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The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security

Bartholomew Sparrow. PublicAffairs, $34.99 (752p) ISBN 978-1-58648-963-2

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Scowcroft, national security adviser to Presidents Ford and G.W. Bush, is a self-effacing mastermind of statecraft in this fulsome biography. University of Texas political scientist Sparrow styles him the perfect mix of realism, internationalism, patriotism, and pragmatism: hawkish on communism's threat yet willing to engage it through détente and arms control; eager to attack Saddam in 1991 but not in 2002, when his public opposition to the looming Iraq War enraged the Bush Administration. Sparrow's authorized biography credits Scowcroft with a chess-master's knack for strategic improvisation in global crises and Washington political wrangles and with a superlative character: he's "brilliant," "selfless," "modest," and "caring"; an "honest broker" who seeks consensus through a competent "process." (Sparrow does critically examine some Scowcroft initiatives, noting a deficit of vision in his vague "new world order" concept.) Sparrow's exhaustively researched insider's narrative of U. S. foreign and military policy-making is lucid and readable, but 600 pages of Scowcroft's dreary centrism can drag, and one is grateful when colorful figures like Kissinger horn in. Unfortunately, in celebrating Scowcroft's embodiment of America's national security consensus—in dubious adventures from Vietnam to Panama to the Persian Gulf—Sparrow avoids taking a deeper look at the assumptions and worldview underlying that consensus. Photos. Agent: James D. Hornfischer, Hornfischer Literary Mgmt. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Kill The Messengers: Stephen Harper's Assault on Your Right to Know

Mark Bourrie. Patrick Crean Editions/HarperCollins Canada, $32.99 (392p) ISBN 978-1-44343-104-0

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Stephen Harper does not believe in democracy. So argues author Bourrie (Fighting Words: Canada's Best War Reporting) a historian and journalist who pulls no punches in this assault on the seemingly milk-and-water Canadian prime minister. Bourrie opens his book by associating Harper with past anti-democratic stalwarts such as the guillotine-felled King Charles I of England and the Southern Confederacy, which would have perpetuated slavery, had it not lost the American Civil War. Those are not flattering historical bedfellows, but according to Bourrie, these associations fit because Harper considers politics to be "an insider game, one with no place for the public" or anyone who might question his vision of Canada as a resource-exploiting, big-stick-carrying, Arctic-conquering, free-market worshipping super power. In thirteen searing chapters, Bourrie details the Harper government's politics-as-war crusade to "to kill many messengers" by blocking media inquiries, gagging watchdogs (especially climate scientists), shuttering archives and laboratories, and ramping up conservative propaganda — all in the service of relegating politics to well-connected insiders. How readers feel about Bourrie's book will no doubt hinge on their personal politics, but he certainly makes some valid points in this razor-witted, accessible account that should interest anyone who cares about Canada's future. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America

William J. Bennett and Robert A. White. Hachette/Center Street, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4555-6073-8

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Former U.S. secretary of education and drug "czar" Bennett (The Book of Virtues) and former federal attorney White team up for a scattered, inclusive lawyer's brief against marijuana. They argue forcefully that the pharmaceutical industry and medical marijuana movement are uncritical of the drug and unrealistically sunny about its benefits. But Bennett and White fail to probe why millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans of all ages smoke pot, or why so many Americans think legalization is a responsible public goal. The categorical claim that today's marijuana is "far more potent than the ‘tokes' baby boomers remember from their early experiments," meanwhile, recalls the drug war's empty rhetoric. Advancing the highly contested "gateway drug" idea, Bennett and White draw a connection between marijuana and hard drugs. Letters from anguished drug users and their families pepper the book, trying to give what otherwise would be a one-sided policy manual some pathos and a human angle. Bennett and White wind up imagining a not-likely-to-happen, star-studded Hollywood campaign against weed. An appended 2014 article from the New England Journal of Medicine does lend ample weight to their compilation of marijuana's genuinely "adverse health effects." This book will change few minds, but it will provide wide-ranging arguments against marijuana legalization. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Globe: The Science of Discworld II

Terry Pratchett, with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. Anchor, $15.95 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-8041-6896-0

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Pratchett and company return with another lively mix of science fact interwoven with wry fantasy world-building in this sequel to The Science of Discworld. When the wizards of Discworld's Unseen University accidentally created Roundworld—a version of our own Earth—they were so busy arguing about how the new universe worked that they didn't pay much attention to the people living in it. Now they're trying to make sense of these humans who don't have any magic but still believe in it, and somehow never manage to advance enough to keep themselves from getting wiped out by catastrophes such as asteroid impacts. The authors focus on the inner space of the human mind—the mental models we create, or "stories" we tell ourselves to explain the world—and how these stories shape our understanding of it. The discussion covers a broad array of topics and concepts, including Free Will, religious belief, the Anthropic Principle, entropy, and the necessity of Art in human development. This thoughtful, accessible, and sardonic look at the softer side of human evolution will convince readers of the power of a good story behind any endeavor. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise

Michael Brooks. Overlook, $27.95, (304p) ISBN 978-1-4683-1059-7

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Brooks (Free Radicals), a consultant at New Scientist, highlights numerous areas of research that give pause to many scientists and throw lay readers into confusion in this challenging and mind-bending work. This confusion follows in no part from Brooks's skills as a writer and explicator of science, but from topics that are difficult to face, whether it be the philosophical morass of human/animal tissue combinations called "chimera" or the startling finding that time as we experience it may well be an illusion. Issues of the nature of consciousness, animal personality, and our part in the "vast computer" that is the universe fill these pages. The hard-to-grasp concept of the Big Bang may, itself, be too simplistic to explain our current universe. Even concepts that aren't intellectually challenging, like the notion that medical practice ought to differ for men and women, strain the status quo of practice. Brooks handily works his way through these thorny problems, highlighting current research and researchers along the way. His goal isn't always to make sense of things, as some scientific work has only reached the stage of pointing out the problems in previously held theories. Perhaps he sums his work up best when he writes "common sense is not a useful guide to reality." (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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That's Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us

Erin Moore. Gotham, $25.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-592-40885-6

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As an American expatriate and book editor who lives in London, Moore is in an ideal position to see the truth to the longstanding joke that British English and American English are different languages. In this witty book, Moore delves into specific linguistic differences, unpacking what they say about our respective cultures. She groups her essays around individual words, using them to spin off into topics as varied as parenting (via "knackered," a state of exhaustion usually parental in nature), snacking ("bespoke," a word the English use to describe, among other things, sandwich bars), and relationships ("partner," a descriptor more inclusively used in the U.K.). She also delves deeply into nuances like how "Yankee" is defined —which differs both between the U.S. and U.K. (where all Americans are Yankees) and between different regions of the U.S. Moore manages to create a text that is eminently readable, clever (in the sincerely-intended American sense) and thought-provoking, gently breaking down some of the cultural stereotyping that plagues both Americans and British. The end result is something readers can readily share with friends on both sides of the ocean. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Crohn's & Colitis Diet Guide

Dr. A. Hillary Steinhart & Julia Cepo. Robert Rose (Firefly Books, North American dist.), $24.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-7788-0478-9

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Maintaining the right diet can be challenging, but it is essential to help manage the symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. This second, updated edition of the diet guide with an expanded list of recipes, authored by the division head of gastroenterology for Mount Sinai Hospital/University Health Network in Toronto, and the inpatient clinical dietitian for the gastrointestinal program at Mount Sinai, is a welcome addition to the field that will help IBD sufferers take control of their health. The book presents a wealth of background information about IBD. The first section of the book covers the basics of Crohn's and colitis. The second section explores drug, surgical and dietary strategies for managing IBD. The third section has an extensive listing of IBD-friendly meal plans and recipes. The guide is written in easy-to-understand language, provides answers to commonly asked questions and many useful illustrations, although there are no photos of the recipes. Steinhart and Cepo are both knowledgeable, and clearly interested in helping those with IBD lead healthier lives. They have produced an invaluable guide that is highly recommended for those with IBD and those who care for them. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword

David K. Shipler. Knopf, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-307-95732-0

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Less a sharp blade than a sticky, tangled web is the image conveyed by this nuanced survey of American free-speech controversies. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Shipler (‘Rights at Risk') investigates recent showdowns related to the issue: parents trying to ban novels with sex scenes from high school English classes, the government prosecuting whistle-blowers for speaking up about government surveillance abuses, preachers resisting IRS rules against electioneering from the pulpit, a Jewish theater fighting to retain funding for a play about a possible Israeli atrocity against Palestinians. These aren't all stories of heroic freedom fighters; while Shipler calls himself a near absolutist when it comes to the First Amendment, he allows that much embattled speech is ugly, hateful, or just plain stupid, and his sympathetic reportage recognizes concerns on all sides (sometimes to excess: he tends to let his subjects' rambling speechifying about speech go on for far too long). Shipler wants to show that, even in polarized contexts, an abundance of speech usually prods people a few steps closer to mutual comprehension. In the wake of the ‘Charlie Hebdo' massacre, his probing exploration of quieter confrontations reminds us how America's robust free-speech culture encourages citizens to talk, rather than shoot, issues out. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM. (May 12)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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