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Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory

James T. Costa. Norton, $27.95 (496p) ISBN 978-0-393-23989-8

Charles Darwin is best known as a great theorizer of ideas on the origin of species, human evolution, and a wealth of other topics that have stood the test of time, but Costa (Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species), professor of biology at Western Carolina University, demonstrates that he was an equally remarkable experimentalist. Costa combs through Darwin’s notebooks and letters as well as biographies of him to present an impressive array of experiments that Darwin conducted (each chapter concludes with experiment instructions for readers). According to Costa, whether Darwin was working to elucidate the phylogeny and reproductive biology of barnacles, the construction of beehives, the nature of plant pollination, or the biology of earthworms, his “mind was always churning, turning out remarkable insights from the grist of simple observations.” In every case, Darwin was collecting data to support his broad evolutionary ideas and to “solidify [his] evolutionary vision of a truly universal Tree of Life.” Costa also uses Darwin’s experimental work to make a broader point about the methodology of science and the importance of data relative to opinion. Costa nicely explains what Darwin discovered, discussing those rare cases where he got something wrong and using the findings of modern science to extend Darwin’s conclusions. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self

Manoush Zomorodi. St. Martin’s, $26.99 (208p) ISBN 978-1-250-12495-1

Zomorodi, host of the WNYC podcast Note to Self, issues a paradoxically lively treatise on the benefits of boredom. In 2015 she asked her listeners to rethink their relationship to their digital devices, issuing a week-long challenge to reclaim time to “space out” and embrace boredom as a productive state of mind. Feedback from the 20,000 participants in the challenge is featured here, as well as Zomorodi’s illuminating discussion of boredom’s history as a concept. She cites research by social scientists and psychologists throughout in support of her belief that unplugging, disconnecting, and getting “bored” fosters creativity. Zomorodi outlines a reasonable, easily implemented program for improving “your capacity for boredom,” consisisting of seven steps. The first six are: (1) track your digital habits, (2) eschew media while walking or driving, (3) have a day when you don’t take any pictures, (4) delete the app you think you can’t live without, (5) take a “fakecation” (go to the office but do not reply to electronic messages), and (6) choose one thing in your environment to observe in depth. Step seven consists of advice on putting your newfound sense of boredom to work. Zomorodi’s engaging and provocative presentation will appeal to her established fans and also draw new ones. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky, Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Boats in My Blood: A Life in Boat Building

Barrie Farrell. Harbour (Midpoint, U.S. dist.), $24.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-55017-755-8

Farrell, now in his 80s, was a pioneering designer and boat builder on the British Columbia coast as the fishing industry moved from wooden boats to fiberglass, but this entertaining memoir is much more than the story of his 40-year career. His tales of boats are intermingled with recollections of his family’s hardscrabble beginnings, his childhood on the West Coast, his two marriages, and his children. The narrative drifts conversationally between business and personal matters, often at random and quite unexpectedly. Accounts of Farrell’s youth are charming and reveal a free spirit that remained constant in adulthood. His descriptions of places, other builders, family events, memories, and adventures are written in short conversational bursts marked by a refreshing simplicity and innocence. He carefully describes family, friends, boat builders, and clients, often in relation to one another, reflecting the importance of belonging in isolated communities. This colloquial work provides a vivid account of the vagaries of boat building and the uncertainty for those whose livelihoods depend on it, and provides insight into life in coastal communities over the last 80 years. Black and white photos bring characters and boats to life, enhancing an already fascinating story. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity

Edited by Jay Pitter and John Lorinc. Coach House (Consortium, U.S. dist.; PGC, Canadian dist.), $18.95 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-55245-332-2

This insightful essay collection uses storytelling and analyses from numerous academics, activists, and journalists to question how Toronto, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, can address socioeconomic disparities and divisions, which have sparked unrest in other cities, and become a more connected and just place for people to live together. Some of the issues covered include transit equity (the majority of the city’s poor live in suburban areas that aren’t well served by transit), the need for trust-building policing (to counter practices of carding people of color), safe and affordable housing, holistic mental health care, and more responsive municipal governance. Many of the writers bring thorny issues to life by drawing from their own experiences. Journalist Asmaa Malik takes readers into the racial profiling debate that erupted on a Facebook page among her neighbors when someone posted a photo of black teenagers who she said had been “snooping” in private lanes and might be potential suspects for a recent bike theft. The book is not light reading, but it starts conversations about tough and important topics and is highly recommended to readers interested in urban politics and creating more humane cities. (June)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Woods: A Year on Protection Island

Amber McMillan. Nightwood (Midpoint, U.S. dist., Harbour, Canadian dist.), $19.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-88971-329-1

McMillan’s (We Can’t Ever Do This Again) memoir of a year spent on Protection Island, on the west coast of British Columbia, is written as a collection of absurdities encountered while escaping to the wilds, but the story is largely banal. The premise is straightforward: McMillan and family flee their Torontonian urban struggle for the imagined quiescence of a small island in the Georgia Strait, only to find a community that’s often hostile to outsiders. Their neighbors are portrayed as oddballs and practiced isolationists, typified by archivists with attitude and local history buffs whose obsessions are distinctly macabre. Protection Island is no more odd than many small communities, where reserved hostility and slow-to-surface generosity are the norm. McMillan is a talented poet, but though the book aims for raw honesty and mordant wit, it achieves neither. In many ways, it feels like a long essay that’s filling space. It’s strongest when it directly observes that McMillan’s journey was more about self-discovery, but unfortunately that only happens in the afterword. An essay would have been a much more effective rendering than this overstuffed book. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Pilgrimage in Islam: Traditional and Modern Practices

Sophia Rose Arjana. Oneworld, $24.99 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-78607-116-3

Arjana, a researcher and former professor of Islamic studies at the University of Denver, provides an account of the different modes of pilgrimages in Islam. The book covers the contemporary dynamics of hajj to Mecca and the many prominent Shia holy sites with visiting traditions as well as more local pilgrimage traditions, such as visiting the graves of revered religious figures in Senegal, India, and Java. Arjana’s research adds new perspective to even the most prominent example of Muslim pilgrimages, the hajj, such as the observation that Jerusalem was originally a pilgrimage site with greater prestige than Mecca, or that local traditions often mimic and replicate the requirements of the hajj on smaller scales, making the basic experiences available to a wider range of Muslims. The writing is lucid and engaging, and the research is thorough and sensitive to complexity, such as in outlining the challenge of defining Sufism. This work, though slim, meets the high standards of academics while being accessible to the layperson interested in the diversity of Islamic thought and practice. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life

Anna Yusim. Grand Central, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4555-9679-9

“True healing and lasting fulfillment require a spiritual transformation as well as a clinical outcome,” psychiatrist Yusim writes in this spiritual approach to personal change. Addressing three problematic statements—“I am unaware of my soul,” “I give away my power,” and “I am disconnected and alone”—Yusim explores ways to gain greater fulfillment through improving authenticity and making necessary “soul corrections” while facing challenges related to relationships, addictions, fear, and “harnessing personal power.” The “science of spirituality” from the book’s subtitle takes a back seat until the concluding section, which looks at possible intersections between science and experiences of synchronicity, interconnectedness, and the like, about which Yusim offers both open-minded curiosity and skeptical questions. Exercises throughout focus primarily on reflection, brief meditation, and “stream-of-consciousness” writing. Despite some fuzzy use of terms and clichéd writing, Yusim’s book is clear, well-organized, and thoughtful, with abundant references to scientific and psychological research as well as the words of classic writers and spiritual leaders. However, the case studies of Yusim’s very wealthy patients may alienate some readers, and the author’s frequent references to such status markers as beauty and elite education become grating. This well-intentioned book offers standard self-help fare. Agent: Cassie Hanjian, Waxman Leavell Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Chasing Grace: What the Quarter Mile Has Taught Me About God and Life

Sanya Richards-Ross. Zondervan, $24.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-310-34940-2

In her forthright second book, Richards-Ross (Run with Me), a Jamaican-American former track and field athlete and Olympic gold medalist, chronicles her lifelong quest to become one of the world’s best runners and the best version of herself. The book traces her career from her first days on the track as a seven-year-old in Jamaica to breaking the American 400-meter record. The book is primarily organized chronologically, but she frames it around the four phases of her races—push, pace, position and poise—and connects each chapter to broader life lessons that can be applied off the track. Richards-Ross is refreshingly candid about deeply personal subjects that are generally considered taboo: she is open about seeing a sports psychologist to help her deal with the enormous pressure of her races, and she divulges that she had an abortion shortly before the 2008 Olympics, a decision she says “broke” her and strained her marriage to NFL player Aaron Ross. This is a refreshing behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of a professional athlete that emphasizes her hard work and dedication to achieving her goals. Agent: David Larabell, CAA. (June)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Disarming Beauty: Essays on Faith, Truth, and Freedom

Julián Carrón. Univ. of Notre Dame, $25 (246p) ISBN 978-0-268-10197-8

In this repetitious, sometimes monotonous collection of essays, Carrón, the leader of the global ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, passionately embraces the life and work of Jesus and proclaims that encounters with Jesus provide the key to clarity in Christians’ dialogues about marriage, education, and ethics. Carrón belabors the point that Jesus came to “reawaken the self,” placing humans in the position to face these singular problems. For example, in marriage, he writes that Christ is the “truth of the relationship, the fullness to which both partners point” because they have fully awakened to themselves and to their desire to fulfill the other’s desire. Teaching, in Carrón’s view, involves a teacher awakening others to the power of Christ within themselves by testifying to the power of Christ in the teacher’s own life. Politics can be revitalized, he points out, by affirming the other and the common good over any partisan interests. Carrón’s ponderous collection of essays provides no startling new insights into the Christian faith; the essays tiresomely repeat the axioms that Jesus brings life, hope, and joy, and that one’s encounter with him makes one more self-aware. (May)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Think Skinny, Feel Fit: 7 Steps to Transform Your Emotional Weight and Have an Awesome Life

Alejandro Chaban. Atria, $16 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-5011-3003-8

Chaban, a motivational speaker and nutrition consultant, shares his personal struggle with weight in this helpful memoir. Born in Venezuela, Chaban describes being raised in a family that placed an overriding focus on food, which he attributes to his father’s Arab background. As a child, he gained approval from his family when he ate enthusiastically, and his chubbiness became a source of pride for them. As he grew into his teens, however, Chaban gained more weight than was healthy: he ultimately weighed in at 314 pounds, and was bullied by peers. Later, he overcompensated, excessively dieting and becoming bulimic. While chronicling his emotional and physical journey to good health, he shares seven keys to his success: make a commitment to yourself, identify your emotional weight, set your goals, affirm your well-being, visualize your dream life, take action and create lasting habits, and focus on the present. Chaban maintains that emotional issues and weight gain are intertwined, arguing that even with the best diet plan, failure to address the underlying psychological causes of overeating will lead to relapse. Chaban’s story will inspire his devoted fans and also draw in new readers with its openhearted candor and supportive plan. (June)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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