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The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery

Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James. Scribner, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-1-4767-9625-3

Pioneering baseball analyst Bill James (he created the Sabermetrics statistical analysis system) successfully transfers his detail-oriented mind-set to true crime in this suspenseful historical account, cowritten with his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James. The authors’ focus is a series of murders, perhaps as many as 100, committed by a killer they call “the man from the train,” who slaughtered entire households, mostly in the Midwest, during the first two decades of the 20th century. Beginning with the best known of the crimes—the massacre of the Moore family in Villisca, Iowa, in 1912—the Jameses identify the signature elements of the crimes: the murderer struck near train tracks, used the blunt side of an axe, left valuables behind, covered his victims’ heads with cloth, and displayed a sexual interest in prepubescent females. The authors, who culled data from hundreds of thousands of small-town newspapers of the era to identify crimes not initially thought connected, build their case with an innovative mix of statistical analysis and primary sources. They conclude with a plausible identification of the culprit, but the strength of the book hangs on their diligent research and analysis connecting crimes into the closing years of the 19th century. Even those skeptical at the outset that one man was responsible for so much bloodshed are likely to be convinced. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/19/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Love, Madness, and Scandal: The Life of Frances Coke Villiers, Viscountess Purbeck

Johanna Luthman. Oxford Univ., $27.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-19-875465-7

Luthman (Love, Lust, and License in Early Modern England), associate professor of history at the University of North Georgia, successfully rescues Frances Coke Villiers (1601–1645) from being a mere historical footnote in this empathetic examination of one of the early Stuart monarchy’s most-notable scandal-tainted women. Kidnapped as a teenager and fought over by her feuding parents, Frances’s life appeared doomed from the start. Married off to a mentally unstable husband and then prevented from living with him, Frances shocked the court with her long-term affair with Robert Howard and refusal to end it. Convicted of adultery, Frances escaped from prison and continued her relationship with Howard, steadfastly declining to perform a court-ordered public act of penance. This slender but well-researched account suffers, as the author admits, from the lack of inclusion of documentation on Frances’s own perspective, but Luthman offers extensive contemporary sources and modern research on gender and class roles of the period. Frances stands out as a real, flawed, but sympathetic figure who managed to maintain her relationships with Howard and their son—she found a cunning way to grant him access to society and secure his future. Luthman offers insight into the expectations of countless noblewomen of the age and reveals how remarkable Frances was in living on her own terms. Illus. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/19/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek

Howard Markel. Pantheon, $35 (528p) ISBN 978-0-307-90727-1

Medical historian Markel (An Anatomy of Addiction) delves into the contentious relationship between two highly accomplished brothers, exploring their impact on American culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though they worked together for years, John Harvey Kellogg, founder of Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, and Will Keith Kellogg, a pioneer in the breakfast-cereal industry, spent much of their lives feuding, both in and out of court. Yet as Markel points out, “The lives and times of the Kellogg brothers afford a superb window through which we can view vast changes in social mores, belief systems, lifestyles, diets, health, science, medicine, public health, philanthropy, education, business, mass advertising, and food manufacturing as they evolved in the United States.” Markel portrays the era as filled with disease, poor nutrition, and random death courtesy of poorly understood medical science. The time was ripe for radical new ideas and swift change. While Markel plays up the brothers’ individual achievements, he likewise examines their failures, such as Kellogg’s belief in eugenics and Will’s perfectionist obsession with his company. “The psychic costs their flaws imposed upon each other were every bit as dear as their outsized talents, imagination, and lasting effect on the world,” Markel concludes. It’s a fascinating look at two people who helped shape a pivotal time. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/19/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

Jonathan B. Losos. Riverhead, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-399-18492-5

Losos (Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree), professor of biology at Harvard, explores whether evolution is deterministic or subject to various contingencies, along the way posing two even more basic questions: How do we know what we know, and can ecology be considered an experimental science? Describing both field and laboratory work, Losos demonstrates how the combination of experimentation and observation has led to great insight into nature. Whether he is discussing his own research on lizards in the Bahamas or the work of other researchers in the Galapagos, British Columbia, or a laboratory at Michigan State, Losos explains both the science and the underlying philosophy of the questions being asked in an accessible and engaging manner. Unsurprisingly, the answer to his original question remains inconclusive. He makes clear that evolution proceeds similarly in many situations, though small, random perturbations can apparently lead to divergent outcomes that make evolution less predictable than some scientists would have us believe. Losos’s conclusion is well summarized when he quotes biologist Rich Lenski: “Both sets of forces—the random and the predictable, as it were—together give rise to what we call history.” The book is as enjoyable as it is informative, and it demonstrates how scientists think critically and assess data carefully. Illus. Agent: Max Brockman, Brockman Inc. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/19/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A History of Britain: 1945 to Brexit

Jeremy Black. Indiana Univ., $28 trade paper (276p) ISBN 978-0-253-02999-7

In this text intended for American audiences, Black (The Holocaust: History and Memory), a professor of history at the University of Exeter, narrates the history of Britain since 1945 as it looks in the harsh light of Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union. The book proceeds thematically, not chronologically, through sections on, among other subjects, the environment, the economy, and Britain’s changing culture. This thematic focus, combined with a fatal reliance on the passive voice, results in a history so bloodless and diffuse that it is sometimes difficult to recognize the society being discussed as modern Britain and not an alien land where “repeatedly, alongside international and national environmental trends, there were regional and local ones.” More problematic still is Black’s lack of nuance on the topics of gender and race; a passage on women entering the workforce in equal numbers to men is accompanied by a lament about the “feminization of society” and its detrimental impact on working-class men, while the section on nonwhite immigration to Britain is garnished by an anecdote about Black’s mother’s dog barking at a West Indian postman because it “had never seen a ‘black’ person” before. Any lingering doubts about the book’s deep mediocrity are banished by its ending: Brexit gets fewer than five pages. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/19/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History

Rita Chin. Princeton Univ., $35 (400p) ISBN 978-0-691-16426-7

A history professor at the University of Michigan, Chin (The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany) has produced a well-researched and readable study of policies toward immigrant communities in Great Britain, France, and, to a lesser extent, Germany, from immediately after WWII to the present. Hers is largely a top-down study of political leaders, with relatively little information on popular attitudes. She traces varied uses of the word multiculturalism, never settling on a single definition, and contrasts policies that respected and fostered cultural pluralism in Britain with France’s insistence on minorities adopting and adapting to French national identity. Initially, immigrants in both countries came largely from former colonies that had recently gained or were fighting for independence. In Germany, immigrants were at first thought of as temporary “guest workers,” but often set down roots after being joined by their families. Chin clearly explains how the key consideration for policy makers shifted from their countries’ economic conditions to fear of radical Islam. This trend started with the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie and took full effect after 9/11 and the July 2005 London attacks. In a fine concluding chapter Chin notes flaws both in versions of “multiculturalism” that foster a view of ethnic communities as homogenous and in the exclusion of immigrant minorities from national narratives. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/19/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change

Geoff Dembicki. Bloomsbury, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-63286-481-9

Vancouver journalist Dembicki uses the life choices of a few millennials to explore his generation’s efforts to fight climate change. This focus on individual choices results in an unsatisfying work that doesn’t feel representative of the generation as a whole, despite the author’s insertion of general survey statistics. Dembicki readily identifies the fossil fuel industry—and its political supporters—as the enemy of life on Earth, so the decision by one of the millennials, the pseudonymous Bradley Johnson, not to work in that industry is hardly radical. Similarly, Peter Janes’s choice to live mostly off the grid on a small British Columbian island isn’t going to change material conditions for most people. Activists Phil Aroneanu, who aided efforts against Keystone XL, and Chloe Maxmin, a participant in the movement to persuade universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry, come across as stronger leaders. Dembicki powerfully elucidates the contrast between native people fighting against fossil fuel interests, including Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, and the founders of Silicon Valley’s “sharing economy” who claim to honor aboriginal lifeways. Noteworthy figures such as Bill McKibben and Bernie Sanders also make appearances. Readers may be skeptical of Dembicki’s declaration that “a new vision of the future is taking hold” but he suggests a few ways that readers can make that future a reality. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/19/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism, and the Future of Arabia

Ginny Hill. Oxford Univ., $29.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-19-084236-9

A careful observer and skilled storyteller, Hill chronicles how the Middle East’s poorest nation endured both the 33-year regime of Pres. Ali Abdullah Saleh and the civil war that followed his 2012 departure. Hill, long familiar with Yemen as a freelance journalist and policy consultant, is well situated to cover these events. Protests during the Arab Spring, inspired by the successful ouster of Tunisia’s ruler, morphed in Yemen into a power struggle between various factions within the regime. Hill paints a pessimistic picture of Yemen’s future. If the hopes raised by the 2011 uprising for reform and legitimate government are not realized, then the “country will continue to fragment, and careen even further along the road to chaos.” The book’s principal strength lies in the interviews with politicians, rebels, activists, and foreign diplomats woven throughout the narrative. At times Hill’s writing style can be over-the-top: at one point she compares U.S. foreign policy to a “heavy juggernaut tearing down the highway on a dark, rainy night” and Yemen to “just another bit of slow-moving roadkill that was about to get caught in the wheels.” Nonetheless, her work, more descriptive than theoretical, will help explain a seemingly intractable problem to a nonacademic audience. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/19/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

Kapka Kassabova. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-55597-786-3

In this engrossing travelogue, poet and memoirist Kassabova (Twelve Minutes of Love) returns to her native Bulgaria after 25 years to explore its borders with Turkey and Greece, illuminating the area’s often dark history and the lives of the people living in its shadows. Remembering her country as a site of refuge for individuals fleeing Communist East Germany, she interviews a man who was caught, tortured, and imprisoned by the Stasi in 1971. In Strandja she witnesses the ritualistic bathing of religious icons accompanied by bagpipes and fire walkers and chronicles the unbelievable story of a (supposedly) cursed Thracian archaeological site believed to be an “intergalactic portal.” Throughout, Kassabova presents the border as a metaphor for the threshold of human callousness: once the line has been crossed into cruelty, there is no returning to the country of innocence. Wild animals abound, myths mingle with reality, and Kassabova proves to be a penetrating and contemplative guide through rough terrain. Agent: Jacqueline Ko, the Wylie Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/19/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Real Impact: The New Economics of Social Change

Morgan Simon. Nation, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-56858-980-0

Simon, founder and chair of the nonprofit Transform Finance, opens this fast-paced, provoking book with a crash course in impact investing, “the trillion-dollar trend most people have never heard of.” As she explains, impact investment (the Rockefeller Foundation’s term) means investing for social benefit as well as profit. Simon starkly concludes that the current, well-intentioned “free-market-plus-charity model” hasn’t effected substantive change. According to a study cited here, only 12% of foundational giving goes to social-justice causes; the rest supports education and arts organizations that largely service the already wealthy or at least economically secure. Rather than raising relatively small amounts of money expressly for charity, impact investing seeks to leverage the much larger sums in the global economy by pressuring companies to do better with their money. Simon talks frankly and critically about established philanthropic practices, stressing that wealthy donors must not wholly control the process of dispersing funds. Her bracing, hard-hitting message for big business is accompanied by advice for middle-class investors, who are encouraged to move personal accounts from big banks to community banks and clean up their stock holdings. Clear-eyed, explicit, and tinged with just the right amount of outrage, this is a clarion call that the world of well-meaning social-justice activists needs to hear. Agent: Victoria Skurnick, Levine Greenberg Rostan. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 05/19/2017 | Details & Permalink

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