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The Art of Things: Product Design Since 1945

Edited by Dominique Forest. Abbeville, $150 (592p) ISBN 978-0-7892-1208-5

This broad-minded survey of international design provides a visually stunning education. Written by contributing expert curators and art historians, the text is divided by nation, focusing mainly on Western countries—Scandinavia and Italy receive the most sustained attention—while also including a chapter on Japan. The writing is foremost informative with the tone of a textbook, but manages to sort through concepts, histories, and techniques with relative ease. When the text gets tedious, the vivid and generous images more than compensate to illuminate this visual history. To flip through these pages is to luxuriate in the incredible diversity of modern design, from objects as familiar as an Eames chair to those as unusual as a table with a giant frog carved upon it. Anyone with even a passing connection to the world of design will likely benefit from this comprehensive resource. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Saving Simon: How a Rescue Donkey Taught Me the Meaning of Compassion

Jon Katz. Ballantine, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0345531193

New York Times bestselling author Katz (The Second Chance Dog) takes on a shockingly malnourished and mistreated equine in this uplifting and insightful memoir. Neglected and left all but dead by a farmer who fell on hard times, Simon the donkey had a resilient spirit that was almost immediately apparent to animal patrol officers when they rescued rescued him and then called upon Katz, who owns a farm in upstate New York, to adopt this wounded soul. Much to his surprise, Katz recognized his own battered spirit in Simon and quickly develops an affinity for the annimal: "I … connected to [his] experience of aloneness and confusion, of fear and discomfort. I had spent a lot of my life that way." Recounting the quiet hours spent tending to the donkey's damaged charge, Katz contemplates the meaning of compassion and why he chooses to bestow it upon other animals, humans, and even the farmer who had abandoned Simon to his unfathomably cruel fate. Katz's account of this emotionally wrought journey is rooted in self-awareness; by caring for Simon, Katz comes to terms with other relationships in his life including a falling out with his now deceased mother. Katz's fans and animal lovers of all kinds will no doubt be delighted by Simon's heartwarming story. 4 b&w photos. Agent: Richard Abate, 3 Arts Entertainment. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Winners Dream: A Journey from Corner Store to Corner Office

Bill McDermott with Joanne Gordon. Simon & Schuster, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4767-6108-4

It's the journey, not the destination: an adage that many can't appreciate. Not so for McDermott, CEO of the software giant SAP, who in this uplifting and enjoyable memoir chronicles his life from boyhood to the present day. Born to working-class parents, McDermott's family suffered intermittent tragedy and perpetual financial instability throughout his childhood. Inheriting his father's strong work ethic, he began at the age of 11 as an enterprising paperboy, eventually doubling his initial route of 150 homes and expanding his wares to include holiday cards and cookies. An astute businessman from the get-go, McDermott purchased and operated a deli while still in high school, the first indication of an ability to turn struggling businesses into successful ones without any starting capital. His will to win, coupled with a strong sense of ethics, landed him a sales job at Xerox, where he soon began generating enviable sales numbers. The narrative of his rise through the company's ranks and eventual move to SAP is engaging, if not something that the average reader can replicate. More valuably, McDermott emphasizes that a never-satisfied curiosity was the primary quality that enabled him to meet his customers' needs and further his own goals. His wisdom should prove valuable to readers at every level of their careers, or in life in general. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Palace of Books

Roger Grenier, trans. from the French by Alice Kaplan. Univ. of Chicago, $20 (136p) ISBN 978-0-226-30834-0

To anyone as well- and widely-read as Grenier (The Difficulty of Being a Dog), the mind itself is a "palace of books," and Grenier opens the door to his in this wide-ranging, impressively erudite, deceptively slender volume. In the tradition of Montaigne's Essays, Grenier thumbs with confident ease through centuries of monumental art and literature as he meditates on crime stories; last words; waiting as the human condition; suicide as a philosophical act; love "with its secret altars hidden deep within the heart"; and the inscrutable private lives of authors. Flaubert, Faulkner, Conrad, Beckett, and Camus might share the same page—or Sartre, Foucault, Barthes, and Descartes nestle in the same line—as Grenier probes the questions that captivate him: the function of literature; the character of the short story; and the compulsion to write. While the answers have been offered before—authors want to "show a psychological truth," fiction "allows us to seek and to find the truth about people and about the world"—but the enjoyment is in the virtuoso movement of Grenier's thought. Kaplan's translation captures the wry humor and elegant poise of prose that, like a fine wine or expensive cigar, should be allowed to linger on the tongue. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Crochet with One Sheepish Girl: Easy Lessons & Sweet Designs for Wearing, Living & Giving

Meredith Crawford. Sixth&Spring (Sterling, dist.), $17.95 paper with flaps (128p) ISBN 978-1-936096-78-7

The first book from Crawford, creator of the popular craft blog OneSheepishGirl.com, continues her sweet, pastel-colored, slightly kooky aesthetic, with more than 20 project ideas for crocheting. She begins with a thorough overview of crocheting basics, a helpful launch into the rest of the volume. While there are some attractive wearables here, including a clever crochet make-over for a purchased shirt's collar, the majority of designs are for home décor items, from a set of ombre baskets in three sizes and an adorable Cottage Tea Cozy, which looks like it dropped in from a British cartoon. The book's whimsy is very charming, so it's disappointing to see that more thought wasn't put into making it user-friendly. There are no step-by-step photos, not even for the quite demanding three-dimensional gift boxes, and there's no guide to how difficult each project is. The book opens with a complex Granny-square scarf, for example, and is followed by a simple bow. Crawford's got a creative, engaging style; this book could have done a better job in teaching readers how to copy her. Full color photos. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man

Thomas Page McBee. City Lights, $15.95 trade paper (172p) ISBN 978-0-87286-624-9

McBee, a columnist for the Rumpus, begins this remarkable memoir by juxtaposing two painful events in his life—a mugging in Oakland, and his childhood revelation to his mother of his father’s abuse. These recollections propel the author on a quest of discovery and reconciliation, not just of his personal history and the men who injured him, but on the nature of masculinity, both cultural and biological, as he approaches his own female-to-male gender transition. In taut, careful prose that conveys both brutal awareness and unceasing wonder, McBee captures the tension of his transition, “the warble between the shape in my mind and the one in the mirror,” “the assault of language” in simple use of pronouns, the fraught everyday choices of which swimsuit to wear, which public restroom to use. In the end, McBee’s answer to the initial question of “what makes a man?” is more generous, more inspiring, and more creative than the usual gender binaries allow. Full of bravery and clear, far-sighted compassion and devoid of sentiment, victimization, and cliché, McBee’s meditations bring him a hard-won sense of self—one that is bound to inspire any reader who has struggled with internal dissonance. Agent: Chris Tomasino, Tomasino Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan

Jack Fairweather. Basic, $29.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-465-04495-5

Unrealistic expectations, inadequate local knowledge, and poor planning doomed the post-2001 allied effort in Afghanistan, argues Fairweather (A War of Choice), a Middle East editor and correspondent for Bloomberg News, who spent time embedded with British forces. Prior to deploying to the area around Kandahar, Fairweather says, “British understanding of the situation didn’t extend much further than... vague misgivings and self-assurances,” and Americans were hardly better off. Fairweather’s richly-narrated history of the conflict is a soft-spoken but scathing indictment of military tactics and lack of preparation. His story takes frequent tragicomic turns, as when a much-heralded Taliban interlocutor presented to Hamid Karzai as a negotiating partner turned out to be a shopkeeper with no connection to terrorists. When the British military’s request for funds for additional helicopters was rejected, they purchased them anyway, “using an accounting sleight of hand” that was immediately detected by then-chancellor Gordon Brown. Now, with the war winding down, Afghanistan is left with a badly fractured political system and a government unable to secure large areas of the country. Fairweather’s central point is that hubris and arrogance led the U.S. military into dangerous territory abroad as well as domestically: “By pushing [America’s] civilian leadership into escalating the war, the military had strayed into unprecedented—and unconstitutional—political waters.” Maps & b&w photos. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Daniel P. Bolger. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 (544p) ISBN 978-0-544-37048-7

Despite this book’s subtitle, this is not a first-person narrative detailing exactly how Bolger, who retired in 2013 as a lieutenant general, played a part in America’s post-9/11 military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Apart from a frank author’s note, which opens with Bolger admitting, hyperbolically, that he “lost the Global War on Terrorism,” the work presents an outside view of events, and Bolger doesn’t say which specific decisions and battles he was party to. The opening section notes that “there’s enough fault to go around, and in this telling, the suits will get their share. But I know better, and so do the rest of the generals.... This was our war to lose, and we did.” That provocative stance, which runs counter to the conventional wisdom (that the Pentagon and White House, for instance, made poor political decisions), would be more persuasive had Bolger provided his eyewitness basis for it. On a different note, what feels like a strained effort to be hip undercuts the essential grimness of the books. Apart from these downsides, Bolger offers a comprehensive look at how these wars were fought during his tenure, which for some readers could be a useful introduction to the conflicts. Maps & 16p color insert. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts

Robert M. Dowling. Yale, $35 (584p) ISBN 978-0-300-17033-7

A self-described “tragic optimist,” O’Neill, winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for drama and the only American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize, is thoroughly anatomized in this absorbing biography. Dowling, an English professor and board member of the Eugene O’Neill Society, begins with O’Neill’s upbringing amid theatrical royalty—his father, James, was regarded as one of his generation’s greatest actors—and subsequent rebellion against the era’s theatrical conventions. Falling in with the Provincetown Players in 1916, he wrote a series of frank, unsettling plays first staged between 1920 and 1924—The Emperor Jones and Anna Christie, among them—that revolutionized American theater even while angering the guardians of public morality. Dowling provides insightful interpretations of O’Neill’s lesser-known plays that give context for the masterpieces, and draws extensively from letters, diaries, and memoirs that tell this story in O’Neill’s own words and those of his associates. The book unflinchingly explores the darkness that dominated O’Neill’s life—O’Neill and his brother, Jim, were chronic alcoholics, his mother Ella was a morphine addict, and Eugene was a negligent husband and father—and emerged in his most autobiographical works, including The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night. As portrayed by Dowling, O’Neill was an artist dedicated to channeling his hatreds and the demons that dogged him into works of creative genius. 49 b&w illus. Agent: Geri Thoma, Elaine Markson Literary Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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My Favorite Things

Maira Kalman. Harper Design, $35 (160p) ISBN 978-0-06-212297-1

Artist Kalman’s (Girls Standing on Lawns) latest monograph explores the relationship between objects and memory. The volume coincides with an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt curated by illustrator, for which she selected her favorite items from the design museum’s vast archive. Kalman reproduces some of the objects and reimagines others in impressionist-style paintings; they range from a medieval Egyptian tapestry to Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch and funeral pall. There are also everyday ephemera: a pair of stockings from the late 19th century, pictures of ladies’ footwear from a book published in 1885, and a simple lamp shade. Kalman’s incorporates quirky commentary into her illustrations, recreating the museum-going experience for readers from inside her own unusual mind. Often the commentary leads into personal memories: Kalman touches poetically on family lore from Belarus and reminisces on growing up in Tel Aviv with a mother so beautiful that “if Tolstoy had been alive, he would have loved her madly.” Along with pieces from the museum, Kalman includes objects from her personal archives, such as postcards from the Hotel Celeste in Tunisia and “pants of famous dead conductors” (more precisely, one pair of Toscanini’s pants that she won at an auction in 2013). Fans of Kalman’s charming signature style will find more of the same to appreciate, and while the book is meant to accompany the exhibit at Cooper Hewitt, it is plenty enjoyable outside of that context. Agent: Charlotte Sheedy, Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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