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The Invention of Power: Popes, Kings, and the Birth of the West

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. PublicAffairs, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5417-6875-8

Political scientist Bueno de Mesquita (The Dictator’s Handbook) delivers an intriguing, data-based analysis of how three overlooked 12th-century treaties between the Catholic Church and European monarchs set the stage for people in the West to become “freer, richer, more tolerant, more innovative, and happier than people just about anywhere else in the world.” Debunking claims that this “Western exceptionalism” is the by-product of Europeans’ superior culture or genetics, Bueno de Mesquita traces its roots to the Concordant of Worms, signed by Pope Calixtus II and Holy Roman Emperor Henry V in 1122, and two similar agreements signed by the kings of England and France in 1107. According to Bueno de Mesquita, these agreements, which reformed the “haphazard, highly variable procedures for electing bishops,” forced essential adaptations by both institutions, fostered economic growth, empowered ordinary people, and laid fertile ground for democracy. Extensive analysis of the church’s hierarchical structure bolsters his theory, as do charts and graphs that illustrate some surprising insights—for example, regions covered by the concordants were likelier to form parliamentary governments in later centuries. Though Bueno de Mesquita shortchanges other factors that contributed to the rise of the West, he builds a solid case. Medieval history buffs will be impressed. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Ripe for Revolution: Building Socialism in the Third World

Jeremy Friedman. Harvard Univ., $35 (352p) ISBN 978-0-674-24431-3

Harvard Business School professor Friedman (Shadow Cold War) delivers an impressively detailed if somewhat inconclusive look at how “fledgling postcolonial governments” in the 1960s and ’70s sought to create a “viable model of socialism” for their countries. While newly independent states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America viewed capitalism as a “driving force” of imperialism, their agrarian economies, powerful religious institutions, and lack of “a coherent national identity” made it difficult to follow the Chinese or Soviet models of socialism. Friedman’s case studies of how these regimes experimented with socialism include Chile, where Marxist leader Salvador Allende’s coalition government collapsed as a result of foreign interference and internal divisions over “the peaceful path to power”; Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere’s program of “forced villagization” resulted in “famine and economic collapse”; and Iran, where Islamism emerged as “an alternative, and potentially superior, anticapitalist and anti-imperialist ideology.” Friedman makes a persuasive case that the “process of trial and error” he charts shifted the focus of “liberation movements-cum-ruling parties” from “economic egalitarianism and modernization” to “national, ethnic, and religious self-assertion” and maintaining “single-party dominance,” but the significance of this conclusion remains somewhat unclear. Readers will appreciate the nuanced analysis but wonder what to make of it. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Vanished Collection

Pauline Baer de Perignon, trans. from the French by Natasha Lehrer. New Vessel, $17.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-939931-98-6

Baer de Perignon recounts her remarkable quest to pursue her family’s lost art collection in this riveting debut. When she learned from a cousin that paintings owned by her great-grandfather, a respected Jewish art collector, may have been stolen by Nazis during WWII (rather than sold in an auction, as she’d been told), Baer de Perignon went on a hunt to reclaim her family’s contribution to French art history. Over the next several years, her quest took her from the archives of the Musée d’Orsay to the Louvre and the German Federal Archives, and leads from each—and unexpected information from Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano—brought Baer de Perignon closer to unearthing the truth. With the help of family members, museum curators, and art historians, Baer de Perignon eventually secured the return of Tiepolo’s Shepherd from the Louvre and Largillière’s Portrait of a Lady as Pomona from the Dresden museum after a complicated restitution process. More moving discoveries that come to the fore during her pursuit are those she realizes about herself: “In my brilliant family... I’ve often felt left behind... This was where I belonged.” This page-turner will delight art history and mystery fans alike. (Jan)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Lost & Found: A Memoir

Kathryn Schulz. Random House, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-0-525-51246-2

“Just as every grief narrative is a reckoning with loss, every love story is a chronicle of finding,” writes Pulitzer Prize winner Schulz (Being Wrong) in this stunning memoir. As Schulz recounts, she contended with the pain and ecstasy of both narratives colliding when she fell in love with her future wife, C., 18 months before Schulz’s father died. She explores the grief of loss and joy of finding through penetrating reflections on the life of her father, a deep thinker with an endless appetite for the world; an “intimate study of [her] beloved” wife; and philosophical forays into literature, poetry, and art. She ruminates on the “intrinsic pleasure of discovery” in quest narratives, is reminded how “the entire plan of the universe consists of losing” when C. reads her Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and thinks of her father’s memorial service, one of the “greatest parties I ever attended,” when remembering C. S. Lewis’s quote that “we all have... many bad spots in our best times, many good ones in our worst.” By the end of these exquisite existential wanderings, Schulz comes to a quiet truce with her finding that “life, too, goes by contraries... by turns crushing and restorative... comic and uplifting.” Schulz’s canny observations are a treasure. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Tired as F*ck: Burnout at the Hands of Diet, Self-Help, and Hustle Culture

Caroline Dooner. Harper Wave, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-305297-0

Blogger Dooner (The F*ck It Diet) returns with a snappy and empathetic guide to combating burnout by purging “the guilt.” Dooner encourages readers to drop “the shoulds. The comparing ourselves to other people. The forcing ourselves to stay in jobs or relationships that we don’t love, but that we don’t think we deserve to leave.” The “accidental” impetus of Dooner’s revelations was her introduction to Marie Kondo’s advice on decluttering her apartment; she determined she could extend the principle of chucking anything tangible that didn’t “spark joy” to relationships and career paths. After a lifetime of trying to become a successful actor, Dooner declares she got “sick of everything,” especially the heightened anxiety auditions caused, so she just quit going to them. She also stopped making any foods off-limits (and dropped dieting), allowed herself to rest, and stopped forcing herself to go on second dates with men she wasn’t attracted to. As a result, she forged a better relationship with her body, learned she doesn’t have to work 80 hours a week (after hiring a part-time assistant for her blog), and created space in her life to welcome new jobs, new friends and new ideas. By boldly sharing vulnerabilities, Dooner’s account should go a long way in helping others accept their own. It’s a brave and bracing manifesto that will be welcomed by any reader living in the aftermath of burnout—or trying to avoid it. Agent: Susan Raihofer, David Black Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The First Black Archaeologist: A Life of John Wesley Gilbert

John W.I. Lee. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-19-757899-5

Historian Lee (A Greek Army on the March) rescues a pioneering Black scholar from obscurity in this intriguing biography. Reconstructing the life of John Wesley Gilbert (1863–1923) from his birth to enslaved parents in Georgia to his missionary work in the Belgian Congo, Lee highlights the post–Civil War push for African American schooling and the debates between such educators as Booker T. Washington, who advocated industrial training for Black people, and those who promoted the kind of classical liberal arts curriculum that Gilbert studied at the Paine Institute (now Paine College) in Augusta, Ga. After graduating from Brown University in 1888, Gilbert received a scholarship to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece, where he studied the Greek language, conducted archaeological excavations, and helped create the first map of ancient Eretria. Back in the U.S., Gilbert became the first Black faculty member at Paine, where he taught French, German, Greek, and Latin. Later, he helped establish a Methodist mission in the Congo and spoke out against the “ ‘so-called civilization’ of colonialism, which exploited Africa’s land and people for money, leaving behind ruin.” Lee meticulously pieces together the fragmentary records of Gilbert’s life to highlight his extraordinary commitment to “interracial cooperation” at a time of worsening racism in the South. The result is an informative addition to the history of Black education in America. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down

Jonathan Gottschall. Basic, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-1-5416-4596-7

Gottschall recycles many of his previous claims about the power and danger of narratives in this tedious and self-contradictory sequel to The Storytelling Animal. Contending that “all narrative is reductionist” and that storytelling is humanity’s “essential poison,” Gottschall cherry-picks dozens of examples to build his case, noting, for instance, that Plato’s Republic “condemned storytellers as professional liars who got the body politic drunk on emotion,” and that Tommy Wiseau’s notoriously bad 2003 movie, The Room, fails to convey its misogynistic message because it doesn’t generate “narrative transportation.” In Gottschall’s view, historical storytelling “frequently amounts to a kind of revenge fantasy, where the malefactors of our past can be resurrected, tried, and convicted for violating moral codes they frequently hadn’t heard of.” But he downplays contemporaneous evidence of people risking their lives to, for instance, resist the Nazi Party and end slavery in the American South, and he doesn’t acknowledge any social and cultural histories that do not “wrench real-world facts into line with the most powerful grammar of fiction.” Though his sharp sense of humor entertains, Gottschall’s overly broad and reductive argument falls flat. This study is more provocative than persuasive. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Marauders: Standing Up to Vigilantes in the American Borderlands

Patrick Strickland. Melville House, $27.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-61219-926-9

Journalist Strickland (Alerta! Alerta!) spotlights in this vivid, character-driven report one Arizona town’s efforts to fight back against “a flood of extremely dangerous, virulently racist, and heavily armed outsiders” who have flocked to the U.S. border with Mexico in recent years. He briskly recounts previous waves of anti-immigrant persecution, including the burning of Irish Catholic churches in Philadelphia in 1844 and the 1919 Palmer Raids that led to the deportation of hundreds of Italians and Eastern European Jews, linking these events to the resurgence of the “white supremacist movement” during Donald Trump’s presidency. Scarred by a 2009 incident in which “rogue militiamen” killed a man and his nine-year-old daughter during a home invasion, residents of Arivaca, Ariz., lobbied local businesses to ban militia members and erected antimilitia signs around town. The vigilantes and their supporters responded by livestreaming confrontations with locals and “accusing any vaguely humanitarian-minded Arivacan” of connections to Mexican drug cartels and child sex traffickers. Strickland profiles residents who spearheaded the campaign as well as those who welcomed the vigilantes, documents the extensive criminal records of militia members, and notes “the cozy relationship between many law enforcement agencies and radical right-wing groups.” The result is a fascinating and often harrowing portrait of a community in the crosshairs. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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I Am Because We Are: An African Mother’s Fight for the Soul of a Nation

Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr. House of Anansi, $18.99 trade paper (392p) ISBN 978-1-4870-0963-2

In this heartfelt if imperfect debut, Akunyili-Parr reflects on the life of her mother, Dora Akunyili (1954–2014), a titan of Nigerian politics. Writing in her mother’s voice, Akunyili-Parr starts with Dora’s childhood in Biafra—where, she notes, no one “was spared a first-hand experience of the [civil] war”—and charts her devotion to her academic studies, which later led to her rise through the ranks of local government. Inspired by the death of her sister due to a fake insulin shot in 1987, Akunyili “had a front-row seat to how the system discriminated against precisely those in need” and fought tirelessly against the corruption in Nigeria’s health-care system. Despite facing discrimination as an Igbo woman, Akunyili became director-general of the Nigerian National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control in 2001 and vowed to “tackle the Hydra-headed monster called counterfeit medicines.” While readers will undoubtedly be inspired by Akunyili’s role in shaping modern Nigeria, Akunyili-Parr’s approach to telling her mother’s story through a first-person narrative often yields writing that feels more formal than intimate—recalling her mother’s marriage to her father, for instance, Akunyili-Parr writes, “I felt so deeply blessed for this man that I now called husband.” The result unfortunately feels like a shallow summation of an immensely complicated life. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020

Elise Engler. Metropolitan, $32 (394p) ISBN 978-1-250-82469-1

Artist Engler debuts with a stunning visual chronicle of what many consider “the worst year of our lives.” From January 20, 2020, to January 21, 2021, Engler created a work of art for each day of the calamitous period marked by Covid-19, based on the headlines every morning. These evocative works, accompanied by brief notes summarizing the day’s news, lead readers through the monumental, mundane, and transitory events of what Engler calls “a time scarred by fecklessness, devastation, rage, injustice, illness, and death.” While the pandemic looms large in her provocative paintings—as well as former president Trump’s two impeachments—she underscores how, despite humanity being on pause, “we managed to carry on.” On offer are portraits that juxtapose the profound with the prosaic—Kobe Bryant’s death on January 27, 2020; Tom Brady’s signing with Tampa Bay for $60 million (which happened, she notes, the same day that New York “declared disaster”); the murder of George Floyd in May and the subsequent summer of protest; and President Biden’s inauguration. In a blunt style that captures the urgency and confusion of that year, Engler’s paintings offer an extraordinarily haunting time capsule of an era readers soon won’t forget. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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