Editors’ Picks for April 2021

10 reviews handpicked from the latest issue of Choice.

Haass, Richard. The world: a brief introduction. Penguin Press, 2020. 378p bibl index ISBN 9780399562396, $28.00; ISBN 9780399562402 ebook, contact publisher for price.

Haass (president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations) is a long-term public servant, and he is particularly knowledgeable about national security affairs. He is known for his concern about the total lack of awareness of world affairs on the part of the average person. The present book is, at its core, a world history textbook for high school civics or history AP classes. Part 1, “The Essential History,” begins with the Thirty Years’ War and the signing of the treaties of Westphalia (1648), which created the nation-state system, and continues through WW I, WW II, the Cold War, and post–Cold War period to the present. In section 2, “Regions of the World,” Haass reviews events and political dynamics by generally recognized regions of the globe: Europe, East Asia and the Pacific, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. Part 3, “The Global Era,” discusses presently recognized global concerns such as globalization, terrorism and counterterrorism, climate change, and a whole swath of other interesting subjects. The last part, “Order and Disorder,” is the most challenging because the subjects are complex and go to the heart of international politics. Readers will come away from this book well informed about history and current events. Summing Up: Essential. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates, students in two-year programs, general readers. —S. R. Silverburg, emeritus, Catawba College

Hsu, Sara. China’s fintech explosion: disruption, innovation, and survival, by Sara Hsu and Jianjun Li. Columbia, 2020. 308p bibl index ISBN 9780231196567, $35.00; ISBN 9780231551717 ebook, $34.99.

Fintech (financial technology) first appeared with online banking in 1995 and the availability of internet payment and loan services. In China, given a generation of computer savvy millennials, all aspects of fintech have undergone rapid development. This book charts the details through numerous vignettes highlighting, e.g., digital payment systems, lending and crowdfunding, online credit, supply chain financing, internet banks, online investments, insurance, blockchain financing, and virtual unregulated currencies. The effects of fintech on traditional banking are discussed, along with the risks of fintech and regulatory technology. The book does not discuss the political dimensions of this story. While 5G (broadband cellular network) technology may provide ultrafast streaming results, it also enables corporations and governments to survey and even control virtually everything accessible via the applications it supports. In their final chapter, the authors consider three aspects of fintech related to China’s future, thereby identifying three challenges, e.g., lack of skilled workers, uncertainties of the regulatory future, and heavy competition. Issues of government surveillance as recently raised in The Washington Post (“The Global Threat of China’s Digital Authoritarianism,” November 1, 2018) do not figure in their discussion. Still, for anyone who wants an inside look at fintech as developed and operationalized in China, this book will be a useful vade mecum. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. —J. W. Dauben, CUNY Herbert H. Lehman College

Levy, Bernard-Henri. The virus in the age of madness. Yale, 2020. 128p ISBN 9780300257373 pbk, $14.00; ISBN 9780300257380 ebook, contact publisher for price.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every facet of ordinary life, from work to school to how people interact socially. Philosopher/activist Bernard-Henri Lévy contends that the pandemic has produced new social mythologies. Some of these mythologies are grounded in fear and uncertainty: e.g., some conspiracy theories claim that this new coronavirus was human made and intentionally released to harm the Trump Administration; some that social distancing guidelines are deliberate attempts to undermine democracy in the US. Other mythologies are rooted in heroism and hope: e.g., frontline workers, especially doctors and nurses, are heroes risking their lives to save others from a deadly virus; major corporations, especially technology companies, are putting country over profits as they strive to produce more masks and essential goods, or enable new ways to telework and telecommunicate. In The Virus in the Age of Madness, Lévy analyzes the politics and power relations operative in all these mythologies, and also what the mythologies tells us about ourselves. Throughout he argues that these mythologies, however ubiquitous, are neither insightful nor helpful. Rather they serve as a distraction from addressing the complex array of challenges at hand. They are a fantasy—a bad-faith detour into madness—that stems from the population’s collective inability to confront the world. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. —J. Liz, San Jose State University

Mack, Katie. The end of everything: (astrophysically speaking). Scribner, 2020. 240p index ISBN 9781982103545, $26.00; ISBN 9781982103552 pbk, $17.00; ISBN 9781982103569 ebook, $13.99.

While prolific in writing cosmology articles for a general readership, with publications in, e.g., Astronomy (magazine), Scientific American, and the like, author Mack (currently assistant professor at North Carolina State Univ.) delivers her first full-length book relying on the cosmology and astrophysics she learned at Caltech and Princeton and that she knows so well. As the title suggests, Mack focuses on several theories concerned with the end of the universe as we know it. Casual readers of popular cosmology will not be surprised to reencounter the Big Bang, the universe which expands forever, a universe that ends in a heat death, and the cyclic (or bouncing) universe as found in chapters 2, 3, 4, and 7. Yet surprisingly, Dr. Mack reworks these well-known theories, introducing new research (some of it her own), effectively updating readers in an entertaining and humorous style likely to captivate even practiced readers from the prologue to the epilogue. In addition, she introduces two novel theories in chapters 5 and 6: “The Big Rip” and “Vacuum Decay.” Mack has an uncanny talent for pausing during her expositions to clarify sticky details that many authors might gloss over, such as how far-away galaxies might actually be receding from us at faster-than-light speed. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates. Students in two-year technical programs. General readers. —J. F. Burkhart, emeritus, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

Nerds, goths, geeks, and freaks: outsiders in Chicanx and Latinx young adult literature, ed. by Trevor Boffone and Cristina Herrera. University Press of Mississippi, 2020. 198p index ISBN 9781496827456, $90.00; ISBN 9781496827463 pbk, $30.00; ISBN 9781496827500 ebook, contact publisher for price.

Those who can get past a somewhat unfortunate cover and a mildly self-indulgent foreword by Guadalupe García McCall will discover in Nerds, Goths, Geeks, and Freaks cutting-edge essays that bring thoughtful perspectives to a growing body of literature than may seem niche but in fact appeals to an increasingly large number of sophisticated readers. Serious scholarship on mainstream YA literature is welcome; a text that focuses on Latinx YA literature, and particularly on the themes of “weirdness” and “nerdiness,” is doubly so. The contributors Boffone (Univ. of Houston) and Herrera (California State Univ., Fresno) included here do not mess around. They address the identities that emerge in these narratives in ways that show the characters’ strengths and weaknesses and those of the societies the characters must navigate. The outsider is a mainstay in YA literature, but this is not simply a rehash of how the writers portray and readers perceive marginalized youth. These essays recognize and redefine stereotypes to show how the fictional narratives examine life as it really is. A collection that so neatly expands on important current discussions is a good find indeed. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. —D. C. Greenwood, Albright College

North Korea: peace? nuclear war?, ed. by William H. Overholt. Harvard Kennedy School, 2019. 274p bib ISBN 9781733737807, $79,99; ISBN 9781733737814 ebook, $18.99.

This excellent book makes a unique contribution to the literature on efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Contributors address such questions as whether a lasting peace is possible in the peninsula; whether the “reunification” of the two Koreas is a prerequisite; whether economic sanctions on North Korea are helpful; what roles China, Japan, and South Korea should play in US–North Korean negotiations; and whether the US can strike a deal with North Korea that prevents it from cheating. Overholt (Harvard Univ.) summarizes two opposing theories about the denuclearization puzzle—”Theory One” argues that believing negotiations will force denuclearization is a fantasy; “Theory Two” maintains that negotiations can lead to denuclearization because North Korea is looking for a way out of its unsustainable isolation. Both theories recognize that denuclearization will not come quickly as North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is its only source of security. Two difficulties for successful negotiations are the issue of defining denuclearization and the challenge of verification. This indispensable volume would have benefitted from a final chapter summarizing the similarities and differences between contributors’ viewpoints while examining the prospects for resolving the nuclear dilemma in the post-Trump era. A useful addition to North Korea and Nuclear Weapons (CH, Sep’17, 55-0393), edited by Sung Chull Kim and Michael Cohen. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —M. E. Carranza, Texas A&M University–Kingsville

Ross, Howard J. Everyday bias: identifying and navigating unconscious judgments in our daily lives. updated ed. Rowman & Littlefield, 2020. 214p bibl index ISBN 9781442258655, $28.00; ISBN 9781538142295 ebook, $26.50.

Oftentimes books on implicit bias locate it in individual minds, without taking into consideration the social environments that promote bias. Ross (cofounder of Udarta Consulting) approaches unconscious bias as a natural cognitive mechanism exhibited by all humans, the remnant of an evolutionary need for survival. However, Ross also acknowledges that bias is driven by the cultural spaces one occupies, and is embedded in social institutions (e.g., legal, health care). In this book Ross uses research from social and medical sciences to support explanations of how unconscious bias is manifested in everyday life. One of the strongest aspects of the book is that its last two chapters are devoted to suggestions for how people can combat expressions of their own individual bias, as well as providing steps that organizations can take to combat bias while making decisions about talent. The appendix expands on organizational solutions by providing more ways to identify and navigate bias in talent management. The text is engaging and addresses a general audience. This is a must read for everyone who wants to learn about bias or is interested in taking the steps (individually or on an organizational level) to combat it. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. —I. I. Katzarska-Miller, Transylvania University

Tallis, Nicola. Uncrowned queen: the life of Margaret Beaufort, mother of the Tudors. Basic Books, 2020. 391p index ISBN 9781541617872, $32.00; ISBN 9781541617889 ebook, contact publisher for price.

Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, was one of the founders of the Tudor dynasty and a major religious and artistic patron of early modern England. Tallis guides the reader through the complexities of Margaret’s pedigree and her four marriages. Margaret’s status as a direct descendant of Edward III involved her in the dynastic politics of the Wars of the Roses, but her own political skill and intelligence meant she played a critical role in her son’s victory over Richard III. Though separated from Henry for almost 15 years, Margaret secured a place in the king’s affections and he became her “‘most humble and loving son.'” The author draws from chronicles and archival sources to offer a “rounder, richer picture” of the king’s mother than heretofore available. Another of the book’s aims is to “dispel the many myths surrounding Margaret’s life,” the most damaging of which concerns the charge that Margaret was responsible for the murder of the “Princes in the Tower,” Edward V and Richard, duke of York. Tallis disposes of this canard, revealing it as the invention of a 17th-century antiquary. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels. —D. R. Bisson, Belmont University

Taylor, Brian. Fighting for citizenship: Black Northerners and the debate over military service in the Civil War. North Carolina, 2020. 248p bibl index ISBN 9781469659763, $95.00; ISBN 9781469659770 pbk, $29.95; ISBN 9781469659787 ebook, $22.99.

The role of African American soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War has attracted a great deal of scholarly and popular attention in recent years. Much has been written about the accomplishments of these men, designated as the United States Colored Troops, and the high politics involved in their participation, especially the lobbying by Frederick Douglass and others that led to Lincoln authorizing Black enlistment. Taylor looks at the topic from another angle, considering the role free Blacks in the North played in the debate over their service and their conscious efforts to link service during the war with full (or fuller) citizenship after the war ended. Black troops faced challenges their white counterparts did not, specifically and most significantly the Confederacy’s policy of refusing to give captured Blacks status as prisoners of war. This was an issue recruiters were constantly challenged to explain and has not figured prominently in the historical narrative. Taylor discusses the issue fully, one of this book’s many contributions. This will be a major resource for those studying African Americans during the Civil War and the African American military experience generally. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; professionals. —W. H. Mulligan Jr., emeritus, Murray State University

Watts, Jill. The Black cabinet: African-Americans, politics, and the age of Roosevelt. Grove Atlantic, 2020. 560p bibl index ISBN 9780802129109, $30.00; ISBN 9780802146922 ebook, $30.00.

In what may be among the most honored nonfiction books published in 2020, Watts (history, California State Univ., San Marcos) transports the reader back to an age (1930s–40s) when discrimination and segregation were a grim reality. Watts tells the story of the Federal Council of Negro Affairs—informally the “Black cabinet”—a group of African Americans, led by the indefatigable Mary McLeod Bethune, who pressed President Franklin Roosevelt to build into the New Deal, and later WW II policies, reforms designed to give full citizenship to the neglected and oppressed Black minority. Elegant in its prose and vivid in its depiction of key characters, The Black Cabinet captures the challenges faced by these would-be reformers, and tells a story of high idealism mixed with raw pragmatism. With the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, these reformers paved the way for the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. This is a magisterial work, deftly executed and compellingly presented. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. —M. A. Genovese, Loyola Marymount University