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Keep Calm and Log On: Your Handbook for Surviving the Digital Revolution

Gillian “Gus” Andrews. MIT, $24.95 (408p) ISBN 978-0-262-53876-3

Though presented as a how-to manual on safe computer and smartphone use targeted to older, tech-phobic users, this essential crash course also has useful guidance on media literacy and critical thinking. Andrews, producer of the YouTube series The Media Show, believes that technological advances, combined with distrust in information and authorities, have overwhelmed users into a “learned helplessness” and made them more susceptible to manipulation. Discussing how to manage one’s exposure to digital media and to meaningfully evaluate information, she uses photos from the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, and other historical events as examples of times when communities had to pull together, as she believes everyone must do now in the face of technological change. There is practical, technical help in these pages about online privacy, with details on how to create strong passwords and interact with others safely online, as well as a tools to help readers fact-check information encountered online and understand what kinds of intellectual authority professional qualifications do and don’t confer. This should be required reading for both admitted luddites and longtime digital denizens. (May)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery

Wendy Lesser. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-90471-5

Part literary criticism and part travelogue, this exceptionally well-conceived cultural history compares the “mental image” of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden that critic Lesser (Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance) derived from immersion in Nordic noir thrillers, and the reality she found when she finally visited those countries. In the book’s first half, she relates how Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s 10 novels featuring detective Martin Beck jump-started her fascination with the genre. She then exhaustively identifies themes common in the work of Scandinavian crime novelists, including the sadism of their criminal characters, the alcohol problems shared by their detectives and criminals, and the relative lack of emphasis on judicial proceedings. Traveling to Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm in the book’s second part, Lesser discovers that the murders so rampant in the novels are comparatively low—100 to 120 per year for all of Sweden, for example —and that the violence against children so frequently depicted “doesn’t happen all that often in real life,” which is “precisely why it appears in fiction.” Lesser is remarkably encyclopedic in her knowledge of Nordic noir and easily conveys her enthusiasm to readers. This fine exploration of fiction as reality and reality as fiction will draw many readers to the authors she covers. (May)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Inclusify: The Power of Uniqueness and Belonging to Build Innovative Teams

Stefanie K. Johnson. HarperBusiness, $29.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-294727-7

Most companies that think they’re encouraging diverse and inclusive practices are actually not, according to this disappointing treatise from Johnson, an associate management professor at the Leeds School of Business. She sees business leaders as still largely in thrall to the meritocracy myth, and as failing to take diverse backgrounds, experiences, and skills into account when hiring. To address this, Johnson urges organizations to focus on helping employees feel that they belong—the power of this feeling, she argues, is universal, and key to success. She also helps readers learn how to break their own biases, starting with a shift from unconscious to conscious thinking, and how to develop and build solid teams. These efforts need to be incorporated into every single day, she says, and from this conviction comes the term “inclusifying,” a “continuous, sustained effort toward helping diverse teams feel engaged, empowered, accepted, and valued.” (Why this familiar idea requires a neologism worthy of Michael Scott is not explained.) Johnson’s well-intentioned offering doesn’t provide much new to employers wondering why their supposedly merit-based team is, once again, all white men. Agent: Michael Palgon, Palgon Company. (June)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The World: A Brief Introduction

Richard Haass. Penguin Press, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-399-56239-6

The planet is in a state both promising and perilous and needs America to stay involved in international relations, argues this superficial primer on world affairs. Haass (A World in Disarray), president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U. S. State Department official and Middle East policy adviser to George H.W. Bush, pitches his overview at generalists trying to understand developments abroad and their implications for America. After a whirlwind montage of world history since the 17th century, he focuses on the post-WWII period and looks at present-day conditions in various regional powers and hot spots. He then offers quick, chapter-long briefings on geopolitical issues, including climate change, nuclear proliferation, migration, trade, pandemics, development strategies for impoverished countries, war, and the rise of China. Haass’s rehash of these topics is cautious, evenhanded, and centrist—he advocates for a prudent but engaged American foreign policy that steers between adventurism and isolationism. (He notes his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, for example, but castigates the Obama administration for not punishing the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against insurgents.) Haas’s broad survey may make a useful introduction for neophytes, but it’s too shallow and conventional to hold much interest for readers who closely follow the news. (May)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Gideon’s Promise: A Public Defender Movement to Transform Criminal Justice

Jonathan Rapping. Beacon, $27.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8070-6462-7

Rapping, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and former public defender, describes in this impressive debut the history and philosophy of Gideon’s Promise, his criminal justice reform organization. Named for Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court case establishing the constitutional right to counsel, Gideon’s Promise seeks to build a community of public defenders committed to “procedural justice,” “client-centered lawyering,” and the idea that people are more than “the sum total of their worst acts.” Rapping paints a bleak picture of the modern “conveyor belt” criminal justice system that creates impossible caseloads for public defenders, devalues the accused (80% of whom can’t afford to hire a lawyer), leans on plea bargaining under threat of unaffordable bail, and prioritizes lawyers’ relationships with judges over clients. To counteract these imbalances, Rapping trains lawyers to resist streamlining procedures that leave no time to collect information beyond police reports, adopt a narrative approach to “shape the universe of facts” at every step of the process, and commit to seeing their clients as people. He makes a convincing case that well-supported, values-based public defenders who prioritize incremental improvements in the face of systematic injustice can be effective change agents. This optimistic, well-articulated account is a must-read for policy makers and criminal-justice advocates. (May)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Atomic Spy: The Dark Lives of Klaus Fuchs

Nancy Thorndike Greenspan. Viking, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-593-08339-0

Biographer Greenspan (The End of the Certain World) reconsiders Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs (1911–1988) in this richly detailed work. Born in Germany, Fuchs became a member of the Communist party as a university student in 1932, left the country after the 1933 Reichstag fire, and completed his PhD in theoretical physics in England. Following the outbreak of WWII, Fuchs’s commitment to communism was “reinforced,” Greenspan contends, during his internment at a camp for “enemy aliens” in Canada, where he befriended a Soviet intelligence agent. Released in 1941, Fuchs contributed research to the Manhattan Project and eventually became a division head at Britain’s main nuclear-research facility. At every step of the way, he passed along top-secret information that helped the Soviets build their own atomic bomb faster than expected. Exposed as a spy in the Venona code-breaking project, Fuchs confessed in 1950 and served nine years in prison before immigrating to East Germany. Greenspan portrays Fuchs as a reticent figure motivated by sincere political beliefs and the idea that the free flow of information might prevent a nuclear arms race. Though the book’s prose style is more diligent than dynamic, Greenspan builds tension by interweaving Fuchs’s scientific and espionage pursuits with MI5’s efforts to unmask him. This circumspect account blurs the lines between courage and treachery in thought-provoking ways. (May)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Stan Lee: A Life in Comics

Liel Leibovitz. Yale Univ, $26 (192p) ISBN 978-0-300-23034-5

Leibovitz (A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen) brilliantly charts the life and legacy of the founder of Marvel Comics in this slim but affecting biography. Leibovitz calls Stan Lee (1922–2018) an “effervescent self-promoter” and notes that “by any measure of significance at our disposal, few artists have had so much of an impact on American popular culture.” He walks readers through Lee’s childhood (he was born in New York City to poor Jewish immigrant parents), his start in the business as an errand boy for what was then Timely Comics, and his channeling of his dissatisfaction with existing characters into the development of ones that had recognizable human emotions, and which paved the way for Marvel Comics with such heroes as Spider-man, Iron Man, and Black Panther. Leibovitz examines Lee’s ideas and the inspiration behind his characters, arguing that, in order to understand the characters, they must be regarded as having been “formed by the anxieties of first-generation American Jews who had fought in World War II, witnessed the Holocaust, and reflected—consciously or otherwise—on the moral obligations and complications of life after Auschwitz.” Fans of the legendary comic book writer and publisher will devour this expert mix of biography and literary analysis. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Confessions of a Bookseller

Shaun Bythell. David R. Godine, $25.95 (328p) ISBN 978-1-56792-664-4

Bythell follows up Diary of a Bookseller with an assortment of amusing and often cantankerous stories about a year in his life as the owner of a used bookstore in a Scottish village. The author painstakingly tracks sales, the number of customers who visit, and till totals for each day, punctuated by acerbic observations. There are the head-scratching requests (“I’m looking for a book but I can’t remember the title. It’s called The Red Balloon.”), unexpectedly hilarious purchases (an elderly man buying a guide to wild sex), and the clueless (“It’s a bookshop.... So does that mean that people can just borrow the books?”). Bythell’s scathing commentary about customers drives much of his narrative, including a description of a woman wearing an unpleasant fragrance (“which I can only assume was manufactured as a particularly unpleasant neurotoxin by a North Korean biochemist in a secret bunker. Kim Jong Ill, indeed”) as well as cheap customers asking for discounts or complaining about prices (“ ‘That’s outrageous! Who would want to buy that?’ Well, you for a start”). Bibliophiles will delight in, and occasionally wince at, these humorous anecdotes. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment

John Giorno. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-16630-4

The creativity and debauchery of gay artists and writers blooms in this exuberant memoir of avant-garde New York from the 1950s through the 1990s. Giorno (Subduing Demons in America), a poet and artist who died last year, recounts his relationships with a countercultural pantheon including Allen Ginsburg, whom he considered a “living god” before meeting him and who proved to be a “disappointment”; Andy Warhol, who filmed Giorno sleeping in the six-hour film Sleep; artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, with whom he carried on tempestuous affairs; and Beat deity William S. Burroughs, with whom he had an intense, mainly platonic friendship for decades. Giorno also discusses his conversion to Tibetan Buddhism and his technology-driven poetry innovations, including tape-recorded poetry “sound poems,” multimedia readings, and a “Dial-a-Poem” service offering callers recorded poems. The narrative is a whirl of parties, art openings, colorful personalities, and lots of graphic sex, written in prose that twines earthiness with Buddhist austerity. (“Pale light from a streetlamp streamed through the window mixed with the humid air and gave William a rat-gray fungus-like complexion,” he writes of having sex with Burroughs. “Our minds mingled in one taste, in the vast, empty expanse of primordially pure, Wisdom Mind.”) The result is an engrossing, passionate ode to a revolution in art and sensuality. Photos. (June)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st-Century Memoir

Madeleine Albright, with Bill Woodward. Harper, $29.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-280225-5

Former secretary of state Albright (Fascism: A Warning) weaves geopolitics with her own life story in this intelligent and personable memoir. Opening with her departure from the U.S. state department in 2001, Albright writes that she was determined to say “hell, yes” to all opportunities to help promote democracy and empower women. Though she criticizes fellow secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice for their failure to adopt a “logical strategy” to confront terrorism after 9/11, Albright also points out her own mistakes, including an insensitive answer to a 60 Minutes question about UN sanctions on Iraq. In several chapters, she highlights personal connections with women, including family members and old friends. She also describes her relationship with Hillary Clinton and the disappointments of the 2008 Democratic primary and the 2016 election, and promotes building educational opportunities for girls. Other chapters deal with lighter issues, including a Gilmore Girls cameo. Albright ends by lauding the power of the Constitution to protect American democracy and expressing confidence that, at age 82, she’s ready for new projects. She proves to be a capacious storyteller, willing to share personal disappointments, such as the dissolution of her marriage, as well as professional accomplishments. This appealing memoir will charm readers interested in contemporary politics and women’s issues. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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