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The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

The Secret History of Wonder WomanThe Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (October 28, Knopf)

A riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of one of the world’s most iconic superheroes hides within it a fascinating family story—and a crucial history of twentieth-century feminism
Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she has also has a secret history.

Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator. Beginning in his undergraduate years at Harvard, Marston was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, starting with Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in 1911, when Marston was a freshman. In the 1920s, Marston and his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century. The Marston family story is a tale of drama, intrigue, and irony. In the 1930s, Marston and Byrne wrote a regular column for Family Circle celebrating conventional family life, even as they themselves pursued lives of extraordinary nonconformity. Marston, internationally known as an expert on truth—he invented the lie detector test—lived a life of secrets, only to spill them on the pages of Wonder Woman.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women’s rights—a chain of events that begins with the women’s suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later.

 

Historian Jill Lepore’s impeccably researched, and finely crafted, expose of Wonder Woman’s origins reveals the absorbing and peculiar life of William Moulton Marston, an often disgraced psychologist and researcher whose invention of the lie detector test was eclipsed by the creation of the iconic Amazonian superhero. Written with access to Marston’s private papers, The Secret History of Wonder Woman presents a man surrounded and immersed in complex and unconventional relationships with fascinating and influential feminist women. Lepore’s book offers new insight into the comics, the true-to-life and often stranger-than-fiction basis of Woman Woman’s thoughts and agenda, as well as a stunning cultural and feminist history of America. Lepore’s latest offering is must read for any American History buff. An abiding love of Wonder Woman adds to the appreciation of Lepore’s talents, but is entirely optional.

Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist

Empire of SinEmpire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist (October 28, Crown)

Empire of Sin re-creates the remarkable story of New Orleans’ thirty-years war against itself, pitting the city’s elite “better half” against its powerful and long-entrenched underworld of vice, perversity, and crime. This early-20th-century battle centers on one man: Tom Anderson, the undisputed czar of the city’s Storyville vice district, who fights desperately to keep his empire intact as it faces onslaughts from all sides. Surrounding him are the stories of flamboyant prostitutes, crusading moral reformers, dissolute jazzmen, ruthless Mafiosi, venal politicians, and one extremely violent serial killer, all battling for primacy in a wild and wicked city unlike any other in the world.

At the end of the 19th century, New Orleans was perhaps the most integrated city in the South.  Empire of Sin recounts the story of the culture war between New Orleans’s underworld of vice and its elite that resulted in a city segregated like any other Southern town. Krist tells this history by weaving together the stories of a number of individuals, structured in such a way that all of the stories are easy – and fascinating – to follow and all illuminate each other.—Nicole Bonia, Linus’s Blanket

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann

TinseltownTinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann (October 14, Harper)

By 1920, the movies had suddenly become America’s new favorite pastime, and one of the nation’s largest industries. Never before had a medium possessed such power to influence. Yet Hollywood’s glittering ascendency was threatened by a string of headline-grabbing tragedies—including the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, a legendary crime that has remained unsolved until now.

In a fiendishly involving narrative, bestselling Hollywood chronicler William J. Mann draws on a rich host of sources, including recently released FBI files, to unpack the story of the enigmatic Taylor and the diverse cast that surrounded him—including three beautiful, ambitious actresses; a grasping stage mother; a devoted valet; and a gang of two-bit thugs, any of whom might have fired the fatal bullet. And overseeing this entire landscape of intrigue was Adolph Zukor, the brilliant and ruthless founder of Paramount, locked in a struggle for control of the industry and desperate to conceal the truth about the crime. Along the way, Mann brings to life Los Angeles in the Roaring Twenties: a sparkling yet schizophrenic town filled with party girls, drug dealers, religious zealots, newly-minted legends and starlets already past their prime—a dangerous place where the powerful could still run afoul of the desperate.

A true story recreated with the suspense of a novel, Tinseltown is the work of a storyteller at the peak of his powers—and the solution to a crime that has stumped detectives and historians for nearly a century.

After World War I America flocked to the movies, but the public’s love also spurred condemnation of the movies on the part of moral crusaders. In Tinseltown, Mann tells the story of the movie industry’s attempts to halt censorship and the difficulty of doing that in the wake of a number of scandals, including the infamous murder of director William Desmond Taylor. This is an incredibly well-crafted story that reads with the speed of a murder mystery.—Nicole Bonia, Linus’s Blanket

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

Without you, There is no usWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim (October 14, Crown)

Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, all under the watchful eye of the regime. 

Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic, especially for Suki, whose letters are read by censors and who must hide her notes and photographs not only from her minders but from her colleagues—evangelical Christian missionaries who don’t know or choose to ignore that Suki doesn’t share their faith. As the weeks pass, she is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. At the same time, they offer Suki tantalizing glimpses of their private selves—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. She in turn begins to hint at the existence of a world beyond their own—at such exotic activities as surfing the Internet or traveling freely and, more dangerously, at electoral democracy and other ideas forbidden in a country where defectors risk torture and execution. But when Kim Jong-il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.

Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world’s most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls “soldiers and slaves.”

During the six months that Suki Kim taught English at an elite university in North Korea, she came to care deeply for the young men she instructed, despite their tendency to lie and inability to understand a world outside Pyongyang. This memoir delves deeply into the claustrophobic and paranoid society of the world’s most mysterious and shares moving and disturbing details about how youth being groomed to lead have been taught to think.—Kim Ukura, Sophisticated Dorkiness

The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food by Ted Genoways

The ChainThe Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food by Ted Genoways (October 14, Harper)

A powerful and important work of investigative journalism that explores the runaway growth of the American meatpacking industry and its dangerous consequences.

On the production line in American packinghouses, there is one cardinal rule: the chain never slows. Every year, the chain conveyors that set the pace of slaughter have continually accelerated to keep up with America’s growing appetite for processed meat. Acclaimed journalist Ted Genoways uses the story of Hormel Foods and soaring recession-era demand for its most famous product, Spam, to probe the state of the meatpacking industry, including the expansion of agribusiness and the effects of immigrant labor on Middle America.

Genoways interviewed scores of industry line workers, union leaders, hog farmers, and local politicians and activists. He reveals an industry pushed to its breaking point and exposes alarming new trends: sick or permanently disabled workers, abused animals, water and soil pollution, and mounting conflict between small towns and immigrant workers.

The narrative moves across the heartland, from Minnesota, to witness the cut-and-kill operation; to Iowa, to observe breeding and farrowing in massive hog barns; to Nebraska, to see the tense town hall meetings and broken windows caused by the arrival of Hispanic workers; and back to Minnesota, where political refugees from Burma give the workforce the power it needs to fight back.

In The Chain, Genoways weaves together the food activism and education of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma with a medical mystery. Central to Genoways’s story is the unexplained illness of a number of employees at a Hormel factory who got sick after working at the brain table. Genoways does not stop here, however. Instead he investigates the entire chain of pork production, highlighting issues of labor, immigration, and environmental pollution along the way. The Chain is a truly enlightening look at exactly where our food comes from, and what it does to the people and places around us on its way to the grocery store shelves.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes

As You WishAs You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (October 14, Touchstone)

From actor Cary Elwes, who played the iconic role of Westley in The Princess Bride, comes a first-person account and behind-the-scenes look at the making of the cult classic film filled with never-before-told stories, exclusive photographs, and interviews with costars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Mandy Patinkin, as well as author and screenwriter William Goldman, producer Norman Lear, and director Rob Reiner.

The Princess Bride has been a family favorite for close to three decades. Ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the top 100 Greatest Love Stories and by the Writers Guild of America as one of the top 100 screenplays of all time, The Princess Bride will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come.

Cary Elwes was inspired to share his memories and give fans an unprecedented look into the creation of the film while participating in the twenty-fifth anniversary cast reunion. In As You Wish he has created an enchanting experience; in addition to never-before seen photos and interviews with his fellow cast mates, there are plenty of set secrets and backstage stories.

The Princess Bride is one of those timeless movies appreciated by fans of all ages, with a tremendous fan base built up over the last twenty-five years.  Elwes offers readers a first-person account of the making of the film, including never-released behind-the-scenes stories and photographs as well as interviews with fellow cast members. This book is certain to stir up strong feelings of nostalgia for fans of this cult classic.—Jenn Lawrence, Jenn’s Bookshelves

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig

The Birth of The PillThe Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig (October 13, Norton)

We know it simply as “the pill,” yet its genesis was anything but simple. Jonathan Eig’s masterful narrative revolves around four principal characters: the fiery feminist Margaret Sanger, who was a champion of birth control in her campaign for the rights of women but neglected her own children in pursuit of free love; the beautiful Katharine McCormick, who owed her fortune to her wealthy husband, the son of the founder of International Harvester and a schizophrenic; the visionary scientist Gregory Pincus, who was dismissed by Harvard in the 1930s as a result of his experimentation with in vitrofertilization but who, after he was approached by Sanger and McCormick, grew obsessed with the idea of inventing a drug that could stop ovulation; and the telegenic John Rock, a Catholic doctor from Boston who battled his own church to become an enormously effective advocate in the effort to win public approval for the drug that would be marketed by Searle as Enovid.

Spanning the years from Sanger’s heady Greenwich Village days in the early twentieth century to trial tests in Puerto Rico in the 1950s to the cusp of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, this is a grand story of radical feminist politics, scientific ingenuity, establishment opposition, and, ultimately, a sea change in social attitudes. Brilliantly researched and briskly written, The Birth of the Pill is gripping social, cultural, and scientific history.

Eig seamlessly blends history, medicine, science, social issues, and a cast of larger-than-life characters in his account of the development of the birth control pill. It’s worth reading for the fascinating details and statistics, but it’s the cultural impact of the pill that will really leave readers wowed. Fans of the social sciences shouldn’t miss this well-written and engaging history.—Swapna Krishna, S. Krishna Books

 

Reunion by Hannah Pittard

ReunionReunion by Hannah Pittard (October 7, Grand Central Publishing)

Five minutes before her flight is set to take off, Kate Pulaski, failed screenwriter and newly failed wife with scarcely a hundred dollars to her name, learns that her estranged father has killed himself. More shocked than saddened by the news, she gives in to her siblings’ request that she join them, along with her many half-siblings and most of her father’s five former wives, in Atlanta, their birthplace, for a final farewell.

Written with huge heart and bracing wit, Reunion takes place over the following four days, as family secrets are revealed, personal foibles are exposed, and Kate-an inveterate liar looking for a way to come clean-slowly begins to acknowledge the overwhelming similarities between herself and the man she never thought she’d claim as an influence, much less a father. Hannah Pittard’s “engaging and vigorous”* prose masterfully illuminates the problems that can divide modern families–and the ties that prove impossible to break.

Kate’s life is a mess. She is deeply in debt, on the brink of divorce, and hiding her troubles from her family. When she learns of her estranged father’s suicide she is forced to confront her childhood and her less than stellar choices in life. Reunion is a celebration of atonement and life’s second chances. Hannah Pittard’s empathetic storytelling and pitch perfect tone create an insightful and satisfying read.—Jennifer Conner, Literate Housewife

The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals by Mikita Brottman

The Great GrisbyThe Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals by Mikita Brottman (October 7, Harper)

A scholar, psychoanalyst, and cultural critic explores the multifaceted role dogs play in our world in this charming bestiary of dogs from literature, lore, and life.

While gradually unveiling her eight-year love affair with her French bulldog, Grisby, Mikita Brottman ruminates on the singular bond between dogs and humans. Why do prevailing attitudes warn us against loving our pet “too much”? Is her relationship with Grisby nourishing or dysfunctional, commonplace or unique? Challenging the assumption that there’s something repressed and neurotic about those deeply connected to a dog, she turns her keen eye on the many ways in which dog is the mirror of man.

The Great Grisby is organized into twenty-six alphabetically arranged chapters, each devoted to a particular human-canine union drawn from history, art, philosophy, or literature. Here is Picasso’s dachshund Lump; Freud’s chow Yofi; Bill Sikes’s mutt Bull’s Eye in Oliver Twist; and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel Flush, whose biography was penned by Virginia Woolf. There are royal dogs, like Prince Albert’s greyhound Eos, and dogs cherished by authors, like Thomas Hardy’s fox terrier, Wessex. Brottman’s own beloved Grisby serves as an envoy for sniffing out these remarkable companions.

Quirky and delightful, and peppered with incisive personal reflections and black-and-white sketches portraying a different dog and its owner drawn by the enormously talented Davina “Psamophis” Falcão, The Great Grisby reveals how much dogs have to teach us about empathy, happiness, love—and what it means to be human.

Perfect for anyone who loves dogs, The Great Grisby explores the history of dogs in literature and public discourse with wit and intelligence. Filled with warm personal anecdotes and interesting slices of history, Brottman goes to the heart of what our furry friends mean to us. A pleasurable and fun read for animal lovers.—Amy Riley, My Friend Amy

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some LuckSome Luck by Jane Smiley (October 7, 2014, Knopf)

On their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different children: from Frank, the handsome, willful first born, and Joe, whose love of animals and the land sustains him, to Claire, who earns a special place in her father’s heart. 

Each chapter in Some Luck covers a single year, beginning in 1920, as American soldiers like Walter return home from World War I, and going up through the early 1950s, with the country on the cusp of enormous social and economic change. As the Langdons branch out from Iowa to both coasts of America, the personal and the historical merge seamlessly: one moment electricity is just beginning to power the farm, and the next a son is volunteering to fight the Nazis; later still, a girl you’d seen growing up now has a little girl of her own, and you discover that your laughter and your admiration for all these lives are mixing with tears.   

Some Luck delivers on everything we look for in a work of fiction. Taking us through cycles of births and deaths, passions and betrayals, among characters we come to know inside and out, it is a tour de force that stands wholly on its own. But it is also the first part of a dazzling epic trilogy—a literary adventure that will span a century in America: an astonishing feat of storytelling by a beloved writer at the height of her powers.

In Some Luck, the first in a trilogy, Smiley solidifies her reputation for having an intimate understanding of the rural Midwest. Distinct, complex characters and a rich narrative voice distinguish this multigenerational saga, as the Langstons navigate three decades of uncertain economics, changing technology, and unpredictable Iowa weather, beating the odds to see their family farm survive into the postwar years.—Candace B. Levy, Beth Fish Reads