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Slime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us

Ruth Kassinger. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-544-43293-2

Gardening and botany writer Kassinger (A Garden of Marvels) mingles ecology and 3.7 billion years of Earth’s history to explain the importance and ubiquity of algae, from the cyanobacteria, which first released oxygen into the atmosphere, to the invasive azolla, cherished by organic rice farmers. In chirpy prose chock-full of homespun metaphors—“With pyrenoids, microalgae were cooking on a professional range instead of a hot plate”—Kassinger turns an obscure subject into delightful reading. Some readers’ tongues may twist on the likes of coccolithophores, but concise explanations make the going easy. As the book explains, algae were possibly what helped fuel early hominin brains and prompted humans to first migrate from Asia into North America along an algae-rich “kelp highway.” Kassinger describes the possibility of replacing fossil fuels with algae-based fuels, the ecological threat posed by toxic algal blooms at sea, and the various locales to which her research took her, including an algae oil farm in Brazil, a seaweed research center in South Korea, and a test kitchen (from which she shares recipes, such as dulse and cheddar scones and Irish moss blancmange) in San Francisco. Even readers who never expected to enjoy a book about slime will find this an informative and charming primer to “the world’s most powerful engines.” (June)

Reviewed on 03/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind

Annaka Harris. Harper, $22.99 (144p) ISBN 978-0-06-290671-7

Harris (I Wonder), a consultant and editor for books about neuroscience and physics, probes the limits of the current scientific and philosophical understanding of consciousness, exploring the possibility of a more expansive and all-encompassing definition. She begins by noting that, far from being strictly a human phenomenon, consciousness is present across a wide variety of life-forms, even in plants. Harris investigates biological anomalies, such as the ability of parasites or bacteria to affect the behavior of their hosts, or of psychedelic drugs to “suspend the illusion of self,” in order to question preconceived notions about consciousness and free will. She goes on to introduce panpsychism, the idea “that all matter is imbued with consciousness in some sense,” a concept long present in spiritual and metaphysical schools of thought, and more recently embraced by some physicists. Injecting a note of urgency into her discussion, Harris argues the time has come for consciousness to be investigated more thoroughly, in part because of the implications of artificial intelligence with increasingly advanced levels of cognition. Though some readers may have difficulty following the neuroscience, Harris provides a thoughtful examination of a complex subject at the very core of existence, human and otherwise, that is well worth the mental effort required. Agent: John Brockman, Brockman, Inc. (June)

Reviewed on 03/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents

Joseph M. Reagle Jr. MIT, $24.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-262-03815-7

In this insightful, evenhanded book, Northeastern University communications professor Reagle delves into the motivations and mindset of “life hackers,” people who work to improve their lives by trading tips and tricks gleaned through experimentation. This study’s other purpose is to consider what the popularity of life hacking suggests about the challenges of living well in an increasingly busy, market-centered age that rewards efficiency, competition, and self-disciplined productivity. Reagle devotes chapters to six domains of life often targeted for systematic self-improvement—time, motivation, physical objects, health, relationships, and meaning—contextualizing life hacking inclinations within a broader scope of American history and culture. The excellent chapter on hacking “stuff,” for instance, explores the commitment to “cool tools” and personal minimalism typical among life hackers, and then draws connections to a wide range of cultural artifacts including Thoreau’s Walden, the tech-hippie bible The Whole Earth Catalog, midcentury disability advocate newsletters, and Marie Kondo’s KonMari method. Reagle argues that life hacking culture has two contrasting strains: one shaped by the manipulative grandiosity of “gurus” selling extreme methods to outcompete others, and one shaped by collaborative amateur “geeks.” Throughout, Reagle reiterates the importance of moderation, encouraging readers to understand both the potentials and limitations of the life hacking approach. Readers seeking to understand this “individualistic, rational, experimental, systematizing”—and increasingly influential—mindset will enjoy this lively, well-written take. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Lotharingia: A Personal History of Europe’s Lost Country

Simon Winder. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (528p) ISBN 978-0-374192-18-1

In this combination travelogue and history, third in a trilogy, Winder (Danubia) leads an informative, often funny, but overly long tour of part of Charlemagne’s ninth-century empire, making a good case for its importance as “a key motor for so much of European history” up through WWII. In 843, Charlemagne’s grandsons Charles, Louis, and Lothair divided his vast empire. The western swath became France, the eastern Germany—and the “in-between” land, Lotharingia, gradually was absorbed into those two nations, plus Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, over centuries of political and military tug of war. Winder defines Lotharingia, which didn’t last as a unit beyond Lothair’s death, as extending from the Rhine’s source in the north to the Alps in the south and guides readers to sites like Neuchâtel, whose young women were sought-after as governesses in Russia due to their speaking pure French, and Metz, known for its fortresses, with stops at cathedrals, museums, tombs, and other sites along the way. He also tells of characters like France’s “tiny, painfully awkward” Charles VIII, to whose futile conquest attempts in the 1480s and 1490s he credits the spread of both Parmesan cheese and syphilis. Readers may wish Winder’s editors had insisted on excising some minutiae, but they will both learn from and be entertained by this enthusiastic, outside-the-box European history. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow

Henry Louis Gates Jr. Penguin, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-525-55953-5

Gates (The Annotated African American Folktales), the director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research, provides an expansive exploration of Reconstruction, Redemption (white southerners’ attempts to reinstate a white supremacist system), and Jim Crow, demonstrating how they informed and engendered one another and sowed the seeds of the modern resurgence of white-supremacist ideas. Gates begins in the 1860s, with the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments providing African Americans basic civil rights, and continues through the backlash of Jim Crow legislation and related cultural trends (including eugenics, stereotypical representations of African-Americans like Uncle Remus, and D.W. Griffith’s KKK-redeeming film The Birth of a Nation). Gates illustrates how this widespread racism and resentment gave rise to the “New Negro,” a rallying of “black intellectuals, creative artists, and political activists” that became the Harlem Renaissance (and whose rhetoric prefigured respectability politics). Gates outlines the ideals and accomplishments of black thinkers including W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Williams, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington, and he insightfully demonstrates how history repeats itself by comparing the emergence of Jim Crow with the rise in white supremacism surrounding Barack Obama’s presidency. This excellent text, augmented by a disturbing collection of late-19th- and early-20th-century racist images, is indispensable for understanding American history. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Just One Question: A Road Trip Memoir

Tyler Sassaman. MCP Books, $16.95 trade paper (274p) ISBN 978-1-5456-0137-2

Sassaman’s entertaining memoir traces a road trip from Boston to Burning Man, in Nevada, and back, all the while asking strangers: if you could ask everyone you met just one question, what would you ask? Sassaman uses this conceit to navigate beyond his comfort zone into conversations with strangers, including a felon hitchhiker, a tattoo artist, and a wild bull, who retreats after Sassaman pops his question. Answers range from moral dilemmas (“what criteria do you use to differentiate between right and wrong?”) to cocktail party conversation (“is a chicken wing light meat or dark meat?”). Intended questions to celebrities frame each chapter, featuring the likes of poet laureate Ted Kooser (“Do you know a way to slow the passage of time?”) and humorist Dave Barry (“Do you mind if I ask you one question?”). Along the way Sassaman wrestles with his own problems, most notably his need for his father’s approval. The book doesn’t necessarily hold the meaning of life, but it will leave readers asking themselves questions both thoughtful and silly. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir

Kwame Onwuachi, with Joshua David Stein. Knopf, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5247-3262-2

Chef and former Top Chef contestant Onwuachi wonderfully chronicles the amazing arc of his life, beginning with his challenging Bronx childhood in the 1990s with his African-American mother and his absentee Nigerian father. As a teen he began dealing drugs, and was later sent to Nigeria to live with his grandfather in order to “get out of my mother’s hair.” He returned to live with his mother, who had moved to Baton Rouge. There, he learned to cook at a local barbecue restaurant and took a job as a cook on an oil-spill response ship in the Gulf of Mexico; he eventually moved back to New York City, where Tom Colicchio hired him at Craft. In 2016, he opened his restaurant Shaw Bijou in Washington, D.C., which for him represented “years of busting my ass, of constant forward movement, of grasping opportunities manufactured to be beyond my grasp.” For his customers, he writes, “I had found a way to convert, through food, not just the warmth and love of my upbringing but also the struggles I’d faced.” Onwuachi includes Pan-African recipes throughout, inspired by the flavors of the African continent, the Caribbean, and the U.S., such as egusi stew and chicken and waffles. In the vein of Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef, this is a solid and inspiring memoir. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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To Stop a Warlord: My Story of Justice, Grace, and the Fight for Peace

Shannon Sedgwick Davis. Spiegel & Grau, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9592-3

Attorney and human rights advocate Davis powerfully tells of her efforts to free Central Africa from the grip of violent rebel leader Joseph Kony and liberate his army of child soldiers. As CEO of a foundation established “to prevent oppression, genocide, and human rights abuses,” Sedgwick realized that funding relief programs for survivors of Kony’s massacres was “just putting Band-Aids on bullet holes.” In 2010, she traveled to Central Africa and Uganda, where Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army—kidnapped children who had been turned into soldiers—had killed thousands. Taking “a step beyond traditional philanthropy,” she hired “a private, professional military trainer to train the Ugandan army in counter-LRA tactics,” a decision backed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Warren Buffett’s philanthropist son Howard. When military efforts failed, Davis decided on a strategy of “taking the LRA down from the inside out” through a defection campaign aimed at Kony’s top commanders and young soldiers; this ultimately undermined his control. Indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005, Kony remains at large, yet the author concludes “peace is bigger than one man. It is the 90 percent reduction in LRA violence.” This is a fast-paced and intense geopolitical narrative. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Churchill’s Menagerie: Winston Churchill and the Animal Kingdom

Piers Brendon. Pegasus, $28.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-64313-136-8

In this anecdotal treatise, Brendon (The Dark Valley) approaches a much-studied subject—Winston Churchill—from an unusual but rewarding angle, in terms of how animals figured into the renowned prime minister’s thoughts, words, and deeds. Brendon’s alphabetical bestiary, beginning with “albatross” and ending in “zoos,” touches on myriad dimensions of Churchill’s life, including his childhood as the only son of renowned parents, his days as a soldier, and the ups and downs of his political career. Viewed through a zoological lens, it proves a life filled with paradoxes: Churchill was an animal lover as well as an ardent hunter and fisherman, one who kept foxes as pets yet also relished the sport of foxhunting. The great pleasure of this work lies in reading Churchill’s animal-based metaphors and similes: dealing with a Communist is like petting a crocodile, one American politician is a “bull who carried around his own china shop,” and a cost-cutting Chancellor of the Exchequer is a “ravenous jaguar... prowling around our spending Departments in search of prey.” Despite an introduction, brief timeline, and extensive notes section, Brendon will quickly leave behind those only casually acquainted with Churchill. However, readers familiar with his life and times will relish Brendon’s idiosyncratic, far-ranging approach to profiling this “real British bulldog” and imperial “lion rampant.” (Aug.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Seventies: A Photographic Journey

Ira M. Resnick. Abbeville, $40 (192p) ISBN 978-0-7892-1334-1

This vibrant retrospective presents dozens of photographs taken during the 1970s by photographer and Motion Picture Arts Gallery founder Resnick during his decades-long career, during which he documented “a rapidly changing America.” The first chapter focuses on music, with Resnick sharing images of concerts he attended on the West Coast (such as those of Mick Jagger singing in front of “a huge inflatable phallus” during a two-day Rolling Stones concert in 1975). The second chapter takes the reader to Hollywood, where Resnick captures young actors on the verge of stardom (Sissy Spacek and Annie Potts), as well as those from Hollywood’s Golden Age (Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine). The most exciting chapter highlights the evolution of comedy of the 1970s and includes behind-the-scenes photos of the cast of Saturday Night Live: Bill Murray, “the friendliest of cast members,” backstage with Dan Aykroyd; John Belushi enjoying a beer during a break; and Gilda Radner smoking a cigarette at her desk. The sports chapter captures pivotal moments in sports history, such as the New York Yankee’s 1977 World Series victory and Billie Jean King and Chris Evert’s match at the 1975 Virginia Slims tennis tournament. The concluding chapter covers politics with photographs documenting Tom Hayden’s political campaign and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at the Democratic National Convention. This is a delightful photographic history of a momentous decade. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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