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The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer: Anders Behring Breivik and the Threat of Terror in Plain Sight

Unni Turrettini. Pegasus, $27.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-60598-910-5

Readers interested in learning how mass murderers who act alone can be stopped are likely to be disappointed by this unpersuasive book. Turrettini, a Norwegian expat residing in the U.S., starts with Anders Behring Breivik’s horrific 2011 crimes: he set off a powerful bomb outside the offices of the Norwegian prime minister in Oslo that killed eight people and then fatally shot 69 more at a nearby summer camp. Turrettini’s account of this massacre is riddled with generalizations. For example, she describes Norwegians as “sleepwalkers” who “don’t take care of one another.” The author is quick to dilute the narrative by frequently switching to discussions of the Unabomber (Ted Kacyzinski) and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. An entire chapter devoted to dismissing the value of gun control adds little to the book’s central argument, which is that such massacres are preventable. Turrettini further weakens the book with inconsistent claims (she cites the Virginia Tech massacre as a case where gun control might have made a difference) and spotty reasoning (she claims that the Virginia Tech shooter was technically not a “lone wolf” because he left a paper trail). The book’s most profound flaw is Turrettini’s argument that lone wolf killers can only be thwarted if members of their communities speak out about their unusual behavior before they strike. The very limited practical value of such an approach is glossed over. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt

Martin Sandbu. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-691-16830-2

The Greek debt crisis makes this extended defense of the Eurozone especially topical. Financial Times writer Sandbu (Just Business) looks past current headlines to the ideals and realpolitik strategy behind the Eurozone, arguing that it remains Europe’s best hope for preserving global relevance. Sandbu mounts a thorough, three-pronged argument. First, he observes that Eurozone countries would have undergone the Great Recession of 2010 with or without the euro. Like the U.S., Greece, Ireland, and Spain overextended themselves with cheap, loose credit and would have done so with their own sovereign currency had they never adopted the euro. Second, the Eurozone helps member nations avoid fragmentation and remain vital in the face of rising superpowers India and China, as well as its local antagonist, Russia. Finally, Sandbu suggests that even further moves toward unity, such as issuing eurobonds, would be desirable. This book cogently explains why scapegoating the euro for Europe’s economic and political disunity is nonsense. Yet its central thesis is less a defense of the euro than an argument for a federated Europe. With even pro-E.U. leaders reluctant to embrace such a prospect, Sandbu’s vision comes across as stirringly ambitious but less than fully convincing. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer’s

Jay Ingram. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-07648-9

In this riveting tale of Alzheimer’s disease, Canadian science writer Ingram (Fatal Flaws) elegantly traces the history of the persistent and devastating ailment and the many medical researchers who have contributed to the public’s understanding of it. Ingram reviews German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer’s 1901 case study of a 51-year-old patient, which offered insight into the causes of the patient’s “premature symptoms of mental decline.” Reports of Alzheimer’s were largely unappreciated by the medical community, but researchers in the 1960s and 1970s confirmed that the “plaques” and “tangles” Alzheimer found in his patient’s brain provided the explanation for the majority of cases of the disease. With crackerjack storytelling and fast-paced prose, Ingram examines recent research into Alzheimer’s, reporting that loss of synapses in the brain, rather than loss of brain volume, accounts for the majority of cases of the dementia that can accompany Alzheimer’s. While there is no cure for the disease, Ingram observes that social, intellectual, and physical activities have been demonstrated to reduce the risk of developing the disease, and he discusses promising drugs, such as citalopram, that may stop the growth of plaque. Ingram’s first-rate medical writing makes this excellent history a must-read. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS

Joby Warrick. Doubleday, $28.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-385-53821-3

Pulitzer-winner Warrick (The Triple Agent) examines the origins of ISIS in this incisive, horrifying, and eminently readable work. Though the group was officially founded in 2006, Warrick traces its roots back to the recruitment of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by al-Qaeda in 1999. Warrick follows Zarqawi’s unlikely rise from lowly Jordanian street thug to Afghan mujahideen, to brilliant strategist and charismatic leader. With surgical precision, the author details how a perfect storm of circumstances—Zarqawi’s friendship with a noted radical Muslim scholar who was in prison with him, the king of Jordan’s sudden death and his son’s reluctant acceptance of the crown, and, most notably and disastrously, the U.S. occupation of Iraq—led to Zarqawi’s ascent. Readers trying to keep track of the heads of state, CIA operatives, tribal leaders, clerics, and diplomats will be glad for the list of principal characters in the book’s front matter, but they’ll rarely need to consult it, thanks to Warrick’s firm grasp and skillful explanation of the complicated subject matter. This is an eye-opening read for general audiences seeking to learn more about the current crisis in the Middle East. Agent: Gail Ross, Ross Yoon Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Best American Essays 2015

Edited by Ariel Levy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $14.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-544-56962-1

Assembled by New Yorker staff writer Levy (Female Chauvinist Pigs), the 30th Best American Essays collection maintains the series’ standards of excellence. The 22 contributors explore a wide range of experiences, with the theme of aging taking an especially prominent part. Ninety-three-year-old Roger Angell’s “This Old Man,” about the trials of old age, is poignant, funny, and surprisingly reassuring. Mark Jacobson’s (mostly) humorous observations in “Sixty-Five: Learning to Love Middle Old Age” have a similar effect. It is a sheer pleasure to read David Sedaris, still funny but less excitable, describe a life-affirming relationship with his Fitbit in “Stepping Out.” Also worth noting is Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Crooked Ladder,” a novel take on capitalism and institutional racism as seen through a comparison of Italian-American and African-American criminal enterprises. Novelist Justin Cronin covers the aftermath of his wife and daughter’s near-fatal car accident, Anthony Doerr imagines the lives of the first family to settle in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, and Kelly Sundberg writes movingly about living through domestic violence. These and many of the other selections offer illuminating, invaluable glimpses into lives that might otherwise remain outside the reader’s ken. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Mad Feast

Matthew Gavin Frank. Norton/Liveright, $35 (448p) ISBN 978-1-63149-073-6

Wearing his poetry M.F.A. and a passion for food on his sleeve, Frank (Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer), a creative writing instructor, takes the reader on an overwhelming whirlwind tour of America, whipping up a free-verse food essay for each of the 50 states. Each piece includes a recipe for a signature dish, a rambling history, and a rushing river of imagery and second-person perspective. In Arkansas, he creates beaver tail bouillon and writes from the point of view of a beaver: “You wonder if, after eating your own tail, their hearts fall to the middles of their bodies.” In Ohio, Cincinnati, chili is the key ingredient in Gold Star mini meatloaf cupcakes with mashed potato icing. Frank considers the state’s importance in regard to heirloom tomatoes, and feels compelled to opine, “Ohio: just another state that begins with a cry of surprise, or pain.” The New York bagel, ripe with potential metaphor, never stands a chance. It is called everything from “an eye swollen shut,” to “Homer and Aristotle finally compromising on the shape of the earth.” Frank’s feast isn’t so much mad as madcap, trying to do too many things at once. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Chicken in the Mango Tree: Food and Life in a Thai-Khmer Village

Jeffrey Alford. Douglas & McIntyre (PGW, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $26.95 trade paper (212p) ISBN 978-1-77162-060-4

One of Alford’s chickens inexplicably likes to roost in a mango tree. His neighbors often borrow his unlocked bike without asking and gawk at him wearing summer clothes during their cold season. Such is life for a Westerner in a Thai-Khmer village. Alford, coauthor of six international cookbooks (two of which have won James Beard Awards for Cookbook of the Year), left Toronto to travel to Thailand in 2009. He eventually wound up living near the Cambodian border with his new partner, who happens to be an adept cook, skilled at foraging for wild food. What Westerners think of as Thai cuisine is far removed from Alford’s daily diet, which includes tree leaves, scorpions, toads, and ant eggs. Happily, the recipes Alford includes in this memoir are authentic but entirely feasible for Western cooks, taking ingredient availability and Western palates into account. This is far more than a cookbook; the recipes supplement the backstories. Alford immerses readers in a microcosm of Thai-Khmer life, where seemingly everything revolves around food and family. His writing is evocative, and photos of the people, food, and locales make his story all the more lush. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science

Edited by Ronald L. Numbers and Kostas Kampourakis. Harvard Univ, $27.95 (294p) ISBN 978-0-674-96798-4

Myths die hard no matter how often they are refuted, and this splendid essay collection, edited by Numbers (professor emeritus of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin–Madison) and Kampourakis (of the University of Geneva, Switzerland), tackles many of the most prevalent and destructive myths about science. A few, such as the idea that before Columbus everyone believed the planet was flat, are well known to be false. Others, especially those about recent scientific developments, are still believed by the general public. One of the most pervasive myths, addressed in many ways throughout the collection, is that science and religion are in a fight to the death. Several other essays address Darwin and aspects of evolutionary theory. The book’s real value lies in the way that each author not only refutes a myth, but traces its origins and points out why it has lasted so long; each brief, well-written essay—they average eight pages—gives the historical context and explains the relevant science. The essayists, the vast majority of whom are professors of history or science, note that even respected scientists such as Carl Sagan and Steven Weinberg have been guilty of repeating long-disproved stories. Understanding these myths is important, as one contributor notes, because they “stand in the way of our understanding of the past, present, and future.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox

Edited by Joanne Cronrath Bamberger. She Writes (Ingram, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-63152-806-4

Bamberger assembles 28 essays by women who, contrary to the title, generally seem to love Hillary Clinton. Although there are demurrers, even those praise her for one thing or another; for example, Emily Zanotti wittily asks “Without Hillary Clinton, What Would Conservatives Have to Write About?” The most thought-provoking and noteworthy entries, all issue-based appraisals, are KJ Dell’Antonia’s “Embracing the Parents’ Agenda for the Win?” and Veronica I. Arreola’s “Inspecting Hillary’s Privilege Knapsack,” both of which address family and women’s issues, and Jaime Franchi’s “Hillary the Hawk?”, which challenges Clinton’s stance on military involvement. More often, however, the contributors focus on how Clinton influenced their own personal lives and political development. Many stray into familiar distractions: Clinton’s clothes (Bamberger’s opening essay is a paean to the pantsuit), likability and authenticity, and marriage. (Only nine contributors make no mention of Bill Clinton.) The idea of an all-female discussion of Clinton is promising, but redundancy creeps into the collection, which will most please those who share, in the words of Bamberger’s introduction, an “endless fascination with all things Hillary.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Portraits: John Berger on Artists

Edited by Tom Overton. Verso (Random, dist.), $44.95 (544p) ISBN 978-1-78478-176-7

This thick anthology of John Berger’s previously published art writings, edited by Overton, the cataloger of his archive at the British Library, point to the many sides of the prolific English critic’s writing career. Here, woven together, are mostly essays, but also poems, play fragments, novel excerpts, letters, and conversations, each seeking artists’ perspectives (Berger begins by considering the unknown creators of the Chauvet Cave paintings and concludes with contemporary artist Randa Mdah). The result is alternately frustrating and enchanting. An essay on Edgar Degas is prefaced by a poem on one of the artist’s bronzes; the section on Goya concludes with a passage from Berger’s first novel. Some mash-ups are fluid, others less so, and readers must consult the back of the book for original titles, sources, and publication dates. But the project is redeemed by Berger’s writing—the laconic strength of his voice, the intimacy and generosity of feeling, and the colossal weight of his visual experience. Of Caravaggio, he writes: “His darkness smells of candles, overripe melons, damp washing waiting to be hung out the next day.” On Rembrandt, Fernand Léger, Cy Twombly, and anything related to drawing, Berger is tremendous. 100 b&w illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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