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Tangled Webs How False Statements are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff

James B. Stewart

(Penguin; US: Apr 2011)

Tangled Webs How False Statements are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff
James B. Stewart


How did we get from a society that drove nails through people’s ears for lying in court to a society that seems to condone lying? It’s a tough question, but Stewart’s Tangled Webs has some answers. Even though the penalties for perjury today are clearly not as severe (or brutal) as those in 16th century England, why do people risk it? This question is, according to Stewart, more easily answered: people commit “crimes of perjury” because they think they can get away with it. And so, Stewart details, with great thought and care, several of the most notable (but sadly enough certainly not the only) perjury cases of the 21st century: Martha Stewart, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Barry Lamar Bonds, and Bernard Madoff. Another important question: What happens if the epidemic of perjury continues? The short answer: Nothing good. Stewart’s slightly longer answer: “Lying under oath that goes unproven and unpunished breeds a cynicism that undermines the foundations of any society that aspires to fair play and the rule of law. It undermines civilization itself.” Catherine Ramsdell


 

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Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN

James Andrew Miller, Tom Shales

(Little, Brown & Company; US: Dec 2011)

Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN
James Andrew Miller, Tom Shales


There’s no business like show business, but in the ‘10s, there’s no booming business quite like the sports media business. In the past five years, the internet has given rise to the spot-on, day-to-day, meticulous criticism of the various networks that air and cover our favorite athletic competitions, and no channel across the dial is as alternately revered, loathed, and fascinated as ESPN. Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller—who’s prior collaboration elicited the equally fun and dishy Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live—weave together stories both long and short, with access to almost everyone who ever graced Bristol, Connecticut’s hallowed halls. There’s no Eddie Murphy’s declining to participate, and everyone’s got an agenda and a story to tell. Delving into stories like the improbably founding and success of the network, Keith Olbermann’s tenuous tenure, and the rise of aforementioned modern critics of ESPN, There were few things as entertaining and devour-able than Those Guys Have All the Fun in 2011. Steve Lepore


 

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To a Mountain in Tibet

Colin Thubron

(HarperCollins; US: Mar 2011)

To a Mountain in Tibet
Colin Thubron


Thubron is touted as a master of the travel genre, and understandably so. This tale immediately plunges you into the climb into the Himalayas, towards the Nepalese remoteness of Humla, on his way to the sacred “spindle” of Hindus and Buddhists as the world’s axis, the Kailas peak over the Tibetan border. Thubron describes the scenes clearly, without sentiment, but with compassion as well as objectivity. The estrangement he feels, as a British hiker able to enter the realm where Tibetan exiles cannot in search of this pilgrimage site, deepens the resonance of his story. His combination of reserve and admission admires as much as it decries in this haunted, barren, vivid wilderness where rivers are littered by Chinese beer bottles and filled with the soil of construction projects by the regime. He knows its beauties offer little sustenance for its impoverished inhabitants, but he shares this dreamlike scenery that stuns jaded tourists. “But now, underfoot, spreads a glaze of delicate flowers I do not know, and the ground-hugging shrubs are starred with lemony blossoms.” He does not romanticize but he scrutinizes, and allows us to see what he does, recorded meticulously but conveyed freshly in vigorous prose. John L. Muprhy


 

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Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters

Paul Maher Jr. (editor)

(Chicago Review Press; US: Aug 2011)

Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters
Paul Maher Jr. (editor)


Much more than a poet of the streets, Tom Waits is the dharma bum who can transmute down at the heels grotesqueries into the lyrical and even the spiritually fecund. Dressed like the surly lounge piano player he once was, Waits’ career of nearly half a century has given such iconic albums as Raindogs, dark musicals like Franks’ Wild Years and numerous performances in film (my favorite being his turn as the Devil in Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium). The man himself has largely remained in the shadows, using the iconography of seedy hotels and hobo love songs without making it clear what was personal anecdote and what was extended metaphor. Maher’s incredibly complete collection, Tom Waits on Tom Waits, doesn’t pull its subject out of the shadows so much as it follows him there. The book contains interviews, articles and critical commentary on Waits and his work dating back to 1973. Absolutely required for Waits fans old and new, this pile of interviews is a magic mountain of weird. A few will complain that there’s not more critical commentary on the music. But for many of us, the music is what we know, already. We’ve just wanted to meet the strange old wizard who conjured it all. Maher’s work has made that possible. W. Scott Poole


 

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Townie

Andre Dubus III

(W. W. Norton; US: Feb 2011)

Townie
Andre Dubus III


Sometimes a book is so mindblowing you gotta walk around with it for a few days, digesting it, letting it wash over you. Sometimes a book is so mindblowing you aren’t sure what to say about it even after a few days. In Townie, Dubus III, author of The House of Sand and Fog, recounts his childhood and coming of age in the rough-edged, dying mill towns of Massachusetts. While ultimately redemptive, the book is a searing accounting of pain, poverty, violence. Reading it is often difficult—not because it’s poorly written, but because of the author’s careful recounting of what seems an endless nightmare. I began Townie expecting to be disappointed. Dubus, Sr. is one of my favorite writers. I was familiar with his single-minded devotion to his work, yet steeling myself for an unhappy awakening akin to Carol Sklenicka’s Raymond Carver biography. Here, Dubus, Jr. is honest about his father’s failings and his sincere, unfulfilled wish that they discuss their rocky family past. Yet he manages something many adult children never do: forgiveness. And in forgiving his parents, he is able to convey their intelligence, talents, and strengths so that the reader, instead of disliking them, finishes Townie filled with admiration for the entire Dubus family. Diane Leach


 

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A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France

Caroline Moorehead

(Harper; US: Nov 2011)

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France
Caroline Moorehead


In 2008 Moorehead set out to find any surviving members of a group known as Le Convoi des 31000, 230 women who had actively participated in the French Resistance during World War II, only to be caught and transported to Auschwitz. She learned seven were still alive. Some were too ill to meet with her, but the others were amazingly forthcoming. Le Convoi des 31000 was a unique transport in that it carried only women, primarily war resisters rather than Jews. The group itself was unusual in their intense bonding, which they recognized as crucial to their survival. Once caught, these women pooled their meager rations, actively protected the weaker members of the group and incredibly, continued to resist the Nazis from the streets of Paris to La Santé Prison to the camps, even as their living situations deteriorated into some of the most brutal ever known. Of the 230, only 49 survived. Naturally, Moorehead cannot describe all of these women, choosing instead to focus on some key figures, fleshing out their biographies. There is midwife Maï Politzer, dentist Danielle Casanova, schoolgirls Poupette and Marie Alizon, Betty Langlois, the teenaged Simone Sampaix, Madeleine Dissoubray, and several others. The women ranged from professionals to housewives to students, and though the Resistance began in Paris, it eventually encompassed the entire country. Women played a crucial role, writing, printing, and distributing clandestine newspapers, anti-German tracts, and expertly created false identification papers. They sheltered those fleeing the Germans, Jews and non-Jews alike; some acted as passeurs, ferrying people to safety. A Train In Winter, like Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, leaves nothing to the imagination, a decision that makes reading it simultaneously engrossing and deeply disturbing. Diane Leach


 

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What It Is Like to Go to War

Karl Marlantes

(Grove / Atlantic; US: Aug 2011)

What It Is Like to Go to War
Karl Marlantes


Marlantes’ sprawling 2010 novel of the Vietnam War, Matterhorn, was an epic achievement. Redolent of blood and slaughter and sadness and terror and waste, it instantly deserved inclusion with the great war novels of all time. Right on its heels, the former Marine returns with this thin meditation on both going off to war and the broader issue of what combat does to both men and society. He avoids the temptation of many the war-philosopher to reach for the classical bookshelf and lard his thoughts with impressive quotations. Though Marlantes is deeply schooled philosophy, literature, psychology, and religion, he keeps his language spare and sharp. In between his recollections of different episodes of combat in the swampy wilds of northern South Vietnam—each of them mini-epics—Marlantes makes an argument for a realistic and mindful approach to combat. He’s more honest than most about the burning, terrible exhilaration of fighting, but is just as insightful about the psychic and spiritual wounds that killing buries deep in soldiers like him, wounds harder to espy that more distanced the military becomes from the actual act: “The easier the path of destruction gets, the more likely we’ll be to take it.” Chris Barsanti


 

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Why Pamper Life’s Complexities?: Essays on the Smiths

(Manchester University Press; US: Feb 2011)

Why Pamper Life’s Complexities?: Essays on the Smiths
Sean Campbell and Colin Coulter (editors)


Written from a critical cultural and historical perspective, these scholarly essays are eminently readable. In fact, they represent some of the most incisive descriptions of the fey band from Manchester I have come across. They effectively show the reasons for the band’s massive appeal and explore their distinctive world, a world where rapid economic change and Thatcherism were remaking dear old Blighty into a twisted reflection of Reagan’s America. The collection benefits immeasurably from the authors’ ability to ground their study in The Smiths’ historical and sociological context. Brooker’s contribution on the band and Thatcherism is paradigmatic, weaving detailed information about the politics of ‘80s Britain with a layered understanding of “oppositional youth culture”.Campbell and Coulter make clear that the volume is guided by Simon Frith’s Performing Rites, and the idea that scholars should move between critical evaluation and a very open acknowledgement of the personal value of a pop culture artifact. Fans of The Smiths, and anyone personally or professionally interested in British popular culture, must read this book. This collection is really the epitome of what pop culture criticism can and should be. W. Scott Poole


 

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Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future

Ian Morris

(Picador; US: Nov 2011)

Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future
Ian Morris


This is a ground-breaking book that places modern Western dominance within the context of the entire scope of human history while giving a frightening view of the shape of things to come. Morris borrows from the great science fiction writer Robert Heinlein: “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they are doing.” There was no grand urge to settle the world out of Africa; each generation just walked one more mile down the road. The invention of agriculture was just as gradual, almost imperceptibly from generation to generation. The most troubling aspect of Why the West Rules is not whether one side of the Eurasian continent will rule over the other in the future, but rather that societies world-wide seem to have hit a similar developmental ceiling. From the perspective of the last 200 years, it’s easy to be optimistic that humans will figure out something after the oil runs dry. But it’s less easy to do so from the perspective of the last 2,000 years, after Morris shows how numerous great societies have collapsed due to their inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Jonathan Tjarks

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