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Culture Books

Against the odds


Against the odds

Four books about resisting injustice

The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown by Julia Flynn Siler: Prostitution was legal and rampant in San Francisco in the 19th century. Criminals bought Chinese girls from their impoverished parents, smuggled them into the country, and turned them into prostitutes and house slaves. Corrupt police and politicians allowed the practice to flourish. This book tells the stories of Christian missionaries like Dolly Cameron who devoted their lives to abolishing this form of slavery: They conducted daring rescues of women and girls and provided shelter to thousands who came under their care. Siler’s meticulous research highlights the anti-Chinese racism of the day and the extraordinary work of the abolitionists, both white and Chinese, who because of their faith fought this form of slavery.

Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope by Wendy Holden: Holden tells the amazing true story of three young women—Priska, Rachel, and Anka—who were in the early weeks of pregnancy when they entered Auschwitz. She recounts how they lived before the Nazis rounded them up, how they met their husbands, and how they ended up in Auschwitz. Holden brings to life Josef Mengele’s initial inspection in late 1944, the harsh conditions in the camp, and how the women hid their pregnancies. Their hellish experience ended after a 17-day train trip from Auschwitz to Mauthausen concentration camp. The babies—one born in Auschwitz, one born on the train, and one born at Mauthausen—miraculously survived. Holden traces their lives since.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson: From May 1940 through May 1941 Germany rained on Britain bombs obliterating parts of London and other cities. Using diaries, letters, and other documents, Larson puts together a compelling chronicle of that year. The book moves from Mary Churchill’s romantic crushes and teenage preoccupations to her father’s desperate (and sometimes ill-conceived) plans to deliver devastating blows to Germany. Larson chooses scenes that show the prime minister struggling to shake up the status quo and put Britain on a war footing. He contrasts moments of intense suffering with those of silly pleasure. In the process he shows how Churchill—by force of will, manipulation, and doggedness—convinced friends and countrymen to fight. The audiobook is excellent.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell: Gladwell begins with the death of Sandra Bland, a young woman whose failure to use a turn indicator landed her in a Texas jail, where she died by suicide. How did this episode go so wrong? Gladwell is a gifted storyteller and approaches his subject sideways. He tells stories about Cuban spies, Neville Chamberlain and Hitler, American student Amanda Knox, and pyramid-scheme swindler Bernie Madoff. Those wanting to know how better to talk to strangers may be disappointed because Gladwell doesn’t offer a simple answer. Instead he shows how our snap judgments about others are likely to be wrong. Caution: The expanded audiobook has some strong expletives.