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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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Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson

William Hazelgrove. Regnery History, $29.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-62157-475-0

Novelist Hazelgrove (Jackpine) turns his attention to nonfiction history with less than stellar results, despite his fascinating choice of topic. In 1919, while President Woodrow Wilson was on an ambitious public relations tour to shore up support for the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations, he collapsed from ill health and exhaustion; a stroke followed. Details of the severity of the stroke were kept from the public as Edith Bolling Wilson, his second wife, strictly controlled access to the president. Hazelgrove posits that Woodrow Wilson’s inner circle was “concerned with preserving the status quo” and resisted any talk of a presidential resignation. Instead, Edith took over the reins of government. This is not a novel argument, nor has Hazelgrove unearthed any new information concerning Edith’s activities. The story proceeds in short, breathless chapters, and the writing is simplistic and at times graceless. Of one of Wilson’s marital indiscretions, Hazelgrove writes, “Mary Peck became Wilson’s Bermuda friend, for lack of a better word.” Readers who like their history very light—without nuance or new information—might find this book serviceable. Those looking for something more thought-provoking and well-researched can turn to Kristie Miller’s Ellen and Edith (2010) and Phyllis Lee Levin’s Edith and Wilson (2001). Illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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“All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker. Beacon, $16 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-0-8070-6265-4

Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker admirably aim to explode popular, damaging, and inherently limiting myths about Native Americans, continuing the work begun in Dunbar-Ortiz’s well-received An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Refutations of 21 common assumptions are bolstered by views from academic experts and members of Native American nations, and the book’s overarching theme encourages modern readers to abandon the monolithic portrayals so common in popular culture. This earnest work would itself benefit from clearer delineations among the multitude of nations and widely varying traditions. In its most successful chapter, the prevalent myth of Native Americans as victims shatters as well-chosen examples show how members of modern nations actively work on behalf of environmental causes and on improving federal Native American policy. Several surprising statements could use additional historical or background context, particularly the claim for King Philip’s War as the “most violent conflict ever fought on American soil.” This book contains factual information that will benefit students and can spur productive dialogue, but those facts would be better served with companion portrayals of the horrific devastation that colonizers wrought upon Native Americans and continuing public and institutional efforts to properly respect and fairly treat the nations’ members today. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Instrument of War: The German Army 1914–18

Dennis Showalter. Osprey, $30 (328p) ISBN 978-1-4728-1300-8

Showalter (The Wars of German Unification), an expert in German military history at Colorado College, synthesizes the key aspects of the German Imperial Army experience during WWI In this comprehensive single-volume history. He chronologically analyzes the roots of the Imperial German Army, how it planned and prepared for WWI, the major phases of the war, and key battles, and provides conclusions regarding why arguably the most professional army in the world lost the war. The book is very comprehensive given its size. Showalter covers such diverse topics as infantry equipment, defensive and offensive tactics, the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, important personalities, the politics of strategy and high command, and the social and political environment of WWI Germany. The insights are unmatched and intriguing, and in many cases Showalter debunks or explains myths regarding the war. This work may be a challenge to readers not already familiar with the war. Showalter’s analysis of all aspects of the German Army experience in WWI is a must-read for anyone with an interest in WWI or German military history. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life

Helen Czerski. Norton, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-24896-8

In this delightful pop science title, Czerski, a physicist at University College London, shows that understanding how the universe works requires little more than paying attention to patterns and figuring out increasingly refined ways to explain them. She begins her discussion with ordinary popcorn. A quick lesson in “ballistic cooking”—why popcorn pops—and imagining how an elephant uses its trunk segues into understanding how rockets work. Spinning an egg offers insight into spiral galaxies, and considering bubbles and marine snail snot can reveal how fluids behave. The slosh of a cup of tea grows into a look at earthquakes. Czerski’s writing is playful and witty: London’s Tower Bridge is “Narnia for engineers,” cyclists zoom around a velodrome “like demented hamsters on a gigantic wheel,” and chapter titles such as “Why Don’t Ducks Get Cold Feet?” and “Spoons, Spirals, and Sputnik” draw readers into diverse—and memorable—explorations of such diverse topics as matter phase changes and why dropped toast tends to land buttered side down. Czerski’s accessible explanations share the wonder of experimentation and the pleasure of figuring things out. “It’s all one big adventure,” she writes, “because you don’t know where it will take you next.” Agent: Will Francis, Janklow & Nesbit. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Strangers in a New Land: What Archaeology Reveals About the First Americans

J.M. Adovasio and David Pedler. Firefly, $49.95 (348p) ISBN 978-1-77085-363-8

North American archaeologists once embraced a consensus that raised Clovis Man, radiocarbon dated to 13,300–12,,800 years BP (before present), as the first humans in the New World (a blanket term for the Americas), but a more complex picture is emerging. This lavishly illustrated work gives a comprehensive overview of the rapidly evolving field of New World archaeology, first outlining the four basic questions that New World archaeologists face—where these people originated in the Old World, how they got here, when they arrived, and what were they doing. The second part of the book examines the current evidence, divided into chapters that discuss uncontroversial Clovis and Folsom sites, disputed pre-Clovis sites, legitimate pre-Clovis sites, and finally controversial pre-Clovis sites. The authors provide ancillary materials such as a glossary and an explanation of the potential and limits of radiocarbon dating. The book is suitable for the curious layperson interested in the current state of the field, and the bibliography will be useful for readers looking for further reading material. By eschewing the practice of presenting the science as settled and absolute in favor of providing the evidence for and against the competing models, the authors also give readers a view of science as a living field, not received truth but a process of endless questing. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care

Edited by Zena Sharman. Arsenal Pulp (Consortium, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $18.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-55152-659-1

This anthology on health care for queer and transgender people is as much an archive of experience as it is a call to action. Contributors from Canada and the U.S. write mostly from a patient perspective, though some contributors are health professionals. Sharman, a health researcher and advocate who co-edited the literary anthology Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, includes a variety of demographics under the queer and trans umbrella: one author offers advice to health care providers for bisexual patients, and another writes on his experience as a Black intersex man. The writers examine a variety of health issues and conditions, including reproductive health, drug use, and cancer. Interspersed throughout are “Innovation Profiles,” each featuring a community-focused project or service that is an inspiring example of improving health care. This highly accessible anthology looks not only at the problems but also—as the title suggests—at remedies. It’s a must-read for health care professionals and students going into the field, those navigating the system or supporting others through it, and anyone interested in honest, informed writing on the subject. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Fifty Ships that Changed the Course of History: A Nautical History of the World

Ian Graham. Firefly, $29.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-77085-719-3

Graham (Scarlet Women), a prolific author of science, technology, and history books, takes the readers on a nautical voyage around the world and through time as he profiles 50 historically important ships. From an ancient Egyptian barge belonging to the Pharaoh Khufu to the modern MS Allure of the Seas, the largest passenger ship ever built, this book is full of record setters and history makers. Others include the Amistad, significant for having been taken over by slaves; the HMS Endeavour, the collier used by Capt. James Cook to sail around the world; and the Yamato, the largest battleship of World War II and the one that marked the end of big-battleship navies. This is a beautiful book, replete with illustrations, photos, diagrams, and maps. The text balances technicality with storytelling, scholarly analysis with entertainment. It’s a sweeping, fascinating look at barges, battleships, caravels, dhows, submarines, and more, placing them all in context with the battles, countries, discoveries, inventions, and people that surrounded them. Readers interested in history of any kind will enjoy this highly accessible book. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Was Revolution Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution

Edited by Tony Brenton. Oxford Univ., $17.95 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-19-065891-5

Brenton (The Greening of Machiavelli), British ambassador to Russia from 2004 to 2008, assembles a team of experts to offer a “series of snapshots” that ask whether the unfolding of the 1917 Russian Revolution “might have been radically different.” As Brenton points out, the revolution was replete with “forks in the road where one senses that there genuinely was a question over which way things could go.” Familiar scholars of Russian history such as Dominic Lieven, Orlando Figes, and Richard Pipes appear among the contributors to this uniformly well-researched and well-reasoned chronological volume. Donald Crawford asserts that, “given the wreckage that [Czar Nicholas] had mindlessly left behind him,” neither Nicholas nor his defenders could fall back upon “historical inevitability” to excuse their misdeeds. Sean McMeekin argues for the centrality of Lenin’s role in events of the summer of 1917, and Martin Sixsmith suggests that “the fate of the world” might have been changed had Fanny Kaplan succeeded in assassinating Lenin a year later. Not all the contributions are affirmative. Simon Dixon interprets Stolypin’s 1911 assassination as attracting more attention than it merits as a turning point, and Evan Mawdsley considers the anti-Bolshevik movement’s “fatal divisions” as “unavoidable.” Balanced and well crafted, Brenton’s volume rewards its readers’ investment. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Lenin on the Train

Catherine Merridale. Metropolitan, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-1-
62779-301-8

British journalist Merridale (Red Fortress) recounts the background of what may have been the most consequential train ride in history, as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (aka Lenin) traveled in a sealed German car that slowly made its way from Switzerland to Petrograd’s Finland Station in April 1917 and began fomenting what would become the Bolshevik Revolution later that year. Tracing the trip’s progression and its immediate consequences, Merridale looks closely at German efforts to knock Russia out of WWI as well as Bolshevik agitation in Russia and Western Europe. She also mostly debunks the notion that Lenin received large amounts of gold from the Germans, showing that he accepted only modest German subsidies. Merridale examines the machinations of such lesser-known figures as Parvus (Alexander Helphand), Lenin’s occasional ally and rival, and how Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government sank itself by continuing to fight the Germans in WWI, which strengthened Lenin’s hand in resolutely opposing the many Bolsheviks who favored forming a government with the more moderate, prowar Mensheviks. Unfortunately, Merridale’s account of the immediate postrevolution period peters out in her discussion of Lenin’s “death-cult,” as embodied in the Moscow mausoleum that contained his embalmed corpse, and brief address of Stalin’s crimes and their aftermath. Merridale’s rushed and weak ending detracts from what is otherwise a colorful, suspenseful, and well-documented narrative. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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