AS TEXAS GOES...

HOW THE LONE STAR STATE HIJACKED THE AMERICAN AGENDA

New York Times political columnist Collins (When Everything ChangedThe Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, 2009, etc.) zeroes in on what makes Texas so important and why the rest of the country needs to know and care about what’s happening there.

Texans, writes the author, think they live in a wide-open empty space where carrying a concealed weapon is acceptable because people have to take care of themselves and the government has no business telling them what to do. In her inimitable style, the unabashed liberal examines the shenanigans of Texans from four angles: first, a hilarious look at some of Texas’ past heroes and present politicos and at how the empty-space ethos has shaped the state’s policies; second, a close-up examination of several areas where she says the state has gone wildly, sadly wrong (its deregulation of financial markets, attempts at reforming schools and funding, or defunding, education, and major missteps on sex education, energy, the environment, pollution and global climate change); third, a scathing report on the two-tiered, low-tax, low-service economy of the state; and finally, Collins’ take on where Texas, soon to be a Hispanic-majority state, is heading. The author loads her report with funny but dismaying anecdotes and dozens of revealing interviews. She does not neglect the hard facts. An appendix includes “Texas on the Brink,” a report compiled by the Legislative Study Group of the Texas House of Representatives. It gives an especially grim picture of the failings of our second-largest state. Among the states, it is first in executions and in the amount of carbon dioxide emissions but 45th in SAT scores and 49th in the percentage of low-income people covered by Medicaid. In Collins' view, the rest of us feel the influence of Texas in our lives every day, and “if Texas goes south, it’s taking us along.” A timely portrait of Texas delivered with Collins’ unique brand of insightful humor.

 

Pub Date: June 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-87140-407-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: April 30, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2012

Taking on a looming subject with intelligence and wit, Simmons manages to take the full measure of her man.

I'M YOUR MAN

THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN

An elegant, deeply researched life of the Canadian musician, poet and novelist.

With the resurgence of his career in the last decade, Cohen has been the subject of several new books, but it’s hard to imagine a better one than that of veteran music journalist Simmons (Neil Young: Reflections in Broken Glass, 2001, etc.). Born into a wealthy family of Jewish clothiers in Montreal, Cohen became one of Canada’s leading young literary lights with his early volumes of poetry and two well-received novels. He was already in his early 30s when he became a professional musician, after folk singer Judy Collins brought his songs to the world’s attention with her cover of “Suzanne.” Beginning in 1968, the globe-trotting, seemingly driven Cohen recorded a series of wise, dark albums that made him a star in Europe and brought him a far smaller but devoted following in the United States. He was enjoying renewed commercial and critical success in the mid-’90s when he withdrew into a Zen Buddhist monastery for more than five years. Upon his return to the world, he discovered that his longtime manager had embezzled millions; his unexpected penury prompted a wildly received 2008-2009 world tour that grossed $50 million and finally lifted him, as a septuagenarian, into the top echelon of international stars. Simmons follows every step of Cohen’s peripatetic artistic journey with acuity and no small measure of poetic observation. Drawing on interviews with Cohen and most of his important collaborators and paramours, she paints a deep portrait of a man seemingly torn between the spiritual and the worldly, deeply gifted but plagued by abiding depression and frequent self-doubt. Simmons offers an abundance of revealing stories about Cohen’s ardent womanizing, restless pursuit of enlightenment through sex, drugs, alcohol and spirituality, and sometimes excruciating artistic perfectionism. He emerges in his full complexity, brimming with both seemingly boundless brilliance and abundant human imperfection.

Taking on a looming subject with intelligence and wit, Simmons manages to take the full measure of her man.

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-199498-2

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

The best book yet written on India in the throes of a brutal transition.

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BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS

LIFE, DEATH, AND HOPE IN A MUMBAI UNDERCITY

In her debut, Pulitzer Prize–winning New Yorker staff writer Boo creates an intimate, unforgettable portrait of India’s urban poor.

Mumbai’s sparkling new airport and surrounding luxury hotels welcome visitors to the globalized, privatized, competitive India. Across the highway, on top of tons of garbage and next to a vast pool of sewage, lies the slum of Annawadi, one of many such places that house the millions of poor of Mumbai. For more than three years, Boo lived among and learned from the residents, observing their struggles and quarrels, listening to their dreams and despair, recording it all. She came away with a detailed portrait of individuals daring to aspire but too often denied a chance—their lives viewed as an embarrassment to the modernized wealthy. The author poignantly details these many lives: Abdul, a quiet buyer of recyclable trash who wished for nothing more than what he had; Zehrunisa, Abdul’s mother, a Muslim matriarch among hostile Hindu neighbors; Asha, the ambitious slum leader who used her connections and body in a vain attempt to escape from Annawadi; Manju, her beautiful, intelligent daughter whose hopes lay in the new India of opportunity; Sunil, the master scavenger, a little boy who would not grow; Meena, who drank rat poison rather than become a teenage bride in a remote village; Kalu, the charming garbage thief who was murdered and left by the side of the road. Boo brilliantly brings to life the residents of Annawadi, allowing the reader to know them and admire the fierce intelligence that allows them to survive in a world not made for them.

The best book yet written on India in the throes of a brutal transition.

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6755-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2011

Cleareyed, compassionate and hopeful.

FIRE IN THE ASHES

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AMONG THE POOREST CHILDREN IN AMERICA

The award-winning author of Death at an Early Age (1967) tells the stories of the later lives of poor children who grew up in the Bronx.

Kozol (Letters to a Young Teacher, 2007, etc.) has worked with children in inner-city schools for 50 years. In this engaging, illuminating, often moving book, he recounts the lives of poor black and Latino children—many now close friends—who once lived in Manhattan’s Martinique Hotel and were relocated in the late 1980s, upon the closing of that crowded and filthy shelter, to Mott Haven, a poor Bronx neighborhood. As the children grew into young adulthood, Kozol kept in touch with them and their families through visits, emails and phone calls. In a series of intimate portraits, he describes the astonishing odds the children faced and how many managed, with the critical help of mentors and caring others, to achieve successful lives, both in the conventional sense of graduating from college, but above all, by becoming kind and loving human beings. There is Leonardo, recruited by a New England boarding school, where he emerged as a leader; the introspective Jeremy, who befriended a Puerto Rican poet, got through college and took a job at a Mott Haven church that is central to the lives of many; and the buoyant, winning Pineapple, whose Guatemalan parents provide the emotional security of a warm home. “I’m going to give a good life to my children,” says Lisette, 24, after her troubled brother’s suicide. “I have to do it.  I’m the one who made it through.” Some children are still struggling to find their way, writes the author, but they do so with “the earnestness and elemental kindness” that he first saw in them years ago.

Cleareyed, compassionate and hopeful.

Pub Date: Aug. 28, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5246-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

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THE PASSAGE OF POWER

THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON

The fourth volume of one of the most anticipated English-language biographies of the past 30 years.

This installment covers Johnson’s vice presidency under John F. Kennedy, his ascension to the presidency after the Kennedy assassination and his initial nine months as president. As in the earlier volumes, Caro (Master of the Senate, 2002, etc.) combines a compelling narrative and insightful authorial judgments into a lengthy volume that will thrill those who care about American politics, the foundations of power, or both. Even Johnson acolytes, sometimes critical about portions of the earlier volumes, are less likely to complain about their hero's portrayal here. While documenting the progression of his subject's character flaws, Caro admires Johnson's adroit adaptability. Though he chafed as vice president after giving up the leadership of the U.S. Senate, Johnson seems to have developed a grudging admiration for JFK. However, Johnson and Robert Kennedy could not put aside the animosity that had taken root on Capitol Hill. When Robert became not only his brother's confidant but also his attorney general, Johnson resented the appointment. Caro documents the feuds between them and vividly relates how the warfare between the two men continued after JFK's assassination. On a more upbeat track, the author explains how Johnson's lifelong commitment to helping the dispossessed led to passage of unprecedented civil-rights legislation. The evidence seems strong that JFK could not have engineered passage of much of the civil-rights legislation because he lacked Johnson's influence over members of Congress. The fifth volume is in the works, and it is expected to cover Johnson's election to the White House and his full term, with the conduct of the Vietnam War ceaselessly dogging him. The author writes that the next book "will be very different in tone." Before beginning the Johnson biography, Caro published a life of Robert Moses, The Power Broker (1974), a book many scholars consider a watershed in contemporary biography. The Johnson project deserves equal praise.

 

Pub Date: May 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-679-40507-8

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 8, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2012

Aspects of a spy novel, a writer’s autobiography and a victim’s affidavit pulsing with resentment and fear combine to reveal...

JOSEPH ANTON

A MEMOIR

The frightening, illuminating and disturbing memoir by the author of The Satanic Verses, the book that provoked a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.

Rushdie (Luka and the Fire of Life, 2008, etc.) chose for his cover name (and for the title) the first names of Conrad and Chekhov—appropriate, for the author seems caught in a tangled novel filled with ominous (and some cowardly) characters driven by an inscrutable fate toward a probable sanguinary climax. The author uses third person throughout, a decision that allows him a novelist’s distance but denies some of the intimacy of the first person. Perhaps he viewed himself during those 13 years (the duration of his protection by British security forces) more as a character than a free agent. He returns continually to an image from Hitchcock’s The Birds: the black birds gradually filling up a jungle gym on a school playground (these represent the threats to personal freedom presented by fundamentalists). Rushdie also includes unmailed letters to actual people (Tony Blair) and to ideas (the millennium). The organization is unremarkable: The author begins with his learning of the fatwa, retreats to tell about his life before 1989, then marches steadily toward the present with only a few returns (a section about his mother’s love life). Bluntly, he tells about his wives, divorces, affairs, successes and failures of pen and heart and character; his various security guards; and, very affectingly, about his two sons. He tells about his travels, many awards and celebrity friends. Emerging as heroic is the United States, where Rushdie realized he could live more freely than anywhere else.

Aspects of a spy novel, a writer’s autobiography and a victim’s affidavit pulsing with resentment and fear combine to reveal a man’s dawning awareness of the primacy of freedom.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9278-6

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2012

Subtitled “A Comic Drama,” the narrative provides even fewer laughs than its predecessor but deeper introspection.

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ARE YOU MY MOTHER?

A COMIC DRAMA

A psychologically complex, ambitious, illuminating successor to the author’s graphic-memoir masterpiece.

Though Bechdel had previously enjoyed a cult following with her long-standing comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, she raised the bar for graphic narrative with her book debut, Fun Home (2006). That memoir detailed her childhood in the family’s funeral home, her closeted and emotionally distant father’s bisexuality, his questionable death (an accident that was most likely a suicide) and the author’s own coming to terms with her sexuality. On the surface, this is the “mom book” following the previous “dad book.” Yet it goes more deeply into the author’s own psychology (her therapy, dreams, relationships) and faces a fresh set of challenges. For one thing, the author’s mother is not only still alive, but also had very mixed feelings about how much Bechdel had revealed about the family in the first volume. For another, the author’s relationship with her mother—who withheld verbal expressions of love and told her daughter she was too old to be tucked in and kissed goodnight when she turned 7—is every bit as complicated as the one she detailed with her father. Thus, Bechdel not only searches for keys to their relationship, but perhaps even for surrogate mothers, through therapy, girlfriends and the writings of Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Alice Miller and others. Yet the primary inspiration in this literary memoir is psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, whose life and work Bechdel explores along with her own. Incidentally, the narrative also encompasses the writing of and response to Fun Home, a work that changed the author’s life and elevated her career to a whole new level.  She writes that she agonized over the creation of this follow-up for four years. It is a book she had to write, though she struggled mightily to figure out how to write it.

Subtitled “A Comic Drama,” the narrative provides even fewer laughs than its predecessor but deeper introspection.

Pub Date: May 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-618-98250-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2012

Stellar cultural writing—Bissell has the knowledge and wit to earn his provocations.

MAGIC HOURS

ESSAYS ON CREATORS AND CREATION

A whip-smart, occasionally pugnacious collection of essays on culture from a wide-ranging critic.

In recent years, Bissell (Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, 2010, etc.) has built a reputation as an expert on video games, culminating with the scattershot Extra Lives. Here, he covers a wider swath but provides more coherence, in part because a more consistent theme emerges: the necessity of calling shenanigans on the artificiality of much of mass culture and the difficult search for glimmers of integrity. In “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” Bissell follows the filming of an indie movie in his hardscrabble Upper Peninsula hometown and cannily reveals subtle parrying between the townsfolk and the visiting filmmakers. In “Writing about Writing about Writing,” he demolishes the rhetoric of how-to writing guides, slapping the genre for its disingenuously upbeat declarations. In “Cinema Crudité,” he investigates the anti-genius of Tommy Wiseau, director of the contemporary camp classic, The Room. Bissell can tear into his subjects with a ferocity and brutal wit that recalls Dwight Macdonald, as when he writes about the would-be literary provocateurs of the Underground Literary Alliance or celebrated historian Robert Kaplan, whom he damns as an “incompetent thinker and a miserable writer.” Bissell’s more common tone, though, is that of the exasperated critic weary of conventional thinking, and he bookends the collection with pieces that drive that point home: “Unflowered Aloes” debunks the idea that literary greatness will always be discovered, and the closing interview with Jim Harrison is a lament for a dying working-class literary culture. Even the book’s weak spots are strong: A pair of New Yorker profiles on TV and video game professionals feel relatively voiceless—a problem with the magazine’s house style that, ironically enough, Bissell calls out in an earlier essay.

Stellar cultural writing—Bissell has the knowledge and wit to earn his provocations.

Pub Date: April 10, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-936365-76-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Believer Books/McSweeney's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 9, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2012

Certainly, Hitchens died too soon. May this moving little visit to his hospital room not be the last word from him.

MORTALITY

A jovially combative riposte to anyone who thought that death would silence master controversialist Hitchens (Hitch-22, 2010, etc.).

Even as he lay—or sat or paced—dying in the unfamiliar confines of a hospital last year, the author had plenty to say about matters of life and death. Here, in pieces published in Vanity Fair to which are added rough notes and apothegms left behind in manuscript, Hitchens gives the strongest possible sense of his exhausting battle against the aggressive cancer spreading through his body. He waged that battle with customary sardonic good humor, calling the medical-industrial world into which he had been thrust “Tumortown.” More arrestingly, Hitchens conceived of the move from life to death as a sudden relocation, even a deportation, into another land: “The country has a language of its own—a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication—as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to.” One such gesture was the physician’s plunging of fingers into the neck to gauge whether a cancer had spread into the lymph nodes, but others were more subtle, including the hushed tones and reverences that came with the business. Hitchens, famously an atheist, visited the question of whether he should take Pascal’s wager and bet on God, concluding in the negative even as good God-fearing citizens filled his inbox with assurances that God was punishing him for his blasphemies with throat cancer. A reasonable thought, Hitchens concludes, though since he’s a writer, wouldn’t such a God have afflicted his hands first?

Certainly, Hitchens died too soon. May this moving little visit to his hospital room not be the last word from him.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4555-0275-2

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Twelve

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

A consummate professional explores the attic of his life, converting rumination to art.

WINTER JOURNAL

The acclaimed novelist (Sunset Park, 2010, etc.), now 65, writes affectingly about his body, family, lovers, travels and residences as he enters what he calls the winter of his life.

Written entirely in the second person and, loosely, using the format of a journal (undated entries), Auster’s memoir courses gracefully over ground that is frequently rough, jarring and painful: the deaths of his parents, conflicts with his relatives (he settles some scores), poor decisions (his first marriage), accidents (a car crash that could have killed him) and struggles in his early career. But there are summery memories, as well: his love of baseball (begun in boyhood), his fondness for Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, his relationship with his mother, world travels (not all cheery; he recalls a near fistfight with a French taxi driver), books and friends. Most significant: his 30-year relationship with his wife, writer Siri Hustvedt (unnamed here), whom he continually celebrates. Some of the loveliest sentences in the text—and there are many—are illuminated by love. Near the end, Auster recalls visits with her family in Minnesota, a terrain so unlike what he knew (he lives in Brooklyn). Here, too, are moments of failure (not speaking up when he should have), of illness and injury, of sly humor. The author follows a grim description of a bout with the crabs with a paean to nature that begins, “Ladybugs were considered good luck.” Auster indulges in the occasional rant—he goes off on the crudities of contemporary culture—and delivers numerous moments of artful craft.

A consummate professional explores the attic of his life, converting rumination to art.

Pub Date: Aug. 21, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9553-1

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: March 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2012

An exquisitely reasoned, skillfully written treatise on big issues of everyday life.

WHAT MONEY CAN'T BUY

THE MORAL LIMITS OF MARKETS

Sandel (Government/Harvard Univ.; Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, 2010, etc.) sounds the alarm that the belief in a market economy diminishes moral thought.

Taken to its extreme, a market economy dictates that any inanimate object, any animal, any human being can be bought and sold. That thinking justified human slavery in the United States until the end of the Civil War, but Sandel's examples are far subtler than slavery. Should any society find it desirable to place a price on polluting the environment? On first-rate health care? On admission to the best colleges? When so much is available for sale, writes the author, there are two inevitable negative consequences: inequality and corruption. Sandel devotes the first chapter to "Jumping the Queue." He explains the conundrums that arise when first-class airline passengers are allowed to skip the long lines at security, when single-passenger cars purchase the right to use express lanes designed for fuel-efficient multiple-passenger vehicles, when theatergoers pay somebody to stand in line overnight to score tickets for the best seats and when long waits for medical treatment at hospitals are circumvented by buying the services of concierge doctors, who guarantee quick access. Although not primarily a quantitative researcher, Sandel tests the boundaries of a market economy in his Harvard seminar on Ethics, Economics and the Law. The reactions of his students provide him with new examples of moral (or immoral or amoral) reasoning about everyday decision-making in an economy where cash payments rule. Sandel notes that the reality of a market economy embeds a vital question: How do members of the citizenry choose the values by which they will conduct their daily living? Are there certain commodities that markets should not honor?

An exquisitely reasoned, skillfully written treatise on big issues of everyday life.

Pub Date: April 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-20303-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2012

A superb examination of the never-ending effort to enhance life, as well as the commensurate refusal to ever let it go.

THE MANSION OF HAPPINESS

A HISTORY OF LIFE AND DEATH

A sharp, illuminating history of ideas showing how America has wrestled with birth, childhood, work, marriage, old age and death.

Brilliantly written and engaging throughout, the latest from New Yorker staff writer Lepore (American History/Harvard Univ.; The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History, 2011, etc.) is about how American society reacts to change. The author starts with the perfect metaphor: In 1860, a young entrepreneur named Milton Bradley created a popular board game called Life. The game had long existed in earlier versions, but Bradley gave it a capitalist spin, changing it from a game of good versus evil to one that “rewards only those virtues that lead to Wealth and Success, like Industry and Perseverance.” From there, Lepore tackles conception and how the famous pictures of a fetus in Life in the mid ’60s fostered the relatively modern idea of “being unborn as a stage of human life, a stage that was never on any board game.” The author shows how E.B. White’s surprisingly controversial novel Stuart Little created a small revolution in a country that has always worshipped childhood; she sees it as “an indictment of both the childishness of children’s literature and the juvenilization of American culture.” Lepore's topics are broad, and they lead her into many interesting byways—e.g., how eugenics was once considered a perfectly progressive idea and how contraception once seemed to threaten society in ways even Rick Santorum has not imagined. She also considers the legacy of Karen Ann Quinlan, the brain-dead young woman whose case helped foment arguments for both the right to die and the right to life, and discusses her visit to the creepy laboratory of cryogenics founder Robert C.W. Ettinger.

A superb examination of the never-ending effort to enhance life, as well as the commensurate refusal to ever let it go.

Pub Date: June 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-59299-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 21, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2012

A wonderful, eye-opening account of humans versus disease that deserves to share the shelf with such classics as Microbe...

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SPILLOVER

ANIMAL INFECTIONS AND THE NEXT HUMAN PANDEMIC

Nature writer and intrepid traveler Quammen (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, 2006, etc.) sums up in one absorbing volume what we know about some of the world’s scariest scourges: Ebola, AIDS, pandemic influenza—and what we can do to thwart the “NBO,” the Next Big One.

The author discusses zoonoses, infectious diseases that originate in animals and spread to humans. The technical term is “spillover.” It’s likely that all infections began as spillovers. Some, like Ebola and lesser-known viral diseases (Nipah, Hendra, Marburg), are highly transmissible and virulent, but so far have been limited to sporadic outbreaks. They persist because they are endemic in a reservoir population through a process of mutual adaptation. Finding that reservoir holds the key to control and prevention and gives Quammen’s accounts the thrill of the chase and the derring-do of field research in rain forests and jungles and even teeming Asian cities where monkeys run wild. The author chronicles his travels around the world, including a stop in a bat cave in Uganda with scientists who found evidence that bats were the source of Marburg and other zoonoses, but not AIDS. Quammen’s AIDS narrative traces the origin of HIV to chimpanzee-human transmission around 1908, probably through blood-borne transmission involved in the killing of the animal for food. Over the decades, with changing sexual mores, an ever-increasing world population and global travel, the stage was set for a takeoff. Quammen concludes with a timely discussion of bird flu, which has yet to achieve human-to-human transmission but, thanks to the rapid mutation rate and gene exchanges typical of RNA viruses, could be the NBO. You can’t predict, say the experts; what you can do is be alert, establish worldwide field stations to monitor and test and take precautions.

A wonderful, eye-opening account of humans versus disease that deserves to share the shelf with such classics as Microbe Hunters and Rats, Lice and History.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-06680-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 7, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2012

An informative and moving book that raises profound issues regarding the nature of love, the value of human life and the...

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FAR FROM THE TREE

PARENTS, CHILDREN AND THE SEARCH FOR IDENTITY

National Book Award–winning journalist Solomon (The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, 2001, etc.) uses issues raised by disability to examine the nature of parenthood, the definition of disability and the ability to control reproduction to create designer children.

More than a decade ago, when he was assigned to cover a student protest at the Lexington Center for the Deaf in Queens, N.Y., over the hiring of a CEO with normal hearing, the author began to look at medical and cultural issues raised by disability. The protesters demanded that deafness not be considered a disability, but rather a neuro-diversity on par with ethnic diversity. Some members of the deaf community even considered cochlear implants in young children as “a genocidal attack on a vibrant community” because of the linguistic richness of sign language. Solomon also wrote a piece on child prodigies based on an interview with the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, and he followed with a story about the lives of dwarfs based on the experience of a friend who sought role models for her daughter. Gradually, Far from the Tree began to take shape as the author explored more deeply the question of disability. Additional chapters cover Down syndrome (a genetic disorder), autism (of unknown origin), transgenderism and more. Solomon writes about the transformative, “terrifying joy of unbearable responsibility” faced by parents who cherish severely disabled children, and he takes an in-depth look at the struggles of parents of autistic children who behave destructively. He also explores the fascinating mental lives of independently functioning autistic individuals and speculates on the possibility that geniuses such as Mozart and Einstein were at the far end of the spectrum. Throughout, Solomon reflects on his own history as a gay man who has been bullied when he didn't conform to society's image of masculinity.

An informative and moving book that raises profound issues regarding the nature of love, the value of human life and the future of humanity.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-7432-3671-3

Page Count: 906

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

Truly remarkable, composed with all the precision and insight you expect from a law professor, marked by all the elegance...

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LINCOLN'S CODE

THE LAWS OF WAR IN AMERICAN HISTORY

Artfully mixing law, history and sharp analysis, a Yale law professor examines the persistent struggle to reconcile justice and humanitarianism in America’s conduct of war.

Issued to the Union Army in 1863, Lincoln’s codes of war went out under the president’s name, but the 157 articles were drafted principally by Francis Lieber, a Columbia College political scientist and historian. Lieber’s codification of the laws and usages of war formally enshrined a number of humanitarian limits to war’s barbarity. However, by authorizing various uses of force “indispensable for securing the ends of war,” the rules unleashed a new ferocity, replacing Enlightenment-style, “gentlemanly” armed conflict with new imperatives that recognized the legitimacy of the war’s aims. Witt (Patriots and Cosmopolitans: Hidden Histories of American Law, 2007, etc.) attributes this new, “tough humanitarianism” to Lincoln’s determination to abandon the “rose-water tactics” of the early war in favor of new measures that would vindicate the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation. Though he focuses primarily on the Civil War and its aftermath, Witt provides a rich historical context, judiciously selecting diplomatic and wartime episodes, from the French and Indian War to the Philippine Insurrection, to explain this lasting transformation of the old rules into something military historians now recognize as the “American way of war.” Topics range from the concept of neutrality to the oftentimes difficult distinctions between soldiers and civilians, to the indiscriminate use of military commissions, all resonant with today’s headlines. The author vivifies commentary from philosophers and jurists, decisions from judges and maneuvering by statesmen with sharp vignettes of battlefield commanders, who were obliged to grapple with the constraints law imposes on war.

Truly remarkable, composed with all the precision and insight you expect from a law professor, marked by all the elegance and sparkling readability you don’t.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4165-6983-1

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2012

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THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH

Never shy about tackling big questions, veteran evolutionary biologist Wilson (The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, 2006, etc.) delivers his thoughtful if contentious explanation of why humans rule the Earth.

After a respectful nod to the old favorites (big brains, tools, language, fire), the author maintains that these merely provide the background to our overpowering “eusociality”; we are the world’s most intensely social creatures, living in complex societies of mutually dependent individuals. Wilson adds that another eusocial organism, the ant, dominated terrestrial life for 50 million years before humans appeared; it remains a close second. The author provides a provocative comparison of how this powerful but rare evolutionary strategy vaulted two wildly different species to the top of the heap. Both originated with individuals cooperating and behaving altruistically, often sacrificing themselves, to protect a defensible nest. For humans, this crucial step began when extended families of our Homo erectus ancestors gathered around campfires over 1 million years ago. Gradually, members of multiple generations divided labor and specialized. Natural selection worked to expand this eusociality, and Wilson emphasizes that it was the group that evolved. Whether they were genetically related or not mattered little. Group selection—as opposed to kin selection, i.e., the “selfish gene” à la Richard Dawkins—is the author’s big idea. Few lay readers will disagree, but Wilson’s fellow biologists are not so sure; kin versus group selection remains a subject of fierce debate. Wilson succeeds in explaining his complex ideas, so attentive readers will receive a deeply satisfying exposure to a major scientific controversy.  

 

Pub Date: April 9, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-87140-413-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2012

Brilliantly juxtaposes Marvel with its best characters: flawed and imperfect, but capable of achieving miraculous feats.

MARVEL COMICS

THE UNTOLD STORY

An impeccably researched, authoritative history of Marvel Comics.

Former Entertainment Weekly editor Howe (editor: Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics, 2004) interviewed more than 150 former Marvel employees, freelancers and family members to weave together a tapestry of creative genius, bad business decisions and petty back-stabbing. Progenitors of Spider-Man, the Avengers and the X-Men, Marvel’s rocky road to merchandising success is as epic as any of the company’s four-color adventures. Howe pulls no punches as he details the fledgling enterprise’s slow rise from Timely Publications in 1939 to its official emergence as Marvel Comics in 1961, when the groundbreaking brilliance of writer Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko led to the creation of the company’s most iconic characters. In an era before movie-making technology facilitated lucrative cross-merchandising, however, Marvel struggled financially while its editors massaged the bruised egos of freelancers who poured their lifeblood into creations in which they didn’t retain an ownership stake. Kirby, bitter over what he perceived as Lee’s efforts to take undue credit for his stories, ultimately left, becoming a rallying point in the struggle for the rights and compensation of writers and artists. Lee relocated to Hollywood in an effort to bring Marvel’s characters to the big screen, a frustrating endeavor that would take decades and a procession of other individuals to come to fruition. Compared to the thorough account of Marvel’s formative years, Howe gives relatively short shrift to recent corporate machinations—including only a brief mention of Disney’s $4 billion purchase of Marvel in 2009—and the work of current superstars, but that’s a minor quibble in what is otherwise a nuanced and engrossing narrative of a company whose story deserves its own blockbuster film.

Brilliantly juxtaposes Marvel with its best characters: flawed and imperfect, but capable of achieving miraculous feats.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-199210-0

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

A report of a fascinating new theory on the Earth's origins written in a sparkling style with many personal touches.

THE STORY OF EARTH

THE FIRST 4.5 BILLION YEARS, FROM STARDUST TO LIVING PLANET

Hazen (Earth Science/George Mason Univ.; Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins, 2005, etc.) offers startling evidence that “Earth's living and nonliving spheres” have co-evolved over the past 4 billion years.

To support his persuasive though controversial views, the author updates evidence collected by mineralogists over the last two centuries. Describing the “discoveries of organisms in places long considered inhospitable [to life] – in superheated volcanic vents, acidic pools, Arctic ice and stratospheric dust,” he argues for the dating of the origin of life more than a billion years earlier than estimates based on Nobel Prize winner Harold Urey's groundbreaking experiments. These appeared to support the view that life originated 2.5 billion years ago in an oceanic environment with the creation of organic molecules. Hazen explains how Urey and his associates were able to re-create “primordial soup” in a simulation, which produced “a suite of biomolecules stunningly similar to what life actually uses.” That theory has been challenged in the last two decades, based on the discovery that life “fueled by chemical [rather than solar] energy” exists in extreme environments in astonishing abundance. Hazen and colleagues at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory (with support from NASA) have succeeded in simulating conditions that would have existed on Earth as early as 4.5 billion years ago, while producing biomolecules that are today the building blocks of life. The author situates this latest experimental evidence in a series of discoveries about the earth's geological evolution, sparked by analysis of moon rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts.

A report of a fascinating new theory on the Earth's origins written in a sparkling style with many personal touches.

Pub Date: May 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02355-4

Page Count: 300

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2012

Leaks, reserves, PACs, hydrofracking, bloated corporate profits and more: all pertinent concerns nicely handled by Coll in...

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PRIVATE EMPIRE

EXXONMOBIL AND AMERICAN POWER

A thorough, sobering study of the pernicious consolidation of Big Oil.

With admirable restraint, New Yorker contributor and two-time Pulitzer winner Coll (The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, 2008, etc.) demonstrates how the merger of Exxon and Mobil has allowed the company to wield more power and wealth than even the American government, in the manner of John D. Rockefeller. Exxon had functioned as an independent corporate state since its antitrust break-off from Standard Oil in 1911 and was ranked by profit performance in the top five corporations from the 1950s through the end of the Cold War. With the catastrophic spill of the Valdez in Alaska in 1989, the network of secrecy and internal security within Exxon was exposed but hardly tempered. The iron chief who emerged from the crisis, Lee Raymond, reappraised risk and security within the organization and took a hard line against efforts to extract from it punitive damages. Moving the headquarters to Texas in 1993, the company retrenched in its nose-thumbing determination to encourage and supply America’s thirst for oil, casting around at more far-flung spots in the world that could provide the crude—such as where Mobil held attractive assets, in places like West Africa, Venezuela, Kazakhstan and Abu Dhabi. The Exxon-Mobil merger in 1999 created a global behemoth and also provoked small wars at drilling spots where the poor and disenfranchised deeply resented foreign workers on native soil and disrupted the extraction by violence and insurgency. Raymond and his cohorts’ cynical spin on the denial of global warming and the role of the burning of fossil fuels makes for jaw-dropping reading, as does the company’s cunning manipulations of the war in Iraq to garner an oil deal. The Obama administration’s emphasis on renewable energy sources and environmental concerns has barely challenged the formidable political power of Big Oil.

Leaks, reserves, PACs, hydrofracking, bloated corporate profits and more: all pertinent concerns nicely handled by Coll in this engaging, hard-hitting work.

Pub Date: May 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59420-335-0

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2012

DARWIN'S GHOSTS

THE SECRET HISTORY OF EVOLUTION

Stott (English Literature and Creative Writing/Univ. of East Anglia; The Coral Thief, 2009, etc.) conjures up the spirits of Darwin's scientific predecessors in this excellent follow-up to Darwin and the Barnacle (2003).

When Darwin finally published On the Origins of Species in 1859, he knew he would become the center of passionate debate and possibly even prosecution. However, he did not expect to be charged with “failing to acknowledge his predecessors”—a quotation from a letter sent to him by an Oxford geometry professor, Rev. Baden Powell, who himself faced the possibility of prosecution for heresy. In the first authorized American edition of his iconic work, Darwin attempted to rectify the situation by including a list of his predecessors. Stott amplifies Darwin's list and provides a lively account of the “pathfinders, iconoclasts, and innovators” who were Darwin's spiritual kin over the preceding 2,000 years. She chronicles their lives as they struggled to understand the relationship between extinct and existing species, including humans; she also examines the political and religious persecution they faced from their opponents. Stott begins with Aristotle, who was forced into exile on the island of Lesbos, where he stayed for four years. He dissected birds and fish and puzzled over sponges, which had characteristics of both animals and vegetables. Another of Darwin’s kindred spirits was Benoit de Maillet, who by the mid-18th century had assembled geological and fossil findings to substantiate his claim that the earth was billions of years old and that land species had evolved from sea creatures. Unfortunately, as Darwin learned after including Maillet on the list, Maillet also reported sightings of mermen. The author also includes discussions of, among others, Leonardo da Vinci, Swiss naturalist Abraham Trembley and the ninth-century Islamic philologist and lexicographer known as al-Jahiz. Stott masterfully shows how Darwin, by discovering the mechanism of natural selection, made a unique contribution, but he did not stand alone—nor did he claim to.

 

Pub Date: June 12, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6937-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2012

An outstanding biography that reveals an overlooked steeliness at Jefferson’s core that accounts for so much of his...

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THOMAS JEFFERSON

THE ART OF POWER

A Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer lauds the political genius of Thomas Jefferson.

As a citizen, Jefferson became a central leader in America’s rebellion against the world’s greatest empire. As a diplomat, he mentored a similar revolution in France. As president, he doubled the size of the United States without firing a shot and established a political dynasty that stretched over four decades. These achievements and many more, Time contributing editor Meacham (American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, 2008, etc.) smoothly argues, would have been impossible if the endlessly complicated Jefferson were merely the dreamy, impractical philosopher king his detractors imagined. His portrait of our most enigmatic president intentionally highlights career episodes that illustrate Jefferson’s penchant for balancing competing interests and for compromises that, nevertheless, advanced his own political goals. Born to the Virginia aristocracy, Jefferson effectively disguised his drive for control, charming foes and enlisting allies to conduct battles on his behalf. As he accumulated power, he exercised it ruthlessly, often deviating from the ideals of limited government he had previously—and eternally—articulated. Stronger than any commitment to abstract principle, the impulse for pragmatic political maneuvering, Meacham insists, always predominated. With an insatiable hunger for information, a talent for improvisation and a desire for greatness, Jefferson coolly calculated political realities—see his midlife abandonment of any effort to abolish slavery—and, more frequently than not, emerged from struggles with opponents routed and his own authority enhanced. Through his thinking and writing, we’ve long appreciated Jefferson’s lifelong devotion to “the survival and success of democratic republicanism in America,” but Meacham’s treatment reminds us of the flesh-and-blood politician, the man of action who masterfully bent the real world in the direction of his ideals.

An outstanding biography that reveals an overlooked steeliness at Jefferson’s core that accounts for so much of his political success.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6766-4

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

Meticulously researched and packed with not just technological details, but sociopolitical and cultural details as well—the...

TURING'S CATHEDRAL

THE ORIGINS OF THE DIGITAL UNIVERSE

That we live in a digital universe is indisputable; how we got there is a mesmerizing tale brilliantly told by science historian Dyson (Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965, 2002, etc.).

The author establishes late 1945 as the birth date of the first stored-program machine, built at the Institute for Advanced Study, established in Princeton in 1932 as a haven for theoreticians. It happened under the watch of the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, fresh from commutes to Los Alamos where the atom bomb had been built and the hydrogen bomb was only a gleam in Edward Teller’s eye. Dyson makes clear that the motivation for some of the world’s greatest technological advances has always been to perfect instruments of war. Indeed, von Neumann’s colleagues included some who had been at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where a dedicated-purpose computer, ENIAC, had been built to calculate firing tables for anti-aircraft artillery. The IAS computer, MANIAC, was used to determine the parameters governing the fission of an atom device inside an H-bomb that would then ignite the fusion reaction. But for von Neumann and others, the MANIAC was also the embodiment of Alan Turing’s universal machine, an abstract invention in the ’30s by the mathematician who would go on to crack the Nazi’s infamous Enigma code in World War II. In addition to these stories, Dyson discusses climate and genetic-modeling projects programmed on the MANIAC. The use of wonderful quotes and pithy sketches of the brilliant cast of characters further enriches the text. Who knew that eccentric mathematician/logician Kurt Gödel had married a Viennese cabaret dancer?

Meticulously researched and packed with not just technological details, but sociopolitical and cultural details as well—the definitive history of the computer.

Pub Date: March 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-375-42277-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

A profound demonstration of what needs to be recognized, reconciled and forgiven if current crises are to be overcome.

HAITI

THE AFTERSHOCKS OF HISTORY

A vigorous retelling of Haiti's history intended to revive the promise of the world's first black-led republic.

This is not a story of the decline of a small nation, but an inspiring account of the struggle against adversity for freedom and independence. Dubois (History and French Studies/Duke Univ.; Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, 2010, etc.) narrates the story of Toussaint Louverture’s leadership of the slave population of France's most profitable colony to independence in 1791, emancipation in 1793 and recognition by the government in 1794. The author also examines how Napoleon reversed independence and sent an army that was crushed in 1804 by Louverture and his collaborators and successors; how the Congress of Vienna secretly gave France the right to invade the country; and how Haiti was excluded from the Monroe Doctrine. Haiti was free, but a free country established by former black slaves—they had transgressed an order based not only on plantation slavery, but also racism. Invasion, blockade and isolation were used to deny Haitians their place among the free nations of the world; the United States did not recognize the country until Abraham Lincoln became president in 1860. Haiti endured until the U.S. Marines were sent to steal the country's gold and occupy the island in 1915. Franklin Roosevelt took credit for rewriting the constitution, and corporate-owned plantation-based production was reintroduced to replace the family-based system of land tenure. As Dubois writes, “the occupation propelled Haiti's political system backward by a century,” and the country has not been permitted to recover to the present.

A profound demonstration of what needs to be recognized, reconciled and forgiven if current crises are to be overcome.

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9335-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Oct. 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2011

An erudite discussion both profoundly sympathetic and richly analytical.

WHEN GOD TALKS BACK

UNDERSTANDING THE AMERICAN EVANGELICAL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

A simultaneously scholarly and deeply personal analysis of evangelical communities in America.

Luhrmann (Anthropology/Stanford Univ.; Of Two Minds: An Anthropologist Looks at American Psychiatry, 2000) entered the Vineyard Christian Fellowship openly—declaring herself an anthropologist who wanted to understand the evangelical way and mind—and she was both welcomed and eventually somewhat transformed. Near the end, Lurhmann writes that although she’s not sure she’d call herself a Christian, she has “come to know God.” She begins by describing the current evangelical movement—how widespread it is, how God has become an intimate friend rather than a harsh judge and how evangelicals largely avoid theodicy. She sketches the history of the Vineyard and attributes to the 1960s counterculture some of the spiritual energy that animates the evangelical movement. As the title suggests, the author devotes much of her discussion to the conversation between believers and their God, a conversation facilitated by specific techniques of prayer. She spends many pages talking about the problem of hearing God’s voice and attempts to cover all bases. For example, she includes major passages about the long history of the phenomenon, schizophreniaand skeptics’ reservations and disdain. Lurhmann underwent extensive prayer training, and her research is substantial—years of commitment, countless interviews, extensive endnotes and a vast bibliography. She accords deep respect for those whose religious experiences are scientifically unverifiable, and she concludes that evangelicals have, to a great extent, reprogrammed their brains and that they and skeptics live in alternate universes. One topic she does not raise: the economics of the movement. Who’s getting rich in the evangelical world? Does it matter?

An erudite discussion both profoundly sympathetic and richly analytical.

Pub Date: March 27, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-26479-4

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2012

A poignant, galvanizing, meaningful tribute.

ON A FARTHER SHORE

THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF RACHEL CARSON

Fifty years after the publication of Rachel Carson's seminal Silent Spring, Pulitzer Prize nominee Souder (Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America, 2004, etc.) examines the legacy and lasting impact of Carson's passionate environmental work.

“By 1959, some eighty million pounds of DDT were being used annually in the United States,” writes the author. Already a vocal conservationist, Carson had long suspected that pesticide use was accumulatively detrimental to animals and humans. This holistic view of the living world was startling and prescient, and it struck a chord with an American public that was already spooked by the similar dangers of fallout from nuclear testing. Carson grappled with the literary celebrity that accompanied Silent Spring, yearning to maintain a quiet, private life yet forced to answer the powerful opposition she faced from the chemical industry. Souder writes beautifully about this dichotomy, revealing intimate details about the writing process and her relationships with editors, fans, family and her beloved companion Dorothy Freeman, with whom she spent some of her happiest moments while on the Maine coastline. The author also conducted ample contextual research, providing readers with a clear sense of the political, economic and social ramifications of DDT use and the threat of atomic warfare and how Carson's writing played a vital role in progressive public policy for decades after her death. One wonders how the past 50 years might have been different were Carson alive to write about global warming, fossil fuels, the erosion of coral reefs and other similar matters. That her views on DDT were eventually proven correct is just a small part of her legacy as an environmental pioneer but also a defining instance of citizen activism.

A poignant, galvanizing, meaningful tribute.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-46220-6

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: June 12, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2012

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