Travails of a Russian Dissenter
Dancing on Thin Ice, Arkady Polishchuk’s memoir of life as a Russian dissident, uses an icepick forged of sardonic wit and personal experience to pierce deep into the hide of the Soviet system.
Welcome to the USSR—specifically, to the prison cell Polishchuk has been awarded for the crime of being a thorn in the paw of the iron-fisted government. The conditions are subhuman, the climate of paranoia overwhelming: answering a question posed by a seemingly sympathetic guard could result in years in a Siberian camp.
From here, the narrative tracks back to the 1950s, when Polishchuk first ran afoul of authorities at the state-run publication he worked for. It follows his transformation from being a state-supervised journalist to an outspoken dissident to, after being exiled in 1977, his continued efforts on behalf of Christians and Jews in Russia.
The book takes a sharp look at the dysfunction of the Soviet system, offering details that no one in the West could imagine. It’s a place where a luxury apartment for a family of four is so defined because it has a bedroom, and where an Etch-a-Sketch is considered “sophisticated spy equipment” from abroad. Such details, and the ironic humor with which they’re told, keep the pace brisk. Even Soviet rot and rust are portrayed with flair, as when a rattletrap bus bumping over potholes is likened to “a giant tambourine.”
There’s also a deep well of humanity in the narrative, making its sharp edges cut all the deeper. As Polishchuk’s dissident activities increase, the book moves to more serious matters but loses none of its absorbing qualities. Tension mounts as the day of exile approaches, and though departure brings relief, it’s mingled with the pain of leaving friends and family behind. Final chapters on reestablishing life in New York and Los Angeles are also interesting.
An important memoir by a fearless man, Dancing on Thin Ice is an eye-opening reminder of what life was really like in the Soviet system.
SUSAN WAGGONER (June 27, 2018)
Alcy Leyva’s And Then There Were Crows is a funny and fast novel in which angels and demons unexpectedly invade the isolated existence of the book’s endearing and prickly protagonist, Amanda Grey.
Public spaces make Grey anxious; she avoids them in her parents’ Queens apartment while they are on an extended vacation. Grey must sublet her bedroom, though. One applicant comes to see the space and attacks her; when she fights back and kills him, his body breaks open and crows climb out.
The crows are shape-shifting demons, one of whom becomes her roommate. She must find the rest of the demons before they destroy the city. Alongside a cast of characters including an angel, cult leaders, the pope, a neighbor, and her sister, Grey desperately tries to get this increasingly dire situation under control.
Grey is a sympathetic and entertaining narrator. She is snarky and always ready with a funny retort, but her vulnerability shows through. Watching her face an increasingly wild and wacky battle—one with real-life political resonances—to avert the looming apocalypse is satisfying.
Almost as big a challenge as fighting demons for Grey is negotiating increasingly complex relationships, both new and old. Grey must learn to interact with people and celestial beings of all types at the same time as she rethinks her feelings about her sister and her parents. Leyva makes Grey’s personal and supernatural battles equally interesting.
The plot is complicated, sometimes too much so. New characters and increasingly absurd situations arise at such a quick pace that they can be difficult to absorb. More successful is Leyva’s evocation of New York City, a grim, dangerous place that’s also the only place that Grey would ever want to be. Her story is a comedic urban fantasy that is both rich and delightful.
REBECCA HUSSEY (June 27, 2018)
The 1968 Election and the War for America’s Soul
In a very real sense, the presidential election of 1968 was a battle for America’s soul. Taking place against the backdrop of a protracted and unpopular war overseas and assassinations, student protests, race riots, and cities in flames at home, this election—one of the closest, most bitterly contested in US history—would decide whether the country would respond by leaning in the direction of social justice and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies or by imposing a regime of law and order.
In The Contest, Michael Schumacher not only covers the events that made headlines in 1968 but takes an intimate, moving, and often surprising behind-the-scenes look at the major players who made it a pivotal year in American history. We learn that Lyndon Johnson, suffering from nightmares and insomnia, would shuffle down the White House hallways with a small flashlight to calm himself by touching the portrait of Woodrow Wilson; how Robert Kennedy, though haunted by the fear of assassination, loved physical contact with his supporters and would not give it up despite the danger; of Richard Nixon listing the pros and cons of running for president on a yellow legal pad with entries that included “Personally, I have had it” and “I don’t give a damn”; and of quiet family conversations that decided a candidate’s direction. Schumacher follows each candidate from preprimary events and the chaos surrounding the conventions to the general election that proved to be a turning point in America’s history.
The end result is a rigorously researched and detailed book that not only conveys all the volatility, rage, intrigue, and belief in the possibility of change that characterized the election of 1968 but provides a deeply human record of the lives of the powerful figures whose decisions would chart the course of history.
KRISTINE MORRIS (June 27, 2018)
The View from the Center of American Democracy with Capitol Hill’s Source for News
CQ Roll Call boasts more than sixty years of covering politics in Washington, and no shortage of talented photographers have plied their trade there. That’s evident in Under the Dome, which collects an enjoyable variety of photos from inside the Capitol and on its grounds. This is a well-curated collection with plenty of memorable shots.
In contrast to most current books addressing politics, Under the Dome feels like a throwback to slightly more collegial times. It focuses on the Capitol as a place of awe and of moments both historic and mundane. One solemn section looks at funerals, from Rosa Parks lying in state, to representatives of both parties wearing leis in honor of the deceased Rep. Mark Takai, to a black-and-white shot of Richard Nixon at Lyndon Johnson’s casket. Another section captures government officials and staffers on days of terror: evacuating on 9/11; standing in line to be checked after a possible anthrax attack; reacting to the shooting of a trespasser by police.
Along with those images, the book is full of happier ones, with plenty of photos of politicians with their children, grandchildren, or pets. Clever protests—like a man dressed as Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags during a financial-crimes hearing—and general frivolity—like Chuck Hagel wearing a Joe Biden mask on Halloween, shaking hands with the actual Biden—are also well represented. If there’s a small quibble, it’s that the captioned photos rarely contain dates; in a book with such impressive historical range—Arlen Specter appears as both a middle-aged senator and an older, bald version—they would be helpful. Still, the captions and supporting text are full of anecdotes and memorable descriptions.
This is a wonderful collection of photography celebrating the Capitol and all it contains—a celebration of Washington as it was not long ago, and as it may soon be again.
JEFF FLEISCHER (June 27, 2018)
A mystifying exploration of unbelief and faith, Francesco Dimitri’s The Book of Hidden Things dazzles with portraits of men at a crossroads.
When a band of childhood friends—now in their thirties—gather for their annual meeting in Casalfranco, their Italian hometown, they find their eccentric leader, Art, missing. Tony, Fabio, and Mauro embark on a search that uncovers evidence of a mind gone astray. Each takes a turn narrating a macabre plot that spans memories of their teen years and the troubled present.
Art lures the others into a suspenseful journey that pits their loyalty to him against their better instincts. His promise of a portal to joy forces each friend to make a choice once they discover the cost of Art’s wisdom. Through salient recollections of his exploits, Art emerges as a Pan-like, controversial figure who is either a prophetic genius or a deluded soul, and who, despite his lies, inspires a love that forgives anything.
The daring, cultish premise allows larger themes on adulthood, expectations, illusions, and the nature of friendship to emerge. For Mauro, a family man and lawyer, Art’s disappearance offers a taste of adventure. Tony, a surgeon, and the most grounded of the group, is driven by duty. Fabio, a photographer whose career is nowhere near as successful as it seems, has little to lose. Their disappointments in Casalfranco—and in themselves—braid with a desire to feel meaning. The plot skillfully touches on the deepest vulnerabilities in characters who evolve into sharper versions of themselves.
Amid tangled groves, harsh winds, and cascading revelations, the depth of the men’s ties leaves a singular impression. Even through betrayals, they come out on the other side believing in the value of their original pact. With an ominous twist that leaves the door open for ambiguity, The Book of Hidden Things challenges the limits of rationality. Here, mysteries aren’t riddles to solve, but answers that lie within reach.
KAREN RIGBY (June 27, 2018)