Tuesday, September 23, 2014

New Releases from Matt Richtel, Walter Mischel, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Dennis McNally, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg with Alan Eagle, and Effectively Matt Groening, Who Stands in for a Cast of Thousands.

I thought I was going to chronicle some new fiction this week, but the nonfiction once again caught my eye. Having watched a number of episodes on the recent marathon, I was drawn to The Simpsons: A Family History (Abrams). Now needless to say, I've had various episode guides (which of course now are generally online and free) and I read The Simpsons and Philosophy, but I've yet to conquer Simon Sigh's The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets (coming in paperback in October). The book tries to take 25 years of Simpsons family history and put them in chronological order, coping as best it can with the fact that the characters always live in the present and never age.

Google is probably one big reason why those Simpsons episode books stopped working, and you can probably learn more about how they upended numerous old technologies in How Google Works, by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, with Alan Eagle (Grand Central). This is a pretty straightforward business book, unlike The Everything Store, which was warts and all, and probably was originally set to publish in the now-defunct Business Plus Imprint. They stress that companies need to focus more on innovation and less on market research: "market research can't tell you about solving problems that customers can't conceive are solvable." Here's an interview in Fortune magazine.

You can see a model for cover design in another business-targeted book, but one from the human potential side, in The Marshmallow Test (Little, Brown), by Walter Mischel, a psychology professor at Columbia. A plain color (often Gladwell white, but the Heath Brothers have done well with color) with an iconic image that doesn't overwhelm the test. Another example is Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, or Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, who called Mischel's book "brilliant", but most noticeable is the change in treatment on Dan Ariely's books. Predictably Irrational used two colors on the cover, but ever since that breakout book, the design has gotten simpler.

So Walter Mischel is the man behind the famous Stanford Marshallow Experiment, where a child is offered the option of eating a marshmallow now or waiting until later. He draws on decades of studies and life examples to explore the nature of willpower, covering parenting, education, public policy, and self-care. Here's The Wall Street Journal review from Michael Shermer.

Transitioning from the information highway, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention (William Morrow), by Matt Richtel, seems to be making a different pitch with its jacket, even though it is also a book about cutting-edge technology meets psychology. The laser-like images signal technology, there's clearly a road, but this is clearly a story, and an ominous one at that. It's a book that follows one of the higher profile cases of texting while driving leading to an accident, when a college student fatally struck two rocket scientists. Interestingly enough, the quotes do include Charles Duhigg, who offers that it "makes cutting-edge scientific research feel relevant to the choices we make", but the top quotes are from Douglas Preston and Robert Kurson, and that readership seems to be where the book is more positioned, at least by the jacket. A Deadly Warning likely grew out of the articles Mr. Richtel won that also led to a 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Here's one of Richtel's articles on distracted driving and I'm also noting that the Simpsons is among other things, a warning about the accidents that can come from distracted driving.

Another road appears in A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (Knopf), but it's a dirt path with a sunny sky, with inserted photos of folks around the world, including an odd one of a guy posing in front of the library stacks. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn found great success with Half the Sky, and this follow-up looks at global initiatives that are transforming people's lives. The writers profile Gary Slutkin and his Cure Violence program and Lester Strong, who runs a tutoring program that recruits older Americans, plus Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede, who are expanding educational opportunities for girls in Kenya. No scientists for them--the quotes on the back of the book are from Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Bono and Bill Gates. I'm a little confused by the inclusion of Anne Rice, but after all, it's important to highlight the house authors.

Finally, with some irony I must note that there's no highway pictured on On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom (Counterpoint), from Dennis McNally, who among other things, has been the authorized biographer of The Grateful Dead. This time out, McNally, as per the publisher, "explores the significance of African American music in the evolution of cultural freedom by examining the historical context and deeper roots of mainstream America's cultural and musical progression." Covered in the book are minstrels, Delta blues, jazz, swing, folk, and rock and roll, covering the lives of everyone from Mark Twain to Muddy Waters. My suspicion is that this book will find its reviews in music magazines, most of which don't link on websites. The Kirkus review found the book a little Dylan heavy, which might be good news for potential readers who are Dylan fans.

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