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Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life

Haider Warraich. St. Martin’s, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-10458-8

Warraich, a physician, writer, and clinical researcher, thoughtfully investigates the often alarming realities of death in early 21st-century America. For many it will be a “drawn-out slow burn” from a chronic illness, and where that end occurs depends largely on race and economic status. As medicine improves, it has paradoxically made death “more harrowing and prolonged today than it has ever been before.” For Warraich, the person who more than any other “would come to define modern death” was Karen Ann Quinlan, whose coma triggered a fight over keeping her on life support—a contentious battle that ended with a 1976 New Jersey Supreme Court decision that momentously introduced “the patient and the family member into medical decision making.” Around the same time, brain death was defined in a way that has made many modern deaths protracted for the patient, uncertain for the medical team, and heart-wrenching for grieving families. Dying may now include a health-care proxy, a living will, and advance directives to accommodate the patient’s wishes for their own death. as Warraich eloquently explores the act of dying, he urges the public to talk more about it and pleads for “resuscitating many of the aspects of death that we have lost.” Agent: Don Fehr, Trident Media. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Girl from the Metropol Hotel

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, trans. from the Russian by Anna Summers. Penguin, $16 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-14-312997-4

In this memoir, acclaimed novelist Petrushevskaya (There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby) recounts her impoverished Moscow childhood with a blend of dark humor and clipped, piercing realism. She was born in 1938 to a family of Bolshevik intellectuals who lived in Moscow’s preeminent Metropol Hotel. Petrushevskaya, along with her mother, aunt, and grandmother, soon had to flee the city for Kuibyshev in 1941, when the family was deemed “enemies of the people.” Leaving Moscow on a cattle car at the start of the war was downright luxurious compared to the near-starvation that Petrushevskaya and her family suffered for years to come, with Petrushevskaya taking to begging on the street, often pretending to be an orphan or disabled. But despite the hardships she endured, her impish spirit flourished and she ran around the streets, shoeless but never beaten down. After returning to Moscow at age nine, a wild child, she was sent to a series of summer camps in an effort to civilize her (they were not entirely successful); despite mediocre grades in college, she still managed to squeak by with a degree in journalism. The definition of incorrigible and indomitable, both on the page and in her life, Petrushevskaya shows that even in the harshest of circumstances, spirited determination can prevail. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Democracy: A Case Study

David A. Moss. Belknap, $35 (752p) ISBN 978-0-674-97145-5

It’s hard to imagine a timelier book, given America’s tumultous 2016 elections, than this eminently readable survey of political disputes by Moss (Preventing Regulatory Capture), a Harvard professor of business administration. Moss believes that “American democracy has survived” not through agreement but “conflict—sometimes intense conflict—mediated, generally, by shared ideals.” He supports his belief with 19 examples, ranging from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 up through the Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 Citizens United decision. The 19 cases are the basis of a course he teaches to both undergraduates and graduates, and he offers his readers an opportunity to engage in critical thinking themselves by leaving each section unresolved, so that they can come to their own decisions as to which side of a particular controversy they come down on. (An appendix reveals the eventual decision reached in each case.) The examples have been carefully chosen to illustrate a range of issues, from hot-button ones, such as voting rights, to the less noted, such as the role of administrative agencies in meat safety inspection. Moss concludes by offering some interesting suggestions “for revitalizing democratic engagement and commitment,” based on his historical analyses. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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300 Arguments

Sarah Manguso. Graywolf, $14 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-55597-764-1

Manguso (Ongoingness) continues her fragmentary approach to autobiography with this inventive book of aphorisms and memories. All of life’s great subjects are here—love, relationships, happiness, desire, and vulnerability on the personal side; effort, luck, envy, and success vs. failure on the professional side—in one- and two-sentence nuggets of compressed insight. Many of the sayings sound like updated versions of traditional proverbs (“Inner beauty can fade, too” and “Choose one: chronic disappointment or lowering your expectations”); their authoritativeness contrasts with the author’s professed uncertainty about how she’s doing as a wife, mother, and writer. Parallel constructions, contradictions, and mathematical propositions (“It takes x hours to write a book”) come closest to the title’s connotation of rhetorical arguments. Arguably, pretentiousness sometimes masquerades as profundity here, and, like a comedy set composed entirely of one-liners, the book contains almost too much to take in at once. The pithy format tricks readers into skimming quickly, but it will require multiple rereadings to absorb the book’s rewarding wisdom. Agent: P.J. Mark, Janklow & Nesbit. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

Kory Stamper. Pantheon, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-101-87094-5

For those who love language, this debut from Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, will be a delectable feast. Stamper, who also produces the dictionary’s “Ask the Editor” video series, has drawn up a witty, sly, occasionally profane behind-the-scenes tour aimed at deposing the notion of “real and proper English” and replacing it with a genuine appreciation for the glories and frustrations of finding just the right word. Stamper claims to approach her subject irreverently, and she certainly does make fun of both language and those who peddle it for a living. But her teasing is belied by a real devotion to its spirit, if not to the letter of all the stuffy so-called laws. Liberally employing a host of wonderful words—foofaraw, potamologist—she declaims elegantly on the beauty and necessity of dialect, how to evaluate emerging words, and many other topics. Stamper is at her best when entertaining the reader with amusing etymologies, celebrating the contentiousness of grammar, and quoting annoying emails from an opinionated public. If she bogs down occasionally in the swamps of industry jargon, it’s easy to forgive her. As one of her colleagues notes, “Words are stubborn little fuckers.” However, Stamper corrals them to her purpose with such aplomb that readers might just feel like applauding. Agent: Heather Schroder, Compass Talent. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson

Christina Snyder. Oxford Univ., $29.95 (408p) ISBN 978-0-19-939906-2

Snyder (Slavery in Indian Country), associate professor of history at Indiana University, opens the door on a fascinating, yet largely unknown episode in American history as she renders in fine detail the early 19th-century experimental interracial community in central Kentucky called Great Crossings, home to Choctaw Academy. The school, opened in the 1820s and shuttered in 1848, was molded by Richard Mentor Johnson, a former Indian fighter, prominent Kentucky politician, and vice president under Martin van Buren. Johnson and his enslaved African-American concubine, Julia Chinn, envisioned an “empire of liberty” that would link westward expansion with emancipation by sending freed slaves west to settle land there. Political motives blended with personal and religious ones. Chinn had been affected by the Second Great Awakening’s emphasis on progress, and both she and Johnson wanted a nurturing place to raise and educate their two daughters. The sections on Johnson and Chinn’s family life are particularly intriguing. Great Crossings became a truly multiracial community once the Choctaw Academy opened, attracting young Native American men determined to receive an academically rigorous education. There they interacted with white instructors and community leaders as well as enslaved African-Americans, resulting in both trouble and romance. This is a well-researched, engagingly written, and remarkable work of scholarship. Illus. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Eating Korea: Reports on a Culinary Renaissance

Graham Holliday. Ecco, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-240076-5

After two decades of teaching English in South Korea, journalist Holliday returned on a mission to reeducate himself about the country’s rapidly evolving cuisine. This lovingly written food pilgrimage starts by asking, “What is Korean food?” Holliday leads his reader on an obsessive quest to find “the honest guts of Korean food, of the country,” in dishes such as kimchi, bibimbap, blackened goat, and hagfish (somewhat like eel). Holliday effectively conjures the family-run restaurants of remote South Korean towns, and the vendors and markets that support them. He celebrates “a way of eating that is very Korean” even as it disappears due to less home cooking and the rapid disintegration of the traditional family unit. When discussing mok-bang (Koreans who broadcast themselves while eating, for others to watch), one of Holliday’s dining companions has this insight into her society: “We developed so fast, in such a short period, we don’t actually enjoy ourselves apart from drinking and eating.” Holliday captures these uniquely Korean sights, smells and flavors with appetizing detail, and along the way finds his true prize: a hard-won understanding of the nation’s changing culture. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution

A. Roger Ekirch. Pantheon, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-307-37990-0

Ekirch (Birthright), professor of history at Virginia Tech, delves into the far-reaching ramifications of a violent 18th-century mutiny on the HMS Hermione, a British frigate. He persuasively argues that the fallout of the mutiny—specifically the extradition of Jonathan Robbins (aka Thomas Nash), a key mutineer, from the fledgling U.S. to Great Britain and his subsequent hanging—was pivotal in the bitterly fought battle for the American presidency between incumbent John Adams and challenger Thomas Jefferson. Ekirch also builds a strong case that the politics informing the controversy were instrumental in the historical refusal of the U.S. to extradite aliens charged solely with political crimes. Ekirch, a meticulous historian who writes with flair, brings the political theatre of the 1800 election into full view. He explains in detail how Jefferson’s Republican Party turned Robbins into a martyr and cause célèbre, which helped bring an end to the Adams administration. Modern readers will recognize several elements of the campaign to discredit Adams: a vitriolic press, high-profile Congressional hearings, and threats of censure. The story of how a mutiny on a British frigate became a major influence in U.S. politics and spawned bedrock U.S. policy is a complex and instructive tale. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance

Friederike Fabritius and Hans W. Hagemann. TarcherPerigee, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-14-312935-6

In their first book, neuropsychologist Fabritius and leadership expert Hagemann take a cogent, intriguing angle on leadership development. Leadership has long been treated as an art, they write, when it should be treated as a science based on a nuanced understanding of current theories about the brain. The authors, who run business seminars and coaching sessions based on their research and work, argue that understanding the neuroscience behind leadership is the best way to help business leaders and employees achieve their full potential. Fabritius and Hagemann cover the neurochemistry behind motivation, optimal stress levels, regulation of emotions, muscle relaxation, cultivation of gratitude, sharpening focus, the dangers of multitasking, and more. Where they truly excel is in their ability to translate complex neurochemistry into concrete actions that readers can take to make long-term adjustments, manage their habits, and foster a focused learning environment. Concrete, energetic, and accessible, this is a must-read for anyone who takes a science-backed approach to business. Agent: Jeff Herman, Jeff Herman Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts that Make Us Overeat

Stephan J. Guyenet. Flatiron, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-08119-3

Health writer and obesity researcher Guyenet has written a remarkable book that approaches health and weight management not through diet or fitness, per se, but by understanding and combating the urge to overeat. Guyenet wields his degrees in biochemistry and neuroscience as he acts as the reader’s guide through a wilderness of raw data; he explains how the brain works, discusses important research, and develops strategies from this information. In 11 chapters organized in a loose, almost anecdotal manner, Guyenet first covers the basics of caloric intake and digestion before examining the chemical reactions behind the pleasure- and calorie-seeking brain and factors in the U.S. diet (such as “food reward” and convenience) that contribute to overeating. Guyenet also discusses the science behind satiety and hunger, complete with various—lovely—illustrations of brains. The final chapter is crucial, since it synthesizes all the information into a practicum on how to overcome the hungry brain’s tendency to overeat; Guyenet provides six clear instructions. This fun, insightful, and important text will appeal to both science lovers and fitness fanatics. Agent: Howard Yoon, Ross Yoon Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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