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You Die at the End: Meditations on Mortality and the Human Condition

William Ferraiolo. O-Books, $25.95 trade paper (376p) ISBN 978-1-78904-393-8

Drawing from Stoic philosophy, Ferraiolo (Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure) offers tough-minded and irreverent meditations intended to caustically jolt readers toward a life of rugged individualism and self-reliance. Each meditation is preceded by biblical quotations, which serve as inspiration for Ferraiolo’s free-wheeling stoic interpretations. He explains how the Stoics taught that happiness or contentment is found only through the sober acceptance of reality and the cultivation of virtue to improve oneself. Ferraiolo’s tone can be blistering, particularly when he rails against postmodernism, collectivism, political correctness, equality, and more. Through confrontational and sometimes troubling rhetoric (“you are free to ignore, ridicule, or silently condemn authority as you see fit, or as reason dictates. Let the masses hang”), Ferraiolo seeks to push readers out of a “herd instinct” mentality to show that they are not special and to nudge them toward pursuing a noble existence in the face of inevitable mortality. The meditations can be deeply nihilistic, calling the reader and people in general “imbeciles,” “morons,” “apes,” and “idiots,” presumably in service of destroying the ego to build it anew, but Ferraiolo’s misanthropic take is likely a bridge too far for most. This narrow view of how stoicism can be applied to self-help will only appeal to readers who respond well to tough love. (July)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin

Mark Galeotti. Hanover Square, $27.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-335-14570-3

Think tank scholar Galeotti (We Need to Talk About Putin) explores the links between national identity, mythmaking, and statecraft in this brisk and idiosyncratic rundown of Russia’s 1,000-year history. Revealing how “grand historical narratives” cobbled from legends and twisted facts have been used to justify expansionist policies and “state-building schemes” from the 10th century to today, Galeotti rehashes the conquests, alliances, and conspiracies that make up Russia’s complex past. He debunks the “convenient” myth that Mongol dominion from 1240 until 1480 cut off Russia from Renaissance Europe and predisposed it to “despotism,” and notes that the Prussian-born monarch Catherine the Great exploited “tenuous” genealogical links to a Viking dynasty and an 800-year-old myth to take the Russian throne in the 18th century. The persistent theme—wielded by Lenin to build socialism, Stalin to modernize the Soviet Union, and Putin to seize the Crimea—behind these and other historical narratives, Galeotti writes, is that Russia’s “greater destiny” justifies its actions. Experts may balk at Galeotti’s self-acknowledged “broad brush” (Napoleon’s 1812 invasion only gets a few paragraphs, for instance), but he often finds clarity through concision and down-to-earth prose. This is an accessible and illuminating summary of how modern Russia came to be. (July)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | 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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Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate

Mike Giglio. PublicAffairs, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5417-4235-2

The ISIS caliphate has been dismantled, but the conditions that led to its rise, and the appeal it held for extremists, remain, according to this searing debut from Atlantic writer Giglio. In dispatches from Egypt, Germany, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey in the years between 2011 and 2017, Giglio reports on Syria’s descent into multisided civil war, the origins of ISIS in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the smuggling of foreign jihadists across the Turkish-Syrian border, and the alliance of American and Iraqi special forces soldiers, Syrian rebels, and Kurdish militias that dislodged ISIS from the territory it held in Iraq and Syria. Giglio vividly describes the experience of coming under machine gun fire in a Humvee (“The feeling this gave me was always the same, both riled and afraid, like a trapped animal taunted by someone rattling its cage”), and his insights into the “strange ecosystem” of journalists, hustlers, and fixers that operate on the edges of war zones will be of interest even to readers who’ve had their fill of battle stories. His warning, meanwhile, that many jihadists and their families escaped ISIS territory before coalition forces moved in takes on frightening new relevance as U.S. troops withdraw from the region. Giglio’s probing, prescient narrative illuminates the global repercussions of a murky conflict. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Busted in New York and Other Essays

Darryl Pinckney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-374-11744-3

This robust group of essays written between 1994 and 2018 by novelist Pinckney (Black Deutschland) explores African-American identity, politics, and culture. Covering such topics as Aretha Franklin’s “profound influence” and what Pinckney sees as Afro-pessimism’s futility, the author puts his insightful perspective on full display in each selection. From the highs of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign to the lows of police violence in Ferguson, Mo., Pinckney acknowledges both the social progress that’s been made and the urgency for further change. In the book’s title essay, Pinckney recounts spending a night in the Manhattan municipal jail known as “the Tombs” after he and two friends were arrested for smoking a joint outside a nightclub. Spending that night and much of the next day behind bars, Pinckney observes how “the system” exercises absolute control over “the nonwhite young, the poor” in ways previously unknown to him and his friends, all educated professionals able to easily brush off the experience. Reflections on black women’s experiences are relatively underrepresented, but nonetheless, Pinckney demonstrates his extensive range as a commentator on African-American life. This collection offers a deep dive into his prolific career as an indispensable critic of his times. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Huckleberry Lake

Catherine Anderson. Berkley, $7.99 mass market (560p) ISBN 978-0-399-58638-5

The tedious sixth book in Anderson’s Mystic Creek series (after Strawberry Hill) splits focus between three separate but connected love stories without fully developing any of them. Mystic Creek, Ore., sheriff’s deputy Erin De Laney has been crushing on Wyatt Fitzgerald, the deaf foreman of her uncle’s ranch, for quite some time, but flirting with him doesn’t yield the result she’s been hoping for. Elsewhere in town, Wyatt’s younger brother, 22-year-old Kennedy, falls for levelheaded 17-year-old Jenette Johnson. He knows he has to tread lightly at least until her 18th birthday, but an injury brings them together and they develop an intense emotional bond. Meanwhile, Erin’s best friend, café owner Julie, nurses feelings for pawnshop owner Fred “Blackie” Black. Blackie, who is 20 years Julie’s senior, returns her affection, but he worries about what type of relationship they could have. The transitions between these disparate story lines are often disorienting, and, despite an excess of small-town detail, the characters and relationships feel sketchy at best. Readers will struggle to stay invested in this choppy romance. Agent: Steve Axelrod, The Axelrod Agency. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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