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Flights

Olga Tokarczuk, trans. from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. Riverhead, $26 (416p) ISBN 978-0-525-53419-8

Winner of the Man Booker International Prize, this novel from Tokarczuk (House of Day, House of Night) is an indisputable masterpiece of "controlled psychosis," as one of the characters phrases it. Written in a cacophony of voices, the book's themes accumulate not from plot, but rather associations and resonances. It begins in Croatia, where a tourist, Kunicki, is lazily smoking cigarettes beside his car in an island olive grove, waiting for his wife and son to return from a short walk. Except they don't, and Kunicki must frantically search for his lost family in a sun-drenched paradise, 10 kilometers in diameter. The novel then, after some number of pages and disjointed narratives, joins the peculiar anatomist Dr. Blau's journey to the seaside village home of a recently deceased rival. This prompts the retelling of the sad, true tale of Angelo Soliman, born in Nigeria, who had lived as a dignified and respected Viennese courtier, only to be mummified and displayed by Francis I as a racial specimen "wearing only a grass band." This rumination on anatomy brings into the text the anatomist Philip Verheyen, born in 1648 in Flanders, who keeps his amputated leg, preserved in alcohol, on the headboard of his bed. The novel continues in this vein—dipping in and out of submerged stories, truths, and flights of fantasy stitched together by associations. Punctuated by maps and figures, the discursive novel is reminiscent of the work of Sebald. The threads ultimately converge in a remarkable way, making this an extraordinary accomplishment. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/25/2018 | Details & Permalink

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John Dee and the Empire of Angels: Enochian Magick and the Occult Roots of the Modern World

Jason Louv. Inner Traditions, $40 (560p) ISBN 978-1-62055-589-7

Louv (Hyperworlds, Underworlds) delivers an overwhelming amount of information in this sweeping attempt to reconcile two schools of thought about Elizabethan scientist John Dee (1527–1608). Historians concerned with Dee generally fall into two camps, writes Louv: the political historians embarrassed by Dee’s late-in-life angelic obsessions, and the occultists indifferent to Dee’s involvement in the development of British intellectualism and politics. By elucidating the “direct intersection between the forces of magic and the machinery of empire,” Louv, with moderate success, argues for the importance of Dee’s ideas throughout the last 500 years of Western history. The first section is a biography of Dee’s rise to the Elizabethan court as an astronomer and master of optics. The second section turns to Dee’s later relationship with spirit medium Edward Kelley (who claimed to communicate with angels) and the “Enochian” journals they composed together that were (purportedly) written in an angelic script. The final section contains Louv’s thesis that Dee’s ideas have persisted to the modern day as the grounding of “esoteric Protestantism,” which he expands on with portraits of organizations such as the Rosicrucians and the Golden Dawn. Written in breezy, informal prose, Louv’s overstuffed book will appeal to those interested in angels or the occult. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/18/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Working for the Man, Playing in the Band: My Years with James Brown

Damon Wood, with Phil Carson. ECW (PGW, U.S. dist.; Jaguar, Canadian dist.), $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-77041-385-6

Wood gives readers an insightful, close-up view of what it was like to be a part of James Brown’s globetrotting band. After an initial 1998 meeting with Mr. Brown, as he was always called, replete in “the gloves, the glasses and the grease,” Wood was a regular guitarist with the Soul Generals almost until the legendary singer’s 2006 death, But it was never a sure thing, as “holding down your spot in James Brown’s band was a tightrope walk without a net” due to the boss’s mood swings and flamboyantly confrontational style. As Wood recounts, Brown once “walked up to each person in the band, got in their face and demanded ‘Do you like your job? Do you want your job?.’ ” A white musician playing behind one of the funkiest men in music history, Wood says he was with the band for years “before I really began to understand how funk breathes.” Wood and Carson smoothly explain the intricacies of being a guitarist, detailing but never dwelling on minutiae such as Brown’s hand signals or tuning on the fly. Readers will come away with a deep respect for the skill and resilience needed to be a professional touring musician, especially one traveling and playing with a mercurial star. (May)

Reviewed on 05/18/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Seriously Good Freezer Meals: 150 Easy Recipes to Save Your Time, Money and Sanity

Karrie Truman. Robert Rose (Firefly, dist.), $24.95 trade paper (367p) ISBN 978-0-7788-0591-5

Truman, creator of the Happy Money Saver blog, offers a pragmatic cookbook full of great recipes and tips on preserving them to maximize the return on time invested in cooking. The freezer, she writes, is “truly your BFF: reliable, helpful and always there when you need it.” With instructions on prep, stocking up on supplies, organizing freezer space, and cooking in large quantities, Truman’s advice is straightforward and practical. For each recipe, she provides ingredient amounts to scale from four to 30 servings, and her recipes span all three major meals, snacks, and everything in between. The book is full of surprises. Readers may be surprised that a cinnamon French toast bake is freezer-friendly, that an artichoke dip can be made far ahead of time and cooked from frozen, or that a meal with complex flavors, such as hazelnut chicken wild rice soup, will preserve perfectly in the freezer. Truman’s recipes encompass a broad variety of tastes and flavors—Mongolian beef, mascarpone key lime mini pies—and the accompanying cooking instructions are easy to follow. Agent: Sally Ekus, Lisa Ekus Group. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 05/18/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Complete Plate: 120 Recipes, 30 Meals

Lauren Klukas, with Janine Elenko and Ashlee Gillespie. Figure 1 (PGW, U.S. dist.; Raincoast, Canadian dist.), $22.95 trade paper (308p) ISBN 978-1-77327-015-9

This well-designed debut cookbook highlights the importance of meal planning, nutrition, and cooking for health and weight management. Klukas was an athlete and personal trainer who had to give up exercise due to a heart condition. She blogged about her experience of losing weight while eating nutritiously, leading to this book of meal plans and recipes that she developed for diets of 1,500, 2,000, and 2,500 calories per day. Klukas emphasizes that her plan doesn’t “demonize whole nutrients like fat or sugar” but instead recommends a balanced approach to eating. Readers who try recipes such as sweet potato frittata, banana parfait, and lemon ricotta crepe will not feel deprived. This cookbook is extremely well organized and provides a checklist of ingredients for each meal plan, a guide to meals based on what readers are in the mood to eat, a calorie count for each recipe, and informative side notes on nutritional value, advance preparation, and freezing. Recipes are generally easy to prepare, giving readers a refreshingly moderate and nutritionally sound approach to weight management. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 05/18/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Death in the Garden: Poisonous Plants and Their Use Throughout History

Michael Brown. White Owl (Casemate, dist.), $27.95 trade paper (125p) ISBN 978-1-5267-0838-0

Gardener and lecturer Brown offers a hokey reference guide to poisonous plants that’s heavier on entertainment than education. Brown begins with short overviews of different aspects of poisonous plants, including a chapter on the use of poisoned clothing in folklore, the properties of poisonous plants, and literary references to poison. His five-page history of poisons only skims the surface, merely nodding toward the use of poisoning in the Roman Empire, when assassination by toxins in food and drink was not uncommon. The bulk of the book contains profiles of different varieties of deadly flora with quirky stories of fatal uses. Readers learn that monkshire, for example, was used as recently as 2009 by a jilted lover in Britain to poison her former beau’s meal in what became known as the Curry Murder. The myth around mandrake, a plant that appears in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, is that screams can be heard when it’s pulled from the ground. The entry on basil, which Brown admits is not actually poisonous, recounts a popular Italian folktale about a young girl who buries her lover’s head underneath a basil plant. Readers who enjoy plants and offbeat tales will find Brown’s book a happy mix, but those seeking a more systematic or scientific guide should look elsewhere. (June)

Reviewed on 05/18/2018 | Details & Permalink

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A Tapestry Garden: The Art of Weaving Plants and Place

Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne. Timber, $34.95 (264p) ISBN 978-1-60469-759-9

The O’Byrnes lead an awe-filled tour of the singular Oregon garden they’ve cultivated over 45 years, a 70-acre site with multiple functions and habitats. From a chicken yard through several rockeries to an ambitious arboretum with dogwoods, redwoods, and more, the O’Byrne garden is richly varied. Thanks to the variety of beds and borders­—a map on the inside cover provides a helpful overview­—and the owners’ expertise, the plant selection is adventurous, offering special inspiration for shady areas. The O’Byrnes’ nursery specializes in hellebores, with an area set aside for these early-flowering woodland jewels. Gardeners who want to geek out over uncommon woodland plants such as trilliums and Jack-in-the-pulpits will enjoy the chapters spent on each. The book is illustrated with full-page landscape photos as well as detail shots, and the photography pairs well with the authors’ ruminative prose, which describes the garden and the thinking that governed its evolution. Most gardeners won’t work on this scale, but every green thumb can find inspiration in this stunning and imaginatively cultivated garden. Color photos. (May)

Reviewed on 05/18/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Near-Death Experiences... and Others

Robert Gottlieb. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-37421-991-8

In this sterling essay collection, Gottlieb (Avid Reader), an influential editor and critic, wields words skillfully and insightfully, with razor-sharp wit and precision. He is erudite but never stuffy, and is a master of the well-placed and hilarious side comment (on criticisms that James Joyce’s Ulysses wouldn’t be understood by its own “mass man” protagonist, Leopold Bloom, he comments, “By this standard, we would condemn Lassie Come-Home because Lassie couldn’t appreciate it”). Composed mostly of critical essays for the New York Review of Books, plus a selection of dance reviews for the Observer, the collection puts notable names from a number of different artistic fields front and center, including movie star Mary Astor, author Wilkie Collins, singer Ethel Merman, choreographer Twyla Tharp, and conductor Arturo Toscanini. (The title essay is one exception, exploring books about “going to heaven” experiences, and how science might explain the near-death phenomenon; a newly relevant look at the Trump family, originally written in 2000, is another.) Gottlieb’s standards are exacting, but he gives praise where due. He’s particularly passionate about the state of dance, and makes the reader share his enthusiasm. Perhaps Gottlieb’s greatest achievement is that he inspires one to want to learn more about his subjects; his restless curiosity becomes the reader’s. (June)

Reviewed on 05/18/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Shadow Emperor

Alan Strauss-Schom. St. Martin’s, $32.50 (512p) ISBN 978-1-250-05778-5

Napoleon III, emperor of France from 1852 to 1870, is most often presented in English-language sources as a figure of fun or pathos, a simulacrum of his world-striding uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte. Historian Strauss-Schom inverts these stereotypes in an excellent biography, portraying Napoleon III as a builder and a reformer, a planter of forests, and a reclaimer of wasteland. He reconstructed and redefined Paris. He created jobs and sponsored department stores, overhauled educational and financial systems, and encouraged scientific and technical research. In these pages, he emerges as the underwriter of modern France. Yet, unlike his uncle, a man of war and statecraft, Napoleon III was a mediocre diplomat and an ineffective commander. He came to power at a time when Europe’s map was being redrawn, and he frequently misjudged international situations: his imperial ambitions generated unwanted confrontations with Britain; his Italian policies enabled unification, but did not complete the process; above all, he was repeatedly and spectacularly outmaneuvered by Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck. Napoleon III’s failures led directly to his own downfall and to France’s displacement as Europe’s primary power. This work’s perceptive synthesis of recent research will interest scholars, and its engaging presentation and fast-paced narrative will attract general readers. (May)

Reviewed on 05/18/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics

Salena Zito and Brad Todd. Crown Forum, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5247-6368-8

Zito, a New York Post journalist, and Todd, a Republican strategist, argue that the 2016 election of Donald Trump indicates that “this new fusion of populism with conservatism is a remaking of the American political axis” in an enthusiastic but repetitive book that draws broad conclusions from an examination of a narrow slice of voters. The authors interview Trump voters—mostly white, middle-aged (and older), straight, and Christian, whom they describe as “largely forgotten people”—from five states that flipped Republican in 2016. Multiple interviewees reference feeling like “part of something bigger than just me” and say that their values had been ignored by previous candidates. The authors pair these interviews with data from surveys conducted for this book to identify seven archetypes of Trump voter (such as “Red-Blooded and Blue-Collared,” “Rotary Reliables,” and “Silent Suburban Moms”). Glib prose (at one point, “Republican mega-donors” are described as “suffering with post-traumatic stress syndrome from Romney’s loss”) does the argument no favors. Partisan language and framing—“For nearly a century, American politics has put the New Deal coalition of government takers on one side, opposed by the fusion of affluence and evangelicalism of the modern Republican Party”—signal that the book’s intended readership is fellow conservatives. The representation of Trump supporters as misunderstood victims steeped in Americana will likely play well with that audience. (May)

Reviewed on 05/18/2018 | Details & Permalink

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