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Mala’s Cat: A Memoir of Survival in World War II

Mala Kacenberg. Pegasus, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-64313-903-6

In this gorgeous debut, Kacenberg shares her harrowing and courageous story of surviving the Holocaust. In 1942, after returning from a trip to find food outside her Polish hometown of Tarnogrod, 15-year-old Kacenberg was told by a neighbor that her family had been rounded up for deportation by the Nazis. “If I were to survive,” she realized, “I would have to behave like a grown-up and fend for myself.” Accompanied by a stray cat she named Malach (the Hebrew word for angel), Kacenberg went into hiding, and, as she writes, Malach lived up to her name, emanating “a shield of protection” around her, even once clawing the face of a German man who threatened them. Blonde, blue-eyed, and resourceful, Kacenberg eventually took the alias of Stefania Iwkiewicz and managed to evade capture by convincing the Nazis she was a Christian and escaping to Germany, where she lived until the war ended. As she devastatingly describes, she wasn’t spared from the war’s unimaginable atrocities, including the killing of her entire family. Still, against all odds, Kacenberg lived to serve as a witness for those who were less fortunate, eventually marrying a fellow war survivor in 1949 and raising five children in the United Kingdom. This moving account is a welcome addition to the canon of WWII memoirs. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Doomsday Mother: Lori Vallow, Chad Daybell, and the End of an American Family

John Glatt. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-27667-4

This chilling narrative from bestseller Glatt (Golden Boy: A Murder Among the Manhattan Elite) does justice to the case of Lori Vallow, who plotted the 2019 killings of her 16-year-old daughter, Tylee, and her seven-year-old son, J.J. Vallow became obsessed with the doomsday prophecy of her fifth husband, Chad Daybell, and the couple considered themselves “gods, leading an army of chosen ones to survive the end of world... on a divine mission to rid the world of evil zombies.” After Vallow came to believe that her children were zombies who stood in the way of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, she persuaded her brother Alex Cox that evil spirits had taken over the bodies of Tylee and J.J., leading him to kill them and hide their remains on Daybell’s Idaho property. Eventually, after Cox’s death from natural causes, the authorities gathered enough evidence to charge both Vallow and Daybell with murder; a trial date is pending. Despite readers knowing the grim ending from the start, Glatt’s extensive research, including interviews with family members, makes this a white-knuckle page-turner as he traces Vallow’s descent into homicidal madness. This definitive look at a case Glatt considers the most “terrifying” of his decades of experience as a journalist is must reading for true crime fans. Agent: Jane Dystel, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of More: How Mathematics Created Civilization

Michael Brooks. Pantheon, $28 (336) ISBN 978-1-5247-4899-9

“Our way of life, our institutions, and our infrastructures” were all built on math, writes New Scientist editor Brooks in this savvy study (after 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense). He begins by diligently explaining the basics of algebra, arithmetic, calculus, and geometry, and introducing key figures in math’s history. There’s Pythagoras and Isaac Newton, as well as lesser-known figures such as Claude Elwood Shannon, a pioneer in the information theory that undergirds today’s communication technology, and William Rowan Hamilton, a 19th-century mathematician who was “obsessed with complex numbers.” Brooks uses the work of these thinkers to break down the math behind facets of everyday life: he describes the statistics that underlie life expectancies; the equations that allow scientists to understand the cosmos; and the imaginary numbers that give guitar amplifiers their power. In his introduction, Brooks describes a point when a person hits their “mathematical limit” and gets overloaded, and encourages readers to avoid that feeling by approaching math with a sense of awe. He expertly maintains that spirit throughout and easily shows how, “through maths, we shape the world around us to give ourselves a better experience of being human.” It’s a show-stopping paean to the wonder of numbers. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness

Elizabeth D. Samet.. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-21992-5

The popular perception of WWII as the "Good War" hides a darker reality, according to this iconoclastic study by West Point English professor Samet (No Man's Land). Challenging rose-colored takes on the war as the triumph of the democratic common man over fascist tyranny, Samet argues that America's war was a morass of indiscriminate carnage fought by draftees with little ideological motivation—and, in the case of Black soldiers facing racial discrimination, deep ambivalence—amid considerable public disaffection on the home front. Worse, she contends, the retrospective veneration of the war as "a testament to the redemptive capacity of American violence" justified misbegotten military adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. Concentrating more on critical theory than politics or history, Samet probes interpretations of war in literary and cultural works from Shakespeare's Henry V to 20th-century war novels, Saving Private Ryan, and film noir's jaundiced view of an America coarsened and corrupted by the conflict and the troubled veterans returning from it. Samet's analysis is sometimes incisive but more often rambles through age-old indictments of the glorification of war. Ultimately, this intriguing provocation is too broad and unfocused to reveal much about why America keeps going into battle. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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George V: Never a Dull Moment

Jane Ridley.. Harper, $35 (560p) ISBN 978-0-06-256749-9

Biographer Ridley (The Heir Apparent) delivers a richly detailed yet somewhat ponderous portrait of King George V (1865–1936). Focusing more on the era than the monarch, Ridley delves into world events including the Irish Home Rule crisis, the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the rapidly deteriorating geopolitical situation that resulted in WWI. She claims that George took to heart journalist Walter Bagehot's dictum that the sovereign of a constitutional monarchy "possessed three rights: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn," and limited his wartime duties to "troop inspections, hospital visits, factory visits and medal pinning"—mundane yet important work that helped make the monarchy "seem more accessible than ever before." The narrative picks up when Ridley's focus shifts to supporting players, including Queen Mary, who is brought to vivid life as her tepid romance with George evolves into "a true partnership and a strong marriage." Though Ridley's expert understanding of the era's political and cultural tumults shines through, it's not enough to lift this biography above its admirable yet bland subject. Readers will agree with George V's assistant private secretary that he was "dull, beyond dispute." (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom

Carl Bernstein.. Holt, $29.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-62779-150-2

Pulitzer Prize winner Bernstein (All the President's Men) looks back at his early days as a reporter, before his Watergate reporting made him a household name, in this entertaining memoir. With wry humor, he describes his apprenticeship "in the newspaper trade from ages sixteen to twenty-one." Though his poor grades and record as a juvenile delinquent made it seem that "the odds were against my ever amounting to much," Bernstein recounts how in 1960, with the help of his father, he got an interview at the now defunct Washington Star. Thanks to his persistence and charisma, Bernstein secured a job there as a copyboy and moved rapidly up the ranks. He amusingly recounts going from covering local stories to reporting on major political events—such as the fledgling Kennedy administration—all while juggling the mundanities of high school: "Now that I had covered the inauguration of the president of the United States," he recalls, "Mr. Adelman's chemistry class interested me even less." Just as enthralling are his quaint recollections of growing up in D.C., at a time when being raised there felt "akin to living in a small town that also happened to be the capital of the United States." Admirers of this remarkable journalist will find much to love in this charming account. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a Covid-19 Vaccine

Gregory Zuckerman.. Portfolio, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593420-39-3

Wall Street Journal reporter Zuckerman traces the seemingly miraculous development of the Covid vaccine in this captivating account (after The Man Who Solved the Market). Through interviews with "scientists, academics, executives, government officials, investors, and others," Zuckerman makes a case that the creation of the vaccine was the result of "years of dedication, creativity, and frustration." He introduces a slew of scientists past and present whose work, in one way or another, impacted the efforts to cure Covid: there's Gale Smith, a molecular biologist who "theorized that insect viruses could be used to infect insect cells to produce specific proteins" in the 1980s; Frank Volvovitz, who started a company called MicroGeneSys to pursue a vaccine for AIDS; Jon Wolff, who was a key player in mRNA research; and Moderna scientist Eric Huang, who advised the company that they should be "making vaccines, not drugs" in 2013. Things move at a fast clip as Zuckerman conveys decades of complex scientific research in a gripping fashion. His focus on the slow burn of discovery makes for a fascinating angle and offers plenty of inspiration: "The Covid-19 vaccine story is one of heroism, dedication, and remarkable persistence." The result is tough to put down. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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100,000 First Bosses: My Unlikely Path as a 22-Year-Old Lawmaker

Will Haskell.. Avid Reader, $27 (224p) ISBN 978-1-982164-03-4

In this spirited debut memoir, Connecticut state senator Haskell recounts his 2018 upset victory over a Republican incumbent who had been in office for more than 20 years. Raised by his divorced parents in Westport and Bridgeport, Conn., Haskell recounts being taken by his father to hear Barack Obama speak during the 2008 New Hampshire primary, and how the election of Donald Trump "transformed our generation from kids into adults." While still a senior at Georgetown University, he decided to run against his hometown senator, whose opposition to paid family medical leave and criminal justice reform "felt like a mismatch for the moment." Haskell shares amusing anecdotes about filming his first campaign ads and organizing a dorm-room fundraiser, and details the legislative challenges he's faced since taking office. He also argues persuasively that "millennials and Gen Z are systematically underrepresented" in government and that, until more of them get a seat at the table, issues such as gun control and climate change will not be adequately addressed. His passion is infectious, and he provides plenty of instructive insider details. This earnest and enthusiastic account is a welcome introduction to politics for young people interested in making their voices heard. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior's Long Trail Home

Doug Peacock.. Patagonia, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-952338-04-5

Naturalist and explorer Peacock (In the Shadow of the Sabertooth) presents a captivating retrospective on his life in the wild. Using vivid imagery, he reflects on humanity's relationship with the natural world, his tour of duty in Vietnam, living among Grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park, and, appropriately, mortality. Each memory encapsulates Peacock's profound compassion for humans and animals alike, and his deep sense of responsibility. After attending to "too much collateral damage—that cowardly phrase they apply to the pile of small, dismembered bodies after a botched air attack," as a Special Forces medic in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, Peacock "applied the anger I had built doing that to the defense of wild things." Readers will appreciate his madcap yet reverential takes on nature; recalling a close encounter with a snake on the Missouri headwaters, he wonders, "How the hell could anyone believe humans were the center of the world when facing poisonous reptiles, grizzlies... or polar bears on equal terms and neutral turf?" While ruefully aware of the prospect of catastrophic global warming ("The beast of today is climate change"), Peacock's "heightened awareness" of the beauty of the wild never wanes. This passionate work is a welcome and worthy addition to the growing canon of environmental literature. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Urge: Our History of Addiction

Carl Erik Fisher.. Penguin Press, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-525-56144-6

Fisher, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, makes a striking debut by skillfully combining a cultural history of addiction with his own story of recovery. He first looks to ancient philosophers and thinkers, noting that early definitions of addiction hinged on a "gray area between free will and compulsion." This anticipated the contemporary notion that mental disorders, including addiction, exist on a continuum. Fisher focuses mainly on the U.S., where the idea of addiction as a disease gained traction around the time of the Revolutionary War and later spawned religious temperance movements, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the war on drugs. He also shows how treatments have swayed between compassionate, rehabilitative approaches and prohibitive crackdowns, and argues that the current quality of care is "woefully" inadequate. Along the way, he shares plenty of moving stories of the scientists, preachers, and patients on the front lines of addiction and movingly recounts his own struggle with alcohol and Adderall addiction while he was a physician in Columbia's psychiatry residency program: "The fear, shame, and strategizing were exhausting." There's as much history here as there is heart. Agent: Libby McGuire, The Gernert Company. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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