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The Secrets of My Life

Caitlyn Jenner, with Buzz Bissinger. Grand Central, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4555-9675-1

Athlete and reality TV star Jenner (Finding the Champion Within) teams up with Bissinger (Friday Night Lights) for a sincere though uneven tell-all autobiography. Jenner jumps back and forth among her childhood, her iconic Olympic decathlon win, and her subsequent fame, while keeping the central focus on her former secret: gender dysphoria and the steps she took to alleviate it, in and out of the public eye. Jenner attempts to explain transgender identification, but despite her candor and vulnerability, a lack of clarity may render her message difficult to grasp; for example, she says she has “always been female” while also describing herself pretransition as “a man who wears a dress.” Though she says she loves her trans community, this isn’t a book for her trans critics, whose attitude she feels is “hostile and exclusionary” (she writes, “we are all in this together, or at least we should be”). Jenner appeals to the reader’s sympathies: self-deprecating humor abounds, and she shares frank, relatable anecdotes about depression and suicidal ideation. Readers will find her insight on O.J. Simpson fascinating (“he was the most narcissistic, egocentric, neediest asshole in the world of sports”), and fans of the Kardashian clan will take an interest in how Jenner describes her marriage to Kris Kardashian (“I am the product and Kris the agent and manager and negotiator”). While she won’t win over her critics, her fans will appreciate this candid look into her life. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Southern Reconstruction

Philip Leigh. Westholme, $29.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-59416-276-3

Reconstruction remains an emotionally fraught topic, but Leigh (Lee’s Lost Dispatch) explains here how Reconstruction efforts devastated the war-ravaged South and does so without downplaying American racism. Leigh meticulously details the ways that corruption from President Johnson’s impeachment debacle and Grant’s “scandal-ridden tenure” trickled down to the local level, with rampant plundering of economically devastated former Confederate states lengthening the South’s fiscal and emotional recovery. Leigh’s fondness for his native South is clear, but he also resolutely describes its racism, classism, and other failings both before and after the war. Though race is not Leigh’s primary focus, he never ignores it. He also effectively argues that wealthy whites subverted a Southern populist movement that sought to bring poor whites and newly freed slaves together in a multiracial economic coalition. There were a few black men who attained political positions as legislators and lieutenant governors—P.B.S. Pinchback’s brief turn as Louisiana governor goes curiously unmentioned—but high rates of illiteracy and unemployment and patronizing attitudes toward the newly freed slaves in both the North and South made it nearly impossible for African-Americans to achieve true equality, despite the 14th Amendment. Leigh’s thoughtful examination of the Reconstruction era delves into its very real costs, both monetary and in terms of morale, to the South as a whole, shedding light on why generations of Southerners continue to spiritually fight a long-settled war. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War

Fred Kaplan. Harper, $28.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-244000-6

In this elegantly written and thoroughly researched book, Kaplan (John Quincy Adams: American Visionary), professor emeritus of English at Queens College, relates how two presidents, Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams, thought about and dealt with slavery and race. Lincoln believed that African-Americans should emigrate to Africa or another homeland. Adams, meanwhile, was an ardent abolitionist who foresaw the eventual rise of a multicultural America. Kaplan contrasts their views and discusses the people and events that shaped their intellectual, political, and moral development. Among these figures is Dorcas Allen, an enslaved woman who killed her two children and whose trial ignited Adams’s passion against the peculiar institution, which reached its apotheosis in the famous Amistad trial of 1841. The murder of the impassioned antislavery preacher Elijah Lovejoy in 1837 in Alton, Ill., was influential in forming Lincoln’s opinions about African-Americans, slavery, and the law. The procolonization ideas of Sen. Henry Clay, Thomas Jefferson’s dour views on black intellectual capacity, and Frederick Douglass’s opposition to colonization also come under consideration. Kaplan presents a more complex Lincoln who “presided over the creation of a new reality that neither he nor anyone could fully embrace, or embrace in a way that would eliminate racial conflict.” Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt Inc. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Planet A: A Mother’s Memoir of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Diane Mayer Christiansen. Diane Mayer Christiansen, $9.99 trade paper (204p) ISBN 978-0-692-79202-5

After her son, Jackie, was diagnosed with autism, Christiansen became a special-needs advocate to help others understand the “alternate planet” that children on the autism spectrum reside on and to demonstrate how close that planet is to our own lives, if we are willing to be patient and kind. She makes her experiences personally relatable by offering an honest account of motherhood, revealing her fears and imperfections in the process. Despite the difficulties parenting presents, Christiansen’s account does have moments of comedy—usually in her knee-jerk reactions to her son’s extreme honesty. Parents, especially those of special-needs children, will sympathize with Christiansen’s fight for the acceptance of her child’s—and by extension all children’s—differences. However, the book might have benefitted from including scientific research or articles Christiansen came across while trying to figure things out, or from presenting the coping mechanisms she used along the way. It also lacks a strong sense of structure. Readers follow Jackie, who grows from prepubescent to young adolescent, at odd intervals, making it difficult to draw conclusions on the parenting lessons Christiansen learned. The final section is an interview with Jackie, and while his answers are impactful, the questions seem random. Overall, the final section feels short and misplaced. While life and parenthood are constantly evolving processes and so can’t offer solid resolutions, Christiansen’s memoir is in want of one. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Keeping Kyrie

Emily Christensen, with Nathan Christensen. HWC Press, $34.99 (312p) ISBN 978-0-9977588-0-1

Christensen’s memoir is a heart-wrenching testimonial for foster care, adoption, and the Mormon faith. She relates the story of finding her church and then a perfect husband, Nathan, but as the new couple attempt to have children, they endure a number of miscarriages. They fill the empty space of childlessness with foster care and, in an extraordinary real-life tale of patience and endurance, they foster over 70 troubled children. Personal challenges continue to test Emily’s determination to build a family, but she and Nathan eventually adopt five children. They then learn of a baby, Kyrie, who has been born with a daunting medical condition. Emily cares for Kyrie through many traumatizing surgeries and tries to adopt the child, but bureaucratic obstacles block the way. Christensen writes with a gripping style and grim honesty as she tells her very difficult story; the narration is sometimes oddly dispassionate and yet is also intriguingly blended with deep emotion (“The brothers described being given alcohol, seeing people doing drugs, and ‘lots of screaming and hitting and throwing things’ ”). Filled with descriptions of life’s struggles, love of family, the details of medical procedures, and prayer, this book is likely to be inspirational to those of the LDS faith. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Hardbarned: One Man’s Quest for Meaningful Work in the American South

Christopher J. Driver, illus. by Tarri N. Driver. Mill City, $9.99 e-book (310p) ISBN 978-1-63505-034-9

Based on his Hardbarned blog, this book is Driver’s fascinating and funny look at the three years he spent delivering, repossessing, and repairing portable storage barns in the rural South, ranging in size from tiny toolshed to “massive Greyhound touring bus.” Needing to pay bills after graduate school, Driver finds himself “working behind the wheel of a one-ton diesel pickup truck, dragging a 30-foot custom-built hydraulic lift trailer with a steadily building berserker rage.” His descriptions of the barns are hilarious: “They look fairly new for the most part, except when they’re converted into meth labs and accidentally explode, or when they’re cut to pieces and modified into dog kennels, horse barns, chicken coops, dance clubs, game rooms, garbage dumpsters, hunting lodges or temporary living quarters for incontinent adults.” His rage comes from having to deal with customers who don’t tell him that he must set up their barns “on the sides of hills; in between garages and broken-down cars; in creek beds and piles of mud and garbage; and amid rotten tree stumps, fire pits, discarded motor oil, broken High Life bottles, animal shit, charcoal and anything else imaginable, including dead bodies.” Unfortunately, Driver bogs down the narrative by including in it the various jobs he had from youth through college. The descriptions of these are interesting—especially when Driver talks about his career in a punk-rock band—but the strength of his writing is best shown in the chapters that describe his life with barns and their owners; these chapters would have made a powerful book on their own. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table

Langdon Cook. Ballantine, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-1-101-88288-7

In this insightful book, Cook (The Mushroom Hunters) clearly outlines scientific information about the species of fish commonly known as salmon, giving details on the salmon’s life cycle, distribution, preferred habitat, and physical appearance. But the focus here is less on facts and research and more on how “Pacific salmon culture in North America is a dance between fish and humanity.” Cook connects with chefs, fishermen, ecologists, fish wranglers, reef netters, Native Americans, a “bearded masturbator of fish,” and countless others to get their perspectives on the state of dwindling salmon stocks and the impact on them of fish hatcheries, commercial fishing, dam building/removal, and wildlife conservation. The answers can be a little depressing at times, especially considering that the salmon’s troubles are almost exclusively man-made. But Cook also finds a lot of hope for salmon’s recovery in places such as the Elwha River in Washington State, where dams had been removed; in Seattle’s urban pink-salmon fishery, the Duwamish River; and in experiments such as the Nigiri Project, which ties flooding for sushi-rice production to increased California salmon habitat. In the end, Cook acknowledges that salmon’s recovery, just like its demise, will come from people. As one set-in-his-ways rancher tells Cook, “It’s gonna take a while. Because a bunch of people my age still need to die.” That may be the case, but for those who want to live to see the salmon recapture its former glory, this work is a great place to learn what needs to done—and an entertaining view on the positive and negative connections human have with the natural environment. (May)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival

Jeffrey Gettleman. HarperCollins, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-228409-9

A journalist juggles a relationship and overseas adventure in this hectic memoir. Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times correspondent Gettleman recounts his dangerous reporting from global hot spots: interviewing Taliban POWs in Afghanistan; surveying firefights and suicide-bomb carnage in Iraq; and exploring famines, insurgencies, tribal massacres, and a pirate café in East Africa, where he is the Times bureau chief. Sharing many of his exploits is his wife and sometime colleague Courtenay; their star-crossed relationship, including bouts of infidelity, complicates his wanderlust. Gettleman’s narrative has the virtues and limitations of journalism; it’s colorful, evocative and immediate, but also distracted and somewhat shapeless. Many episodes are riveting: Gettleman was abducted by Iraqi insurgents (he escaped by pretending to be Greek instead of American), and he and Courtenay accompanied Ogaden rebels on a gruelling desert trek only to be thrown in prison by Ethiopian soldiers. Unfortunately, the storm-tossed-romance theme feels inflated; it bogs down in bickering between Gettleman and Courtenay, and sometimes entices the author into purplish prose (one illicit tryst in Baghdad “[left] a wet spot on the sheets as blood settled into pools out on the streets”). Africa definitely feels like the more compelling of Gettleman’s passions, rendered here in engrossing reportage. (May)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America

Michael Ruhlman. Abrams, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4197-2386-5

In this savory investigation of grocery stores, the supermarket is no cesspool of mindless consumerism but a dynamic embodiment of changing diets and mores. Ruhlman (The Soul of a Chef) profiles Cleveland’s Heinen supermarkets, interviewing the owners, shadowing buyers at new-product expos, even bagging groceries at checkout (an astonishingly sophisticated art). Inspired by his father’s love of shopping, Ruhlman’s view of supermarkets is a sympathetic one that debunks many bad raps foisted on food retailers—the milk is in the back because the dairy cases fit there, not to make shoppers walk past the other products—and revels in the sheer abundance that supermarkets offer and the logistic miracles that make this abundance possible. Ruhlman is less sanguine about the processed foods supermarkets sell, which he feels are ruining our health—“breakfast cereal,” he warns, “is a kind of unseen, underground threat, humming endlessly away, like [nuclear] missiles”—and launches ill-considered admonishments to buy organic and beware of GMOs. Much of the book is a fascinating portrait of how the sustainability movement is revolutionizing groceries with an avalanche of local produce, grass-fed meat, organic everything, and nutritional supplements. (Heinen’s “wellness department” is advised by a chief medical officer.) The soapboxing sometimes overreaches, but Ruhlman’s lively reportage yields an engrossing tour of the aisles. (May)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Double Exposure: Fighting for Freedom

Lonnie G. Bunch III, Charles F. Bolden Jr., and Gail Lumet Buckley. D Giles, , $16.95 ISBN 978-1-911282-01-3

The fifth volume in the Double Exposure series from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture is a short yet powerful pictorial history of black men and women who served in the United States Armed Forces, from the Civil War to today. It features the work of Anthony Barboza, Henry Clay Anderson, Robert Scurlock, Teenie Harris, and numerous uncredited photographers. As Bunch, founding director of the museum, writes in his moving foreword, the book’s 62 predominately black-and-white photographs, selected from over 20,000 images in the museum’s collection, “demonstrate the willingness of a people to stand up and be counted, even when they were not always fully recognized in the legal and social systems of the day.” The introductory essays by Bolden, the 12th administrator of NASA, and Buckley (The Black Calhouns) provide the perfect literary counterpoint to these enduring images. Some of the many noteworthy photos include the following: a picture of Union Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. William Carney proudly holding an American flag; an extended, gatefold 1919 photo of the 372nd Infantry on their return from France; a historic WWII shot of Benjamin Davis Jr. and heavyweight champ Joe Louis; a photo of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen; a snapshot of two brothers in Vietnam giving each other the DAP (dignity and pride) hand greeting; and a picture of the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory from 1944. Though only 80 pages long, this wonderful work beams with a racial pride that radiates out well beyond its diminutive dimensions. Photos. (May)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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