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The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science

Armand Marie Leroi. Viking, $27.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-670-02674-6

Leroi (Mutants) lovingly rescues the reputation of Aristotle’s alternately meticulous and bizarre studies of animal behavior from the ruins left in the wake of derision during the Scientific Revolution. Leroi brings a modern sensibility to, yet evokes an air of timelessness with, his gorgeous descriptions of the ecology of the fishing villages of Lesbos where Aristotle both carefully dissected fishes and gave credence to the most fantastic of animal folk stories. His Aristotle creates systems of categories in a determined search for the reasons behind the existence of living things in their myriad forms. Leroi smoothly drops readers into Aristotle’s world of concocting elements and vital heat, of formal causes and nutritive, sensitive, and rational souls. He muses on how close Aristotle came to the ideas of Linnaeus and Darwin, having collected so much of the kinds of data they would eventually need despite being constrained by core axioms that saw animal types as diverse but essentially static. Leroi credits Aristotle with the most basic tenet of empirical science—to understand the world, look first and then try to explain what you see—but resists crediting him with textually unsupported prescience, which highlights beautifully the fact that ideas can be self-consistent, elegant, yet entirely wrong. Illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation

Harlow Giles Unger. DaCapo, $27.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-306-82220-9

One of the most illustrious members of the Founding generation, John Marshall attended Virginia’s ratifying convention, served in the state legislature and Congress, was a diplomat and Secretary of State, and ultimately became the nation’s most influential Chief Justice. He was also among the best-liked men of his time. But what Unger (Mr. President), a biographer of John Quincy Adams, Noah Webster, and George Washington among others, delivers is more hagiography than biography. To boot, he takes sides in the political conflicts of the early nation. Unger has it in especially for Marshall’s second cousin Thomas Jefferson. Among the “enemies of the federal government” of which he became president, Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, “abandoned the Revolution,” built an “incongruously pretentious home,” had a “mean-spirited gossip” of a daughter, may have made near “treasonous” decisions as governor, wielded “all but dictatorial powers” as president, “unleashed his political attack dogs,” and “nurtured political divisions and chaos.” While its facts are straight, the book’s interpretation is extreme and offers nothing revelatory. Moreover, it lacks the authority of recent studies of Marshall by R. Kent Newmyer and Jean Edward Smith. Maps & illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect

Reese Erlich. Prometheus Books, $25 (287p) ISBN 978-1-61614-948-2

Erlich (Conversations with Terrorists), a journalist with extensive experience in the Middle East and Syria in particular, clearly and succinctly explains Syria’s current political and military stalemate in this important, informative, and well researched book. Erlich methodically addresses current events: he first describes the history of Syria from WWI to the present; then examines how the “Arab Spring” rebellion evolved from 2011’s peaceful protests to all-out civil war by 2013; and concludes with a systematic analysis of the important internal and external organizations influencing the war. In preparing this book, Erlich interviewed leaders, academic authorities, and ordinary citizens in 11 different countries. Of particular interest are his interviews with Syrian opposition leaders, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and U.S. State Department analysts. His analysis of the rise of the conservative Syrian opposition, which dominated by al-Qaeda-associated organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), is also illuminating, especially given ISIS’s recent aggression in Iraq. Erlich is up front about his left-leaning political views, and he sees the region through that prism, but his insights and conclusions are objective and valuable. The book is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the current turmoil in the Middle East. Agent: Laura Gross, Laura Gross Literary Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life

Ruth Goodman. Norton/Liveright, $29.95 (464p) ISBN 978-0-87140-485-5

British social historian Goodman reveals what life was like in the Victorian era in a manner most readers have likely never encountered before: by personally subscribing to Victorian mores and way of life. Goodman’s impeccably researched account will raise readers’ eyebrows with her adventures “living history.” Along the way, she replicates an array of activities and behaviors: she creates and wears numerous styles of period clothing, tries out popular calisthenics for women and girls, uses 19th-century hygiene practices, adjusts to the discomfort of the corset, launders clothes laboriously by hand, and does much else. Goodman has meticulously documented the common Victorian man and woman, explaining practicalities, expenses, and rationales for their actions. For example, a popular scientific notion was that closed windows in rooms were unhealthy, so many people kept their windows open, even in freezing temperatures. Goodman’s charming guide richly illustrates what daily life was like for common people undergoing the massive social changes of the time and succeeds in presenting “a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history.” Illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundation for Successful Leadership

John C. Maxwell. Hachette/Center Street, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4555-4807-1

Leadership guru Maxwell, author of more than 65 books, including 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, is a former pastor and friends with Rick Warren and other bestselling Christian authors; his work has a strongly Christian focus. Assuming that readers don’t find this perspective off-putting, they’re likely to find Maxwell’s questions thought-provoking and encouraging; his friendly and conversational tone keeps complex leadership lessons palatable. Asking these essential questions of themselves will help readers learn to ask the right questions of others in the right way and synthesize information effectively. Maxwell addresses questions that will help you understand the people on your team, develop leaders, manage work relationships, guide your own leadership, and navigate leadership transitions, among other topics. The book is studded with memorable catchphrases—“specialize until you’re special”—and end-of-chapter summaries with hundreds of questions designed to help readers in their quest for personal and professional growth. Clear and inspiring, this is a great approach to leadership. Agent: Matt Yates, Yates & Yates. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Conquering the Seven Summits of Sales: From Everest to Every Business, Achieving Peak Performance

Susan Ershler and John Waechter. Harper Business, $28.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-06-228264-4

Sales professionals Ershler (Together on Top of the World) and Waechter are members of an elite group of mountain climbers who have “conquered the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.” Here, they use examples from their sales careers, and climbing experiences, to illustrate this guide for sales professionals. Unfortunately, much of their advice, as the title suggests, is delivered via climbing metaphors, similes, and acronyms that become tiresome. Readers are instructed to “Commit to the Summit,” employ a “base-camp planning process,” and “build your Sherpa team,” among other recommendations. Though this juxtaposition isn’t the smoothest, the brief snapshots of the authors’ climbing challenges are captivating. But overall, this is a fairly standard guide to sales, with few surprising insights and just two pages on handling objections, that is mostly distinguished by its alpine twist. Agent: Jim Levine, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Millionaire Mystique: How Working Women Become Wealthy—And How You Can, Too

Jude Miller Burke. Nicholas Brealey, $19.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-85788-621-4

Executive coach Burke sets out to learn what makes super successful women (in this case, self-made millionaires) different from the rest of us, and discovers that her subjects have much in common with each other: many grew up in middle-class or poor families and had to overcome some kind of childhood trauma. Burke shares insights from a number of these superstars in the hopes that their journeys will help others, with discussion of work styles, personality characteristics, relationship skills, mentors, leadership techniques, life detours, and the importance of resiliency. Unfortunately, Burke considers the attainment of one million dollars to be the measure of professional success—this may be possible for business executives, doctors, and lawyers, but is an unreachable goal for women who work in less lucrative fields. Regardless, readers will find some sage advice for overcoming challenges, achieving goals, and maximizing opportunities. Agent: Linda Konner, Linda Konner Literary Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Primal Teams: Harnessing the Power of Emotions to Fuel Extraordinary Performance

Jackie Barretta. Amacom, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-8144-3441-3

Barretta, founding partner of Nura Group, explores the role of emotions within a team, digging into the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and quantum physics to provide an accessible and practical guide to utilizing emotions to drive performance. Ultimately, she discovers that team “superperformance” depends on the creation of a work dynamic that harnesses the power of our feelings. Barretta explains how to spark the “creative brain[s]” of employees, as well as how to deepen impact and emotion. In addition, she examines “primal emotion[s],” the source of motivation, and the importance of play. She guides readers through the process of battling negativity and fear, which includes “creating a diversion,” “enliven[ing] the positive,” and “arous[ing] positivity.” Most importantly, she shows how to bring about a team’s emotional coherence by using “emotional contagion.” Offering insight into “detecting emotions,” she directs readers to employ empathy, “understand how emotions affect decisions,” and know where to draw the line. Barretta also covers “primal IQ,” building emotional bonds, and restraining overblown egos. This innovative book will help business leaders build emotional bonds on their teams and maximize results. Agent: Michael Snell, Michael Snell Literary Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say—and What It Really Means

John Lanchester. Norton, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-24337-6

Novelist (Capital) and New Yorker contributor Lanchester offers a terrific primer on financial jargon. Lanchester believes that ordinary people are perfectly capable of understanding the arcs of macroeconomics and managing their own microeconomic decisions—they only need to learn the basic lingua franca. Lanchester’s glossary cleverly illustrates arbitrage by way of cocoa futures, explains what a lender of last resort is, and helpfully defines terms such as “yield curve.” Along the way, Lanchester throws in entertaining asides: for instance, he explains how the lexicographer who oversaw the Oxford English Dictionary felt about the word “monetarism.” There are intriguing cultural byways, such as the plug for the “highly illuminating and not-at-all dated 1940 book Where are the Customers’ Yachts? and a useful distinction between “wealthy” and “rich.” The book’s structure could be improved; it would be helpful if, within a definition, any words that have their own entries earlier or later in the book appeared in bold or italics. But that is a small quibble. Anyone who wants to understand the nightly news should keep this volume at hand. Agent: Caradoc King, A.P. Watt (U.K.) (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from the ‘New York Times Book Review’

Edited by Pamela Paul. Holt, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-62779-145-8

In By the Book interviews collected by New York Times Book Review editor Paul (Parenting, Inc.), 65 writers—including Junot Díaz, Lena Dunham, Colin Powell, Anne Lamott, and Khaled Hosseini—discuss books they’ve found inspiring or terrible, as well as their reading habits and recommendations. The variety of responses and respondents make for a captivating hodgepodge of literary musings, with illustrations provided by Jillian Tamaki. Gems include Neil Gaiman’s plug for Harry Stephen Keeler (the “greatest bad writer America has ever produced”), and John Grisham’s recommendation that President Obama read Fifty Shades of Grey, because “Why should he miss all the fun?” Authors speak to and about one another across the pages: Malcolm Gladwell and Dave Barry sing the praises of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, and Colin Powell and Arnold Schwarzenegger both admire J.K. Rowling’s success. (For those truly dedicated to literary socializing, Gary Shteyngart lists over 40 of his favorite authors’ Twitter handles.) Sidebars throughout feature excerpted responses from multiple authors on the same questions, and, while this creates an unfortunate sense of déjà vu upon encountering the same material in the full interviews, it’s illuminating to see what these writers consider “guilty pleasure” reading, or discover that very few actually get Ulysses. 65 line drawings. Agent: Lydia Willis, Lydia Wills LLC. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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