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Culture Books

Stories of survival


Stories of survival

Four nonfiction books

And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain by Elisabeth Asbrink: A stash of 500 letters between members of an Austrian Jewish family survived World War II. Asbrink uses them to tell the Ullmann story—parents trapped in Vienna, their 13-year-old son Otto sent to safety in Sweden. In the early days, the Ullmanns expected reunification. They wrote about everyday life and peppered their letters with expressions of love and admonishments to be good and work hard. As conditions in Vienna worsened, the parents hid their circumstances from Otto—and he hid from them the rising anti-Semitism in Sweden. Asbrink’s thorough research and interviews—including with the Nazi-sympathizing Ikea founder who befriended Otto—allows her to describe what parents and son left unsaid. Hostility to Christians seeps in from time to time.

Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War by Duncan White: White documents a time when literature was so impor­tant that both the Soviet Union and the United States used writers and books as Cold War weapons. He tells in rich detail the stories of writers like Stephen Spender, Ernest Hemingway, Mary McCarthy, Boris Pasternak, and Graham Greene. The book begins with the Spanish Civil War, where George Orwell and Arthur Koestler first saw the Stalinist left in action. Though the book at times becomes a general history of the Cold War, it’s most interesting when it focuses on the writers who took sides and those who found themselves without a side: They ­abhorred America’s civil rights record and Vietnam policy, but also recoiled from Soviet purges and crackdowns on dissent.

A Prayer for Orion by Katherine James: Author Katherine James begins this heartrending account of her son’s heroin addiction with a phone call from her son’s friend: “Hey, we can’t wake Sweetboy up. … He’s breathing, but he’s really blue and he won’t wake up.” As a writer, James offers an unflinching portrayal of addiction, and the fear and devastation it leaves in its wake. Since she writes as a Christian, she also shows the many ways, both large and small, that God enters into the mess. James jumps around in time, so we see Sweetboy as a small child, a curious kid, and an addict. We see a family engaged in deep conversations with other Lost Boys while missing warning signs from their son. Intense and emotionally powerful, the book offers hope that God hears the prayers of the brokenhearted.

Grace Will Lead Us Home by Jennifer Berry Hawes: When 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in Charleston while they prayed at church, it shocked the city and nation. Reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes tells the story of the shooting, the police manhunt that followed, and the federal trial. She goes behind the scenes to show how the shooting brought white and black Charleston together for a time. It also opened up new wounds, especially after some family members spoke words of forgiveness to an unrepentant Roof. Hawes fleshes out the trial record with interviews of survivors and others. The result: a detailed accounting of how the tragedy played out in the lives of individuals and institutions. Christian readers will appreciate Hawes’ respectful treatment of the Christian faith in the lives of victims and survivors.