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Gardening Can Be Murder  

Horticultural expert Marta McDowell has explored the links between writers and gardens in previous books about Beatrix Potter, Frances Hodgson Burnett and U.S. presidents. It’s only natural that she’s turned her attention to the ways in which gardens have played a role in mysteries. After all, she says, “In gardens, the struggle between life and death is laid bare.”

McDowell’s Gardening Can Be Murder is as full of delights as an English cottage garden in summer. McDowell explores the connection between gardens to mysteries from all sorts of angles (as any good detective would). She provides an overview of gardening detectives from classic to contemporary, beginning with Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ 1868 thriller The Moonstone. Cuff is a “horticulturally inclined investigator” who dreams of retiring from catching thieves to grow roses. Naturally, McDowell includes Miss Jane Marple, who often makes use of gardening and bird-watching to inform her keen-witted observations of life—and death—in St. Mary Mead. 

McDowell discusses gardens as crime scenes, as well as gardens and flowers as motives. In a chapter playfully entitled “Means: Dial M for Mulch,” she recounts examples of the deadly use of garden implements in crime fiction. Poisons, of course, merit their own chapter, and McDowell also investigates authors such as Agatha Christie, who lovingly cared for the gardens of her country home, Greenway; Rex Stout, “an indoor plant whiz”; and contemporary author Naomi Hirahara, who writes the Japantown mystery series as well as books on Japanese American gardens.

Along with photos and period illustrations, the book is visually enhanced by Yolanda Fundora’s distinctive silhouette illustrations. As an added bonus, McDowell appends a reading list of plant-related mysteries, ranging from The Moonstone to 21st-century writer Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. It’s not always possible to garden in winter, so dig into this book and enjoy! 

★ The League of Lady Poisoners

Lisa Perrin, an illustrator who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, begins her highly entertaining and lavishly illustrated study of 25 female poisoners with this dedication: “For my parents, who really hoped my first book would be a nice children’s picture book.” And while The League of Lady Poisoners may not be for young children, it’s a sure bet that adults will eat up (pun intended) this original, thought-provoking and visually stunning book.

Perrin’s sense of color and design makes it a pleasure to simply turn the pages. The distinctive arsenic green on the eye-catching cover is used to excellent effect throughout, often as the sole color offsetting a stylized pen-and-ink illustration. For example, a skeleton with green bloodlines graces Perrin’s introduction to poisons, which includes a “toxic timeline” tracing the knowledge of plant poisons back to around 3000 BCE in ancient Egypt. There are also some gorgeous botanical illustrations of poisonous plants and creatures. (One can’t help wonder: Will they inspire some new nature-themed mysteries?)

Perrin organizes her profiles by the motives that led these women to perform their deadly deeds: money and greed, anger and revenge, and love and obsession. Each main subject appears as a full-page, color illustration, beginning with Locusta, a poison expert and assassin for hire in first-century Rome. 

While some names, such as Cleopatra, will be familiar to readers, Perrin’s well-documented research has unearthed little known stories including that of the women of Nagyrév, a small village in Hungary, who in the early 1900s sought to poison their abusive husbands with arsenic. With the aid of a midwife, the poisoning “epidemic” took hold, with at least 40 confirmed murders. Years later, when the police finally investigated, some women were sent to prison or executed while others women died by suicide to avoid such fates. 

Despite its gruesome subject matter, The League of Lady Poisoners is a beautiful book. And who knows? Perhaps Perrin will turn her attention to fictional poisoners next.


Readers interested in the history of true crime will be fascinated by Harold Schechter’s clever new book, Murderabilia. The title refers to objects owned by killers or otherwise connected to their crimes—artifacts that are often sold on the internet in the present day. But as Schechter makes clear, this impulse to look at or collect grisly mementos has been around for a long time. 

Schechter brings a lifetime of research to this topic: He is Professor Emeritus at Queens College, where he has taught for four decades. Along with nonfiction works about serial killers, he’s also penned detective novels featuring Edgar Allan Poe and has a novelist’s sense of what makes a good story. And the stories here are good. As he uncovers the history of 100 grisly artifacts, Schechter provides a fascinating examination of the often unexpected and surprising ways in which crime has seeped into social history and popular culture. 

Schechter begins in 1808, with the tombstone of Naomi Wise, a North Carolina indentured servant who became pregnant by a clerk named Jonathan Lewis. Lewis promised to elope with Wise, but instead he strangled her. This sad tale was memorialized in the murder ballad “Little Omie”; in other words, we’re not the first to find the gruesome compelling.

Given the author’s deep familiarity with Poe, the master of the macabre makes an appearance here too, with Schechter linking one of Poe’s detective stories to the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, a cigar girl. Schechter also details other kinds of murderabilia, including a hammer wielded by John Colt to murder a printer; a kind of bottled mineral water that nurse Jane Toppan laced with poison and used to kill 31 people; and a shovel used by serial killer H.H. Holmes.

Short chapters and copious illustrations make Murderabilia a great choice to leave on the night table to dip into before bed. Then again, given the subject matter, maybe not.

If you don’t have a clue what to get the true crime lovers and cozy mystery readers on your gift list, fear not—we’ve done the detecting for you.
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In The Book of (More) Delights, poet and essayist Ross Gay continues the practice of recording everyday pleasures that made his 2019 volume, The Book of Delights, an award-winning bestseller. In Gay’s hands, the habit has become an exercise in ecstasy, a way to cultivate gratitude and develop a spirit of inquiry.   

Gay’s guidelines for compiling delights—“write them daily, write them quickly, and write them by hand”—has resulted in a collection of 81 essays that span a year. His newest enthusiasms (yellow jackets, Snoopy, paper menus) may seem simple at first glance, but they yield arresting complexities under his observant eye. Each piece in the book is a snapshot moment of relished experience that emphasizes discovery and revelation. 

Gay’s images are precise and poetic (garlic sprouts look like “little green periscopes”; a favorite spoon has “a slight impression—as though touched by an angel—on the handle”), and his reflections on aging, relationships and the passage of time are heartening. Informal yet inspired, off-the-cuff yet beautifully composed, his essays reveal the riches hidden in quotidian experience. With a reading list of works that have influenced Gay’s process, The Book of (More) Delights provides abundant avenues to appreciate our world.  

In his gem of a memoir, Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener, Gay Talese takes stock of his working life as a journalist and author—a remarkable run of roughly seven decades. Now 91, Talese entered the business as a copy boy at the New York Times. Over the course of his career, he helped define contemporary nonfiction narrative through innovative magazine pieces and books like Honor Thy Father (1971), which featured the novelistic techniques of New Journalism. 

Bartleby and Me finds Talese focusing on his early years and inspirations, most notably his fascination with the “nobodies” of the world—figures reminiscent of Herman Melville’s reticent character Bartleby, who toil in obscurity and usually never make the news. These unassuming yet oddly intriguing individuals (to wit, “a seventy-eight-year-old grandfather’s clock of a man” named George Bannon, who rings the bell during boxing matches at Madison Square Garden) have long served as subject matter for his work.  

Talese also shares anecdotes related to writing and research and reconsiders classic works like his 1966 Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” For the most part, his backdrop is New York, and the volume reads as a tribute to the city as a place of endless evolution. Wistful, understated and urbane, Bartleby and Me is vintage Talese—the exemplary work of a gentleman journalist. 

Fans with an insatiable appetite for the mysteries of Martin Walker will savor Bruno’s Cookbook: Recipes and Traditions from a French Country Kitchen. Bruno Courreges, the clever, self-possessed hero of Walker’s popular series, serves as police chief for St. Denis, a rustic village in the Périgord region of southwestern France. Bruno is an exceptional detective and accomplished cook, and in each book in the series, the ritual of mealtime, whether it be a leisurely lunch or convivial dinner, proves to be an important component of his daily routine. 

Inspired by his gastronomic passion, Bruno’s Cookbook, which was co-authored by Walker and his wife, Julia Watson, has more than 90 recipes neatly categorized according to the suppliers of the ingredients, from the winemaker (le vigneron) to the fisherman (le pecheur). The volume is packed with handsome photos, insights into the food culture of the Périgord and dishes to please every palate, including intriguing menu items like Snails in Garlic and Butter, Bruno’s Meatballs with Garlic-Roasted Tomatoes and A Most Indulgent Chocolate Cake. (Of interest to the canine diner: a recipe for Balzac’s Best Dog Biscuits.) Easy-to-follow cooking instructions and copious Bruno-related anecdotes make this a delicious gift for the well-read epicure.

Transporting readers to the green moors of Yorkshire, The Wonderful World of James Herriot: A Charming Collection of Classic Stories provides a detailed portrait of the beloved veterinarian and author.

Herriot, whose real name was James Alfred Wight, published his first book, If Only They Could Talk, in 1970. In that volume, he adopted the narrative approach that made his work so popular, writing from a first-person perspective that blended fact and fiction as he detailed his rounds as a country veterinarian, all in a voice that was poetic, affable and expert. His subsequent books, including All Creatures Great and Small, served as the basis for two PBS TV series of the same name.

The Wonderful World of James Herriot is a sampler of stories from Herriot’s works with lively supplementary text by his children, Jim Wight and Rosie Page. Featuring chapters on Herriot’s career, family life and the Yorkshire region, it offers fresh perspectives on the man and his work. Herriot aficionados needn’t fret—Siegfried and Tristan Farnon put in plenty of appearances. Brimming with personal photos and enchanting illustrations, it’s a perfectly cozy collection from start to finish.

We’ve collected a quartet of treats for the bibliophiles on your list.

It’s impossible when looking at World War II statistics to fully grasp the enormity of the war’s impact on the lives of ordinary people. In his ambitious new work, the Swedish journalist and historian Peter Englund turns his considerable research skills to addressing just this by exploring the lives of individuals during a single month during the war: November 1942.

Eleven months after the United States entered the war may not, at first glance, seem like an obvious turning point. But Englund argues that events during these four critical weeks turned the tide in favor of the Allies, although a final victory would still be years away. However, the author is not writing military history here. He has something more intimate in mind: to uncover what it was like for human beings caught up in what Englund calls the “struggle between barbarity and civilization.”

In November 1942: An Intimate History of the Turning Point of World War II, Englund explores his theme through a series of 39 interwoven biographies. Peter Graves’ translation from Swedish is seamless, and readers will be immediately invested in the vivid depictions of places and people, which have largely been drawn from memoirs and diaries. Some of the people are well known, such as author and pacifist Vera Brittain and Albert Camus. Other figures are more obscure. In the Hongkou district of Shanghai, a 12-year-old German refugee named Ursula Blomberg and her parents follow the war on a friend’s hidden radio. Englund uses Ursula’s diary to vibrantly bring her to life. And so it is with each individual that follows, whether it’s Willy Peter Reese, a young German infantry private; Royal Air Force machine-gunner John Bushby; or Lidiya Ginzburg, a Jewish resident in Leningrad.

November 1942 is cinematic in scope and execution, both intimate and wide-ranging. In the hands of another writer (and translator), interweaving so many disparate lives and the events of four weeks in a global war into a single cohesive narrative might fail to hold together. Instead, November 1942 stands out as a unique and remarkable achievement, and a significant contribution to our understanding of war.

Peter Englund’s November 1942 chronicles World War II through the lives of 39 people in a single month, creating a significant contribution to our understanding of war.
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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.

Our top 10 books of November 2023

This month’s top titles include career-best works from Jesmyn Ward, Alexis Hall and Naomi Alderman.
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Book jacket image for Nowhere Special by Matt Wallace

Author Matt Wallace excels at depicting realistic family scenarios, complex moral dilemmas, and good-hearted, but flawed, adults.

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The Space Between Here & Now is an intriguing mix of fantasy and realism that lures readers in with the promise of magic and keeps them engaged with emotionally resonant themes.

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Book jacket image for Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

We sometimes forget that the descent in Dante’s Divine Comedy is a journey toward God. Jesmyn Ward’s portrayal of slavery is the profound manifestation of that possibility.

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Book jacket image for The Future by Naomi Alderman

The Future is a daring, sexy, thrilling novel that may be the most wryly funny book about the end of civilization you’ll ever read.

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Book jacket image for When I'm Dead by Hannah Morrissey

Hannah Morrissey’s small-town murder mystery When I’m Dead is nigh-on impossible to put down.

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Book jacket image for I Must Be Dreaming by Roz Chast

Longtime New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chaste’s I Must Be Dreaming is an uproarious, touching and zany ride.

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Book jacket image for The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie

The Dictionary People—which chronicles the unsung heroes who contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary—is sheer delight.

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Book jacket image for Flight of the WASP by Michael Gross

Michael Gross’ delightful cultural history of WASPs illuminates the odd corners of the lives of our nation’s elite—and American history itself.

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Book jacket image for 10 Things That Never Happened by Alexis Hall

Alexis Hall’s new rom-com might have a zany setup—a guy fakes amnesia!—but its authentic emotion will win readers’ hearts.

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Book jacket image for The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

Beautiful and expertly executed, The Reformatory is a horror masterpiece that derives its power from both the magical and the mundane.

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Recent Features

Recent Reviews

This month’s top titles include career-best works from Jesmyn Ward, Alexis Hall and Naomi Alderman.

Makeup is typically linked to beautification—a palette of products marketed to make us feel more confident, attractive and put-together. This includes eyeliner, often applied in tandem with eyeshadow and mascara to enhance the eyes.

But as Zahra Hankir (Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World) explains in her new book, Eyeliner: A Cultural History, eyeliner is so much more than just a beauty tool. Starting with her own Egyptian and Lebanese background and subsequent relationship with kohl (eyeliner made with naturally sourced materials, including ground galena or soot), she describes how women in her family have used this cosmetic for generations as a steadfast support that “protected and empowered my proud lineage,” and fostered a grounding sense of community.

This personal interest in kohl led Hankir to track down and record the historical and cultural significance of eyeliner in various formulations over time. Her research is exhaustive, touching on cultures from the Middle East and Africa to India, Latin America and Japan. Each chapter focuses on a different culture or individual(s) and their relationship to eyeliner, weaving historical and cultural facts with modern-day pop-culture references and cosmetic industry statistics.

The result is a cultural perspective that is eye-opening and surprisingly intimate. Hankir peels back layers of history to reveal how eyeliner became so ingrained in various societies over millennia. She covers its more obvious aesthetic nature, with the steadfast goal “to beautify, enhance, or enlarge the eye,” as well as its role as a form of protection from evil (as believed in ancient Egypt and in some present-day Arab, Asian and African communities), a form of sunblock (as worn throughout the Middle East), rebellion (think The Crown’s Princess Diana speaking of Prince Charles’ infidelity with dark-rimmed eyes on BBC) and expression and identity (such as the signature thick black winged eyeliner worn by late singer Amy Winehouse).

Hankir’s journalism background shines through, as she includes a comprehensive number of interviews and personal stories to back up the facts she references. And her own reflections lend weight to the close-up and personal feeling conveyed throughout. Eyeliner: A Cultural History is a thorough retrospective of a product that has endured over time and continues to play a significant role for cultures around the globe.

Zahra Hankir’s Eyeliner offers an eye-opening and surprisingly intimate cultural perspective on the titular cosmetic.
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There are WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), the demographic that dominated American culture well into the 20th century, and there are WASPs, the subset of the demographic that the late political columnist Joseph W. Alsop labeled the “WASP Ascendancy.” These were the Americans who, Michael Gross writes in his delightfully provocative new book, formed “a hereditary oligarchic upper class” for most of our history. This ruling class, Gross admits, was not a monolith. But despite internal disputes, it ran the government and economy and defined the culture of the American experiment for 350 years.

Now WASP power is in eclipse. That’s not a completely bad thing, Gross says, because in addition to founding the Republic and enshrining lofty ideals, WASPs enslaved some, excluded others, fattened their wallets and jealously guarded their privileges. He writes that the presidency of Donald Trump “represented the clan’s nadir—a repudiation of the tattered remains of WASP virtue.” Still, Gross wonders if today, “a selfish, narcissistic, tribal, atomized nation might still look to WASPs for a restorative example of America’s civic conscience.”

This is the argument of Flight of the WASP: The Rise, Fall, and Future of America’s Original Ruling Class. The theory—though absorbing and debatable—isn’t the star of the show. The book’s real delight lies in its brisk biographies of the people who illustrate the ascent and descent of WASP hegemony. Gross begins with the Pilgrim leader William Bradford, who helped establish the New England theocracy that eventually gave rise to the ideals and practices of American self-government. A marvelous chapter spotlights the too-little appreciated Gouverneur Morris, often called “Penman of the Constitution.” Gross also describes less savory figures like John Randolph of Virginia, a virulent advocate for slavery who infamously caned an opponent on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Henry Fairfield Osborn, an esteemed paleontologist and longtime head of the American Museum of Natural History—and, alas, co-founder of the wildly racist American Eugenics Society.

Gross’ choices of biographical subjects are unexpected, even idiosyncratic. They will convince many readers of his overall argument, or send them on to further reading. Well-researched and well-written, Gross’ portrait gallery will, if nothing else, illuminate the odd corners of the lives of our nation’s elite and American history itself.

Michael Gross’ delightful cultural history of WASPs illuminates the odd corners of the lives of our nation’s elite—and American history itself.

While there have always been avid crossword puzzle devotees among us, one recent trend that seems destined to continue is the growing popularity of word games. Whether it’s Wordle, Spelling Bee or Blossom, families and friends are finding daily enjoyment (and, yes, frustration) in learning new words. That’s the exact audience that will be delighted to discover The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary, Sarah Ogilvie’s captivating, enchanting history.

The story of how Ogilvie—a linguist, writer and lexicographer—found her way to this project is almost as fascinating as the history itself. She begins, “It was in a hidden corner of the Oxford University Press basement, where the Dictionary’s archive is stored, that I opened a dusty box and came across a small black book tied with cream ribbon.” It was an address book, the names penned in the hand of James Murray, the longest-serving editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 until his death in 1915.

Murray, a father of 11, moved to Oxford in 1884 to work on the dictionary. For years he used a dank iron shed, nicknamed the Scriptorium, as an office. Murray and his assistants sometimes wrapped their legs in newspapers to stay warm. Ogilvie compares the monumental task of compiling the dictionary to a modern crowdsourcing project. The editor issued a global call for contributions, reaching out through newspapers, journals, clubs and schools. The result, Ogilvie tells us, “was massive,” requiring the installation of a special mailbox outside of Murray’s home. More than 3,000 contributors, primarily volunteers, mailed slips to the editor providing examples of how certain words were used, giving particular attention to rare, new or peculiar words.

Ogilvie fondly refers to these volunteers as “the Dictionary People,” and set out to discover more about them. Her research uncovered “not one but three murderers,” along with suffragists, vicars, inventors, novelists, a collector of pornography and Karl Marx’s daughter. Through their devotion and love of language, the unsung heroes of the Oxford English Dictionary have helped us understand our world better. Ogilvie’s passion for the Dictionary People is palpable and contagious, making this book a sheer delight.

The Dictionary People—which chronicles the unsung heroes who contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary—is sheer delight.
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The written narratives of enslaved people offer a window into circumstances that are, to most of us, unimaginable. These vital documents immortalize the names of their authors: Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup and Harriet Jacobs, among them. But one woman wrote anonymously, perhaps trusting history to keep her secret until it was safe for her identity to be revealed. In The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts: The True Story of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Harvard University professor Gregg Hecimovich sets out to find the woman who wrote The Bondwoman’s Narrative, an unpublished manuscript bought at auction by renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2001. Hecimovich relies on the scholarship of Gates and others to celebrate the life and work of the first Black female novelist, Hannah Bond—more than a century after her death.

Scholars have suggested other candidates to fit the bondwoman’s identity—women who walked similar paths from slavery to freedom in the antebellum South of North Carolina, Virginia and Washington. Yet Hecimovich successfully braids together the fictitious details of the novel’s protagonist with Bond’s autobiography, leaving little doubt about the truth. Thanks to his deep research—and despite remaining gaps in the historical record—the titular bondwoman comes vividly to life.

As a “domestic servant,” Bond was at the mercy of her enslavers, who sexually abused her and cruelly severed her family ties—a practice especially rampant after the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, when slave owners increasingly forced their captives to reproduce and then sold their children. Bond lost her mother and her child, but she held onto her hunger to learn and become literate. She especially leaned on Charles Dickens and Bleak House for help in creating her writing.

The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts is a vivid introduction to America’s first Black female novelist.
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The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World (12 hours) begins with a perilous escape attempt from Auschwitz and expands into a larger story about Rudolf Vrba, one of the first Jewish people to escape from the notorious concentration camp. 

British author Jonathan Freedland (known for both his thrillers and work in journalism) depicts Vrba as a demanding and complicated person whose eyewitness account, though verified and reported by the Jewish Council, failed to reach the number of people he’d hoped. As author and narrator of this probing biography, Freedland recounts the dire circumstances preventing Vrba’s compatriots and fellow Jews from protesting the existence of the death camps. Freedland also explores history’s restrictive expectations of the Holocaust survivor and how Vrba’s decadent lifestyle (he enjoyed fine food, travel and a good argument) did not aid his case. 

Through this gripping narrative and his commanding yet disarming voice, Freedland reinforces Vrba’s place within the annals of history.

Read our review of the print edition of The Escape Artist.

Correction February 13, 2023: This article was updated to clarify that Vrba was one of the first Jewish people to escape from Auschwitz.

Through his commanding yet disarming voice, British author Jonathan Freedland tells the story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jewish person to escape from Auschwitz.
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Sixty-seven years after the savage murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, his cousin still seeks some kind of justice. Haunted by the 1955 hate crime that ignited the civil rights movement, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. brings everything and everyone back to life in A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till. The title comes from the Bible—“Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1, NIV)—and is aptly applied to the short life and violent death of 14-year-old Till, while also ironically relating to the decades of delayed and denied justice that followed.

Till’s murder became international news when his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open casket at the boy’s funeral, inviting the world to see her mutilated son. People fainted, the press raged—and yet the two white men accused of his murder were soon acquitted by an all-white jury. Not that the men worried about their fate; during their trial, they were allowed to leave their jail cells for supper with their families, carrying guns. Four months later, Look magazine published “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” by William Bradford Huie, which featured an exclusive interview with Till’s acquitted killers, Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam. Milam admitted that they shot Till, tied a gin fan around his neck and rolled him into the river. Their confession earned them $4,000 and had no significant consequences.

Several investigations by the FBI and Department of Justice ensued, hindered by possibly racist politics and questionable sources. In 2017, Timothy Tyson published a bestselling book that contained a quotation from Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who claimed that Till had accosted her at the grocery store, motivating her husband and brother-in-law to pursue and eventually murder Till. In the quote, Donham recanted part of her original story. Or did she? As the Mississippi district attorney worked to confirm the quote in Tyson’s book, evidence of the author’s conversation with Donham vanished—if it ever existed.

Parker, with the help of his co-author, Christopher Benson, takes a hard look at everything that has transpired since 1955, including Parker’s own feelings of guilt. He was there the night Bryant and Milam came for Till, but he survived and went on to become a barber, minister and major force behind the family’s effort to achieve justice and right the record. His is a vivid chronicle of racism in America, an intense read that may make some readers uncomfortable. Perhaps that is the point. 

Anti-lynching bills struggled through Congress for years after Till’s murder. Finally, in March of 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime. As Benson writes in an afterword, “the work to achieve justice has just begun.”

The story of Emmett Till’s violent death in 1955 is retold by his cousin Wheeler Parker Jr., the force behind decades of attempts to achieve justice and right the record.
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On February 28, 2003, as President George W. Bush prepared to authorize military action, he turned to his advisers and asked if they had thought enough about “what they hoped to achieve in Iraq.” Plans were made and carried out, but in a short time, the Iraq policy went awry. Historian Melvyn P. Leffler explores the many reasons why in his enlightening, detailed Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq.

After 9/11, the president felt some responsibility for the attacks (there had been warnings not heeded), along with guilt, anger, fear, a sense of political expediency and a need for revenge, the mixture of which led him to declare war on terrorism. After the decision to invade Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda was based, other potential dangers were considered. The president said repeatedly “that his most compelling fear was the prospect of terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction from rogue regimes,” Leffler writes. Eventually the Bush administration turned its focus to Saddam Hussein, a ruthless tyrant in Iraq thought by some to have weapons of mass destruction. 

The Bush national security team was often regarded as unified and militant, Leffler explains. But in reality, the members were pragmatists with different approaches and interests who feuded with one another. Leffler shows that there was not a careful assessment of their proposed strategy for dealing with Hussein and Iraq. Hubris was a major factor, and no one person can be blamed. The president acted with the best of intentions, but his advisers who urged caution did so too hesitantly and ineffectively. Contrary to other accounts, Leffler claims that the president was not manipulated by others but was in charge at all times. He merely delegated too much authority and was indifferent to acrimony among his advisers, which adversely affected his policies.

As Leffler writes, President Bush “failed because his information was flawed, his assumptions inaccurate, his priorities imprecise, and his means incommensurate with his evolving ends.” Based on prodigious research, this superb account helps readers understand the many complexities of America’s attempts to keep our citizens safe in the face of very real dangers after 9/11.

President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy quickly went awry, and historian Melvyn P. Leffler’s enlightening, detailed book explores why.
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Journalist and Julia Child’s grandnephew Alex Prud’homme (My Life in France; The French Chef in America) has crafted a finely balanced, scrupulously researched account of gastronomy and culture, history and politics in Dinner With the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House.

Even for those of us who paid the barest of attention in history class, Prud’homme’s exceptional writing and good nose for a lively anecdote make the book’s portraits of 26 American presidents vibrant, entertaining and relevant. Food in the White House is both “sustenance and metaphor,” he writes. In a literal sense, these meals reflect the preferences of presidential palates. For example, George H.W. Bush despised broccoli; Barack Obama had a “global palate”; Richard Nixon didn’t care what he ate; Abraham Lincoln loved his cornbread; and Lyndon B. Johnson doted on Texas barbecue. In a broader sense, whatever food is served in the White House influences the nation’s economic, social, cultural and political climate. Food even has the power to bring together disparate parties for productive political debate, such as Thomas Jefferson’s “Dinner Table Bargain” and Jimmy Carter’s Camp David peace brokering efforts between Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. As the late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain put it, “Nothing is more political than food. Nothing.”

Prud’homme also gives credit to the less visible figures who have wielded food’s power, such as the many Black chefs and diverse cooks who have staffed the White House kitchen throughout history. He also shows the powerful influence first ladies have had over the presidential diet and their canny oversight of White House entertaining, from State dinners to receptions and more.

The book’s coda is a short curation of presidential families’ favorite recipes, including Martha Washington’s preserved cherries, Jefferson’s salad with tarragon vinaigrette, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “reverse martini,” Dwight D. Eisenhower’s steak and Lady Bird Johnson’s Pedernales River chili. A captivating epicurean history with a political twist, Dinner With the President is a fascinating look at life in the “People’s House.”

Alex Prud’homme’s exceptional writing and good nose for a lively anecdote make his 26 portraits of American presidents’ appetites vibrant and entertaining.

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