A highly provocative work of popular science.

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CRITICAL MASS

HOW ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER

Can human nature be reduced to a set of laws that can then be used to organize society? By this intriguing account, many a physicist is now exploring such a question.

Apply a law to individual humans, and you’ll likely end up with more exceptions than rules. But perhaps, suggests British science writer Ball (The Ingredients, 2003, etc.), the terms haven’t been correctly expressed: human nature is more a collective than an individual matter, so the task is to describe the workings of the crowd, such that “we can make predictions about society even in the face of individual free will.” Opening his inquiry with Thomas Hobbes, who proposed a mechanistic model of humankind in his much-despised Leviathan, Ball touches on some unsettling questions: Are we merely drones in a big hive? Is there such a thing as free will? (Probably: Ball points to “many examples of social behavior in which a kind of regularity and order comes not from any predestination in the fates of the participants but from the very limited range of their viable choices.”) Writing with his customary light hand, and drawing on very recent developments in things like chaos and network theory, Ball looks at some of those examples to see what scientists think about why we do the things we do. Why, for instance, are there traffic jams? (Because the universe is rife with anomalies and random perturbations.) Why do economic systems—the stock market, say—resist behaving in always predictable ways? (Ditto, and “the fluctuations are unavoidable.”) Why do wars erupt, and why do some wars stay small and manageable while others kill millions? (Ditto, and therefore “there can be no telling how big a conflict might be sparked by the smallest disturbance.”) Ball’s survey raises more questions than it answers, but one fascinating constant emerges: “Regardless of what we believe about the motivations for individual behavior, once we become part of a group we cannot be sure what to expect.”

A highly provocative work of popular science.

Pub Date: June 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-374-28125-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2004

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Dramatic, immersive, and wanting—much like desire itself.

THREE WOMEN

Based on eight years of reporting and thousands of hours of interaction, a journalist chronicles the inner worlds of three women’s erotic desires.

In her dramatic debut about “what longing in America looks like,” Taddeo, who has contributed to Esquire, Elle, and other publications, follows the sex lives of three American women. On the surface, each woman’s story could be a soap opera. There’s Maggie, a teenager engaged in a secret relationship with her high school teacher; Lina, a housewife consumed by a torrid affair with an old flame; and Sloane, a wealthy restaurateur encouraged by her husband to sleep with other people while he watches. Instead of sensationalizing, the author illuminates Maggie’s, Lina’s, and Sloane’s erotic experiences in the context of their human complexities and personal histories, revealing deeper wounds and emotional yearnings. Lina’s infidelity was driven by a decade of her husband’s romantic and sexual refusal despite marriage counseling and Lina's pleading. Sloane’s Fifty Shades of Grey–like lifestyle seems far less exotic when readers learn that she has felt pressured to perform for her husband's pleasure. Taddeo’s coverage is at its most nuanced when she chronicles Maggie’s decision to go to the authorities a few years after her traumatic tryst. Recounting the subsequent trial against Maggie’s abuser, the author honors the triumph of Maggie’s courageous vulnerability as well as the devastating ramifications of her community’s disbelief. Unfortunately, this book on “female desire” conspicuously omits any meaningful discussion of social identities beyond gender and class; only in the epilogue does Taddeo mention race and its impacts on women's experiences with sex and longing. Such oversight brings a palpable white gaze to the narrative. Compounded by the author’s occasionally lackluster prose, the book’s flaws compete with its meaningful contribution to #MeToo–era reporting.

Dramatic, immersive, and wanting—much like desire itself.

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4516-4229-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Avid Reader Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

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However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS

Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative which retrieves her first sixteen years from "the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood."

Her story is told in scenes, ineluctably moving scenes, from the time when she and her brother were sent by her fancy living parents to Stamps, Arkansas, and a grandmother who had the local Store. Displaced they were and "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat." But alternating with all the pain and terror (her rape at the age of eight when in St. Louis With her mother) and humiliation (a brief spell in the kitchen of a white woman who refused to remember her name) and fear (of a lynching—and the time they buried afflicted Uncle Willie under a blanket of vegetables) as well as all the unanswered and unanswerable questions, there are affirmative memories and moments: her charming brother Bailey; her own "unshakable God"; a revival meeting in a tent; her 8th grade graduation; and at the end, when she's sixteen, the birth of a baby. Times When as she says "It seemed that the peace of a day's ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes and the crippled was still in effect."

However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1969

ISBN: 0375507892

Page Count: 235

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1969

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