An impressive update on human evolution.



A lucid overview of European prehistory.

“Bones and stones” once dominated archaeology, but advances in genetics have produced new information and settled old arguments about human evolution, relationships, and migrations. Krause, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, and journalist Trappe write that the young field of archaeogenetics enables scientists to “read skeleton fragments and identify connections that would have been unknown even to the people to whom the bones belonged.” By the end of the 20th century, anthropologists knew that ancient hominids had left Africa and spread across the old world. Modern Homo sapiens did the same more than once, arriving permanently in Europe 40,000 years ago. There, they encountered the closely related Neanderthals, who soon died off or were absorbed, leaving us a sprinkling of their genes. A series of ice ages made life difficult until the current warm spell began 12,000 years ago. Modern European DNA contains genes from the hunter-gatherers who thrived until they were marginalized 8,000 years ago by a mass migration of farmers from Anatolia (modern Turkey), which had undergone the agricultural revolution. Completing the modern European genome required another mass migration of pastoralists from the Russian steppes 4,800 years ago. Near the halfway point of the book, the authors pivot from the genetics of our ancestors to their diseases. Hunter-gatherers were too scattered to support epidemics, which began when humans began to live close to one another and their animals, the source of most modern-day epidemics. Readers may be surprised to learn that scientists were only able to offer guesses about the cause of the 14th-century Black Death and earlier plagues—until 2011, when they decoded the genome of the bubonic plague bacillus. Leprosy also terrorized our ancestors but retreated, replaced by tuberculosis, a closely related bacillus, which became the leading killer until the 20th century. The authors conclude their tight yet wide-ranging survey with a discussion of how science does not support any claims of racial supremacy.

An impressive update on human evolution.  

Pub Date: April 13, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-22942-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 19, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2021

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Tragedy as well as triumph in this meticulous, fascinating tale of three generations of Churchills.


Churchill as family man.

In addition to being the subject of countless biographies, Churchill published hundreds of articles and more than 40 books of his own. In this detailed, engaging narrative, Ireland demonstrates that there is more to be learned about one of the most written-about political figures in history. Exploring the statesman’s relationship with his son, Randolph, the author begins with Churchill’s own famously unhappy childhood, chronicling his parents’ “almost comically detached method of care.” Churchill overcompensated for his father’s neglect by spoiling his son, a poorly behaved boy who became a profligate student and undisciplined adult. For all his gifts and achievements, Randolph led a chaotic life. In one two-week period in 1939, anxious for an heir lest he be killed in the war, he proposed to eight different women, all of whom turned him down. The ninth, Pamela Digby, accepted, and a year later, she became mother to his son, also named Winston. Shortly after, she was forced to rent out their home and take a job to pay down his gambling debts. On the positive side, Randolph was a gifted extempore speaker, effective journalist, and influential counselor to his father—and, later, his biographer. While recounting their relationship, Ireland draws unforgettable sketches of life in the Churchill circle, much like Erik Larson did in The Splendid and the Vile. For example, the family home at Chartwell required nearly 20 servants, as celebrities, politicians, and other “extraordinary people” came and went on a daily basis. Throughout, Ireland is generous with the bijou details: Churchill hated whistling and banned it. When dining alone, he would sometimes have a place set for his cat. His valet would select his clothes, “even pulling on his socks.” After retiring to Pratt’s club after Parliament ended its evening session, he would sometimes “take over the grill and cook the food himself.”

Tragedy as well as triumph in this meticulous, fascinating tale of three generations of Churchills.

Pub Date: March 30, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4445-8

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2021

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A valuable contribution to our understanding of one of history’s most vital figures.


An epistolary memoir of Nelson Mandela’s prison years.

From August 1962 to February 1990, Mandela (1918-2013) was imprisoned by the apartheid state of South Africa. During his more than 27 years in prison, the bulk of which he served on the notorious Robben Island prison off the shores of Cape Town, he wrote thousands of letters to family and friends, lawyers and fellow African National Congress members, prison officials, and members of the government. Heavily censored for both content and length, letters from Robben Island and South Africa’s other political prisons did not always reach their intended targets; when they did, the censorship could make them virtually unintelligible. To assemble this vitally important collection, Venter (A Free Mind: Ahmed Kathrada's Notebook from Robben Island, 2006, etc.), a longtime Johannesburg-based editor and journalist, pored through these letters in various public and private archives across South Africa and beyond as well as Mandela’s own notebooks, in which he transcribed versions of these letters. The result is a necessary, intimate portrait of the great leader. The man who emerges is warm and intelligent and a savvy, persuasive, and strategic thinker. During his life, Mandela was a loving husband and father, a devotee of the ANC’s struggle, and capable of interacting with prominent statesmen and the ANC’s rank and file. He was not above flattery or hard-nosed steeliness toward his captors as suited his needs, and he was always yearning for freedom, not only—or even primarily—for himself, but rather for his people, a goal that is the constant theme of this collection and was the consuming vision of his entire time as a prisoner. Venter adds tremendous value with his annotations and introductions to the work as a whole and to the book’s various sections.

A valuable contribution to our understanding of one of history’s most vital figures.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63149-117-7

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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