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The Man from Essence: Creating A Magazine For Black Women

Edward Lewis with Audrey Edwards. Atria, $25 (295p) ISBN 978-1-4767-0348-0

Written with great candor and detail, Lewis, one of the cofounders of Essence magazine, a pioneering publication for America’s black women, recounts his life as a businessman and publisher, with a successful 40-year run from its 1970 launch with a circulation of 50,000 to its sale to Time Warner in 2005 with a circulation of 1.1 million. His hardscrabble childhood in the Bronx, raised by a single mother, is nothing unusual, but as in Camille Cosby’s astute foreword, it is the ingredients of that youth that make Lewis the perfect candidate for the Essence project: “a positive paradigm of black manhood… with a great respect for black women.” He weathered early fumbles such as losing a college football scholarship and flunking out of law school before fashioning a magazine paying homage to the Essence woman, who the author describes as smart, stylish, ambitious with “tremendous purchasing power.” Along the way, Lewis mentions the nasty feuds and firings of associates and editors, his personal relationships, and the events that led up to his angioplasty operation. This is a powerful chronicle of a purposeful life and how a collaborative project served as an inspirational beacon to the black community. Agent: Faith Hampton-Childs, Faith Childs Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Roadside MBA: Backroad Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Executives, and Small Business Owners

Michael Mazzeo, Paul Oyer, and Scott Schaefer. Hachette/Business Plus, $27 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4555-9889-2

Enjoying some downtime after a conference, Mazzeo, Oyer, and Schaefer (professors at the business schools of Northwestern, Stanford, and the University of Utah, respectively) walked into a small shoe store and ended up discussing management techniques and business strategies with the manager and sales team. The three realized that small business strategy is just as robust and complex as that of huge corporations. Determined that Wall Street should learn from Main Street, the authors visited small business across the U.S., including a orthodontist’s office in Arkansas; a women’s fitness center in Kentucky; and a machine shop and small law firm in Iowa. From this experience, they brought back lessons on scaling a business, negotiation, hiring, and delegation, among other topics. The friendly tone keeps the reader’s attention through easy-to-remember business wisdom: “Mazzeo’s Law: The answer to every strategic question is ‘It depends.’ Corollary 1: The trick is knowing what it depends on. Corollary 2: If the answer to a question isn’t ‘It depends,’ then it’s not a strategic question.” This bird’s-eye-view business title is gimmicky, but fun. Agent: Zoë Pagnamenta, Zoë Pagnamenta Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty Around the Globe

Ritu Sharma. Palgrave Macmillan, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-137-27858-6

Sharma, cofounder of Women Thrive Worldwide (“a small but feisty group that advocates for the priorities of women and families who live on less than a dollar a day”) reports on her travels through Sri Lanka, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Burkina Faso as she surveys, serves, and advocates for women, focusing by turns on manufacturing, agriculture, and education. Overcoming the forces that keep women poor, she persuasively argues, has global effect. Sure to appeal to activists, the book offers an on-the-ground account of one organization’s efforts and its strategies for instituting change. The more abstract role of governments and corporations, the labyrinthine process of legislation, and a plethora of acronyms gain immediacy through Sharma’s experiences and the accounts of the women she serves. In reporting on “exploitation and abuse” endured in the workplace, on the farm, and in seeking schooling, she wants to provoke positive change; thus, she concludes each segment with “What You Can Do For” each of the four communities. 3 photo inserts. Agent: Joelle Delbourgo, Joelle Delbourgo Assoc. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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What’s Gone Wrong? South Africa on the Brink of Failed Statehood

Alex Boraine. New York Univ, $25 (192p) ISBN 978-1-4798-9368-3

Boraine, a former anti-apartheid member of South Africa’s Parliament and an architect of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, blames the country’s struggles in the two decades after apartheid on the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has had a “large majority” in every government since 1994. Boraine argues that the party has “contempt for opposition” and is marred by a culture of corruption. Believing that ANC reform is elusive and that president Jacob Zuma must go, Boraine briefly profiles a number of emerging opposition figures who might one day take power. He is thorough in his indictment and believes his country, with widespread poverty and other problems, is a “failing” but not a “failed” state. Unfortunately, his book is dry in tone, and would have benefitted from more anecdotal material. Boraine also assumes a significant amount of knowledge of South African politics, for example, referring to former president Thabo Mbeki’s removal from power without providing enough contextual details for general readers. Despite these flaws, Boraine’s brief against the country’s rulers will command attention from readers interested in South African politics. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships

Jennifer L. Verdolin. Prometheus Books, $18.95 trade paper (310p) ISBN 978-1-61614-946-8

Prairie dog and great ape specialist Verdolin takes a lighthearted, pop-science approach toward applying some biologically deterministic lessons to her own romantic life, looking for analogies to mainstream heterosexual dating behavior throughout the animal kingdom. She highlights features like symmetry that both sexes appreciate as a marker of good genetics; female behaviors like “copycatting,” which she argues may mean one should avoid introducing an attractive boyfriend to single friends; male behaviors like gift-giving to attract females; and male mate guarding to ensure fidelity. Her perspective mostly matches American cultural standards: “males follow females and females follow resources.” Verdolin’s personal stories are too bland to work as a strong hook for her animal anecdotes; at best, she proves the point that nature is diverse enough to offer a model for most human behaviors. In the end, whether or not readers are convinced of her evolutionary evidence, Verdolin nevertheless helpfully reminds readers that the features that make for a sexy hookup are not the same ones that signal a good life partner. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species

James T. Costa. Harvard Univ, $39.95 (338p) ISBN 978-0-674-72969-8

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently discovered natural selection, a mechanism explaining the diversity of life on Earth, and Costa, professor of biology at Western Carolina University, explores how such a momentous discovery could have arisen from two people at roughly the same time as well as what we can learn from those similarities. “Wallace and Darwin labored along strikingly similar paths as they gathered evidence for transmutation, often making the same sorts of observations, consulting many of the same authorities, and crafting many of the same pro-transmutation arguments.” By exploring these points, he lays to rest the conspiracy theories promoting the belief that Darwin stole Wallace’s idea and took it as his own. Costa also counters those who have claimed that Wallace was a scientific lightweight who stumbled onto one important concept. Indeed, he details the evolutionary thinking and writing of both Wallace and Darwin during the critical period leading up to the joint publication of their theory of natural selection by the Linnean Society of London in 1858. (A significant portion of the text presents an annotated version of this publication.) Repetitions aside, Costa impressively demonstrates the inductive process both scientists utilized and how each made major and lasting contributions to modern science. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World from Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars

John Gaudet. Pegasus, $28.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-60598-566-4

Well-known as a writing material in ancient Egypt, papyrus had many more uses, according to ecologist Gaudet in this encyclopedic history of the swamp-dwelling plant. Indeed, Gaudet maintains that Egyptian civilization, even before writing emerged, might not have developed without this extraordinary productive plant: the ancients used it for homes, boats, rope, baskets, fuel, and even food; it grows so densely over water that small villages were built on it. Papyrus motifs adorned their paintings, temples and tombs, amulets, and jewelry. Gaudet delivers an exhaustive description of the ancient technical processes that turned stems and rhizomes into daily necessities. Today, however, paper, wood, plastic, and cloth have replaced papyrus, and the swamps in which it grows are being drained worldwide. This process has had disastrous ecological results, as the plant acts as a filter to stop soil erosion, safeguard ground water, and support fish, birds, mammals, and, ultimately, man. The book’s second half focuses on efforts to reverse this massive ecological damage by restoring papyrus swamps. Successes are dramatic but limited, and as with many accounts of environmental destruction, readers may struggle to share the writer’s optimism. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Operation Valuable Fiend: The CIA’s First Paramilitary Strike Against the Iron Curtain

Albert Lulushi. Skyhorse/Arcade (Perseus, dist.), $24.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-62872-322-9

In 1948, when Stalin expelled Yugoslavia from the Comintern after quarreling with its dictator, Marshall Tito, it left tiny, impoverished Albania isolated from other Soviet satellite states. Destabilizing its government, led by the brutal Enver Hoxha, seemed the perfect initial project for the young CIA, also formed in 1948. The result was lost in the fog of history, but businessman and Albanian immigrant Lulushi has plumbed newly accessible archives to vividly recapture the first of a long string of CIA debacles. Recruiting volunteers from refugee camps and providing two weeks guerilla training, agents parachuted small groups of fighters into Albania in November 1950. Those not captured immediately roamed the countryside under constant pursuit. After reorganizing and improving their plans, the CIA continued their attempts, which only produced more horrific losses as infiltrators were pursued, captured, and occasionally turned against their handlers. Admitting failure, the CIA shut down the operation in 1954. Historians have blamed Soviet mole Kim Philby, who worked in British intelligence and knew of the operation, but Lulushi disagrees. His lively, detailed account of Hoxha’s viciously efficient intelligence service, the exiles’ terrible security, and CIA naïveté make a convincing case. Maps, photos, and illus. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Month That Changed the World: July 1914

Gordon Martel. Oxford Univ, $39.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-19-966538-9

Few will accuse Martel of hyperbole—the events leading up to WWI certainly changed world history dramatically—and in this fascinating and accessible account, the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of War clearly details the day-by-day developments, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo to England’s declaration of war. Martel brings to life the rulers and diplomats whose personalities (including an Austrian leader who “dreamed that a great success in war” would make it easier for him to marry his mistress) and choices led to the death of over nine million people—and to the wounding of over 30 million more—as well as “the collapse of empires” and the unleashing of “the revolutionary forces of communism and fascism.” In a brilliantly reasoned concluding section, Martel explores why the war happened, including the numerous theories that have been espoused. Factors such as “alliances, mass conscript armies, huge navies, unprecedented armaments,” and national discontent had existed for the decades, including the almost half-century of peace that preceded the war. Martel’s conclusion that no “neat explanation” exists is hard to argue with. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Jordan Ellenberg. Penguin Press, $27.95 (480p) ISBN 978-1-59420-522-4

In this wry, accessible, and entertaining exploration of everyday math, Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, shows readers how “knowing mathematics is like wearing a pair of X-ray specs” that reveal the hidden structure of the world. Too often, mathematics is taught as a “long list of rules” without any real-world application. Ellenberg stresses that even the most complex math is based on common sense and then proves it with examples that take the abstract and make it real. Lines and curves provide the foundation for explorations of the Affordable Care Act and the infamous Laffer curve (with a Ferris Bueller shout-out). The ancient and “extremely weird” Pythagoreans help us calculate the area of a tuna fish sandwich. The search for patterns in large, seemingly random data leads to a fascinating discussions of lotteries and of why “reading” sheep entrails isn’t a good way to predict stock prices. From discussing the difference between correlation and causation, to how companies use big data to predict your interests and preferences, Ellenberg finds the common-sense math at work in the everyday world, and his vivid examples and clear descriptions show how “math is woven into the way we reason.” Agent: Jay Mandel, William Morris Endeavor. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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