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Professor Stewart's Incredible Numbers

Ian Stewart. Basic, $16.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-0-465-04272-2

Stewart (In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World), emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick (U.K.), puts the "digit" in prestidigitation in this delightful and wholly absorbing book on the magical world of numbers. He begins with the most basic concepts and spirals out into some of today's most exciting mathematical theories; his effective mix of history and math lessons helps keep readers engaged with the mathematical concepts. Stewart's discussion of zero is particularly fun as he shows how civilizations throughout history each came to terms with the necessity of calling zero a number. His own enthusiasm for the subject is clear, and the inventive organization lets readers follow him on his own path through numbers, though experienced math book readers might find it more exciting to skip around. Whether writing about the importance of prime numbers or the ubiquity of fractals in nature, Stewart always seems to find a way back to one underlying concept: numbers are simple at their core, yet limitless in their utility. Agent: George Lucas, InkWell Management. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Lincoln's Secret Spy: The Civil War Case That Changed the Future of Espionage

Jane Singer and John Stewart. Rowman & Littlefield/Lyons, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4930-0810-0

Historians Singer (The Confederate Dirty War) and Stewart (Confederate Spies at Large) collaborate on what is, despite the subtitle's exaggeration, an interesting look at an obscure part of Civil War history, but their baroque language will alienate some readers. The authors introduce the title figure, William Alvin Lloyd, as a "comet, streaking through decades with impudence and impunity. A simmering broth of lust, indefatigable, energy, greed, and larceny, he was magical, priapic, musical, inventive, a survivor and a scoundrel." The overcooked prose continues throughout the account of Lloyd's life, leading up to his appeal to President Grant for payment for the covert work he supposedly undertook in the Confederacy for President Lincoln. The resolution of that claim, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, has continued to influence judicial decisions on espionage contracts; still, it's a stretch to assert that Lloyd's case "changed the future of espionage." Readers who look past the hype and language will find Lloyd a colorful character, and hope that another book will do his unusual life justice. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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John Surratt: The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away

Michael Schein. History, $18.95 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-933909-96-7

In this gripping true crime thriller, Schein (Just Deceits: A Historical Courtroom Mystery) makes a persuasive case that Confederate leadership was involved in the Lincoln assassination, though he concedes that "at this late date that is beyond definite proof." He notes that unlike in the murder of J.F.K., the unresolved question with respect to Lincoln's death is not whether there was a conspiracy, but who was involved. While he is cautious in his conclusions, Schein convincingly interprets documentary evidence as showing that "all three of the top Confederate leaders were providing active support" to the kidnapping plots led by John Surratt, an admitted Confederate spy, and John Wilkes Booth, which evolved into plans to murder Lincoln. Schein relies heavily on primary sources, including transcripts of Surratt's 1867 trial, which ended in a hung jury, but he does so with an attorney's eye, noting inconsistencies (including conflicting testimony about whether Surratt was in front of Ford's Theater on the fateful night) and witnesses' motives to lie. He also makes clear the embarrassing prosecutorial errors that enabled Surratt to escape justice. Open-minded readers will find Schein's research and arguments thought-provoking. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World

Brooke Borel. Univ. of Chicago, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-0-226-04193-3

A personal experience with the reemergence of pesticide-resistant bedbugs in the last decade—after their near eradication during the golden era of DDT—spurs journalist Borel to visit international scientists, exterminators, and industry salespeople in order to research the notorious bloodsucking insects. Bedbugs likely arrived in America via the Mayflower; they have plagued human sleepers since ancient Egypt and, according to genetic research, probably since the dawn of human civilization. Borel's style is more sober scientific travelogue than sensationalist fearmongering, even when she watches researchers feed their own blood to jarred specimens, describes the traumatic insemination of swollen female bedbugs by abdominal stabbing, or investigates an infested Czech bat cave. At home, she looks at media responses to the new wave of infestation: an off-off-Broadway rock opera with David Bowie–esque bug costumes; bloggers expressing shame, anxiety, and mania in the face of dealing with their apartments; and CBS's declaration of 2010 as the "Year of the Bedbug." Borel's dry style doesn't communicate true fascination, but her science is solid, and by the end, the reader may feel sympathetically itchy. Photos (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Coal Wars: The Future of Energy and the Fate of the Planet

Richard Martin. Palgrave MacMillan, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-137-27934-7

In this engaging work of environmental reportage, Martin (Superfuel) goes on the road to encounter firsthand the battles raging in the war on coal. Those battles are now mostly waged on social, political, and economic fields, unlike the bloody conflicts of the past. Mine accidents do continue to kill workers, however, and coal power generation continues to cause health problems as well as contributing "over 44% of global carbon dioxide emissions." Coal isn't going down without a fight, as Martin clearly demonstrates in his travels around coal-producing states and nations, but the writing may be on the wall. As much as one fifth of the coal-burning capacity of the U.S. could be shut down in the next few years, he writes, with investor flight behind the slowdown: "Follow the money, and the path suggests that coal is losing the battle for the future." The case isn't as clear in China, where a nascent environmental movement and the government itself confront a voracious need for power. But Martin notes that "Unless China weans itself from coal in the next two decades, there is no chance of limiting global climate change." Despite this gloomy prospect and a recent upswing in coal use in Europe, Martin optimistically remarks that coal is ultimately "replaceable." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Battlefield America: The War on the American People

John W. Whitehead. SelectBooks, $26.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-59079-309-1

In this potent follow-up to A Government of Wolves (2013), Whitehead, a constitutional attorney and the president of the Rutherford Institute, continues to investigate what he sees as an increasingly aggressive, fascistic America that the founding fathers would find offensive. Whitehead's scathing tone—matched in the foreword from former congressman Ron Paul—can be heavy-handed and strident, but he presents the U.S. government as "a hyper-militarized, twitchy, easily offended, suspicious, locked down, paranoid, all-seeing bureaucracy" that uses fear and paranoia to reduce civil liberties in a calculated post-9/11 scam of terrorism and national security. He uses the responses of heavily armed police forces to recent incidents—including the Boston Marathon bombing and the protests in Ferguson, Mo.—as indicators of an occupying army, but his constant comparisons to Hitler's Germany fail in terms of making a coherent argument against Big Brother's dismantling of basic freedoms. Whitehead scores points when addressing needed reforms in the court system, education, and individual rights to privacy. Following his literary forebears such as Orwell and Huxley, he warns: "Either we gather together now and attempt to restore freedom or all will be lost." Detailed and provocative, yet repetitive, Whitehead's call to take the U.S. back before civil liberties vanish mostly rises above boilerplate rhetoric and hysteria. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans

Edited by Ben A. Minteer and Stephen J. Pyne. Univ. of Chicago, $45 (240p) ISBN 978-0-226-25982-6

In this well-rounded and mostly accessible collection, Arizona State University professors Minteer (The Landscape of Reform) and Pyne (Burning Bush) pull together a range of perspectives on contemporary issues in environmental conservation from academics, ecologists, philosophers, and environmental activists. Their focus is the Anthropocene epoch, which includes the significant climatological changes that date to the beginning of the industrial era in the late 18th century. The editors set out to create in book form "a ‘symposium' in the classical sense," giving contributors minimal guidelines and few restrictions. Journalist Andrew C. Revkin reflects, for example, on his 30-plus years on the environmental beat, wondering whether too much emphasis been placed on "the extinction end of the spectrum of ecological activity" and not enough on restoration. Duke University professor Norman L. Christensen poses three primary questions on the preservation process, while Michelle Marvier, chair of the Dept. of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University, and Hazel Wong, director of Conservation Campaigns, individually address the lack of racial and gender diversity in the American conservation movement. By inviting a range of voices to the discussion, Minteer and Pyne reveal subjects of importance to both themselves and to their peers around the country. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash

Elizabeth Abbott. Viking/Penguin Canada, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-670-06825-8

This is the memoir of one woman, her dogs, and the lives they touched, and it reads as an ode to the symbiotic relationship between man and canine. Abbott (Haiti: A Shattered Nation) takes readers along on her journey from rural Quebec and revolutionary Haiti to a Toronto hospital, an Ohio prison, and the streets of Serbia, introducing the people and the dogs she met along the way. She's saved numerous elderly, ailing, and unadoptable dogs and connected with others who give dogs a second chance, such as the American prison inmates who train dogs, and the wife of an ex-ambassador to Serbia. Most touching is how the dogs help rehabilitate the people who care for them. The chapters describing the prison training program are written from the point of view of the inmates. It's wrenching and moving, but disappointingly, it's not entirely factual, as the author notes at the end: details were altered for security reasons, and the dialogue is based on prisoners' recollections in interviews. Abbott's tone is a bit pretentious and self-righteous, but she certainly deserves tremendous credit for her selfless giving. Photos. Agent: Heide Lange, Greenburger Associates. (May)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Journey Home: My Life in Pinstripes

Jorge Posada, with Gary Brozek. Dey Street, $27.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-237962-7

Over the 17 seasons Posada caught behind the plate for the Yankees (1995–2012), the team climbed to the pinnacle of success, winning four World Series in five years. In this often inspiring, occasionally dry memoir, Posada calls the innings of his life play-by-play from his childhood in Puerto Rico and his days playing junior-college ball in Alabama, to his early days with the Yankees' farm club, the Columbus Clippers, and his career with the Yankees. From the time Posada was born, his father—a Major League scout himself—wanted nothing more than for his son to be a ballplayer. During the summer that he turned 12, while his friends were out playing ball, young Posada spent his days shoveling the mound of dirt his father has had dumped in the driveway , carting it by wheelbarrow to the backyard; this was his father's way of making him physically and emotionally stronger. His father soon had Posada running sprints up the hills near his home to develop more strength and speed, as well as learning to switch hit so Jorge can add value to any team with his batting skills. Posada affectionately chronicles his relationships with his manager, Joe Torre, and teammates such as Derek Jeter and David Cone, as well as the difficult days following the birth of his son, Jorge Luis, who had craniosynostosis, a birth defect requiring multiple surgeries. Posada emerges as a dedicated and hardworking player, a loyal friend, a committed father and husband, and, always and forever, a Yankee. (May)

Reviewed on 05/12/2015 | Details & Permalink

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