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Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space
by Janna Levin
Knopf

“We see evidence of black holes destroying neighboring stars. We see evidence of super black holes in centers of galaxies… But we have never really seen a black hole, which only adds to the thrill of the prospect of hearing them.”

Astronauts returning on the space shuttle once told this former satellite designer and space program physicist: “You have no idea how much gravity is pulling down on all of us.” Home from the sheer joy of weightlessness in space, the dynamics of gravity were suddenly made real, pulling their shoulders and compressing their spines closer to Earth. It was a reminder of one of the universe’s illusive mysteries—gravity. We can measure and explain it, but we cannot see or hear it… yet. Physicist and writer Janna Levin takes us on the journey to detect, listen for, gravitational waves as the byproduct of a gigantic collision between black holes.

In simple terms, black holes form an incredibly dense mass. For scientists, this is where the fun begins. Since mass is an essential component of gravity, the extreme density of black holes will crush atoms and even bend light under its own weight. Yes, light has weight, and therefore one cannot really see a black hole, because light becomes trapped inside of it. Decades ago, the movie Black Hole depicted a spacecraft passing through a black hole. This is science-fantasy. Anything with mass in close proximity to a black hole will not pass through it. Instead, the atoms of the spacecraft and the crew inside will become so densely packed that the result will no longer be visible to the naked eye, not to mention eliminating the viability of the spacecraft and its occupants. A black hole generates pressure of astronomical proportions. In a world of unnecessary hyperbole, it’s literally appropriate to apply the description “astronomical proportions” to a black hole.

For the purposes of Levin’s book, as two of these monster black holes draw near, anomalies in gravity will create waves that ring through space, but by the time they reach the Earth, they will be so slight that they will not be felt or heard by even the knowing. So what device will be needed to detect this phenomenon? By the mid-twentieth century, planning for and construction of full scale gravitational wave listening devices began on several international fronts. The devices needed to be big. The largest, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), is run by Caltech and spans four square kilometers at two separate locations. Within its vacuum environment, LIGO waits for disturbances in a reflected laser beam as a means of sensing and measuring the dragon itself—gravity in the form of waves. It’s an enormous undertaking of scope, time, and funding.

With crisp storytelling, Levin tracks the creators of LIGO as it moves from thought to reality. Decades in the making, the success of this device is yet to be seen and, as some might say, hardly the point. It is another step in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. The geniuses of science will continue to tweak their experiments, conjure new frontiers to explore, and draw us closer to understanding. The field of scientists pursuing gravitational wave detection come from all corners of the world, and they are uplifted and hindered by their personalities. Humanity is the factor in the equation that’s impossible to measure. Beyond anticipated brilliance, we find professional paranoia, backbiting, and of course politics. However, the work proceeds with the relentless dedication of a monk, the ambition of a CEO, and at times the ruthlessness of a pirate.

Levin sketches the story with impressive color, while providing Polaroid-like narratives of the people and places along this scientific frontier. She is the type of science writer who can explain complex topics in understandable terms. In relating the beloved wizards and weirdos of the laboratories, she has brought the high-minded down to earth. That feat is as rare as hearing gravity, and it reveals the genuine process of discovery. History often documents invention as brilliant strokes of insight wrought to fruition, but Levin shows its plodding pace that spans decades, as well as its inevitable wrong turns into blind alleys and heartbreaking miscues that destroy careers. No doubt, her students at Barnard love to sit in on each lecture—scientists and laymen alike. If we had a device that measured passion, Levin would ring the meters and sound the alarms.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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Killing the Rising Sun by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard

Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan
by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard
Henry Holt

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“But some men don’t move—they can’t. Dead or mortally wounded, their bodies lie still, soaking the sand with blood.”

History is shaped by time and memory, allowing some facts to take prominence and others to fade away. As a result, Nazi Germany is remembered as the worst offender during World War II, while the U.S. decision to use the atomic bomb is given, by some factions, the moral equivalence of a brutal war crime. Typically, these misconceptions arise through ignorance, although sometimes it’s a deliberate rewriting of history for a political agenda. Regardless of the reason, news commentator Bill O’Reilly and coauthor Martin Dugard refresh the record in their latest installment of the “Killing” series.

To be clear, the atrocities of the Holocaust were a horrific stain on humanity, but at the same time, Imperial Japan conquered Asia in a brutal campaign that had no rival. Prisoners as well as civilians were tortured and killed without conscience. Women were pressed into prostitution. Nations were starved into submission. And yes, the Japanese conducted lethal human medical experiments within their infamous Unit 731.

The striking distinction about Japan was a core belief that they were superior to all others on the planet and that it would be ultimately shameful to surrender to the American “barbarians.” The indoctrination of this belief extended from the hubris of Japan’s 124th Emperor, Shōwa, commonly known as Hirohito. For Imperial Japan, negotiation of peace was not an option, and its people believed this wholeheartedly. Their soldiers proudly fought to the death. On the home front, every man, woman, and child was prepared to fight to the end in order to protect their emperor from shame.

Killing the Rising Sun is more than a discourse about the atomic bomb. It reveals its necessity by plotting the course of history during the Pacific campaign. Years after the devastation of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. retreat from the Philippines—not to mention a hard fought victory against Germany in Europe—the Americans under General MacArthur’s command were slowly regaining ground on the western front and creeping toward the ultimate showdown with Japan. As each island was recaptured, casualties were high. On both sides of the campaign, tens of thousands of soldiers died in what was becoming a regular repeat of the Normandy Invasion in blood and loss. Even though MacArthur longed for the dignity of combat and surrender, it became obvious that as many as a million or more soldiers and civilians were going to die before Japan would even consider ending their aggression. The extinguishing of Japan itself might even be necessary. The atomic bomb, as destructive as it was intended, became a viable solution for sparing lives in the long run.

Some historians theorize that Japan was only days from surrender when the first a-bomb was dropped, but this is wishful thinking. As O’Reilly and Dugard reveal in detail, Japan was dug in, and its people were willing to sacrifice to the last soul. They looked to Hirohito, high above Tokyo in the Imperial Palace, to harden their resolve. Even after the first atomic bomb struck Hiroshima, vaporizing thousands and debilitating even more citizens, the emperor refused to surrender. It’s important to remember that an American retreat would leave Asia under brutal control of Imperial Japan, much like eastern Europe was during Stalin’s reign. Therefore, a second, larger a-bomb descended upon the crucial industrial port of Nagasaki. Even off-target, it struck a devastating blow, which finally awakened Hirohito and his close advisors within their bunker beneath the palace. They soon surrendered, and the war was over. Again, make no mistake about it; the second atomic bomb was necessary. The emperor and his people by extension were that transfixed on war.

Another rumor that persists through time is that President Roosevelt lacked the will to use the atomic bomb, but nothing is further from the truth. Like most people, Roosevelt was tired of the bloodshed, but he died before the Manhattan Project produced a workable device. Shortly after Truman assumed power, one of the most secret scientific research projects fell into his lap. He had no idea that an a-bomb was being attempted, but now the power of the atom had been unleashed. Truman’s practicality soon won over, and he quickly moved to deploy the a-bomb, thereby changing the world forever. With either president at the helm, the a-bomb would have fallen on the nation of the rising sun. It was Japan’s rigidity and arrogance, just as much as American ingenuity and valor, that made this action inevitable.

While the American apologists will never stop twisting history to suit their ideology, Killing the Rising Sun is an honest and sober reiteration of the facts. It makes the case for dropping the atomic bomb without politicizing or deviating from the truth. With engaging prose and a gripping narrative, the authors humanize the Pacific conflict on both sides of the ocean by introducing individual tales from generals to foot soldiers, from scientists to civilians, from legends to the defeated. There is no mythology here. Certainly giant egos and even larger heroes traipse through each chapter, but these are real men struggling through Homeric moments in time. You’ll find yourself unable to put down the book until the end, and you’ll conclude that the decision to employ the a-bomb was more black and white than it appears through the muddled lens of time.

The book is an easy read, yet still contains the requisite footnotes and index to make it a suitable reference. It ends with a sentimental eulogy for O’Reilly’s father who was a veteran of the Pacific campaign. In addition, each living U.S. President was asked if using the a-bomb was the correct decision, and except for the sitting president, their thoughtful responses are included—and their conclusion is unanimous. As a work on the Pacific campaign, this book would make a better reference than many classroom texts. At the very least, it’s a must-tell story for a new generation.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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Gaining Eric Hoffer Book Award Success

In 2007, The US Review of Books began publishing the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award. While the US Review is blind to the actual judging process, recently the Hoffer Award opened a window in The Authority of Book Awards. Years earlier, its chairman talked about the popular award’s humble beginnings in The Eric Hoffer Award: Righting the Wrongs.

While The US Review of Books boasts over 15,000 monthly subscribers, tens of thousands of additional readers visit its on-line publication to view the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award each spring. Let’s take a look at how the excitement and the Hoffer Award in general has enhanced the success of the authors and publishers who registered their books with one of the most popular international competitions for small, academic, and independent books.

“The Hoffer win confirmed for me that my book was what I’d hoped it would be.” Bill Mesce, A Cold and Distant Place

“I no longer need to try to attract the attention of traditional publishers. Ever since I received this award my book has received a lot more attention. In addition, my book sales have increased greatly. Thank you very much for the big boost. My Eric Hoffer Award success has been very rewarding.” Anthony Aquan-Assee, Second Life, Second Chance

“Our Eric Hoffer Book Award success in numbers: 9,100 Sold; 18 Reviews, 6,487,523 Reach; 120 Interviews, 305,476,330 Reach; 306 Mentions/Quotes, 440,303,385 Reach; 714 Op-Eds or Articles, 2,783,659,959 Reach; 1,575 Placements, 3,696,556,397 Reach.” – The Independent Institute discussing John C. Goodman, Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis

“Being an Eric Hoffer Finalist has helped me get invited to do more readings, receive honoraria, also sell books.” Joan Seliger Sidney, Body of Diminishing Motion

“The Eric Hoffer Award has added visibility, validation and ultimately readership. An immeasurable measure of pride accompanies the award.” Karen Krett, The Dark Side of Hope

These success stories form the core reason why the Eric Award was created. The US Review of Books to be a sponsor of the Eric Hoffer Book Award.

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House of Nails by Lenny Dykstra

House of Nails: A Memoir of Life on the Edge
by Lenny Dykstra
William Morrow

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“I was in my early thirties, put together like a Greek god, and could have millions of dollars sent wherever and whenever I wanted simply by making a phone call. My ego was just as big as my bank account.”

With the tenacity of Ty Cobb and the bodacious behavior of Babe Ruth, professional baseball player Lenny Dykstra embraced life both on and off the diamond. At only 160 lbs, he was a relatively under-sized athlete, but being acutely aware of his goals and possessing razor-sharp timing, he broke into the major leagues in the mid-1980s and cut a path toward becoming a dominant player.

Much of his life has unfolded in this fashion. On the field, he hit, caught, and ran with the best. He crashed into walls and tossed his body and fists with reckless abandon. Off the field, he put in the work and took the drugs he needed to maintain the grueling six-month schedule that drives pros to early retirement. Nothing seemed to exhaust his enthusiasm for baseball and all the fringe benefits—cars, parties, women. For twelve years, he was the guy you wanted on your team, and his contribution to two World Series is undeniable. However, this only scratches the surface of his candid memoir, which could easily be transposed in action and attitude to that of a Wild West cowboy drama.

After his baseball days, the Dykstra cattle drive continued. He demonstrated a nose for success that parlayed into a string of luxury car washes and a talent for picking stocks on the options market. He never goes small or halfway. Possessing more energy and grit than the average man, he made plans and then made them bigger. There’s duality of sincerity and relentlessness that weaves through his life. He was a married man with a family, but his lifestyle involved enough Gulfstream jet travel, women, and substance-driven enhancements to fill a California mansion. Oh yes, he owned a couple of those as well.

Because he had no concern with boundaries and his hangers-on and business associates had no interest in leaving any of his money on the table (and none of them did), he bottomed out in rehab and later during two stints in prison after a questionable application of the law. In this modern western, he rolled into the wrong town and got his butt kicked, and he admits that he rushed headlong into all of it. Broke and divorced, he fell from heights that many of us admire to the pits that all of us fear. Again, Dykstra doesn’t do life halfway.

The beauty of this memoir is in its honest delivery, which forms its own kind of ethical code alternating between its depiction of excellence, indulgence, and disturbing realism. You want to hug Dykstra and smack him at the same time, if you dare because both clearly have their costs. He scales every mountain unafraid and is successful against the odds, and he pays all the tolls on the way down. However, you gather the sense that down is just another place he finds himself and not his state of mind. If there’s a photograph of him not smiling, it’d be difficult to find.

Dykstra’s detractors employ all forms of condescension to debase him, but they rank among the naive who understand themselves perhaps even less than the human condition. As the elites conjure countless tsunamis to destroy the middle class, likely because they have contempt for that everyday blue collar man, Dysktra stands up for the American Dream in a defiant and admittedly sometimes perverse way. It’s a truthful story without the moralist veils that keep many memoirs stuck in second gear. So, he’s got the nerve to keep it real, too.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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Eric Hoffer Book Award Success Stories

In 2007, The US Review of Books began publishing the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award. While the US Review is blind to the actual judging process, recently the Hoffer Award opened a window in The Authority of Book Awards. Years earlier, its chairman talked about the popular award’s humble beginnings in The Eric Hoffer Award: Righting the Wrongs.

While The US Review of Books boasts over 15,000 monthly subscribers, tens of thousands of additional readers visit its on-line publication to view the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award each spring. Let’s take a look at how the excitement and the Hoffer Award in general has enhanced the success of the authors and publishers who registered their books with one of the most popular international competitions for small, academic, and independent books.

“Educators look for credibility, professionalism, and quality when choosing a novel to use in their classrooms, and they’ve been known to balk at choosing self-published titles. But that bright gold Montaigne Award sticker tells the world that my book is a well-written, compelling story middle-grade readers will never forget. As a result, my sales to school systems have sky-rocketed, and my calendar is chock full of classroom visits. Entering my book in the Eric Hoffer Awards was one of the best marketing decisions I could have made.” Holly Moulder, A Time to Be Brave

“In 2009, Barnes and Noble chose my debut historical novel to feature on its New Hardbacks shelves in stores nationwide. This was rare for an indie-published author at that time, and continues to be. It went on to win several more awards, and the Eric Hoffer Book Award committee’s belief in the book was instrumental in its success. Since receiving the Eric Hoffer recognition, I have published four more honored books… I’m very grateful to the Eric Hoffer Award committee for helping me to launch my publishing career.” Glen Craney, The Fire and the Light

“Recognition like the Hoffer award is a strong credibility builder when customers are searching through what has become a blizzard of information. The recognition was much appreciated.” Christine Kent, RN, Save Your Hips

“We’ve seen a 28% increase in sales since the Eric Hoffer Book Award announced the award. My publisher displays the Eric Hoffer Award gold seal on the third edition of my book. When I speak at writer’s seminars, many participants are familiar with the award and that helps sales.” Jamie Dodson, Flying Boats & Spies, A Nick Grant Adventure

“After my book’s Eric Hoffer Award I received more reviews on Amazon and GoodReads.” João Cerqueira, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro

These success stories form the core reason why the Eric Award was created. The US Review of Books to be a sponsor of the Eric Hoffer Book Award.

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Armageddon by Dick Morris & Eileen McGann

Armageddon: How Trump Can Beat Hillary
by Dick Morris & Eileen McGann
Humanix Books

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“She is accustomed to getting her talking points from Bill or some other key advisor and going out there and fighting for them.”

While some books are requested for review, others arrive on their own. Armageddon is one of the latter, and it sat in our in-box for months before the growing election season piqued our curiosity. Inside, writer Eileen McGann speaks for Dick Morris who is a well-known political commentator and former Clinton advisor. He knew the Clintons well, until his unceremonious dismissal after being discovered that he let a prostitute overhear a phone conversation with the President (i.e. Bill Clinton). It suffices to say that no one in this book is an angel. This is not a debate about Clinton in the classical sense, and there is no rebuttal from the Clinton point of view.

The book begins by outlining twelve reasons why Mrs. Clinton should not be president, ranging from her legendary temper to her right-up-to-the-chalk-line behavior with the law. Most of this information has circulated during the election year. He paints the picture of a candidate who is virtually unable to address controversy in a straight-line manner and therefore must constantly reformulate her truths in order to survive.

Beyond the general deceits that we anticipate from any politician—only the frequency and severity varies—Morris points out two troubling factors. First, since leaving her husband’s oval office, Clinton has become much more hawkish on war. During her period as Secretary of State, the Middle East destabilized, an American embassy was attacked under suspicious circumstances, and a general mood of international chaos has risen with more encouragement than mitigation. Second, Clinton is not charismatic like her husband. Nor is she a creative thinker. This brings up perhaps the only new insight in the book. According to Morris, Clinton relies heavily upon idea men who Morris calls gurus. Morris identifies himself as one such guru from 1995 to 1996. He claims that she becomes transfixed by her gurus, following their advice word for word, instead of incorporating it into her own ideas like Kennedy or Reagan. This behavior has even led at times to campaign staff rebellions, but more importantly, it poses the question: Who will be Clinton’s guru as President? In other words, who will be influencing her direction of the country?

In 1787 as Dr. James McHenry of Maryland exited the last day of the Constitutional Convention, he stopped one of America’s true originals and freethinkers, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, to pose a simple question, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Today our government behaves more like a bananas republic than that which is stewarded by its people. This transformation did not happen overnight, and we are all to blame for tolerating its creeping decline and the men and women who populate its halls. Morris and McGann could have posed the most important question: Which candidate can halt or even reverse our slippery road to perdition? And while we are at that task, if we are of the mind, it would be almost impossible not to raise the level of civil discourse given its current residence in the gutter.

No candidate is perfect or the best fit for the job, while some are better suited for the times. A case could easily be made that Clinton would deliver more of the expected in government, while Trump is a product of the times, the wildcard that occasionally appears in history. Not every wildcard is successful. In fact most are not. They are more influential than ultimate leaders. Ironically, Bill Clinton was one such wildcard who surprisingly won the presidency in 1992. Today, Morris presents the case that Hillary Clinton would further current causes, while deepening existing flaws in government, such as its propensity for questionable military action and the reckless course of the national debt. Morris is not necessarily interested in Trump. He wants to defeat Mrs. Clinton. One also has to temper his commentary with the fact that he has been forced to watch the Clintons from the outside for two decades.

Armageddon borders on the sensational, and its veering into Chelsea Clinton’s dealings should have been avoided. It would’ve been effective to see Trump vs. Clinton, point for point, making it the easiest for people to see the contrast and decide on their own. Still, the book does not claim to be a fair and balanced presentation—a phrase employed often by Morris’ former employers at Fox News. The book is of two parts: first, Morris’ personal assessment of Hillary Clinton, which should be sprinkled liberally with salt, and second, his strategy for exposing the weaknesses in her campaign rhetoric. Mostly, it’s a passionate plea to take a look at the woman behind the campaign slogans.

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Three Things to Consider When Purchasing a Book Review

With hundreds of thousands of books published annually, marketing your book can be a daunting task. One of your choices will inevitably come down to whether or not to purchase a book review. Here are three major factors to consider:

Professional Writing – A number of aspects go into a professionally written review. First, is the staff populated by professionals? This seems obvious, but many review sites are writer mills, allowing virtually anyone who is interested to pen a review. Other review sites barely compose a staff. These are mom and pop shops that tend to hang an Internet shingle for business, purport authority, and write reviews on their own. These are not professionals at work, no matter how slick or jazzy their websites appear. Look at the publication’s staff page, if it even has one. Are there more than a handful of writers? Be suspicious of a publication that refuses to reveal its reviewers’ names. The byline credit is a basic courtesy given to a professional freelancer, and virtually none would work without obtaining a byline for their portfolio. Second, is the review publication consistent across the masthead? A professional review publication has guidelines and an editor who keeps its staff and articles in line. Each review should have consistency, generating both authority and confidence in the publication. Third, does the reviewer address both the book content and the writing? Any sixth-grader can write a book summary, but a professional will critique a book through informed commentary that also addresses the writing itself. If the review narratives appear summary-driven, conversational, or employ a first-person tense, these are not professional writers at work.

Authentic Readership – Are there dedicated subscribers, visitors, and followers of the review publication? A professional review means nothing if no one reads the publication. Weekly, monthly, and annual visitors are metrics that can be easily measured (and provided to the author). Does the publication have a subscriber base? If not (or if it’s insignificant), the publication cannot assert relevance for its work. And if the publication merely dumps its reviews on an on-line aggregator (that next to no one reads), it will not be of any service to the author. Next, validate the publication’s social media following with one of the free analytical tools, such as TwitterAudit for Twitter followers and LikeAnalyzer for Facebook likes. Here’s a dirty little secret about the industry: Many review publications are purchasing Twitter and Facebook followers to create the illusion of having a large audience, when in fact it is only a fraction of what it appears to be. This is useless to the author, as well as unethical on the part of the publication. See our article on this subject: Fake Social Media: More Common Than You Think.

Cost-Effectiveness – Most authors’ budgets are limited, and spending hundreds of dollars for a book review is not acceptable. Often these reviews are no better than that which you can obtain from a free book review site like The Midwest Book Review, which ranges from good, semi-professional coverage to amateur reviews. A professional book review can be obtained for less than one hundred dollars, but be certain to closely examine the publication’s writing and readership in advance.

Warning: If the publication or its editors are up-selling manuscript editing services or the like, you have to ask: What business are they really in? Are they a review publication, or are they a money-milking operation? The work of an editor and the work of a reviewer should never cross paths. An editor ensures quality, and a reviewer measures it. When the reviewer and editor become one entity, integrity flies out the window. (Hmmm… let us review the wonderful manuscript we just helped you edit… hmmm… not very trustworthy.)

Deciding to purchase a book review can be an effective tool when marketing a book. It can provide pull-quotes for marketing and stock materials for a media kit and press releases. It can even seed eventual sales. Remember, a book review is only the beginning of the conversation about the book. Read this article on creating a feedback loop to help kick-start your marketing efforts.

The US Review of Books is a professional review publication sent to more than 15,000 monthly subscribers, including thousands of additional followers on GoodReads, Facebook, and Twitter. The US Review is staffed by professionals and is highly praised by authors.