I don't normally post reviews here, but I finished this book yesterday and felt I had to share. I had never read anything by Martha Sandweiss, until I saw a review of this book which also allowed me to download and read the introduction. I was hooked, and immediately ordered it from Amazon.
I also just discovered that Sandweiss wrote a few entries for Penguin's blog, which you can read here http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/blogs/guest-author/passing-strange-mar...
Passing Strange is about racial passing, in a different direction from the one most historians will be familiar with. In this case, a white man passed as African American in order to marry a black woman. Clarence King's behaviour seems bizarre and incredible, as is the fact that no historian has lit onto this story before. What I admired about Sandweiss' writing was that she did not attempt to psychoanalyse King: she reported the facts as he and his friends recorded them in their (evidently copious) correspondences, without attempting to diagnose or pathologise his behaviour. This was refreshing, as another author could so easily have turned the story into an exploration of "multiple personality disorder" or other pop-psychology post-hoc diagnoses.
The detail with which she evokes not just King's well-documented life as a prominent scientist, but the world from which his Ada King came, made me think a lot about how I write history. I am not an Americanist, and I don't work on this period. But Sandweiss' literary style gave me much to ponder. I have often felt constrained in academic texts to write in a way that I feel is probably dull, but I have been so terrified of veering off the track into the pop-history style of "as he looked out the window, Charles Dickens coughed twice and thought about what he would have for breakfast" (etc), where the author claims inside knowledge of historical actors. As a reader, that kind of thing really annoys me, so my writing goes perhaps too far the other way, into empirical detachment. I engage with other academics about the subject, but don't enter so much into a conversation with the subject him- or her- self.
I noted Sandweiss' judicious use of "perhaps" and "might" - she didn't presume to tell readers what anyone was thinking or feeling, but to illustrate so carefully their world so that her suppositions seem logical, that any human being in such circumstances could plausibly feel or respond in such a way. I devoured this book, and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the past. For urban historians, this is also a great book for its treatment of life (at different social levels) in New York in the Gilded Age.