Quick Review: CITY OF DEVILS by Paul French (Riverrun/Picador)

FrenchP-CityOfDevilsUKAn intriguing glimpse into Shanghai’s pre-war underworld

A spellbinding and dramatic account of Shanghai’s lawless 1930s and two of its most notorious criminals…

1930s Shanghai could give Chicago a run for its money. In the years before the Japanese invaded, the city was a haven for outlaws from all over the world: a place where pasts could be forgotten, fascism and communism outrun, names invented, fortunes made – and lost.

‘Lucky’ Jack Riley was the most notorious of those outlaws. An ex-Navy boxing champion, he escaped from prison in the States, spotted a craze for gambling and rose to become the Slot King of Shanghai. Ruler of the clubs in that day was ‘Dapper’ Joe Farren — a Jewish boy who fled Vienna’s ghetto with a dream of dance halls. His chorus lines rivalled Ziegfeld’s and his name was in lights above the city’s biggest casino.

In 1940 they bestrode the Shanghai Badlands like kings, while all around the Solitary Island was poverty, starvation and genocide. They thought they ruled Shanghai; but the city had other ideas. This is the story of their rise to power, their downfall, and the trail of destruction they left in their wake. Shanghai was their playground for a flickering few years, a city where for a fleeting moment even the wildest dreams seemed possible.

In the vein of true crime books whose real brilliance is the recreation of a time and place, this is an impeccably researched narrative non-fiction told with superb energy and brio, as if James Ellroy had stumbled into a Shanghai cathouse.

Until City of Devils, I had only read Paul French’s shorter books on Asia — mainly on early 20th Century China, but also an excellent short book about Kim Jong-un. In City of Devils, French turns his attention to the criminal underworld of Shanghai in the 1930s, and two foreigners who managed to turn certain sectors of the city into their own private kingdoms. It’s a fascinating look at extraterritoriality, Westerners’ fascination with China, and their willingness to take advantage of their hosts. Continue reading

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Upcoming: THE DINOSAUR ARTIST by Paige Williams (Hachette)

WilliamsP-DinosaurArtistUSLike a great many people, I grew up fascinated by dinosaurs. I loved reading about them, and also playing with my set of unpainted, hard-plastic dinosaur toys. (My grandfather collected special coupons from his Weetabix boxes for months before sending off for the set. Probably my happiest childhood memories of him.) There seems to be a bit of a resurgence in dino-interest in publishing — for example, Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs was recently released to much fanfare (I’ll be reading it pretty soon). Also, in movies, we have the incredible success of Jurassic World and its sequel, which will no doubt be a blockbuster success as well. This September, Hachette will release Paige Williams’s debut non-fiction book, The Dinosaur Artist. It sounds really interesting:

The first time Eric Prokopi saw T. bataar bones he was impressed. The enormous skull and teeth betrayed the apex predator’s close relation to the storied Tyrannosaurus rex, the most famous animal that ever lived. Prokopi’s obsession with fossils had begun decades earlier, when he was a Florida boy scouring for shark teeth and Ice Age remnants, and it had continued as he built a thriving business hunting, preparing, and selling specimens to avid collectors and private museums around the world. To scientists’ fury and dismay, there was big money to be made in certain corners of the fossil trade. Prokopi didn’t consider himself merely a businessman, though. He also thought of himself as a vital part of paleontology — as one of the lesser-known artistic links in bringing prehistoric creatures back to life — and saw nothing wrong with turning a profit in the process.

Bone hunting was expensive, risky, controversial work, and he increasingly needed bigger “scores.” By the time he acquired a largely complete skeleton of T. bataar and restored it in his workshop, he was highly leveraged and drawing quiet scorn from peers who worried that by bringing such a big, beautiful Mongolian dinosaur to market he would tarnish the entire trade. Presenting the skeleton for sale at a major auction house in New York City, he was relieved to see the bidding start at nearly $1 million — only to fall apart when the president of Mongolia unexpectedly stepped in to question the specimen’s origins and demand its return. An international custody battle ensued, shining new light on the black market for dinosaur fossils, the angst of scientists who fear for their field, and the precarious political tensions in post-Communist Mongolia. The Prokopi case, unprecedented in American jurisprudence, continues to reverberate throughout the intersecting worlds of paleontology, museums, art, and geopolitics.

In this gorgeous nonfiction debut, Williams uncovers an untold story that spans continents, cultures, and millennia as she grapples with the questions of who we are, how we got here, and who, ultimately, owns the past.

The Dinosaur Artist is due to be published in North America and in the UK by Hachette.

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Upcoming: GIGGED by Sarah Kessler (St. Martin’s Press)

KesslerS-GiggedUSSarah Kessler‘s upcoming book looks really interesting. The gig economy has come to dominate a few sectors, and seems to be spreading. To someone who is an accidental freelancer (I didn’t expect to be one so soon in my career), Gigged therefore looks really interesting and relevant. Even though the book is focused on the gig economy in the United States, I think it will resonate with readers in other countries, where gigging is fast becoming a wider experience of life and work. Here’s the synopsis:

The full-time job is disappearing—is landing the right gig the new American Dream?

One in three American workers is now a freelancer. This “gig economy” — one that provides neither the guarantee of steady hours nor benefits — emerged out of the digital era and has revolutionized the way we do business. High-profile tech start-ups such as Uber and Airbnb are constantly making headlines for the disruption they cause to the industries they overturn. But what are the effects of this disruption, from Wall Street down to Main Street? What challenges do employees and job-seekers face at every level of professional experience?

In the tradition of the great business narratives of our time, Gigged offers deeply-sourced, up-close-and-personal accounts of our new economy. From the computer programmer who chooses exactly which hours he works each week, to the Uber driver who starts a union, to the charity worker who believes freelance gigs might just transform a declining rural town, journalist Sarah Kessler follows a wide range of individuals from across the country to provide a nuanced look at how the gig economy is playing out in real-time.

Kessler wades through the hype and hyperbole to tackle the big questions: What does the future of work look like? Will the millennial generation do as well their parents? How can we all find meaningful, well-paid work?

Gigged is due to be published by St. Martin’s Press on June 12th, 2018.

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Quick Review: WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT by Jeffrey Rosen (Times Books)

RosenJ-APS27-WilliamHowardTaftAn excellent, short introduction to the life and career of the 27th president

The only man to serve as president and chief justice, who approached every decision in constitutional terms, defending the Founders’ vision against new populist threats to American democracy

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor.

In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt’s activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn’t forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.

William Howard Taft is one of the lesser-known presidents. For many, if he is known at all, it is due to the fact that he was quite large. It’s unfortunate that his story has been boiled down into a punch-line. A life-long Republican who was enamoured with the Constitution and those who crafted it, he spent his career judiciously adhering to what he saw as the tenets laid down by the Founding Fathers. He was meticulous, he was extremely intelligent and well-read. He placed principle above party at almost all times. In his contribution to the excellent American Presidents Series, Rosen gives readers a very good, short and engaging introduction to Taft’s life and career. Continue reading

Upcoming: LEADERSHIP IN TURBULENT TIMES by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster)

GoodwinDK-LeadershipUSAs the author of Team of Rivals and other fantastic history books, Doris Kearns Goodwin needs little introduction. This year, Goodwin’s latest book will be published by Simon & Schuster: Leadership in Turbulent Times. The title is pretty self-explanatory, and the book draws from the presidencies of four men she is most familiar with: Abraham Lincoln (Team of Rivals), Theodore Roosevelt (The Bully Pulpit), Franklin D. Roosevelt (No Ordinary Time) and Lyndon B. Johnson (Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream). Here’s the official synopsis:

In this culmination of five decades of acclaimed studies in presidential history, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin offers an illuminating exploration into the early development, growth, and exercise of leadership.

Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Does the man make the times or do the times make the man?

In Leadership in Turbulent Times, Goodwin draws upon four of the presidents she has studied most closely — Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson (in civil rights) — to show how they first recognized leadership qualities within themselves, and were recognized by others as leaders.

No common pattern describes the trajectory of leadership. Although set apart in background, abilities, and temperament, these men shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon adversity. At their best, all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose. At moments of great challenge, they were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.

This seminal work provides an accessible and essential road map for aspiring and established leaders in every field. In today’s polarized world, these stories of authentic leadership in times of apprehension and fracture take on a singular urgency.

Leadership in Turbulent Times is due to be published by Simon & Schuster in North America and Viking in the UK, in September 2018.

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Out Now: TURNING by Jessica J. Lee (Virago)

LeeJJ-TurningUKPBThis title is a bit unusual for CR, but I wanted to share the great cover for the UK paperback edition of Jessica J. Lee’s Turning, published by Virago. Full disclosure, it is by a friend of mine, but I think some readers of CR might be interested in checking it out — especially if they’re looking for something a bit different. Here’s the synopsis:

“The water slips over me like cool silk. The intimacy of touch uninhibited, rising around my legs, over my waist, up to my collarbone. When I throw back my head and relax, the lake runs into my ears. The sound of it is a muffled roar, the vibration of the body amplified by water, every sound felt as if in slow motion…” Summer swimming… but Jessica Lee – Canadian, Chinese and British — swims through all four seasons and especially loves the winter. “I long for the ice. The sharp cut of freezing water on my feet. The immeasurable black of the lake at its coldest. Swimming then means cold, and pain, and elation.”

At the age of twenty-eight, Jessica Lee, who grew up in Canada and lived in London, finds herself in Berlin. Alone. Lonely, with lowered spirits thanks to some family history and a broken heart, she is there, ostensibly, to write a thesis. And though that is what she does daily, what increasingly occupies her is swimming. So she makes a decision that she believes will win her back her confidence and independence: she will swim fifty-two of the lakes around Berlin, no matter what the weather or season. She is aware that this particular landscape is not without its own ghosts and history.

This is the story of a beautiful obsession: of the thrill of a still, turquoise lake, of cracking the ice before submerging, of floating under blue skies, of tangled weeds and murkiness, of cool, fresh, spring swimming — of facing past fears of near drowning and of breaking free.

When she completes her year of swimming Jessica finds she has new strength, and she has also found friends and has gained some understanding of how the landscape both haunts and holds us.

This book is for everyone who loves swimming, who wishes they could push themselves beyond caution, who understands the deep pleasure of using their body’s strength, who knows what it is to allow oneself to abandon all thought and float home to the surface.

Turning is out now, published by Virago in the UK, Penguin Random House in Canada, and Berlin/Piper in Germany.

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Quick Review: THE LIFE OF ANDREW JACKSON by Robert V. Remini (Harper)

ReminiRV-LifeOfAndrewJacksonUSA very useful, infuriating single-volume biography of the seventh president

Robert V. Remini’s prize-winning, three-volume biography Life of Andrew Jackson won the National Book Award on its completion in 1984 and is recognized as one of the greatest lives of a U.S. President. In this meticulously crafted single-volume abridgment, Remini captures the essence of the life and career of the seventh president of the United States. As president, from 1829-1837, Jackson was a significant force in the nations’s expansion, the growth of presidential power, and the transition from republicanism to democracy.

Jackson is a highly controversial figure who is undergoing historical reconsideration today. He is known as spurring the emergence of the modern American political division of Republican and Democractic parties, for the infamous Indian removal on the Trail of Tears, and for his brave victory against the British as Major General at the Battle of New Orleans.

Never an apologist, Remini portrays Jackson as a foreceful, sometimes tragic, hero — a man whose strength and flaws were larger than life, a president whose conviction provided the nation with one of the most influential, colorful, and controversial administrations in our history.

Robert V. Remini is considered one of the preeminent scholars of Andrew Jackson and his times. His three-volume biography of Jackson won the National Book Award and many think of it as one of the best, substantial biographies of any president. In The Life of Andrew Jackson, he has written a comprehensive, (relatively) briskly paced biography. However, the book suffers from one major flaw that coloured almost everything Remini included within. Continue reading