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What Makes a Marriage Last

Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue. HarperOne, $29.99 (512p) ISBN 978-0-06-298258-2

Actor Thomas and talk-show host Donahue, married since 1980, mine the long-term love lives of 40 celebrity couples in this delightful and instructive volume. The authors interviewed couples and found various patterns. Some fall under the “opposites attract” concept, namely Democratic political strategist turned LSU professor James Carville and his Republican wife, Mary Matalin (married in 1993), who explain, “we have feelings and relationships... politics are what we do for a living.” Others embody the spirit of “for better, for worse,” such as actors Michael J. Fox, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1992, and Tracy Pollan (married in 1988), who advise couples “to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Know that you love this person and they love you.” Former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn (married since 1946), counsel that they decided long ago not to go to sleep in the same bed angry with each other. Actor Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka (who had been together for years before marrying in 2014) teach that the little things, like date night, can help keep love burning bright. Love and understanding shine through in this inspiring collection. (May)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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While My Heart Beats

Erin McKenzie. Bold Strokes, $16.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-63555-589-9

McKenzie (Taking Chances) fails to deliver on the promising premise of this WWI-era lesbian romance. In October 1915, wealthy 22-year-old Ellie Winthrop is content to squabble with her family and sashay between meetings of socialite suffragists with little thought spared for the war. Not until her cousins are killed in action does the reality of wartime impinge on Ellie’s privileged bubble. Grieving and determined to do her part, she volunteers for the Red Cross and is shipped from Surrey, England, to Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, under the supervision of the formidable Johanna Lennox, a working-class nurse who refuses to suffer fools. The two women’s path to love is paint-by-numbers and hits all the typical plot beats of an enemies-to-lovers and boss-and-subordinate romance without fleshing them out or examining the effect class differences might have on the relationship. The period detail is sketchy at best, and often sacrificed for the sake of sanitized romantic moments. The result is a flat romance that is neither realistic nor escapist. Though it’s refreshing to see historical lesbians find a happy ending, for many readers this won’t be enough. (May)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties

Mike Davis and Jon Wiener. Verso, $34.95 (800p) ISBN 978-1-78478-022-7

Political activist Davis (Planet of Slums) and U.C.-Irvine emeritus history professor Wiener (Gimme Some Truth) deliver a perhaps too sprawling “movement history” of Los Angeles in the 1960s, focusing on the efforts of black and Latino youth to secure access to jobs, education, and dignity in a racially segregated and economically stratified city. Interweaving coverage of well-known events such as the 1965 Watts uprising with chapters on Asian-American political groups, women’s liberation, and LGBTQ activism, Davis and Wiener synthesize the disparate experiences of different L.A. constituencies. They cover the 1967 Century City police riot, which helped to turn public opinion against Republican mayor Sam Yorty, and a series of demonstrations collectively known as the Battle of the Sunset Strip that politicized many middle-class and white teens. Taking an eclectic, mosaic approach, the authors return often to the role of police violence in suppressing progressive activists, and the growing backlash from conservative Angelenos who helped lift Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon to national politics. Davis and Wiener write with passion and deep knowledge of their subject, but this overstuffed and often disjointed account would have benefited from tighter editing. Nevertheless, this is an indispensable portrait of an unexplored chapter in the history of American progressivism. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Let It Be Broke

Ed Pavlic. Four Way, $16.95 trade paper (134p) ISBN 978-1-945588-45-7

The powerful, ruminative 11th book from Pavlic (Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno) tracks the movements, crises, and severed realizations of an intellectually ambivalent, multiracial speaker in a legally complex and interpersonally troubled social world of the United States. “The poet” is “at the movies one eye on the man coming through/ the entrance the other// eye on the route to the emergency marked: exit.” The book’s middle section, “Documentary Shorts,” features shorter, lyric poems, while the long sequence “All Along It Was a Fever” is rich with direct and emotionally charged lines informed by the weight of history, fatherhood, and sexuality. Pavlic emphatically and attentively observes and riffs on what unites and divides people within countries, races, families, and even among individuals. “The bars of the cage are made mostly/ of the nothing between them,” he writes. “What,/ exactly, are they (you think it matters who?) shooting at.” This suite of poems is an impressive, revolutionary exploration of America’s violent history. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Fantasia for the Man in Blue

Tommye Blount. Four Way, $16.95 trade paper (152p) ISBN 978-1-945588-49-5

Opening with a line from Hilton Al’s essay “GWTW,” (shorthand for “Gone with the Wind”) the searing debut from Blount is magnetic and controlled. Through charged words, masterful line breaks, and ekphrasis and persona pieces, these poems blur the line between intimacy and violence. Describing a fight with his brother, the speaker asks, “do we, in our hold, this hug, this pushing,/ not appear as feuding lovers?” Blount’s subject matter ranges from gay pornographic film actors to the art of Henri Matisse and Kehinde Wiley. He celebrates the strength of female impersonators Lattice Royale of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame and Savannah’s Lady Chablis. He updates Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” to a modern and explicit “Arcane Torso on Grindr,” exploring both queer desire and the potential violence of that desire: “our bodies are records of where we’ve been.” Visiting a historic site early in the morning, Blount observes, “it makes for a lovely setting for white/ weddings, picnics, guided tours./ I’m afraid of this big house/ when it is dark like this;/ when I am dark like this.” Blount memorably and viscerally explores the intersection of power, sexuality, and race. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Queen in Blue

Ambalila Hemsell. University of Wisconsin Press, $16.95 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-0-299-32664-7

Hemsell’s startling and ecstatic debut situates American citizenship and domestic life in the shifting “whole unknowable cosmos,” rendering marriage, motherhood, and home maintenance in electric, sensory detail. In these 46 lyrical, mostly first-person poems, Hemsell bridges the underworld with the natural world, such that mothers after childbirth “find in our ears the somber phonetics/ of cold black stars and black ripe berries.” Yet, for these speakers, maternal life is a basis for larger, more troubling considerations of the military industrial complex and relative privilege. “Passport” observes how “some bones are/ revealed by ultrasound/ others by sonic/ boom”—and confesses, “All my dreams of war/ involve children./ All my dreams/ of motherhood/ involve war.” In one of four sections, Hemsell pushes Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland into new psychological territory; the title poem finds the Queen of Hearts emerging into reality and “finger[ing] the undergrowth,/ raspberry bushes thorny and/ infinitely wilder than her own/ roses, so cultivated, so restrained.” Hemsell’s highly musical style is at its best in restrained slant rhymes (“See the fragile and freckled egg, the symbiosis of wasp and fig”). Even when grappling with forms of violence, Hemsell’s speakers leave the reader feeling “dead sure/ of the weird beauty,/ planetary and human.” (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Quotients

Tracy O’Neill. Soho, $27 (392p) ISBN 978-1-64129-111-8

O’Neill’s esoteric follow-up to The Hopeful centers on the deceit-filled relationship between Alexandra Chen, an American woman, and Jeremy Jordan, an Englishman, who meet and begin dating in London in May 2005. Alex works in international public relations (“She had practiced how to sell a country on her selling their country”), while Jeremy, a hedge fund analyst, tries to keep his past as a British intelligence officer stationed in Belfast during the Troubles a secret from Alex. Alex has troubles of her own—her brother, Shel, ran away at 13, and she’s been looking for him ever since. After Alex accepts an advertising job in New York City that December, Jeremy follows her and they get married. O’Neill’s narrative is tinged with commentary on the rise of digital and social media, which drives a wedge between screen-obsessed Alex and analog Jeremy. Then, in 2008, a journalist friend of Alex’s does his own digging on Shel and raises alarms from Jeremy’s old intelligence contacts after the story unearths NSA secrets. As the details of the couple’s pasts come to light, their marriage is put in jeopardy. O’Neill’s oblique, sometimes opaque prose wears on the reader, though it also offers flashes of insight on the characters’ frequent incomprehension of one another. This would-be techno thriller takes on a bit too much. (May)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Ana Ros: Sun and Rain

Ana Ros. Phaidon, $59.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-7148-7930-7

In this exquisitely illustrated, if challenging, cookbook, Slovenian chef Ros, who was featured on Chef’s Table, shares recipes from her restaurant located in a village near the Italian border. In elegiac prose accompanied by arresting photos, Ros and other contributors describe local landscapes or celebrations, including bees in hives that “look like small Russian dachas” as well cake decorated with butterflies purchased last-minute from a Trieste pastry shop for the 80th birthday of Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, who was visiting the area. A fairy tale quality is established in an essay from Italian food critic Andrea Petrini, who first “discovered” Ros (“Once upon a time there was a little girl,” he begins). Recipes are bunched at the end, far from the photographs of them spread throughout the narrative. Dishes are complex, and intricately designed and balanced: a dish of beef tongue contains eight different components, including oyster mayonnaise and pickled purslane; a popcorn dish features beer gel, cheese ice cream, and wild hops. Clearly, items like cuttlefish lard—made by brining cuttlefish, then cooking them sous-vide, then roasting them, and finally pressing them together and freezing them—are not going to make the regular rotation on home tables. The dreamy affect that pervades this entire book—and Ros’s cooking—are transporting, even if the recipes themselves are mostly aspirational. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism

Anne Case and Agnus Deaton. Princeton Univ, $29.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-691-19078-5

Husband and wife economists Case and Deaton (The Great Escape) analyze the factors contributing to rising death rates among white, working-class Americans in this grim yet galvanizing account. Attributing much of the overall increase to suicides, drug overdoses, and alcoholic liver disease, Case and Deaton show that 158,000 people succumbed to such “deaths of despair” in 2017 (“the equivalent of three full 737s falling out of the sky every day, with no survivors”). They also note that the mortality rate among white men aged 45–54 without a bachelor’s degree has increased 25% since the early 1990s, while decreasing 40% for those with a college diploma. Looking behind the numbers, Case and Deaton examine how solid, blue-collar jobs that could support a stable family life have been replaced by low-paying service industry jobs, contributing to wage stagnation; the role of the pharmaceutical industry in the opioid epidemic; and deficiencies in American health care (“a disgrace”). In a brisk final chapter, they outline possible reforms, including universal health care, wage subsidies, the loosening of patent protections to buoy business innovation and competition, and German-style apprenticeship programs as a college alternative. Complementing their candid prose with enlightening charts and graphs, Case and Deaton make the scale and immediacy of the problem crystal clear. This is an essential portrait of America in crisis. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Westside Saints

W.M. Akers. Harper Voyager, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-285404-9

A missing finger sparks a sprawling investigation in Akers’s dark, gritty second supernatural mystery set in an alternate 1920s (after Westside). Manhattan is cut in half by a wall, separating the hellish Westside from the idyllic East. Westside private investigator Gilda Carr only solves “tiny mysteries,” such as locating small objects that have gone missing. The eclectic Byrd family—the leaders of the Electric Church who believe that the door between death and life will open and their patriarch, Bully Byrd, will be resurrected—hire Gilda to locate a holy relic, the finger of Róisin of Lismore, after it disappears. But when the church’s prophecy comes true, Bully’s not the only dead to return; so does Gilda’s late mother, Mary. She claims amnesia and hires Gilda to help her find a lost ring, hoping for a clue to her identity. As Gilda’s dual investigations lead her to delve deeper into the Byrd family, she untangles a web of secrets, lies, and time travel. The harsh realities of Westside Manhattan is richly imagined and the diverse cast is expertly shaded. New readers won’t want to start with this one, but series fans will be gratified by this excellent outing. Agent: Sharon Pelletier, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. (May)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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