In the Mail – Non Fiction Edition

It has been quite a while since I have posted one of these “In the Mail” features. For those of you unfamiliar with the format, basically I just post a link and a blurb to books that I have received from publishers. This provides notice of books readers might not be aware of, rewards the publishers for sending me said books, and is a handy way for me to keep track of the books I get and what critics are saying about them.

Freud’s Wizard: Ernest Jones and the Transformation of Psychoanalysis by Brenda Maddox

Publishers Weekly

In writing the life of the man who established psychoanalysis in Britain, veteran biographer Maddox (Nora: The Real Molly Bloom) gives an equally fascinating (if more familiar) picture of the early world of psychoanalysis, with its conflicting egos and theoretical battles, particularly between strict Freudians and the followers of Melanie Klein, which fiercely divided the English psychoanalytic society founded and ruled over by Ernest Jones. Maddox frames Jones’s life as the story of a man whose enormous gifts finally allowed him to triumph over early disgrace. A Welshman who’d shown brilliance as a medical student, Jones (1879–1958) had to leave England in 1908 after accusations of sexual impropriety while examining several youngsters; Maddox finds the evidence in one case “damning.” But Jones returned two years later to practice psychoanalysis and advocate tirelessly for it, soon becoming a member of Freud’s inner circle.

While one wishes for a bit more insight, Maddox wisely refrains from psychoanalyzing Jones, who took full advantage of his ability to mesmerize women before finally settling into a happy marriage, and his alternately affectionate and irritable relationship with his mentor (Jones at one point accused Freud’s daughter, Anna, of being “insufficiently analyzed”; Freud in turn called Jones a lying Welshman). Perhaps Jones’s greatest moment was in saving Freud and many other Jewish psychoanalysts from the Nazis. Maddox adds an important chapter to the history of psychoanalysis in this balanced and skillful biography.

Michelangelo in Ravensbruck: One Woman’s War Against the Nazis by Karolina Lanckoronska


Countess Lanckoronska’s memoir of struggle and survival in Poland during World War II chronicles two tragedies: the Holocaust and the war of occupation and conquest against the Poles by the Russians and the Germans. In 1939, at the outbreak of the war, she lived in Lvov, where she held the post of professor of Renaissance Italian art. Lanckoronska (1898-2002) became active in the resistance movement. She describes her work in the underground in Soviet-occupied Lvov, her escape into Nazi-occupied Polish territories, and her imprisonment in Nazi jails and in the concentration camp of Ravensbruck. There she refused the so-called “privileged” treatment of a special solitary cell, choosing instead to share the fate of her fellow inmates, whom she tried to help. She worked in the sick bay and also gave lectures on art and European history to women facing death. First published in Poland in 2001 and containing eight pages of black-and-white photographs, the book offers a rare insight into this aspect of the Holocaust and of the courage of those who resisted the mass murderers.

Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World by Justin Marozzi

Publishers Weekly

By the time of his death in 1405, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane-a pejorative derivative of the nickname “Temur the Lame”-commanded as much land and fear as any ruler in history. Literally following in the footsteps of Ghengis Khan, he built his empire with one invasion after the next, eventually amassing a kingdom that stretched “from Moscow to the Mediterranean, from Delhi to Damascus.” Nonetheless, Tamerlane remains relatively unknown in the Western world, taking a historical backseat to Ghengis despite a reign and ruthlessness every bit as remarkable. Faced with such a complex and underreported subject, Marozzi delivers an exceptional account of the emperor’s life, revealing him to be both an extravagantly merciless tyrant and tireless proponent for the cultural and architectural progress in his beloved Samarkand (in modern day Uzbekistan).

One peculiar choice, however, is the book’s subtitle, as Tamerlane killed tens of thousands of his fellow Muslims along his so-called “pilgrimage of destruction,” including a particularly bloody massacre of Baghdad that left 90,000 dead, “their heads cemented into 120 towers.” The subtitle certainly wasn’t chosen for a lack of nicknames, as Tamerlane’s life produced plenty: “Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction.” “Emperor of the Age.” “Unconquered Lord of the Seven Climes.” “Scourge of God.” The list goes on, too, leading one to wonder how it is that such a large part of the world hardly recognizes name.

Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums

Publishers Weekly

This lovely, engaging memoir by acclaimed entertainment writer Sessums is not so much a gay coming-out story (although its author does discover and act upon his homosexuality) as an investigation of the effects of popular culture on a young, white boy growing up in the racist South in the 1950s. Sessums, who has written for Vanity Fair, Interview and Allure, was born in 1956 and raised outside of Jackson, Miss., by loving parents (although his father wished him to be less effeminate) both of whom died before his 10th birthday. But the heart of Sessums’s memoir is how Hollywood and Broadway stars were obsessions and guide posts to a different life, and how female icons (such as Dusty Springfield and Audrey Hepburn) were important role models as he became part of a gay community. At times the prose can be preeningly literary as when Sessums describes his mother and her friends as “they carefully rubbed Coppertone suntan lotion on their smooth and lovely backs, their jutting shoulder blades like the nubs of de-winged angels grubbing around down here on earth.” But at other times he can be emotionally shocking and precise as when recalling how, at 16, he hears his older friend Frank Hains tell a delighted Eudora Welty about his affairs with “young African-Americans.” A marked detour from the often repetitive coming-out memoir, Sessums’s story offers wit and incisive observation.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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