Nonfiction Reviews: Week of 12/3/2007

by Rachel Baker on December 17, 2007

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The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America
Louis P. Masur. Bloomsbury Press, ISBN 978-1-59691-364-6

Historian Masur (1831: Year of Eclipse) has written a gem of a book based on an iconic, Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph by Stanley Forman. Taken on April 5, 1976, at a Boston rally against forced school busing, it’s a stark, frightening image of an angry white teenager brandishing an American flag at a well-dressed African-American man, apparently trying to impale him. Published on the front page of newspapers across the country, the photo crystallized the complex issues that enflamed Boston during the city’s school busing crisis. Masur addresses the source of the picture’s power on a multitude of levels, bringing uncommon wisdom and explanatory skills to his analysis of the collision of the Civil Rights movement, racism and community concerns about court-ordered busing programs. Masur is superb when deconstructing the photo, pointing out the elements of its composition that infused it with meaning, while at the same time asking provocative questions that illuminate how the interpretation of a photograph can affect our perception of an event. Equally compelling is Masur’s discussion of the shifting and potent historical symbolism of the American flag, which stands at the metaphorical center of the photo. (Apr.)

Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Forget Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life
Sandra Aamodt and
Sam Wang. Bloomsbury, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-59691-283-0

Neuroscientists Aamodt, editor-in-chief of Nature Neuroscience, and Wang, of Princeton University, explain how the human brain—with its 100 billion neurons—processes sensory and cognitive information, regulates our emotional life and forms memories. They also examine how human brains differ from those of other mammals and show what happens to us during dreams. They also tackle such potentially controversial topics as whether men and women have different brains (yes, though what that means in terms of capabilities and behavior, they say, is up in the air) and whether intelligence is shaped more by genes or environment (“genes set an upper limit on people’s intelligence, but the environment before birth and during childhood determines whether they reach their full genetic potential”). Distinguishing their book are sidebars that explode myths—no, we do not use only 10% of our brain’s potential but nearly all of it—and provide advice on subjects like protecting your brain as you get older. The book could have benefited from a glossary of neurological terms and more illustrations of the brain’s structure. Still, this is a terrific, surprisingly fun guide for the general reader. B&w illus. (Mar.)

A Brief History of Anxiety: Yours and Mine
Patricia Pearson. Bloomsbury, $21.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-59691-298-4

Novelist and nonfiction writer Pearson (When She Was Bad) was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at 23 in 1987; she had suffered a nervous breakdown after discovering that her lover was sleeping with another woman. In a rambling fashion, she traces the roots of her anxiety to a youth spent in tumultuous New Delhi, where her diplomat father was posted when an Indian-Pakistani war broke out over Bangladesh. Genetically, she traces her anxiety to a grandmother whose famous biting wit was likely, she surmises, a manifestation of anxiety and depression. Pearson quotes a range of sources, including the 2002 World Mental Health Survey and angst-ridden Kierkegaard, Keats and Whitman. Pearson’s anxieties constantly shift according to the stresses in her life, and an adverse reaction to antidepressants once caused her to make sexual advances to her daughter’s friend’s mother. Citizens of affluent U.S. and Canada are more prone to dread and panic than Mexicans, says Pearson, who herself grew up in a privileged Canadian family with a grandfather who was prime minister and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Although often self-indulgent and overwritten, Pearson’s quirky memoir should strike a chord with some of the 40 million American adults suffering from clinical anxiety. (Mar. 4)

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