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I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time

Laura Vanderkam. Penguin/Portfolio, $27.95 (292p) ISBN 978-1-59184-732-8

Vanderkam (168 Hours) lays out an in-depth critique of an assumption central to the ongoing “having it all” debate about the work-life balance for women: that there is never enough time, and that conflict and exhaustion are inevitable. Wanting real data on how women spend their days and manage multiple responsibilities, she launched the Mosaic Project, “a time diary study of 1,001 days in the lives of professional women.” Vanderkam had two criteria for subjects: each woman had to earn more than $100,000 per year and have at least one minor child living in her home. Through dozens of stories and excerpts from subjects’ time diaries, she raises some significant challenges to the narrative of overworked, miserable professional women and questions the idea that happiness can be found only in a stress-free life. Vanderkam is upfront about her singular focus on upper-middle-class women, but for that audience, her advice on carefully rethinking how your time is spent and being present for moments in your life is solid, thought-provoking, and substantive. Readers will find it heartening to see the trope of the frenzied, unhappy career woman trying desperately to “have it all” challenged in such detail. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Man Who Was Norris: The Life of Gerald Hamilton

Tom Cullen, edited by Phil Baker. Dedalus (SCB, dist.), $19.99 trade paper (338p) ISBN 978-1-909232-43-3

Originally blocked from publication for legal reasons in the late 1970s, Cullen’s fascinating biography explores the life of “chameleon” Gerald Hamilton (1890–1970), the inspiration for the title character of Christopher Isherwood’s novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains. Described, even by friends, as a “wicked” man, Hamilton could be as nasty as he was charming. He befriended Isherwood, was jailed for gross indecency, and meticulously chronicled his homosexual dalliances. Hamilton was also an anti-Semite, a suspected spy for the French, and a German sympathizer imprisoned by his own government during both world wars. He was frequently in debt and bankrupt twice. But to many, Hamilton was an oddly charismatic, if enigmatic, eccentric. Cullen presents his colorful subject as a master of witty bon mots and recounts lively, gossipy anecdotes about Hamilton’s conversion to Catholicism (made, according to Hamilton, mostly to shock his anti-Catholic father), friendships with the likes of Lord Alfred Douglas and Aleister Crowley, and stint as a body model for a Winston Churchill statue. The book’s parts prove greater than the whole, but readers will still be pleased to have met the scandalous Hamilton. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future

Peter Moore. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-86547-809-1

Moore (Damn His Blood) examines the lives and works of 19th-century men of science as they developed the burgeoning field of meteorology in this excellent history. He proceeds more or less chronologically, concentrating primarily on the contributions of Britons, such as Francis Beaufort, developer of the scale of winds; noted landscape painter John Constable; Astronomer Royal George Airy; and James Glaisher, who was famed for his balloon ascents into the upper atmosphere. A few Americans also feature here: Benjamin Franklin and his lightning experiments, storm theorist James Espy, and telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse. Moore’s true hero is Robert FitzRoy, a tragic figure who is mostly remembered today as the captain of the Beagle on Charles Darwin’s famous journey. FitzRoy’s contributions to meteorology came later in life when he began the first systematic forecasts of weather, which were based on reports from around the British Isles received via telegraph. Along with the many brief biographies and sketches of scientific squabbles, Moore also weaves in interludes describing a day of weather. This is a worthy investigation of the history of weather forecasting as seen through a British lens. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Single Digits: In Praise of Small Numbers

Marc Chamberland. Princeton Univ, $26.95 (248p) ISBN 978-0-691-16114-3

Chamberland, professor of mathematics at Grinnell College, produces a fascinating, compact set of entries on mathematical problems, conjectures, and theorems. The theme of single digits provides a novel framework for all the mathematics, tying together disparate theorems in sections related to a single number. Each brief entry is clearly explained, making the problems comprehensible and accessible to math lovers of all backgrounds, though they do vary in difficulty and complexity. Chamberland addresses a wide array of elegant mathematical concepts that are generally foreign or obscure to the lay public, including the Stern sequence, Thue-Morse sequences, and Marden’s Theorem. More serious math lovers may want to supplement the introductions given in the book with further research, not because of any lack of critical information, but because Chamberland offers enticing explanations that will leave readers hungry to know more. Epigraphs at each chapter’s beginning include quotes from the Buddha, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alexandre Dumas, and Paul McCartney, among others, informally connecting the material to human culture. Chamberland also presents a few problems for readers to solve on their own, with answers provided in the last chapter. This wonderful book never loses its focus or momentum, and readers may dip into it for a few entries or read straight through. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot. Princeton Univ, $35 (512p) ISBN 978-0-691-15064-2

University of Washington professors Montgomery (international studies) and Chirot (Russian and Eurasian studies) look at three thinkers and ideas that represent “Enlightenment liberalism”: Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”; Karl Marx’s “dialectical materialism”; and Charles Darwin’s “natural selection.” The fourth idea is presented as an ongoing debate, which originated with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, on the virtues of centralized versus decentralized government. After a clear presentation of these ideas, their evolution, and distortions, the authors turn to “secular and religious reactions against the Enlightenment.” The prominent movements of anti-modernism include Christian and Islamic fundamentalism as well as fascism, with its “admiration of violence and direct action,” focus on “the mythic origins of the nation,” and “worship of a heroic national leader.” The strongest chapter addresses Christian fundamentalism in relation to contemporary American politics. The authors also offer a clear exposition of the Islamic fundamentalist thinker Sayyid Qutb, which is particularly helpful in understanding the intellectual roots of al-Qaeda and ISIS. The book sometimes covers too much too quickly, but it is a solid, idea-rich examination of how formative 18th- and 19th-century ideas germinated into the belief systems that have governed the 20th and 21st centuries. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Ordinary Medicine: Extraordinary Treatments, Longer Lives, and Where to Draw the Line

Sharon R. Kaufman. Duke Univ, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8223-5888-6

Medical anthropologist Kaufman bravely delves into the heartbreaking predicament of modern medicine: “getting the medicine we wish for but then having to live with the unsettling and far-ranging consequences.” She argues that the “drivers” governing medicine are the biomedical research industry and its clinical trials, Medicare and insurance decisions on what gets reimbursed, the determination of a “standard of care,” and the intractability of those standards—all of which are typically profit-driven factors that have set the bar for what is considered routine or taken for granted. Yet this “ordinary medicine” doesn’t help patients or doctors make the hard choices on when to stop treatments, Kaufman worries. For example, she writes, the implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD) is being used as a primary prevention device for a sudden heart attack despite a lack of evidence for its widespread necessity. Kaufman is at her best when focusing on the heartbreaking dilemma of patients dealing with the consequences of ordinary medicine, such as an elderly patient who must choose between lifesaving treatments or palliative care, facing repeated hospital visits regardless of the choice. Kaufman calls for no less than making the ethics of medicine the “preeminent topic of our national conversation about health care reform.” (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World’s Largest Viper

Dan Eatherley. Skyhorse/Arcade, $24.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-62872-511-7

Environmental filmmaker Eatherley charts the life and interests of Raymond Ditmars, an early 20th-century snake expert as well as a prolific writer and filmmaker who became the Bronx Zoo’s first curator of reptiles. It is a well-intentioned effort that delves into the natural landscape and the unique environments in which bushmasters, the world’s largest vipers, often thrive. Eatherley traces the herpetologist’s searches for bushmasters in both the United States and South America. The book is a biography and a scientific narrative, yet the author never manages to capture or keep his audience’s full attention. Eatherley dutifully recalls Ditmars’s experiences with different kinds of snakes, writing about how Ditmars “would never forget the turmoil of impressions etched on his brain” during an encounter as a teenager, “the snake’s length far exceeding that suggested by its weight; the keeled scales lending the skin a rasp-like quality; the waxy sheen of the animal; the blunt head; and, set above pinkish jowls, the reddish-brown eyes with their elliptical black pupils.” But the work lacks a real hook and readers might find it difficult to be similarly enraptured. Eatherley’s occasional references to himself and behind-the-scenes research details reveal much about the scientific process, but they are not enough to carry the rest of the story. Photos. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba

Brin-Jonathan Butler. Picador, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-04370-2

In this striking memoir, writer and filmmaker Butler examines his bittersweet love affair with Cuba through the lens of boxing. Butler, a trained fighter himself, first visited the island to write about the national boxing team, which has grabbed 67 Olympic medals since 1968 (in a country with a smaller population than the New York metro area). As Butler pursues boxers, he finds himself immersed in the chaos and contradictions of Cuban society: shortages, sex work, police surveillance, desperate immigration, and the citizens’ sardonic patriotism, humor, and endless creativity. Shuttling between the stories of two of the greatest Cuban boxing champions—one who left (Guillermo Rigondeaux Ortiz) and one who stayed (Teófilo Stevenson—Butler delineates the costs of defying Uncle Sam for a half century. Cuba lies at the heart of the book, but Butler’s quest also leads him from his hometown of Vancouver to Mike Tyson’s Vegas mansion, an affair with a prostitute in Madrid, and a boxing match in Tijuana. More artist than journalist, Butler approaches his material slantwise, and much of his prose is fluid and searching. As he watches Havana’s labyrinth of jury-rigged 1950s cars and decaying mansions slowly succumb to the market economy, Butler makes clear that this is not an unmixed blessing. At times, Butler can lapse into abstraction and his hardboiled romanticism can become too familiar, but he has produced a book worthy of Cuba’s beauty and sorrow. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Keepers: The Greatest Films— and Personal Favorites— of a Moviegoing Lifetime

Richard Schickel. Knopf, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-375-42459-5

Film critic Schickel saw his first film in 1938 (Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) and started reviewing movies professionally in 1965. Since then, he estimates, he’s seen 22,590 films. In this entertaining and informative journey through cinema history, the renowned Time critic—and author of 37 Hollywood biographies and histories—presents readers with a primer on film history and shares his unique insights on movies big and small. Schickel is clear from the start that he’s a fan of popular (rather than “art”) cinema and considers himself more of an expert on American film than international, despite later, perfectly cogent sections devoted to foreign directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard. Moving roughly in chronological order, Schickel begins by paying his respects to the silent films of D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford and the 1930s screwball comedies of Howard Hawks—he readily admits that his “loyalty, historically and emotionally speaking, is to the first two decades or so of the talkies.” Then he moves on through Bonnie and Clyde and Star Wars. His taste is eclectic (Errol Flynn is his favorite movie star, Orson Welles is a disappointment) but his opinions are always fully backed up with examples. Schickel, who posits in his introduction that movies are about both nothing and everything, wholly succeeds in making readers care about every film he’s seen. (June)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

William Finnegan. Penguin Press, $27.95 (450p) ISBN 978-1-59420-347-3

In this panoramic and fascinating memoir, long-time New Yorker staff writer Finnegan pays tribute to the ancient art of surfing. Arriving on Oahu from California at 13, in the mid-1960s, Finnegan discovered that Hawaiian public school students weren’t particularly welcoming to haoles; surfing brought him acceptance and contentment, and would remain central to his life for the next half century. In the late 1970s, he set out in pursuit of a perfect wave, and spent five years circumnavigating the globe with long stops in Polynesia, Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, and South Africa. The social inequality he witnessed led him to journalism, but after his return to the U.S. and fatherhood, the waves still beckoned, even if that meant enduring a January swell off Long Island. Throughout this lengthy work, Finnegan never loses sight of the marginalized, such as the black students he taught in apartheid South Africa. Yet the core of the book is a surfing chronicle, and Finnegan possesses impeccable short-board bona fides. As a middle-aged, professionally successful man, he grapples with his aging body and the contradictions of surfing’s commodification, at one point returning as a high-end tourist to a wave he pioneered as a penniless kid. Surfing (mostly) remains a man’s world, and Finnegan’s attempts to mention the women he loved seem like afterthoughts. Nevertheless, he has written a revealing and magisterial account of a beautiful addiction. (July)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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