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Did She Kill Him? A Torrid True Story of Adultery, Arsenic, and Murder in Victorian England

Kate Colquhoun. Overlook, $27.95 (432p) ISBN 978-1-4683-0934-8

Colquhoun (Murder in the First-Class Carriage) has once again written a phenomenal and nuanced historical true crime account, this time focusing on the notorious 1889 death of Liverpool cotton merchant James Maybrick and the subsequent trial of his American wife, Florence, for his murder. Maybrick had been in poor health for several weeks at the time of his death; Florence, who was carrying on an affair, stood to lose out if a change to her husband’s will went into effect. She became the natural suspect when evidence emerged that he might have died of poisoning. Colquhoun is evenhanded in her presentation of the arguments for and against Florence’s guilt, and places the mystery in context, demonstrating how many deemed her responsible just because of her marital infidelity. The author’s evocative prose is the icing on the cake: “Under the surface of thrusting progress, beneath the skin of propriety and manners, vicious poverty, a violent gang culture, and physical suffering persisted.” The result is an enthralling page-turner that will attract fans of true crime and Victorian England. Agent: Caroline Dawnay, United Agents (U.K.). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor

Martin Meredith. PublicAffairs, $35 (784p) ISBN 978-1-61039-459-8

In a mammoth tome that’s as comprehensive as a single volume on an entire continent can be, Meredith (The State of Africa) looks at Africa through the lens of its native wealth. He begins, appropriately enough, with the statement that “ever since the era of the pharaohs, Africa has been coveted for its riches.” Working his way forward from that premise, he concentrates on one geographic area after another, up to the present day. Mansa Musa, the 14th-century emperor of Mali and the richest man the world has ever seen, and King Leopold II of Belgium, “owner” of the Congo and one of the world’s most despicable despots, make their requisite appearances alongside scores of other rulers, explorers, and generals. Meredith places the Atlantic slave trade in the context of the slave trades with other markets, including the enslavement of Europeans in North Africa. Gold, ivory, diamonds, and oil also receive their due as sources of wealth and conflict. Colonialism’s arc is traced, as are the disappointments, setbacks, and outright horrors of the postcolonial era. The completist will note absences, but this is the new standard against which future histories will be considered. Maps & 16-page photo insert. Agent: Felicity Bryan, Felicity Bryan Assoc. Ltd. (U.K.). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street

Paula Rabinowitz. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (440p) ISBN 978-0-691-15060-4

Rabinowitz (Black & White & Noir: America’s Pulp Modernism) offers a thorough history of paperback books that explains how these humble objects revolutionized American reading habits in the 1940s and ’50s. Initially associated with the escapist category of “pulp,” paperbacks later attained respectability, with titles such as The Diary of Anne Frank, Brave New World, and John Hersey’s Hiroshima released in the format. Colorful, even fanciful cover designs attracted new readers, while low prices throughout the postwar years kept paperbacks accessible to a mass audience. The author thus proposes an alternative definition of pulp, as an inexpensive format rather than a lowbrow category. Isak Dinesen’s sophisticated work, for instance, ended up in the hands of thousands of American GIs during WWII via Armed Services Editions (ASEs). Based on this case and other fascinating examples, Rabinowitz asserts that “pulping is the process by which Americans became modern.” The book, accompanied by dozens of sensational book covers, goes on to expertly cover the free-speech trials of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses and the postmodern afterlife of paperback books and pulp fiction. Rabinowitz’s work is a prime example of literary scholarship and essential key to the history of American publishing. 24 color photos, 42 halftones. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Havel: A Life

Michael Žantovský. Grove, $30 (544p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2315-2

Václav Havel’s onetime press secretary and longtime friend delivers a vivid and intimate biography of the playwright-turned-statesman who came to embody the soul of the Czech nation. Though Žantovský claims to have relied on his “dispassionate notes” and training as a clinical psychologist while writing, the unfettered access he enjoyed to Havel during his presidency’s most eventful years undoubtedly accounts for much of the book’s insight into his personality—equal parts self-doubt, stubbornness, and vision. After covering Havel’s riches-to-rags childhood (his family lost its wealth in the 1948 Communist takeover, when Havel was 12 years old) the book focuses on his achievements as a dissident, highlighting the qualities that made him the ideal person to peacefully negotiate an end to Communist rule during the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Žantovský evokes the heady excitement of Havel’s early days as Czechoslovakia’s first popularly elected president, assembling a government of fellow artists and philosophers and pursuing a “continent-wide” agenda to bring his country back into Western Europe. Žantovský lends a more impartial eye to Havel’s subsequent 10-year term as president of the newly formed Czech Republic, when he was no longer at Havel’s side, and to the travails of his last years. This moving, perceptive chronicle succeeds in showing the many dimensions of a towering 20th-century figure. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic

Peter Turchi. Trinity Univ., $29.95 (248p) ISBN 978-1-59534-193-8

Turchi follows up Maps of the Imagination, which connected writing and cartography, by exploring the links between artistic creation and puzzle making and solving. While presenting different kinds of puzzles–from disappearing magic tricks to elaborate labyrinths–Turchi shows how writer and magician alike use self-presentation and withheld information to transport us to a “state of wonder” and “invite us to think about something... worthy of extended consideration.” He surveys a varied array of artists, from Chekhov to Mark Twain, Norman Rockwell to Alison Bechdel, dissecting both life and work in order to illuminate the book’s overarching themes. One of the most intriguing is the distinction between puzzles and true mystery, the latter of which has a defining element of the unknowable. Although Turchi’s knack for drawing connections can seem like a sleight of hand in itself, his writing is consistently engaging, lively, and thought provoking. The interactive element is also a delight, as there are actual puzzles scattered throughout (answers are provided in the back) to demonstrate the challenges and rewards offered by puzzles—and by good writing. And though Turchi’s volume seems most tailored to writers, readers and puzzle lovers should find much of value as well. 100 color and b&w illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Unspeakable: and Other Subjects of Discussion

Meghan Daum. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-3742-8044-4

Daum’s second essay collection is an engaging but uneven follow-up to her acclaimed 2001 debut, My Misspent Youth. “What I was in it for, what I was about, was the fieldwork aspect,” she writes in “The Best Possible Experience,” a lighthearted essay about dating and marriage. Daum brings this anthropological lens to all of her essays, often weaving social critique into personal narrative. In “Difference Maker,” she describes volunteering with the juvenile court system, leading to the revelation that “children who wind up in foster aren’t just in a different neighborhood. They inhabit a world so dark it may as well exist outside of our solar system.” Daum is a smart and candid writer, but the collection’s title promises a kind of deviance that she never quite delivers. “The Joni Mitchell Problem” details her embarrassing love for Joni Mitchell and a dinner they had together; “Honorary Dyke” examines the author’s skin-deep identification with lesbian culture; and “The Dog Exception” makes one wonder whether the world needs any more writing about pets. But in “Matricide,” a frank and affecting account of her mother’s death, Daum proves that she can wrestle with ghosts. “In the history of the world, a whole story has never been told,” she writes. But that shouldn’t stop her from trying. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Victoria: A Life

A.N. Wilson. Penguin Press, $36 (630p) ISBN 978-1-59420-599-6

Wilson (The Elizabethans) chronicles the life of Victoria, England’s longest-reigning monarch, in all its personal and political complexities. The product of a race to produce an heir after the premature death of Princess Charlotte, the future King George IV’s only heir, in 1817, Victoria grows up caught between her German mother’s influence and that of the British royal family. Ascending the throne at 18 and “at the mercy of the major political interest groups,” her wedding to Prince Albert follows, with their progeny marrying into positions of conflicting interest across Europe. Wilson exhibits a knack for description, his subject in turns “instinctively indiscreet,” “an impenitent imperialist,” and most notably, “a difficult woman to like, but an easy woman to love”—Victoria referred to her eldest daughter’s pregnancy as “horrid news,” and told her son upon his sister’s death, “The good are always taken and the bad remain.” Wilson captures the quirks of Victoria’s various prime ministers and the “drunken, loud-mouthed Highlander” John Brown, the queen’s “constant companion” and object of endless scandalous conjecture. Victorian era politics receive meticulous attention bordering on tedium, including suffrage for a growing middle class; increasing public questions about the utility of monarchy; and the trials of colonialism in India, Ireland, and South Africa. More than a Victoria biography, Wilson skillfully weaves the vast narrative of the Victorian landscape, despite being laden with bureaucratic minutiae. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime—From Global Epidemic to Your Front Door

Brian Krebs. Sourcebooks, $24.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4022-9561-4

In an exposé delving into a dark side of the online world, Krebs, a former Washington Post journalist and cybersecurity expert, pulls back the digital curtain to reveal the secrets behind email spam, botnets, rogue pharmacies, and other Internet threats. Armed with reams of information sent to him by feuding hackers and cybercrooks, Krebs explores just how and why these spammers get away with so much—how they make millions by flooding our email in-boxes with ads for cheap (and often unreliable, dangerous, or illegal) drugs, and how they stay one step ahead of the authorities. He traces many of them back to cabals taking refuge in the relatively laissez-faire former Soviet states, where the so-called Russian Business Network flourishes somewhat openly. Krebs plays the role of fearless crusader and hard-nosed investigative journalist, his crusade costing him his job at the Washington Post and his curiosity taking him to meet Russian spamlords face-to-face. By exposing our digital weaknesses and following the money, he presents a fascinating and entertaining cautionary tale. Krebs’s work is timely, informative, and sadly relevant in our cyber-dependent age. Agent: Jill Marsal, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Hunt for the Golden Mole: All Creatures Great & Small and Why They Matter

Richard Girling. Counterpoint (PGW, dist.), $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-61902-450-2

Girling, an environmental journalist, explores the antecedents to both the current crisis of species extinction and the modern conservation movement. He crosses boundaries impressively, discussing the philosophical underpinnings of ecological preservation, the historical and sociopolitical environment in which early naturalists and big game hunters commingled, the biological basis for determining the nature of speciation, and the basic principles of systematics used to define evolutionary relationships among groups of organisms. Girling’s accessible presentation never oversimplifies complex issues, and the book also includes fascinating descriptions of his trips to Kenya and Mozambique to explore successful ways humans and wildlife have found ways to coexist. He is not shy about pointing out the huge problems associated with poaching, problems arising from the efforts of organized crime and terrorist networks, as well as the occasional closed-mindedness of environmental groups unwilling to think beyond doctrinaire positions. The book’s only downside is Girling’s description of his search for bones of the Somali golden mole, bones that were found only once in an owl pellet in 1964. The search, as a metaphor, is powerful, but the reality of the search is far less exciting. Nonetheless, Girling has produced a provocative and thoughtful text. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Filthy Truth

Andrew Dice Clay, with David Ritz. Touchstone, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4767-3471-2

Clay rocketed to stand-up comedy stardom in the late 1980s on the back of his “Diceman” persona—a loutish, leather-clad loudmouth talking trash about women and gays to fans who, Clay says, knew he “was gonna be raunchy and funny and not give a fuck who I offended.” Those fans will be more than satisfied with Clay’s pedestrian rags-to-riches narrative, starting with his youth in Brooklyn and moving through his professional peak in 1990, when he sold out Madison Square Garden and controversially hosted Saturday Night Live. Clay describes in detail almost every sexual encounter in his life, and includes many of his most popular stage bits, such as his dirty nursery rhymes (“Little Boy Blue, he needed the money”). But Clay, writing with Ritz (who’s coauthored books with Don Rickles, Cornel West, and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry), doesn’t do much to rein in his enormous ego—in his description of a scene in the film Pretty in Pink in which he wraps his arm around his head to light a cigarette, he says that the gesture “that turned me into a cult favorite of comedy film fans and became one of my most beloved signature moves.” The result is a one-note, self-congratulatory account of a one-note career. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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