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Move to Fire: A Family’s Tragedy, a Lone Attorney, and a Teenager’s Victory over a Corrupt Gunmaker

Michael W. Harkins. Story and Pictures, $14 trade paper (348p) ISBN 978-0-9965672-0-6

Harkins crafts a taut legal drama reminiscent of Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action in this story of a heroic lawyer’s quest for justice for the victim of a defective firearm. Brandon Max was seven years old and living in Northern California with his mother and stepfather when in 1994 a bullet struck and paralyzed him. The firearm that caused the life-altering injury was a Bryco Model 38, which had a design defect: the safety needed to be disengaged before its chamber could be checked to see whether it contained any ammunition. Brandon’s parents’ initial attempt to sue the manufacturer went nowhere, but they get a second chance in 1999 when Brandon’s stepfather, Clint Stansberry, seeks out solo law practitioner Richard Ruggieri. After learning about the family tragedy, Ruggieri launches a seemingly quixotic lawsuit against the manufacturers of the weapon, an effort that lasts well over a decade and is complicated by the manufacturers’ efforts to evade responsibility by filing for bankruptcy. Harkins’s understated recounting makes a powerful argument that the government should have the authority to recall defective firearms. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future

Jonathon Keats. Oxford Univ, $24.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-19-933823-8

Architect and designer Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) may no longer hold the kind of counterculture cachet he had in the 1960s, but writer and artist Keats (Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age) emphasizes his ideas without ignoring his often controversial accomplishments in a biography that manages to be enthusiastic without descending into hagiography. Fuller—a Harvard dropout, autodidact, and relentless self-promoter—believed that technology would liberate man from work and make politics unnecessary. He thrilled audiences “at least until the buzz wore off the following morning,” though Keats points out that Fuller’s designs did sometimes match his hype. The geodesic dome remains a breakthrough, far lighter and stronger than traditional dome designs. Fuller’s Dymaxion world map portrays continents with much less distortion than the popular Mercator or Gall-Peters projections and helped him promote his technocratic “world game” solution to the world’s problems. His three-wheeled Dymaxion car had no particular advantages, but his Dymaxion house design—circular, domed, and sheathed in aluminum—was strong, lightweight, cheap to manufacture, and easy to assemble, though only one prototype was ever built and lived in. Keats’s insightful account of this impressive American innovator reveals a man who managed to be “both corporate and antiestablishment,” more pragmatic than concerned with resolving contradictions. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks

Edited by Robert Manning et al. George Braziller, $24.95 (300p) ISBN 978-0-8076-0019-1

The National Parks Service (NPS), celebrating its centennial in 2016, ranges far beyond the well-known Yellowstone and Yosemite to more than 400 national parks from Acadia to Zion, including Women’s Rights, Manzanar, and Big Thicket. Likewise, this provocative, seductively illustrated anthology of 23 essays ranges beyond the radical concept of setting aside land for public use. Denis Galvin, who’s worked for NPS for 38 years, writes that “its job is to illuminate this landscape.” Beyond that, however, the NPS mission, which began with stunning scenery, now includes revealing controversial history and encouraging both physical and spiritual recreation. The essayists consider the nation’s history and that of the NPS itself, including the negative sides of both. John Maounis writes of the “Treasures of the Nation”; Dwight Pitcaithley and Rolf Diamant address the difficulties of interpreting the Civil War and the civil rights movement; and Melia Lane-Kamahele speaks about incorporating indigenous voices and seeking out collaboration within local and national communities, specifically her native Hawaiian community. Some essays clunk with clichés and lists, but the final entries—covering communities and partnerships, new park resources, and the next 100 years—soar with thought-provoking content. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable

Suzana Herculano-Houzel. MIT, $29.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-262-03425-8

In this engaging work, Herculano-Houzel, a biologist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, ponders whether human brains are extraordinary. Using data mostly collected in her own laboratory via a technique she devised for accurately counting the number of neurons in brains, she concludes that “our brain is remarkable, yes—but not special in the sense of being an exception to the rules of evolution.” She goes on to explain how primate brains are configured differently from non-primate brains, with the former having a much greater density of neurons than the latter, leading to greater cognitive capabilities. She also demonstrates that among primates, great apes are the outliers, not humans: great apes have smaller brains than expected based solely on body size, while humans possess the predicted size. In a relatively short but absolutely critical section, Herculano-Houzel draws on the work of others to explain that the human brain’s neuron density likely arose because humans learned how to cook food, which permits significantly more energy to be gained from a given amount of raw material. Herculano-Houzel puts her expertise as a science journalist to good use, though her heavy reliance on statistical patterns may put off some readers. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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City Squares: Eighteen Writers on the Spirit and Significance of Squares Around the World

Edited by Catie Marron. Harper, $32.50 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-238020-3

Marron, chairman of the board of directors of Friends of the High Line and a contributing editor for Vogue, brings together essays from 18 eminent writers that explore the culture, geopolitics, and history of world-famous city squares. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik narrates the history of Place des Vosges in Paris, conceived as a manufacturing center by Henri IV and later home to poet and novelists Victor Hugo and the protagonist in Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. Journalist Anne Applebaum traces the significance of Russia’s Red Square, a constant “place of political theater.” Moving through London, historian Andrew Roberts draws from the work and lives of William Hogarth, Charles Dickens, and Virginia Woolf. Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim provides an on-the-ground report from Tahir Square in Cairo amid the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, and journalist Richard Stengel recalls Nelson Mandela’s legendary speech at Cape Town’s Grand Parade after his release from prison. The essays and their accompanying photography interact with one another, constructing a cross-cultural narrative of diverse societal interaction and activism that culminates in journalist Gillian Tett’s forward-looking consideration of the “Virtual Square.” Photos. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Voyageurs: Retracing La Salle’s Journey Across America; Sixteen Teenagers on the Adventure of a Lifetime

Lorraine Boissoneault. Pegasus, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-60598-976-1

In this action-packed dual narrative, Boissoneault, an editor at the Weather Channel, shares a charming slice of U.S. Bicentennial history. In 1973, Reid Lewis, a high school French teacher, outdoorsman, and historical reenactor, was in his mid-30s and at a career crossroads. Dedicated to education but dismayed by the restrictions of the classroom, he came up with an idea for a high-profile adventure that would honor the Bicentennial while illustrating the benefits of hands-on learning. Lewis chose to reenact an important early American exploration: the 1681 Mississippi River voyage of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Lewis recruited five other teachers, a priest, and 16 teenage boys to represent the original expedition’s personnel, and he assembled a support team to help with logistics and publicity for the eight-month trip. There was fund-raising, too; the project cost around $595,000 (about $2.5 million today). All the elements of an exciting adventure story are here. Boissoneault describes interesting, complicated people facing life-threatening perils, and in alternating Lewis’s story with that of La Salle’s journey, she makes fascinating historical comparisons. Illus. Agent: Jennifer Carlson, Dunow, Carlson, and Lerner Literary Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya

William Carlsen. Morrow, $28.99 (464p) ISBN 978-0-06-240739-9

Journalist Carlsen travels through Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, tracing the footsteps of Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens, the amateur archaeologists whose 1839 expedition offered Euro-Americans their earliest awareness of Mayan civilization. At the time, the cultural and religious chauvinism of whites on both sides of the Atlantic encouraged the view that indigenous Americans had been nothing more than “primitive, inferior people.” But Stephens and Catherwood’s journey, as described through their pivotal writings, provided irrefutable evidence the Maya had created “one of the most sophisticated early civilizations on earth” and forced their readers to rethink basic assumptions about race, culture, and evolution. Carlsen depicts the two men’s arduous expedition with verve and vigor, though some readers may find that the book’s staccato narrative structure doesn’t do the material justice. The book would also have been strengthened by at least a brief engagement with the longer history of European encounters with Central America; Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors had been dazzled by Aztec culture early in the 16th century, so at least some Europeans were aware that indigenous Central Americans were not savages. Nonetheless, Carlsen finely explicates the challenges of the Catherwood-Stephens expedition and the wonders they found. Agent: Geri Thoma, Writers House. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Lab Girl

Hope Jahren. Knopf, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-101-87493-6

Jahren, a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, recounts her unfolding journey to discover “what it’s like to be a plant” in this darkly humorous, emotionally raw, and exquisitely crafted memoir. In clever prose, Jahren distills what it means to be one of those researchers who “love their calling to excess.” She describes the joy of working alone at night, the “multidimensional glory” of a manic episode, scavenging jury-rigged equipment from a retiring colleague, or spontaneously road-tripping with students to a roadside monkey preserve. She likens elements of her scientific career to a plant world driven by need and instinct, comparing the academic grant cycle to the resource management of a deciduous tree and the experience of setting up her first—desperately underfunded—basement lab to ambitious vines that grow quickly wherever they can. But the most extraordinary and delightful element of her narrative is her partnership with Bill, a taciturn student who becomes both her lab partner and her sarcastic, caring best friend. It’s a rare portrait of a deep relationship in which the mutual esteem of the participants is unmarred by sexual tension. For Jahren, a life in science yields the gratification of asking, knowing, and telling; for the reader, the joy is in hearing about the process as much as the results. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, the Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock

Barney Hoskyns. Da Capo, $26.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-306-82320-6

Historian Hoskyns (Across the Great Divide) offers readers an absorbing glimpse into events that shaped Woodstock, N.Y., into a haven for musicians. He takes the title from a song by Bobby Charles, who arrived from Tennessee, and who recorded with Maria Muldaur and Rock Danko of the Band; their collaboration is just one facet of what Hoskyns calls the “quintessential Woodstock of the early ’70s.” Drawing on interviews with many of the artists, their friends, and the inhabitants of the town, Hoskyns paints a brilliant portrait of the colorful characters that turned this little patch of woods in upstate New York into a hotbed for much of the music that changed America. He chronicles the history of Woodstock from its earliest days as an artist colony in the late 19th century, through its heyday in the late 1960s, and right up to the death of Band drummer Levon Helm in 2012. Along the way, Hoskyns shares the tales of Albert Grossman, who managed Bob Dylan (at the beginning of Dylan’s career) and Janis Joplin, and who inspired the character of the megalomaniac manager Bob Grossman in the movie Inside Llewlyn Davis; the rise and fall of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; and the infighting among the Band, perhaps the group most associated with the town in popular imagination. In the end, Hoskyns’s stunning book highlights some of the most memorable music in American history. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Political Suicide: Missteps, Peccadilloes, Bad Calls, Backroom Hijinx, Sordid Pasts, Rotten Breaks, and Just Plain Dumb Mistakes in the Annals of American Politics

Erin McHugh. Pegasus (Norton, dist.), $26.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-60598-978-5

Those who think the current electoral season resembles a circus will enjoy this entertaining collection of incredible misdeeds by contemporary and long-gone politicos. McHugh (Like My Father Always Said) demonstrates that politicians didn’t always just argue endlessly, but occasionally settled political disputes permanently—with duels. She also proves that sex scandals in political circles are nothing new; in the 19th century, Daniel Sickles, a New York State assemblyman and later a U.S. Representative, was censured for taking a prostitute to the Assembly Chambers, acquitted after shooting his wife’s lover, and rumored to have had an affair with Spain’s Queen Isabella II. Embezzling is an enduring theme, including a 30-year $53 million scam in Reagan’s hometown, and there’s at least one jaw-dropping quote, a 1976 whopper from Earl Butz, Nixon’s secretary of agriculture. Elsewhere, McHugh briefly revisits the not-too-distant scandal when Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich tried to sell President Obama’s Senate seat. Readers will have to decide whether they agree with the author’s designation of “worst president ever.” Whether readers find this litany of political misdeeds mordantly amusing or simply depressing, the book does remind them that misbehaving politicians are not new. Agent: Chris Tomasino, Tomasino Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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