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The Breath of a Whale: The Science and Spirit of Pacific Ocean Giants

Leigh Calvez. Sasquatch, $19.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-63217-186-3

These intimate but sometimes off-putting musings from naturalist Calvez (The Hidden Lives of Owls) on her cetacean experiences over two decades wander too heavily into her personal frustrations and problems. Although the ethological information she shares is detailed and well-presented, reflecting her background as a researcher for the Ocean Mammal Institute, she is explicit about now identifying as a writer and not a scientist after becoming disillusioned with the government’s lack of response to her studies of the disruptive effect on whale populations of the U.S. Navy’s use of low-frequency sonar. Nevertheless, her credulous mentions of other people’s theories that whales communicate across “unseen morphic fields, like invisible magnetic or gravitational fields,” and that dolphins are from other star systems, and her own theory about speaking to whales from inside her mind, will strike rational-minded readers as deeply questionable. Detailed accounts of her involvement in tagging expeditions express the immediacy of the experience of respectfully following the whales, but are marred by bland reconstructed dialogue between Calvez and her human colleagues. This memoir of mammalian encounters skirts a space between activist inspiration and spiritual memoir, and misses both marks. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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10 Women Who Changed Science and the World

Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans. Diversion, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-63576-609-7

Assembling an assortment of short but impressive profiles, immunologist Whitlock and physicist Evans honor female scientific trailblazers. They balance scientific explanations with personalizing details, revealing that physician Virginia Apgar, who invented the score for testing newborns, always carried a pen knife for emergency tracheotomies, and that Rachel Carson, whose work as a biologist greatly inspired modern environmentalism, wrote her first book “accompanied by her much-loved Persian cats Buzzie and Kito.” Per the title, the book shows how its subjects transformed both scientific knowledge (Henrietta Leavitt figured out how to measure the magnitude of stars, neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini discovered nerve growth factor, and Chien-Shiung Wu disproved the law of parity in physics) and the wider world (Gertrude Elion developed successful drugs for cancer, AIDS, transplants, gout, and shingles, and Elsie Widdowson helped create the WWII-era British ration diet). These transformations weren’t always for the best; Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission, hated the resultant A-bomb. Throughout, the authors emphasize the centrality of hard work and resilience. Marie Curie, the first female Nobel Prize winner, isolated radium out of “sheer doggedness,” while chemist Dorothy Hodgkin discovered insulin’s structure despite suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. These minibiographies of women who persisted will move anyone with an avid curiosity about the world. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity

Andreas Wagner. Basic, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5416-4533-2

In this intricate but accessible work, evolutionary biologist Wagner draws a fascinating analogy between how nature innovates to optimize itself and how human creativity works. He introduces a conceptual tool from his discipline, the “adaptive landscape,” a graphic resembling a “topographic map of a mountain range,” which organisms “climb” by evolving. Strict natural selection can allow one to reach the nearest peak—a beneficial characteristic—but doesn’t tolerate backward steps, making other, possibly higher peaks inaccessible. However, other climbing strategies—recombination through alternative splicing of DNA and through sexual reproduction—allow more landscape to be traversed. Wagner then moves the model to algorithmic problem solving, describing “genetic algorithms” that use multiple starting points and random mutations. Applying his model to creativity, he shows how mental landscapes are built similarly, by exploring different realms of knowledge and making “unusual combinations of experience and expertise” akin to DNA recombination. A brief foray into cultural implications—which recommends the cultivation of diversity and autonomy instead of hypercompetition in education and academia—is comparatively ill-developed and out of place. Nonetheless, this enjoyable popular science book, easy to follow without ever becoming oversimplistic, provides an intriguing new perspective on the mechanisms of innovation, whether molecule or symphony. Agent: Lisa Adams, Garamond Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Full Count: The Education of a Pitcher

David Cone and Jack Curry. Grand Central, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-5387-4884-8

Former New York Yankees pitcher Cone and analyst Curry (coauthor with Derek Jeter of The Life You Imagine) deliver an enjoyable memoir that recounts Cone’s remarkable career and provides an honest look at the road to the major leagues. Cone is best remembered for his run with the late-1990s Yankees dynasty, and he also spent five seasons as a Met, where he recorded 19 strikeouts in a single game. As Cone tells it, he didn’t play high school baseball while growing up in Kansas City, and he put in his time moving up through the Class A and Class AA systems. Throughout, Cone explains the difficulty of being a pitcher (“a weighty responsibility that is like none other in sports”), alongside more lighthearted anecdotes about fellow ball players, such as his friendship with Cal Ripken Jr. and what it was like to pitch against the legend in his final game (“I wanted him to know it was going to be a matchup filled with fastballs”). Throughout, Cone provides keen insight into the mind of a pitcher, recalling with uncanny specificity the most difficult pitches of his career (notably the final pitch in his 1999 perfect game against the Montreal Expos) and how he almost always overcame adversity with triumph. While this is a must-read for Cone fans, baseball aficionados of any allegiance will surely delight in this behind-the-scenes memoir. Agent: David Black, David Black Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Monsieur Mediocre: One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French

John von Sothen. Viking, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2483-4

Vanity Fair writer von Sothen delights in this wry narrative about the gritty, grumpy realities of being an American adjusting to the Gallic lifestyle. In lighthearted essays, von Sothen describes how his life changed after marrying a French actor named Anais, who convinced him to move to Paris, he deadpans, by “shooting me in the neck with a dart gun and bundling me off.” But, as Anais is “technically a countess” and has an 18th-century country home in Normandy, he acknowledges his landing was nicely cushioned. His quippy observations of 15 years living in France include the French way of overpreparing for trips (“Vacations are not just times to relax in France, they’re subtle status symbols”), his linguistic shortcomings (“I speak French like Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks English”), and discovering that Fox News had reported that his Paris neighborhood was a “No-Go Zone” because of Muslim riots (while “my neighborhood wasn’t a ‘caliphate of Paristinians’... it wasn’t a cake walk either”). Von Sothen does a nice job of not just listing culture-clash gags (he works sometimes as a stand-up comic and this style of humor is apparent throughout) but showing the ways in which a person can adapt over time, such as how he vowed to become an “engaged citizen” when Emmanuel Macron was elected president. With self-deprecating humor, von Sothen wonderfully gives an insider’s take on living life as an outsider. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives

Walt Odets. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-28585-2

In this soaring combination of social critique, memoir, and manifesto, Odets (In the Shadow of the Epidemic) urges gay men “to discover or rediscover identities that are internally rooted, self-expressive, and revealed in authentically lived lives.” Drawing on his psychological forebears (Erik Erikson and Judith Herman among them), his own experiences (including those unrelated to romantic love, like grieving his mother’s death when he was a child), and the stories of patients he has seen in decades of practice as a psychologist, he highlights—with literary flair—shared trauma, stigma, shame, and suffering that he sees as particular to gay men’s experience in America, often contributing to a compromised existence of failed conformity to social norms. Odets unpacks the difference between “gay” and “homosexual,” defining the former as “an entire internal life of feeling” versus a “single, objective behavior.” His discussions of gay men’s sexual expression and relationships are frank, compassionate, and open-minded. He writes, “Only through self-discovery and self-acceptance can we most fully realize our lives,” and that “in the end, authentic self-acceptance—or the lack of it—is almost the entirety of what defines a life.” Odets’s greatest strengths are his moving prose and ability to make the psychological material accessible and as fascinating and thought-provoking as the poignant stories. Gay men will find much to ponder here, but any reader can find meaning in this extraordinary, stirring invitation to re-examine assumptions about what it means to be gay and to have a good life. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Kushner, Inc.: Greed. Ambition. Corruption. The Extraordinary Story of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump

Vicky Ward. St. Martin's, $28.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-18594-5

The Trump administration's premier power couple is a study in arrogance, incompetence, and corruption in this caustic exposé. Huffington Post writer Ward (The Liar's Ball) paints First Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, both top advisers to President Trump, as poster-kids of overentitled, ethically dubious wealth. Ivanka, Ward reports, is "talented at telling self-serving bald lies" by posing as a moderate while doing little to rein in Trump's excesses; she was, he writes, neck-deep in Trump Organization deals with shady foreign investors, then exploited her presidential access to get advantages for her fashion business from foreign governments. Kushner, Ward contends, is awash in rules violations, such as failing to report meetings with Russian officials, and trades on his far-reaching government influence to get foreign investments for his family's real estate business. (Ward credits his interference in Middle East policy, motivated by a desire to wring investments from oil monarchies, with almost starting a war in the Persian Gulf.) Ward's rehash of the "Javanka" saga is well-researched but not well-presented; it's an eye-glazing maze of small-to-middling improprieties, with the thread often getting lost in the chaos of White House power plays and backstabbing. Still, Ward offers a useful, though dispiriting, guide to the ascendance of private business over the public interest in the Trump administration. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America

Margaret O’Mara. Penguin, $30 (512p) ISBN 978-0-399-56218-1

This “only-in-America story” from O’Mara, a University of Washington history professor, puts a gloriously human face on the history of computing in the U.S. Her weighty but gripping account tracks Silicon Valley through four stages: 1949’s Palo Alto, a soporific town distinguished only by the presence of Stanford University; the 1960s transition from an industry focused on electronics to one dominated by information ; the anti-establishment upstart entrepreneurs of the ’70s; and the breathless present, when the Valley is filled with people of unprecedented influence and wealth. Introducing pioneering players such as early venture capitalist David Morgenthaler, programmer Ann Hardy (who resisted pressure at IBM to accept the customary female role of “systems service girl”), and, inevitably, Steve Jobs, alongside such lesser-known figures as developer Trish Millines, O’Mara paints a picture of a world into which tech exploded unexpectedly, with far-reaching political and cultural results. Particularly fascinating sections include discussions of how and why the U.S. government invested in tech, the intersection of software and the military, the rise and impact of hackers, and Silicon Valley’s financial impact on a vastly transformed—and increasingly impossible to afford—Bay Area. O’Mara’s extraordinarily comprehensive history is a must-read for anyone interested in how a one-horse town birthed a revolution that has shifted the course of modern civilization. Agent: Geri Thoma, Writer’s House. (July)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Time Song: Journeys in Search of a Submerged Land

Julia Blackburn. Pantheon, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-10187-167-6

What people think is lost never entirely leaves, posits novelist and biographer Blackburn (The Emperor’s Lost Island) in this lyrical exploration of Doggerland, the country that until 6,000 years ago connected Britain with mainland Europe and now lies under the North Sea. Alternating chapters of prose with prose-poems she calls “time songs,” Blackburn creates an impressionistic picture of a place that is both gone and yet still there, its landscape partly intact beneath the waves. “Trying to see through the fact of absence is what this book is mostly about,” writes Blackburn, who also reflects on the recent loss of her beloved husband. Along the way, she visits with experts on Doggerland—related to the Danish word dag, meaning “dagger,” which also gave the dogwood its name—and hikes through countryside near her home in England and elsewhere that resembles what Doggerland may have been like: icy in the winter, marshy in the summer. Like one of the scientists she meets on her quest, Blackburn believes life is a process that “does not begin with birth or end with death,” but “is a trajectory in which there is no finite end.” This sweet, sad book will leave its readers meditating on loss and timelessness. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague

David K. Randall. Norton, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-60945-5

Journalist Randall (The King and Queen of Malibu) delivers a fast-paced and well-researched narrative about the efforts to eradicate bubonic plague from San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. The disease claimed its first victim in Chinese immigrant Wong Chut King in 1900 and then established itself over the next several years, threatening the entire country. Randall vividly recounts the efforts of Dr. Joseph Kinyoun, surgeon of the Marine Hospital Service and the city’s chief quarantine officer, and his replacement, Dr. Rupert Blue, to overcome corrupt politics, inaccurate journalism, and a disregard for Yersina pestis (the bacterium that causes plague) to convince state and local officials of the danger. Unlike his thwarted predecessor, Blue established ties to Chinatown, where the plague first appeared, and hired a Chinese interpreter who brought more cases of plague to his attention. When Blue focused on catching the flea-infested rats that surged through the district, rather than assuming the inhabitants were to blame, he succeeded in temporarily halting the disease’s spread. After the Great Earthquake of 1906, the plague flared up in other neighborhoods, this time mainly infecting white victims, and Blue’s extensive rat extermination program was successful again. Underscoring how prejudice, complacency, and willful ignorance can be as dangerous to public health as bacteria, Randall spins an action-packed and stirring tale. (May)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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