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At the Chinese Table: A Memoir with Recipes

Carolyn Phillips. Norton, $27.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-324-00245-1

In this multifaceted memoir, food writer Phillips (All Under Heaven) vividly recounts her love affair with Chinese cuisine. In 1976, she arrived in Taipei as a student and made her “greatest culinary discovery that first year”: pork ribs “soaked in a spicy marinade... over equally buttery chunks of sweet potato.” She remained in Taiwan for several years after falling in love with her now-husband, J.H., a local who broadened her palette and inspired her to recreate some of his favorite traditional dishes, including pig’s head with stir-fried scapes. Phillips’s reflections are peppered with humor (“My Mandarin... must have sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard”), and she provides ample historical and cultural context, especially when discussing J.H.’s family history. As she remembers cooking alongside her Hakka father-in-law, she explains that the word Hakka is “used to label a people, heritage, and cuisine, rather than a particular locale.” Phillips pairs every chapter with a few recipes­—among them black sesame candy wafers (her father-in-law’s favorite), garlic chile sauce, and Yunnan cold rice noodles—that ambitious home chefs will want to try. The blend of cooking, culture, and romance make this an irresistible treat for food lovers and travelers. (June)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Measuring Up: A Memoir

Dan Robson. Viking, $16 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-735-23469-7

Canadian journalist Robson (Quinn) reflects on the death of his father and the emotional awakening it inspired in this quietly moving memoir. He begins in 2015, when his 59-year-old father, Rick, suffered a stroke. Though the initial prognosis was positive, swelling in Rick’s brain soon killed him. Despite the fact that they’d been very close, Robson always struggled with feelings of inadequacy around Rick, an expert craftsman and contractor whose practical skills never trickled down to his son. “He had assembled the world we lived in and he, quite literally, held it together,” writes Robson. In an effort to keep his father’s memory alive, he set out to renovate his parents’ Toronto home, where his mother still lived. As he works away at the project using his father’s tools, he unspools fond recollections of their time together, writing about his father taking him to hockey practice as a boy in the ’90s, the “dadest of dad jokes,” and the huge impact his father made on others—as seen in one particularly heartrending passage when his father helped a stranger overcome addiction. This powerful story of loss and healing demonstrates the positive difference one life can make. Agent: Rick Broadhead, Rick Broadhead and Assoc. (May)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World

Giles Milton. Holt, $25.49 (400p) ISBN 978-1-2502-4756-8

Historian Milton (Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy) captures in this immersive account the drama and intrigue of Berlin in the immediate aftermath of WWII. At the 1945 Yalta conference, Berlin was divided into three zones of occupation to be controlled by the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. However, the border of Soviet-controlled East Germany was drawn 110 miles west of Berlin, which meant that the American and British sectors of the city would be surrounded by the Red Army. The Allies hoped that any difficulties could be overcome by diplomacy, but problems arose from the beginning. Soviet troops entered Berlin first and began a program of rape, violence, and plunder; by the time the Allies were allowed in, the Russians had looted everything of value from the Western sectors. Milton notes that the basic ration card providing Berliners with only 1,504 calories per day was known as the “death card,” and documents high-level Soviet defections that brought to light Russian infiltration of U.S. and British atomic research programs, Stalin’s rigging of local elections, the kidnapping of German scientists by the Soviets, the diplomatic tensions leading up to the 1948–1949 Soviet blockade of the city’s western half, and the resulting airlift that helped bring the siege to an end. Full of vivid details and intriguing personalities, this is a page-turning chronicle of a noteworthy period in world history. (July)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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“I Have Nothing to Hide”: And 20 Other Myths About Surveillance and Privacy

Heidi Boghosian. Beacon, $16 trade paper (232p) ISBN 978-0-8070-6126-8

Attorney Boghosian (Spying on Democracy) refutes common misconceptions that lead to public apathy about surveillance technology in this alarming yet clearheaded account. Without appropriate oversight by policymakers and independent government agencies, Boghosian argues, tech products such as Google Nest and Amazon-owned Ring can be compromised by hackers or appropriated by police and used to circumvent due process. She contends that surveillance initiatives launched as part of the “war on terror” have been “abject failures,” and notes that one NSA program continues to collect metadata from hundreds of millions of phone calls annually, despite an oversight board’s finding that between 2001 and 2014, such bulk collection programs failed to make a “concrete difference” in any counterterrorism investigation. Boghosian also describes how the East German secret police and today’s Chinese Communist Party use surveillance technology to stifle political dissent and control citizen behavior, and notes that the U.S. National Guard has used drones to track Black Lives Matter protests. In addition to calling for Congress to update digital privacy laws, Boghosian offers advice for how individuals can “stave off the surveillance state” by using encryption technologies and switching to a search engine that “doesn’t track you the way Google does.” The result is an accessible and informative introduction to the issues surrounding the rise in surveillance technology. (July)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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On the House: A Washington Memoir

John Boehner. St. Martin's, $29.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-250-23844-3

Former House Speaker Boehner delivers an amiable if somewhat trite tour of his life and political career. One of 12 children raised by a Cincinnati bar owner, Boehner credits the Saturdays he spent working in his father's "shot-and-a-beer joint" with teaching him "how important it was for every single person to be treated with respect." He distinguishes between his own "rabble-rousing" as a freshman congressman in the early 1990s and the "pure, blind, knee-jerk ideology" of members of the "so-called Freedom Caucus," including Mark Meadows, who voted against Boehner's reelection as House Speaker in 2015, even though Boehner had campaigned for him. Boehner also takes aim at Ted Cruz ("a reckless asshole who thinks he is smarter than everyone else"), expresses regret for going along with the impeachment of Bill Clinton ("A partisan impeachment simply does not have credibility with most Americans"), castigates "right-wing propaganda nuts" in the media (Mark Levin, Sean Hannity) for helping to radicalize Congress with "blind Obama hatred," and defends his handling of congressional battles over the Affordable Care Act and the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Though Boehner shares plenty of colorful anecdotes (including the time Alaska representative Don Young pulled a knife on him in the House chamber), it's a fairly predictable run-through of his viewpoints. Readers will relish the gossip, but wish for deeper self-reflection. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

Amanda Montell. Harper Wave, $27.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-299315-1

Journalist Montell (Wordslut) argues in this vivid study that “language is the key means by which all degrees of cultlike influence occur.” Uncovering commonalities in the use of “secret mantras and code words” to attract and retain followers, Montell surveys the indoctrination techniques and conformism of cults such as Heaven’s Gate and the Peoples Temple (whose adherents committed mass suicide in South America in 1978), as well as “woo-woo wellness influencers,” QAnon, and fitness groups such as Peloton and CrossFit. Combining personal anecdotes (her father was partially raised in Synanon, a San Francisco drug rehab center turned church), interviews with former cult members, and anthropological analysis, Montell documents how cult leaders including “spiritual guru” Bentinho Massaro employ “thought-terminating clichés, intended to gaslight followers into mistrusting science, as well as their own thoughts and emotions,” and argues that understanding the rhetoric of cults can help to distinguish between benign and dangerous communities, and reduce the stigma that can further entrap people in cults. Though the personal digressions (including an overlong account of taking a “personality assessment” at the Church of Scientology in L.A.) occasionally distract from the bigger picture, Montell is an engaging and well-informed tour guide through the world of “cultish scenarios.” This intriguing account is worth a look. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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We Shall Be Masters: Russia’s Pivots to East Asia from Peter the Great to Putin

Chris Miller. Harvard Univ, $29.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-674-91644-9

Tufts University historian Miller (Putinomics) delivers a rich and well-informed chronicle of Russia’s engagement with Asia over the past three centuries. He details the establishment of Russian trading posts in Alaska and northern California in the early 1800s, and captures the immensity, complexity, and importance of Russia’s eastern borderlands through the eyes of its explorers, including Nikolai Przhevalsky, who mapped Central Asia in the mid-19th century. Arguing that Russia’s enduring fixation on Europe and “episodic and erratic” foreign policy in Asia have hampered its dream of becoming a major presence in the region, Miller discusses the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the late 1800s; Stalin’s purging of “spies, saboteurs, and hidden enemies” in the Russian Far East in the 1930s (according to Miller, 15,000 people died in the crackdown and several hundred thousand more were “deported, jailed, or sent to a gulag”); the militarization of the border with China under Brezhnev; Gorbachev’s decision to withdraw troops from Mongolia and end the nearly decade-long war with Afghanistan; and Putin’s prioritization of relations with Asia over the U.S. and Europe. The result is a comprehensive and fluidly written survey that will be welcomed by students of international history. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Giovanni’s Ring: My Life Inside the Real Sopranos

Giovanni Rocco and Douglas Schofield. Chicago Review, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-64160-350-8

Rocco, the alias for a New Jersey cop who infiltrated the Mafia in the 2010s, vividly conveys the challenges and perils of undercover work in this gripping if inadequately sourced memoir. Rocco, the son of a policeman, grew up in Bayonne, N.J., playing with kids whose relatives were in the mob. After he barely graduated from high school, his father’s reputation enabled him to land a spot with the police. He quickly began undercover work, and his talent at dealing with people and the unexpected led to him being assigned to work with the FBI. In 2012, he was tapped to make a drug buy off a dealer named Jimmy Smalls, who was supplied by an associate of the DeCavalcante family (supposedly the inspiration for TV’s Sopranos). Rocco’s relationship with Smalls led to his gathering evidence against the DeCavalcantes and the Gambinos, and in 2015 to major arrests. Rocco had numerous close calls with exposure, and the strain on his marriage and family, he writes, was significant. The absence of any explanation of sources raises questions about the accuracy of the verbatim dialogue Rocco presents, and the reader is left to guess how he could remember what was said in such detail. Fans of FBI agent Joseph Pistone’s Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia will want to take a look. Agent: Jill Marsal, Marsal Lyon Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl

Katherine Dykstra. Norton, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-65198-0

Journalist Dykstra debuts with a sobering, well-crafted account of her efforts to solve a 50-year-old cold case. In 1970, 18-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling, who lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, borrowed her roommate’s car in the middle of the night and never returned. Four months later, her decomposed body was found bound and dumped in a ditch. At the time Oberbroeckling went missing, she had a boyfriend, though she had recently broken up with another boyfriend, who was Black, and she might have been pregnant. Neither the police nor the local media had any interest in the case, and in 1972 her police file was closed. The case was ultimately deemed unsolvable due to passing time and the loss of evidence from a flood in 2008. Did Oberbroeckling die of a botched illegal abortion, or was she the victim of someone she knew or of a random killer? The main narrative focuses on the author’s research into case files and interviews with those who knew the girl, but in the end she admits she may never know who killed her. Meanwhile, Dykstra casts a searing light on racism, sexism, and the stigma of being a “bad” girl. This is the perfect blueprint for any true crime writer moved to investigate a cold case. Agent: Duvall Osteen, Aragi. (June)

Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the name of the town Paula Oderbroeckling lived in.

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany

Dwight Garner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-27919-6

New York Times book critic Garner assembles a rather unorthodox ensemble of some of his favorite quotes. Comprising “sentences from novels, stories, poems, and songs, from plays and movies, from overheard conversations,” that, Garner writes, have “jolted me awake,” this is much more than a random assortment. Many of the quotes share a common (if broad) theme, touching upon topics such as food, religion, love for literature, and candid remarks on human nature. Certain lines, such as Saul Bellow’s “Lead me not into Penn Station” or Tina Brown’s “True elegance is a real time suck,” serve as humorous tongue-in-cheek observations on daily life, while others will prompt readers to think, such as Harold Pinter’s “It’s very difficult to feel contempt for others when you see yourself in the mirror.” A line from Mark Twain states that, “In certain trying circumstances... profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.” In many ways, this sentence sums up the feel of Garner’s offering, which is a scruffier, bawdier endeavor than the average quotation compendium. It would take a real curmudgeon to not enjoy this witty and delightful diversion. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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