Anne Bartlett

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The likes of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and their Prohibition-era gangster pals have been great fodder for movies and TV shows. But they were actually latecomers. By the time the first immigrant Mafioso got off the boat in the 19th century, organized crime was already well-established in the United States.

Fredericka Mandelbaum was the queen of the New York underworld in the 1860s and ’70s—and, as far as we know, she never fired a shot. Her MO was more sophisticated. Margalit Fox’s rollicking new book, The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum: The Rise and Fall of an American Organized-Crime Boss, tells all.

A big lady (upward of 250 pounds) who wore silk dresses and lavish jewelry, this German-Jewish immigrant and mother of four ran a nationwide fencing empire from a phony storefront in the Lower East Side neighborhood then known as “Kleindeutschland” (or Little Germany). She recruited the crooks, fronted the capital and hid or sold the loot after the crimes, which ranged from simple pickpocketing to bank vault extravaganzas.

How did this all come about? As Fox tells it, Mandelbaum’s timing was fortuitous. The agrarian economy, where most goods were custom-made and easily traced, was evolving into an industrial-consumer society, where everything looked alike. Honest cops were overwhelmed—and dishonest ones were on “Marm” Mandelbaum’s payroll.

It was also the first Golden Age of journalism, so Fox, a former New York Times obituary writer with four previous books, is able to draw from contemporary news stories to detail Mandelbaum’s audacious heists, replete with colorfully nicknamed robbers and ethically challenged lawyers. She even gives us a delightful floor plan of Mandelbaum’s lair, which was published in 1913 and revealed a drab store up front and labyrinth of secret rooms in the back. Marm is depicted peering through a hidden window.

Mandelbaum was clever and driven, but she couldn’t hold back the anti-corruption reform movements that battled the Gilded Age’s worst excesses. An upper-crust Manhattan district attorney bypassed the cops and brought in the infamous Pinkerton private detectives. Fox chronicles Mandelbaum’s duel with the private dicks to its surprising end. After decades of books about 1920s bootleggers and the rise and fall of the 20th-century Mafia, The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum is a genuinely fresh story of American crime and culture.

Decades before Prohibition-era gangsters controlled New York City, a clever, driven crime boss had the town under her thumb. Margalit Fox tells all in The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum.
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The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin—dubbed the “Nazi Olympics” for providing an international platform to the genocidal regime—produced lasting memories, including the triumphs of Black American track and field star Jesse Owens and the “Boys in the Boat” rowing team that beat Germany in a dramatic upset. Less remembered is the wide speculation at the games that Helen Stephens, a U.S. runner who won two golds, might actually be a man.

She wasn’t. But the phony controversy was symptomatic of a panic in the Olympics establishment. Not long before the 1936 games, two top track and field athletes who had competed in international competitions as women said publicly that they were men (we would say now that they had come out as trans). A handful of Olympic leaders, including Nazi sympathizers, immediately drew the wrong conclusions and called for mandatory medical exams to determine sex prior to sports competitions.

In The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness, and the Making of Modern Sports, author Michael Waters sensitively tells this forgotten history and reveals its modern resonances. The book connects the struggles of those two athletes, Zdenek Koubek of Czechoslovakia and Mark Weston of Britain, with the relatively open attitude toward queerness in pre-Nazi Central Europe, the resistance within the early Olympics movement to women’s sports, and the failed effort to boycott the Berlin games.

The Other Olympians is full of surprises for contemporary readers. For example, anyone who mistakenly thinks Christine Jorgensen was the first person to have gender affirming surgery will learn very much otherwise. But Waters’ detailed description of the outspoken Koubek’s life before and during his transition is the heart of the book. He emerges as an overlooked pioneer.

Koubek, Weston and other trans and queer people profiled here never wanted to compete against women after their transitions. Yet an entire regimen of sex testing was built on the unfounded belief that men were somehow masquerading as women to participate in sports contests. Decisions made in the late 1930s created sports competition rules that still exist today, as debate over trans athletes rages in school board meetings, courtrooms and legislative sessions. Waters doggedly chronicles where the debate originated and calls for what he believes is overdue change.

The Other Olympians doggedly chronicles the lives of pioneering trans athletes and the historically fraught 1936 Olympic Games.
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June 1939: British naval sub HMS Thetis sinks in sea trials. Ninety-nine people die. August 1942: Allied forces raid the coastal town of Dieppe in German-occupied France. Thousands are killed, captured or wounded, in part because coastal scouting was minimal. September 1942: British-manned torpedoes attack German battleship Tirpitz. All crewmen are captured or killed. Catastrophes have a way of concentrating the mind: Do it right next time. Luckily for the Allies in World War II, a group of scientists in London risked their lives in secret pressure chamber “dives” to give future underwater and amphibious missions better odds.

Author Rachel Lance is a biomedical engineer and blast injury specialist who has worked on underwater equipment for the U.S. Navy, making her unusually suited to unveil the forgotten story of these scientists in Chamber Divers: The Untold Story of the D-Day Scientists Who Changed Special Operations Forever.

Their project at University College London was led by J.B.S. Haldane, a brilliant, annoying eccentric who hired scientists shunned by others, among them Jewish refugees, women and Communist sympathizers. As the bombs in the Blitz exploded around them, these scientists subjected themselves again and again to dangerous pressure in chambers that simulated deep underwater dives in order to design more effective breathing equipment for submarine crews, frogmen and torpedo riders.

Relying on their experiment notes, Lance takes us inside the metal tubes where scientists suffered life-threatening injuries. She explores their backgrounds and relationships, which included a love affair between Haldane and research colleague Helen Spurway. And she ranges throughout combat zones to show us the dangers of underwater action, from the perspective of individual combatants on both sides. But Lance’s singular strength is her lucid explanations of the complex science behind the experiments, making it accessible to untrained readers. Lance also uncovers the combination of official secrecy, prejudice against outsiders and bureaucratic skullduggery that obscured this story until now.

Lance begins her book with the Dieppe disaster and ends with D-Day—an Allied triumph that might have gone badly wrong without the chamber divers’ dedication and resilience. Chamber Divers is a necessary reminder that not all war heroes were on the front lines.

In Chamber Divers, Rachel Lance uncovers the Navy scientists who risked their lives to improve the odds of underwater and amphibious missions in World War II.
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The epitome of success for an intelligence agency is to place an informer within the highest echelons of the enemy’s organization. But what if that mole is then asked to do something that endangers lives? Does the agency sacrifice the spy and jeopardize their mission, or allow someone on their own side to die?

In the murky world of secret agents and their handlers, this ugly quandary known as “the spymaster’s dilemma” is at the heart of British author Henry Hemming’s enthralling Four Shots in the Night: A True Story of Spies, Murder, and Justice in Northern Ireland, an account of the real-life intelligence war between British authorities and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during Northern Ireland’s “troubles.” The 1968–1998 conflict led to the deaths of more than 3,500 people and created an atmosphere of constant fear and heartbreak.

Hemming follows an array of participants, but his focus is on three men: Frank Hegarty, Freddie Scappaticci and Martin McGuinness. Hegarty and Scappaticci were working-class Catholics with IRA connections who were recruited as informers by the British; McGuinness was a top IRA leader who ultimately morphed into a successful politician. Hegarty was killed by the IRA in 1986, and his murder led to what Hemming calls “kaleidoscopic fallout” in Britain that has lasted well into this century.

Hemming artfully unspools this complex tale with the skill of a suspense novelist, from Hegarty’s recruitment in 1980 by a fellow greyhound enthusiast, through the 2016 police investigation meant to bring closure to the case. Hemming’s greatest strength is his ability to take the reader inside the spies’ tradecraft: We learn how informants are persuaded (or coerced) into cooperation, how they meet with their handlers and exactly how they die when they’re betrayed. And like iconic espionage novelist John le Carré, Hemming shows us how internal bureaucratic rivalries can have lethal consequences.

Was Scappaticci the infamous British agent “Stakeknife” who was on the IRA’s hit squad? Was McGuinness a British asset? Who ordered Hegarty’s execution, and who did the deed? The main players are all dead now, and we’ll never know for sure. But Hemming allows us some informed guesses and forces us to face the inevitable moral tradeoffs of our shadow wars.

With the skill of a suspense novelist, Henry Hemming artfully unspools an enthralling investigation into espionage during Northern Ireland’s “troubles.”
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Inexperienced and often impulsive, teenagers can make dumb mistakes that they may spend the rest of their lives trying to rectify. Rene Quiñones was a San Francisco gang member who went to prison, then turned his life around as a violence prevention counselor and business owner. Sadly, his son Luis, nicknamed Sito, didn’t have the time to turn over a new leaf. Because of one poor decision, he was fatally shot in a revenge killing when he was 19 years old.

Author Laurence Ralph, a Princeton University professor who specializes in justice reform issues, is part of Sito’s extended family, and Rene turned to him for counsel after the slaying. Ralph’s moving, thoughtful third book, Sito: An American Teenager and the City That Failed Him, explores the tragedy from Ralph’s dual perspective as a grieving, frustrated relative and a juvenile justice scholar.

Sito’s road was rough from the start: His parents loved him but were so busy staying financially afloat and building new families that he felt abandoned. He turned his fear into acting out, “embracing machismo,” Ralph writes, and “putting himself at risk or pushing away the very people he loved and needed.” At 14 years old, he let an acquaintance talk him into straying onto rival gang turf. There, the acquaintance fatally stabbed another teenager.

Sito was arrested for this murder and incarcerated in a juvenile prison for three months before a private investigator found video footage showing that he was innocent—footage that the police and district attorney’s office had all along. Sito was released, but the victim’s family refused to believe he was innocent, and five years after the stabbing, the victim’s brother killed Sito in revenge.

Ralph blends his knowledge of Sito, his own memories of being a terrified boy from an immigrant family and his research into minority teens caught in an ineffectual justice system to create a harrowing account of Sito’s life. He witnesses the family’s tense interactions with police and prosecutors. He worries for his own children. And he shows how the rituals of the African diaspora religion Santeria helped to bring solace and spiritual understanding to Sito’s family.

Not long after Sito’s killing, Rene, still reeling from his loss, sat down with his son’s friends and persuaded them that retaliation was the wrong answer. Ralph, an advocate of restorative justice, dreams of true reconciliation that ends these cycles of violence. But the challenge remains formidable.

Sito is a harrowing, impactful account of a teenager caught in a cycle of violence and the juvenile justice system that failed him.
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“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Timothy Leary popularized that catchphrase in the 1960s, and it sums up what many remember about the period when he and other outspoken LSD advocates promoted widespread “acid” use. But the reckless Leary was actually a relative latecomer to the field—and did much to undo more interesting scientific work on hallucinogens that started in the 1930s.

Arguably, the most influential pioneers were anthropologists Margaret Mead and her third husband, Gregory Bateson, whose lives are the focal point of science historian Benjamin Breen’s wide-ranging Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science, a look at the rise and fall of hallucinogens from the ’30s to the ’70s.

By the end of her life, Mead epitomized establishment social science, but she sure didn’t start that way. The young Mead had an active sex life with both men and women, and married Bateson after their messy extramarital affair. They were kindred spirits who saw huge potential in the hallucinogens used in mystical rituals that they encountered in anthropological field work. They believed that hallucinogens could open minds and create a diverse, tolerant utopia. But psychedelic science quickly shot off in less idealistic directions, with Mead and Bateson—by then divorced—taking different paths.

Breen illuminates experiments with psychedelics, from the idealistic to the sinister to the strange. The U.S. government tested their use as a psychological weapon, often on unwitting subjects. In one infamous 1953 case, biological warfare scientist Frank Olson took a fatal fall from a Manhattan hotel window after allegedly being dosed with LSD without his consent. Other uses could turn bizarre: Breen recounts an experiment in which researchers doped dolphins to see if they could speak.

Breen chronicles these explorations by conveying the experiences of an intriguing cast of characters who were, at least temporarily, fascinated by psychedelics, including actor Cary Grant, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and poet Allen Ginsberg.

Medicine eventually moved on to drugs like lithium and Valium, leaving the potential of psychedelics untapped. With the current resurgence of interest in plant-based hallucinogens, Tripping on Utopia offers the historical context we need to evaluate their potential. Breen’s smart, entertaining narrative brings this history vividly to life.

Benjamin Breen’s smart, entertaining Tripping on Utopia brings the history of psychedelic science vividly to life.
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Shooting buffalo from horseback looks exciting, but it’s not efficient. As the frenzy to obtain bison hides for industrial use grew in the 1870s, a young hunter had an idea: Why not use a gun specifically designed to kill buffalo? Manufacturers obliged. The hunters set these guns up on stationary stands overlooking herds, shot a lead bull through the lungs for a fast death, then picked off its baffled followers. They could kill up to a hundred on a profitable day. Over the Plains, millions were slaughtered, their skinned carcasses left to rot. Native Americans starved.

That’s among the many chilling narratives in Blood Memory: The Tragic Decline and Improbable Resurrection of the American Buffalo, by renowned documentary makers Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns. A companion book to the TV series “American Buffalo,” Blood Memory homes in on the near extinction of the North American bison—which the authors call “a profound tragedy.” Duncan and Burns use firsthand accounts, interviews and marvelous visual images to carry readers briskly from the rise of the bison in the species’ ideal ecosystem, through their crucial role in Native American culture, their swift destruction by white Euro-Americans and their current modest recovery.

Before horses and guns arrived, killing the large, resilient bison was difficult, and Native Americans made use of every facet of the animals. When the whites’ commercially motivated carnage began, Native cultures dependent on buffalo collapsed. Their desperate attempt to recover led to the Battle of Little Bighorn and other conflicts, until they were overwhelmed by federal firepower. 

Then the mythologizing began, and with it, a small turnaround. A group of upper-crust white men, among them Theodore Roosevelt, conspired to save some buffalo—for zoos, hunting trips and parks. Buffalo Bill needed buffalo for his show. Natives and whites started private herds. There are now some 350,000 bison in the United States, but rebuilding was slow and challenging. Duncan and Burns fight the belief that the near-extinction of the buffalo was “inevitable.” “People—nations—can make grievous mistakes,” Duncan writes in his afterward. “They’re also capable of learning from those mistakes . . . then deciding to go in a different direction.”

Renowned documentary makers Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns chronicle the chilling past and hopeful future of the American bison.
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is a treasure trove of world art, with its own stately corps of guardians: the hundreds of people in blue uniforms who keep order and help perplexed visitors find the Renoirs and the restrooms. Behind their sober miens, the Met security guards are an interesting bunch. For example, there’s Joe, who fled political persecution in Togo; Emilie, a working artist with a Brooklyn studio; Mr. Haddad, who moonlights as a professor of Islamic art history; and Patrick Bringley, who has written a lovely book about all of them and their unusual workplace called All the Beauty in the World.

After college, Bringley had a promising job at The New Yorker magazine. Then his adored older brother, Tom, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Emotionally gutted by Tom’s death, Bringley realized he needed a different path while he healed. So he applied for “the most straightforward job I could think of in the most beautiful place I knew.”

Bringley liked working at the Met so much that he stayed for 10 years. A lifelong museum lover, he reveled in his daily proximity to masterpieces, formed friendships and never stopped enjoying the museum’s visitors, especially the newbies. Among the book’s most delightful passages are those detailing Bringley’s encounters with harried moms looking for dinosaurs (there aren’t any, so he sent to them to the mummies instead), rambunctious school kids who want to touch everything and stunned first-timers who can barely fathom it all.

Bringley gives readers sensitive descriptions of his personal favorite artworks, as well, and directions for how to find them. Even better, he describes what’s below ground, outside the public gaze: forklifts carting around crates of priceless art, the security command center, the locker room, the craft workshops—even a real armory.

The author eventually decided to move on from the Met, but his joyous experience there still lives within him. If you’ve been to New York, there’s a good chance you’ve been one of the Met’s millions of annual visitors. If you go back, pack this memoir; you will see the museum with new eyes.

If you’ve been to New York City, there’s a good chance you’ve been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This memoir by a former museum security guard will allow you to see it with new eyes.
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When word of emancipation reached them, the last men and women kidnapped in West Africa and sold to American enslavers just wanted to go home. They’d only been in the Mobile, Alabama, area about five years; they belonged in Yorubaland. So they saved their tiny wages and offered $1,000 to the captain of the Clotilda, the ship that had illegally brought them to the U.S. in 1860, to take them back. He refused.

Stuck in Alabama, they made the best of it. They paired off, bought land, built a church and founded the communities on Mobile’s north side known as “Africatown.” It’s still there, and its residents are still fighting for justice.

Nick Tabor’s absorbing Africatown: America’s Last Slave Ship and the Community It Created tells the story of these “shipmates” and their neighborhood up to the present day. The timing of its publication is auspicious, just a few years after the wreckage of the Clotilda was identified off the coast of Alabama in 2018. Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon, based on interviews in the 1920s with shipmate Cudjo Lewis, was finally published that same year.

Africatown was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, an action that was long overdue. If you are looking for a single community that epitomizes the Black experience in the American South, Africatown is a contender. It thrived as industry brought decent jobs, locally owned businesses prospered, and churches and an excellent school provided centers for civic life. But the factories polluted the air and water, then shut down. The residents were targets of white supremacist violence and voter suppression. Highway projects destroyed homes and commerce.

Tabor tells this history seamlessly through key individuals such as Lewis; Henry Williams, a welder who became an early activist; and Joe Womack and Anderson Flen, contemporary native sons who work to protect Africatown from continued environmental racism and to redevelop it as a heritage tourism center. Progress has been halting. The Mobile city government is happy to install laudatory plaques but reluctant to spend the money for real preservation. But the spiritual and biological descendants of that first Africatown generation, dragged from their homes and enslaved by racist white criminals, push on.

Nick Tabor’s absorbing Africatown tells of the Alabama community founded by the last Africans to be kidnapped and enslaved in America, and their descendants’ continued fight for justice.
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Most American history buffs have seen the terrifying photograph of the Ku Klux Klan’s parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925, with the U.S. Capitol visible in the background. Sadly, that’s just a minor glimpse of the klan’s sway during what we prefer to remember as the Jazz Age. But in fact, there are more white robes concealed in musty attic trunks than we may realize; at its height, the klan had 6 million members. 

The KKK originated in defeated Confederate states after the Civil War, but the epicenter of the revived klan in the early 1920s was well to the north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Upper Midwest was a stronghold—particularly Indiana, where the klan effectively controlled the state’s political system. In his latest enthralling historical narrative, A Fever in the Heartland, Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author Timothy Egan charts the klan’s rapid rise and spectacular collapse in 1920s America.

The new klan rose in reaction to the convergence of four things: high levels of immigration from Catholic and Jewish people, the Great Migration of Black Americans, the release of the racist movie The Birth of a Nation and the widespread popularity of fraternal organizations. The KKK pretended to benignly uphold “Americanism” but not-so-secretly terrorized anyone who wasn’t a white Protestant, with the complicity of a staggering number of clergypeople.

Egan, author of bestsellers including The Worst Hard Time and A Pilgrimage to Eternity, homes in on Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, “the most talented psychopath ever to tread the banks of the Wabash,” who ran the Indiana KKK, of which the governor was a proud member. A serial sexual predator, Stephenson had not-unrealistic aspirations for high office—even the White House. But his plans were derailed when he sexually and physically abused Madge Oberholtzer, an educated young professional whose brave response helped turn public opinion. Egan skillfully leads readers through the horrifying experiences of Oberholtzer and a handful of other beleaguered klan opponents. 

American democracy had a close call in the 1920s. The KKK disintegrated as a powerful political force, but not before its influence helped pass much of its anti-immigrant and Jim Crow agenda. Its malevolence went underground for a while, but history shows that it has resurfaced again and again, like in the 1950s and ’60s. A Fever in the Heartland is just one important chapter in an ongoing history.

The latest enthralling historical narrative from National Book Award-winning author Timothy Egan focuses on the rapid rise and spectacular collapse of the KKK in the 1920s.
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The most famous moment following the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling is probably the day in 1957 when National Guard intervention was required to get Black students into Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. But that was just one small example of the vast changes that swept through the Jim Crow South. The first court-mandated desegregation in the former Confederacy was actually in Clinton, Tennessee, in 1956—and the effort was just as fraught with violence, fear and fortitude as the more well-known event in Arkansas.

Historian Rachel Louise Martin (Hot, Hot Chicken) first visited Clinton in 2005 as a researcher involved in an oral history project. Her fascination with that town’s story has now culminated in A Most Tolerant Little Town: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation, a day-by-day account of the desegregation of Clinton High School. The book’s title is sadly ironic. After desegregation began, it didn’t take long for a racist intimidation campaign to form, including mob assaults and dynamiting.

At the center of Martin’s tale are the 12 Black students who initially integrated Clinton High and who braved threats and violence against them and their families. But another interesting faction stands out in A Most Tolerant Little Town: the significant number of white people who opposed desegregation but opposed lawlessness even more. Their ranks included judges, National Guard leaders, the high school principal, teachers, student football players and jurors.

Little as many white Tennesseans liked it, desegregation was continually enforced. Tellingly, one turning point on the way to the community’s acceptance of desegregation was the conviction, by a local white jury, of the bigoted rabble who attacked a respected white Baptist minister shortly after he said from the pulpit that Black students in Clinton had a right to attend the high school. The Black victims in town seldom got such justice.

For decades, residents were reluctant to reminisce about these events in Clinton, where Black desegregation pioneers continued to interact daily with their former tormentors. Today, the Clinton 12 are honored with statues and a mural. But in her moving conclusion, Martin stresses that de facto segregation is surging across the U.S. and that the challenge to work together for lasting change is as great as ever.

In A Most Tolerant Little Town, Rachel Louise Martin captures the violence, fear and fortitude that accompanied the first court-mandated school desegregation in America.
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Even though Shakespeare refers to the great Egyptian queen as both “tawny” and “black” and his English contemporaries understood Egyptians to be dark-skinned, why did a major British production of Antony and Cleopatra not cast a Black Cleopatra until Doña Croll in 1991? Because too many of the Bard’s admirers have failed to address, or even notice, race in his plays.

Farah Karim-Cooper, a Pakistani American professor of literature and Shakespeare studies at King’s College London, challenges that willful ignorance in The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race. Karim-Cooper, who also serves as Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, argues that the bad alternatives to an honest conversation about race in Shakespeare are either to dismiss his work or stubbornly cling to the stale tradition of brushing aside race—both of which oppose her desire for the plays to speak to a wider public.

Aiming to include non-academic readers in her audience, Karim-Cooper takes a close look at characters who are clearly people of color: Othello, Aaron the Moor and the Prince of Morocco. She considers more ambiguous cases, like Cleopatra and Caliban, and also ranges farther afield to depictions of otherness such as the witches in Macbeth, noting how Shakespeare routinely relies upon racialized imagery and dehumanizing language: white/fair equals good; dark equals bad and ugly.

Like his contemporaries, Shakespeare employs racist and antisemitic tropes in his characters, yet also writes them as multifaceted individuals. “Shakespeare often challenges us to hold two contradictory views simultaneously,” Karim-Cooper states. Indeed, Othello is brave and forthright as well as lethally jealous; we hear Caliban’s side of the story as well as Prospero’s. The evidence of Black people and interracial marriage in Tudor England introduces the possibility of Shakespeare having actually encountered people of color. And Karim-Cooper’s analysis of The Merchant of Venice might make one wonder whether Shakespeare knew any Jews passing as Christians for safety.

Our perception of Shakespeare’s work is ever-evolving: It wasn’t until the 18th century that he was even glamorized as “the Bard” by theater star David Garrick. Karim-Cooper’s candid discussion of more nuanced and informed approaches to interpreting Shakespeare can only help his work endure.

Karim-Cooper's candid discussion of more informed and nuanced approaches to interpreting Shakespeare can only help the Bard’s work endure.
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If Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had an idle moment when they met in 1941 to hammer out the Atlantic Charter, they might have talked about Roosevelt’s stamp-collecting or Churchill’s painting. It is perhaps less likely they chatted about one big thing they actually had in common: Strong, intelligent American mothers, widowed young, who provided them with plenty of runway for political takeoff.

Not that Jennie Jerome Churchill or Sara Delano Roosevelt would have liked each other much. Although both were daughters of rich upper-class New Yorkers, their personalities were starkly different. Jennie had a reckless streak (like her father and Winston) and was prone to problematic romances, while Sara waited to marry until she found a wealthy, serious older man in her own social circle. Nevertheless, as well-known Canadian author Charlotte Gray shows in her dual biography Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons, 19th-century culture shaped both into women who believed influence was only attainable through men. 

Jennie’s life was sufficiently flamboyant that she has attracted a number of biographers; Sara was more conventional, and she tends to be dismissed by historians as possessive and overbearing. She was indeed formidable, but her real story is more complex. Through detailed historical research and scenic retellings, Gray makes a persuasive case that Franklin and Winston depended on their mothers’ devotion, influence and money.

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt had to battle out of what they saw as Sara’s smothering embrace, but Sara effectively raised their five children while the couple built public careers. After Sara’s death, Eleanor consistently denigrated her mother-in-law, but the children spoke of Sara with affection and gratitude. In contrast, Jennie was no grandmotherly nurturer. Aside from the important political help she provided her first husband and eldest son, her accomplishments included chartering wartime hospital ships and learning piano from a friend of Chopin.

Had they been born a century later, one can imagine Jennie as a supermodel-turned-Hollywood producer and Sara as a Fortune 500 CEO. Instead, Gray tells us, they funneled their prodigious energies into their statesmen sons, both of whom were profoundly impacted by their fascinating and formidable mothers.

Charlotte Gray paints a new, insightful portrait of two mothers who gave their statesmen sons the irreplaceable gift of total self-confidence.

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