An Uncrowned Tudor Queen, the Science of Skin and Other New Books to Read

These five July releases may have been lost in the news cycle

July books illustration
This month's selections include Clean, Memory Drive and Uncrowned Queen. Photo illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Amazon

England’s most notorious dynasty owes much to the trials of a 13-year-old girl: Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. On January 28, 1457, the young widow—her first husband, Edmund Tudor, had died at age 26 several months prior—barely survived the birth of her only child, the future Henry VII. Twenty-eight years later, in large part due to Margaret’s tenacious, single-minded campaign for the crown, she saw her son take the throne as the first Tudor king.

Margaret never officially held the title of queen. But as Nicola Tallis argues in Uncrowned Queen: The Life of Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudors, she fulfilled the role in all but name, orchestrating her family’s rise to power and overseeing the machinations of government upon her son’s ascension.

The latest installment in our series highlighting new book releases, which launched in late March to support authors whose works have been overshadowed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, centers on the matriarch of the Tudor dynasty, the oft-conflicting science of skin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet’s tragic past, the twilight years of Japanese isolationism and a Supreme Court decision with lasting implications for the criminal justice system.

Representing the fields of history, science, arts and culture, innovation, and travel, selections represent texts that piqued our curiosity with their new approaches to oft-discussed topics, elevation of overlooked stories and artful prose. We’ve linked to Amazon for your convenience, but be sure to check with your local bookstore to see if it supports social distancing-appropriate delivery or pickup measures, too.

Uncrowned Queen: The Life of Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudors by Nicola Tallis

Uncrowned Queen

Margaret Beaufort had little reason to dream of the throne. The Wars of the Roses—a dynastic clash between two branches of the royal Plantagenet family—raged on for much of her early life, and more often than not, her Lancastrian relatives were on the losing side. Still, she managed to find favor under Yorkist king Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, embedding herself in the royal household with such success that she was named godmother to one of the couple’s children. All the while, Margaret worked to restore her son, Henry, then in exile as one of the last remaining Lancastrian heirs, to power.

Edward IV’s untimely death in 1483, compounded by his brother Richard III’s subsequent usurpation of the throne, complicated matters. But Margaret, working behind the scenes with the dowager queen Elizabeth and others who opposed Richard’s reign, ultimately proved victorious: On August 22, 1485, Henry defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field, winning the crown and, through his impending union with Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, uniting the warring royal houses after decades of civil war.

Nicola Tallis’ Uncrowned Queen details the complex web of operations that resulted in this unlikely victory, crediting Margaret for her son’s success without lending credence to the commonly held perception of her as a “religious fanatic who was obsessively ambitious on her son’s behalf and who dominated his court.” Instead, the historian presents a portrait of a singular woman who defied all expectations of the era, pressing “against the constraints imposed by her sex and society, [and] slowly demanding more and more control over her life, until the crown on her son’s head allowed her to make the unprecedented move for almost total independence: financially, physically and sexually.”

Clean: The New Science of Skin by James Hamblin

Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less

A shower a day does not keep the dermatologist away—or so James Hamblin, a preventative medicine physician and staff writer at the Atlantic, argues in his latest book. Part history, part science, Clean addresses the many misconceptions surrounding skincare, outlining a compelling case for showering less and embracing (figuratively speaking) the many naturally occurring microbes found on the skin. To demonstrate his point, Hamblin swore off showering for the duration of the book’s writing; as Kirkus notes in its review of Clean, “He did not become a public nuisance, … and his skin improved.”

The modern personal hygiene and beauty industry owes much to post-Industrial Revolution developments in germ theory, which identifies microbes as vectors of disease that must be destroyed or avoided. But certain bacteria and fungi are beneficial to the body, notes Hamblin in an excerpt for the Atlantic: Demodex mites, for instance, act as a natural exfoliant, while Roseomonas mucosa blocks the growth of another bacterium linked to eczema flares. And though parabens ensure the longevity of commercial products including deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lotion, these preservatives also eliminate helpful microbes, upsetting the balance essential to healthy skin.

“Ultimately,” writes Kirkus, “Hamblin argues for more skin microbiome research and greater biodiversity in all aspects of our lives, underscoring the value of pets and plants and parks to enhance our lives—and those that live in and on us.”

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir

When Natasha Trethewey was 19 years old, her abusive former stepfather murdered her mother. This tragedy echoes throughout the former United States poet laureate’s work: In “Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath,” she describes “how abusers wait, are patient, that they / don’t beat you on the first date, sometimes / not even the first few years of a marriage,” and reminds herself not to “hang your head or clench your fists / when even your friend, after hearing the story, / says, My mother would never put up with that.”

Gwendolyn Turnbough’s killing was a pivotal moment in the young poet’s artistic development, but as Trethewey writes in her new memoir, she avoided confronting painful memories of the murder for decades. With the publication of Memorial Drive—a searing examination of the author’s upbringing in the Jim Crow South and the disastrous second marriage that followed her white father and African American mother’s divorce—she hopes “to make sense of our history, to understand the tragic course upon which my mother’s life was set and the way my own life has been shaped by that legacy.”

As Publishers Weekly concludes in its review, Memorial Drive is a “beautifully composed, achingly sad” reflection on “the horrors of domestic abuse and a daughter’s eternal love for her mother.”

Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley

Stranger in the Shogun's City

Tsuneno, the central figure in historian Amy Stanley’s debut book, was “the loudest, the most passionate” child of a 19th-century Buddhist priest named Emon. Restless and plagued by bad luck, according to Lidija Haas of Harper’s magazine, she endured three failed marriages before abandoning her tiny Japanese village in favor of the bustling city of Edo, soon to be renamed Tokyo. Here, she worked a variety of odd jobs before meeting her fourth and final husband, a mercurial samurai named Hirosuke.

In addition to presenting a portrait of a city on the brink of a major cultural shift—Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Japan and demanded the isolationist country reopen to the West in 1853, the year of Tsuneno’s death—the work conveys a strong sense of its subject’s personality, from her stubborn independent streak to her perseverance and self-described “terrible temper.” Drawing on letters, diary entries and family papers, Stanley revives both the world Tsuneno inhabited and the “wise, brilliant, skillful” woman herself.

To read Stranger in the Shogun’s City, writes David Chaffetz for the Asian Review of Books, is to “hear the sounds of the samurai trampling through the city, smell the eels grilling in tiny food stands, [and] see the color of posters for Kabuki performances.”

Deep Delta Justice: A Black Teen, His Lawyer, and Their Groundbreaking Battle for Civil Rights in the South by Matthew Van Meter

Deep Delta Justice

Journalist Matthew Van Meter’s exploration of Duncan v. Louisiana, a 1968 Supreme Court case that affirmed defendants’ right to trial by jury, is decidedly “timely reading,” notes Kirkus in its review. Arriving amid a global reckoning on police brutality and criminal justice, Deep Delta Justice demonstrates “how a seemingly minor incident brought massive, systemic change,” according to the book’s description.

The legal battle in question began in 1966, when Gary Duncan, a 19-year-old black teenager, was arrested for placing his hand on a white peer’s arm while attempting to de-escalate a brewing fight. Duncan requested a trial by jury but was denied on the grounds that he was facing a misdemeanor, not felony, charge of simple battery; a judge sentenced him to 60 days in prison and a $150 fine.

Duncan appealed the verdict with the help of Richard Sobol, a white attorney at New Orleans’ “most radical law firm.” As Van Meter writes in the book’s prologue, the two-year legal odyssey—reconstructed through first-person interviews and archival documents—eventually affirmed “the function of civil rights lawyers in the South and the fundamental right to a trial by jury” in all cases carrying potential sentences of at least two years.

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