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'Bomb': The Author Interviews

Edited by Betsy Sussler. Soho, $40 (480p) ISBN 978-1-61695-379-9

This essential new anthology from Bomb magazine offers a rich trove of author interviews. The 35 selections span 30 years, revealing many of the subjects at the height of their fame: Jonathan Franzen in 2001, Martin Amis in 1987, and Kathy Acker in 1983, to name a few. The interviews are not conducted with nameless interlocutors—rather, they're conversations between colleagues: Lydia Davis talks with Francine Prose, Junot Díaz with Edwidge Danticat, Jeffrey Eugenides with Jonathan Safran Foer, and Tobias Wolff with A.M. Homes. The collection format makes it easy to dip in—readers may succumb to the temptation to skip right to a favorite author's interview. Insights abound, with some writers revealing intensely personal feelings and others focusing on books, writing, and broader ideas about literature. Some of the interviewees, such as Charles Simic and Wayne Koestenbaum, seem so at ease with their interlocutors that reading their discussions feels akin to eavesdropping. In his interview, Roberto Bolaño bristles at the idea that his work is a self-portrait, yet each of these selections provides a captivating image of the author in his or her own words. Through the diverse range of voices represented, the book affords a window into the minds and the writing processes of some of the world's best practitioners of poetry and prose. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Nation Wholly Free: The Elimination of the National Debt in the Age of Jackson

Carl Lane. Westholme, $28 (280p) ISBN 978-1-59416-209-1

Historian Lane delivers a superbly written exploration of a narrow subject in the fading past, making it feel surprisingly relevant to modern readers. Paying off the national debt, a topic that’s at the center of passionate debate today, similarly roiled the political scene 175 years ago. Lane describes how, under vastly different conditions, Andrew Jackson and his administration vowed to completely eliminate the national debt by 1835. They succeeded, but in the process were forced to bow to ideology and political pressure, killing the Second Bank of the U.S. and unwisely distributing surplus federal funds to state banks rather than using the money for infrastructure development. The result, according to the author, was the crash of 1837—America’s first great financial crisis. Lane brings life to the dry topics of debt, tariffs, taxes, and banks, and he’s not above calling participants to account when he thinks criticism is warranted. His only error is holding figures of the past to today’s standards. Otherwise, this is first-rate history rendered with unusual clarity and verve. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Searching for Golden Empires: Epic Cultural Collisions in Sixteenth-Century America

William K. Hartmann. Univ. of Arizona, $39.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-8165-3087-8

American schoolchildren dutifully memorize names such as Cortés and Coronado, along with their 16th-century expedition routes through what we now call Mexico and the U.S., yet tend to ignore the indigenous populations in those regions. This remarkable new study fleshes out both explorers and natives, revealing nearly forgotten fluctuations of power and persuasion. In a fresh examination of contemporary accounts, planetary scientist and historian Hartmann (Desert Heart) treats conquistadors and natives fairly while offering impassioned arguments for rehabilitating the images of the much-maligned Montezuma II (he argues for spelling it “Motezuma”) and the “lying monk” Marcos de Niza. The Europeans receive substantial attention due to more available documentation, but Hartmann carefully describes the Native Americans at the end of the pre- Columbian era and addresses with particular fascination their well-developed long-distance information network. Hartmann uses sidebars to explain controversial topics and his own research techniques, including ethnolinguistics. Detailed archaeological evidence and meticulous scholarly investigations make this book especially valuable in academia, but Hartmann’s joyful Indiana Jones–esque attitude will both educate general readers and keep them rapt. Maps & illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Why Did the Chicken Cross the World: The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization

Andrew Lawler. Atria, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4767-2989-3

In his first book, journalist Lawler offers an encyclopedic examination of the chicken’s ever-growing and complex role in societies and civilization, tracing the bird’s migration across countries and cultures, from its role as a “rare and royal bird” in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to its current status as the product of industrial farming, which can be traced back to the Chicken of Tomorrow project launched in the U.S. at the end of WWII. The chicken plays many roles, ranging from mere foodstuff to a symbol of light and resurrection in some religions, as well as its key role in creating the flu vaccine that has helped millions. The bleaker sides to this narrative are handled bluntly—specifically, Lawler covers the intricacies and significance of cockfighting in certain cultures and provides an unflinching portrayal of the conditions in which commercial chickens are raised. Throughout, he maintains an objective stance. Readers are sure to come away with a deeper understanding of—and greater appreciation for—an animal that’s considered commonplace. Agent: Ethan Bassoff, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret’s Battles from Washington to Afghanistan

Michael G. Waltz. Univ. of Nebraska/Potomac, $34.95 (440p) ISBN 978-1-61234-631-1

Waltz, a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserves, commanded a Special Forces company in Afghanistan and held high counterterrorism positions at the Pentagon and White House. Combining what he saw on the ground with what he gleaned in Washington, Waltz offers his thoughts on the U.S. military and government’s management of the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Waltz worked in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, and finds fault with both presidents, and their war policy makers, in a war he believes “was, and still is, worth fighting.” He blames the Bush administration for not setting “clear goals and objectives for why we were in Afghanistan” after defeating the Taliban in 2001, and points to that administration’s “initial reluctance,” and then half-hearted attempts, “to do nation building.” Waltz then castigates the Obama administration for pulling U.S. troops out too soon and then “simply wishing the problem away.” He also has few good things to say about NATO troop performance in Afghanistan. Waltz succeeds in his goal of explaining how the war in Afghanistan has been executed, making a case that the continuing chaos that nation endures is “directly connected” to the U.S. national interest. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Waking, Dreaming, and Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy

Evan Thompson. Columbia Univ, $32.95 (480p) ISBN 978-0-231-13709-6

Thompson (Mind in Life), a philosopher and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, sets out to explore consciousness taking his cue from a question he heard posed by the Dalai Lama: “Is consciousness wholly dependent on the brain or does consciousness transcend the brain?” Drawing on rich and diverse sources from neuroscience, philosophy, religion, and personal narratives, Thompson tediously examines consciousness and the sense of self across waking, dreaming, and deep-sleep states, as well as meditative states of heightened awareness and concentration. In the waking state, for instance, consciousness comprises diverse moments of awareness that can be shaped by the ways that attention shifts from one thing to another. In states of deep sleep, a subtle form of consciousness continues, which standard physiological evidence from sleep science cannot rule out, and Thompson argues that neuroscientists and contemplative thinkers can find common ground from which to rethink the ways consciousness functions in deep sleep. Encouraging dialogue between neuroscientists and contemplatives, Thompson concludes that in his research he has found that “wisdom includes a kind of awakening—a waking up to the dream of independent existence without having to wake up from the dreaming.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Twitter Is Not a Strategy: Remastering the Art of Brand Marketing

Tom Doctoroff. Palgrave Macmillan, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-1-1372-7930-9

In this thoughtful but heavy-going business guide, Doctoroff (What Chinese Want), Asia Pacific CEO for J. Walter Thompson, argues that while social media may be useful for attracting customers, it is no substitute for traditional marketing. He cites the wide array of digital channels now available as a potential source of confusion for customers, stating that traditionally minded marketers who “master the timeless rules of brand building” are the ones guaranteed to generate customer loyalty. Doctoroff’s four-part system rests on the proposition that mastery of ideas and executions will win a business higher profits and greater customer loyalty. The four individual elements of this system are insight into consumers; “the brand idea”; the idea for “engagement” or execution; and a plan for carrying out the engagement idea. Doctoroff counsels business people to consider the universals of human behavior, and points to Lego, Google, Nike, and Apple as companies that got their brand ideas right. He defines engagement ideas as “creative expressions of the brand idea” and explores the consumer’s “journey,” from the initial encounter with the product or service to the purchase. A spot-on premise and nuggets of fresh wisdom sprinkled throughout do not offset Doctoroff’s dense material. Readers will find this a tough read despite its solid suggestions. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Story of My Heart

Richard Jefferies, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams. Torrey House (Consortium, dist.), $21.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-937226-41-1

This new edition of Jefferies’s 1883 autobiographical work aims to introduce a new generation to a prolific and passionate nature writer who died in 1887 at age 38. The husband-and-wife team of Brooke and Terry Tempest Williams, both environmental activists and authors, first discovered Jefferies’s work in a dusty corner of an old Maine bookstore. Alongside the reprinted text, they give valuable context, arguing that despite the book’s Victorian origins, it has continued resonance with today’s spiritual and ecological concerns. Jefferies’s musings consider man’s place in the world, the soul, and nature’s role as a source of comfort and inspiration. His writings may be overwrought and repetitious for some; the real revelations come from Terry’s foreword and from Brooke’s commentaries, presented in chapters alternating with Jefferies’s own. Like Jefferies, Brooke invokes his own experiences in order to better understand the world. Jefferies, as Brooke notes, had his share of admirers and intense critics—Rachel Carson purportedly kept two copies of the book at her bedside; others deemed it “utterly chaotic” and “barely comprehensible.” But both Brooke and Terry give a sense of cohesion to Jefferies’s writing, and leave readers with much to ponder about our own chaotic, fast-paced, work-obsessed world. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace

Anne Lamott. Riverhead, $22.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-59448-629-6

Lamott (Help, Thanks, Wow) returns with an essay collection that tackles tough subjects with sensitive and unblinking honesty. Her subject matter is often dark, deriving from the travails of aging and mortality that Lamott, who is now 60, has observed in recent years. Most of the essays involve people Lamott knows who are either dead or suffering from a terminal disease: her best friend who had cancer; her friends’ two-year-old daughter with cystic fibrosis; her mother with Alzheimer’s, to name a few. But even when considering these hardships, Lamott remains optimistic. Every essay offers a revelation, often tied to her Christian faith. Sometimes she drifts toward clichés, as when she learns, on a hike with a sick friend, that “getting found almost always means being lost for a while.” At her best, Lamott is refreshingly frank, admitting that she doesn’t want a passionate relationship as much as she wants “someone to text all day and watch TV with.” She also has the rare ability to weave bracing humor seamlessly with earnest, Christian faith, observing, “Jesus was soft on crime. He’d never have been elected anything” in an essay about teaching prisoners how to tell their stories. But the book’s best insights are subtle, like the thought, on a beach vacation, that heaven must be like snorkeling: “dreamy, soft, bright, quiet.” Agent: Sarah Chalfant, Wylie Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Modern Marriage: A Memoir

Christy and Mark Kidd. Gallery, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5346-1

A married couple from Texas, both accountants, are transplanted to New York City for their jobs, and plunge into the heady world of swinging as their way of “busting out of the status quo.” In this self-justifying, self-congratulatory memoir of their evolving hedonistic experiences since 2005, Christy Kidd, who narrates, describes how the couple transformed themselves from babes in the woods to savvy, hardened swingers (a word she does not like but uses for lack of a better one). Bored and “stir-crazy” one New Year’s Eve, they happened online upon a “password” party near their apartment in Manhattan and were astonished to find themselves in the middle of an orgy with a group of ecstatic, naked adults. What to do? As a loving, committed couple, they retreated and talked it out, writing up some “ground rules” to their sex dabbling with other couples, such as proceeding always step-by-step together; using protection; “pacing” themselves, meaning they would not indulge in a couples’ hookup more than once a month; and “maintaining purity”—that is, never having sex with each other in front of other people. The Kidds research sex parties, learn the lingo (“soft swap” vs. “full swap”), deal with the initial awkward meetings with other couples, and explore sex clubs like Trapeze. They attend full-throttle parties with sex toys and strippers in middle-class New Jersey neighborhoods, and chronicle it all unflinchingly, observing how other couples burn out, while their own marriage is strengthened. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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