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The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Kate Summerscale. Penguin Press, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-59420-578-1

Summerscale (The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher) bolsters her reputation as a superior historical true crime writer with this moving account of Victorian-age murder that is a whydunit rather than a whodunit. In East London during the summer of 1895, 13-year-old Robert Coombes and his younger brother, Nattie, attended a heralded cricket match on their own, telling neighbors that their mother was in Liverpool visiting family. In fact, Emily Coombes was already lying dead in her bed behind a closed door, having been fatally stabbed by Robert. Horrifically, her corpse remained undetected for well over a week while the brothers acted as if nothing were amiss. Upon arrest, Robert claimed he acted after his mother had beaten Nattie, and before she could do the same to him. The resulting trial focused on the question of Robert’s mental state, whether he was really the wicked boy of the book’s title, and how the penny dreadfuls he was so fond of may have warped his mind. Summerscale’s dogged research yields a tragedy that reads like a Dickens novel, including the remarkable payoff at the end. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman

Mary Mann Hamilton. Little, Brown, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-34139-4

This compelling, no-frills posthumous memoir from Hamilton (1866–1936) reveals the hidden nature of late 19th-century American life through the joys and heartbreak of homesteading in the Mississippi Delta. The manuscript was originally submitted to Little, Brown in 1933; the publisher passed on it before purchasing the rights from Hamilton’s descendants for a new version in 2015. Hamilton wasn’t famous, nor did she wield political or social power; her experiences attest to the considerable contributions average women made to the settlement of the U.S. Around 1883, Mary’s father moved the family to Sedgwick, Ark., which boasted a sawmill and a railroad. After he died, Mary’s brothers found work at the mill while she and her sisters helped their mother turn their home into a boardinghouse. She married Frank Hamilton, a handsome, mysterious English immigrant who worked for the railroad and the sawmill, but the marriage did little to improve her circumstances: Frank drank and was accident-prone, several of their children died young, and money was tight. So Mary continued working after the Hamiltons carved out their own homestead in the Delta. Mary’s unsentimental story crackles with personality, putting a face on the unsung, nameless tillers of the soil. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal

Jack Kelly. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-137-28009-1

In this snappy telling of an oft-told tale, Kelly (Band of Giants), a journalist, novelist, and historian, brings to life the texture of central and western New York State in the early decades of the 19th century. The region, its settlers, and its culture were central to the nation’s development in the decades before the Civil War. Central and western New York—overrun with religious fervor, political turmoil, and projects to improve life and commerce—incubated much of the cultural change that eventually spread nationally: women’s rights, evangelical religion, abolitionism and other reform movements, and the Erie Canal, one of the great engineering feats of American history. Kelly weaves his story around the construction of the canal, which brought people, trade, and change to the Midwest and helped make New York City into America’s greatest urban center. A writer of history rather than a researcher or interpretive historian, Kelly has mined existing books but not manuscripts or records. He adds nothing to what’s already known about the region’s history, nor does he venture any particular interpretation of his subject. But those who wish to learn something about a critical era and a critical region will find Kelly’s book a good place to start. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution

Robert G. Parkinson. Univ. of North Carolina, $45 (768p) ISBN 978-1-4696-2663-5

In this extensively researched study, Parkinson, assistant professor of history at Binghamton University, explores the roles played by concepts of inclusion and exclusion among the supporters of the patriot cause in the American Revolution. Drawing primarily upon an immense array of colonial American newspapers, Parkinson emphasizes the methods by which leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, James Otis, and both John and Samuel Adams mobilized the printed word in countering the “catalog of forces acting against American unity.” To undercut the divisiveness of issues such as voting rights, land distribution, religious heterodoxy, and slaveholding, these revolutionaries focused their readers’ hostility against both their British rulers and perceived enemies within their own communities. Their literature increasingly centered on the supposed dangers presented by Native Americans and slaves—groups that the British urged to revolt against local authorities. The book is academically focused, offering a detailed and insightful analysis of how newspapers became loci of communication and shapers of individuals’ and communities’ senses of themselves as political actors. Moreover, Parkinson persuasively explains the intensely racialized nature of citizenship in the newly independent U.S. and the long-standing problems posed by the exclusion of Americans of indigenous or African heritage from the “common cause” of the Revolution. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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In the Land of a Thousand Gods: A History of Asia Minor in the Ancient World

Christian Marek, with Peter Frei, trans. from the German by Steven Rendall. Princeton Univ., $49.50 (808p) ISBN 978-0-691-15979-9

Informed by decades of archaeological fieldwork in Turkey, Marek, professor of ancient history at the University of Zurich, uses a sensitive, high-resolution perspective to examine Asia Minor (as the Romans called the Anatolian peninsula, the geographic region that makes up most of modern Turkey) in antiquity. Encompassing fields as diverse as political theory, theater, mathematics, and military tactics, this is an expansive, formidable work of scholarship that should prove indispensable to students of the Near East, though it can be impenetrable for nonspecialists. Whether he’s unravelling the particularities of Roman tax assessment or unpacking passages of classical literature, Marek demonstrates a deep and nuanced knowledge that can be thrilling to witness even when it obfuscates (as when he casually uses ancient Greek, Latin, and Syriac). As various forms of centralized administration take root, a “cacophony of war and chaos” in the early chapters gives way to lighter subjects in the book’s second half. For example, inhabitants of the region spent eye-watering sums on spectacula—including athletic contests, impromptu declamations of rhetoric, and gladiatorial battles—and Marek observes that this phenomenon was embedded in a “deeply rooted culture of pleasure” that “was almost unparalleled until the advent of the American Way of Life.” It’s a dense work, but patient readers will be richly rewarded. Maps & illus. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Bush

Jean Edward Smith. Simon & Schuster, $35 (768p) ISBN 978-1-4767-4119-2

“George W. Bush may not have been America’s worst president” is as nice as historian Smith (Eisenhower in War and Peace) gets in this hard-hitting biography. He gives the 43rd president grudging nods for his No Child Left Behind initiative, prescription-drug plan for seniors, and AIDS relief programs but otherwise portrays Bush’s eight-year presidency as a parade of disasters; irresponsible tax cuts and spiraling deficits; a simplistic, bellicose response to the 9/11 attacks; warrantless NSA surveillance and other assaults on privacy; torture of detainees; a negligent passivity toward Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial collapse; and above all, the Iraq War, “the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.” Smith’s negativity is sometimes too much—“Like Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984, the president launched the nation on a never-ending struggle”—but he presents a shrewd, nuanced view of Bush as an insecure, intellectually lazy man who made up for youthful fecklessness with an unwarranted overconfidence and decisiveness in office, a “personalization of presidential power” inside a bubble of sycophantic advisors. Smith embeds this portrait in a lucid, highly readable narrative, balancing rich detail with clear delineation of the larger shape of policy through the chaos of politics. This is a superb recap and critical analysis of Bush’s controversial administration. Photos. Agent: Peter Matson, Sterling Lord Literistic. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Italo Calvino, trans. from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner, $13.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-544-14667-9

When Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler) died unexpectedly in 1985, he was an internationally known storyteller and arguably Italy’s most celebrated author. These five erudite essays, originally intended for the Charles Eliot Norton Poetry Lectures at Harvard, compose his final work. Calvino considers literary values that he sought in his own writing and ideas he wanted to convey to 21st-century writers. The essays explore, respectively, the themes of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. As Calvino’s chosen title for the collection indicates, he planned to write a final essay—on consistency—but never did. “Literature can survive only by pursuing outsized goals, even those beyond all hope of achievement,” Calvino declares. He asserts his fondness for concise short-form writing that concentrates the imagination. Praising literary design that features clear, sharp images and precisely chosen words, he warns that an image- saturated world in the future could inhibit inner vision. Calvino’s lyrical essays move in so many directions, with such intellectual acuity, that they are often hard to keep up with. Brock contributes an able new translation, intended to correct errors in an earlier English-language version. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers

Terry McDonell. Knopf, $26.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-101-94671-8

Early on in this engaging memoir, McDonell jokingly defines hubris as his hope, when starting out, that “I could become a great editor, by editing great writers and getting to know them.” As this book’s short, anecdote-rich chapters show, hope became reality during a career that included stints at Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Newsweek. McDonell covers the nuts and bolts of getting weekly and monthly magazines out—deadlines, budgets, ad sales, cover selections—and the transition from print to digital media; these sections have the same verve that energizes his profiles of people whose talents he tapped, including Thomas McGuane, Peter Matthiessen, Jim Harrison, Richard Price, and Richard Ford. His prose zings with witty insights, such as this recent appraisal of a 2005 blog post about a panel discussion dismissing the Internet’s relevance to journalism: “Reading it was like snorkeling over a ship that had wrecked on the hidden reefs of some long-ago trade route.” He also writes with great warmth about former colleagues, likening his rowdy relationship with George Plimpton and Hunter S. Thompson to the plot of Treasure Island: “Adventurous boy kidnapped by pirates; joins pirates.” This book will fascinate anyone interested in what goes on behind the scenes in publishing. 18 b&w photos. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Losing Helen

Carol Becker. Red Hen (CDC, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-59709-990-5

In this quiet, lovely essay, Becker takes readers through the years and months leading up to her mother’s death and the mourning period that followed, delving into the grief of losing a much-loved parent. Becker, a professor and dean at Columbia University, writes precisely and elegantly, and her background in literature and philosophy quickly becomes evident as she laces her prose with allusions to Roland Barthes, Simone Weil, and Samuel Beckett, among others. Spirituality and religion play a large role in both Becker’s life and her tribute; she wrestles with the Judaism of her father and the lapsed Catholicism of her mother, invokes mysticism and Buddhism, emphasizes the power of dreams, and tells myths about Hindu goddesses. The essay is organized not chronologically but by elements: fire, earth, water, and air, each of which corresponds metaphorically to a different part of the end of her mother’s life. Becker’s sadness is pronounced and pervasive, but she breaks through the heaviness with flashes of humor, such as when she describes the Neptune Society (located in a strip mall off the Florida interstate, marked by a giant cutout of the mostly naked sea god), a Florida crematorium that her mother had arranged to handle her cremation. The subject of this slim memoir may be intensely private and narrow, but Becker’s writing is so beautiful—and the process of grieving so universal—that it deserves a wide audience. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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200 Best Smoothie Bowl Recipes

Alison Lewis. Robert Rose (Firefly, dist.), $24.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-7788-0533-5

Lewis's third cookbook (after 400 Best Sandwich Recipes) is dedicated entirely to the trendy smoothie bowl—thick smoothies that can be eaten with a spoon and topped with various solid foods. Lewis explains that they provide "the convenience, flavor and texture of a smoothie, but even more nutrition… thanks to the addition of toppings such as fresh and dried fruits, seeds and nuts." Her helpful introduction also includes information on types of blenders, steps for building the perfect smoothie bowl, the health benefits of various ingredients, suitable ingredient substitutions, and how to troubleshoot a few common smoothie bowl issues. The recipes range from undeniably healthy detox creations to unabashedly sumptuous dessert bowls. All are easy to throw together in relatively little time. Lewis also includes a number of recipes for toppings to make in advance and a few nut butter recipes for inclusion in the blended portion. While readers might wish for a little more variety in terms of flavors (a few savory recipes, perhaps), Lewis's book delivers what it promises and will surely inspire those interested in upping their smoothie game. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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