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Anchor & Flares: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hope, and Service

Kate Braestrup. Little Brown, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-37378-4

Braestrup (Here if You Need Me) cuts an intriguing figure in her warm, thoughtful chronicle of her time in the trenches as a parent and on the job. A mother of four with two stepchildren from her second marriage, she goes for a Masters in Divinity as a young widow and becomes a chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, wearing what a poet described as "SWAT-Team pastorwear." Her job is to comfort the friends and family of those missing or killed, and provide support to the wardens who go on rescue and recovery missions. Braestrup is not, however, a stereotypical Bible-thumper. As a young mother in the 1980s who gave her children feminist interpretations of "The Three Little Pigs," she was preoccupied with her little boys becoming "agents of oppression" and dressed them in pinks and florals, while her daughters were encouraged to get their overalls messy. She regularly questions her skills and the lessons she has passed on,. When her oldest son, taking a page from his grandfathers who joined up, decides to enlist with the Marines at 17, she wrestles with the standard set by the men in the family while contemplating whether she has prepared him to stay true to himself and maintain a moral compass that will give him courage and keep him safe. Braestrup's compassion, grace, and wisdom come through loud and clear. Agent: Sally Wofford-Girand, Union Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World

Daniel Goleman. Bantam, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-553-39489-4

Goleman (Emotional Intelligence), a longtime friend of the Dalai Lama, presents a personal and passionate account of Tibetan Buddhism's spiritual leader, discussing his habits, disposition, and goals for humanity. Goleman describes practical aspects of the Dalai Lama's vision that include being mindful of social injustice, supporting groups such as "Action for Happiness" and "B Corporations" that have an "explicit mission to benefit society," and uniting to combat climate change. Our hearts, he believes, can turn away from destructive dreams of money, power and fame. Oddly, however, Goleman seems to presuppose that the reader's interest in the Dalai Lama lies precisely in the sage's power, fame, and access, and spends a great deal of time on his globetrotting appearances that fill stadiums, his Nobel Prize, and his routine meetings with heads of states. One wonders whether a reader who would be wowed by that aspect of the Dalai Lama would also "get" the humble aspects of the vision—but perhaps those are the readers Goleman wants to pull in? For anyone not put off by Goleman's dazzle, a solid and hopeful message awaits. (June)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Lovecraft and a World in Transition: Collected Essays on H.P. Lovecraft

S.T. Joshi. Hippocampus (hippocampuspress.com), $75 (645p) ISBN 978-1-61498-079-7

This collection of 54 essays written by Lovecraft scholar Joshi between 1978 and 2013 is aimed at the serious student of the groundbreaking horror author, as the titles of some entries make clear ("The Development of Lovecraftian Studies: 1971-1982"; "A Guide to the Lovecraft Fiction Manuscripts at the John Hay Library"). Nonetheless, even the more casual Lovecraft reader will enjoy Joshi's work. For example, Lovecraft's little-known affinity for Charlie Chaplin is referenced in a study of his opinion of the cinema of his day. Joshi's trademark trenchant prose is present in abundance. In the title essay, he says, "It is as if Lovecraft required two brutal years in New York to bring him into the modern world; for then his fiction not merely takes a radical turn for the better but the archaism of manner is shed like an old skin." While a self-selected "best of" collection would have a broader appeal, the categorization of content (e.g., biographical, philosophical, thematic studies, and looks at individual works) makes it easy to find entries of interest. Joshi's modest goal, that the product of his decades of scholarship will "remain relevant in the years to come," will certainly be met. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ

Giulia Enders, trans. from the German by David Shaw. Greystone Books (PGW, U.S. dist.; Univ. of Toronto, Canadian dist.). $19.95 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-77164-150-0

Enders, a medical student, became fascinated with all things digestive after a roommate asked her about the mechanics of elimination. She discovered that the gut affects overall health far more than she thought. With a great sense of humor and ample enthusiasm, Enders explains everything readers did and didn't want to know about their innards. She describes the digestive journey of a piece of cake from eyes to outcome in graphic detail, showing how much more is involved than just the stomach and intestines. She explores the world of microbes to talk about the good (probiotics), the bad (germs), and the ugly (toxoplasma). Parasites feature as well, and after disgusting readers with the particulars, she kindly provides tips on how to avoid an infestation. Enders also includes advice on how to avoid constipation, how to lie in bed in case of bloating, and what to do for heartburn. She doesn't just state facts—she delves into the science behind them, which is eye-opening and humbling to learn about. With Harry Potter references, a Facebook analogy for understanding microbial food preferences, and zany drawings, this book defies boredom. (May)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject

Philip Mark Plotch. Rutgers Univ., $34.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8135-7249-9

We spend years in traffic yet know little of the brew of politics, bureaucracy, interests, and ideals keeping us there. Planner and political scientist Plotch examines this principle through one transportation planning debacle: the three-decade struggle to refurbish or replace the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River north of New York City. He provides helpful context by beginning with imperious Governor Dewey's 1950 decision to build a relatively insubstantial bridge across the second widest spot in the Hudson for political and financial reasons. By 1980, increasing bridge congestion prompted a planning process that generated comparatively modest refurbishment and traffic management proposals, but those were ultimately killed in the mid-1990s by environmentalists opposed to highway expansion. Plotch goes on to describe the protracted study of a plan to build a replacement bridge for cars and trains within a new regional rail system, a grandiose project that attracted much support but was regarded as impracticable by many professionals. In 2011, Governor Cuomo ended the futility by peremptorily deciding to build a new highway bridge stripped of transit, frustrating almost all concerned. Plotch dissects a well-intentioned assessment and public participation process undone by parochial interests, turf battles, unrealistic expectations, and arcane and glacial regulatory procedures. Anyone concerned about the place of large infrastructure projects in the modern U.S. should consider this sobering case study. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was a Diagnosis May Be Your Greatest Strength

Dale Archer. Penguin/Hudson Street, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-59463-351-5

This provocative book puts forward a thesis that some may find reassuring but others will find problematic: that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be beneficial as well as detrimental. Psychiatrist Archer, who realized he had the condition while researching and writing his 2013 bestseller, Better Than Normal, claims that it helped him achieve success, and that he's not alone: JetBlue founder David Neelman, Cisco CEO John Chambers, Sir Richard Branson, NFL quarterback Dave Krieg, and pop vocalists Pink and Adam Levine all have ADHD. According to Archer, possible benefits include the ability to work under pressure, rebound from crises, multitask, and conceive of ideas outside the box. Part I of the book provides historical, genetic, and pathological context, Part II focuses on the so-called "ADHD advantages" in more detail, and Part III connects them to entrepreneurship, athletics, and interpersonal experiences. Part I also contains the most potentially controversial material: Archer's recommendation that ADHD sufferers and their guardians avoid managing the condition with medication and instead follow a "skills, not pills" approach. At its best, however, the book provides potentially helpful advice on how ADHD's most challenging aspects can be repurposed as strengths. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help

Larissa MacFarquhar. Penguin Press, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-59420-433-3

This gripping first book from New Yorker staff writer MacFarquhar is a scrupulous study of people selflessly devoted to helping others. In the introduction, she distinguishes between "heroes" (who help their families or communities in times of need) and "do-gooders" (who feel a moral obligation to help strangers, or other species), discussing why people invariably admire the former and don't always like or trust the latter. MacFarquhar goes on to profile various do-gooders: an animal-rights activist driven to give voice to the plight of chickens, a man who founded a leper colony in India at a time when coming into contact with lepers was unthinkable, and a woman who feels compelled to give everything she possibly can to organizations that will help the most people, among others. These singular biographies are threaded together with chapters examining the cultural history of how we view altruism, including the implications of Darwin's theory of natural selection, Freudian pathologizing of selflessness, the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the rise of the theory of codependency. MacFarquhar herself takes no stance for or against do-gooders, or about why they make the choices they do, but the book is no less engrossing and thought provoking for its lack of concrete answers. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, Wylie Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life

Nick Lane. Norton, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-08881-6

English biochemist Lane, whose previous book, Life Ascending, won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books, combines elegant prose and an enthusiasm for big questions as he attempts to peer into a "black hole at the heart of biology." Scientists "have no idea why cells work the way they do," nor "how the parts evolved," though as Lane points out, eukaryotic cells—the building blocks of all multicellular life—share multiple complex structural and functional features. With impeccable logic and current research data, he makes a case for a common ancestor of all multicellular life—one created by a singular endosymbiotic event between a bacterial cell and an archaon cell that became the cell-powering mitochondrion. Lane walks readers through the details of how bacteria alone could have become metabolically diverse but not structurally complex. He then shows how the addition of mitochondria to the equation allowed a shift in energy flow through the cell, and how the migration of DNA introns from mitochondria DNA to the cell nucleus provided a wealth of new genetic material on which evolution could operate. The science is both a puzzle and a dance; Lane retains a sense of wonder as he embraces a bold hypothesis and delights in the hard data that gives it weight. (July)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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God for the Rest of Us: Experience Unbelievable Love, Un- limited Hope, and Uncommon Grace

Vince Antonucci. Tyndale, $15.99 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-4964-0716-0

Antonucci (Renegade), pastor of Verve Church on the Las Vegas Strip, explores his all-inclusive brand of Christianity, relating his own history of hardship alongside stories of the overlooked and shame-filled within his congregation who have overcome the odds to find salvation. After witnessing the hateful, shaming language of fellow Christians directed toward sinners on the Vegas Strip, Antonucci decided to distribute the flyer “Who Does Jesus Love?” as a counterexample of God’s inclusiveness. “The people you think are least deserving of God’s love may well be the people who need God’s love the most,” he writes. He makes a strong argument for the timelessness of the “new” types of outcasts he encounters on the Strip, and structures the chapters according to their needs: “God for the Addicts,” “God for the Doubters,” “God for the Pimp, “God for the Forgotten.” Refreshingly, he is equally open about his own story, explaining in detail the psychological effects of growing up with a father who was a con artist and gambling addict. Antonucci provides lessons and stories of inspiration, anchored in the Bible but drawn from his own experiences, for those who see themselves as outside mainstream Christianity. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessing and Kisses

Ron Wolfson. Jewish Lights, $19.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-580238-38-0

Wolfson, an acclaimed Jewish educator, slathers on the schmaltz in this autobiography, which is unlikely to have much appeal beyond his friends and family. Wolfson grew up in Nebraska as part of a multigenerational Jewish family, rebelled, returned to the fold, married, and found his calling as a teacher. The hyperbole of the title (Wolfson’s grandfather referred to him as “the best boy in the United States of America”) is matched by the text, which is replete with exclamation points. The author shares songs and poems that, while important in his own life, are less than memorable. His frequent insistence that all his stories “are true” only invites skepticism. The innovations that mark Wolfson’s dedicated work to revitalize Jewish observance and worship are not matched by his pedestrian approach to his own life journey. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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