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John Prine: In Spite of Himself

Eddie Huffman. Univ. of Texas, $24.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-292-74822-4

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In 1970, the late Roger Ebert wrote of John Prine’s performing style in the Chicago Sun-Times: “He appears on the stage with such modesty that he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight.... He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.” In the same way, music critic Huffman slowly backs into this fan’s notes and heartfelt appreciation of Prine and his music. Weaving well-known biographical details (Prine was a mail carrier in Chicago when he got his start) into meticulous sketches of the making of each album—and reviews of those albums—Huffman offers an admiring portrait of an often restless though always canny songwriter. Reflecting on Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut album, Huffman points out that “everything his fans would come to love about him—drama, humor, memorable characters, great stories, a badass outsider stance offset by a reverence for tradition—could be found, fully developed... the recordings showed ample room for Prine to grow as a musician... but the songs were built to last.” Two years later, on the album Sweet Revenge, Prine “sounded fully integrated with backing musicians, and he once again rose to the challenge of writing a compelling batch of tunes.” In the 1980s, Prine started his own record label, Oh Boy, and in 1991, he released The Missing Years, which Huffman calls Prine’s Born to Run or Damn the Torpedoes, a swaggering rock statement that fully realized his potential.” Huffman’s book will make us want to pick up Prine’s albums and listen to them once again or for the first time. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Tricky Art of Co-Existing: How to Behave Decently No Matter What Life Throws Your Way

Sandi Toksvig. The Experiment (Workman, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-61519-221-2

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Toksvig (Valentine Gray) thoroughly covers the intricacies of modern manners in this handy, if sometimes strained, offering. In 11 chapters, written in letter form to an eight-year-old named Mary (identified as a “delightful child in my life”), she outlines everything from dining in (don’t pick nose or teeth at the dinner table; how to use chopsticks; what is appropriate to eat with one’s fingers) and out (as a guest at a dinner party, wait to be invited to have a second serving; as a restaurant customer, tipping, ordering, and the like) to behaving on social media (beware of showing off; don’t be a troll or feed one; try not to look desperate or weird). The author serves up her advice with a solid helping of odd, intermittently relevant trivia—the creator of grocery store chain Piggly Wiggly; the origins of the fork; Alfred Hitchcock’s childhood—which, if nothing else, will give readers a few fascinating, offbeat facts to share at their next dinner party. While Toksvig’s writing is engaging, her frequent asides to young Mary quickly become cloying and cutesy. Still, her advice is sound and should save many, not least young Mary, from unintentional etiquette gaffes in the future. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Stepdog: A Memoir

Mireya Navarro. Putnam, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-399-16779-9

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New York Times reporter Navarro expected to experience the typical ups and downs of becoming a stepmom when she married fellow journalist Jim Sterngold. What she didn’t expect was how her presence in the family would evoke disdain from Jim’s best buddy, a dog named Eddie. Navarro relates in detail her courtship with Jim and her own feelings of jealousy toward the 40-pound, spotted, butt-wagging beast that Jim describes as “just a junkyard dog,” with “the markings of an Australian cattle dog.” Clearly a one-man dog, Eddie does his best to make Navarro’s budding relationship with Jim unpleasant in his presence via nonstop barking, random peeing, threatening leg-lifting, and an aura of general dislike. Despite Eddie’s best efforts, Navarro and Jim marry, and her life as a stepmother to teenagers and dog commences. Readers expecting the typical “I just adore my sweet puppy” story may be disappointed with the way Navarro speaks of Eddie—mainly as a nuisance with which she has to learn to live. However, similar to learning how to stepparent human children, Navarro eventually calls a “truce” with Eddie, as both learn to live with each other in a semi-harmonic, albeit wary, manner. Agent: Philippa Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Mindsharing: The Art of Crowdsourcing Everything

Lior Zoref. Penguin/Portfolio, $26.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-59184-665-9

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At least on the evidence of this business manual, crowd wisdom researcher Zoref is pure enthusiasm; it’s not hard to see how he’s made a career out of fostering connections. He recounts his own story: after leaving his position as Microsoft marketing v-p, he put the question to Facebook: what should I do next? The response he got was startling in its consensus—that he should focus on his talent for “mindsharing.” As he cautions, people tend to admire individual achievement to the point of expecting all great innovation to come from individuals working alone; he believes that our social and professional circles, taken cumulatively, are as smart as any professional adviser, and free of the emotion and bias that can cloud our own decisions. Zoref provides a wealth of advice for all comers, even those with small circles. He covers the uses of social media, advising readers to take advantage of all the crowdsourced info now available, like Glassdoor for salaries and Fiverr for small tasks. Beyond career and financial decisions, Zoref also asserts that mindsourcing can help readers find love, parenting help, and healthy choices. Likely to be attractive to both the already converted and the skeptical, this book provides an unlikely but inspiring rallying cry: “We are stronger than me.” Illus. Agent: Doug Abrams, Idea Architects. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Out of Sight: The Los Angeles Art Scene of the Sixties

William Hackman. Other Press, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-59051-411-5

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In this enjoyable and well-researched book, arts journalist Hackman presents a rich cultural history of Los Angeles art in the 1950s and ’60s, arguing that L.A. art “tells us more about the sort of country America was at mid-century, and the sort of place it was rapidly becoming, than does the self-conscious and sophisticated art of New York at the time.” Hackman concentrates on curator Walter Hopps—a “Wizard of Oz” character in the early days of the L.A. scene—and the artists who surrounded him, such as Marcel Duchamp, Judy Chicago, John Baldessari, Bruce Nauman, and Ed Kienholz, with whom Hopps founded the Ferus Gallery in 1957. Hackman is most engaging when he dwells on larger issues, such as the city’s geography, right-wing activism, and the conflict between “bohemia, masculinity, and sexuality in 1950s America.” The book—one of several recent titles to explore postwar art in L.A. (such as Michael Fallon’s Creating the Future)—serves as further proof of L.A.’s centrality to the story of American art. Illus. Agent: Laurie Fox, Linda Chester Literary Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted

Ian Millhiser. Nation, $27.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-56858-456-0

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This book is a sustained attack, reaching back to the post–Civil War era, on the Supreme Court. To the author, its justices are a set of villains—men of power who manipulated constitutional law to favor the already favored and keep the less fortunate within legal straitjackets. Millhiser, a senior constitutional policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, delivers arguments that are muscular and well-substantiated. They won’t please today’s conservatives, who, along with most justices, Millhiser sees as defenders of money and privilege. The trouble is that his arguments are not new. Also, because unrelieved (save for occasional praise for the likes of Earl Warren), they wear out the reader. One would hope that the author had some solutions to the Court’s composition and actions to offer, but all he states is “the only practical solution to bad Supreme Court justices is good Supreme Court justices.” Surely that is the case, whatever your legal and political views. Do we need an entire book to arrive at that conclusion? Liberals have found ways around its constitutional roadblocks before, and Millhiser might have shown us how they’d done so. Agent: Susan Rabiner Literary Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—and the World

Rachel Swaby. Broadway, $16 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-553-44679-1

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Journalist Swaby spotlights the accomplishments of 52 female scientists throughout history with pithy biographies organized by their areas of expertise. Inspired by the tone-deaf New York Times obituary for Yvonne Brill, which honored the rocket scientist’s beef stroganoff before her professional accomplishments, Swaby celebrates barrier-breaking titans such as Helen Taussig, the first female president of the American Heart Association; astronaut Sally Ride; and biochemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who inspired the newspaper headline “Nobel Prize for British Wife.” Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper receive praise for their contributions to computer programming, while Jeanne Villepreux-Power and Stephanie Kwolek are praised for inventing the aquarium and Kevlar, respectively. Swaby shows her subjects toiling in secret bedroom labs, damp basements, and janitor’s closets as they faced gender-based discrimination: Mary Putnam Jacobi was admitted to France’s École de Médecine on the condition she “maintain a buffer of empty seats around her at all times”; Rosalind Franklin had her research on DNA structure stolen by male colleagues; and Émilie du Chatelet frantically translated Newton’s Principia into French before the birth of her fourth child. Jewish female scientists faced further adversity during WWII, with several forced to flee their homelands. Swaby has collected an inspirational master list of women in science with accessible explanations of their work. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom

Blaine Harden. Viking, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-670-01657-0

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Harden delivers another page-turner about a North Korean who got out alive, despite staggering odds, in this real-life thriller that unfolds during the Korean War. (The author’s previous title, Escape from Camp 14, about Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean political prisoner who escaped from a concentration camp, generated some controversy recently when the author and publisher admitted that parts of the bestselling book are inaccurate, due to false representations on the part of Dong-hyuk.) Harden weaves together narratives of “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and No Kum Sok, who harbored a childhood dream of coming to the U.S., even though “at 19 he became the youngest jet fighter pilot on either side of the Korean War.” The book opens with brief bios of both men, covering the battles and No’s defection. Although the title is a tip-off to a happy resolution, No’s road to the West is a circuitous one that starts with the U.S. secretly promoting a financial reward for defection, dubbed Operation Moolah, in Communist nations shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953. With access to No and newly released intelligence, Harden presents fresh insights into North Korea. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Folded Clock: A Diary

Heidi Julavits. Doubleday, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-385-53898-5

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When Julavits, a novelist (The Vanishers) and founding editor of the Believer magazine, rediscovered the diary she kept as a young girl, she was disappointed by its lack of imagination, style, and wit. So, in her 40s, she set out to chronicle the next two years of her life, complete with all the idiosyncrasies missing from her youthful writings. Displaying both charm and stark honesty, Julavits admits to having an abortion when she was 19, explores the dissolution of her first marriage, and laments the worst sex of her life. Receiving a wasp sting reminds her of the time she was in the window seat on a red-eye flight next to two sleeping passengers. Instead of disturbing them to use the lavatory, she attempted to relieve herself in an airsickness bag. And hearing an ambulance siren or conducting a fruitless Internet search unleashes her neurotic imagination. Each entry begins “Today I,” just as she began her diary as a girl. The entries aren’t ordered, and many depict Julavits as a not-always-likable woman of privilege. The diary angle makes for a clever hook, but masks what this really is—a compelling collection of intimate, untitled personal essays that reveal one woman’s ever-evolving soul. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics

Paul Halpern. Basic, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-465-07571-3

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Halpern (Edge of the Universe) attempts his own grand unification in this look at the lives, work, and friendship of two giants of physics. He details the romances, careers, and politics of contemporaries Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger from their earliest childhood brushes with science to their deaths, updating what is known of Einstein’s life thanks to a recently released trove of early letters. Both Einstein and Schrödinger staunchly believed that randomness had no place in a theory that described the universe and spent much of their later years futilely crafting explanations that failed to fully explain reality. Halpern, himself a physics professor, is challenged by the task of summarizing and explaining the work of his two principal subjects, as well as that of every other serious physicist of the 20th century. Quantum physics, even in précis form, is a level beyond rocket science, and the author does his best, even giving a taste of current progress in the field. Like this pair of geniuses, Halpern has his own difficulties with quantum theory, but as he notes of Einstein and Schrödinger, “even the most brilliant scientists are human.” Agent: Giles Anderson, Anderson Literary Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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