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Still Right: An Immigrant-Loving, Hybrid-Driving, Composting American Makes the Case for Conservatism

Rick Tyler. Thomas Dunne, $29.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-25649-2

MSNBC political analyst Tyler, who has previously contributed to Newt Gingrich’s books, makes his solo debut with a brisk and impassioned analysis of the disconnect between President Trump’s policies and actions and the guiding principles of conservatism. Addressing Trump-weary conservatives, Tyler holds up Ronald Reagan as the embodiment of conservatism as “an attractive philosophy,” and outlines traditional right-wing stances on climate change, foreign policy, gun control, health care, international trade, and taxes. In each case, he provides the historical perspective and scholarly arguments behind the conservative view, as well as his own personal take. Tyler ornaments his policy overview with anecdotes from his career as a campaign staffer for Gingrich and Ted Cruz, and notes the “compromises” he has made in his personal life and TV pundit career, such as meeting with gun control advocates, applying pro-life views to both the abortion and the immigration debates, calling for a 10-justice Supreme Court, and coming to the conclusion that the environment should be protected. Tyler covers a wide range of important issues, and makes a logical case for the conservative agenda on “individual freedom,” “free markets,” and “the protection of human life.” Republicans dismayed by Trumpism will appreciate this jolt of common sense. Agent: Peter McGuigan, Foundry. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream

Mychal Denzel Smith. Bold Type, $26 (192p) ISBN 978-1-56858-873-5

Journalist Smith (Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching) addresses familiar topics through a fresh lens in these searing essays. Contending that the divisions and inequities of the Trump era are “not an aberration,” Smith analyzes recent events including Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest, Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political rise, as well as historical antecedents. He laments that his great-great-great grandfather, who was born into slavery in 1836, was prohibited by North Carolina law from learning to read and write, and therefore “left no record of his internal life.” Taking up the issue of police brutality, Smith notes that when the first modern police force was founded in 19th-century London, its main functions included guarding private property and putting down labor strikes, and that policing in the American South involved forestalling slave rebellions. “White supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalism” brought America to its current state, argues Smith, who also puts the matter in more graphic terms: “Pimping (not sex work) is capitalism in its purest form.” Infused with righteous indignation and astute observation, this is a must-read progressive polemic. Agent: Jessica Papin, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age

Elizabeth Shackelford. PublicAffairs, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5417-2448-8

Shackelford, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer best known for her 2017 resignation letter accusing the Trump administration of abandoning human rights as a priority, debuts with an indignant and unvarnished portrait of her diplomatic life in South Sudan as the world’s youngest nation descended into civil war in 2013. Shackelford expresses frustration that the U.S. wielded little influence over local strongmen and bad actors, despite being South Sudan’s largest donor; criticizes national security advisor Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.S. Ambassador Susan Page for not using the tools of American diplomacy to hold the South Sudanese military accountable for human rights abuses; and denounces the U.S. government’s “vague condemnations of ‘abuse by both sides.’ ” Though she vividly describes the daily challenges of serving in a conflict zone and the valiant efforts of embassy personnel to evacuate U.S. citizens as the civil war erupted, Shackelford’s overview of the history of America’s foreign relations lacks depth, and her shock that U.S. diplomacy isn’t governed by an overriding interest in promoting human rights comes across as naive. Still, this bracing takedown provides concrete answers to the question of what’s wrong with U.S. foreign policy. Agent: David Kuhn, Aevitas Creative Management. (May)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Underrated Rock Book: The 200 Most Overlooked Albums, 1970–2015

Jim Santora Jr. CreateSpace, $13.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-72284-518-6

First-time author and musician Santora delivers an entertaining if slight collection of 200 short reviews of rock LPs by “artists that have been overlooked in their time.” Since he is surveying 45 years of music, Santora admits upfront that he put the book together as “a discussion piece... a musical journey full of bands you are going to remember or wonder why this is the first time you have ever heard them.” For the most part, he is successful. He makes an insightful argument for the quality of the third LP by alternative metal pioneers Living Colour, Stain, “an album that displayed the band at their heaviest but not losing any of the funk or experimental style of their previous releases.” He also praises the first LP by blues rockers Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise (“Robert Bradley has a voice that could reach into you, draw you in and make you listen to every note”), who were overlooked in the 1990s grunge craze. But Santora also covers fairly well-known LPs by groups such as Ministry (A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste “is what happens when you combine new wave and thrash/speed metal with a punk rock attitude and further chaos”), the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and R.E.M. It all makes for intriguing reading, but the overall the effect is more scattershot, the literary equivalent of looking through a friend’s extensive record collection. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience since the 1960s

Emily J. Lordi. Duke Univ, $25.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-4780-0959-7

Lordi (Black Resonance), an English professor at Vanderbilt University, examines the sound and artists of soul music in this brilliant history. Drawing on close listening to artists including Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight, among many others, Lordi argues that to have soul one had to possess “virtuosic black resilience,” exemplified through recordings and live performances that promoted the black community. Lordi looks at various elements and techniques that define soul, such as singing cover versions of popular songs, vocal ad-libs and falsettos, and false endings that trick listeners into thinking a performance has ended. As examples, she cites Nina Simone’s ad-libbing in “Be My Husband”; Aretha Franklin’s riffing in her live performance of “Dr. Feelgood” and “Amazing Grace”; and Donny Hathaway’s free-form lyrics in his version of “You’ve Got a Friend” (“Would y’all sing ‘you’ve got a friend’ for me?” Hathaway calls out during a live recording from the Troubador in L.A.). Lordi vividly illustrates that soul artists offer models of black resistance, joy, and community through their songs. This is a must-read for musicologists, critics, and fans of soul. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life

Jay Belsky et al. Harvard Univ., $35 (400p) ISBN 978-0-674-98345-8

A group of psychologists explore fundamental questions about human development, while also introducing a lesser-known research approach, in this cogent work. Using landmark studies that tracked large groups of people from birth—one, ongoing since 1970, involving about 1,000 New Zealanders—they explore topics such as how difficult childhoods impact people later in life and whether childhood ADHD carries through into adulthood. The introduction explains that, by “prospectively” following study subjects through time, significant childhood experiences can be studied close to when they actually occur, instead of via later, and potentially inaccurate, subject interviews. This careful explanation of methodology lends more credence to the book’s conclusions, such as that “temperament at age three predicted how some children functioned much later in life.” The authors also found that, even if children with ADHD could not be clinically diagnosed later in life, their behavior continued to exhibit its hyperactivity and the difficulty with focus characteristic of the disorder. Most generally, and optimistically, they stress throughout that the “factors and forces that undermine human development,” such as bullying and chaotic home lives, “can be prevented from working their black magic” by other, more positive factors, such as secure attachment during infancy and supportive peer groups. This thought-provoking volume should fascinate psychology students. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami

David Karashima. Soft Skull, $16.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-59376-589-7

Karashima, a Japanese novelist, makes his English-language debut with this illuminating look at the “Murakami phenomenon,” which saw Haruki Murakami rise from being little-known outside Japan to global popularity. The book begins with Murakami’s first two novels to appear in English, Pinball, 1973 and Hear the Wind Sing, as part of a series for English-language learners within Japan. It continues through Murakami becoming a “New Yorker author” in 1990 with the appearance of his story “TV People,” and climaxes with the breakout hit of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s English-language publication in 1997. Karashima profiles key players in this process, notably including Murakami’s first translator, Alfred Birnbaum, who took a circuitous path to working with the author, from an initial interest in Japanese art, to teaching pottery and calligraphy and studying tea ceremonies in Japan, to becoming entranced by Murakami’s flair for humor and the surreal. Using texts, faxes, letters, and interviews, Karashima clarifies the close working relationship between Birnbaum, Murakami, and editor Elmer Luke, as well as the falling-outs that occurred as Murakami’s career took off. Murakami fans will particularly revel in Karashima’s comprehensive coverage, but anyone curious about the alchemy and sheer amount of work that goes into making a single author’s success will be entranced by this fascinating work. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography

Thomas A. Schwartz. Hill & Wang, $35 (560p) ISBN 978-0-8090-9537-7

Vanderbilt University historian Schwartz (coeditor, The Strained Alliance) examines the eventful career and divisive legacy of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in this even-handed biography. After sketching Kissinger’s flight from Nazi Germany, WWII military service, Harvard education, and arrival in Washington, D.C., Schwartz focuses on the period from 1969 to 1977 when Kissinger served, first as national security advisor and then as secretary of state, in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Deployed by Nixon as an envoy to China, Russia, and Vietnam, Kissinger ensured that credit for foreign policy achievements would go to the White House rather than the State Department. Schwartz skillfully illustrates the complex dynamics between the two men as Kissinger’s fame and regard rose, culminating in a Nobel Peace Prize, and Nixon’s influence ebbed during the Watergate scandal. Schwartz provides succinct explanations of key strategies such as “triangular diplomacy,” but the book’s comprehensive coverage of all the international conflicts Kissinger dealt with doesn’t allow for too much deep analysis. Schwartz also treats controversies, such as allegations that Kissinger leaked privileged information about peace talks with North Vietnam to Nixon’s camp during the 1968 election, rather lightly. Still, this exhaustive yet accessible account serves as a worthwhile introduction to Kissinger and the geopolitics of the 1960s and ’70s. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age

James L. Nolan. Belknap, $29.95 (288) ISBN 978-0-674-24863-2

In this well-informed history, Williams College sociologist Nolan (What They Saw in America) chronicles the participation of his grandfather, James Findley Nolan, and other medical doctors in U.S. efforts to develop nuclear weapons. An obstetrician trained in the use of radiation therapy to treat gynecological cancer, James Findley Nolan joined the Manhattan Project in 1943 and participated in the Trinity test, the Joint Commission’s study of the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, and the testing of nuclear weapons on Bikini Atoll. He and the other Manhattan Project physicians urged caution despite knowing little about the effects of radiation, according to the author, and continued to raise the alarm as their understanding increased. But those warnings were often ignored and even, at times, willfully misinterpreted by military officials to downplay the dangers of nuclear fallout. The author also notes the suspicions of medical doctors that the army was more concerned with guarding against future legal claims than protecting the health and safety of testing personnel. The penultimate chapter, which addresses the sociological implications of humanity’s pursuit of technological innovations such as the internet and artificial intelligence, feels out of place. Still, this fine-grained and lucidly written account illuminates a little-known aspect of America’s nuclear history. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took On the West

Catherine Belton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (640p) ISBN 978-0-374-23871-1

The Soviet secret police reconstituted itself as the corrupt masters of post-communist Russia according to Belton’s sprawling debut exposé. A former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, Belton styles Putin’s presidency as an assault on the new class of oligarchs who had privatized Russia’s state-owned companies in the 1990s and foolishly supported his Machiavellian rise. Using bogus criminal prosecutions, Putin and his former KGB comrades stripped the oligarchs of their oil companies, banks, and media corporations; exiled or imprisoned them; and occasionally murdered people who got in the way. Putin’s cronies then looted the businesses they appropriated to enrich themselves or fund Russia’s military adventures in the Ukraine and subversion of foreign elections. Drawing on extensive interviews with Kremlin insiders and dispossessed oligarchs such as Sergei Pugachev and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Belton paints a richly detailed portrait of the Putin regime’s tangled conspiracies and thefts. Sometimes her more explosive claims—charges that Russia’s FSB police agency was behind Chechen terrorist attacks, for instance—cite dubious sources and insinuate more than they prove. Still, Belton gives a lucid, page-turning account of the sinister mix of authoritarian state power and gangster lawlessness that rules Russia. Agent: George Lucas, InkWell Management. (June)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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