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The Accursed Tower: The Fall of Acre and the End of the Crusades

Roger Crowley. Basic, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-1-5416-9734-8

Drawing on eyewitness accounts, Latin and Arabic historical records, and archaeological findings, Crowley (Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire) delivers an accessible and multiangled chronicle of the 13th-century siege and capture of Acre, the last Christian Crusader stronghold in the Middle East. Crowley sketches the rise of Turkish Mamluk mercenary forces in Egypt and Syria and their repulsion of Mongol invaders, the establishment of the Mamluk Sultanate in Cairo, and the defeat of the Crusader state of Antioch in 1289. He details Mamluk siege tactics, including catapult bombardment and tunneling, and quotes from a 14th-century Arabic source that describes Muslim soldiers using “iron horse pegs, tethers, and halters” to climb citadel walls. In April 1291, Mamlak sultan al-Ashraf Khalil laid siege to Acre with an estimated 70,000 horsemen and 150,000 foot soldiers. The city’s defenders included 700 to 800 mounted knights of the Templar, Hospitaller, and Teutonic orders, and 13,000 infantry. Crowley skillfully captures the intense fighting between these mismatched armies, and describes how “fires raged and screams rang” and the Mediterranean Sea “was reddened with the bodies of the slain” after the city fell. Shifting back and forth between Muslim and Christian perspectives, this entertaining history serves as a satsifying introduction to the end of the Crusades. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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When I Am Italian

Joanna Clapps Herman. SUNY New York, $24.95 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-4384-7718-3

In a series of detailed essays, Herman (The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America) shines a light on growing up Italian-American after WWII. The child of working-class Italian-Americans and granddaughter of Italian immigrants, Herman came of age in the 1960s. She groups her essays in broad categories: her childhood days in Waterbury, Conn., in a patriarchal home; the food she grew up eating (included is a delicious-sounding recipe for homemade tomato paste); her years in New York City; events that compelled her to write (including an eloquent tribute to a friend who was murdered in 1970); and time spent in her family’s village in southern Italy. “My ancestral village in America is Waterbury, Connecticut,” she proclaims, citing other examples of U.S. cities with bustling Italian enclaves—such as Hoboken, N.J.; South Philadelphia; and Chicago—and noting how they produce those who “learned the rules and the customs, the recipes and rituals of our tribe,” whom she invites to identify as Italians, rather than Italian-Americans. The persistence of memory is evident in Herman’s loving recollections, and her passion for her heritage comes through consistently. Italophiles or not, readers will enjoy Herman’s astute look at multigenerational immigrant life. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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1774: The Long Year of Revolution

Mary Beth Norton. Knopf, $32.50 (528p) ISBN 978-0-385-35336-6

Pulitzer Prize finalist Norton (Separated by Their Sex) presents a meticulous and persuasive chronicle of the “debates, disagreements, and disruptions” that shaped political discourse in colonial America prior to the Revolutionary War. Beginning with the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 and concluding with the clashes at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Norton reveals that the period was more discordant than is commonly believed. She notes that Benjamin Franklin and George Washington disapproved of the destruction of the East India Company’s tea, and that Massachusetts merchant John Hancock was the first to propose an “intercolonial congress” in anticipation of the British government’s response. After receiving news that Parliament had voted to close Boston’s port, town leaders called on the other colonies to join a retaliatory boycott of trade with England. New York City, Norton writes, became the “progenitor of public Loyalism” in the fall of 1774, as conservative colonists and merchants eager to supply British troops occupying Boston learned that the First Continental Congress would endorse nonimportation. Making extensive use of pamphlets, newspaper articles, correspondence, and meeting minutes, Norton brings underappreciated figures such as Pennsylvania lawyer John Dickinson to the fore, and elucidates complex developments in all 13 colonies. This ambitious deep dive will remind readers that America has a long history of building consensus out of fractious disputes. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America

Adam Cohen. Penguin Press, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2150-5

Conservative justices are giving the rich more money and power and the rest of America more inequality, discrimination, and jail time, according to this impassioned but one-sided indictment of recent Supreme Court jurisprudence. Journalist and lawyer Cohen (Imbeciles) recaps the Court’s rightward drift since the 1969 retirement of Chief Justice Earl Warren as majorities led by Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts have, in his view, turned a cold shoulder to welfare recipients; undermined unions and restricted workers’ rights to sue employers for discrimination; abandoned school desegregation; disenfranchised minority voters by gutting the Voting Rights Act and upholding voter ID laws; eroded criminal due process protections and condoned draconian sentencing laws; shielded companies from lawsuits; and overturned campaign-finance laws and boosted the political influence of wealthy donors and corporations. Cohen highlights such questionable Court rulings as a 2003 decision upholding a defendant’s 25-years-to-life sentence for shoplifting videotapes, but dismisses the free-speech considerations informing the 2010 Citizens United campaign-finance ruling. His criticisms of the Court often center on its refusal to impose progressive policies such as mandatory busing to integrate schools and basic income guarantees. The result is a blistering critique in which politics overshadow constitutional principles. Agent: Kristine Dahl, ICM. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honor Killing of a Social Media Star

Sanam Maher. Melville House, $27.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-61219-840-8

Journalist Maher debuts with an immersive and eye-opening account of the 2016 “honor killing” of Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani social media celebrity. Raised in a small village in the province of Punjab, Baloch ran away from an abusive marriage in 2009 at the age of 19 and eventually found work as a model and actress. Her social media posts, many of which were considered risqué by the standards of Pakistani culture, garnered Baloch hundreds of thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers. In March 2016, she received death threats for uploading a video promising to do “a strip dance for the whole nation” if Pakistan’s cricket team beat India; a few months later, she sparked further controversy by filming herself in a hotel room with a prominent cleric. On July 16, she was found murdered in her home. After Baloch’s brother Waseem confessed to drugging and strangling her, international news outlets hailed her as a feminist martyr. Maher enriches the narrative with accounts of other Pakistani women confronting misogyny, including a digital rights activist who teaches women how to guard against cyberharassment and the investigator assigned to Baloch’s case. Creatively piecing her story together from TV transcripts, social media posts, and interviews, Maher succeeds in exposing the hypocrisies of Pakistan’s globalized yet repressive society. Though Baloch herself remains somewhat inscrutable, this deeply researched account illuminates the qualities that made her so galvanizing in life as well as death. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan

Erika Fatland, trans. from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson. Pegasus, $29.95 (480p) ISBN 978-1-64313-326-3

Norwegian social anthropologist Fatland (The Village of Angels) details her eight-month trip through “five of the newest countries in the world” in this fascinating memoir. Traveling through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—the former Soviet republics that all became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991—Fatland details the peculiarities of “the Stans” (Persian for “ ‘place’ or ‘lands’ ”): “Turkmenistan is more than eighty per cent desert, whereas more than ninety per cent of Tajikistan is mountains; the regime in Uzbekistan is so corrupt it’s comparable to North Korea, while the people in Kyrgyzstan have deposed two presidents.” But what Fatland finds throughout her travels is a nostalgia for the “good old days” when “the world was red... the shops were full of tinned food.” Anachronistic practices still exist, such as the problem of bride snatching in Kyrgyz villages, and there are several desolate places, such as Polygon in Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons. Ultimately, Fatland concludes that these nations are “still struggling to find their identity, bridging the span between east and west.” Her remarkable look at the region serves as a solid introduction to an area that remains little traveled by those from the West. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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I Want You To Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir

Esther Safran Foer. Random/Duggan, $27 (226p) ISBN 978-0-525-57598-6

Foer—former CEO of a Washington, D.C.–based arts center and the mother of authors Franklin, Jonathan, and Joshua Foer—documents her quest to gather information about her family’s life during the Holocaust in this skillfully written debut. “I am the offspring of Holocaust survivors, which, by definition, means there is a tragic and complicated history,” Foer writes. Born in 1946 in Poland, Foer lived in a German displaced persons camp with her parents as a baby, and in 1949 they emigrated to Washington, D.C., where her father ran a grocery business. An enigmatic figure, her father committed suicide in 1954, which Foer attributes to lingering trauma (“I believe the Holocaust killed him”). In unadorned prose, Foer chronicles her efforts to research the lives of her kin and excavate family secrets. The narrative culminates in a trip to Ukraine that Foer took in 2009 with her son Franklin to locate the family of the man who hid her father during the war and confirm the identity of her now dead half sister. This narrative serves as something of a companion piece to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, which fictionalized aspects of the Foer family history. Foer’s engrossing, well-researched family history will resonate with those curious about their own roots. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace

Nikki Haley. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (262p) ISBN 978-1-250-26655-2

Former South Carolina governor Haley (Can’t Is Not an Option) delivers a selective and self-serving account of her stewardship of her home state in the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston church shooting and her tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Haley movingly describes trying to call Mother Emanuel AME’s pastor, State Senator Clementa Pickney, before she realized he was one of the shooter’s nine victims. She takes issue with President Obama for—according to her interpretation of his remarks—suggesting that the Southern “way of life” was to blame for the murders, and details the bipartisan vote to remove the Confederate flag from state house grounds. Haley admits to not knowing much about the UN ahead of her appointment (except that “most Americans didn’t like it”), but takes credit for convincing Russia and China to support sanctions against North Korea and standing up to the General Assembly’s “anti-Israel bias.” She paints Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House chief of staff John Kelly as “disloyal to the president,” and claims that Trump has a right “to change his mind,” even if it leads to the embarrassment of others. Haley’s unwillingness to fully address the counterarguments to her policy positions undermines her authority, and her claims to have left the UN before the 2018 midterms simply because she needed “to take a breath” will ring false to readers keeping track of how often she describes herself as “ambitious” and “no wallflower.” As groundwork for a future campaign, however, this carefully worded memoir does its job. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. Pegasus, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-64313-369-0

Political scientists Krastev (After Europe) and Holmes (The Quest for the Trinity) deliver a salient and incisive analysis of the decline of Western liberalism centered on the evolution of Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Describing the region’s political elites as genuine “converts” to liberalism who became trapped in a conflict between democratic ideals and entrenched cultural norms, Krastev and Holmes trace the current global rise in “populist xenophobia and reactionary nativism” to a backlash against the “politics of imitation” that emerged in post–Cold War Europe. The authors note the irony of newly democratic countries including Poland and Hungary being compelled by “unelected bureaucrats from Brussels” to enact policies required for E.U. membership, and study the contrasting examples of Russia, where elites simulated democratic norms while aiming to “kill the West’s victory narrative,” and China, where leaders appropriated Western technologies while resisting Western values. Krastev and Holmes also chart how Donald Trump’s instinctual sense that “America is the greatest victim of Americanization” began to resonate with the public in the wake of 9/11. Their lucid and cogent presentation mitigates the sense of discouragement many readers are apt to feel when reckoning with how liberalism “lost its way.” Those searching for what comes next should consider this an essential resource. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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How to Teach Philosophy to Your Dog: Exploring the Big Question in Life

Anthony MacGowan. Pegasus, $25.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-64313-311-9

MacGowan (The Art of Failing), a lecturer on philosophy and creative writing, playfully explores philosophy in this amusing collection of imaginary dialogues conducted with his Maltese terrier, Monty. During the pair’s walks through north London, Monty (at least in the brief responses MacGowan gives to him) provides a foil for the author’s ruminations on various concepts about ethics, free will, knowledge, and the meaning of life. While taking Monty to a familiar spot on the bank of the Thames, MacGowan is moved to consider pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus, who coined the famous adage about the “impossibility of stepping into the same river” twice. MacGowan also considers how philosophy and life reflect upon each other. Monty is an aging dog with a bad hip, so conversations on the nature of existence—such as what Plato’s theory of forms has to say about his essential nature as a dog—and death suit his stage of life. MacGowan gives their “conversation” the sense of an easy give-and-take, with agreeably down-to-earth lines for Monty such as “Spinoza sounds quite cool” or “So determinism loses, hurrah!” Readers who have never roamed the paths of philosophy before, or who could use a return trip, will appreciate this enjoyable tour from a friendly guide and his loyal companion. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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