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River of Ink: Literature, History, Art

Thomas Christensen. Counterpoint (PGW, dist.), $35 (320p) ISBN 978-1-61902-426-7

In these 30 essays, Christensen (1616: The World in Motion), a proud generalist and non-academic, addresses a slew of disparate subjects—Taoism and its influence on Chinese art, Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno, the roots of modern Turkish politics—and proves himself to be voracious reader who can clarify the present with knowledge of the past, accessibly summarize a subject, and share a fine story. Organized geographically, Christensen's essays ramble freely across cultural borders, from West Asia and Africa, to Latin America and Europe. Along the way, he calls our attention to several interesting figures, such as Eva Perón, the wife of Argentina's former president, Juan Perón; Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian slave who rose to the office of prime minister in India; and Sadakichi Hartmann, the critic, poet, and art historian who is credited with introducing haiku to the U.S. These pieces demonstrate Christensen's interests and learning, but not they're not always insightful—they rely heavily on what others have written, and a few seem to end abruptly before a point is made. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to read the book without learning something new. Photos and illus. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/05/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Thrown

Kerry Howley. Sarabande (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-936747-92-4

This sui generis debut threatens to remap the entire genre of nonfiction. Howley, a philosophy student disillusioned by “academic apple-polishing,” sets out on a quest to find the closest contemporary equivalent to Schopenhauer’s concept of an ecstatic experience. She finds it, unexpectedly, in the world of mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fighting. Howley becomes a “species of fighterly accoutrement known as a ‘spacetaker,’ ” ingratiating herself into the lives of two cage fighters: Sean Huffman, a smash-nosed, cauliflower-eared veteran with a legacy of losing but never getting knocked out, and Erik Koch, a young, lithe, apprentice-level beginner “destined for the big shows.” Howley’s brilliant prose is as dexterous and doughty as the fighters she trails, torquing into philosophy, parody, and sweat-soaked poetry. At times, the narrative is difficult to follow, while the contrast between her highbrow analysis and the aggressive MMA subculture can be disorienting. Her year-long immersion in the sport, however, proves as captivating as any blood-spattered spectacle. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Wrapping with Fabric: Your Complete Guide to Furoshiki, the Japanese Art of Wrapping

Etsuko Yamada. Tuttle, $15.95 paper (112p) ISBN 978-4-8053-1314-5

Furoshiki might seem a craft best suited to your elegant, wealthy grandmother—one with impeccably good taste and non-arthritic appendages. Who else has means to source furoshiki, a Japanese fabric traditionally made from a roll of kimono cloth? Who else has the time to cut and sew that cloth—not into a square, but something close to one—and then use it as a perfectly folded wrap to contain myriad other objects (a book, a plant, a wine bottle)? As it turns out, anyone who cares about the environment should try furoshiki. By reusing pieces of beautiful cloth, you can create multipurpose recyclable carriers and holders. This step-by-step, artfully photographed guide depicts traditional folds, wraps, and knots from the easiest, most basic “errand wrapping” to the much more elaborate, almost origami-like “dressy wrapping.” Want to wrap your umbrella so that it’s enclosed in cloth and then attaches just so to your purse? There’s a furoshiki for that! With some time, patience, and discerning taste, you can create a furoshiki to make grandma proud. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The English Country House Garden

George Plumptre. Frances Lincoln (Quayside, dist.), $40 (208p) ISBN 978-0-71123-299-0

This stunning visual feast, with photographs by Marcus Harpur, not only highlights 25 of Britain’s signature country house gardens, but also explores the themes that tie them together. Plumptre (Royal Gardens of Europe), a former gardening correspondent for the Times of London, explains the book’s purpose: to “present a ‘whole’ that is more than just the ‘sum of the parts’—parts that are individually attractive but usually presented in isolation, not bound together to present a story.” In his appreciative analysis, Plumptre answers the question: “Why does the country house continue to be the apex of a designer’s aspiration, rather than the small garden in the park?” He traces the key features of basic garden design—the relationship of the garden to the house, the surrounding landscape, detailed planting arrangements, and the human element—highlighting various estates, the personalities who once built them, and those who now sustain them. The role of the garden quickly emerges as a central theme in the history of English country houses, evoking a sensibility that reaches beyond the prescribed care of the elements and asserts that the country house garden is magical. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Sissinghurst: Vita-Sackville West and the Creation of a Garden

Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven. St. Martin’s, $34.99 (382p) ISBN 978-1-250-06005-1

Novelist Sackville-West (1892–1962) was also a gardener and wrote brilliantly on horticulture. To pair contemporary garden writing with Sackville-West’s classic sparklers takes confidence, experience, and audacity. Happily, Raven (The Cutting Garden), another gardener in the Sackville-West family (she’s married to Vita’s grandson), meets every challenge in this laudable book. Sackville-West’s plantings complemented the designs of her husband, Harold Nicholson, who wanted to revitalize Sissinghurst, a “ruined Elizabethan hunting palace... in the pretty wooded part of the Kentish Weald.” Both women address “The People and the Place,” touchstones in Sissinghurst’s design; both also consider the big picture in “Vita’s Garden Themes,” which explains Sackville-West’s “cram-cram” planting, and in “The Smaller Canvas,” which covers cut flowers, container plants, and even garden “jokes” and Christmas plants. The book is crammed with photos and quotes (from Sackville-West: “A flowerless room is a soul-less room...”). The two voices remain distinct without clashing, and Raven’s organization of the book and selections from Sackville-West’s work buttress her own canny observations. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Babygate: How to Survive Pregnancy and Parenting in the Workplace

Dina Bakst, Phoebe Taubman, and Elizabeth Gedmark. Feminist, $18.95 trade paper (360p) ISBN 978-1-55861-861-9

At the start of this how-to guide, Bakst, Taubman, and Gedmark, legal experts for workplace fairness advocacy group A Better Balance, announce that they want to reach a broader audience for the topic. Arranged in chronological order from pregnancy to parenthood, this well-organized work begins with an assessment of U.S. policy in comparison to other countries, and finds that U.S. policy is often lacking when it comes to supporting pregnancy and parenting. Bias against pregnant women and mothers, the authors claim, is still common despite anti-discrimination laws. They walk readers through the “murky depths” of the Family Leave Act of 1993, noting that many parents are excluded due to complex eligibility requirements for unpaid leave. On the bright side, the authors report that some states have passed supplemental maternity and paternity laws, and they include a useful state-by-state guide to help readers identify their rights. Practical information on such topics as how and when to inform an employer of a pregnancy, and how to write a letter requesting pregnancy accommodations at work, is also included. The authors urge that working parents need to do their “homework” on their legal rights; this book will, no doubt, prove to be a valuable resource. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years

Rebecca C. Hains. Sourcebooks, $14.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-4022-9403-7

Children’s media expert Hains (Growing Up with Girl Power) investigated a dominant cultural force in little girls’ lives through an unusual method: moonlighting as a costumed birthday party princess. She learned that parents are aware of the potential problems, like unrealistic body image and lowered self-esteem, associated with the princess obsession; they just don’t know what to do about it. “Princess culture” is more than a phase when girls aged 2–10 enjoy pretty pink tutus, movies, and toys—it is an unavoidable, gender-segregated media and marketing phenomenon fueled primarily by Disney’s Princess Collection line of branded items, which has thus far generated $4 billion in sales. Hains’s dissection of princess marketing reveals inherent gender stereotypes, centered on romance, beauty, passivity (at least until Frozen), and ethnic homogeneity, with non-Caucasians accorded only token representation. To beat the “Pretty Princess Mandate,” Hains prescribes “Pop Culture Coaching.” In four step-by-step chapters, she offers parents advice on how to decide which values are important to them, talk to their kids about the media, and set a “healthy media diet.” The princess culture issue was previously addressed in 2011 in Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, but Hains adds to the discussion with these practical parenting tips. Agent: Jill Marsal, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia

Paul Gionfriddo. Columbia, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-231-16828-1

Gionfriddo, a nonprofit director and onetime mayor of Middletown, Conn., has written a memoir that makes a strong argument: the public policy around mental illness is in shambles. As he recounts, states failed to replace hospitals with adequate care and treatment options when they defunded their psychiatric hospitals in favor of treating people locally. Tragic consequences followed for mentally ill people, including Gionfriddo’s son, Tim. In grammar school, Tim began to exhibit learning disabilities. He became depressed, was periodically “out of control,” and seemed, to his father, to lack empathy. Middle school saw Tim bring a BB gun to school. Then came alcohol and drug use, theft, auditory hallucinations, and, ultimately, a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Tim attended seven different high schools over four years. Meanwhile, Tim’s parents learned to navigate the worlds of special ed, the law, and medicine. In one of the most shocking episodes of the book, a psychiatrist allows 15-year-old Tim to decide whether he should take 50 mg or 100 mg of Serzone. High school was followed by a swift descent into deeper mental illness, homelessness, and prison. Gionfriddo’s story is powerful, persuasive, and sad. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer

Margaret Webb. Rodale, $15.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-62336-169-3

Webb begins this stirring fitness memoir by telling the reader that she had an epiphany when she turned 50: “I wanted to enter the second act of my life in the best shape of my life, even fitter than I was as a 20-year-old varsity athlete.” Immersing herself in research, she soon discovered that many obstacles await an older female runner: reduced lung capacity, bone density, estrogen levels, and muscle mass and a heightened risk of injury. Webb soldiered on, hitting her age group’s qualifying standard for the Boston Marathon on her second try. Encouraged, she began training in earnest, despite entering the early stages of menopause in the meantime. She learned many lessons in the process—particularly that there are more ways to measure fitness than running times. Webb, inspired by many of the people she met (especially Olga Kotelko, a 94-year-old who took up running at age 77 and has since won over 700 gold medals), finished her journey with the World Masters Games in Turin, Italy. Those who may have put off exercise thinking they’re too old or out of shape will likely find themselves lacing up their running shoes after reading this informative and inspiring tale. Agent: Samantha Haywood, Transatlantic Literary Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Sunday Suppers: Recipes & Gatherings

Karen Mordechai. Clarkson Potter, $32.50 (256p) ISBN 978-0-385-34526-2

Photographer, award-winning blogger, and creator of the Brooklyn Sunday Suppers community, Mordechai offers a chic and stylish cookbook of 100 recipes with a focus on get-togethers and intimate gatherings. Mordechai’s style is casual, simple yet sophisticated. Chapters honor milestones and times of day (Morning, noon, afternoon, holiday, and evening) with recipes for gatherings typical of those times. Complete soup-to-nuts, pre-designed menus inspire a breakfast-in-bed menu of rich cream biscuits, perfect scrambled eggs, and fresh greens or a hearty winter brunch of homemade bagels, tea and ginger–cured sea bass, warm citrus salad, and fig tart with honey. For noon, a camping or day trip menu includes lemon hummus and naan with rosemary and thyme, and afternoon recipes for a city picnic feature chicken pie, fennel, a feta frittata, and a refreshing tomato and cantaloupe salad. Mordechai features menus for a children’s birthday party, a whiskey rib feast, and nostalgic Thanksgiving holiday dinner, as well as recipes for when friends gather upstate or around a beach fire. Mordechai’s light-filled photographs mirror her calm, peaceful mood as well as her belief in a slow-paced approach to sharing food with friends and family through recipes that are informal, fun, and consistently elegant. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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