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Fräulein M.

Caroline Woods. Tyrus (F+W Media, dist.), $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5072-0022-3

Woods traces the fates of two very different sisters from Weimar Germany to 1970s America in a debut novel that explores identity, gender, and (at times misguided) loyalty. Raised in an orphanage, Berni and Grete Metzger are as close as two sisters can be; fearless Berni is fiercely protective of her younger sister, who has hearing loss. When an opportunity arises, Berni seizes it, ultimately driving a wedge between the two sisters and splintering their relationship for decades. Berni soon befriends a diverse group, including her transgender roommate and her Jewish landlady, both of whose situations grow increasingly desperate as the Nazis rise to power. Meanwhile, Grete, coping with feelings of abandonment and failing to understand Berni’s new lifestyle, turns her devotion elsewhere. Some of the novel’s numerous plot twists are effective, but some techniques (such as an exposition-laden letter from Grete and an abrupt shift to an American setting) feel manufactured or melodramatic. Nevertheless, Woods skillfully captures the disorienting mixture of heady freedom and mounting fear characterizing 1930s Berlin, and the political and gender issues she raises add contemporary relevancy. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Evenings

Gerard Reve, trans. from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. Pushkin, $22 (224p) ISBN 978-1-78227-178-9

Frits van Egters, “the hero of this story,” spends the last 10 evenings of 1946 wandering the streets of Amsterdam, contemplating the more humorous and existential parts of his life, in the first English translation of a work by one of the most lauded post-war Dutch authors. Frits lives with his aging parents, whom he is growing to dislike more and more with each moment he spends listening to the radio with them, trying to engage them in conversation. He decides to take walks in order to sleep more soundly at night. On his strolls, he visits his friends and his older brother, and readers come to learn that Frits almost entirely lacks social skills—though in a somehow endearing manner. While visiting friends, he obsesses over the amount of time he spends with them in a meticulous manner, attempting to control even his littlest thoughts and actions. His inquisitive nature and his fantastic memory make Frits a lovable character. Reve, much like Robert Walser, is able to take the mundane parts of daily life and elevate them into something fascinating, hilarious, and page-turning. The publication of this novel marks the exciting introduction of a wonderful writer to an Anglophone audience. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Between Dog and Wolf

Sasha Sokolov, trans. from the Russian by Alexander Boguslawski. Columbia Univ., $14.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-231-18147-1

Sokolov’s language-driven novel, long considered untranslatable, finally makes it into English 36 years after its publication in Russia. Sokolov, best known for 1976’s A School for Fools, here adds narrative to his linguistic pyrotechnics and creates a unique, challenging read. The non-chronological action centers on the Volga River and is told in three forms. The lead, Ilya Petrikeich Zynzyrela, is a one-legged knife-sharpener whose chapters are told in colloquial, heavily accented dialect, in which Boguslawski departs from the original Russian, using his own puns and neologisms to varying effect. Ilya’s sections are contrasted by the overly erudite, floral chapters depicting the warden Yakov Ilyich Palamakhterov. Yakov’s poems, many of which are lovely, are interspersed throughout and expand on the book’s themes. The plot fluctuates, but some facts are clear: after a wake for a drowned man, Ilya kills the warden’s dog, thinking it’s a wolf. After Ilya’s crutches are stolen by the vengeful warden, the story heads toward an inevitable conclusion. There are occasional difficulties that feel like impositions: for example, readers will be confused by the decision to provide endnotes but not place endnote numerals within the text, especially because Sokolov uses unattributed quotes from over a dozen Russian authors. However, even at peak moments of inscrutability, one feels the caliber and creativity of the original. This is a riot of language, invaluable for scholars and fascinating to the curious. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Trysting

Emmanuelle Pagano, trans. from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis. Two Lines (PGW, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (220p) ISBN 978-1-931883-56-6

All the heartache and ecstasies of love—along with the textures, material trappings, and little banalities that color any relationship—are laid bare in Pagano’s series of vignettes, which crosses boundaries of gender, age, and sexuality to create a vivid impression of modern love. Readers meet lovers confronting shared joy, last illness, jealousy, and chance meetings; the speakers are unnamed, and their confessions run the gamut of amorous experience, from accounts of sex to a soon-to-be-separated husband lingering over the contents of his wife’s suitcase. In one bittersweet sketch, a widow discovers her husband’s correspondence with his lover; others feature a saxophonist who nurses a crush on the neighbor who comes to complain about the noise, a jilted lover who takes possession of his partner’s collection of feathers and scatters them throughout the city, and a retelling of Cinderella in miniature as a theatergoer fastens a lost sandal to a woman’s “bare foot, her summer foot.” Many of these vignettes are only a line or two long, reading merely “We have never wept at the same time” or “In the shower, the falling water redraws the shape of her spine,” but each manages to capture the content of a love story from a fresh perspective. What emerges is an astonishing portrait of what it is to love and to be loved. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Chile Pepper Bible: From Sweet and Mild to Fiery and Everything in Between

Judith Finlayson. Robert Rose (Firefly, dist.), $27.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-7788-0550-2

Finlayson (The Healthy Slow Cooker) declaims a hybrid ode to the chili, combining history, botany, and a generous helping of recipes devoted to chili peppers of many varieties and from all over the world. The first two sections of the book provide a brief history of the chili in the Western world, as well as information about the Scoville scale (used to measure the hotness of chilies), the health benefits of chilies , and types of chilies . The information isn’t revelatory, but it provides interesting background for chili novices and is useful for readers looking to try some new chilies in their cooking. Finlayson includes pictures of chilies followed by tables that list each variety’s name, heat level, and physical description; he gives give a brief overview of more than 30 varieties of chili. The bulk of the book is recipes, which are organized in the usual categories: appetizers, soups, fish, meats, sides, desserts, etc. Breaking them down according to the heat of the chili being used would have been more fun and in keeping with the focus of the book, but the recipes themselves are dependable and delicious, as long as readers can handle the heat. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation

Yves Engler. Fernwood (Brunswick Books, dist.), $19.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-55266-946-4

Engler—whose previous works have critiqued Canada’s foreign policy (Canada in Africa), the role of corporations abroad, and the smug self-congratulation that underlies many of Canada’s foundational myths—turns his sharp eye to the massive public relations apparatus inside the country’s military. Comparing the marketing of war to the promotion of professional hockey, this work skewers what Engler views as a well-oiled governmental machine pumping out a propaganda barrage. But the Canadian government couldn’t shape public opinion alone, he says, requiring a compliant press, targeted defense funding to universities and think tanks, and corporate entities with an interest in securing weapons deals. Engler also discusses an intricate network of institutions that seeks to control both how Canadian history is presented in schools and museums and the manner in which the country’s armed forces are viewed with each new engagement. Engler’s arguments are sure to rankle some, but he backs up his case with solid documentation that often comes directly from his opponents. Drawing on historic case studies and his own personal interactions with military-friendly media editors, Engler’s outrage is palpable. He hopes that social movements will have some restraining capacity and that acts of truth-telling can ultimately give the public a more balanced view of what has for too long been a one-sided story. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder

Ma-Nee Chacaby, with Mary Louisa Plummer. Univ. of Manitoba (Michigan State Univ., U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $24.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-88755-812-2

This collaboration between Chacaby and social scientist Plummer tells the story of Chacaby’s remarkable life. She was born in a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1950 and raised largely by her grandmother—who early on recognized her special nature—and their Anishnaabe community. Her story was shaped by social conditions specific to that era of colonialism in Canada. She avoided residential school by being in the bush when the other children were rounded up, but then had to survive abuse by her closest family; a harrowing escape with two children from an arranged, abusive marriage; alcoholism; living on the streets of Thunder Bay; and coming out as a lesbian in a small community in the early 1980s. Chacaby’s story is suffused with people helping others overcome hardship. These helpers include Chacaby herself, once she is in a position to aid others. Leveraging the storytelling traditions that she learned as a young girl in Ombabika, Ont., this autobiography is rich in detail and reads like taking tea with a wise and dear grandmother. Plummer’s role is evident in the way the book is organized, but she is otherwise unobtrusive, facilitating rather than obfuscating Chacaby’s narration. (May)

Reviewed on 01/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Vimy: The Battle and the Legend

Tim Cook. Penguin Canada/Allen Lane, $38 (512p) ISBN 978-0-7352-3316-4

Cook, whose Shock Troops won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction, insightfully examines the 1917 battle of Vimy Ridge and evolving perceptions of it as Canadians prepare to commemorate its 100th anniversary. Four Canadian divisions fought at Vimy, and after four days, the Canadians succeeded where other Allied forces had failed, taking the strategic ridge from the occupying German Sixth Army, albeit at the cost of nearly 3,600 Canadian lives. It was a battle that shaped the still-forming Canadian identity as Canada evolved from colony to dominion to sovereign nation, and the battle has sometimes been described as “the birth of a nation.” Although Cook sees that description as myth, and one that has been used by some politicians to promote their own agendas, he writes that it is one of Canada’s most enduring narratives. He analyzes the ways that subsequent generations have commemorated Vimy: some made grand speeches and iconic memorials, but others, disenchanted with war, saw the battle as a terrible waste of human life. Covering a century in fewer than 500 pages, Cook’s account is necessarily highly compressed, but he effectively conveys a complex topic in a few well-chosen words, showing how Vimy came to hold a place in the Canadian consciousness that no other battle does. Agent: Rick Broadhead, Rick Broadhead & Associates. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies

Sarah Carter. Univ. of Manitoba (Michigan State Univ., U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $34.95 trade paper (456p) ISBN 978-0-88755-818-4

This well-crafted, accessible history of early agricultural development on the Canadian prairies is a social document surveying the gendered stereotypes underlying British colonialism. It is also a comprehensive overview of the legal and social obstacles placed in the way of European immigrant women owning and working their own land. Carter (The Importance of Being Monogamous) explores how a process viewed as liberating for women (at least within the limited confines of female land ownership) relied on First Nations land dispossession as surveyors cut up vast regions into postage stamp–sized homesteads. In Carter’s hands, this academic study is marked by an invigorating, inviting style that uncovers and reclaims history in all its muddied complications. She allows readers to share in the excitement of her discoveries and insights. Her sharp analysis views the past fairly and judiciously, while generously supplying archival photographs of women on the land that defied the perception of them as fragile creatures to be kept indoors. Additional historic newspaper clippings supplement a depth of research that travels from ancient times to the beginning of the Great Depression. Carter shows how history can be well documented, provocative, and entertaining. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Fault Lines: Life and Landscape in Saskatchewan’s Oil Economy

Emily Eaton and Valerie Zink. Univ. of Manitoba (Michigan State Univ., U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $31.95 trade paper (216p) ISBN 978-0-88755-783-5

This combination of Eaton’s (Growing Resistance) informative, objective text and Zink’s haunting black-and-white photography—reminiscent of classic Depression-era portraits—strikingly documents a landscape whose transition from grain silos to oil pump-jacks has received scant attention; in studies of the Canadian oil economy, the prairie province of Saskatchewan has long been overshadowed by its petrochemical giant neighbor, Alberta. Eaton and Zink ably chronicle the history of Saskatchewan’s oil development, along with its economic and environmental impacts, through scores of interviews and visuals that illustrate life in a province subject to the boom-bust cycle of an industry dependent on world commodity prices. The stories of those most directly affected—family farmers whose often desperate need for additional cash opens the door to oil leases, First Nations people whose ongoing struggle for land rights recognition is overridden by developers, temporary foreign workers tied to uncertain contracts, women working in a predominantly male environment—come alive in all their nuance and humanity. The bars, hotels, and shops that support the oil economy also come into sharp focus. Zink and Eaton portray a precarious population with little control over an existence driven by unseen and unaccountable global forces. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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