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Intimate Strangers: Arendt, Marcuse, Solzhenitsyn, and Said in American Political Discourse

Andreea Deciu Ritivoi. Columbia Univ, $35 (304p) ISBN 978-0-231-16868-7

Ritivoi (Paul Ricoeur) examines four émigrés—Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Edward Said—who indelibly altered the United States’s political landscape and developed the paradigm of the “stranger persona.” Ritivoi claims that these thinkers’ pointed critiques of U.S. politics and culture did not arise in spite of their outsider status, but because of it. Too often xenophobia caused these reproaches to fall on deaf ears. The majority of the book parses each thinker’s intellectual and political contributions but falls short of establishing an overarching analysis or a robust theoretical framework. Similarly, the biographies themselves are of mixed quality. Ritivoi’s commentary on Arendt is rote and superficial; likewise, her account of Marcuse repeatedly references the same trifling anecdote. However, her take on Solzhenitsyn, and the unique admiration and rejection his assertions inspired, as well as Said’s political maturation are dynamic and compelling. Although flawed, Ritivoi’s work launches worthy lines of inquiry concerning the reception of foreign analysis and what it reveals about the U.S.’s self-image. Despite its unevenness, the book is charming and accessible introduction to these thinkers’ influence on American political discourse. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age

Nev Schulman. Grand Central, $16 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-4555-8429-1

Schulman first entered the public eye as the main subject of his sleeper hit documentary Catfish (2010), in which he unwittingly gets involved romantically online with a lonely, midde-aged woman from rural Michigan. Currently the host of the MTV reality show of the same name and similar premise, the author zeroes in on his field of expertise—the so-called “catfish” (a term coined by the author)—which he defines as someone who pretends to be someone else on the internet, “particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” According to the author, such a person, often the object of scorn once outed, is motivated by a desire for social acceptance and is far more relatable than one might expect, a fact which is illustrated with a pack of profiles from his show. The book is at once a memoir, a meditation on a truly unique phenomenon of the internet age, and a motivational address for anyone seeking virtual companionship. Schulman cautions his readers against lying on their social media profiles, and argues instead for improving “offline” life. “Embrace who you really are, both online and off” is the message at the heart of his book. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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God and the Multiverse: Humanity’s Expanding View of the Cosmos

Victor J. Stenger. Prometheus Books, $26 (428p) ISBN 978-1-61614-970-3

Despite the title, the one thing that is in short supply in Stenger’s newest book is a discussion of the relationship between God and the multiverse. Indeed, only the final chapter even attempts to address the issue directly, when Stenger (God and the Atom) declares his belief that God is irrelevant: “While we certainly do not know everything, we know of no observed fact that requires the existence of God.” It is in this final chapter that he also takes on the anthropic principle—the belief that the universe is designed explicitly for life—and demonstrates that the data does not support such an extreme conclusion. The bulk of the book examines our changing concept of the universe, beginning with the ancients and moving through the Renaissance to the present. He goes into greatest detail when discussing modern cosmology and quantum physics, but the complex topics demand more attention (particularly in light of statements such as “If you write down Friedmann’s equations for a de Sitter universe with a positive cosmological constant, it takes only college freshman math to prove that the solution is an exponential expansion”). With over 2,000 years of perceptions to explore, it’s no surprise that Stenger’s coverage of his topic is cursory. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention

Matt Richtel. Morrow, $28.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-228406-8

A deadly driving-while-texting car crash illuminates the perils of information overload in this scattershot saga of digital dysfunctions. New York Times reporter and novelist Richtel (The Cloud) recounts the story of Reggie Shaw, a 19-year-old Utah man who in 2006 swerved into oncoming traffic while texting his girlfriend; the resulting accident killed two other men. Part of the book is a lucid, interesting account of the developing brain science of how we focus our attention and how it is distracted by the addictive flood of information from our always connected wireless devices and our insistently multitasked jobs. (Researchers tell the author that texting impairs ones driving as much as being drunk.) Interspersed is a drawn-out journalistic account of the accident’s aftermath, with grieving families, legal proceedings that explore the growth of jurisprudence on driving and cell phones, and Reggie’s guilt and subsequent rebirth as an anti-texting crusader. The author’s determination to juice up the science with human interest, emotional anguish, and courtroom drama feels overdone—many figures in the book have their back stories ransacked for extraneous episodes of trauma and abuse. Still, when Richtel lets the research speak for itself, he raises fascinating and troubling issues about the cognitive impact of our technology. Agent: Laurie Liss, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Behind the Gates of Gomorrah: A Year with the Criminally Insane

Stephen Seager. S&S/Gallery, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4767-7449-7

When psychiatrist Seager (Street Crazy : America’s Mental Health Tragedy) accepted a job at Gordon State Hospital, he was no stranger to chaos—he’d already worked as an ER doctor for 11 years—but nothing could prepare him for the levels of violence and discord he’d soon encounter at this California facility dedicated to serving a motley crew of psychopaths, sexual predators, vicious convicts, and the mentally ill. In this riveting account, he chronicles his year on the job, which begins with a horrific assault on his first day, slowly uncovering a twisted ecosystem in which inmates extort money from staff and patients alike, in which a vicious convict will attempt to kill a fellow patient one day, only to administer CPR to save the life of another, and Santa bellows obscenities and is dragged kicking and screaming from a Christmas party. This day-to-day tedium coupled with the ever-present threat of violence adds tension to Seager’s story, but when the author attempts to tie in a critique of the state and local government’s approach to dealing with mental illness, the narrative falls flat. Seager’s attempt to tell so many stories—his own, his patients, and the system’s—only dilutes his tale. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network

Jonathan D. Moreno. Bellevue Literary (Consortium, dist.), $18.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-934-137-84-0

Moreno (Mind Wars) seeks to elucidate his father’s intellectual contributions to ideas, movements, and practices of the 20th century and today; for, in the words of psychologist Karl Scheibe, “while [J.L. Moreno’s] influence has been mighty, his name has receded into the shadows.” Part biography and part cultural history, this well researched book begins with J.L. Moreno’s Viennese background and the beginnings of his important work, including the development of the concepts of “psychodrama,” the now-familiar combination of therapy and theater, and “sociometry,” the study of social relationships and a precursor to contemporary social-network analysis. Between the Encounter movement of the 1960s, military morale, humanistic psychology, Second City improv, and psychodrama training for trial lawyers, J.L.’s influence appears across domains and “it’s hard to exaggerate the extent to which [his] pioneering ideas have penetrated the culture” since. The book’s first half is heavier on biography and feels dense despite conveying the eccentric and charming nature of its central subject. The narrative is at its best in the latter chapters, which survey the reach of his influence and provide a sort of sociometry of J.L.’s brilliant and creative ideas. 16 illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir

Alan Cumming. Morrow/Dey St, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-222506-1

Scottish actor Cumming struggles to reconcile with his troubled past in this moving, if oddly structured, memoir. Alternating between three time periods—“Then,” “Now,” and a span of several months in 2010—Cumming recounts his life on a rural Scottish estate under the brutal reign of his abusive father, Alex. Equally violent toward Cumming’s older brother, Tom, Alex was a defining force in Cumming’s life, with the emotional and physical scars of his beatings affecting Cumming long after he left home for drama school at age 17. In a parallel narrative, Cumming recounts his experiences as a participant on Britain’s Who Do You Think You Are?, a television program on which celebrities explore their pasts, often going so far as to get genetic tests. Even as issues closer to home involving Cumming’s ties, or lack thereof, to his father arise (as the book’s title might suggest), Cumming is determined to delve into his family history: and find out what happened to his maternal grandfather, Lieutenant Tommy Darling, who served his country in WWII and ended up suspiciously dead several years later in Malaysia, where he was a member of the police force. While the particulars Cumming learns about Darling are striking and memorable, this really is a case where the journey is more important than the destination. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Salt, Sweat, Tears: The Men Who Rowed the Oceans

Adam Rackley. Penguin, $16 trade paper (254p) ISBN SBN 978-0-14-312666-9

Rackley’s first book offers a personal and historical account of one of the world’s most grueling competitions, the little-known Atlantic Rowing Race. Beginning with Norwegian fishermen George Harbo and Frank Samuelson, who in 1896, aboard the 18-foot Fox, successfully navigated the first safe dory passage across the Atlantic from New York to France in a mere 55 days, endurance enthusiasts have logged more than 300 successful ocean crossings. Still, 10 times as many people have climbed Mount Everest than rowed an ocean, and Rackley’s no-holds-barred portrayal of his own harrowing journey from Spain to Antigua helps explain why. By alternating between his own story and those of ocean-rowing pioneers, he effortlessly builds suspense and humor into what could have been a dry retelling of monotonous days at sea rowing naked, rationing food, and eluding storms and much larger vessels. Rackley writes with brutal candor and a storyteller’s flair—providing readers memorable on-board views of a world most will never see. Agent: Alex Christofi, Conville & Walsh (U.K.). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding

Eric Nelson. Harvard/Belknap, $29.95 (388p) ISBN 978-0-674-73534-7

This deeply scholarly book from Nelson, professor of government at Harvard, continues in new dress an argument that’s existed since the 1770s: whether the United States came into existence in opposition to Parliament and its ministers or in opposition to the King. If the former, then there was little worry about a strong executive in the revolutionary era, and by extension the argument would follow that there shouldn’t be a worry today. Embroiling himself in an active debate among scholars, Nelson comes down squarely on the side of those who argue that the American Revolution was a “revolution against a legislature, not against a king.” Because the Whigs of 1776 were opposing the British legislature, he argues, the Founders never turned their backs on the executive function. Instead, they argued over what powers to give it. Accordingly, the debates over the Constitution in 1787 and 1788 were about the American version of the royal prerogative—what became the American presidency. The result was, and is, an executive branch whose powers are enshrined in the Constitution—itself the “successful conclusion of a twenty-year campaign in favor of prerogative power.” Sure to fire up an old debate, Nelson’s book constitutes an important contribution to the literature on early American constitutionalism. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Man Most Driven: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Invention of America

Peter Firstbrook. Oneworld, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-85168-950-7

Historian and former BBC producer Firstbrook (The Obamas) delves deep into the early history of America with this thoroughly-researched biography of John Smith, who was instrumental in establishing Jamestown as a permanent English settlement in the early 17th century. With so much of Smith’s life known only through his own contradictory writings, Firstbrook approaches the subject with healthy skepticism, examining just where Smith’s claims might be exaggerated and where history backs them up. In the process, Firstbrook also takes a closer look at the legend of Pocahontas, at least partially debunking the motives behind her timely intervention in Smith’s death sentence, suggesting that the entire episode might have been more performance on Smith’s part than he originally made out. Firstbrook’s narrative is dry but detail-rich, drawing heavily from Smith’s writings to tell the story of a larger-than-life figure with an uncanny knack for survival. He may have been prone to self-aggrandizement but he did, in fact, do most of the things he claimed to do. Firstbrook concludes that “If John Smith has one enduring legacy, it was that he was the first Englishman to understand the great American Dream,” and it’s clear that Smith’s adventurous nature and dogged perseverance certainly left a lasting impression on future generations of Americans. Agent: Sheila Ableman, Sheila Ableman Literary Agency (U.K.). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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