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This week’s book reviews in brief

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT) • Updated Dec 31, 2013 at 7:35 PM

“Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion” by Robert Gordon; Bloomsbury ($30)

Much of the ground Gordon covers is familiar and can be found in Peter Guralnick’s broader “Sweet Soul Music” and Rob Bowman’s label history, “Soulsville U.S.A.” But “Respect Yourself” shines because the thoroughness of Gordon’s research doesn’t stop him from keeping a complicated story moving quickly, while doing evenhanded justice to the dozens of characters who brought this gloriously gritty music to the world.

—By Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer


“The Faithful Scribe” by Shahan Mufti; Other Press ($26.95)

From the first pages of his debut book, “The Faithful Scribe,” journalist Shahan Mufti gets personal.

He imagines a dinner party in which you, the reader, ask where he’s from, and after hearing him reply, “Pakistan,” you ask him why the country is such a mess.

Mufti, who grew up in the United States and Pakistan, attempts to answer that question and many more by probing his own family history to better understand the roots of the world’s first Islamic democracy.

He artfully weaves stories of his ancestors — which can be traced 1,400 years back to Islam’s early days — into the larger drama of Pakistan’s struggles and triumphs, and of the country’s long and complicated relationship with the United States.

—By Allie Shah, Minneapolis Star-Tribune


“Mother, Mother” by Koren Zailckas; Crown ($24)

Feeling overwhelmed by all the, you know, cheer in the air this time of year? Wishing for a little doom, a little gloom to balance things out? Have I got the book for you, and I mean that in a most complimentary way to the author.

Koren Zailckas’ fiercely disturbing “Mother, Mother” is, under no circumstances, a book that you should read when you’re feeling depressed, or you’re kind of hating your mom, or you feel the need for some light chick-lit. It is, however, one of the most profound and insightful books I’ve encountered about mother-child relationships when they go devastatingly wrong — as in horrific, mental-illness-inducing wrong.

—By Joy Tipping, The Dallas Morning News


“Falling Upwards” by Richard Holmes; Pantheon ($35)

Richard Holmes doesn’t pretend that his newest book is a “conventional history of ballooning.”

And in many ways, “Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air” is a literary imitation of a balloon’s flight. Holmes sometimes lingers to delve deeply into a tale of daring or tragedy. Sometimes capricious winds seem to hurtle him past characters and events that deserve much more attention.

At its best, “Falling Upwards” takes readers on a quirky journey of discovery. The clock is turned back to an age when the balloon miraculously opens up the heavens to mankind. But its destiny is unclear beyond that.

—By Ed Timms, The Dallas Morning News


“Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II” by Wil S. Hylton; Riverhead Books ($27.95)

Hylton interviews family members and some of the surviving, aging airmen. Some of the most emotional parts of “Vanished” are the letters to and from the airmen as they waited to fly yet another mission, possibly to die in a sky lighted with anti-aircraft fire.

Jimmie Doyle writes to his wife, Myrle, in West Texas: “Sweet, my mind is nearly a blank tonight, for I am all took up with thoughts of you and home. Maybe it won’t be too long until the day when I will be home and we will be together again.”

Doyle’s plane went down in 1944. His widow never spoke of his death and she died in 1992, before Scannon’s search hit its stride. She never let others read the letters and took her pain to the grave with her.

—By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times


“Baghdad: The City in Verse” by Reuven Snir; Harvard University Press ($29.95)

The poems in “Baghdad: The City in Verse,” an ambitious and enlightening anthology of poetry written in and about that city, date from the first decades after its founding in the 8th century, up to the war that drove Saddam Hussein from power. They capture the vast sweep of the city’s history, its enchantments and its seemingly ever-present tragedy.

“Time has increased evil and harness — / it made us settle in Baghdad,” the poet Muti’ ibn Iyas wrote in the 8th century, in words that resonate 1,200 years later. “A town raining dust on the people/ as the sky pouring drizzle.”

In its first centuries, Baghdad was a vibrant and growing cultural center. “We fell in love with Iraq when we were young,” wrote Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri, circa 1000. “We approached the water of the Tigris, unparalleled;/ we visited the noblest trees, the date palms./ We quenched our thirst, without ever gratifying our desire;/ what a pity, nothing in this world will survive.”

Those words proved prophetic: In 1258, Baghdad was besieged and largely destroyed by Mongol armies, who also massacred thousands of the city’s inhabitants and destroyed its libraries.

—By Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times


“Starting Over” by Elizabeth Spencer; Liveright ($24.95)

The title of Elizabeth Spencer’s eighth book of short fiction, “Starting Over,” carries a double meaning: It refers both to the characters in the collection and to the author herself. Ninety-two years old, winner of a PEN/Malamud Award and five O. Henry prizes as well as nine novels, she last released a book, “The Southern Women,” in 2001.

Spencer, however, has been far from inactive, publishing in literary journals and seeing her best-known work, the 1960 novella “The Light in the Piazza,” adapted as a Tony Award-winning musical in 2005. Of the nine stories in “Starting Over,” six date from the last three years. What this suggests is that there is no limit to a writer’s longevity, that — in some cases at least — insight remains, or grows sharper, with age.

For Spencer, that’s a key consideration, since so many of the stories here are timeless domestic dramas that unfold in a recognizable but subtle world.

—By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times

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