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Evolution: A Visual Record

Photos by Robert Clark, text by Joseph Wallace. Phaidon, $39.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7148-7118-9

This art-as-science book by National Geographic photographer Clark (Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage) is more a haphazard, if attractive, celebration of biodiversity than a study of evolution through living creatures. Broad categories—insects, cold-blooded species—house subsets of fan-favorite subjects: for example, dogs dominate the “Mammals” section, and flowers and leaves are the focus of “Plants.” Images focus tightly on their subjects without visual context: the bright, saturated colors of beetles and butterflies are emphasized by stark white backgrounds, and Clark’s photos of individual dogs, birds, and lizards have the personality of portraiture. The paragraph-long notes on the specimens’ biology, natural history, and nomenclature are well researched and composed for the general reader, but they sit in bunches, in small font, often several pages away from the full page images they describe, which makes it easy to overlook them and diminishes the value of the photos as visual science. Clark brackets the contemporary nature shots with displays more typically associated with books on evolution, starting with a miscellany of fossils and ending with hominid skeletons. The book is a good demonstration of the wide range of Clark’s work, but not well configured for its teaching purpose. Color photos. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home

Lucinda Hawksley. Thames & Hudson, $45 (256p) ISBN 978-0-500-51838-0

Historian Hawksley (Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter) delivers an unnerving account of an unexpected killer in the elaborately decorated homes of Victorian England: arsenic-laced wallpaper. The use of arsenic-based pigments in wallpaper dates to the late 18th century, when a Swedish chemist invented an intense green pigment that was later made more brilliant and durable with arsenic. The book’s gorgeous wallpaper facsimiles give no hint of their toxicity; they beautifully evoke Victorian style with their ornate patterns and rich, vivid colors, illustrating why these papers, and specifically their green shades, were so popular. Nineteenth-century urbanization and affluence spurred the demand for wallpaper with deadly consequences for factory workers and homeowners who were becoming poisoned by toxic vapors and dust. Physicians suspected that arsenical wallpapers were poisoning people; however, the highly profitable wallpaper business dismissed the claims and the British government never legislated a ban. In the end, it was the public who pushed for arsenic-free wallpaper. Hawksley notes the prevalence of arsenic in the Victorian home as rodent poison and in dyes, cosmetics, toy paint, and even beer, as well as its legendary use as a murder weapon. The book is lovely, with 275 stunning wallpapers spliced into an intriguing narrative about the lore of arsenic, often called the poison of kings. Color illus. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Wild and Precious Life

Deborah Ziegler. Atria/Bestler, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5011-2851-6

Ziegler is the mother of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman who, when diagnosed with brain cancer, chose to take steps toward ending her own life. Ziegler recounts her and her only child’s journey through a terminal diagnosis in this heart-wrenching book. Each chapter deals with Ziegler’s life as a mother: raising her daughter, letting her grow into her own person, enduring the ups and downs of the ever-complicated mother-daughter relationship, and the illness that changed their family. At the time of her daughter’s diagnosis in 2014, only four states had passed “death with dignity” acts, so Brittany made plans to move from their home state of California to Oregon to end her life on her terms without unnecessary suffering. Ziegler gracefully walks the line between eulogizing her child and letting the reader in on the ugly side of how a brain tumor destroys a person. The author shares her grief, struggles with faith, feelings about the American medical system, and her own emotions about her daughter’s choice, all without cynicism or a heavy hand. In the end, she becomes a proponent of a terminal patient’s right to choose when to die, and assists in the battle for legal changes in California. Occasionally Ziegler leans on clichés to deliver her message, but they are not overly distracting, and sprinkled throughout are websites and important nuggets of information for those faced with similar situations. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End

Robert Gerwarth. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (464p) ISBN 978-0-374-28245-5

In this controversial, persuasive, and impressively documented book, Gerwarth (Hitler’s Hangman), professor of modern history at University College Dublin, analyzes a war that was supposed to end war, yet was followed by “no peace, only continuous violence.” The war’s nature changed in its final years: Russia underwent a revolution, and the Western Allies committed themselves to breaking up the continental empires. The postwar violence was “more ungovernable” than the state-legitimated version of the preceding century. Gerwarth establishes his case in three contexts. The Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, enjoyed a taste of victory in the winter of 1917–18, only to suffer the shock of seeing their military, political, and diplomatic positions quickly collapse. Russia’s revolution immersed Eastern Europe in what seemed a “forever war” of only fleeting democratic triumphs. Fear of Bolshevism in turn stimulated the rise of fascism. And the Versailles negotiations proved unable to control the collapse of prewar empires, much less guide their reconstruction along proto-Wilsonian lines. The period of relative stability after 1923 was a function of exhaustion rather than reconstruction, Gerwarth ruefully notes, and by 1929 Europe was “plunging back once again into crisis and violent disorder” that set the stage for the Great War’s second round. Maps & illus. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The United States of Soccer: MLS and the Rise of American Soccer Fandom

Phil West. Overlook, $27.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4683-1241-6

Veteran soccer journalist West employs a fan’s-eye view to explore the travails and innovations of Major League Soccer, which had no guarantee to last when it was founded in 1993. Soccer power brokers and a passionate fan base gradually discovered that by working together, they could help the sport thrive in a nation rife with anti-soccer sentiment. No topic is too arcane to escape West’s interest: he discusses team names, logos, rule changes, and rivalries among fan groups. His narrative serves as a series of engaging case studies on the business and marketing of sport. West is at his most effective when he draws on more than 70 exclusive interviews with league executives, team officials, players, and, most notably, the leaders of team supporter groups, who create in-stadium and social media fan experiences distinct from those of the other four major North American sports. West asserts that American soccer, still the underdog, succeeds by respectfully and continually drawing inspiration from fan cultures from the rest of the soccer-obsessed world. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Travels with Henry James

Henry James. Nation, $19.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-56858-577-2

Published on the 100th anniversary of the author’s death, this collection of James’s less touted writings—his travel essays originally published in the Nation—transports readers to America and Europe in the 1870s. New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg and critic Michael Anesko (Monopolizing the Master) contribute the foreword and introduction, respectively; both emphasize how James’s ambition, curiosity, and headstrong assessments of people and places merged in these essays, which provided a sturdy foundation for the rest of his career, making him recognizable to readers and greatly influencing his later writings. After this opening, readers plunge into the world of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the late summer of 1870, forgetting automobiles and iPhones, though the old, drawn-out syntax requires some patience from those unaccustomed to it. James begins with a distinction that echoes throughout the rest of the collection: the difference between one’s imagination of a place and the reality. “There is an essential indignity in indefiniteness: you cannot imagine the especial poignant interest of details and accidents. They give more to the imagination than they receive from it.” Readers will love being privy to the picturesque realities of the American Northeast, and to James’s detailed observations of daily life during in 1872 during the summer he spent in traveling across Europe. James devotees will find that his essays are delightful, vivid, and generally uplifting. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Sick Bag Song

Nick Cave. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $21 (128p) ISBN 978-0-544-81465-3

This short tour diary puts the reader into musician Cave’s frame of mind during his 2014 North American tour. Cave occasionally veers into verse and spontaneous compositions scattered within his diary. He muses about different events in his life that pop into his head while on the road. A bridge near Edmonton, Alberta, reminds him of when his “father and mother told [him] about the boy who had died jumping off the railway bridge.” Cave writes about books he reads and records he revisits, including John Berryman’s Dream Songs and Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. He also shares anecdotes about other musicians, such as Bryan Ferry of the influential glam rock band Roxy Music. The book includes drafts of songs inspired by life on the road, such as “The Beekeeper’s Wife,” which, Cave writes, “hints at growing anxiety about my wife not answering the phone.” The book’s title comes from a song inspired by the refrain on the back of a Delta Air Lines air sickness bag: “Call the stewardess for bag disposal.” Cave’s stream-of-consciousness writing definitely makes this an engrossing read, enmeshing the reader fully in the musician’s perspective. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Needle’s Eye: Passing Through Youth

Fanny Howe. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-555-97756-6

Howe (Second Childhood: Poems) draws on over four decades as an acclaimed poet and fiction writer to seamlessly braid lyric and essayistic modes in her third nonfiction collection, a meditation on the pressures and formative friendships of youth. Without positing explicit correlations, Howe reprises several familiar tales of young people moved to action—variously compassionate or violent—by their radical faith, including Francis of Assisi, Brigid of Ireland, Simone Weil, and more recently, the Tsarnaev brothers behind the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Citing an Uzbek folktale in which two teenage boys set off on adventures together, seeking “to transcend and escape the ugly fate of adults,” Howe affirms that this story “could be told in any culture; and has been.” Moving from literary invocation (she brings in influences as diverse as Hannah Arendt, Marcel Proust, and W.B. Yeats) to lush, filmic description (citing a roster of filmmakers from around the world), Howe attempts—and often brilliantly, obliquely manages—to capture those qualities of youth that age inevitably dulls: the passions that doom, save, or at least alter the course of our adulthoods. Her encompassing knowledge (she can furnish an anecdote or datum to illustrate nearly any idea, from the neuroscientific to the devotional) and empathic vision will make readers believe her pronouncement: “History is the top god of the secular world.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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1916: 100 Years of Irish Independence, from the Easter Rising to the Present

Tim Pat Coogan. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-11059-6

In this personal, angry work, Coogan (The Famine Plot) revisits a well-covered period in Irish history, but from the perspective of his long engagement in this history as a journalist who knew (and knows) many of the men and women who fill the book’s pages. Coogan is outraged at “the corruption of a nation” by both British and Irish political, corporate, and religious figures, and is unsparingly harsh on the Irish Catholic Church, to whose failure he devotes two searing chapters. His indictments, though previously aired by many others, carry much weight. Yet the book has its curious features. Coogan, writing often in the first person, lists all 12 of his previous works of popular history as sources (even quoting from some of them), but none of the great existing histories of his nation. Consequently, read as blunt-talking high journalism rather than as authoritative history, this book is likely to be used by future historians as a primary source. Today it should be read as a work of radical criticism by a disenthralled Irish patriot who’s always been on the side of his people, who made history with the tragic Easter rising of 1916, and whose nations’s fortunes have remained precarious since. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Millennium: From Religion to Revolution; How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years

Ian Mortimer. Pegasus, $28.95 (416p) ISBN 978-1-68177-243-1

Acclaimed British medievalist Mortimer (The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England) takes readers on a tour of the last thousand years as he attempts to glean which century of the last millennium saw the most change in Western civilization. He charts the progress and evolution of Western society while asking some truly challenging questions—how much influence did da Vinci truly have on history?—and making startling omissions (Napoleon, for instance, fails to rate even a mention). Given the expansive nature of his study, Mortimer often relies on statistics and data to illustrate a broad historical context; less often, he takes brief but engaging dips into the history of individuals and cultures. Though some may be unconvinced by Mortimer’s reliance on quantitative reasoning, it is hard to fault much of what he has selected as the most relevant trends and transformations of the West. But the most startling piece of analysis comes only after Mortimer has rendered his verdict. In the final chapter, Mortimer speculates about the future of Western society using the same schema that he applied to the past millennium. Though his predictions are grim, Mortimer’s intrinsic faith in human perseverance offers a glimmer of hope for the coming thousand years. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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