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The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire

Karl Jacoby. Norton, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-393-23925-6

In vivid and lyrical prose, Jacoby (Crimes Against Nature), a professor of history at Columbia University, recounts the extraordinary life of 19th-century African-American entrepreneur William Henry Ellis, a man born into slavery who became a figure of great wealth and influence in both the U.S. and Mexico. Jacoby emphasizes Ellis’s individual achievements as well as his adroit manipulation of Gilded Age America’s confused and contradictory ideas about race. While many African-Americans hoped to escape American racial prejudices by passing as white, Ellis shrewdly took advantage of his countrymen’s racial ignorance beyond the black-white binary by presenting himself as a Mexican, a Cuban, and even an indigenous Hawaiian. These racial masquerades served him well on Wall Street, where he built his vast fortune, but should not be seen as a repudiation of his heritage, Jacoby argues. Throughout his life, Ellis maintained contact with his black-identified relatives and attempted to improve the options for Americans of color at the onset of the Jim Crow era by encouraging Southern black men and women to migrate to Mexico. Jacoby deftly analyzes the divergent ways in which racial identities developed on both sides of the Mexican-American border and reminds his readers that “we all inhabit a mestizo, mulatto America.” Illus. (June)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton

Edited by Liza Featherstone. Verso (PRH, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-78478-461-4

This essay collection edited by Featherstone (Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart) will be intensely engrossing for Hillary Clinton’s left-wing opponents —and for left-leaning readers still on the fence. The contributors, including Frances Fox Piven, Catherine Liu, and Medea Benjamin, track Clinton’s political career from her high school support for the conservative Barry Goldwater to her recent presidential campaign positioning herself as a feminist. The powerfully critical essays reject the “ruling class feminism” of Clinton in favor of a “left feminism rooted in an understanding of women’s material conditions.” They examine the neoliberal policies she’s supported, including Bill Clinton’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families act, which put a cap on welfare; the North American Free Trade Agreement; and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. Based on this track record, Kathleen Geier argues that Clinton practices “business-oriented diplomacy.” Other contributors cite Clinton’s approaches to welfare, immigration, criminal justice, and education, while Medea Benjamin points out her aggressive posture as secretary of state, seen in Afghanistan and Libya. Each selection here is cogently argued, adding up to a damning portrait of both Clinton and American politics. (June)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Burger Court and the Rise of the Judicial Right

Michael J. Graetz and Linda Greenhouse. Simon & Schuster, $30 (480p) ISBN 978-1-4767-3250-3

Veteran Supreme Court reporter Greenhouse (Becoming Justice Blackmun) and Graetz (Death by a Thousand Cuts) have written a detailed, accessible revisionist history of Warren Burger’s tenure as chief justice from 1969 to 1986. As the authors’ introduction explains, the “received wisdom” about those 17 years has been that “nothing much happened.” They convincingly argue that the Supreme Court decisions rendered during that era paved the way for more recent conservative landmark decisions such as the highly controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling on campaign finance. Chapter after chapter recounts the gradual erosion of the doctrines of the prior, progressive Earl Warren Court in virtually all areas of American life; for instance, while the expansion of the rights that had been granted to criminal defendants (e.g., Miranda warnings) survived, they did so as facades, as Burger’s court drastically limited their effectiveness. This is the best kind of legal history: cogent, relevant, and timely, given the focus on the Court’s role and power after the death of Justice Scalia. Agent: Wendy Strothman, Strothman Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them

Todd G. Buchholz. Harper, $29.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-240570-8

Buchholz, director of economic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House, examines the forces that threaten to bring down wealthy countries, observing of the modern-day U.S., that “it is hard to get a country to ‘rally around the flag’ when everyone stomps off in his or her own direction.” He states that it’s a dangerous mistake to think societies are invincible just because they have wealth, citing the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires to show that great wealth will not necessarily protect a regime. In search of examples of strong leadership, he turns to Alexander the Great, Japan’s Meiji Restoration, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, and Costa Rican president José Figueres Ferrer, among others. He also draws a grim picture of the U.S. as a country hamstrung by an aging populace, trade deficits, debt, a suffering work ethic, and loss of national identity. Buchholz charges that Americans no longer identify as Americans first, but he neatly avoids the trap of whining about the decline of patriotism, focusing instead on quantifiable social and economic change. Some sketched-out solutions are offered, but overall this is less a rallying cry than an interesting view on what makes—and breaks—a wealthy nation. Agent: Susan Ginsburg, Writers House. (June)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction

Neil Gaiman. Morrow, $26.99 (544p) ISBN 978-0-0622-6226-4

This collection conclusively proves that Gaiman is just as accomplished an essayist as he is an author of fiction (The Ocean at the End of the Lane) and comics (The Sandman). Echoing Rainer Maria Rilke’s sentiment that “To praise is the whole thing,” the collection is about building things up, not tearing them down. Gaiman’s paeans to books, libraries, and bookstores, which tellingly are grouped together at the start, are heartfelt gems that capture the joy of reading. The author’s eclecticism finds him writing on many disparate subjects; Gaiman is as deft analyzing Batman and G.K. Chesterton as he is describing the plight of Syrian refugees in Jordan. The most meaningful piece is titled simply “Make Good Art”—the 2012 commencement address for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The speech is in the same category as David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” in terms of wisdom per square inch. Gaiman’s words capture the importance of making art that is sincerely one’s own. With this volume, Gaiman has shown that his nonfiction rivals his much-lauded fiction. Agent: Merrilee Heifetz, Writers House. (June)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Unpleasantries: Considerations of Difficult Questions

Frank Soos. Univ. of Washington, $28.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-295-99840-4

Soos (Bamboo Fly Rod Suite), the 2015-2016 Alaska writer laureate, combines essays published over the last 25 years with previously unpublished content in a collection that uses the random occurrences of life to jump-start discursive, folksy explorations of philosophy, literature, and being. Soos’s writing has a daisy-chain quality, drawing connections between ideas seemingly at random or through “sideways questioning.” The reader, once accustomed to the style, will find the rewards plentiful. Whether using a non-injurious car accident to contemplate Jorge Luis Borges and alternate realities (“Upside-Down with Borges and Bob”) or finding echoes of the art of essay-writing in the paintings of Jackson Pollock and in his own work handcrafting a boat (“I Built a Little Boat; or, The Necessity of Failure”), Soos delights by finding unusual ways to ask big questions. The essays come from across a wide range of time and often plumb personal history, so some retelling occurs, but this feels less like repetition than like viewing the same image from another vantage point. Even those essays that don’t reach the same heights of beauty and insight as the best selections still engage and entertain. (June)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book

Emma Smith. Oxford Univ., $29.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-19-875436-7

Shakespeare’s famous First Folio, published in 1623 and now a holy grail for book collectors, is the subject of this cogent “biblio-biography” from Smith (The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio). Smith dispels the notion of the folio’s rarity: 233 copies were known to exist when Smith wrote her book (a 234th has since been found) and First Folio copies are offered for sale more regularly than many scarcer volumes. She analyzes shifting patterns of ownership, noting that even the very first known sale of the book attested to the purchaser’s wealth. Copies were once exclusively owned by English aristocrats but gradually wound up in the hands of nouveau riche American capitalists, most famously Standard Oil chairman Henry Folger, and Tokyo’s Meisei University, which acquired 12 copies during Japan’s late 20th-century economic boom. In the book’s most engaging chapter, “Reading,” Smith collates the many marginal notations written in copies, pointing out that folio owners saw fit to correct, critique, annotate, and otherwise “improve” upon the Bard’s text, especially in the first century after its publication. Smith condenses a remarkable amount of scholarship into her study, and her writing is lively and insightful. For the millions of book lovers and bardophiles who will never own a copy of the First Folio, this engrossing book will serve as a suitable surrogate. (June)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Hatred of Poetry

Ben Lerner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $12 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-86547-820-6

In lucid and luminous prose, poet and novelist Lerner (10:04) explores why many people share his aversion to poetry, which he attributes, paradoxically, to the deeply held belief that poetry ought to have tremendous cultural value. The “bitterness of poetic logic,” Lerner claims, is that its transcendent ideal—universal, trans- historical, divinely inspired—always falls short in the actual expression. He explains that when readers read with, in Marianne Moore’s words, “perfect contempt”—skeptically and critically—they find that poetry clears a space for the genuine, even if the “planet-like music” of the spheres cannot be adequately captured by human language. Ably moving from Plato and Caedmon to John Keats and Emily Dickinson and then to Amiri Baraka and Claudia Rankine, Lerner offers a concise primer on how to read a poem, along with a humorous, faintly regretful look at how individual poems fail to live up to the ideals readers have for them. Lerner’s brief, elegant treatise on what poetry might do and why readers might need it is the perfect length for a commute or a classroom assignment, clearing a space for both private contemplation and lively discussion. (June)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Dog Gone: A Lost Pet’s Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home

Pauls Toutonghi. Knopf, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-1-101-94701-2

The latest from Toutonghi (Evel Knievel Days) tells the story of Gonker, a golden retriever who goes missing on a hike with his owner, the author’s brother-in-law. Toutonghi explains that he felt the need to tell the story on behalf of his wife’s family, as he felt the deep connection Gonker had to the family, a defining connection that forged a link between his mother-in-law and brother-in-law. The search for Gonker brings the family closer emotionally, and when the story of Gonker’s disappearance makes it to the AP newswire, the outpouring of concern from total strangers helps restore the family’s faith in humankind as well. More a commentary on human nature, family dynamics, and past sorrows than a standard lost-dog story, the book uses Gonker’s disappearance to explore the gamut of human emotions that family relationships can exude. (June)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Brilliance and Fire: A Biography of Diamonds

Rachelle Bergstein. Harper, $29.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-232377-4

Bergstein (Women from the Ankle Down) explores the allure of the diamond business and the nefarious rise of the De Beers corporate empire. This captivating journey through recent history features intriguing characters such as Elizabeth Taylor, whose legendary extravagance is epitomized by the purchase of a 69-carat diamond in 1966; Helen Ver Standig, deemed the queen of imitation diamonds; and designer Jacob Arabo, who tapped new markets by transforming the diamond into a hip-hop social status symbol. The De Beers story begins with the shrewdly ruthless machinations of Cecil Rhodes, and continues through the wholesale invention of the modern engagement ring by the brilliant women of N.W. Ayer advertising. Bergstein outlines the thoroughness of the ad campaign—Ayer employed a “resident lecturer” for a high-school circuit tour to indoctrinate teenagers—and the establishment of the two months’ salary guideline for the cost of an engagement ring. In addition to the De Beers story, she narrates the rise of slightly less corrupt industry notables such as Tiffany & Co., Cartier, and Harry Winston. Bergstein’s account weaves disparate elements, including celebrity gossip, South African apartheid, and global economics, into a highly entertaining product, and her criticism of De Beers is significant, balanced, and diligently researched. (June)

Reviewed on 04/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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