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Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life

Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush. Grand Central, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5387-1141-5

In this funny and heartfelt memoir, the twin daughters of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush offer their perspective on growing up in the public eye. Hager (a correspondent for NBC’s Today Show) and Bush (CEO and founder of Global Health Corps) describe their early childhood in Midland, Tex.; attending public high school while living in Austin’s governor’s mansion; and coming of age in the White House under the close scrutiny of the public, the press, and the Secret Service. Some of the anecdotes are hilarious, as when then–Vice President George H.W. Bush (known here as “Gampy”) set out on a nighttime search for his young granddaughter’s misplaced stuffed animal, with a band of Secret Service agents trailing with flashlights, or when prankster Jenna’s water broke at her baby shower (even her husband didn’t believe it because the sisters had fibbed in the past). There are many loving reminiscences of the sisters’ close relationship and of the bond they share with their parents, advice and guidance from their grandparents (with some witty one-liners from grandmother Barbara “The Enforcer” Bush, who said to her son, “I don’t care if you are the president of the United States, take your feet off my coffee table”), as well as sober reflections on the war in Iraq, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the tough and sometimes unpopular decisions the authors’ father made while in office. Readers will be entertained by this charming, wild, and wonderful pair of life stories. Agent: Cait Hoyt, Creative Artists Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941

Stephen Kotkin. Penguin Press, $40 (1184p) ISBN 978-1-59420-380-0

Kotkin, a professor of history at Princeton, follows Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 with a magisterial second entry in this multivolume biography. He integrates a massive body of newly available documents with extant scholarship, comprehensively detailing the development of the U.S.S.R. and the nature of Stalin’s rule. Stalin’s commitments to reshaping Eurasia into a multinational communist empire and reconstructing Russia as an industrial socialist society necessitated a synergy of foresight and micromanagement, Kotkin writes. The fundamental challenge faced by the Soviets, initially posed by global capitalism and later embodied by Hitler’s Third Reich, required not merely a dictator, posits Kotkin, but a despot. That despotism began with agricultural collectivization in the early 1930s and advanced during the mass terror of 1936–1938, shaping the U.S.S.R. into a warfare state “unprecedented for even a military-first country.” Kotkin addresses crucial subjects that remain contentious: he presents the famine of 1931–1933 as a result of Stalin’s “magical thinking” rather than a deliberate campaign of rural genocide and interprets the great terror as “a matter of statecraft” necessary for Soviet survival in the total war Stalin sought to avoid. Stalin’s obsession with Nazi power resulted in policies of “deterrence as well as accommodation”—and generated miscalculation leading to war. Kotkin’s account is a hefty challenge, but an eminently worthwhile one. Maps. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The River of Consciousness

Oliver Sacks. Knopf, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-0-385-35256-7

Acclaimed neurologist Sacks (1933–2015) demonstrates the range of his knowledge of evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts in this collection of 10 essays he was working on before his death in 2015. The book is a tribute to his appreciation of all that’s beautifully complex in humans. In “Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers,” Sacks examines Darwin’s late-career studies of plants and worms, writing of Darwin’s belief that natural beauty “always reflected function and adaptation at work.” In “Speed,” he lauds William James for his exploration of the perception of time and how it was altered “by the effects of certain drugs.” Sacks also lends his own perspective on the perception of time, gleaned from working with patients with “disorders of neural speed,” which he documented in 1973’s Awakenings. One of the most moving pieces, “The Fallibility of Memory,” argues that humans are “landed with memories which have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity.” Sacks pays homage to Freud in “Mishearings,” asserting that Freudian slips are more than expressions of repressed feelings: “They reflect, to some extent, one’s own interests and experiences.” Sacks also writes about his own cancer in “A General Feeling of Disorder” and how a respite from sickness filled him with gratitude. Readers will feel a similar sense of gratitude for the extraordinary work that Sacks left behind. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter

Scott Adams. Portfolio, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1971-7

Dilbert cartoonist Adams, with his usual adroit touch and sense of humor, offers an enjoyably provocative guide to the art of persuasion. In 2016, Adams predicted that Donald Trump would win the presidency when few others considered him a serious contender. What did Adams see that experts missed? Declaring himself a “lifelong student” of the art of persuasion, Adams offers sharp insights into how Trump persuades people, keeps the spotlight on himself and the topics of his choice, and used these skills to talk his way into the White House. Using examples from Trump’s campaign, Adams outlines the tools and methods he sees as typical of master persuaders. He discusses why it’s effective to create a visual image such as the “big, beautiful wall,” which captured voters’ attention with a simple solution to a complex problem. To improve a social or business reputation, Adams writes, link to a strong “brand,” just as Trump did by borrowing his campaign slogan from Ronald Reagan’s successful 1980 campaign. In addition to a highly readable—and persuasive—guide to presenting ideas effectively, Adams has also written an insightful study of how Trump bested seasoned politicians. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs

Greg King and Penny Wilson. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-08302-9

Belle epoque Vienna, a dizzy whirl of “sugary pastries” and “cheerful gaiety,” forms the setting for this lurid tale of lust and death in the waning days of the Hapsburg Empire. In 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary was found dead in his hunting lodge at Mayerling; beside him was the body of his 17-year-old mistress, Mary Vetsera. Was this a suicide pact, a royal dalliance gone wrong, or a portent of the ruin that lay in store for the crumbling empire? Royal historians King and Wilson (Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age) use archival research to effectively debunk the rumors that still swirl around Mayerling, revealing the tragic personal histories of its key figures while providing an evocative look at Viennese high society. The story of Rudolf and Vetsera’s doomed love lacks the intrigue of other well-known royal mysteries, and despite the authors’ best efforts to tie the couple’s fate to the end of the Hapsburg Empire, the book’s characters—even Rudolf’s father, Emperor Franz Josef—appear as bit players in the drama that later convulsed Europe. Narrated with equal parts flair and prurience, the book is diverting but hollow, much like the courtly world it describes. Agent: Dorie Simmonds, Dorie Simmonds Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. Piatkus, $21.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-3494-1248-1

Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, issues a well-researched but off-puttingly strident plea to managers to stop relying so much on instinct and instead trust in data, the bigger the better. He begins with a scene-setting flashback to consulting giant McKinsey & Company’s announcement, two decades ago, of the “war for talent”—the idea that human capital had become the most essential asset in business, and was therefore fueling growing competition over attracting and retaining great workers. In Chamorro-Premuzic’s view, many companies still struggle to meet this challenge; in the rush to find the right people, they rely on unscientific know-it-when-you-see-it hunches. Chamorro-Premuzic portrays himself as attempting to counter the talent experts he self-righteously terms “populist agents of irrationality” by convincing HR professionals and leaders to instead heed “evidence-based” management philosophies. There’s useful information within, but the repetitive, cranky tone may make readers skeptical rather than convinced that there’s a data-denying charlatan around every corner. It’s hard to imagine who the audience is, given the already-widespread acceptance of the power of data. Agent: Giles Anderson, Anderson Literary Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Sniper Mind: Eliminate Fear, Deal with Uncertainty, and Make Better Decisions

David Amerland. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (416p) ISBN 978-1-250-11367-2

The premise of this slickly presented, if testosterone-clogged, book from search engine optimization consultant Amerland (Google Semantic Search) is that civilians who learn to synthesize hard and soft skills, as snipers do, will improve their careers, personal lives, and “executive decision-making” abilities. Each chapter of this tightly organized manual outlines a sniper skill set, such as finding competitive advantages, a relevant real-life sniper exploit and corresponding “business case,” and a concluding “sniper skill acquisition list,” or recap. Amerland’s instructions are easily replicable and simple, though sometimes they come across as too simplistic or cheesy, as when he incorporates gimmicky-sounding learning tools such as “the three pillars of self-belief.” Interspersed throughout are dramatic photos of combat sites and firearms and eye-catching graphics, such as a page from the Army’s Special Forces Sniper Training and Employment field manual. And there are plenty of dramatic headlines to amp up the book’s already macho tone, such as “Develop the Special Ops Mind-Set for Success in a Fluid Situation.” The author finishes by telling readers they are “capable now of more than anyone else around you,” possibly (at least for peaceniks) by virtue of finishing the book. Nonetheless, the connection between lethal combat skills and (presumably) nonlethal business negotiations remains unclear, though Amerland does his best to establish one. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Secret World of Renaldo Kuhler

Brett Ingram. Blast, $45 (264p) ISBN 978-0-922233-48-9

Filmmaker Ingram returns to the subject of his 2009 documentary Rocaterrania to celebrate the whimsical imagination of self-taught artist Renaldo Kuhler (1931–2013). This lush four-color album collects over 400 of Kuhler’s drawings chronicling the rich and tumultuous history of the fictional nation of Rocaterrania, a place Kuhler first dreamed up in his teens and developed throughout his life. Readers encounter the stories of key figures—such as Empress Catherine, the sultry redheaded tyrant who creates a race of neutered children to follow her, and Janet Lingart, an influential bon vivant who runs the capital city’s most popular nightclub—and the nation’s defining events, such as the civil war of 1950 and the Great Workers’ Revolt in 1951. Kuhler outlined his world in painstaking detail, envisioning such details as gas lighting fixtures, an intricate metro signal system, the signatures of attendees at a military convention, and stills from popular films. The book includes his extensive notes on the nation’s official language, Rocaterranski, complete with its own alphabet and idioms. Ingram’s keen appreciation of the artist and his work is apparent in every aspect of this book. It’s truly a wonder to behold. Color illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking: The Royal Marriages that Shaped Europe

Deborah Cadbury. Public Affairs, $27 (416p) ISBN 978-1-61039-846-6

British historian and documentarian Cadbury (Princes at War) energetically reveals the extent of Queen Victoria’s meddling in the marriage arrangements of her grandchildren in order to create the family’s ideal British-German alliance. The diminutive and aging Victoria remained an imposing figure to her numerous offspring, but some among them—notably within her favored German branch—defied her and instead married for love. In one case, her own Russian grandson, the future Nicholas II, had to essentially woo her in order to marry her favorite granddaughter, and his own cousin, Alix of Hesse. Victoria’s concerns about Russia’s unstable monarchy and political violence proved well-founded, as Nicholas II and Alexandra Romanov became Russia’s last imperial couple. While high-stakes matchmaking is Cadbury’s central theme, she delves into the fruits of that optimistic enterprise while navigating the religious and personality pitfalls into which the sometimes petulant Victoria drew herself. Cadbury notes that it was Victoria’s own grand plan to reshape Europe that bore unfortunate results; her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II rebelled and his own instability partially led to the events that caused WWI. While royal matchmaking implies spectacular weddings and the enhancement of power, Cadbury’s engrossing family history proves that it was a deadly serious proposition. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement

Philip Ackerman-Leist. Chelsea Green, $19.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-60358-705-1

In this down-to-earth volume on the effects of pesticides, Ackerman-Leist (Rebuilding the Foodshed), a farmer and professor at Green Mountain College, chronicles the agricultural battles waged in Mals, a town in the Italian Alps filling fast with apple orchards. Residents had grown accustomed to the “gradual march of the orchards up the slopes” but were dismayed by the “enveloping mists blasted from the spray machines mounted on the back of the advancing tractors.” Ackerman- Leist profiles some of the crucial actors in Mals’s fight against “Big Apple,” during which the residents of Mals passed a referendum vote to ban pesticides. He introduces Günther Wallnöfer, an organic dairy farmer whose family business sat adjacent to a new orchard; residue from the orchard’s chemical sprays had found its way to Wallnöfer’s livestock. Ackerman-Leist also talks with Peter Gasser, a veterinarian who interacted daily with farmers and livestock. As a result of this work Gasser had a thorough knowledge of the community’s issues, which he would later use to help lead the fight against pesticides in the town. Ackerman-Leist argues that Mals’s story has particular relevance for American farmers who face similar circumstances, and he concludes his discussion with useful suggestions for farming communities on topics such as information gathering and political engagement. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/22/2017 | Details & Permalink

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