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Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary

Anita Anand. Bloomsbury, $30 (432p) ISBN 978-1-63286-081-1

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As a ward of the British government born in exile, Indian princess Sophia Duleep Singh embodied a curious mix of East and West—and an equally intriguing combination of patriotism and socially conscious rebelliousness. Journalist and BBC personality Anand writes a sympathetic biography that reads almost like a novel, illustrating how a forbidden trip to India changed the fashion-conscious party devotee into a woman seeking fulfillment in a society that relished her royal status and position as Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, but punished her for the color of her skin. While deeply involved in the early 20th-century militant suffrage movement, she also raised funds and helped nurse wounded Indians sent to England to recover during WWI. Anand successfully shows how the inner struggle between her native English culture and her Indian heritage wore on Sophia, resulting in depression and loneliness. Emmeline Pankhurst and a young Winston Churchill make appearances during Sophia’s suffrage efforts, but it’s Gandhi’s evolution that adds depth to Sophia’s transformation, humanizing both in the process. One part glittering socialite, one part activist, and entirely unique, Sophia adds a previously unexplored facet to the tumultuous progressive era that remade the Western world. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia’s Power Cult

Anna Arutunyan. Interlink/Olive Branch, $20 (336p) ISBN 978-1-56656-990-3

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In a lucid study of power, journalist Arutunyan exposes the cult of personality that surrounds Vladimir Putin as part of a larger Russian mythology. She shows how Russians view Putin in near-mystical terms, as a feudal monarch greater than any one institution of government. Mixing personal stories with history and on-the-ground reports, Arutunyan deftly explains how Putin and his cronies take advantage of the “repressive apparatus” underlying the corrupt system created in the wake of the Soviet Union’s breakup. Each of the book’s four sections—“The Subjects,” “The Oprichniki,” “The Boyars,” and “The Sovereign—describe the subtleties of current political and economic reality in the lives of specific people. In one chapter we meet police officer Alexei Dymovsky, who took to the Internet to complain directly to Putin about corruption in his department in a video that went viral. Dymovsky, who was subsequently jailed as a dissident and later became a celebrity activist, provides another example of how Russia and its citizens are still stuck in a “patrimonial state.” Arutunyan goes on to cover recent events, including the Pussy Riot trial and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, that continue to keep Putin at the center of the world stage. This far-ranging book stands as a solid contribution toward understanding Putin’s power and the people who follow him. Agent: Julia Goumen and Natasha Banke, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Covered a Continent in Darkness

Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe. Pegasus, $26.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-60598-674-6

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In March 2010, Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, spewing lava “from a fissure on the mountain’s side.” By volcanic standards, say coauthors Witze and Kanipe (Chasing Hubble’s Shadows), “it looked fairly unthreatening,” though ash from the eruption soon drifted south and east across Europe, closing airspace, grounding flights across the continent, and “cost[ing] businesses as much as five billion euros.” In their revealing new volume, the two science writers use this modern event to examine another Icelandic volcano, Laki, which erupted in June 1783. Witze and Kanipe look at the magnitude of that eruption and its tremendous consequences, examining journals kept by locals and piecing together substantial time lines to detail events as a thick cloud of ash “shut out the sun and drove everyone indoors” before a “thick haze rolled across the countryside, accompanied by a devilish stink.” As the contemporary accounts relate, “Pastoral Iceland, once full of lush grassy meadows, became a grey and poisonous place.” Chapters on geology and the short- and long-term effects of volcanic eruptions add depth to Witze and Kanipe’s discussion, rounding out a work that serves as a valuable reminder of just how much we remain at Mother Nature’s mercy. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece

Andrew Levy. Simon & Schuster, $25 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4391-8696-1

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Despite its status as a durable American classic that’s constantly placed on (and removed from) high school reading lists, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is consistently misunderstood and misread, says Butler University English professor Levy (Brain Wider Than the Sky). He teases out Twain’s intentions by contextualizing the months leading up to Huckleberry Finn’s U.S. publication in 1885, when Twain embarked on a tour to drum up sales. Though Twain’s novel is both celebrated and censored for its treatment of race, Levy argues that not only do we misinterpret what Twain had to say about race but we emphasize race at the expense of the book’s equally controversial treatment of childhood and 19th-century anxieties about youth violence. Ironically, Levy’s analysis of Twain’s racial politics is more captivating than what he has to say about Twain’s views on childhood. By reading the complex and shifting semiotics of the minstrel show onto Twain’s novel, Levy gives readers a sense of Twain’s mercurial politics—simultaneously progressive and retrograde. Levy argues that “mistaking a dark comedy about how history goes round for a parable about how it goes forward is a classic American mistake,” one that tells us more about ourselves than about Twain or his novel. Agent: Lydia Wills, Lydia Wills LLC. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling

Amanda M. Czerniawski. New York Univ, $24 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-8147-7039-9

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Sociology professor Czerniawski goes undercover as a plus-size model in this exposé to find out the truth: is it empowering or exploitative to strut one’s size-14 (and up) self in front of the fashion industry’s cameras? The answer is as complicated and obscure as our relationship to food and our weight, since, as the author states, “Frankly, fat means different things to different people.” Most of the women interviewed for the book aren’t career models; they supplement their incomes by attending go-sees and open calls in the hopes that their measurements will add up to what the client desires. One model accidentally loses weight band, in doing so, loses her main account. She then drinks weight-gaining powders and shakes to return to the larger measurements listed on her agency’s calling card. The book’s personal asides and insider information are enlightening. Segments of semisalacious gossip, however, are hindered by the author’s lengthy tangents commenting on “affective labor” undertaken by the various models in a “dominant heteronormative framework,” while fashion itself serves as a “‘cosmetic panopticon,’ shaping norms and expectations of physical appearance across the spectrums of race, sexuality, and class.” Though this is indeed the academic jargon of gender studies, it still weighs down what is otherwise a fascinating read. 17 b&w halftones. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Reaper: Autobiography of One of the Deadliest Special Ops Snipers

Nicholas Irving, with Gary Brozek. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-04544-7

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Irving, a former Army Ranger, and Brozek, who has cowritten many books, add to the sniper memoir genre a breathless, tension-filled account of the day-to-day combat experiences of a sniper in Afghanistan. A child of a military family, Irving knew he wanted to be a Navy SEAL from a young age and was on his way to reaching that goal when a routine test revealed that he is color blind. A sympathetic Army nurse helped him fudge a vision test, so he became a Ranger instead, honing a natural affinity for sharpshooting. Brozek gives Irving’s story shape, heart, and context as he helps convey Irving’s mixed emotions about his role in combat. But the real craft is in the book’s the artful depictions of battle. Readers are brought into the heat of the fight with white-knuckle anxiety, as troops edge their way toward IED-laden targets, chaotic firefights, and suicide bombers. The story culminates with the takedown of a massive arms depot while Irving was battling a wrenching gastrointestinal infection. It’s tough stuff, but Irving is a humble and humane narrator. What could have come across as a shallow exercise in chest-thumping is much more. Hawks and doves alike would do well to spend time with Irving to learn what it’s like to be a soldier in today’s military. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge & the Making of America

Brian McGinty. Norton/Liveright, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-87140-784-9

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Despite a subtitle that suggests excessive hype, McGinty (Lincoln and the Court) makes good on his promise to articulate why a now obscure 1857 trial had much broader significance than one would expect of legal battle over transportation. What came to be known as the Effie Afton case began with the crash of the steamboat of that name on the Mississippi River between Illinois and Iowa. While no one was injured, the collision with a railroad bridge destroyed the boat—which had been transporting cargo and freight valued at $350,000—and its owners sued the company responsible for the construction and placement of the bridge. Abraham Lincoln, who was already a well-regarded lawyer, was hired to assist with the defense. McGinty illuminates the case’s larger issues related to the conflict between two modes of commercial travel (by water and by rail), while also demonstrating how decisions concerning transportation had an impact on the simmering tensions between North and South over slavery shortly before the Civil War erupted. This is a masterful popular history that places its focal point in a richly detailed wider context and will get readers interested in Lincoln’s legal career. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Hero’s Fight: African-Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State

Patricia Fernández-Kelly. Princeton Univ., $35 (440p) ISBN 978-0-691-16284-3

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Fernández-Kelly (For We Are Sold, I and My Mother), a senior lecturer in sociology at Princeton University, looks at the underlying issues perpetuating poverty in urban America, using inner-city Baltimore as a test case. For 10 years, Fernandez-Kelly immersed herself in the lives of seven interlinked African-American residents, including a chauffeur turned cab driver; a convert to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who anchors her extended family; and an initially promising boy who instead becomes a drug dealer. Combining these biographical narratives with analysis, Fernández-Kelly explores a number of factors that lead to poverty, including a loss of social capital through de facto racial segregation, the disappearance of industrial jobs, and “bureaucratic intrusion.” Much of her research focuses on this last point, examining the ambiguous role of public agencies that view clients simultaneously “as hapless victims and conniving scoundrels,” effectively diminishing their autonomy and dignity. She concludes that U.S. policy amounts to a “criminalization of poverty,” urging new legislation that will foster “social inclusion and material accumulation.” Despite a sometimes dry academic tone, this thought-provoking book—and the comprehensive research behind it—could, if heeded, help alleviate some of society’s most intractable problems. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity

Norman Doidge, M.D. Viking, $29.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-670-02550-3

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Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself) explores the idea of “using the body to treat the brain” by surveying specialists and patients who’ve personally experienced the power of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and heal in cases of injury or deprivation. He offers personal accounts: a psychiatrist who used his own leg fracture to map how the brain processes pain, discovering that visualizing those areas helped beat his chronic pain; a Parkinson’s patient who rigorously walks to control his debilitating symptoms; and a severely dyslexic boy whose communication, among other mental activities, miraculously improved after aural stimulation. Doidge also explores the medical breakthroughs concerning electric stimulation, such as the discovery of how to activate the tongue’s sensory receptors to send “‘spikes’ to balance neurons” throughout the brain (greatly aiding Parkinson’s, stroke, and multiple sclerosis patients) and the use of stimulation in a device coined the “electronic ear” that has been fundamental in listening therapy to help children with autism. Each new therapy gives reason for hope, but, Doidge asserts, the “true marvel is less the techniques themselves than the way that... the brain has evolved neuroplastic abilities and a mind that can direct its own unique restorative process of growth.” (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

Eric Foner. Norton, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-24407-6

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The Underground Railroad is at once one of the best known and least understood aspects in the history of American slavery, but Pulitzer Prize–winner Foner (The Fiery Trial) makes expert use of an unusual primary source to illuminate the workings of this secret system. He focuses on the antebellum accounts of Sydney Howard Gay, a Manhattan newspaper editor, abolitionist sympathizer, and Underground Railroad participant, whose “record of fugitives” sheds light on the experiences of more than 200 enslaved men and women who passed through New York City. The accounts also offer fascinating glimpses of the lives of individual fugitive slaves, including Simon Hill, who walked from southern Virginia to Philadelphia, and Winnie Patsy, who with her young daughter spent five months hiding in a dark, unventilated crawl space outside Norfolk, Va. Foner shows how Gay’s network functioned on a practical level, helping fugitives to move from one safe space to another along the East Coast—often to Canada—and he emphasizes the crucial role played by African-Americans themselves, from dockworkers to clergymen, in helping fugitives to freedom. The Underground Railroad is much mythologized but not widely understood; Foner’s gripping account of slaves’ struggles to free themselves reveals the immense risks they, and their sympathizers, took to escape bondage. Agent: Sandra Dijkstra, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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