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The Robot in the Next Cubicle: What You Need to Know to Adapt and Succeed in the Automation Age

Larry Boyer. Prometheus, $19 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-63388-409-0

Boyer, founder of the career coaching firm Success Rockets, writes in his introduction that he seeks “to provide [readers] with the means to successfully navigate the changes and disruptions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” but his book falls far short of that goal. Instead of showing a way forward for the average blue- or white-collar employee whose position may be one of the 50% of current jobs predicted to become obsolete, Boyer reviews prior technological revolutions in order to outline the dimensions of the current one. He makes clear that even the most powerful institutions are at risk when it comes to extreme technological disruptions, using the sudden collapses of Enron, Lehman Brothers, and others, as examples. Much of the advice Boyer offers to readers is boosterism: “You are the CEO of You, Inc.—The Business of You,” he writes, predicting that freelance work is the future for many people (though he doesn’t address the insecurity of such work), and then blandly advises readers to be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and to create their own personal brand. Most readers will find Boyer’s book more depressing than useful. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Race to Hawaii: The 1927 Dole Air Derby and the Thrilling First Flights That Opened the Pacific

Jason Ryan. Chicago Review Press, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-912777-25-2

In this entertaining account, journalist Ryan (Hell Bent: One Man’s Crusade to Crush the Hawaiian Mob) recounts the harrowing stories of the first efforts to reach Hawaii by air from California, which, at the dawn of aviation in the 1920s, was as fanciful—and as alluring—as flying to Mars seems now. Most travelers today don’t consider how difficult it was just a century ago to get to Hawaii at all, given the islands’ relative tininess in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. But as flight technology improved in the wake of WWI, several American airmen—military and civilian—resolved to battle adverse weather, limited fuel-carrying capacity, and the navigational challenges of the 2,400-mile trip to try to win the honor of being first to fly there. An attempt by the U.S. Navy in 1925 left several men lost at sea for days. On June 29, 1927, two Army officers accomplished the feat, landing in Oahu and becoming media sensations. Later that summer, 10 men competing in the Dole Derby, a contest sponsored by pineapple magnate James Dole, perished in their attempts to duplicate the feat. Aviation buffs, armchair adventurers, historians, and Hawaii aficionados will be unable to put down this gripping book. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

Kwame Anthony Appiah. Liveright, $27.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-631-49383-6

The supposedly eternal categories people use to group themselves into antagonistic collectives are misleading memes of recent vintage, according to this probing critique of identity politics. New York University philosophy professor Appiah (Cosmopolitanisms) argues that, although people have an innate “clannishness”—an instinct to identify with groups—the common essential properties that bind those groups are arbitrary, inconsistent, and mainly imaginary. The idea of fixed biological races, he contends, developed in the 18th century to justify the transatlantic slave trade; the notion of homogeneous national identities sprouted from a 19th-century romantic philosophy that forced them onto multiethnic, multilingual communities; modern religious divisions are based on contradictory, often unintelligible scriptures; and, contrary to the dicta of both white nationalists and Afrocentrists, Western culture isn’t the creation of Europeans, Egyptians, or any other single people. Writing in erudite but engaging prose, Appiah spotlights figures who created identitarian doctrines or challenged them, including a West African boy who traveled to Germany in 1707 and became a philosophy professor, and ponders his own complicated identity as a gay, biracial man descended from English knights on his mother’s side and Ghanaian royalty on his father’s. With deep learning and incisive reasoning, Appiah makes a forceful argument for building identity from individual aspirations rather than exclusionary dogmas. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man

Thomas Page McBee. Scribner, $24 (224p) ISBN 978-1-5011-6874-1

In November 2015, McBee (Man Alive) became the first transgender man to fight a boxing match in Madison Square Garden, and this powerful book chronicles his training and his attempts at understanding why violence is accepted as an aspect of American masculinity. The book unfolds as a series of connected essays that explore masculinity in America, each spun from McBee’s experience training at boxing gyms around Manhattan in the five months leading up to the match. There are glimpses into the early stages of his transition, and a motif about being afraid of men all his life—including as a man, a fear he puts to rest by learning to box. McBee also writes about his current life as a man (“I was still adjusting to... the ease with which my ideas were often executed, the ways my expertise was assumed before I’d proven it”) and his own definition of manhood that allows men to be vulnerable, tender, and unafraid of failure, help, shame, or pain. McBee’s lyrical, achingly honest exploration of loss and maturation offers a hopeful antidote to more toxic forms of masculinity. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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You Are a Mogul: How to Do the Impossible, Do It Yourself, and Do It Now!

Tiffany Pham. Simon & Schuster, $27 (224p) ISBN 978-1-5011-9185-5

Entrepreneur Pham delivers a slim, familiar guide to following one’s dreams. As a child, Pham moved from Paris to Plano, Tex., with her family; she had to learn quickly how to be adaptable. Determined to succeed, she attended Yale and Harvard Business School and went on to found Mogul, a networking site for women. Aiming her advice at young women, Pham instructs her readers not to get discouraged by layoffs or other forms of rejection, but to follow their “big dreams” while retaining their “authentic selves.” The goal she emphasizes is not acquiring wealth, but understanding and identifying a personal skillset and passion. The guide—largely following stories from Pham’s own life, such as her taking on the distribution of an indie film while still in business school—is bolstered with stories from real-life “moguls,” such as Elle magazine editor-in-chief Nina Garcia and Jen Welter, the first female NFL coach. While the advice is solid—she urges readers to choose a supportive partner and seek out mentors and role models—there’s little new, and some “essentials” are unrealistic and unhealthy, such as her insistence on sleeping only four hours a night. Though well-intentioned, this book amounts to little more than brand extension. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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To Float in the Space Between

Terrance Hayes. Wave, $25 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-940696-61-4

National Book Award-winning poet Hayes (American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin) plunges into creative nonfiction with this book about another poet, Etheridge Knight, cautioning readers that “this is not a biography.” Throughout, Hayes challenges genre constraints, bringing together personal reflections, drawings, and poems by Knight and himself, and constructing a work that is part speculative biography, part autobiography, and part critical essay. He offers some insight into Knight’s life, explaining that he was a Korean War veteran who got hooked on narcotics and served time in prison for armed robbery. Prison was where he found poetry and eventually became part of the Black Arts Movement. Hayes shares his own life stories, too, which include going to college on a basketball scholarship, making his own discovery of poetry there, and dramatically meeting his birth father as an adult. In the text’s most effective moments, Hayes links his life’s details to Knight’s, such as by noting that neither of them set out to become poets. Such reflections stitch together the book’s various components around the question: “How does someone become a poet?” In this wonderfully lyrical text, Hayes suggests it isn’t in the details of an individual’s life, but through a hard-to-trace yet vital network of influences. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Science of Sin: Why We Do The Things We Know We Shouldn’t

Jack Lewis. Bloomsbury Sigma, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4729-3614-1

Lewis (Sort Your Brain Out), a neurobiologist, explores the brain activity behind the seven deadly sins of Christianity in this diverting but messily organized work of popular science. Each sin receives its own chapter exploring its treatment in a variety of world religions (Christianity receives the most thorough examination), accompanied by relevant insights from neuroscience research. For instance, in the chapter on “wrath,” he discusses the part of the brain involved in aggression, as shown by cases in which “a tumor pressing up against the amygdala was implicated in extremely violent conduct.” Some of these scientific tidbits are intriguing and surprising, but they seem chosen for those qualities rather than to lay out a systematic argument. Lay readers would benefit from plain English about the geography of the brain; references to the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the like quickly become meaningless. After examining the sins, Lewis devotes a chapter to steps one might take to harness brain behavior to act more ethically, but the ideas seem like the result of brainstorming more than refined and well-considered suggestions (fight “wrath” with Botox injections?) People new to reading about neuroscience will be entertained, but those wanting to delve more deeply into the subject should look elsewhere. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind

Justin Driver. Pantheon, $35 (544p) ISBN 978-1-101-87165-2

University of Chicago Law professor Driver, a former clerk for two Supreme Court Justices, examines the intersection of the Supreme Court and the public school system in this scrupulous study of two vital American institutions. Driver smartly analyzes how the Constitution applies to disciplinary actions, free speech, prayer in schools, and searches and seizures. In addition, Driver discusses less-understood constitutional issues including permissible mechanisms for school funding and complicated problems related to school integration arising from Brown v. Board of Education. Driver’s approach to each precedent includes a sophisticated legal discussion of the Court’s majority and dissenting opinions, a recounting of how the decisions were received by the media and legal commentators, followed by his own illuminating, often contrarian analysis of the case’s importance. This structure allows him to cohesively construct his argument that the balance between students’ rights and the right of school administrators and local governments has shifted too far away from the students, to the detriment of society as a whole. Readers with the ability to grapple with complex constitutional issues will find much to learn from Driver’s independent thinking and unique insights. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Order of the Day

Eric Vuillard. Other Press, $21.95 (144p) ISBN 978-1-59051-969-1

In this brief volume, French filmmaker and writer Vuillard creates a philosophical, empathetic, and whimsically speculative reconstruction of a couple of events from the history of the Third Reich. This free-associative, melancholy ramble wends its way from a fateful February 1933 meeting of 24 German business leaders with Hitler that led to their funding the Nazis’ campaign, to some moments in the March 1938 German annexation of Austria—among them, a meeting between Hitler and Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, a tense lunch between the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, and Austrians in the streets greeting German tanks. Vuillard homes in on bitter historical foreshadowing and ironies, such as the fact that gas service for many Austrian Jews was cut off following the annexation because they had used too much gas and not paid their bills—in many cases, because they had committed suicide using gas. “Don’t believe for a moment this all belongs to some distant past,” Vuillard writes, and this poetic, unconventional history compels the reader to agree. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents

Cory Brettschneider. Norton, $22.95 (224p) ISBN - 978-0-393-65212-3

Brettschneider, a Brown political science professor, delves deeply into the U.S. Constitution for legal guidance to the historically controversial question of the scope of U.S. presidential powers. He approaches the topic through an unusual—and occasionally awkward—conceit, positing himself as the legal adviser to an imagined reader who aspires to be the next president. Brettschneider begins with an exploration of Article II of the Constitution, which sets out the presidency’s explicit powers, then considers the implicit limitations on those powers imposed by the Bill of Rights, and completes his tutorial with a discussion of the Constitution’s provisions for impeachment. Among the questions considered are a president’s right to hire and fire members of the executive branch, constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment as it applies to torture, and the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law as it pertains to minorities and immigrants. Some readers will disagree with Brettschneider’s left-leaning conclusions, as when he rejects originalism, a literalist way of interpreting the Constitution associated with the late conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, because “it does not account for some of the most widely recognized... rights that we have today.” However, all should find his core discussion of the many considerations inherent in the exercise of presidential powers to be accessible and timely. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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