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Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright

Sara Solovitch. Bloomsbury, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-62040-091-3

Solovitch, who once pursued a career as a concert pianist, recounts her decades-long struggle to overcome the devastating and crippling stage fright that forced her to quit the piano at age 19. After 30 years, Solovitch, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, takes it up again at her youngest son’s insistence. With the help of a caring teacher, she begins to practice in new ways and realizes she’s “learning to play for the first time in my life.” But she’s still unable to perform for an audience. After years of study, Solovitch agrees to give a concert at home for three people, which is a disaster. She then decides to give herself a year to get ready to perform a recital for her 60th birthday. Along the way she examines some of the psychological underpinnings of her condition (including a demanding mother who uprooted the family from Canada so that Solovitch could attend a conservatory in New York), discovers the benefits of beta blockers, tries exposure therapy (playing the piano at her local airport), and talks to well known sufferers, including former L.A. Dodger Steve Sax, who had a legendary case of “the yips” after being named Rookie of the Year. It’s a tough road, and readers will find her story fascinating. Agent: Michael Bourret, Dystel and Goderich Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Modern Romance: An Investigation

Aziz Ansari, with Eric Klinenberg. Penguin Press, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-59420-627-6

Inspired by his own romantic woes, comedian Ansari teamed up with sociologist Klinenberg in 2013 to design and conduct a research project to better understand the dating game as it’s played today. This books collects the insights gleaned from a variety of research methods: focus groups in major cities around the world, crowdsourcing on the website Reddit. Ansari addresses the effects of technology on modern relationships with an amusing historical overview, beginning with the classified ads of the 1980s and ’90s and video dating services before chronicling the rise of industry giants such as Match.com and Tinder. He also dives into the sociological theory at play, discussing “the paradox of choice,” the differences between “companionate” and “soul mate” marriages, and a generational conversation spurred by a visit to a retirement community. The book is steeped in pop culture, featuring examples from the popular Tumblr “Straight White Boys Texting,” sex columnist Dan Savage’s thoughts on open relationships, and Ansari’s personal dating maxim, hilariously dubbed “the Flo Rida Theory of Acquired Likability Through Repetition.” Despite Ansari’s insistence otherwise, most of this material has been covered exhaustively elsewhere, but Ansari’s oddball sense of humor does bring something new and refreshing to the conversation. Agent: Richard Abate, 3Arts Entertainment. (June)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Republic of Conscience

Gary Hart. Penguin/Blue Rider, $25.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-399-17523-7

This lament from former Colorado senator and Democratic presidential candidate Hart is an odd mixture of trenchant critique of the current political order and a liberal baby boomer’s cri de coeur for better days. These add up to a less than cohesive argument. Domestically speaking, Hart cries out that “the American Republic in the 21st century is massively corrupt” thanks to a “permanent political class” that acts “for the benefit of concentrated wealth.” This criticism is ultimately dwarfed by Hart’s concern over the current national security apparatus’s massive scope, dating back to 1947 when America asserted primacy over the postwar world. Well before recent revelations about domestic surveillance, America had made a trade-off between liberty and security that was “problematic at best and perilous at worst.” Hart singles the Obama administration out for special criticism, warning that drone-based surveillance and assassination programs are “creating precedents [the administration] will live to regret.” When he doesn’t veer into banal campaign stump slogans like “we must decide who we are,” Hart makes some fair points, particularly about the distinction between the national interest and special interests. But with so much of his argument dominated by a view of government that peaked in the Kennedy administration, Hart seems not to realize how little novelty he brings to the discussion. Agent: Philippa Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much

Tony Crabbe. Grand Central, $31 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4555-3298-8

Business psychologist Crabbe draws an amicably accessible blueprint for escaping a state of extreme activity. According to Crabbe, our lives have become increasingly cluttered thanks to technological and social advances. The concept of choice is key. As he writes, chronically busy people can choose to let go of the need to control every aspect of their lives and instead prioritize various aspects over others. Being busy is for Crabbe more construct than reality, and so changing a pattern of endless activity involves changes in thinking. The book’s format is itself somewhat busy: information is presented in small chunks, which can make for an interrupted reading experience. However, the content is more organized in the catchy summaries that conclude each chapter. A business focus becomes somewhat too important to Crabbe’s thesis, as if busy, overscheduled modern lives are necessarily attached to high-paying corporate jobs. Nevertheless, for anyone juggling an ever-expanding schedule in or outside the corporate world, this book might be worth fitting in. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World

Anthony M. Amore. Palgrave Macmillan, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-1-137-27987-3

As head of security and chief investigator at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Anthony Amore (Stealing Rembrandts) is privy to more information on the subject of forgeries than the average art collector or dealer, and he shares a number of those stories in this engrossing account. According to Amore, art forgery has been part of the American art scene since the country’s inception, most famously illustrated by the rampant copies of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington that circulated at the turn of the 19th century. (That portrait now graces the $1 bill.) Rather than simply offering a laundry list of forgeries and hucksters, Amore shows the lengths forgers will go to in order to fool their patrons and the public, such as hunting down historically accurate materials (e.g., pigments), commissioning artists (“copyists”), and attempting various weathering techniques (even using a blow dryer in some cases to weather the paint). One shocking example involves surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, who as part of a lawsuit was ordered by the court to sign 17,000 blank sheets of paper, ultimately putting the provenance of his entire body of work up for debate. This is a bracing and highly informative assessment of a very real problem, sure to resonate with art fans and curators alike. Agent: Sharlene Martin, Martin Literary Management. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Blood Ransom: Stories from the Front Line in the War Against Somali Piracy

John Boyle. Bloomsbury, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4729-1267-1

Filmmaker Boyle attempts to unravel the complicated circumstances surrounding the sea-going scourge of Somali piracy in this intriguing study. Through numerous interviews, he examines the issues from all sides, exploring everything from the evolution of Somalia as a haven for piratical activities to the efforts taken to prevent, combat, and prosecute the perpetrators. “For as long as men have gone to sea in boats, there have been other men in boats looking to attack and rob them,” he states. But Boyle wants to know why, and so expends considerable effort to obtain a first-hand perspective from the pirates themselves. There’s a grudging respect in his tone as he explains what drives desperate men to attack and hijack boats for ransom, even as he separates the brutal reality from the whitewashed fantasies and condemns the pirates for inhumane treatment of their prisoners. As he notes, Somali piracy has evolved from a reaction against outside influences plundering their vulnerable waters to an ambitious business structure where minimal investments yield potentially high paydays. He also examines how businesses and governments are confronting piracy, using drones and warships as well as legal restructuring; but while individual battles may be won, the war continues. This thorough analysis is enlightening. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga

Michael Day. Palgrave Macmillan, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-137-28004-6

British journalist Day delivers a lively, well-informed, and witty biography of media mogul and three-time Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The book covers Berlusconi’s rise from his humble beginnings to early successes in the construction and media industries, where he proved a “brilliant but unscrupulous entrepreneur” with possible ties to the Mafia and a very uneasy relationship with the law. Day argues that the media tycoon entered politics not because he was called to public service, but because he needed to be in power to avoid jail or debt. While in office, Berlusconi filled powerful positions with “key cronies” who reworked parts of Italy’s penal code to suit his business and personal interests, such as by decreasing the statute of limitations for crimes. Day focuses on how the prime minister got away with reckless behavior for as long as he did, right up to his scandal-ridden fall, when he was convicted of tax fraud and embroiled in a sex scandal that exposed his dissolute private life. As much as opponents would like to bring the Berlusconi era to an end, Day concludes that the former prime minister’s legacy of rampant sexism, cronyism, and a “lax attitude to the law” may be difficult to uproot. Agent: Jane Dystel and Miriam Goderich, Dystel & Goderich. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa

James Neff. Little, Brown, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-316-73834-7

Robert Kennedy knew nothing of Jimmy Hoffa until 1956, when his investigations into organized crime as chief counsel for the U.S. Senate’s investigations subcommittee revealed that one of the mob’s many tendrils reached to the Teamsters union. Once Kennedy learned the extent of Hoffa’s influence (not to mention his power), he became obsessed with snaring his quarry. Neff (The Wrong Man) covers the ensuing cat-and-mouse game with aplomb and panache, detailing meetings with informants, exposing double agents, and sniffing out subterfuge. He sprinkles the book with colorful language that artfully evokes Hoffa, the swaggering tough guy, and Kennedy, the laser-focused lawman eager to make his mark, without turning them into caricatures. Hoffa comes across as a smart thug with a gift for intimidation, both in person and by proxy, while Kennedy, particularly after his brother’s assassination, is portrayed as a driven but exhausted runner determined to make it across the finish line. In lesser hands this could have devolved into a cheap pulp thriller, but Neff’s terrific incorporation of a multitude of personalities from both sides of the courtroom results in a page-turner that adds greater nuance and depth to both men’s legends. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain

Bill Hillman. Curbside Splendor, $15.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-940430-53-9

In this gritty, tough-talking memoir, former Chicago boxing champion and novelist Hillman (The Old Neighborhood) chronicles his years participating in the Spanish tradition of encierro (bull-running). Inspired by Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, 23-year-old Hillman, after attending novelist Irvine Welsh’s wedding in Dublin, decides to travel to Pamplona, Spain, to take part in the festival of the running of the bulls. Hillman is immediately smitten, enraptured by the skilled and legendary runners. He comes to view the tradition as “an elaborate art, a fiercely loyal brotherhood, a place where grace and heroics [meld] seamlessly.” In a terse, highly conversational tone, Hillman recounts the ensuing years pursuing his newfound hobby, his personal struggles with anger and violence, his growth as a mozo (bull-runner), his entrance into and understanding of that “fiercely loyal brotherhood,” and his own progress as a writer. While Hillman writes of his respect for the tradition, the book is remarkably light on the social and cultural history of bull-running. The book is a memoir in the strictest sense—tightly focused around Hillman’s recent experiences related to bull-running and writing. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom

Nancy Goldstone. Little, Brown, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-0-316-40965-0

Goldstone (The Lady Queen) upends conventional thought with this well-researched and well-written book, arguing that Catherine de’ Medici (1519–1589), the French queen mother, was less Machiavellian in nature than generally believed and that she reacted to geopolitical situations with disastrous results for both her family and France. As a Catholic “power broker,” de’ Medici manipulated friends and rivals in her meticulous plan to ensure the marriage of her reluctant daughter Marguerite marriage to a French Huguenot (Protestant) prince—then just as carefully had the new husband’s wedding party slaughtered four days later. While this was clearly a ploy to combat the threat of a rising Protestantantism, it created an untenable political situation in France. For her part, Marguerite showed considerable intellect and negotiating skills as she maneuvered around religions, powerful French families, and constantly shifting political terrain while being sabotaged by her family and husband. Goldstone’s witty comments make this historical family drama as easy to read as the best fiction, but it’s all the more tragic for being true. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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