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Passing Judgment: The Power of Praise and Blame in Everyday Life

Terri Apter. Norton, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-24785-5

Praise can be as dangerous as blame in personal relationships, according to this exhaustively documented, uneven study from psychologist Apter (What Do You Want from Me?). Apter spends the book’s first half building the case for how blame and praise shape individuals. She walks the reader through child development, in a section that reads like an exhaustive psychology class with excellent explanations but little storytelling. The more reader-friendly second half details how judgments play out in intimate, work, and social-media spheres. For instance, a workplace compliment of a woman’s shoes sounds innocent but has demeaning undertones. Even the phrase “you’re so thoughtful” isn’t always as warm and fuzzy as it sounds. Such observations school the reader in the multilayered world of praise. Apter does the same for blame by detailing two negative performance reviews: one employee learned from criticism and the other wholly rejected it. Her insights into social media are some of the book’s most interesting, such as that people constantly checking Facebook aren’t feeding a device addiction but looking for “satisfactory feedback.” But this isn’t a book with answers. Readers who make it through the hard-going first half should profit from Apter’s message, which isn’t to avoid judgment, but to “understand and reflect” on it. (Jan. 2018)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

Shaun Walker. Oxford Univ., $29.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-19-065924-0

In his first book, Walker, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, explores the way Vladimir Putin exploits a sanitized version of Russia’s history, especially its role in WWII, to unite its populace behind the goal of returning to major-power status. The book mixes historical analysis with original reporting, using the modern- day Russia-Ukraine conflict as its central example. Walker proves an able historian and clearly guides the reader through the context necessary to support his thesis. For instance, as a counterexample to the Kremlin’s straightforwardly heroic account of the Soviet WWII record, he recounts Stalin’s relocation of an entire ethnic group, the Kalmyks, accused of backing Hitler. Walker’s original reporting is exemplary and differentiates the book from equally well-informed but more scholarly analyses with its eye for the idiosyncratic and telling detail. While interviewing a prominent Crimean supporter of Putin, he observes that the man “seemed defensive, almost angry, as he answered my questions while doodling stick trees in his notebook.” Walker proves an empathetic interviewer throughout, willing to hear both pro- and anti-Putin viewpoints but also willing to hold his subjects accountable. Intelligent and ambitious, Walker’s book succeeds in providing insight into the recent history of a nation at the center of world attention. (Jan. 2018)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old

John Leland. FSG/Crichton, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-374-16818-6

New York Times reporter Leland (Hip: The History) delves into the ramifications of an arresting statistic—that more people are living past age 85 than at any other time—by following six individuals from this quickly growing age group. The octogenarians profiled, three men and three women, include a still-active avant-garde filmmaker, a retired civil servant, and a pioneering career woman. Leland skillfully weaves the wisdom gleaned from their experiences into a fascinating chronicle of the joys and difficulties of living into one’s 80s and beyond. The underlying theme conveyed by this varied group is to “spend your dwindling time and energy on the things that you can still do,” not on mourning those now out of reach. It is an uplifting message, one that researchers call “selective optimization with compensation.” By not shying away from the downside of old age—issues discussed here include illness, depression, and isolation, as well as memory and cognitive loss—Leland lends credence to his heartening story of how six seniors have nonetheless made the best of it. He also movingly shows, through his own example, how interacting with those much older than oneself can lead to seeing life in a new light. Leland’s unique, highly readable narrative posits that old age should not be viewed as a dreadful time, but rather as a life stage to embrace and celebrate (Jan. 2018)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta

Kushanava Choudhury. Bloomsbury, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-1-63557-156-1

This vibrant memoir evokes the many paradoxes of Calcutta—it’s a place of food stalls and colonial mansions, as well as roaming cows and urine-stained streets. Choudhury’s family left Calcutta when he was 12 years old, and it wasn’t until after he graduated college in 2001 that he returned. Leaving behind his family in New Jersey moored to the “treacherous shoals of the lower middle class, a world of chronic car trouble and clothes from K-Mart,” Choudhury arrives in Calcutta with his wife to work at the Statesman, one of the city’s English-language newspapers. In luminous prose, Choudhury describes a Calcutta where “a century-old portico could fall on your head,” and the town of Dalhousie, where vendors sell “big fish heads” that point “upward like Aztec pyramids to the sun.” On College Street in Calcutta, “shopkeepers sell books the way dealers elsewhere sell crack.” He and his wife often disagree on such things as whether they should patronize the corner tea shops that employ 10-year-old boys, and, at times, their marital fights come on like the monsoon. Choudhury unearths Calcutta’s haunted past—exploring the Bengal famine, Partition, and the Naxalite revolution—and, in beautiful prose, he brings the city to life. (Jan. 2018)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions

Maud Casey. Graywolf, $14 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-55597-794-8

In the 14th volume of Graywolf’s The Art Of series, novelist Casey (The Man Who Walked Away) analyzes the inscrutable and enigmatic elements in the work of James Baldwin, Shirley Jackson, Henry James, and others. Casey applies the term “mystery” broadly (and astutely), describing it as “a whispered invitation, a siren song, a flickering light in the distance.” One would not ordinarily think of Baldwin, for example, as a writer of the mysterious, but Casey’s exploration of his use of windows in “Sonny’s Blues” shows the story to be about the “deep-space mystery of interiority”—the near impossibility of truly knowing another person. Casey demonstrates the potential for a single object to be imbued with dynamic mystery through Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People” and its main character’s wooden leg. Casey also delves into 19th-century Spiritualism, the use of the subliminal in photographic art, and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. Her analysis illuminates the behind-the-scenes work authors do to cultivate a seemingly effortless air of mystery, such as O’Connor’s “training the reader’s gaze” on that leg, or Baldwin’s impressionistic descriptions. Those seeking to understand how to bring the ineffable into their own writing would do well to start here. Agent: Alice Tasman, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. (Jan. 2018)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Armed in America: A History of Gun Rights from Colonial Militias to Concealed Carry

Patrick J. Charles. Prometheus Books, $28 (496p) ISBN 978-1-63388-313-0

Legal scholar Charles (Historicism, Originalism and the Constitution) presents a fascinating and thoroughly researched history of gun rights and gun control in America. Charles reminds anyone in need of a constitutional refresher course that the Second Amendment is specifically addressed not to gun rights for individuals, but for “well-regulated militias.” It was in the 19th and early 20th century, as the author cogently explains, that this right “underwent a noticeable transformation” as state and local restrictions on arms prompted avid gun owners to organize and develop a gun-rights platform. This movement, spearheaded by the National Rifle Association, went largely unchecked until the 1968 assassination, by pistol, of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (who, the author points out, was an outspoken NRA critic). Still, neither that event nor the gun violence since has halted what Charles provocatively calls the “golden age of gun rights,” during which the NRA continues to argue that the Second Amendment protects a personal right to own practically any kind of firearm. Charles ably draws on reproductions of historical documents and gun-related political cartoons and advertisements to support his text. While he avoids taking a position, his meticulously documented, highly convincing account suggests that one particularly controversial right—to carry concealed weapons in public—is constitutionally untenable. Agent: Alexa Stark, Trident Media Group. (Jan. 2018)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Eat the Apple: A Memoir

Matt Young. Bloomsbury, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-1-63286-950-0

In this bold memoir, ex-Marine Young examines how war transformed him from a confused teenager into a dangerous and damaged man. Fresh from high school and with no direction, Young walked into a Marine recruitment center in 2005 and sealed his fate. Soon he was suffering the indignities of basic training before being deployed to “the sandbox” in Iraq, where he sweated, masturbated, shot stray dogs, and watched friends get blown up. Despite the constant misery and suffocating discipline, Young redeployed twice more and even volunteered for Iraq on his last tour. Brief stints in the U.S. that blurred away into drunken violence and infidelity made war seem far safer to Young than civilian life. Eschewing first-person memoir conventions, Young, now a creative-writing professor at Centralia College, presents his experiences through a broad range of narrative approaches—second person, third person, first-person plural, screenplay, crude drawings, invented dialogue between various selves, etc. There’s real risk of trivializing the material, but Young matches his stylistic daring with raw honesty, humor, and pathos. Comparisons to Michael Herr’s Dispatches, about the Vietnam War, are apt, but where Herr searched for thrills and headlines as a journalist, Young writes from a grunt’s perspective that has changed little since Roman legionnaires yawned through night watch on Hadrian’s Wall: endless tedium interrupted by moments of terror and hilarity, all under a strict regime of blind obedience and foolish machismo. (Feb. 2018)

Correction: An earlier version of this review stated the authore reenlisted twice. In fact, he redeployed twice.

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Autobiography of Gucci Mane

Gucci Mane, with Neil Martinez-Belkin. Simon & Schuster/37 Ink, $27 (270p) ISBN 978-1-5011-6532-0

East Atlanta hip-hop innovator Gucci Mane (né Radric Delantic Davis) delivers a tell-all of his checkered childhood and career. Born in rural Alabama to a drug–addicted hustler father and single mother, Gucci Mane began selling drugs by the seventh grade and rapping by age 14. Over the next two decades, he cycled through jail—including a three-year stint in federal prison—and rehabilitation facilities after numerous drug- and firearm-related offenses, and still released eight studio albums and dozens of mixtapes, formed his own record label, and worked with some of rap's top names. All the while, he groomed Atlanta's up-and-coming artists, as well as polishing his own free-associating lyrical style at "a pace that few could match." Gucci Mane is unflinching in his recounting of his life's lowest moments and refreshingly blunt about his relationships with rival Young Jeezy ("The vibe was fucked.... It was no longer a business situation to sort out. It had become personal") and erstwhile protégé Waka Flocka Flame ("Waka and I had been having problems on and off for three years. But we'd been able to keep it between us"); however, he tends to get, as he would put it, "lost in the sauce" when naming friends and enemies or describing his time as a "studio rat." Yet the story he spins is riveting, filled with music-world intrigue and inner-city shootouts and buoyed by a self-awareness not marred by ego. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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