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Power Hungry: Women of the Black Panther Party and Freedom Summer and Their Fight to Feed a Movement

Suzanne Cope. Lawrence Hill, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-64160-452-9

NYU writing professor Cope rescues two female activists from obscurity in this intriguing look at the role that food played in the civil rights and Black Power movements. Contending that preparing and serving food provided a crucial means of fostering a sense of community necessary to fight for change, Cope spotlights Cleo Silvers, who cooked for the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children program in New York City, and Aylene Quin, who served meals to Freedom Riders and held secret voter registration meetings at her restaurant in McComb, Miss. Cope draws on the work of historian François Hamlin to explain how both women performed “activist mothering,” finding their power “in roles socially modeled and considered acceptable for them to embrace within society at large,” and weaves in harrowing details of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s crackdown on Black activism (FBI agents destroyed food intended for the Black Panthers’ breakfast program, alleging that there were “drugs or guns hidden among the eggs and grits”) and the reign of terror white supremacists directed against the civil rights movement in the South. Incisive sketches of other female activists, including Fannie Lou Hamer and Afeni Shakur, add depth to Cope’s contention that sexism limited the recognition of women’s contributions to the cause. The result is a worthy tribute to the unsung heroines of the fight for racial equality. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us About the Destiny of the Human Species

Rob Dunn. Basic, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-541-61930-2

People must have biological laws “in the front of our mind if we are to make any sense of the years ahead,” warns biologist Dunn in this effective exploration of nature in the future (after Never Home Alone). To explain the probable impacts that a warming planet will have on life, Dunn focuses on such laws of nature as natural selection, the species-area law (which “allows us to predict where and when species will go extinct”), and the law of the niche, which governs where species can successfully live. He also explains “law-like biases” that people have about the natural world, such as anthropocentrism, which gives people a “false impression of the world.” Life, Dunn argues, will continue, though it will likely be dramatically different from its current form, and humanity’s future is far from secure, as rising temperatures will lead to increases in violence, decreases in gross domestic product, and far fewer places suited to human survival. Additionally, he posits, unless significant changes are made, within six decades 3.5 billion people will be living in environments unable to support human life. Dunn’s pessimism is offset by his belief that people can help mitigate the effects of climate change by valuing “the rest of life” outside humanity, as well as heeding the lessons that other life has to teach. Thoughtful and accessible, this deserves a wide readership. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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By Any Other Name: A Cultural History of the Rose

Simon Morley. Oneworld, $35 (304p) ISBN 978-0-86154-052-5

Art historian Morley (Writing on the Wall) delivers a discursive history of roses, or the “Queen of flowers,” in this meandering take. “All the various cultural associations the rose has accumulated over the centuries are grounded in human encounters with its natural beauty,” he writes, offering a warning that he isn’t “a botanist, horticulturist, or especially devout gardener,” but rather interested in the plant’s cultural associations. Native to the northern hemisphere, he explains, roses were domesticated first in Sumer in 2200 BCE. “Love of the rose spread westwards,” Morley writes, to Greeks and Romans, and the flower was central to pagan beliefs before it was “rebranded” by the Christian church. And though the Bible doesn’t mention roses, they became associated with Christ’s wounds and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Morley examines the rose’s presence in poetry (most famously, the works of Shakespeare), paintings, music, perfumes, and medicines, and his approach has philosophical leanings and an ecological bent; he defines his search for meaning within a “wider contemporary context of ecological crisis,” as people continue to have “devastating” effects on nature. But the work feels wide and shallow, more scattershot than insightful, and it too often reads like a highbrow lecture. While the idea has potential, rose-tinged inspiration is likely to be discovered elsewhere. Agent: Katelynn Dreyer, Kaye Publicity. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Ghosts of America: A Great American Novel

Caroline Hagood. Hanging Loose, $18 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-934909-71-3

Hagood debuts with an explosive if uneven riff on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (after the critical memoir Ways of Looking at a Woman), in which the ghosts of Jackie Kennedy and Valerie Solanas haunt a sexist novelist. Herzog, the author, spies on a female neighbor from his Brooklyn brownstone, consults fortune tellers, and laments the Trump administration, until the specter of Jackie Kennedy shows up while he’s watching documentary footage of JFK, whom he’s been struggling to write a novel about. After Jackie scolds him for his inaccuracies, she vanishes and is replaced with the ghost of Solanas, who dogs the author for his treatment of her in Shooting Andy, a novel inspired by the time she critically wounded Andy Warhol in 1968. Hagood aims for Herzog to realize his chauvinistic ways, and while the author clearly has fun with her characters, it’s difficult to believe Herzog’s eventual conversion, because while Valerie’s voice is sharply unique, Jackie sounds too similar to Herzog himself, which undermines the fantastical conceit. This fast and funny revisionist satire might lack a convincing payoff, but it throws off plenty of nitro along the way. Agent: Al Zuckerman, Writers House. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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My Life in Dire Straits: The Inside Story of One of the Biggest Rock Bands in History

John Illsley. Diversion, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-63576-915-9

Illsley, bass player of the British rock band Dire Straits, delivers a fascinating take on the band’s history. Following his rock-crazed youth in Leicestershire, he details his eventful meeting in the mid-1970s with guitar playing brothers David and Mark Knopfler in London’s Deptford district, a bleak area that, during a decade marked by “crippling strikes,” was “far ahead in the race to the bottom.” But it was the ideal place to form a band, as Illsey ably illustrates, recalling how it enabled Dire Straits to develop a unique sound away from the punk scene that dominated London at the time. Once the band’s demo tape landed with popular disc jockey Charlie Gillett in 1977, who began playing their song “Sultans of Swing” on repeat during the summer of 1977, the group shot to superstardom. Illsley breathlessly recounts the nonstop touring that began after they signed with Warner Records, the ascendancy of “Sultans” to worldwide hit status, and the increasingly popular records that followed, among them 1985’s Brothers in Arms, whose breakout song “Money for Nothing” led to a prominent performance at Live Aid. Along the way, Illsley is brutally frank about the toll that the band’s fame had on his relationships, most notably his marriage (“a victim,” he writes, “of my life on the road”). Fans will be mesmerized. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe in Contemporary Culture

Mark Bould. Verso, $19.95 (176p) ISBN 978-1-83976-047-1

Film critic and theorist Bould (Solaris) presents a wide-ranging if bumbling survey of the ways climate change is “unconsciously” addressed in culture. He uses as his foil Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, which, he writes, maintains that much of contemporary art and literature has failed to confront catastrophic climate change. Though he shares Ghosh’s belief that literary fiction has faltered in this area, Bould argues that he doesn’t agree these shortcomings are “near-universal,” and instead suggests that, on the contrary, many contemporary works indirectly wrestle with the reality of global warming. “Is there no room for the symbolic?” he asks. Among the many texts he references are the Sharknado movie series, zombie films such as 28 Days Later, and such prescient sci-fi novels as J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, which, in 1962, imagined that rising temperatures would lead to rising tides. Still, not all of his examples are convincing; the closing section on the Fast and the Furious franchise, for example, falls short of effectively linking plots most notable for stunt driving to anything deeper. But Bould doesn’t seem too concerned about making claims that seem “tenuous”: “That’s the dice you roll when you hazard criticism: you make judgments for which you can only offer support, never proof.” Unfortunately, this misses the mark. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling

Esi Edugyan. House of Anansi, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4870-1050-8

Novelist Edugyan (Washington Black) delivers a fascinating study of the “world of shadows [that] edges our written histories.” Originally delivered as the 2020 Massey Lectures, Edugyan’s reflections take a region and a theme as a starting point—“Europe and the Art of Seeing,” “America and the Art of Empathy”—and interweave cultural criticism; sketches of obscure historical episodes, including the forced removal of the Black families who settled Priceville, Ontario, in the 1830s and the desecration of their cemetery; and autobiographical details about her life as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants to Canada. Discussing artist Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of contemporary Black men in poses that evoke European aristocrats and painters, Edugyan astutely pinpoints “a plea to have an essential humanity acknowledged.” Elsewhere, she shares the fascinating stories of Clarence King, a white adventurer in 19th-century America who led a double life as a Black Pullman porter married to a woman born into slavery, and Edward Nkoloso, a Zambian scientist whose plans to send “Afronauts” to Mars in the 1960s may have been “part of a covert resistance movement against the tyrannical colonial and native authorities.” Distinguished by its erudite yet unpretentious prose and probing viewpoints, this is an essential reckoning with how history is made. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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PEN: An Illustrated History

Edited by Carles Torner and Jan Martens. Interlink, $59.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-62371-902-9

Poet Torner (Babel’s Arch) and publisher Martens curate a comprehensive and lavishly illustrated history of the literary organization PEN International to mark its 100th anniversary. Contributors trace the association’s evolution from its founding in London in 1921 by poet Catharine Amy Dawson Scott as a “dinner-club” where “well-known writers of both sexes can meet socially” to the “major shift in [its] thinking” that occurred in 1933, when president H.G. Wells invited exiled German writer Ernst Toller to “speak about the realities of Nazi rule” and PEN’s German chapter was expelled for “excluding members on political grounds.” In 1937, PEN launched its “first successful campaign on behalf of a writer in prison,” helping to free Arthur Koestler from a Spanish jail. In recent years, PEN has worked to repeal overly broad defamation laws in Africa, protested the kidnapping and imprisonment of Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai by Chinese authorities, and campaigned on behalf of Iraqi translators who have worked with the U.S. military and aid groups. Enriched by a wealth of archival material, including the dinner menu from the first meeting, texts of important speeches, and artwork from PEN conferences and publications, this is a fitting tribute to a crucial defender of the freedom of expression. Illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics

Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb. Oxford Univ, $27.95 (344p) ISBN 978-0-19754-107-4

Four women mapped “a route for themselves where none existed” and changed the field of ethics, according to this refreshing group biography. Lipscomb, a philosophy professor at Houghton College, focuses on the philosophers Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch, who, despite their differences, were close friends and did “something revolutionary” by reintegrating ethics into philosophy at a time when it was out of fashion. Beginning at the oustet of WWII, the narrative traces how each thinker forged a place for themselves in a male-dominated world: they all studied at Oxford, where they met in 1940, were trained in analytic philosophy, and were fiercely dedicated to their field. Together, Lipscomb writes, they “diagnosed” the prevailing moral philosophy of the day, that there’s no objective good or bad, as an “intellectual fad,” and countered by proposing there are indeed moral truths. Lipscomb keeps things centered on their friendship, making powerful use of newly opened archives and the philosophers’ unpublished correspondence, as when he brings Oxford to life using Murdoch’s letters to friends. This credible corrective couldn’t have arrived at a better time. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Once a Laird

Mary Jo Putney. Zebra, $8.99 Mass Market (368p) ISBN 978-1-4201-4812-1

A woman falls for her deceased sister’s former fiancé in Putney’s dull sixth Rogues Redeemed romance (after Once Dishonored), set in 1800s Scotland. Kai Ramsey returns to Thorsay Island to take over his ailing grandfather’s responsibilities as Laird. He hasn’t been back since the death of his betrothed, Gisela Matheson, 12 years ago, leaving to travel and mourn before eventually becoming a spy for the crown. Meanwhile, Gisela’s younger sister, Signy, stayed behind and became Kai’s grandfather’s deputy. Signy has always blamed Kai for Gisela’s death by miscarriage, but now that they’re thrown back together, she realizes Kai wasn’t at fault and the two bond over their shared love of her sister, his grandfather, and the islands. Kai is finally ready to settle down after his adventures abroad, but Signy is eager to travel and finally put herself first. Though these conflicting desires keep them from acting on their acknowledged attraction, Signy promises to stick around for at least three months to train Kai in his new role. The pull between Signy and Kai feels weak at best, more like two old friends getting reacquainted than a potential couple. Though the setting and supporting cast are well developed, the lackluster chemistry disappoints. This is one to skip. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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