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Your Brain Knows More than You Think: The New Frontiers of Neuroplasticity

Niels Birbaumer, with Jorg Zittlau, trans. from the German by David Shaw. Scribe, $26.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-947534-09-4

Neurobiologist Birbaumer makes some far-reaching claims about how people with mental illness and brain damage can be treated in this bold book about the human brain. Premised on the 1961 Milgram experiment in which participants knowingly administered supposedly deadly shocks to an unseen victim, this work describes the brain’s survival strategies and its neuroplasticity—the “virtually limitless capacity of the brain to remold itself”—as having mostly positive but some disastrous consequences, including obsession and addiction. The ideas here may be controversial but are also exciting. Birbaumer argues that people with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, cognitive problems, and degenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and dementia can heal themselves “if they train their brain[s] in the right way.” Even non-responsive, “locked-in” people can communicate to a degree, he proposes, by using a neurofeedback method and a magnetoencephalography machine. Birbaumer developed the machine himself and describes it as “a helium-cooled device that sits on the subject’s head like an old-fashioned hood hair dryer” and picks up the signals emitted by the brain. While promoting the use of biotechnology in treating victims of stroke and epilepsy, Birbaumer expresses skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry and especially of the use of Ritalin in treating children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Though far from definitive, this book is daring and unconventional. (June)

Reviewed on 05/25/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Bend at the End of the Road

Barry N. Malzberg. Fantastic, $13.99 trade paper (162p) ISBN 978-1-5154-1038-6

This volume’s 46 piquant essays, all written as columns for Galaxy’s Edge and Baen’s Universe between 2006 and 2017, are outgrowths of what veteran SF author Malzberg (The Engines of the Night) calls his “lover’s argument with science fiction.” He sings the praises of science fiction as “an outsider literature, transgressive or visionary at its best,” that reached its creative pinnacle in its magazine markets in the 1950s. But he laments the impact on the genre made by the erosion of the wall separating science fiction from the literary mainstream in the 1960s, and then the onslaught of “Tolkien imitations, elves, dwarves, Star Trek and finally George Lucas.” Though candidly opinionated, Malzberg writes with great humility, referring to his writing as “my graffiti of distress.” He uses his knowledge of the genre and its writers, and of literature and the arts, to discuss science fiction in a general cultural context. The impressions and insights that abound in these columns make this book indispensable for any fan of science fiction. (June)

Reviewed on 05/25/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went from Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things

Courtenay Hameister. Little, Brown, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-316-39570-0

Hameister, former host and head writer of the Portland radio show Live Wire!, undertakes an amusing, if perhaps overly insular, rumination on various experiences she has subjected herself to in order to combat severe anxiety. Those with similar conditions will find her tone encouraging throughout, as when she describes the reason for taking on her “Okay Fine Whatever” project: “I thought if I could create a situation in which I was forced to try new things... I might actually become braver... I might even eventually become a badass.” She describes a wide variety of small boundary-pushing experiences, including 90 minutes spent in a sensory deprivation tank, forays into polyamory, and an evening at a vegan strip club, which she leaves feeling “far dirtier for pretending to be ‘chill’ than I did for watching naked women gyrate all night.” She also shares personal reflections, most notably on her desire for male approval. Her amused, sometimes snarky writing style will surely resonate with young hipsters but seems less likely to reach a wider readership. Nonetheless, Hameister’s frankness about her struggles with anxiety may prove helpful to readers facing their own internal confrontations. Agent: Laurie Fox, Linda Chester Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/25/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth

Christopher Schaberg. Bloomsbury Academic, $24.95 (168p) ISBN 978-1-5013-3429-0

Schaberg (Airportness), a Loyola professor of literature and environmental theory, devotes this thoughtful but frustratingly inconclusive essay collection to investigating “what it means to be interested in literature and... to teach literature at the college level, in an age of post-truth.” Pursuing the question, Schaberg takes readers to various locations, allowing them to eavesdrop on his thoughts. His activities include “reading” the Mississippi by cataloging its debris; driving the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in town for an academic conference, to a Walmart; and recalling his college years, all with ruminations on teaching literature woven in. Touchstones throughout these essays include airports (“foretold sites of vulnerability and inevitable chaos”) and writer David Foster Wallace. Schaberg soars when talking about language: for example, should Americans really want to “drain the swamp,” he asks about the Republican campaign promise, when swamps are diverse ecosystems vital to life on Earth? Like Virginia Woolf, whom he invokes, Schaberg wants to connect literature, place, and the mundane to larger social issues, but these meandering essays lack Woolf’s driving force. Schaberg’s knowledge of literature and environmental issues can’t be faulted, but his reflective writing doesn’t pull this book’s various concerns into a cohesive whole. (July)

Reviewed on 05/25/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Outside the Jukebox: How I Turned My Vintage Music Obsession into My Dream Gig

Scott Bradlee. Hachette, $23 (256p) ISBN 978-0-316-41573-6

This entertaining memoir by music impresario Bradlee tells of his rise from jobless musician drowning in student loan debt to successful entrepreneur. Bradlee grew up in rural New Jersey, finished high school in the bottom half of his class with especially poor grades in science, and realized that “to get accepted to any decent college... I would have to apply with a declared major in music.” He ended up at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford then moved to New York City, where, for a decade, he performed and taught piano. By 2008, he was making ends meet but “artistically, I was suffering.” Deciding to shift gears and work toward a traditional college degree in, of all things, science, Bradlee applied and was accepted to Hunter College. On a whim, he recorded himself playing piano and posted the video on YouTube, and the next phase of his life began. In 2009, he released “Hello My Ragtime ’80s” featuring a mix of ragtime-style piano interpretations of 1980s pop hits; in 2012, he added “A Motown Tribute to Nickelback”; and in 2013, he rose to fame with his music collective, Postmodern Jukebox, a rotating group of musicians who perform jazz, ragtime, and doo-wop covers of contemporary hits. Their YouTube channel currently has over 3.4 million subscribers. Throughout, Bradlee regularly shifts from memoir to something of a self-help tone (“You have to think of yourself as the thing you want to be long before other people think of you as that”). Anyone eager to know more about the man behind the music will want to pick this up. (June)

Reviewed on 05/25/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Accidentally like a Martyr: The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon

James Campion. Backbeat, $24.99 paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-61713-672-6

Drawing on interviews with singer-songwriter Warren Zevon’s family, friends, and industry associates, as well as on secondary resources, journalist Campion explores 10 songs and three albums that he believes offer the best insight into Zevon’s life and art. Campion observes Zevon’s brilliance in the arrangement of songs on his 1976 album Warren Zevon, in which the sweet ballad “Hasten Down the Wind” leads directly into the bitter “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” (at that point, Campion writes, there’s a “vulnerability completely absent in the ensuing songs”). Zevon’s album Sentimental Hygiene (1987) came at the end of a period of the singer’s reclusion and alcohol abuse; it was his first straight-ahead rock album and it delivered stinging indictments of what he believed was a corporate, greedy music business. Zevon’s “Desperadoes Under the Eaves,” meanwhile, is a satire of the Eagles’ song “Desperado” and also an homage to Béla Bartók. Campion writes, quoting Zevon’s daughter Ariel, “He was a musician through and through... [music] was his means of expressing his innermost, truest insights and feelings.” Campion’s adoring book will speak mostly to Zevon’s fans, and will encourage them to listen to his music anew. (June)

Reviewed on 05/25/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Lost Education of Horace Tate: Uncovering the Hidden Heroes Who Fought for Justice in Schools

Vanessa Siddle Walker. New Press, $32.99 (480p) ISBN 978-1-620971-05-5

In this narrative history backed up with detailed scholarship, Walker, professor of African-American educational studies at Emory University, sheds light on the mostly unsung heroes—black teachers, principals, and other school personnel—in the battle for equal education in the South leading up to Brown v. Board of Education. Drawing on two years of interviews and the long-hidden archives of lifelong education activist Horace Tate, a former Georgia state senator who was a school teacher and principal in his younger years, the author recounts how Tate and others secretly fought the “separate but equal” ethos to get roomier buildings, school buses, and other educational necessities for African-American pupils. Their work had to be clandestine because, Walker writes, “even those trying to fly under the radar who attempted to challenge inequality could pay with their livelihoods, their health and sometimes their lives.” Walker gleans facts and colorful details from documents like letters and meeting minutes to illuminate how the personable Tate and his colleagues, “masterly tricksters,” deliberately obfuscated their activist roles behind their docile public faces as teachers and principals. This well-told and inspiring tale, with its rarely discussed angle on the school segregation fight, will draw in readers interested in meaningful work and activism, or just a well-told tale. (July)

Reviewed on 05/25/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Turning Points in Jewish History

Marc J. Rosenstein. Jewish Publication Society, $29.95 trade paper (464p) ISBN 978-0-8276-1263-1

Rosenstein (Our Place in the Universe) comprehensively covers Jewish history in a book that’s most likely to be used as a college textbook, though it has some appeal to lay readers. Each chapter contains a “text for discussion” (such as Abraham Joshua Heschel’s discussion of the revelation at Sinai) and the introduction provides a suggestion for the order of assignments to students. With strong overviews of foundational developments throughout Judaism—the exodus from Egypt, the destruction of the first and second temples, the expulsion of Iberian Jewry, the Holocaust, and the founding of the modern state of Israel—readers will appreciate Rosenstein’s evenhanded treatment. Throughout, he adds commentary on primary texts, but his suggestions for further reading are often dated and overly narrow. For example, even with the volume of recent scholarship, all of his four recommended readings about the Holocaust are more than 15 years old and most are more than 40 years old. Despite the lack of suitable references, this book serves as a solid, if sometimes superficial, introductory survey. (July)

Reviewed on 05/25/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Stop Biting the Tail You’re Chasing: Using Buddhist Mind Training to Free Yourself from Painful Emotional Patterns

Anyen Rinpoche and Allison Choying Zangmo. Shambhala, $16.95 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-61180-571-0

Anyen (Living and Dying with Confidence) details the Tibetan Buddhist practice of lojong, or mind training, in this helpful book for meditators. By training the mind to recognize the power of emotional attachment, Anyen wishes to show how “[the] root of all unhappiness is self-cherishing.” At the core of self-cherishing is an unhealthy attachment to the hope for permanence and an idea of the self, he writes. Anyen’s antidote is threefold: to train the mind to detach emotions from identities and see the former as sources of information, to understand that the nature of everything is empty and illusory, and then to break out of old habitual patterns of emotional and physical behaviors. One is “fully responsible” for dealing with one’s emotions and emotional reactions, he writes, and lojong practice is the way to begin recognizing, applying, and persevering with that responsibility. Although he offers some basic meditation instruction, Anyen recognizes that such training initially seems impossible and invokes the spiritual qualities of Tibetan masters and bodhisattvas to inspire readers to work slowly toward the benefits of practice. While Anyen’s book may tread familiar ground, it is a skillful, well-structured, and accessible introduction to the practice of lojong that will appeal to novices of Buddhist meditation. (July)

Reviewed on 05/25/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Skepticism and American Faith from the Revolution to the Civil War

Christopher Grasso. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (664p) ISBN 978-0-19-049437-7

In this revealing study, Grasso (Bloody Engagements), professor of history at William & Mary, argues that the American experience of and engagement with skepticism was a significant driver of social, cultural, religious, and political ferment in the young republic. Skeptics who questioned the three “grounds of faith”—the Bible, tradition, and personal subjectivity—prompted debates over many aspects of early American society, including epistemology, interpretation of the Bible and the Constitution, the appropriate response to poverty, the right of the faithful majority to be shielded from the “insult” of public skepticism, and the roots of faith and doubt in the anatomy of the brain itself. Grasso uses dozens of familiar and unfamiliar figures to explore the spiritual and practical consequences of these debates. His analysis of the ways race and gender shaped claims to knowledge and authority is strongest when considering black and white female skeptics such as 18th-century slaves who cultivated “deism, skepticism, universalism” and Methodist reformer Sarah Anderson Jones. Grasso uses a large appendix to define and explain the grounds of different faiths and their relationships to skepticism; general readers may find it helpful to begin in the appendix. True to its title, Grasso’s book demonstrates the centrality of skepticism in understanding how the American inclination to faith has been “forged in the foundry of culture.” (July)

Reviewed on 05/25/2018 | Details & Permalink

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