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Curating Your Life: Ending the Struggle for Work-Life Balance

Gail Golden. Rowman & Littlefield, $30 (176p) ISBN 978-1-5381-3287-6

Golden, principal consultant for a management psychology consulting firm, seeks to help readers strike a better work-life balance in her motivating debut. Using dozens of her clients’ stories as examples, Golden emphasizes that “nobody can do it all” and that choosing where to funnel one’s energy is crucial to success. She encourages readers to “curate” the most important parts of their lives by spending less time and energy on things they don’t enjoy or excel at. However, readers are also reminded that “no curation is going to last forever, any more than a museum exhibit should stay the same for all eternity.” Shifting goals and reprioritizing, she writes, are necessary for continued happiness. In engaging prose, she shares techniques for self-reflection, bulleted lists for setting priorities, and expanded ruminations at the end of chapters. While Golden’s book is aimed at those who feel overworked, readers of all ages and circumstances will learn from Golden’s purposeful approach to life. This delightful fusion of psychology, business, and self-help will be a boost to anyone feeling overwhelmed. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug

Augustine Sedgewick. Penguin Press, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-1-59420-615-3

In this thought-provoking and gracefully written debut, Sedgewick, an American studies professor at City University of New York, chronicles the 20th-century transformation of El Salvador into “one of the most intensive monocultures in modern history” and the concurrent rise in Americans’ thirst for coffee. According to Sedgewick, El Salvador’s shift from communal subsistence farming to staple crop production was led by James Hill, an Englishman whose plantation empire was staffed by indigenous men (“mozos”) who picked the beans and women (“limpiadoras”) who cleaned them. Though Hill and his heirs reaped immense riches from coffee production, their employees suffered; an American observer claimed in 1931 that El Salvador’s inequality compared to that of pre-Revolutionary France. Meanwhile, thanks to Hill’s distribution plans and the invention of vacuum-sealed tin cans that preserved the beans’ freshness, the U.S. became the world’s biggest coffee market. By the second half of the 20th century, the “coffee break” had become such an important part of the working day that the Supreme Court enshrined it as an employee’s right, and coffee made up 90% of Ecuador’s exports. The breadth of Sedgewick’s analysis of coffee’s place in the world economy astonishes, as does his ability to bring historical figures to life. Coffee connoisseurs will relish this eye-opening history. Agent: Wendy Strothman, the Strothman Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy

Michael Kimmage. Basic, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-465-05590-6

The once influential notion of the United States as the champion of Western civilization has lapsed, leaving Euro-American relations rudderless, according to this ruminative history. Kimmage (In History’s Grip), a history professor at Catholic University of America and former State Department planner, traces the doctrine that Europe and America belonged to a unified Western culture of liberty, law, and democracy to 20th-century academics and foreign-policy intellectuals; this ideology, he notes, birthed Western Civilization college courses and justified America’s intervention in Europe’s battle against Nazi Germany and Cold War confrontation with communism. It was undermined, he argues, by the Left’s critique of Western racism and imperialism, the Right’s critique of Western liberalism’s decadence and godlessness, and the Third World’s resentment of Western colonialism. Since 1989, Kimmage notes, presidents have dropped talk of defending Western civilization, and, more recently, President Trump has voiced a populist contempt for the whole project of Euro-American cooperation. Kimmage’s erudite and far-ranging discussion of debates over Western-ness highlights the perspectives of critics like James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, and Edward Said, but his weak argument for reviving a Euro-American alliance relies on vague concerns about challenges from Russia and China. Contrary to the author’s intentions, some readers will leave this tepid study feeling that the rhetoric of Western solidarity is no longer relevant. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Communication Habit: Strategies That Set You Apart and Leave a Lasting Impression

Laura Joan Katen. McGraw-Hill Education, $20 (256p) ISBN SBN 978-1-260-45916-6

Katen (How to Communicate with Confidence, Clarity, and Credibility), president of professional development training company Katen Consulting, offers a stale guide for any businessperson looking to communicate more effectively. Offering plenty of questions intended to elicit self-reflection (“How can you be sure you’re being perceived the way you want by your leadership, if you’re not sure how your leadership is perceiving you?”), Katen encourages readers to ask themselves if their self-presentation may be undermining their career. If the answer is yes, she urges her audience to examine what success-deadening attributes they may be unconsciously projecting. She walks readers through understanding the nuances of how other people perceive them, what they have control over, and how they can influence their reputation. Some of the topics covered include cultivating a positive first impression (the “four core areas” of which are appearance, communication, interaction style, and etiquette); getting one’s word in edgewise during meetings; building credibility; modulating voice, tone and gestures; cultivating gravitas; and correcting misperceptions. There’s also a helpful discussion on communicating across different cultures and countries. However, this otherwise superficial and obvious compilation of advice adds little new to the conversation. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Die With Zero: Getting All You Can From Your Money and Your Life

Bill Perkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (240p) ISBN 978-0-358-09976-5

Perkins, a high-stakes poker player and former Wall Street trader, debuts with a spirited but less than convincing treatise that proposes personal wealth should be used to “maximize fulfillment while minimizing waste.” Early in his career, Perkins was carefully saving money when a boss challenged him to stop saving too much for too late in his life. Freely admitting that he then went too far in spending his money frivolously, Perkins shares how he learned to balance safeguarding his future—annuities and long-term care insurance are promoted here—while using his financial resources for what truly matters: experiences with those important to him. Suggestions include giving a monetary gift to one’s children in their early 30s, rather than an inheritance later in life, or regularly donating to charities, rather than leaving a lump sum in one’s will. While Perkins makes a good case for viewing money as a tool and not its own end, his credo of using it to live life to the fullest has limited applicability to those without his level of success. Few will feel comfortable taking Perkins’s advice to the degree he promotes. Agent: James Levine, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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To Me, He Was Just Dad: Stories of Growing Up with Famous Fathers

Joshua David Stein. Artisan, $19.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-57965-934-9

Stein, editor-at-large for the website Fatherly, compiles 40 stories by sons and daughters about their well-known fathers. Giving a glimpse of the men outside the public eye, these compositions present their subjects in a whole new light—ultracool actor Samuel L. Jackson is a “nerd” (“he’s got a wormhole personality” who “burrows into whatever strange things he’s interested in”), and Superman actor Christopher Reeve didn’t become a super dad until he was paralyzed. According to Brandon Jenner, Caitlyn Jenner became a more attentive dad after her gender transition. Not all these dads were famous for the right reasons—Steve Hodel reflects on his father George, who was a prime suspect, though he was never charged, in the 1947 Black Dahlia murder—and though their children are haunted by their deeds, they also find the humanity in these men who acted in inhumane ways (Hodel recalls the joy of clamming—albeit illegally—with his father in 1949 L.A.). In a moving essay not involving a famous father, Jim Sullivan writes of spending years trying to learn the identity of his biological father, who turned out to be a Catholic priest named Thomas S. Sullivan. Those searching for a moving Father’s Day gift need look no further. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History

Andy Greene. Dutton, $28 (432p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4497-7

First-time author Greene delivers a fascinating oral history of The Office, the NBC sitcom that started in 2005 with low ratings and became a cultural phenomenon during its nine-season run. Greene, a pop culture writer for Rolling Stone, illuminates the show thanks to nearly 100 interviews with cast members, writers, directors, producers, and crew along with various TV executives and critics. Starting with its birth as an American remake of the British series created by comedian Ricky Gervais, Greene shows how the series developed its take on the day-to-day life of everyday office workers—“normal people, but they’re really quirky.” Greene includes chapters on fan-favorite episodes (“The Dundees,” “Beach Games,” “Threat Level Midnight,” etc.) and makes clear that at the show’s center is actor Steve Carell, whose portrayal of office boss Michael Scott is the show’s pulse. Greene argues that Carell’s “magic superpower” to take Gervais’s rougher and meaner character and instead show his “vulnerability” and “empathy” was responsible for the show’s success. With its wealth of anecdotes, this entertaining history will delight the series’s many fans. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Song and System: The Making of American Pop Music

Harvey Rachlin. Rowman & Littlefield, $33 (306p) ISBN 978-1-5381-1212-0

Rachlin (The Songwriter’s Handbook), coordinator of the music business program at Manhattanville College, expertly lays out the history of pop music by framing “the evolution of the music business with the evolution of the popular song.” From the rise of the Tin Pan Alley music publishing industry in 1880s New York City to the global streaming services of Apple and Spotify, Rachlin traces the “symbiotic relationship” between songs and the music business “as the songs shape the business and the business shapes songs.” He shows, for example, how the careers of thousands of bands and hundreds of composers were helped by the success in the 1930s of coin-operated jukeboxes in nightclubs and bars. He also expertly illustrates how sales of pop songs of the 1960s were boosted when music industry distributors and wholesalers expanded their operations beyond music stores to include large chain department stores. And he is unsparing in his look at the way streaming companies have prospered while cutting into songwriters’ profits, and how, for better or worse, technology is intrinsically linked to the music industry’s future. Rachlin’s informative and highly detailed narrative will resonate with music geeks and industry folks alike. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Reef Life: An Underwater Memoir

Callum Roberts. Pegasus, $28.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-64313-329-4

Marine scientist Roberts (The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea) offers a vital account of his dives through the world’s coral reefs. Roberts takes readers through almost four decades of his undersea explorations, beginning in 1982, when, as an undergraduate, he first dove amid reefs in the Red Sea. Throughout, Roberts shows a gift for vivid descriptions of the creatures he encounters (“the surgeonfish were pastel blue ovals with two dusky facial bars and puckered lips with which they kissed weed from the rocks”). In addition to showcasing memorable specimens of marine life, Roberts enables his audience to marvel at the miracle of natural engineering which coral reefs represent, as “they are visible from space, but to see clearly the animals that build them you need a magnifying glass.” He ends in 2019, covering the devastation to major formations such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and hopefully raising the possibility that some reefs can adapt to global warming. Natural history buffs and conservationists will cherish this vivid aquatic odyssey. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Home Computers: 100 Icons That Defined a Digital Generation

Alex Wilshire. MIT, $29.95 (254p) ISBN 978-0-262-04401-1

Video game consultant Wiltshire (Minecraft: Blockopedia) provides a serviceable but superficial history of early home computing, via brief biographies of the era’s winners and losers. Though, as he explains in the introduction, computers have been around since 1943, their availability to consumers was ushered in by IBM’s 5150 in 1981. Wilshire covers plenty of famous machines, such as the Commodore 64, “both a rush job and the most successful computer of its generation”; Radio Shack’s TRS-80; and the Apple Macintosh (as well as Steve Jobs’s post-Apple foray with NeXT), but there are just as many quirky lesser-knowns to keep readers interested. Osborne 1, the first portable computer, which boasted a five-inch screen, weighed 24 pounds and cost $1,795 when introduced in 1982, and the short-lived Mattel Aquarius, on shelves for a mere four months, are just two of the models that came and went. Wilshire’s depth of knowledge gives useful perspective to the triumphs and missteps of this epoch in computing, but there isn’t much of a through line in terms of charting the technology’s evolution. The photography, meanwhile, doesn’t do the book any favors and has the sterility of an early 1980s computing catalogue. The result will appeal to the most avid computer aficionados, but leave the average user cold. (May)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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