THE VICTORIAN UNDERWORLD

Highlights of Victorian low-life, from costermongers’ barrows, East End brothels, and “penny gaffs” to Scotland Yard, the court system, and the prison hulks. Any reader looking for the real-life context for Bill Sikes, Prof. Moriarty, and Raffles the Gentleman Thief will find a vivid, occasionally lurid one in this true-crime history by novelist-biographer Donald Thomas (The Ripper’s Apprentice, 1989; Henry Fielding, 1991; etc.). Concentrating on London, this history leans heavily on such notable sources as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor, the priapic memoirs (by a diarist known only as “Walter”) entitled My Secret Life, and Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. Through these and other sources, Thomas covers the environs of working-class criminals (sometimes known as “the poor who fought back”), from the slums of Whitechapel and the tenements of “The Devil’s Acre” in Westminster, colloquially called “rookeries” and “rabbit-warrens.” These firsthand accounts of thieves and prostitutes, dodgers and doxies, come alive through Mayhew’s investigations and Walter’s confessions. Thomas, on his own merits, proves best on more intricate crimes: the Great Bullion Robbery, in which several hundredweight of gold was stolen from railway safes designed by the redoubtable locksmith John Chubb; the career of the forger “Jem the Penman,” actually the successful barrister James Saward; and a notorious case in which an arch con man corrupted three detectives to cover his tracks. After this comprehensive chronicle of crime, Thomas concludes with the punishments, newly designed prisons, and miscarriages of justice. Strangely absent is the most notorious Victorian criminal, Jack the Ripper, whose killings were unlike any in England before and struck at the era’s heart. Otherwise, the only thing missing is Thomas’s own insights into Victorian morality and criminality, for which the richness of the material cries out. A colorful survey of what one reformer called “Darkest England,” though Thomas is content to watch from the shadows. (60 b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 1998

ISBN: 0-8147-8238-8

Page Count: 346

Publisher: New York Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1998

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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A welcome addition to the literature on immigration told by an author who understands the issue like few others.

THE UNDOCUMENTED AMERICANS

The debut book from “one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard.”

In addition to delivering memorable portraits of undocumented immigrants residing precariously on Staten Island and in Miami, Cleveland, Flint, and New Haven, Cornejo Villavicencio, now enrolled in the American Studies doctorate program at Yale, shares her own Ecuadorian family story (she came to the U.S. at age 5) and her anger at the exploitation of hardworking immigrants in the U.S. Because the author fully comprehends the perils of undocumented immigrants speaking to journalist, she wisely built trust slowly with her subjects. Her own undocumented status helped the cause, as did her Spanish fluency. Still, she protects those who talked to her by changing their names and other personal information. Consequently, readers must trust implicitly that the author doesn’t invent or embellish. But as she notes, “this book is not a traditional nonfiction book….I took notes by hand during interviews and after the book was finished, I destroyed those notes.” Recounting her travels to the sites where undocumented women, men, and children struggle to live above the poverty line, she reports her findings in compelling, often heart-wrenching vignettes. Cornejo Villavicencio clearly shows how employers often cheat day laborers out of hard-earned wages, and policymakers and law enforcement agents exist primarily to harm rather than assist immigrants who look and speak differently. Often, cruelty arrives not only in economic terms, but also via verbal slurs and even violence. Throughout the narrative, the author explores her own psychological struggles, including her relationships with her parents, who are considered “illegal” in the nation where they have worked hard and tried to become model residents. In some of the most deeply revealing passages, Cornejo Villavicencio chronicles her struggles reconciling her desire to help undocumented children with the knowledge that she does not want "kids of my own." Ultimately, the author’s candor about herself removes worries about the credibility of her stories.

A welcome addition to the literature on immigration told by an author who understands the issue like few others.

Pub Date: May 19, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-399-59268-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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