Week ending December 13, 2013
The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. (Best American). 2013. 512p. ed. by Dave Eggers & Walter Mosley. ISBN 9780544105508. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780544108868. LIT
Since 2002, Eggers (editor, McSweeney’s; What Is the What; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) has been gathering San Francisco Bay Area high school students into workshops to compile writing for this series. Sadly, the 2013 volume will be Eggers’s last, although luckily the series will continue under the creative direction of David Handler, aka Lemony Snicket (“A Series of Unfortunate Events”). Featuring poems, stories, essays, and cartoons, the main selection criterion is simply that the writing be the best: “The Best American Poem About a Particle Accelerator,” “The Best American Comic That Ends in Arson.” In other words, there are no limits. This volume is a home for writing that deserves a category all its own, remnants and ephemera that might have otherwise been missed: a term paper assigned by Kurt Vonnegut, Seinfeld episodes pitched in a tweet, Yelp reviews written in the style of Cormac McCarthy. In the introduction, guest editor Mosley (“The Easy Rawlins” mysteries) writes, “Real reading is rereading.” Short and sweet, each piece in this collection invites the reader to do just that.
Verdict Although this collection is targeted toward the young, hip, and 25-and-under crowd, lit lovers of any age will find themselves engrossed. Proceeds from this book benefit the nonprofit organization 826 National.—Meagan Lacy, Indiana Univ.–Purdue Univ. Indianapolis Libs.
Blasi, Joseph & others. The Citizen’s Share: Putting Ownership Back into Democracy. Yale Univ. 2013. 296p. index. ISBN 9780300192254. $38; ebk. ISBN 9780300195064. ECON
Sociologist Blasi (Robert Beyster Professor, Rutgers Univ.) and economists Douglas Kruse (industrial relations & human resources, Rutgers Univ.) and Richard Freeman (Herbert Ascherman Professor, economics, Harvard Univ.) recount the history of various forms of worker ownership in the United States. They provide the historical background and economic research to support the belief held by the Founding Fathers that economic democracy—widespread ownership of property, either land or some kind of business—was essential for political democracy. This volume offers an accessible, and informative, story of government and business support for worker ownership. From George Washington’s federal subsidies for profit sharing in New England’s cod industry through Proctor & Gamble’s 19th-century employee stock purchases to today’s Silicon Valley industries rewarding workers with stock, the authors argue that employee ownership has been touted as a way to build up native industries, counter labor unions, spur innovation, and reduce disparities in wealth distribution.
Verdict This work spotlights an important area of American economic history; some more detailed sections will appeal mainly to a specialist audience.—Duncan Stewart, Univ. of Iowa Libs., Iowa City
Jankowski, Tomek. Eastern Europe! Everything You Need To Know About the History (and More) of a Region That Shaped Our World and Still Does. New Europe. 2013. 624p. illus. maps. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780985062323. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780985062330. HIST
Jankowski, who has worked and studied throughout the region, offers a sweeping history of Eastern Europe and does an admirable job of getting information in on nearly every language and religious and cultural group that has existed in the area, a commendable feat. At 500 pages without notes or indexes, this is not a casual work. It is, however, a very readable history, and the many charts, graphs, and maps help nonacademic readers to visualize and better understand the content. The entertaining and informative “Useless Trivia” sidebars break up the text and keep a reader’s mind from wandering. The volume covers the area known currently as Eastern Europe, though its borders have changed through the years—in this case, roughly 1,500 years of history. Jankowski writes in an intelligent, accessible style, and it is easy to read the book from start to finish, or just to pick out sections on certain countries or events.
Verdict A meaty but not overly challenging read for history buffs and students, Eastern European scholars, and tourists with more than a passing interest in the history of the region.—Sara Miller Rohan, Archive Librarian, Atlanta
Johnson, Paul. Mozart: A Life. Viking. 2013. 177p. index. ISBN 9780670026371. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101638125. MUSIC
Veteran biographer and historian Johnson (Darwin: Portrait of a Genius; Socrates: A Man for Our Times) turns his attention to the all-too-brief life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). The author’s singular gift for synthesis and finding the right telling details adds depth and interest. He places this child prodigy and (later) prolific “married composing machine”—with 600-plus works attributed—in the center of the intellectual and cultural life of the Enlightenment. He explores Mozart’s relationship with his demanding impresario/musician father, Leopold, and his musician sister Maria Anna. He firmly debunks the Antonio Salieri rivalry and rehabilitates the reputation of Wolfgang’s wife, Constanze, a trained singer, who was often alleged to be a poor housekeeper and a spendthrift. Johnson observes that Constanze managed the busy household of this frenetic, punishingly productive, improvident, musical “rock star” despite her being either pregnant or nursing during much of the marriage or mourning the deaths of four of their six children. Those familiar with Mozart’s impressive musical oeuvre and those wanting to learn more will particularly benefit from Johnson’s introductions to and thoughtful assessments of the composer’s many masses, operas, symphonies, and other works. They can also serve as a brilliant playlist for those wanting to reengage with an 18th-century musical master. Index not seen.
Verdict This title is rich with information, fast moving and engaging. Libraries will find it a fresh, readable take on an oft-requested composer.—Barbara Genco, Library Journal
McAlester, Virginia Savage. A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture. Knopf. Dec. 2013. 880p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781400043590. $50. ARCH
Thirty years ago this reviewer evaluated the first edition of this book for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, calling it “the best field guide to American residential architecture that has ever been published and likely to remain so.” This second edition enlarges the first by more than 60 percent (300 pages). This edition covers American residential architecture after 1940, which accounts for 80 percent of U.S. homes. This housing is mostly “modern” in a convicted sense, and it slowly falls into preserved historic neighborhood status designation nationwide. A whole new important 50-page chapter covers the planning and layout of neighborhoods, a valuable addition for historians, planners, and historic preservationists. Finally, this edition doubles the first edition’s bibliography and adds 18 pages of useful footnotes, which didn’t appear in the first edition. Much remains to be done for the public. Apps, already available for rocks, trees, birds, plants, and constellations, would be extremely useful for smartphone users. Topographic treatment would also be enormously beneficial, harnessing big data to good use. One erection objection: too many oversize, postmodern mansions are featured.
Verdict Those interested and involved in historic preservation/architectural history, as well as public and academic libraries, should buy this one.—Peter S. Kaufman, Boston Architectural Ctr.
McDaniels, Pellom, III. The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy. Univ. Pr. of Kansas. 2013. 536p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9780813142715. $39.95; ISBN 9780813143842. SPORTS
McDaniels (African American studies, Emory Univ.) came across the story of Isaac Murphy (1861–96) while researching the importance of sports to African Americans during the mid- to late 19th century. He learned that Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times and remains the only rider to have a 44 percent rate of victory in his Thoroughbred horse racing career. In post–Civil War horse racing, black jockeys were in the majority. Murphy and his wife rose to be among the black upper middle class in Lexington, KY. They became prominent examples that those born to slaves or former slaves could rise above their poor beginnings and even gain wealth. However, Murphy’s very success proved alarming to many whites. When African American jockeys began earning very good incomes, race horse owners and white jockeys took measures to force them out of the sport. McDaniels relies on the era’s newspaper records, census records, and legal documents to trace Murphy, who left no papers.
Verdict This book is an overdue full treatment of Murphy and his fate. It’s a fine complement to Maryjean Wall’s How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders and should be read by students of Southern history, African American history, and Thoroughbred horse racing.—Patsy Gray, Huntsville, AL
Rodrigue, Wendy W. The Other Side of the Painting. Univ. of Louisiana. 2013. 474p. illus. notes. ISBN 9781935754268. $24.95. FINE ARTS
Blogger Rodrigue (Musings of an Artist’s Wife, wendyrodrigue.com) compiles her web posts and sets forth the “other side” of the career and works of her artist husband, George Rodrigue, who is perhaps best known for his “Blue Dog” series of works. The author reorganizes her writings into 12 chapters and approaches her subject in new ways. Each chapter begins with a quotation and contains a reproduction or photograph. Rodrigue covers the couple’s personal stories as well as their lively debates about art and discusses the history behind her husband’s art pieces. She also analyzes his most famous works, the couple’s inspirations, Creole and Cajun cultures, and more. While this book is intended, like Rodrigue’s online “musings,” to set “the story straight” about her husband’s career and art, it also is a means to tell her own story and affirm her roles as arts advocate, businesswoman, scholar, muse, wife, writer, and more.
Verdict Unfortunately lacking color reproductions or an index, but including a list of images, this personal, well-written, and insightful book will be of considerable interest to students, professionals, and others who want to learn more about an important 20th-century artist and his wife. It belongs in many public, academic, and special libraries. [George Rodrigue died on December 14, following publication of this review.—Ed.]—Cheryl Ann Lajos, Free Lib. of Philadelphia
Schmidt, Shannon McKenna & Joni Rendon. Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads. Plume. 2013. 286p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780452298460. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780698146815. LIT
Truth is more salacious than fiction—at least where the authors of canonical literature are concerned. Coauthors Schmidt and Rendon’s (Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West) latest proves that life doesn’t always imitate art; sometimes, it’s the other way around. The book is organized by sexual classification (i.e., nymphomaniacs, cheaters, etc.), with each section offering several short titillating biographies of writers: American and European, from the18th century to the present, including Agatha Christie, Arthur Miller, and T.S. Eliot. Some love stories will be familiar to most readers (e.g., the tumultuous marriage of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald), while others, such as Frederick Douglass’s adultery, may come as a surprise. While ample endnotes and a select bibliography enhance this work’s scholarly merits, those efforts feel at times undermined by a sensational writing style. Still, the book’s intended audience is unlikely to find that this detracts much from the title’s appeal.
Verdict An amusing, quick read for bibliophiles, lovers of the classics, and hopeless romantics.—Megan Hodge, Virginia Commonwealth Univ. Libs., Richmond
Snyder, Christopher. The Making of Middle-earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien. Sterling. 2013. 337p. bibliog. illus. index. ISBN 9781402784767. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781402792229. LIT
Even a world as fantastical as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth has its roots in reality, and Snyder (European history, dean, Shackouls Honors Coll., Mississippi State Univ.; The World of King Arthur) is an expert guide through the historic context and literary influences of Tolkien’s popular The Lord of the Rings. The chronicle might feel dense at times, but true Tolkien enthusiasts, who are already well versed in heavy backstory, will have no problem navigating the stories of Celtic Britain, World War I, philology, or the legends of King Arthur. Tolkien’s own background is sparse, so those searching for a definitive personal account will have to look elsewhere, for instance, Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. However, Snyder brilliantly interweaves Tolkien’s academic papers, letters, and reviews of his books, along with gorgeous illustrations and supplementary images, to enhance the trajectory of his creative career, giving readers the opportunity truly to see traces of Middle-earth in the history.
Verdict Snyder provides fascinating insight into the literary mind of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973) and a comprehensive time line of Middle-earth, from its initial inception to the trilogy of films that brought the beloved world to a new generation.—Kate DiGirolomo, Library Journal
St. John, Allen & Ainissa G. Ramirez. Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game. Ballantine. 2013. 272p. notes. ISBN 9780345545145. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780345545152. SPORTS
St. John (columnist, Skiing magazine; Skiing for Dummies) and self-described “science evangelist” Ramirez (formerly mechanical engineering, Yale Univ.) offer a history of the evolution of football as interpreted through scientific concepts. For example, Sam Wyche’s development of the no-huddle offense is seen in light of chaos theory, and the shifting pressure and coverage schemes of the zone blitz are likened to Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The authors interviewed coaches, former players, scientists, and engineers and use these to drive the narrative. While the football discussion is lacking nuance at times, as in the history of kickers or the apparent simplicity of Vince Lombardi’s offense, the overriding theme of the book is how much serious thought is inherent in the game, leading to constant adjustments. The issue of safety is a running topic: the authors acknowledge the challenges, e.g., related to concussions, faced by football today but remain optimistic about its future because of the likelihood of better helmets, improved ways of tackling, and new strategic advances to make the game safer.
Verdict Demonstrating scientific principles through a football application makes for an attractive read for all football fans and some popular science readers. Moreover, the book’s positive approach is a welcome antidote to gloomy gridiron prognostications.—John Maxymuk, Rutgers Univ. Lib., Camden, NJ
Tirella, Joseph. Tomorrow-Land: The 1964–65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America. Lyons. Jan. 2014. 352p. photos. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780762780358. $26.95. HIST
To mark the 50th anniversary of New York’s last spectacular, but dysfunctionally managed, world’s fair, journalist Tirella integrates three subjects: the story of the fair, the rocky identity of the fair’s host city, and the birth of the Sixties. Robert Moses—the longtime urban planner known today largely for cementing over much of what made his city so distinctively one of neighborhoods—was hired to run the corporation in charge of the fair. He is Tirella’s protagonist. Readers witness Egypt and Israel squabbling over their respective nation’s pavilions, the art exhibits that inspired fascination but generally critical contempt, and Moses’s alienation of one senior bureaucrat after another. Figures as disparate as President Johnson, the Congress of Racial Equality’s leader James Farmer, and the Beatles intersected with the fair surprisingly frequently. Tirella argues convincingly that such intersections really mattered in the transformation of the early 1960s into “the Sixties.” Because too many potential fair tourists, worried about the city’s rising crime rate and racial unrest, stayed home, the fair lost money, sticking New York City with the debt.
Verdict A model of accessible narrative, showing the author’s immersion in archival research, this book will be appreciated most by those who love reading about Sixties or New York City history or, of course, world’s fairs.—Scott H. Silverman, Dresden, ME
Yaffe, Daniel (text) & Mary Kate McDevitt (illus). Drink More Whiskey: Everything You Need To Know About Your New Favorite Drink! Chronicle. 2013. 176p. illus. index. ISBN 9781452109749. $19.95. BEVERAGES
Anyone who has been intimidated or confused by whiskey will find this book an easy-to-read, entertaining entry into the world of this iconic spirit. In an effort to dispel the drink’s pretentious reputation, Yaffe (founder, Drink Me magazine) stresses that he is not a whiskey specialist or critic and that readers don’t have to be experts either to enjoy the beverage. He offers a basic understanding of how whiskey is made and how to drink it. Each chapter is broken down into the main countries that produce whiskey, including the United States, Canada, Scotland, Ireland, and Japan. Yaffe explains each nation’s history of the drink and how the countries all differ in their production process. Cocktail recipes are included for each nation; a glossary provides a quick reference.
Verdict Yaffe believes that whiskey drinking should be fun, and his work is infused with that sentiment. This is an informative, often amusing, and quick read that will be popular with those looking for a basic guide to the subject.—Melissa Stoeger, Deerfield P.L., IL
Zaretsky, Robert. A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning. Belknap: Harvard Univ. 2013. 230p. ISBN 9780674724761. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9780674728387. LIT
In this centennial year of the birth of Algeria-born Albert Camus (1913–60), Zaretsky (French history, Univ. of Houston) delivers a lucid perspective on the intellectual provenance of the writer’s moral philosophy through an examination of Notebooks, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, The Plague, and The Stranger. His scrutiny converges on Camus’s sense of the fundamental absurdity of life and why suicide is not an option; his sensitivity to the positive and negative aspects of silence; his understanding of the human condition; and his conviction that rebellious response to injustice be measured, not extreme. Camus’s thought, informed by the ethical lessons of Greek tragedy and the existentialist ethos of his contemporaries, evolved amid the German occupation of France and Algeria’s struggle for independence from colonialist France. Algeria was Camus’s life’s agony, his long Gethsemane. After futile attempts at peace and reconciliation through writings, speeches, and lectures, a frustrated Camus maintained silence on the Algerian conflict for four years (1956–60). Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Camus died in a car accident in 1960. Still, we have his writings and in this we have Camus for all time.
Verdict An admirable, comprehensible introduction to Camus.—Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal