by Michael Lesy (Norton)
The author of Wisconsin Death Trip—an American Gothic classic documenting creepy fin-de-siécle goings-on in a small midwestern town—turns to the Chicago clip morgue, reconstructing a series of particularly sordid Windy City murders from their descriptions in 1920s newspapers. The accompanying photos of formally attired but apparently savage Jazz Age Chicagoans are as chilling as the deadpan tones in which Lesy renders their tales, lending his book the archaic strangeness of myth.
The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
by Leonard L. Richards (Knopf)
An engrossing chronicle of the political intrigues that engulfed California in the 1850s, when pro-Southern legislators there angled to turn the state’s newfound wealth to the benefit of the slave economy.
by Stanley Wolpert (Oxford)
Even the most die-hard defender of British rule of the subcontinent can’t claim that the imperial power’s final act was its finest hour. Churchill called it “shameful flight,” and this disturbing book makes clear just what a hash Britons made of quitting India and of their concomitant partition of Punjab and Bengal, which resulted in the mutual slaughter of at least a million Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. While rightly assigning most of the blame to the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, Wolpert identifies many culprits before him, in Whitehall and the Raj, who contributed to the disaster.
Three New Deals
by Wolfgang Schivelbusch (Metropolitan)
A German scholar draws dispassionate parallels between Nazism, Italian Fascism, and New Deal liberalism in tracking varied responses to the social and economic trials of the 1930s. Schivelbusch is scrupulous about comparing without equating, and he has an interesting answer to the question of why, faced with similar hardships and possessed of an apparently similar hunger for public-works projects and demagoguery, the United States did not join Italy and Germany in succumbing to the fascist temptation: Since a creed of classlessness—a necessary precondition for fascism—had long been a cornerstone of American identity, the U.S. was inoculated against the larger threat.
The Gentle Subversive
by Mark Hamilton Lytle (Oxford)
A brief biography by an environmental historian, focusing on Rachel Carson’s development as a writer and the many battles she fought (against breast cancer and a skeptical scientific establishment) to see Silent Spring into print. In defending Carson against critics past and present, Lytle demonstrates the quiet radicalism of her work.
Mae West: “It Ain’t No Sin”
by Simon Louvish (St. Martin’s)
Onscreen, Mae West was the ultimate sex goddess, all slink, allure, and come-hither. Offscreen, she was a tough, smart old bird who worked her whole life to create and preserve that sexy image. Louvish’s painstakingly researched and shrewd biography tells all about Mae—body, libido, and, perhaps most surprisingly and fascinatingly, mind.
by Valerie Browne Lester (Pimlico)
A sparkling portrait of Charles Dickens’s longtime illustrator, Hablot Knight “Phiz” Browne, whose creations are nearly as responsible as his collaborator’s for our enduring impressions of Victorian life.
William Empson: Against the Christians
by John Haffenden (Oxford)
The first installment of this monumental work has been hailed as one of the best literary biographies ever written in English. This second volume, at once exhaustive and exquisite, picks up where its predecessor left off, tracking the eccentric and heretical critic and poet from his stint as a BBC propagandist during World War II through the publication of Milton’s God (his most controversial work) and up to his death.
by Susan Seligson (Bloomsbury)
An amply endowed journalist explores society’s complicated relationship with the female breast. Bearing a suitably overstuffed quiver of mammary synonyms (Seligson deserves some sort of lifetime-achievement award for elegant variation), her book is an entertaining, if not especially groundbreaking, tour of plastic-surgery clinics, exotic-dancing trade shows, and the national bedroom. It also offers some interesting factoids along the way: Seventy percent of women wear the wrong bra size, for example, and topfree—rather than topless—is the preferred term among advocates for women’s right to appear bare-breasted in public.
by Laura Sessions Stepp (Riverhead)