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Monsters: The Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology

Ed Regis. Basic, $28.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-465-06594-3

The 1937 burning of the Hindenberg was a worldwide sensation and the first filmed disaster, and science writer Regis (What Is Life?) adds that the development of the zeppelin itself represented a new, ominous technological phenomenon. The work is primarily a history of the rigid airship and biography of its eponymous champion, German count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Beginning in 1890, Count Zeppelin built a series of huge, hydrogen-fueled airships of Rube Goldberg complexity that regularly crashed and burned. Yet Germans were fascinated, and he had little trouble raising money. By 1906, zeppelins were carrying passengers; international flights began after WWI. Despite frequent mishaps, culminating in the Hindenburg debacle, years passed before Germany gave up on zeppelins. Regis calls this an example of pathological technology: irrationally popular projects whose costs vastly exceed benefits. Concluding chapters address America’s Operation Plowshare, the plan to use nuclear bombs for major construction projects; the Superconducting Supercollider, a massive particle accelerator canceled in 1993; and the 100-Year Starship, the brainchild of an enthusiastic group whose goals include establishing “Earth 2.0 in another solar system” by 2112. Regis’s material is all fascinating, but it fails to properly cohere; the book’s premise feels like an ingenious afterthought tacked onto a fine history of Zeppelin and his disastrous airships. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman Inc. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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No God but Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States

Stephen Chambers. Verso, $26.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-78168-807-6

Chambers (Jane and the Raven King) employs his narrative gifts in a historical study that centers on the ways in which the presence of slavery in Spain’s Caribbean and South American colonies affected the early development of the newly independent U.S. Even after the Constitution outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, the profits generated by trading slaves and slave-produced goods within the Americas created immense wealth for American capitalists and underwrote their nation’s economic and geographical expansion in the first half of the 19th century. Chambers focuses on the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba in this period, as the Spanish colony was “a uniquely central driver of U.S. economic development and foreign policy.” Analyzing the activities of a colorful cast of speculators, smugglers, lawyers, diplomats, and politicians, Chambers’s extensively researched monograph details the ways in which the early American republic’s foreign policies were manipulated by its canny and unscrupulous mercantile elite, who reaped immense wealth from U.S. involvement with the burgeoning sugar colony of Cuba. Though his writing suffers from some infelicities of style, Chambers helpfully places the familiar story of American slavery in a wider geographic context, illuminating how slavery underpinned all aspects of early American social, political, and economic development. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes

Judith Flanders. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $26.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-250-06735-7

British social historian Flanders (The Victorian City) takes readers on an engrossing tour as she traces the process by which houses—physical structures constructed for shelter and functionality—evolved into homes: the places in which we live, belong, and feel comfortable. Home, according to Flanders, is in part an enduring myth, and in part a state of mind. The concept is wrapped up in a number of related topics, so she delves into social, cultural, technological and historical concepts to recount the development of furniture, heating and lighting, gender roles, and much more. Likewise, Flanders debunks a number of misapprehensions regarding the “ideal” home and the very nature of family, demonstrating that a great many factors have been at play for centuries, providing a steady rate of change as form followed function. It’s a fascinating, eye-opening examination of just how far we’ve come in five centuries, from the most rudimentary of huts containing virtually nothing, to modern structures filled with furniture, efficiencies, luxuries, and technology. It’s possible to pick out any one of 100 different threads in Flanders’s work and marvel at how they’re all interconnected; you’ll never take a fork for granted again. Illus. Agent: Bill Hamilton, A.M. Heath (U.K.). (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature

Alva Noë. Hill and Wang, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8090-8917-8

Noë (Out of Our Heads), a philosopher specializing in perception and consciousness, explores aesthetics from an unlikely starting point: activities like breastfeeding, reading a sign on a wall, driving a car, opening a door, or conversing with a friend. We “lose ourselves in the flow” of these “organized activities,” as he calls them—an expression of our biological and existential condition. But the myriad activities that organize and constantly reorganize our lives are difficult to untangle, and as Noë gets caught up in them, the reader gets lost. Art, like philosophy, the author argues, “is a practice for bringing our organization into view.” Noë explores this conceit through a range of topics as they relate to art, such as the importance of boredom, the role of criticism, and the impossibility of neuroscience explaining art, with analogies from baseball to barkeeping, and help from the work of philosophers such as Plato, Immanuel Kant, and John Dewey. In relating complex problems in perception and consciousness, which have long filled pages in philosophy journals, Noë mostly forgoes jargon and citations in favor of mercifully plainer prose. Still, the book meanders through a lot of conceptual ground despite tilting toward the visual arts—Western and modern at that—and away from music, film, poetry, and fiction. Agent: John Brockman. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Stars Between the Sun and Moon: One Woman’s Life in North Korea and Escape to Freedom

Lucia Jang and Susan McClelland. Norton, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-24922-4

The most effective element in Jang’s often tragic, thought-provoking memoir documenting her life in 1970s North Korea is the conversational, anecdotal mode in which it is told, akin to an oral history. Jang, recounting her story to Amnesty International Media Award–winning journalist McClelland, spares no detail of her harrowing upbringing in North Korea during a decade of famine, when she was often starving and was locked inside the house by her grandmother during the day. Jang attempts to better her circumstances by crossing over to China illegally, which results in her arrest, and marries an abusive man who, with Jang’s mother’s aid, sells her son, Sungmin, to a couple who live on a naval base. Subsequently, Jang is bedridden, “receiving no rations... after a week I had to return to work.” Lamenting the loss of her son and rejecting offers from other suitors—“I didn’t want another man. I wanted Sungmin”—she sets out to find him on the naval base, but the search proves fruitless. Her escape is suspenseful as she becomes a refugee in Mongolia and, ultimately, Toronto. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of the Publisher

Roberto Calasso, trans. from the Italian by Richard Dixon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24 (160p) ISBN 978-0-374-18823-8

Calasso (Ardor), novelist and publisher of Adelphi Edizioni, the highly regarded Italian press, has meticulously crafted 11 brief, elegant essays on book publishing. Calasso inquires about future book use in a long reflection based on his Adelphi experience. In an age when everyone wants to be a publisher—and can be, after a fashion—Calasso asks, why publish books for a living? Deep down, he contends, few involved in publishing today believe profit to be the prime motivation, given the industry’s self-evident fragility. Calasso examines why publishers from the 16th century (Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer credited with introducing italic type and the modern use of the comma)) to the 20th (Kurt Wolff, Kafka’s publisher) have entered the industry. He worries about what drives content today. In his view, whether a book is cool or uncool and how the author look on television are not the right questions. Calasso asks whether the publisher is to become a “residual organ” in the book business, and emphatically answers no throughout his remarks, which are devoid of nostalgia or wishful thinking. While observing the expanding range of what is considered publishable, Calasso reveals his own publishing ideal, “faire plaisir”—to give birth to literary pleasure and to light a beacon for discerning, if not wide, audiences. Several of these short takes and memoirs are must-reads for anyone interested in serious books, and the collection benefits from Richard Dixon’s strikingly graceful translation. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

Timothy Snyder. Crown/Duggan, $30 (480p) ISBN 978-1-101-90345-2

This brilliant book—effectively a companion volume to Snyder’s critically acclaimed 2010 work, Bloodlands—focuses on the Jewish victims of the grotesque policies of the Nazis and their shifting allies in the lands contested by Germans, Soviets, Poles, and others in the years of the Holocaust. Snyder brings two fresh elements to his dizzying, harrowing tale. The first is his extraordinarily wide and deep research into the remarkable stories, many unknown, of individual Holocaust survivors, the subject of the last half of his book. The second element, likely to be controversial, is his argument, asserted and reasserted, that, at its roots, the Holocaust was made possible by the failure of national states—by the Soviets and the Nazis stripping public, legal protections from millions of people, who were thus left exposed to removal and death. Hence the “warning” of the book’s subtitle: the weakening of strong national states threatens human survival wherever it occurs, as it did in the case of the Anschluss, in which Germany absorbed Austria, and as it did in the case of the destruction of the Polish state. It’s a plausible, strong argument aimed sharply at Americans who believe that “freedom is the absence of state authority.” Maps. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Letters to Vera

Vladimir Nabokov, edited and trans. from the Russian by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd. Knopf, $35 (864p) ISBN 978-0-307-59336-8

It's hard to imagine Vladimir Nabokov spending enough time away from his wife, Vera, to write even a single letter to her, much less a massive collection of them. However, in this authoritative and charming new volume, we learn that early in their marriage, the famed author of Lolita wrote to his wife frequently while traveling. Most of the letters were written between 1923 and 1944, a period that found Vladimir often living in places such as Paris, Brussels, and Prague, while his wife and young son stayed in Berlin or traveled elsewhere. Vera, editor Boyd tell us, did not respond in kind nearly as often (and most of the letters she did write were destroyed), but Vladimir's attachment to his wife, as revealed here, is simply astounding. The letters include drawings for their son, Dmitri; riddles for Vera; and endearments like "my kitty" and "my darling." It's clear that his world revolved around her. In the very first letter, Vladimir writes "I need you, my fairy-tale... you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought." These letters form a touching record of a famous literary marriage and further attest to the great novelist's sheer devotion and erudition. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth

John Szwed. Viking, $28.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-670-01472-9

Unsatisfied with labeling Holiday "the greatest jazz singer of all time," veteran jazz biographer Szwed (Alan Lomax) attempts to deconstruct the entertainer and her vocal magic by puncturing her celebrated public image and her legendary performances. First, Szwed holds Holiday's 1956 provocative memoir, Lady Sings the Blues, to a harsh analytical light. He debunks claims that it trashed jazz and its artists and was written to support Holiday's drug habit, while disclosing the reality that the singer was broke and in tax trouble. He reveals some little-known facts, including that Holiday wanted children desperately and even tried to adopt a baby in Boston but was turned down because of her drug use. He also terms Lady Day's voice as "indelibly odd, and so easy to recognize but difficult to describe," and writes the performer had two different selves: rough, profane, caustic offstage, but witty, kind, and charming onstage. The book really takes off when Szwed gets into Holiday's peerless styling as an improviser and interpreter of torch songs and blues, including the classics "God Bless' the Child," "Don't Explain," and "My Man." Szwed provides an alternative to the gossip and scandal usually associated with Holiday with this highly entertaining, essential take on an truly American original. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Mr. Mojo: A Biography of Jim Morrison

Dylan Jones. Bloomsbury, $16 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-63286-244-0

In this fast-paced, irreverent biography, British GQ editor Jones grapples with the Lizard King, tracking back from his funeral bed at Père Lachaise to the Manhattan apartment of his partner, writer Patricia Kennealy (they were extralegally married in a Celtic ceremony). Morrison, the son of a high-ranking naval officer, rebelled against the confines of his peripatetic military household, escaping into romantic literature and substance abuse. After leaving UCLA's film school, he drifted into the bohemian undertow of Los Angeles, where a chance meeting with Ray Manzarek led to the formation of the Doors. Clad in skintight leather, Morrison appealed to teenyboppers as well as L.A.'s drug users, and quickly became an international sensation. Ambivalent about his fame but nonetheless enabled by it, Morrison descended into alcoholism and became a charter member of the "27 Club" by way of heroin overdose. Refreshingly, Jones doesn't cater to the exaggerations of the Morrison myth, and his wry analysis provides the lucid center of the book. However, readers looking for a thorough investigation of the moment that produced the Doors or deep insights into the troubled singer will be disappointed; Jones tends toward unsupported generalizations and relies on attitude to make his arguments. This is a fair and extremely readable account of a distant era when Lizard Kings walked the earth and prodigious justifications were provided for their bad behavior. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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