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Leopard Is a Neutral: A Really Useful Style Guide

Erica Davies. Mobius, $27.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-5293-3371-8

Lifestyle blogger Davies debuts with a chatty and opinionated guide to branching out and having more fun with one’s wardrobe. Contending that clothing should be a confidence-building, life-enhancing tool, Davies urges readers to prioritize comfort: “To me, being comfortable means not comparing yourself to others and being at ease with whatever choices you make in life.” She notes that the average fashion purchase is worn just seven times, and provides specific questions to ask when deciding whether to buy a piece of clothing, including “Do you need it?” “Will you wear it a lot?” “Is the price right?” and “What else could you wear it with?” Her recommendations include getting clothes properly tailored, being professionally fitted for a bra, avoiding shapewear unless it truly enhances one’s self-esteem, focusing on how clothes actually fit instead of their size number, and “develop[ing] something signature” such as red lipstick or gold hoop earrings. Other noteworthy advice includes instructions for surveying a store like a fashion editor in order to find singular, quality pieces quickly, and an argument for why one’s age should not determine fashion choices. Davies is refreshingly helpful and nice, qualities not often associated with the fashion world. Readers will be eager to follow her lead. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age

Amy Sohn. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-17481-9

Novelist Sohn (The Actress) delivers an engrossing account of U.S. post office special agent Anthony Comstock’s anti-vice crusade and the women who opposed it. The secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock lobbied Congress to pass the 1873 Comstock Act, which outlawed the distribution, advertisement, possession, or mailing of “obscene material,” including contraception and sexual health information. Sohn documents how Comstock used “deceptive tactics,” such as sending decoy letters to solicit pamphlets and books through the mail and making disguised visits to physicians’ offices, to bully the era’s “sex radicals,” including abortionist Madame Restell; free-love advocate Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin; and homeopath Sarah Chase, who sold spermicidal syringes and countersued Comstock for false arrest. Noting the widespread popularity of publications by these and other women, Sohn links their work to rising demands for free speech, gender equality, and a better quality of life for women, and portrays Comstock and his supporters as desperately clinging to an outdated, prudish misogyny. Blending colorful details of life at the turn of the 20th century with sharp insights into just how revolutionary these new ideas were, this fascinating history deserves a wide readership. (July)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Politics of Our Time: Populism, Nationalism, Socialism

John B. Judis. Columbia Global Reports, $27.95 (432p) ISBN 978-1-73591-360-5

Talking Points Memo editor Judis compiles and updates his three most recent books in this lucid examination of political movements that have emerged in the U.S. and Europe over the past few decades in response to the failures of neoliberalism. In “The Populist Explosion,” Judis examines how free trade agreements, regulatory rollbacks, welfare cuts, and austerity measures harmed working-class “left-behinds” and “disillusioned young college graduates” alike, paving the way for the rise of populists on both the right (Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán) and the left (Bernie Sanders, Italy’s Five Star Movement). “The Nationalist Revival” explains how right-wing populists target “outgroups,” such as Muslims and immigrants, and takes liberals to task for failing to address such events as the outsourcing of jobs to China and an influx of asylum seekers from the war-torn Middle East that have fueled nativism in the U.S. and Europe. In “The Socialist Awakening,” Judis looks at how the 2008 Great Recession, climate change, and fading memories of the Soviet Union have contributed to the emergence of a new kind of socialism that rejects class conflict and aims to reform capitalism rather than oppose it. Though dry, Judis’s wide-ranging study draws informative connections between disparate world events. Readers will walk away with a firmer grasp on current affairs. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Oak Papers

James Canton. HarperOne, $27.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-06-303794-6

Canton (Ancient Wonderings), who runs the Wild Writing MA program at the University of Essex, pays homage to “a venerable oak tree, eight hundred years old, living on the edge of a wood on a small country estate a few miles from [his] house” in this elegiac account. Sitting beside the Honywood Oak in north Essex, England, “in all weathers and all seasons, at all times of day and night,” Canton becomes well-acquainted with the tree’s curves and contours, and the wildlife that lives in and around it. Many of Canton’s observations are captured in journal entries: “8 February. The snow has gone. The sunlight drowns the green of the conifers. There is birdsong and signs of life.” Along the way, Canton offers a broad look at oak trees in general and their place in human history: their wood was used for fire, for example, their trunks were used to build homes, and their acorns gathered, stored, and eaten. Canton movingly maintains a humble sense of perspective: no matter his own worries, existential crises, or accomplishments, he understands they pale in comparison to all that the oak tree has endured and provided through centuries. Nature-lovers will find Canton’s poetic tribute to be a treat. Agent: Jessica Woollard, David Higham Assoc. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer

Steven Johnson. Riverhead, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-0-525-53885-1

Johnson (Enemy of All Mankind), host of the PBS/BBC television series How We Got to Now, highlights in this thorough if unsatisfying account a handful of medical and other breakthroughs that have extended human life expectancy, as well as decreased child mortality. In episodic investigations, Johnson covers such advancements and discoveries as antibiotics, pasteurization, and safety regulations in the automotive industry that have contributed to giving “us about 20,000 extra days of life on average” compared to a century ago. He also includes vignettes about famous medical pioneers such as Edward Jenner, whose scraping of a milkmaid’s cowpox blisters led to the development of the smallpox vaccine in 1796, as well as lesser-knowns, among them Lady Montagu, who “in 1718 had her son inoculated against smallpox using a method she observed in Turkey,” and Onesimus, a slave whose ideas led to widespread inoculation in New England. The author also touts the importance of activists and evangelists who supported life-saving ideas before research labs proved them, as well as politicians who integrated science into policy. The breadth of fields that Johnson calls on makes for a wide-ranging survey, but it fails to gel into a cohesive narrative. While informative, this one doesn’t come together. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Guns of John Moses Browning: The Remarkable Story of the Inventor Whose Firearms Changed the World

Nathan Gorenstein. Scribner, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-982129-21-7

Journalist Gorenstein (Tommy Gun Winter) offers a meticulously detailed biography of the self-taught firearms inventor known as “the Thomas Edison of guns.” Raised in the small Mormon town of Ogden, Utah, John Moses Browning (1855–1926) helped his father, a gunsmith, mend broken firearms, and was 10 years old when he built his first shotgun from a discarded musket barrel. Though he holds 128 firearm patents, Browning lived in relative obscurity, partly because he sold many of his designs to large gun companies, including Winchester and Colt, who were able to mass produce them. Gorenstein details Browning’s innovations in single-shot, lever-action, and pump-action rifles and shotguns, and notes that his autoloading pistol, with its slide mechanism and telescoping bolt, became the foundation for every semiautomatic handgun made today. Browning also invented the first gas-powered machine gun, developing a complex system that became the basis for weapons used by Allied forces in WWI and WWII. Though the extensive technical discussions may overwhelm general readers, Gorenstein ably captures his subject’s work ethic and impressive natural gifts. This comprehensive account makes clear that Browning is a more crucial figure in world history than is widely known. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

John Reeves. Pegasus, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-64313-700-1

Historian Reeves (The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee) delivers an exhaustive and intermittently riveting account of the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness. Interweaving high-level strategy with the perspectives of frontline soldiers, Reeves recounts how Union Army commander Ulysses S. Grant planned to cross Virginia’s Rapidan River, pass through the heavily forested region known as the Wilderness, and attack Gen. Robert E. Lee on his right flank before capturing Richmond and ending the war. The odds were overwhelming in Grant’s favor (120,000 Union soldiers vs. 65,000 Confederates), but the dense woods neutralized the North’s advantages. The fighting began on May 5, when Union troops, launching an attack, stumbled onto Confederate defenses. Over the next several days, wadding from paper cartridges ignited the underbrush, turning the battlefield into a “raging inferno” and contributing to heavy losses on both sides. Grant eventually moved his troops to the nearby town of Spotsylvania Court House, where some of the heaviest fighting of the war again produced no clear winner, but contributed to the steady attrition of soldiers that would eventually doom the South. Reeves has a firm grasp of the subject and skillfully draws from firsthand accounts, but often stops the action for long-winded asides. This deep dive is best suited for Civil War completists. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

Anne Sebba. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-19863-1

Biographer Sebba (Les Parisiennes) delivers a sympathetic yet opaque portrait of Ethel Rosenberg, “the only American woman killed for a crime other than murder.” Convicted of espionage and executed alongside her husband, Julius, in 1953, Rosenberg was “a committed Communist,” according to Sebba, but not a Soviet spy. Raised in a tenement house in New York City’s Lower East Side, Rosenberg (née Greenglass) aspired to be a singer and an actress before marrying Julius, an Army Signal Corps engineer, in 1939. Sebba finds ample evidence of Rosenberg’s “dogged persistence” and desire to give her life meaning, including her active participation in a shipping company strike and her enrollment in “an advanced and highly theoretical course in child psychology” in order to relieve her anxiety about motherhood and be a better parent than her “cold and domineering” mother was to her. Though Rosenberg likely knew that Julius was recruiting spies—including her own brother, David Greenglass, an army machinist who worked at Los Alamos—for the Soviet Union, there is no proof, Sebba contends, that she took part in espionage activities herself, despite David’s later testimony to the contrary. Though the insights into Rosenberg’s family life are intriguing, she often recedes into the background and remains an enigmatic figure. Still, this is a persuasive argument that Rosenberg’s death was a tragic miscarriage of justice. (June)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Problem of Alzheimer’s: How Science, Culture, and Politics Turned a Rare Disease into a Crisis and What We Can Do About It

Jason Karlawish. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-21873-5

Karlawish (Open Wound), a physician and researcher at the Penn Memory Center, traces in this comprehensive study the history of Alzheimer’s from a rare disease to a modern crisis. In four parts, Karlawish first defines Alzheimer’s, which is no small feat, and he shares his own difficulties as a doctor in explaining it to patients and their families. Part two reveals “the tragedy of science and medicine colliding with politics and culture,” beginning with a look at psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer, the “unwitting revolutionary” who discovered the disease in 1907, and tracing the disease’s history up to the close of the 20th century; after the last of Alzheimer’s fellow specialists died in the 1940s, the disease remained only of interest to a rare few neurologists until reentering the public consciousness. Parts three and four offer ways to address the crisis across fields: Karlawish makes a convincing case to view Alzheimer’s as a “humanitarian problem,” and calls on the use of technology that can “track, remind, alarm, help, and connect” patients; urges financial institutions to flag out-of-character transactions that can “sound an alarm”; and suggests nursing homes should look less like hospitals. Karlawish presents tough information and hard questions with emotional tact. This is a real eye-opener. Agent: David McCormick, McCormick Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Sitting in the Shade: A Decade of my Garden Diary

Hugh Johnson. Mitchell Beazley, $22.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-78472-707-9

Johnson (Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book) collects 10 years’ worth of his “Trad’s Diary” column (written under a nom de plume) from the Royal Horticultural Society’s journal for this charming outing. As Johnson covers 2010–2020 month by month, he lightly but pointedly muses on climate change; reports on gardens he’s visited in England, France, and California; and sings the praises of weeding (“the very essence of gardening”) and old gardening magazines. Having “a gardener’s eye,” Johnson writes, “means a critical view of almost anywhere plants grow,” and through this lens, his meditations focus on the color red (“tricky... in the garden”), animals native to France (“every rabbit is a threat and a deer a disaster”), biodiversity, and how gardening amounts to an attempt to control nature. Johnson records his observations of the natural world in vivid prose; one winter, he notices “the sun painting sharp blue shadows,” and near spring, “Crocuses are like snowdrops, interesting as individuals but sensational in whole armies.” Ruminative, witty, and wryly humorous, Johnson’s account provides rich sustenance for the spirits of new and seasoned gardeners alike. (June)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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