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Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business

Paul Downs. Penguin/Blue Rider, $26.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-399-17233-5

In this eye-opening debut, Downs presents himself as just your average small business owner; Paul Downs Cabinetmakers is only one of the over seven million American companies employing fewer than 20 people each—for a grand total of nearly 30 million employees. Since 2010, however, he’s also been writing for the New York Times “You’re the Boss” blog. This book provides a fleshed-out view of the “triumph and tragedy of small business” as Downs experienced it over the course of 2012. His intention is to help readers understand what this substantial portion of the American economy looks like, and what challenges small business owners face. Month by month, Downs drills down into the ins and outs of running a small business, focusing on sales, operations, money, and the personal demands of being a boss. The book unfolds like an extremely tense thriller, as Downs races to break even by the end of the year, all while navigating the recession, hirings and firings, payroll, expansion, and a demanding home life. He is strikingly hard on himself, and this frank accounting will be a godsend to any small-company owners wondering if they’re the only ones constantly second-guessing themselves—or on the verge of going out of business. An honest look at a usually overlooked demographic. Agent: Paul Lucas, Janklow & Nesbit. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Economics of Inequality[em] [/em]

Thomas Piketty, trans. from the French by Arthur Goldhammer. Harvard/Belknap, $22.95 (145p) ISBN 978-0-674-50480-6

Piketty’s 2013 masterwork, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, made income inequality a household phrase—particularly for those who hope to move their own households to the White House. This earlier work, first published in 1997 and since revised and updated, is more approachable, and it arrives at the same dismal conclusion: the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer. In the developed world, this phenomenon occurs most sharply in the U.S., where the top 10% collectively have 5.9 times the disposable income of the bottom 10%. In Sweden, by contrast, the figure is 2.7. Piketty isn’t a sloppy or partisan thinker, and he methodically criticizes ineffective solutions from the left. In his view, the poor usually bear the brunt of these, whether in increased payroll deductions for social insurance, higher marginal income tax rates, or unemployment. Piketty, who believes income inequality leads to political instability, proposes a guaranteed minimum income or “basic income” as an efficient means of redistribution. He also explains how economists measure economic inequality and looks at the phenomenon’s underlying causes (which do not include hedge fund managers or Chinese laborers.) If Piketty is right, inequality is increasing and cannot be cured by the free market; we must understand the problem to understand how to address it. This should be required reading for every concerned citizen. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Boundaries of Desire: A Century of Bad Laws, Good Sex, and Changing Identity in America and Europe

Eric Berkowitz. Counterpoint, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-1-61902-529-5

Berkowitz, a lawyer with experience in intellectual property, First Amendment, and business litigation, presents an immersive, sometimes shocking history of changing sexual mores, and the laws pertaining to them, in the U.S. He covers topics including homosexuality, pedophilia, interracial couples, and sex trafficking, maintaining a pragmatic, non-judgmental tone. The result is an eye-opening history of sexual legislation. Readers will learn of historical givens that strike us as barbaric now (such as the onetime acceptance of marital rape, not fully outlawed in the U.S. until 1993) and of controversial ongoing practices (such as the lifelong registration of minors in sex-offender registries). Berkowitz makes legal history readable, not relying on the subject matter being salacious (which this book is not) but accessibly conveying sophisticated topics and complex events with the assurance of an expert. Moreover, he ties sexual legislation to disparate historical topics, including the eugenics movement, welfare policy, and even the outbreak of WWI. Readers will be sad to arrive at the end of this skillful piece of popular history. Agent: Andrew Stuart, Stuart Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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World Without End: Spain, Philip II, and the First Global Empire

Hugh Thomas. Random, $35 (496p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9811-5

The final installment of Thomas’s trilogy (after Rivers of Gold and The Golden Empire) completes his overview of Spain’s Golden Age–era conquests in the Americas and Asia. While he provides contextual information about Philip II’s European and colonial concerns, the emphasis remains on the vigorous conquering and colonizing of resource-laden lands to benefit Spain’s reputation and coffers. Thomas clearly excels in the Spanish history of religion, politics, and culture, but he mistakenly claims—without citation—that Philip’s desperately needy English wife, Mary I, was uninterested in him, as well as that the most recently canonized pope was Pius V (five popes have been canonized since). The inclusion of historical maps and relevant appendices helps greatly in tracing individual figures and explorations, especially when the narrative’s expansive approach and numerous tangential stories make it difficult for readers to keep track. Thomas successfully shows that Spain’s global ambition knew no bounds; the history of western Spanish colonies may be well-trod, but the discussion of initially optimistic attempts to conquer China and the Philippines will pique interest. Illus. Agency: Wylie Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Dogland: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Dog Problem

Jacki Skole. Ashland Creek, $17.95 trade paper (270p) ISBN 978-1-61822-038-7

When journalist Skole adopted a “quirky” mixed-breed puppy from a rescue shelter in New Jersey, she hadn’t counted on the journey she’d find herself taking in search of the pup’s origins. Skole sets out to locate an address in rural South Carolina, hoping to find the person who surrendered Galen to the kill shelter from which she was rescued and taken north. On the way, Skole meets a variety of people associated with shelters and learns that while the northern states may have a dearth of puppies available for adoptions, shelters in the South are overflowing with them: dogs that have been surrendered, rescued from the streets, or “set out” (i.e., dumped) in boxes in wealthy neighborhoods. The ratio of people to dogs in shelters within poorer communities is exponentially higher than in wealthier areas. Skole determines that a culture of dog ownership that views canines more as property than living animals may be the root cause of the alarmingly high euthanasia rate in Southern shelters. Those who have given their hearts and homes to shelter dogs will find much here to validate their love, but ultimately the book is meant as a call to action. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives

Stephen Buchmann. Scribner, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5552-6

Buchmann (The Forgotten Pollinators), a biologist specializing in pollination ecology, uses his eighth book to enthuse about the importance that flowers have played in human civilization. While his excitement is both palpable and contagious, and while some of his anecdotes are fascinating (for example, some flowers might be losing their scents because of climate change), the book doesn’t work well as a whole because Buchmann only has time to touch lightly on all of his myriad topics. The section on the modern flower industry is captivating, as he discusses the worldwide movement of flowers and the centrality of the Amsterdam auction house where every day millions of flowers are flown in, sold, and then redistributed around the globe. Unfortunately most other sections do not meet the standard he sets there; too often they read merely like interesting, eclectic lists of subjects that have some passing relationship to flowers. Few readers, for instance, will be surprised to learn that artists have painted flowers for centuries or that such paintings have occurred across many cultures. A modest number of photographs are included, but the book would be more accessible had other descriptions been paired with pictorial examples. Buchmann’s passion is not matched by the content. Photos. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

Steve Silberman. Avery, $29.95 (544p) ISBN 978-1-58333-467-6

Journalist Silberman devotes this thick, linear tome to the stunning evolution of the autism diagnosis from one that’s explicitly negative to something more ambiguous and even positive. Child psychiatrist Leo Kanner named the disorder in 1943 after noticing that 11 of his patients lived in “private worlds.” His belief that autism was a severe handicap persisted for decades. But pediatrician Hans Asperger saw autism as both handicap and blessing, particularly in milder forms. Calling his patients “little professors,” Asperger wondered whether, in science and art, “a dash of autism is essential,” noting a predilection towards abstract thinking as well as a type of “skepticism indispensable to any scientist.” Now, Silberman says, it is recognized that much gets done inside intense “private worlds,” and that negative views began to ebb when the “spectrum” definition was adopted. The “neurodiversity” movement that Silberman sketches now helps those on the spectrum access services and draw positive attention. He does reach some overexuberant conclusions, including the speculative claim that autism is a “strange gift from our deep past, passed down through millions of years of evolution.” Still, the main point—that autism may persist because it can come with adaptive qualities—is well taken. This is a thorough look at the difficulties and delights of a very complex disorder. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals—and Other Forgotten Skills

Tristan Gooley. The Experiment (Workman, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (448p) ISBN 978-1-61519-241-0

British naturalist Gooley (The Natural Navigator) encourages readers to get outdoors and explore the world around them in this handy, fact-filled guide. He plays detective by reading signs in rocks, clouds, and trees. Rather than give information on specific locations, Gooley lays out “techniques that can be applied on any walk in almost any area.” Beginning with discussions about the “ground, the sky, the plants and animals,” he explains how to survey landscapes by looking at shape, overall character, routes, tracks, edges, and detail—a method he devised that goes by the acronym SORTED. For example, understanding the contours of a map before setting out on a hike improves the likelihood that hikers will be “greeted with tea and Mars bars” upon their return “instead of helicopters and news crews.” Subsequent sections on clouds and cloud formations—cumulonimbus, cumulus, cirrus, cirrostratus—are designed to help spot trends in weather patterns. Gooley’s comprehensive volume should pique the curiosity of budding nature-lovers and is ideal for anyone keen on forging a deeper connection with the land. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror

Moustafa Bayoumi. New York Univ., $19.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-4798-3564-5

In this initially intriguing but ultimately disappointing collection of essays published between 2001 and 2012, Brooklyn College English professor Bayoumi (How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?) addresses Muslim-American life from four angles: history, theory, politics, and culture. Regarding history, Bayoumi reflects upon African-American Islam and immigration law, from the quotas limiting the number of non–Northern Europeans allowed to emigrate to the U.S., which were only repealed in 1965, to more recent legislation passed during the “war on terror.” For theory, he draws heavily on Orientalism, Edward Said’s classic 1978 study, disparaging the bestselling works of Irshad Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Reza Aslan and judging Efraim Karsh’s The Arab Mind “trash scholarship.” He reports throughout on the surveillance, racialization, and racial profiling of Muslim-Americans and on how the War on Terror is presented in television programs such as 24 and movies such as Zero Dark Thirty. Bayoumi juxtaposes his own experiences (an extra on Sex and the City, his citizenship ceremony, his earlier book) with more general information (early litigation involving immigrants, the use of loud and offensive music in “torture lite,” ideological links between WWII-era internment of Japanese-Americans and War on Terror–era Islamophobia.) Unfortunately, the redundancies inherent in a collection of previously published articles give the book a dull and dated quality, though Bayoumi’s subject matter is certainly neither. Agent: Katherine Fausset, Curtis Brown. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places

Elmira Bayrasli. PublicAffairs, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-61039-303-4

In this absorbing debut, Bayrasli—cofounder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, which aims to amplify the voices of women working in foreign policy—profiles seven entrepreneurs from seven different countries who are breaking down barriers and overcoming obstacles. She identifies seven recurring obstacles to innovation in the developing world: scarce skilled labor and management, underdeveloped infrastructure, absent rule of law, a resistant status quo, monopolies, corruption, and lack of collaborative space. A full chapter is dedicated to each challenge and to how a specific entrepreneur is meeting it. To that end, Bayrasli introduces Bülent Celebi, CEO of AirTies, who launched a tech start-up in Turkey but struggles to find the talent necessary to grow his company; Tayo Oviosu, founder of the digital payment company Paga Tech in Lagos, Nigeria, who battles his country’s inadequate infrastructure; Shaffi Mather, founder of Dial 1298, an ambulance service in India, who must overcome corrupt bureaucracy; and Russia’s Yana Yakovleva, founder of a successful chemical company who is unjustly jailed and must fight against her country’s endemic corruption. Bayrasli does an admirable job of showcasing these pioneers and arguing that, despite their challenges, the next big breakthrough will come from them or someone like them, not from Silicon Valley. Agent: Gillian MacKenzie, Gillian MacKenzie Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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