Recent book reviews — January 2015


Title: Pay Any Price — Greed, Power, and Endless War
Author: James Risen
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

This is a compendium of the many ways our “war on terror” is misguided, told by one of the key reporters involved in revealing the Bush and Obama administrations’ secrets. The book’s nine chapters cover topics like the Coalition Provisional Authority’s reckless use of stacks of US $100 bills in Iraq, the bloated and corrupt war services contractor, KBR, and the brave insiders who resisted the NSA’s domestic warrantless wiretapping program. For me, the wide scope was both a strength and a detriment to Pay Any Price. I appreciated the overview of the topics and now find myself better informed on current news about the NSA and Iraq. But there were moments when the theme of “war on terror” seemed a bit tenuous to hold the book together, perhaps compounded by Risen’s main gig as a short-form writer. In any case, I am glad I read it and feel better empowered to resist the overreach of our current administration.

Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. FDR authorized the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans. Presidents Bush and Obama now must face their own reckoning.


Title: Cloudspotter’s Guide — The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds
Author: Gavin Pretor-Pinney
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2.5 stars

Written by a true cloud lover seeking to resist their popular image as “metaphor for doom”, Pretor-Pinney stands up for clouds. With tons of techinical information and a decent dose of history, the “cloud” theme provides an interesting lens on world culture. I enjoyed the first few chapters until my library borrowing period ran out. I’d love to check it out again and thumb through it with my nieces.


Title: How We Got to Now — Six Innovations that Made the Modern World
Author: Steven Johnson
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

This is a delightful, quick read for lovers of science. Johnson covers the development of “Glass”, “Cold”, “Sound”, “Clean”, “Time”, and “Light”, explaining how our understanding first developed and then altered other realms of human endeavor. Although the explorations are necessarily shallow (each topic could be a book in itself), the stories are engaging and filled with interesting facts. One gets the sense Johnson is an experienced science writer drawing from a deep and varied understanding of the topics. Highly recommended.


Title: Closet Smarts
Author: Emily Neill
Source: LAPL
Interest: 1.5 stars

I picked this up at the library to get a sense of women’s concerns regarding everyday fashion. Fashion can be both oppressive and empowering. The constant pressure for women to be beautiful and the barrage of the evaluating gaze (from both men and other women) is enough to make even the most quintessentially model-figured women self-conscious. At the same time, most women embrace fashion and enjoy the use of clothing as self-expression. I try to take the pulse of where individuals fall on this spectrum. Closet Smarts is empowering, but not perfect.

First, the good things. The book uses realistic female figures, with models representative of the American public. The women are presented respectfully and unashamedly in underwear shots, and the before and after photos are honest (no lighting or hairstyle changes, for example). The book says essentially, “Here are a series of tricks for choosing fashion that work with the body you have.” That’s a big step up from the images glanced on a magazine shelf or the internet porn site whose one-in-a-million figures become the one form of beauty. And the clothes are undoubtedly flattering.

At a deeper level, however, remains an image of “ideal beauty” that I find uninspired. While it is a more realistic and multi-faceted image (“curves are a thing of beauty”, “every body is different”), it is essentially the same message: how you look matters. The takeaway is therefore, “how to deal with your body’s inadequacy”. This is absolutely practical, and I would thoroughly recommend this book to a woman struggling to cope with fashion and her body. But for a young girl, I would choose something that more fundamentally revolts against the objectification of women and the inadequacy-inducing image of ideal beauty. I would choose images of task-specific clothes, clothes that are “designed for doing” and that present women as active, effective people.


Title: American Fashion
Author: Sarah Tomerlin Lee
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2 stars

This is an overview of the work of five, American fashion talents, Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell, and Trigere (though the section on Adrian is missing in my public library copy). The book is exclusively focused on women’s fashion and includes little on fundamental questions of fashion theory, but within the historical account of these designers, there were interesting explanations of fashion innovation here and there.


Title: Charles James — Beyond Fashion
Author: Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder
Source: LAPL
Interest: 1.5 stars

This is the catalog accompanying the Costume Institute’s exhibition of the same title. It contains hundreds of beautiful photographs, with closeups of construction (my favorite!). And while James was apparently extremely influential, I don’t see what is “Beyond Fashion” here. James expanded the techniques and possibilities of the evening gown, but these are evening gowns for goodness’ sake.

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