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The Evolution of Imagination

Stephen T. Asma. Univ. of Chicago, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-226-22516-6

Blending arguments from philosophy, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, argues that improvisation, or “spontaneous creation,” lies at the heart of imagination and that the “improvising imagination is one of the little-explored phenomena that uniquely unify the humanities and biology.” Asma builds on an extended metaphor of improvisation in jazz, beginning each chapter with a discussion of a jazz group playing the Van Heusen tune “Imagination.” He ranges broadly across topics, looking at imagination in the arts, the evolution of language, the creation of theory of mind, and the origin of morality and ethics. However, he does not delve very deeply into any particular area. Asma ends by discussing different cultural perspectives on improvisation, comparing China and the U.S., but does so superficially, which results in conclusions that reinforce cultural stereotypes rather than offer insights. Additionally, his use of technical philosophical and musical jargon will likely put off most generalist readers. Positing that “the imagination is an embodied voluntary simulation system that draws on perceptual, affective, and memory elements, for the purpose of creating works that adaptively investigate external and internal resources” and that “imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world,” Asma’s two overarching conclusions will leave readers unsatisfied. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions

Peter Brannen. Ecco, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-236480-7

Shedding light on hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s geological history, this dense and revealing volume by science journalist Brannen focuses on mass extinctions. He examines the so-called “big five” mass extinctions, various points over long stretches of time when animal life was “almost entirely wiped out in sudden, planet-wide exterminations.” He gradually works his way from the Ordovician period around 445 million years ago—before even the dinosaurs—toward the late Pleistocene, some 50,000 years ago. Brannen devotes a chapter to each extinction event and makes potentially dull fossil records accessible by talking with current researchers. In Cincinnati, Ohio, Brannen meets the Dry Dredgers, an amateur fossil-collecting group. Southwest Ohio “sits atop bedrock made of an old ocean seafloor,” allowing fossil hunters access and opportunities to study ancient sea life. He also speaks with Stanford University paleontologist Jonathan Payne, who offers insight on the Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago. According to Payne, it was caused primarily by ocean acidification, a problem that exists today when carbon dioxide reacts with seawater. Effectively linking past and present, Brannen winds down with projections for the future and a warning against inaction in the face of climate change. Color photos. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens

Eddie Izzard, with Laura Zigman. Blue Rider, $28 (280p) ISBN 978-0-399-17583-1

Beloved comedian, actor, and writer Izzard, known partly for being an “out” transvestite who sometimes wears dresses, heels, and lipstick on stage, shares intimate details about his life and is emotionally transparent throughout this splendid memoir. Born in Yemen to English parents, Izzard moved with his family back to the U.K. when he was young. There he had a happy childhood until his beloved mother died of cancer when he was six. This trauma, Izzard explains, pushed him, with the magical thinking that it would somehow bring his mother back, relentlessly toward a successful career in show business. He writes about coming to terms with his gender identity and recognizing that he was transgender at a young age, but told no one for nearly two decades. As his star began to rise, Izzard grew confident enough to dress as a woman on stage. Whether recounting his boarding-school shenanigans, his struggles with dyslexia, or his work with Sports Relief U.K. over the years (including last year when he ran 27 marathons in 27 days), the book is both funny and painful, and ultimately uplifting. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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4th Rock from the Sun: The Story of Mars

Nicky Jenner. Sigma, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4729-2249-6

Science writer Jenner illuminates the significance of Mars to humankind, covering geology, pop culture, history, and more. With a quirky tone, she describes ancients mythologizing the red planet; modern authors writing Mars into the zeitgeist, including in such creations as The War of the Worlds and Marvin the Martian; and scientists studying its geology to understand its watery history and the possibility of life there. Though humans have only “been aiming spacecraft at Mars since the 1960s,” readers get an exhaustive mission chronology. It includes the Soviet Korabl 4 spacecraft, NASA’s Mariner program, and the Mars 2020 rover that will allow scientists “to ‘hear’ Mars for the very first time.” Jenner also recounts the largely forgotten yet then-popular mid-20th-century belief in plentiful Martian vegetation. In reality, “Mars is a planet entirely populated by robots,” Jenner writes, though simpler life might “exist in pockets within cave-like environments.” While she praises box-office hit The Martian for its accuracies, she also in a more serious way speculates on Mars’s long-term habitability, namely on the possibility of engineering a breathable atmosphere there with a magnetosphere to keep it secured. Though repetitious in phrase and unrefined in style, this short read still laudably conveys the scope and weight of Mars’s influence on our ideas of the extraterrestrial. It’ll satisfy readers with factoids aplenty and even teach space nerds something new. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Secret Life of the Mind: How Your Brain Thinks, Feels, and Decides

Mariano Sigman. Little, Brown, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-0-316-54962-2

Hidden, behind-the-scenes mechanics of thought are revealed in this scintillating ramble through brain science. Cognitive neuroscientist Sigman expands his celebrated TED talk to show the unexpected inner workings of a raft of mental phenomena: the sophisticated innate theories of mind and moral philosophy that infants use to parse social life and the complex statistical analyses they deploy to learn language; the subconscious calculations that underlie hunches, which turn out to be surprisingly accurate and which determine our decisions many seconds before we are consciously aware of them; the active mental lives of patients in a “vegetative state”; the genetic endowment of champion athletes, seen less in physical talent than in mental determination and “fighting spirit”; astronomer Carl Sagan’s marijuana epiphanies; and the author’s own mysterious ability to control the temperature of his fingertips. Calling on authors from Plato to Freud and on a trove of cute experiments on brainy babies, some of his own devising, Sigman’s lucid exposition probes and unsettles our intuitions about how we think in the light of new science that makes the machinery transparent. The loosely organized text meanders at times, but readers will find it a fascinating browse packed with arresting insights at every turn. Agent: Max Brockman, Brockman Inc. (July)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Remembering the Stars of the NFL Glory Years: An Inside Look at the Golden Age of Football

Wayne Stewart. Rowman & Littlefield, $38 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4422-7423-5

In this book, Stewart, a sports historian and the author of Stan the Man, puts a spotlight on the Hall of Famers who made the 1950s and a’60s the NFL’s glory years. The best of the offensive and defensive players from those decades are showcased here. As the author notes, more than half of the 260 players in the Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio, come from that era. Offensive stars of those years—among them such talents as fullback Jim Brown and quarterbacks Joe Namath, Bart Starr, Fran Tarkenton, Y.A. Tittle, and Johnny Unitas—get extensive coverage from Stewart. He doesn’t ignore the great defensive players of the era or the gritty types on both sides of the ball. In addition to these portraits, Stewart includes a laugh reel of quotations from key players and coaches. With a sharp eye for the game’s contradictions and contrasts, Stewart concludes that the sport has improved drastically in style and quality, but along the way has lost the rough-and-tumble element of the glory years. (July)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts

Ryan Holiday. Portfolio, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-14310-901-3

Following in a long tradition in the self-help genre, Holiday (The Obstacle Is the Way) brings a contemporary sensibility to the subject of making and marketing creative work. In clean, inspiring prose he lays out a process of setting goals, being diligent, making the product sell, and building a career out of what you love. Throughout the book, Holiday presents a playfully varied slate of examples of success: Seneca, Winston Churchill, Iron Maiden, and Kanye West, to name a few. Seeing Holiday’s ideas presented in a logical, step-by-step fashion is tremendously helpful. His injunctions include the following: be clear about what you are doing and what need it meets; think long-term, not short-term; pay attention to detail; be open to criticism; and test ideas. Creating is only the beginning and taking charge of marketing is just as important, he insists. The key here is building a “platform” for reaching an audience, which can mean anything from performing in small clubs to doing an author tour to compiling an email list. Holiday has a tendency to be repetitive and drift into buzzwords and cliché—“be your own CEO,” “an unaimed arrow rarely hits a target”—but he builds a compelling road map to sustainable creativity. (July)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Apprenticed to Venus: My Secret Life with Anaïs Nin

Tristine Rainer. Arcade, $25.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-62872-778-4

Rainer (Your Life as Story) blends memoir and imagination in this engaging examination of her relationship with author Anaïs Nin. “I call this book a novoir—a memoir with true characters and actual dialogue, but with the structure and stylistic elements of a novel,” Rainer says at the outset. Rainer first meets Nin in New York City in 1962 when her godmother sends her to pick up books from the famous diarist. Sheltered and virginal when she enters Nin’s circle, Rainer is shocked to discover that Nin is a bigamist with husbands on both coasts, but before long Rainer is covering for her mentor. When Nin’s The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931–1934 is published in 1966, Nin becomes a feminist superstar and icon of the sexual revolution. Rainer, too, is on her way, pursuing a doctorate in English literature at UCLA, with her mentor happily speaking to Rainer’s undergraduate students. Despite some ruptures between them, the pair remain close up until Nin’s death from cancer in 1977. While the line between truth and imagination in this book is hard to discern at times, Rainer still manages to take readers on a fascinating personal journey. Agent: Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management. (July)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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American English, Italian Chocolate: Small Subjects of Great Importance

Rick Bailey. Univ. of Nebraska, $19.95 trade paper (204p) ISBN 978-1-4962-0119-5

Bailey (The Creative Writer’s Craft) finds inspiration in everyday mundanities—buying a cup of coffee, helping his wife replace a duvet cover—to create short memoiristic essays that can jump, say, from his Michigan boyhood to the plays of Shakespeare. The essays read like the best of short stories: their significance extends beyond what is on the page. Bailey demonstrates a genius for locating a telling detail and employing it sparingly to evoke a setting or character trait, keeping the writing concise and the pace swift. Bailey’s voice is genial and ingratiating and he expertly mixes literary allusions from his career as an English scholar with his Midwestern charm. His humor is the type to inspire smiles of recognition rather than full-on belly laughs. The book encompasses a wide variety of tones, from the earthy, with essays inspired by toilets, nail biting, and the rising trend of vomit in TV and movies, to the picturesque, in travelogue vignettes about Bailey’s experiences visiting Italy. Not every entry in this collection of 40 essays (some previously published in literary journals) feels completely realized, but overall the book delights and will makes readers stop and notice the individual pieces of their everyday lives. (July)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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All Our Waves Are Water

Jaimal Yogis. Harper Wave, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-240517-3

Yogis, a surfer, journalist, and spiritual seeker, revisits and expands on the terrain of his previous memoir (Saltwater Buddha) in a quest that blends his search for surf and enlightenment in captivating ways. Descriptions of surf sessions in Indonesia, Mexico, and San Francisco are beautiful interludes. But the book’s power is in Yogis’s description of the seeking mind caught in its own currents—and occasionally transcending them—in places such as the Himalayas, a Franciscan friary in New York, and the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In this personal study on the elusive nature of mystical experience and its ability to evade the intellect, Yogis weaves together scientific research, the words of religious scholars and poets, and the wisdom of surfers and monks. From a Tibetan monk he learns how to reside in his own sadness and loss. Later, he discovers that even a “tropical beach in Mexico with a beautiful woman, nothing much to do except surf, be creative, meditate, and eat tacos” won’t bring him lasting peace. On Ocean Beach, he seeks balance between life as a journalist and his spiritual path. Yet Yogis finds wisdom everywhere. Yogis shows that the search for enlightenment, with its storms, lulls, and occasional thrills, is not much different from the search for the perfect wave. (July)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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