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Portraits: John Berger on Artists

Edited by Tom Overton. Verso (Random, dist.), $44.95 (544p) ISBN 978-1-78478-176-7

This thick anthology of John Berger’s previously published art writings, edited by Overton, the cataloger of his archive at the British Library, point to the many sides of the prolific English critic’s writing career. Here, woven together, are mostly essays, but also poems, play fragments, novel excerpts, letters, and conversations, each seeking artists’ perspectives (Berger begins by considering the unknown creators of the Chauvet Cave paintings and concludes with contemporary artist Randa Mdah). The result is alternately frustrating and enchanting. An essay on Edgar Degas is prefaced by a poem on one of the artist’s bronzes; the section on Goya concludes with a passage from Berger’s first novel. Some mash-ups are fluid, others less so, and readers must consult the back of the book for original titles, sources, and publication dates. But the project is redeemed by Berger’s writing—the laconic strength of his voice, the intimacy and generosity of feeling, and the colossal weight of his visual experience. Of Caravaggio, he writes: “His darkness smells of candles, overripe melons, damp washing waiting to be hung out the next day.” On Rembrandt, Fernand Léger, Cy Twombly, and anything related to drawing, Berger is tremendous. 100 b&w illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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My Adventures with Your Money: George Graham Rice and the Golden Age of the Con Artist

T.D. Thornton. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-05437-1

Thornton (Not By a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard Luck Horse Track) explores the fascinating life and career of notorious con artist George Graham Rice, who made a name for himself as a hustler, writer, and stock speculator in the early 20th century. Thornton depicts Rice as an uncompromising crook who was drawn to the idea of deception and considered get-rich-quick profiteering an art form. Set against the backdrop of the Roaring ’20s and its subculture of con men, this dazzling portrait traces Rice’s progress from small-time grifts such as inflating penny stocks to later being known as the “Jackal of Wall Street.” Rice also endured numerous arrests and prison stints, at one point even sharing a cell with Al Capone. Thornton successfully transforms this unsavory character into a charming, irresistible anti-hero. This easy-to-read tale of survival during the earliest part of the 20th century will make readers hungry for more grifts. Agent: David Patterson, Foundary Literary + Media. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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London Fog: The Biography

Christine L. Corton. Harvard/Belknap, $35 (390p) ISBN 978-0-674-08835-1

Corton, a senior member of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, undertakes a definitive study of London’s “pea-souper” fogs, deftly tracing the history of a weather condition that became a defining feature of the city in the world’s imagination. As Corton shows, the fog, which first appeared early in the 19th century, proved a ready metaphor for an array of Victorian anxieties, from Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror to a perceived decline in public morals. She perceptively examines the literary manifestations of these fears in chapters covering a number of famous authors, including Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and T.S. Eliot. Readers may be surprised that the history of London fog requires a detour through the politics of the day as much as through literature; however, Corton proves a sensible guide through the labyrinthine parliamentary measures arising from public outrage over the “great killer fog” and bureaucratic inaction in service of the manufacturers that were largely responsible for the pollution. Though the “London particular” was finally legislated out of existence in the 1960s, Corton asserts convincingly that the fog will remain enshrined in cultural memory, a romantic if no longer accurate symbol of a great city. 28 color illus., 63 halftones. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity

Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle. Basic, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-465-02830-6

Lincoln scholar Holzer (Lincoln and the Power of the Press) and economist Garfinkle justify adding another Lincoln biography to the overflowing genre by conceiving, and supporting, a radical explanation for the great question about Lincoln’s life: Why exactly was the Civil War fought? Eschewing the traditional justifications of ending slavery or preserving the Union, the authors maintain that the overriding factor behind Lincoln’s response to the secession of the Southern states was his commitment to pursuing “economic opportunity for the widest possible circle of hardworking Americans.” That surprising thesis is based on a close reading of Lincoln’s own statements, going back to his early political life. His support for infrastructure projects while he was an Illinois state legislator resulted from his view of government’s responsibility to provide, in the authors’ words, “opportunities for working people to improve their economic status.” That thinking led him to argue that every American, regardless of their race, deserved to profit from their work. The authors spend the last third of the book tracing the fate of Lincoln’s economic agenda under his successors, giving their research a more practical angle than simply analyzing the historical record. The thesis is sure to be controversial, but Holzer and Garfinkle make their point well. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Adder’s Fork and Lizard’s Leg: The Lore and Mythology of Amphibians and Reptiles

Marty Crump. Univ. of Chicago, $35 (304p) ISBN 978-0-226-11600-6

Conservation-minded herpetologist Crump (The Mystery of Darwin’s Frogs) looks back on the ways in which humans around the world have historically understood reptiles, using as a framework James Serpell’s model: that human perceptions of a species are based upon emotional reactions to it combined with a sense of whether it is beneficial or harmful. To address the emotional factors, she moves through ancient, aboriginal, and modern cultures, thematically sorting myths and stories into themes, including water and creation; good and evil; and transformation, resurrection, and renewal. As she examines utility, Crump surveys traditional Chinese medicine (which often uses animal parts), Western pharmaceuticals, folk magic, and culinary uses for amphibians. She concludes with musings on the ethics of whether researchers should try to debunk myths in the hope of saving particular species, making more explicit her message that fear of these species means the world risks losing them. The text is heavily illustrated with attractive photographs of wildlife and artifacts, supplemented by sometimes awkward line drawings. Crump covers snakes, frogs, and salamanders as well as less commonly known species such as tuataras and caecilians, but there’s a bland broadness to this compendium that may hamper her efforts to inspire readers. Color photos. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Death of Cancer: After Fifty Years on the Front Lines of Medicine, a Pioneering Oncologist Reveals Why the War on Cancer Is Winnable— And How We Can Get There

Vincent T. DeVita Jr. and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn. FSG/Crichton, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-13560-7

DeVita, an oncologist and professor at Yale School of Medicine, collaborates with his daughter DeVita-Raeburn on this engaging, informative, and inspiring history of DeVita’s prominent role in developing innovative cancer treatments. The authors start with DeVita’s groundbreaking discovery, while at the National Institutes of Health, of a combination chemotherapy treatment that turned Hodgkins lymphoma from a once-fatal diagnosis into one with an 80% cure rate. They also unveil some startling insights into medicine and the development of anticancer drugs, revisiting various episodes of resistance from colleagues in using new therapies, including the one DeVita developed. The book includes offers salient advice for those seeking treatment, and takes on the Federal Drug Administration and its woeful lag in keeping pace with cancer drug development. DeVita’s own battle with prostate cancer teaches him the most important message: “I survived because my doctors were courageous in using the tools we already possessed... and that will allow me to take advantage of new ones.” This remarkable memoir doesn’t just urge the public to have hope: it showcases the exciting evidence that we may finally be winning the war on cancer. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America

Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver. Knopf, $45 (464p) ISBN 978-0-307-27215-7

Borscht-Belt frolics are but a part of the cultural innovations nurtured in upstate New York’s scenic Catskill mountain range, according to this lively illustrated history. Journalist Silverman (David Lean) and the late filmmaker Silver explore the region’s contributions to American literature (it’s the setting for Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle yarn and James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier sagas), art (it inspired the Hudson River School of effulgent landscape painting), and politics (it saw a revolt by tenant farmers against landlords in the 1840s and is now a hotbed of antifracking activism). Much of the book follows the Catskills’ role as incubator of the hospitality and entertainment industries, from the 19th-century Catskill Mountain House, whose sublime views made guests weep, to the area’s 20th-century heyday as Jewish New York’s vacation mecca, when it forged the model of immersive Las Vegas–style resorts and spawned generations of entertainers from Sid Caesar to Jerry Seinfeld. At the cultural antipode, the Catskills also hosted the 1969 Woodstock rock festival. Stuffed with interesting sidebars and biographical sketches, the authors’ loose-limbed text meanders along many an intriguing byway of quaint and forgotten lore. Readers will enjoy this absorbing browse through a multifaceted regional history that’s deeper than its surface glitz might suggest. Color photos. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation

Andrew Pettegree. Penguin Press, $29.95 (400p) ISBN 978-1-59420-496-8

British historian Pettegree (The Invention of News), professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, takes a new look at 16th-century theologist Martin Luther and how his complaints against Rome might have been ignored were it not for their dissemination through the new invention of the printing press. Pettegree follows Luther’s career not from the point of view of theology and reform, but as a masterfully managed use of technology by a savvy promoter. Luther understood how printing worked; to get his message to the general public, he wrote clear, short pamphlets in German that could be printed and sold locally within a few days. Pettegree emphasizes the importance of Luther’s innovations to publishing, including his collaboration with artist and entrepreneur Lucas Cranach, who designed Luther’s frontispieces and carved woodcuts of the author. Luther’s copious writings, in both German and Latin, made him the most published author in Europe; he also autographed books and wrote glowing recommendations for other reformers. Pettegree notes that Catholic refutations of Luther existed but were printed less because “those of Luther’s supporters sold much better.” Readers with experience in publishing will be amazed by how little has changed. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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