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How to Know the Birds: The Art and Adventure of Birding

Ted Floyd. National Geographic, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4262-2003-6

Birding magazine editor Floyd (Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America) plays teacher in an informative volume aimed at both beginning and more experienced avian enthusiasts, offering brief and accessible accounts of “200 bird species, one bird at a time, one day at a time, one lesson at a time.” An introductory section touches on the common and recognizable species, such as American robins and mallards, which often get people initially hooked; subsequent sections deal with basic topics such as bird naming, bird sizes and shapes, and migration. Floyd, a birder for close to four decades, also explores how ornithology has changed over the years, “especially in the past 10 to 15.” Once upon a time, for instance, he “could get by” with binoculars, a field guide, and a notebook. Back then, “going to the library was common, taking photos was rare, and recording birdsong was practically unheard of,” in contrast to today, when digital tools have made birding newly easy, popular, and more concerned with documenting experience. That said, Floyd shows that the attraction to and general interest in the field has remained the same: to learn as much as possible about and appreciate the natural world. This book helps greatly with that endeavor. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/09/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies

Edward O. Wilson. Liveright, $23.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-63149-554-0

Wilson (On Human Nature), a Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard evolutionary biologist, addresses what he calls the six “great transitions of evolution” that led to human society in this ambitious treatise, his 32nd book. He argues that these transitions (the beginnings of, respectively, life, complex cells, sexual reproduction, multicellular organisms, societies, and language) have one important factor in common: “In each..., altruism at a lower level of biological organization is needed to reach the one above.” While he does an impressive job in this short text of making the nature of the transitions clear, his explanation of group selection, in which evolution acts on a whole group rather than on individuals, and in particular the concept of eusociality (“the organization of a group into reproductive and non-reproductive castes”), is far too cursory to be fully understandable to the general reader. Wilson is at his most controversial when arguing that human societies are eusocial by nature, by citing, among other points, the high “frequency of homosexuality-propensity genes in human populations.” He concludes that humans have been shaped largely through altruism and cooperation, leaving readers with a message that is optimistic and worthy of discussion even as it remains debatable. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/09/2018 | Details & Permalink

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After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets

Art Shamsky and Erik Sherman. Simon & Schuster, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5011-7651-7

Former Mets outfielder Shamsky movingly revisits the 1969 Miracle Mets’ season during a reunion with his old teammates. When Shamsky and several other players—Jerry Koosman, Ron Swoboda, and Bud Harrelson—visited the ailing Mets legend Tom Seaver at his California home in 2017, it triggered memories of that magical season and was the catalyst for this memoir written with Sherman (Kings and Queens). Pivotal moments in the rise of the cellar-dwelling new team to baseball powerhouse are chronicled in detail (“Choosing catcher Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson as the number one pick in the 1966 major league baseball draft,” Shamksy writes, “probably opened the door for the trade that brought me”), with a colorful cast including pitcher Tug McGraw and first-base coach Yogi Berra. Shamsky notes that the players were silent on the Vietnam War and quotes teammate Ed Kranepool who said: “We weren’t politicians; we were baseball players.” Shamsky recalls the Mets plowing through elite teams on the way to the 1969 World Series victory and the massive ticker-tape parade that followed, and emphasizes the brotherhood and lasting loyalty of his teammates on and off the field. This heartfelt, nostalgic memoir will delight baseball fans of all ages and allegiances. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/09/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Southern Lady Code: Essays

Helen Ellis. Doubleday, $22 (224p) ISBN 978-0-385-54389-7

A vibrant storyteller with a penchant for the perverse, Ellis pivots from short stories (American Housewife) to nonfiction in this ribald collection of essays on manners, morals, and marriage, all colored by her off-kilter Alabama upbringing. From Marie Kondo’s tidying-up magic to Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers and being a teenager in the 1980s, Ellis’s sharp eye for pop-culture preoccupations inspires smart-mouthed provocations. She humorously describes her 23-year-old self in Manhattan on her way to a date “with a panty liner stuck to my back. Yes, it was used,” and discusses happy couples and three-ways; the difference between gay men and Southern Effeminate men who “wear seersucker and bow ties... [and] collect salt shakers and cookie jars”; and being a good airline passenger (“I wipe down the [toilet] seat like I’m giving it a tetanus shot”). Ellis shares her mother’s etiquette advice for handling street crime (“Always carry money for a mugger—three one-dollar bills wrapped in a five... then throw the money and run screaming Officer down!”), and tells of her father staging pretend gun violence to liven up a birthday party. Ellis is a strong, vivid writer—and this book is gut-busting funny. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 11/09/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business

Matt and Ted Lee. Holt, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-62779-261-5

The Lee brothers (The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook) pulls back the curtain on the catering world, an often-dismissed arm of the culinary industry denounced for its “rubber chicken and dry salmon,” in this captivating tell-all. Caterers are unlikely to find stardom, the authors write, though their food is “often as succulent... as what’s served at the gastronomic temples of the nation.” To learn what fuels the stressful, no-glory business, the Lee brothers don aprons for a New York City catering giant, working their way from the prep kitchen to the “fiestas,” or live events—including intimate donor dinners at art galleries and extravagant upstate weddings. They uncover a scrappy, innovative ecosystem, best demonstrated by caterers’ near-universal reliance on the “hotbox,” an “upright aluminum cabinet on wheels” used to transport food and powered by Sterno lamps. The authors track how meal delivery services of the 1960s escalated into today’s parties for the über-rich, replete with gimmicks like “meringues floating through the room suspended by white balloons.” The Lee brothers’ evocative behind-the-scenes look showcases the workforce of innovators (many of them immigrants) thriving on “culinary triage.” This is an intriguing look at an industry often hidden from the thousands of guests it serves nightly. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 11/09/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide

Eric San Juan. Rowman & Littlefield, $36 (264p) ISBN 978-1-5381-1089-8

Akira Kurosawa’s films are examined in detail in this enjoyable overview of the renowned director’s career from San Juan (Hitchcock’s Villains). Focusing on Kurosawa’s themes rather than his techniques, San Juan readily succeeds in his goal of creating an accessible appreciation of Kurosawa’s work. Each film receives its own entry, beginning with Kurosawa’s 1943 directorial debut, Sanshiro Sugata, about a reckless young man intent on becoming a judo master, through to Kurosawa’s 1993 swan song, Madadayo, about an elderly man not yet ready to die. Biographical snippets threaded into the entries trace Kurosawa’s working life, from his start in WWII-era Japan to his continuing career in devastated postwar Japan to his rise to fame in and outside Japan in the 1950s, ending with his late ’60s fall from grace and early ’80s comeback. Many of the tales from Kurosawa’s life, particularly regarding his relationships with his actors—including his master-pupil relationship with star Toshiro Mifune and long marriage to actress Yoko Yaguchi—are so intriguing that readers will wish this were a full biography. San Juan takes care to note Kurosawa’s influences upon other directors, including George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, and Martin Scorsese, observing, for example, how the plot of Lucas’s 1977 film Star Wars echoes Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. This guide to a master filmmaker’s work has appeal for cinephiles and casual movie viewers alike. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/09/2018 | Details & Permalink

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A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age

Daniel Schönpflug, trans. from the German by Jefferson Chase. Metropolitan, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-62779-762-7

In this engrossing account, German historian Schönpflug examines the last days and aftermath of WWI from a cultural and social perspective, primarily by following the lives and careers of military heroes, future world leaders, artists, and more. They all cope with postwar life in different ways. Harry Truman retired from the military to open a haberdashery whose eventual failure spurred him to the political career that landed him in the White House in 1945. Harlem-born soldier Henry Johnson, whose combat exploits earned him the nickname “The Black Death,” enjoyed a period of fame and fortune as America’s first black war hero, but his candor regarding his experiences quickly rendered him unmarketable, leading to a lonely, impoverished death in 1929. Schönpflug presents, almost lyrically, a complicated mixture of jubilation, exhaustion, anticipation, trauma, and recovery, giving an intimate, humanizing look at a world still reeling from war. In addition to inner experience, this history touches briefly on larger-scale matters: the fledgling Weimar Republic’s growing pains, the development of new schools of music, art, and architecture (jazz, dada, Bauhaus), and the restructuring of the world in general. Schönpflug achieves his goal of portraying a world still traumatized and shell-shocked by war, optimistic about the future, and disturbed by the changes taking place, striking a good balance between a broad topic and in-depth exploration. Agent: Barbara Wenner, Fritz Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/09/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal

Ben Sasse. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-250-19368-1

Republican senator Sasse (The Vanishing American Adult) provides here a common-sense, politically moderate interpretation of America’s social and political ills. Drawing from his experience growing up in rural America, Sasse ruminates on the deterioration of community bonds, growing social isolation, and the effects of these trends on American life and political culture. He opines that the collapse of traditional social bonds and community structures in recent decades has created a vacuum that has been filled by “anti-tribes”—associations and groupthinks characterized by being “against” ideas, political movements, or groups of people. Sasse also draws from his political career and select social science research (particularly Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, about the decline of American civic life) to hypothesize that Americans have become politically discouraged and that growing political antagonism and “partisan tribalism” have poisoned our political scene, partly because of the relatively new phenomenon of “polititainment”—political news that values entertainment over facts. Sasse doesn’t hesitate to criticize his fellow conservative Republicans. The solutions he proposes—pulling oneself away from screens to form connections with one’s family and neighbors, for instance—are overwhelmingly social and personal, rather than political. Sasse’s philosophical musings are unlikely to convert many skeptics. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/09/2018 | Details & Permalink

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In My Father’s House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family

Fox Butterfield. Knopf, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4000-4102-2

Butterfield (All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence), a Pulitzer Prize winner, uses one family, the Bogles, to explore American criminality. Butterfield identified 60 Bogles, starting in the 1920s, “who have been sentenced to either prison, jail, or a juvenile reformatory, or placed on probation or parole.” His numerous interviews over a decade with members of the family put an all-too-human face on criminological studies that conclude that “as little as 5 percent of families account for half of all crime, and that 10 percent of families account for two-thirds of all crime” in the U.S. The influences of genetics and family have not been central for most recent criminologists, and Butterfield seeks to reintroduce them, purposely choosing a Caucasian family to “remov[e] race as a factor in the discussion.” Without sugarcoating or excusing their crimes, Butterfield writes empathically about his subjects, as in his depiction of Tracey Bogle, convicted of kidnapping, sodomy, and assault, who fondly recalls growing up copying the behavior of his father, Rooster, who “took his children out to commit crimes with him.” Butterfield convincingly argues that mass incarceration becomes a vicious cycle in this insightful and moving group biography. Agent: Carol Mann, Carol Mann Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/09/2018 | Details & Permalink

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When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Kara Cooney. National Geographic, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-4262-1977-1

Cooney, an Egyptologist at UCLA, profiles six women who rose to power in ancient Egypt. The women most closely connected to the king played a central role and could, when circumstances demanded, become kings themselves. Some of the names (Nefertiti, Cleopatra) are familiar, but this book breaks from trends in studies of ancient Egypt by not focusing exclusively on death rites and funerary architecture. Cooney discusses the women’s leadership (“Merneith and Neferusobek selflessly took up authority only to mitigate disaster,” but the power-hungry Hatshepsut was the only one who “managed to transcend the crisis [she] had inherited and leave Egypt in better shape”) and speculates about what they must have experienced, including the habits and perspectives of the elite (Nefertiti was early in life “exposed to ancient Egyptian submission to authoritarian rule. She knew when to keep her mouth shut”). Attempting to draw parallels between the pharaohs and contemporary rock stars and politicians, Cooney occasionally asks too much of her narrative. But her stories of these remarkable women, who in flashes displayed “true, successful female power that tapped into the emotions of [their] people, that embraced multiple perspectives, that reached out in a spirit of reconciliation to those who had been expelled or cast out,” will enchant those wishing to imagine what ancient Egyptian court life was like. Illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/09/2018 | Details & Permalink

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