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A Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist

Edited by Jennifer Surridge and Ramsay Derry. McClelland & Stewart, $32.95 (382p) ISBN 978-0-7710-2764-2

Robertson Davies (1913–1995), one of Canada's foremost authors, was also an actor, journalist, newspaper publisher, playwright, essayist, and devoted diarist. Surridge, one of Davies's three daughters, has transcribed and edited this collection of excerpts from his 1959–1963 diaries in collaboration with Derry, Davies's close friend and editor at the Macmillan Company of Canada. This is the first publication of any material from Davies's diaries (he asked that they not be made public until 20 years after his death). These curated excerpts—from years when he was already a literary success, became Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, and was planning to write Fifth Business—reveal Davies's "Celtic temperament," his own term for his highly changeable nature. He could be merciless in his critique of his colleagues and theatre performances. Davies's keen wit is irresistible; readers will particularly enjoy his observations of Tyrone Guthrie and his wife during a working holiday at their home in Northern Ireland, where Guthrie was to direct Davies's play Love and Libel. Davies's fans will be delighted by the new light this book sheds on a fascinating man of letters. Agent: Dean Cooke, Cooke Agency International. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Pale Horse: Hunting Terrorists and Commanding Heroes with the 101st Airborne Division

Jimmy Blackmon. St. Martin's, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-07271-9

Blackmon, a commander of Task Force Pale Horse during his U.S. Army aviation unit's deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, introduces readers to the aviation units' soldiers, battles, successes, and challenges, but provides little analysis or insight. He provides a good description of all their tactical missions—reconnaissance, attack, and logistics support—in the difficult terrain and weather conditions of the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The book makes very clear, and is a tribute to, the tactical expertise and bravery of all of the aviation personnel, particularly the pilots who served in the task force. The period Blackmon covers is noteworthy for including some of the more well-known events of the recent war in Afghanistan, including the battle of Wanat, the search for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and the battle of Ganjgal. Though these major events are associated with a great deal of public controversy, Blackmon fails to address that. Similarly, there is little analysis of policy, operations, or strategy. Blackmon shares an enjoyable story about his unit and the aviation support systems, but it's an uncritical work that neglects to place the battles in any larger context or note whether they had any appreciable effect on the war. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Raoul Wallenberg: The Heroic Life and Mysterious Disappearance of the Man Who Saved Thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust

Ingrid Carlberg, trans. from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg. Quercus/MacLehose, $29.99 (656p) ISBN 978-1-68144-490-1

Swedish journalist Carlberg gives Wallenberg, only the second person ever to be made an honorary U.S. citizen, the definitive biography he deserves. In 1944, the 32-year-old Swedish businessman was appointed his country's special envoy to Budapest, where his courage and ingenuity enabled him to rescue thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. Carlberg builds up to that moment with a detailed, absorbing account of Wallenberg's life, starting with his fatherless childhood and covering his schooling in America. She also provides an unflinching look at Sweden's attitudes toward oppressed Jews after Kristallnacht ("Once again Sweden lived up to its reputation as the golden land of the political middle way or, rather, political cowardice"). Carlberg adds fascinating anecdotes about Wallenberg's life, but the main interest, of course, remains how he rescued people: concocting fake documents and risking death. His exploits are made more poignant by his ambiguous fate following his 1945 arrest by the Soviets on Stalin's order. Carlberg's extensive research, including interviews with surviving members of Wallenberg's family, enables her to craft a narrative that will be eye-opening even for those who know the contours of this heroic story. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Devil's Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich

Robert Wittman and David Kinney. Harper, $28.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-231901-2

Wittman (Priceless), a former FBI investigative expert on cultural property crime, joins forces with journalist Kinney (The Dylanologists) to share the engrossing story of former Nazi Alfred Rosenberg, his diary, and the lengths historians had to go to in order to get their hands on it. Rosenberg, a virulent anti-Semite with a deep need for attention and status, found kindred souls in the Nazi party and had a profound influence on Hitler during his rise to power. In 1934, Rosenberg began a diary that he kept current through the end of WWII. It was packed with details of the party's inner workings. Robert Kempner, a lawyer and Social Democrat who escaped Germany, ended up in the U.S. and landed a gig in the War Department where he helped prosecute Rosenberg, among others. Kempner took possession of Rosenberg's diary, but it was essentially "lost" for decades. Kempner disavowed ownership of it, and after his death his heirs went to extraordinary lengths to keep it secret. Wittman and Kinney's chronicle of the efforts historians took to gain access to the diary feels like it's pulled from a movie, especially when they add in Rosenberg's story. This is an outstanding piece of journalism. Agent: Larry Weissman, Larry Weissman Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human

George Michelsen Foy. Flatiron, $25.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-05268-1

Foy (Zero Decibels) ruminates on the primal skill of navigation and its metaphysical links to human nature while investigating the final voyage of his great-great grandfather Capt. Halvor Michelsen, who was lost at sea in 1844. Resolving to reenact Michelsen's final voyage, Foy begins with general research into navigation, traveling to the Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, which controls America's GPS system, and the Royal Institute of Navigation in London. He visits the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at the University of London, where he learns that the hippocampus, which governs our navigational abilities, also governs memory. This leads Foy to the philosophical revelation that "human identity equals memory; memory equals navigation; human identity therefore equals navigation." He spends some time discussing failures of the GPS system and continually muses on the perils of relying on machine-based navigation. He finally comes to the realization that navigation begins with loss: "Living, no matter how much it hurts, comes down to losing landmarks... and then striving to find where we are again." Deep waters and deep thoughts fill these pages. With skillful prose and insight, Foy's account of the different aspect of navigation packs a powerful punch, especially when he embarks on his own voyage at sea. (May)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect

Annette Blaugrund. Monacelli, $30 (120p) ISBN 978-1-58093-462-6

Blaugrund (Dispensing Beauty) examines the often forgotten architectural pursuits of the Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole (1801–1848) on the occasion of the reconstruction of his self-designed studio at his home in Catskill, N.Y. When Cole had many paintings to his credit but not a single building, he boldly listed himself as an architect for three years (1834 to 1826) in the New York City phone book. This wasn't ultimately idle dreaming: Cole subsequently designed a Greek Revival Church in Catskill, created his own studio, and took third place in an 1838 competition for the design of the Ohio State Capital, with his submission substantially incorporated into the ultimate design by the first-place finisher. Blaugrund charts the tendency in Cole's work for natural landscapes to fall away in favor of increasingly imaginative architecture in paintings, such as "The Architect's Dream" and the Course of Empire series; this makes it abundantly clear why actual building was not a remotely surprising undertaking for Cole. The only element somewhat lacking is an accounting of just what practical knowledge undergirded Cole's built work. Illus. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing

Matthew C. Kirschenbaum. Harvard/Belknap, $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-674-41707-6

Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, presents a well-researched, scholarly history of how early electronic typewriters, word processors, and microprocessor-based computers affected literary writers, the act of writing, and writers' plots, characters, literary devices, and stories from 1964 to 1984. The book includes numerous examples of how specific authors thought about, wrote about, experimented with, and used early word-processing machines. Authors whose word-processing experiences or philosophies are mentioned include Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Rice, and Amy Tan, among others. While some were stricken with concerns about perfectionism and automation, others (particularly in science fiction) embraced the ability to collaborate and the time-saving printing and revision functions. Kirschenbaum takes an academic approach to his subject, with lots of research into the mechanics of now-obsolete technology (IBM's Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter (MT/ST), WordStar, Kaypro, etc.). The book is more scholarly than entertaining, but will also appeal to lay readers interested in the impact of technology on culture. (May)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road

Rob Schmitz. Crown, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-553-41808-8

Structuring the narrative around the lives of everyday people in his neighborhood in Shanghai, Marketplace correspondent Schmitz offers a snapshot of rampant modernization in China. His web of characters speaks to his time in the country and his exemplary journalistic abilities as he introduces a wealthy businessman who is contemplating Buddhism; a rural woman who settled in Shanghai, opening a successful flower shop to provide for her sons; and a Shanghainese man now living in New York, whose family lost their money after Mao's revolution. Through these individual stories, Schmitz creates a mosaic of the modern Chinese experience, hitting on issues as varied as the filial duties, the one-child policy, bride prices, copyright polices, widespread development, and get-rich-quick schemes. Weaving a gripping narrative peppered with historical facts, he leaves readers with an intimate glimpse into a culture undergoing a complex transformation. (May)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Morning in South Africa

John Campbell. Rowman & Littlefield, $29.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-4422-6589-9

Foreign policy professional Campbell uses the idea of morning, somewhat uncertainly, to describe post-apartheid South Africa's progress since 1994. The country's history from settlement by Europeans in 1652 to the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013 occupies a significant portion of the book. However, this section probably should have been even longer, as some of the details and statements in it come across as vague or incomplete. Valuable comparisons are made between Jim Crow in the U.S. and apartheid, but Campbell doesn't fully convey the violence of either. When discussing the present day, Campbell describes a South Africa that is on the cusp of political and economic transformation, whether for good or ill, but sees no immediate likelihood of the country going over that brink. Campbell makes a point of mentioning that he was in South Africa in 1994, but this doesn't prove significant to his arguments. He doesn't shy away from the failings of the deal made to end apartheid, including the fact that whites are still, economically, the dominant race in the country, and the failings of the Mandela and Mbeki administrations to adequately address the HIV/AIDS crisis. Nonetheless, Campbell ends the book on an optimistic note, acknowledging that South Africa's young democracy has many opportunities to grow and improve. (May)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Mission Control: How Nonprofits and Governments Can Focus, Achieve More, and Change the World

Liana Downey. Bibliomotion, $26.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-62956-123-3

Why do some nonprofits change the world while others just muddle along? Focus, says leadership consultant Downey, who works with organizations of all sizes. Successful organizations have the tight focus to achieve singular goals, she writes, instead of trying to be all things to all people; they've discovered the overlap between their skill-sets and their clients' needs. However, mission creep too often dilutes the impact of nonprofits. Downey advises her audience of social-sector leaders against missions that are too broad and breaks down strategies by which readers can understand their own organizations, identify what works, and plan their paths. First, organizations need to figure out whether they're ready to make significant change. Then they can prepare teams, working within the existing hierarchy to ensure that decision-makers have the autonomy and resources to develop good ideas. Readers will find this book an invaluable guide to identifying their options and setting goals; Downey has created the ultimate get-a-move-on guide for nonprofits that are trying to do too much and accomplishing too little as a result. (May)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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