An amazing tale that is indeed “almost too strange to be true.”

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THE STRANGE CAREER OF WILLIAM ELLIS

THE TEXAS SLAVE WHO BECAME A MEXICAN MILLIONAIRE

A remarkable historical detective story that unearths the life and times of a “trickster” African-American who was able to “pass,” and strive spectacularly, as Latino.

During a time of deep racial anxiety in the United States—just after the Civil War and through the 1920s—the “color bar” was deeply pronounced and enforced in all aspects of society, from travel to public establishments to housing to marriage. Jacoby (History/Columbia Univ.; Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History, 2008, etc.) delves minutely into this unsettling history of racial relations through the life of nimble businessman William Henry Ellis, aka Guillermo Enrique Eliseo—born in 1864 to biracial slaves in Victoria, Texas—whose olive skin and facility with Spanish allowed him to move freely between the porous U.S.–Mexico border and reinvent himself in an extraordinary manner. Ellis’ ability to pass as Mexican or Cuban (or even Hawaiian) while on business above and below the border is only one facet of this fascinating story. He rode in first-class cars, stayed at length in the British-owned Hotel Gillow in Mexico City, built a trading firm on Wall Street, and married a white woman. Ellis was surely a kind of confidence man, but he was also a crusader for his race and became embroiled in Republican politics in the 1880s, cooking up a scheme to recolonize African-American tenant farmers from the cotton-picking South to a huge tract of land in northern Mexico during a time of profound labor shortages in Mexico, where racial relations were far less fraught than in America. Jacoby imparts important, unknown aspects of Mexican-American history and does a stellar feat of research in weaving together this fragmented life as just one incredible example of the American experience in all its complexity and ingenuity.

An amazing tale that is indeed “almost too strange to be true.”

Pub Date: June 14, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-23925-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2016

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Finely honed biographical intuition and a novelist’s sensibility make for a stylish, engrossing narrative.

THE MAN IN THE RED COAT

A fresh, urbane history of the dramatic and melodramatic belle epoque.

When Barnes (The Only Story, 2018, etc.), winner of the Man Booker Prize and many other literary awards, first saw John Singer Sargent’s striking portrait of Dr. Samuel Pozzi—handsome, “virile, yet slender,” dressed in a sumptuous scarlet coat—he was intrigued by a figure he had not yet encountered in his readings about 19th-century France. The wall label revealed that Pozzi was a gynecologist; a magazine article called him “not only the father of French gynecology, but also a confirmed sex addict who routinely attempted to seduce his female patients.” The paradox of healer and exploiter posed an alluring mystery that Barnes was eager to investigate. Pozzi, he discovered, succeeded in his amorous affairs as much as in his acclaimed career. “I have never met a man as seductive as Pozzi,” the arrogant Count Robert de Montesquiou recalled; Pozzi was a “man of rare good sense and rare good taste,” “filled with knowledge and purpose” as well as “grace and charm.” The author’s portrait, as admiring as Sargent’s, depicts a “hospitable, generous” man, “rich by marriage, clubbable, inquisitive, cultured and well travelled,” and brilliant. The cosmopolitan Pozzi, his supercilious friend Montesquiou, and “gentle, whimsical” Edmond de Polignac are central characters in Barnes’ irreverent, gossipy, sparkling history of the belle epoque, “a time of vast wealth for the wealthy, of social power for the aristocracy, of uncontrolled and intricate snobbery, of headlong colonial ambition, of artistic patronage, and of duels whose scale of violence often reflected personal irascibility more than offended honor.” Dueling, writes the author, “was not just the highest form of sport, it also required the highest form of manliness.” Barnes peoples his history with a spirited cast of characters, including Sargent and Whistler, Oscar Wilde and Sarah Bernhardt (who adored Pozzi), Henry James and Proust, Pozzi’s diarist daughter, Catherine, and unhappy wife, Therese, and scores more.

Finely honed biographical intuition and a novelist’s sensibility make for a stylish, engrossing narrative.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-65877-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

THE LIBRARY BOOK

An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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