What We're Reading, April 20-26
A novel skewers New York's Internet-media nexus; a New York Times health editor examines the ways "Grown-Up" minds are superior to young brains; a reporter visits the small Dominican town that churns out big-league baseball stars.
By David Goodwillie
In New York's downtown, Aidan, a press blogger for a Gawker-like empire, socializes with his frenemies in the city's media demi-world, gleaning gossip for his next day's posts. As the book opens, the journalists he drinks with, sleeps with and then writes about are all working overtime, trying to crack the case of a terrorist bombing that rocked midtown earlier in the week. Meanwhile, in Vermont, an earnest young woman scans the Internet, searching for the next corporate target whose destruction will, she believes, enable her radical-left terrorist cell to shock a complacent nation out of its stupor. When someone sends Aidan an anonymous tip about the bombing, complete with a photo of Paige, the alluring young radical, he sets out to break a real news story for a change. His hunt will bring these two very different people and value systems face to face.
American Subversive is a thriller wrapped around a cultural critique of an America benumbed by materialism and triviality. Paige, the radical, comes off as an idealist -- however misguided -- devoted to a life of mission and meaning. Aidan, by contrast, is burnt out by the cynicism of his role as stoker of the star-making machine. The book alternates chapters between the two, a structure that sometimes feels mechanical and slows the action. But as the plot conspired to bring the blogger and the bomber together, I wanted to know how the culture clash would resolve. The ending, which involves a symbolic raid on a Fox News-like network, was thoughtful and reasonably satisfying. New Yorkers and fans of New York stories like Sex and the City will enjoy the novel's spot-on skewering of the downtown media scene, a landscape of fashionable people and dumpy apartments.-- Joe Matazzoni, senior supervising producer, Arts & Life
Hardcover, 320 pages; Scribner; list price, $25; publication date, April 20
The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain
The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind
By Barbara Strauch
Author Barbara Strauch spends her days as the health and medical science editor at The New York Times, which means she's able to recognize good research and new ideas. The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain is full of both. It's a follow-up to The Primal Teen, her book on the not-yet-complete teen-age brain -- a book that was prompted by watching her own teenage children develop. Now she has moved on to adult brains. No depressing documentation of memory loss here. Strauch focuses on what middle-aged brains can do better than younger brains -- most importantly, synthesize and use information and see things more broadly. She tells her story in a very accessible way, through anecdotes of discovery and profiles of brain scientists. At the end of the book, there's advice -- but no guarantees -- on how to keep your brain in good shape. And for any people (including teenagers) who doubt the middle-aged brain is all that great, Strauch includes 20 pages of scientific citations at the end.
OK, I'll admit it. I'm a grownup. I've avoided that fact for decades. But with this book, I'm happy about coming out. So what if I can't remember what I ate for dinner? I know from the book that I have capabilities I didn't have when I was younger. I figure I'm a better and more inventive cook than I once was, because of years of experience working with the ingredients, the confidence to experiment and the ability to see things as a whole. Sure, Strauch has dug up some odd things about brains like mine. My brain has gotten selective. I'm better able to remember happy images than sad ones. I'm better able to focus on topics I'm interested in than topics that bore me. Barbara Strauch and I are about the same age. And I'm glad about that. I'm going to need a guidebook to the elderly brain, and I think she's going to be the one to write it. -- Joanne Silberner, NPR health policy correspondent
Hardcover, 256 pages; Viking; list price, $26.95; publication date, April 15
The Eastern Stars
How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris
By Mark Kurlansky
In The Eastern Stars, journalist Mark Kurlansky tells the story of a small town in the Dominican Republic called San Pedro de Macoris that has produced a huge number of major league baseball players since 1958. The story of how young men make the transition from playing ball on a small island in the Caribbean to moving through the mostly small-town minor league farm system and eventually making the majors would be compelling by itself, but Kurlansky goes even deeper into the history of the Dominican Republic -- its violent past and the rise of sugar as an export commodity. The book also explores the huge impact that major league money can have on players from impoverished backgrounds.
Mark Kurlansky is known for his microscopic examinations of one subject. His previous books include Salt and Cod. The pages of The Eastern Stars are crammed with details. Unless you live and breathe baseball stats, the minutiae slow the book down. I would recommend dipping into it. Go to the appendix and look up Sammy Sosa, Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano or the names of the other 76 major leaguers who came from San Pedro. Or use chapter headings to guide you through the history. It is a fascinating book, but Mark Kurlansky's gift for details doesn't always keep on giving. -- Liane Hansen, host of Weekend Edition Sunday
Hardcover, 288 pages; Riverhead; list price, $25.95; publication date, April 15
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