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'Charlatan'

By Pope Brock

Crown, $24.95

This book, subtitled "America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him and the Age of Flimflam," is the story of Dr. John R. Brinkley, a man the author claims was "America's most lethal and creative con man" who changed politics, advertising, music and modern medicine forever.

From a small clinic in Milford, Kan., Brinkley originated all sorts of scams on unsuspecting consumers. He started by promising men the return of their virility if they submitted to the implantation of goat testicles under their skin.

He performed this questionable surgery on farmers, industry leaders and Hollywood stars — and simultaneously inspired the organization of the American Medical Association. This is a fun book. — Dennis Lythgoe

'Desperate Passage'

By Ethan Rarick

Oxford University Press, $28

Although the story of the Donner Party has been told many times, this beautiful book alleges that recent research makes it the best and most complete account.

It recounts the most tragic event in the history of the American West. The Donner Party, a group of California-bound settlers, left in the spring of 1846 to find a better life. They were trapped by a snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where half of the 87 men, women and children died of cold and starvation. Most controversial were those who survived by resorting to cannibalism.

This is a well-written, copiously documented account that Western history buffs will appreciate. —Dennis Lythgoe

'Escape on the Pearl'

By Mark Kay Ricks

Harper Perennial, $15.95 (softcover)

This book, subtitled "The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad," is a narrative account that concentrates on one event on April 15, 1848, when 77 slaves attempted to escape by setting sail from Washington, D.C., on a 54-ton schooner named the Pearl.

Their route was intended to take them 225 miles down the Potomac River to Chesapeake Bay, then to New Jersey, a free state. It represented the largest escape attempt connected to the legendary Underground Railroad.

The ship was captured 100 miles from Washington, brought back and the slaves thrown into the city jail. Some abolitionists purchased the slaves' freedom following three chaotic days of protest by both sides of the slavery argument. — Dennis Lythgoe