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The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes

Zach Dundas. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-544-21404-0

Sherlock Holmes’s popularity prompted Dundas (The Renegade Sportsman) to investigate how and why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, have endured for so long. Dundas strives to use the detective’s famed techniques to ferret out Conan Doyle’s influences—Poe, pioneering surgeon Joseph Bell—and chronicle the influence Holmes has exercised through parodies, tributes, plays, films, TV series, and even comic books and fan fiction. The work is admirably exhaustive, but it’s also exhausting. Despite a rigorous Sherlockian “commitment to the facts,” lengthy personal digressions, such as Dundas’s tour of Dartmoor, the setting for The Hound of the Baskervilles, with his family, seem more self-serving than illuminating. Dundas’s admiration for Holmes is never in doubt, and he unearths some interesting anecdotes about Conan Doyle: Holmes’s creator was an early auto enthusiast (who “collected speeding tickets”) and had an interest in spiritualism, and as a writer, Conan Doyle was amusingly “reckless about accuracy” and character consistency. But Dundas’s smug tone, strained attempts at humor with David Foster Wallace–like footnotes, and tendency to synopsize plots are wearying. If only Dundas, like Sherlock, had simply “seen and observed” his fascinating material. Agent: Melissa Flashman, Trident Media Group. (June)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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How to Catch a Russian Spy

Naveed Jamali and Ellis Henican. Scribner, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-5011-0495-4

Jamali didn’t grow up with a burning desire to be a spy and actually didn’t have much direction at all in his younger days, comfortably coasting through life. He settled into a management role in the family business, a company that sold hard-to-find articles, reports, and data for businesses and government agencies including some shady Russians. The FBI had been aware of this for some time, and Jamali’s family happily cooperated, offering the agency a list of the materials the mysterious Russian figures requested after each visit. But on a crisp December day in 2005, a suspected Russian spy named Oleg Kulikov entered the office in Westchester, N.Y., where Naveed worked. Eager to take a more active role in the monitoring of this suspicious activity, Jamali embarked on a hair-raising stint as a double agent working for both the Russians and the FBI that lasted three years. Jamali gleefully recounts those tense times in this page-turner of a memoir, detailing the less-than-dramatic drop-off locations (Pizzeria Uno) and artfully sharing details of how he gained Oleg’s confidence. This highly entertaining read is enhanced by the author’s self-deprecating sense of humor. Agent: Hannah Brown Gordon, Foundry Literary + Media. (June)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A to Z: Great Modern Artists

Andy Tuohy and Christopher Masters. Octopus (Hachette, dist.), $20 (224p) ISBN 978-1-84403-780-3

Graphic designer Tuohy and art historian Masters introduce readers to the work of 52 modernists whom they deem to have had “a profound and lasting impact on the art world.” The book’s sleek design features pop art-inspired portraits of each artist with bright colors and crisp lines, often with a nod to the individual’s artistic style. Tuohy’s Basquiat is a boxy take on the artist’s famous self-portrait; Giacometti is depicted with the same “slender, attenuated proportions” of his sculptural subjects; and Pollock is drawn with a paint can for a head. Masters provides brief commentary, noting the artists’ biographies, influences, affiliations, methods, and major works, with accompanying fun facts like Duchamp’s penchant for chess and Klee’s early career as a violinist. The authors mostly cover heavy hitters like Chagall, Dalí, Hopper, and Kahlo, occasionally widening the spectrum globally with artists such as Lebanese painter and sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair, Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi, and the “Pablo Picasso of [India],” Maqbool Fida Husain. This is a quick and fun primer of Modernism’s greats, though light on the art itself, with only one or two small prints of each artist’s work; and of the 52 artists represented, there are only six women. (June)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West

Matthew Dennison. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (416p) ISBN 978-1-250-03394-9

Biographer Dennison (The Last Princess) offers a dense and tedious portrait of British writer Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) that begins in 1910 with the legal troubles of Victoria, the author’s mother, who acquired a scandalous reputation for her out-of-wedlock birth and (possibly platonic) relationship with an older man who bequeathed his estate to her husband. These events thrust the aristocratic Sackville-Wests into the spotlight for the first time. Dennison then backtracks to Sackville-West’s birth and privileged upbringing that laid the groundwork for Sackville-West’s complicated nature, including her need for role play, her tendency toward drama and cruelty, and the contradictions between her actions and work. Her long engagement to diplomat Harold Nicolson and their eventual marriage are explored, as are her affairs—with her childhood friend Rosamund, novelist Violet Keppel, and Virginia Woolf. The book then moves onto the final decades of Vita’s life, when creating the famous Sissinghurst Castle Gardens became her priority, and when, perhaps for the first time, she was rejected by a potential lover. Dennison has plenty of information to offer but unfortunately little focus. Fans of Sackville-West’s, or of Woolf’s novel Orlando (inspired by Sackville-West), will be interested nonetheless, but they’ll have to wade through a great deal of undigested information to get to the story. Agent: Georgina Capel, Capel & Land (U.K.). (June)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest U.S. Minority Its Rights

Lennard J. Davis. Beacon, $24.95 (296p) ISBN 978-0-8070-7156-4

In 2015, the principle of providing accommodations for the disabled—such as bathroom facilities, wheelchair accessibility, and closed captions—is well-established. In this worthwhile but laborious book, Davis seeks to transport readers back to the time before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. This is an extremely detailed account of a complex legislative process (Ted Kennedy compared creating bills to “playing an accordion”) and civil rights movement with “no Selma or Birmingham,” but instead, grueling state-by-state grassroots visits and custom proposals. But, as depicted by Davis, the movement still had its dramatic moments, particularly the “Capitol Crawl” up the steps of the Capitol Building. Interestingly, he suggests that public support for the Act helped steer the close 1988 election to George H.W. Bush, who in July 1990 hosted the ADA’s signing ceremony on the White House lawn. For fans of politics, the circuitous legislative journey detailed here will be fascinating. However, the lack of more organizing devices—a time line, chapter summaries, key points map, or even a “Who’s Who”—will make this a struggle for lay readers drawn to the important subject matter. Agent: Anne Edelstein, Anne Edelstein Literary Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink

Juliana Barbassa. Touchstone, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5625-7

After a two-decade absence, Barbassa returned to her native Brazil in 2010 as the Associated Press’s Rio de Janeiro correspondent, providing the impetus for this overstuffed but fascinating urban chronicle. She arrived just in time for a confrontation between the Pacification Police Units and the Red Command gang, which ruled the favelas. Barbassa reports on the 2011 flood that claimed 1,000 lives; the 2012 closing of one of South America’s largest landfills, the Gramacho; and the “world’s largest gay wedding” in 2013. She speaks to “anyone who would speak to [her]: taxi drivers, university researchers, cops who wouldn’t give their names, local crime reporters,” as well as politicians, government officials, gang members, environmentalists, restaurateurs, shipyard managers, notaries, and barbers. In between visiting favelas and gated communities, Barbassa touches on issues broad (taxes, immigration, prostitution, homosexuality) and narrow (her own housing problems). So many people and subjects move through the book’s pages that the portrait of “this southern giant” becomes cluttered. Expert as Barbassa is with words, the book’s breadth can feel like a liability. But even readers whose interest flags at times will come away with a sense of having been there. Agent: David Halpern, Robbins Office. (July)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age

Megan Prelinger. Norton, $35 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-08359-0

Starting with the ability to control electrons with radio waves, Prelinger (Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957–1962) looks at commercial and advertising images that introduced new technologies to the general public, mainly between the 1940s and the 1960s. The text presents a “story written by engineers and visualized by artists,” and both halves of that collaboration receive equal attention. The science of products such as cathode ray tubes, circuit boards, and bionics is lucidly explained and placed within a historical context informed by technological advancements and cultural forces alike. Paired with this history, however, is the true boon of the book: over 150 illustrations, primarily from magazines and catalogues, considered for their art as well as their scientific content. Drawings of rotating atoms and mid-century robots will provide geeky pleasure for any science fan, and Prelinger spins her impressive research into a broad cultural study. The heavy emphasis on scientific facts and manufacturing doesn’t always dazzle, yet when artist and engineer are considered in mutual context, the kitsch of the old advertisements becomes more than just entertaining design, and Prelinger manages to draw out some satisfying conclusions. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act

Barry Yourgrau. Norton, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-3932-4177-8

In this hilarious memoir, Yourgrau (Wearing Dad’s Head) regales readers with tales of his tendency to collect objects and keep them. He recalls a pivotal moment in his life when he refused to allow his girlfriend—her arms weighed down by grocery bags—into his apartment because of the piles of clutter covering every inch of his place. That evening she issued an ultimatum to him to clean up, and so began his faltering quest to sort through and throw out many of the items scattered around his apartment—including 45 cardboard boxes, 22 shopping bags, books and unopened boxes of books, 11 suitcases, and one baby grand piano. Throughout the narrative, Yourgrau examines the history of hoarding and famous hoarders, such as poet W.H. Auden; Homer and Langley Collyer, who were found dead in their Harlem home, one of them buried under “stuff”; and Aldon James, president of the National Arts Club. Along the way Yourgrau attends a Clutterers Anonymous meeting and visits various therapists, seeking assistance in his efforts to de-clutter his life and living space. Eventually, as he explains with wit and honesty, he begins to deal with the clutter, taking comfort that he’s not a hoarder but a collector, as he makes space for himself and that girlfriend he shut out five years earlier. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Road to Relativity: The History and Meaning of Einstein’s “The Foundations of General Relativity”

Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn. Princeton Univ, $35 (272p) ISBN 978-0-691-16253-9

To mark the centennial of Einstein’s 1915 publication of his theory of general relativity, this handsomely illustrated volume presents a facsimile of his entire manuscript. Theoretical physicists Gutfreund and Renn annotate Einstein’s original handwritten paper (presented on the verso) and conclude with a full English translation of the paper. In 1905, Einstein published his special theory of relativity, which “challenged the idea of light as a wave, gave striking proof for the existence of atoms, led to a new understanding of space and time, and identified mass as a form of energy.” But as the editors point out, Einstein realized his work remained incomplete, since Newtonian conceptions of gravity did not work within the new frame. Special relativity worked for non-accelerating frames of reference, but the “laws of physics must... apply to systems of reference in any kind of motion.” The mathematics of the general theory proved exceedingly complex even for Einstein, who relied on colleagues for assistance, but the result was one of humankind’s greatest achievements. Einstein aficionados will add this to their libraries, but readers unfamiliar with college-level physics will have a rough time. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled On by Hawking Became Loved

Marcia Bartusiak. Yale Univ, $27.50 (240p) ISBN 978-0-300-21085-9

Bartusiak (Archives of the Universe), professor in the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, reveals the story and science of black holes in all their “stark and alien weirdness.” Black holes begin, and end, with gravity. The first person to propose this idea was 18th-century English polymath John Michell, who imagined a star so massive that “all light... would be made to return towards it, by its own proper gravity.” As Bartusiak relates, the idea remained a curiosity until Einstein proffered his theory of special relativity (1905) and the idea that gravity could bend light and motion. German astronomer Karl Schwarzschild envisioned an “event horizon,” the point of no return beyond which nothing could escape a massive star’s extreme gravity, but no one believed it could happen. Then Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar showed how a massive white dwarf star could shrivel to nothing under its own gravity. Bartusiak notes that Einstein and many others rejected the idea, but by the 1960s, observational evidence and computer advances that allowed astronomers to model stellar collapse showed that black holes were real. Bartusiak’s lively, accessible writing and insight into the personalities behind the science make her book an entertaining and informative read. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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