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Disaster Mon Amour

David Thomson. Yale Univ, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-300-24694-0

Film Scholar Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) explores disasters both cinematic and actual in this erudite if uneven collection. The title alludes to the 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Thomson argues exemplifies his thesis that “fearsome possibilities cannot escape some irony or romance that may amount to beauty.” The opening essay, “Overture for Two Staircases,” looks at Laurel and Hardy’s short film The Music Box, about the characters’ efforts at getting a piano up a staircase, alongside Sergei Eisenstein’s tragic stairway massacre in The Battleship Potemkin, to demonstrate how closely related the hilarious can be to the horrible. “In San Andreas” offers an analysis of the movie San Andreas and a chronology of disasters in film including the 1936 movie San Francisco and 1974’s Earthquake. The essay also curiously includes a fictional dialogue with an “old lady” who tells him to “get on with your book,” which proves more obfuscating than illuminating. As Thomson moves away from film analysis and into the real world, particularly his views on global warming and the Covid-19 pandemic, things drag and veer more into flat reportage than illuminating critique. Film buffs will find much to consider in his cinema takes, but won’t lose anything by leaving before the curtain falls. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Bette Davis Black and White

Julia A. Stern. Univ. of Chicago, $22.50 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-22681-386-8

Race relations take center stage in this unique biography of actor Bette Davis (1908–1989), in which Stern (Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Epic), an English professor at Northwestern University, recounts Davis’s lesser-known work on behalf of civil rights through the lens of her films. Each chapter is devoted to a different movie: a section on The Little Foxes, for example, spotlights “the power of whiteness as a social marker,” while a look at In This Our Life questions Davis’s ability to play a “virulent bigot... while simultaneously working to promote racial equality in the world.” Stern also weaves in perspective on James Baldwin’s critical writings, noting that his “essays on his own experience as a Black film spectator remain among the finest meditations on race and classical Hollywood cinema ever written,” and she adds texture by recounting her own memories of watching Davis’s films: “I remember yelling at the screen during my first viewing,” she writes of Baby Jane. Readers in search of a straightforward biography won’t find it here—the actual trajectory of Davis’s own life takes a backseat to an appreciation of the impact of her civil rights efforts. It’s a fascinating look at a cinematic legend. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Secret of Rainy Days

Leslie Hooton. Keylight, $17.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-68442-704-8

In the uneven latest Southern inspirational from Hooton (After Everyone Else), a sudden loss forces a young woman to return to her cliquish Alabama hometown, where she must reconsider her idea of “home.” Nina “Little Bit” Barnes Enloe grew up in Erob under the shadow of her outspoken grandmother, her namesake, known as Biggie (“I shared her name, and by God, I was going to be a lady according to her rules.”). By leaning on her brother and their close circle of friends, Nina made it through the hardships of her father’s suicide and her emotionally distant mother before leaving for college and becoming a successful lawyer in New York City. Now, she’s returning to collect her inheritance: Biggie’s home, granted along with Biggie’s wish that Nina live in it, get married, and raise her own family there. While Nina is in no hurry to settle down, she does find herself drawn to her brother’s best friend, Carter. The romance between the two develops slowly; it’s friendships rather than seduction at the heart of the narrative. While the cast feels realistic and engaging, Nina herself doesn’t do much to endear herself to readers and comes across as prickly and quick to find fault in others. Much of the plot, meanwhile, is told through digression, which mutes the emotional through line. There are some big personalities at play here, but as a homecoming story it rings hollow. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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36 Streets

T.R. Napper. Titan, $15.95 trade paper (448p) ISBN 978-1-78909-741-2

Napper debuts with a gripping near-future cyberthriller involving gangsters, an addictive video game, and a plot to alter the memories of an entire nation. Born in Vietnam and later adopted and raised in Australia, 24-year-old Lin Thi Vu has never felt like she fit in. Now back in Vietnam, her determination and skill earn her the attention of crime boss Bao Nguyen, but even as a gangster in the grimy underworld of the 36 Streets in Chinese-controlled Hanoi, Lin feels like an outsider. Part employer, part mentor, Bao teaches Lin the skills she’ll need to eventually run a gang herself. His latest assignment for her is to take a job as a PI for an English businessman investigating the murder of the programmer behind Fat Victory, an addictive virtual reality game that turns the U.S.-Vietnam war inside out. When her investigation stirs up far more trouble than she bargained for, she and Bao get caught between warring local gangs and an international battle to control a mind-breaking technology. Napper drives the brisk plot forward with plenty of action and intrigue. Cyberpunk fans will find much to enjoy in the noir tone, unique setting, and high stakes. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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American Urbanist: How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life

Richard K. Rein. Island, $35 (328p) ISBN 978-1-64283-170-2

Journalist Rein debuts with an intriguing intellectual biography of journalist and urbanist William “Holly” Whyte (1917–1999). Though Whyte is best known today for his 1956 bestseller, The Organization Man, a study of life within corporations, Rein uncovers his contributions to urban landscapes such as New York City’s Bryant Park, which he helped redesign in 1988, as well as his influence on protégés including Jane Jacobs and Paco Underhill. Growing up in a small town near Philadelphia, Whyte gained a reputation as an unconventional thinker, according to Rein. After graduating from Princeton in 1939, Whyte worked as a Vicks VapoRub sales rep and served in the Marines during WWII. Following the war, he became a writer and editor at Fortune magazine, where his research for The Organization Man involved close observation of the suburban communities where his subjects lived, which sparked a lifelong passion for understanding the factors, including walkability, sidewalk width, and access to open spaces, that contribute to the quality of urban life. His pioneering thinking, grounded in data garnered from field observations, was implemented by the New York City Planning Commission and has inspired worldwide efforts to maximize the joys of city living. Rein foregrounds Whyte’s own writing and analyses, which were remarkably prescient. The result is a welcome tribute to a visionary thinker. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Jump: My Secret Journey from the Street to the Boardroom

Larry Miller, with Laila Lacy. Morrow, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-299981-8

A Black man imprisoned for murder and other crimes has a spectacular second act as a business executive in this nervy saga of redemption. Miller—former president of the Portland Trail Blazers NBA franchise and founder of Nike’s Jordan brand—was a 16-year-old Philadelphia gang member in 1965 when he shot to death a randomly chosen, unarmed teenage boy in response to a previous gang killing. After a stint in juvenile prison, he spent his 20s selling drugs before being incarcerated for armed robbery. Miller recounts how, after getting out, he turned his life around, got an accounting degree, climbed the corporate ladder at Campbell Soup and Kraft, and did business with Michael Jordan—all the while fearing his secret criminal past might be exposed, an anxiety that gave him nightmares and migraines. Punchily coauthored by his daughter Lacy, Miller’s gritty picaresque (“I was going to walk in the door, shoot Billy in the leg, and then put the gun to his head and tell him to convince me not to kill him”) grows more sedate when he enters the boardroom and starts selling swimwear, but his street persona—brash, ruthless, determined to show no weakness—remains palpable beneath the corporate exterior. The result yields something striking and rare: an immensely gripping business memoir. Agent: David Larabell, CAA. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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On Assignment: Memoir of a National Geographic Filmmaker

James R. Larison. Chicago Review, $30 (304p) ISBN 978-1-64160-520-5

Larison reflects on his decades-long career producing nature documentaries for National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, and PBS in his exhilarating debut. He describes his explorations, sometimes working solo, other times alongside his wife, Elaine, and their two young children: “We went to these places and we did these things because we wanted to share our love of wilderness with others.” Larison recalls the extremes he went to in order to capture the right footage, withstanding intense cold and going on glider flights, as well as frightening and exciting encounters with snakes in Manitoba (“thousands of them... carpeted the cave floor”); heavy snow near Banff, Alberta, (“we were, by this time, in a near whiteout”); and run-ins with octopi and sharks in the Great Barrier Reef. Later sections focus on the Larisons’ environmental advocacy and film projects dealing with “the biological health of planet Earth.” Along the way, the author expresses his gratitude for the life he and his wife have led, from the early days of their marriage, when they were “just two eighteen-year-old kids with vivid dreams and insufficient experience.” Fans of the great outdoors will appreciate this introspective and sentimental outing. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Scammer Girl

Michelle Dayton. Tule, $4.99 e-book (310p) ISBN 978-1-956387-42-1

Dayton’s follow-up to her STEM-savvy debut, Disaster Girl, doesn’t disappoint, delivering a fresh premise and fully fleshed out characters whose believable problems drive their questionable decisions. After a devastating breakup, debt-ridden psychology PhD candidate Jo Harper uses her tech genius and canny insights into the human mind to set up an online scam romancing wealthy married men in hopes of receiving pricey gifts. Now it’s a booming business supporting several staff, and, since they only target known cheaters, Jo’s comfortable in the moral gray area they’ve created. But then her team accidentally targets the brother of do-gooder Silicon Valley executive Jamie March, whose mission is to make the internet safer for all. Jamie tracks down Jo, and given their diametrically opposed perspectives, they’re both surprised by the potency of their chemistry. With Jamie, Jo feels secure enough to be herself, not the character she plays online. Series fans will be pleased to meet another gutsy heroine, though Dayton veers slightly into the trope of having the heroine change her goals to satisfy the hero. In this case, however, the change feels grounded in emotional growth. Readers will be delighted. Agent: Janna Bonikowski, the Knight Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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H of H Playbook

Anne Carson. New Directions, $22.95 (112p) ISBN 978-0-8112-3123-7

Carson’s latest translation of an ancient myth sees her interrogate the excesses and limits of heroism by bringing Euripides’s tragedy Herakles into a modern context. Updating the setting from ancient Greece to an airstream trailer, Carson uses a mixed-media approach complete with cutouts, handwritten text, drawings, and paintings to retell a story of madness while pushing the boundaries of poetry, translation, and the book form. In Carson’s version of the story, the protagonist is not Herakles but “H of H,” simultaneously the son of the god Zeus and a mortal father, Amphitryon, who wonders aloud how difficult it must be for his son to exist as this odd mix of human and divine: “What’s it like to wear an eternal Olympian overall// held up by the burning straps of// mortal shortfall?” The chorus of war veterans wryly consider H of H’s contradictory status as a hero figure who “likes to go berserk” but whose heroism “leaves him/ outsize and outside/ the civilization he’s saving.” Yet the hero remains blind to himself: “I look in the mirror and the mirror is uninhabited.” Weaving together a critique of masculine violence and cultish hero worship, Carson bridges the divide between ancient and modern worlds in this brilliant book. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Afterfeast

Lisa Hiton. Tupelo, $18.95 trade paper (70p) ISBN 978-1-946482-56-3

In Hiton’s cerebral debut, history intersects with the present through a legacy of tragedy and longing. The Holocaust figures prominently; in “Dream of My Father’s Shiva, Auschwitz, 1942,” Hiton dreams she is searching for a body in a crematorium. Greece is conjured vividly in lines like “The moon/ dusting its skin// a veil upon the Aegean,” and “Away from the ruins, more ruins.” She writes of visiting a lover’s ancestral home in Thessaloniki, once again imagining a Holocaust scenario: “You would hide/ me, you would hide me,/ you would hide me,/ if we were in a different time.” Elsewhere, Hiton offers unique expressions of love and desire—“I reach my hand/ Into your mouth, down through your chest. I turn your heart over.” She poses philosophical questions about the significance of daily life given the weight of history: “Wanting to be extraordinary we made ritual out of our tiny lives./ I’ll tighten the screwtop on the bottle of balsamic.” Hiton’s language is predominantly spare and abstract, making the occasional metaphorical conceit strike all the more intensely. This penetrating collection propels the reader forward by the force of Hiton’s intellectual daring. (Oct)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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