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The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story

Douglas Preston. Grand Central, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4555-4000-6

Novelist Preston’s irresistibly gripping account of his experiences as part of the expedition to locate an ancient city in the Honduran mountains reads like a fairy tale minus the myth. “There was once a great city in the mountains,” he writes, “struck down by a series of catastrophes, after which the people decided the gods were angry and left, leaving their possessions. Thereafter it was shunned as a cursed place, forbidden, visiting death on those who dared enter.” In 2012, Preston was present as the expedition team attempted to use light detection and ranging technology to identify the city’s location in the uncharted wildernesses of Honduras; they “[shot] billions of laser beams into a jungle that no human beings had entered for perhaps five hundred years.” The effort succeeded in locating two large sites, apparently built by the civilization that once inhabited the Mosquiteria region. The discovery led to a return trip in 2015 to explore the sites on foot, a physically and emotionally draining experience that resulted in remarkable archeological finds, specifically a cache of stone sculptures. Preston, author of The Monster of Florence and co-author with Lincoln Child of the bestselling thriller series featuring FBI agent Pendergast, brings readers into the field while enriching the narrative with historical context, beginning with 16th-century rumors of the city’s existence reported by explorer Hernán Cortés after his conquest of Mexico. Along the way, Preston explains the legendary abandonment of the City of the Monkey God and provides scientific reasoning behind its reputation as life-threatening. Admirers of David Grann’s The Lost City of Z will find their thirst for armchair jungle adventuring quenched here. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World

Brad Stone. Little, Brown, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-316-38839-9

Stone (The Everything Store) turns his attention to the sharing economy in this dual portrait of two of the fastest growing startups in the “post-Google, post-Facebook era of innovation” in Silicon Valley. At both Uber, the ride-sharing app, and Airbnb, the homestay rental platform, Stone finds commonality among the CEOs, who lead their respective companies with an idealistic vision and aggressive business practices. Uber’s Travis Kalanick comes off as the more pugnacious of the two, while Brian Chesky of Airbnb operates with a softer touch. Beginning in 2009 with President Obama’s inauguration, the book follows the companies and their founders from the early days to their current status as leaders in the global market place, upending their respective industries and local economies around the world. Both Uber and Airbnb are currently valued in billions, but as Stone shows, the road to success over the past 8 years has not been an easy one. Both companies persevered through financial woes caused by investor rejections, struggles with local governments, scuffles with rivals, and publicity disasters. The writing is solid and the sheer magnitude of the book’s subjects demands attention for this book. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Thirtyfour Campgrounds

Martin Hogue. MIT, $34.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-262-03500-2

In this photographic and typological survey of American campsites, Hogue masterfully dissects the paradox of the contemporary campground, a plot not found on the trail but reserved online, and increasingly offering comforts and amenities that undermine any concept of the rustic. Tables and restrooms and Wi-Fi and other fripperies may multiply, a bare site remains both demand and expectation, he explains in the introduction; “to preserve the carefully staged illusion of discovering and dwelling in the wilderness, the modern campsite must function as a perpetually unfinished site, provisionally completed each time a new visitor checks in.” Declaredly indebted to Ed Ruscha’s Thirtyfour Parking Lots (1967), Hogue’s book uses photos from advertisements for sites from private and state operators. The campgrounds are willfully standardized and often featureless, larger vistas foiled by the grid outside each hired plot. It’s a theoretically fascinating presentation and yet, after the introduction’s penetrating exploration of the nature and history of the campground, a little boring. Readers who search will occasionally find a mountain or a river. Color photos. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?

Joshua Weiner. Los Angeles Review of Books, $5.99 e-book (146p) ISBN 978-1-940660-32-5

The complexity of the refugee crisis in Germany is conveyed in this insightful narrative that tells the story not only of the refugees themselves, but also of a country, its history, and its culture. What began for poet Weiner (The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish) as a series of articles for a newspaper, written during his visit to Germany in October 2015 at the height of the refugee influx from Syria, turned into this updated “notebook” following his return to Germany to follow up on the crisis in April 2016. In this free-flowing narrative that includes interviews with a wide range of people, both refugees and Germans, Weiner reveals both the logistical and underlying ideological issues involved in refugee resettlement. Revealing how stereotypes oversimplify situations and beliefs, Weiner conveys the refugees’ dignity and also sheds light on Germany’s sociopolitical issues. Weiner’s lyrical and affecting writing style betrays his poetry background, complementing journalistic frankness that captures the richness of the people and the city and makes the strife all the more hard-hitting. This beautiful study and exploration of people and values possesses relevance far beyond Berlin. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government

Steve Pincus. Yale Univ., $26 (224p) ISBN 978-0300216189

In this informative if repetitive treatise on the founders’ intent in the Declaration of Independence, Yale history professor Pincus (1688: The First Modern Revolution) presents a strong case for why, then and now, the government should actively promote the “pursuit of happiness.” He stresses the document’s pre-Revolution economic basis. The United Kingdom’s Patriot faction wanted to invest in the colonies, reasoning that the mother country could only benefit from the growth of that untapped consumer market. George III and his Tory minsters, however, wanted to retire the national debt from the Seven Years’ War and transfer much of the tax burden to the colonies, while also limiting immigration and westward expansion. Neatly completing this picture of competing interests, Pincus explains that the North American Patriots thought the unwritten British Constitution should allow them to pursue their economic interests. Perhaps most intriguingly, the book observes that many colonists, including slaveholders, opposed slavery not just on ethical grounds but also because it concentrated wealth in the hands of a few and did nothing to promote a broad consumer base. The Declaration articulates the need for an activist “government that could promote economic prosperity,” concludes Pincus. He reiterates this cogent argument briskly; despite the book’s broad applicability, his writing style will appeal more to scholars than history-interested lay readers. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Grace Meets Grit: How to Bring Out the Remarkable, Courageous Leader Within

Daina Middleton. Bibliomotion, $26.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-6295-6139-4

Middleton, a digital marketing expert, explores gender differences in leadership behaviors in this savvy, discerning business guide. She begins by examining gender-defined communication styles and identifies three different types of leadership: transactional, transformational, and laissez-faire. Using the word “grace” to describe a typical female style of communication and “grit” for a typical male approach, Middleton stresses that neither is right or wrong; instead, they complement each other. She also identifies six qualities as essential to leadership success: being inspiring, driven, decisive, confident, powerful, and resilient. For each, she explains how grace and grit differently embody it. She examines why female leaders often struggle to embody power and confidence, while male leaders struggle with collaboration. The conclusion touches upon several important issues, such as balancing work and personal time, drawing on one’s personal strengths, and challenging male-skewed philosophies of leadership. Middleton offers astute guidance to both grace and grit leaders, showing not only how but why to combine the qualities of each to become a successful leader. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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When Broadway Went to Hollywood

Ethan Mordden. Oxford Univ., $29.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-19-939540-8

Mordden (On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide), a noted authority on the American musical, explores the melding of Broadway and Hollywood in this informative and enlightening survey. Mordden is quick to clarify that his main focus is on Broadway-identified songwriters in Hollywood, following such notable men as Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, and George and Ira Gershwin. To set the stage, he offers a brief history of early Hollywood musicals, beginning with The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, and going on to Maurice Chevalier in The Love Parade and Whoopee! with Eddie Cantor. Dividing the book into chapters devoted to specific songwriters, he surveys the roles of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and others in the development of the Hollywood musical. He touches upon Berlin’s snapshots of American life in songs such as “How Do You Do It, Mabel, on Twenty Dollars a Week?” and Gershwin and Porter’s contributions to lesser-known musicals such as, respectively, Delicious (1931) and Born to Dance (1936). Mordden’s examination is fact-packed and sometimes intimidatingly dense, though aficionados will delight in the level of detail. This authoritative and illuminating book is an informed look at a pivotal slice of film and theater history. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Caterpillar’s Edge: Evolve, Evolve Again, and Thrive in Business

Sid Mohasseb. Rugged Land, $20 (172p) ISBN 978-0-9966363-1-5

This slim compendium of thoughts on success and leadership from KPMG executive Mohasseb has a message for business-book readers: “You, I, and our companies are caterpillars with the potential to be butterflies.” In this vein, he advises leaders to consistently strive for change and growth. Mohasseb theorizes that businesses are disappearing at an unprecedented rate because businesspeople are addicted to orthodoxies and unwilling to be as agile as they need to be to succeed, and that failures occur when people hew too closely to outdated thinking. To be winners, Mohasseb believes, his readers need to be dynamic and quick-moving. Frequent quotes and lots of graphics space out recurring advice to focus on “aha” moments that will guide a business. The advice is often solid, but it’s standard business practice phrased as innovative insight. For instance, he writes, “Let’s not just ‘compete on analytics.’ Let’s ‘compete on analytically informed and dynamic strategies.’ ” The writing relies too much on the passive voice, and readers will come away feeling that Mohasseb has not yet written the thorough summation of his insights into business. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Great Plains Indians

David J. Wishart. Bison, $14.95 trade paper (168p) ISBN 978-0-8032-6962-0

In this slim volume, Wishart (The Last Days of the Rainbelt), professor of geography at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, aims to illuminate the geographical and cultural dispossession of the Great Plains Indians over the past two centuries, and to explore possibilities for a brighter future. Following an intriguing depiction of this culture’s origins more than 10,000 years in the past, Wishart paints a detailed picture of its pre-contact civilization, and a heartbreaking one of the processes through which, by the end of the 19th century, the Plains Indians “had become strangers in their own land.” By this time, their territories had been seized and settled by white Americans, and the great bison herds which had sustained them over centuries “had been reduced to fields of bones whitening the prairie.” Epidemic disease, alcohol abuse, and circumscribed educational opportunities only added to the Plains people’s woes. Wishart concludes on a guardedly hopeful note, stressing the notable recent growth of the Plains population and the possibility that these increasing numbers of voters can wield greater political influence. Although this study is a work of synthesis rather than original scholarship, its clear and succinct overview of Plains culture and history will enlighten the casual reader. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

Stuart Jeffries. Verso, $26.95 (448p) ISBN 978-1-78478-568-0

In his erudite group biography of the thinkers who formed the core of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, English journalist Jeffries alternates between revealing the lives of these men and recounting the development of critical theory, the Frankfurt School’s most notable contribution to philosophy. Dividing the history of the Frankfurt Institute into decades, Jeffries effectively demonstrates how the school responded to the historical challenges of the 20th century. The school was founded in 1923 as an institute devoted to the application of Marxism as a scientific methodology, and it soon turned its critical eye to the rise of fascism. Although ostensibly Marxist, its members were heterodox and had little faith in the workers’ revolution. With few exceptions, they were also pessimists who did little to put their theories into action. After WWII, its thinkers—Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, et. al.—began to challenge the culture of denial in Germany and the hegemony of post-war capitalism, an effort that, under Jürgen Habermas’s direction, turned the Frankfurt Institute into a startlingly pro-democratic institution towards the end of the century. Jeffries writes in lucid prose and offers frequent asides situating these thinkers in modern contexts and issues, but the relevance of these men’s work often speaks for itself. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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