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Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing

Elissa Altman. Ballantine, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-399-18158-0

Washington Post columnist Altman (Poor Man’s Feast) shares the intimate and fascinating story of her alternately loving, turbulent, and toxic relationship with her mother. Growing up in 1970s Forest Hills, Queens—the only child of a publishing executive father and a former model and nightclub singer mother—the author was sent conflicting messages: while her mother Rita critiqued her daughter’s weight, clothing, and overall appearance, her father treated her to lunches at upscale restaurants and bought her a tweed suit and oversized coat. Altman adored her parents (who divorced after 16 years of marriage), but was nevertheless troubled by their idiosyncrasies, particularly those of her mother—a narcissistic woman who was addicted to purchasing and applying makeup and obsessed with weight, persistently urging Altman to slim down, get her highlights done, and be more like her. Altman’s relationships with others, meanwhile, would only heighten her mother’s competitive nature: she disapproved of Altman’s friends and lovers, is jealous of her relationship with Altman’s father, and is irritated (“like lemon in a paper cut”) by Altman’s graphic designer wife Susan, even after 19 years. Throughout her life Altman struggles to balance devotion to her mother with a need to maintain boundaries for her own self-preservation, all of which comes to a moment of clarity when Altman decides to have children. Altman’s memoir is an incisive look at complex mother-daughter attachments. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Fabulous Flying Mrs. Miller: A True Story of Adventure, Danger, Romance and Derring-Do

Carol Baxter. Scribe, $20 (432p) ISBN 978-1-947534-77-3

Baxter (Black Widow) offers another popular history with a criminal angle in this thrilling biography. Jessie Beveridge Miller Pugh was born in 1901 in Southern Cross, Australia. Nicknamed Chubbie, she was known in headlines as Mrs. Miller, the first woman to fly from London to Sydney in 1927. She was a passenger in that stunt, which she organized and raised capital for. Miller earned her pilot’s license two years later; “having total control of a plane thrilled her.” Miller, her friend Amelia Earhart, and other women aviators flew in the U.S.’s first women’s air race (which Will Rogers called the Powderpuff Derby). Miller made more headlines when she was the first woman to fly solo from Pittsburgh to Cuba, and even more headlines when her married lover died in Miami and her other married lover was accused of shooting him. Or was it suicide? Baxter exploits the era’s copious newspaper reports in retelling Miller’s story, which includes a burned hotel, a damaged tail skid, harrowing fog, numerous competition wins, and dramatic court testimony. Readers will enjoy coming along for the ride. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business

David T. Courtwright. Belknap, $27.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-674-73737-2

Historian Courtwright (Forces of Habit) offers a sweeping, ambitious account of the evolution of addiction: rooted in humans’ natural instinct to seek pleasure, helped along by scientific breakthroughs and the development of state power and the global economy, and continually reinforced by the efforts of entrepreneurs and advertisers. The author terms this limbic capitalism, “a technologically advanced but socially regressive business system in which global industries... encourage excessive consumption and addiction [by targeting] the part of the brain responsible for feeling and quick reaction.” Courtwright begins by considering the pursuit of pleasure in the form of “food-drugs” (such as alcohol, tobacco, and opium) and enthralling games such as chess, furthered by globalization, industrialization, and urbanization in the 18th century. In the modern era, affordability, advertising, and anomie promoted addiction to a variety of substances and commodities so that, by the new millennium, “multinational distribution and marketing machines had built a scaffolding of persuasion... around a range of products that carried a serious risk of habituation and harm.” Courtwright considers the contemporary debates about digital addiction, and concludes by reminding the reader of the benefits of moderation in all things, including public health policy. This bold, thought-provoking synthesis will appeal to fans of “big history” in the tradition of Guns, Germs, and Steel. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930–1934); When Sin Ruled the Movies

Mark A. Vieira. Running, $30 (256p) ISBN 978-0-7624-6677-1

In this informative, intelligent, and delightfully scandal-filled account, film historian Vieira takes as his topic the era between 1927—when the film industry created the production code, a self-censorship standard—and the summer of 1934, when it came into full force. From the stratospheric body count of 1932’s Scarface to the overt sexuality of 1933’s She Done Him Wrong, Vieira reveals a wide range of then-shocking material in early Depression-era cinema. He puts the lie to the most common misconception about the so-called pre-code era: that there was no film censorship at all during this time. Instead, he reveals an era of weak and ineffective code enforcement, with the studios raking in profits from risqué hits like 1929’s The Cock-Eyed World, until a religious backlash forced the studio heads to practically beg for the code to be enforced. Vieira further illuminates this story through hundreds of pristinely reproduced photographs, including of Boris Karloff conducting a Black Mass in The Black Cat, a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, and Busby Berkeley’s “vista of showgirls” in Footlight Parade. Illuminating an integral part of movie history often seen through soft-focus and murky lighting, this clearly written survey deserves a spot both on film scholars’ book shelves and movie buffs’ coffee tables. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Doomsday Calculation: How an Equation That Predicts the Future Is Transforming Everything We Know About Life and the Universe

William Poundstone. Little, Brown Spark, $29 (320p) ISBN - 978-0-316-44070-7

Poundstone (How to Predict the Unpredictable), who studied physics at MIT, provides an intriguing, if less than revelatory, look at Bayes’ theorem as a useful way of predicting the probability of future events. Poundstone explains the theorem, the creation of 18th-century mathematician and clergyman Thomas Bayes, as a way of “assigning a probability to something that has never happened” and applies it to a host of questions, ranging from the mundane (how long will one’s relationships last?) to the cosmic (are there other universes?) and the existential (are humans inhabitants of another civilization’s digital world?). He also applies it to his central question: when will civilization end? His litany of ways the world might end is impressively varied and creative, and includes the human race being rendered sterile by mutated salmonella, and an errant experiment at the CERN supercollider creating a quantum condition that destroys not just life on earth but the entire universe as well. Readers concerned with the big questions Poundstone explores will find much of interest in this enjoyable mathematics primer, even if they are likely to remain unconvinced the equation is as intellectually transformative as he claims. Agent: John Brockman, Brockman Inc. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Breath of a Whale: The Science and Spirit of Pacific Ocean Giants

Leigh Calvez. Sasquatch, $19.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-63217-186-3

These intimate but sometimes off-putting musings from naturalist Calvez (The Hidden Lives of Owls) on her cetacean experiences over two decades wander too heavily into her personal frustrations and problems. Although the ethological information she shares is detailed and well-presented, reflecting her background as a researcher for the Ocean Mammal Institute, she is explicit about now identifying as a writer and not a scientist after becoming disillusioned with the government’s lack of response to her studies of the disruptive effect on whale populations of the U.S. Navy’s use of low-frequency sonar. Nevertheless, her credulous mentions of other people’s theories that whales communicate across “unseen morphic fields, like invisible magnetic or gravitational fields,” and that dolphins are from other star systems, and her own theory about speaking to whales from inside her mind, will strike rational-minded readers as deeply questionable. Detailed accounts of her involvement in tagging expeditions express the immediacy of the experience of respectfully following the whales, but are marred by bland reconstructed dialogue between Calvez and her human colleagues. This memoir of mammalian encounters skirts a space between activist inspiration and spiritual memoir, and misses both marks. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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10 Women Who Changed Science and the World

Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans. Diversion, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-63576-609-7

Assembling an assortment of short but impressive profiles, immunologist Whitlock and physicist Evans honor female scientific trailblazers. They balance scientific explanations with personalizing details, revealing that physician Virginia Apgar, who invented the score for testing newborns, always carried a pen knife for emergency tracheotomies, and that Rachel Carson, whose work as a biologist greatly inspired modern environmentalism, wrote her first book “accompanied by her much-loved Persian cats Buzzie and Kito.” Per the title, the book shows how its subjects transformed both scientific knowledge (Henrietta Leavitt figured out how to measure the magnitude of stars, neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini discovered nerve growth factor, and Chien-Shiung Wu disproved the law of parity in physics) and the wider world (Gertrude Elion developed successful drugs for cancer, AIDS, transplants, gout, and shingles, and Elsie Widdowson helped create the WWII-era British ration diet). These transformations weren’t always for the best; Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission, hated the resultant A-bomb. Throughout, the authors emphasize the centrality of hard work and resilience. Marie Curie, the first female Nobel Prize winner, isolated radium out of “sheer doggedness,” while chemist Dorothy Hodgkin discovered insulin’s structure despite suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. These minibiographies of women who persisted will move anyone with an avid curiosity about the world. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity

Andreas Wagner. Basic, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5416-4533-2

In this intricate but accessible work, evolutionary biologist Wagner draws a fascinating analogy between how nature innovates to optimize itself and how human creativity works. He introduces a conceptual tool from his discipline, the “adaptive landscape,” a graphic resembling a “topographic map of a mountain range,” which organisms “climb” by evolving. Strict natural selection can allow one to reach the nearest peak—a beneficial characteristic—but doesn’t tolerate backward steps, making other, possibly higher peaks inaccessible. However, other climbing strategies—recombination through alternative splicing of DNA and through sexual reproduction—allow more landscape to be traversed. Wagner then moves the model to algorithmic problem solving, describing “genetic algorithms” that use multiple starting points and random mutations. Applying his model to creativity, he shows how mental landscapes are built similarly, by exploring different realms of knowledge and making “unusual combinations of experience and expertise” akin to DNA recombination. A brief foray into cultural implications—which recommends the cultivation of diversity and autonomy instead of hypercompetition in education and academia—is comparatively ill-developed and out of place. Nonetheless, this enjoyable popular science book, easy to follow without ever becoming oversimplistic, provides an intriguing new perspective on the mechanisms of innovation, whether molecule or symphony. Agent: Lisa Adams, Garamond Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Full Count: The Education of a Pitcher

David Cone and Jack Curry. Grand Central, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-5387-4884-8

Former New York Yankees pitcher Cone and analyst Curry (coauthor with Derek Jeter of The Life You Imagine) deliver an enjoyable memoir that recounts Cone’s remarkable career and provides an honest look at the road to the major leagues. Cone is best remembered for his run with the late-1990s Yankees dynasty, and he also spent five seasons as a Met, where he recorded 19 strikeouts in a single game. As Cone tells it, he didn’t play high school baseball while growing up in Kansas City, and he put in his time moving up through the Class A and Class AA systems. Throughout, Cone explains the difficulty of being a pitcher (“a weighty responsibility that is like none other in sports”), alongside more lighthearted anecdotes about fellow ball players, such as his friendship with Cal Ripken Jr. and what it was like to pitch against the legend in his final game (“I wanted him to know it was going to be a matchup filled with fastballs”). Throughout, Cone provides keen insight into the mind of a pitcher, recalling with uncanny specificity the most difficult pitches of his career (notably the final pitch in his 1999 perfect game against the Montreal Expos) and how he almost always overcame adversity with triumph. While this is a must-read for Cone fans, baseball aficionados of any allegiance will surely delight in this behind-the-scenes memoir. Agent: David Black, David Black Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Monsieur Mediocre: One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French

John von Sothen. Viking, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2483-4

Vanity Fair writer von Sothen delights in this wry narrative about the gritty, grumpy realities of being an American adjusting to the Gallic lifestyle. In lighthearted essays, von Sothen describes how his life changed after marrying a French actor named Anais, who convinced him to move to Paris, he deadpans, by “shooting me in the neck with a dart gun and bundling me off.” But, as Anais is “technically a countess” and has an 18th-century country home in Normandy, he acknowledges his landing was nicely cushioned. His quippy observations of 15 years living in France include the French way of overpreparing for trips (“Vacations are not just times to relax in France, they’re subtle status symbols”), his linguistic shortcomings (“I speak French like Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks English”), and discovering that Fox News had reported that his Paris neighborhood was a “No-Go Zone” because of Muslim riots (while “my neighborhood wasn’t a ‘caliphate of Paristinians’... it wasn’t a cake walk either”). Von Sothen does a nice job of not just listing culture-clash gags (he works sometimes as a stand-up comic and this style of humor is apparent throughout) but showing the ways in which a person can adapt over time, such as how he vowed to become an “engaged citizen” when Emmanuel Macron was elected president. With self-deprecating humor, von Sothen wonderfully gives an insider’s take on living life as an outsider. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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