Nonfiction Previews, February 2012, Pt. 2: Gypsy Boys, Gene Therapy, and the New Austerity

Bartels, Peggielene & Eleanor Herman. King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village. Doubleday. Feb. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780385534321. $25.95. Downloadable: Random Audio. MEMOIR
Born in Ghana and now an American citizen, Bartels awoke one day to find herself king of Otuam, a town of 7000 residents on Ghana’s coast; her uncle, the former king, had died. The town she ruled had no doctor, no high school, no running water, and little order‚ some of the elders were stealing village funds‚ and she scurried to set things right. Likely a heart warmer; with an eight-city tour to New York, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, and San Francisco, plus lots of online marketing‚ there will even be a Scribd excerpt and Facebook outreach to fans of Alexander McCall Smith.

Bonner, Raymond. Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong. Knopf. Feb. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780307700216. $25.95. LAW/CRIME
In early 1980s South Carolina, a white widow was found beaten to death in her closet, and young Edward Lee Elmore‚ African American, mentally retarded, and a sweet soul beloved by his family‚ was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. Bonner, a Pulitzer Prize‚ winning journalist who also has a law degree‚ examines this sorry miscarriage of justice from jury selection through the appeals process, led by a young female lawyer who fought for two decades to get Elmore a fair trial. Another wake-up call about the inadequacies of our legal system.

Denton, Sally. The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right. Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan. Jan. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9781608190898. $28. HISTORY
FDR’s election gave the country hope‚ and unsettled not a few people who felt threatened by his proposed policies. Just how threatened? Noted author/journalist Denton (American Massacre) here recounts two rarely mentioned events‚ anarchist Giuseppe Zangara’s attempted assassination of Roosevelt and an alleged plot by rich men with fascist leanings to overthrow the government. Variously called the White House Putsch and the Wall Street Putsch, as it is here, this plot has stymied historians (was it real? a scam? a nutty idea that got nowhere?), but its credibility seems to be gaining traction. Let’s hope Denton can clarify; surely this is one scary idea that stays scary.

Edsall, Thomas. The Age of Scarcity: How Austerity Will Remake American Politics. Doubleday. Feb. 2012. 208p. ISBN 9780385535199. $23.95. eISBN 9780385535205. CURRENT EVENTS
How long do we continue unemployment benefits? How far should we extend health care? How do we cope with local cuts in garbage collection, police protection, and, yes, library budgets? Longtime political correspondent at the Washington Post and now political editor at the Huffington Post, Edsall doesn’t necessarily have answers. But he shows us how to frame the question, stressing that we are currently facing a world without enough to go around. Drawn on a high-profile New Republic story; serious stuff.

Goldwag, Arthur. The New Hate: Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right. Pantheon. Feb. 2012. 352p. ISBN 9780307379696. $26.95. eISBN 9780307907073. CURRENT EVENTS
Truthers. Birthers. Tea Partyers. The author of ‚ Isms and ‚ Ologies seems well positioned to show us how those ranting today are rooted in fringe movements of the past (like those fearing Jews or Masons) and how, indeed, extremism has become mainstream. This will set the right (Left?) audience on fire.

Hartman, Kent. The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best Kept Secret. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Feb. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780312619749. $25.99. MUSIC
You may never have heard of the Wrecking Crew, but trust me, you’ve heard them. This bunch of West Coast studio musicians performed on hit records by stars ranging from the Beach Boys to the Byrds to Frank Sinatra, sometimes pushing out actual band members during recordings (hmm, bad vibrations). Some Wrecking Crew members, like Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, and Jim Gordon (who co-wrote Layla with Eric Clapton), eventually made it big. Rock lovers should take a look at this book by music entrepreneur Hartman, who’s worked with big-name artists for decades.

Holland, Tom. The Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. Doubleday. Feb. 2012. 480p. ISBN 9780385531351. $28.95. HISTORY
Having covered the last century of the Roman Republic in Rubicon and the Greek-Persian contretemps in Persian Fire, Holland turns to the surge of the Arab empire‚ built in true go-getter fashion in only a few decades. An Oxford Ph.D. in history and a multiple award winner for his historical works and classics adaptations, Holland has the credentials to pull this off. This book is being positioned as controversial; Holland evidently relies on extensive research to challenge some basic conceptions about Muhammad and the origins of Islam. Good to have a historian’s perspective and maybe the one book you’ll really need; watch what scholars have to say about this.

Kanigel, Robert. On an Irish Island. Knopf. Feb. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780307269591. $26.95. eISBN 9780307957481. HISTORY
Ever heard of Great Blasket Island? Off Ireland’s west coast, the island remained a vivid and untouched exemplar of communal Irish life‚ with pure Irish the only language spoken among the 150 or so inhabitants‚ into the early 20th century. It was then discovered by scholars and writers like John Millington Synge as the Gaelic renaissance got going. Until recently professor of science writing at MIT, Grady-Stack award winner Kanigel seems set to deliver a real delight (but no fluff)‚ just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. With a four-city tour to Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Washington, DC.

Lewis, Ricki. The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It. St. Martin’s. Feb. 2012. 320p. ISBN 9780312681906. $25.99. MEDICINE
Geneticist, genetics counselor, and science journalist Lewis here explains how gene therapy works and why it’s forever‚ by effecting a cure at the genetic root of a problem, it obviates the need for further treatment or surgery. Lewis illustrates by relating the story of eight-year-old Corey Haas, nearly blind from a hereditary disorder, who in an historic procedure had viruses bearing healing genes injected into the DNA of his eyes. A few days later he could see again. Exciting for the medically up-to-date.

Manguso, Sarah. The Guardians: An Elegy. Farrar. Feb. 2012. 160p. ISBN 9780374167240. $23. MEMOIR
Two years after escaping from a psychiatric hospital, Manguso’s friend Harris leapt in front of a Metro-North train at West 254th Street in the Bronx and was immediately killed. Here, Manguso‚ poet, shot story writer, and author of another memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay‚ details her friendship with Harris while reflecting on the year she spent mourning him even as she prepared for her wedding. A touching juxtaposition, and I hear the writing is artful.

Platt, Stephen R. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War. Knopf. Feb. 2012. 496p. ISBN 9780307271730. $30. eISBN 9780307957597. HISTORY
Launched in the early 1850s with the aim of overthrowing the fading Qing dynasty, the Taiping Rebellion remains the largest civil war in history and one of the bloodiest wars ever, claiming over 20 million lives. Though victory for the rebels would have meant a more forward-looking government, the West backed the Qing, preferring the status quo. Important reading to understand China today.

Press, Eyal. Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times. Farrar. Feb. 2012. 224p. ISBN 9780374143428. $25. SOCIAL SCIENCE
From a Swiss police captain in 1938 who knowingly breaks the law banning Jews from entering his country to a contemporary whistleblower in the financial industry who loses her job after refusing to sell a product she knows is falsely advertised, this book profiles individuals who follow their conscience rather than personal interest. Eyal, a winner of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, argues that such folk tend to be not big-time radicals but ordinary people with strongly held convictions. Maybe not as big and splashy as some other nonfiction titles, but I was drawn to this one.

Preston, Diana. The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842. Walker, dist. by Macmillan. Feb. 2012. 352p. ISBN 9780802779823. $26. HISTORY
Our current foray in Afghanistan is not the West’s first attempt to bridle this famously wild and independent-minded country. Back in 1838, Britain sensed that its stake in India was threatened by Russian, Persian, and Afghan tribes and sent its army into Afghanistan to oust the king. This First Afghan war, which set up the battle between the British and the Russians for control of central Asia, ended very, very badly for the British. In an 1842 retreat from Kabul, virtually the entire army was slaughtered, with a few soldiers taken captive and only one survivor reaching Jalalabad. Fascinating for history fans but of interest to any reader who wants to understand ongoing East‚ West tensions in the region. Oxford-educated historian Preston won the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology for Before the Fallout.

Sacco, Joe. Journalism. Metropolitan: Holt. Feb. 2012. 176p. ISBN 9780805094862. $24. CURRENT EVENTS/GRAPHIC NOVELS
A standout in comics journalism (you’ll remember Eisner Award winners Footnotes in Gaza and Safe Area Gora≈æde), Sacco turns his hand to the short form in sobering accounts that range from Saharan refugees in Malta and the trial of Bosnian warlord Milan Kovacevic to India’s untouchables and Abu Ghraib. Previously unpublished pieces address Sacco’s time with troops in Iraq. Important current events coverage.

Stanley, Timothy. The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s Feb. 2012. 432p. ISBN 9780312581749. $27.99. BIOGRAPHY
Here’s what’s especially fascinating about this political biography of leading American conservative Buchanan. A research fellow at Harvard University and Royal Holloway College, London, Englishman Stanley was a Labour Party candidate in 2005 and writes for venues like the Utopian, an out-there rag on culture and politics featuring folks like Jürgen Habermas and Michel Houellebecq (here is Stanley’s report on the Conference for Conservative Activists). That might lead one to expect a skewering‚ but there will be copromotions with organizations like the American Cause, the Gun Owners of America, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and Middle American News. Stanley also conducted exclusive interviews with Buchanan. Dare I say that I’m intrigued?

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Space Chronicles. Norton. Feb. 2012. 240p. ISBN 9780393082104. $24.95. SCIENCE
Expect Tyson, astrophysicist extraordinaire and director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, to deliver a series of sharp, smart essays addressing the future of space travel‚ and particularly its importance for America’s economy, security, and spirits. I wish more than just science lovers would read this.

Walsh, Mikey. Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Feb. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9780312622084. $24.99. MEMOIR
This is more than just a memoir of growing up in the secret world of England’s Gypsy community, because Walsh himself had a secret. The son and grandson of champion bareknuckle boxers, Walsh was imbued with his heritage but nevertheless realized early on that he was gay and would never be accepted by his community. He eventually left it behind, teaching himself to read and write and becoming an art and drama instructor at a primary school; he proposed to his partner on London’s No. 38 bus. Billed as a cross between Angela’s Ashes and Running with Scissors and then some; we know so little about the closed world of the Romany Gypsies. For once, a memoir that can be called unique.

Wolff, Jonathan. The Human Right to Health. Norton. Feb. 2012. 144p. ISBN 9780393063356. $22.95. HEALTH/MEDICINE
Is health a fundamental right, like free speech? Or would that be too much of a stretch to guarantee? In this addition to Norton’s excellent Amnesty International Global Ethics series, Wolfe, director of the Centre for Philosophy, University College London, considers the issues and comes up with a directive aimed at satisfying both sides of the debate. Good for informed readers.

Yardley, Jim. Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Passing in the Night. Knopf. Feb. 2012. 320p. ISBN 9780307272218. $26.95. eISBN 9780307957702.
Yes, this is a book about basketball. A former Beijing bureau chief for the New York Times, Yardley recounts how NBA coach Bob Weiss was hired to improve the fortunes of the Shanxi Brave Dragons, China’s worst team, but ran afoul when he tried to grant his players the freedom and individuality necessary to achieve the advanced basketball culture he was supposed to be teaching them. But obviously this is also a book about cultural differences that should give us insight into how China functions today. Not just for sports fans; with a six-city tour to Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.


  1. Ricki Lewis says:

    Thank you so much for mentioning my new book, The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It. I’m very excited about it!