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Michelle Obama: A Life

Peter Slevin. Knopf, $27.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-307-95882-2

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Political journalist Slevin offers an informative if not particularly personal portrait of America’s first lady in this thoroughly researched biography. Slevin meticulously recounts Obama’s inspiring journey, beginning with the struggle of her parents, Marian and Fraser Robinson, to eke out better lives on Chicago’s South Side, and continuing through her childhood to her experiences at Princeton and Harvard Law School, a job at white-shoe law firm Sidley Austin (where a charismatic law student named Barack Obama first made her acquaintance), and her residence in the White House. Providing valuable insight into the trajectory of her life and career, Slevin shows how Obama draws strength from her upbringing, which emphasized knowledge, family, and social responsibility. The rare glimpses of the personality hidden behind Obama’s cool and unruffled demeanor are the most satisfying moments of the narrative, but they are few and far between, leaving her almost as enigmatic a figure at the book’s close as she is at the beginning. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine—a Tale of Two Narratives

Padraig O’Malley. Viking, $30 (496p) ISBN 978-0-670-02505-3

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In this exhaustively researched work, O’Malley (Shades of Difference), a negotiator of key peace milestones in Northern Ireland, declares that the time for a two-state settlement between Israelis and Palestinians is gone. He explores the relevant history in mind-numbing detail before throwing up his hands and concluding that deeply-rooted “one-sided worldviews and mutual fears” have made the conflict all but intractable. “Each side is attached to its addiction” to recurring bouts of violence that provide cover for their mutual lack of commitment to securing peace. Israel drifts steadily to the right, hardening its stance toward its Arab population and the Palestinians disenfranchised in the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” of 1948. Meanwhile, the factional split between Hamas fighters and Fatah, the Palestinian Authority’s nominal voice, has left the West Bank and Gaza’s Palestinian residents without functioning government. The result is a Palestinian militancy that can always win by losing—by carrying out doomed military campaigns that place Israel in the position of an oppressive occupying power. There are no heroes in O’Malley’s account, and no clear villains either. The situation is exasperating and tragic, but, as O’Malley poignantly asks at the end of his bleak assessment, “Why should I be so presumptuous as to dare provide a vision for people who refuse to provide one for themselves?” (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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I Was a Child

Bruce Eric Kaplan. Penguin/Blue Rider, $25.95 (176p) ISBN 978-0-399-16951-9

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New Yorker cartoonist Kaplan (Everything Is Going to Be Okay) recalls the somewhat stifling years of his conventional childhood in Maplewood, N.J., in his first nonfiction endeavor. The young Kaplan finds solace in television’s “clarity of emotions,” empathizing with I Love Lucy, idealizing the Newhart’s marriage, and treating the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz with profound reverence. Kaplan’s distinct imagery captures the vaguely suffocating aura of the family home: the giant cabinet record player, everything “repaired with Scotch tape,” and the TV antenna assisted by tin foil. Further, ’60s and ’70s nostalgia abounds, as Kaplan lovingly recalls baseball card packages with stale gum, Jonny Quest, and S&H Green Stamps rewards from the grocery store. The memoir is, of course, peppered with Kaplan’s famously simple illustrations depicting subjects like Lucille Ball, a childhood friend’s unhinged mother, Barbara Streisand’s nose, and Superman pushing a manual lawnmower. Fans of Kaplan’s art will find a similar style in his prose: quick, humorous sketches of the everyday, with the occasional moment of pure poetry. Agent: Erin Malone, William Morris Endeavor. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. Random, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6747-3

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Social psychologists Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski provide an intriguing but uneven volume aimed at lay readers that attempts to show that humanity’s unique awareness of death “has a profound and pervasive effect on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in almost every domain of human life—whether we are conscious of it or not.” They cite a number of interesting experiments that contrast the behavior of subjects made more aware of mortality with those who are not. Readers might be surprised to learn that judges belonging to the first category sentenced prostitutes more harshly than their colleagues in the second. The authors explain that those forced to think “about their own mortality [react] by trying to do the right thing as prescribed by their culture.” The language sometimes lapses into cliché (“We have a lot to learn from the ancients”) or overstatement. For all the book’s arguments, some readers will arrive at the end unconvinced that every instance of human cruelty to other humans “stems from humankind’s fundamental intolerance of... those who subscribe to different cultural worldviews.” (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Smartest Book in the World: A Lexicon of Literacy, a Rancorous Reportage, a Concise Curriculum of Cool

Greg Proops. Touchstone, $25 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4767-4704-0

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Perhaps best known for his stint on the improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway, comedian and podcaster Proops’s compendium of trivia, passionate essays, lists, and observations might not be the smartest book, but it’s certainly an entertaining one. Readers may be distracted by his quirks—“woman” is always spelled with a capital W, and Proops lists numerous reasons why, such as “Old Women raise the world and know everything” and “war is menstruation envy”—and his deep, abiding love for baseball, which is both the subject of a lengthy essay and a common metaphor throughout the book for discussing Roman emperors, the British monarchy, bombshell beauties, and U.S. presidents, among other random subjects. Rather than offer a linear examination of a particular topic, Proops jumps around, citing the brilliance of poets Baudelaire, Sappho, Basho, and Blake in addition to T. Rex’s Electric Warrior album and Alfred Hitchcock’s film Lifeboat. Arguments could be made that some subjects, such as punk (he lists only the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, the Clash’s London Calling, and the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia), don’t receive the attention they deserve, but what Proops lacks in breadth he more than makes up for in enthusiasm. It’s a terrifically random appreciation of cultural touchstones that’s sure to inspire readers to look further. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe

Michael Neiberg. Basic, $29.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-465-07525-6

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In July 1945, three Allied leaders—Harry S. Truman, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill—met at the Potsdam Conference in Germany to establish the structure of a postwar world order. Many observers disliked the outcome, but Neiberg (The Blood of Free Men), professor of history at the U.S. Army War College, explains why he approves of it in this thoughtful, mildly controversial account. Truman, vice president until F.D.R.’s death three months earlier, knew little of world affairs but proved a quick study. Churchill, voted out of office before the conference ended, “baffled and worried his own cabinet officers.” While acknowledging “Stalin’s brutality,” Neiberg sympathizes with him; aware that Russia did most of the fighting and suffering, the Soviet leader came to Potsdam “not to make deals but to settle scores.” In the end, Stalin got most of what he wanted: hegemony over Eastern Europe, reparations, and generous territorial gains in exchange for attacking Japan, as the war in the Pacific continued. Neiberg points out that WWII did not lead to a third world war, and that Stalin’s concentration on politics over economics at the conference eventually doomed the Soviet Union. Neiberg’s insightful history makes a case that Potsdam worked much better than Versailles had in 1919. Photos. Agent: Geri Thoma, Writers House (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Joan of Arc: A History

Helen Castor. Harper, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-238439-3

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Now a legendary symbol of France, Joan of Arc began her life as a 15th-century peasant girl who, after hearing the voice of God, donned “armour as though she were a man” and inspired the army of the dauphin Charles to victory over the English before leading him to his coronation at Reims as Charles VII. Castor (She-Wolves) recreates the heady atmosphere of a period when rival French, English, and English-Burgundian claims resulted in two claimants to the French throne. Her detailed, lengthy, and well-written account relates the fighting between primary dynastic houses before Joan arrives on the scene. Joan remains enigmatic throughout much of Castor’s work, but as she faces death at the hands of her English-Burgundian captors, her extraordinary will shines through. Castor increasingly uses Joan’s words during her trial, and quotes from the testimony of her friends and family members in the posthumous re-examination of her cleric-orchestrated trial. Surprisingly, Castor doesn’t mention post-WWI French nationalism and the desire of competing factions to appropriate Joan’s story in the brief discussion of Joan’s canonization in 1920. Castor creates a strong introduction to the courageous girl who swore she heard saints’ voices, but also to the nation-rending struggle for power so fiercely waged that only that singular, obsessive teenager could finally save France. Illus. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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How to Bake Π: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics

Eugenia Cheng. Basic, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-465-05171-7

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Cheng, a lecturer in mathematics at both the University of Sheffield and the University of Chicago, sets an ambitious agenda for herself: to explain to non-mathematicians how mathematicians think and to educate readers about the tools mathematicians employ when seeking solutions to complex problems. She begins each chapter with recipes (mostly desserts) that she then employs to illustrate the thought processes that underlie mathematical reasoning—a surprisingly stimulating and successful conceit. Having grabbed the reader’s attention, Cheng playfully walks through numerous math problems of varying difficulty, taking care to provide understandable and illuminating solutions. She often departs from mathematical theory to highlight the pragmatic values of logic and rationality as employed by mathematicians in everyday life, and she possesses a lighter side that recognizes mathematical reasoning is not life’s holy grail, underlining her point with an entertaining, and wise, six-point indictment of pure logic as a tool with which to approach “all that life throws at us.” Cheng is exceptional at translating the abstract concepts of mathematics into ordinary language, a strength aided by a writing style that showcases the workings of her curious, sometimes whimsical mind. This combination allows her to demystify how mathematicians think and work, and makes her love for mathematics contagious. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Goebbels: A Biography

Peter Longerich. Random, $40 (960p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6751-0

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Longerich (The Unwritten Order), a historian of modern Germany at Royal Holloway University of London, explores in depth three aspects of the career and life of the Third Reich’s infamous minister of propaganda: “his development from a failed writer and intellectual to a Nazi agitator”; his “efforts... to introduce uniformity into the [German] media, cultural life, and the public sphere”; and his “role as a wartime propagandist and advocate of ‘total war.’ ” He labels Goebbels a narcissist, an “ice-cold evil genius” who uncritically idolized Hitler for embodying the “German soul.” The book’s greatest strength—and greatest weakness—lies in Longerich’s deep explorations of the most intimate and specific aspects of Goebbels’s personal life. Readers get a clear window on his perspective, but a broader context is often lacking. Some sections are packed with excessive description, though when Longerich writes of Goebbels’s attempts in 1945 to maintain popular morale—even as a German defeat in WWII grew imminent—he lacks solid details on the state of the population’s collective consciousness. Longerich is a master of portraying the Nazi leadership and its infighting, if not a particularly colorful writer. This biography is now the definitive work on Goebbels in English, and will be of major interest to scholars and serious students of the Third Reich. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar

Eric Burns. Pegasus, $27.95 (358p) ISBN 978-1-60598-772-9

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Burns (Invasion of the Mind Snatchers) takes readers on a thorough tour of the upheavals and events of the year when “the Roaring Twenties first began to roar.” More than a “preview of a decade,” 1920 was “a preview of the entire century and even the century to follow.” In particular, Burns focuses on the beginning of Prohibition, the passing of the 19th Amendment, the popular explosion of jazz, and the rise and fall of Charles Ponzi. He also touches upon corruption in the White House, the Teapot Dome Scandal, and the radical inequality of wealth distribution. The railroads, radio, and Planned Parenthood all saw development in 1920; the urban population overtook the rural for the first time. Burns leaps from one captivating topic to the next, displaying his expertise and sometimes drawing from his previous books to bring these trends and events to life. It’s an entertaining and informative look at a pivotal period, kicking off “a time of excitement, excess and enthusiasm” and “a century’s worth of turmoil and jubilation, irrationality and intrigue, optimism and injustice.” Burns makes it possible to recognize the century to come in this intimate study of a single year, and the result is downright fascinating. Agent: Linda Kenner, Linda Kenner Literary Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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