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Why Did Europe Conquer the World?

Philip T. Hoffman. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (312p) ISBN 978-0-691-13970-8

Hoffman (Growth in a Traditional Society), a professor of economic history at CalTech, provides an intriguing but not fully satisfying answer to the titular question. He begins by pointing out that by 1914, 84 percent of the world was under the control of Europeans or their descendants. According to Hoffman, the Industrial Revolution alone cannot explain this phenomenon; instead, he dates it to a military revolution that swept through early modern Europe starting around 1500. Hoffman’s thesis is that a “tournament” model of constant competition between European nation states gave the region its edge. Hoffman cites four factors in particular: frequent wars; low political costs of financing wars through taxation and borrowing; heavy use of gunpowder over older military technologies; and fewer obstacles to adopting military innovations. Hoffman’s comparison to other potential competitors for world domination—China, India, Japan, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire—finds they all lacked one or more of these four factors. His analysis makes for a valuable addition to previous literature on this subject, such as historians Jared Diamond and Paul Kennedy’s emphasis on geography, environmental differences, and an individualist culture. Still, while Hoffman’s model may partially explain how Europe came to dominate much of the world, it falls short of explaining why. (July)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Encounters: My Life in Publishing

George Braziller. Braziller, $19.95 trade paper (148p) ISBN 978-0-8076-0016-0

At the age of 98, legendary publisher Braziller looks back on the stories, people, and books that matter most to him. His brief memoir begins with his birth in Brooklyn in 1916, where he was raised with Yiddish as his first language. After working as a salesman and a shipping clerk, Braziller launched his first publishing business during the 1930s: the Book Find Club. He later sold the book club to Time-Life and, in 1955, founded the self-titled publishing firm that would bring him into contact with many of the great artists and writers of the 20th century. Braziller recalls time spent with Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall, among others. He mixes in stories about his many travels, his most beloved publishing projects, and the colleagues he depended on over the years. Perhaps his best stories are not those about publishing, but about his Army service in France during WWII. Throughout the many short chapters, Braziller doesn’t tell his story in a strictly linear fashion, but jumps from tale to tale as it suits him. This sweet and nostalgic chronicle was obviously a labor of love for Braziller and it represents a bygone era in publishing that’s worth revisiting. 280 illus. (July)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Daisy Turner’s Kin: An African American Family Saga

Jane C. Beck. Univ. of Illinois, $24.95 trade paper (344p) ISBN 978-0-252-08079-1

Folklorist Beck’s story of the Turner family’s transition from freedom to slavery to freedom again is a marvel of scholarly storytelling, the culmination of 30 years of research. It is fascinating at two levels: for the compelling narrative of patriarch Alec Turner, seen first as a slave and then as a free man taking his place in a Vermont community, and for the glimpse into the process of pulling apart an oral history to tease out its broader meaning. Particularly gripping is the account of Turner’s father’s kidnapping in Africa and subsequent enslavement on the Gouldin plantation in Virginia, where Turner was born in 1845. The teenager took advantage of the proximity of Union troops in 1862 to escape, afterward changing his last name from “Berkeley” to “Turner” and serving in the First New Jersey Cavalry (though he was not allowed to formally enlist). Alec Turner went on to pass down his life story to his children, leading to his daughter Daisy, in the last years of her life (she died in 1988), sharing it with Beck. As a scholar, Beck aims to function as a cultural interpreter, taking what Daisy Turner told her and putting it up against the historical record while assessing how fact and story all fit together. The result is an engrossing American tale. 46 b&w photos. (July)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life

Bernard Roth. HarperBusiness, $27.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-235610-9

Roth, academic director of Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (known as the D.school), offers an accessible primer to the basic elements of design theory, based on the premise that “achievement can be learned.” Tenets include “making the familiar unfamiliar,” individual responsibility, and reframing questions in order to find solutions. To illustrate the last principle’s importance, Roth describes some D.school success stories, including presenting MRI testing to child patients as an “adventure.” He explains designer Rolf Faste’s 22 “tools from product design culture” for driving personal development, and celebrates the Stanford Design department’s embrace of the cooperative over the hierarchical. Roth also provides exercises to help readers reexamine their beliefs, evaluate their goals and motivations, and get over the habit of making excuses. He also addresses interpersonal skills, including constructive criticism, the importance of remembering names, and the use of improvisation during brainstorming sessions. Roth’s overall message is that identity is malleable and based on choices, meaning that anyone can choose to eliminate negative characteristics and embrace a more achievement-oriented course. While this book may not be the final fix for those struggling to achieve, it’s certainly a place to start. Agent: Lynn Johnston, Lynn Johnston Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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American Mojo: Lost and Found-Restoring Our Middle Class Before the Wind Blows By

Peter D. Kiernan. Turner (turnerpublishing.com), $34.95 (392p) ISBN 978-1-63026-923-4

Kiernan (Becoming China's Bitch) chronicles, in highly entertaining fashion, the American middle class's rise over the course of the 20th century, as well as its currently imperiled state. Observing that "80% of the world's purchasing power, 92% of the world's economic growth, and 95% of the world's consumers" are now outside the U.S., Kiernan asks whether Americans are in danger of being left behind. Each chapter begins with the story of a person who participated, and in some cases played a key part, in the progress of the American middle class, from the potato magnate who made McDonald's possible, to Betty Friedan and her contribution to unleashing the economic potential of American women. The stories touch on many topics, including the post-WWII housing boom, the economic impacts of racism, the culture war's origins in the late 1960s, and Reaganomics. The book would have benefited from less grandiose prose—at one point, Kiernan pronounces his narrative "an unabashed love story about struggle, triumph, and moments of despair." But overall, this is a riveting read that sets out not to draw definite solutions from past successes and failures, but to educate the general readership with storytelling. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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I Am Charlie Wilson

Charlie Wilson. Atria , $25.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4767-9007-7

In this repetitious but inspiring memoir, R&B singer Wilson recalls watching his father, a Church of God preacher, jumping, singing, and stirring souls in their Tulsa, Okla., church in the 1950s and '60s. Wilson was soon doing the same. From his mother, Wilson learns that singing any music other than gospel might have dire consequences, but in his teens he joined his brother's band—the Greenwood Archer Pine Street Band, or the Gap Band—and began playing in clubs around town. With fondness, he tells stories of working at Shelter Records, backing up Leon Russell, and explores the Gap Band's instrumental role in paving the way for contemporary hip-hop and rhythm and blues. Through all the excitement of his early success, though, Wilson admits to being broke—even after releasing nine albums—due to bad business decisions; to having low self-esteem; and to beginning an addiction that eventually left him friendless and homeless. In the lowest depths of his addiction, he meets and marries Mahin Tat, who helps pull him out of his drug-addled inferno and sets him back on the road to making the music he loves. With the release of his 2005 album Charlie, Last Name Wilson, the singer made a comeback, working with the likes of Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, and Snoop Dogg. Wilson's engaging story frames the excesses of a life in popular music while illustrating the ways that faith, love, determination can overcome even major obstacles. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson

Kent Babb. Atria , $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4767-3765-2

Babb, a Washington Post writer who profiled Allen Iverson's troubled life after basketball in 2013, extends his work into a sobering biography of the ex-NBA superstar. Iverson (who didn't participate in the book) took to basketball in Hampton, Va., where drugs and familial instability were the norm. He was given a five-year prison sentence for his role in a 1993 bowling alley brawl, but dodged it via gubernatorial clemency. The undersized guard's blinding talent won him special treatment from coaches, superiors, and other authorities, which paved the way for Iverson to live an undisciplined professional and personal life. According to Babb, he abhorred practice and workouts; he neglected his wife, Tawanna, and their kids for a hedonistic lifestyle; and while Iverson's anti-authority stance was a marketer's dream, his ego kept getting in the way. What steers Babb's work away from being a book-length condemnation is that he refuses to simplify Iverson, showing a man devoted to his childhood friends and a player whose passion endeared him to reporters, coaches, and teammates. Relying on research and outside interviews to shape his narrative, Babb delves deep into Iverson's inscrutable soul. This is a sad but fascinating read. Photos not seen by PW. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana

Nick Soulsby. St. Martin's Griffin, $15.99 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-250-06152-2

Cobbled together from interviews with over 150 subjects, including musicians who played and toured with the band, blogger and superfan Soulsby (Dark Slivers) offers an entertaining, if patchwork, history of Nirvana and its troubled leader, Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in April 1994. For hardcore fans, Soulsby's effort adds little to Nirvana's or Cobain's story; both have been the subject of multiple books already. But as an oral history, the book brims with personality, and perhaps its greatest feature is the way it captures the milieu from which indie rock and so-called "grunge" music emerged. Fans will recognize some contributors—members of various bands of the era, including Tad, Meat Puppets, and the Melvins, weigh in—but the book's foundation rests on the more obscure voices. Cobain's friends and acquaintances ably flesh out his story (particularly his chaotic, tragic end), capture the almost surreal scene emerging in the early 1990s, and bring to life the excitement and tedium of being in a band. Some 21 years after Cobain's death, he still casts a long shadow, and Nirvana's music still resonates. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933%E2%80%931973

Mark Greif. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-691-14639-3

In careful, thoughtful, and elegant prose reminiscent of Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson, Greif gives a brilliant exploration of the a philosophical field that developed in the middle decades of the 20th century and echoes even up to our own time. In the 1930s and 1940s, public intellectuals became preoccupied with the belief that the rapid development of technology and bureaucracy posed a threat to human individuality, calling this the "crisis of man." Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr asserted that "man has always been his own most vexing problem," while philosophers called for a "new humanism." By the 1950s, American novels had taken up the theme of the individual search for identity in a society facing challenges like war and racial tension. In the book's central, exceptional chapters, Greif looks at how four novelists—Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O'Connor, and Thomas Pynchon—depicted the "crisis of man" against the social realities of race (Ellison and Bellow), religion (O'Connor), and technology (Pynchon). He then shows that in the 1970s the focus on "universal man" devolved into an anti-humanism that called into question the idea of any shared human nature. Greif's dazzling, must-read analysis offers luminous insights into mid-century American understandings of humanity and its relevance to the present. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Just One More Hand: Life in the Casino Economy

Ellen Mutari and Deborah M. Figart. Rowman & Littlefield, $39 (284p) ISBN 978-1-4422-3667-7

Mutari and Figart, labor economists who pronounce themselves "fascinated by how people earn a living," examine, in intriguing if unsettling detail, the struggles of casino workers in the post-recession U.S. While the book may initially seem limited in scope, the authors cast their subject as a metaphor for the larger, equally embattled American economic order. Once a thriving industry, casinos are now barely keeping afloat. As a result, many experienced casino workers are desperate for work, a situation presented as microcosmic of an economy in which many industries and governments are cutting costs to survive. The authors share stories of current and former casino employees, such as Laurel, a longtime dealer with a high hourly wage who fears that she's a target for downsizing. They also offer a detailed examination of the industry's changing fortunes, presenting unions as a force for good in employees' lives at a time of rapid change. The authors close on a somber note, sharing their thoughts on the industry's future in light of the possible legalization of online gambling. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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