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The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land— A True Detective Story

Patrick Bishop. Harper, $26.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-226782-5

Avraham “Yair” Stern, the head of the eponymous gang of anti-British terrorists in Mandate Palestine, was shot and killed in a Tel Aviv apartment by police inspector Geoffrey Morton on the morning of February 12, 1942. But did Morton shoot a man who was attempting to flee or did he kill Stern in cold blood? Military historian Bishop (Wings: The RAF at War, 1912–2012) unravels the mystery, providing important biographical information on both figures, particularly Stern, the man who was so vitriolically opposed to the British that he was prepared to cooperate with Italian fascists and Nazis. Morton is portrayed as a hard-working, dedicated civil servant, yet one who, during several libel suits in the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s, repressed—or possibly willfully distorted—what happened that February day. Bishop also devotes the last quarter of the book to what happened to the Stern Gang after Stern’s death. Among its actions that helped drive the British out of Palestine was the 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne, the British minister of state for the Middle East. Bishop’s fast-paced, well-written work sheds considerable light not only on how and why Stern was killed but on the final, violent years of the British mandate in Palestine. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety

Peter R. Breggin. Prometheus, $19 trade paper (285p) ISBN 978-1-61614-149-3

This engrossing self-help guide from psychiatrist Breggin (Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal) relies on a speculative account of how human evolution still affects our emotional well-being today. Breggin’s premise is that many emotional problems stem from the conflict between two central human impulses rooted in evolution: the need for intimacy and a propensity for aggression. He goes on to argue that the three titular emotions served early humans by bridging these two impulses, inhibiting the most incendiary emotions so that familial and societal relationships could survive. By this reasoning, those people with the highest capacity for self-restraining emotions were those who survived and passed on their genes. Breggin thus intends to help readers free themselves of these no longer necessary, negative “legacy” emotions. Criticizing the main run of self-help tomes as inconclusive, Breggin claims that it is indeed possible to willfully oust guilt, shame, and anxiety from our emotional repertoires. He proceeds to show how negative legacy emotions are exacerbated by developments in language and childhood trauma. Breggin conveys empathy and maintains a clear, conversational tone while spelling out his prescriptions for overriding destructive impulses in a variety of real-world situations. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think

Eyal Winter. PublicAffairs, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61039-490-1

Economist Winter looks at the relationship between emotion and rationality in this study, and if the results do not fully answer the questions he raises, he still gives plentiful insights into the many factors that govern our choices. The book’s central thesis is that being emotional and being rational are not the diametrically opposed states people often assume them to be, and that, far from clouding judgment, instinctive feelings play an essential role in guiding it. Winter draws on the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma to illustrate this point, applying a mathematical model to the apparently unsystematic process of decision making. Even anger, within this framework, is persuasively shown to have an instructive purpose. Winter struggles, however, to tie all of the examples covered to the central theme of emotion. In particular, an extended passage that examines and questions clichés about gender and sexuality (such as “Men, more than women, seek physically attractive mates” and “Homosexuality provides no evolutionary advantage”) wanders far afield from the emotion-reason dichotomy. But even if the book doesn’t completely fulfill its goal of collapsing the divide between feelings and reason, we can at least begin, with its help, to reason with our emotions through their inherent foundation of rationality. Agent: Jim Levine, Levine Greenberg Rostan. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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When the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey

Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Norton, $26.95 (316p) ISBN 978-0-393-06301-1

In her memoir, which takes place shortly after the To¯hoku earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, novelist Mockett (Picking Bones from Ash) embarks on a poignant spiritual journey through Japan, seeking solace after the death of her American father three years earlier and to bury her Japanese grandfather’s bones. Touching on themes of modernity and tradition, Mockett takes part in various religious customs to come to terms with her grief and understand her mixed-cultural heritage. Beautiful folklore like the story of Moon Princess or the celestial princess weaver Orihime imbue the book with a sense of mystery and authenticity. The author’s background as novelist is evident in her skilled descriptions of the changing seasons—the pink cherry blossoms of spring or the neon rice paddies in autumn—which combine with nuanced details of the nation’s struggle after the March disaster to provide an intimate snapshot of the island nation’s complex culture. Although Mockett’s upbringing gives the memoir the sense of an outsider looking in, at times the comparisons of Japan to the West weigh heavy on the narrative and can distract from the story. Agent: Irene Skolnick, Irene Skolnick Literary Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams

Phyllis Lee Levin. Palgrave Macmillan, $35 (544p) ISBN 978-1-137-27962-0

Few men in the nation’s history achieved as much or brought to his many offices the capacity of mind of John Quincy Adams. His life and achievements are worth revisiting, and this smoothly-written book from Levin (Abigail Adams) gets us part way. It’s a half-biography that abruptly stops in 1815, though why that year—or before or later—isn’t entirely clear. Adams’s formal education ended much earlier, and one’s education, we like to think, continues through life—in his case until his 1848 death. Also, while wisely using the expansive Adams family papers to bring her subject to life, Levin overlooks all but a very few books in the vast, serious literature about Adams, his times, and the context of the issues he addressed. The text is also clotted with unnecessary details, such as at what hour Adams arose and the Washington address at which he lodged before being sworn in as U.S. senator. Yet aside from these significant lapses, it’s also balanced, compelling, and wise. Levin brings Louisa Catherine Adams, Adams’s troubled wife, into the center of the picture, where she belongs, and the author is shrewd about family dynamics. A solid if flawed work. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Ocean Worlds: The Story of Seas on Earth and Other Planets

Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams. Oxford Univ, $29.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-19-967288-2

Geologists Zalasiewicz and Williams traverse time and space to present a comprehensive look at the origins and importance of oceans. Not surprisingly, they spend most of their time discussing those with which we are most familiar, the oceans of Earth, but they go well beyond those and share data suggesting that there are others in the universe. In thoroughly enjoyable and accessible prose, the authors explore the genesis of Earth’s oceans, their importance in controlling climate, and their central role in nutrient cycling. They also describe the dramatic changes in our oceans across millennia and the human-induced problems they currently face (warming, acidification, pollution, and declining oxygen levels, among others), which are likely to alter virtually every important aspect of their existence. Looking beyond Earth the authors share data indicating that oceans have been present on both Venus and Mars and are probably extant on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. They conclude by examining the data on planets beyond our solar system and assert that “we are getting ever closer to discovering a multiplicity of far-distant ocean worlds, some perhaps life-bearing.” Zalasiewicz and Williams have produced a book that is as informative as it is absorbing. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Obama’s Time: A History

Morton Keller. Oxford Univ., $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-199383-37-5

Historian Keller (America’s Three Regimes) may very well be right that President Obama’s time in the White House will not be regarded as a historic era, but he strikes an uneasy balance between impartial survey and partisan critique in what purports to be a balanced look at the current administration. In the preface, he describes himself as “pathologically fair-minded,” noting that he would be happy “if Obama’s supporters find this book to be overly critical” and “opponents find it to be too favorable.” The text, however, situates itself squarely on the right side of the political aisle, describing the Valerie Plame affair as “highly factitious” and suggesting that the Benghazi tragedy merits comparison with Watergate. Similarly, conservative readers will surely be more receptive than liberal ones when Keller refers to an era of heavy government regulation as the “License Raj” or to global warming as the “one-time doomsayers’ label of choice.” Readers of any political persuasion, however, may blanch at Keller’s most far-reaching statements, such as when, comparing the U.S.’s current political polarization to past controversies, he writes that “the Vietnam War ended without the nation being torn apart by it.” This study will sit more comfortably among the many Obama critiques already published than in the unoccupied spot reserved for the as-yet-unwritten definitive book on the 44th president. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting

Rebecca Harrington. Vintage, $14.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-1018-7243-7

Novelist Harrington (Penelope) undertakes a hilariously ill-advised experiment in celebrity diets ranging from Beyoncé’s master cleanse lemonade with cayenne pepper and maple syrup to Karl Lagerfeld’s guzzling reliance on Diet Coke and chronic dieter Greta Garbo’s “absolutely terrifying” celery loaf. The results of the notorious pretentious eating habits of Gwyneth Paltrow are surprisingly positive, despite a high price of groceries, whereas Marilyn Monroe’s breakfast of whipped milk and raw eggs nearly causes a fainting spell. Victoria Beckham’s “Five Hands Diet” is an exercise in despair. Fare from Liz Taylor’s diet book, Elizabeth Takes Off (1987), is also particularly insane, featuring a dip made of steak juice and peanut butter. On the Sophia Loren diet, Harrington is confronted with the devastating reality of the correct serving size for pasta. While the content is mostly lighthearted and humorous, there is a palpable undercurrent of sharp feminist commentary in this endeavor, made plain in Harrington’s closing remarks: “how terribly hard it is to be an ‘ideal’ woman at any time in history.” Illus. Agent: Jane Finigan, Lutyens & Rubinstein. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I

Charles Spencer. Bloomsbury, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-62040-912-1

When Charles I fled England, his Scottish captors sold their disbelieving detainee to an angry English Parliament, which swiftly created a legal method to try and execute their sovereign. In this fun and fast, if bloody, account, Spencer (Blenheim: Battle for Europe) divides the story into three sections: the frantic last days of the Catholic monarch, the internal squabbles of Oliver Cromwell’s morality-obsessed Commonwealth, and the mad scramble for self-preservation under the Restoration of Charles II. While Spencer refers to those who deposed the king with the loaded—but accurate—term “regicides” throughout, he slowly builds up the personalities of various regicides without letting their identities too heavily bleed into one another. The profiles of these men reveal the courage of some and the desperate attempts of others to escape Charles II’s ire—notably with the aid of two regicides’ wives, one of whom inadvertently handed over the damning evidence that convicted her husband and some of his co-conspirators. While many readers already know the story’s end, Spencer purposefully builds anticipation over which men suffer excruciating death and which ones literally get away with murder. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society

Julian E. Zelizer. Penguin Press, $29.95 (354p) ISBN 978-1-594-20434-0

Zelizer (Governing America), a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, turns his attention to the short, politically turbulent period in American politics from November 1963 to November 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson forged what has become known as the Great Society, which paved the path for many of today’s essential social programs. Zelizer paints Johnson as a flawed—opportunistic, domineering, ambitious—yet impressive leader, who took advantage of a perfect storm of legislative and governmental conditions to push through an unprecedented number of projects and achievements; a president who gambled greatly while his party and a liberal majority were in ascendancy and won accordingly. As Zelizer explains, “The political acumen Johnson and his colleagues on Capitol Hill possessed was essential, but what made the difference were the forces that temporarily reshaped Congress and broke the hold of conservatives on that notoriously inertial institution.” His focus on the conflict between conservative and liberal factions is even more timely in today’s climate. Zelizer writes with an expert’s deep understanding of the subject, but the dry tone and painstaking attention to detail make this a scholarly resource more than a casual item. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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