Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tuesday Books on Wednesday

Sorry, this is a day late. I couldn't make myself get on the internet last night for anything other than lol-style memes. :(

As Mary Richards’s lovable and self-deprecating best friend Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Valerie Harper, too, turned the world on with her smile. Viewers could relate to Rhoda, native New Yorker and struggling working girl, who was unlucky in love and insecure about her weight but who always kept her sense of humor.

Valerie was an unknown actress when she won the part that made her famous, and by the time Rhoda, her popular spin-off show, ended, she had won four Emmys and a Golden Globe. The role was groundbreaking. On-screen, she represented a self-reliant new identity for women of the 1970s while off-screen she fought alongside feminists Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug for equal rights, among other issues that were important to her.

Valerie’s showbiz journey has taken her from Broadway, where she performed as a dancer and eventually found herself onstage with Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason, to Hollywood, where she went down in history as one of television’s best-loved characters, and back to the Great White Way, where she recently won a Tony Award nomination for her critically acclaimed role as Tallulah Bankhead. Her inspiring story is laced with triumphs and a few transformative obstacles along the way, but she remains upbeat and funny throughout, always confident that no matter what, she’s going to make it after all.

In American Honor Killings, straight and gay guys cross paths, and the result is murder. But what really happened? What role did hatred play? What were the men involved really like, and what was going on between them when the murder occurred? American Honor Killings explores the truth behind squeamish reporting and uninformed political rants of the far right or fringe left. David McConnell, a New York–based novelist, researched cases from small-town Alabama to San Quentin's death row. The book recounts some of the most notorious crimes of our era.

Beginning in 1999 and lasting until the 2011 conviction of a youth in Queens, New York, the book shows how some murderers think they're cleaning up society. Surprisingly, other killings feel almost preordained, not a matter of the victim's personality or actions so much as a twisted display of a young man's will to compete or dominate. We want to think these stories involve simple sexual conflict, either the killer's internal struggle over his own identity or a fatally miscalculated proposition. They're almost never that simple.

Together, the cases form a secret American history of rage and desire. McConnell cuts through cant and political special pleading to turn these cases into enduring literature. In each story, victims, murderers, friends, and relatives come breathtakingly alive. The result is more soulful, more sensitive, more artful than the sort of “true crime” writing the book was modeled on. A wealth of new detail has been woven into old cases, while new cases are plumbed for the first time. The resulting stories play out exactly as they happened, an inexorable sequence of events—grisly, touching, disturbing, sometimes even with moments of levity.

Sake began with a grain of rice. Scotch emerged from barley, tequila from agave, rum from sugarcane, bourbon from corn. Thirsty yet? In The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart explores the dizzying array of herbs, flowers, trees, fruits, and fungi that humans have, through ingenuity, inspiration, and sheer desperation, contrived to transform into alcohol over the centuries.

Of all the extraordinary and obscure plants that have been fermented and distilled, a few are dangerous, some are downright bizarre, and one is as ancient as dinosaurs—but each represents a unique cultural contribution to our global drinking traditions and our history.

This fascinating concoction of biology, chemistry, history, etymology, and mixology — with more than fifty drink recipes and growing tips for gardeners — will make you the most popular guest at any cocktail party.

In this lively and illuminating discussion of his landmark research, esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal argues that human morality is not imposed from above but instead comes from within. Moral behavior does not begin and end with religion but is in fact a product of evolution.

For many years, de Waal has observed chimpanzees soothe distressed neighbors and bonobos share their food. Now he delivers fascinating fresh evidence for the seeds of ethical behavior in primate societies that further cements the case for the biological origins of human fairness. Interweaving vivid tales from the animal kingdom with thoughtful philosophical analysis, de Waal seeks a bottom-up explanation of morality that emphasizes our connection with animals. In doing so, de Waal explores for the first time the implications of his work for our understanding of modern religion. Whatever the role of religious moral imperatives, he sees it as a “Johnny-come-lately” role that emerged only as an addition to our natural instincts for cooperation and empathy.

But unlike the dogmatic neo-atheist of his book’s title, de Waal does not scorn religion per se. Instead, he draws on the long tradition of humanism exemplified by the painter Hieronymus Bosch and asks reflective readers to consider these issues from a positive perspective: What role, if any, does religion play for a well-functioning society today? And where can believers and nonbelievers alike find the inspiration to lead a good life?

Rich with cultural references and anecdotes of primate behavior, The Bonobo and the Atheist engagingly builds a unique argument grounded in evolutionary biology and moral philosophy. Ever a pioneering thinker, de Waal delivers a heartening and inclusive new perspective on human nature and our struggle to find purpose in our lives.

"I wish I could tell everyone who thinks we’re ruined, Look closer…and you’ll see something extraordinary, mystifying, something real and true. We have never been what we seemed."

When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen years old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the “ungettable” Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame. Her father is deeply unimpressed. But after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Scribner’s, Zelda optimistically boards a train north, to marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and take the rest as it comes.

What comes, here at the dawn of the Jazz Age, is unimagined attention and success and celebrity that will make Scott and Zelda legends in their own time. Everyone wants to meet the dashing young author of the scandalous novel—and his witty, perhaps even more scandalous wife. Zelda bobs her hair, adopts daring new fashions, and revels in this wild new world. Each place they go becomes a playground: New York City, Long Island, Hollywood, Paris, and the French Riviera—where they join the endless party of the glamorous, sometimes doomed Lost Generation that includes Ernest Hemingway, Sara and Gerald Murphy, and Gertrude Stein.

Everything seems new and possible. Troubles, at first, seem to fade like morning mist. But not even Jay Gatsby’s parties go on forever. Who is Zelda, other than the wife of a famous — sometimes infamous — husband? How can she forge her own identity while fighting her demons and Scott’s, too? With brilliant insight and imagination, Therese Anne Fowler brings us Zelda’s irresistible story as she herself might have told it.

Strong support among women was key to Obama’s reelection. At the start of his second term, it is time for Barack Obama, forty years after Roe v. Wade, to finally help lead us to demystify abortion. One-third of all American women will have an abortion by the time they are 45, and most of those women are already mothers. Yet, the topic remains taboo. In this provocative book on the heels of the Planned Parenthood controversy, Sarah Erdreich presents the antidote to the usual abortion debates.

Inextricably connected to issues of autonomy, privacy, and sexuality, the abortion debate remains home base for the culture wars in America. Yet, there is more common ground than meets the eye in favor of choice. Generation Roe delves into phenomena such as "abortion-recovery counseling," "crisis pregnancy centers," and the infamous anti-choice "black children are an endangered species" billboards. It tells the stories of those who risk their lives to pursue careers in this stigmatized field. And it outlines the outrageous legislative battles that are being waged against abortion rights all over the country. With an inspiring spirit and a forward-looking approach, Erdreich holds abortion up, unabashedly, as a moral and fundamental human right.

Single mother Elise is completely devoted to her eleven-year-old son; he is her whole world. But that world is destroyed in one terrifying moment when her son is killed in a car accident just outside their home. Suddenly alone, surrounded by memories, Elise faces a future that feels unspeakably bleak — and pointless.

Lost, angry, and desolate, Elise rejects everyone who tries to reach out to her. But as despair threatens to engulf her, she realizes, to her horror, that she cannot join her son: She must take care of his beloved cat. At first she attempts to carry out this task entirely by herself, shut away from a frightening new reality that seems surreal and incomprehensible. But isolation proves to be impossible, and before long others insinuate themselves into her life — friends, enemies, colleagues, neighbors, a former lover — bringing with them the fragile beginnings of survival.

Powerfully moving and deeply humane, The Cat is an unforgettable novel about the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit.

From the acclaimed author of Citizens of London comes the definitive account of the debate over American intervention in World War II — a bitter, sometimes violent clash of personalities and ideas that divided the nation and ultimately determined the fate of the free world.

At the center of this controversy stood the two most famous men in America: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who championed the interventionist cause, and aviator Charles Lindbergh, who as unofficial leader and spokesman for America’s isolationists emerged as the president’s most formidable adversary. Their contest of wills personified the divisions within the country at large, and Lynne Olson makes masterly use of their dramatic personal stories to create a poignant and riveting narrative. While FDR, buffeted by political pressures on all sides, struggled to marshal public support for aid to Winston Churchill’s Britain, Lindbergh saw his heroic reputation besmirched — and his marriage thrown into turmoil — by allegations that he was a Nazi sympathizer.

Spanning the years 1939 to 1941, Those Angry Days vividly re-creates the rancorous internal squabbles that gripped the United States in the period leading up to Pearl Harbor. After Germany vanquished most of Europe, America found itself torn between its traditional isolationism and the urgent need to come to the aid of Britain, the only country still battling Hitler. The conflict over intervention was, as FDR noted, “a dirty fight,” rife with chicanery and intrigue, and Those Angry Days recounts every bruising detail. In Washington, a group of high-ranking military officers, including the Air Force chief of staff, worked to sabotage FDR’s pro-British policies. Roosevelt, meanwhile, authorized FBI wiretaps of Lindbergh and other opponents of intervention. At the same time, a covert British operation, approved by the president, spied on antiwar groups, dug up dirt on congressional isolationists, and planted propaganda in U.S. newspapers.

The stakes could not have been higher. The combatants were larger than life. With the immediacy of a great novel, Those Angry Days brilliantly recalls a time fraught with danger when the future of democracy and America’s role in the world hung in the balance.

"Sustainability is about contributing to a society that everybody benefits from, not just going organic because you don't want to die from cancer or have a difficult pregnancy. What is a sustainable restaurant? It's one in which as the restaurant grows, the people grow with it." - from Behind the Kitchen Door

How do restaurant workers live on some of the lowest wages in America? And how do poor working conditions - discriminatory labor practices, exploitation, and unsanitary kitchens - affect the meals that arrive at our restaurant tables? Saru Jayaraman, who launched the national restaurant workers' organization Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, sets out to answer these questions by following the lives of restaurant workers in New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Miami, Detroit, and New Orleans.

Blending personal narrative and investigative journalism, Jayaraman shows us that the quality of the food that arrives at our restaurant tables depends not only on the sourcing of the ingredients. Our meals benefit from the attention and skill of the people who chop, grill, sauté, and serve. Behind the Kitchen Door is a groundbreaking exploration of the political, economic, and moral implications of dining out. Jayaraman focuses on the stories of individuals, like Daniel, who grew up on a farm in Ecuador and sought to improve the conditions for employees at Del Posto; the treatment of workers behind the scenes belied the high-toned Slow Food ethic on display in the front of the house.

Increasingly, Americans are choosing to dine at restaurants that offer organic, fair-trade, and free-range ingredients for reasons of both health and ethics. Yet few of these diners are aware of the working conditions at the restaurants themselves. But whether you eat haute cuisine or fast food, the well-being of restaurant workers is a pressing concern, affecting our health and safety, local economies, and the life of our communities. Highlighting the roles of the 10 million people, many immigrants, many people of color, who bring their passion, tenacity, and vision to the American dining experience, Jayaraman sets out a bold agenda to raise the living standards of the nation's second-largest private sector workforce-and ensure that dining out is a positive experience on both sides of the kitchen door.

A decade in the writing, the haunting story of a son’s quest to understand the mystery of his father’s death—a universal memoir about the secrets families keep and the role they play in making us who we are.

Michael Hainey had just turned six when his uncle knocked on his family’s back door one morning with the tragic news: Bob Hainey, Michael’s father, was found alone near his car on Chicago’s North Side, dead, of an apparent heart attack. Thirty-five years old, a young assistant copy desk chief at the Chicago Sun-Times, Bob was a bright and shining star in the competitive, hard-living world of newspapers, one that involved booze-soaked nights that bled into dawn. And then suddenly he was gone, leaving behind a young widow, two sons, a fractured family—and questions surrounding the mysterious nature of his death that would obsess Michael throughout adolescence and long into adulthood. Finally, roughly his father’s age when he died, and a seasoned reporter himself, Michael set out to learn what happened that night. Died “after visiting friends,” the obituaries said. But the details beyond that were inconsistent. What friends? Where? At the heart of his quest is Michael’s all-too-silent, opaque mother, a woman of great courage and tenacity—and a steely determination not to look back. Prodding and cajoling his relatives, and working through a network of his father’s buddies who abide by an honor code of silence and secrecy, Michael sees beyond the long-held myths and ultimately reconciles the father he’d imagined with the one he comes to know—and in the journey discovers new truths about his mother.

A stirring portrait of a family and its legacy of secrets, After Visiting Friends is the story of a son who goes in search of the truth and finds not only his father, but a rare window into a world of men and newspapers and fierce loyalties that no longer exists.

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