Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Words Will Break Cement, The Tyranny of Experts, and You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves.
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Protests in Moscow, Russia, in June 2012. (Photo: Evgeniy Isaev/Wikimedia Commons)

Protests in Moscow, Russia, in June 2012. (Photo: Evgeniy Isaev/Wikimedia Commons)

  • Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, Masha Gessen (Riverhead Books)

If you’ve heard anything about Pussy Riot, it’s probably that they’re an all-female Russian punk band that, in 2012, was jailed for performing a song criticizing Vladimir Putin. But the group is less a band than a performance-art collective, with a constantly shifting lineup that extends far beyond the jailed women. In Gessen’s skilled hands, its members’ stories—which culminate in an account of the show trial that would be hilarious were it not tragic—serve as a fascinating window on art, life, and politics in today’s Russia.

  • The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, William Easterly (Basic Books)

Easterly, a prominent critic of foreign aid initiatives, argues that when it comes to dispensing advice to poor countries, institutions like the Gates Foundation and World Bank are blinded by biases that render most of their recommendations not just useless, but dangerous. The appeal of top-down, technocratic solutions, combined with a tendency to focus too much on short-term results, leads well- intentioned experts from the West to support Third World dictators who trample individual freedoms—the same freedoms that, back home, are taken for granted as prerequisites for innovation and growth.

  • You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves, Hiawatha Bray (Basic Books)

Today, if you want to know exactly where you are, odds are good that you can just click a button on your phone. Bray traces the history of far-flung innovations, from the astrolabe to the gyroscope to Sputnik, that made this radical power commonplace. Along the way, he also identifies a profound shift in the map-making enterprise: With almost all of the world’s physical geography now captured by satellite images, cartographers increasingly seek the precise location not of mountains, forests, and rivers—but of people.

This post originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “Shelf Help.” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.

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