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A Man and a Motorcycle: How Hamid Karzai Came to Power

Bette Dam. Ipso Facto, $15.30 trade paper (246p) ISBN 978-90-77386-13-2

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Reporter Dam meticulously recounts Hamid Karzai’s rise to power, drawing on the experiences she’s had living in Afghanistan for the past eight years, including multiple meetings with the president. In fact, she recalls being surprised, as a woman, by the level of access she had to him, and to Afghan politicians in general. Armed with this first-hand knowledge, Dam begins by laying out the system of tribal nepotism and patronage that keeps the country running but hinders it from advancing into a functioning democracy. She goes on to show how those systems were disrupted by the arrival of the Taliban and restored under Karzai, despite American efforts to paint the new regime as a paragon of democratic government. Dam also outlines how American military might was co-opted by regional warlords in power struggles neither U.S. policy makers nor troops fully understood. Military history enthusiasts and students of comparative culture will be grateful the author has decided to share her unique perspective on Karzai and Afghanistan. The book’s focus on the minutiae of the Afghan president’s life and career can be overwhelming, but it quickly becomes clear that only this level of detail will allow Americans to understand a very different culture. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dark Spell: Surviving the Sentence

Mara Leveritt, with Jason Baldwin. Bird Call Press, $20 trade paper (290p) ISBN 978-1-4991-7575-2

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Investigative reporter Leveritt follows up her 2002 work about the West Memphis Three, Devil’s Knot, with the second in her Justice Knot Trilogy. This time she focuses on Jason Baldwin, one of the three young men accused of murdering three boys in Alabama in 1993. Leveritt uses interviews, public records, and Baldwin’s own recollections to recreate his life leading up to the arrest and trial as well as his extended stint in prison. It’s clear Leveritt believes that Baldwin was wrongfully accused, and she emphasizes the many irregularities in the trial and subsequent legal wranglings, while portraying Baldwin as an essentially decent person caught up in events far beyond his control. Between Baldwin’s first-hand experiences and Leveritt’s own pointed interpretation of the events, readers will be outraged by what seems to be a grievous failure of the justice system. Some of the material becomes repetitive, as Baldwin is transferred from one prison to another for nearly two decades. Meanwhile, support in the outside world grows to a fever pitch, leading to a reexamination of the evidence. A powerful look at how the wrong agenda can thoroughly undermine the justice system, this book is bound to be of interest to true-crime readers. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Cobblestones and Heels

Kathryn Martone. Kathryn Martone, $21 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-0-692-21890-7

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Corporate flight attendant Martone’s goal in this brief, informative guide is to dispel the outdated mystique of the “sky angel,” replacing it with the intense training, long hours, and hard work of modern private cabin attendants. Chatty and uncomplicated, Martone’s writing has the tone of a diary even when giving practical advice for aspiring flight attendants, such as what to have on a resume (professional safety training, culinary skills, and a customer-service background). She acquaints the reader with the best the job has to offer(international travel and culture), as well as the worst (high-altitude work when you’re sick), and recounts one memorable episode of mid-air peril, during a “bad trip” with novice pilots. Although she tends to repeat herself, Martone is most cogent when recalling her favorite travel memories: an unexpected African safari, a one-month tour with a rock band, and a trip to her ancestral home in Russia. She concedes that “looks” might get the interview, but debunks their importance in doing the job: “Your face will not accomplish creating and serving five-star meals. It will not help you meet the needs of your passengers and supply them with the outstanding customer service they are expecting.” Her writing suffers from numerous errors (such as typos and grammatical inconsistencies), but Martone skillfully shows that an easygoing temperament and discreet nature are necessary to succeed in private aviation. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Behind the Lines: WWI’s Little-Known Story of German Occupation, Belgian Resistance, and the Band of Yanks Who Helped Save Millions from Starvation

Jeffrey B. Miller. Millbrown Press, $16.95 trade paper (480p) ISBN 978-0-9906893-0-0

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Part one of a three-part examination of the conditions in Belgium during WWI under the German occupation, Miller’s book covers only the first five months: August to December 1914. His primary focus is the origin of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), led by American businessman—and future president—Herbert Hoover. Miller also examines the beginnings of the Belgian resistance and the experiences of the Bunge family, who were participants in both the resistance and the activities of the Belgian relief. Miller’s excellent research is extensive and strongly supports his thesis that Hoover and the CRB were instrumental in saving the lives of untold numbers of Belgian civilians. The work’s major shortcoming is obvious: it ends abruptly in December 1914. Though it’s an intriguing read, Miller’s well-written and thorough study will be of greatest interest to specialists in WWI and European history. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Cooking and Eating in Renaissance Italy: From Kitchen to Table

Katherine McIver. Rowman & Littlefield, $38 (216p) ISBN 978-1-4422-2718-7

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A professor emerita of art history at the University of Alabama, McIver sets her culinary history in the late-medieval period and concludes in the 1600s. The author explores the roles and duties of cook, steward, under cook, and apprentice. She takes readers through upper- and middle-class kitchens, pantries, wine cellars, and dining spaces. McIver cites historical documents to highlight how favored foods were prepared and served. Despite the strength of McIver’s many factual account, the book may disappoint the general reader. The large cast of characters is overwhelming, and the textbook style, with each chapter beginning with an introduction detailing what’s to follow, may grate on a non-academic audience. Nevertheless, McIver’s research is impressive. She does a does a good job recounting culinary changes across time, such as how, in the 16th century, a festive meal’s “sweet pastries, candied fruit, confectioneries, and sweet wines” were replaced by a cold salad course; her descriptions of wedding feasts and banquets are also remarkable, especially the one held in honor of Emperor Charles V in 1536. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Young T.E. Lawrence

Anthony Sattin. Norton, $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-24266-9

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Sattin (Lifting the Veil), a travel writer with an extensive background in the Middle East, approaches the oft-profiled T.E. Lawrence from a new angle, focusing exclusively on the first half of Lawrence’s life, prior to the events that would make him famous. He wonders “how the second son of a quiet, comfortably off, apparently unexceptional Oxford family came to play a role—any role—in the Arab uprising.” An enterprising and brilliant archaeologist with a taste for adventure, Lawrence spent several formative years on a dig at Carchemish (on the modern Turkey-Syria frontier) and made a number of exploratory treks around the region. Noting the extent to which Lawrence adopted local culture, Sattin points out that he was, by Arab standards, “an extremely unusual [man] for being wealthy and still wanting to walk alone, in the remote countryside, in the summer.” Brief and engaging, the book makes extensive use of Lawrence’s correspondence with his parents, brothers, and colleagues. Sattin argues that Lawrence fought for Arab self-determination because he viewed it as “an acceptable present for the man he had loved,” a teenager who taught him Arabic at Carchemish and died in late 1916 or early 1917, probably of typhus. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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When Globalization Fails: The Rise and Fall of Pax Americana

James MacDonald. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-22963-4

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In this succinct and thorough economic history, MacDonald (A Free Nation Deep in Debt) examines the theory that free trade ensures prosperity and prevents war. He finds that it might, when backed by a powerful force, such as the powerful British navy that ruled the 19th-century, or the American hegemony that marked the late 20th. Breaking down complex swaths of historical events and economic theories into manageable chunks, MacDonald posits that protectionism, imperial expansion, and increased militarism led to the bloody carnage of the First World War, and that the rise of “economic nationalism” helped incite the Second. His studied and balanced analysis cuts through the rhetoric of “national pride” to expose the pragmatic geopolitical issues at stake, explaining why the Cold War played out on fringes such as Korea and Vietnam (where Soviet expansion threatened Western access to resources), and how current tensions in the Middle East rest on a century-long struggle over access to oil. The lessons of history urge us, MacDonald concludes, to be wary of expansionist ambitions that resemble a “pre-1914 mind-set,” and to find peaceful solutions if the “hitherto unimagined destructiveness” of the previous century is not to repeat itself. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All

Nancy J. Altman and Eric R. Kingson. New Press (Perseus, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-62097-037-9

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If passion alone was enough to resolve public policy debates, this dense and detailed examination of the Social Security issue could single-handedly give the United States a vastly expanded social-welfare system. Altman and Kingson, a lawyer and academic, respectively, who served on the landmark 1982 National Commission on Social Security Reform, explain, with wonkish fervor, how benefits can be expanded without increasing the program’s cost. “We are wealthy enough to afford a much more robust, expanded Social Security System,” they proclaim, pointing out how such an expansion would help the elderly, the working poor, and the millions caring for ailing family members. The authors blame a “three-decade-long billionaire-funded campaign” against Social Security for bastardizing terms such as entitlements, whipping up unwarranted fears about the federal deficit, and obscuring the fact that the program’s fundamental nature is to be “earned compensation.” As with many public policy pieces written by insiders, the level of detail is hard to follow, though the intentions are clearly stated and far from unreasonable. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir

Gail Godwin. Bloomsbury, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-1-62040-824-7

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Novelist Godwin (Flora) traces the trajectory of her career in this memoir, revealing the personal and professional stamina it takes to succeed as a writer in the modern publishing industry. Godwin begins with her college days and retells the story of her first (rejected) submission to Knopf. She goes on to recount her tumultuous experiences with publishers, such as being forced to cut 10,000 words or realizing that the novel she just wrote is unpublishable. Bibliophiles will be delighted to hear about her education with Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Coover, both teachers of hers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as her friendship with novelist John Irving and, most endearing, her 50-year working relationship with John Hawkins, her literary agent. Godwin’s chronicle is often informative but can at times feel self-indulgent–the result of a surfeit of anecdotes. Still, this book succeeds at giving an eye-opening look at the reality of what it takes to publish just one novel–or, in Godwin’s case, 14. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Escaper: The Untold First-Hand Story of the Legendary Bomber Pilot, “Cooler King,” and Arch Escape Artist

Peter Tunstall. Overlook, $27.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4683-1055-9

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In this posthumous memoir, Tunstall (1918–2013) relates his experiences as an RAF pilot during WWII. Captured early on, he spent the duration of the war at several different POW facilities, and he offers gripping details of his prison life, especially his many harrowing escape attempts. There is no doubt that he was an innovative escape artist, pioneering many tricks of the trade—including the immediate costume change—and helping intelligence operations with his use of “split photographs” combined with codes, in which he hid information between the layers of paper photographs. Tunstall also shares some impressive methods for manufacturing the clothing, documents, and other items needed for a successful escape. He spends the book’s closing pages defending the Allied bombing offensive that may have hastened Germany’s surrender, perhaps due to the postwar outcry against it. Tunstall’s informal prose reads like a letter home and is heavily flavored by the author’s perceptions. But the historical account of behind-the-scenes drama makes this a valuable addition to the period literature. (Jan)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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