Xpress Reviews: Nonfiction | First Look at New Books, August 17, 2012

Week ending August 17, 2012

starred review starBinkowski, Carol J. Joseph F. Lamb: A Passion for Ragtime. McFarland. 2012. 250p. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780786468119. pap. $35. MUSIC
Joseph F. Lamb (1887–1960), along with Scott Joplin and James Scott, was one of the “Big Three” composers of ragtime. Here Binkowski (More Than Petticoats: Remarkable New Jersey Women) tells Lamb’s life story with sympathy and with an eye to that period’s history and sensibilities. The ragtime great first studied music at home in Montclair, NJ, and began composing at an early age. Lamb’s first published composition was a waltz (in 1905), but he was soon producing some of the finest ragtime works of the era, beginning with “Sensation” in 1908. Joplin and Lamb met in publisher John Stark’s New York office and formed a lasting friendship—“Sensation” bears Joplin’s name as arranger, though apparently his name was included only for celebrity value. During the next decade, Lamb wrote many of the rags on which his reputation rests, including “Excelsior,” “American Beauty,” and “Bohemia.” Lamb lived long enough to see ragtime’s fade in popularity and later resurrection, especially through Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis’s 1950 book, They All Played Ragtime.
Verdict Binkowski’s book is the definitive biography of Lamb and an important contribution to the literature on ragtime. Recommended. [Binkowski is a longtime LJ reviewer.—Ed.]—Bruce R. Schueneman, Texas A&M Univ. Lib., Kingsville

Bobrick, Benson. The Caliph’s Splendor: Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad. S. & S. Aug. 2012. c.320p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781416567622. $28. HIST
Most Americans know little about the Mediterranean world in the eighth to tenth centuries; Bobrick (Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution) thinks we should know more, better to understand the high level of political power and civilization of the Islamic Abbasid rule established in Baghdad in 750 CE. He focuses on the brilliant rule of Harun al-Rashid, who wielded sophisticated military forces to create a state of unparalleled prosperity, learning, and culture. Piety balanced cruelty within the Abbasid rule, and the effective administrative structure, large and well-run cities, and commitment to education and the arts contrasted favorably with the weaker rival states in Byzantium and Charlemagne’s Europe. Although often beset with political instability, the Abbasid Empire was vast, stretching from India and Persia in the east to North Africa and Spain in the west. The Mediterranean was a key link for trade and exchange of scholars. The great Islamic schools and libraries preserved and built on the rich legacy of Greece and Rome.
Verdict Bobrick has read widely in 19th- through 21st-century sources to create a rich portrait of a key era. Recommended for general readers with curiosity about a very different time.—Elizabeth Hayford, formerly with Associated Coll. of the Midwest, Chicago

Cron, Lisa. Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science To Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. Ten Speed: Crown Pub. Group. 2012. c.288p. index. ISBN 9781607742456. pap. $14.99. COMM
Science can reveal new perspectives, but just as often it shows us what we already know. The study of narrative as a powerful force that can do more than entertain is a perfect example of how neuroscience validates what writers—and readers—already sense: we are hardwired to love a story because it allows us to make sense of the world. Cron (Extension Writers’ Program, UCLA) draws on her extensive experience in publishing, story consultancy, and television to elucidate not just how to write well but how to tell a story. While the brain science element can come off as a bit gimmicky as Cron shares her “secrets,” it’s the only flaw in a marvelous examination of key writing concepts such as plot, tone, theme, timing, conflict, subplot, and setup. Cron shows how these elements work to keep the narrative unfolding while moving it along, with patterns and parallels connecting the reader to the whole story.
Practical, useful, and well organized, this enjoyable book provides a framework of questions for writers to ask themselves. This book will be well received by both aspiring and established writers.—Nancy Almand, Fresno City Coll. Lib., CA

Harrison, Fraser. Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota. South Dakota State Historical Soc. Sept. 2012. c.220p. index. ISBN 9780984650583. pap. $17.95. TRAV
English journalist and novelist Harrison (Minotaur in Love) has authored this slim, surprising volume dedicated to his favorite U.S. state: South Dakota. He writes a personal and passionate paean to the beauty and history of this often ignored place. Interspersing accounts of his own travel experiences with historical information, Harrison shows that he has done his homework, quoting extensively from the existing historical literature on South Dakota. Readers journey with him to the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Deadwood, and Wounded Knee.
Verdict Unfortunately, the book contains neither maps nor photographs nor an index, items standard in travel books. While most travelers will require a more traditional guide to the state, this is nevertheless recommended for readers with an interest in or love for the Coyote State.—Olga Bornstein Wise, Austin, TX

Jack, Belinda. The Woman Reader. Yale Univ. 2012. 336p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780300120455. $30. LIT
Jack (French, Christ Church Coll., Univ. of Oxford; George Sand: A Woman’s Life Writ Large) illuminates women as readers with a sure-fire recipe for lively discussion. With a volatile topic as main ingredient (education and gender roles), she adds one part historic background, a second part image collection, and a generous dollop of complexity. The ingredients have supersized portions, such as a historical survey from the ancient Near East to modern Europe and North America and 63 corresponding, reproduced images. Her topic’s depth becomes manifest, namely presenting reading for women as liberating; as constraining when used to convey messages from religious or political authorities; as a status symbol; as a resource to teach children; and as offering morally risky escape from reality. Examining any of these aspects could fill a book, yet Jack offers something toward each. In the process, she cuts corners, such as minimizing coverage of Asian women. Jack’s title complements other women’s studies books, such as Barbara Sicherman’s Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women.
A detailed examination recommended for serious students of the subject.—Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL

Kilborne, Sarah S. American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, a Man Who Turned Disaster into Destiny. Free Pr: S. & S. Oct. 2012. c.432p. bibliog. ISBN 9781451671797. $27. HIST
Kilborne’s biography of her great-great-grandfather tells a story of entrepreneurial struggle triumphing over seemingly insurmountable obstacles, a familiar trope in American culture. William Skinner left a failing silk-textile-making community in London in 1845 and traveled in steerage to Massachusetts for a fresh start. He used his knowledge of silk manufacturing to open a successful mill in Williamsburg, MA. However, in 1874, a dam above the town burst during heavy rains, destroying the mill and town and killing more than 100 people. Skinner committed himself to reestablishing his business bigger and better in nearby Holyoke. He prospered and lived into the next century, the business he founded known for fine silks for decades to come. Kilborne does her best to weave the particulars she uncovered in her research into a heroic story, but the book has its share of speculation about what must have been or probably occurred. The volume also bogs down in the very details it reveals, e.g., a great deal of attention paid to Skinner’s decision to move his mill after the flood.
Verdict Elizabeth M. Sharpe’s In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874 is a more focused account of the disaster. Interest will most likely be limited to libraries in the region and those collecting on the business of American textiles.—Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato

Marzio, Frances. The Glassell Collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: Masterworks of Pre-Columbian, Indonesian, and African Gold. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, dist. by Yale Univ. 2012. 404p. photogs. ISBN 9780300175950. $60. DEC ARTS
Miksic, John. Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery. Yale Univ. 2012. 284p. photogs. maps. bibliog. ISBN 9780300169102. $60. DEC ARTS
In a comparison of the iron’s utility to the human race to that of gold, iron is the clear winner, but when you hold a lump of rusty iron ore in one hand and a gold nugget in the other, you will understand why these two opulent books of golden artifacts have been published. Gold gleams, and that gleam reaches straight into some primal lust center of the brain. Add to this the wonderful working qualities of gold, its ease of melting and its malleability, and that it doesn’t corrode, and you have the perfect material for the expression of wealth and power. Throughout history, every culture with access to the widely distributed metal has used it to create ingenious and beautiful trifles—or, to be more accurate, jewelry and grave ornaments and ceremonial vessels and all kinds of shiny status markers that announce the importance of the bearer. There are a few actual utility roles for gold, such as in teeth, but these collections of objects from around the globe do not include pieces with functions like those of objects made from baser metals. Marzio’s (curator, Glassell Collections, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) book on the Glassell Collections is a straightforward illustrated catalog. Each object is accompanied by a full-page photo and a one- or two-paragraph caption that gives details of the object’s approximate age and the culture in which it was created. Marzio also includes a few short introductory paragraphs on the regions—Africa, Southeast Asia, and South and Central America—from which the pieces came. In contrast, Miksic’s (Southeast Asian Studies, National Univ. of Singapore) Old Javanese Gold is a newly updated and expanded version of a book that set the standard for the study of Javanese gold work when it was first released in 1990. The 79 pages of annotated text are followed by a 168-page catalog with objects grouped primarily by type, each photo accompanied by explanations of the forming techniques and symbolism. The photography of the Javanese objects, which were donated to the Yale University Art Gallery by Valerie and Hunter E. Thompson, is superior to that of the objects in the Houston collections, and the Javanese objects appear against their real backgrounds rather than against a flat digital background, as in the Houston book.
The scholarly Old Javanese Gold will satisfy both a desire to see beautiful golden objects and to understand their significance within their culture, while the Glassell Collections volume provides a sumptuous tour of a group of disparate artworks.—David McClelland, Andover, NY

starred review starNatterson-Horowitz, Barbara, M.D. & Kathryn Bowers. Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing. Knopf. 2012. c.384p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780307593481. $27.95. MED
Cardiology consultant to the Los Angeles Zoo, Natterson-Horowitz (cardiology, UCLA) and freelance writer Bowers have produced an eminently readable, surprising account of veterinary insights into human medicine, including adolescent and behavioral medicine, cancer prevention and risks, infectious diseases (e.g., sexually transmitted diseases and zoonoses—diseases that can be transmitted cross-species), obesity and eating disorders, sexuality, and substance abuse. (About the only human behavior Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers couldn’t find in animals was the practice of safe sex.) As medicine continues to change rapidly with advances in gene therapy and molecular technology, this engaging and accessible book speaks to the widely acknowledged need for disparate scientific fields to collaborate to encourage new medical breakthroughs.
Verdict This book not only speaks to the medical zeitgeist, it is also often profound. It will appeal to readers of Temple Grandin, Oliver Sacks, Neil Shubin, E.O. Wilson, Atul Gawande, and others writing about medicine and health. Highly recommended.—Mary Chitty, Cambridge Healthtech, Needham, MA

Robinson, Gene. God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage. Knopf. Sept. 2012. c.208p. ISBN 9780307957887. $24. REL
Robinson (In the Eye of the Storm) is the first “out” gay man to be advanced to the episcopacy in the U.S. Episcopal Church. He became the ninth bishop of New Hampshire in March 2004 and has been legally married to his partner for several years. He argues here cogently on both experiential and theological grounds that gay marriage should be supported by Christian churches. Relating some of his own biography to make his points, he writes simply and straightforwardly in a style meant to be accessible to Christian laypeople. He is heartfelt and unashamed of showing his emotions. However, many (or indeed most) people seem to have made up their minds on the issue of churchly support for gay marriage, and Bishop Robinson’s chances of persuading the opposition with this forthright personal approach are not great. (Governmental approval for gay marriage is a separate issue, as he points out.) Religious opponents would merely say that he was justifying his own sin by (among other things) misinterpreting the clear sense of scripture.
Easy to read and convincing but mainly to people who already agree. Unfortunately, this book will not much advance the discussion on church or government policy toward gay marriage.—James F. DeRoche, Alexandria, VA

Winehouse, Mitch. Amy, My Daughter. It: HarperCollins. 2012. 320p. photogs. ISBN 9780062191380. $27.99. MUSIC
British neo-soul singer Amy Winehouse died at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning, an end that added ironic emphasis to her singing her hit song “Rehab.” More bitter is the line “My daddy thinks I’m fine,” because it’s clear, in her father’s memoir of his daughter, that he knew she wasn’t. The elder Winehouse, a London taxi driver and sometimes vocalist, shares this painful and personal account of his daughter’s life and death. He offers a detailed account of Amy’s talented, yet brief, life from her prank-loving childhood to her troubled later years. Winehouse also connects Amy’s descent into hardcore drug use to her dysfunctional marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil and offers his side of the British tabloid wars he waged with his daughter’s in-laws.
Winehouse’s account of his daughter’s life unfolds into her tragic descent into substance abuse. Her accomplishments take a backseat to her addictions, and the daily ups and downs are both sad and numbing. Amy’s numerous fans will appreciate the insight into her life, but as an addiction memoir it’s depressing and dispiriting.—Terry Bosky, Palm Beach Cty. Lib. Syst., West Palm Beach, FL

Bette-Lee Fox About Bette-Lee Fox

Bette-Lee Fox (blfox@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor, Library Journal.

Now in her 46th year with Library Journal, Bette-Lee also edits LJ's Video Reviews column, six times a year Romance column, and e-original Romance reviews, which post weekly as LJ Xpress Reviews. She received the Romance Writers of America (RWA) Vivian Stephens Industry Award in 2013 for having "contributed to the genre or to RWA in a significant and/or continuing manner"


  1. Regarding Bette-Lee Fox’s review of the new Joseph Lamb book:
    The only “Big Three” is of *classic* ragtime, and it’s Joplin, Lamb and Scott. There is *no* “big three of ragtime.” Lack of knowledge of ragtime music and history is the reason this distinction often fails to be grasped.
    Also, in the review, Rudi Blesh’s name is misspelled as “Ridi.” Blesh was a major researcher, historian and author of both trad jazz and ragtime who deserves, at the very least, to have his name spelled correctly.