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And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain: The Heartbreaking True Story of a Family Torn Apart by War

Elisabeth Åsbrink, trans. from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel. Other Press, $25.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-59051-917-2

Journalist Åsbrink (1947: Where Now Begins) sets one family’s Holocaust tragedy against the legacy of WWII in Sweden in this multilayered history based on hundreds of letters between a young refugee and his parents back in Vienna. Opening with Hitler’s 1938 annexation of Austria, Åsbrink documents the closing of the Swedish border to “non-Aryan” refugees, and efforts by the Church of Sweden to help Jewish converts to Christianity escape Nazi Germany. In 1939, Josef and Elise Ullmann arranged for their only son, Otto, to be baptized and sent to a children’s home in Sweden until they could be reunited. Åsbrink quotes extensively from the family’s correspondence, revealing Otto’s homesickness and his parents’ anguish as they’re denied emigration papers, evicted from their home, and deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. Meanwhile, Otto gets placed on a farm owned by the father of future IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad. Åsbrink’s investigation into Kamprad’s pro-Nazi activities during the same period he befriended and worked alongside Otto raises more questions than it answers, though she carefully documents the influence of anti-Semitism and xenophobia on Sweden’s immigration policies. This devastating account has the lyricism and complexity of a finely wrought novel. Agent: Magdalena Hedlund, Hedlund Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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HappiNest: Finding Fulfillment When Your Kids Leave Home

Judy Holland. Rowman & Littlefield, $28 (176p) ISBN 978-1-5381-3058-2

Journalist Holland provides advice for empty nesters, pulling from over 300 interviews with a diverse group of parents, in her instructive debut. With a focus on managing one’s relationships during this transitional period, Holland suggests reinvigorating one’s life with double dates and social plans (while also being wary of “suffocating” friends and family) and engaging in activities such as volunteering, taking classes, and reconnecting with old friends. Holland also explores why marriage can be more difficult after children leave and offers strategies to make the transition less rocky. While much of the advice is directed toward women, there are tips for men, as well—particularly in relation to reforming friendships at an older age. A significant portion of the book addresses creating new and respectful relationships with adult children after they leave, or if they “boomerang” back home, with helpful advice on setting boundaries. This shrewd guide will be useful to any empty nester concerned about next steps. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dune Song

Anissa M. Bouziane. Interlink, $16 (368p) ISBN 978-1-62371-941-8

Bouziane’s intense, captivating debut tells the story of Jeehan Nathaar, who, months after 9/11, decides to New York City and return to Morocco. Added to the trauma of seeing the collapse of the World Trade Center, Jeehan feels it’s her duty to be the “spokesperson and defense attorney for all Muslims” to coworkers who press her to explain “why Muslims hate Americans so much.” Feeling isolated and disillusioned, Jeehan is persuaded by her on-again, off-again lover, Moroccan journalist Ali el Qutab, to work with him on a story about human trafficking in the southern desert of Morocco. However, he fails to meet her at the Casablanca Airport. Travelling alone, she falls ill and rests at an inn. While being nursed back to health by a motherly innkeeper’s wife, Jeehan meets women at the inn who were traficking victims. Once Jeehan recovers, she finds new purpose by embarking solo on the project Ali had proposed. Bouziane’s writing is tactile and evocative, and her pacing is simultaneously languid yet brisk as the narrative jumps back and forth from Morocco to flashbacks in New York, effectively capturing Jeehan’s inner turmoil. This is an excellent and uplifting subversion of American bildungsroman narratives. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes

Kathleen West. Berkley, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-09840-0

West’s humorous debut channels the competitive parenting and overblown school drama of Big Little Lies. Isobel Johnson, an English teacher at a top public school in Liston Heights, Minn., is bent on encouraging her students to think critically, but the school’s administration and some of her students’ parents accuse her of spreading radical ideas. First, a discussion on The Great Gatsby, in which she invited her juniors to compare their school’s community to East Egg, allegedly results in some of the students being made to “feel bad about where they’re from,” so says her department chair. In chapters shifting between Isobel and a particularly over-the-top parent named Julia Abbott, fallout from another one of Isobel’s lesson—about queer theory—leads to her suspension and a virulent social media campaign led by Julia. While many different characters flash by in short chapters, distracting from Isobel and Julia and staving off opportunities for emotional complexity, West successfully unpacks the problems of shaming and cancel culture with tight plotting and clean prose. West demonstrates a worthy talent for tragicomedy. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Best Bondage Erotica of the Year, Volume 1

Edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel. Cleis, $18.95 Trade Paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-62778-291-3

Bussel (editor, Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volumes 1-5) arranges a celebration of bondage in all its forms in this wide-ranging, inclusive anthology. The work is bookended by a pair of standout tales: Ria Restrepo’s “Chained” welcomes readers with a charming protagonist exploring her fantasies for the first time, and Tiffany Reisz’s “The Beguiling of Merlin: An Erotic Fantasia” leaves a lasting impression with its sexy, creative premise. The 18 stories in between are admirably eclectic but uneven. Lazuli Jones offers unexpected sweetness in a futuristic sex club in “Connection,” while Angora Shade’s “Protocol” uses its spaceship setting for zero-gravity sexcapades between unconvincing characters. Many of the authors attempt to weave education about kink into their tales in ways that run from seamless to intrusive. Bussel is the worst offender, with the narrator of her “Necessary Roughness” spending more time explaining the pleasures of his marriage than actually experiencing them. Luckily, the breadth of tone and trope is wide enough that the weaker entries cannot mar the whole. With characters of all ages, genders, and sexualities represented, the diversity of this anthology ensures that any reader with even a glancing interest in bondage will find something that piques. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us

Donald Trump Jr . Center Street, $30 (294p) ISBN 978-1-5460-8603-1

Trump Jr. debuts with a vitriolic screed against "liberal losers" and "Starbucks-chugging socialists in Brooklyn," combining a full-throated defense of his father's presidency with autobiographical snapshots likely to fuel speculation that he has political ambitions of his own. Sarcastically stating that he's "not mad" about special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, Trump Jr. derides the inquiry for "taking nearly two years" when "anyone with half a brain could have done [it] in five minutes." He snipes at many of the right wing's favorite targets, including the Green New Deal ("freaking stupid"), undocumented immigrants ("comparing today's illegal immigrants to the ones who built this country is ridiculous"), and safe spaces on college campuses ("don't get me started"). Trump Jr.'s memories of visiting his maternal grandparents in Czechoslovakia, learning to hunt and fish, and working manual labor jobs during summer breaks are meant to burnish his common-man bona fides, despite the fact that he grew up rich. Aiming exclusively at "Trump-supporting Americans," Trump Jr. delivers the snarky yet polished self-portrait he's been honing at his father's rallies and on Twitter for years. Loyalists will nod their heads in agreement; skeptics need not apply. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Cheaters Always Win: The Story of America

J.M. Fenster. Twelve, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5387-2870-3

In this acerbic survey of American culture, historian Fenster (Jefferson’s America) examines how and why people cheat, and whether or not cheating is part of the national character. Fenster relates stories of fraud, deception, and rule breaking in sports (caddies in 1920s Chicago who demanded payment in order to keep golfers’ true scores secret), entertainment (the quiz show scandals of the 1950s), and law (a New Jersey man who went to the district attorney when the fake law license he bought for $1,000 never showed up). She investigates whether or not it’s true that everybody cheats (it’s not); examines various responses to being cheated, including seeking revenge and staying silent (“all are apt to fail”); and provides a quiz to determine the likelihood that a partner who’s had an affair will do so again. According to Fenster, American society has stopped believing that “nothing is more important than integrity”; as a result, she writes, “never has cheating been so blithely accepted by the non-cheater and never has it been granted as a privilege of leadership, as it is today.” Fenster’s sarcasm gives the book a somewhat peevish tone, but her moral outrage is genuine. Readers who’ve noticed a downward trend in American virtue since the 1960s will relate. Agent: Julia Lord, Julia Lord Literary Management (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Spy Who Changed History: The Untold Story of How the Soviet Union Stole America’s Top Secrets

Svetlana Lokhova. Pegasus, $29.95 (496p) ISBN 978-1-64313-214-3

In this eye-opening debut, University of Cambridge historian Lokhova documents the Soviet Union’s covert campaign to acquire America’s scientific and technological secrets in the decade before WWII. Beginning with the 1931 arrival of 75 Russian students (several of whom were trained spies) at U.S. universities including Cornell, Harvard, and MIT, the espionage mission, Lokhova contends, made it possible for the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany and close the “technological gap” with America. She focuses on the career of MIT graduate and spy Stanislav Shumovsky, who spent 15 years gathering intelligence on the U.S. aeronautics industry and established a network of American engineers and scientists willing to share top-secret technologies with the U.S.S.R. It’s thanks to Shumovsky, Lokhova writes, that Russia was able to mass-produce bombers capable of reaching U.S. targets and build its own atomic bomb. In addition to the scope of Shumovsky’s espionage, Lokhova also uncovers the roles of two Russian-American women, Raisa Bennett and Gertrude Klivans, in helping to train the Soviet spies for their U.S. missions. Though it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of the various code names and military hardware, Lokhova delivers a comprehensive account of a crucial yet overlooked chapter in the history of Soviet espionage. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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All My Cats

Bohumil Hrabal, trans. from the Czech by Paul Wilson. New Directions, $18.95 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2895-4

This slender volume from novelist Hrabal (1914–1997), originally published in 1983, is an affecting meditation on the joys and occasional griefs of sharing his life with a large group of cats. While working in Prague during the week, Hrabal constantly worries about the animals that inhabit—and which he’s allowed to completely overrun—his country cottage, and only upon returning there for the weekend can he feel relieved. Should anything happen to him or his wife, he frets, “Who would feed the cats?” So when a new litter brings the cottage’s feline population over capacity, and Hrabal rashly decides to kill several kittens, readers will be shocked. That he can keep them on his side afterward—by persuasively showing himself as appalled at what he’s done—is a testament to his storytelling skills. These include an ability to balance brutal moments with tender ones, as when relating how even his feline-averse wife “always looked forward to mornings, when we’d wake up and I’d open the door and five grown cats would come charging into the kitchen and lap up two full bowls of milk.” Hrabal’s involving and moving story will prod his audience to look more closely at their own relationships with other creatures. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Writing the Big Book: The Creation of A.A.

William H. Schaberg. Central Recovery, $40 (800p) ISBN 978-1-949481-28-0

Rare books dealer Schaberg (The Nietzsche Canon) provides an admirably exhaustive, albeit intimidatingly lengthy, look at the writing of Alcoholic Anonymous’s foundational 1939 text—known colloquially as “The Big Book,” and in full as Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. Through years of archival research, Schaberg uncovered a “tremendous amount” of first-hand documentation related to the book’s composition. He demonstrates a detective’s skill in using this evidence to examine accounts by major A.A. figures and identify contradictions, often traceable to what he calls the “mythmaking” tendencies of A.A.’s charismatic and garrulous founder Bill Wilson, the Big Book’s primary author. Among other things, Schaberg shows that the creation of A.A.’s most famous tenet, the 12 Steps, was likely not the “sudden, inspired event [Wilson] so frequently reported,” but a “much more... deliberate affair.” Elsewhere, Schaberg demonstrates equal skill as a literary archeologist in excavating past drafts of the book, finding traces of a planned but unwritten chapter about the “potential alcoholic” still evident in the finished text, and showing how a much-debated internal A.A. decision—to use the word “God,” but not more creed-specific language—shaped the Steps. The main caveat for general readers will be this book’s monumental scale; nonetheless, Schaberg’s work is a landmark study. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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