This year has already been bountiful in outstanding releases. Check out these books (hint: most have earned starred reviews) as potential must-reads to cure the winter doldrums.
Read more new and notable nonfiction this February.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
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…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. Read our interview with Boo about her outstanding book.
The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life
Before dealing with the question of happiness, Edelman elaborates on his contention that human minds could evolve “to support foresight” because of the brain's ability to “compute by learning and using the statistics of the world in which we live.” He explains this with examples such as the ability of a baseball pitcher's brain to specify the location of his body and control its action by directing his shoulder according to horizontal and vertical planes and rotation, while anticipating a ball's trajectory; or the more mundane ability of a shopper to estimate which is the fastest check-out lane. Our brains are continually deluged with data that must be evaluated for cognition to occur. Survival of the organism depends on its ability to foresee the future and act accordingly. Edelman writes that this is the basis for the pursuit of happiness in humans, and by extension all living beings…An elegant tour de force that combines neuropsychology with liberal references to Shakespeare and Homer.
The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet
No telescope has directly observed an extra-solar planet, but Sasselov delivers a clear explanation of how instruments and, since 2009, a satellite are detecting subtle changes in a star’s light or movement that reveal not only the presence of planets (600 so far) but their size, orbits and a hint of their composition. The author maintains that the minority of “super-earths” possess conditions favorable to life: proper temperature, protective atmosphere, volcanism and tectonic movements. These are rocky, watery planets from one to 10 times the mass of Earth, which barely makes the cut. The author reminds readers that life is not fussy. Microbes thrive inside Antarctic ice sheets and in hot rock miles beneath us…Life has existed for 4 billion years, a time comparable to the age of the universe (13 billion), so it may be a normal cosmic process along with planet formation. As short, cogent and stimulating as John Gribbin’s Alone in the Universe (2011), but far more optimistic. Readers should check out both.
The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right
In his latest book about ideologies, freelance writer and editor Goldwag transcends numerous other books warning about the dangers of political conservatives who have assumed influence during the administrations of Reagan and the two Bushes. These haters—given voice by such high-profile individuals as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage and Michelle Malkin—worry about far more than who controls American politics. They worry about the atmosphere of family life, classrooms, corporate workplaces, public parks and just about every other venue where values antithetical to their own might seep into impressionable minds. Goldwag terms the phenomenon "the paranoid style of hatred," and shows how that style has been linked to conspiracy theories for hundreds of years. The author examines with special depth hatreds against Jews, Catholics, Freemasons, African-Americans and the extremely wealthy. With the election of President Obama, the haters coalesced against what they saw as an obvious enemy. Goldwag is able to effectively use the hatreds toward Obama to illustrate the irrationality of the haters…A provocative, intellectually rigorous book written clearly and with an admirable lack of hatred.
Kanigel displays his abundant erudition and narrative finesse in this story of how four European intellectuals—classicist George Thomson, British Museum curator Robin Flower and linguists Carl Marstrander and Marie-Louise Sjoestedt—found their lives forever changed by encounters with the people of Great Blasket Island, off the coast of Ireland. The four traveled to this remote island at different times and for different reasons…Although the islanders lived in "primitive" conditions, all four visitors became enthralled by the rich island culture…The portraits in this book are classic Kanigel: lively, sympathetic and thoroughly engaging. Yet what makes the narrative so affecting is the loss that permeates the text. As cultures like those on Great Blasket continue to be destroyed by the march of progress, so too are our connections to a simpler, more personally fulfilling way of living.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World that Can't Stop Talking
Could up to one-half of a nation obsessed with Jersey Shore narcissism and American Idol fame really be inhabited by reserved, sensitive types? According to Cain, yes—and we better start valuing their insight. Extroverts have their place, but things can quickly go haywire when we start confusing assertiveness with competence—the economic meltdown on Wall Street was the most stunning recent example. Had there been a few more conscientious, contemplative introverts in the boardroom (and had they made themselves heard), Cain writes, the country’s fortunes would now be decidedly different. But today’s prevailing susceptibility to “reward sensitivity,” as embodied by alpha-dog Wall Street types, wasn’t always the norm. Cain provides fascinating insight into how the United States shifted from an introvert-leaning “cult of character” to an extrovert-leaning “cult of personality” ruled by the larger-than-life Tony Robbinses of the world…An intriguing and potentially life-altering examination of the human psyche that is sure to benefit both introverts and extroverts alike. Read our interview with Cain about this fascinating new look at introverts.
Spufford traces the latter half of the history of the Soviet Union, starting in the late 1950s, when the Soviets were seeing an imaginary light over the horizon. After 40 years that included struggle, war, starvation and Stalin, the Marxist dream looked as if it might be taking off under Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet Union’s economic growth more than doubled that of the United States, and if it kept going at the same rate the “planned economy” would “overtake and surpass” capitalist America. Cars, food and houses would be better, and there would be more money and leisure all around, thanks to a top-down, start-to-finish management that “could be directed, as capitalism could not, to the fastest, most lavish fulfillment of human needs.” Through a series of episodes involving economists, scientists, computer programmers, industrialists, artists and politicians—some real, some imagined, some drawn together from composites—Spufford tells the story of the life and death of a national illusion, as utopian dreams moldered into grim dystopian realities.
Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy
The invocation of God and religion to sanctify foreign-policy decisions is not a new or surprising idea, as Preston learned especially when he was researching his work on McGeorge Bundy and the Vietnam War (The War Council). However, the extent to which religion has been used consistently to shape U.S. diplomatic history proved “an odd and unsettling discovery.” Here the author thoroughly documents that discovery, from the self-righteous Puritans’ establishing their “City upon a Hill” to the modern-day presidents acting as self-appointed popes. Preston explores this fascinating paradox of a nation founded on freedom of religion yet exhibiting, in its relations with the wider world, a profound belief in a Judeo-Christian sense of “exceptional virtue.”…A frank, exhaustive, marvelously readable study.
This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking
Edge.org founder and publisher Brockman asks a group of eminent scientists and writers their views on the question, “What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?” The thematic question was actually proposed to the editor by Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who urges the need for people to recognize the value of win-win bargaining based on cooperation rather than competition—positive rather than zero sum games…notable contributors—there are more than 150—include Stewart Brand, Richard Dawkins, Jonah Lehrer, Nicholas Carr, David Eagleman, Alison Gopnik, Jaron Lanier, V.S. Ramachandran, Brian Eno, Amanda Gefter and Clay Shirky. A winning combination of good writers, good science and serious broader concerns. Read more about Brockman’s collection.
The Science of Yoga: The Myths and the Rewards
William J. Broad
Based on ancient ideas about the effect of body positions and breath control on mind and spirit, yoga first flowered in India as the centerpiece of Tantric cults that searched for enlightenment in sexual ecstasy…Modern yogis and yoginis have continued to claim extraordinary powers for the new varieties of yoga, calling them miracle exercises that are completely safe and more aerobic and slimming than even running or swimming. New York Times senior writer Broad, who has practiced yoga since 1970, carefully pulls apart these claims, citing decades of scientific research and medical practice…However, Broad makes a convincing argument, firmly rooted in science, for yoga’s powers to heighten concentration, inspire creativity, improve moods—even to cure some physical conditions like torn rotator cuffs.