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The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age

David Leopold. Knopf, $40 (336p) ISBN 978-1-101-87497-4

After spending 25 years immersed in the work of Al Hirschfeld (1903–2003), an artist who made some 10,000 drawings during his life, Leopold (Hirschfeld’s Hollywood) has carefully assembled a diverse collection of 366 works spanning the artist’s 82 year career, from the landscapes he painted in North Africa, Bali, and Tahiti to his more recognizable portraits of countless celebrities. This lively biography documents the evolution of Hirschfeld’s distinct line during each decade—in his work for movie studios, Broadway productions, newspapers, and magazines—and contains many interviews with the artist, revealing the amalgamation of influences, including other artists and cultures, that helped to shape his “distinctly American form of drawing.” Though the comprehensive text primarily centers on the professional life of the artist, Leopold also manages to recreate the dizzy exhilaration of Broadway and the film industry in the early 20th century at a time when celebrity culture was just beginning to emerge, and when Modernism was simultaneously being injected into the theatre, music, and Hirschfeld’s work. Best of all are Leopold’s passionate descriptions of Hirschfeld as an entirely nonjudgmental humanist who gave up landscape painting in favor of portraiture to create a uniquely democratic art. “While many people saw the films or the Broadway productions,” writes Leopold, “even more saw Al’s artwork.” This monograph is a diverting study of a towering figure in 20th-century illustration. Illus. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Disrupt You! Master Personal Transformation, Seize Opportunity, and Thrive in the Era of Endless Innovation

Jay Samit. Flatiron, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-05939-0

Samit, a technology innovator who led the music label EMI’s transition into digital downloads, explores the concept of individual disruption in this astute, mind-shifting book. According to Samit, personal disruption consists of identifying “links in your personal value chain to unlock your potential and prime yourself to seize opportunity”; he suggests that those who find “opportunity in every obstacle” will see failure as a new start. Samit begins by affirming the value of introspection, specifically regarding how the reader views the world and responds emotionally to challenges and problems. According to him, this process of self-examination can lead to a plan with a starting point and an end goal. The business topics covered here include marketing and sales, distribution, raising capital, and crowdsourcing. Throughout, Samit incorporates elements of his own success story as well as those of prominent figures such as actor Jim Carrey, Benihana founder Hiroaki Aoki, and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Samit closes with a motivational “Self-Disruptor’s Manifesto.” For readers seeking to get more out of their lives and careers, Samit is a wise teacher with valuable lessons to impart. Agent: Richard Pine, Inkwell Management. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease

Marc Lewis. PublicAffairs, $26.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-61039-437-6

Neuroscientist Lewis (Memoirs of an Addicted Brain) presents a strong argument against the disease model of addiction, which is currently predominant in medicine and popular culture alike, and bolsters it with informative and engaging narratives of addicts’ lives. According to Lewis, addiction is neither a choice nor an inherent malady; rather, it is innate to human behavioral biology, a natural adaptation that begins in the brain. After a section introducing Lewis’s theory, the bulk of the book shows the concept in action through detailed, intimate case studies. Even when presenting more technical information, Lewis shows a keen ability to put a human face on the most groundbreaking research into addiction. Likewise, he manages to make complex findings and theories both comprehensible and interesting. The focus is primarily on drug dependency, to the extent that readers will wish Lewis had given more explanation of how behavioral addictions (those not tied to substances) fit into his theory. And while therapy is consistently shown as instrumentally restorative, Lewis devotes few pages to describing how the cycle of addiction is broken. Nonetheless, this book, written with hopeful sincerity, will intrigue both those who accept its thesis and those who do not. Agent: Michael Levine, Westwood Creative Artists. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza

Max Blumenthal. Nation, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-56858-511-6

Blumenthal’s (Republican Gomorrah) latest is a heart-wrenching narrative of being caught in the middle of wartime. In July 2014, following the kidnapping and murder of Israeli citizens by two Palestinian men with ties to Hamas, Israel launched rocket strikes against the Gaza Strip for 51 days. Blumenthal, who was on the ground for part of the offensive, bore witness to the loss of life, shelter, and possessions—but never hope—among Gaza’s Palestinian residents. His experiences in Gaza shed valuable light on the miserable living conditions there, while also fueling Blumenthal’s rebuttal to defenses of the strikes as justifiable responses to terrorism. He portrays Israel’s response as vastly disproportionate, particularly emphasizing the toll on Palestinian economic development. While vividly recounting firsthand experience and interviews with Gaza residents, Blumenthal also carefully charts the ascension of the right wing in Israeli politics and offers a jaundiced eye on the maneuvers of the Israeli government. The result is a harrowing, transfixing narrative of a people’s ordeal that will provoke and challenge any reader more accustomed to pro-Israel perspectives. Agent: Anna Stein, Aitken Alexander Associates. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Driving Hungry: A Memoir

Layne Mosler. Pantheon, $24.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-1018-7031-0

In this uneven memoir, Mosler, an aspiring tango dancer and freelance food writer, writes about her move from San Francisco to Buenos Aires after giving up on her initial dream of restaurant ownership. Somewhat aimless in her approach, she at first studies tango with Joaquin, a smooth-talking lothario she falls in love with until one night she loses his attention to “a green-eyed girl in an emerald dress.” After a taxi driver advises her not to “get mixed up with those guys at the milonga,” she soon stumbles upon a new quest: “What if I hopped into a random cab every week and asked the taxista to take me to his favorite place to eat?” As she documents her journey in a blog, Taxi Gourmet, cabbies introduce her to delicious food at hole-in-the-wall restaurants she wouldn’t have come across otherwise. Others balk at her request. After attempting to repeat her Argentine adventure in New York City, she discovers that New York cabbies are not quite as amiable, and a reversal in approach leads her to become a cab driver herself before she later sets off to Berlin. The unusual and interesting concept is better as a blog; in book form, Mosler’s narrative tends to fall flat. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Good Mourning: A Memoir

Elizabeth Meyer, with Caitlin Moscatello. Gallery, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4767-8361-1

If Carrie Bradshaw worked in a funeral home à la Six Feet Under, her story would look something like Meyer’s charming memoir about her tenure planning funerals at Crawford, an elite funeral parlor in Manhattan where the Upper East Side socialites she grew up around plan their ultimate farewell parties. After her father’s death, she begins searching for meaning in her own life, and the path leads her, surprisingly, to a calling to work with the dead. At Crawford, she faces challenges as a child of privilege trying to fit in with the working-class staff: receptionists snub her and whisper about her behind her back. But she finds respite downstairs with the embalmer, Bill, and her kind if brusque boss, Tony, who soon offers her a promotion and an office of her own after she proves to be indispensable to Crawford’s rich and famous clientele. Soon Meyer discovers her deep capacity for empathy and her desire to help people in their most difficult moments, along with the calling of making each funeral as amazing as any bash in the Hamptons. Meyer injects a healthy dose of humor into what could otherwise be a morbid topic. From saving the day when an important ambassador’s body is lost in transit, to gracefully handling intense office drama when she is accused of having an affair with Tony, Meyer takes the high road and concentrates on what becomes a spiritual journey of healing and self-discovery: “I needed to know death. I needed to understand it. I needed to stop fearing it, and my way of doing that was to help other people who were grieving.” It’s a story well suited to the big screen. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Sonic Wind: The Story of John Paul Stapp and How a Renegade Doctor Became the Fastest Man on Earth

Craig Ryan. Norton/Liveright, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-87140-677-4

Adventure writer Ryan (Magnificent Failure) rescues the brilliant, obsessive John Paul Stapp (1911–1999) from obscurity with this lively biography. Stapp made the cover of Time magazine in 1955, thanks to dangerous high-speed experiments in which he used himself as the subject. Unlike the theatrical efforts of daredevils such as Evel Knievel and Super Dave Osborne, Stapp’s feats led to important scientific advances. In 1946, Stapp, an Army Air Corps medical consultant, was assigned to simulate airplane crashes in order to improve the dismal pilot survival rate. The experiment that followed involved accelerating a rocket-propelled sled to high speed before abruptly applying the brakes. Crash dummies shattered, chimpanzees died, and Stapp himself broke bones. But in 1954 he reached 632 mph and stopped in 1.4 seconds, enduring (barely) the equivalent of hitting a brick wall at 120 mph and proving that experts had wildly underrated human endurance. “All you had to do,” Ryan remarks, “was protect [pilots] and restrain them effectively, and they could take almost anything.” Ryan delivers fine explanations of technical details, byzantine military politics, and Stapp’s bumpy personal life, and though he fails to explain Stapp’s suicidal bravery (superiors wisely forbade planned faster runs), readers will share his admiration for Stapp’s achievements. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Plenty Ladylike

Claire McCaskill, with Terry Ganey. Simon & Schuster, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5675-2

Missouri Senator McCaskill’s life, as painted in this memoir, has been a life in electoral politics. “Trick or treat and vote for JFK” was the seven-year-old’s Halloween appeal; in high school she was elected homecoming queen; later, she was elected to the state House of Representatives, as Jackson County prosecutor (first woman), and as Missouri’s state auditor (second woman). She was the first person to outmatch an incumbent governor in a Missouri primary; her narrow loss in the general election was her first defeat. In 2006, she was the first woman elected to the Senate from Missouri and in 2012, she was re-elected, defeating Todd Akin of the ill-chosen remarks about “legitimate rape.” The notable Senate achievements she highlights include earmark spending reform, oversight of military contractors, and directing attention to sexual assault in the military. McCaskill emphasizes the particular problems for women in politics, such as casual sexism, direct sexual harassment, and “extra-special scrutiny” for spouses. With candor, she writes anecdotally of her domestic life—marriage, divorce, and second marriage included. Triumphs are here, and so are lapses, such as her Meet the Press remark about Bill Clinton: “He’s been a great leader but I don’t want my daughters near him.” Peppered with practical lessons (“Never, never, never underestimate your opponent”), McCaskill’s memoir is straightforward, plainspoken, and at once deeply personal and thoroughly political. Agent: Amy Berkower, Writers House. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures

Jeremy Black. Indiana Univ, $30 trade paper (252p) ISBN 978-0-253-01704-8

Black (War and Technology), an experienced military historian at the University of Exeter, U.K., contributes a spirited entry to the increasingly productive conversation over the scholarly and political value of what-ifs—explorations of what might have happened instead of what did. This is the most robust defense of historical counterfactuals to date, and should be read in concert with Richard J. Evans’s Altered Pasts, a criticism of the genre. Black goes so far as to accuse historians of being ahistorical in avoiding what-if arguments. Despite somewhat herky-jerky prose, the book digs deeply into the complexities of what-ifs and, in Black’s view, their abundant utility—to say nothing of their being natural to every thinking being and intrinsic to all argument. Black is at his best when analyzing counterfactual takes on war, diplomacy, and grand policy, even with their limitations. For instance, he argues, they’re critical to military planning, for they permit “the imagining of alternate realities or possibilities as a learning tool for strategic thinking.” His chapter on counterfactual thinking about the future is unique in the literature. For those interested in this fascinating subject, Black’s book is indispensable. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology

Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili. Crown, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-307-98681-8

It is a challenging task to find ways to bridge two highly technical disciplines for the general reader, but McFadden, a molecular geneticist, and Al-Khalili, a theoretical physicist, attempt it with some success, using the principles of quantum mechanics to explain the intricacies of molecular biology. As the authors note, “quantum mechanics is utterly counterintuitive,” so bringing readers to the point where they can understand the topic well enough to appreciate how it might be applied to biological problems is nearly impossible. Nevertheless, McFadden and Al-Khalili find ways to present the results of some recent scientific studies so as to make the case that quantum mechanics likely plays a role in biological topics as diverse as enzymatic reactions, olfaction, and animal migration. They get a bit more speculative when they posit that such interactions may be responsible for many genetic mutations, consciousness, and the origin of life. They pay particular attention to Erwin Schrödinger’s 1944 book, What Is Life, claiming that many of the ideas set forth in that slim volume were both correct and essential for our current understanding of biology. However, most biologists and historians of biology disagree with the latter assertion. Until more experimentation catches up with the speculation offered, McFadden and Khalili’s interesting ideas are unlikely to be persuasive. Agent: Patrick Walsh, Conville & Walsh Literary Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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