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Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome

Shawn Levy. Norton, $27.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-393-24758-9

In this fast-paced, detailed study, film critic Levy (Rat Pack Confidential) turns his attention to Rome in the 1950s and ’60s—a city that, he argues, became the standard for every other cultural hub in the world. This is a grandiose claim, but Levy successfully supports it. He begins with an eclectic portrait of Rome’s rise out of the ashes of WWII into a metropolis: its cafes brimming with artists and writers, its cinema industry swelling from the elaborate patronage under Mussolini, and, in the middle of it all, the emergence of a new professional group, the paparazzi. The occasionally overwrought tone of Levy’s prose is mitigated by his obvious enthusiasm for his subject and the sheer breadth of information. Levy moves from homicide investigations to the history of “Hollywood on the Tiber,” and with the legendary Federico Fellini as a through-line, this becomes a fascinating look at decades of Italian cultural history. Eight pages of photos. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Butter: A Rich History

Elaine Khosrova. Algonquin, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61620-364-1

Former pastry chef Khosrova shines a spotlight on butter, a simple, ubiquitious staple. Khosrova’s history is intimate and far-reaching, whether sampling the butter produced at farms in remote regions of the world or peeking into middle-class pantries. Throughout, she explores ancient and modern practices of creaming, churning, flavoring, and selling butter. She even includes discussions on margarine’s shady past and how it went from a cost-effective butter replacement to a health and marketing quagmire. Khosrova, who has worked at Country Living and Healthy Living magazines and has an obvious passion for food, pays homage to longtime butter-making traditions in India, Bhutan, Tibet, France, and the U.S. She discusses, among other things, camel butter, how some butter emits a golden aura, and how, before the industrial revolution, a dairy maid could always find a job. The book opens with an ode to butter by poet Elizabeth Alexander, and closes with an appendix on with how to say butter in over 50 languages. Khosrova’s ambitious project is a successful, fascinating account of a common dairy product. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World

Nancy Colier. Sounds True, $16.95 ISBN 978-1-62203-795-7

Psychotherapist Colier (Inviting a Monkey to Tea) paints a vivid picture of how addicted we have become to our electronic devices, checking emails and sending text messages to the point of neglecting what is truly important. To illustrate the overwhelming nature of modern communications, Colier reports that one of her high-powered clients receives more than 1,000 emails every day, and if she responded to every one, she wouldn’t have any time left. Colier suggests powering off regularly and pondering such questions as “What really matters?” and “What is my heart’s longing?” while at the same time engaging in a healthy, less obsessive relationship with technology. The majority of the book focuses on how people relate to each other online, while the last part, which could be a book of its own, presents a toolkit for practicing mindfulness as a means of unplugging from digital media. Sprinkled throughout are amusing anecdotes of technology obsessions and lists of questions to ponder. Readers fascinated by how digital technology has changed the world, particularly everyday human interaction, will appreciate the author’s thought-provoking viewpoint. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Social Organism: A Radical Understanding of Social Media to Transform Your Business and Life

Oliver Luckett and Michael J. Casey. Hachette, $27 (252p) ISBN 978-0-316-35952-8

Luckett and Casey argue that social media—today’s digital world of images, videos, hashtags, and more—“functions on every level like a living organism.” Their history of modern mass communication, from “super-bloggers,” Friendster, and MySpace to LinkedIn, Instagram, and Vine, creates a context in which to effectively explore such topics as memes, selfies, and YouTube stardom. Examples include #BlackLivesMatter, Brexit, Twitter, Grumpy Cat, and Bat Kid. The extended metaphor works well to illustrate social media’s power as a means of communication and driver of change, though Luckett and Casey’s discussion bogs down at times in lengthy explanations of biological processes, including a puzzling digression on boll weevils. They offer a mostly positive perspective on social media as a living organism but take a very dim view of Facebook’s “censorship” of users. They also make the important balancing point that “social media pitchfork mobs can engage in mass character assassination against targeted individuals.” The book loses steam when the authors present their prescription for social media’s future, but this preachy conclusion shouldn’t deter readers who are interested in how social media works and how to use it effectively. Agent: Gillian MacKenzie, Gillian MacKenzie Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas

Steven Poole. Scribner, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5011-4560-5

Guardian columnist Poole (Trigger Happy 2.0) explores the ways ideas are adapted, amended, and abandoned over time, and considers where the human capacity for rethinking might take us in the future. Poole represents human understanding not as a linear trajectory but rather as “a wild roller-coaster ride full of loops and switchbacks.” In the 21st century doctors are reconsidering the benefits of leeches and shock therapy, and ideas ahead of their time, such as a 1965 invention similar to the e-cigarette, come back around. Poole champions thinkers who have fallen by the wayside, including pre-Darwin evolutionist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Copernicus’s rival Tycho Brahe, and considers current theories that may eventually gain ground, such as Rupert Sheldrake’s controversial “morphic resonance” theory of collective memory. The most entertaining chapters concern “zombie” ideas, which reemerge despite being demonstrably false, such as the belief that the Earth is flat, and “placebo” ideas, which are useful without necessarily being true, such as the contested theory that alcoholism is a disease. Poole rounds out the discussion with ideas currently undergoing an ideological makeover, such as eugenics (newly relevant due to innovations in gene-editing techniques), and predictions of the most promising ideas for the future. Poole covers a remarkable amount of ground in the history of Western thought, from ancient Greek philosophy to modern warfare. With the exception of some mind-bending theoretical physics, the book is remarkably accessible and well-organized. Such a cross-section of material guarantees there is something here for everyone. Agent: Jon Elek, United Agents. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Frank Lloyd Wright and San Francisco

Paul V. Turner. Yale Univ., $65 (224p) ISBN 978-0-300-21502-1

The San Francisco Bay Area is not a location typically associated with architect Frank Lloyd Wright and there is no stylistic commonality to his work there, but, as Turner (Campus: An American Planning Tradition) shows in this astute architectural study (based on a class he taught for many years at Stanford University), the area is host to a fascinating cross-section of Wright’s work and was the focus of an especially intriguing set of unbuilt projects. The Hanna House, one of Wright’s personal favorites, was a triumph of hexagonal planning; the V.C. Morris shop is a remarkable exercise in minimal commercial monumentalism; the Marin County Civic Center, his largest work ever, would merit a book all to itself. His incomplete projects for the area are possibly even more interesting: several residential projects were proposed for dramatically sloped sites, turning Wright to unusually vertical solutions that were unfortunately too expensive to build. A bridge featuring an elevated park center was naturally too appealing for reality. Other proposals included a massive office building and more novel commissions: a funeral parlor and a wedding chapel. “Only a city as beautiful as this can survive what you’re doing to it,” Wright once said in criticism of San Francisco’s “shanty building” structures, and the history of his efforts to stem this tide in San Francisco is a strong tale. Illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, 1776–1867

Leonardo Marques. Yale Univ., $39.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-300-21241-9

In this scholarly yet accessible work, Marques, professor of history at Brazil’s Universidade Federal Fluminense, analyzes the various levels of U.S. participation in the importation of slaves to the Americas. In 1807, the U.S. and Britain passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, subjecting ships flying the colors of those nations to seizure and detainment. But with the growing demands for labor in Cuba and Brazil, slave traders “continued to profit from the traffic under the flags of Spain and Portugal,” neither of which had yet abolished the slave trade. Marques shows that after the War of 1812 the U.S. continued to deny British proposals of a mutual right of search, allowing slave traders to exploit building pressure between the two nations throughout the first half of the 19th century. In the 1850s, Anglo-American tensions decreased but tensions within the United States rose as slave owner Henry Wise called for a repeal of all anti-slave-trade legislation. At the same time, Marques writes, abolitionists argued that “the most effective way of ending the transatlantic slave trade... was to abolish slavery altogether.” Marques’s ambitious and well-researched study delivers on its promise to shed new light on the economic and ideological forces that led to the Civil War. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion

Gareth Stedman Jones. Harvard Univ., $35 (720p) ISBN 978-0-674-97161-5

Jones, professor of the history of ideas at Queen Mary University of London, demystifies many elements of Karl Marx’s life in this clear-eyed biography of the founding theorist of communism. In Jones’s well-drawn portrait, Marx is an unappealing figure: self-absorbed, anti-Semitic (despite his Jewish ancestry), racist, and perpetually demanding money from relatives and friends to keep up bourgeois pretensions beyond his means. His redeeming features are his devotion to his wife, Jenny (though many believe he was the father of their housekeeper’s son), and a commanding air. Jones concentrates on Marx the thinker, situating him in the context of 19th-century German idealist philosophy—though the author’s exegesis of Marx’s philosophy is not always clear, perhaps unavoidably given the obscurity of Marx’s ruminations—and the factional infighting of those involved in contemporary radical politics. Jones’s criticism of Marx’s philosophy is sharp but balanced. He credits Marx with a telling journalistic exposé of capitalism’s excesses, but highlights gaps and contradictions in Marx’s economic theories. Jones also argues that Marx’s class analysis sprang from philosophical obsessions—with statehood, citizenship, religion, and authentic being—and systematically misunderstood the true circumstances and ambitions of workers. Jones’s sophisticated, scholarly prose is not always easy to read, but he does clear up some of the mythology surrounding this controversial icon and his thinking. Maps & illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830–1910

Steven Hahn. Viking, $35 (608p) ISBN 978-0-670-02468-1

This hefty and comprehensive survey (the latest volume in Eric Foner’s Penguin History of the United States series) from Hahn, a professor of history at NYU and Pulitzer-winner for A Nation Under Our Feet, analyzes 80 years of American history, examining the massive social, political, and economic changes that occurred between 1830 and 1910. Hahn is an expert on the emergence of the U.S. as a world power, and he offers a fresh take on the years he covers, with some of his departures important, if not unprecedented. He portrays the U.S. as an imperial nation from its beginning. Native Americans and African-Americans play a large role in his narrative, which is centered on the Mississippi Valley, not the South or North. He emphasizes the development of capitalistic enterprise and commerce as well as the nation’s place on the North American continent and in the world. Given Hahn’s unimpeachable body of knowledge, readers can be confident that they’re getting the most current understanding of the history of the U.S. This is a scholar’s work written with the author’s eye on other scholars, but it’s one that bears reading by all serious students of the American past. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Dust Bowl Girls: A Team’s Quest for Basketball Glory

Lydia Reeder. Algonquin, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-61620-466-2

Reeder, a former editor at Whole Life Times, tells the inspiring story of Oklahoma Presbyterian College basketball coach Sam Babb’s efforts to create and maintain a championship women’s team, the Cardinals, amidst the hardships of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Discussing both Babb’s coaching philosophy and the players’ individual stories, Reeder explores the charm and excitement that the small team of unknowns brought to their hometown of Durant. In equal parts personal homage to Babb (the author’s great-uncle) and surprising underdog story, Reeder recounts the Cardinals’ journey from humble beginnings to becoming the 1932 American Athletic Union national tournament champions. They demonstrated the perseverance necessary to overcome the political and financial difficulties facing women in sports. The descriptions of the political strife and characterizations seem forced and caricatured at times, but when the story turns to basketball season, Reeder relaxes into comfortable and engaging storytelling. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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