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How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants

David Rees

(Melville House; US: Apr 2012)

How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants
David Rees

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David Rees used to just be famous for creating Get Your War On, the landmark webcomic that used fantastically-foulmouthed clip art characters to perfectly capture the emotional rollercoaster of Bush’s War On Terror. But now he’s famous for something else: his career as the world’s first and foremost artisanal pencil sharpener, which culminated in the release of his deeply funny tongue-in-cheek reference book How to Sharpen Pencils. To wonder whether he’s being genuine or doing a Kaufmanesque send-up is missing the point—he’s doing both. Rees is very funny, but make no mistake: he’s also deadly serious about sharpening pencils. In 18 absurdly thorough chapters covering everything from “Warm-Up Exercises” to “Celebrity Impression Pencil Sharpening”, Rees creates comedy simply by being utterly exhaustive about something utterly banal. But his passion and sincerity, however, are impossible to fake, and amazingly, he’s oddly poignant on the subject, quoting Elinor Wylie and going off on purple-prosed flights of fancy about pencil shavings. It’s hilarious, but it’s also a surprisingly touching reminder about finding the courage to apply oneself fully to even the unsexiest of life’s tasks.  Pat Kewley


 

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I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy

Lori Andrews

(Free Press; US: Jan 2012)

I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy
Lori Andrews


In our perpetually connected digital age, privacy might seem like an antiquated notion. But in her book I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did, legal scholar Lori Andrews argues that the right to privacy is fundamental within a Constitutional democracy, and that the kinds of privacy violations that have become commonplace in the online sphere represent an unprecedented infringement of civil liberties within the legal history of the United States. Moreover, by allowing private companies unfettered access to our personal online information, we open up the possibility for even greater abuses. One such example is the practice of weblining, through which personal online information is collected and distributed by data aggregators and behavioral marketing departments in often invasive and discriminatory ways. These companies make enormous profits by creating and selling digital profiles of individuals that increasingly exert a powerful influence over real life opportunities, such as employment, housing, insurance and lending. In order to protect ourselves from further violations of our right to privacy, Andrews advocates for the adoption of a “Social Network Constitution” that would prevent these private companies from placing their own profits over our constitutionally protected liberties. Robert Alford


 

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Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (3rd Ed.)

John D’Emilio, Estelle B. Freedman, eds.

(University of Chicago Press;; US: Dec 2012)

Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (3rd Ed.)
John D’Emilio, Estelle B. Freedman, eds.


Early on, the authors separate the Puritan ideologue of American sexuality from what actually happened, pulling quotes from newspapers, court documents, and numerous personal journals from regular citizens throughout the ages. Topic by topic, we begin to see how sexuality has transpired from America’s founding to today. While a book this well-researched would be something to behold, the discourse inside—thoughtful, well-paced, simple to understand even when grappling with larger, more difficult cultural issues—is what makes it truly essential. Sexuality in America is a very large topic, but no matter what facet you’re curious about, this should be most readers’ default reference point, as D’Emilio & Freedman have set the bar for quality writing and research on the subject so high that it’s hard to envision anything else topping it—save the Fourth Edition, of course. Evan Sawdey


 

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John Chamberlain: New Sculpture

Thomas Crow

(Rizzoli; US: Feb 2012)

John Chamberlain: New Sculpture
Thomas Crow


This is a comprehensive, engaging look at one of the most influential and memorable American sculptors to have come out of the postwar era. When John Chamberlain passed away in December 2011 at the age of 84, we lost a great innovator—though he was rather cavalier and gruff about it all in the first place. Chamberlain’s sculptures, made from recycled materials, scrap metal and the detritus of smashed up cars painted and glossed in vivid colors to create a glittering rainbow out of congealed chrome, is the sculptural bridge between the exuberance and emotion of Abstract Expressionism and the cool irony of Pop Art. Thomas Crow, a revisionist art historian who teaches at New York University, succeeds in going beyond the confines of the mere artist’s monograph. He locates Chamberlain within his milieu as an artist working in the wake of postwar prosperity, who is at once skeptical and amused by how the country envisions itself, and he also sets Chamberlain apart as a singularly original force in American art, a spiritual and aesthetic partner to Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Serra. Farisa Khalid


 

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Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and The Assassination of a Journalist

Thomas Peele

(Crown; US: Feb 2012)

Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and The Assassination of a Journalist
Thomas Peele


Crime, corruption, journalism, race and politics come careening together. And you thought The Wire was fiction. Of course it was, even though it was fueled by co-creators Ed Burns and David Simon’s parallel experiences on the Baltimore, Maryland crime beat. Even though it has come to represent the state of modern, besieged urban America. Where else would one find so many vivid storylines intersecting race, crime, politics and journalism? Try Oakland, California. Thomas Peele and the rest of The Chauncey Bailey Project did outstanding work in researching and reporting the murder of reporter Chauncey Bailey, a down-on-his-heels print junkie looking for a scoop to save his career. Peele’s writing is as brisk and propulsive as the best crime fiction. But Peele’s telling begins much earlier – to the genesis of the Nation of Islam in the ‘20s and ‘30s as less a religion than a fable foisted upon impoverished black people looking for hope. Building on previous research into the Nation of Islam’s origins and newly available FBI files, Peele reveals new truths about its creation myth. You won’t be able to put this book down, except for those passages that might be a little too gruesome to bear. Mark Reynolds


 

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The Language Wars: A History of Proper English

Henry Hitchings

(Picador; US: Oct 2012)

The Language Wars: A History of Proper English
Henry Hitchings


Henry Hitchings two-part thesis on this vast and complex subject is simple: English, like virtually all languages, has developed in organic fashion. It had its source in other languages, has grown, mutated, absorbed and discarded countless words, migrated across small and large geographic spaces and vast expanses of time. Against the inherent instability of the language, as well its tendency toward transformation and the proliferation of dialects and idiomatic expressions, there stands a sturdy phalanx of ‘prescriptivists’. Its soldiers are the scholars, grammarians, educators, teachers, lexicographers, and others who have sought to impose order and rules on the unruly mass of English, to make it conform to protocols of (according to them at least) aesthetic beauty or mathematical rationality or refined sentiment. What are the reasons for this endeavor? And, just as importantly, what are the consequences? These are the questions that Hitchings seeks to answer over the course of 300 and more pages. Language is battlefield and, like it or not, we’re all soldiers. James Williams


 

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The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution

Richard Slotkin

(Liveright; US: Jul 2012)

The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution
Richard Slotkin


Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s epic Lincoln, with an equally epic Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role, may have garnered all the headlines in the media, lately, but historian Richard Slotkin’s account of the decisive remaining three years of The Civil War is a book that has a rousing power and vitality of its own. Slotkin, a professor emeritus at Wesleyan College, is a celebrity darling of American Studies, and with good reason. His examinations on history and folklore of the frontier and the Hollywood Western, Gunfighter Nation, The Fatal Environment, and Regeneration Through Violence,  has expanded our understanding of tumultuous moments in American history during the nineteenth-century as well as our approach to Westerns and War Movies. With his latest book, Slotkin delves into the messy, riveting politics behind the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment and the charismatic and complicated personality of George McClellan, the Union General who spoke out against Lincoln and ran against him in the 1864 election. Along with Doris Kearns Godwin’s Team of Rivals, the source material for Spielberg and Kushner’s film, Slotkin’s book does wonders to illuminate our understanding of this period. Farisa Khalid

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