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in brief

‘The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl,’ ‘Soldier Girls,’ ‘A Chinaman’s Chance,’ ‘The Roommates’

(The Boston Globe)

THE FANTASTIC LABORATORY OF DR. WEIGL: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis

By Arthur Allen

Norton, 400 pp., $26.95

Now nearly eradicated, the deadly disease typhus has had a long and gruesome history. Transmitted by lice, it was a constant danger in the trenches and POW camps of World War I. “One German doctor found 6,000 lice on a single Russian prisoner,” writes Arthur Allen in his strange and wonderful new book, which sketches a little-known story of scientific exploration mingled with wartime intrigue. The Dr. Weigl of the book’s title lived and worked in Lwów, then a Polish city (now it is in western Ukraine), home to a prestigious university and bustling café culture, a cosmopolitan place whose people lived together in a reasonable state of harmony. One of Weigl’s colleagues, biologist Ludwik Fleck, was among the city’s assimilated Jewish population.

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Lwów came under Russian occupation in 1939, and then the Nazis took over in 1941. Forced to work for the Reich in its efforts to combat typhus and protect its troops, especially those heading to the eastern front with Russia, both Weigl and Fleck managed to subvert their Nazi overseers, albeit in different ways. Allen blends this cinematically suspenseful story with a sharp analysis of scientific racism; “comparisons of lice and Jews were omnipresent in Nazi literature and propaganda,” he points out, and thus it’s particularly delightful to read of the sabotage visited on them by one Jewish scientist.

SOLDIER GIRLS: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War

By Helen Thorpe

Scribner, 416 pages, $28

Michelle Fischer grew up where jobs were scarce, but drugs were plentiful, a place whose people seemed “bled of hope.” Despite her fierce intelligence and ambition, she had no idea how to get herself to college (nobody in her family had gone), so when she learned the National Guard would pay her tuition in exchange for a few years of periodic service, she signed up. It was the spring of 2001. Debbie Helton, a daddy’s girl who revered her Army father, had been with the Guard since 1987; a crack shot, she yearned to go overseas, or at least help people at home. But after years of being passed over, she resigned herself to running her unit’s hot dog stand; “[s]omehow her dreams had shrunk.” Desma Brooks joined in 1996, 20 years old and the mother of a toddler. The first time she was called up, in 2003, Brooks was raising two more kids on her own; her orders came so fast she had only “three days to figure out where her children would live.”

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In “Soldier Girls,” Helen Thorpe follows Fischer, Helton, and Brooks through their training, military service (including a 2004 deployment in Afghanistan), and return to civilian life. The three contended with the same dangers, terrors, frustrations (and boredom) soldiers have always faced. As women, they also were subject to discrimination, isolation, and constant sexual attention — including harassment and assault — “another kind of friendly fire,” as Thorpe puts it. In the tradition of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Richard Rhodes, and other masters of literary journalism, “Soldier Girls” is utterly absorbing, gorgeously written, and unforgettable.

A CHINAMAN’S CHANCE: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream

By Eric Liu

Public Affairs, 240 pp., $25.99

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For a bit over a year, Eric Liu’s young daughter Olivia decided to go by her Chinese middle name, Ming — one multicultural, third-generation Chinese American kid’s plea to be seen in a different way. Although she later reverted to Olivia, her father remembers “the Year of Ming” as a sweet, and telling, bid for an identity that mirrored his. In “A Chinaman’s Chance,” Liu plumbs his identity as the American-born son of Chinese parents, seeking to understand an inheritance that includes the words of Confucius and those of Jefferson, looking at how both thinkers might inform and enrich each other.

A journalist and former speechwriter for President Clinton, Liu writes movingly about his own family’s history. Liu’s father was one of six brothers who all emigrated to the United States from Taiwan during the 1950s, earned post-graduate degrees, moved to houses “on streets called French Hill Road and Old English Way,” and fathered American kids. Although much of it is personal, the book is less a memoir than a meditation — rich, thoughtful, and ultimately optimistic — on American-ness, Chinese-ness, and culture itself.

THE ROOMMATES: True Tales of Friendship, Rivalry, Romance, and Disturbingly Close Quarters

By Stephanie Wu

Picador, 288 pp., paperback, $16

You think your college roommate was bad? He or she probably wasn’t as weird as the one who kept a dead hamster in the shared dorm freezer while she tried to learn how to do taxidermy. And certainly not as mortifying as the boarding-school boy whose nightly masturbation sessions kept his roommates awake — until they devised a plan to make him stop.

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Stephanie Wu’s “The Roommates” compiles true stories of all manner of awful shared living situations, all presented in an “as told to” style. The book skews young, understandably — most of the roommates from hell come into our lives in college or just after — and there’s a sameness to the tales. Wu doesn’t transform them into the plainspoken lyricism found in Studs Terkel’s work, or the crackling wit we hear in Anna Deavere Smith’s ventriloquism. Still, this is a fine choice to pack into your college-bound child’s backpack — if only to remind them, upon meeting their new randomly selected roommate, that it could probably be worse.


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