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It’s Not Rocket Science: 7 Game-Changing Traits for Achieving Uncommon Success

Mary Spio. Perigee, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-399-16931-1

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Readers looking for strategies for success may be disappointed by this spirited but surface-deep offering from Spio, cofounder of the technology and marketing company Vidaroo and U.S. Ambassador of Innovation. As promised, Spio outlines seven traits she considers necessary for successful innovators, including “unbridled creativity,” “radical passion,” “active compassion,” “obsessive focus,” “relentless hustle,” “extreme audacity,” and “pit bull tenacity.” In the process, however, she relies on some off-puttingly simplistic ideas, such as that “all businesses are examples of active compassion.” Her own life story, which took her from a modest childhood in Ghana to engineering for Boeing, is inspiring, and Spio offers some good, albeit repetitive, points to go with it. These include the importance of setting your sights high, surrounding yourself with people who do great work, and achieving laser-like focus on getting the best results. Another plus is that the examples of success Spio chooses, such as pioneering ophthalmologist Patricia Bath, are not the standard go-to choices for business manuals. Despite these strengths, the book lacks the depth for Spio to fully develop her ideas. Agent: Jeff Herman, Jeff Herman Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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How to Be a Heroine, or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much

Samantha Ellis. Vintage, $14.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-1018-7209-3

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While growing up in London’s Iraqi-Jewish community, Ellis knew early on that she didn’t want the happy ending her parents wanted for her: “marriage to a nice Iraqi-Jewish boy.” In this charming memoir, playwright and journalist Ellis revisits and reevaluates the books that, in childhood and young adulthood, she read to figure out what kind of woman she wanted to be. Her journey begins during an argument with her best friend about which of the Brontë sisters’ heroines is best, when she realizes that, rather than Wuthering Heights’ tumultuous Cathy Earnshaw, she should have been defending rational, clear-sighted Jane Eyre. She goes on to revisit her early admiration for Anne of Green Gables, Lizzy Bennett, and Franny Glass, while also admitting that some of her heroines fall short today, whether because they are too insipid (The Little Princess) or preachy (Little Women). She’s unsparing even toward her all-time favorite novel, Wuthering Heights, finding Cathy and Heathcliff’s love “the kind... that could only be written by someone who had never been in love.” Likable and open about her own vulnerabilities as well as her characters’, Ellis concludes that “maybe it’s by appropriating our heroines that we become heroines ourselves.” Agent: Judith Murray, Greene & Heaton (U.K.). (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States

Philip Cafaro. Univ. of Chicago, $27.50 (336p) ISBN 978-0-226-19065-5

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Rather than a shibboleth of Tea Partiers and Minutemen, restricting immigration should be a pillar of a left-liberal program to bolster the working class and protect the environment, according to this stimulating manifesto. University of Colorado philosophy professor Cafaro (Thoreau’s Living Ethics) argues that mass immigration undermines important progressive goals: it floods the low-skilled labor market, lowering wages and raising unemployment among the poor (Americans, he contends, both want and take the jobs immigrants also commonly perform but get lower pay because of immigrant competition); it increases the U.S. population, leading to more pollution, carbon emissions, and environmental degradation; it sharpens socioeconomic inequality, fostering a “master/servant economy” in which affluent elites disproportionately benefit from a permanent, highly exploitable immigrant underclass. Cafaro’s lucid, straightforward prose is buttressed by a wealth of statistics and avoids the racial and cultural stereotyping that often intrudes on the immigration debate. His nuanced analysis, incorporating sympathetic interviews with immigrant strivers and beleaguered native-born workers alike, squarely faces the ethical trade-offs that immigration policy entails; he acknowledges immigrants’ contributions and legitimate moral claims, but insists that American democracy put the interests of citizens first. The result is a cogent, eye-opening challenge to received wisdom on this contentious issue. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano

Dana Thomas. Penguin Press, $29.95 (423p) ISBN 978-1-59420-494-4

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Fashion columnist Thomas (Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster) paints a grim portrait of the fashion industry in this dual biography of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, two influential London-born designers who came of age in the world of high couture in the early aughts and whose careers hit critical tipping points with devastating results. “If Galliano was a Romantic, McQueen was a pornographer.... He accepted the brutality of human nature,” writes Thomas, who rarely compares her two subjects so succinctly elsewhere in the book. Galliano suffers by comparison to McQueen, appearing the lesser—and less likeable—of the two talents. For all of his hard work and creative vision (not to mention the way he cut a dress on the bias and tailored a frock coat) Galliano seems dramatically out of touch with others, reacting with revulsion to people wearing sneakers on the London underground, and regarding himself as the paradigm of beauty “and everyone else as being ugly.” McQueen is the book’s more tragic talent, filled with self-hatred that fueled his spiral of depression, drug use, and ultimately self-annihilation. Despite this, the sections on McQueen are more upbeat and richly reported. While Thomas never strikes a fulfilling symmetry between her subjects, she nevertheless offers an alluring look at two edgy, gifted, famous individuals who famously burned out midcareer.(Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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God’s Bankers: A History of Money & Power at the Vatican

Gerald Posner. Simon & Schuster, $30 (728p) ISBN 978-1-4165-7657-0

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Posner (Miami Babylon) uses his superlative investigative skills to craft a fascinating and comprehensive look at the dark side of the Catholic Church, documenting “how money, and accumulating and fighting over it, has been a dominant theme in the history of the Catholic Church and its divine mission.” He opens with the various spiritually creative methods the Church has used to make ends meet, such as the sale of indulgences and Pope Urban II’s offer of full absolution to those who volunteered to fight in the Crusades. The bulk of the book focuses on the mid-20th century and includes the Papacy’s accommodations to the Nazis. While this is familiar terrain, Posner convincingly buttresses his unusual position that money swayed Pope Pius XII “to remain silent in the face of overwhelming evidence of mass murder.” And the author’s access to previously undisclosed documents enables him to flesh out the Vatican Bank scandal, which reached its nadir with the mysterious hanging—from London’s Blackfriars Bridge—of Italian banker and convicted fraudster Roberto Calvi. Accessible and well written, Posner’s is the definitive history of the topic to date. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Frugal Innovation: How to Do More With Less

Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu. PublicAffairs/The Economist, $18.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-61039-505-2

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In their illuminating latest work, coauthors Radjou and Prabhu (Jugaad Innovation), both academics at Cambridge Judge Business School in India, continue to tackle the topic of innovation. Maintaining that in today’s cost-conscious, eco-friendly business environment, organizations must not only learn to “do more with less,” but also to “do better with less,” they offer six principles to companies looking for new ways to compete. This accessible yet substantive book illustrates how “frugal innovation” is practiced throughout the world, using case studies, best practices, and techniques. Examples come from well-known global companies such as Renault, Novartis, GE, and Aetna, as well as lesser-known companies. Succinct chapter summaries add to the book’s usefulness. While Radjou and Prabhu acknowledge that “implementing a frugal innovation strategy in any organization can be daunting,” this practical overview will be a helpful guide to business owners and managers interested “in setting goals and priorities that match [their] company’s culture and needs” on the road to combining frugality and innovation. Agent: Bridget Wagner, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs

Amy Wilkinson. Simon & Schuster, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4516-6605-2

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In this ambitious but not totally satisfying debut, Wilkinson, senior fellow at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, lists the necessary skills for innovators and entrepreneurs. Drawing on more than 200 interviews with leading entrepreneurs, she identifies six specific techniques: “find the gap,” “drive for daylight,” “fly the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop,” “fail wisely,” “network minds,” and “gift small goods.” She also draws a portrait of creators as tirelessly working, networking, and sharing. The entrepreneurs depicted here ultimately triumph, but they also fail, at least at first, and in small, calculated ways. Their trick: staying optimistic while rigorously analyzing each mistake. “I’ve not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” Thomas Edison is reported to have said. Elsewhere, Wilkinson quotes an unflappable Elon Musk on starting Telsa Motors: “It feels like chewing glass and staring into the abyss.” Wilkinson clarifies that the “skills aren’t a monopoly of a special category of person,” but are attainable for people willing to commit themselves. Still, despite the book’s impressive array of case studies, it may leave readers feeling that, while the average innovator undoubtedly possesses all the skills enumerated here, there’s a lot more to world-changing innovation. Agent: Kim Witherspoon, Inkwell Management. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation

Rena Pederson. Pegasus, $29.95 (544 p) ISBN 978-1-60598-667-8

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Journalist Pederson (The Lost Apostle) delivers a penetrating portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the Burmese National League for Democracy party, in a thoughtful biography that reveals the “moody, temperamental” side of its charismatic and visionary subject. Pederson opens with a 2003 covert interview with “The Lady,” whose prodemocracy campaign in Myanmar (formerly Burma) has earned her a place in history. A nation rich in natural resources, Myanmar now ranks among the world’s poorest after years of military rule, and Pederson traveled to the new capital, Naypyidaw (a $4 billion monument to dictator Than Shwe), at great personal risk while conducting her research. Suu Kyi—an Oxford graduate, daughter of a martyred general and ambassador, and leader since 1988 of the opposition party—remained under house arrest on and off until 2010, with long separations from her family, and inspired First Lady Laura Bush to take an active role working with the U.N. to bring humanitarian aid to Myanmar. Pederson charts Myanmar’s “winter thaw,” which earned Suu Kyi a seat in Parliament, and while Suu Kyi’s fearlessness and Buddhist faith have carried her far, observers continue to wonder what impact her work will have on a country that has stymied U.S. presidents since Reagan. Photos. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity

Christian G. Appy. Viking, $28.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-670-02539-8

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Appy (Patriots), a University of Massachusetts historian who specializes in the Vietnam War, offers his assessment of that conflict’s multifaceted legacy in the United States. In a wide-ranging, insightful book-length essay, Appy writes confidently and convincingly to support his main theory: that the way the war was fought and its outcome put an indelible dent in the idea of American exceptionalism. The war, he argues, “shattered the central tenet of American national identity—the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life.” Appy examines how the U.S. fought the war and interprets the main cultural and political events since the war’s end through the lens of its failure. He scrutinizes and interprets political machinations, as well as reportage, literature, film, and television. Appy successfully conveys the shameful, difficult, and traumatic homecoming given to the nation’s 2.8 million Vietnam veterans in a book that poses a distinct challenge to those who still believe in American exceptionalism. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Vietnam’s Firebase Kate

William Albracht and Marvin J. Wolf. NAL Caliber, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-451-46808-6

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Former Army Special Forces Captain Albracht and prolific author and screenwriter Wolf (Buddha’s Child) present a riveting look at a little-known but compelling Vietnam War story. It centers on how, in October of 1969, Albracht, a young Green Beret officer, managed to lead his vastly outnumbered American troops and their Montagnard tribesmen allies on a desperate and daring escape from a remote hilltop outpost deep in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The authors mix a history of the American war in Vietnam through 1969 with Albracht’s first-person story and the thoughts of survivors interviewed for the book. At Firebase Kate, some 200 Americans and Montagnards—“positioned as bait, designed to lure the North Vietnamese across the [Cambodian] border”—came under a withering five-day attack by three enemy regiments, some 6,000 men. Despite being wounded and near exhaustion—and with virtually no ammunition or water—Albracht brought off a minor miracle, leading “a hundred and fifty fighting men, many suffering from wounds or battle shock, through a gauntlet of fire” to safety. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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