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How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS

David France. Knopf, $30 (640p) ISBN 978-0-307-70063-6

Journalist France (Our Fathers) illuminates the origins and progress of the fight against AIDS in this moving mix of memoir and reportage, a companion book to his eponymous Academy Award–nominated 2012 documentary. He covers a revolution in drug development that occurred as patients, for the first time, "joined in the search for their own salvation." France begins in 1981, when a buried New York Times story first identified a "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals," and continues through 1996, when a medical system transformed by activism delivered treatments that rendered AIDS a manageable illness. He juxtaposes his personal involvement with that of a group of self-proclaimed "HIVIPs," key ACT UP leaders from their Treatment + Data Committee whose collective mission was getting the medical establishment to put "drugs into bodies." Eventually, ACT UP became unwieldy and the group spun-off into the Treatment Action Group. France shares with passion and pathos the personal battles of these activists, offering both plaudits and opprobrium to an array of players who constituted the fabric of the community. As important as Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On was in 1987, France's work is a must-read for a new generation of empowered patients, informed medical practitioners, and challenged caregivers—lest history repeat itself. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

Michael Lewis. Norton, $28.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-393-25459-4

Lewis (Flash Boys) deftly explores a timeless and fascinating subject—human decision-making—through the intellectually intimate collaboration of two influential psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The pair met in 1969 and worked together until a few years before Tversky's death in 1996. As Lewis explains, they discovered that people do not make decisions as economists long believed—as "intuitive statisticians"—but rather in a chaotic fashion shot through with confirmation bias, fears of regret, sensitivity to change, the desire to avoid loss, and a propensity to mentally undo distressing outcomes. Through interviews with Tversky and Kahneman's friends, family, colleagues, rivals, and critics, as well as the psychologists' own recollections, letters, and published papers, Lewis seamlessly pieces together an informative and engagingly paced story. He begins with a step-by-step explanation of why both human minds and statistical models so often fail to produce the best choice. He then interweaves the psychologists' early lives, military service in defense of the young state of Israel, and professorial careers in both Israel and the United States with their questions, theories, and startling conclusions about how people actually make decisions. Lewis' latest effort is a joy to read, packed with "aha!" moments, telling and at times hilarious details, and elegant explanations of complex experiments and theories. (Dec. 6)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life

Thich Nhat Hanh. Parallax, $24.95 (187p) ISBN 978-1-941529-42-3

In a collection of previously published works and unpublished talks, Nhat Hanh (The Miracle of Mindfulness) offers readers stories and teachings from his life. Nhat Hanh, known for his simple and tender style of Zen instruction, teaches through short vignettes drawn from multiple periods of his life: his youth in Vietnam, the Vietnam War and his eventual exile, the establishment of the Sweet Potato Community and Plum Village in France, and his teachings abroad. Through these stories, he provides an inspirational and moving example of understanding and compassion constantly at work in the everyday world. Some lessons can be gleaned from his stories: that one should slow down and pay mindful awareness to daily activities; that one should practice nonviolence and compassion in the face of hatred, violence, or intolerance; and that one should cultivate a true home by taking care of the self, caring for one’s feelings, and generating compassionate understanding. For Nhat Hanh, happiness is not to be found by constant pursuit: “There is no way home; home is the way.” Followers and newcomers to Nhat Hanh’s teaching alike will find this collection inspiring for everyday practice and for social engagement in the world. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Timbuktu School for Nomads: Across the Sahara in the Shadow of Jihad

Nicholas Jubber. Nicholas Brealey, $25.95 (228p) ISBN 978-1-85788-654-2

Jubber (Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah’s Beard) journeys through Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, and Mali in this insightful, warm, and humorous account of his travels with and among North African nomads. Underscoring “how complicated life can be when the margins of survival are so tight,” Jubber enlists locals from a variety of nomadic communities to teach him basic skills, including goat-milking, navigating dunes by starlight, preparing tea, and saddling a camel. Even in the most isolated villages, he finds environmental pressures and climate change threatening the inhabitants’ way of life, and Saudi-trained clerics importing interpretations of Islam that conflict with ancient indigenous traditions. Jubber’s travels to Timbuktu bookend the militant Islamist faction Ansar Dine’s violent occupation of the region, and his guides are on edge and divided among themselves. But Timbuktu is no stranger to turmoil; in the 19th century it “earned the nickname ‘White Man’s Grave.’ ” The contrast and subtle interplay between the region’s earthy ethos and its distinguished intellectual history offer an unexpected takeaway. The desert outpost of Chinguetti is home to a handful of libraries, whose extant volumes are now moth-eaten and yellowed, that for centuries surpassed anything found in Europe. Jubber’s serious engagement with nomadic cultures is a welcome addition to an underwhelming body of literature on North Africa. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Drone Memos: Targeted Killing, Secrecy, and the Law

Edited by Jameel Jaffer. New Press, $27.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-62097-259-5

Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, examines numerous primary source documents that offer legal and ethical rationales for targeted killings by the U.S., including of American citizens on foreign soil. The Obama administration’s continued use of drones as primary weapons in the “War on Terror” has been a major disappointment to supporters of the president. Jaffer, who oversaw many of the ACLU’s cases challenging expanded government powers post-9/11, exposes the rationales by which Obama and his advisers justify their drone policy. These include public explanations, such as Obama’s 2013 remarks at the National Defense University, and classified ones, such as the 2010 Justice Department legal memo analyzing the legality of a lethal operation against Sheikh Anwar Awlaki, an American who had been dubbed the “bin Laden of the Internet.” As Jaffer notes, these justifications reflect “a deep transformation in American attitudes and society” and measure “the extent to which the perceived demands of counterterrorism have erased rule-of-law strictures that were taken for granted only a generation ago.” The documents, many of which are heavily redacted, are replete with legalese that may sound Kafkaesque to lay readers, but Jaffer more than compensates for that with a trenchant summation of the issues at hand. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike

John DeSantis. History, $21.99 (144p) ISBN 978-1-4671-3689-1

In this concise and vivid study, journalist DeSantis uncovers the long-hidden history of an 1887 bloodbath in which men from some of Louisiana’s most esteemed white families murdered between 30 and 60 African-American men in the small town of Thibodaux. As DeSantis emphasizes, in the region south and east of New Orleans “black slaves boiled and spun sugar into gold for white planters,” producing though their forced labor the wealth that built the magnificent plantation houses that now function as tourist attractions. After the Civil War, ex-slaves, some of whom had served in the Union Army, came into conflict with their former owners, who numbered among the South’s most “unreconstructed rebels.” Tensions increased as many black sugar workers joined the Knights of Labor and organized walkouts from the cane fields in an attempt to negotiate higher wages. Fearing a loss of the sugar workforce in a crucial year following a bad harvest, planters convinced Gov. McEnery to dispatch the state militia to Thibodaux. They stormed the town’s black neighborhood and committed a massacre of which news was immediately suppressed. DeSantis’s work recounts this horrific tale in gripping detail, restoring to public memory an important moment in the entwined histories of race and labor in America. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Cinema Alchemist: Designing ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Alien’

Roger Christian. Titan, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-78329-900-3

Christian, a film director (The Sender) and Oscar-winning set decorator, describes working on classic films such as Star Wars and Alien in this meticulous memoir. He begins with the less well-remembered 1975 Lucky Lady, where he first worked with junk and scrap to dress a set, and also met designer John Barry. Through Barry, he met George Lucas, who hired him for Star Wars. Christian chronicles key moments from his time on that epochal film, from reading its closely guarded script to unconventionally set-dressing the film with old materials, such as airplane scrap used in the Millennium Falcon’s interiors. Included in this section are gorgeous full-color photographs of early mock-ups for props and artwork. Afterwards, Christian prepared work for Monty Python’s Life of Brian before signing on with Ridley Scott to work on Alien. On that project, he describes creating the look of the main spaceship, and the triumph of winning an Oscar. In the book’s conclusion, Christian discusses deciding to make his own films, beginning with the fantasy short Black Angel. In a ruthless creative industry, Christian has held onto his resilience and patience, which enabled him to do innovative and influential work. His story will appeal to all fans of these films. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally)

John McWhorter. Holt, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-1-62779-471-8

McWhorter (The Language Hoax) will make word snobs clutch their pearls and gasp in dismay as he convincingly argues that they should “shed the contempt: the acrid disgust so many people seem to harbor for people who use the forms [of language] we have been taught are ‘bad.’ ” McWhorter shows the mutability that lies at the core of all language, exploring words that transition from semantic to pragmatic use, the evolution of word meanings, words that become grammar, changes in pronunciation over time, and the ways words combine to form new words. Along the way he specifically addresses infamous irritants such as using “literally” figuratively, uptalk, and speech peppered with “like.” Contextualizing them in lexical history, McWhorter shows how they are similar to other changes we now take for granted (such as the evolution of the suffix -like into the common adverbial ending -ly). McWhorter employs a jocular style that makes for smooth reading, without sacrificing the complexity of the subject. Sometimes the humor is a bit stretched, but the overall effect is an unintimidating welcome to readers new to the subject that pleasantly relaxes the discourse of grammar propriety. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers

Edited by Graydon Carter. Penguin, $20 trade paper (424p) ISBN 978-0-14-311176-4

Rich and delicious, this collection features 41 entertaining and informative pieces originally published in Vanity Fair by famous writers, including Elizabeth Bishop, Christopher Hitchens, and Jacqueline Woodson, analyzing other celebrated authors. Details of the subjects’ craft—schedules and routines—are discussed, along with insights into their art, and how the ups and downs of their lives influenced what they wrote. Each article starts with a career highlight, a big success, or a controversy. Next is a brief biography, often followed by some personal reminiscence. Readers learn of the authors’ families and early lives; what they overcame to achieve initial success; how they were critically received and how they influenced other writers; and, for many, the eventual decline of their skills and reputation. The selection of subjects is diverse, including W.H. Auden and Jacqueline Susann. Likewise, the analysis of the work ranges from formal literary criticism to appreciations of works initially dismissed as trash. The magazine’s writers are witty and insightful. James Wolcott on Jack Kerouac: He “committed suicide on the installment plan.” Michael Lewis on Tom Wolfe: “He moves back and forth like a bridge player, ruffing the city and the country against each other.” Each essay is reason enough to read (or reread) the subject’s work. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in the Trash

Alexander Masters. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-374-17818-5

With surprise, humor, and quiet insights that never seem glib, biographer Masters (Stuart: A Life Backwards) pursues an extraordinary question: what is the value of an ordinary life? With wonderful excerpts, original handwriting, photographs, sketches, and extravagant speculation, Masters brings to vivid life the 148 anonymous diaries that come into his possession, and constructs a richly compelling narrative around his experience of discovering their owner. The narrative of the diary author’s obsessions, ambitions, great loves, and disappointments is scaffolded with mysteries and discoveries that keep Masters revising his initial assumptions. He employs graphologists, private detectives, concert pianists, and judicious trespassing to understand his subject, but enjoys the anonymity, “sense of quiet universality,” and truth captured in this scrupulously documented existence. Despite some shortcomings, Masters’s subject has produced something impressive and unprecedented: “a forty-million-word description of being alive.” As much a guided tour of Masters’s own mind as that of his subject, this book is funny, original, astonishing, and poignant in its revelations that, in biography as in life, there are no tidy answers—but there is an incredible value in the ordinary, in “the resonance of tiny things” and “triumphs of a scribbled-down life.” Agent: Peter Straus, Rogers, Coleridge, and White (U.K.) (Oct.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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