Alice Cary

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Following on the heels of her bestselling third novel, Dear Edward (a 10-episode adaptation was recently released on Apple TV+), Ann Napolitano offers a lively homage to Little Women with Hello Beautiful. Chronicling the lives of the four Chicago-based Padavano sisters and one of their suitors, this sprawling drama stretches from 1960 through 2008, tracing the arc of their family dynamics, including the ties that forever bind them as well as circumstances and betrayals that tear them apart. Like Little Women, Hello Beautiful also thoughtfully examines the comforts and challenges of home life, work and romantic love, but with a distinctly modern perspective.

The novel begins with William Waters, whose life has been defined by the death of his 3-year-old sister just days after his birth. The tragedy casts a permanent pall over his parents’ days, and they ignore William thereafter—to a perhaps unbelievable degree. As William realizes, “They’d only ever had one child, and it wasn’t him.” Basketball becomes his primary source of stability, and he leaves his suburban Boston home after earning a basketball scholarship to Northwestern University. At school, he meets self-assured, determined Julia Padavano, who decides during their first conversation that he’s the one for her.

The two marry, and slowly but surely, William becomes part of the Padavano clan, which also includes long-suffering mother Rose, goodhearted father Charlie and Julia’s three sisters: artistic Cecelia and nurturing Emeline, who are twins, and literary Sylvie, who kisses boys in the library stacks while waiting for a “once-in-a-century love affair.” Julia repeatedly warns Sylvie about her idealism: “The kind of love you’re looking for is made up,” she says. “The idea of love in those books—Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina—is that it’s a force that obliterates you. They’re all tragedies, Sylvie. Think about it; those novels all end with despair, or death.”

Julia’s prophecy proves to be apt, with slow-simmering events reaching a shocking culmination as a benign moment turns “dangerous, like a shining dagger.” The family is torn apart in dramatic fashion, despite the fact that the four sisters “had beat with one heart for most of their lives.” 

As Napolitano switches narrators throughout the book, readers become fully enmeshed in the sprawling lives of her characters, watching them change and grow over decades. They’re a likable bunch, and as with real friends and family, readers may sometimes want to intervene, or at least offer some advice, as they make life-altering decisions. Napolitano goes to great lengths to explain and justify her characters’ choices—at times, at the expense of action and dialogue. Still, William and the Padavano sisters remain memorable, and Napolitano’s sharp plotting provides a gripping conclusion that radiates love and kindness, the sort you wish that all feuding families might find their way to. 

This bighearted domestic novel reaches comforting highs and despairing lows as Napolitano examines the many ways that families pull each other together and apart.

This bighearted domestic novel from the author of Dear Edward reaches comforting highs and despairing lows as it sharply examines the many ways that families pull each other together and apart.
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In the 1940s, a girl and her younger brother are sent from their home in a Polish ghetto to live with a Christian couple in the countryside. Born as Mira, Ana must change her identity to blend into her new home, while 3-year-old Daniel becomes Oskar. After the war, a Jewish woman kidnaps the children, as well as many others, and takes them on a long, difficult journey to a kibbutz in Israel so they can be raised in the Jewish faith.

While many books have been written about children transported to various places for safety during World War II, Jennifer Rosner’s moving, well-researched second novel takes a penetrating look at the myriad murky moral choices involved and the lives of these children after the war, including their lasting sense of displacement, confusion and conflicting allegiances. Fans of Rosner’s award-winning debut novel, The Yellow Bird Sings—about a Jewish mother and daughter hiding in Poland during World War II—will be pleased to see the author exploring these related strands of history. 

Rosner follows Ana and Oskar for decades, revealing the ways their age difference affected their very disparate responses to their turbulent early lives. Meanwhile, she also explores the stories of two other characters: Roger, a Jewish boy taken to a Catholic convent in 1940s France but later sent to live with extended family in Jerusalem; and Renata, a postgraduate archaeology student at Oxford University, who is excited to be on an excavation in 1968 Jerusalem. 

Each of these characters must reckon with secrets and the often unintended consequences of their pasts. At first, it’s puzzling to understand how Renata’s 1968 life relates to those of Roger, Ana and Oskar, but by the book’s conclusion, the connection is clear. Rosner does an excellent job of not judging the actions that adults take on behalf of her child characters while also deeply exploring the consequences. 

“Maybe there is no real home for a person who has been passed mother to mother to mother,” muses Ana in the 1960s. An excellent choice for book clubs, Once We Were Home gives readers much to ponder.

Fans of Jennifer Rosner’s award-winning debut novel, The Yellow Bird Sings—about a Jewish mother and daughter hiding in Poland during World War II—will be pleased to see the author explore some related strands of history.
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Imagine if you could travel around the world in a single instant. If you began in Australia at 10 a.m. and went to Brazil, it would already be 8 p.m. there! Author Nicola Davies and illustrator Jenni Desmond follow two children on one such magical journey across time zones in One World. Along the way, the pair witness a variety of wild animals and learn about the threats that climate change poses to the creatures.

As the book opens, two children huddle together in a blanket fort in their Greenwich, U.K., bedroom, using a flashlight to look at a book. A clock on the wall shows that the time is about 11:45 p.m. Davies offers a brief, helpful introduction to the concept of time zones, then, as midnight arrives, whisks the pair out their bedroom window and off to Svalbard, Norway. There, it’s 1 a.m., and a family of polar bears are hunting for seals.

With each stroke of midnight back in Greenwich, readers instantly travel to a new time zone, where they discover a new species. At 8 a.m. in the Philippines, we see whale sharks “gulping plankton into mouths the size of trash cans.” We visit a mob of kangaroos at 10 a.m. in the scorching Australian Outback, marvel at emperor penguins at noon in Antarctica and more. Every spread discusses dangers to habitats, such as pesticides and deforestation, or protections needed, including anti-poaching measures and the development of alternative energy sources. Davies is careful to depict both the harmful and helpful impacts that humans can have.

The two children, one wearing a yellow nightgown with blue bunny slippers and the other clad in red- and white-striped pajamas, are keen observers. They hang upside down with a sloth in Ecuador, nestle in the petals of a wildflower in California and float alongside humpback whales in the ocean near Hawaii. Their bright clothing ensures that they stand out in every scene.

After soaring over plastic-filled seas and a brightly lit metropolis, the children return home. It’s the first hour of Earth Day, and Davies urges readers to “think of all the wonders that we’ve seen,” then “shout them out . . . and tell the sleepers to WAKE UP because tomorrow is already here.” Filled with informative prose and stunning art, One World delivers on its creative concept and leaves readers with not only a sense of awe at our planet’s remarkable biodiversity but also newfound feelings of respect and responsibility.

This book leaves readers with not only a sense of awe at our planet’s remarkable biodiversity but also newfound feelings of respect and responsibility.
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This Is the Planet Where I Live is the perfect way to jump-start a young environmentalist’s education. Its eye-catching illustrations will capture the reader’s attention, and its lively text will hold it. This is the sort of book that grows alongside children, gaining broader, deeper meanings as their comprehension develops. 

Author K.L. Going writes in rhythmic, occasionally rhyming cumulative verse that focuses on connections. “Here are the people / who share the planet / where I live,” she begins. On the next spread, she continues, “These are the homes / that shelter the people / who share the planet / where I live.” Page by page, Going explores the links between humans, animals, insects, birds, trees, clouds and oceans, her plainspoken verses becoming more complex with each new addition. Finally, she concludes quite simply, “Animals, fields, / shelter for friends, / every creature alive / on each other depends— / all on the planet / where we live.”

Debra Frasier’s dazzling photo-collage art transforms Going’s text into a visual feast for the imagination. Her illustrations will remind many readers of her work in On the Day You Were Born, her beloved 1991 picture book that also makes wonderful use of planetary imagery and themes of interconnectedness. Here, repeated images of Earth and a sunflower-bright sun provide a grounding motif that echoes Going’s cumulative lines, helping young readers realize how all the things mentioned in Going’s text—included readers themselves—rely on one another. 

Along the way, Frasier portrays fascinating variety within each category, such as fields of food that include tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries and onions, or birds such as goldfinches, geese, eagles and seagulls. Bright colors leap off the page, adding energy to every spread. Frequent use of swirls and spirals, which can be seen in clouds, landscapes and, notably, a large curlicue of birds looping in the air, reinforces the central notions of interdependence and the circle of life. 

This Is the Planet Where I Live gloriously captures the teeming natural treasures of our beautiful, delicate world. 

Accompanied by dazzling photo-collage art, this cumulative picture book captures the interconnectedness of life on our beautiful, delicate planet.
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A triple murder is at the center of De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s superb second novel about the sleepy fictional town of West Mills, North Carolina, where rumors run rampant and family histories trace back through time like vines of wisteria. 

Decent People, set in 1976, is quite different from Winslow’s debut novel, In West Mills, a multigenerational saga spanning the 1940s through the ’80s that won the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize in 2019. But both books are character-driven treasures, and while no major characters are the same, fans will recognize crossover figures and family names.

Winslow says he always planned to write more about West Mills, and creating Decent People was in some ways more straightforward than his first book. “A murder mystery isn’t going to go on for 20 years,” he says. “Keeping the scope short made things easier for me.” The author speaks from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, where he moved a year ago after giving in to “city burnout” in New York City.

With a population of about a thousand, West Mills is based on Winslow’s mother’s hometown of South Mills, North Carolina. He changed the town’s name after feeling bogged down by his quest for historical accuracy. (A canal runs through both places, for instance, but in Winslow’s creation, the water divides the racially segregated community.) 

Therein lies a foundational truth of Winslow’s writing life: Nonfiction can bring inspiration, but fiction allows him “to be free to create worlds [by] using true information as the seed.” He can trace this inclination back to the earliest days of his career.

“I didn’t come from a bookish family at all,” Winslow says. “I do vaguely remember some Dr. Suess books, but no one was really reading them to me,” so he used them as coloring books instead. After discovering Toni Morrison’s Beloved in college, he decided to try his hand at writing. The hope was to write his father’s story to better understand him after his death. Before Winslow was born to his father’s third wife, his father had five children by age 24 with his first wife. His father also spent some time in prison for house burglaries but refused to discuss it. Of course, some questions can never be answered, so Winslow began writing fiction about his father instead—and then eventually about West Mills.

The seed for Decent People emerged at a family gathering, when Winslow’s aunt asked his mother if she recalled the tragic deaths of three older women from decades earlier. The women always drove to church together, and presumably due to some sort of vehicle mishap, they drove into the town’s canal and drowned. 

Winslow started writing the story with gusto, assuming that the accidental drownings would lead to revelations about the characters who knew the deceased. However, he quickly found himself bored with his plot. “I had all this social commentary down about homophobia and drugs,” he recalls, “but it needed something else. And that’s when I turned it into three people who were murdered.”

Decent People opens as 60-year-old Jo Wright retires from Harlem to her childhood home of West Mills. She has barely gotten out of her car when she learns that three people have just been murdered: the town’s prominent Black doctor, Dr. Marian Harmon, and her two adult siblings. Jo’s fiancé, Lymp Seymore, is suspected of shooting the trio, who are his half siblings.

Jo is calm, smart and a bit glamorous, an amateur investigator whose nearly 6-foot height catches people’s attention. “If she was based on anyone at all, it would be Jessica Fletcher from ‘Murder, She Wrote,’” Winslow says. I suggest that she could also be perfectly portrayed by Emmy Award-winning actor Sheryl Lee Ralph of ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” “Now that you’ve put that in my brain,” he says, laughing, “I’m going to envision her as Jo!”

“If [Jo] was based on anyone at all, it would be Jessica Fletcher from ‘Murder, She Wrote.’”

As Jo begins investigating the murders, she acknowledges the history of Black people doing “their own legwork and [gathering] information the police hadn’t even tried to find,” she says in the book. “Cases reopened, police chiefs proven lazy, racist. Or both.” She quickly discovers that several people have possible motives for the crime, and from there, Winslow leads readers through a story told by a large cast of characters, many of whom draw on memories from their pasts. 

One of the novel’s central figures is a young gay boy, whose storyline is one of the notable differences between Decent People and In West Mills. “When I was writing In West Mills, the topic of homophobia wasn’t really on my mind,” Winslow says. “I was thinking of the town in a far more loving way. But with this book, I had to think about all of the disadvantages that a town like that can pose to a queer person, especially a young queer person.”

The result is a wonderfully jampacked saga that flows well yet feels much denser than its 272 pages. Winslow admits that he loves the plots and characters of Charles Dickens’ novels but doesn’t like to read—much less write—long books. He credits novelist Ethan Canin for teaching him how to keep his own prose spare through the concept of “scene hygiene,” which means “once the point of the scene is made, move on.”

For his next book, Winslow is toying with a few ideas for stories set in West Mills, possibly inspired by his mother and aunts. He’s also contemplating something autobiographical, although he feels his own life story lacks a central conflict. “I don’t want it to be ‘young gay Black male moves to New York and works a bunch of jobs, goes to college, has some boyfriends and breakups, and at the end of the book he’s 43.’” Though honestly, if Winslow is writing it, I’d read that, too.

Photo of De’Shawn Charles Winslow by Julie R. Keresztes. This article has been updated to correct and clarify details of the author’s life.

In Decent People, De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s fictional community of West Mills is now the setting of a terrible crime.
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“Having your child die is so brutally humbling I struggle to describe it,” writes comedian and “Catastrophe” actor Rob Delaney. And yet he does manage to describe it, and does it well, in his unspeakably admirable memoir A Heart That Works. The comedian’s first book was memorably titled Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. This second, decidedly different, book describes the life of his 2-year-old son, Henry, who died from a brain tumor in 2018.

Life seemed practically perfect for Delaney and his beloved wife, Leah, with their “beautiful little clump of boys”—three under the age of 5. However, Henry became ill at 11 months from an apple-size tumor right next to his brainstem. Instantly, their lives were thrust into another dimension as Henry faced surgery, chemo and 14 months of hospitalization, only for his cancer to eventually return without any safe options for treatment. Delaney recounts the ordeal in searingly honest terms, conveying the intricate cobweb of emotions he experienced, often simultaneously: grief, rage, gratitude, grace and, most of all, love for Henry, their family and the many people who supported them during this time.

“It often felt like we were falling down a flight of stairs in slow motion,” Delaney writes, “with each successive piece of bad news.” Still, they were able to savor sweet moments with Henry and his brothers, even in the face of an additional family tragedy: Delaney’s brother-in-law died by suicide during Henry’s hospitalization. This unexpected death struck hard, especially since Delaney has wrestled with suicidal ideation himself, and since he wasn’t able to reach out as he normally would have because his son had been so ill.

Despite this tsunami of tragedies, there is humor, often black humor, throughout Delaney’s account. “If you can’t have fun dressed as a family of skeletons in a pediatric cancer ward,” he writes, “I don’t know what to tell you.” There are parcels of advice amid his frank, razor-sharp writing as well. Delaney digs deep on every page, baring his soul and sharing a remarkable range of emotions while relating the worst moments of his life. His is truly a heart that works.

Comedian Rob Delaney digs deep in his second memoir, baring his soul and sharing a remarkable range of emotions while relating the life and death of his son.
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Coretta Scott King Honor author Lesa Cline-Ransome has earned a reputation as an excellent chronicler of American history in more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction. In For Lamb, she powerfully captures the events that lead to a fictitious lynching in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1940. 

Cline-Ransome was inspired to write For Lamb after visiting the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, where she became interested in the untold stories of Black women who were victims of lynching. Within the novel, Cline-Ransome names a number of characters after these women, including the titular protagonist, whose namesake, Lamb Whittle, was lynched in Louisiana in 1907. 

As the novel opens, 16-year-old Lamb Clark (who was “quiet as a lamb” when she was born) is a naive girl, sheltered by her protective mother, Marion, and older brother, Simeon, an enterprising student determined to attend college and leave the South behind. After an encounter between Simeon and a bigoted white optometrist, the doctor’s daughter decides to befriend Lamb. Their friendship sets off a series of developments and leads to a horrifying, expertly plotted climax with unimaginable consequences. 

Cline-Ransome skillfully conveys Lamb’s transformation into a young woman determined to chart her own course in life despite the obstacles and horrors of the Jim Crow South, including a sexual assault and the lynching of a member of her family. Lamb comes to a new understanding of Marion’s romantic relationship with a woman and forms a new connection with her father, who has been largely absent for many years.

Cline-Ransome depicts injustice and violence with a perfect balance of brutality and sensitivity. She particularly excels at portraying the nuances of relationships and character motivations, which are often at odds among the members of Lamb’s family. Simeon, for instance, longs to be free from the need to act submissive around white people, while Marion believes this behavior can be key to survival, and readers gain deep understandings of both characters’ perspectives.  

For Lamb is a heartbreaking novel that will leave readers with a visceral understanding of history.

Lesa Cline-Ransome powerfully chronicles the events that lead to a fictitious lynching in For Lamb, which expertly balances brutality and sensitivity.
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Readers of De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s award-winning debut novel, In West Mills, a multigenerational saga spanning the 1940s through the ’80s, will be thrilled to return to the titular small town in Decent People. It’s 1976, and the town’s only Black physician, Dr. Marian Harmon, has been found dead from a gunshot in her West Mills home, along with her brother and sister.

The Harmons’ half brother, Lymp Seymore, had a strained relationship with the victims, and he is immediately questioned by police, who show little interest in actually solving the shocking crime. Lymp’s fiancée, Jo Wright, begins sleuthing on her own, and her investigation leads her to believe that more than one person had a motive for the crime.

As the story unspools, Winslow shifts point of view from character to character, successfully developing a large cast that’s connected by multiple intermingling plotlines, including a particularly poignant one involving a boy facing homophobia. Revelations about the cast’s relationships not only move the mystery forward but also contain pitch-perfect zingers and crushing truths about race, privilege, pride and shame. For example, Savannah Russet, the white daughter of the Harmons’ landlord, was disowned by her family when she married a Black man. Savannah was also best friends with Marian, and they had a very public argument not long before her murder. But when a police officer telephones Savannah during the investigation, he reassures her that there’s no need to come in for questioning because “You don’t exactly fit the profile, if you know what I mean.” 

Anyone who adored Charmaine Wilkerson’s Black Cake and Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Take My Hand, take note. Winslow invites readers on a satisfying ride that, through his keen observations of human nature, leads to deeper considerations of the glacial progress of racial equality. “It’s 1976. There’s no Klan anymore,” Savannah’s father proclaims at one point, but then he quickly admits to himself that “it still existed, and that it always would.” To reveal such underlying truths, Decent People twists the light this way and that, showing the simmering tensions that can indeed turn deadly.

In his second novel, De’Shawn Charles Winslow invites readers on a satisfying ride that, through his keen observations of human nature, leads to deeper considerations of the glacial progress of racial equality.
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English author Lucy Strange (The Secret of Nightingale Wood) transports readers to a thrilling and mysterious world in Sisters of the Lost Marsh, a gothic fairy tale fueled by female empowerment. 

Twelve-year-old Willa and her five sisters barely scrape by on their farm at the edge of a marsh with their mean-spirited father. Everyone assumes that the sisters are doomed because of a folk rhyme called “The Curse of the Six Daughters,” which purports to predict the fate of any family with six daughters. Despite such dismal conditions, Willa and her sisters find small joys with help from their Grammy, who taught them to read the books hidden away in her secret cupboard, many of which she and the girls’ late mother wrote, even though reading and writing are strictly forbidden for women in their village. 

The delicate balance of the sisters’ existence crumples, however, when their father trades his oldest daughter, Grace, to an older man, Silas Kirby, in exchange for a horse. Silas intends to marry Grace, but before the deal can be finalized, Grace disappears. 

Willa often feels “like the ugly duckling,” caught between her “taller, fairer” older sisters and her younger sisters, who are triplets. But Willa was named for her strong will, so she steals her father’s fine new steed and sets off across the marsh to find Grace. The marsh is full of mesmerizing magic and atmospheric suspense, and readers will be swept along on Willa’s epic adventure, made all the more urgent when she discovers that her father and Silas are in hot pursuit and that Grace may have fallen prey to a mythical figure from their mother’s stories.

Strange is a gifted storyteller who masterfully balances good and evil, dreariness and hope. She incorporates a few perfectly timed doses of horror that will entertain middle grade readers without overwhelming them. Honest and riveting, Sisters of the Lost Marsh is a tale of girls boldly taking charge of their own fates, flying fearlessly in the face of a community trying to scare them into submission and ignorance. These six sisters, “side by side like a row of paper dolls,” turn out to be as strong as steel.

When her sister disappears, Willa sets off on an epic quest in this gothic tale filled with mesmerizing magic and atmospheric suspense.
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After sharing her life story in Becoming, former first lady Michelle Obama now offers readers an exceptional follow-up—“a glimpse inside my personal toolbox”—in The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times.

Obama describes the publication of Becoming as “one of the happiest and most affirming periods of my life so far.” That said, the night before starting her international publicity tour, she lay in bed, terrified at the thought of the arena-size audiences she would soon face. As it turns out, Obama is a worrier who understands all too well that “your fearful mind is almost always trying to seize the steering wheel and change your course.” She offers a supreme example: When her husband wanted to run for president, he first asked for her blessing. “I was pretty ready to shut it down,” she writes, because she didn’t want to launch their orderly family life into inevitable chaos. “It’s strange to think that I could have altered the course of history with my fear.”

Much later, the COVID-19 pandemic knocked Obama off her feet, sending her into what felt like a “low-grade form” of depression. During lockdown, she found salvation in an unexpected place: teaching herself to knit by watching YouTube videos. That story is one of many private moments she shares in The Light We Carry. For instance, she admits to an ongoing frustration with her husband’s lack of punctuality, writing that “when feeling cornered, it turns out, I am capable of saying some stupid, hurtful things.” It’s comforting to hear that our heroes are human, and Obama’s signature openness—in addition to her encouraging, sometimes funny, always chummy voice—make her relatable and admirable throughout the book.

The Light We Carry contains a multitude of other poignant, amusing anecdotes and helpful advice for all types of readers: anyone feeling marginalized; young people finding their way in love, education and careers; parents of young children; and just about anyone trying to keep a steady course in the world. Obama writes about the importance of forming and nurturing friendship (which isn’t easy to do when the Secret Service surrounds a potential new friend’s car) and imparts a lifetime of lessons from her parents, who showed her “what it felt like to be comfortably afraid.”

In these frequently dark times, The Light We Carry feels like a hug from a trusted advisor and a good friend. As Obama writes, “The practice I’ve had in finding and appreciating the light inside other people has become perhaps my most valuable tool for overcoming uncertainty and . . . keeping my hopefulness intact.” As one of the brightest lights in America, Obama helps shine the way for others along our shared path.

Michelle Obama’s signature openness—in addition to her encouraging, funny voice—make her relatable and admirable throughout The Light We Carry.
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Documentary filmmaker and historian Ken Burns believes that photographs are portals “not just to a different time and space but also to dimensions and possibilities within myself.” Through photographs and illustrations, these books are guaranteed to transport you.

Apollo Remastered

Book jacket image for Apollo Remastered by Andy Saunders

Apollo Remastered: The Ultimate Photographic Record is a weighty, large-format coffee table book that beams readers right into its cosmic world. The original NASA film from the Apollo missions (which includes some 35,000 images) has been safely secured inside a frozen vault at the Johnson Space Center, but new technology has allowed digital restoration expert Andy Saunders to painstakingly remaster this treasure trove of photographs, many of which have never been published. The results are pure magic, full of clarity, sharpness and color that make readers feel like part of the team—a far cry from those grainy images that were broadcast on TV at the time. 

During their spaceflights, many astronauts were shocked by how moved they felt looking back at Earth, and readers will see why. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell notes, “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.” Apollo 9’s Rusty Schweickart recommends reading this book at night, surrounded by darkness and silence, to allow the gleaming spacecraft and spacesuits to shimmer and shine.

Our America

Book jacket image for Our America by Ken Burns

In the tradition of Walker Evans’ groundbreaking 1938 book, American Photographs, Ken Burns has assembled a collection of his favorite images in Our America: A Photographic History. “I’ve needed forty-five years of telling stories in American history, of diving deep into lives and moments, places and huge events, to accrue the visual vocabulary to embark on this book,” he writes in his introduction. 

These black-and-white photographs are arranged chronologically from 1839 to 2019, with only one on each page for full visual impact. They’re labeled by date and place (at least one for each state), with fuller explanations at the back of the book, and they are mesmerizing, drawing on a multitude of personalities, emotions and events. The images depict the brutally scarred back of an enslaved man, decomposing bodies at Gettysburg, frozen Niagara Falls, a 1909 game of alley baseball in Boston, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Elvis onstage and, finally, a stunning portrait of Congressman John Lewis from 2019.

Illustrated Black History

Book jacket image for Illustrated Black History by George McCalman

For Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen, artist, designer and creative director George McCalman created 145 original portraits spotlighting Black pioneers in many fields, each accompanied by a short biographical essay. Moving alphabetically from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to cinematographer Bradford Young, McCalman uses a bold array of acrylics, watercolors, pen and ink and colored pencils, to capture each personality in an individualized way. “I document body language, I document exuberance, I document pain,” he writes. “I draw like a reporter because I am a reporter.” 

McCalman began this project by challenging himself to paint one such portrait every day for a month, and the result overflows with energy and color. His choices are inspiring and well-rounded, running the gamut from Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin to activist Alicia Garza and food journalist Toni Tipton-Martin.

My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy

Book jacket image for My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy by Clint Hill

Despite the mountains of books already written about the Kennedys, I couldn’t put down My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy, a conversational memoir and very personal photo album by Clint Hill. A former Secret Service agent who served under five U.S. presidents, Hill was present during John F. Kennedy’s assassination and later assigned to the first lady and her children. He’s written other books about those experiences, including several with his wife and co-author, Lisa McCubbin Hill. 

This book was sparked by the process of cleaning out the garage of Hill’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, going through boxes of memorabilia, including a forgotten steamer trunk. Dialogue between the co-authors makes the book immensely readable as they discuss their discoveries and Hill’s memories. Numerous photos bring each scene to life, capturing intimate moments that reveal the first family’s personalities, especially that of Jackie. Of their relationship, Hill writes, “It wasn’t romantic. But it was beyond friendship. We could communicate with a look or a nod.”

The Only Woman

Book jacket image for The Only Woman by Immy Humes

The Only Woman is a unique gallery of group portraits that contain a lone female figure surrounded by men. There’s Marie Curie, for instance, with her head in her hand, looking downright bored among a group of suited scientists at a 1911 conference in Belgium. There’s 9-year-old Ab Hoffman, who earned a spot on a Canadian hockey team for one season in 1956 because her coaches hadn’t noticed her gender. In a 1982 photo, a white male U.S. Army Diver candidate sneers at Andrea Motley Crabtree, a Black woman who made the training cut when he didn’t. “Most of the men hated me being there,” Crabtree recalls. “He couldn’t understand how I was better than him.” 

Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Immy Humes provides concise commentary throughout her collection, which spans from 1862 to 2020. She speaks to “the pleasure of spotting them, and then, most of all, the mystery of them: What was she doing there?”


Affinities book cover

In need of some creative downtime? Curl up with the hefty Affinities: A Journey Through Images From the Public Domain Review and lose yourself in a delightfully imaginative, visionary game. The book’s 350-plus pages contain a miscellany of images arranged to showcase unexpected similarities. For example, one section features the shapes of outstretched arms as seen in a 16th-century drawing of a mechanical arm, an image of the Borghese Gladiator sculpture, a John Singleton Copley painting and—of all things—a photo of damage sustained to the bow of the HMS Broke during a World War I battle. 

With images old and new from around the world, all selected from the archive of the Public Domain Review, this is a book designed for random perusal. Some images come with suggested paths to different pages, creating a sort of chutes-and-ladders effect. As explained in the introduction, the result is “a maze of rootlike cut-throughs that allow you to move through the book in different ways, to disrupt the sequence and carve through your own serpentine trajectory.”

The armchair historian’s wish list isn’t a tough nut to crack. Just give them a great book.

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