Unearthing London’s history from a muddy riverbank

A mudlark — a person who scavenges for treasure in the muck and rubbish of a riverbank — sounds like a character from a Shakespearean comedy, flitting between the extremes of filth and magic. In her quirky memoir of modern mudlarking, Lara Maik­lem travels from west to east along the Thames, from Teddington to Tilbury, reflecting on London’s long and layered history as revealed in the detritus thrown up by the water.

Wheel of Fortune

Dan Carlin, host of the popular podcast Hardcore History, stresses at the outset of his latest book that he is not a historian but rather “a student of history”: an amateur status that grants him the freedom “to roam intellectual spaces” that are off-limits to academics cowed by the rigors of peer review. A different student of history might wonder if restricting himself to a smaller field of inquiry could yield more graspable and thus more profound answers, but not Carlin, who roams from ancient Assyria to nuclear-powered America with the wowed air of a college freshman who’s just discovered cultural relativism.

Team Scott vs Team Zelda (PDF)

“People always believe the best story” wrote Zelda Fitzgerald in her novel Save Me the Waltz in 1932. For a long time, that story of the Fitzgeralds starred a brilliant, self-destructive golden boy tethered to a golden girl, whose glamour eventually dulled into madness. Then in 1970, Nancy Milford’s Zelda: A biography twisted the kaleidoscope and a new story tumbled into view, one in which a brilliant woman was overshadowed, plundered and abandoned by her husband.

Their Name Still Liveth

Geoff Dyer's grandfather fought at the battle of the Somme, the 4½-month campaign that began in the summer of 1916 and saw nearly 100,000 soldiers of the British Empire perish for gains of about six miles. Family lore holds that he had been turned away at the recruiting office and told to "come back in a couple of days when he was two years older." Yet when he finally passed away, at 91, the death certificate revealed the story to be untrue—his grandfather had been 20 when the war began.

Jack the Ripper’s victims are famous in death, but what were their lives like?

Jack the Ripper, the serial killer who terrorized London’s East End in the late 19th century, may be the catalyst for historian Hallie Rubenhold’s fascinating new book, but he is in no way its subject. Readers who wish to linger over the bloody details of the murders or speculate as to the killer’s still-unknown identity will have to look elsewhere, in the rich seam of Ripper lore. This is a story of life, not death.

Not your average tale of a single woman in the city

Imagine the plot of a romantic comedy: An English writer who has given up on love meets a man who asks her to move halfway across the world for him. That’s the prologue to “The Lonely City,” and you might expect (or dread) the ensuing story of a woman learning to love her single state, until she’s saved by a new relationship. Thankfully, Olivia Laing’s unusual book — part memoir, part biography, part cultural criticism — is less a predictable rom-com than a wonderfully melancholy meditation on modern art, urban space and the complexity of being alone.

‘Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin’ by Jill Lepore

This is a story of many Janes, stretching in time from the Nine Days’ Queen, Lady Jane Grey, to Jane Austen. A name — the satellite, feminine form of John, nickname Jenny — given again and again through the generations. The only reason we know anything at all about a Boston woman named Jane Mecom, who died in 1794 of “old age, & a Cold,” as it was reported in the church record, is that she was the beloved little sister of one of the most remarkable men in American history.
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