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The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle over Same-Sex Marriage

Sasha Issenberg. Pantheon, $40 (928p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4873-9

Journalist Issenberg (Outpatients) depicts both sides of the debate over same-sex marriage in this comprehensive history. Issenberg begins in Hawaii in 1990, when three LGBTQ couples partnered with a local activist to apply for marriage licenses and set in motion a lawsuit that resulted in the first state or federal court decision “acknowledg[ing] that a fundamental right to marriage could extend to gay couples.” Social conservatives responded with plans to protect heterosexual marriage through the Defense of Marriage Act, while same-sex couples in other states were inspired to push for more rulings in support of gay marriage. Issenberg details the strategizing and motivations on both sides of the issue (though more attention is paid to pro-LGBTQ initiatives) as a variety of groups waged public opinion campaigns through state-level legislative agendas and proposed constitutional amendments. He also makes clear that money, in particular the strategic fund-raising of LGBTQ activist and software company founder Tim Gill, played a key role in paving the way to the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Issenberg lucidly delineates this multifaceted and complex topic and movingly profiles key players including Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, original litigants in the Hawaii case. The magnitude of detail slows the proceedings somewhat, but even readers well-versed in the subject will learn something new. The result is a definitive portrait of a key victory in the battle for LGBTQ rights. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town

Barbara Demick. Random House, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9875-7

In this heartbreaking and doggedly reported account, journalist Demick (Nothing to Envy) views the tragic history of Tibet under Chinese rule through the stories of people with roots in Ngaba County, the site of the Mei kingdom in the remote reaches of Sichuan province. Demick recounts the region’s first violent encounters with the Red Army during its Long March in the 1930s, when starving soldiers “ate the Buddha,” devouring Tibetan votive offerings made of barley flour and butter as they fled Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. Her survey of the Chinese Communist Party’s grinding, decades-long repression of Tibetans also includes the odyssey of the daughter of the last ruler of the Mei kingdom, who fled the family’s palace during the 1958 crackdown that eventually forced the Dalai Lama into exile in India; the harrowing story of an elderly market stall operator whose young niece was killed when Chinese troops fired on civilians in a 2008 demonstration; and sketches of monks and nuns who set themselves ablaze in protest of Chinese rule. “For the most part,” Demick writes, “they were regular people who hoped to live normal, happy lives in China’s Tibet without having to make impossible choices between their faith, family, and their country.” Demick captures her subjects’ trials and sacrifices with superb reporting and razor-sharp prose. This poignant history could do much to refocus attention on the situation in Tibet. (July)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Anti-vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement

Jonathan M. Berman. MIT, $19.95 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-0-262-539326

Science professor Berman debuts with a useful guide for readers concerned about the opposition to vaccinations. He surveys the history of vaccine hesitancy and the varying motives behind it, noting that, for instance, a young Mahatma Gandhi opposed the Raj’s heavy-handed approach to vaccinating its Indian subjects, but later changed his mind after a smallpox outbreak. Berman then discusses recent opposition to vaccination, persuasively eviscerating claims that it causes autism, most infamously in a 1998 British medical paper later proven a fraud. He also examines the role social media and celebrities have played in keeping these claims alive, noting that Russian intelligence operations against Ukraine extended to promoting anti-vaccine Twitter accounts to that country’s population. The book’s greatest value comes from its insights into how common cognitive errors can lead even the well-informed to see false correlations between vaccination and health problems. Berman also provides practical suggestions about how best to engage, and potentially convert, vaccine opponents, arguing that “people change their own minds; we can’t do it for them.” Given hopes for a Covid-19 vaccine, this accomplished exploration of a vexing topic couldn’t be more timely. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Breath from Salt: A Deadly Genetic Disease, a New Era in Science, and the Patients and Families Who Changed Medicine Forever

Bijal Trivedi. BenBella, $28.95 (576p) ISBN 978-1-948836-37-1

Science journalist Trivedi debuts with a glowing account of how Boston businessman Joe O’Donnell, after losing a son to cystic fibrosis in 1986, pioneered “venture philanthropy” and raised hundreds of millions for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Trivedi covers low points in O’Donnell’s story (early on, when still struggling to keep his son alive, O’Donnell had “a sick child gasping for breath, a mortgage, no job, no health insurance, and no backup plan”) as well as his triumphs, as when he wins a plum position in the film exhibition business and parlays that success into funding for groundbreaking research. Most notably, this included a well-placed investment in Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which in 2012 pioneered the first of several treatments involving drugs matched to patients’ individual gene mutations. Elaborating on the science as well as the business behind the fight against cystic fibrosis, Trivedi captures the emotions of the families, doctors, and scientists involved in the clinical trials and their “weeping with joy” as new drugs are approved, and shows how cystic fibrosis, once a “death sentence,” became, for many, a manageable condition. This is a rewarding and challenging work. Agent: Ethan Bassoff, Ross Yoon. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias: How to Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-Performing Teams

Pamela Fuller with Mark Murphy and Anne Chow. Simon & Schuster, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-982144-31-9

Fuller, who works on leadership issues of bias and inclusion at consulting firm FranklinCovey (of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame), debuts with a useful toolkit for organizations looking to face institutional- and individual-level unconscious bias. The first step, she writes, is discounting the idea that bias means one is “inherently ill-intentioned or morally flawed,” which makes people reluctant to acknowledge, and thus to take action against, their own biases. She then guides managers through ways to make workers feel “respected, included, valued,” and hence motivated to achieve at a high level, using FranklinCovey’s Bias Progress Model. This strategy calls for employers to “choose courage” by making a conscious commitment to diversity and inclusivity initiatives and to educate themselves about where bias comes from and cultivate the habit of being on the guard against it. Fuller’s tone is encouraging without letting readers off the hook, and she provides a plethora of tools for nurturing diversity and inclusion—worksheets, scripts, strategies, reflection questions, and so on. As those familiar with the FranklinCovey brand are likely to expect, this is a clearheaded, no-nonsense approach to addressing bias in all the places it may be found. Agent: Shannon Marven, Dupree Miller & Assoc. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band

Willie Nelson and Bobbie Nelson, with David Ritz. Random House, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-9848-5413-1

Country music legend Willie Nelson and his sister Bobbie invite fans into their lives in this humorous, nostalgic dual memoir. While Willie has told much of his story before (It’s a Long Story: My Life), this is the first time Bobbie has shared her experiences of growing up with Willie. Telling their story in alternating chronological anecdotes, they begin with their childhood in 1930s Abbott, Tex., where they were raised by their grandparents after their parents left them. Willie writes that Mama and Daddy Nelson gave Bobbie and him two gifts that saved their lives: love and music. The siblings performed in their Methodist church (Bobbie played the Hammond organ, with Willie on guitar) as well as at tent meetings. The two worked on farms alongside Black and Latino workers; when they invited their fellow field workers to a church performance, they weren’t welcomed (Bobbie says that “the incident did get me to thinking about challenging conventional church dogma”). Bobbie recalls Willie’s trouble with the IRS for not paying taxes: “Willie was blindsided by the whole thing. He was told he had to declare bankruptcy. But Brother wouldn’t do that because he wasn’t about to burn anyone he owed money to.” Nelson’s many fans will enjoy these cheerful and loving stories. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Everything Beautiful in Its Time: Seasons of Love and Loss

Jenna Bush Hager. Morrow, $26.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-06-296062-7

In this charming memoir, Bush Hager (Sisters First), cohost of Today with Hoda & Jenna, pays tribute to her prominent family, particularly her grandparents. Bush Hager describes growing up in two presidential families: when she and her twin sister were toddlers, they “got in trouble” when Secret Service agents rescued them from a 10-foot seawall after they’d escaped from their cribs while visiting the Maine home of their grandfather, “Gampy”—President George H.W. Bush. Bush Hager’s memoir is rife with charming anecdotes: dancing in her prom dress with her father (President George W. Bush) after her date jilted her, discussing books and cats with her “southern lady” mother Laura, and squabbling with her beloved sister Barbara (the author might punch, but her twin had “strong nails and wasn’t afraid to use them”). Bush Hager recounts the period in which she lost both Bush grandparents, as well as her namesake Jenna Welch (“She wasn’t loud and she didn’t boast, but she was proud of her life and her family”). She also paints a vivid picture of strong and devoted matriarch Barbara Bush (“More than once, I have looked at my grandmother and thought, This woman is invincible”). This endearing memoir brings readers deep into the heart of a family that many may feel they already know well. Bush’s fans will delight in these intimate, funny remembrances. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving ‘Platoon,’ ‘Midnight Express,’ ‘Scarface,’ ‘Salvador,’ and the Movie Game

Oliver Stone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-358-34623-4

Stone’s autobiography is every bit the stylish, unapologetic, and at times self-aggrandizing document one would expect based on his flamboyant films. Stone describes his upbringing as that of a consummate boomer, raised by wildly contrasting parents—a hustling Wall Street broker father and a French socialite mother. Volunteering for service in Vietnam after getting kicked out of Yale (“I remember staring at a long column of F’s—or was it zeros?”), Stone survived some vicious combat, then moved to N.Y.C.’s Lower East Side and drove a cab to support himself. After NYU film school (where Martin Scorsese taught him), he made an early splash as a screenwriter, winning an Oscar for Midnight Express in 1978, before the setback of his Hollywood directorial debut, the ill-received 1981 horror film The Hand. Writing Scarface (1983) was a comeback of sorts, even if the film initially received a poor critical reception. Then he went on a go-for-broke crusade to both write and direct more personal films, finally achieved with 1986’s Salvador. Stone’s subsequent hits, including JFK, Wall Street, and Platoon, receive short shrift here, and fans of those flicks will be left wishing Stone revisits them more extensively in a later volume. However, readers more interested in artists’ early struggles than in their glory days will be fascinated. (July)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species

Marianne Taylor. MIT, $29.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-262-04448-6

If an alien visitor wanted to collect 10 samples to represent life on Earth, which would it choose? Science writer Taylor (How Birds Work) offers some surprising answers in her outstanding work. The proposed selections—including, in addition to humankind, the stick insect, sponge, and dusky seaside sparrow—span a wide range of time, including ferns, some of Earth’s first plants, and the long-extinct nautilus, a mollusc. Taylor’s choices also push against commonly held definitions of life, by including both the arguably nonliving category of viruses and the human-made one of artifical intelligence. Throughout, she gives lessons about evolution, noting in a chapter about Darwin’s finches that their namesake naturalist made biologists’ jobs much harder by, in part, showing there wasn’t any “finite number of kinds of organisms” to classify. Her discussion also includes an insightful look at the “finality of extinction,” and conservationists’ attempts to fight back, with a look at the threatened softshell turtle. Memorable side trips explore a variety of topics, including the several different types of giraffes and the dawdling dodo. Taylor’s writing is concise and accessible to a wide audience, while the book’s vibrant, attractive layout, filled with beautiful illustrations, adds luster to the text. This rich survey of the long evolution of life on Earth will keep readers focused and fascinated. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans

Eben Kirksey. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-26535-7

Anthropology professor Kirksey (Emergent Ecologies) explores the social impact gene editing in this unfortunately lackluster treatise. He begins with controversial Chinese scientist Jiankui He, who, in 2018, used CRISPR technology to alter two human embryos’ DNA, and then looks into the field’s ethical questions. These include it being too expensive for more than a small global elite to access, and the prospect of genetic traits being eliminated from embryos for spurious as well as valid reasons. To illustrate these concerns, Kirksey introduces intriguing characters, including a DIYer who tried to cure himself of HIV and “disrupt the business model of big biotech companies” he sees as contributing to gene therapy’s high costs, and an Indonesian artist who created a CRISPR-inspired art installation to investigate the uncertain “place for brown and Black babies” in a color-conscious world where fetus skin color could be changed at will. However, Kirksey’s discussions of the affordability problem yield no convincing solutions, and he has a habit of repeatedly refers to one person or another as a “white guy,” striking an odd note. Those looking for an in-depth analysis of the possibilities and dilemmas of gene editing will be disappointed. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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