Alternately sad, defiant, carefree and understated, this journey into a world hidden in plain sight is well worth taking.

A FREE MAN

A TRUE STORY OF LIFE AND DEATH IN DELHI

A journalist ingratiates himself with a band of day laborers on the mean streets of Delhi, India.

In 2005, Sethi, a young reporter eager to undertake an investigative study of Delhi’s working poor, befriended vagabond Mohammed Ashraf and his crew. Six years later, he found himself still involved in Ashraf’s life, providing him with both emotional and financial support. Although Sethi initially expressed frustration with Ashraf’s reluctance to provide a linear timeline of his life story, he soon fell under the spell cast by this streetwise raconteur. Like many others in his circle, Ashraf had run away to Delhi to escape a tempestuous home life. During times when he could find work, he painted houses and did other manual odd jobs; during times when there was either no work to be had or no work that he wanted, he drank heavily, spun tall tales and fantasized about opening his own business. Sethi excels at empathetically depicting what could come across as a miserable existence: he allows Ashraf and the other mazdoors (laborers) to share their stories without either judging them or pretending to be one of them. For all the injustices that these men face every day, the book offers ample humor. In the most poignant chapters, Sethi accompanies Ashraf’s friend to a tuberculosis hospital. The bureaucracy and despair of such an institution becomes painfully clear when Sethi portrays the panel of admitting doctors, all wearing masks and looking away from their patients.

Alternately sad, defiant, carefree and understated, this journey into a world hidden in plain sight is well worth taking.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-08890-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

With a vast dramatis personae and stage, Hyde’s book sheds considerable light on the 19th-century development of the nation....

EMPIRES, NATIONS, AND FAMILIES

A NEW HISTORY OF THE NORTH AMERICAN WEST, 1800-1860

A sharp reframing of the history of the early Western frontier in personal terms.

At the outset of this elegantly written study, winner of the Bancroft Prize and a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize (the book was first published in 2011 by the University of Nebraska Press), Hyde (History/Colorado Coll.) observes that the Louisiana Purchase did not suddenly dump into the tender hands of the new United States a howling, savage unknown. Instead, granted that the “Anglo-Americans were newcomers in a world that was anything but wilderness,” the vast region was a territory both held together and divided by complex lines of relation, friendship and other affinities elective and otherwise. Within the confines of the West were settlements such as St. Louis, Santa Fe, Nootka and Prairie du Chien whose inhabitants spoke countless languages and were often of mixed ethnicity. It was family connections more than any political or military power that enabled those people to cross lines of nationhood and race; Hyde cites, for instance, the case of William Bent, the founder of Bent’s Fort, Colo., a success as both a trading post and a non-Native American settlement only “because [he] had made familial relationships with the Cheyenne, American, and Mexican elites.” With the arrival of formal American institutions, writes Hyde, racism began to take hold; as she concludes, after 1860, “[i]deas about race and how it described people and circumscribed behavior remained very shifty but soon had the power of the state to give them shape.” The shape they took was that of Jim Crow, and soon, those old kinship and friendship ties gave way to a different set of laws.

With a vast dramatis personae and stage, Hyde’s book sheds considerable light on the 19th-century development of the nation. Highly recommended.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-222515-3

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 3, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

Sobering stories about the politics of power—its loss, its gain—and the deep human suffering that inevitably results.

FORMER PEOPLE

THE FINAL DAYS OF THE RUSSIAN ARISTOCRACY

When the Bolshevik Revolution came in 1917, the new order began transforming aristocrats into paupers, exiles and corpses—a transformation that consumed decades.

Smith, a former U.S. diplomat and authority on the Soviets and author of several previous works (The Pearl: A Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, 2008, etc.), takes a different approach to revolutionary history, focusing on the fallen class: Who were they? What had their lives been like? What happened to them? The author follows two aristocratic families (later, they intermarried), the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns, showing the splendor in which they lived and then the squalor into which they declined. The author is deeply sympathetic to their fates. Although he states that the aristocracy had, of course, flourished on the servitude of others, he tells such wrenching, emotional stories about his characters that it’s easy to forget who once wore the silken slippers. Smith’s research is remarkably thorough in its range and detail, so much so that readers may feel overwhelmed by such powerful surges of suffering. Searches, arrests, firings, confiscations of property, internal exile, imprisonments, tortures, executions, desecration of graves—these and other grim experiences Smith chronicles in his compelling narrative. He mentions significant historical events, but his intent is to show how these events affected his characters. He portrays with brutal clarity the truth of Orwell’s Animal Farm: A new aristocracy—a political one—emerged to enjoy the benefits of living on the labor of others.

Sobering stories about the politics of power—its loss, its gain—and the deep human suffering that inevitably results.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-15761-6

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

Meticulously researched, suspenseful and engrossing.

HELL-BENT

OBSESSION, PAIN, AND THE SEARCH FOR SOMETHING LIKE TRANSCENDENCE IN COMPETITIVE YOGA

A comprehensive examination of hot, competitive yoga, its cultlike following and the author's immersion into the practice.

Named for its founder, Bikram Choudhury, Bikram Yoga is a strict series of 26 postures performed in a heated room set to at least 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity. Lorr, a New York City high school teacher, started practicing at age 29, after dislocating a rib during a drunken fall. He was overweight, out of shape and depressed after a breakup. Within three months, he'd lost 45 pounds and felt he'd "discovered magic." At the urging of an instructor, he entered a local yoga tournament in which contestants are judged for their poses. His hobby grew into a full-blown obsession, and Lorr details his stints at back-bending retreats where he practiced yoga for 14 hours a day and "hallucinations, waves of tears, anger, and pulsing headaches are just a few of the many releases that occur as you work." During his expensive Bikram Yoga teacher training, guzzling massive quantities of water and sweating constantly, Lorr experienced 14-pound swings in weight loss from single classes. The author writes extensively about Choudhury's unusual life, total adherence to proper alignment and form and belief that pain can be good. Now a multimillionaire, Choudhury has garnered more than a few skeptics, in part for his seemingly self-serving behavior. Lorr interweaves his story with fascinating history and photographs; some of the most compelling parts of the book concern the stories of other practitioners, from famous athletes to former drug addicts, whose lives have been utterly transformed by hot yoga.

Meticulously researched, suspenseful and engrossing.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-312-67290-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

Even though we know the answers to most of the questions—Will our heroine win the coveted role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl?...

HELLO, GORGEOUS

BECOMING BARBRA STREISAND

Hollywood chronicler Mann (How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, 2010, etc.) divulges the blood, sweat and tears that propelled a diva’s rise to stardom.

Barbra Streisand is such a cultural institution that it sometimes seems as if she sprang fully grown from the head of the entertainment industry. Not so, argues the author in this surprisingly suspenseful and masterfully paced biography. Covering the fundamental years from 1960 to 1964, he shines the spotlight on an awkward yet ambitious teenage girl who aspired to play grand theatrical roles. To Streisand, singing came so easily that she didn’t regard it as work, and she practically had to be pushed into appearing at Greenwich Village nightclubs. When a friend suggested that she approach singing a song as if acting a part in a play, however, she made a creative breakthrough that led to appearances on TV talk shows, a Broadway role in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and a recording contract at Columbia Records. Streisand didn’t accomplish this alone, and Mann appropriately gives credit to the agents, accompanists, directors and mentors who brought her idiosyncratic style to a generation hungry for new idols. He also delves into her paradoxical mixture of self-confidence and -doubt, disclosing that she privately felt insecure about her looks despite publicly flaunting an outlandish flair for fashion and a loopy sense of humor. Mann structures the book by seasons, further dividing these into a series of vignettes that read like scenes from a novel peopled with extraordinary characters.

Even though we know the answers to most of the questions—Will our heroine win the coveted role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl? Will she live happily ever after with her Prince Charming, Elliott Gould?—this book makes getting to them a treat.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-547-36892-4

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

A well-told, direct story of endurance and courage in the face of death and destruction on an apocalyptic scale, as moving...

ISAAC'S ARMY

THE JEWISH RESISTANCE IN OCCUPIED POLAND

The history of Polish Jews who fought Nazi brutality, retold in the stories of some truly remarkable young men and women.

Journalist Brzezinski (Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age, 2007, etc.) presents a meticulous, harrowing account of resistance, humanized with personal tales of individual combatants. As he writes, from the day the Germans set foot in the Polish capital, the brutality mounted. The Jewish quarter was walled off, and the inhumanely crowded ghetto was established. Naked bodies were soon found throughout the quarter, which was infected with typhus as well as blackmailers and profiteers. But there were partisans, too. As deportation to death camps increased, there was frantic organizing and smuggling. Travel to the “Aryan” side was forbidden yet accomplished through disguised tunnels. Finally, in the spring of 1943, after 400,000 Jews were dead, the uprising exploded. In the lead-up to the Uprising, the resistance had established lines of communication and financing for a few guns, and leaders stepped up to organize the logistics and tactics. Escape, through fetid sewers or inhospitable forests, was rare. Aided by anti-Semites, the Wehrmacht and the particularly brutal SS were powerful and efficient. However, as recalled by survivors, there was support by some righteous gentiles. In his valuable text, Brzezinski impartially describes the political interplay of factions of resistance fighters, even when the city of Warsaw was utterly destroyed on orders from Berlin. The struggle continued as survivors fought their way to Israel. “In Poland,” writes the author, “Jews now had only a past. The future had been erased.”

A well-told, direct story of endurance and courage in the face of death and destruction on an apocalyptic scale, as moving and powerful as any novel.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-553-80727-1

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

A fascinating mix of cutting-edge science with philosophy and theology.

LIFE'S RATCHET

HOW MOLECULAR MACHINES EXTRACT ORDER FROM CHAOS

 A biophysicist examines the relationship between chance and necessity at the boundary between life and inanimate objects.

Hoffmann (Physics and Materials Science/Wayne State Univ.) founded his university's Biomedical Physics program in order to apply the latest advances in nanotechnology to probe the nature of life. Although his field of expertise is physics (he admits to having never formally studied biology), while still in graduate school, he became fascinated by the discrepancy between life at the level of atoms and molecules, where “chaos reigns,” and at the larger scale of human existence, where, for the most part, “order prevails.” With the development of the atomic force microscope, which can sense motion, scientists are now able to witness the action in living cells of molecular machines, “autonomously moving molecules performing specific tasks like tiny robots.” The author applies Darwin's profound insight into the evolution of species to the question of how life itself evolved. He shows how Darwin implicitly resolved the split between reductionism and vitalism with the discovery of natural selection. Hoffmann distinguishes between macroscopic machines created to serve a specific purpose and the “autonomous [molecular] machines” found in life. He believes that the key to their functioning is the relationship between different kinds of energy at the nanoscale level, where different kinds of energy (chemical, electrostatic, thermal, etc.) operate on the same scale. He speculates about the “exciting possibility that the molecules in our body can spontaneously convert different types of energy into one another.” By creating order from the chaotic storm of thermal energy through a process of natural selection, the mechanisms and enzymes necessary for a cell to live come into being. “Evolution is not random,” Hoffmann writes. “It is a collaboration between a random process (mutation) and a nonrandom, necessary process (selection)...all of nature is a result of this balance.”

A fascinating mix of cutting-edge science with philosophy and theology.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-465-02253-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

Art lovers, Renaissance junkies and even travelers will love this book, which brings these two geniuses to vivid life and...

THE LOST BATTLES

LEONARDO, MICHELANGELO, AND THE ARTISTIC DUEL THAT DEFINED THE RENAISSANCE

Guardian art critic Jones rejoices in revealing the talents of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and the challenge of deciding who was the true master.

Competition was fundamental to the culture of brilliance in Renaissance Florence, driving creativity and innovation. The contest between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi to create the bronze doors of the Baptistery is a case in point; the author firmly states that the committee was correct in its choice of Ghiberti, leaving Brunelleschi to his dome. There is a wealth of information about da Vinci and Michelangelo, and Jones skillfully harvests the best, amusing with his delightful asides and enlightening with his erudite opinions. As Giorgio Vasari declared, da Vinci was the first great artist of the period who defined nature, perspective and technical mastery, while Michelangelo was its ultimate genius. The story focuses on two commissions to decorate the Great Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio, with each artist painting an opposite wall. Jones deftly analyzes their talents and personalities. The preening da Vinci launched theories and works of art but seemed only to enjoy the journey, as he often failed to complete his works. His interests constantly distracted him from his tasks. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was an emotional, fiery poet constantly seeking a cause for his anger. While da Vinci was a master of dissection and produced brilliant drawings, Michelangelo presented the human body as an idyllic landscape. Even as they appeared to be at odds, each often used ideas from the other, like Leonardo’s bastions of Piombino, which Michelangelo copied for Florence.

Art lovers, Renaissance junkies and even travelers will love this book, which brings these two geniuses to vivid life and teaches how easy it is to love art.

Pub Date: Oct. 25, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-59475-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

In rich, lyrical prose, McKinney deftly honors both the man and the mystery.

THE MAN WHO SAW A GHOST

THE LIFE AND WORK OF HENRY FONDA

The story of a great American actor whose art was burnished by an anguished life.

For McKinney (Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, 2003), Henry Fonda (1905–1982) is very much a mystery: an affable common man on screen whose piercing blue eyes suggested dark depths. It was a face of wisdom and pain, which is why no one else has ever played Abraham Lincoln with so much quiet conviction. Fonda knew suffering, and he was the cause of suffering in others. He saw death up close—as a youth in Nebraska (where he witnessed a mob take over a local jail and lynch a black man) and as a soldier in World War II and in the suicide of his wife, Frances, a wealthy heiress who finally wearied of the demands of being Mrs. Henry Fonda. (A third wife, Susan Blanchard, would also divorce him for “extreme mental cruelty.”) Though well liked as an actor, he was chilly and distant as a husband and an apparent controlling terror to children Peter and Jane. He may not have liked himself that much either, as there were possible suicide attempts of his own. Through it all, Fonda greeted every struggle with either stoic Christian Science hardiness or dogged denial, plunging into work to keep from dealing with the domestic turmoil. The face said it all. No one ever had a problem believing him as an actor. “Fonda’s fate all along, his curse and his cure, has been to become the thing that haunts him,” writes the author in this excellent work of biography.

In rich, lyrical prose, McKinney deftly honors both the man and the mystery.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-250-00841-1

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

The Great Helmsman fully fleshed, still complicated and ever provocative.

MAO

THE REAL STORY

A comprehensive, authoritative new study that challenges the received wisdom regarding Mao’s relationship with Stalin and the Soviet Union.

With rare access to the newly consolidated Russian State Archive of Social and Political History, Pantsov (History/Capital Univ.; The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution, 1919-1927, 2000) and Levine construct an “up-to-date” take on the Chinese Communist Party and Mao’s rise in it as being essentially dictated by Stalin and financially supported by the Soviet Union through the 1950s. Stalin manipulated Mao to his own ends; only after Stalin’s death and Mao’s increasingly antagonistic relationship with Khrushchev did the Chinese pull away from the Soviet Union as part of an “emancipation of consciousness.” The authors’ detail is minute and the characters proliferate mind-bendingly, especially in the careful reconstruction of Mao’s rise from rube and community organizer to national leader. Pantsov and Levine depict Mao with all his conflicting facets, from the early bookworm and idealist who initially scorned the “stupidity” of the masses, to becoming the party’s self-made prophet on the agrarian question, espousing the proletarian confiscation of land from the landlords. He was a man of enormous energy and capacity for love who was nonetheless hardened by the intraparty struggle against Chiang Kai-shek; he was also a utopian socialist who embarked on the modernization scheme of the Great Leap Forward in 1957 after a stimulating trip to Moscow. The great famine that ensued did not dampen Mao’s enthusiasm for revolutionary incentives, as played out tragically in the Red Guards’ devastation, and his “irrepressible lust for violence” has been largely forgiven by history because he consolidated China’s “national liberation.”

The Great Helmsman fully fleshed, still complicated and ever provocative.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4516-5447-9

Page Count: 736

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: June 12, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2012

A profound and richly satisfying reckoning with the movies and what they mean.

THE BIG SCREEN

THE STORY OF THE MOVIES

Thomson (The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, 2009, etc.) brings his encyclopedic knowledge of film and idiosyncratic, allusive style to bear on this ambitious consideration of the history of motion pictures and their effect on the audience.

The author goes beyond mere survey and analysis to question what movies mean to us and how they have shaped our perceptions and beliefs. Thomson chronicles the development of movies from Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th-century photographic experiments to the phenomenon of Internet pornography. Along the way, he explicates the excitement and politically fraught evolution of Soviet cinema, the provocations of the European New Wave, the allure of film noir and the world-shaking product of Hollywood, but the author makes no attempt to give a comprehensive or strictly linear history of the medium. Thomson is more interested in making striking connections, looking deeply at particular films, such as Brief Encounter (a surprising subject for such intense scrutiny and indicative of Thomson’s iconoclastic bent) or the TV landmark I Love Lucy, to pursue the central question of his history: What does life in front of screens do to us? Thomson’s approach is lyrical and questing rather than academic; the book is accessible to anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject, written in a distinctive voice, learned and authoritative without pedantic dryness and touched with wonder and trepidation at the primal power of the image. Readers familiar with the author’s Biographical Dictionary of Film will be happy to note that Thomson’s beguiling knack for capturing the essences of our movie icons in poetic or provocative asides has not diminished, and the scholarship on display is first-rate. However, the heart of this unique overview is the author’s ambivalence about the power we grant those shadows on the wall.

A profound and richly satisfying reckoning with the movies and what they mean.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-19189-4

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 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

Beautifully constructed reflections and careful sifting of Jefferson’s thoughts and deeds.

MASTER OF THE MOUNTAIN

THOMAS JEFFERSON AND HIS SLAVES

A well-rendered yet deeply unsettling look behind the illusion of the happy slaves of Monticello.

That Jefferson was riven by contradictions as both a passionate advocate of liberty and a dedicated slave owner is not new to scholars and historians. Yet Wiencek (An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, 2003, etc.) scours the primary sources, such as Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, for a thoughtful reexamination of what was really going on behind the harmonious facade of the great house on the mountain. So much about Monticello was artful, full of contrivances, contraptions, inventions and labyrinths. It was an innovative and eccentric place, tricking the eye and keeping the visitor somewhat off balance. Wiencek does note some of the times when the facade was broken: “In one instance, a gentleman dining with Mr. Jefferson, looked so startled as he raised his eyes from the latter to the servant behind him, that his discovery of the resemblance was perfectly obvious to all.” Indeed, all the slaves at Monticello were related to one another, descendants of matriarch “Betty” Hemings, who had been the concubine of Martha Jefferson’s father, rendering Betty’s many children by him, including Sally, her own half siblings. Rather reluctantly, Wiencek looks at the substance behind the scandal of Sally and Jefferson’s reputed liaison and admits solid evidence. The author thoroughly examines Jefferson’s writings, such as Notes on the State of Virginia, for his problematic theories on race, miscegenation and human bondage, and he marvels at the man’s ability to justify what he called an “execrable commerce.” Slave suicides, runaways, whippings by his overseers and his furtive freeing of Sally’s two oldest children—the secrets and evasions compounded one another. Yes, Jefferson inherited slavery, but he knew better.

Beautifully constructed reflections and careful sifting of Jefferson’s thoughts and deeds.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-29956-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 12, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

A breathtaking study of “walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape.”

THE OLD WAYS

A JOURNEY ON FOOT

Macfarlane (English/Cambridge Univ.; The Wild Places, 2008, etc.) returns with another masterful, poetic travel narrative.

The author’s latest, focusing broadly on the concept of walking, forms what he calls “a loose trilogy,” with his two earlier books, Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places, “about landscape and the human heart.” As in his previous books, it seems nearly impossible that a writer could combine so many disparate elements into one sensible narrative. It’s ostensibly a first-person travelogue (of England, Spain, Palestine, Tibet and other locales), combined with biographical sketches (such as that of poet Edward Thomas, who died on a battlefield in France in 1917) and historical anecdotes about a wide variety of subjects (e.g., a set of 5,000-year-old footprints made by a family along the coastline just north of Liverpool). In the hands of a lesser writer, these divergent ideas would almost certainly result in unreadable chaos, but Macfarlane effortlessly weaves them together under the overarching theme of “walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.” While this notion may seem abstract, the author’s resonant prose brings it to life—whether he is writing about the mountains of Tibet, where a half-frozen stream is “halted mid-leap in elaborate forms of yearning,” or the mountains of Scotland to which he returned for his grandfather’s funeral, where he found “moonlight shimmering off the pine needles and pooling in the tears of resin wept by the pines.”

A breathtaking study of “walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape.”

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02511-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Aug. 5, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

Provocative, illuminating and entertaining—an exemplary work of philosophy and history whose author's deep learning is...

ON POLITICS

A HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT: FROM HERODOTUS TO THE PRESENT

An ambitious survey not of politics itself, but of the way Westerners have thought about politics for 2,500 years.

Ryan (Politics/Princeton Univ.; John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, 1997, etc.) has written a massive book, one “a long time in the making.” That’s understandable, for he has a tremendous amount of ground to cover. He does so with the admirable breadth of Will and Ariel Durant or Frederick Copleston but with much greater powers of concision and a gift for finding essences without resorting to essentialism. Thus, he writes, one critical difference between Athenian and Roman conceptions of freedom is that the former “practiced a form of unfiltered direct democracy that the Romans thought a recipe for chaos; the Romans gave ordinary free and male persons a role in politics, but a carefully structured and controlled one.” That distinction comes into play more than 900 pages later, when Ryan wrestles with what kind of a system most Western countries, and preeminently the United States, have today. “Liberal democracies,” he writes, are really “nontyrannical and liberal popular mixed republics,” though, as he cautions, “nobody is going to call them this.” In between, Ryan visits thinkers from Socrates and Plato to Aristotle, excusing Plato from charges of protofascism and marveling at Aquinas’ powers of distinction in determining whether it is fitting for a bishop to go to war. If all Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then Ryan’s text is a delightful assemblage of enlightening subnotes: Who among us remembers that Machiavelli’s The Prince was on the Catholic Church’s forbidden index until just recently and “that anyone wishing to read it for the purposes of refutation had to ask permission of the pope”? That Edmund Burke was a boring public speaker, but “(mostly) wrote like an angel”? Or that Karl Marx’s notion of class struggle remains an elusive work in progress?

Provocative, illuminating and entertaining—an exemplary work of philosophy and history whose author's deep learning is lightly worn.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-87140-465-7

Page Count: 1120

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Aug. 9, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

A clear, insightful vision of a health care system that could bring about a better, healthier world.

PREDICTIVE HEALTH

HOW WE CAN REINVENT MEDICINE TO EXTEND OUR BEST YEARS

Two doctors envision a future in which many illnesses could be prevented, where “disease, not death…will be the medical failure.”

Brigham (Medicine/Emory Univ.) and Johns, Emory University's chancellor for health affairs, open their debut with a case study. In 1966, Carleton Hensley was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital suffering a systemic infection brought on by diabetes and a drinking habit. Despite the best efforts of the unnamed doctor, Hensley, just over the age of 60, died. From here, the authors advance a theory: What if diseases, like Hensley's diabetes, could be treated before they even began? With researchers constantly discovering more links between our genetic code and the predisposition to specific diseases, the authors describe a possible future in which patients like Hensley have a blood sample drawn at birth. They make it clear, however, that biology is not destiny, and they describe at length the specifics of how this future health care system would work. The main idea would be to guide people toward healthier living based on their genetic makeup, freeing up doctors to “once again become the caretaker of an individual person’s health and well-being.” Brigham and Johns also look at the potential overall savings to the health care system and examine the links between environment and health. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the book is the well-written prose. The authors discuss their main points in accessible terms, with a mix of thorough research and real-life evidence, without getting bogged down in technical jargon. They acknowledge that these changes, if they happen, will be a long time coming, but they effectively show how “[t]he promise is real and the voyage is underway.”

A clear, insightful vision of a health care system that could bring about a better, healthier world.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-465-02312-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: July 12, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

Lucent prose illuminates a man obscured for years in history’s shadows.

SHORT NIGHTS OF THE SHADOW CATCHER

THE EPIC LIFE AND IMMORTAL PHOTOGRAPHS OF EDWARD CURTIS

New York Times Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Egan (The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, 2009, etc.) returns with the story of the astonishing life of Edward Curtis (1868–1952), whose photographs of American Indians now command impressive prices at auction.

This is an era of excessive subtitles—but not this one: “Epic” and “immortal” are words most fitting for Curtis, whose 20-volume The North American Indian, a project that consumed most of his productive adult life, is a work of astonishing beauty and almost incomprehensible devotion. Egan begins with the story of Angelina, Chief Seattle’s daughter, who in 1896 was living in abject poverty in the city named for her father. Curtis—who’d begun a Seattle photography shop—photographed her, became intrigued with the vanishing lives of America’s Indians and devoted the ensuing decades both to the photography of indigenous people all over North America and to the writing of texts that described their culture, languages, songs and religion. Curtis scrambled all his life for funding—J.P. Morgan and President Theodore Roosevelt were both supporters, though the former eventually took over the copyrights and sold everything to a collector during the Depression for $1,000—and spent most of his time away from home, a decision that cost him his marriage. His children, however, remained loyal, some later helping him with his project. As Egan shows, Curtis traveled nearly everywhere, living with the people he was studying, taking thousands of photographs. He nearly died on several occasions. Egan is careful to credit Curtis’ team, several of whom endured all that he did, though, gradually, he became the last man standing, and he reproduces a number of the gorgeous photographs.

Lucent prose illuminates a man obscured for years in history’s shadows.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-618-96902-9

Page Count: 412

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 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

A splendid assemblage of significant work by one of our keenest observers.

THIS LIVING HAND

AND OTHER ESSAYS

A sterling collection of essays from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner.

Arranged chronologically rather than thematically, in “what amounts to a scrapbook of one man’s literary life,” the book ranges widely in tone from the serious to the satirical. Several of the works have yet to be published, and a few have been revised or expanded. Morris (Colonel Roosevelt, 2010, etc.), who writes that he is haunted by visual images, occasionally pairs a pertinent illustration with an essay and when necessary, inserts a footnote to clarify an obsolete reference. “Outside of literature in general and biography in particular,” he writes, “my non-book work has consisted mainly of commentary on the presidency and writings about classical music.” Morris begins with a 1972 essay, “The Bumstich: Lament for a Forgotten Fruit,” in which he recounts his time as a schoolboy in Kenya. The author concludes with “The Ivo Pogorelich of Presidential Biography,” an exploration of the process of writing Dutch (1999), his controversial book about Ronald Reagan. This last essay is an updated revision of three seminars the author gave while serving as a writer in residence at the University of Chicago in 2003. In other pieces, Morris laments the disappearance of snow on Mount Kilimanjaro; probes the psyche of South African writer Nadine Gordimer; explains his passion for writing biographies; narrates his tour through Britain’s Imperial War Museum; and bemoans the loss of the physical pleasure of writing with pen and ink or typewriter. “Parker man or Remington man,” he writes, “one felt a closeness to the finished product that the glass screen of a computer display now coldly precludes.”

A splendid assemblage of significant work by one of our keenest observers. 

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9312-7

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

A historian’s history that deserves pride of place in every library.

TOWER

AN EPIC HISTORY OF THE TOWER OF LONDON

Historian and journalist Jones (Countdown to Valkyrie: The July Plot to Kill Hitler, 2008, etc.) enlightens and delights in this history of the London Tower.

The author begins with tales of William the Conquerer, whose “motte-and-bailey” forts could be erected “within a week.” The stone Tower of London, on the other hand, became the center of power and residence for the English royalty through Elizabeth I. The buildings surrounding the White Tower served not only as royal pomp, but also as the armory, where blacksmiths forged swords, fletchers made arrows and weaponry was stored, including gunpowder (a near disaster during the Great Fire of 1666). After King John lost the crown jewels in the Wash estuary, his son Henry III ruled that their replacements be kept in the Tower at all times. During his reign, Henry expanded the buildings, centralized the Mint and established the Royal Menagerie, which delighted visitors for 600 years, until the Duke of Wellington expelled the animals to the newly built London Zoo in Regent’s Park. Jones enumerates the many who lost their heads, as well as the many prisoners who suffered little and accomplished much—e.g., Walter Raleigh, who wrote The History of the World during his 13 years there. There were also many who left behind heartfelt letters to family, most notably Thomas More. Jones offers a wealth of interesting tidbits, including the story of one escapee who carved tools and blackened them with polish.

A historian’s history that deserves pride of place in every library.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-312-62296-1

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

Joyful reading about a groundbreaking study and its participants.

TRIUMPHS OF EXPERIENCE

THE MEN OF THE HARVARD GRANT STUDY

A fascinating account of the 268 individuals selected for the Harvard Study of Adult Development (the “Grant Study”), which “began in 1938 as an attempt to transcend medicine’s usual preoccupation with pathology and learn something instead about optimum health and potential and the conditions that promote them.”

Vaillant (Psychiatry/Harvard Medical School: Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, 2008, etc.) has done a wonderful job summarizing the study, discussing its major findings, and communicating his enthusiasm for every aspect of the project, which became his life's work starting in 1966. The study has been investigating what makes a successful and healthy life. Initially, this meant looking for potential officer material for the military. Vaillant established what he called “the Decathlon of Flourishing—a set of ten accomplishments in late life that covered many different facets of success.” With humor and intriguing insights, the author shows how progress in health studies and the passage of time contributed to the constant “back and forth between nature and nurture.” During Vaillant's tenure, human maturation and resilience became the focus, and now biology is reasserting itself in the form of DNA studies and fMRI imaging, the seeds for future research. The author considers the study's greatest contributions to be a demonstration that human growth continues long after adolescence, the world's longest and most thorough study of alcoholism, and its identification and charting of involuntary coping mechanisms. Inspiring when reporting these successes, his personal approach to discovery repeatedly draws readers in as he leads up to the account of his realization that the true value of a human life can only be fully understood in terms of the cumulative record of the entire life span.

Joyful reading about a groundbreaking study and its participants.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-674-05982-5

Page Count: 290

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

Incisive, reflective and unfailingly stimulating. It wouldn’t hurt Mendelsohn to occasionally pass up an opportunity to...

WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS

ESSAYS FROM THE CLASSICS TO POP CULTURE

Another top-notch collection of previously published criticism from Mendelsohn (How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, 2008, etc.).

“There rarely are any real ‘barbarians,’ ” the author writes. “What others might see as declines and falls look, when seen from the bird’s-eye vantage point of history, more like shifts, adaptations, reorganizations.” This long-range perspective distinguishes Mendelsohn’s criticism from that of less erudite and measured peers. The opening section, “Spectacles,” ranges from Avatar to Mad Men with refreshing matter-of-factness, pinpointing the cultural significance of commercial forms of art without over- or understating their merits. Mendelsohn’s analysis of why Julie Taymor was precisely the wrong director for the Broadway musical Spider-Man is particularly sharp. Mendelsohn’s assessments can be negative, even dismissive, but they are not overheated or personally nasty. The near-exception is “Boys Will Be Boys,” a severe going-over of Edmund White’s memoir City Boy (2009), and even that is less a slam than a forthright statement of the differences between two generations of gay writers. Although Mendelsohn mused at length on questions of homosexual identity in The Elusive Embrace (1999), his criticism reveals an openly gay writer comfortably connected to the culture at large. He is equally acute and balanced on the memoir craze, the pleasures of Leo Lerman’s journals and “the fundamental failure of genuine good humor” in Jonathan Franzen’s work. Mendelsohn’s tendency to announce that there is a single key insight that crucially explains a given artist’s work can be irritating, but often his insight is key: Susan Sontag’s affinity with French classicism, for example, or ultrasophisticate Noël Coward’s grounding in “the stolid values of the decidedly unsophisticated lower-middle-class.”

Incisive, reflective and unfailingly stimulating. It wouldn’t hurt Mendelsohn to occasionally pass up an opportunity to remind readers he’s the smartest guy in the room, but then again, he almost always is.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59017-607-8

Page Count: 432

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

A poignant, memorable story of friendship and of a period in time that should never be forgotten.

YOU SAVED ME, TOO

WHAT A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR TAUGHT ME ABOUT LIVING, DYING, FIGHTING, LOVING, AND SWEARING IN YIDDISH

Stirring story of the tender and unusual friendship between a Holocaust survivor and a woman 40 years his junior.

Resnick (Creative Nonfiction/Brown Univ., Goodbye Wives and Daughters, 2010, etc.) expertly interweaves both sides of her 15-year friendship with Holocaust survivor Aron Lieb. She intersperses bits and pieces of Aron's life in the camps with her feelings about Judaism, her family life and her steadfast belief that the world should do right by her friend, a man who had suffered more than enough. Told in a nonsensational manner, the narrative provides readers with insights into the daily life of a Jew in the concentration camps: the lack of food and clothing, the brutality and illogical tortures, the endless work and the overwhelming determination to survive. Throughout the book, Resnick refers to Aron as “you,” and the back-and-forth conversations between the two companions continue as swirled snippets of memories of "your" somewhat normal life after the war. "Who will remember once your tattoo is gone?" writes the author. "When you die…that symbol will be buried with you. The numbers will decompose. You will come unmarked…then the forgetting will truly commence." Nightmares and anxiety attacks prevailed as Aron grew older, and he continued to struggle with the heart-rending grief of losing most of his family in the camps. Resnick and her family became the family Aron lost, and the author was single-minded in her efforts to provide a respectful death for her friend. Resnick’s compassionate prose captures the voice and soul of Aron, ensuring that his memories will continue long after the number "141324" has disappeared.

A poignant, memorable story of friendship and of a period in time that should never be forgotten.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-7627-8038-9

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Skirt! Books/Globe Pequot

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

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