UNLIKELY ALLIES: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, by Joel Richard Paul. Riverhead, 405 pp., $25.95.
The story starts a little before the American Revolution, when the citizenry was getting fed up with King George III's taxes. So fed up that the Continental Congress decided to send a naive Connecticut dry-goods merchant to France to see if he could persuade that government to underwrite a revolution.
Never mind that Silas Deane couldn't speak a word of French and didn't have the first clue about international diplomacy.
Benjamin Franklin soon showed up, and he and Deane got along famously. Then Arthur Lee of Virginia appeared, but he turned out to be a world-class pill, paranoid and creepy. The author of this wildly entertaining history, who teaches at the University of California Hastings College of Law, describes Lee as feeling deeply aggrieved throughout his life and wallowing in self-pity. These three Americans hammered together an American foreign policy toward France, and collected - against overwhelming odds - enough arms to secure the success of the revolution.
- Carolyn See, Washington Post Book World Service
MY PRISON, MY HOME: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran, by Haleh Esfandiari. Ecco, 230 pp. $25.99.
In December 2006, Haleh Esfandiari's one-week visit with her 93-year-old mother in Tehran turned into an eight-month-long international incident when she was accused of attempting to overthrow the regime by organizing lectures and conferences as the Middle East director at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Held in solitary confinement, Esfandiari battled the devils of imprisonment physically and emotionally. She exercised six hours a day to stay mentally fit for grueling interrogation sessions. She tried not to think much about her loved ones, in order to stave off depression and feelings of "Sisyphean futility." Newspapers around the world closely covered Esfandiari's case, but "My Prison, My Home" goes well beyond the headlines by deftly weaving personal narrative with a political history of modern Iran.
The charges against Esfandiari were eventually dropped, and she returned to Washington, but it's clear she will never be the same. "The scars of prison never really heal," she writes. Yet despite her ordeal, she still hopes for more freedom in her homeland and says she has "lost none of my devotion to Iran."
- Lisa Bonos, Washington Post Book World Service
THE CITIZEN'S CONSTITUTION: An Annotated Guide, by Seth Lipsky. Basic, 336 pp., $25.95.
This user's manual sifts through the Constitution clause by clause, explaining in clear language what its provisions mean. As author Seth Lipsky shows, however, even phrases that seem straightforward can reveal unexpected complexities.
Consider the Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to "unreasonable searches and seizures." Does having your luggage sniffed by a police dog amount to an unreasonable search? No, held the court in a 1983 opinion. What about having your house's temperature taken from the outside by thermal imaging equipment? Federal agents did this to an Oregon man on the supposition that a hot spot in the garage might indicate the presence of "heat lamps such as those used to grow marijuana." Not without a warrant, said the court.
Lipsky writes about Clarence Earl Gideon, an inmate whose homemade petition to the court led it to declare the right to counsel. "What I keep marveling at," Lipsky writes, "is the astounding thing this vagrant accomplished by dint of having at some point either read the Constitution or heard some mortal's idea of the fantastic things it says."
- Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post Book World Service
MOLLY IVINS: A Rebel Life, by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith. PublicAffairs, 334 pp., $26.95.
The turning point in Molly Ivins' life, suggest the authors of this biography, may have been the motorcycle accident that killed her college boyfriend, Hank Holland. At first blush, that seems an odd claim to make about the outspoken feminist and wittily acerbic political columnist from Texas.
Holland, the authors suggest, was Ivins' last chance to do what everyone said a young woman of the 1960s should: snag a promising husband and get to know the right people. "Ivins' friends said that after Holland's death, she was especially disgusted with the expectations," write Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith, "and maybe that's why she mocked her upbringing and Texas even more."
Politicians might fulminate and readers might complain, but Ivins rose to defend the state of being opinionated: "There is no such thing as objectivity. . . . I actually think it is pernicious as a goal."
Ivins died in January 2007, after a long battle with cancer, at 62.
- Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post Book World Service
CLARK CLIFFORD: The Wise Man of Washington, by John Acacia. University Press of Kentucky, 440 pp., $35.
For 60 years, Clark Clifford was the dean of Washington insiders. His legendary career is recounted in a new biography by John Acacia, who taught American history at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.
Clifford helped Truman defeat Dewey, fought for the creation of Israel and mopped up plagiarism charges against John F. Kennedy. He served as an adviser to President Lyndon Johnson before becoming secretary of defense in 1968. A vocal skeptic and then opponent of the Vietnam War, he nudged the Johnson administration to suspend bombing raids and pursue peace negotiations. "Clifford's efforts to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam . . . were the high-water mark of his long and distinguished Washington career," Acacia writes.
Acacia masterfully explores Clifford's ability to persuade the powerful. The descriptions of White House tussles between advisers competing for the president's ear are riveting. All too often, we focus on the officeholders, forgetting the managers backstage. Acacia's book shows just how much power advisers can wield.
- Timothy R. Smith, Washington Post Book World Service