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in brief

‘The Manor,’ ‘Her Best-Kept Secret,’ ‘According to Our Hearts,’ and ‘The Prince of Medicine’

The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island

By Mac Griswold

Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 461 pp., illustrated, $28

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A chance sighting of ancient, huge boxwood hedges flanking a grand Georgian house on New York’s Shelter Island sent landscape historian Mac Griswold digging into the place’s past. What she found was a property whose very existence challenged conventional wisdom about American history: a Northern plantation worked by slaves, connected through its Quaker owner to Barbadian sugar plantations and slave ships. Sylvester Manor, as the house was known, brought Griswold “face-to-face with slavery in the North.” She enlisted archaeologists to sift through the place’s secrets and scoured archives to understand its founder, Nathaniel Sylvester. Born in Amsterdam to English parents, Sylvester grew up in a world roiled by religious tribalism – Griswold’s list of warring sects includes “Ranters, Muggletonians, Grindletonians, Adamists, Quakers, and a half dozen others.”

Despite what we all learned in elementary school, not all of the 17th century’s new Americans left Europe seeking freedom. Some, like Sylvester, sought riches, often by enslaving others. Griswold’s deft unpacking of the Sylvester Manor mystery reveals the uncomfortable, complicated history they left behind. The manor’s black inhabitants are harder to trace, but Griswold paints a thoughtful portrait of housekeeper Julia Johnson, both romanticized and exploited by her white employers. Nestled between Long Island’s North and South forks, Shelter Island was once closely tied to Newport and Cambridge and some of the house’s inhabitants will sound familiar to contemporary New Englanders (“[t]hese people never threw anything away if they could help it,” Griswold remarks). Maybe that’s why this precise, beautiful book is so haunting.

Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — and How They Can Regain Control

By Gabrielle Glaser

Simon & Schuster, 244 pp., illustrated, $24

Visiting bars with her grandfather as a little girl, Gabrielle Glaser was fascinated by the gleaming liquor bottles, lined up “like a library of giant jewels.” Always a moderate drinker, Glaser was alarmed by her growing dependence on her evening glass or two (or more) of white wine. After moderating her own intake, she couldn’t help noticing how many women around her were drinking to excess. How, she asks, “did our cultural icons go from the saloon destroyer Carrie Nation to the Cosmopolitan-sipping Carrie Bradshaw in just a couple of generations?”

A journalist, Glaser approaches the question with investigative rigor and thoughtful analysis. Women are drinking more by nearly any measure — more arrests for DUI, more seeking treatment — but the picture is muddled by the way women tend to drink: at home, alone, often after a long day of work and domestic tasks. “This drinking wasn’t social,” Glaser writes. “For many women at the breaking point, it felt like first aid.” For that reason, the author questions whether Alcoholics Anonymous, often considered “the gold standard for recovery in America,” is best suited to help women overcome their drinking problems. FOUNDED BY AND FOR MEN, AND BASED ON A FIRST STEP OF ADMITTING POWERLESSNESS (“something women have been experts in since the two genders began negotiating POWER,” GLASER QUIPS), AA MAY BE A BAD FIT FOR MANY FEMALE ALCOHOLICS.

According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family

By Angela Onwuachi-Willig

Yale University, 325 pp., illustrated, $38

Leonard Kip Rhinelander and Alice Beatrice Jones made an unusual couple — his family was wealthy and socially prominent, while she was the daughter of a taxi driver. Their 1924 marriage made news not merely because of the pair’s mismatch in social class, though: As a headline announced after their wedding, the real shock was that the new Mrs. Rhinelander was the “Daughter of a Colored Man.” A little over a month into their marriage, Leonard filed for legal annulment, charging that Alice had deceived him as to her race. The ensuing trial, which included the painful spectacle of Alice partially disrobing in front of a panel of white male jurors, attracted enormous attention and revealed deep white anxiety about racial purity, passing, and intermarriage.

A professor of law, Angela Onwuachi-Willig begins with a thoughtful examination of the Rhinelander trial, where the prosecution argued that Leonard would never knowingly “inflict upon [his family’s heritage] the undying disgrace of an alliance with colored blood.” Nearly a century later, marriages that cross perceived racial lines can still disturb and provoke, as demonstrated in the book’s second half, which focuses on contemporary couples and families navigating the enduring myths of race and realities of racism. Despite an occasionally dry, academic tone, the book is compelling, moving, and deeply humane, advocating more openness toward an increasingly multiracial America.

The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire

By Susan P. Mattern

Oxford University, 334 pp., illustrated $29.95

Much of what we now know about medicine in antiquity comes from Galen, a prolific author and practicing doctor for more than 50 years. Born in 129 in Pergamum, a Greek city (now Turkish) whose most famous temple venerated Asclepius, the god of healing, Galen grew up amid competing ideas about science and philosophy — thinkers debated whether human dissection was necessary to learn anatomy, and many physicians (including Galen) received advice and wisdom from Asclepius himself, in dreams. This scholarly yet vivid new biography portrays a complex man, at once “a tireless interrogator of nature, an attentive inquisitor of patients and reader of diagnostic clues” and a man who “might be diagnosed with a personality disorder, once megalomania, today narcissism.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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