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Einstein’s Greatest Mistake: A Biography

David Bodanis. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-544-80856-0

Writer and futurist Bodanis (Passionate Minds) imparts fresh insight into the genius—and failures—of the 20th century’s most celebrated scientist. Einstein learned early on to follow his own curiosity rather than his teachers, and Bodanis shows how Einstein’s close friendships with a few young scientists gave him a supportive sounding board for his ideas. Later, Einstein’s dull patent-inspector job gave him time to work out the basics of relativity. Trouble arose when astronomical observations suggested, in opposition to Einstein’s equations, that the universe was unchanging. To make his math agree, Einstein reluctantly added a fudge factor called the cosmological constant, only to regret it when later observations showed the universe really was expanding and his original math had been correct all along. That experience, Bodanis says, made the scientist “downright obdurate” about considering experimental results—exactly the wrong tactic to take as quantum mechanics became the new language of modern physics. Bodanis is sympathetic but realistic: Einstein’s stubbornness effectively ended his career, leaving him isolated and marginalized as the rest of physics moved forward. This provocative biography illuminates the human flaws that operate subtly in the shadows of scientific endeavor. Agent: Patrick Walsh, Conville & Walsh. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism

Ashton Applewhite. Networked Books, $19.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-9969347-0-1

In this lively, entertaining book, Applewhite mixes her personal experiences and opinions about growing old with an exploration of society’s attitudes about age, debunking myths and exposing ageism. Author (Cutting Loose) and blogger (Yo, Is This Ageist?) Applewhite uses an enormous number of sources, including books, interviews with experts, and research studies, to examine aging in America. She uncovers quite a few problems—“I see ageism everywhere”—and tempers them with recommendations for changing the conversation and inciting social change, suggesting ways to “push back” against, for example, antiaging rhetoric. She covers topics of all kinds, such as isolation (a fertile environment for disease), sex and intimacy, and the role of work and how companies can better accommodate older workers. She works hard to discuss and correct common misperceptions about aging. Her humor, high-energy writing, and emphasis on positive ways to view and experience age contribute to making this a valuable resource, an agent for social change, and an enjoyable read. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Swimming in the Sink: An Episode of the Heart

Lynne Cox. Knopf, $25 (240p) ISBN 978-1-101-94762-3

Champion long-distance swimmer Cox (Open Water Swimming Manual) has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and holds open-water swimming records around the globe. The author swims, sans wetsuit, in some of the most frigid waters on Earth, including Antarctica and the Cook Strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. In her new memoir, Cox chronicles how her deep grief (following the deaths of both parents and her Labrador retriever) and a startling diagnosis of arterial fibrillation precipitated a severe health and emotional crisis in her life. “It seemed like I had to start all over again,” she writes. “I had prided myself on being an elite athlete, and now I had to start from zero. It was sad, sobering, and scary.” Cox vividly explains her struggle to recover after facing the options of death, a heart transplant, or life as an invalid. Two years later Cox began training again in open water, which began her return to emotional and physical health. Friends, faith, meditation, and counseling all helped as well. Cox’s narrative is straightforward and intimate, and she never succumbs to self-pity. This satisfying journey through a world-class athlete’s heart-centered crisis is a warm tale of recovery and even finding love. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Unquiet Daughter: A Memoir of Betrayal and Love

Danielle Flood. Piscataqua, , $19.95 ISBN 978-1-944393-18-2

Journalist and first-time author Flood’s powerful memoir of her life with a dysfunctional mother and her decades-long search for her biological father is a gripping story of self-doubt and self-discovery. Flood’s parents may seem familiar to readers—a Vietnamese woman, pregnant with a British officer’s baby, who marries an American foreign officer—since their lives were the basis for the main characters in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American. For Flood, this book is the “sequel” Greene never wrote, and her story has some compelling moments of its own. After the family moves to America, Flood’s stepfather mysteriously leaves her with her mother, who “thrives on mental fireworks,” begins a career as a burlesque dancer, has numerous affairs, and often leaves the young Flood to fend for herself in a variety of schools in New York City. Flood finds peace of mind while searching for answers about what her mother “did and did not do and what she did and did not tell me,” which leads her happily to discover and reunite with her biological father in England. Flood’s descriptions of her early life are truly heartbreaking: teenage years spent working her way through high school, being abandoned by her mother, and realizing that “to try and understand why Mom had done so many things was pointless.” (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Dr. Joyce Brothers: The Founding Mother of TV Psychology

Kathleen Collins. Rowman & Littlefield, $35 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4422-6869-2

Collins (Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows) delivers a straightforward biography of psychologist Joyce Brothers, who was ubiquitous on TV from the 1950s through the 1990s as the public face of psychology. Poised, smart, savvy, and ambitious, Brothers served as “a conduit for learning about particularly American problems and fixations.” Collins focuses on Brothers’s television career, proposing the thesis that Brothers personified psychology for the American public after WWII. Brothers used television to gain exposure, and exposure allowed her to charge substantial speaking fees, which were her “bread and butter.” Unfortunately, this book is short on more complex insights, settling for a thorough overview of Brothers’s television career rather than an in-depth argument about her role in American culture. The reader is left wanting to know more about the barriers Brothers overcame (or perhaps went around) and her motivations, not to mention her theories of psychology. Collins touches on sexism and feminism, calling Brothers a “de facto feminist,” but she doesn’t delve. Her interest is in Brothers’s role in television history, not so much in Brothers herself. The book will leave readers better informed about this major figure in popular psychology, but also feeling that the definitive biography of her has yet to be written. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media

Catherine J. Turco. Columbia Univ., $35 (256p) ISBN 978-0-231-17898-3

Turco, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, spent 10 months studying the pseudonymous social media marketing firm “TechCo,” a 600-person company in an urban area; this thoughtful but ultimately disappointing book-length case study is the result. TechCo knew it needed to undergo some major changes; “The old ways of doing things,” the CEO said, “don’t work anymore.” Turco launched a major study of the company, focusing on its efforts to adopt values popularized by big tech companies (Facebook, Google, etc.) such as openness and transparency. They implemented some of the familiar trappings of an open office—a wiki, an open-plan space—and worked on replicating a digital-native culture in which open communication and employee autonomy were highly valued. Investigating what had worked and what hadn’t, Turco made some unexpected findings: employees pushed back on getting more decision-making responsibilities and had difficulty getting past fear of management reprisal when encouraged to speak honestly about problems. However, she concludes that ongoing, open dialogue is worth striving for—as long as leadership can check its assumptions at the door. This is an interesting case study, but the book is neither entertaining enough to be a story, nor educational enough to be prescriptive. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies

Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph. Univ. Press of Mississippi, $28 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4968-0773-1

This entertaining chronicle from filmmaker Bartok and film archivist Joseph highlights a clandestine, largely bygone world of film print collectors. Long before DVD and Blu-ray, when VHS was still in its infancy, these collectors would buy, sell, trade, and copy movies. This hobby could be legitimate, legally ambiguous, or flat-out illegal. Critic Leonard Maltin’s large collection of vintage short films is on the up-and-up, but Bartok and Joseph recount the great December 1974 film bust at the home of actor Roddy McDowall, of Planet of the Apes fame, from whom the FBI seized more 1,000 videos and 160 film prints. Their combined worth was comically overestimated at above $5 million. What this book does particularly well is capture the collectors’ passion—the “illness of collecting,” as it’s called a few times. There’s the collector who’s spent 30 years to protect one B-grade science fiction film, The Day of the Triffids, and another just as obsessed with a 1927 biopic of Napoleon by French director Abel Gance. These are warm histories of eccentrics, each story by itself a kind of minor-key Moby-Dick. Taken together, they amount to an elegiac portrait of a vanishing filmic subculture. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron

Richard Cohen. Simon & Schuster, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4767-9612-3

Cohen has written a clear-eyed, episodic, and moving tribute to his longtime friend Nora Ephron, a multitalented screenwriter, director, and author who died of cancer in 2012. Journalist Cohen, who met Ephron in 1973, was one of the few people she told about her illness. Here, Cohen creates a portrait of the Ephron behind the public persona—the force behind such success stories as When Harry Met Sally..., Sleepless in Seattle, and I Feel Bad About My Neck. Cohen depicts Ephron as an uncompromising, driven person juggling a family and a career and caring deeply about both; a fierce, generous, and loyal friend who was also often domineering and endowed with a certainty of opinion that brooked no opposition—a tough, determined woman, ready to make hard decisions and speak her mind, but not above being hurt by harsh criticism, and insecure about her looks. In short, Ephron proves a complex subject, but one who is clearly adored and greatly missed by Cohen. The most beautifully rendered portrait of her comes in the last few chapters, which chronicle the end of her life. Here, Cohen writes with emotion, perspective, humor, and grace—the perfect combination, perhaps, to represent his dear friend. Agent: Mort Janklow, Janklow & Nesbit. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-Loved Novelist

Rebecca Smith. Bloomsbury, $26 (352) ISBN 978-1-63286-588-5

Who better to provide good writing advice than Jane Austen herself? Smith (Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life Dilemmas), Austen’s great-great-great-great-grandniece, deploys the master author’s novels, letters, juvenilia, and even a late poem as lessons in the creative process. Various sections focus on point of view, irony, characterization, central images, dialogue, travel, building suspense, “the writer as sadist” (to her characters), and more. Smith quotes extensively from Austen to illustrate her points. For Austen lovers, the book will be a treat, a chance to luxuriate in some of her best prose. Moreover, the chosen passages aptly support Smith’s points about writing, which she supplements with a solid set of exercises. Smith understands Austen as both a stylist and satirist, and she appreciates the challenges she faced as a “lady” writer, not dissimilar to modern authors who often have to shoehorn their creative work into distracted lives. If there’s a quibble, it’s that Smith uses very long passages from Austen at the expense of shorter but equally cogent snippets. All in all, however, this easy-to-follow book offers sensible advice and is a fine writer’s guide. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Constitution Today: Timeless Lessons for the Issues of Our Era

Akhil Reed Amar. Basic, $29.99 (464p) ISBN 978-0-465-09633-6

Yale law professor Amar (The Law of the Land), a frequent New York Times contributor, would seem the perfect choice to provide an accessible and engrossing look at current constitutional issues. Unfortunately, that’s not what this volume is. Instead of providing concise, original examinations of legal and cultural conflicts, Amar reprints dozens of previously written essays, including ones that are far from timely; for example, one advocates that the U.S. Supreme Court change its policies to allow note taking by the audience at oral arguments, and easy access to transcripts of those arguments—a change that has since been made. Dated references, such as to a possible Romney/Christie slate in 2012, are a distraction that updated, reworked entries would have avoided. These aren’t the only flaws—some points (suggesting that Hillary Clinton might win the presidency “in part based on her strong support” of Supreme Court judicial candidate Merrick Garland) are, at best, a logical stretch, and Amar veers too close to self-congratulation in his speculations about the influence of some of his writings. This is a missed opportunity that the knowledgeable and insightful Amar could still realize in a future book. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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