Enter the Phoebeverse
Famously funny author, comedian and actor Phoebe Robinson adds “publisher” to her multihyphenate career.
Famously funny author, comedian and actor Phoebe Robinson adds “publisher” to her multihyphenate career.
Marc Hartzman gives a lighthearted account of ghostly legends, haunted houses and other unearthly visits from beyond the grave.
Marc Hartzman gives a lighthearted account of ghostly legends, haunted houses and other unearthly visits from beyond the grave.
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A Spanish queen. A Florentine printer. An English wool merchant. A disgruntled German monk. A Genoese explorer. According to Patrick Wyman, author and narrator of The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World (11.5 hours), these are among the actors who gave birth to the modern world. Wyman argues that from 1490 to 1530, a series of economic, religious and state-building revolutions transformed Europe from a backwater into the dominant global power. And like the song says, it was money—in the form of increasingly available credit—that made the world go round.

Creator of the podcast series Tides of History and Fall of Rome, Wyman is a skilled performer with obvious enthusiasm for his subject. His reading is also enhanced by the book’s structure: Each chapter focuses on a particular historical figure who in some way acted as a midwife to the new age, and Wyman’s narration emphasizes their humanity, warts and all. As a result, he makes this economic history of Europe an entertaining and informative audiobook.

Podcaster Patrick Wyman skillfully narrates his engaging economic history of Europe.

All statues are raised, but relatively few are razed; when they are, somebody is always upset. In recent years, statues have been vandalized, pulled down by crowds and plucked from public plinths and placed in secret warehouses in the dead of night—to both applause and outcry. Whenever a statue is removed, the same questions arise: Are we erasing history? Wasn’t he just a man of his time? Is this the beginning of a slippery slope?

In Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History, historian Alex von Tunzelmann addresses these questions by examining 12 different case histories of statues from around the world that fell (literally) out of favor. Tunzelmann makes the argument that statues are not history but rather representations of history. Josef Stalin’s statues were propaganda to justify his grip on the Soviet Union, for example, not depictions of historical fact. The statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans was erected as part of a deliberate campaign to rewrite the history of the Civil War by self-avowed white supremacists.

It’s clear from Fallen Idols that there are many reasons to tear down a statue. Removing Stalin’s statue in Budapest was the start of a revolution. Pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue was a symbolic end to the Iraq War—a symbol that turned out to be disastrously wrong. Taking down a statue can also be an act of truth telling. Leopold II of Belgium was not a benevolent ruler of the Congo, for example, even though that’s how monuments depict him. Even during his lifetime, he was widely condemned for his bloodthirsty exploitation and colonization of the Congolese. In cases like these, Tunzelmann finds that, far from erasing history, the eradication of a statue can actually illuminate it.

In discussing these and other statues, Tunzelmann invites us to consider all public monuments. What are these statues commemorating? What are they hiding? Are there other, better ways to depict history in public spaces without resorting to images of great men (or women)? Fallen Idols is an illuminating guide to a much-needed discussion about history and how it is represented.

Historian Alex von Tunzelmann examines 12 different case histories of statues from around the world that fell (literally) out of favor.

Edward Dolnick, author of The Clockwork Universe, has a remarkable ability to explain and contextualize complex topics and create compelling, lucid nonfiction narratives. In his new book, The Writing of the Gods, he tackles the Rosetta Stone, a broken stone slab weighing three quarters of a ton that was discovered in a heap of Egyptian rubble in 1799.

Once news of this discovery got out, linguists and scholars were ecstatic. The stone contained three different kinds of inscriptions: Egyptian hieroglyphs (undecipherable at the time), a mysterious middle section (which turned out to be another form of Egyptian writing) and, at the bottom, 53 lines of Greek. “The first guesses were that it might take two weeks to decipher the Rosetta Stone,” Dolnick writes. It seemed plausible that the task would be simple: If all three sections were the same text in different forms, the Greek section should provide the key. The reality? It took 20 years to interpret. Along the way, Dolnick clearly lays out the high stakes of this battle to translate Egyptian writing for the first time.

Readers are immersed in the urgency of these scholars’ task and the weight of why it mattered.

In a conversational, accessible tone, Dolnick draws readers into the mystery. He introduces linguist rivals Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion and takes immense care to illustrate the daunting nature of their quest. The result is a book that’s much more than a simple biography or dull history. Readers are immersed in the urgency of these scholars’ task and the weight of why it mattered.

Reading The Writing of the Gods is like tagging along for a dazzling intellectual journey of discovery, akin to listening to a fascinating lecture. Dolnick brings this period of history to life in the same way the Rosetta Stone revived ancient Egypt.

With a conversational, accessible tone, Edward Dolnick draws readers into the dazzling intellectual mystery of the Rosetta Stone.

There is little question that Amazon has radically changed publishing—in both the way readers read and writers deliver their work. But has Amazon’s digital platform changed literature itself? Stanford professor Mark McGurl believes it has. His probing new book, Everything and Less, offers an intriguing examination of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) as a tentacle of the larger megabeast that is Amazon and how the digital platform has been shaped by the business ethos of the Everything Store.

An award-winning literary critic scrutinizes how the novel may be forever changed by the age of Amazon.

Amazon, of course, started as an online bookstore, and while it’s now responsible for more than half of all book sales, those sales are a shrinking piece of the company’s ever-expanding pie of profits. But with KDP, which McGurl is careful to label as a platform rather than a publisher, the company has “partnered” with hundreds of thousands of writers, further increasing its stranglehold on the reading public.

Unlike a traditionally published writer, those who self-publish on KDP need to be entrepreneurs as much as, or perhaps even more than, artists. Their work, at least as assessed by Amazon, is a product. Readers are customers. The same principles that make customers click on a suggested product have been transferred to the selling of digital books. The result is a proliferation of series and a tilt toward genre fiction, which best accommodates serial storytelling. Literary fiction, McGurl finds, is not the bailiwick of the successful KDP writer-entrepreneur. Indeed, nowadays, the saga-inspired territory once confined to the fantasy and science fiction genres has taken root in unlikely places, especially romance novels and their kinkier erotica siblings. (One of McGurl’s most engaging sections looks at Fifty Shades of Grey and its seemingly millions of KDP imitators as heirs to the marriage plot novels of Jane Austen and Henry James.)

McGurl delivers the occasional sharp quip, but overall he is evenhanded in his assessment of the unimaginable amount of self-published KDP “product” he presumably had to slog through to write this book. He equitably includes examples of the reverse flow of KDP’s influence, as well, as when “serious” writers such as Colson Whitehead and Viet Thanh Nguyen infuse their work with genre tropes.

But the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It neither predicts nor condemns the future. The scholarly McGurl does not always wear his erudition lightly, and portions of the book require some heavy lifting on the part of the general reader. Still, Everything and Less will speak to those who submerge themselves—whether as writers or readers, entrepreneurs or customers—into the KDP landscape, while offering much to think about, a fair bit of it dire, for those who cherish traditional publishing and still place some value in the role that gatekeepers have long played in the book industry.

An award-winning literary critic scrutinizes how the novel may be forever changed by the age of Amazon.

A Carnival of Snackery (17 hours) collects highlights from David Sedaris’ diaries from 2003–2020, read by the author and British-born actor Tracey Ullman. Sedaris’ diary entries reflect much of what we love most about his short stories and essays—observations about the unusual people he meets on his travels, anecdotes about awkward situations and tales about his family—all filtered through the lens of the last two decades, with backdrops that range from Brexit to protests against the Iraq War and George Floyd's murder.

In the introduction, Sedaris explains that Ullman will narrate the portions of the audiobook set in England, to capture the local charm in a way he cannot. She does a wonderful job portraying Sedaris and the broad range of accents he encounters while across the pond, from a haughty horseback rider to a teenage troublemaker. Sedaris hardly needs help: He doesn’t perform as many voices in his sections, but his emphasis and timing get right to the humor at the heart of his diaries.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘A Carnival of Snackery.'

David Sedaris and actor Tracey Ullman get right to the humor at the heart of his diaries in the audio edition of A Carnival of Snackery.

In her autobiography, All In (18 hours), Billie Jean King tells of her triumphs and struggles both on and off the tennis court, from her hardscrabble childhood in Long Beach, California, to her present-day life in New York City.

Growing up in the 1960s, King’s inquisitive and rebellious spirit reflected the era, as she refused to wear white skirts as a young player. Later, she launched the Women’s Tennis Association and built a career with her husband and business partner. But years of keeping her sexual orientation a secret took a toll on King, physically and emotionally. Her book celebrates the honesty, hard work and love that bolstered her and encouraged her to fight for inclusion and equity.  

In the energetic audio production, King brings her punchy, passionate personality to her percussive narration. Her voice is compassionate and down-to-earth as she relates her experiences of forging relationships with a colorful cast of characters who have joined her in her journey. In moments of pain and joy, King connects deeply with her audience through audible tears and laughter, culminating in an inspiring and cathartic listening experience.

In the energetic audiobook edition of her autobiography, Billie Jean King connects deeply with her audience through audible tears and laughter.

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