Editors’ Picks for July 2020

10 reviews handpicked from the latest issue of Choice.

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Babb, Sarah. Regulating human research: IRBs from peer review to compliance bureaucracy. Stanford, 2020. 171p bibl index ISBN 9781503610149, $70.00; ISBN 9781503611221 pbk, $22.00; ISBN 9781503611238 ebook, contact publisher for price.

As an institutional review board (IRB) professional, this reviewer was skeptical that anyone from the “outside” could capture the essence of IRB work. Babb (Boston College) overturns those fears with this outstanding volume. Having interviewed 50 individuals from the IRB world, she expertly describes IRB work from the early days of “approximate compliance,” run largely by boards of volunteer academic faculty, to what has become a full-on compliance bureaucracy. She has captured the why and the how models of IRB review’s evolution into an industry where the master’s-trained IRB professional has become essential to helping organizations conform to complex and ambiguous regulatory rules. The author discusses both the upside and the downside of the professionalization and commercialization of the IRB complex and how the social sciences have been rolled into what had largely been a process with a biomedical focus. Comparing three different models of compliance bureaucracies, Babb’s discussion of the differences between the ways equal employment opportunity, IRBs, and financial services approach compliance is compelling, particularly her consideration for the reliance of IRBs and financial services on efficiency goals. Thoughtful and readable. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels. —K. E. Murphy, Northwestern University

The Best writing on mathematics, ed. by Mircea Pitici. Princeton, 2019. 272p bibl index ISBN 9780691198675, $85.00; ISBN 9780691198354 pbk, $24.95; ISBN 9780691197944 ebook, contact publisher for price.

This is the 10th volume of an acclaimed anthology series that was first published in 2010. While many potential readers might hold a belief that writings on mathematics must be obscure, boring, and difficult, the essays in this collection will rapidly dispel such belief as a myth. Pitici (Syracuse Univ.) has carefully selected thirteen articles which exemplify the best of mathematical exposition, addressing a diverse array of topics. Some of the covered topics are gerrymandering, 3-D optical illusions, mathematics for big data, unsolvable problems, the mechanization of mathematics, and the paradox named for the paradoxical mathematician Paul Erdős. The mathematical novice will find the material accessible, and professionals may get an introduction to areas outside their niche. This anthology provides a window into the beauty and diversity found in mathematical thought and the clarity with which it can be presented. Many readers will no doubt be motivated to examine previous volumes in this series. Pitici has a PhD in mathematics from Cornell University, and is working on a master’s degree in library science. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. General readers. —R. L. Pour, emeritus, Emory and Henry College

Ellison, Ralph. The selected letters of Ralph Ellison, ed. by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner. Random House, 2019. 1,060p index ISBN 9780812998528, $50.00; ISBN 9780812998535 ebook, $13.99.

Callahan and Conner’s collection of Ellison’s letters spans six decades, starting in the 1930s with the writer’s college days. Arranged by decade, the letters provide not only fresh insights into Ellison’s life, friends, and community but also a bird’s-eye view into the history of modern African American literature and culture. Ellison’s brilliance shines through on every page. Callahan (emer., Lewis and Clark College), Ellison’s biographer and literary executor, provides the opening introduction, and he introduces each chapter. In these lengthy chapter introductions Callahan culls passages from Ellison’s epistolary prose that reveal much about the spectacular career of this much-loved and sometimes-reviled American icon. The letters themselves provide answers to questions about Ellison’s personal life—his relationships, choices, and identity; his public persona; and his social, political, and literary commitments. Ellison was an exquisitely complex human being, but in his writing he made complex issues of the modern American sociopolitical divide seem perfectly clear. Opening the window on the vast landscape of Ellison’s personal and public successes and trials, the letters read like a biography that tells truths about US history that in some ways the second novel, Juneteenth (1999, published posthumously and edited by Callahan) never could. Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. —L. L. Johnson, Lewis & Clark College

Habeck, Joachim Otto. Lifestyle in Siberia and the Russian north. Open Book Publishers, 2019. 465p bibl index openbookpublishers.com/product/987. ISBN 9781783747184, $56.53; ISBN 9781783747177 ebook, $39.70; ISBN 9781783747191 ebook, open access.

This specialized but ultimately solid collection takes the sociological concept of “lifestyle” and applies it to 10 anthropological field sites across Russia. From 2010 to 2012, contributors conducted research under the auspices of the Center for Siberian Studies at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, at these field sites. Using lifestyle as a lens through which to examine Siberia, the authors move past the usual concepts of crisis and tradition that guide many approaches to studying post-Soviet Russia. Chapters examine the ways that lifestyle (which may or may not hinge on consumption) intersects with other concepts and lived realities, including technology, infrastructure, transportation, tourism, travel, ethnicity, aesthetics, celebrations, play, and leisure. A useful introduction and conclusion further situate the theoretical underpinnings of lifestyle with regard to current Russian sociological scholarship, and provide some historical background for understanding the transition from the Soviet era to the post-socialist present. Strong bibliographies and color photographs accompany each chapter and help illustrate the different aspects of lifestyle under discussion. This volume is a necessary addition for institutions with strong regional (Russia, Eastern Europe, circumpolar) holdings or collections on the anthropology of everyday life. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —E. Pappas, University of Virginia

Making marvels: science and splendor at the courts of Europe, ed. by Wolfram Koeppe. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019. 307p bibl index ISBN 9781588396778, $65.00.

This captivating book accompanies the spectacular exhibition of 16th through 18th century objects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gathered from prestigious collections, the objects were crafted at a time when science and knowledge were perceived as paths to power and prosperity. The Renaissance and the Baroque and early Enlightenment eras were marked by intellectual curiosity, scientific exploration, and innovation. Alchemical experiments led to the development of European porcelain and ruby glass. Advances in astronomy and engineering enabled the creation of complex clock mechanisms, delightful automatons, and other animated showpieces admired for their functionality and their elegance. Beautifully wrought mechanical devices legitimized rulership and were seen as status symbols. To increase their courtly prestige and flaunt their wealth, noble patrons commissioned opulent display pieces. This interdisciplinary overview provides insight into the motivation behind collecting exotic natural wonders and rarities from around the world as well as the symbolism and interpretation of the intersection between art, science, technology, and entertainment. Incisive scholarly text accompanies the many color illustrations and photographs and elucidates and contextualizes the sophisticated machines, inventive tools, insightful paintings, ostentatious furniture, ingenious scientific and musical instruments, exquisite jewelry, and extraordinary ivory turnings included in this substantial tome. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. —C. A. Ventura, Tennessee Technological University

Meyerhoff, Eli. Beyond education: radical studying for another world. Minnesota, 2019. 272p index ISBN 9781517902025, $100.00; ISBN 9781517902032 pbk, $24.95; ISBN 978145296022 ebook, contact publisher for price.

What is the purpose of higher education? Who is best served by the traditional university and college system? More important, who is not being well served? Meyerhoff (Duke Univ.) raises these fundamental questions in Beyond Education, bringing his background in political science to bear on his analysis. Anyone who is sensitized to the highly politicized sociocultural issues at the forefront of any current consideration for US institutions (e.g., the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and immigration policies such as DACA, among others) will be quick to understand the author’s perspective. What sets this book apart from other more polemic volumes (and there are dozens on both sides of the political spectrum) is the clarity of Meyerhoff’s writing, his use of individual narratives to make his points, and his references to similarly accessible works. This study would make excellent reading for any upper-level undergraduate sociology class or for those wishing to support socially just changes or nontraditional alternatives at their institutions. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; professionals. —H. M. Miller, formerly, Mercy College

Michelle Obama and the FLOTUS effect: platform, presence, and agency, ed. by Heather E. Harris and Kimberly R. Moffitt. Lexington Books, 2019 (c2020). 259p index ISBN 9781498594899, $95.00; ISBN 9781498594905 ebook, $90.00.

This laudatory collection conveys first-rate analyses of how Michelle Obama embodied her extraconstitutional role as first lady of the United States (FLOTUS). Editors Harris (Stevenson Univ.) and Moffitt (Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore County) bring together contributions stressing both the uniqueness of the first African American FLOTUS and her agency in highlighting the intersectionality of gender, race, and class. Essays grapple with her physicality, as presented, perceived, and inappropriately commented on, and her self-identification as “Mom-in-Chief,” forcing a vital debate on—even a redefinition of—feminist perspectives. Several authors emphasize the role of FLOTUS in influencing policy, coupled with her ability to serve as a link to the real world for the president. Among other former first ladies, Michelle Obama enters a small cadre with her unique capacity to retain her self-professed parental role while simultaneously serving as a public representative, promoting participatory engagement among Americans through her varied campaigns. This volume presents enlightening and diverse scholarship on Michelle Obama’s distinctive impact as a “public policy participant,” using her own feminine rhetorical style to relate personal experience and African American experiences to all Americans and “contradict and counteract derogatory ideas and images.” Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels. —G. Donato, Bentley University

Pitney, John S., Jr. After Reagan: Bush, Dukakis, and the 1988 election. University Press of Kansas, 2019. 253p bibl index ISBN 9780700628759, $37.50; ISBN 9780700628759 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Pitney, Jr. (Claremont McKenna College) presents a thorough examination of the 1988 US presidential campaign from the perspective of a real-world political practitioner who is also a highly accomplished scholar of American politics (the author volunteered on George H.W. Bush’s 1980 and 1988 presidential campaigns and worked in the RNC’s research department from 1989 to 1991). The analysis also benefits from the passage of time, something lacking in most examinations of presidential elections. However, the real academic payoff comes from Pitney, Jr.’s crucial insight into how political campaigns impact future politics. He argues that in terms of effecting actual election outcomes, campaigns only matter at the margins as underlying fundamentals, such as the state of the national economy and matters of war and peace, are far more impactful. Instead, campaigns are more consequential for the lessons they impart to future candidates and campaign professionals, the author contends, as he adeptly demonstrates how the 1988 presidential campaign foreshadowed the politics to come. This very well-written book—indeed, one might even call it a page-turner—is replete with interesting stories and will appeal to anyone interested in American politics. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels. —M. D. Brewer, University of Maine

Stengel, Richard. Information wars: how we lost the global battle against disinformation & what we can do about it. Atlantic Monthly, 2019. 357p index ISBN 9780802147981, $28.00; ISBN 9780802149428 pbk, $18.00; ISBN 9780802147998 ebook, $28.00.

Clear evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Russia’s renewed efforts to skew 2020 voting, reveals the urgency for counter-weaponized disinformation. Stengel, former editor of Time and Obama’s undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs (2013–16), addresses the “global information war.” His book is part narrative as participant in the war and part argument for a more robust response to cyberthreats and disinformation. The narrative points to some successes in response to cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, but is also points to failures in response not only to Russian efforts but to threats of others. Stengel concludes with recommendations that have been on the public agenda but not effectively implemented: requiring social media platforms to police content, shoring up privacy to prevent targeted deceptive messaging, and bolstering media literacy to decrease vulnerability to “fake news.” Stengel recounts some insider anecdotes, but the core of the book is based on publicly available sources, including journal and newspaper accounts. For experts this is familiar ground, but for others the book is an excellent introduction to information wars. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. —R. P. Peters, Harvard University

Waller, Douglas C. Lincoln’s spies: their secret war to save a nation. Simon & Schuster, 2019. 595p index ISBN 9781501126840, $35.00; ISBN 9781508292883 ebook, contact publisher for price.

Spy stories always make for good reading, and Lincoln’s Spies by Waller, a former journalist, is no exception. The author provides a wide-ranging history of how Union espionage aided the Northern war effort despite the dire risks taken by the spies operating behind enemy lines. While other books on Civil War espionage offer an expansive view of the war, Waller relates the story of Union spying by emphasizing the activities of four particular secret agents, some more successful than others. The shortcomings of inept intelligence gatherers, such as Allan Pinkerton and Lafayette Baker, were more than compensated for by skilled operators like Elizabeth Van Lew and George Sharpe. Van Lew, an antebellum abolitionist, ran an extensive spy ring from her upper-class mansion in Richmond, while Sharpe, a prominent prewar lawyer who had enlisted as a volunteer in 1861, rose to the rank of major general by accumulating intelligence information from a broad network of agents in Virginia. Waller’s skill as a writer is sure to hold the reader’s attention throughout this lengthy book as he describes Union spy craft. The concluding chapter on the postwar lives of the various spies is especially interesting. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels. —S. J. Ramold, Eastern Michigan University