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The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America

Adam Serwer. One World, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-23080-0

Atlantic journalist Serwer reflects on the antecedents, methods, and legacies of Trumpism in his clear-eyed and incisive debut essay collection. Combining pieces published during the Trump presidency and new material, Serwer draws parallels between the conservative backlash to President Obama and the Southern Redemption movement that wiped out the gains of Reconstruction; examines how periods of greater “civility” between Democrats and Republicans have often hinged on the exclusion of minorities from the halls of power; points out the irony that some of the “most ardent [immigration] restrictionists” in the Trump White House were descended from people who fled poverty and persecution in their home countries; and argues that racial disparities in the spread of Covid-19 fueled conservative opposition to lockdowns, mask mandates, and other public health measures. Along the way, Serwer threads in snippets of his own biracial background and offers concise and illuminating history lessons on the Nation of Islam, the eugenics movement in America, and police unionization, among other topics. Though the territory is familiar, Serwer is a perceptive guide and a skillful synthesizer of scholarship by Eric Foner, Michelle Alexander, and others. This sober-minded inquiry into the Trump era provides essential perspective. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Hellion’s Waltz

Olivia Waite. Avon, $6.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-293183-2

Waite’s charming third Feminine Pursuits historical romance (after The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows) combines a fun caper plot with a grounded sapphic love story. Sophie Roseingrave and her family move from London to Carrisford after being preyed on by a scam artist who cost them their home, their music shop, and, in Sophie’s case, her faith in her abilities as a piano player. The Carrisford Weavers’ Library is about to pull off a con of their own, led by Maddie Crewe. Tired of being exploited by greedy shop owner Mr. Giles, they resolve to swindle him out of the earnings he’s long denied them. When Sophie catches wind there’s a con afoot, she’s determined to stop it—but her efforts to confront Maddie always seem to end in kissing. This cat-and-mouse dynamic dissipates disappointingly soon as Maddie lets Sophie in on the righteous motivation for her crime and Sophie agrees to help. The ensuing romance is sweet, steamy, and surprisingly straightforward. With few bumps in the relationship, the plot is instead driven by the increasingly complicated con and Sophie rediscovering her love of music. The attention to historical detail, diverse supporting cast, and heartening sense of queer comradery create a delightful backdrop. Waite’s fans will not be disappointed. Agent: Courtney Miller-Callihan, Handspun Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Cabinet of Wrath

Tara Campbell. Aqueduct, $12 trade paper (98p) ISBN 978-1-61976-210-7

Campbell (Midnight at the Organporium) delivers nine spooky stories of toys turned sinister that are sure to make readers reconsider the dolls, stuffed animals, and childhood playthings collecting dust in storage. In “Fairbanks,” an elderly woman playing around with voodoo believes that she’s successfully invited her husband’s spirit to inhabit her adult daughter’s old toys—but her daughter tries to convince her that she’s conjured more than just his ghost. Marie Antoinette’s daughter’s new doll becomes ever more demanding of treats in “Petite Marie.” And in “Spencer” a toy slowly fashions itself a new body from its neglectful owner’s body parts. Coupling a leisurely pace with horrifying tension, these eerie stories feel designed to be shared in the dark around a campfire. Though some of the shorter pieces end too abruptly, especially those dealing with heavy themes like immigration and rape, the imaginative scenarios and alluring voice never waver. Readers looking for bite-size horror will be delighted. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Staying Awake: The Gospel for Changemakers

Tyler Sit. Chalice, $16.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-0-8272-3552-6

In this eloquent debut, Sit, pastor of New City Church in Minneapolis, offers a blueprint for committing to social justice. His program, which he dubs “love training,” consists of nine spiritual disciplines that aim to increase individual and community capacity for withstanding adversity, navigating complex social issues, and living meaningful lives—while participating in a “Spirit-led justice” movement. The disciplines include worship (“Staying Awake to Love”), centering marginalized voices (“Staying Awake to Empire”), prayer, leadership development, generosity, and church planting. Two powerful stories bookend this spiritual manifesto: first, Sit’s account of participating in a Black Lives Matter protest after the 2015 police shooting death of Jamar Clark, and an epilogue detailing how Sit enacted his recommended practices following the murder of George Floyd not far from his church. Incorporating cartoons, poetry, practical exercises, personal testimony, and scriptural references, Sit’s work sizzles with energy, humor, and empathy. This impressive guide conveys urgent, timely guidance for pastors, Christians, and seekers looking to marry faith and social justice. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Glory Days: The Summer of 1984 and the 90 Days That Changed Sports and Culture Forever

L. Jon Wertheim. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-1-328-63724-6

Sports Illustrated executive editor Wertheim (Blood in the Cage) offers an occasionally entertaining history of developments in sports and culture during the summer of 1984, but fails to demonstrate that they’re more than coincidental. There’s no denying the year featured noteworthy events: it marked the first NBA Finals battle between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Chicago Bulls’ drafting of Michael Jordan, and ABC’s purchase of ESPN, which enabled the tanking sports cable network to survive and expand. From the creation of the basketball “dream team” that represented the U.S. at the Los Angeles Olympics to the rise of Vince McMahon’s WWF, Wertheim offers a sweeping look at those “pivotal” 90 days, but sacrifices depth for breadth and prizes trivia over analysis, giving cultural milestones unrelated to sports a passing glance. Though a “string of blockbusters” hit theaters that summer, for instance, he briefly touches on them and devotes only a single sentence to Ghostbusters and John Hugh’s seminal Sixteen Candles. Similarly bewildering is the narrative’s clunky prose (“thermodynamics of celebrity makes for an inexact science”), which tends to overshadow more exciting passages, such as Wertheim’s detailing of Jordan’s “singular talent” for dunking, and the way he would “stuff the ball through, violently yet elegantly.” This feels like a missed opportunity. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River

John N. Maclean. Custom House, $25.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-062-94459-7

Maclean (Fire on the Mountain) offers a lyrical love letter to Montana’s Blackfoot River, fishing, and his storied family in this captivating memoir. His father Norman Maclean’s 1976 novella, A River Runs Through It, brought the area worldwide attention and unpacked the murder of Norman’s brother, Paul. With this narrative as an inspiration, Maclean chronicles his relationship with the river, beginning with his ancestors’ move from Scotland to northwestern Montana, where the family built a cabin a century ago. Though Maclean’s job as a journalist forced him to leave Montana in the ’70s, he returned to Blackfoot often. Like his father, he “needed both worlds, a high-powered intellectual life and the life of the woods and rivers.” He shares family stories passed through the generations—such as one about losing a fish in the car of his father’s friend—as well as the “conflicting stories and wild rumors” around his enigmatic uncle Paul, who some believed was murdered because of gambling debts. Fans of his father’s novella will relish the details that served as its inspiration and are here rendered in Maclean’s sharp yet poetic prose as tribute to a “pantheon of notable family fishers.” This richly observed narrative is sure to reel readers in. Agent: Jennifer Lyons, Jennifer Lyons Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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October Child

Linda Boström Knausgård, trans. from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel. World Editions, $16.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-642-86089-4

Swedish novelist Boström Knausgård (The Helios Disaster) brilliantly melds memoir and speculative nonfiction in her stirring account of the four years she spent in and out of a psychiatric ward. “I wish I could tell you all about the factory, but I can’t... soon I’ll no longer be able to remember my days or nights or why I was born,” she writes, before describing the many electroconvulsive therapy procedures she underwent from 2013 to 2017 at a mental institution she was periodically committed to for severe depression. (“I had a weakness inside me and all throughout my being, so I ended up at this place a lot.”) In dramatic juxtaposition, she pieces together dreamlike recollections of a childhood spent with a capricious actress-mother, and her adulthood, when she struggled with bipolar disorder and motherhood (“I frightened my children”), and married and divorced the novelist Karl Ove Knausgård. The loose narrative hauntingly evokes the uncertain haze and hallucinations she experienced during her repeated institutionalizations, before she was released at age 45 and reconnected with her four children. Part fever-dream, part quest to retrieve her memories (“because what good is a writer without her memory?”), Boström Knausgård’s account expertly plumbs the treacherous crevasses of a creative mind. Agent: Monica Gram, Copenhagen Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Period. End of Sentence: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice

Anita Diamant. Scribner, $17 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-982144-29-6

Novelist Diamant (The Red Tent) examines all things menstrual in this expansive collection of anecdote, history, and pop culture criticism. Spurred by the documentary of the same title (a producer of which asked Diamant to write “a book about menstruation”), Diamant traces the development of “period-positive” movements that aim to recognize the “full humanity of women and girls and everyone who menstruates.” In “Shame,” she details harrowing stories of period-related embarrassment around the world (in New Zealand and Australia, for instance, more than half of the teenage girls interviewed said they’d rather “fail a school test than have their classmates know they’re on their period”). “Period Poverty and the Tampon Tax” covers the economic toll of menstruation (“menstruators spend $17,000 during their lifetime” on period products), and “Indigenous Wisdoms” offers examples of cultures in which periods aren’t shrouded in secrecy, such as the Hupa’s celebratory Flower Dance. The wealth of information and anecdote can feel disjointed at times, but the effect is powerful nonetheless, and lands as a repository of information rarely in the spotlight. For young women, especially, this will provide a fascinating look back and powerful impetus to work for a shame-free future. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM Partners. (May)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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On the Origin of Species and Other Stories

Bo-Young Kim, trans. from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell and Joungmin Lee Comfort. Kaya, $19.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-885030-71-9

This collection of seven stories and one essay from Kim (How Alike Are We) makes for a dazzling English-language debut. The essay, “A Brief Reflection on Breasts,” sets the tone for the gentle, humorous philosophizing of the collection as a whole. In it, Kim compares the value and necessity of science in science fiction to breasts on a woman, concluding that to focus on whether there is definitive science in a work distracts from the greater purpose of the genre. The slippery, mildly fantastical “An Evolutionary Myth” tells of an exiled prince in an era when evolution occurs at a much faster rate. “Between Zero and One” examines grief through the story of a bereft mother’s encounter with a strange woman who knows a surprising amount about time travel and quantum theory. And the title story finds robots debating a theory they consider to be laughable: that matter can grow organically. With a combination of subtle humor and poignant philosophy, Kim turns a genre-bending lens on human experience. This belongs on shelves next to Bradbury, Le Guin, and Murakami. Agent: Jinhee Park, Greenbook Literary (South Korea). (May)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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How to Survive America

D.L. Hughley and Doug Moe. Custom House, $27.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-06-307275-6

Comedian Hughley and co-writer Moe follow Surrender, White People! with another impassioned, tragicomic treatise on racism in America. Noting that the life expectancy for African Americans is three years less than for white Americans, and that Blacks suffer higher rates of obesity, prostate cancer, and psychological distress, Hughley contends that “Black and brown folks are in a battle for survival every damn day in this country.” He delves into the sterilization of poor Black women in 1960s North Carolina; the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in 2020; and the spread of Covid-19 in communities of color, finding in these and other examples a tendency to make Black people “the number one suspects in our own demise.” Though Hughley’s punchy tone hits hard, and he finds some galling evidence of discriminatory thinking in action, including Trump administration surgeon general Jerome Adams insinuating that “drinking and drug use and smoking” made people of color more vulnerable to Covid-19, much of the book feels like a rehash of Hughley’s previous outings. His fans will appreciate Hughley’s typically blunt assessments of American history and today’s political and social landscape; others will wish for more original analysis. (June)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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