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The Jutland Scandal: The Truth about the First World War’s Greatest Sea Battle

John Harper and Reginald Bacon. Skyhorse, $24.99 (280p) ISBN 978-1-5107-0871-6

Two important analyses of the crucial WWI naval battle that took place off the coast of Denmark in 1916, The Truth About Jutland (1927) by Vice-Admiral Harper and The Jutland Scandal (1925) by Admiral Bacon, return to circulation in time for the battle’s centenary. The Battle of Jutland remains controversial and has been debated by professional naval officers and historians for 100 years. At issue is whether the British Fleet Admiral John Jellicoe squandered an excellent opportunity to destroy the German High Seas Fleet in a decisive naval engagement. The two books were written in defense of the decision-making of Admiral Jellicoe. Harper, who produced the original unpublished official British Navy report on the battle, wrote primarily to provide an unbiased public record of events. His accurate, if spare, chronological account describes the proceedings and compares them to accepted British naval tactics. Bacon writes more specifically to combat direct attacks on Jellicoe’s performance by newspapers and Winston Churchill. Both authors wrote for a lay audience; their clear and authoritative accounts emphasize issues such as tactics, technology, command, and seamanship, with little attempt to describe the experience of battle. There are many better histories of Jutland, but these accessible works are mandatory for serious students of naval warfare and WWI. Illus. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To

Dean Burnett. Norton, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-25378-8

British neuroscientist Burnett, author of the Guardian blog Brain Flapping, packs an incredible amount of information into an accessible package with this breezy, charming collection of pop neuroscience musings on “how the human brain does its own thing despite everything the modern world can throw at it.” As the title suggests, Burnett highlights the dysfunctional results that occur when evolutionarily sensible systems engage with contexts that hominin ancestors would never have experienced, such as the motion sickness caused by the brain reading the mismatch between seeing a landscape move and the body feeling still, or the creation of conspiracy theories via the brain’s tendency toward pattern matching. Burnett also addresses many basics of human behavior—including anxiety, attention, memory, personality, and intelligence—with clear references to both classic and current studies in psychology and biology, while keeping a critical eye on the limits of studies and their possible misapplication. He shares a teasing love for the quirks of human behavior and adopts an appropriately serious tone when discussing actual mental disorders. Burnett’s smart, likable, self-referential, and very approachable personal voice permeates the text; readers will learn a lot from him, and will also just plain enjoy his work. Agent: Chris Wellbelove, Greene & Heaton (U.K.). (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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California Comeback: How a “Failed State” Became a Model for the Nation

Narda Zacchino, with Christopher Scheer. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-312-64935-7

Los Angeles Times veteran Zacchino does a workmanlike job of presenting the recent history of the Golden State, in service of her contention that its current left-leaning political orientation is a model to be emulated. Readers unfamiliar with the consequences of Enron’s fraudulent manipulation of the energy market or of Proposition 13, the 1978 law that capped property taxes and wrecked the state’s budget, will find both clearly explained here. Current governor Jerry Brown, himself the son of a California governor, is the hero of the book. Zacchino traces his complicated political trajectory—elected in 1974, out by 1983, and reelected in 2010—culminating with his successful push for passage in 2012 of Proposition 30, by which Californians approved a major tax increase to fund basic services. Zacchino does a balanced job of portraying a talented politician who achieved the seemingly impossible. The force of her analysis, however, is vitiated by hyperbolic claims that California is “the key test case” for the entire planet as to whether a “multicultural, democratic, and postindustrial society” can endure in today’s globalized world. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Addict in the House: A No-Nonsense Family Guide Through Addiction Recovery

Robin Barnett. New Harbinger, $16.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-62625-260-8

This is a straightforward, rich resource for anyone who lives with, and loves, an addict. It is presented as an intimate, personal narrative to supplement the alarming statistics surrounding addiction. Having grown up in a household marked by addiction, behavioral health specialist Barnett is the ideal guide through a journey that, as she writes, is rocky at best. Rather than adopt the tone of an expert, which risks coming off as condescending, she writes as a fellow traveler. Navigating a life with an addict is not easy: the most basic aspects of communication are compromised, and freedom from the cycles that entangle most addicts’ families requires breaking long-established patterns. Barnett presents her discussion with the qualification that it is condensed, in keeping with the “no-nonsense” self-description of the title. Each chapter is introduced by the words of addicts, but readers seeking more detailed, first-person accounts will not find them here. And instead of answers, they will find a process, presented more as a hopeful beginning than an ultimate cure. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Landmarks

Robert Macfarlane. Penguin/Hamilton, $18 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-241-96787-4

Macfarlane’s (The Old Ways) beautifully written blend of nature writing and lexicon connects the work of his favorite writers to the British Isles’ natural settings and the distinctive, lyrical vocabulary used to describe them. Each chapter is devoted to a different landform (such as flatlands, coastlands, and woodlands) and followed by a glossary of relevant terminology. The featured authors include “word-hoarder” Nan Shepherd, whose book The Living Mountain has its own lengthy glossary of colorful Scots words, such as “roarie-bummlers” (fast-moving storm clouds); and “water-man” Roger Deakin, whose book Waterlog, about his experiences swimming around the United Kingdom, unearthed archaic words such as dook (a swim in open water) and tarn (an upland pool or small lake.) The sources of the words in the glossaries are as diverse as the British landscape: works by famous wordsmiths such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Clare, as well as the various cultures, regions, and languages of Great Britain. Macfarlane bemoans the gradual disappearance of these colorful descriptors from modern usage, resulting in a “blandscape” of general terms. It would be fabulous if his wish in writing this exceptional compilation—for these words to “re-wild” contemporary speech—comes true. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran

Andrew Scott Cooper. Holt, $35 (608p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9897-6

Cooper (The Oil Kings), a scholar of oil markets and U.S.-Iran relations, recounts the rise and fall of Iran’s glamorous Pahlavi dynasty, challenging common characterizations of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi as a brutal dictator. Focusing on the last Shah’s rule, Cooper explains the founding of the Pahlavi monarchy and details the various achievements of the White Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, “one of the 20th century’s great experiments in liberal social and economic reform.” These transformed Iran “from a semifeudal baron state into a modern industrial powerhouse” while also encompassing various social advances in women’s rights, education, health care, and more. Such reforms, Cooper argues, qualify the Western-oriented Shah as more of a benevolent autocrat than a tyrant. The first part of the book is a sweeping survey of the Shah’s time in power; the second is a riveting day-by-day account of the 1978–1979 revolution that toppled the monarchy. Based on various documentary sources as well as impressive access to royalists, revolutionaries, Queen Farah Pahlavi, and various U.S. officials, this thorough work is immensely detailed yet readable and continuously engaging. Cooper’s attempts to downplay the regime’s abuses are unconvincing, but he provides a fascinating, distinctive, and personal account of the Shah and his rule. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War

John Strausbaugh. Hachette/Twelve, $30 (432p) ISBN 978-1-4555-8418-5

Strausbaugh follows 2013’s The Village, an encyclopedic history of New York City’s Greenwich Village, with an expert look at the city in the tumultuous years leading up to and through the Civil War. “New York City would play a huge role in the war, but it would be a hugely confused and conflicted one,” he writes. “No city would be more of a help to Lincoln and the Union war effort, or more of a hindrance.” As Strausbaugh focuses on the array of colorful characters who influenced events—including newsman Horace Greeley, abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, and Tammany Hall leader William “Boss” Tweed—he spins a complex tale of a rapidly growing and changing city where immigration, slavery, and politics all had immense roles to play. This is an entertaining, informative, and educational narrative, though the density of rich detail can get the reader bogged down; Strausbaugh sometimes pays too much attention to pivotal individuals in the maelstrom of events. He ranges over the better part of a century to thoroughly and confidently capture the full scope of the story, resulting in an almost epic saga. Agent: Chris Calhoun, Chris Calhoun Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

Ed Yong. Ecco, $27.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-236859-1

British science journalist Yong succeeds in encouraging readers to recognize the critical importance of biological microorganisms. He argues that humans must move past the belief that bacteria are bad and need to be eradicated, and adopt a deeper understanding of the positive role they play in the lives of most organisms. Yong makes a superb case for his position by interviewing numerous scientists and presenting their fascinating work in an accessible and persuasive fashion. Throughout, he takes a holistic ecological perspective, contending that it makes no sense to examine bacteria in isolation. As in all ecological systems, context is everything, and the complex community structure of the microbiome does much to determine the effects of various bacteria. Yong demonstrates that this more inclusive view has led to a reconceptualization of how the immune system might work, how microorganisms can shape the development of organ systems, how bacteria might play a role in autism, and how the microbiome may influence an organism’s propensity for obesity. He also shows that scientists have moved beyond the theoretical by successfully performing “ecosystem transplants” of human gut microorganisms, and he envisions a future that includes “artisanal bacteria” designed to perform specific tasks. Yong reveals “how ubiquitous and vital microbes are” on scales large and small. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History

Jason Vuic. Simon & Schuster, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4767-7226-4

Vuic, who previously chronicled the ill-fated Yugo car (Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History) here details another disaster: the 1976 and 1977 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team that lost 26 consecutive games in its first two years of existence and became Johnny Carson’s go-to punch line. Reduced to trying out a delivery man for wide receiver, the pro football team’s terribleness was not surprising. But it mattered. An NFL franchise signified good news for a metropolitan area besieged with economic and environmental woes. When the Bucs finally won on Dec. 11, 1977—a defeat that cost New Orleans Saints coach Hank Stram his job—8,000 rowdy fans greeted the conquering heroes. There was a dark side to the nostalgic glow. Coach John McKay, who deemed the fans “idiots,” was acidic to the point of cruelty. Owner Hugh Culverhouse’s penury was so vast that he leased the team’s plane and ordered the walls in the Buccaneers’ headquarters painted white so the coaches didn’t have to use screens for film sessions. The material is a bit thin—only 40 pages are devoted to the team after its embarrassing nadir—but Vuic, who grew up a Buccaneers fan, atones by offering a brisk, warmhearted reminder of how professional sports can occasionally reach stunning unprofessional depths. Agent: Farley Chase, Chase Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day

Joel Selvin. Dey Street, $27.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-244425-7

Fewer than four months after the amorphous idealism of the 1960s achieved its Woodstock apogee, the Altamont Free Music Festival destroyed and buried it; in this methodical history, music journalist Selvin (Red, cowritten with Sammy Hagar) provides a cultural coroner’s report. Altamont was the brainchild of the Rolling Stones, who hoped to burnish their hip bonafides by embracing psychedelic San Francisco, but the concert was a disaster of poor planning, greed, and drug-addled naïveté about the social forces underlying the event. Hired as security for $500 worth of beer, the Hell’s Angels behaved like peckish sharks in a tankful of agitated minnows, attacking the audience and murdering a young African-American man while a documentary film crew, which included George Lucas, captured the tragedy. Selvin’s meticulous research exposes the criminally irresponsible management of the event. There were many culprits—including bad acid, an indifferent local police department, the Rolling Stones’ noblesse oblige, and the Grateful Dead’s embrace of the Angels—but Selvin assigns equal blame to the preposterous idealism of the era. Though his reconstruction brings events nearly a half-century past as close as yesterday, his biases undermine some of the book’s broader claims (e.g., declaring that the Stones never made a good album after the concert). Selvin’s presentation of Altamont busts the myth of innocence lost; in fact, Altamont just made reality harder to ignore. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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