January 12, 2014

‘Respect Yourself’ author does justice to history of soul music

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

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

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