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Founders' Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln

Richard Brookhiser. Basic, $27.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-465-03294-5

Historian Brookhiser (James Madison) argues that, with an ungainly, backwoods persona for which he endured ridicule and depression throughout his life, Abraham Lincoln sought refuge in the words and actions of the country's Founding Fathers, especially the duty-bound, multi-faceted George Washington. Brookhiser excels in describing Lincoln's political fights over government banks and in parsing his presidency in wartime—specifically, his detailed account of the complex evolution of the president's views on slavery. The infamous Lincoln-Douglas rivalry adds levity to this historical work, especially as each man positioned himself as the "Revolution's legitimate heir" in an attempt to reach the national political stage. Unfortunately, in aiming for casual readers, Brookhiser avoids nuances in favor of modern simplifications—for instance, in his brief background on Federalists and Republicans—and errs in playing psychologist to the young Abe. He demonstrates that the founders' struggles over slavery not only inspired the 16th president in navigating his own philosophical evolution, but also served as a crucial point of reference for Lincoln's history-altering oratory and leadership . Brookhiser's approach to examining this great American president is certainly a novel one, yet his research does not go far enough in proving Lincoln's close ties to the nation's founders. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Bluebeard: Brave Warrior, Brutal Psychopath

Valerie Ogden. History (Midpoint, dist.), $18.95 trade paper (284) ISBN 978-1-940773-07-0

Gilles de Rais, early 15th century Marshall of France and companion of Joan of Arc, was tried and executed for the torture and murder of numerous children over a period of many years. Ogden argues that his crimes were triggered by childhood trauma and PTSD caused by the execution of Joan, his idol. However, her understanding of the period is as superficial as her knowledge of psychology. Ogden's only primary sources are the records of de Rais's trial and its aftermath, and her secondary sources consist of amateur or non-medieval historians. The writing style is that of the tabloids: "The events he witnessed... stoked his smoldering thirst for blood," and "De Briqueville, with his blazing, hungry eyes, felt no affection, loyalty or gratitude to de Rais." Ogden also implies that her subject's supposed homosexuality was part of what led him to the perversions of pedophilia and murder, and throughout offers thoughts and feelings without sufficient substantiation. She brushes aside recent doubts among scholars that Gilles de Rais may have been innocent; his trial, like that of the Templars and Joan of Arc, was full of false reports, gossip, and confessions given under torture. Certainly his accusers benefitted from his conviction. Couched in purple prose with no serious scholarship, this book will not resolve the issue. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014

Edited by Deborah Blum, series editor Tim Folger. HMH/Mariner, $14.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-544-00342-2

This thought provoking, perspective shifting edition of a consistently strong series draws from well-known publications like Scientific American and The Atlantic, but Blum (The Poisoner's Handbook) has also reached out to newer online publications like Matter and Nautilus, bringing the best from those venues to a new audience. Making connections between seemingly unrelated topics can help expand thinking, as seen in the effects of automated navigation on both airplane pilot error and Inuit hunting accidents that Nicholas Carr explores in "The Great Forgetting." Sarah Stewart Johnson makes a similar connection between the loss of a 1912 Antarctic expedition and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in "O-Rings." Blum features "stories of choices and of consequences," highlighting the Anthropocene-era world's rapid changes in response to human behavior. Essays like Virginia Hughes's "23 and You" investigates the effects of availability of individual genetic information on human interactions, while pieces like Maryn McKenna's "Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future" and Kate Sheppard's "Under Water" remind us of unpleasant futures which we have in large part created ourselves. But Barbara Kingsolver's "Where it Begins," a lyrical musing on connectedness, or Wilson's optimistic, bug-loving "The Rebirth of Gorongosa," reveal that among the strange, shocking, or depressing, there is still unadulterated joy to be found. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Best American Essays 2014

Edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, series editor Robert Atwan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner, $14.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-544-30990-6

This illustrious annual anthology returns for its 29th year with a vengeance, featuring 21 of the year's most urgent and at times painfully truthful pieces of nonfiction published in U.S. periodicals. The introduction from editor Sullivan (Pulphead) traces the tangled etymological history of the term "essay," asking "How could we honestly trust any creature that comes into the world wearing such a caul of ambiguity?" Series editor Atwan's preface also touches on this theme, referencing the recent spate of dishonest memoirs but deeming the offerings here "simultaneously intense, intellectual and inventive." This multifaceted approach to narrative can be seen in Wendy Brenner's "Strange Beads," wherein she takes on the unfathomable burden of mourning her ex-fiancé's recent death while also facing her own ongoing struggle with cancer. It also appears in Barry Lopez's "Sliver of Sky," in which Lopez bravely revisits his horrific experience of sexual abuse during his 1950s childhood. Other impactful selections include Wells Tower's "The Old Man at Burning Man," Jerald Walker's "How to Make a Slave," and James Wood's "Becoming Them." This eclectic, powerful array of thought-provoking essays is sure to appeal to a broad array of readers. Agent: Gerald McCauley, Gerard McCauley Agency, and Jin Auh, Wylie Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World

Adrienne Mayor. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-691-14720-8

The Amazons were fierce women warriors of the ancient world who supposedly maimed their male offspring, sliced off one breast to better shoot arrows, and both battled and romanced the ancient Greeks. But is this just mythology, or were they real? Mayor (The Poison King) looks at ancient writings and archeological evidence to argue that yes, "Amazons" were based on real nomadic women, though much different from the way ancient Greeks or contemporary audiences imagine them. New technology that enables archaeologists to determine the sex of a skeleton has revealed skeletons in what was ancient Scythia (a large area roughly north of the Black Sea) buried with weapons, armor, and battle wounds, to actually be female. Evidence also indicates that these women were maternal, coupled, and did remove breasts or mutilate their boys. Mayor speculates on the origin of such misconceptions in ancient writings and art, smartly suggesting that, though Amazons are usually depicted heroically in Greek art and mythology, the male-centric Greeks perhaps struggled to understand a society based on equality between the sexes. Mayor also looks at the cultures of other ancient women warriors and while her expertise shines throughout, her dry tone is unlikely to enchant laypeople. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Cattle Kate: A Mystery

Jana Bommersbach. Poisoned Pen, $24.95 (356p) ISBN 978-1-4642-0302-2

In her outstanding first novel, a historical mystery, journalist Bommersbach (The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd) resurrects the name and reputation of real-life Ellen "Ella" Watson, who was lynched for allegedly rustling cattle in the Wyoming Territory on July 20, 1889. Watson was born out of wedlock in 1860 in Ontario, Canada, to a 15-year-old Irish mother, Frances, and her Scottish lover, Thomas. Her parents married, and produced 16 more children, many of whom died young. In 1877, the family trekked to Kansas to homestead a new farm. Ella married and later divorced an abusive man, then in 1885 boldly struck out on her own for the Wyoming Territory. Hard work earned Ella a measure of success, first as a boardinghouse cook and waitress, later as the secret wife of postmaster Jimmy Averell, and finally as a homesteader with her own claim. But Ella made enemies of several big cattlemen, including rancher Albert J. Bothwell, who will lead her lynching. Bommersbach beautifully recreates the milieu in which Ella struggled to realize her dreams. Extensive endnotes provide further background on this miscarriage of justice. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Strange Tales: Volume IV

Edited by Rosalie Parker. Tartarus (www.tartaruspress.com), $56 (232p) ISBN 978-1-905784-60-8

As with previous volumes in this World Fantasy Award–winning series, this anthology of 15 new stories features the work of some of the best and brightest of the publisher's roster of talents. In "The Secret Passage," Rhys Hughes blends rococo fantasy and unexpected horror in a tale about a visionary who succeeds beyond his wildest dreams—and worst nightmare—in building a house from the design of a fourth-dimensional tesseract. Rebecca Lloyd's "Gone to the Deep," one of several dark tales that grow out of troubled marital relationships, tells of a former fisherman lured from his wife by the siren song of a creature that embodies the awe and mystery of the sea. Angela Slatter's "The Badger's Bride" is a charming period fantasy about a young woman who discovers the truth of the magical content of a book she is hand-copying through its impact on an animal in her care. A number of the selections are surreal accounts of strangers traveling in strange lands, among them Mark Francis's "For a Last Spark of the Divine," in which a vacationer in India encounters the god behind a garish idol, and Andrew Hook's "Drowning in Air," about a visitor to a volcanic Japanese Island whose residents all wear gas masks. In her preface, Parker observes that "the number and quality of submissions... made the job of choosing the final selection even harder" than for previous volumes. The stories selected for this volume attest to the diversity and imaginative possibilities inherent in the strange tale. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Doll Palace

Sara Lippmann. Dock Street (www.dockstreetpress.com), $18 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-9910657-1-4

Lippmann's debut is a terrific collection of short stories that mostly take place in or around New York. In "Queen of Hearts," the male narrator feels an affinity for Pam, a babysitter in her thirties, even after she steals the bottle of Xanax that he'd been sharing with her. Lippmann skillfully demonstrates how he relates to Pam in subtle instances; he observes how she surreptitiously feels herself under her shirt ("Anything can be a transitional object") and casts his own wife in an unflattering light: "Things are not moving fast enough for Marcy. She swats me aside and jumps in, barking." "Everyone Has Your Best Interests at Heart," told from the point of view of a teenager working with her best friend on the Jersey Shore, is particularly engaging, as is "Body Scan," which chronicles what a woman learns about her husband after looking through his phone while they're stuck in traffic en route to Westchester. Some are very brief slice-of-life vignettes: the delightful "Houseboy," about a 23-year-old Israeli is rife with funny malapropisms ("At night, everything is awesome and pacifist.") but never makes fun at its narrator. These stories clearly reveal Lippmann's talent, and indicate a bright future ahead. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Bully of Order

Brian Hart. Harper, $26.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-229774-7

Hart's brilliant second novel (after Then Came the Evening) takes place in the rainy, filthy, raucous American Northwest during the lawless logging days of the late 19th century. Into Harbor, a muddy, mythological town somewhere on the coast of Washington state, sails a bogus doctor named Jacob Ellstrom, whose quackery gets him into big trouble. After a deadly botched childbirth, Ellstrom is forced to flee, leaving behind his wife, Nell, and young son, Duncan, who take up residence with the new doctor, Milo Haslett, just about the only civilized man in town. Jacob's malevolent brother, Matius, appears, claiming the Ellstrom homestead, and tragedy ensues when Jacob returns. Harbor is ruled by the outlaw union boss Bellhouse and his sidekick Tartan, whose violent means to every end leave no one outside their ruinous wake, especially Duncan, who grows up to be a hoodlum like every other man in town, except for his one saving grace: he is in love with the mill owner's daughter, Teresa. In alternating chapters each character advances the story from his own perspective as the unruly community rushes drunkenly, calamitously into the 20th century. Hart's prose is dense and lyrically savage. Agent: Bill Clegg, WME Entertainment. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Madame Picasso

Anne Girard. Mira, $14.95 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-0-7783-1635-0

Twists and turns of fate are the hook for this intriguing story of love and loss. In 1911 Paris, Pablo Picasso feels uneasy, even though he's on the verge of wealth and fame as an artist. His longtime relationship with Fernande Olivier, who calls herself Madame Picasso although they're unmarried, is fraught with tension and infidelity. When Pablo meets Eva Gouel, a witty, ambitious seamstress at the famed Moulin Rouge, he becomes obsessed with her. Pablo and Eva embark on a passionate affair and a rich, cultured lifestyle in Paris with the best and brightest of the era—Gertrude Stein, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and Max Jacob. Eva is Pablo's muse, the one woman who understands him and his radical artwork. Happiness, however, is short-lived as they faced an escalating series of challenges, grappling with betrayal, decaying friendships, World War I, and a devastating illness. Girard creates a wonderful period piece, aptly conveying the spirit and irreverence of pre-WWI Paris. She impresses with her insight into the enigmatic, "renegade" Spanish expatriate during his cubist period; Picasso is characterized as kind and generous, as well as dark and difficult. Girard successfully captures the essence of an iconic figure during a brief, but pivotal, period of his life. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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