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By Jason Boog for Galley Cat

Today Amazon.com, Inc. unveiled an unexpected new foreign language imprint, AmazonCrossing.

The program will focus on “English-language translations of foreign-language books,” opening with a translation Tierno Monenembo’s novel, The King of Kahel–published in English for the first time in November 2010. Both print and Kindle editions will be sold.

Here’s more from Jeff Belle, Amazon’s Vice President of Books: “The goal of our publishing programs is to introduce readers to terrific authors they might not otherwise have the chance to know … Our international customers have made us aware of exciting established and emerging voices from other cultures and countries that have not been translated for English-language readers. These great voices and great books deserve a wider audience, and that’s why we created AmazonCrossing.”

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Rachel Polonsky for The Daily Mail

Our recent game of catch-me-if-you-can has taught me a lot about the mind of Orlando Figes, Professor of Russian History at Birkbeck College, London. But his latest move has taken my breath away.

A contact has rung to say that – through PR agent Jonathan Hawker of Financial Dynamics – Figes has not only apologised for his anonymous Amazon reviews and the aggressive lies he told to conceal his responsibility for them, but he is now pleading that his actions were symptoms of the ‘very deep depression’ he has been in since working on The Whisperers, his book about the victims of Stalin.

Figes sends Professor Robert Service, of Oxford University, the same spin. Bob, as I now call him, forwards me the email. (We’ve shared a lot recently.)

The Whisperers is Figes’s most recent book. It is an important testament to real and terrible crimes. As Figes said himself, when reviewing it on Amazon in 2008 under the pseudonym ‘Historian’, it is ‘a book about the interior lives of ordinary Russians during the Stalinist period’.

Are we to understand then that Figes, who is now on sick leave from his job at Birkbeck College, was so traumatised by this research that he should be seen as another victim of Joseph Stalin, one of the cruellest tyrants in human history?

I first spotted Figes’s immortal puff for The Whisperers on Monday, April 12.

Going online to check how my book Molotov’s Magic Lantern was faring, I noticed a new review.

The reviewer, Historian, had given my book just one star. On Amazon, one star means ‘I hate it’.

‘This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever written,’ Historian began. ‘Polonsky, it turns out, is not an academic, as claimed in the blurb, but the wife of a foreign lawyer.’

I called to my husband Marc, who is indeed a lawyer, and has joint British and American nationality, from the study. ‘Look, Figes has reviewed me anonymously on Amazon.’ I knew it was him immediately and, as the evidence piled up and finally overwhelmed him, I have never doubted it for a second.

I have history with Figes. In 2002, I gave his book Natasha’s Dance a bad review in the Times Literary Supplement. My review made Figes incandescent with rage, I am told, and he issued libel threats to newspapers that wanted to follow up the story.

I clicked on the ‘See all my reviews’ link beside Historian’s name, and read all ten. As well as trashing my book, Historian had trashed three books by Bob Service, and the book by Kate Summerscale that beat Figes and The Whisperers to the lucrative Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008.

‘It is better to go to Figes’s The Whisperers,’ Historian told Amazon readers in his hatchet-job on Service’s Stalin.

All it took was one click on Historian’s profile to link to the incriminating nickname ‘orlando-birkbeck’. How could he have been so careless, I marvelled. The nickname was generated when Figes set up his Amazon account to buy books.

When he created Historian’s profile on the same account in 2008 and began to publish online reviews, he doubtless did not inspect the details of this profile – never pressed the link on his own name that led straight to the incriminating nickname.

I saved the Amazon pages on my hard disk, printed them, scanned them, and sent the link to Bob Service.

Throughout this thrilling high-stakes chase, Bob has been a true comrade. He is a good man. He thinks the best of people. It took him till the next morning, April 13, to take it in. Orlando Figes, a fellow historian in a small field, had been attacking his books from behind a mask for years.

Bob was angry. He wanted to do something. Meanwhile, I had mentioned Historian’s review to a couple of friends, who went straight to the comments thread. ‘This review is clearly by Orlando Figes,’ said one W. Cohen.

Another, signing herself H. Crawley, wrote: ‘Figes has not forgiven Rachel Polonsky for her investigation into his questionable sources for Natasha’s Dance, so now, in a petulant act of spite, he tries anonymously to trash her brilliant new book.’ Thank you, W. Cohen and Harriet Crawley.

Looking back on it, Bob thinks of what he did on April 13, as reckless impulse. He emailed 31 fellow historians, attaching a scan of Historian’s reviews. He did not say Historian was Orlando Figes, but pointed out the nickname ‘orlando-birkbeck’.

As it turned out, that impulsive email could have destroyed Bob. He did not know how dangerous Figes would become when his reputation was on the line.

Meanwhile, Figes had returned to the scene, to check on his review of my book. Seeing the comments, he must have felt panic.

He deleted the incriminating reviews and changed his profile name from Historian to Maksoludu. (Note to Figes: who is Maksoludu?).

The next day, Bob received his first threat from Figes’s lawyer, David Price. ‘Your email [to the historians] clearly suggests that my client was responsible for the reviews to which you refer.

This is entirely untrue and defamatory as well as being inherently unlikely,’ Price snarled. The tone was frightening, even for those more accustomed. Bob was terrified.

The same day, Figes wrote to the historians Bob had contacted, declaring that Historian could have been ‘virtually anybody’, and suggesting it was probably a malicious hoaxer.

The stakes could not have been higher. Like Figes, Bob and I knew exactly who Historian was, but unless we could prove it, Bob and his wife Adele stood to lose everything if it progressed as far as a libel suit.

‘Adele and I are scared out of our wits,’ he told me that night. ‘I can’t leave her without a home.’ Believe me, the past fortnight has been hell for Bob and Adele.

Fire must be fought with fire. I contacted Nigel Tait of libel lawyers Carter-Ruck, softly spoken but with a fearsome reputation.

Meanwhile, from an anonymous source in the US, Bob had acquired a piece of killer evidence: an Amazon ‘wishlist’ of history books, dating back to 2001, which unambiguously linked Historian and Maksoludu with Figes and an address in Cambridge. Another oversight by Figes.

I now decided to hold the wishlist back while, on Friday, April 16, through Carter-Ruck, I invited Figes to join me in requesting that Amazon state whether or not the profiles Historian or Mak-soludu were connected with any account of Figes.

Figes, meanwhile, had deleted both profiles, replacing them with a new profile called No Name, and the taunting nickname Jokerinthepack. He then called Amazon to ask whether the profiles Historian and Maksoludu were connected with his account.

Amazon duly responded by email that there were no such profiles on the website.

Fearing that the story was about to break in the Press, Figes instructed David Price to issue Bob Service with another threat, attaching his ‘proof’, the email from Amazon.

I broke cover with my wishlist. I instructed Carter-Ruck to send him a threatening letter, attaching the wishlist that showed that Historian and Orlando Figes were one and the same.

Finally, Figes was on the receiving end of the kind of letter he has been sending out to publications great and small for more than a decade, to stop anyone criticising his books or saying there were problems of scholarly propriety with them. (He had the means for this legal barrage; he has made a lot of money from his books.)

A letter of the kind which, last week, in a new moral low, he had sent to a colleague, Bob Service, who he knew to be telling the truth.

Silence from the enemy camp. Then, around midnight, came the announcement that Figes’s wife, the barrister and academic Stephanie Palmer, wrote the poisonous reviews.

Who would believe it, I wondered. Some did. The story went round the world. A lie was becoming a public fact.

By using his wife as a human shield, Figes made it hard for me to keep up my fight to get the truth out. I felt for her, and still do.

Even hardened lawyers don’t like to attack a woman in distress. But the truth had to come out.

Without informing Carter-Ruck, I wrote privately to Stephanie Palmer on April 21, telling her I meant her and her family no harm, urging her to come clean, and suggesting that Orlando Figes’s only real enemy was inside his own head.

The next day my flame-throwers at Carter-Ruck rained down more fire on Figes and Palmer.

It was a tough week. Bob Service, now lighter of heart, helped me keep my nerve. It was not so much a battle of wits now, as a battle of wills.

I don’t know what made Figes and Palmer break in the middle of Thursday night. She sent me an email, thanking me for my message, and the next day came the PR-managed announcement that Figes had confessed.

Other people’s interior lives are a mystery. I know more about Orlando Figes than I would like to know, but I can’t make sense of his conduct. I also know about the crimes of the Stalin period.

Millions of innocent people had their mental health destroyed by Stalin. Take it from me. Whatever his PR man may say, Orlando Figes is not one of them.

By ROBERT BARR
Associated Press Writer

LONDON (AP) – A reviewer signed as “Historian” posted some savage reviews on Amazon’s Web pages, but had a weakness for one writer, celebrated author and Russia expert Orlando Figes.

Historian has now been exposed as Figes’ loyal wife, Stephanie Palmer, a senior law lecturer at Girton College at Cambridge University.

The revelation has raised eyebrows in Britain’s cozy academic world, where public backbiting is frowned upon.

Figes, a professor of history at Birkbeck College, had denied that he had anything to do with the harsh comments on Amazon about books by Rachel Polonsky, Robert Service and Kate Summerscale.

On Friday, however, Figes’ lawyer, David Price, confirmed that the reviews were posted by Palmer.

“My client’s wife wrote the reviews,” said a statement issued by Price. “My client has only just found out about this, this evening. Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear.”

The unmasking of one of the countless anonymous ranters on the World Wide Web gave scandal-starved British journalists some relief from volcanic ash and the election campaign on Monday.

“It was the professor’s wife, with a keyboard, on Amazon,” said the headline on The Bookseller magazine’s Web site.

The Guardian newspaper said Polonsky had noticed one stinging review among several raves for her book, “Molotov’s Magic Lantern.” Historian called it “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published.”

Historian had been similarly unkind to Service, calling his book on Leon Trotsky a “dull read.”

And when Figes lost out to Summerscale for the 30,000-pound ($45,000) Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008, Historian said: “Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking?”

Figes’ entry for the Johnson prize, “The Whisperer,” was praised as a “beautiful and necessary” account of the Soviet Union. “I hope he writes forever,” Historian gushed.

“Let’s be clear: what Miss Palmer did was an absolute scandal, one to which none of her victims would ever have stooped,” Philip Hensher wrote in The Independent.

He noted that Polonsky had given a rotten review to one of Figes’ books in 2002, “but did so honorably, under her own name in The Times Literary Supplement.”

Amazon did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Six years ago, some authors were caught anonymously puffing their own books on Amazon. One of those authors, John Rechy, pleaded self-defense.

“That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd,” Rechy said at the time. “How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them.”

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Chris Patten for The Observer

While I disagree with many of the judgments on recent history made by Tony Judt in this book, there is no doubt that he is himself a great historian. His one-volume book on postwar Europe is much the best-written, most authoritative account of this extraordinarily creative, though latterly disappointing, epoch. As readers of the New York Review of Books will know, Judt, who grew up in London but has spent most of his professional life in the US, is also a formidably polymathic essayist. He is intellectually brave – witness his well-founded criticisms of Israel’s policies in Palestine. Beyond the imaginings of most of us, Judt is personally brave, too; motor neurone disease has left him quadriplegic. This book is in part the product of the author’s night-time ordeals, using his mind and memory to get through the immobile loneliness of the hours of darkness, and then dictating to an assistant the thoughts assembled on his private Calvary.

While Judt is proudly a man of the left, with a romantic view of a world now gone, in which national solidarity and comradeship were underpinned by pre-Beeching railway lines, there is plenty in this marvellously written book that has an old-fashioned Tory like me nodding in enthusiastic agreement.

“Something is profoundly wrong,” argues Judt, “with the way we live today.” We have wasted the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall; they have been consumed by the locusts, or more precisely by the shamelessly greedy. It has been the era of all the Dicks, from Cheney to Fuld, politically “an age of the pygmies”. Unregulated markets have crashed. Wars of choice have left bloody destruction in their wake. The snouts have been buried deep in the trough. Beyond the noise of guzzling, we can hear no moral critique of what has happened, no shout of rage that things don’t have to be like this.

That is what Judt sets out to provide: a polemic that can offer some hope for the young that there is a better way of organising our affairs. It is called social democracy, and while it represents neither an ideal future nor an ideal past, “it is better than anything else to hand”.

Social democracy is not something that Americans can talk about, though there is a bit of cognitive dissonance about their attitudes to the public and private realms of social provision. Moreover, Eisenhower and Johnson offered them at least a reflection of the infrastructure development and welfarism that were the hallmarks of the “trente glorieuses” in Europe after the war. Planning, progressive taxation, high public spending and nationalised services brought inclusive economic growth with increasing equity and social harmony. A mostly benign state provided the security for which people yearn, replacing the market’s invisible hand with more visible supportive direction. Maybe all was not for the best, but it was pretty good all the same – and would have gladdened the heart of that scion of egalitarian Eton, John Maynard Keynes.

Judt argues that this world came crashing down in the 1980s under the transatlantic assault of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They were not quite the “slaves of defunct economists”, but certainly took intellectual sustenance from a group of mostly Austrian thinkers, such as Friedrich von Hayek, whose work assumed that an increased role for the state (such as was represented by Labour’s policies in Britain) would lead eventually to what Hayek himself called “the state of mind in which Nazism could become successful”. Thus, fears generated by what happened in central Europe in the 1930s came to shape the western economies 50 years later. The problem about all this, identified by the greatest if also the most elusive of modern Conservative philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, was that “a plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics“.

In any event, according to Judt, since the 1980s, from Reagan to Bush, from Thatcher to Brown, it has been downhill all the way, with growing inequity, a declining belief in the role of the state and a falling away from civic engagement. “As recently as the 1970s, the idea that the point of life was to get rich and that governments existed to facilitate this would have been ridiculed: not only by capitalism’s traditional critics but also by many of its staunchest defenders.” The trouble about this argument is that I think that Thatcher would have been among those who would have denounced this “bring on the bling” view of the world, and charitably I must assume that the same would even be true of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson.

Of course, Judt is right to denounce all-embracing ideologies. Nothing in politics explains everything. As a fan of Oakeshott, who believed, as I do, that life is a predicament not a journey, I have an instinctive dislike of political road maps. What works, works for me, provided the outcome is benign. But what was happening in Britain in the 1970s wasn’t working. As centre-left commentators such as Hugo Young and Peter Jenkins noted, the country was in danger of seeing relative decline (that is, in relation to our neighbours) mutate into absolute decline. People voted for Margaret Thatcher because they were unhappy with too-powerful trade unions, excessive taxation, inefficient public services that seemed to be run principally for those who worked in them and bossy municipal socialism that had produced dreadful tower-block estates in place of (admittedly often awful) Coronation Streets. Thatcher was not imposed on Britain by the Chicago school. She was elected to turn things around and, like her or not, by and large she did.

The state did not disappear under Thatcher in a bonfire of public spending. In the first nine years under her, public spending as a proportion of GDP was higher than in the first nine years under Blair-Brown. The trouble in Britain is that as soon as we turn the economy around and put it on a more sustainable growth path, we tend to let spending and credit rip and get back into economic trouble. I do not have a declinist view of Britain, but we have been very bad at running our economy. Presumably Tony Judt will be intellectually comforted to know that with the new 50% tax on high earners, the UK will have (alongside Japan) the highest tax rates in the G8. Only four out of the 30 OECD countries will have higher tax rates than us. But I am not sure what pleasure will be extracted from the recognition that Britain is now heading for a debt-to-GDP proportion of more than 100%. Keynes himself thought anything larger than 25% was unwise. Perhaps that is now a defunct opinion and has nothing to do with social democracy.

All this said, Judt’s book asks most of the better sort of questions about modern politics. How should we define the role of the state without assuming that the state itself should do everything? How can we restore an argument about values to political debates, which partly because of our straitened circumstances are usually simply about costs and utilitarian benefit? (Look at the present disgraceful treatment by the government of the humanities at our universities.) How can we engage younger citizens in politics, given how much the baby-boomer generation of leaders has discredited what was once seen as an honourable pursuit? Tony Judt himself encourages dissent from conformity, for which there is much to be said. Blessed are the trouble-makers. But there is, too, the more conventional optimistic appeal to activism represented by President Obama, whose star rises again after its premature eclipse. Judt appears to have lost faith a little too readily in Obama’s ability to promote change. A point in the president’s favour is that he is the sort of politician who will read this book and be galvanised by it – as was this ex-politician – into thinking rather harder about his own beliefs.

Chris Patten is chancellor of Oxford University and a former Conservative party chairman. His latest book is What Next? Surviving the 21st Century (Penguin)

Jason Boog for GalleyCat

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As the agency model takes effect today on many eBooks, Amazon has begun labeling eBooks priced by publishers with a new disclaimer–disavowing their role in pricing and sending a clear message to customers. Click here to see more coverage of iPad release day–the driving force behind this new model.

Amazon customers have responded passionately in the Amazon forums about the shift to an agency model. A reader named Panama has launched a thread to “boycott agency books”. One new Kindle user wrote in the forums: “Amazon please identify under which model each ebook is sold near the buy button. The name of the publisher (top of the organization not a subsidiary) would be great also.”

You can see the note on Hachette and Macmillan agency model-priced eBooks. Follow this link to Twilight by Stephenie Meyer or No Apology by Mitt Romney. This appears to have resolved the technical “hiccups” that kept Hachette eBooks off Amazon’s shelf for a few days

Bill Williams for The Boston Globe

The United States currently incarcerates 2.4 million people, a greater proportion of its citizens than any other nation in the world. How did it happen?

In his ambitious new book Robert Perkinson argues that the country’s modern prisons evolved out of slavery, with Texas leading the way. After the Civil War, Southern states began arresting freed slaves, sometimes on flimsy charges, and sending them to work for plantation owners in a system known as “convict leasing.’’ The author estimates that the death toll associated with convict leasing exceeded 30,000 over several decades. States eventually ended the practice when they realized it would be more profitable to set up their own farms and factories, using convict labor.

Perkinson, who teaches history at the University of Hawaii, describes the horrific treatment of prisoners, including beatings and backbreaking work that sometimes resulted in death. Texas guards punished inmates by locking them in dark boxes, and once stuffed 12 convicts into such a box. Within hours, eight had died from suffocation. Some penologists compared conditions at Texas prison plantations to those in Nazi concentration camps.

In the era of Jim Crow the public cared little about how convicts were treated. “Texas became the template for a more fearful and vengeful society,’’ Perkinson writes.

Unfortunately, the book bogs down in repetition and too many numbers, names, and quotes. After reading scores of stories of rapes, beatings, and savage mistreatment, one’s mind becomes numb.

An important theme in the book is the long-running debate involving harsh punishment versus rehabilitation. The reader soon feels a sense of déjà vu, as myriad progressive initiatives are each followed by disillusionment and a return to tougher punishment. Researchers have yet to prove a link between rehabilitation programs and reduced recidivism, but after reading this book one wonders if the progressive model has ever been given a fair trial.

Between 1965 and 2000, the prison population shot up 600 percent nationally, but 1,200 percent in Texas. The Lone Star state today keeps 170,000 inmates under lock and key, which is more than the countries of Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined.

The author demonstrates that both Democrats and Republicans have promoted the current policy of toughness and mass incarceration because no politician wants to be tagged as “soft on crime.’’

The federal prison system mushroomed under Republican Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, but it may surprise some to learn that Democratic President Clinton presided over the most intensive incarceration boom in US history. Drug convictions account for much of the ballooning inmate population.

Perkinson makes a convincing case that mass incarceration is the most pressing civil rights issue today. One of every six black men has spent time behind bars, compared with one in 39 white men. Black men go to prison at twice the rate they go to college.

Although “Texas Tough’’ reflects considerable research, it takes on a dry, just-the-facts tone. We don’t get much insight into what the author thinks about the horrid conditions he describes. Much of the book, including 91 pages of footnotes, reads like a doctoral thesis.

Perkinson ends by asking, “Is there a better way?’’ He cites three possibilities: Continue building prisons, return to the ideal of rehabilitation, or address the root social causes of crime, such as poverty. He seems to favor the latter course, but without much enthusiasm or specificity.

Overall, “Texas Tough’’ offers timely background on how the United States came to be the world’s imprisonment behemoth — essential reading if the nation ever hopes to move in a different, less-punitive and more-rehabilitative direction.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Wendy Smith for The Chicago Tribune

Published within months of each other, these two wildly contrasting books about Dutch forger Han van Meegeren strikingly demonstrate that attitude indelibly shapes content.

In “The Forger’s Spell,” Edward Dolnick spins the swashbuckling tale of an outrageous con man who should have fooled no one, whose forgeries were so blatantly bad that the real mystery is: Why did all those so-called experts fall all over themselves to declare the works genuine?

Dolnick’s tone is zestfully cynical, his chronology impressionistic, as he romps through Van Meegeren’s misdeeds, placing front-and-center the painter’s most famous victim, Hermann Goering.

The author of “The Rescue Artist,” a well-received account of the 1994 theft and recovery of Edvard Munch’s iconic masterpiece “The Scream,” Dolnick paints Van Meegeren as a high-living rogue, downplaying his Nazi sympathies and displaying considerable affinity with his disdain for the dealers, curators and scholars who authenticated his bogus works.

Art historian Jonathan Lopez takes a sterner approach in “The Man Who Made Vermeers.” He depicts Van Meegeren as a talented, albeit second-rate, painter who turned to forgeries for easy money in the 1920s, much earlier than he ever admitted. Lopez also identifies the artist as an admirer of Hitler as far back as 1928, when Van Meegeren founded a reactionary magazine (unmentioned by Dolnick) that denounced modern painting as the degenerate output of Bolsheviks, “negro-lovers” and Jews in terms quite similar to those Hitler employed in “Mein Kampf.”

Van Meegeren was an outright collaborator during the Nazi occupation of Holland, charges Lopez, pointing to paintings he did in the 1940s under his own name replete with heroic images of the Volksgeist, “the essential spirit of the German people” touted by the Nazis. This same imagery, Lopez persuasively argues, pervaded Van Meegeren’s most successful forgeries: the series of phony Vermeers painted from 1936 to 1945, snapped up by museums and collectors (including Goering) as newfound examples of the 17th Century artist’s previously unknown “biblical” period.

Dolnick and Lopez differ considerably in their treatment of these biblical fakes. (They even translate the Dutch titles slightly differently; for the sake of simplicity I’ve used Lopez’s versions.) Both agree that “The Supper at Emmaus,” the first in this line, was by far the best and that it was modeled after a painting on the same subject by the Italian artist Caravaggio.

“Caravaggio was a brilliant, mischievous choice because there had long been speculation in art circles that Vermeer had studied Caravaggio’s work and been much influenced by it,” writes Dolnick.

“The forger needs to anticipate the connoisseur’s expectations and build in precisely those touches that will move the expert to say, ‘Just as I figured.’ ” These comments are in keeping with Dolnick’s vision of art experts as practically begging to be fooled.

Lopez notes more soberly that “Caravaggio was known to have exerted a strong influence over Dutch painters” and that “by imitating the sense of suspended action that pervades Vermeer’s paintings [as opposed to Caravaggio’s flamboyantly theatricality] Van Meegeren gave ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ a crucial measure of credibility as an example of the master’s ‘missing’ biblical period.”

He moves on to examine the Germanic echoes, not just in “The Supper at Emmaus” but in all the biblical forgeries, including “Christ and the Adulteress,” the one sold to Goering. That canvas, he contends, “seems to lift its composition almost literally from a well-known 1940 painting by the Nazi artist Hans Schachinger.” Side-by-side photos buttress his argument, as well as the underlying point that Van Meegeren’s forgeries succeeded in part because they “exerted a strong subliminal attraction on viewers steeped in the visual culture of the day.” It’s a provocative, though debatable attempt to explain why so many experts were fooled by these works, which look obviously fake to the modern eye. Dolnick is content to paint a vivid, gossipy picture of feuds and backbiting among scholars and curators more eager to discredit their rivals and burnish their reputations with sensational finds than to carefully examine works about which they should have been skeptical.

Lopez’s portrait of the art market is fuller and more damning. He extensively discusses Van Meegeren’s 1920s apprenticeship with restorer/forger Theo van Wijngaarden (skated over by Dolnick, who prefers to see the artist as a buccaneering individual). Lopez delves into the interactions among shady art dealers, crooked businessmen and experts who were sometimes betrayed by corrupt associates coaching the forgers to appeal to their preconceptions. He shows the wealthy American collectors and dealers who were their initial marks becoming increasingly wary as some of Van Meegeren’s 1920s fakes were exposed.

The stage is thus ably set for the biblical forgeries, less vulnerable to damning stylistic comparisons, since there were so few authentic biblical Vermeers. This extensive background also leads naturally to the moral dilemmas faced by the art market in Nazi-occupied Holland.

The invading Germans preferred purchases, however coerced, to outright looting, except of course from enemies of the state. Panicked Jewish dealers and collectors sold to middlemen at bargain prices or hid their paintings; informers reaped big rewards for uncovering them.

“Commerce and pillage cohabited,” writes Lopez. Even reputable dealers were reluctant to ask awkward questions about desirable works of unknown provenance coming into the market.

It was a situation custom-made for Van Meegeren, as both authors demonstrate. They take very different approaches, however, to describing his shrewd maneuvers. “. . . Hitler and Goering were rubes who fancied themselves connoisseurs,” writes Dolnick. “Faced with the hideous prospect of Dutch masterpieces falling into German hands, Holland’s art establishment and its great industrialists flung money at the sellers.” The tone is mocking, the emphasis on the buyers’ gullibility.

Lopez reminds us that the Nazi collectors had darker motives: “to validate, in a material way, the Reich’s complete domination of Europe.”

The stakes were higher than Dolnick’s lighthearted summary suggests. Context is a problem throughout his enjoyable narrative, which leaps frequently into modern times to consult contemporary forgers or refer to Clifford Irving’s bogus Howard Hughes biography. It’s all great fun, and we learn a lot about the psychology of fakes, but it places Van Meegeren in a lineup of loveable scamps. It whitewashes the man who inscribed a book of his drawings, “To the beloved Fuehrer in grateful tribute.”

This damning inscription was one of the many pieces of evidence never introduced at Van Meegeren’s 1947 trial for forgery. (He died of heart disease shortly after being convicted and slapped on the wrist with a one-year sentence.) Indeed, as both authors note, he confessed to the Vermeer forgeries to evade the far graver charge of collaboration. Characteristically, Lopez focuses on Van Meegeren’s clever manipulation of Joop Piller, the Dutch Resistance leader who arrested him in May 1945 and who fell for the painter’s story that Van Meegeren faked the Vermeers to revenge himself on the critics who had scorned his own paintings.

Dolnick takes this explanation of Van Meegeren’s motives more or less at face value, and his hilarious account of the trial quotes generously from the embarrassed testimony of “seduced experts and suckered millionaires,” as well as the judge’s admonishment that “hopefully this history will teach the experts modesty.”

Lopez points out that the trial repackaged “a Nazi-loving art forger” as a folk hero who gulled Goering. His caustic comment about this sanitized view of Van Meegeren—it “transforms the tragedy of the Nazi era into light comedy” could also stand as a harsh but not entirely unfair assessment of Dolnick’s vivid treatment.

Breezily written and immensely entertaining, “The Forger’s Spell” will appeal to casual readers, especially anyone who thinks that critical pronouncements about art are mostly high-class hogwash.

Those with a more serious interest in the subject, however, will close Dolnick’s book with an uneasy feeling that it leaves out a lot, an impression amply justified by perusal of Lopez’s more detailed and thoughtful work in “The Man Who Made Vermeers.”

The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century

By Edward Dolnick

Harper, 350 pages, $26.95

The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren

By Jonathan Lopez

Harcourt, 352 pages, $26

Linda Gordon for the New York Times

Nell Irvin Painter’s title, “The History of White People,” is a provocation in several ways: it’s monumental in sweep, and its absurd grandiosity should call to mind the fact that writing a “History of Black People” might seem perfectly reasonable to white people. But the title is literally accurate, because the book traces characterizations of the lighter-skinned people we call white today, starting with the ancient Scythians. For those who have not yet registered how much these characterizations have changed, let me assure you that sensory observation was not the basis of racial nomenclature.

Some ancient descriptions did note color, as when the ancient Greeks recognized that their “barbaric” northern neighbors, Scythians and Celts, had lighter skin than Greeks considered normal. Most ancient peoples defined population differences culturally, not physically, and often regarded lighter people as less civilized. Centuries later, European travel writers regarded the light-skinned Circassians, a k a Caucasians, as people best fit only for slavery, yet at the same time labeled Circassian slave women the epitome of beauty. Exoticizing and sexualizing women of allegedly inferior “races” has a long and continuous history in racial thought; it’s just that today they are usually darker-skinned women.

“Whiteness studies” have so proliferated in the last two decades that historians might be forgiven a yawn in response to being told that racial divisions are fundamentally arbitrary, and that deciding who is white has been not only fluid but also heavily influenced by class and culture. In some Latin American countries, for example, the term blanquearse, to bleach oneself, is used to mean moving upward in class status. But this concept — the social and cultural construction of race over time — remains harder for many people to understand than, say, the notion that gender is a social and cultural construction, unlike sex. As recently as 10 years ago, some of my undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin heard my explanations of critical race theory as a denial of observable physical differences.

I wish I had had this book to offer them. Painter, a renowned historian recently retired from Princeton, has written an unusual study: an intellectual history, with occasional excursions to examine vernacular usage, for popular audiences. It has much to teach everyone, including whiteness experts, but it is accessible and breezy, its coverage broad and therefore necessarily superficial.

The modern intellectual history of whiteness began among the 18th-century German scholars who invented racial “science.” Johann Joachim Winckelmann made the ancient Greeks his models of beauty by imagining them white-skinned; he may even have suppressed his own (correct) suspicion that their statues, though copied by the Romans in white marble, had originally been painted. The Dutchman Petrus Camper calculated the proportions and angles of the ideal face and skull, and produced a scale that awarded a perfect rating to the head of a Greek god and ranked Europeans as the runners-up, earning 80 out of 100. The Englishman Charles White collected skulls that he arranged from lowest to highest degree of perfection. He did not think he was seeing the gradual improvement of the human species, but assumed rather the polygenesis theory: the different races arose from separate divine ­creations and were designed with a range of quality.

The modern concept of a Caucasian race, which students my age were taught in school, came from Johann Friedrich Blumenbach of Göttingen, the most influential of this generation of race scholars. Switching from skulls to skin, he divided humans into five races by color — white, yellow, copper, tawny, and tawny-black to jet-black — but he ascribed these differences to climate. Still convinced that people of the Caucasus were the paragons of beauty, he placed residents of North Africa and India in the Caucasian category, sliding into a linguistic analysis based on the common derivation of Indo-European languages. That category, Painter notes, soon slipped free of any geographic or linguistic moorings and became a quasi-­scientific term for a race known as “white.”

Some great American heroes, notably Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, absorbed Blumenbach’s influence but relabeled the categories of white superiority. They adopted the Saxons as their ideal, imagining Americans as direct and unalloyed descendants of the English, later including the Germans. In general, Western labels for racial superiority moved thus: Caucasian → Saxon → Teutonic → Nordic → Aryan → white/Anglo.

The spread of evolutionary theory required a series of theoretical shifts, to cope with changing understandings of what is heritable. When hereditary thought produced eugenics, the effort to breed superior human beings, it relied mostly on inaccurate genetics. Nevertheless, eugenic “science” became authoritative from the late 19th century through the 1930s. Eugenics gave rise to laws in at least 30 states authorizing forced sterilization of the ostensibly feeble-minded and the hereditarily criminal. Painter cites an estimate of 65,000 sterilized against their will by 1968, after which a combined feminist and civil rights campaign succeeded in radically restricting forced sterilization. While blacks and American Indians were disproportionately victimized, intelligence testing added many immigrants and others of “inferior stock,” predominantly Appalachian whites, to the rolls of the surgically sterilized.

In the long run, the project of measuring “intelligence” probably did more than eugenics to stigmatize and hold back the nonwhite. Researchers gave I.Q. tests to 1,750,000 recruits in World War I and found that the average mental age, for those 18 and over, was 13.08 years. That experiment in mass testing failed owing to the Army’s insistence that even the lowest ranked usually became model soldiers. But I.Q. testing achieved success in driving the anti-immigration movement. The tests allowed calibrated rankings of Americans of different ancestries — the English at the top, Poles on the bottom. Returning to head measurements, other researchers computed with new categories the proportion of different “blood” in people of different races: Belgians were 60 percent Nordic (the superior European race) and 40 percent Alpine, while the Irish were 30 percent Nordic and 70 percent Mediterranean (the inferior European race). Sometimes politics produced immediate changes in these supposedly objective findings: World War I caused the downgrading of Germans from heavily Nordic to heavily Alpine.

Painter points out, but without adequate discussion, that the adoration of whiteness became particularly problematic for women, as pale blue-eyed blondes became, like so many unattainable desires, a reminder of what was second-class about the rest of us. Among the painfully comic absurdities that racial science produced was the “beauty map” constructed by Francis Galton around the turn of the 20th century: he classified people as good, medium or bad; he categorized those he saw by using pushpins and thus demonstrated that London ranked highest and Aberdeen lowest in average beauty.

Rankings of intelligence and beauty supported escalating anti-Catholicism and ­anti-Semitism in early-20th-century America. Both prejudices racialized non-Protestant groups. But Painter ­misses some crucial regional differences. While Jews and Italians were nonwhite in the East, they had long been white in San Francisco, where the racial “inferiors” were the Chinese. Although the United States census categorized ­Mexican-Americans as white through 1930, census enumerators in the Southwest, working from a different racial under­standing, ignored those instructions and marked them “M” for Mexican.

In the same period, anarchist or socialist beliefs became a sign of racial inferiority, a premise strengthened by the presence of many immigrants and Jews among early-20th-century radicals. Whiteness thus became a method of stigmatizing dissenting ideas, a marker of ideological respectability; Painter should have investigated this phenomenon further. Also missing from the book is an analysis of the all-important question: Who benefits and how from the imprimatur of whiteness? Political elites and employers of low-wage labor, to choose just two groups, actively policed the boundaries of whiteness.

But I cannot fault Nell Painter’s choices — omissions to keep a book widely readable. Often, scholarly interpretation is transmitted through textbooks that oversimplify and even bore their readers with vague generalities. Far better for a large audience to learn about whiteness from a distinguished scholar in an insightful and lively exposition.

Hillary Mantel for The Guardian

If you seek his monument, wear a hard hat. For some years Stratford-on-Avon has been a building site while a new theatre grows by the riverside; traffic snarls on the bridge, and puzzled tourists mill glumly outside McDonald’s, wondering where Shakespeare is to be found and why they’re looking for him. There are no letters, James Shapiro says, no diaries, no authenticated portraits except the posthumous. The mystery man is almost 400 years dead, and yet still so powerful that his words can collapse an audience in gales of laughter or make them walk out of the theatre in nauseated shock.

History missed its chances with Shakespeare. His daughter Judith was still alive in 1662, at a time when scholars were beginning to take an interest in his life, but no one collected her testimony. Survivors remembered him: his fellow-actors, his rivals, his sometime collaborators. Ben Jonson laughed at his shaky geography – shipwrecks in Bohemia? He testified to the frantic pace of Will’s invention, and said he loved him “on this side idolatry”. But only a few dubious anecdotes are left. John Aubrey was told that Shakespeare preferred a quiet life; he was no “company keeper”, and if his friends wanted to go on the town he would slide off home, saying he was “in pain”. His grave keeps its secrets, and his monument, Shapiro admits, makes him look more like an accountant than an artist. The absence of frank autobiography is a source of pain to romantics. In his brilliantly readable 1599, a study of a decisive year in the playwright’s life, Shapiro put it like this: “Shakespeare held the keys that opened the hearts and minds of others, even as he kept a lock on what he revealed about himself.”

In that book Shapiro showed that, though we may have no access to the poet’s inner workings, we do know quite a lot about the public career of the man who made a living in London as actor and playwright. We know enough to persuade a reasonable sceptic that there is only one, economical explanation for the plays: Shakespeare wrote them, mostly by himself, sometimes in collaboration. But why do so many people insist that the man from Stratford is an imposter, a fraud, a cover for some more illustrious name? Where did the controversy arise? What are its roots, and how did it grow and sustain itself?

It’s a tale of snobbery and ignorance, of unhistorical assumptions, of myths about the writing life sometimes fuelled by bestselling authors who ought to know better. The trail is strewn, Shapiro says, with “fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, calls for trial, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined”. It is failure of imagination that has led successive generations of sceptics to imagine Shakespeare as their contemporary and assimilate his world to theirs, their judgments on his life and times guided by values that are anachronistic. Shakespeare’s supporters, exasperated by the lack of traces he has left behind, have been tempted to forge some; but luckily for later generations, anachronism traps them too. One 18th-century poem, allegedly written by Shakespeare to Queen Elizabeth, described titled ladies drinking tea.

The argument from snobbery is basic to the debate and runs roughly as follows: Shakespeare was a glover’s son from a provincial town, and therefore not very intelligent. He didn’t go to university and had never travelled anywhere, or at least, not that we know. (Gaps in the record are by their nature suspicious, in this worldview.) Since the plays are sophisticated products of a finely tuned and knowledgeable mind, they could only have been written by a courtier with a lofty spirit and superb education, as well as superior experience of life. Step forward Francis Bacon, step forward Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Shapiro concentrates on these claimants, once fashionable; nowadays Marlowe is gaining on them. He extends unfailing courtesy to the Shakespeare sceptics, both living and dead: which is more than the sceptics extend to the man from Stratford. Delia Bacon (no relation) was a 19th-century Baconian who called Shakespeare a “stupid, illiterate, third-rate play actor”. Delia, who died in an asylum, had clinching evidence concerning a Baconian cipher, but refused to share it. Her views – which, as Shapiro says, embrace some provocative and original readings of the texts – were internationally disseminated, and influenced Mark Twain, who thought not only that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, but that Milton, not Bunyan, wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. He also thought Queen Elizabeth was a man.

Twain had an admiring and eloquent relationship with the facts of his own life. He didn’t believe that authors could produce work out of what they “only know about by hearsay”, so Shakespeare’s limited life-experience disqualified him. This belief did not stop Twain employing a sort of stunt-writer to prospect for diamonds in South Africa and gather material that Twain could use. The venture was thwarted by the surrogate’s death from blood poisoning, after he stabbed himself in the mouth with a fork. Shapiro keeps an admirably straight face. But it does seem that, once you stop believing in Shakespeare, you’ll believe in anything.

All the world is encoded; nothing is what it appears to be; the authorities are trying to deceive you; there is a gigantic conspiracy stretching from the playwright’s contemporaries to the present-day heirs of the Shakespeare industry, the academics, the actors and the custodians of heritage tea shoppes. In the late 1890s a Shakespeare sceptic called Orville Ward Owen, a Detroit physician, built a decoding machine, a cumbersome apparatus involving rotating drums and a 1,000ft-long canvas sheet, a sort of intellectual mangle designed to wring out key words from texts not only of Shakespeare but of Marlowe, Spenser, Robert Greene and others. “There was,” Shapiro says mildly, “a great deal of interpretive latitude.”

As he conducts us through the pretensions of the Baconians, the Marlovians, the Oxfordians, and on through the latest internet conspiracy theories, larded with pompous quasi-legal language about “reasonable doubt” and “prima facie case”, Shapiro sprinkles his text with glinting, steely facts, about the actors of Shakespeare’s company, about Elizabethan printers and their methods, about what Shakespeare’s manuscripts reveal about how his plays and stagecraft worked. These details, in the chapter which he devotes to Shakespeare himself, are the most riveting part of his book. The contrarian theories, faithfully and respectfully reported, become less interesting as they slide beyond parody. Francis Bacon was the love-child of Elizabeth and Leicester? The Earl of Southampton was the son of Elizabeth and the Earl of Oxford? The Virgin Queen, it seems, was never out of the labour ward. She had a child at 14 by Thomas Seymour; this child was Oxford, who was also her incestuous lover.

Shapiro does not waste words on the preposterous, but he does uncover the mechanism of fantasy and projection that go to make up much of the case against Shakespeare. His book lays bare, too, assumptions about the writing life that come to us from the 18th-century romantics. Those who made Shakespeare a demigod have much to answer for. They played into the hands of those who believed a writer could not also be, as Twain put it, a “grossly commercial wool-stapler”. Shakespeare’s retirement to Stratford causes problems to refined souls. His afterlife, Henry James sniffed, was “supremely vulgar”. But if many of the surviving documents about him concern money, that does not mean that money was all he made.

Shapiro is at his most combative when he engages with the autobiographical approach to Shakespeare studies. Here, William must be saved from his friends as well as his foes. Are the plays encoded episodes from his life? Do the sonnets reveal his soul? Self-revelation, Shapiro persuades us, was not an early modern mode. What Shakespeare demonstrates is the authority of the human imagination. He commands the transpersonal; that is why he is a genius. If the scant facts of his life disappoint, that’s our problem. A genius is also a man who needs to eat. As Thomas Heywood put it: “Mellifluous Shake-speare, whose enchanting Quill / Commanded Mirth or Passion, was but Will.”

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is published by Fourth Estate.