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Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword

David K. Shipler. Knopf, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-307-95732-0

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Less a sharp blade than a sticky, tangled web is the image conveyed by this nuanced survey of American free-speech controversies. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Shipler (‘Rights at Risk') investigates recent showdowns related to the issue: parents trying to ban novels with sex scenes from high school English classes, the government prosecuting whistle-blowers for speaking up about government surveillance abuses, preachers resisting IRS rules against electioneering from the pulpit, a Jewish theater fighting to retain funding for a play about a possible Israeli atrocity against Palestinians. These aren't all stories of heroic freedom fighters; while Shipler calls himself a near absolutist when it comes to the First Amendment, he allows that much embattled speech is ugly, hateful, or just plain stupid, and his sympathetic reportage recognizes concerns on all sides (sometimes to excess: he tends to let his subjects' rambling speechifying about speech go on for far too long). Shipler wants to show that, even in polarized contexts, an abundance of speech usually prods people a few steps closer to mutual comprehension. In the wake of the ‘Charlie Hebdo' massacre, his probing exploration of quieter confrontations reminds us how America's robust free-speech culture encourages citizens to talk, rather than shoot, issues out. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM. (May 12)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania

Frank Bruni. Grand Central, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4555-3270-4

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With great energy and enthusiasm, New York Times columnist Bruni takes a pin to “our society's warped obsession with elite colleges" and provides a commonsense check to the yearly “admissions mania" of students competing for coveted slots at top schools. In taking apart the “largely subjective" and “fatally flawed" rankings of U.S. News & World Report and reviewing the dearth of class diversity and “lack of imagination" at the pinnacle of higher education, Bruni tosses a rock through the undeserved “veneration of elite schools" and celebrates the democratic insistence that a “good student can get a good education just about anywhere." He fills the book with profiles of successful CEOs, politicians, entrepreneurs, and other known names to illustrate how self-starters turned their default school into a stepladder to success. Bruni's quick wit and slick style nimbly glosses over the systemic problems with American higher education and instead reassures floundering young adults and hand-wringing parents that college is and is not the most crucial years of a person's life, and that the true measure of success—“great careers and lives that matter"—is not bought with a diploma but built with “a robust and lasting energy for hard work." While Bruni's heartfelt argument ignores somewhat blissfully the deeper problems facing higher education, his insistence on an ideal liberal, humanistic college as a playground for the mind is a nostalgic and valuable contribution to the larger conversation. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education

Ryan Craig. Palgrave Macmillan, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-1-137-27969-9

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Combining a flair for numbers with a grasp of the bigger picture, venture capitalist and educational entrepreneur Craig spells out the threats facing higher education in America, among them crises of affordability and governance, “the effects of technological disruption and globalization,” and “absolutely no outcome data related to student learning.” With sportive analogies to pop culture and his own college pranks at Yale University, Craig outlines what institutions can do to position themselves for “the Great Unbundling,” in which students pay for education rather than for faculty research, fancy buildings, and college athletics. Craig’s strategic vision is strictly a business model, requiring institutions to compete for consumers, market their brand, and successfully distribute their products worldwide, but his advice makes sound economic sense: to survive, he argues, institutions need to reprioritize “knowledge creation and dissemination” and provide a good return on investment by cultivating in students the cognitive, self-management, and “creative and critical thinking skills that employers demand.” His suggestions, he admits, take “a ton work,” but his discussion of the existing data, federal policy, and market trends address “clear social [and] economic needs.” Savvy, sharp, and ultimately optimistic, Craig’s book offers an ambitious blueprint that administrators would be wise to heed. Agent: Carole Mann, Carole Mann Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere

Kevin Carey. Riverhead, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-59463-205-1

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Education-policy advisor Carey heralds the coming annihilation of the “hybrid university,” the “deeply flawed” land-grant/research/liberal arts dinosaur responsible for “mediocre learning, high dropout rates, and skyrocketing tuition.” Carey turns his focused and attentive analysis to new education technologies that take into account real principles of learning science. With frequent excursions into personal and institutional histories, Carey describes ambitious Silicon Valley ventures such as the Minerva Project, Dev Bootcamp, Udacity, and Coursera as catalysts that, he hopes, will burn down the archaic “cathedrals of learning” and allow the “University of Everywhere” to rise from the ashes. Carey doesn’t go into detail on how the assortment of startups and independently funded ventures will coalesce into an entity that will allow millions of students to get high-quality education, online, for free, but he does address how the creation of a shared and dependable credential to replace the diploma poses a ticklish question. Despite his insistence that college professors are lousy teachers, Carey’s own experience with MIT’s EdX program and the innovations he describes taking place at Harvard, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and elsewhere suggest that some in “traditional academia” are eager to provide individual learners “exactly what they need.” Though filled with engaging profiles, insightful history, thorough detail, and grandiloquent calls for a “better, higher learning,” Carey’s picture of the real diversity of postsecondary education in the U.S.—and his vision for what should replace it—is incomplete. Agent: Gail Ross, Ross Yoon Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Cousin Bella: The Whore of Minsk

Sherman Yellen. Moreclacke, $8.95 trade paper (118p) ISBN 978-1-4952-9043-5

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Playwright and screenwriter Yellen shares the story of his elderly relative, the titular Cousin Bella, who grew up in czarist Russia. Once Bella’s father died, her stepmother sold her to a brothel, from which she was rescued by the author’s grandmother. The family moved to America, and Bella met up with a former client, who married her. They are happy together at first, except for their inability to have children. When a lodger in Bella’s apartment leaves her daughter behind, Bella falls in love with the child and takes her as her own, eventually lying to the mother and feigning the baby’s death in order to keep her. However, that act has tragic consequences, as the lodger’s son comes to ask questions about his mother, and then falls in love with his sister, finally marrying her. Bella is forced to reveal her deception and in the process loses her relationship with her adoptive daughter. Yellen’s family story is incredible, and the reader is drawn in almost at once. Bella’s story is told in a matter-of-fact manner, enhancing the believability but making readers wish for a richer storytelling experience to dramatize all the facts. That said, readers who want to learn more about the New York City of the early 20th century will find this to be a compelling and intriguing read. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Confessions of an Ebook Virgin: What Everyone Should Know Before They Publish on the Internet

Laura Shabott. Long Point Press, $9.99 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-9888979-7-7

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Writer and self-publishing evangelist Shabott puts pen to paper for a likable but insubstantial stab at helping fellow authors make their books available through Kindle, Nook, and other digital platforms. Her “manifesto” is designed to appeal to writers who haven’t had much luck publishing through traditional publishers: “Within this amazing new paradigm, no writer has to follow the traditional, often fruitless, path of finding an agent, who then hunts for a publisher—a journey that can take years—and might never happen.” A slim manual clocking in at a little more than 100 pages, the book covers the practicalities of self-publishing: hiring an editor, “design[ing] the right package,” getting reviewed prior to publication, creating e-books, and advertising yourself and your book. All these items are summed up in a concluding checklist, which represents Shabott’s’s most valuable offering. The chapters, on the other hand, are chatty and encouraging, but lack the substance to back up their suggestions. Without more concrete information, advice such as “Everyone is different, so discover what works for you and stick with it,” seems unlikely to provide aspiring authors with the key to success. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Year My Mother Came Back

Alice Eve Cohen. Algonquin, $23.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61620-319-1

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In this finely wrought memoir, Cohen (What I Thought I Knew) handles nearly overwhelming events. Her adopted-at-birth daughter, now 18, finally reconnects with her birth mother. Cohen’s biological daughter, whose conception was a surprise because of Cohen’s diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer and the consequent hormone treatments, has to undergo a difficult leg-lengthening surgery at age eight to correct a birth defect that Cohen feels responsible for causing. Through this prism, Cohen remembers her own mother, Louise, who passed away 30 years prior. Cohen takes readers on a journey through her immediate travails, as well as through her troubled childhood dealing with a mother whose own battle with cancer transformed her emotionally and physically. Cohen’s mother was a trailblazing champion of civil rights, an early feminist who bemoaned the trappings of a stay-at-home motherhood and fought for her intellectual life. Cohen ultimately gets closure with her mother, who gives her advice beyond the grave about how to be a better mother, how to face cancer, and how, ultimately, to be a daughter who finally finds peace with the complex woman who had more of an impact on her life than she ever realized. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Wild Oats Project: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost

Robin Rinaldi. FSG/Sarah Crichton, $26 (286p) ISBN 978-0-374-29021-4

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In this frank, salacious work delineating her desperate attempt at emotional and sexual liberation, the Scranton, Penn., author and frustrated wife ultimately recognizes that she lost a great deal and gained little. As an editor at San Francisco’s lifestyle magazine 7 x 7, married for 10 years to Scott, a successful, though emotionally opaque entrepreneur (“His erection was solid and dependable, just like him”), dealing with her childhood of parental alcoholism and brutality, and facing childlessness by her mid-40s, Rinaldi resolved to contemplate an open marriage when her husband took the decisive step to get a vasectomy rather than have children. Rather surprisingly, he agrees to the arrangement, and while the couple spends the weekdays together at their shared home near the Castro, Rinaldi gets a studio and begins a dizzying round of Nerve.com dates that fulfill her need for sexual exploration, though she sets firm perimeters in terms of emotional attachment. Luckily, in San Francisco, she notes wryly that “polyamory wasn’t all that rare,” and she gravitates toward the “urban commune” called OneTaste, which conducts hands-on orgasm meditation (OM) seminars for men and women, and where Rinaldi ultimately finds her most satisfying lovers—also women. To her credit, Rinaldi does not hide the dark side to this odyssey—her own jealousy at Scott’s lover, her absolute self-absorption and mendacity—but her ability to grasp its soul-driving necessity without insisting on winning over her readers renders this a notable work of self-knowledge. (Mar)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles

Les Standiford. Ecco, $28.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-225142-8

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Standiford (Last Train to Paradise) takes on and defends (despite claims that the book is merely factual) the controversial and steadfast William Mulholland, who developed and oversaw the seemingly impossible construction of an aqueduct from Owens Valley to Los Angeles in the early 20th century. The development of a Los Angeles water system that enabled and responded to the city’s quick growth is deeply entwined with the politics of the era and allegations of corruption, though this book does not do the topic justice. Standiford admits this is “not a work of traditional scholarship,” but something he chose to do for the sake of the general reader. Yet the book is confusingly organized, with a tangential, but attention-grabbing, first chapter (which features a dam that broke, flooding a valley and killing hundreds at the end of Mulholland’s career); unusual juxtaposition of anecdotes; and an overall conflict in its premise—is it a biography of Mulholland or the story of the aqueduct? Pacing is also unfortunate, as the book lags in its unnecessarily long description of the building of the aqueduct and doesn’t pick up again until the end. What could have been an intensely interesting affair unfortunately lacks detail richness and fails to cohere. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir

Michael White. Persea (Norton, dist.), $17.95 trade paper (184p) ISBN 978-0-89255-437-9

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A poet by trade, White (Vermeer in Hell), confronts ideas about love and loss after being awestruck by Vermeer’s Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam. Thus begins a personal quest to visit most of the Vermeer paintings in the world and see how they affect him—or not. In the course of this raw memoir, White travels to The Hague, Washington D.C., New York, and London to study Vermeer’s paintings up close and in detail. His readings of the paintings are insightful and reflect his emotion at experiencing firsthand the capability of Vermeer’s genius. Through his eyes, readers see why The Guitar Player is “disconcerting” but The Music Lesson is “intoxicating.” Between museum visits, White explains how his divorce, the death of his first wife, and his history as a recovering alcoholic inform his ideas about eternity and the focus of love. We follow him along on several dates and see how his personal experience with romance and love influences his vulnerability to art. Although there are no illustrations in the book, White’s extensive descriptions will inspire readers to seek out the paintings to further study Vermeer’s motifs and technique. Through his obsession with Vermeer, White has crafted a powerful and affecting memoir that reminds us how art can be salvation. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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