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Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Neil L. Rudenstine. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-374-28015-4

Rudenstine, former president of Harvard, unpacks what he calls the “greatest single work of lyric poetry,” Shakespeare’s 154 love sonnets. The poems are quoted extensively throughout, as well as given in their entirety. Rudenstine astutely divides the sonnets into “clusters,” so he can explicate separate themes like praise, betrayal, and love. Various rhetorical devices at work in the poems, including wordplay, irony, and hyperbole, also come under consideration. This study touches on multiple interpretations, but is most persuasive on Shakespeare’s use of symbols, such as the sun, and imagery. Rudenstine’s analysis is inspiring and thoughtful, especially when parsing the line, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” or tracing the sonnets’ relationship to the author’s plays. Curiously, the book only briefly mentions the homoerotic strain running through the sonnets, otherwise leaving the poet’s intense feelings for a young man unexplored. Still, this is a worthwhile attempt to unravel the meanings of a challenging work. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Lurching Toward Happiness in America

Claude Fischer. MIT, $16.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-262-02824-0

With this promising but slight book, UC Berkeley sociologist Fischer (Still Connected) tackles the subject of happiness. Scholars know that people who are married and healthy tend to be happier. Conversely, poverty decreases happiness, though above a certain point, wealth probably doesn’t increase it. Though academics have studied happiness since the 1950s, there has been a surge of studies in recent years: since 2000, the number of articles on happiness in economics journals “roughly tripled.” In the weakest chapters of this book, Fischer summarizes headlines then briefly (and insufficiently) critiques them. The Atlantic worries that e-dating threatens monogamy, but the reverse may be true. Newspapers scream that we are getting lonelier, while, in fact, says Fischer, loneliness is not new. Still, some of his digests are pointed and clever, such as his description of the difference between people who tie happiness to time spent outdoors and strengthening “personal relationships” and those who emphasize more jobs and more pay: “sort of Seattle Democrats versus Youngstown Democrats.” And when Fischer goes more in-depth—for example, when he dissects the function of leisure-time and paid vacations—he’s terrific. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia

Peter Pomerantsev. PublicAffairs, $25.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-61039-455-0

This debut from television producer Pomerantsev vividly describes the decade, starting in 2001, that he spent in Vladimir Putin’s “New Russia” pursuing a film school degree and TV work. Along the way, it reveals the complex truth about 21st-century Russia, with all of its new possibility, wealth, power, and corruption. Born in Kiev but raised in England by exiled Russian parents, Pomerantsev decided to move back to his native country, partly because he felt like he had “always been an observer looking in at Russia” and “wanted to get closer.” The book is divided into distinct parts—“Reality Show Russia,” “Cracks in the Kremlin Matrix,” and “Forms of Delirium”— suggesting the three-act structure taught in modern screenwriting manuals and emphasizing the feel of “performance” in the new Russia. Highlights of the narrative include Pomerantsev’s experiences producing a TV documentary called How to Marry a Millionaire (A Gold Digger’s Guide), interviewing gangster-turned-movie star Vitaliy Djomochka, attending a lecture by Kremlin propaganda mastermind Vladislav Surkov, and sampling the excess of Moscow nightlife. Sometimes horrifying but always compelling, this book exposes the bizarre reality hiding beneath the facade of a “youthful, bouncy, glossy country.” Agency: Melanie Jackson Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Recasting India: How Entrepreneurship Is Revolutionizing the World’s Largest Democracy

Hindol Sengupta. Palgrave Mamillan, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-137-27961-3

A boosterish quality runs through this collection of short profiles of Indian business ventures that, in scope and scale, are far from the globally recognized companies in the vanguard of the Indian economic renaissance. Sengupta, an editor for Fortune India, takes a business journalist’s cheerful view of small-scale enterprises he believes are obscured by the reverence accorded to tycoons and technology mavens in both India and the West. His subjects range from a housekeeping service that safeguards impoverished female employees, to the resurgent economy of violence-plagued Kashmir, to driven entrepreneurs from the Dalit, or “untouchable,” caste. This generally positive view is coupled with a charge that the country’s reigning mood of jugaad, a “spirit of can-do-ness,” actually has the negative effect of inhibiting further enterprise in the name of frugality. Skeptical readers may feel, however, that Sengupta tends to sweep away India’s complex structural problems—corruption, a sclerotic justice system, and a long-standing distrust of capitalism—with blithely upbeat assertions. Though there’s nothing wrong with his enthusiasm, localized business growth may prove less a panacea and more a supporting factor in the ongoing story of India’s rise to economic power. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey out of the Military and Across America

Rory Fanning. Haymarket (Consortium, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (230p) ISBN 978-1-60846-391-6

Fanning combines memoir, travelogue, political tract, and history lesson in this engaging account of his 3,000-mile solo walk from Virginia to California to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation. Fanning recounts his childhood struggles and his rocky military career as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, during which he grew severely disillusioned with the war over the course of two tours. That disillusionment led him to become a conscientious objector and request a discharge the service. Several years later, in 2008, he decided to walk coast-to-coast for the foundation that was set up to honor Tillman, the NFL safety who joined the Army and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Fanning’s descriptions of the hardships and highlights of the trip comprise the bulk of the book, and he infuses his left-wing politics into a narrative peppered with historical tidbits, most of which describe less-than-honorable moments in American history, such as the terrorist actions of the Ku Klux Klan and the nation’s Indian removal policies. What stands out most, though, is the selflessness and generosity—which come in the form of stories, hospitality, and donations for the foundation—of the people Fanning encountered during his journey. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Unnatural Selection: How We Are Changing Life, Gene by Gene

Emily Monosson. Island, $30 (200p) ISBN 978-1-61091-498-7

The power of evolution, toxicologist Monosson (Evolution in a Toxic World) demonstrates, is quite amazing: when strong selective pressure is coupled with short generation times, significant changes in populations can occur over very brief intervals. Monosson focuses on a number of ways humans have created strict selective environments, in which targeted species either must adapt quickly or die, to combat serious pests. She then examines how targeted species have outsmarted us, in large part due to our injudicious use of selective agents. The results might well be catastrophic for the well-being of the human population—indiscriminate use of antibiotics has created superbugs for which we have no meaningful defense. Monosson warns us that “The threat of untreatable infections is real... the day when antibiotics don’t work is upon us.” She describes a similar situation with pesticide resistant weeds, showing that they are increasingly overrunning crops with impunity. Monosson extends these lessons by exploring the impact our practices have on control of cancerous cells, bedbugs, and disease-carrying and agriculture-destroying insects. She concludes with an interesting, if tangential, discussion of epigenetics, which is the study of the impact of environmental influences on genetic expression over the course of generations. Throughout, Monosson’s goal is to understand “how our choices impact life’s evolutionary course.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction

Jules Howard. Bloomsbury/Sigma, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4081-9341-9

In the spirit of enthusiastic animal sex tour books like Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice for All Creation, wildlife blogger Howard’s debut puts aside sensational curiosities like supposedly giant dinosaur penises, instead taking great pleasure in appreciating reproductive strategies of everyday creatures such as ducks, dogs, mites, even the Edinburgh Zoo’s pandas, whose failed mating attempts were ridiculed in the press. Howard’s story is as much anthropology as zoology, but not because he draws lessons for human sexual behavior from the rest of Earth’s inhabitants. He is at least as interested in documenting the specialized thinking and the personality quirks of his fellow naturalists, scientists, and animal breeders whose deep, narrow focus on specific species makes them perfect experts on animal mating strategies, and in communicating his own delight in chasing down evidence directly, such as when hearing the sound of his spring pond coming to life sparks an obsession with seeing frogs have sex. Though there’s little that groundbreaking in Howard’s scientific content, the infectious optimism of his fascination with an Earth full of beings doing exactly what they need to to go on gives the reader a comforting sense that, in the grand scheme of things, everything is right with the world. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Science... for Her!

Megan Amram. Scribner, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5788-9

Comedian Amram brings her absurd brand of humor to a satirical take on science lessons “tailored for the female brain.” This mock textbook/women’s magazine hybrid makes repeated nods to Cosmopolitan magazine–style content with headlines like “Hot Reproductive Sex Tips,” “Best Gravitational Fields for Losing Weight,” and “Tips for Hosting Your Own Big Bang.” Chapters are divided by areas of scientific study; twisted facts are interspersed among raunchy references to real figures, such as Marie Curie, who Amram describes as a “real butterface” whose “husband probably did all of her work for her.” The incisive parody of misogyny continues with Amram’s assurance that women can’t drive due to their “inherently poor grasp of physics,” and a hilariously erroneous breakdown of Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments. Other bits include a spoof on a health-conscious Paula Deen cookbook featuring “Fruit Salad” made of Skittles with ranch dressing. Often vulgar and wildly inappropriate, but if that describes your brand of humor, Amram hits the funny bone in all the right spots. Color photos. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

Frances Larson. Norton/Liveright, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-87140-454-1

Larson (An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World) delves into the grotesque yet wildly fascinating topic of decapitation. She begins her story by offering an explanation as to why disembodied heads have maintained such novelty over time: it’s because a severed head is “simultaneously a person and a thing.” Beheadings have always captivated, as can been seen from the popularity of historical tales, such as the exhumation and decapitation of Oliver Cromwell (his head then circulated a series of private collectors and was finally buried—the exact resting place a secret), and the frequency of contemporary internet searches for the decapitation of prisoners by terrorists. Larson mentions three contexts in which heads, sans body, have been prominent: in soldiers’ homes as war trophies, in the market that was created to sell shrunken heads to European travelers, and in science labs that conduct research on heads. Perhaps more relevantly for most readers, severed heads have been a noteworthy feature of many museums and religious iconography. Larson’s lively, conversational tone turns these morbid objects into something more meaningful than a mere expression of the macabre. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Meltdown in Tibet: China’s Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia

Michael Buckley. Palgrave Macmillan, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-1-137-27954-5

Reports of worldwide environmental degradation rarely mention the remote Tibetan plateau, but journalist and travel writer Buckley rectifies this omission with his detailed, dismal account of the damage there. For decades after its 1950 invasion of the region, China concentrated on suppressing traditional Tibetan culture, social structure, and religion (most visibly by destroying temples). But during the country’s market revolution in the 1980s, the Chinese turned their focus to the area’s material resources. Although the sources of most great Asian waterways are found in Tibet, Chinese-built mega-dams have caused rivers to dry up and deltas to shrink, while extensive mining operations have polluted other channels. The Chinese government banned logging virgin forest around the Yangtze’s Tibetan headwaters after “massive soil erosion” produced a disastrous flood in 1998. Observers praised China for simultaneously designating an astounding 33% of the Tibetan region as nature reserves, though Buckley demonstrates that such actions have proven to be entirely for show; the creation of these nature reserves is a legal fiction that allows authorities to displace native Tibetans so that mining, logging, and dam building can proceed. Objections from the United Nations, other international organizations, and even Chinese citizens have had little effect, and Buckley’s obligatory solution in the concluding chapter will encourage only the most optimistic reader. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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