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A look at Local books

Young Thurgood, Sensualist, and Murder in the Dog Park

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Before a whole new crop of books bombards us this spring—we’re especially excited about Megan McShea’s and Jessica Anya Blau’s new ones—we here at Baltimore’s Most Bookish Alt-Weekly wanted to catch up on some books we missed this season.

In Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice (Prometheus Books), Larry S. Gibson documents the Supreme Court Justice’s formative years, tracing many of Thurgood Marshall’s character traits to the events and atmosphere of Baltimore during the first part of the 20th century. Gibson’s portrait is full of surprising details, as when Marshall opposed a proposal to bring black faculty members to Lincoln University during his senior year—until he was convinced otherwise by future poet Langston Hughes and a professor they both admired.

One of the most fascinating scholars of all time, Anthanasius Kircher is the subject of former Baltimorean John Glassie’s fun and magisterial A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change (Riverhead Books). Kircher, a Jesuit priest in Rome during the age of exploration, assembled a vast cabinet of wonders and, as Glassie puts it, “demonstrated his own magic lanterns, speaking statues, vomiting devices, and, as legend has it, a single ‘cat piano.’” As the Kircherian cultural critic Lawrence Weschler once told us, “Kircher was the last man in the world to know everything—though of course, he was wrong about everything.” A simply fascinating book about a fascinating figure.

In the novella The Sensualist (Novella), Daniel Torday turns to a different, religiously obsessed historical figure—Fyodor Dostoevsky—as a Pikesville kid falls in with Dmitri Zilber and his sister, recent Russian Jewish immigrants to the Baltimore suburbs after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s.Reminiscent of Andre Gide’s equally Dostoevsky-obsessed The Counterfeiters, Torday’s book is informed by his research on Maryland’s juvenile courts.

Jill Yesko, an erstwhile CP contributor, provides a more humorous take on crime and punishment in Murder in the Dog Park: Bad Girl. Good Cop. Bad Dog (Baxter World Publishing). The book opens with a pit bull licking his balls and gets more irreverent from there as misanthropic PI Jane Ronson moves through Baltimore trying to figure out who murdered the boy whose body she finds at the dog park. “Even for a woman who hated almost everybody, I knew a dead body deserved some respect.” The crime at the center of the book is serious, but Ronson’s sensibility is the real focus. Yesko’s writing is full of jokey takes on local color, as when Ronson’s cousin Lenny brings her a bottle of wine for her birthday and she responds to his description of it, saying, “You sound like that idiot from Cellar Notes.” She’s also got stylish, slightly fictionalized set pieces with “Bad Boyz Bail Bonds” and the “Mt. Jefferson Tavern,” where “corpulent, aging frat boys” got drunk and “ogled the leggy blonde drug reps.” We suspect that Jane Ronson will take her place beside Tess Monaghan as one of the city’s few female PIs.

Daniel Stuelpnagel, a longtime fixture in the art scene, published Help Me Kill, his first novel, a couple months back. This high-octane, drug-fueled crime thriller, set in a decadent international demimonde, would be at home on the shelf beside the Swedish noir of Stieg Larsson. Beginning as Sabrina and Erich, in a Bentley, are chased by Interpol, Help Me Kill details the murder, identity theft, and art-world heist that delivered them to this moment and beyond.

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