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The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors

Dan Jones. Viking, $36 (416p) ISBN 978-0-670-02667-8

It’s not often that a book manages to be both scholarly and a page-turner, but British historian Jones succeeds on both counts in this entertaining follow-up to his bestselling The Plantagenets (currently in production as a television miniseries). Previously, Jones explored the Plantagenets’ rise to power, while here he examines their destruction. He begins in 1422 when Henry V dies, leaving the throne to an infant, and continues for the next 100 years through the reign of Henry VIII. Following Henry VI’s descent into madness and the utter collapse of royal authority, dynastic “wars of politics and personality” erupted as England’s elite families fought over the throne. Jones breathes new life into an oft-told account of how the crown changed hands five times before a young Welshman with a dubious claim wrested it from Richard III in 1485. Only during a period of utter chaos, Jones argues, could the Tudors have risen so high so quickly. But, he contends, due to their weak claim, they were forced to annihilate the Plantagenets, going so far as Henry VIII having the elderly Margaret de la Pole executed in 1541. Jones sets a new high-water mark in the current revisionism of the Tudor era. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army

Colin G. Calloway. Oxford Univ, $24.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-1993-8799-1

In this compact story centering on a single battle, historian Calloway (The Scratch of a Pen) puts a new spin on the old adage about the winners writing history. St. Clair’s Defeat, or the Battle on the Wabash, was a vital 1791 military confrontation between Native Americans in northwestern Ohio and a still green U.S. Army, which has been all but written out of history books by its loser, the United States. The battle was widely written about in its day, analyzed for what it meant in terms of the very survival of a new country still threatened by not only the indigenous population but the land-grasping English and Spanish. Calloway crisply covers the battle in one chapter, framing it as part of a larger conflict over real estate that played out in the Ohio country during 1790–1791. This single issue—land ownership—drove an irreconcilable wedge between Native Americans and whites, cutting off any hope for interracial community and cooperation. Though this emphasis on land conflict isn’t new, Calloway presents keen observations on the link between business interests and the government’s land policy that, underpinned by its racial assumptions, made Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s 1791 defeat a complex event. B&w illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty

Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber. Norton, $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-06792-7

Histories of quantum theory are typically dense with complex, abstract ideas, but philosopher Crease and physicist Goldhaber, both of Stony Brook University, offer a new twist, adding a fascinating look at the ways the mainstream world has embraced (though not always accurately!) the concepts of quantum mechanics. Pop culture took up the quantum cause with far more gusto than most physicists. When first proposed, quantum theory was deemed “ugly, weird, unpredictable,” and “quite distasteful.” Experimentalist Robert Milliken tried to kill the idea, but his lab results kept confirming it. The authors cheerfully discuss how much Einstein, along with many of his peers, hated the way the theory allowed uncertainty to toy with reality. While physicists struggled to fill in the missing bits of their incomplete theories, quirky quantum ideas became parts of a “sphinxian riddle” that captured the mainstream imagination and inspired everyone from cartoonists and sculptors to such writers as Ian Fleming and John Updike. Crease and Goldhaber have written an accessible and entertaining history that embraces both the science and the silliness of quantum mechanics. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Pandora’s DNA: Tracing the Breast Cancer Genes Through History, Science, and One Family Tree

Lizzie Stark. Chicago Review, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-61374-860-2

Stark (Leaving Mundania) unveils her family’s arduous cancer history with her own heartbreaking discovery of and treatment for a gene mutation that put her squarely on her stricken relatives’ frightening path. Cancer haunts Stark’s maternal lineage; she, her mother, and her aunt share “a certain mutation on our BRCA1 gene.” The “feeling that life is guaranteed only until the date of your mother’s first cancer diagnosis has infected other relatives as well,” she notes, including a great-aunt and two cousins. Their diagnoses, treatments, and outcomes fuel Stark’s engrossing exploration of the science of breast cancer, from the discovery of the BRCA1 gene in the mid-’90s to the legal fight over the diagnosis of a BRCA1 mutation. Moreover, Stark’s relatives dealt with breast cancer in the 1940s and 1950s when “social norms made it even harder” to talk about the disease. “Though none of us would know cancer, we would know the curse of fear,” she writes. For Stark, this also entailed a prophylactic mastectomy in her late 20s and the likely removal of her ovaries in coming years. With her remarkable memoir, Stark gives us medical history and personal testament that intelligently balances hard-edged science with boundless hope. Agent: Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Leningrad: Siege and Symphony

Brian Moynahan. Atlantic Monthly, $30 (576p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2316-9

Veteran international journalist Moynahan (Claws of the Bear) artfully weaves four interrelated stories set in the great Russian metropolis from 1934 to 1942: the start and continuation of Stalin’s purges; the siege of the city by German forces during WWII; the dire huger and cold within the city; and the near-miraculous and triumphant Russian premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (“the Leningrad”) in August 1942, with German guns only seven miles away. Moynahan reveals the extent to which Stalin decimated his army’s leadership up to and after the June 1941 German invasion and how the purges encompassed a growing number of civilians accused of defeatism. Meanwhile, during the terrible winter of 1942, desperate citizens resorted to cannibalism. Discussing the symphony’s performance, Moynahan notes that most of the musicians “were substitutions due to illness and death,” and yet, he notes, if the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s masterwork was “perhaps the most magnificent... moment ever to be found in music,” the music “hid the camps and interrogation chambers.” Moynahan occasionally loses steam, but his vivid political, military, and artistic vignettes and the deft way he links them make this an exceptional, memorable work. Maps. Agent: Rachel Mills, Peters Fraser & Dunlop (U.K.). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized Photography

Mary Street Alinder. Bloomsbury, $35 (400p) ISBN 978-1-62040-555-0

In this lively group biography about the California photographers known as Group f.64, Alinder (Ansel Adams: A Biography) tells a distinctly West Coast story about an ambitious, broad-minded, and unusually diverse movement. Originally founded at a party in Berkeley, Calif., in 1932 by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard Van Dyke, among others, Group f.64 advocated for “straight” photography over pictorialism’s painterly affectations. Starving for recognition, they promoted western photography when nobody else would (including prominent photographers like Alfred Stieglitz). Group f.64 embraced landscapes and portraiture, documentary, and even commercial work. Though the author emphasizes that women were welcomed from the very beginning, she notes, “not one of [the women] wrote letters, articles, or books on the group,” without exploring the reasons why. Alinder, who studied under Adams and later worked as his assistant, smoothly alternates between many individual careers while still maintaining a cohesive group narrative. She follows Weston’s love affair with photographer Sonya Noskowiak; Adams’s tirades against the pictorialist William Mortensen and his attempts to win over Stieglitz; and Van Dyke’s transition from still images to social documentary film. Admiring how the group “propelled themselves into the general culture,” Alinder claims Group f.64 guaranteed the status photography now holds as a respected art form. While that distinction is thrown about all too frequently in these pages, she makes a good point. Agent: Victoria Shoemaker, Spieler Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in the Age of Instant Scandal

Eric Dezenhall. Twelve, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4555-8297-6

Dezenhall, a crisis management consultant, reflects on the contemporary challenges of reputational damage control in the digital age. Arguing that both organizations and individuals are increasingly more susceptible to scandal, he takes readers through the “fiasco vortex” of new media, detailing several controversies from recent headlines, many of which ran amok with bogus information (including a wildly misleading ABC News report on “pink slime” in ground beef and the Toyota sudden-acceleration drama). When it comes to mending a broken reputation, Dezenhall offers advice by way of example, emphasizing that these remedies depend on context. (Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart were able to weather the storm; Paula Deen fell on the side of less successful). The author defends corporations against whistle-blowers and activists, claiming, dubiously, that “the meek are predators and the strong are prey.” However, he rightly identifies a public schadenfreude inherent in the taking down of wealthy targets and finds a more palatable enemy in “Big PR” firms that are ill-equipped to handle the intricacies. While Dezenhall claims to address a wide audience, he freely admits to favoring those at the center of a scandal, and as a result the book favors corporations both in applicability and ideology. Agent: Kris Dahl, ICM. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

Mary Elise Sarotte. Basic, $27.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-465-06494-6

The Soviet Union suffered the most significant symbolic defeat in the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but Sarotte, professor of government and history at Harvard University, thinks that is only half of the story. What emerges from this detailed account is that, contrary to popular belief, neither secret plans by German officials nor behind-the-scenes agreements between U.S. President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev caused the barrier between East and West Berlin to crumble; the political breech occurred via a series of miscues by short-sighted Communist-bloc authorities. With growing mass protests in East Germany, an inept statement delivered at a press conference by a functionary from SED (the country’s ruling party) on Nov. 9, 1989, sparked a battle between dissidents and East German security forces that led the Wall to come down much sooner than expected by either side. Sarotte carefully etches his narrative of the momentous shattering of the Wall, coloring it with social, political, and personal details, including anecdotes about the death of young Chris Gueffroy, the last East German shot before the barrier came down, and about Harald Jager, the senior officer giving the order to open a key crossing. This gripping, important account of a long-misinterpreted event is one of the most surprising books about the Cold War. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana

William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh. Univ. of North Carolina, $35 (592p) ISBN 978-1-4696-1763-3

For more than 50 years, the U.S. and Cuba have endured a tempestuous relationship fraught with the Cold War tensions that followed Fidel Castro’s rise to power, the subsequent U.S. embargo, the Bay of Pigs debacle, and the Cuban missile crisis. LeoGrande, an American University government professor, and Kornbluh, a researcher at the National Security Archive, dug into classified and declassified records to chart the myriad attempts of presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama, to normalize American relations with Cuba. Through both official channels and secret dialogues, third-party nations such as Brazil, Mexico, and Spain served as intermediaries between U.S. presidents and Cuban officials. Jimmy Carter came closest to a wary modus vivendi with the formidable Castro, but his State Department and National Security Council advisers worked at cross-proposes, leaving Carter to carry on his grand but futile project into retirement. Even the Soviet Union’s collapse did not translate into better ties as evidenced by the willingness of Reagan’s secretary of state, Alexander Haig, to turn Cuba “into a parking lot.” Despite good intentions, Barack Obama has scarcely fared better than his predecessors. Told in clear prose, this richly detailed book underscores how diplomacy makes headlines, but many exchanges happen far from official negotiation tables. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt

Juliet Barker. Harvard/Belknap, $29.95 (496p) ISBN 978-0-674-36814-9

In this excellent in-depth examination of the Peasants Revolt in England at the time of Richard II, Barker (Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England) shatters the popular image of grubby serfs armed with pitchforks challenging authority. Using the many records of the time, Barker establishes the background to the revolt, distinguishing individual actors rather than seeing “the peasants” as a unit. Following the steep decrease in population after the plague years, local industry and general literacy increased. However, commoners in both town and country found that their wages did not increase and new taxes were being imposed to support the ongoing war in France. Reaction to this came not from the poorest citizens but from “those who... had managed to build up a larger than average landholding or a modestly successful business.” Exploitation by the aristocracy was compounded by a general belief, borne from experience, that local officials were corrupt. Barker details the course of the revolt from the agitators’ initial success in getting concessions from Richard II through its ultimate failure. Fascinating and informative, Barker’s authoritative analysis of this medieval crisis takes on a haunting resonance in the modern day. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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