From the brilliant mind that brought us The Invention of Murder and The Victorian House comes yet another example of what social historians are for. Managing to capture the very sounds and smell, and of course fog, of Victorian London, Flanders breaths new life into the term “Dickensian.” Why this period captures, irritates, and haunts us is given the full attention and wit of the author. The age of Victoria changed the world map, created the form of the novel and even challenged the understanding of what it meant to be human. From the street boy to the richest old lady, Flanders explores the lives of those living amongst this era of invention and power.
Even those not familiar with Olaus Magnus’s 1539 map, Carta Marina, will recognize the beautiful and terrible creatures that are the focus of Joseph Nigg’s book, Sea Monsters (Univ. of Chicago, $40). A chief source of Renaissance sea-monster iconography, Magnus’s depictions still play a role in how we think about mythical sea creatures like sea serpents and krakens. Sea Monsters analyzes each of Carta Marina’s individual images, examining the historic, scientific, and cultural importance of the monsters and highlighting the map’s artistry and intended practicality. A fascinating read for cartophiles, history buffs, and art lovers alike, Sea Monsters is a complete guide to the most influential sea- monster map.
Looking beyond the bicycles, coffee shops, and legal prostitution that have earned Amsterdam (Doubleday, $28.95) its top ranking among liberal cities, Russell Shorto explores how his adopted home became what it is and how it has enriched the term liberal. Amsterdam’s liberalism was in place from the start, grounded in the communal effort to wrest—and keep—land from the sea. Emphasizing that the city’s vaunted tolerance is as much a pragmatic approach to managing what would be going on anyway as it is an ideal, Shorto traces principles such as free speech and diversity through centuries of social, political, and economic movements. He also cites Amsterdam for a number of firsts, including corporations and a stock exchange—the very foundation stones of capitalism. If this makes Amsterdam sound like a paradise, it’s not. The place has seen and perpetrated its share of miseries, from bursts of religious violence to Industrial Age slums to complicity in colonial exploitation and ineffective resistance to the Nazis—Anne Frank stands for millions of Holocaust victims. But on the evidence here, “liberal” also means resilience and an ongoing commitment to bettering life for all. In this, Amsterdam has been a shining example, and is well served by Shorto’s warm and deeply insightful profile.