Nonfiction: Birds, Broadway, the Guggenheim, Bearing Arms, Travel Snaps, Enrico Fermi | Xpress Reviews

Highly recommended for those considering theater as a career and for those who love theater; for readers interested in a different view of U.S. history and the Second Amendment; Helton produces a well-crafted, imaginable, and satisfying picture; a print alternative to online photo albums

Week ending October 27, 2017


Barnes, Simon. The Meaning of Birds. Pegasus. Jan. 2018. 208p. illus. index. ISBN 9781681776262. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681776958. SCI

Barnes is a former sports writer for the Times (London) and author of several books, including Birdwatching with Your Eyes Closed: An Introduction to Birdsong. His newest work takes a wide-ranging, philosophical look at the significance of wild birds in our lives, past and present. Barnes considers the many facets of birds, whether in food, re-creation, mythology, music, hunting, conservation and migration, the feather trade, and as the subject of scientific studies. Unfortunately, the book lacks an introduction and references and has a British bias. For the attractive illustrations, which appear to be from 19th-century sources, one has to look in a few places before finding the limited captions that also lack any attribution. But Barnes, although a polymath, is an experienced birder and explores the influences of birds on us, something of a virtuoso performance, including his own anecdotal experiences.

Verdict Optional reading for those with a very general interest in natural history, science, and bird-watching.—Henry T. Armistead, formerly with Free Lib. of Philadelphia


Bogyo, Peter. Broadway General Manager: Demystifying the Most Important and Least Understood Role in Show Business. Allworth. Sept. 2017. 240p. notes. index. ISBN 9781621536246. $29.99; ebk. ISBN 9781621536253. THEATER

Author Bogyo (general manager for Love Letters; A Moon for the Misbegotten; et al.) has used his years of experience to write an excellent guide for those who are interested in a nonperforming theater career. While an audience member may not worry about budgets, insurance, hiring performers, and, unfortunately, closing a show, the general manager must know and understand all that and more. A discussion of prerecoupment full royalties and prerecoupment (net), along with a detailed financial listing of both, is one clear example of the author’s in-depth approach. Another is a full chapter on operating budgets and all the components one must consider (and cost out) when pulling a production together. He also makes clear that a GM must not only understand financial issues, as well as be good at math, but must also be able to deal with unions, contracts, creative personalities, and the ebb and flow of audience interests and cultural imagination.The text includes a helpful “Glossary of Terms” (where readers learn the difference between gross gross and gross) and a very good index.

Verdict Highly recommended for those considering theater as a career and for those who love theater and want to know more about what goes on before the curtain goes up and after.—Susan L. Peters, Univ. of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston


Dal Co, Francesco. The Guggenheim: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Iconoclastic Masterpiece. Yale. Jul. 2017. 184p. illus. ISBN 9780300226058. $30. ARCH

This book updates the author’s 2004 publication Il Tempo e l’architetto, mixing in the last 15 years of scholarship on Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) and his masterwork, New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. Dal Co is a stellar architectural historian of postmodernism; he wrote many books on some of its dinosaurs such as Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano. Wright is well known as one of the greatest architects of all time, and the rising sun of postmodernism led by climate change has increased his importance and “recast” his Guggenheim as the most important single building of the 20th century. Looking backward from the 21st century, the Guggenheim emerges through its cloud of “rational objectivity” as the completely natural and organic crown of all of Wright’s career, conceived as a “ spiral, chambered nautilus” that would “spring back” from any atomic bomb attack and keep the wheelchairs going up the ramp of life. Unfortunately, production errors make this book hugely incomprehensible. The typeface (“Atlas Grotesk”) is hard on the eyes—perhaps a crucifixed reading was intended. Paragraphs are much too long, too complicated, and virtually unorganized. Long quotations are not inset. Text illustrations are inadequately identified on subsequent pages. There is no index, and footnotes are replaced by a ten-page “Bibliographic Note” of interest to serious readers. Finally, intellectual references are diluted and inconspicuous.

Verdict Only for educated connoisseurs, aesthetes, intellectuals, and a few educated architects and adults.—Peter S. Kaufman, Boston


Architectural Ctr. Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. City Lights. Jan. 2018. 176p. notes. index. ISBN 9780872867239. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780872867246. SOC SCI

Dunbar-Ortiz (An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States) is unequivocal in her interpretation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; she argues that arming citizens to protect themselves from despotic government was not its historical premise. Relying on the work of historians and authors, she also emphatically contends that the “Right To Bear Arms” is rooted in the interests of early American colonists overtaking Native American lands and defending themselves against slave rebellions. This notion of the “Right To Bear Arms” has continued as an American tradition, she maintains, in the forms of racial injustice, the continued suppression of marginalized peoples, and the U.S. desire for empire. In her view, a number of American icons—including Daniel Boone, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Washington, among others—are part of the unjust tradition of the Second Amendment. For Dunbar-Ortiz, domestic mass shootings in the United States are also in the same tradition as American foreign military operations, as they relate to the slaughter of innocents.

Verdict Readers interested in a different view of U.S. history and the Second Amendment will find this book appealing.—Mark Jones, Mercantile Lib., Cincinnati


Helton, J.R. Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions: Dispatches from the Working Class. Liveright: Norton. Jan. 2018. 272p. ISBN 9781631492877. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631492884. SOC SCI

Helton’s latest in his (partially fictionalized) memoir series follows the life of Jake Stewart through the 1980s in and around Austin, TX. Helton, a writing teacher, effectively recounts his/Jake’s trials after he sells a short story to a magazine and drops out of college, convinced that he can earn a living as a writer. When reality hits, he finds tedious, menial jobs to make ends meet: doing commercial painting, selling firewood and delivering sod, gathering unused railroad ties, and painting sets for a TV miniseries. His bosses are unscrupulous, and his coworkers are mostly addicts, alcoholics, an ex-con—pretending to work, struggling to keep their heads above water, getting drunk, and doing drugs. In his spare time, Jake hangs out, drinks, has sex, and gets high. We follow the on-again, off-again saga of his relationship with his girlfriend, then wife, then ex-wife, Susan. As the decade ends, through luck and improved judgment, he lands back in college part-time.

Verdict Helton produces a well-crafted, imaginable, and satisfying picture. The book will appeal to Helton followers and to other readers who savor accounts of life as it really is: mundane, matter-of-fact, and gritty.—Margaret Kappanadze, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY


Rough Guides You Are Here: A Travel Photobook. Rough Guides. Oct. 2017. 216p. photos. ISBN 9780241317914. pap. $14.99. TRAV

Travel publisher Rough Guides held a competition for photographs taken by amateur and professional photographers. This photobook is a compilation of selected submissions from more than 5,000 entries for the 2017 contest. Capturing people, animals, buildings, street scenes, and landscapes on six continents (Antarctica is not included), the pictures depict moments in travel. Images are accompanied by location, photographer, date, Instagram handle (when available), and, occasionally, a short explanatory caption when provided by the photographer. Some subjects are well known, such as the Taj Mahal, and others are ordinary sights like a gas station in Italy. Anonymous faces reflect global diversity. Nature’s wonders are portrayed, such as starry night skies over India and a black-and-white shore in Indonesia. Some of the photographs leave the reader wondering what is going on—what is that golden substance men are pushing aside in rows? Technical and artistic quality vary, making some of the shots more memorable than others.

Verdict For those who gladly peruse other people’s travel pictures, this is a print alternative to online photo albums of locations worldwide.—Janet Clapp, N. Clarendon, VT


Schwartz, David N. The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age. Basic: Perseus. Dec. 2017. 480p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780465072927. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780465093120. SCI

One of Enrico Fermi’s (1901–54) former students referred to him as “the last man who knew everything” because he was a physicist who was brilliant not only in the theoretical realm but also in the experimental branch. Schwartz (NATO’s Nuclear Dilemmas) relates the life story of Fermi, including his younger years in Italy, the death of his brother, his immense capacity for learning mathematics and physics, his Nobel Prize work, his escape to America and work on the atomic bomb, and his legacy at the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, Schwartz has the tendency to use such phrases as “we now know” or “one is” to refer to the reader. His research is sound, and the book includes notes and a bibliography.

Verdict In 2016, another Fermi biography was published—Bettina Hoerlin and Gino Segrè’s The Pope of Physics, that is superior to this book in both writing style and organization of content.Jason L. Steagall, Gateway Technical Coll. Lib., Elkhorn, WI

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