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Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship

Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo. Milkweed, $26 (316p) ISBN 978-1-57131-369-0

In this moving and erudite collection of letters spanning several years, playwright Ruhl (100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write) and poet Ritvo (Four Reincarnations) meditate on aesthetics and literature, death and the afterlife, and faith and knowledge, before Ritvo’s death from cancer at age 25. Theirs began as a student-teacher relationship in 2012 when Ritvo signed up for Ruhl’s class at Yale, but quickly moved into one of mutual admiration and understanding. Ritvo’s reflections on mortality are devastating and lyrical; he wrote in a poem, “The jungle of my short life is one row of white straight naked trees.” His willingness to grapple with his fear of death is brave; his argument in favor of the soul’s existence trenchant. The two conduct spirited exchanges on postmodernism, Tibetan Buddhism, and vegetarianism. Ritvo transforms the quotidian into the profound, explaining his appreciation for soup, “the food that most allows your mouth to approximate silence.” The letters, and Ruhl’s guiding editorial commentary, trace Ritvo’s biography, from his graduation from Columbia to his wedding and the publication of his first book, along with endless medical ordeals. Ruhl draws a comparison between their correspondence and that between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and indeed, with the depth and intelligence displayed, one feels in the presence of literary titans. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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A Lakeside Companion

Ted Rulseh. Univ. of Wisconsin, $22.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-299-32000-3

Rulseh (On the Pond: Lake Michigan Reflections), author of the local Wisconsin newspaper column “The Lake Where You Live,” presents a comprehensive and accessible guide to lake life. He introduces readers to the fundamentals: how these bodies of water came to exist (generally, via glaciers), the different ways that they are categorized (such as the distinction between drainage and seepage lakes), and the chemical compositions crucial to their continued existence. After going over the basics, the guidebook then delves into the amazing biological diversity present in lakes. Readers learn of the variety of fish that flourish there, from minnows to largemouth bass. Rulseh succinctly explains the features that they share, such as the lateral lines of their bodies used to “pick up vibrations in the water,” and the features that make each different, like the walleyes’ excellent vision, attained through “a layer of reflective crystals behind the retina,” which makes them “deadly predators at night or in murky waters.” Rulseh also thoroughly discusses the insects, plants, birds, and other kinds of life that inhabit lakes, along with the effects of changing seasons, the multitude of recreational activities available, and how the reader can help to protect these unique habitats. This concise primer will make an excellent addition to any nature lover’s collection. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Improbable Wendell Willkie: The Businessman Who Saved the Republican Party and His Country and Conceived a New World Order

David Levering Lewis. Liveright, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-87140-457-2

Two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Lewis (God’s Crucible) breathes new life into the onetime Republican standard bearer and now historical footnote. In folksy prose, Lewis tracks Willkie’s evolution from small-town Indiana Wilsonian Democrat to utility company executive, then to, in Lewis’s description, “certainly one of the most unexpected, if not unlikely, candidates for presidency” ever on the Republican ticket. The bulk of the narrative focuses on Willkie’s approximately five years of national prominence, from his 1939 appearance on the cover of Time magazine for his role in challenging New Deal policies to his death in October 1944 at age 52 after an unsuccessful second bid for the GOP nomination. Lewis highlights Willkie’s role in gaining Republican support for the Lend-Lease Act and supporting the nascent civil rights movement. Those looking for parallels to recent elections featuring moguls-turned-politicians will be disappointed; Willkie took a globalist stance and favored bipartisanship to further his political missions. Lewis does not shed much light on Willkie’s personal relationships, but his swift, thoughtful biography makes clear Willkie’s importance in WWII-era America and his lasting impact on domestic and international policies. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Health Care Revolt: How to Organize, Build a Health System, and Resuscitate Democracy—All at the Same Time

Michael Fine. PM, $15.95 (174p) ISBN 978-1-62963-581-1

In this trenchant and accessible diagnosis of the ills plaguing American healthcare, Fine, a family physician and former director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, argues that America has “a healthcare market, not a healthcare system”—and everyone is worse off because of it. Fine persuasively demonstrates that the profit motive built into the patchwork of federal, state, and local programs that pass for healthcare in the U.S. leads to ballooning costs, gross inefficiency, and treatment for the privileged few instead of cost-effective prevention for the many. He cites community healthcare programs in places like Mound Bayou, Miss., and Huntingdon County, N.J., as examples of how health systems designed to address the needs of the small areas in which they are situated, as identified by members of those communities, can improve health outcomes just as much, if not more, than advances in medicine. Indeed, the book touts the importance of education, healthy food, and primary care centers embedded in dense community networks over specialized medical care, mounting a sustained critique of pharmaceutical companies who shill for drugs that people don’t need. America isn’t Finland, Fine admits, but the Finnish province of North Karelia had a mortality rate similar to that of the U.S. until changes were made in its healthcare system, after which heart disease rates fell by 80% and life expectancy grew by six years. This book is an informative, insightful introduction to a complex topic. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Gone Home: Race and Roots Through Appalachia

Karida L. Brown. Univ. of North Carolina, $29.95 (264p) ISBN 978-1-4696-4703-6

In this analytical history, Brown digs into a lesser-known portion of the Great Migration (during which approximately six million African-Americans left the rural South for better—usually urban—opportunities elsewhere): migration from Alabama to Harlan County, Ky. As the descendant of some of these migrants to Appalachia, Brown includes her personal experiences along with those of former residents of the county. These remembrances gain power when quoted at greater length, such as in the surprisingly heartbreaking chapters on integration and the decline (and in some cases, partial destruction, including bulldozing) of coal towns. While moving to a rural coal community may seem an unlikely choice for migrants seeking equality and economic opportunity, Brown argues that black men “transformed from peasants to proletariats” in the coal mines. This assertion isn’t fully supported, however, because, Brown points out, the coal companies still owned everything, from homes to schools, and neighborhoods remained segregated. Her discussion of the sudden, difficult transition to school integration in the early 1960s is mesmerizing. In this tale of the collective African-American search for a place to call home, Brown provides an insightful look at 20th-century American culture. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War

Neal Bascomb. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-0-544-93711-6

Bascomb (Hunting Eichmann) unfurls a cracking good adventure in this upbeat retelling of the largest Allied prison break of WWI. By way of introduction, he recounts the backgrounds and the captures—in no-man’s-land between the trenches, at sea, and crashing behind enemy lines—of some of the major characters in the drama, such as pilots David Gray, Cecil Blain, and Caspar Kennard and poetry-minded lieutenant Will Harvey. In 1918 they all ended up at Holzminden, a German POW camp so notorious for punitive brutality that inmates referred to it as Hellminden. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, 29 men tunneled out of the camp on July 23 and 24, 1918, and made their way covertly over 150 miles toward Holland; 10 succeeded, while the others were recaptured. But the relatively posh conditions in which officers were kept, the raffish élan of the breakouts, and Bascomb’s focus on the escapees’ cheer and determination soften the horrors of the Western Front’s savage industrialized slaughter; it’s not until a third of the way through the narrative that the mortal consequences of trying to escape become clear. Bascomb draws on unpublished memoirs, official histories, and family papers to spin this action-packed, briskly paced tale. Agent: Eric Lupfer, Fletcher & Co. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Connecting the Dots: Lessons for Leadership in a Startup World

John Chambers, with Diane Brady. Hachette, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-0-316-48654-5

Businesspeople worried about the pace of change and disruption in the internet age should conquer their fears and embrace the “staggering” opportunities that await, advises Cisco chairman emeritus Chambers in this half-hearted vanity project. The author has undeniably achieved a great deal of success at Cisco and a variety of other companies, which he shares in excessively painstaking detail. He traces his life from his upbringing in West Virginia and the values his parents instilled in him, to his long career in Silicon Valley, with stops at IBM and Wang Laboratories along the way, culminating at Cisco. His advice tends toward the broad (“act like a teenager” by dreaming big and assuming disruption) and the overly obvious (“setbacks can make you stronger”). The aw-shucks attitude, chat-over-coffee tone, and bemusement at technological advancement may win over some readers, but overall this is a compendium of a little bit of everything that tries to do too much; there’s little new to distinguish this offering from the countless other how-to-succeed-in-business manuals crowding the shelves. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Team that Changed Football

Bob Lederer. Dey Street, $27.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-279804-6

This detailed narrative looks back at the 1968 New York Jets team that shocked the world by beating the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. In the straightforward narrative, Lederer, a market researcher and lifelong Jets fan, quickly recounts the season and big game before pulling back to highlight the players, coaches, and executives who made the Jets victory possible. In doing so, he turns the focus away from Joe Namath, the flashy, celebrity quarterback who promised fans a Jets victory before the game was played. The result is an anecdote-heavy but at times disjointed account of the team. Lederer tells of linebacker Al Atkinson playing the second half of the Super Bowl with a separated shoulder and of offensive tackle Winston Hill playing with a broken neck. Lederer also lists the many players who developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or dementia due to head injuries. Most excitingly, Lederer weaves in the exclusive access he got to coach Weeb Ewbank’s playbooks, including personal player evaluations (running back Matt Snell “was not performing as well as his previous rookie season”) and the game plan for Superbowl III (Ewbank “knew that a short passing game and a strong running attack were essential to upending Baltimore”). Football fans will enjoy this comprehensive glimpse into one of the game’s great teams. Agent: Dawn Michelle Hardy, Serendipity Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Angela Gheorghiu: A Life for Art

Angela Gheorghiu, with Jon Tolansky. ForEdge, $35 (248p) ISBN 978-1-61168-912-9

Gheorghiu candidly recalls pivotal moments in her life, from her 1960s childhood in Romania to her later success with the Royal Opera House in London and the New York Metropolitan Opera in this enjoyable memoir. She describes her progression from a local singer in the small city of Adjud to a music conservatory within Romania’s Communist regime: “As we grew older, things began to get worse in the country, and shortages of all kinds appeared—especially the simple things: food, clothing and footwear, everyday things.” Gheorghiu tells of her life in the High School of Art in Bucharest, which she describes as a “prison” due to the watchful eye of government security guards; it was there, however, that she began to feel “more and more confidence in the gift God bestowed on me—my voice.” At 25 she was performing for the National Opera of Bucharest. Shortly after, she auditioned for the Royal Opera House and was immediately cast in several productions, debuting there in 1992 as Zerlina in Don Giovanni. Gheorghiu fondly recalls such mentors and colleagues as Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and producer Franco Zeffirelli, yet also tells of her clashes with, for example, Metropolitan Opera manager Joseph Volpe­, who insisted she wear an oversized wig during a performance (she protested by refusing to go on stage). Gheorghiu doesn’t disappoint with her story of becoming a world-class opera star. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor

Ralph James Savarese. Duke Univ, $29.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4780-0130-0

Savarese (Reasonable People), a Grinnell College professor, combines his knowledge of literature and personal experience with autism—his son is one of the first nonspeaking autistic people to graduate from college—in this challenging but worthwhile treatise. Passionately opposed to equating autism with intellectual and emotional incompetence, he describes teaching literature to five people from across the spectrum, including Temple Grandin. They also include Tito, who published his first book at age 12 and identifies with the title character in Moby-Dick, and Dora, who did not distinguish between animate and inanimate entities until high school, and compares the way autistic people are commonly viewed to how the androids are viewed in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In working with Grandin, Savarese self-critically interrogates his preconceptions about getting her to conform to “neurotypical” norms. The book’s writing style can be hard going, full of academic lingo and digressions into etymology and literary theory, but this idealistic argument for the social value of literature and for the diversity of autism as a condition is a rewarding endeavor, nevertheless, in much the same way that a hike up steep terrain can open up to a wondrous view. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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