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J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist

Thomas Beller. New Harvest, $20 (192p) ISBN 978-0-544-26199-0

Rather than writing a straightforward biography, Beller (How to Be a Man) offers here an exceptionally well-researched, deeply felt, and thoughtful exploration of the elusive author’s history, in which he probes Salinger’s life and prickly familial ties, and their manifestation in his timeless characters and settings. Salinger’s decades of withdrawal from public life made him first a writer, “then a myth” that sharpened public curiosity. Beller ponders why Salinger’s retreat to New Hampshire in 1953 provoked such a strong reaction within the literary establishment and popular discourse, observing that however much comfort his solitude afforded him, “by exiling everyone else he left himself with the crazy people” who let neither the writer nor his reputation alone. Salinger’s successful legal disemboweling of Ian Hamilton’s analysis of his correspondences—and the tepid book that resulted —loom large for Beller, who meditates on the nature of writing this book, noting that “the aura of trespass is strong around Salinger.” Beller manages to respect that fact, even as he diligently obtains a proof of Hamilton’s original text and other “samizdat Salinger” stories, making pilgrimages to the author’s boyhood summer camp and his family’s Upper East Side apartment, and rounding out a portrait of a difficult personality while respectfully communing with both the subject and his work. Agent: Mary Evans, Mary Evans Inc. (June)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps

Michael Blanding. Gotham, $27.50 (320p) ISBN 978-1-592-40817-7

Considered by many to be a reputable antique map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley III was also a thief who stole hundreds of valuable maps (some estimates put his haul at over 200) from libraries and other institutions and then sold them. Here, reporter Blanding (The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink) examines and contextualizes the curious case. What began as the occasional pilferage in order to keep his business afloat ballooned as Smiley’s debt increased exponentially, due in no small part to a grand lifestyle—the most glaring example of which was Smiley’s renovation of a rustic farmhouse, including a $105,000 kitchen from Italy. He also spent enormous sums in an effort to revive the struggling town by opening a restaurant and other businesses. In this well-researched account, Blanding profiles Smiley as well as dealers, clients, librarians, and mapmakers, including Gerard Mercator and Sir Robert Dudley (creator of the first atlas of the world’s coastlines). While Smiley’s actions are shocking, perhaps the most outrageous fact in the book is the revelation of his prison sentence: a mere three and a half years. This is a highly readable profile of a narcissist who got in over his head and lost it all. Agent: Elisabeth Weed, Weed Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions Are Sabotaging Gay Equality

Suzanna Danuta Walters. New York Univ, $29.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8147-7057-3

In this lively scholarly work, Northeastern University sociologist Walters (All the Rage) manages the rare trick of producing a feast for the mind that is also incredibly funny and humane. In a cogent literary and political analysis, inflected by personal anecdotes and reflections, Walters argues that the concept of tolerance traps LGBT people into being regarded as perpetual outsiders, “tolerated” rather than treated as full citizens. In making gay rights contingent on “just like you” arguments, Walters asserts, the movement not only leaves behind LGBT people who don’t fit an idealized standard, but also fails to effectively challenge homophobia and transphobia. The book leaves no shibboleth intact—both liberal and conservative orthodoxies on LGBT people are deftly skewered. Walters demonstrates an impressive command of her material and she deserves credit for making a nuanced argument that calls for robust “integration” as opposed to assimilation or separatism, with a wide-ranging analysis that touches on feminism, the military, marriage, the Internet, and discourse around scientific research. Walters’s humane, transformative vision soars in this must-read for anyone interested in LGBT politics. (June)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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West Point ’41: The Class That Went to War and Shaped America

Anne Kazel-Wilcox and PJ Wilcox, with Lt. Gen. Edward L. Rowny (Ret.). ForeEdge (UPNE, dist.), $29.95 (354p) ISBN 978-1-61168-469-8

Using interviews with 17 surviving class members as well as private papers and memoirs, Kazel-Wilcox and Wilcox compiled the story of the 426 cadets who graduated from the United States Military Academy in the summer of 1941. The authors present a brief summary of the class at West Point from the summer of 1937 to graduation in 1941, before spending the bulk of the book focused on the class’s diverse wartime experiences, which range from the mundane to the inspiring to the tragic, as when a young officer, only months out of flight school and already a squadron commander, crashes his bomber in a thunderstorm as his wife-to-be waits at the wedding chapel. From India, to the South Pacific, to Europe, the Class of 1941 contributed the great endeavor of war and in the process lost 40 classmates in action. The book also follows the class through two more wars: Korea, where the class loses four of its members, and Vietnam, where some as senior leaders become disillusioned with the war effort. It’s an enjoyable and fresh contribution to documenting the experiences of America’s “Greatest Generation.” (June)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Unabomber: How the FBI Broke Its Own Rules to Capture the Terrorist Ted Kaczynski

Jim Freeman, Terry Turchie, and Donald Max Noel. History (Midpoint, dist.), $27.95 (380p) ISBN 978-1-940773-06-3

Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. “the Unabomber,” eluded federal authorities for 18 years, leaving a trail of mayhem and death in his wake before he was apprehended thanks to a tip from his brother after his manifesto was published in the New York Times and Washington Post. FBI agents Freeman, Turchie, and Noel worked in concert to bring Kaczynski to justice and share their insights and memories here. Hampered by ineffective technology, an inaccurate sketch of the suspect, and a management style that could generously be called antiquated, the trio and their team had their work cut out for them. Unfortunately, what could have been a dramatic account of federal agents in hot pursuit of a crazed genius seemingly two steps ahead of them at every turn frequently devolves into recaps of meetings, procedural changes, and managerial minutiae, all of which slow the story’s momentum. Snippets of Kaczynski’s writing pepper the book, including chillingly casual descriptions of the carnage he caused, injecting much-needed tension to the story. Whether intentional or not, the book reads as an explanation (or an apology) for the fact that the New York Times and Washington Post were able to do what the feds couldn’t: flush out Kaczynski. (June)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Truth About Lying: With Some Differences Between Men and Women

Stephen J. Costello. Liffey Press (Dufour, dist.), $31.95 trade paper (150p) ISBN 978-1-908308-46-7

“We are at home with lies,” says Costello, a philosophy professor and therapist, in this slim, witty volume. That intimacy is what makes his subject so malleable—if a lie is an intent to deceive, what does it mean if the truth is accidentally revealed? And what does this mean for all human intentions and performances? There are many other questions and digressions, on subjects as natural as the philosophy of language and logic, animal behavior (Koko the Gorilla is a noted fibber), Sartre, psychoanalysis, and our most beautiful and pleasurable lie: art. Costello’s discursive, off-the-cuff insights are fruitful introductions to deeper study of human intentions and performance through philosophy, literature, and history, and are well-suited to readers interested in wide-ranging intellectual writing. Unfortunately, the book ends with a baffling pair of chapters (hinted at earlier in the book as well as the title) on the differences between men’s and women’s lies. These chapters, little more than a collection of poorly considered attempts at humor, mar what is otherwise a funny, slight read. (June)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible

Charles Cobb Jr. Basic, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-465-03310-2

In this persuasive long-form essay, Cobb, a journalist who served as a field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, describes questions of the propriety of gun ownership and self-defense at the grassroots of the civil rights movement as “an intellectual tea party, perhaps momentarily refreshing but only occasionally nourishing.” Southern blacks remembered instead the lessons of Reconstruction: with the federal government largely absent and indifferent, “Black people would have to fight for their rights locally, and unless they protected themselves from reprisal, no one would.” The movement was deeply imbued with the spirit of nonviolence, but Cobb points out that its organizers and activists were guarded from night riders and state-sponsored terrorism by guns and armed militias, without whom progress in Mississippi and elsewhere would likely have been impossible. Cobb’s bracing and engrossing celebration of black armed resistance ties together two of founding principles of the Republic—individual equality and the right to arm oneself against tyranny—and the hypocrisy and ambiguity evident still in their imbalanced application. “If we exclude the more complex Native American resistance,” Cobb writes, “it can easily be argued that today’s controversial Stand Your Ground right of self-defense first took root in black communities.” (June)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi. Cambridge Univ, $40 (498p) ISBN 978-1-107-01136-6

Capra (The Tao of Physics) and Luisi ambitiously offer an intellectual history of much of the social and natural sciences as they argue that the underlying metaphor for how we see and understand the world needs to change from that of “a machine to understanding it as a network.” They argue that this can only be accomplished if we take a systems view of nature and the role humans play in it; they provide insightful, if abbreviated, summaries of the evolution of thought within a range of disciplines like natural philosophy, political economy, mathematics, physics, biology, information theory, and theology. Capra and Luisi rely heavily on the difficult concept of “autopoiesis theory,” and, given the breadth of their work, make some sweeping generalizations—which remain open to critique by their peers. For example, they claim that altruism is “widely displayed at the social level in the formation of groups of animals,” a statement many biologists would find problematic. Similarly, they assert that “ecological literacy has an important spiritual dimension,” and while that might be accurate for some, it is certainly not universal. Their action plan for social transformation is largely a summary of the work of Lester Brown, Amory Lovins, and Jeremy Rifkin. (June)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Rock Breaks Scissors: A Practical Guide to Outguessing & Outwitting Almost Everybody

William Poundstone. Little, Brown, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-316-22806-0

In this intriguing and immensely useful volume, Poundstone (Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?) examines how to outguess and outwit others in order to more accurately guess the outcomes of a variety of situations. In the first half of the tome, Poundstone examines those kinds of scenarios that are seemingly ruled by randomness—winning the lottery, guessing computer passwords, outwitting Ponzi schemes , and even besting other players in the childhood playground game from which this tome takes its name. But, he cautions, what seems to be random may be anything but. Quoting the mid-20th-century philosopher Hans Reichenbach, Poundstone notes that “‘persons not acquainted with mathematics... are astonished at the clustering that occurs’ in a true random sequence.” In the book’s second half, the author explores the idea of the “hot hand” theory, which posits that winning streaks are predictable. In that context, he explores such things as how to get the better of office football pools and how to outguess the stock market while offering educated strategies for coming out the victor in these situations. For anyone wanting to turn most of life’s odds in their favor, this is a solid, enjoyable read. (June)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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On Democracy’s Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought “One Person, One Vote” to the United States

J. Douglas Smith. Hill and Wang, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-8090-7423-5

The link between voting and democracy in the United States has most often been examined through efforts to expand the electorate. In the post-Revolution period this meant eliminating property qualifications for free white adult men, while after the Civil War the emphasis shifted to the universal suffrage campaigns of African-Americans and women that lasted well into the 20th century. Yet as historian Smith (Managing White Supremacy) ably demonstrates, beginning in the late 19th century, malapportionment—the uneven representation of constituents by lawmakers—became the most serious threat to political equality. Soon, many states determined representation according to area or district rather than (or sometimes in addition to) population figures. Malapportionment, yet another way for native-born whites to maintain power, became obvious after WWII and coincided with an upswing in civil rights activism. The remedy came through legal challenges via the Supreme Court during the 1960s; as the Court dismantled malapportionment in cases like Baker v. Carr, political drama kicked into high gear as opponents nearly triggered a constitutional crisis in their desperation to hold onto power. Though Smith takes a novel angle and writes with a light touch, it will appeal more to an academic audience. Illus. (June)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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