Xpress Reviews: Nonfiction | First Look at New Books, November 1, 2013

Week ending November 1, 2013

Cahill, Thomas. Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World. Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. (Hinges of History, Vol. 6). 2013. 368p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9780385495578. $30.50. HIST
In the sixth volume of his “Hinges of History” series, American scholar Cahill takes on the Renaissance and Reformation—and mangles them as badly as he did the Middle Ages in his previous entry in the series, Mysteries of the Middle Ages. He tries to make history accessible to today’s readers through anachronism, comparing something old with something from today and thus familiar: he likens Columbus, a “completely self-made man,” to a character “in a David Mamet drama. Francis of Assisi, meet Bernie Madoff.” Surely historians both amateur and professional will cringe. Cahill does have things to say—on Catholic theology and sensibilities, Italian Renaissance art—but even here, his views are hackneyed. What’s missing in this mishmash of the past? Even though this is a history of the Great Men (and occasional women), there’s little on Machiavelli or on Renaissance science. As to the changes in Italian business practices that Elizabeth Eisenstein (The Printing Press as an Agent of Change) and others have argued paved the way for a new, more mathematical mind-set, Cahill has little evident interest in that or in anything that went on away from the mountain peaks in the valleys between.
Verdict Too idiosyncratic to deserve attention from the serious lover of history. [See Prepub Alert, 5/15/13.]—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage, and the Industry. Rowman & Littlefield. 2013. 424p. ed. by Robert W. Thurston & others. photos. notes. index. ISBN 9781442214408. $55; ebk. ISBN 9781442214422. BEVERAGES
This massive volume is truly comprehensive, examining coffee from soil to cup. Thurston (Phillip R. Shriver Professor, history, Miami Univ., OH), Jonathan Morris (modern history, Univ. of Hertfordshire, England), and Shawn Steiman (head, Coffea Consulting, Honolulu) have pulled together 63 essays that address agriculture, economics, gender, culture and history, assessment of quality, effects on health, and future research and development of the coffee bean and coffee production. The authors include coffee farmers, scientists, industry leaders, journalists, historians, and even a mechanical engineer. In addition, there are country profiles providing detailed information about both coffee-producing and coffee-consuming countries (e.g., Vietnam, Brazil, Italy, Germany, Colombia, the United States) that cover subjects such as the history of coffee in the region, climate, business costs, companies in the marketplace, and trends in consumption. The pieces vary in length, depth, and quality: some are familiar and casual, while others have a more scholarly bent.
Verdict It’s hard to imagine that the audience for this title is very large; it’s neither strictly a scholarly examination nor a work of creative nonfiction. But for those who have a serious coffee addiction, the book offers a wealth of content.—Laura Krier, Sonoma State Univ., Rohnert Park, CA

Gilder, George. Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How It Is Revolutionizing Our World. Regnery. 2013. 348p. notes. index. ISBN 9781621570271. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781621570288. BUS
Gilder (cofounder, the Discovery Inst.; Wealth and Poverty) has penned an exuberant paean to the power of information as the driving force in modern capitalism. The idea that knowledge, its use, and distribution underlie the innovation and dynamism of the global economy is striking, and Gilder makes a very good case for this concept. However, his breathless description of how entrepreneurs spin knowledge into gold through hard work and business savvy (despite burdensome state bureaucracy and a host of takers angling for that wealth) distracts from his argument. Numerous asides as to his own success are also unnecessary—he is clearly a smart and facile writer. Sections that claim the homeless are greedier than the one percent seem intentionally provocative, which gets the reader’s attention.
Verdict Gilder delivers a well-written and accessible work on the information economy and a lively defense of no-holds-barred capitalism.—Duncan Stewart, Univ. of Iowa Libs., Iowa City

McCourt, James. Lasting City: The Anatomy of Nostalgia. Liveright: Norton. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780871404589. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780871407245. LIT
“Tell everything” is McCourt’s mother’s last request of her son as he sits at her hospital bedside for three days until her death. The result is a cabaret of New York recollections formulated into a memoir about a young gay man in the 1950s living among an extended Catholic family in a big city full of drama and song. Literary references from James Joyce to Arthur Conan Doyle are sprinkled throughout and sometimes the reader feels as if Joan Crawford or Helen Hayes is sitting on McCourt’s shoulders offering their support as he takes long cab rides throughout the city, using it as an opportunity to comment on his diverse family and their lives together.
Verdict McCourt (Queer Street; Mawrdew Czgowchwz) summarizes his memories best when he recalls his nostalgia as “the moment for a past that has nothing better to tell than haunted and fantastical stories.”—Joyce Sparrow, Kenneth City, FL

O’Connor, Flannery. A Prayer Journal. Farrar. Nov. 2013. 112p. ed. by W.A. Sessions. illus. ISBN 9780374236915. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780374709693. LIT
In 2002, while preparing an authorized biography (not yet published) of O’Connor (1925–64), editor Sessions (English, emeritus, Georgia State Univ.; Henry Howard: The Poet Earl of Surrey; A Life), also a friend of the writer, discovered a hitherto unknown collection of her personal prayers handwritten in an ordinary school notebook. A facsimile of the notebook appears here and is preceded by a printed transcription with spelling corrections and clarifications by Sessions, who also provides an introduction. Written from June 1946 to September 1947 in Iowa City while O’Connor was taking writing workshops that led to an MFA degree that same year, these pieces address the Divinity directly with cries from the heart, asking humbly to be a fine writer. Readers will hear Flannery, age 21, expressing the depths of her own uniqueness and orthodox Catholic faith with the root themes of grace to appear in her novels and short stories. While her literary corpus is relatively small, its stature and scholarly examination continue to grow steadily. A substantial excerpt from the journal appeared recently in The New Yorker.
Verdict The assumption that O’Connor’s spirituality undergirded all she wrote—including her many book reviews—is here confirmed and will be greeted with delight by her followers. A great find; highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 5/20/13.]—Anna Donnelly, St. Johns. Univ., Jamaica, NY

Proppe, Catherine R. Greek Alphabet: Unlock the Secrets. Catherine R. Proppe. 2013. 177p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781940274485. pap. $12.95. LIT
Market research analyst Proppe here explores the semantic structure of the ancient Greek alphabet. Each of the 27 letters occupies a separate book section including its Greek name, its pronunciation, and its meaning, alongside a small black-and-white image used as a visual metaphor. For each letter, Proppe defines relevant words and offers explanations extracted from ancient Greek literature, history, and culture while occasionally drawing comparisons with contemporary society. Offering an outsider’s perspective on any topic is desirable; however, this does not diminish the need to establish author credibility. With a self-published title, the need is more pronounced, yet information on Proppe is absent. Content is erratically cited. Proppe mentions using Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon but fails to note the edition or to include any other hints of methodology. The images used for each letter are lifted from strange Internet sources, such as personal blogs, Wikipedia, and even a classified advertisement. The book has great potential but reads like a wandering first draft.
Verdict This edition of Proppe’s book is not recommended.—Nerissa Kuebrich, Chicago

Roche, Anthony. Synge and the Making of a Modern Irish Drama. Carysfort. 2013. 288p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781904505648. pap. $37.95; ebk. ISBN 9781909215719. LIT
One will find a deeper appreciation of Irish playwright and Abbey Theater founder John Millington Synge (1871–1909) after reading these illuminating essays by Roche (English, drama, & film, Univ. Coll. Dublin; Brian Friel: Theater and Politics). An integral figure of the Irish literary renaissance, Synge produced five plays, two of which (Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea) are acclaimed as masterpieces. The sixth, Deirdre of the Sorrows, was unfinished before his death. In his prose The Aran Islands as well as his plays, Synge championed a new realism in the language of his characters and his themes. Roche emphasizes the feminist strand in Synge’s writing, which echoes the work of Henrik Ibsen: the women in Synge’s plays rail against the repressive patriarchal structure of Irish society but ultimately remain imprisoned in it. Pieces about the playwright’s impact on poet W.B. Yeats (who lauded his work), writer Samuel Beckett (who acknowledged him as a playwright), and dramatist Friel (whose work simultaneously imitates and rejects Synge’s) reflect Roche’s broad and deep knowledge of contemporary Irish drama.
Verdict Serious students of Irish drama will find this scholar’s book invaluable.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

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"