer Barbara Taylor’s memories of mental institutionalization with her own: in the midst of fear, both found a sense of community. Diski’s works are varied and surprising, and she puts a fresh spin on the personal essay with her bracing, singular prose, never veering into self-indulgence: “One of the basic beliefs we all have... is that we are who we are because we know that by definition there can be only one of us. I’m Jenny Diski. You therefore aren’t.” To miss these essays would be a shame. Agent: Peter Straus, RCW Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Eleanor in the Village: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Search for Freedom and Identity in New York’s Greenwich Village

Jan Jarboe Russell. Scribner, $28 (240p) ISBN 978-1-5011-9815-1

Journalist Russell (The Train to Crystal City) analyzes the powerful influence of Greenwich Village on the life and politics of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) in this immersive history. Russell sketches Roosevelt’s early life as the shy daughter of New York socialites (her mother called her “Granny”) and niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, who gave Eleanor away at her 1905 wedding to her distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt. Upon finding love letters from her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, to her husband, Eleanor lived independently within her marriage and spent significant amounts of time in Greenwich Village, where she found “her authentic self,” according to Russell. In the bohemian neighborhood, Roosevelt drew inspiration from progressive thinkers, many of whom were lesbians, including League of Women Voters cofounder Esther Lape; protested on behalf of garment workers; and frequented New York City’s first integrated nightclub with Lillian Hellman, James Baldwin, and other friends. These and other “unorthodox activites” brought Roosevelt to the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, whose “secret file” on Roosevelt ran to 3,900 pages. Russell has plenty of details to back up her argument that Greenwich Village was essential to forming Roosevelt’s character, and laces the narrative with illuminating asides about New York City history. The result is an original look at an iconic figure of American politics. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Kamala’s Way: An American Life

Dan Morain. Simon & Schuster, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-1-982175-76-4

Journalist Morain delivers a well-informed yet somewhat impersonal look at Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s journey to the White House. The daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants who met as UC Berkeley graduate students and were active in the civil rights movement, Harris was “wheeled to demonstrations in a stroller.” After graduating from UC Hastings College of the Law, she became an Alameda County prosecutor in 1990 and quickly established connections with powerful people, including California assemblyman and future San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, whom she dated in the mid-1990s (the couple attended the Academy Awards together and once flew on Donald Trump’s private jet, Morain reveals). As San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, Harris became known for her anti–death penalty stance and support for a controversial anti-truancy law. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016, Harris gained national attention for her tough questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during congressional hearings. Morain stuffs his account with details of California politics and skillfully mines Harris’s public comments for information, but doesn’t get far beyond her public persona. Still, this is a brisk and evenhanded account of Harris’s trailblazing career. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution

Martin Padgett. Norton, $20 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-324-00712-8

Journalist Padgett (Hummer) frames this hodgepodge history of 1970s gay Atlanta around the stories of a drag queen and a gay rights activist. Central to the South’s role in the gay rights movement, Atlanta (a “city with just a single skyscraper” in 1969) was rife with police harassment and community hostility toward gays, but also ripe for transformation, thanks to white flight and the 1973 election of the city’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, who was determined to be “an ally of the gay community.” In 1971, 20-year-old John Greenwell left Huntsville, Ala., for Atlanta and quickly rose to drag stardom, performing as Rachel Wells at the Sweet Gum Head nightclub. Meanwhile, Bill Smith, the son of devout Baptists who never accepted his sexuality, led the Georgia Gay Liberation Front, worked as a city commissioner, and published the South’s leading gay newspaper before he “lost control” of his drug addictions. Padgett can be a little too on-the-nose (of drag, he writes, “Sometimes, to find out who we really are, we have to become someone else”), and his selection of profile subjects feels somewhat arbitrary. Still, LGBTQ history buffs will be thrilled to see the Deep South take a turn in the spotlight. (June)

Reviewed on 01/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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