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Guantanamo Diary

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, edited by Larry Siems. Little, Brown, $29 (432p) ISBN 978-0-316-32868-5

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A Guantanamo detainee endures a hellish ordeal in this riveting prison diary. Slahi, an electrical engineer, was arrested in his native Mauritania in 2001 at the behest of the U.S. government and has been incarcerated at the American military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for 13 years. (The memoir was originally written in 2005 but was only recently declassified, with redactions.) There he fought a Kafkaesque battle with interrogators who pressured him to admit involvement in the 9/11 attacks and the failed “millennium plot" to bomb several targets on Jan. 1, 2000, which he insisted he had no part in, and subjected him to vicious beatings, freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation, sexual groping, and threats that his mother would be imprisoned. After months of abuse, Slahi says, he falsely confessed to terrorism charges. The gripping memoir, ably edited by Larry Siems, captures the prisoner's suffering and disorientation, yet has currents of reflectiveness and empathy as Slahi strives to understand his captors and connect with their humane impulses. His case is complicated: he trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, but he was ordered released from Gitmo by a federal judge in 2010 (though Slahi is still imprisoned there), and Siems's introduction makes a cogent case for his innocence. Whatever the truth, this searing narrative exposes the dark side of the “war on terror"—the system of arbitrary imprisonment and “enhanced interrogation" where justice gives way to lawless brutality. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Earth Is My Witness: The Photography of Art Wolfe

Art Wolfe. Earth Aware Editions, $95 (396p) ISBN 978-1-60887-306-7

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This massive coffee table of images from photographer Art Wolfe's 50-year career both stuns and informs while documenting the wonders of our world, many of them fast disappearing. The book is divided based on geographical formations and the pictures are literally breathtaking, many of them two-page spreads. There is wildlife, close-up and in action: a group of Japanese macaques bathing, their red faces in repose, their hands like furry gloves gripping the rocks; a line of penguins marching through a snow bank; a portrait of a Canadian lynx. There are studies of people from every far flung corner of the globe: the faces of the Huli tribesmen of New Guinea holding painted skulls, a young Tuareg man of Morocco, his head swathed in the famous blue cloth of the Saharan desert, young Jat women of Gujarat, India in their magnificently patterned and colored saris. The beauty of place is evident in photos of the desert sands of Namibia's Namib-Naukluft National Park, the aurora borealis in Iceland, the Payachata volcanoes in Lauca National Park, Chile. One can open to any page and be transported, and while it may inspire travel, with this book, it's just as satisfying sitting in an armchair. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Hobbit and History: Companion to the Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Janice Liedl and Nancy R. Reagin. Wiley, $17.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-63026-626-4

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J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit continues to fascinate readers 70 years after its original publication. Over the past two years, the film version of the novel has brought to life the book's main character, Bilbo Baggins, and a host of elves, dwarves, and other denizens of Middle-earth. In this rather uneven and lackluster collection of twelve essays, scholars attempt to "unlock the historical parallels between the Middle Ages, which Tolkien knew so well as a scholar of medieval literature, and the intricate cultures of Middle-earth which he created." Thus, Marcus Schulzke argues in "The Faces of Five Armies" that the novel embodies qualities of famous warrior cultures of past and present: "the condottieri of medieval Italy, the common and knightly English soldiers of the Hundred Years' War and more." In "Merlin, Odin, and Mountain Spirts: The Story of Gandalf's Origins," Leila Norako explores the ways in which the Norse god Odin, the great wizard Merlin from the Arthurian legends, Myrddinn—the Welsh antecedent to Merlin—and the Norse god, Loki were the mythological and legendary figures who had the most influence on Tolkien's development of Gandalf. Christina Fawcett, in "Battle of Wits, Battle of Words: Medieval Riddles and The Hobbit," examines the depth on which Tolkien relies on the medieval The Exeter Book—a collection of wisdom sayings and riddles—in his creation of Bilbo, who is a "font of proverbial phrases." While most of this territory has already been well covered in Tolkien studies, this collection might nevertheless serve as a useful introduction to Tolkien and The Hobbit. Illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Hand Made Baking: Recipes to Warm the Heart

Kamran Siddiqi. Chronicle Books, $29.95 (210p) ISBN 978-1-4521-1230-5

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Don't let the title fool you, this isn't your grandmother's sentimental collection of old-timey recipes. Authored by Kamran Siddiqi, a 22-year-old full-time student, who explains in the introduction that "baking is my peace," gives readers 55 recipes including unique selections such as Nancy Drew Blondies, Guava and Cheese Puffs, and Penn Station Cinnamon-Sugar Pretzels. Traditionalists need not fear: basics include Foolproof Pie Dough and Easy-Peasy Brioche, as well as classic desserts including Flourless Chocolate Cake and Yellow Birthday Cake. First-person experiences in head notes permeate the title with the author's highly likeable and informative voice, and the full-page color photography and contemporary design make it a pleasure to read and spend time with the pages. An unpretentious, cheery collection designed to "convert fear-filled nonbakers to experts." Color photos. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond

Sabrina Ghayour. Interlink, $35 (240p) ISBN 978-1-56656-995-8

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Middle Eastern food, redolent with spices, is one of the world's most popular cuisines, yet home cooks are often intimidated by the sheer number of ingredients many dishes call for. Enter Sabrina Ghayour; the talented chef, food writer and instructor offers over 100 delicious and relatively easy to prepare Middle Eastern dishes in this outstanding collection sure to appeal to vegetarians and carnivores in equal measure. It's hard not to like a cookbook that includes instructions such as "heat a good glug of olive oil," and this homey attitude pervades Ghayour's approach to cooking [This stylistic change was made to vary diction]. Over and over, she shows how just a handful of ingredients can result in stellar dishes such as Saffron & Rosemary Chicken Filets, Seared Beef with Pomegranate & Balsamic Dressing, and Chargrilled Eggplant with Saffron Yogurt, Parsley & Pickled Chilis, to name but three. Ingredients are easy to source for the most part – once readers have plenty of sumac, pomegranate and saffron they're good to go – and none require much in the way of prep or planning. Proteins run the gamut, from Lamb & Sour Cherry Meatballs and Turkish Kebabs to Citrus Spiced Salmon and Lahmacun--a Turkish riff on pizza that calls for spicy ground lamb. Vegetable-based sides and mains like French Lentil & Quinoa Salad with Lemon & Sumac and the simple Harissa-Marinated Asparagus will round out any plate. Though the decidedly 70's font and presentation wears a little thin, this is an outstanding collection that will surely win readers over and inspire many a meal. Color photos. (Oct)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Father and Son: A Lifetime

Marcos Giralt Torrente, trans. from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. FSG, $23 (176p) ISBN 978-0-374-27771-0

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Torrente's tiresome tirade—although it won the Spanish National Book Award, only Wimmer's elegant translation saves the English edition—joins the long line of muddled memoirs of regretful sons groping to find themselves in the reflections of their father's life. Torrente and his artist father find very little common ground in lives filled with bitterness, regret, misplaced hopes, and resentment. In staccato prose, Torrente chronicles in minute detail the days of his life from 1984-2002, and the ways that his father moves in and out of those days like a ghost haunting the backdrop of his life. Through a litany of events in his father's life, we learn that "he had a tendency to gain weight […] he smoked for a while […] he was humble with the meek and contemptuous with the arrogant […] he was impatient and […] often committed injustices in speaking to a waiter or concluding a conversation." Unsurprisingly, Torrente grows more introspective and tries to sort out his already bewildering relationship with his father when his father is diagnosed with cancer in 2007: "Is he following my lead or am I following his? Is he setting the pace or am I paving the way for his surrender with my own." In the end, neither inspires much sympathy in this oft-told tale of father-son dysfunction, and Torrente concludes unremarkably, "we matter only as much as we come to believe that we matter." (Sept.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Life Real Loud: John Lefebvre, Neteller and the Revolution in Online Gambling

Bill Reynolds. ECW, $26.95 (480p) ISBN 978-1-55022-941-7

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A writer such as Michael Lewis could knock a quirky business tale like this out of the park, but Reynolds, a veteran journalist, barely ekes out an infield single with this biography of a fascinating man and the online money-transfer firm that made him rich. Lefebvre, an aging rock-star wannabe with a law degree and a fondness for cannabis stumbles into the early days of the online gambling business and becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams. He blows millions on donations to environmental causes and hiring world-class musical talent to help him record his first album. Then the FBI comes knocking at his beachside mansion in Malibu to arrest him for racketeering. A writer such as Michael Lewis could knock a quirky business tale like this out of the park, but Reynolds, a veteran journalist, barely ekes out an infield single with this biography of a fascinating man and the online money-transfer firm that made him rich. Reynolds describes Lefebvre's car collection, sits in on his recording sessions and interviews friends and family. A portrait emerges of a restless but ultimately good-hearted ne'er-do-well who fell backward into great fortune, but nowhere do readers gain any real insight into the murky netherworld of online gambling or why the U.S. government, which tolerates bricks-and-mortar casinos, is so eager to stamp out betting online. Reynolds has a tiger by the tail but unfortunately lets it go. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Going Platinum: Kiss, Donna Summer, and How Neil Bogart Built Casablanca Records

Brett Ermilio and Josh Levine. Globe Pequot, $25.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7627-9133-0

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This entirely inessential biography of record executive Neil Bogart is an exercise in familial apologia slathered in clichés and near-hagiography. Bogart, born Neil Bogatz in "humble" circumstances, was abused by his mother, harnessing his fanatical drive to later succeed in show business. He went from a stint as a teen Borscht Belt singer to running a small record label, where his gift for picking out the ‘hook' in a pop tune sent him on a giddy ride through the excesses of the music business: the shoddy business practices and the staggering drug abuse that fueled Casablanca Records' promotional efforts and turned KISS, Donna Summer and the Village People into 1970s stars. The biography does justly credit the "king of Bubblegum Pop" as the guiding spirit behind the dubious musical achievements of the 1910 Fruitgum Company, the Frosted Flakes, J.C.W. Ratfinks and other long-forgotten bands that provided an up-tempo, cheerful alternative to the heavier countercultural messages of 1960s rock icons such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Ermilio, Bogart's nephew, writes a spottily penned account of his roguish uncle's life. His collaborator Levine fails to excise the many passages that sound like three generations bickering over how to see a man who lived large and selfishly before dying young, his music empire in a disco-driven shambles. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door

Graeme Thomson. Overlook, $29.95 (464p) ISBN 978-1-4683-1065-8

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Drawing on many new interviews with Harrison's close friends and musical collaborators, music journalist Thomson (Kate Bush: Under the Ivy) challenges the image of George Harrison as "the quiet Beatle," portraying the guitarist as a complex person trying to navigate a middle course between materiality and spirituality, and fame and reclusivity. In tedious and tiresome fashion, Thomson chronicles Harrison's life from his rather run-of-the mill childhood and his early days of making music with The Quarrymen to the beginnings of The Beatles, their rapid ascent to fame and their just as speedy descent. He explores Harrison's embrace of Eastern philosophy, his retirement to his Friar Park estate in England, and with meticulous detail, traces the making of each of Harrison's solo albums. Thomson shows that "Harrison didn't grow up wanting to be a pop star, or a singer, or a songwriter. He just wanted to play guitar." As Thomson observes, many of his friends and many music critics point out that in 1971, with the release of All Things Must Pass, Harrison was already at the top of the musical mountain and his career would move downhill from there. In the end, Thomson reveals very little new information about Harrison, but he succeeds in showing that the guitarist's greatest accomplishment was finding fulfillment every day in the simple joys of being "somewhere" in his life. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Kindness Diaries: One Man's Quest to Ignite Goodwill and Transform Lives Around the World

Leon Logothetis. Reader's Digest, $24.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-62145-191-4

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Inspired by the film The Motorcycle Diaries and intent on "revolt[ing] against the predetermined structures" of his life, Logothetis (Amazing Adventures of a Nobody) embarked on a journey around the world with a yellow motorcycle and no money. He recounts his excursion in this easy-to-digest and passionate memoir. The goal for the trip was to rely solely on the kindness of strangers for food, lodging, and gas. "The act of giving and receiving," he says, "is where the real magic of human connection occurs." The central conceit of the project was to return the kindness he received: Logothetis would return the favor by surprising each good samaritan with gifts: a cow for a family in Montenegro; a water purifier, books, and sports equipment for an orphanage in Calcutta. He finds that everyone can and should follow their dreams, that "freedom is ours for the taking." The underlying message—much like the book itself—is simple and heartfelt. Logothetis glosses over the social and political realities of the places he visits, instead choosing to stay focused on the nature of his interactions. The result will please readers seeking light hearted and inspiring book. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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