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Artisan Design: Collectible Furniture in the Digital Age

Judith Gura. Thames & Hudson, $85 (400p) ISBN 978-0-500-02244-3

Design historian Gura (1935–2020) (Design After Modernism) offers a spectacular guidebook to artisan furniture in this posthumous collection. Gura covers the work of more than 100 artists: there’s early industry pioneer Wharton Esherick’s 1950s curvilinear pieces, George Nakashima’s stark wooden chairs from the ’70s, whimsical chairs from Marcel Wanders made in 2013, and contemporary nature-filled resin forms made by Sasha Sykes. The most fun section showcases tongue-in-cheek works, such as Tom Loeser’s bench made of repurposed shovel handles and Hubert le Gall’s “Pot de Fleur,” a set of chairs that when joined looks like a flowerpot. To wrap up her master-class, Gura tours private collections—readers get a look inside Elvis’s former home in Los Angeles (which is now a gallery), a luxurious house on stilts in Miami Beach filled with one of a kind furniture, and a New York City apartment that holds a fig leaf–covered cabinet. Gura skillfully highlights the changes that the craft has seen through decades as she traces the different movements, how they influenced each other, and the evolution of furniture as technologies changed and new techniques were introduced. Design enthusiasts will want this on their coffee tables. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down

Jonathan Gottschall. Basic, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-1-5416-4596-7

Gottschall recycles many of his previous claims about the power and danger of narratives in this tedious and self-contradictory sequel to The Storytelling Animal. Contending that “all narrative is reductionist” and that storytelling is humanity’s “essential poison,” Gottschall cherry-picks dozens of examples to build his case, noting, for instance, that Plato’s Republic “condemned storytellers as professional liars who got the body politic drunk on emotion,” and that Tommy Wiseau’s notoriously bad 2003 movie, The Room, fails to convey its misogynistic message because it doesn’t generate “narrative transportation.” In Gottschall’s view, historical storytelling “frequently amounts to a kind of revenge fantasy, where the malefactors of our past can be resurrected, tried, and convicted for violating moral codes they frequently hadn’t heard of.” But he downplays contemporaneous evidence of people risking their lives to, for instance, resist the Nazi Party and end slavery in the American South, and he doesn’t acknowledge any social and cultural histories that do not “wrench real-world facts into line with the most powerful grammar of fiction.” Though his sharp sense of humor entertains, Gottschall’s overly broad and reductive argument falls flat. This study is more provocative than persuasive. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020

Elise Engler. Metropolitan, $32 (394p) ISBN 978-1-250-82469-1

Artist Engler debuts with a stunning visual chronicle of what many consider “the worst year of our lives.” From January 20, 2020, to January 21, 2021, Engler created a work of art for each day of the calamitous period marked by Covid-19, based on the headlines every morning. These evocative works, accompanied by brief notes summarizing the day’s news, lead readers through the monumental, mundane, and transitory events of what Engler calls “a time scarred by fecklessness, devastation, rage, injustice, illness, and death.” While the pandemic looms large in her provocative paintings—as well as former president Trump’s two impeachments—she underscores how, despite humanity being on pause, “we managed to carry on.” On offer are portraits that juxtapose the profound with the prosaic—Kobe Bryant’s death on January 27, 2020; Tom Brady’s signing with Tampa Bay for $60 million (which happened, she notes, the same day that New York “declared disaster”); the murder of George Floyd in May and the subsequent summer of protest; and President Biden’s inauguration. In a blunt style that captures the urgency and confusion of that year, Engler’s paintings offer an extraordinarily haunting time capsule of an era readers soon won’t forget. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Pushcart Prize XLVI: Best of the Small Presses

Edited by Bill Henderson. Pushcart Press, $35 (576p) ISBN 978-0-9600977-4-6

The enjoyable latest entry in the annual anthology showcases works that originally appeared in literary journals that, in Henderson’s estimation, thrive despite their lack of funding (“We are locked out of the money apparatus and have emerged free”). In Kevin Wilson’s poignant story “Biology,” a man mourns the death of his eighth-grade science teacher and reflects on when he was a loner who found refuge in the eccentric teacher’s classroom. Daniel Orozco’s well-crafted “Leave No Trace” follows Rutger, who, at six, receives cryptic advice from his alcoholic father: “Be invisible. Be smoke. Be a ghost. Leave. No. Trace.” As a result of heeding the guidance, Rutger manages to be “adequate” at just about everything over the course of his life. In a touching and humorous poem by Red Hawk, “The Holy Spirit of the Moon,” a Native elder asks the Apollo 11 astronauts to deliver a message to the gods on the moon. The hilarious and quirky story “Housekeeping” by Karin-Lin Greenberg revolves around the suicide of a TV actor in a small town, where a hotel maid finds the body and becomes an instant celebrity. There are many emerging voices worthy of discovery, and their work here is a consistent delight. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes: And the History of the Trans Experience

Zoë Playdon. Scribner, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-9821-3946-9

Playdon, an emeritus professor of medical humanities at the University of London, frames this meticulous history of trans rights in Great Britain around the case of Scottish aristocrat Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar (1912–1991), who was “assigned as female at birth, christened Elisabeth, and raised as a girl.” In 1952, claiming that his sex assignment had been a “ghastly mistake,” Forbes had his birth certificate corrected to male, changed his name to Ewan, and married his housekeeper. When his older brother died without male heirs in 1965, Forbes stood to inherit a baronetcy, but his cousin made a counterclaim, alleging that Forbes “is now and has all along been of the female sex.” Playdon delves deep into the conflicting medical evidence presented at the private trial, which determined that Forbes was “a true hermaphrodite in whom male sexual characteristics predominate” and upheld his claim to the baronetcy. The ruling was withheld from the public record, however, allowing a subsequent court case to set a legal precedent that severely limited trans rights in the U.K. Playdon marshals a wealth of scientific and legal detail and paints a sympathetic yet evenhanded portrait of Forbes, who likely faked some of the medical evidence he presented at trial. The result is a valuable contribution to trans history. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book: Revised and Expanded

Gord Hill. Arsenal Pulp, $17.95 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-55152-852-6

Flipping Eurocentric history on its head, Kwakwaka’wakw artist Hill expands and updates his righteous 2010 chronicle of indigenous resistance to conquistadors and colonizers. Rather than limiting the focus to current national borders, Hill depicts revolts, rebellions, and riots from peoples across North and South America in fierce full-color. Spanning from 1494 with the Taíno retaliation against Christopher Columbus to modern-day standoffs over land, water, and oil, the narrative covers significantly more material than the original edition, though it still tends to speed through complex conflicts. Hill takes great care in his brightly colored artwork that illustrates the traditional dress and practices of each group—particularly evocative are the Tlingit warriors who rise from the page in gorgeously carved headdresses to strike down Russian traders, in an 1802 uprising against trespassing on their lands. While it’s an inherently bloody and brutal history, Hill also centers resilience, such as in the chapter on the Mapuche, who fought against Spanish control for generations and today survive “unconquered” in what’s now Chile and Argentina. Particularly of interest to educators, this update would be a crucial addition to any library or classroom that aims to tell an unvarnished history of the Americas. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Winter’s Earl

Annabelle Greene. Carina, $4.99 e-book (336p) ISBN 978-0-369-71749-8

Greene (Soldier and the Spy) takes a cue from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale for this middling historical romance. In 1815 Sicily, Richard Ashbrook receives a missive from his former lover, Sherborne Clarke, a scandalous British poet whom he believes published a letter outing Richard to a newspaper 16 years ago, forcing Richard into exile. Sherborne has found a baby on his doorstep and hopes Richard will help transport the foundling, whom he names Parsley, to the orphanage Richard’s cousin runs in London. Richard is bitter and wary about reuniting with Sherborne but cannot deny his lingering attraction: the pair get turned on while verbally sparring and engage in a fencing match that ends in kissing. When heavy snow delays their trip to the orphanage, Richard appreciates the chance for “one more night” with his lover. Unfortunately, this central romance feels rather tame and tensionless, and an episode in which actors and a bear arrive unexpectedly works as a nod to Shakespeare but is otherwise slack. A late subplot around Parsley’s parentage addresses issues of class, gender, and expectation and creates some intrigue, but not enough to save the story. Greene has made a noble effort, but this feels uninspired. Agent: Deidre Knight, the Knight Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness

Elizabeth D. Samet.. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-21992-5

The popular perception of WWII as the "Good War" hides a darker reality, according to this iconoclastic study by West Point English professor Samet (No Man's Land). Challenging rose-colored takes on the war as the triumph of the democratic common man over fascist tyranny, Samet argues that America's war was a morass of indiscriminate carnage fought by draftees with little ideological motivation—and, in the case of Black soldiers facing racial discrimination, deep ambivalence—amid considerable public disaffection on the home front. Worse, she contends, the retrospective veneration of the war as "a testament to the redemptive capacity of American violence" justified misbegotten military adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. Concentrating more on critical theory than politics or history, Samet probes interpretations of war in literary and cultural works from Shakespeare's Henry V to 20th-century war novels, Saving Private Ryan, and film noir's jaundiced view of an America coarsened and corrupted by the conflict and the troubled veterans returning from it. Samet's analysis is sometimes incisive but more often rambles through age-old indictments of the glorification of war. Ultimately, this intriguing provocation is too broad and unfocused to reveal much about why America keeps going into battle. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a Covid-19 Vaccine

Gregory Zuckerman.. Portfolio, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593420-39-3

Wall Street Journal reporter Zuckerman traces the seemingly miraculous development of the Covid vaccine in this captivating account (after The Man Who Solved the Market). Through interviews with "scientists, academics, executives, government officials, investors, and others," Zuckerman makes a case that the creation of the vaccine was the result of "years of dedication, creativity, and frustration." He introduces a slew of scientists past and present whose work, in one way or another, impacted the efforts to cure Covid: there's Gale Smith, a molecular biologist who "theorized that insect viruses could be used to infect insect cells to produce specific proteins" in the 1980s; Frank Volvovitz, who started a company called MicroGeneSys to pursue a vaccine for AIDS; Jon Wolff, who was a key player in mRNA research; and Moderna scientist Eric Huang, who advised the company that they should be "making vaccines, not drugs" in 2013. Things move at a fast clip as Zuckerman conveys decades of complex scientific research in a gripping fashion. His focus on the slow burn of discovery makes for a fascinating angle and offers plenty of inspiration: "The Covid-19 vaccine story is one of heroism, dedication, and remarkable persistence." The result is tough to put down. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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State of Terror

Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton.. Simon & Schuster/St. Martin's, $30 (512p) ISBN 978-1-9821-7367-8

Rapid-fire plot twists are at the fore of this derivative thriller, set in an alternative 2021, from bestsellers Penny (the Inspector Gamache series) and Clinton (What Happened), making her fiction debut. Douglas Williams, who has become president following the defeat of his Trumpian predecessor, has named Ellen Adams, a media mogul who supported his opponents, as his secretary of state. After a disastrous mission Adams undertakes in South Korea, she soon has another, larger crisis to manage. Bus bombs in London, Paris, and Frankfurt kill dozens, but no individual or group claims responsibility for them, suggesting that the atrocities are a prologue to future attacks, possibly in the U.S. Adams travels to hostile terrain, including Teheran and Islamabad, in a desperate effort to avert a mega-terror event on U.S. soil. Though the cadences and humor of Penny's mysteries are present, they're not enough to compensate for a story line heavily dependent on contrivances and implausibilities. This is more likely to appeal to fans of Bill Clinton and James Patterson's The President's Daughter than the legion of readers devoted to Penny's Inspector Gamache novels. Agents: Bob Barnett, Williams & Connelly, and David Gernert, Gernert Company. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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