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In Brief

Four recent nonfiction titles

THREE MINUTES IN POLAND:

Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film

By Glenn Kurtz

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 432 pp., $30

On a trip to Europe in 1938, Glenn Kurtz’s grandfather visited Nasielsk, the small Polish town from which his family had emigrated many years earlier. Among the home movies the elder Kurtz shot during that European holiday — “after a park in Belgium and before the mountains of Switzerland” — is a series of scenes in Nasielsk, a few minutes that “document a place and a period when the people we see were not yet victims,” a glimpse of a community that would soon be utterly destroyed. In 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland; the vast majority of Nasielsk’s 3,000 Jewish residents were removed to ghettos and then death camps. By war’s end, only about 100 were alive.

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Kurtz’s quest to learn about the lost world depicted in his grandfather’s home movie is at the heart of this deeply moving, gorgeously written book. Starting with very little information, Kurtz began to unearth clues, to find names, and match them to faces in the crowd of townspeople who had gathered before the visiting American’s movie camera. Incredibly, he found an octogenarian named Maurice Chandler, captured in the film as 13-year-old Moszek Tuchendler, an exuberant son of a religious family, who survived the Holocaust by posing as an orphaned gentile (by the war’s end, he was indeed orphaned). “Nasielsk was not an important town, unless you lived there,” Kurtz writes; it could act as the book’s thesis statement about humanity, the way we are all interconnected, and each (no matter how ruined or displaced) important.

JUST MERCY:

A Story of Justice and Redemption

By Bryan Stevenson

Spiegel and Grau, 352 pp., $28

“I had never even met a lawyer before starting law school,” Bryan Stevenson writes. Growing up poor and black in a community where the most regular job was at a poultry plant, he wasn’t familiar with the big-name firms that would hire many of his Harvard Law classmates. It wasn’t until he took an internship in Georgia, working with inmates on death row, that Stevenson discovered his calling. Just a few years after graduating, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization devoted to aiding prisoners, addressing bias, and working to mitigate the devastating effects of mass incarceration (the United States now leads the world in our incarceration rate). In today’s America, Stevenson writes, “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

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Much of the book centers on Stevenson’s work with Walter McMillian, imprisoned and on death row for a murder he didn’t commit; it’s a riveting, even shocking narrative of a corrupt, racist justice system. Other stories — particularly those of children imprisoned in adult facilities — complete a discouraging, even infuriating, picture. Throughout, though, Stevenson lingers on small moments of grace, forgiveness, encouragement, and kindness, in particular those offered to him by an older generation of African- Americans, in which he finds a community of support and affirmation.

HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN:

A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life

By Ruth Goodman

Liveright, 464 pp., $29.95

“Drug abuse was widespread among Victorian babies,” Ruth Goodman notes drily in this witty account of life during the monarch’s reign (1837-1901). It wasn’t infant thrill-seeking, of course, but the natural consequence of overworked mothers, unregulated pharmaceuticals, and the lure of products with names like Dalby’s Carminative, Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, and Street’s Infant Quietness. With the exception of the very rich, Victorian mothers had bonebreaking workloads and lots of children, which explains if not excuses their doping their babies to keep them quiet.

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It wasn’t just mothers who had it tough, writes Goodman, whose interest in historical accuracy leads her to experiment with corsets and home cures. Research for the book led her “down harrowing avenues of hunger, disease, overwork, and abuse.” Among the most upsetting are accounts of small children working harder than most adults do now, sometimes in dangerous and frightening environments, and on empty stomachs. Often a very funny read, the book takes seriously the suffering of these kids and their families: “All these people, ordinary in so many ways, seem to me heroic,” Goodman writes.

MAN ALIVE:

A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man

By Thomas Page McBee

City Lights, 172 pp., paperback, $15.95

Surviving childhood sexual abuse and a violent mugging in his 20s, Thomas Page McBee was left with a lingering mistrust of men — a complicated feeling for someone born female and living male. In this lyrical, affecting memoir, McBee grapples with the lingering wounds of his father’s molestation while trying to map his own journey to manhood.

McBee moves nimbly between the times and places of his life — Pittsburgh childhood, the Oakland of his adult life with his wise girlfriend, Parker (she emerges as the book’s most vivid character). The writing is strongest when McBee is most vulnerable — contemplating “the warble between the shape in my mind and the one in the mirror” or fearful of how his upcoming physical transition will affect his relationship with Parker. Post-transition, McBee feels great — “Becoming a man felt bright and bracing, like a cup of strong coffee,” he writes — but the book ends on a premature, if positive, note. Sequel?

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Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.