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The Born Frees: Writing with the Girls of Gugulethu

Kimberly Burge. Norton, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-23916-4

Deftly combining memoir and sociology, journalist Burge describes her experience teaching creative writing to adolescent girls in the South African township of Gugulethu, near Cape Town, in 2010. Amazw’Entombi, or “Voices of the Girls,” is the name Burge’s students gave their group, and the author shares their writings along with her own. Faced with many disadvantages—the dangers posed by violence, AIDS, and poverty; low rates of completing school, due to broken or unstable households—these girls might be expected to be grim and discouraged. Yet they are also the “Born Frees,” the first generation born and raised since the collapse of apartheid, and intent on fulfilling the promise of that distinction. Readers come to know a few of them well—Annasuena, who is raped and left HIV-positive by her uncle, and Sharon, who manages to complete her education, among others. Through their stories, readers will understand what life is like for many young women in South Africa. While their circumstances are difficult, the girls have dreams of futures that include work, family, love, and self-respect. This is a troubling but inspiring read. 15 photos. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A Modern Manual to Getting Marvelously, Obscenely Rich

Sam Wilkin. Little, Brown, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-316-37893-2

This exhaustively researched, misleadingly titled tome by economics consultant Wilkin claims that nearly every enormous fortune is founded on a “wealth secret,” a slightly dodgy, if not actively illegal, strategy. The author aims to provide guidance to those who are interested not just in a “minor” increase in their fortunes, but in achieving private-island, personal-jet, “diamond-encrusted light fixtures” levels of wealth. Acquiring billions takes both smarts and luck, and all of the world’s living billionaires—there are over 1,600—had both. The author tells the stories of individuals, companies, and groups throughout history that attained astronomical wealth, including J.P. Morgan, John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Circuit City, and neoliberal-era Indian industrialists. What he offers are not so much secrets as lessons derived from well-documented success stories: “don’t be the best, be the only”; “bigger is still better”; own your own business; network like a fiend. While the history is intriguing, the tone and approach—presto-change-o magical thinking—are not. Readers looking for a shortcut to wealth are likely to be disappointed. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger

Greg Steinmetz. Simon & Schuster, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4516-8855-9

Steinmetz, a securities analyst and former journalist, reveals the untold story of history’s “first documented millionaire”: 16th-century German banker Jacob Fugger. Born into an Augsburg textile family and apprenticed in Venice to learn the trade, young Fugger also picked up the basics of banking before moving on to mining and spices. However, his important contributions to history revolve around loans: funding conquests by Maximilian of Hapsburg, orchestrating the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and providing Maximilian’s successor, Charles, with “the biggest loan the world had ever seen” for his campaign to be emperor. Fugger is further credited with destroying the Hanseatic League and organizing a debate that led to Pope Leo lifting the ban on usury. Steinmetz argues that Fugger also indirectly sparked the Protestant Reformation by accepting indulgence money as loan payments. When a peasant revolt threatened capitalist stability, Fugger hired army commander George von Truchsess to quash it. Steinmetz is direct about his subject’s dishonorable characteristics: mistreating employees, ruthlessly ruining business rivals, and calling in debts from the family of a recently deceased friend. While providing an interesting slice of history, Steinmetz fails to satisfactorily flesh out this obscure figure, and his account vacillates wildly between admiration and disgust. Agent: David Kuhn, Kuhn Projects. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South

Christopher Dickey. Crown, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-307-88727-6

The ambitious and politically-minded Robert Bunch served as the British consul in Charleston, S.C., from 1853–63, seemingly the ideal choice to represent Great Britain’s interests in the South. But as journalist Dickey (Securing the City) shows, almost no one realized that he had a double agenda. Great Britain had grave concerns during the antebellum period: “England hated slavery, but loved the cotton the slaves raised, and British industry depended on it. Defending Britain’s political interests while serving its commercial interests required constant delicate diplomacy.” Simply put, Bunch’s mission was to subtly sabotage the slave trade and Southern secession, undermining the very institution that produced the goods his country demanded. As Dickey tells it, Bunch was playing with fire, and reader will feel the agent’s mounting frustration as he sends missives back to England, damning the slave trade and Southern arrogance, while wearing a more moderate face for his Charleston neighbors. Bunch’s tale is framed by the larger arguments of the time, including the inexorable march toward war, and the result is a fascinating tale of compromise, political maneuvering, and espionage. Dickey makes it easy to believe that the obscure Bunch really did play a pivotal role during his years in America. Agent: Kathy Robbins, Robbins Office. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War

Susan Southard. Viking, $28.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-670-02562-6

Southard, founder and director of the Arizona-based Essential Theatre, presents a vivid (if gruesome) group portrait of five hibakusha, or “atomic bomb affected people,” 70 years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her long acquaintance with the survivors and facility with the Japanese language result in an invaluable snapshot of that harrowing moment in history. Opening with a description of Nagasaki circa 1945, “an L-shaped city built along two rivers,” Southard dramatically depicts how its 240,000 residents toiled to support a hopeless military effort. The Japanese had been deluded into believing that Nagasaki would be spared, as it was home to “the largest Christian community in the nation.” Zeroing in on the crucial event, Southard movingly focuses on her subjects’ experiences against the backdrop of the Manhattan Project, the whitewashing of the bombing’s aftermath by the U.S. government, and the tug-of-war over autopsy specimens, which was finally resolved in 1973 by President Nixon. While the hibakusha initially chose to remain silent, a doctor named Akizuki Tatsuichiro pushed for transparency, organizing the Nagasaki Testimonial Society. This group, having reached old age, continues to share stories at public events around the world. Southard offers valuable new information and context, and her work complements John Hersey’s 1946 classic, Hiroshima. Photos. Agent: Richard Balkin, Ward & Balkin Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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High Holiday Porn

Eytan Bayme. St. Martin’s, $24.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-06722-7

From prepubescent masturbation to prom-night infidelity, Bayme—College Humor writer and debut memoirist—lays bare every detail of his hypersexual development as an Orthodox Jew growing up in the 1990s. Any reader familiar with the trappings of a religious upbringing will recognize certain key factors in Bayme’s upbringing: his dogmatically strict father, his long-suffering but loyal mother, pressure to fit in with subcultural norms, and an all-consuming obsession with sexual deviance in all its forms. Bayme supplies plenty of wrinkles to the template, particularly his rocky scholastic experience and early behavioral troubles, but the overall tale never proves overly notable. Though Bayme pursues self-deprecating humor in every page, his jokes are too consistently self-aware for their own good. The result is a memoir that seeks to (raunchily) entertain, but instead makes the reader uncomfortable—and less than interested in its subject matter. Agent: Laurie Abkemeier, Defiore. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century

Andrew Wender Cohen. Norton, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-06533-6

Cohen, a professor of history at Syracuse University, investigates the conflicted American relationship with smuggling, the center of a bitter debate between free trade vs. protectionism/high tariffs. His overwhelming focus is the Gilded Age (roughly 1865–1898), and he shows how smuggling and undervaluing imported goods was a widespread form of tax cheating in this era before income tax. Cohen introduces readers to a host of colorful characters, particularly Charley Lawrence, a notable smuggler and friend of Boss Tweed. Cohen illuminates the murky world of customs houses and inspectors, which pre-WWI “exceed[ed] the navy in size and might,” and underscores the cultural context of high tariffs on luxury and other items, illustrating how they came to be seen as promoting such values as social equality, economic independence, and “American exceptionalism.” Conversely, smuggling was often “associated with foreigners, Jews, Asians, and women,” though it was also a “ ‘respectable crime’ committed by upper-class whites.” Despite a chapter on late 19th century American imperialism, which covers not contraband but the annexation of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War, he fails to show how smuggling inaugurated “the American century.” Still, this is a well-researched and well-written account of the underside of America’s growth as an economic power. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Applied Minds: How Engineers Think

Guru Madhavan. Norton, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-23987-4

Biomedical engineer Madhavan (Practicing Sustainability) sets out to “reverse-engineer the engineering mind-set” to show lay readers the versatility of engineering techniques in everyday life. He considers different engineers or individuals who have solved engineering problems as exemplars of aspects of this mind-set, such as modular systems thinking or working on functional prototyping. His wide-ranging examples include Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval’s redesign of French cannons and Alfred Hitchcock’s approach to filmmaking, and demonstrate that engineering methods can be applied to every walk of life. While Madhavan does use some jargon, his problem-solving vignettes are accessible to non-engineers, particularly as he uses examples of familiar problems or inventions such as traffic congestion, sewage treatment, or the coordination of GPS and 911 services. Madhavan’s work will help readers move from the common understanding of engineering as a set of technical skills for building objects to the realization that engineering is a way of looking at and solving problems, and is not limited to situations involving science and math. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The House of Twenty Thousand Books

Sasha Abramsky. New York Review Books, $27.95 (344p) ISBN 978-1-59017-888-1

Abramsky’s tale begins after his grandfather Chimen’s death, with his family faced with the daunting task of cleaning out a London house filled to bursting with books, many of them rare, on Marxism, socialism, and Judaica. Doing so stirred the desire to make sense of this literary and familial legacy, which Abramsky (The American Way of Poverty) chronicles in a loving but clear-eyed manner. Born in Minsk in 1916, Chimen eventually made his way to London, there pursuing a passion for Communism in defiance of his father, a prominent rabbi. After Chimen married his wife, Miriam, in 1940, the couple ran a Jewish bookstore in the East End. Meanwhile, their house became an intellectual gathering place, the dining room table groaning with Miriam’s food and animated by heated conversation. As a leading expert on Jewish and Socialist texts, Chimen consulted for Sotheby’s, and, late in life, attained long-craved academic recognition by lecturing at University College London. Each room of the house had its own place in the collection, and in the author’s recollections. The result is a fascinating if jumbled blend of history, biography, and memoir that works despite itself—a reflection of the seemingly disordered, cluttered house that contained its own internal order and treasures. 43 b&w photos. Agent: Victoria Skurnick, Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America

Wil Haygood. Knopf, $32.50 (416p) ISBN 978-0-307957-19-1

Haygood (The Butler) effectively uses the 1967 Senate confirmation hearings for Thurgood Marshall’s barrier-breaking nomination to the Supreme Court as the framing device for a biography of this pioneering American. Marshall, who became the first African-American to serve as a Supreme Court justice, had previously enjoyed a remarkable career as a civil rights advocate, and Haygood provides details of his legal triumphs in an accessible way, along with a moving account of his upbringing in Baltimore, where he directly experienced the cruel injustices of segregation. In between the flashbacks to Marshall’s life before July 1967, when he received President Johnson’s nomination, Haygood paints well-rounded portraits of the powerful Southern Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, such as John McClellan and James Eastland, who fought bitterly to keep the Supreme Court lily-white. The behind-the-scenes look at the hard-fought battle that Lyndon Johnson and his supporters waged on Marshall’s behalf creates suspense, even though readers will already know of their ultimate success. This is the definitive account of the life of a major American hero who deserves wider recognition. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2015 | Details & Permalink

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