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The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community Is Inspiring the World

Nadia Lopez, with Rebecca Paley. Viking, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-101-98025-5

Lopez details her struggles and triumphs as the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, the middle school she founded in the poverty-ridden Brownsville section of Brooklyn. In her role of principal, Lopez faces challenging students, exhausted parents, overwhelmed teachers, and low test scores, and the stress of her job takes a toll on her physical and mental health. But when one of her students is interviewed on the popular blog Humans of New York and describes Lopez as the person who has most influenced him, Lopez is flooded with opportunities: she arranges for her students to take trips to Harvard, meets President Obama, and raises over a million dollars for her school. Despite these accomplishments, Lopez makes it clear that the lives of low-income students are still marked by violence. She uses the tragic story of a former student, Newshawn Plummer, who was shot and killed in 2015, as a reminder of these ongoing challenges. Lopez offers many strategies for improving education (mentorship programs, greater parental involvement, strong guidance counseling, and field trips that provide exposure to different cultures and ideas), each of which merits its own book. Lopez’s clear-eyed approach to education is the book’s most valuable lesson: educators should listen to the students, parents, and teachers who live and work in these communities; they understand their needs best. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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True Crime Japan: Thieves, Rascals, Killers and Dope Heads; True Stories from a Japanese Courtroom

Paul Murphy. Tuttle, $16.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-4-8053-1342-8

Pimps, arsonists, mobsters with missing pinkies, elderly shoplifters, and other criminal characters figure into Irish journalist Murphy’s zany account of modern crime and punishment in Matsumoto, Japan. After settling in this metropolis, west of Tokyo, in 2013, Murphy became a regular at the Summary and District Courts, observing 119 cases over the course of a year. Drawn to the courthouse setting, Murphy presents these cases as anecdotes pertaining to “intriguing aspects of Japan” at large. He uses the trial of a mother and father who attempted to kill their daughter in an arsonous family suicide as a way to explore why Japan’s suicide rate is twice that of the U.S. Another chapter describes the recent spike in shoplifters over the age of 70, labeled by one criminologist as bosou rojin (“out-of-control old people”). The shift in criminal activity in the elderly is the topic of a national debate about whether this segment of society has become too isolated and needy. Murphy creates a winning mix of irreverent and earnest observations in this snapshot of the underworld in modern Japan. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Matthew F. Delmont. Univ. of California, $26.95 (264p) ISBN 978-0-520-29132-4

Delmont (Why Busing Failed), an associate history professor at Arizona State University, presents the first book-length study of Roots, Alex Haley’s bestselling 1976 novel. After a brief biographical sketch of Haley’s life and career, Delmont focuses on the book’s evolution over more than 10 years, from Haley’s initial conception of a story of African-American life in the 1930s South to the final century-spanning epic and its adaptation into a record-breaking TV miniseries. This is followed by the popular and critical success of both book and show, and finally by plagiarism lawsuits and claims of fabrication that marred Haley’s achievement. Drawing on his scholarly background, Delmont builds his narrative from extensive archival research. His ability to describe these findings in an engaging style keeps the pages turning. Dramatic episodes come alive, such as the rush to finish the book to meet the TV program’s filming schedule, and excerpts from letters written in response to the book and movie are expertly chosen. Delmont adds depth and complexity to the popular understanding of Roots through his critical exploration of all aspects of the book and original miniseries (a second version released in 2016 isn’t covered here), engaging with both its successes and controversies. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe

Joseph E. Stiglitz. Norton, $28.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-25402-0

Nobel Prize–winning economist Stiglitz (The Great Divide) notes early on that the failings of the current European economy are “important for the entire world,” but the emphasis in this dense book is on Europe nevertheless. Most of it is spent amassing evidence (sometimes in graph form) to buttress his contention that there is a simple answer to why, despite “advances in economic science,” the European economy has failed: the 1992 decision to adopt the euro, a single currency for 19 separate countries. Stiglitz believes that the euro has failed to meet its economic and political objectives, and he methodically lays out in detail why that has happened. His concluding section offers advice for a productive way forward that would save the euro and achieve the “shared prosperity and solidarity” that it originally had promised. Despite Stiglitz’s best efforts, this is not an easy book for casual readers; the subject matter, which requires analysis of sophisticated economic phenomena such as quantitative easing, is just too complex to be made accessible, though Stiglitz tries to leaven the complexity with grimly amusing and digestible anecdotes. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt

Sarah Jaffe. Nation, $26.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-56858-536-9

Striking a tone that simultaneously infuriates and inspires, journalist Jaffe gives a macro-level overview of recent protest movements, including Occupy Wall Street, the Wisconsin Capitol protesters, Black Lives Matter, and lesser-known social justice groups. Her book examines these movements with a spare, intelligent style. Jaffe explores how the movements cross-pollinate and evolve, providing insightful analysis of the underlying trends that emerge across different groups. Along with original reporting and research of media coverage, Jaffe includes historical background and testimonies of active participants, creating holistic pictures of these movements. Some mention is made of protest parties of the right (such as the Tea Party), but the majority of the book focuses on movements associated with the left. It provides insight to those confused by the recent uptick in protests and unorthodox political candidates, and a rallying cry to those currently working in these social justice movements—though it’s unlikely the book will convert any partisan readers. “Messages don’t succeed because they say something new,” Jaffe writes, but “because they explain something that people feel but have been at a loss to explain.” For readers feeling frustrated and unrepresented in politics today, this book is just such a message. Agent: Lydia Wills, Lydia Wills LLC. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Danger Close: My Epic Journey as a Combat Helicopter Pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan

Amber Smith. Atria, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5011-1638-4

Like a skilled helicopter pilot who skims the ground without churning up too much dust, Smith, a former U.S. Army Kiowa Warrior pilot, superficially revisits her years in the military. As both piloting and military service ran in her family, Smith grew up believing that someday she’d don a uniform and fly planes. The 9/11 attacks turned someday into now. Smith was still in college, though, and without a degree only the Army flight program accepted her—and only for helicopter training. She discusses her experience training as a pilot, occasionally peeling back a layer or two from the surface but studiously avoiding controversy. Smith does deliver deft, almost loving, descriptions of the Kiowa helicopter and the role that the chopper and its crew play in combat. Though comfortable writing about training, equipment, and missions, Smith sidesteps addressing military gender politics. This may come as a disappointment to some readers, given that all combat positions recently opened up for women and that sexual assault and harassment continue. She also shrinks from discussing the politics or the history of the wars. There’s no question that Smith was an accomplished and loyal soldier who served her country well, but readers will be left wondering why she didn’t address crucial aspects of service. Agent: Jim Hornfischer, Hornfischer Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age

Daniel J. Levitin. Dutton, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-0-525-95522-1

Levitin (The Organized Mind) equips readers with tools to combat misinformation—bad data, false facts, distortions, and their ilk—in this useful primer on the importance of critical thinking in daily life. Levitin divides information (and misinformation) into two categories: numerical and verbal. He begins with an examination of both deliberate and uninformed misuses of statistics and how to spot them. The concepts explored in this section are perennial favorites of critical-thinking instruction, including plausibility, “Axis Shenanigans,” and the different types of probabilities. The second section, on evaluation words, explores less trodden grounds; particularly the discussion about expertise, which explores the concept in the context of individuals and institutions, and the ways that this expertise can be misapplied or misinterpreted. In his final third of the book is dedicated to the scientific method and how it actually works, as opposed to pseudoscientific imitations. In all three sections Levitin explores material that has often been written about elsewhere, but the book still serves its purpose as a valuable primer on critical thinking that convincingly illustrates the prevalence of misinformation in everyday life. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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In Such Good Company

Carol Burnett. Crown Archetype, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-101-90465-7

From 1967 to 1978, The Carol Burnett Show delighted television viewers of all ages from coast to coast. Now Burnett presents a look at her beloved variety hour. Though it may start with the show’s inauspicious beginnings (a forgotten clause in Burnett’s contract) and end with its star-studded finale, Burnett’s narrative is hardly chronological; instead, it resembles the conversational cadence of a relative reminiscing about the good old days. This is certainly a relatable approach, but it does lead Burnett to repeat details about her favorite stories. Nevertheless, Burnett’s fans will enjoy the wealth of knowledge as she reveals her close relationships with her crew, revisits highlights from audience q&a sessions, and shares anecdotes about the biggest stars of the 1960s and ’70s. Burnett watched every episode afresh to research this book, and that attention to detail shows in her exhaustive accounts of major sketches. However, even nonfans will enjoy the nuggets of intrigue Burnett scatters throughout, in which she shines a light on the sexism she faced during her tenure as a leading lady of the small screen. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon

Kelley and Thomas French. Little, Brown, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-32442-7

The Frenches, Pulitzer-winning journalists, put forth a love story about their daughter, with highs and lows throughout and moments of sheer joy that will keep readers involved until the very last page. This achingly tender memoir is also a roller-coaster. Juniper French was born weighing just 575 grams (the mass of $2.28 in pennies, or a bottle of Gatorade) and was the length of a Barbie doll. She fought with every breath. Her parents kept watch; they sang, they read, they were mesmerized. Thomas even read the Harry Potter series to his tiny bundle, as he did with his older boys from a previous marriage, hoping the protagonist’s spirit would be emitted in every syllable. In alternating chapters, the Frenches recall trying everything to conceive, then later trying everything to keep their baby alive. For nearly seven months, they lived in and out of the hospital while family, friends, and colleagues maintained a tight network of support. The narrative sparks a need to reassess the meaning of a miracle, and the story will resonate for days after the last word. With sharp prose, honoring the simple and the profound, this book should be in the hands of every parent—indeed, of everyone. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family

Daniel Bergner. LB/Boudreaux, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-0-316-30067-4

In 2011, Ryan Speedo Green won a national competition sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Yet, as journalist Bergner (God of the Rodeo) points out in this gripping and inspiring mix of biography and cultural history, Green’s journey to international acclaim as an opera star was not an easy one. Raised in a home marred by domestic violence and his father’s abandonment of the family, Green grows up being shuttled from a trailer park to a shack in a neighborhood riddled with drugs and violence. He has difficulties in school and grows more and more unruly, until the moment he threatens his mother with a knife. Transported to a juvenile psychiatric detention center so he won’t be a threat to others or himself, Green discovers music as the force that calms his anger. When he returns to high school, he enrolls in the music program, meeting up with a teacher who takes him under his wing and helps Green develop his vocal talents. On a class visit to the Met, Green declares to his teacher that he’s going to sing there one day. Bergner chronicles the auditions and vocal contests as well as the struggles Green faces as a black man entering a musical world that is mostly white, delivering a moving portrait of a young man who succeeds, along with the help of encouraging teachers. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2016 | Details & Permalink

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