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Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble

Marilyn Johnson. Harper, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-212718-1

In this lively love letter to archaeologists, former Esquire editor Johnson (This Book is Overdue!) travels the world, getting her hands dirty as she studies archaeologists in their natural habitats. She joins field schools, attends conferences, and chats with the legendary and the up-and-coming practitioners of the discipline and displays infectious enthusiasm for the material. Johnson samples drinks prepared from recipes discovered in ancient tablets, braves bad weather and worse food, visits body farms, and hobnobs with the military all in an effort to examine and explore every aspect of archaeologist’s life. Her experiences are eye-opening, engaging, and occasionally frustrating, and she talks about the downsides of the occupation: “Those who persevere in the profession fight like cats to get these jobs and work like dogs to keep them. And for all their expertise, competence, breadth of experience, and even cockiness, they are continually humbled by their subject. For people who know so much, there is so much they can never know.” But, as Johnson states, it’s all about “trying to locate a spark of the human life that had once touched that spot there.” Many archaeologists credit Indiana Jones with sparking their passion, and Johnson may well inspire a new generation to take up this calling. Agent: Chris Calhoun, Chris Calhoun Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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It’s Not About the Shark: How to Solve Unsolvable Problems

David Niven. St. Martin’s, $24.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-250-04203-3

In this useful tome, Niven (The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People) gives unusual, yet eminently practical, problem-solving advice. His solution? Ditch traditional problem-solving techniques and get creative. “We limit what we think is possible based on the boundaries the problems set for us,” Niven asserts. “We stare at our problems and cannot see anything else.” Niven uses Steven Spielberg as an example, explaining how the malfunctioning mechanical shark built for Jaws forced the director to suggest, rather than show, his story’s antagonist for most of the movie. According to the book, focusing on a problem can make it harder to find an answer; conversely, looking away from a problem often makes it easier to find a solution. While it’s natural to be scared of failing, particularly when trying new things, Niven advises readers to “fail with joy,” and relish the freedom to explore new alternatives that present themselves with failure. He also recommends that readers not “follow the leader” but instead rely on their own counsel. This fresh, enthusiastic approach to problem-solving will encourage readers to open themselves up to opportunity and make for a valuable addition to anyone’s self-help shelf. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington

Gregg Herken. Knopf, $30 (528p) ISBN 978-0-307-27118-1

Cold War America was largely shaped by a close-knit group of individuals known as the “WASP ascendancy”: well-off, well-educated journalists, politicians, and socialites who lived in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Herken (Brotherhood of the Bomb), professor emeritus of American diplomatic history at the University of California, goes into exacting detail in this excellent account, which focuses on the players themselves—their backgrounds, relationships, rivalries, scandals, and opinions on the policies and events that defined the era. Two principal players were the highborn brothers Joe and Stewart Alsop, whose newspaper column, “Matter of Fact,” appeared in more than a hundred newspapers across the United States. Joe’s dinners, dubbed “zoo parties,” served as alcohol-fueled salons for a tribe which regularly included such figures as George Kennan, Phil and Katherine Graham, and the CIA’s Frank Wisner. Herken covers, among a host of post-WWII milestones, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the founding of the CIA, McCarthyism, the Korean War, Vietnam, and Watergate. The skill with which he describes the players in Georgetown is not to be missed. Agent: Emma Patterson, Brandt & Hochman. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The First Lady of Radio: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Historic Broadcasts

Edited by Stephen Drury Smith. New Press (Perseus, dist.), $25.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-62097-042-3

In her time, Eleanor Roosevelt redefined the role of First Lady, and one of the ways she did so was through her constant public communication with the U.S. citizens. Smith, executive editor and host of American Radio Works, has selected transcripts of broadcasts from 1932 to 1945, including important addresses on the bombing of Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and V-E Day, as well as several aimed at the woman of the day. Eleanor didn’t shy away from difficult topics; an advocate for women, she promoted the value of the female wartime labor force on the home front. She also grasped that social roles were changing for women. The fact that her show was commercially sponsored by the likes of Sweetheart Soap and Pond’s Cold Cream opened her up to criticism, as did some of her other political activities, such as her stint as an assistant director for volunteer coordination in the Office of Civilian Defense, a post she had to give up after only five months. The book includes her response to some of these charges, in “Answering Her Critics.” Smith provides accurate context for the transcripts, and, though they do not make for great literature, they’re an intriguing glimpse into the social and political changes of the period. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death

Edited by Bruce Hoffman and Fernando Reinares. Columbia Univ, $45 (704p) ISBN 978-0-231-16898-4

The 12th volume of Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare series is not aimed at lay readers; the anthology consists of 25 detailed essays by leading scholars that focus on the degree to which terror attacks after September 11 were orchestrated by al-Qaeda. Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, and Reinares, senior analyst on global terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid, aim to answer “whether a leaderless process of terrorist radicalization and violence had superseded a leader-led one.” It’s a question vital to the development of effective counterterrorism strategies, and the contributors effectively rebut those who minimize the continued potency of al-Qaeda, even following the death of its most notorious leader. For example, Hoffman presents intriguing evidence that the 2005 London bombings were not “entirely an organic or homegrown phenomenon of self-radicalized, self-selected terrorists.” Non-experts will be justifiably unsettled by the editors’ conclusion that “the final battle against al-Qaeda has not yet been fought and that, in coming years, the movement may assume new and different forms that cannot be anticipated.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Color of Courage: A Boy at War: The World War II Diary of Julian Kulski

Julian Kulski. Aquila Polonica (NBN, dist.), $29.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-60772-015-7

This new edition of Kulski’s 1979 narrative (originally titled Dying, We Live) describes his experience in occupied Warsaw during WWII. Kulski, a renowned architect, wrote the original manuscript in 1945 at age 16 as a means of dealing with post-traumatic stress. In a diaristic format, it chronicles his experiences as a child soldier in the Polish Army. Kulski’s father was the acting mayor of Warsaw during the occupation, and, at the time, he had a Jewish girlfriend, with whom he remained in close contact until the Nazis isolated the Jewish ghetto from the rest of the city. Because of those two relationships and his own position in the resistance, Kulski was able to give shape to the wider context of the Resistance movement, including the heroic fight of the Jewish insurgents in the monthlong Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of spring 1943. The story culminates with Kulski’s participation, at age 15, in the 60-day Warsaw Uprising of August and September 1944. Kulski’s youthful patriotism and optimism is evident throughout his story, which is at once absorbing, inspiring, and tragic. Designed to be useful in a classroom, this new edition includes links to relevant online material and includes a list of discussion questions classroom settings. B&w photos. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Chinese Rules: Mao’s Dog, Deng’s Cat, and Five Timeless Lessons from the Front Lines in China

Tim Clissold. Harper, $27.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-231657-8

Drawing on more than 20 years of experience living and working in China, Clissold (Mr. China) a British businessman, offers five lessons that are absolutely crucial to understanding, appreciating, and ultimately working with and competing against the Chinese. These lessons are delivered through two parallel narratives. Clissold looks back to 2005, when he suddenly became involved in an emerging investment market based in China. He cofounded an investment company and invested in the carbon credits market. His recounting of his ensuing struggle to build a successful business aptly conveys the gaps between Western and Chinese business and social practices. These gaps can only be bridged by a working knowledge of the history of Chinese culture, traditions, and society. And so, second, the book is part history: Clissold recounts carefully selected historical episodes, from the dispatch of a British embassy to China in 1792 to the political rise of Mao and his successor Deng Xiaoping, as well as an account of the deadly 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Clissold’s memoir is less than captivating—it’s an “adventure” only insofar as investing is an adventure—but the historical portion is well-told. Perhaps most importantly, Clissold’s advice is timely and may even be useful to those outside the business world as well in. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, and Swells: The Best of Early ‘Vanity Fair’

Edited by Graydon Carter, with David Friend. Penguin Press, $29.95 (432p) ISBN 978-1-59420-598-9

Billing itself as the “modern magazine” of the Jazz Age, Vanity Fair showcased writers as varied as Dorothy Parker and John Maynard Keynes in its early days. This fantastic anthology goes from 1913 to 1936 and features 72 essays, poems, and profiles, with very few duds. The topics covered include art, sports, drugs, and New York nightlife, as well as suffrage and Prohibition. The essays convey the era’s mood; the aftermath of the stock market crash registers particularly vividly. Meanwhile, the celebrity profiles, of the likes of Joan Crawford, Cole Porter, and Babe Ruth, come across as snappy time capsules of contemporary pop culture’s prehistory. The arch tone of the magazine’s humor is conveyed by Stephen Leacock’s “Are the Rich Happy?”, e.e. cummings’s “When Calvin Coolidge Laughed,” and Noël Coward’s parody “Memoirs of Court Favorites.” The chronological arrangement of selections results in some serendipitous juxtapositions—for instance, Walter Lippmann’s prescient essay on publicity is followed by columnist Walter Winchell’s “Primer on Broadway Slang.” At its best, as in Sherwood Anderson’s piece on the U.S. sesquicentennial, “Hello, Big Boy,” and Aldous Huxley’s striking “What, Exactly, Is Modern?” this volume epitomizes the idea of modernity in American cultural life before the Second World War. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

Amanda Palmer. Grand Central, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4555-8108-5

Performance artist and Dresden Dolls singer Palmer reflects on her career and shares insight into the economy of shared resources in this sometimes insightful but overly self-indulgent memoir. Beginning in Harvard Square performing as a human statue, Palmer first observed a “subterranean financial ecosystem” of sharing. She found a similar environment at the “Cloud Club,” an artists’ commune where her band performed its first gigs and shot a music video to which residents loaned their various talents. As a touring musician, Palmer became familiar with asking fans for “crash space” and meals, as when a Honduran family in Miami offered the crew their beds and treated them to “tortilla lessons” in the morning. Palmer delivers a master class on harnessing technology for artistic purposes, explaining how to turn crowdfunding, Twitter, and digital music downloads to your advantage. She makes valid points about the controversial Kickstarter that raised 1 million dollars for her solo album, but remains utterly obtuse regarding the poor reception of a poem written in the voice of one of the Boston Marathon bombers she posted to her blog. Palmer’s worthy message that “asking is an act of intimacy and trust” is often obscured by an overly confessional, borderline narcissistic tone unlikely to placate her critics. Agent: Merrilee Heifetz, Writers House. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte

Kate Williams. Ballantine, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-345-52283-2

Though the romance of Josephine and Napoleon Bonaparte is known by many, Williams (England’s Mistress and Becoming Queen) combs through their history in her riveting account of their 14-year marriage. She begins with Josephine’s childhood; Marie-Josephe, affectionately called “Yeyette” grew up on the island of Martinique, a “paradise of pleasure.” Her future on the island seemed uncertain, and she quickly fulfilled her dream of living in France by marrying her aunt’s stepson Alexandre de Beauharnais. Williams details Josephine’s fraught first years as a young wife as well as her precarious status throughout the bloodiest years of the French Revolution. Battered and bruised, Josephine survived prison, starvation, and her husband’s death, only to find herself at the forefront of Parisian society where everyone “wanted to meet a victim, especially a pretty one without a husband.” For a time the mistress of General Lazare Hoche, Josephine’s life changed forever when she was introduced to the young and restless Napoleone Buonaparte. Their love was suffocating, and their marriage exhausting. Williams addresses Napoleon’s obsession with and mistreatment of his wife, as well as his family’s political intrigues against her. Williams perfectly illustrates all that was bizarre and maddening about French life during the reign of Josephine and Napoleon Bonaparte. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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