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Why Homer Matters

Adam Nicolson. Holt, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-62779-179-3

British author Nicolson (The Gentry) contemplates the towering legacy of the Iliad and Odyssey, while probing the mysteries of Homer’s identity and birthplace. Scholars insist on the eighth century B.C.E. as the origin of the epics, but Nicolson provides intriguing archeological and linguistic evidence that they are considerably older, including Milman Perry’s studies placing the epics within an oral tradition of an illiterate era. Nicolson’s language does credit to his muse, describing Homer’s style as a “neck-gripping physical urgency,” and Achilles as “a beacon of hate... radiant with horror,” whose combat is a “crazed berserker frenzy of... grief-fueled rampage.” He shares personal feelings about Homer becoming his “guidebook to life” and a “kind of scripture,” even a means of therapeutic reflection after a traumatic event. However, the cultural differences between the roaming warrior Greeks and the cultured, established Trojans elicit shortsighted comparisons to modern gang life. More careful consideration is given to the poems’ major themes and settings, particularly the islands Odysseus visited, and Nicolson makes a strong case for the Odyssey’s “Hades” location lying in Southern Spain, perhaps symbolizing a Bronze Age copper mine near Rio Tinto. Nicolson’s penetrative insight into the Homeric universe is a largely successful piece of scholarship accessible to a wide audience. Agent: Zoe Pagnamenta, Zoe Pagnamenta Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Trance-Migrations: Stories of India, Tales of Hypnosis

Lee Siegel. Univ. of Chicago, $18 trade paper, (264p) ISBN 978-0-226-18532-3

This experimental work by Siegel (Net of Magic) combines nonfiction and fiction in an attempt both to tell the tale of hypnosis’s relation to India and to hypnotically induce a vivid experience for those who partake. The short stories interspersed among the factual narratives are meant to be read aloud to a listener, who, it is hoped, will enter into something like a hypnotic state and thereby have a more vibrant interaction with the tales. Results will vary. Stumbling blocks include descriptions of objects from India that may be unfamiliar and difficult for Western audiences to visualize. Similarly, both reader and listener are presented with untranslated passages in Latin, French, Portuguese, and Konkani (the official language of Goa), among others. The nonfiction passages describe Siegel’s childhood fascination with hypnotism; his journeys and encounters as he researches this work; and sections on the Abbé Faria (1756–1819), the Goan-born European hypnotist sensation, and James Esdaile (1808–1859), a Scottish-born surgeon who employed hypnosis as anesthesia in Bengal. Siegel confuses matters by imagining his real-life characters in the stories and blurring the lines between sections via story introductions that seem to continue on from the factual material. The repetitive trance-induction narratives, while possibly efficacious for a listener, are simply boring for a reader. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Succession: Mastering the Make-or-Break Process of Leadership Transition

Noel M. Tichy. Portfolio, $29.95 (448p) ISBN 978-1-59184-498-3

Tichy draws on decades of experience working with CEOs on management succession for this in-depth guide, but neophytes beware: this is the graduate studies course, not Business 101. Backed up by ample details and examples, he makes a strong case for his specialty’s importance, which he calls the most “critical leadership assignment... that business leaders are obliged to make.” Tichy first shows how to get it right: across-the-board involvement, from the CEO to chief human resources officer, the board of directors, and trustees. From there, he shares stories of leadership transition successes like Ford and Boeing, and failures like Pfizer, Royal Dutch Shell, and J.C. Penney. His examples are skewed toward major corporations, although he does cover some noncommercial organizations and family-owned businesses, including the “gold standards” of those respective categories: the U.S. Special Operations Forces and S.C. Johnson & Sons. The book’s appendix is a handbook that includes an events calendar, leadership slate, and assorted employee evaluation forms. Casual readers may be deterred by the book’s bulk, which does not make for an easy read, but anyone who makes it through this dense text will be left with a strong foundation in succession planning. Agent: Robert Barnett, Williams & Connolly. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Search: How the Data Explosion Makes Us Smarter

Stefan Weitz. Bibliomotion (Perseus, dist.), $26.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-62956-034-2

Weitz—director of Bing, Microsoft’s search engine—redefines the term “search” in this thought-provoking debut. He envisions search as a virtual entity that will expand well beyond traditional online information retrieval systems and into a digital realm he refers to as the “hinge,” which will link the unique capabilities of people and machines, allowing search to work more like the human brain. If one bar is too loud for you and your companion, the search system on your personal device could interact with other systems to let you know the establishment next door is quieter and more intimate. Real-time data, using a series of sensors, also could inform you how long lines are at Starbucks or where the nearest hospital’s emergency room is. These are just two examples of countless search possibilities that exist, Weitz claims. The author acknowledges concerns regarding security and privacy issues and development of such search capacity. While Weitz’s writing is loaded with jargon and assumes readers have more than just peripheral knowledge of how data works, he offers a heady argument that encourages readers to think abstractly about future technologic advancements. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All

David Roediger. Verso (Random, dist.), $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-7816-8609-6

Nearly 80 years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois described the “general strike of slaves” during the Civil War, in which the unfree laborers either ran away from their masters’ plantations or stayed on only to slow down and sabotage the work. Most slaves didn’t wait for someone to free them, they took advantage of the war’s many disruptions and freed themselves. Historian Roediger (How Race Survived U.S. History) takes this as his focal point, offering up a counterbalance to recent historical works—and a big-budget Hollywood movie as well—that have de-emphasized slaves’ agency to highlight the roles of prominent whites in the emancipation of slaves. His first chapter centers on the pursuit of Jubilee, the biblical concept of a “cyclical time of liberation, of abolition, and of mechanisms of redress that specifically included land redistribution.” Roediger expands his scope to investigate how slaves also created the meaning of freedom, and the following three chapters examine a “fascinating brew of issues” associated with the general strike and self-emancipation, ranging from whiteness and disability to working-class agitation for the eight-hour day and women’s suffrage. It’s a brief and stimulating work, but equally dense, and though Roediger’s intellectual reach is expansive, it will likely prove difficult for lay readers. Illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Palestine Speaks: Voices from the West Bank and Gaza

Edited by Mateo Hoke and Cate Malek. McSweeney’s/Voice of Witness, $16 (320p) ISBN 978-1-940450-24-7

This eloquent study shows the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank and Gaza through the eyes of the people who live it each day. Hoke and Malek have transcribed 15 interviews, out of many more conducted over the course of four years, to convey a diverse cross-section of Palestinian life. They begin with the director of a West Bank children’s center, whose disabilities, caused by childhood polio, prove unexpectedly linked to the political impediments placed on her mobility. They go on to cover a young female Gaza journalist’s uncomfortable attempts to negotiate the patriarchal Hamas government and a Bethlehem defense lawyer’s memories of two decades within an Israeli prison. Since Israelis now make up an estimated 10% of the occupied territories’ population, the editors also include two Israeli voices—one belonging to a security officer for an Israeli settlement and the other to an activist opposed to the West Bank wall. Though the book’s somewhat narrow focus excludes Palestinian experiences within Israel or the wider diaspora, its grounding in personal experience and the contours of daily life still makes for an excellent introduction to a controversial subject. Hoke and Malek’s work should prove a sturdy and revelatory resource for those looking for a deeper understanding of an intractable conflict. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Just Mercy

Bryan Stevenson. Spiegel & Grau, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9452-0

With a mandate to serve the poor and voiceless, Stevenson, a professor of law at New York University and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal firm providing services for the wrongly condemned, describes in his memoir how he got the call to represent this largely neglected clientele in our justice system. He notes that, with no parole in some states and a thriving private prison business that often pushes local governments to create new crimes and impose stiffer sentences, America has the world’s highest incarceration rate and, at 2.3 million, its largest incarcerated population. In an early case during his career, Stevenson defended Walter McMillian, a black man from southern Alabama, who was accused by a white con-man of two murders, although the snitch had never even met him and was himself under investigation for one of the murders. Through a series of bogus legal situations, police harassment, racism, and phony testimony, McMillian found himself on Alabama’s death row, fully aware of the legacy of class and race prejudice that made poor Southern blacks susceptible to wrongful imprisonment and execution. Stevenson’s persistent efforts spared McMillian from that ultimate fate, and the author’s experience with the flaws in the American justice system add extra gravity to a deeply disturbing and oft-overlooked topic. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products[em] [/em]

Nir Eyal, with Ryan Hoover. Portfolio/Penguin, $25.95 (248p) ISBN 978-1-59184-778-6

Successful product developers don’t quit once they’ve got a prototype in hand, says startup founder and tech journalist Eyal. In fact, he thinks that the most important, and the trickiest, part of the process is figuring out how to make your product indispensable to users. While getting his M.B.A., he became fascinated with the question of how successful tech companies managed to accomplish this goal. Eyal’s answer? Don’t rely on pricey marketing; link your service to your customers’ emotions and daily lives. The two most important factors in getting them “hooked” on a product are the frequency with which they use it and its perceived utility. Eyal aims to simplify this task through the “Hook Model,” consisting of internal and external triggers, action, variable reward, and investment. He names companies that have done it right, from household names like Snapchat and Pinterest to lesser-known examples like the Bible App. Eyal’s ideas are good, but his real impact comes from his relentless enthusiasm. Also worthwhile is his caution about maintaining ethical practices even while getting customers “hooked.” With concrete advice and tales from the product-development trenches, this is a thoughtful discussion of how to create something that users never knew they couldn’t live without. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Footsteps in the Snow

Charles Lachman. Berkley, $9.99 mass market (512p) ISBN 978-0-425-27288-6

Lachman (The Last Lincolns: The Rise and Fall of a Great American Family) does an outstanding job of making the resolution of a horrific cold-case murder into a gripping page-turner. The murder case dates back to December 1957, in the small Illinois town of Sycamore. Two young girls, Maria Ridulph and Kathy Sigman, were playing just outside their homes when a stranger approached them, introducing himself as Johnny and offering to give the girls piggyback rides. Kathy ran inside to retrieve her mittens; when she returned, Maria and Johnny were gone. The search for the missing Maria engulfed the community, but ended tragically with the discovery of the seven-year-old’s corpse months later. It took decades for the killer to be identified, under circumstances that sound like fiction, with a dramatic deathbed revelation that set the stage for a prosecution more than 50 years after the crime. Despite the book’s length, Lachman paces it perfectly, carrying the reader along on a narrative full of twists, while delving into the tragedy’s impact on Sycamore and its residents. Photos. Agent: Paul Fedorko, N.S. Bienstock Inc. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity

Robert Beachey. Knopf, $27.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-307-27210-2

History professor Beachy’s purpose, “to historicize the invention of the homosexual and place this sexual identity firmly within the German milieu in which it appeared,” is achieved in this erudite work that traces the emergence of gay identity and sexual orientation to German—specifically Berlin—culture at the turn of the 20th century. Beachy relates the contributions of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, “arguably the first man in modern history to acknowledge openly his sexual attraction to other men”; Richard von Kraft-Ebbing, a leading sexologist in the late 19th century; and Karl Kertbeny, who is credited with coining the neologism Homosexualität (homosexuality) in the mid-19th century. Particular attention is paid to the work of Magnus Hirschfeld, whose “true genius” was “combining almost seamlessly his science and activism.” Beachy also covers the activities of Berlin- based organizations such as the Scientific- Humanitarian Committee, the world’s first homosexual rights organization. This lucidly written narrative includes enough spice (accounts of scandals, secret identities, and crimes) to draw in a general readership. However, Beachy’s deeply researched, carefully structured book is foremost an impressive piece of scholarship. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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