December 20, 2010
At a secret arms-design contest in Stalin’s Soviet Union, army technicians submitted a stubby rifle with a curved magazine. Dubbed the AK-47, it was selected as the Eastern Bloc’s standard arm. Scoffed at in the Pentagon as crude and unimpressive, it was in fact a breakthrough—a compact automatic that could be mastered by almost anyone, last decades in the field, and would rarely jam. Manufactured by tens of millions in planned economies, it became first an instrument of repression and then the most lethal weapon of the Cold War. Soon it was in the hands of terrorists.In a searing examination of modern conflict and official folly, C. J. Chivers mixes meticulous historical research, investigative reporting, and battlefield reportage to illuminate the origins of the world’s most abundant firearm and the consequences of its spread. The result, a tour de force of history and storytelling, sweeps through the miniaturization and distribution of automatic firepower, and puts an iconic object in fuller context than ever before. The Gun dismantles myths as it moves from the naïve optimism of the Industrial Revolution through the treacherous milieu of the Soviet Union to the inside records of the Taliban. Chivers tells of the 19th-century inventor in Indianapolis who designs a Civil War killing machine, insisting that more-efficient slaughter will save lives. A German attaché who observes British machine guns killing Islamic warriors along the Nile advises his government to amass the weapons that would later flatten British ranks in World War I. In communist Hungary, a locksmith acquires an AK-47 to help wrest his country from the Kremlin’s yoke, beginning a journey to the gallows. The Pentagon suppresses the results of firing tests on severed human heads that might have prevented faulty rifles from being rushed to G.I.s in Vietnam. In Africa, a millennial madman arms abducted children and turns them on their neighbors, setting his country ablaze. Neither pro-gun nor anti-gun, The Gun builds to a terrifying sequence, in which a young man who confronts a trio of assassins is shattered by 23 bullets at close range. The man survives to ask questions that Chivers examines with rigor and flair.
Throughout, The Gun animates unforgettable characters—inventors, salesmen, heroes, megalomaniacs, racists, dictators, gunrunners, terrorists, child soldiers, government careerists, and fools. Drawing from years of research, interviews, and from declassified records revealed for the first time, he presents a richly human account of an evolution in the very experience of war.
December 19, 2010
Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet
One of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year
For more than four hundred years, the art of ballet has stood at the center of Western civilization. Its traditions serve as a record of our past. A ballerina dancing The Sleeping Beauty today is a link in a long chain of dancers stretching back to sixteenth-century Italy and France: Her graceful movements recall a lost world of courts, kings, and aristocracy, but her steps and gestures are also marked by the dramatic changes in dance and culture that followed. Ballet has been shaped by the Renaissance and Classicism, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, Bolshevism, Modernism, and the Cold War. Apollo’s Angels is a groundbreaking work—the first cultural history of ballet ever written, lavishly illustrated and beautifully told.
Ballet is unique: It has no written texts or standardized notation. It is a storytelling art passed on from teacher to student. The steps are never just the steps—they are a living, breathing document of a culture and a tradition. And while ballet’s language is shared by dancers everywhere, its artists have developed distinct national styles. French, Italian, Danish, Russian, English, and American traditions each have their own expression, often formed in response to political and societal upheavals.
From ballet’s origins in the Renaissance and the codification of its basic steps and positions under France’s Louis XIV (himself an avid dancer), the art form wound its way through the courts of Europe, from Paris and Milan to Vienna and St. Petersburg. It was in Russia that dance developed into the form most familiar to American audiences: The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker originated at the Imperial court. In the twentieth century, émigré dancers taught their art to a generation in the United States and in Western Europe, setting off a new and radical transformation of dance.
Jennifer Homans is a historian and critic who was also a professional dancer: She brings to Apollo’s Angels a knowledge of dance born of dedicated practice. She traces the evolution of technique, choreography, and performance in clean, clear prose, drawing readers into the intricacies of the art with vivid descriptions of dances and the artists who made them. Her admiration and love for the ballet shines through on every page. Apollo’s Angels is an authoritative work, written with a grace and elegance befitting its subject.
December 18, 2010
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.
We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist’s couch in New York City, confronting her long-standing compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then as a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We plunge into the hidden yearnings and disappointments of her uncle, an art historian stuck in a dead marriage, who travels to Naples to extract Sasha from the city’s demimonde and experiences an epiphany of his own while staring at a sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Museo Nazionale. We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life—divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed-up band in the basement of a suburban house—and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco’s punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang—who thrived and who faltered—and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie’s catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou’s far-flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to PowerPoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both—and escape the merciless progress of time—in the transporting realms of art and music. Sly, startling, exhilarating work from one of our boldest writers.
December 17, 2010
When Ann Beattie began publishing short stories in The New Yorker in the mid-seventies, she emerged with a voice so original, and so uncannily precise and prescient in its assessment of her characters’ drift and narcissism, that she was instantly celebrated as a voice of her generation. Her name became an adjective: Beattiesque. Subtle, wry, and unnerving, she is a master observer of the unraveling of the American family, and also of the myriad small occurrences and affinities that unite us. Her characters, over nearly four decades, have moved from lives of fickle desire to the burdens and inhibitions of adulthood and on to failed aspirations, sloppy divorces, and sometimes enlightenment, even grace.
Each Beattie story, says Margaret Atwood, is "like a fresh bulletin from the front: we snatch it up, eager to know what’s happening out there on the edge of that shifting and dubious no-man’s-land known as interpersonal relations." With an unparalleled gift for dialogue and laser wit, she delivers flash reports on the cultural landscape of her time. Ann Beattie: The New Yorker Stories is the perfect initiation for readers new to this iconic American writer and a glorious return for those who have known and loved her work for decades.
December 16, 2010
Charles Portis has long been acclaimed as one of America's foremost comic writers. True Grit is his most famous novel--first published in 1968, and the basis for the movie of the same name starring John Wayne. It tells the story of Mattie Ross, who is just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shoots her father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robs him of his life, his horse, and $150 in cash money. Mattie leaves home to avenge her father's blood. With the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshal, by her side, Mattie pursues the homicide into Indian Territory.
True Grit is eccentric, cool, straight, and unflinching, like Mattie herself. From a writer of true cult status, this is an American classic through and through. This new edition, with a smart new package and an afterword by acclaimed author Donna Tartt, will bring this masterpiece to an even broader audience.
December 15, 2010
Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View
The Supreme Court is one of the most extraordinary institutions in our system of government. Charged with the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution, the nine unelected justices of the Court have the awesome power to strike down laws enacted by our elected representatives. Why does the public accept the Court’s decisions as legitimate and follow them, even when those decisions are highly unpopular? What must the Court do to maintain the public’s faith? How can the Court help make our democracy work? These are the questions that Justice Stephen Breyer tackles in this groundbreaking book.
Today we assume that when the Court rules, the public will obey. But Breyer declares that we cannot take the public’s confidence in the Court for granted. He reminds us that at various moments in our history, the Court’s decisions were disobeyed or ignored. And through investigations of past cases, concerning the Cherokee Indians, slavery, and Brown v. Board of Education, he brilliantly captures the steps—and the missteps—the Court took on the road to establishing its legitimacy as the guardian of the Constitution.
Justice Breyer discusses what the Court must do going forward to maintain that public confidence and argues for interpreting the Constitution in a way that works in practice. He forcefully rejects competing approaches that look exclusively to the Constitution’s text or to the eighteenth-century views of the framers. Instead, he advocates a pragmatic approach that applies unchanging constitutional values to ever-changing circumstances—an approach that will best demonstrate to the public that the Constitution continues to serve us well. The Court, he believes, must also respect the roles that other actors—such as the president, Congress, administrative agencies, and the states—play in our democracy, and he emphasizes the Court’s obligation to build cooperative relationships with them.
Finally, Justice Breyer examines the Court’s recent decisions concerning the detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, contrasting these decisions with rulings concerning the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. He uses these cases to show how the Court can promote workable government by respecting the roles of other constitutional actors without compromising constitutional principles.
Making Our Democracy Work is a tour de force of history and philosophy, offering an original approach to interpreting the Constitution that judges, lawyers, and scholars will look to for many years to come. And it further establishes Justice Breyer as one of the Court’s greatest intellectuals and a leading legal voice of our time.
December 14, 2010
The Sounds of Star Wars
Any Star Wars fan can mimic Darth Vader's voice or Chewbacca's roar with ease. But how many of them would be able to identify the lion's roar used in the sound of the Millenium Falcon's engine? In this aurally astonishing and visually engaging book, New York Times best-selling author J. W. Rinzler reveals the illuminating history of the sounds that make the Star Wars universe so believable, as recounted by their creator, legendary sound designer Ben Burtt. An attached sound module with an exterior speaker and headphone jack lets readers listen to more than 250 unique sound effects, and more than 300 photographs illustrate the epic's many memorable scenes. From the first films to the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars series, The Sounds of Star Wars is Star Wars as you've never heard it before.