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Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story

Alexandra Wolfe. Simon & Schuster, $27 (257p) ISBN 978-1-4767-7894-5

Wall Street Journal reporter Wolfe’s debut zeroes in on a subculture of Silicon Valley’s youngest entrepreneurs, recipients of the Thiel Fellowship, a two-year program funded by Paypal founder Peter Thiel who doles out 100,000 grants to people under the age of 20 so they can “drop out of school and head to Silicon Valley.” The book loosely follows the first class of fellows through the experiences of Jonathan Burnham, a teen with a dream of mining heavy metals from asteroids, who was awarded the fellowship in 2011. Through Burnham’s story, readers are introduced to world of dorm-like housing, home to an assortment of oddballs who subsist on weird diets and seek ways to never die. Wolfe provides a lighthearted, at times funny, view of Silicon Valley filled with chatty prose and throwaway comments about investors who are more interested in taking women on dates then backing their technologies. Wolfe rarely addresses the underbelly of this California playscape, touching only briefly on issues such as gender discrimination. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie

Noah Isenberg. Norton, $27.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-393-24312-3

Isenberg (Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins) has created a thorough and impassioned account of the making of the 1942 Hollywood classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. He begins with Casablanca’s modest origins in an unproduced three-act play and ends with its lasting cultural impact. Along the way, he makes a strong case for the film as an ideal example of studio collaboration. Isenberg emphasizes the contributions of nearly everyone at Warner Brothers, including producer Hal B. Wallis, director Michael Curtiz, screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, and some of the studio’s best contract players (Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains). Diligently researched and incorporating extensive interviews and documentation, the book is commendable for its attention to the most mundane details of filmmaking. Nevertheless, readers expecting a critical study might find the author’s exhaustive admiration for his subject a bit wearing. As Irish film critic Paul Whitington astutely observes in the book’s introduction, “Maybe there are better films than Casablanca, but there are probably none better loved.” Agent: Zoe Pagnamenta, Zoe Pagnamenta Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease

Meredith Wadman. Viking, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-0-525-42753-7

Wadman, staff writer for Science, depicts the cutthroat competition, ugly politics, brilliant science, and questionable ethics that underscored the research and development, during the 1960s and ’70s, of vaccines that have protected many millions of Americans from rubella, polio, rabies, and other diseases. She provides an excellent introductory primer on cell biology to complement colorful sketches of the personalities of the pioneering biologists who produced the first live vaccines while challenging scientific tenets and medical ethics. The book is not for the squeamish. Wadman details the surgical and laboratory processes scientists used to develop vaccines, and describes the testing of vaccine prototypes on both children and adults—done mostly without their consent, in orphanages, asylums, schools, and prisons. She also documents the beginnings of the biotechnology industry in the 1980s and the concomitant rise and fall of Leonard Hayflick, who created the crucial WI-38 cell strain and entered into multi-million dollar business agreements before coming under investigation by the National Institutes of Health and getting embroiled in a much-publicized court battle with the U.S. government over ownership of the valuable cells. This is an exemplary piece of medical journalism, and Wadman makes strikingly clear the human costs of medical developments as well as the roles of politics and economics. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Systematic: How Systems Biology Is Transforming Modern Medicine

James R. Valcourt. Sigma, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-63286-029-3

Amazing phenomena occur when cells work together, writes Valcourt in this accessible introduction to systems biology, a field with a distinguished history that took off at the beginning of the 21st century. Combining engineering, mathematics, and advances in computing technology, scientists are learning how the innumerable elements in a complex organism work in concert. Valcourt offers as an example the seemingly miraculous workings of the human brain. A single brain cell simply fires an electric pulse, but 86 billion connected brain cells enable a person to think, feel, imagine, and wonder. Systems biologists are studying that kind of leap from simple action to complex behavior. Valcourt visits laboratories where researchers are examining the mechanism of aging, the specific genetic errors that make a cell malignant, why useful drugs produce nasty side-effects, and why the immune system overreacts (provoking allergies) or underreacts (ignoring cancers). Understanding these processes will transform human lives, but despite the book’s title, at present the field’s triumphs are largely confined to the laboratory; as Valcourt admits, many ongoing attempts to unlock these secrets will fizzle. Still, systems biologists seem on the verge of achieving great things, and Valcourt delivers a lucid introduction to this ingenious combination of the hard sciences and advanced technology that adopts a holistic view of natural phenomena. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Skin Above My Knee

Marcia Butler. Little, Brown, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-316-39228-0

With unflinching honesty, Butler, a professional oboist for 25 years, recalls her love of music and how it saved her. One of her earliest memories of what would bloom into the lifelong love affair is of lying on the floor at age four and listening to her favorite opera singer, Kirsten Flagstad, in Tristan and Isolde while her mother vacuumed. Even at that young age she “implicitly understood” that music is “marvelously transcendent.” Her protective parental bubble was short-lived, as she realized that her chilly and unaffectionate mother couldn’t show her the love she craved; her father was violent and abusive with her older sister and later molested Butler herself. Her salvation came when she was 12 and the band director asked for a volunteer to take up the oboe. But she had to strike a devil’s bargain, submitting to her father’s demands in order to get rides to lessons. Butler escaped to music school at Mannes, but the lasting effects of her mother’s indifference and her father’s abuse wrought havoc on her personal life, specifically in the men she chose to date and the one whom she briefly married. She learned painful lessons, and shares them courageously along with her hard-earned wisdom about what to hold onto and what to let go. In the end, this is a moving account of how passion and creativity can be powerful weapons against neglect, cruelty, and self-harm. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Memory Code: The Secrets of Stonehenge, Easter Island, and Other Ancient Monuments

Lynne Kelly. Pegasus, $27.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-68177-325-4

In this intriguing, if not entirely persuasive, book, Australian science writer Kelly (Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies) links many prehistoric sites of monumental architecture to the need of preliterate cultures to memorize vast numbers of important facts. She begins by examining the techniques currently or recently in use that allow memory keepers among the Australian Aboriginal people, Navajo, Dogon, and others to retain information on hundreds of animal and plant species as well as culturally significant topics such as genealogies and customs. This is accomplished through the technique that the Greeks referred to as “the method of loci,” encoding knowledge to physical or mental spaces. Kelly describes her own use of these techniques, but not in enough detail for her work to truly be useful as a primer. She devotes the bulk of the book’s second half to linking such specific monumental sites as Stonehenge to her idea that a wide range of these sites were used by their creators as memory-encoding spaces. Kelly’s arguments are plausible—and persuasive where links exist between current cultures and predecessors, such as the Pueblo and the Ancestral Puebloans of Chaco Canyon—but her certitude is troublesome, and the conclusion that “the method of loci is the universal driver” is not supported by this work. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey of Enlightenment After Abortion

Kassi Underwood. HarperOne, $26.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-245863-6

In this brave and unsparing memoir, Underwood, a writer and lecturer, tells of getting pregnant at 19 with her drug addict quasi-boyfriend and choosing to have an abortion. She struggled for years afterward to come to terms with the consuming sense of loss she experienced as she repeatedly failed to find a support network. When her ex-boyfriend emails her on the third anniversary of the abortion—to tell her his new partner is pregnant with a girl they’re naming Jade, which is what he and Underwood would have called their child—she truly starts to unravel, tormented by her unresolved grief and memories of the procedure. Six years after her abortion, she’s finally ready to begin the healing. Underwood tries various methods to help herself, including attending a Roman Catholic retreat run by staunch pro-lifers, taking a vow of silence in the woods while quitting Zoloft cold turkey, meditation, and a Buddhist “water baby” ritual. Underwood travels through uncharted and harrowing waters at times; her story, though painful, is moving and heartfelt. She eventually creates her own “road to recovery,” and by mapping that road she hopes to provide a voice for women and men suffering in silence. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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In Praise of Litigation

Alexandra Lahav. Oxford Univ., $29.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-19-938080-0

In the face of the widespread popular perception that lawsuits are inimical to American society, law professor Lahav is persuasive in demonstrating that litigation “is a social good and promotes democracy,” even if it is a far from perfect tool. Her contention is bolstered by her well-reasoned analyses that perfectly balance detail with brevity, making this work fully accessible to non-lawyers and readers unversed in the debates about access to justice and tort reform. Lahav divides the societal benefits of litigation into four categories—the core democratic values of “enforcement of the law, transparency through litigation, participation in self-government, and equality before the law”—and devotes a concise chapter to each. She is especially effective at contrasting media depictions of the litigation landscape with reality, and illuminating the hidden agendas of some opponents of the current system. Lahav believes that their real concern “is not litigation per se, but the underlying rights people are seeking to enforce by bringing lawsuits.” The book will serve as an effective complement to Erwin Chemerinsky’s more technical Closing the Courthouse Doors: How the Supreme Court Made Your Rights Unenforceable. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Field Recordings from the Inside: Essays

Joe Bonomo. Soft Skull, $17.95 (204p) ISBN 978-1-59376-662-7

Bonomo’s latest book incorporates autobiographical themes of his previous collection, This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Begins, and an obsessive desire to understand how artists do what they do . Bonomo is fascinated with the ways in which songs are “less a tune than a field recording from inside your body, your heart chambers’ vérité” as he looks at the ways music influenced and underscored events throughout his life. The best essays here extend that gaze beyond his own life and into those of other artists and their audiences; especially good is “Bafflement, Clarity, and Malice,” a reverie on the power of lyrics that express “their profound simplicity, their old newness.” Another standout in this great collection is Bonomo’s warm look at the late novelist Larry Brown and Brown’s love of music, as well as is his 584-page screenplay about Hank Williams. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Accomplice to Memory

Q.M. Zhang. Kaya, $17.95 trade paper (228p) ISBN 978-1-885030-52-8

Zhang’s peculiar memoir of recording her father’s memories is both illuminating and muddled. The story begins with her embellished version of the story that Zhang’s father would often tell about leaving China on a train. The story continues to evolve after Zhang’s father suffers a fall that causes a traumatic brain injury. He’s not as sharp but is still undeniably himself. Zhang’s relationship with her father emerges as complicated and dynamic, shaped by his temper and Zhang’s stubbornness and curiosity. The book is filled with history regarding the revolution and war, intended to relate to her father but often overshadowing his story. The book moves back and forth between the present and the past, both as Zhang’s father recalls it and as Zhang imagines it. The choice to tell the story this way proves ineffective, leaving the reader to wonder how much truth is really here. Only towards the end, when Zhang discovers secrets about her father’s life in China, does his story become compelling in its own right. Many readers will wish she’d spent less time imagining his life and more time exploring the truth about it. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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