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Frontiers of Possession: Spain and Portugal in Europe and the Americas

Tamar Herzog. Harvard Univ, $35 (384p) ISBN 978-0-674-73538-5

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In this monograph, extensively researched in numerous Iberian archives, Harvard legal historian Herzog examines the evolution of early modern Spain and Portugal and their empires. She emphasizes that claims to political and territorial authority were informed by legal doctrines that had developed over centuries, along with traditions of reinterpretation familiar to diplomats and intellectuals as well as less educated villagers. Moreover, according to Herzog, these patterns of settlement and of control of land, people, and other resources were influenced not only by warfare and treaties, but by the needs and desires of a variety of agents, including farmers, priests, municipal bureaucrats, colonists, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. These processes were rarely planned or controlled by European imperial authorities, but instead dominated by what these various groups considered to be “what was right, what was just, what was possible, and what was effective.” It’s a dense but lucid study, and Herzog succeeds in her aim of moving beyond the usually separate histories of Spain and Portugal—and of Europe and the Americas—to complicate the accepted understanding of national and imperial boundaries as immutable facts rather than as ongoing sites of contestation. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe

George Friedman. Doubleday, $28.95 (258p) ISBN 978-0-385-53633-2

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In this insightful examination of contemporary Europe, political scientist Friedman (Next Decade) challenges the view that the European Union and its neighbors have transcended the threat of violent conflict among nations. As background, Friedman explores the darker implications of the individualism, intellectual inquiry, and innovation that led to Europe’s greatness, showing how the culture that produced the Enlightenment descended into barbarity in the 31 years from the beginning of WWI to the end of WWII. He recounts how Europe was shattered during that time, slowly reintegrated during the Cold War, and triumphantly unified by the European Union’s formation in 1991, just as the Soviet empire disintegrated. The book depicts the German-dominated EU and Eurozone as a tense, fragile construct, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis—which broke the promise of prosperity that had drawn nations to join in the first place. Friedman identifies sources of instability in the numerous “borderlands” of Europe, most strikingly between Russia and a “barely functional” NATO. By dispassionately anatomizing the fears, aspirations, and interests of the key players, particularly a resurgent and resentful Russia, Friedman vividly describes a region where memories are long, perceived vulnerabilities are everywhere, and major threats have emerged rapidly and unexpectedly many times before. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

David J. Morris. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0544-08661-6

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Former marine infantry officer Morris (Storm on the Horizon) blurs the line between clinical and creative literature in a lucid etiology of a “species of pain that went unnamed for most of human history... now the fourth most common psychiatric disorder in the United States.” Morris draws from his own traumatic Iraq War experiences and ancient “historical antecedents” such as the Sumerian Lamentation of Ur and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. He moves on to postbellum America, reminding us that many of the Wild West’s most famous gunslingers were Civil War veterans, then to WWI, the “first conflict where war neuroses were officially identified and treated,” and finally the Vietnam War, the “single most important event in the history of psychological trauma.” The book’s second half describes and assesses the various ways in which PTSD is currently treated, using Morris’s own treatment as an example (he found yoga most effective). Morris offers balanced criticisms of the VA, and though he’s focused on American veterans, he attends to “rape, genocide, torture, and natural disaster” as other causes of PTSD in civilians. Well-integrated autobiographical elements make this remarkable work highly instructive and readable. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues

Edited by Marjorie Cohn. Interlink/Olive Branch, $25 trade paper (294p) ISBN 978-1-56656-989-7

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The 13 essays in this anthology are a mixed bag and do not live up to the impassioned foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who decries the Obama administration’s use of drones to kill “thousands of people with no due process at all.” Unless the volume is intended to preach to the choir, it undermines its efforts with hyperbole. For example, Richard Falk titled his chapter the provocative “Why Drones Are More Dangerous than Nuclear Weapons,” arguing that a system of international agreements has made nuclear weapons a purely theoretical threat since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while drones are used freely by the U.S. without any constraints. Readers not already open to descriptions of American wrongdoing during the Vietnam War—including the creation of concentration camps—are also likely to tune out the very real concerns articulated here: innocent civilians killed in drone strikes, the expansion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the prospect that technological advances will only increase the use of drones. Though this work is well-intentioned, Lloyd Gardner’s Killing Machine: The American Presidency in the Age of Drone Warfare is a better introduction to the subject. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical

Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo. Univ. Press of Kentucky, $40 (688p) ISBN 978-0-8131-4680-5

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One of the famous “Hollywood 10” blacklisted for an affiliation with the Communist Party, Trumbo (1905–1976) emerges from this well-rounded biography as a larger-than-life figure, not unlike the characters he scripted for the screen. Finishing a draft that was started but left incomplete by Trumbo’s son Christopher, who died in 2011, Ceplair (The Marxist and the Movies) begins with Trumbo’s early years as a movie reviewer for the Hollywood Spectator and a reader of scripts and books for Warner Brothers. By 1939, when his critically acclaimed anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun was published, Trumbo had been recognized as one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters. Excerpts of his letters, notes, articles, speeches, and pamphlets throughout the book amply testify to his boundless energy and talent. Anti-Communist fervor led to Trumbo’s imprisonment in 1950 for contempt of Congress and an official absence from the screen for the next decade. But, as detailed in the book’s most fascinating sections, he still managed to win over 60 screen assignments between 1954 and 1960, two of which, Roman Holiday and The Brave One, won Academy Awards. Ceplair resists other writers’ tendencies to either lionize Trumbo as a martyr or criticize him as a hypocrite, finally humanizing a celebrity often reduced to a one-dimensional icon of his era. 75 b&w photos. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell. Univ. of Chicago, $35 (408p) ISBN 978-0-226-89531-4

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Biologists Whitehead and Rendell write that “culture is a flow of information moving from animal to animal,” and evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith called culture “the most important modification” of gene-based evolutionary theory. Humans, though arguably the masters of culture, are not the only species that has it. Dolphins, as the authors reveal, create signature whistles and can mimic and remember others’ even 20 years later. They can also learn tail-walking in captivity and then teach it in the wild. Whales possess dialects that change in a way that can only be explained as the result of learning. And both whales and dolphins behave in “obviously altruistic” ways. Dolphins and whales have saved humans stranded at sea, and humpback whales have been observed saving seals from killer whales. “We suspect that a sophisticated capacity for culture has been adaptive for many millions of years in the ocean,” write the authors, “[but it] never translated into an engine for generating the awesome body of accumulated skills, knowledge, and materials that characterize human culture.” Whitehead and Rendell deeply analyze the importance of culture to evolution, exploring what can be learned from animals that are perhaps more advanced than humans before pushing “off to sea again, where there is still so much to learn.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness

Jessie Close, with Pete Earley. Grand Central, $27 (300p) ISBN 978-1-4555-4882-8

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In a heartfelt journey through self-destructive manic-depressive states, Close (The Warping of Al) chronicles her journey to recovery and activism with the help of actress Glenn Close, her older sister. The author was born in Connecticut in 1953, the youngest of the four Close children. After their parents, doctor Bill and Bettina, became missionaries in the Christian evangelical group Moral Re-Armament (MRA), the family moved to the Belgian Congo in 1960, where Bill became the personal physician to Colonel Joseph Mobutu and his army. Shuttled between Africa and her mother’s relatives in Greenwich, Conn., the young author stumbled into destructive behavior without much supervision, experimenting with sex and drugs; at the age of 17, her parents encouraged her to get married to an abusive boyfriend rather than “living in sin.” Close moved to California; Washington, D.C.; Texas; and Wyoming, remarrying again and again and living on her trust fund. Her manic-depressive episodes remained undiagnosed into adulthood and brought out erratic behavior and heavy drinking, even as she had to care for her two sons and daughter. By the early 1990s she was having wild mood swings and suicidal thoughts, until she was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Close’s story alternates with brief corroborative vignettes written by her sister in a belabored and grim memoir that will nonetheless reach its intended audience thanks to the author’s famous sister and their shared nonprofit group geared toward mental health, Bring Change 2 Mind. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies

Tara Ison. Soft Skull, $15.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-61902-481-6

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Novelist and screenwriter Ison (A Child out of Alcatraz, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead) delivers an innovative blend of film criticism and literary memoir in this absorbing collection of 10 essays. Ison uses the films she discusses—sometimes as many as 18 in a single essay—to explore and illuminate her own experiences with death, sexuality, creativity, and other themes. The result is powerfully universal, and the author’s writing is at once intellectually razor-sharp and poetic as she delves into the most complex of emotions. “I watched my first person die when I was six years old. It was so beautiful, a lovely thing to see. And a loving thing, a moment of profound intimacy, honed by imminent loss,” she writes of seeing the 1970 movie Love Story. But what starts in film weaves into a touching personal story of her own experiences with death. Ison examines how the best films make us turn the lens inward, examining our own lives and experiences in a way we would not have without them. Patterns emerge throughout the Ison’s collection as she explores the art of writing and her own journey toward living on the page. These essays, combining cultural criticism with deeply personal reflections on love, religion, family, and the nature of art, offer brilliant analysis and food for thought for film aficionados and casual fans alike. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song

Ben Yagoda. Riverhead, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-5944-8849-8

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Drawing on previously unavailable archival materials, as well as interviews with Linda Ronstadt, Randy Newman, and Jimmy Webb, among others, essayist Yagoda (Memoir: A History) energetically conducts a journey through the development of popular music in this vibrant piece of cultural history. In the first two decades of the 20th century, when sheet music was the primary way of selling music, writers and publishers searched relentlessly for any angle that would sell. Various cultural, institutional, and technological forces converged to advance the careers of individual talents, such as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter. By the 1950s and 1960s, however, the business of marketing and hit making altered the landscape of popular music so that the emphasis was on selling products rather than on making good, memorable songs. Yagoda points out in this wonderful history that even during the decline of the older songbook of standards, younger songwriters—including Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and others—were emerging to write new standards, so that “if you close your eyes while listening to McCartney’s ‘Yesterday,’ you’d swear you were listening to a lost classic from the great American songbook.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Crisis of the Wasteful Nation: Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt’s America

Ian Tyrrell. Univ. of Chicago, $40 (368p) ISBN 978-0-226-19776-0

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To assume that American environmentalism is a recent phenomenon would be wrong, according to retired history professor Tyrrell (True Gardens of the Gods). Political and economic concern for our natural world dates back at least to the early 1900s, influencing legislation domestically and internationally. In this ambitious and well-intentioned volume, Tyrrell charts the conservation movement during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, delineating the key players, including Roosevelt himself and Gifford Pinchot, chief of the Division of Forestry from 1898 to 1910. Tyrrell incorporates political history, environmental history, and “the history of environmental diplomacy” as he lays out the complex but mutually respectful relationship between the two men. Roosevelt and Pinchot (who served the president as “de facto second-in-command for domestic affairs”) worked with others, such as Secretary of the Interior James Garfield, “to dramatize the problem of resource waste and destruction” and to enact progressive reforms regulating land use and protecting wildlife. Tyrrell’s discussion, unfortunately, gets mired in intellectual jargon—as when he writes of “purely economic efficiency achieved through a regime of technocrats”—and makes it less accessible to general audiences. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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