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The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It

Natalie Wexler. Avery, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1355-5

In this illuminating study of the philosophies and practices of the American education system, education journalist Wexler (The Writing Revolution) argues that low student test scores result from a mistaken emphasis at the elementary level on context-free reading skills and strategies rather than content-rich curricula that give students “a body of knowledge about the world.” Test scores improve and income-related test gaps narrow, Wexler finds, when kids start learning history, science, and social studies in kindergarten. Wexler examines different pieces of the problem, including deficiencies in teacher training (teachers aren’t taught the cognitive psychology of how people learn) and the use of ineffective attempted compromises such as balanced literacy (an approach that attempts to “balance” teaching full-word recognition and phonics). Wexler spends a year inside Washington, D.C., classrooms, observing that skills-based, content-averse lessons actually impede learning, while students tackling content-rich Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum’s lesson blocks on ancient Mesopotamia, Greek myths, and American history demonstrated enormous vocabularies, high engagement, and the ability to make insightful connections. Wexler presents content-oriented curricula as an obvious remedy that can be embraced by teachers, parents, and administrators who agree that “education is essential if democracy is going to function.” This thought-provoking take on curricular reform is well-supported; it’s less abrasive and perhaps more persuasive than earlier calls for this kind of reform. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2019 | Details & Permalink

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One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America

Gene Weingarten. Blue Rider, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-399-16666-2

A nondescript day in the 1980s yields unsung but riveting stories in this fascinating journalistic fishing expedition. Washington Post columnist Weingarten (The Fiddler in the Subway) picked a random day to investigate, winding up with Dec. 28, 1986: a slow-news Sunday that still yielded plenty of mayhem, oddball happenstances, and sociological watersheds. Among the events: a murder enabled a medical miracle; a rash of weather vane thefts entwined with a campus social justice crusade; a married man started down the path to womanhood; a maimed child began a long struggle to fit in; NewYork’s mayor Ed Koch weathered racial turbulence; and the Cold War fizzled out for a group of Soviet refugees returning home. Drawing on present-day interviews with principals, Weingarten’s reportage gives these incidents and their legacies immediacy and freshness, conveyed with punchy, evocative prose (“David was short, slight, and coarse-featured, with a feral, hunted look and an almost imperceptible hitch in his walk owing to a pin in one leg from a motorcycle accident,” he writes of a protagonist in an Indiana noir saga who told detectives he was “about 90 percent sure” he did not commit a grisly double murder). The result is a trove of compelling human-interest pieces with long reverberations. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2019 | Details & Permalink

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You Throw Like a Girl: The Blind Spot of Masculinity

Don McPherson. Akashic, $28.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-61775-779-2

Former NFL quarterback McPherson’s memoir is a “thorough self-scouting” that challenges men to consider violence against women as a men’s issue, and to pivot toward a “conversation among men about the aspiration and essential values of masculinity.” McPherson sees boys being raised with a primary mandate to avoid being girls or gay men and to be tough, silent, and stoic—an essentially misogynistic approach that also, he writes, limits men’s emotional growth and sense of accountability. He recounts his transition from celebrity athlete to educator at age 29, which prompted realizations that privilege and gendered expectations had a greater impact on him than the racism he had experienced. McPherson is critical of the abusive language of sports motivation; of the team loyalty that leads men to protect peers who commit assault; and of the “bare minimum effort” style of allyship that promotes protective chivalry and violence for supposedly good causes and approaches problem solving “as if [victims’] experience is the source of the problem.” Instead, McPherson wants readers to begin to understand that traditional masculinity is a burden to boys and men, and to help change the narrative handed down to them. Though McPherson’s vision is neither unique nor perfectly articulated, this is a valuable contribution to the new choir of traditionally masculine men reevaluating themselves on their own terms. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

Sam Kean. Little, Brown, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-0-316381-68-0

Science writer Kean (The Disappearing Spoon) switches topics with this sprawling history of the Western spies, soldiers, and scientists who worked to thwart Nazi development of a nuclear bomb, accompanied by helpful cartoon illustrations of the relevant scientific concepts. The chronological account begins by introducing a large cast, including Samuel Goudsmit, an emigre physicist; Moe Berg, a pro baseball catcher turned spy; Boris Pash, a WWI vet who commanded the book’s titular brigade; and Navy airman Joseph Kennedy Jr., who died as part of a failed mission to destroy German missile bunkers suspected of being nuclear bomb silos. The point of view shifts among these and other characters, taking them through various adventures, including the bombing of a Norwegian ferry carrying heavy water for Nazi nuclear reactors and an attempt to assassinate German physicist Werner Heisenberg. Kean often takes a jokey tone, which readers will either love or hate (describing Marie Curie, he writes “the old lioness roused herself and barged into the lab”), and the majority of sources are secondary, leaving it unclear how he reconstructed dialogue. Readers who love spy stories will enjoy this entertaining book, but WWII aficionados and scholars may want to pass it by. Agent: Rick Broadhead, Rick Broadhead & Associates Literary Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 06/28/2019 | Details & Permalink

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When They Come for You: How Police and Government Are Trampling Our Liberties—And How to Take Them Back

David Kirby. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-31246-4

In this detailed and often shocking book, investigative reporter Kirby (Death at SeaWorld) persuasively argues that following the law may not protect people in the U.S. from harassment, violence, false prosecution, and financial loss at the hands of the police and government. Through two dozen harrowing stories, he looks at warrantless home raids, “state-sponsored kidnapping” by Child Protective Services, a probation industry that uses fines as revenue, and civil assets forfeiture laws that allow police to seize property without even charging anyone of a crime. The latter part of the book takes on profiling and surveillance, freedom of speech, and the profound “chilling effect” of extralegal police and government action on both private individuals and the press. Kirby criticizes the Trump administration’s extreme actions, such as prosecuting protestors of the inauguration for rioting, and lays blame for current surveillance norms at the feet of the Obama administration. Finally, he delves into the more general right to privacy implied by the Ninth Amendment, sharing a miscellany of cases covering overzealous policing of petty crime, invasive searches by the Transportation Security Administration, and mistreatment of incarcerated people. He encourages readers to demand increased federal protections, to know their constitutional rights, and to remember that legal recourse for these abuses exists. This is investigative reporting at its most effective. Agent: Todd Shuster, Aevitas. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy

Mike German. The New Press, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-62097-379-0

Former FBI special agent German’s impassioned polemic raises the alarm about the negative impact of the FBI’s evolution from a crime fighting organization into a domestic intelligence agency. Relating tales of interdepartmental dysfunction and infighting, reprisals against whistle blowers, and investigative overreach, German collects a searing set of eye-opening case studies that point to a decreasingly effective organization: “actual crime, violence, and credible threats to national security go unaddressed while FBI agents chase phantoms of potential future terrorists.” German’s experiences as an undercover agent provide a unique insight into the inner workings of the FBI, from the way agents are posted to offices to the requirement that all undercover work is done voluntarily. The FBI’s leadership is often a target of German’s criticism, particularly Robert Mueller III and James Comey, but his view of the bureau is not entirely negative. German peppers the narrative with the stories of unsung rank-and-file agents, including those of Gamal Abdel-Hafiz, the FBI’s first foreign-born Muslim agent, and Coleen Rowley, a Minneapolis field agent, who both questioned oversteps by their superiors. Bound to be divisive, German’s account is unlikely to convince readers who don’t agree with him that the FBI is on the wrong path, but it raises some valuable questions about the primary role of this key government agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War

Matthew Avery Sutton. Basic, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-465-05266-0

In this powerful work, historian Sutton follows the fledgling Office of Strategic Services (Roosevelt’s intelligence agency) as its head, “Wild” Bill Donovan, launched a top-secret program: the recruitment of foreign missionaries in areas of Axis conflict. The agency’s spies included William Eddy, a missionary in Africa and the Middle East; Stewart Herman, pastor of the American Church in Berlin; John Birch, an evangelist in China; and Stephen Penrose, the child of missionaries in the Middle East. Some directed operations in Egypt (Penrose) and Morocco (Eddy), aggressively building large networks of clergyman spies; others waded into combat, such as John Birch, who rescued downed Allied pilots in Japanese-occupied China. “Neither the missionaries themselves nor their religious agencies nor American military leaders felt comfortable acknowledging the wartime lying, deceiving, manipulating, and even killing that these religious activist operatives engaged in,” so records relating to their activities were hidden, expunged, or destroyed, and the participants wrestled with internal conflict. Many solved this problem by believing that violence was a necessary means to achieving peace and spreading the word of God. Some of them were later involved in shaping U.S. foreign policy, with almost evangelical results: God’s chosen people remaking the world in their image. This provocative book illuminates little-discussed history and raises larger philosophical questions. It is an unusually fresh and intelligent addition to WWII literature. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2019 | Details & Permalink

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More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say)

Elaine Welteroth. Viking, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-525-56158-3

Welteroth’s inspiring debut follows her personal and professional trajectories as she unpacks her ascent to becoming editor-and-chief of Teen Vogue in 2017 and details her experience as a black woman in media. From humble beginnings as a “brown girl boss” running a makeshift hair salon out of her Newark, Calif., cul-de-sac home, Welteroth built an illustrious editorial career as she worked her way up through increasingly substantial roles at Ebony and Glamour magazines. She tackles intimate details of her past—family skeletons (such as years of dealing with her father’s drinking and depression), heartbreaks, and solidifying her sense of identity—with an equal mix of personal vignettes and existential musings. Welteroth’s many revelations of romantic missteps, including a relationship with a Wall Street banker that ends calamitously after she receives an email about his philandering, and career pitfalls and triumphs, as when she is recruited from Glamour to Teen Vogue, are delivered in a conversational voice: “I was beginning to carve out space for conversations about identity and race at the magazine... and the intersection between fashion, culture, and later, politics.” Explaining her many experiences being “othered,” by coworkers at largely white Condé Nast magazines and just generally out in the world, Welteroth offers a narrative of empowerment to any reader who has had similar experiences. This affecting tale of claiming one’s space and refuting biases will encourage readers to believe in their own worth and demonstrates Welteroth’s mantra of “First. Only. Different.” (June)

Reviewed on 06/28/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Rocking Toward a Free World: When the Stratocaster Beat the Kalashnikov

Andras Simonyi. Grand Central, $28 (304pp) ISBN 978-1-5387-6221-9

Former Hungarian diplomat Simonyi recalls his rock-and-roll youth in this uninspiring memoir set in the “strange gray zone of isolation” of Cold War–era Hungary. Simonyi is less interested in describing Iron Curtain authoritarian monoculture than in contrasting it with the Technicolor fantasia swirling in his head as a 1960s teenager obsessed with rock-and-roll (or “beat music”). This makes for an odd narrative, with Simonyi—who was more aware of the West than most, thanks to his father whose career as an engineer allowed the family to travel—flipping from discussing the secret police to the debate his teen self really cared about: “You were either with the Beatles or with the Stones.” The book ripples with ardent love for Western culture (New Music Express, Jimi Hendrix, Radio Luxembourg, Levi’s jeans) that he and his friends treated like rare talismans. A 1968 Traffic concert is rendered with the awe of a religious experience, especially after Simonyi meets Steve Winwood. Even though his obsessions as a fanboy and later musician signaled something born of conformist communist oppression, Simonyi doesn’t make those moments truly come alive. This flat account of an explosive time ultimately disappoints. (June)

Reviewed on 06/28/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Chop Suey Nation: The Surprising History and Vibrant Present of Small-Town Chinese Restaurants from Victoria, BC to Fogo Island, NL

Ann Hui. Douglas & McIntyre (PGW, dist.), $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-77162-222-6

In this insightful culinary history and memoir, Globe & Mail journalist Hui tells the stories of “chop suey” restaurants and the immigrant families behind many of them. Born in British Columbia, Canada, to Chinese parents, Hui first encountered the cuisine (known for “crispy spring rolls, kung pao chicken and wonton soup”) as a school meal so different from her mom’s home cooking that she “barely recognized anything on the plate.” Challenging the popular notion that “fake” Chinese is “garish and lacking in refinement,” Hui sets off on a cross-country road trip asking purveyors in near-identical small-town restaurants: “How did you wind up here?” She reveals the origin stories of ubiquitous “made-in-North-America” dishes such as ginger beef, and, of course, chop suey or “dsop sooy”—literally “Assorted scraps. Bits and pieces. This and that.” When Hui learns her own parents started their lives in Canada running such a restaurant, she embarks on a mission to learn about their past. What she discovers—in kitchens across Canada and in her own home—is a pattern of “creativity, perseverance and resourcefulness” that proves chop suey may be “the most Chinese of all.” This thoughtful look at an often dismissed cuisine will enthrall foodies and history buffs alike. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2019 | Details & Permalink

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