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Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai

Matti Friedman. Spiegel & Grau, $27 (224p) ISBN 978-1-954118-07-2

Journalist Friedman (Spies of No Country) illuminates in this fascinating tale an extraordinary chapter in the career of singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen (1934–2016) that left a lasting impact on the state of Israel. “Sometimes an artist and an event interact to generate a spark far bigger than both,” Friedman writes. As he shows here, that alchemy happened in the midst of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Cohen left his home to give spontaneous concerts to Israeli troops at the front lines in the Sinai desert. Drawing on excerpts from an unpublished manuscript Cohen wrote about his experiences as well as interviews with those who were there, Friedman brilliantly constructs a vivid account humanizing the young soldiers (When Cohen plays “Suzanne,” Friedman writes, “The men are quiet. They hear about a place that doesn’t have blackened tanks and figures lying still in charred coveralls”) and the singer, who, after contemplating retirement at age 39, was revitalized by the trip and went on to write his best-known works, including “Hallelujah.” Friedman also underscores how Cohen’s visit transformed the nation’s music and “spiritual life,” leading the country to abandon “the militant secularism of the founders for an openness to the old wisdom.” This demonstration of the power of song will stun fans of the legendary artist. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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How Do I Un-Remember This?: Unfortunately True Stories

Danny Pellegrino. Sourcebooks, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-72824-798-4

Podcaster and comedian Pellegrino (Fancy AF Cocktails) takes a humorous and heartfelt trip down memory lane in this candid account of the moments that shaped him. Growing up during the ’90s as a “closeted kid” in a small Ohio town, Pellegrino had his fair share of misadventures—from streaking through the night on a dare to the unexpected trials of trying to get a family vacation off the ground, with very shaky results. For all the laughs his recollections induce, there’s an equal amount of introspection and vulnerability on offer in his shrewd articulations of universal human anxieties: “Every year on my birthday, a sense of melancholy washes over me.... I feel judged by my peers, and all the while I’m scrolling IG and judging the celebrities... with a leftover Roadside Slider from the Cheesecake Factory in my free hand.” He also elegantly writes of the challenges he faced and the gradual steps he took to openly admit to being gay (“Those years when you’re figuring it all out can be mental torture, but... life doesn’t stop when you come out. In fact, life begins because you’re finally living it authentically”). Readers will adore this witty account of navigating life—and finding the joy in marching to the beat of one’s own drum. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives

Mary Laura Philpott. Atria, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-982160-78-4

Philpott (I Miss You When I Blink) explores life’s pleasures and uncertainties in this wry if meandering collection of essays. She searches for meaning in the noteworthy and the mundane, sleekly juxtaposing lamentations about her herniated discs (an injury caused by “too many years hunched over a laptop”) with deeply affecting reflections on such life-altering experiences as her son’s first seizure. She also humorously investigates her own contradictory nature, as a person who’s both immensely anxious and overly cheerful: “Am I here to tell you we’re all going to die? Yes. Am I here to give you a pep talk along the way? Also yes!” Occasionally, though, she wanders down a winding path of tangential thoughts and unrelated asides; for instance, the surprising news that her dad worked at Raven Rock, a secret underground military bunker, zigzags her to the moment when she learned, after two decades of living with her husband, that he could juggle. While the scattershot narration can distract, Philpott draws readers back in with her philosophical and witty musings—from wondering about her place in the universe to remembering a family dog that would only eat to the music of Kanye West. Rambling tendencies aside, this quirky work has a lot of heart. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees

Matthieu Aikins. Harper, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-305858-3

Journalist Aikins debuts with a powerful account of the “long and dangerous journey” many Afghans take out of their war-torn country. At the center of the story is Omar (a pseudonym), a Sunni Muslim and former interpreter for the American military, who in 2016 took the “smuggler’s road” to Europe after his application for a Special Immigrant Visa to the U.S. was denied. Raised in exile in Iran and Pakistan, Omar was a teenager when his family returned to Kabul in 2002 in the largest repatriation program in U.N. history. By October 2015, however, Afghanistan lay in tatters, with the Taliban back in control of the provincial capital of Kunduz and the U.S. government signaling it was on the way out. Going undercover as a “young Kabuli of modest background,” to join Omar, Aikins characterizes the journey as “mostly waiting punctuated by moments of terror.” He details Omar’s reluctance to leave his Shia Muslim girlfriend and vividly describes roads lined with burned-out buses, overcrowded safe houses where migrants crack grim jokes, and unaccompanied Afghan children “mingl[ing] with the drug dealers and johns” on the streets of Athens. The result is a heart-wrenching portrait of resilience and ingenuity under the most trying of circumstances. Agent: Edward Orloff, McCormick Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies

Laura Thompson. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-20273-4

Biographer Thompson (Six Girls) unearths secrets and scandals in this entertaining group portrait of women, mainly British and American and from the 19th and 20th centuries, who inherited vast wealth. Claiming that “it really is different for girls,” Thompson notes that until the late 19th century in England, a wife’s identity was “legally subsumed into that of her husband,” and he was entitled to her property and income. Later, when a woman’s money was “legally and incontestably” her own, many heiresses were still intensely vulnerable and led “godawful lives,” while others saw their wealth “as a responsibility worth having.” Thompson recounts the stories of Mary Davies, who lost control of her London estate after her husband’s death in 1700; Winnaretta Singer, daughter of sewing machine manufacturer Isaac Singer, who “inhabit[ed] the iconoclastic milieu of the avant garde” in late 19th-century Paris; and baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, who partnered with Charles Dickens to rehabilitate impoverished schools and neighborhoods in Victorian England. Other profile subjects include kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, and Winnaretta Singer’s niece Daisy Fellowes, who “lived as a pure and unrepentant hedonist.” Skillfully evoking disparate social milieus and generational divides, Thompson packs the narrative full of juicy gossip without resorting to caricature. Readers will be enthralled. Agent: Georgina Capel, Georgina Capel Assoc. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Trials of Harry Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man

Jeffrey Frank. Simon & Schuster, $32.50 (576p) ISBN 978-1-5011-0289-9

The quintessential Middle American rose to the occasion in wrestling with issues of vast international import, according to this shrewd presidential history. New Yorker contributor Frank (Ike and Dick) recaps Harry Truman’s eventful seven years in office, during which he approved the atomic bombing of Japan, weathered the hottest stretch of the Cold War, and launched a key civil rights initiative by desegregating the armed forces. Frank’s Truman is sensible, determined, and decisive, but impulsive (he sent a letter threatening to rearrange the nose of a music critic who panned daughter Margaret’s opera recital); able to hold his own with Churchill and Stalin, but too deferential to his advisers and the military brass. (Truman’s greatest mistake, Frank argues, was allowing Gen. Douglas MacArthur leeway to invade North Korea, which brought China into that war.) Frank astutely analyzes the geopolitics Truman confronted while conveying his character in elegant, evocative prose: “He walked with a rapid, soldierly gait, eyes straight ahead, often smiling, managing to exude confidence despite what a top aide called a ‘wholesome sense of inadequacy.’ ” The result is a discerning portrait of a president who achieved a lot just by muddling through. Photos. Agent: Tina Bennett, Bennett Literary. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Change Your World

David Robson. Holt, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-82763-0

Journalist Robson (The Intelligence Trap) takes a comprehensive if dry look at the effects expectations can have on longevity, fitness, intelligence, and stress management. He explains that the brain, which he calls a “prediction machine,” constantly analyzes people’s own beliefs and expectations, and accordingly initiates changes, including physiological ones, as a result. As a counter to the many “pseudoscientific” self-help books about the power of expectations (most notably, The Secret), Robson investigates the “expectation effect” through peer-reviewed experiments and studies. In one, WWII soldiers who were told they were receiving a painkiller prior to surgery were actually given a saline injection; the placebo had a 90% efficacy rate. Elsewhere, the author cites studies of people who imagined they were lifting a heavy object and saw an 11% boost in their strength, and of people who have a sunny perspective on aging tending to live 7.5 years longer than those who have a pessimist outlook. Robson offers advice at the end of each chapter to help readers make the most of their lives by changing their expectations (for example, using visualization strategies to reduce anxiety), and while there are plenty of valuable takeaways, the bland prose doesn’t do the book any favors. Still, it’s a fine place to start for readers interested in the power of the mind. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Women Talk Money: Breaking the Taboo

Edited by Rebecca Walker. Simon & Schuster, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5011-5432-4

“Women’s stories of their struggles with money are shrouded in secrecy and shame,” writes activist Walker (Black, White, and Jewish) in this inspiring anthology in which 29 women open up about their finances, as well as how doing so has freed them from the “heterosexist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” In “Money Wounds,” Latham Thomas recalls seeing her Black mother, a realtor, thrown to the ground by the police in Oakland when she tried to deposit a commission check, while, in “The Price of Air,” Nina Revoyr writes of the expense of living somewhere with decent air quality. In “Composting Capitalism,” adrienne maree brown recounts getting her credit cards frozen after years of being a “tax resister” to protest defense spending. Gabby Bellot considers the cost of being trans in “Sharks in the Banya” (“transitioning... is a financial privilege,” she writes); and in “Come Fund Me,” Porochista Khakpour outlines her experience crowdfunding: “donations had the feeling of hugs from afar.” As Walker writes, “our money stories resist their own telling, as if the revelations might bring down an empire,” and the essays, taken together, make a powerful case for the importance of disclosure. It’s a sobering and eye-opening look at what really happens behind the purse strings. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Watergate: A New History

Garrett Graff. Avid Reader, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-1-982139-16-2

Journalist Graff (The Only Plane in the Sky) sheds new light on the Watergate scandal in this exhaustive history. Drawing on memoirs, tape recordings, court transcripts, and recently declassified FBI documents, Graff highlights the paranoia and ambition that ran through the Nixon administration, from the distrust between the president and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to disagreements between chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, White House counsel John Dean, and campaign chairman John Mitchell. Though Nixon’s campaigns had always involved “a certain abnormal level of dirty tricks,” according to Graff, a series of leaks and scandals including the release of the Pentagon Papers helped push his aides to new heights of “skullduggery,” orchestrating break-ins at the Brookings Institution in 1971 and the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building in 1972. Graff skillfully interweaves the perspectives of journalists and law enforcement officials investigating the Watergate break-in with the Nixon team’s attempts to “use the organs of government to cover up their own rogue operation,” and incisively analyzes how the congressional inquiry into the scandal resulted in Democrats and Republicans coming together to uphold the Constitution and limit the powers of the president. Expertly researched and assembled, this is a valuable introduction to one of history’s greatest political scandals. Agent: Howard Yoon, Ross Yoon Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party

Michael Kazin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (416p) ISBN 978-0-374-20023-7

Georgetown University historian Kazin (War Against War) delivers a brisk and informative survey of the Democratic Party’s evolution from its origins in the 1820s to the present. A supporter of the party who canvassed for JFK at age 12, Kazin contends that Democrats have been most successful “when they articulated an egalitarian economic vision and advocated laws intended to fulfill it.” He details how early leaders including Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson brought together shopkeepers, slave owners, and “working-class radicals” by advocating for strict limits on federal power and appealing to “the creed of white supremacy,” and notes that the party “waver[ed] little from its racist convictions” until the 1930s, when FDR’s White House tentatively embraced an “interracial constituency” that would eventually push through groundbreaking civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Throughout, Kazin spotlights factions within the party, including Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and today’s “multiracial millennials” led by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Readers will also gain insight into lesser-known figures such as Tammany Hall boss “Honest” John Kelly and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who helped push Democrats toward supporting government intervention in the economy in the 1890s. The result is an insightful introduction to the complex history of the “oldest mass party in the world.” Agent: Sandra Dijkstra, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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