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Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama

David J. Garrow. Morrow, $45 (1,472p) ISBN 978-0-06-264183-0

In this epic-length biography, Garrow (Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) recounts Barack Obama’s intensely political life story up to his 2008 election to the presidency, and does so without apparent political bias. Every fact, however small, is documented in the footnotes, which run to hundreds of pages. The result is a convincing and exceptionally detailed portrait of one man’s self-invention. Garrow opens with a powerfully affecting episode: the March 1980 closure of a Wisconsin Steel plant on Chicago’s South Side, where Obama later spent formative years as a community organizer. Going back to his story’s beginnings, Garrow reports extensively about Obama’s father, a Kenyan-born Harvard graduate student who’s described as brilliant but also alcoholic and abusive toward women, and Obama’s childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia. The book then explores Obama’s early romantic attachments, marriage to Michelle Robinson, involvement in polarizing and personally relevant issues of race, and political career, from state senator in Illinois to U.S. senator in Washington, where he’s immediately identified as a likely Presidential candidate. Garrow also takes care to clarify instances when Obama’s personal recollections or published memoirs differed from historical records or his associates’ memories. Casual readers may well find the level of detail here overpowering, but political history buffs will be fascinated. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight

Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. Bloomsbury, $30 (640p) ISBN 978-1-62040-984-8

In this remarkable work of literary-style investigative journalism, Scott-Clark and Levy (The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel) trace the story of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the decade after the 9/11 attacks, from the perspective of the militants themselves. The authors utilize their extraordinary access to al-Qaeda’s inner circle and many other key players to fracture the U.S. government’s near-monopoly of public information. Combining countless interviews with declassified materials and secondary literature, they construct a riveting narrative of the terror group’s experiences, including the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s secrecy and evasion tactics, drone attacks, interpersonal drama, and the climactic raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. Readers gain insight on the roles of Iranian and Pakistani intelligence services in shielding al-Qaeda militants, the inefficacy of torture, the counterproductive bluster of the Bush administration, and the role the Iraq invasion played in the growth of jihadi movements. The book’s fascinating perspective exposes layers of human complexity in individuals who are often shrouded by intrigue, and brings nuance to the general Western understanding of jihadi groups. This extensively researched, eminently readable work greatly enhances public knowledge of these dramatic years and will be welcomed by specialists and general readers alike. Agent: David Godwin, David Godwin Associates (U.K.). (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Plate Spinner Chronicles: A Working Mother’s Epic Adventure

Barbara Valentin. Gemma Halliday, $9.99 trade paper (158p) ISBN 978-1-5153-0239-1

Romance author Valentin (Flight Risk) gathers her columns for the Chicago Tribune’s TribLocal into this slim collection, which explores the travails of working full-time while mothering five boys. Valentin defines a “plate spinner” as “a project-managing, child-rearing, meal-planning, rule-instilling, errand-running superhero.” Some chapters are meditations on workaday challenges such as adjusting hems and replacing faulty furnaces; others provide facile tips for back-to-school shopping (when one can experience “the thrill of the hunt for erasers”) and achieving work/life balance (“delegate, delegate, delegate”). While the “epic adventure” of the subtitle suggests a unified narrative, the columns operate on different timelines and lack connection. As a result, the book feels disjointed and bogged down by repetition (six of Chapter Seven’s eleven sections focus on Christmas). Brevity and milquetoast humor hold Valentin back from true introspection, though readers will enjoy the lovingly drawn “Running with Asperger’s,” in which she describes one of her sons finishing his first cross-country race, buoyed by cheers from parents and teammates alike, and the moving portrait of Valentin’s deceased brother-in-law in “Father’s Day in Memoriam.” Working parents may nod along with the trials she describes, but these chronicles are long on tongue-in-cheek advice and short on insight. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Koan Kreativity

Tim Ljunggren. Gentle Thug, $9.99 ISBN 978-0-692-83758-0

Ljunggren, an Episcopal priest and artist, contemplates the creative process and shares quotes from famous artists as well as koans, riddle-like tales meant to be meditated upon by Zen Buddhist monks. Koans are integral to the Zen student’s path to enlightenment because they empty the mind, allowing for insight to enter. Each of Ljunggren’s loosely organized chapters features a koan followed by commentary and personal anecdotes. The first, “A Cup of Tea,” relates a koan in which a Zen master overfills a professor’s teacup. When the professor exclaims, the master tells him that like the cup, the professor’s mind is filled with opinions and needs to be emptied before learning Zen. In “Three Days More,” a pupil cannot solve the enlightenment problem to “hear the sound of one hand,” and after three years, the teacher tells him to kill himself if he does not attain enlightenment; the student attains enlightenment two days later. Each of these chapters is short, and Ljunggren’s comments are not, despite the theme, particularly enlightening. He advises readers to “find strength and courage to become our own mentors” but doesn’t give detailed, concrete advice on how to do so. Ljunggren’s collection is a fun read for those open to riddles, but might not necessarily inspire creativity. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Drifting in the Push

Daniel Garrison. Tongue & Groove, $11.95 trade paper (265p) ISBN 978-0-9976-3630-7

Garrison, a restless college student, puts an often hilarious modern spin on On The Road in this gonzo tribute to young wanderlust and overcoming difficulties through grit, determination, and humor. His parents’ divorce was the start of his quest for adventure and freedom from family conflicts, and he went off in a nomadic search for belonging amid a series of unsatisfying jobs. The comic relief in this cycle of interdependent short essays is ably provided by Garrison’s best pals, Bryan and Shane, and his loyal canine, Hank, as he recounts setting up camp in one place after another throughout the U.S. and Mexico. He collected a motley crew of colorful characters and crises, venturing out into the wilderness but often returning home. His travel bug sent him out solo, “leapfrogging from hostel to hostel and train to train” through country after country; he made it to Turkey before going broke. Some episodes fall flat, but taken as a collection, they pack a zany wallop. In Garrison’s world, enlightenment and sensibility come through besting obstacles and challenges while avoiding failures and disappointment. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Wrestling with His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. II, 1849–1856

Sidney Blumenthal. Simon & Schuster, $35 (592p) ISBN 978-1-5011-5378-5

In the second volume of his four-part Lincoln biography, Blumenthal (A Self-Made Man) immerses the reader in American politics in the years between Lincoln’s return to Springfield, after completing his term in the House of Representatives, and his contribute tofounding the Illinois Republican Party. Lincoln himself spends a significant amount of time offstage, and long sections of the book pass without a mention of the president-to-be. Despite this, Blumenthal justifies this volume’s length with a granular examination of the state of American politics in a period that he believes is essential to understanding Lincoln’s “presence in the transforming events that would eventually carry him to the presidency and their profound influence upon him.” The developments during these seven years were certainly significant—for example, the election of antislavery President Zachary Taylor, the Compromise of 1850, the Dred Scott decision, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act—even if their part in waking Lincoln “from his political slumber” is less known than earlier and later influences upon him. That relative obscurity justifies Blumenthal’s prodigious amount of detail, which he conveys accessibly, while making his case that the Civil War was not simply a calamity into which the country haplessly blundered. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Frailty of Networked Protest

Zeynep Tufekci. Yale Univ, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-0-300-21512-0

This insightful and analytical account of mass protest in the 21st century focuses on the “intertwined” power and weaknesses of new technologies that can be used to galvanize large numbers of people. Tufekci, a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times and a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science, writes that the strengths of social movements lie in their capacity to set a narrative, disrupt the status quo, and affect electoral or institutional changes. She uses these criteria as a framework to study the impact of contemporary movements. For instance, the 2011 Tahrir Square rebellion in Egypt, which emerged rapidly by using digital technologies, had “narrative” and “disruptive capacity” but was unable to bring about electoral change in part because many of its participants distrusted elections and didn’t vote. She grounds her analyses in her own experiences as a participant and social scientist observer in several widespread antiauthoritarian uprisings, including the Zapatistas in Mexico in 1994, Egypt’s Tahrir Square in 2011, and the 2012 Occupy movements in the United States. A complex portrait emerges of the culture of modern movements “with its emphasis on participation, horizontalism, institutional distrust, ad hoc organizations eschewing formal ones, and strong expressive bent... [that] cuts across political ideology.” This comprehensive, thought-provoking work makes a valuable contribution to understanding recent political developments and provides a clear path by which grassroots organizers can improve future efforts. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism

Mark R. Kennedy. Columbia Business School, $29.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-231-18056-6

Business success is not just about the money anymore, says Kennedy, a former congressman and the president of the University of North Dakota, in this energetic guide to winning in the court of public opinion. Twenty years ago, he writes, business leaders only had to worry about shareholders, but in the more political current climate, there is a new group of influencers not financially beholden to the companies they seek to change. These titular “shapeholders”—activists, media outlets, politicians, and regulators—have been challenging companies to be more ecologically friendly, politically aware, and socially active. Thus, successful businesses must address a whole spectrum of voices, from the stakeholders who provide the capital and expect a return, to the shapeholders who provide the direction and expect a resulting change in behavior. In Kennedy’s view, Whole Foods has done it right, as has Google. He addresses managing the media, building credibility, working productively with politicians, and understanding regulators. It’s not easy, Kennedy cautions; you’ll need to stay on your toes, and stay connected. This is an easy, well-organized read, if a bit padded; it’s a thought-provoking, if not groundbreaking, way to frame the new responsibilities of the business world. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day

James Kakalios. Crown, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-7704-3773-2

In his latest work of pop physics, Kakalios, professor of physics at the University of Minnesota, eschews the jokes and banter of The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, diving right into his explanations of objects and phenomena that Westerners encounter in their daily routines. Kakalios takes his title literally, following a bachelor businessman subject as he moves through his day. The author pauses regularly to explain the physics behind the innumerable tools, devices, and machines upon which his subject depends. A morning smartphone alarm and the smell of brewing coffee launch a discussion of the elegant physics of the pendulum, which underlies all timers and whose periodic oscillations illustrate the simplest of many universal phenomena, including the conservation of energy and electric power generation. Over the course of the day, readers will encounter no math, little cuteness, and only half a dozen charts. Many explanations, such as the basics of the LED TV, may require multiple rereads for full comprehension. Kakalios achieves more success with his elucidations of the familiar refrigerator and copier machine than he does with microelectronics. Readers will enjoy lucid explanations of dazzling yet quotidian technology, and those who remember a bit of high school–level science may appreciate them even more. Agent: Jay Mandel, WME. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Passchendaele: The Lost Victory of World War I

Nick Lloyd. Basic, $30 (432p) ISBN 978-0-465-09477-6

Lloyd (Hundred Days), reader in military and imperial history at King’s College London, confirms his position among the best young scholars of WWI in this comprehensively researched, convincingly presented analysis of the still-controversial 1917 battle of Passchendaele. Lloyd asserts that Passchendaele was less an ill-fated farrago of total incompetence than “in some respects, one of the ‘lost victories’ of the war.” He demonstrates that British civilian-military relations were confused and that the result was a British failure to develop, even at this late date, a “detailed and considered appreciation of how the war was to be won.” Had an approach of measured, limited advances—based on timing and firepower, and well within British capacities—been pursued systematically from the beginning instead of on an ad hoc basis, Lloyd suggests, “a major victory could have been won in the late summer and autumn of 1917.” He supports this position with a careful analysis of Passchendaele’s deleterious effect on the German defenders. Instead, a knockout blow was sought amid the grind of attrition. Britain and the Dominions paid the price for high-level strategic dissonance and the culpable amateurism that sustained it. Lloyd’s thesis is controversial, but his scholarship makes it impossible to dismiss. Maps. Agent: Peter Robinson, Rogers, Coleridge, and White (U.K.). (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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