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The Real Lives of Roman Britain: A History of Roman Britain through the Lives of Those Who Were There

Guy de la B%C3%A9doy%C3%A8re. Yale Univ., $40 (264p) ISBN 978-0-300-20719-4

In this alternately fascinating and wearisome chronicle of Roman-occupied Britain, historian de la Bédoyère (Roman Britain: A New History) offers a new angle on the period, revealing the ways that ordinary people—not just emperors and their kin—lived in these days. From 55 B.C.E. to 410 C.E., Rome ruled the majority of the island of Great Britain, bringing with it Roman styles of government, religion, and culture. To uncover Rome's influence on the lives of these individuals, de la Bédoyère examines such figures as the Romano-British poet Silvius Bonus; the Aldgate-Pulborough Potter, known only because of his production of Samian pottery; and several persons who left public records of their existence as Britons through various acts of tribute, such as making a dedication to a god or goddess at a local shrine. De la Bédoyère ranges widely over various elements of culture in Roman Britain, addressing religion, death, and architecture—such as the making and ownership of villas—as well as the eventual demise of the Roman Empire, which enabled Britain to stand outside the shadow of Rome by the early fifth century C.E. Those interested in the sometimes repetitive minutiae of Rome or Britain's history should find this volume worthwhile. (July)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Great Calculations

Colin Pask. Prometheus Books, $18 trade paper (410p) ISBN 978-1-63388-028-3

Mathematician Pask (Magnificent Principia) successfully demonstrates to readers that modern understandings of life, the natural environment, and the universe have arisen due to scientists' exploration of theories through the application of mathematics. He covers a wide range of material that includes the discovery of Earth's shape as well as the discovery of dark matter by scientist Vera Rubin. Pask also runs through 50 groundbreaking calculations he believes have aided scientists in the fields of astronomy, physics, and biology. It is a fun and engaging approach to examining science's greatest mysteries, and Pask's historical knowledge and enthusiasm for his material are evident throughout. In his chapters on the solar system, arguably the most compelling in the book, Pask explores the theories that brought greater understanding to humankind's biggest questions about the universe. He also confidently recounts the competition between scientists to be the first to declare their findings. Though he sometimes relays too much information directly through mathematical jargon, Pask flourishes when setting the context and history of these great calculations, and there is a lot in here that amateur mathematicians will be able to appreciate. (July)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Start Here Now: An Open-Hearted Guide to the Path and Practice of Meditation

Susan Piver. Shambhala, $12 (192p) ISBN 978-1-61180-267-2

This succinct addition to the "how to meditate" genre provides step-by-step instructions for the beginner. With clarity, humor, and reassurance, Piver covers basic topics (what meditation is, its benefits, setting up a practice) and teaches shamatha ("peacefully abiding") meditation with focus on the breath. Piver (The Wisdom of a Broken Heart), the founder of an online mindfulness community, perceptively addresses the needs and concerns of new students. Especially valuable is her sharp analysis of different styles of meditation with suggestions on how to choose, emphasizing they aren't just a "variety of roads to arrive at a single destination." She deftly dissects the now-common term "mindfulness." Piver distills meditation to its essentials without being reductionist, grounding it in the profundity of Buddhist spiritual traditions; she urges students to follow traditional, time-proven wisdom teachings. "Meditation is more than a practice," she writes, "it is a way of being in the world. It is a path." Included are a seven-day meditation "challenge" and guidelines for a weekend retreat. While Piver's mix of self-promotion, self-deprecation, and personal disclosure may not appeal to some readers, she succeeds in making a meditation practice sound both life-changing and achievable. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Pope Francis Among the Wolves: The Inside Story of a Revolution

Marco Politi. Columbia Univ., $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-231-17414-5

Vaticanista Politi (His Holiness) is one of a cadre of Italian journalists who have spent their professional lives watching popes come, go, and pronounce. Unlike ostensibly neutral American journalists, Politi makes his pro-Francis sympathies clear. He knows the home team of Italian prelates and politicians who give the Vatican its immediate national context. His chapter on the Vatican Bank and its scandals is especially helpful, though it requires close reading if one is unfamiliar with the institutions and people involved. He's much less familiar with Francis's 40 years of serving the church in Argentina, but has gone there to interview those who worked with him during that part of his career. Politi's well-sourced reporting is evident in voluminous notes, citing enough reporters, sources, and internal intrigue to provide grist for a variety of interpretations of Francsis's first two years as pope. Politi certainly delivers on the subtitle's promise of a look inside the byzantine halls of the institutional Catholic Church. (Sept.

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Buddhisms: An Introduction

John S. Strong. Oneworld, $30 (496p) ISBN 978-1-78074-505-3

Acknowledging that many introductions to Buddhism are already available, Strong focuses on three themes in this substantial survey: Buddhism as a "middle way," the efforts adherents have made to "overcome the Buddha's absence," and the importance of place. Strong, professor of religion at Bates College, uses the "three refuges" (Buddha, dharma, and samgha) to organize his exploration of the religion's earliest developments and later Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, keeping in mind the question, "Is there one or are there many Buddhisms?" Deftly selecting material from a vast tradition, Strong guides the reader through complex topics with precision, clarity, and insight, aided by tables presenting more abstruse information. Particularly cogent are his analyses of long-debated subjects such as karma, non-self, and approaches to enlightenment (practice/study, gradual/sudden). He includes topics related to women in Buddhism throughout. This introduction's primary shortcoming is its unevenness: Strong sometimes delves into too much detail for his intended audience, and his examples of current Buddhist practice outside Asia are too cursory to be instructive. Nevertheless, readers eager to dive into a rigorous, well-organized investigation of Buddhism's intricate 2500-year-old history will find much to reward them. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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King of the Kustomizers: The Art of George Barris

Brett Barris and Douglas Nason. Last Gasp (lastgasp.com), $75 (496p) ISBN 978-0-86719-809-6

Readers who remember the jalopy driven by the Clampetts on The Beverly Hillbillies or the Batmobile from the 1966 television series Batman, "with its ominously sleek styling, reams of gadgetry, and sparkling gloss of black paint outlined in red," will know George Barris's work. Barris created these and many of the other best-known custom-made vehicles of recent decades with help from the staff at his southern Californian shop, Barris Kustom City. In this hefty tome, chock full of archival photographs, Barris's son, Brett, and co-author Nason recall Barris's impressive career in the hot rod and custom car industry since the 1940s. They pull together a congratulatory retrospective that is equal parts history and nostalgia. Nason, a longtime fan of Barris Kustom, provides background on Chicago-born Barris and his early interest in customization. In high school, for instance, Barris and his older brother fixed up a tattered Buick sedan, "embellishing it with hubcaps they fashioned from household pots and pans, gold-plated knobs taken from kitchen cabinets and drawers, homemade chrome-striped mud flaps and other accoutrements before painting it orange with blue stripes." Eventually Barris was able to turn his eclectic sensibility and love of motor vehicles into a well-regarded and enduring business. The book's off-kilter design and color tinted photos wonderfully capture the wacky flavor of the Barris Kustoms, and it's sure to be a hit with pop culture fans and car enthusiasts. Photos. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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My Life, My Body

Marge Piercy. PM, $12 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-62963-105-9

This pithy collection of essays and poems condenses Piercy's sharp wit and ruthless clarity into a crystalline set of provocations brimming with earthy good sense, social awareness, and "the dignity of necessary work." Piercy (Made in Detroit) wields the no-nonsense approach of the working writer who has earned her place through many trials and can speak with an authority that peels away mental flab and pierces complacency. She demands art and literature that will "change consciousness a tiny bit at a time." Her prose is lean, efficient, and full of muscle, tearing through the tissue of illusion around gentrification, censorship, fame, and Marilyn Monroe, while the counterpoised poetry, unabashedly and urgently political, lobs cannonballs from the side of the disenfranchised and invisible. A self-proclaimed "socialist-anarchist-feminist," Piercy delivers a precise and devastating critique of political showmanship, corporate greed, economic insecurity, and the constant debate over ownership of and access to women's bodies. Rife with a passionate sense of justice and dry, direct humor, this slim, essential volume ignites the mind and validates the function of activist art. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers)

Eric Elnes. Abingdon, $16.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-4267-9413-1

Dante defined the "dark wood" as fearsome. Elnes (Asphalt Jesus) redefines it as a place that gives graceful gifts to Christian believers. Failures, vacuums, and doubts might not seem like "gifts"; however, they cannot (and should not) be avoided, Elnes counsels, because the seeming negatives prove critical for "finding your place in this world at the very point where you feel furthest from it." Seven of the nine chapters in this intelligent and understanding book describe the gifts: uncertainty, emptiness, being thunderstruck (voiceovers by the Holy Spirit), getting lost, temptation, disappearing, and misfits. Some are more surprising than others: for example, temptation does not refer to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n' roll but to doing the wrong good—"work that is not yours to do." Throughout, Elnes shares personal tales, quotes poetry (particularly David Whyte's), and retells Scripture stories—especially Peter's. At the end, he movingly addresses the church today. Elnes's style is friendly, familiar, even woodsy, exploiting the second-person "you" to guide and assure. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action

John Garofolo. Wisconsin Historical Society, $25 (136p) ISBN 978-0-87020-718-1

Garofolo, an Iraq War veteran and former entertainment industry executive, assembles the first-ever collection of the work of Georgette "Dickey" Chappelle, who pursued a photojournalism career at a time when practically no women did, beginning in WWII. The Wisconsin native's love of aviation and photography led her to abandon her studies at MIT and hang around military bases instead. She flunked out, married, and persuaded the Navy—despite her Navy husband's objections—to let her cover the front lines in the Pacific. Chapelle eagerly went on to cover events in Hungary, Algeria, Cuba, Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, and, fatefully, Vietnam. Despite winning awards for her work, she struggled for assignments; when she got them, she earned less pay than her male counterparts. Her arresting black and white photos capture lasting scenes: grotesquely wounded soldiers, children caught in conflict, and summary executions of combatants. But it's a colleague's photo that haunts this book: the 47-year-old Chapelle laying mortally wounded after being hit by shrapnel while on patrol with Marines in South Vietnam. The commandant of the Marine Corps called Chapelle "one of us," and her body of work surely deserves the wider recognition this book provides. 153 b&w photos. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood's First Superagent

Brian Kellow. Viking, $27.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-670-01540-5

Kellow, who specializes in biographies of accomplished women (Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark), turns his attention to Sue Mengers, Hollywood's first female "superagent." She was already a chain-smoking, caftan-wearing, coarse-mouthed legend in 1973 when client Dyan Cannon parodied her in the movie The Last of Sheila. Menders, raised in humble circumstances in Utica, N.Y., and the Bronx, promoted herself with hard work, chutzpah, and an eye for good material, and became a vital force in male-dominated 1970s Hollywood. With renowned friends (Gore Vidal, Robert Evans), superstar clients (Barbra Streisand, Ryan O'Neal, Peter Bogdanovich), and headline-making deals (getting Gene Hackman an unheard-of $1 million salary for the box-office turkey Lucky Lady), Mengers became a feminist trailblazer, though she had no interest in the movement. But when the ‘70s ended and Hollywood switched from star-driven pictures to special effects blockbusters, her career, for all intents and purposes, was over. She led a life worthy of a Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann novel, but Kellow's writing is more dutiful than inspired (and dogged by errors, such as misidentifying NYU grad Martin Scorsese's alma mater as UCLA). Kellow fails to fully bring to life this larger-than-life character whose ultimate undoing was her desperate need to shine brighter than her clients. Agent: Edward Hibbert, Donadio & Olson. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink

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