Anna Spydell

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“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books,” wrote Virginia Woolf. “They have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.” Perhaps this is why Sotheran’s, one of the oldest rare and antique bookstores in the world (“One year away from closing since 1761,” as the store’s running joke goes), seems like a dark forest full of adventure.

In Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller, satisfyingly named book dealer Oliver Darkshire extends an invitation into the shadowy and ever so slightly dangerous realm of this London bookshop. Health and safety hazards lurk around every turn. Towers of forgotten boxes rustle without prompting. Crumbling esoteric publications must be delivered to nameless agents on train platforms. As Darkshire portrays it in his humorous and hyperbolic memoir, bookselling is as far from a tame profession as you can get, more akin to joining MI6 or the CIA, or perhaps taking up professional snake handling.

Oliver Darkshire tells the surprisingly modern story of how his book about a 262-year-old bookstore came to be.

Darkshire insists he simply stumbled into a career at Sotheran’s by responding to an advertisement after a series of failed attempts to land or hold down other jobs. His quirkiness, his adoration of history and his wide-eyed sense of wonder at the magic of books marked him as uniquely suited to the position (which largely entailed sitting behind a postage stamp-size desk by the door, as a first line of defense against customers). As Darkshire leads readers through the stacks, opening and closing various mysterious cupboards, we experience the thrill of being invited into his secret world. Peopled with taxidermied birds, a resident ghost and a band of frazzled booksellers, Sotheran’s constitutes its own small, puckish kingdom. Darkshire’s prose is so confiding in tone that the reader feels firmly included in this insular, bookish underworld.

For the devoted book hoarder and hunter, reading Once Upon a Tome is similar to the deliciously bewildering experience of wandering through a rare bookstore, not knowing what treasure might be just around the corner. Darkshire’s chapters are helpfully labeled with headings such as “Natural History” and “Modern First Editions”—but upon closer scrutiny, they are stuffed with stories that sometimes connect to the subject they are filed under only by the thinnest thread. In some books this would tangle the narrative into a volume of pure chaos, but through some kind of cheerful alchemy, it only adds to the magic of our journey through Sotheran’s. One is never in control in a bookstore; this is an indisputable fact long known by all book lovers. The sooner you surrender to the curious internal logic of this world of books, the sooner the magic begins.

In his memoir, Oliver Darkshire invites readers into one of the oldest antique bookstores in the world and acts as their hilarious, bookish guide.
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Mothers—for better, worse or somewhere in between—shape the people we become. Whatever lessons we learn from their example, whatever traits we inherit, go on to become shaping forces for our identities and lives. Author and historian Tracy Borman (Henry VIII, The King’s Witch) illustrates this in Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I: The Mother and Daughter Who Forever Changed British History. Despite living in a strict patriarchal society, the love and influence of her infamous mother guided Queen Elizabeth I through her tumultuous life and much-glorified reign.

As one of England’s Chief Curators of Historic Palaces and the author of Elizabeth’s Women, Borman is well placed to explore the intertwined lives of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and reformer of the English faith, and their daughter, the celebrated “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I. This required some detective work, as both time and circumstance make the relationship seem practically nonexistent: Anne was executed when Elizabeth was only 3, and for many years after, Anne either went unmentioned in court to avoid provoking Henry VIII’s vicious temper or was slandered as a “strumpet” and seductress who had an affair with her own brother and enchanted the king with witchcraft. Even before Anne’s death, royal custom stipulated that princes and princesses were raised by nursemaids in separate households from their parents. It would be unsurprising if Anne had been an invisible figure to Elizabeth, holding little to no influence over the woman and ruler she became.

Yet Borman insists this was not so. Citing evidence from correspondence, material objects and the observations of witnesses during Anne’s brief reign as queen and Elizabeth’s long one, Borman re-creates the relationship between the two women as loving and full of significance, even after Anne’s death. Letters and receipts for purchased items reveal a mother who adored her small daughter and took their separation hard, consoling herself by ensuring Elizabeth was impeccably cared for, primarily by Boleyn relatives. Many of these caretakers would go on to become lifelong advisors and friends to Elizabeth, helping to sustain her through her uncertain adolescence and her imprisonment during her sister Mary’s years on England’s throne. From her coronation to her deathbed, Elizabeth’s time as queen was peppered with mementos of Anne: She incorporated her mother’s badge into her own insignia, packed her court with her Boleyn relations and honored those who had been allies during Anne’s lifetime and could share stories with Elizabeth about her charismatic, brilliant mother.

Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I offers a fresh perspective on Tudor history. Set against the many volumes about Henry VIII’s rule and Elizabeth I’s influence, Borman’s book triumphantly pulls the fiery, educated Anne from the shadows and restores her to her rightful place as a reformer, patron and queenmaker.

Historian Tracy Borman triumphantly shows that Anne Boleyn’s love and influence guided her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, through her tumultuous life and much-glorified reign.
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“Marriage is so unlike anything else,” writes George Eliot in Middlemarch. “There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.” By the time that novel was published in 1871, Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, was 17 years into her partnership with George Lewes, himself an author and member of the mid-19th-century intelligentsia. Lewes was already married when he met Eliot but had long been estranged from his wife, who by that time had given birth to multiple children with another man. Eliot and Lewes determined to form their own sort of marriage despite being unable to marry legally; they even set off on a honeymoon to Germany. That excursion led to a lifelong union that became the complicated scandal of Eliot’s life, making her “unfit” for drawing room visits and causing her family to shun her, even as she penned wildly successful novels.

It’s impressive how King’s College London professor Clare Carlisle (Philosopher of the Heart) finds her way inside this deeply intimate partnership in The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life. Though Lewes was more exuberant and extroverted, Eliot guarded her private life closely. She had a deep desire for acceptance and love, which possibly led her to gloss over uncomfortable problems in her partnership with Lewes. On the one hand, Lewes was Eliot’s first cheerleader, encouraging her through her professional endeavors and proudly promoting her work in the literary sphere. On the other hand, Lewes could be difficult in ways that were typical for a Victorian husband. For example, the immense earnings from Eliot’s work were deposited into Lewes’ bank account, and he availed himself of them freely. He could also sometimes be controlling, according to Carlisle’s narrative, basking a little too much in Eliot’s reflected glory.

Wielding a combination of biography and thoughtful analysis of Eliot’s novels and verse, Carlisle examines what marriage has been historically and what it is today, noting that it is as sticky and complex as ever. In many ways, Eliot’s relationship was thoroughly modern: an unsanctified union with a female breadwinner who struggled to balance the demands of parenting with the time and space she needed to work. Carlisle demonstrates that Eliot’s thoughts on marriage were reflected in her work as she picked through romantic joys and frustrations, ruminating over the what-could-have-beens that haunt every long partnership.

There are no neat answers to Eliot’s marriage questions—“whether to marry, whom to marry, how to live in a marriage, whether to remain married,” as Carlisle summarizes it. Instead, The Marriage Question is a deep examination of long partnership—how it affects us, how it is negotiated—through Eliot’s deliciously thoughtful prose and reflective journal entries. Carlisle has written a book that seems to tell us a story about others but instead deeply informs us about ourselves.

Wielding a combination of biography and thoughtful analysis of George Eliot’s novels and verse, Clare Carlisle examines the sticky, complex concept of marriage.
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The onset of cold weather can only mean one thing: It’s time to head to the kitchen and cook, bake and sauté up a variety of delicious, warming meals and treats to be eaten as the early dark creeps in.

Bliss on Toast

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a person wishes to enter into the cozy state of mind, an episode or two of “The Great British Baking Show” will get you there. In Bliss on Toast, Prue Leith, a beloved judge on the show, tackles variations on that masterpiece of culinary perfection: toast. Inspired by the desire to fix something simple but elevated for a Sunday evening curled up by the television, Leith delivers on the promise of toast as an art form. If you’re looking for something creamy and warm, you might decide on a duck egg, rainbow chard and Dijon butter on multigrain toast. Vegetarians and vegans will delight in roasted red pepper hummus, avocado and zhoug (a simple-to-make Yemeni sauce) on rye. Apricots, almonds and Devonshire clotted cream on an English muffin will take you through dessert. With each recipe, there is just enough cooking to make you feel you are making something special, but never enough to complicate the simplicity of warm, crusty toast, eaten with one hand over a salad plate as you sink into a corner of the couch. What could be more comforting than that?

Discover more cookbooks by “Great British Baking Show” judges and contestants.

Modern Jewish Comfort Food

Soup, schnitzel, latkes and shakshuka: No matter your heritage, Jewish fare is always warming, filling and as nourishing to the heart as to the body. This is, after all, the culture that considers chicken soup to be one of its most revered dishes. In Shannon Sarna’s Modern Jewish Comfort Food, she breaks down the notion of Jewish cuisine as a monolith, noting that aspects of traditional dishes vary from region to region, and even from family to family. Sarna’s updates to well-known and well-loved dishes are deeply rooted in history and fully embody the wide variety of cultural influences on Jewish cuisine. As with her previous offering, Modern Jewish Baker, Sarna’s clear instructions and helpful tips for each recipe give you the ability to whip up previously intimidating but oh, so mouthwatering dishes such as sweet potato and sage butter knishes or lamb meatballs. The historical and cultural information she provides along with each recipe gives the food its soul. These dishes satisfy on their own, but the fact that you’re eating something enjoyed all across the world, across time even, lends them an extra-comforting quality.

Baking by Feel

How many times have we been guilty of eating our feelings? Becca Rea-Tucker (better known on social media as The Sweet Feminist for her social justice-themed cakes) would shrug and say, “So?” Feelings, as Rea-Tucker would like you to know, are not bad. And neither is food. A therapy session masquerading as a cookbook, Baking by Feel includes sections of serious mental health advice alongside conversion charts and lists of helpful baking tools to have on hand. Inspired by the now-infamous way the COVID-19 pandemic drove us all to our kitchens, Rea-Tucker has written an “emotionally agnostic” (read: no judgment) cookbook that acknowledges the comfort we get from creating something delicious. The recipes themselves are organized by which feeling might be driving you to bake or eat: A sunny lemon cake with poppyseed cream cheese frosting suggests itself to the cheerful; peach bourbon cake supports the heartbroken; black pepper snowballs conspire with the vengeful. Next to each recipe is a paragraph or two about the specific emotion associated with that food, and Rea-Tucker encourages her bakers to name and sit with their feelings. I have tried the buttermilk pie for stress and can confirm that the sugar and cream comfort and the advice helps parse out what exactly is going on with you.

Snackable Bakes

But sometimes, nothing is going on except that the familiar urge has hit: It’s 3:00 in the afternoon, you need something chocolatey, gooey and sweet, and you need it right now. Sure, you could pop down to the corner store and grab a Snickers, but that just doesn’t comfort you the way something home-baked would. Enter Jessie Sheehan’s Snackable Bakes. Short on time or needing that snack with some urgency? No problem: Sheehan promises that none of the 100 recipes in the book takes more than 20 minutes to assemble. Moreover, there is no creaming of butter or cream cheese and minimal need of tools (oven included), and use of the microwave is absolutely allowed. The baking might be effortless, but the end result is anything but halfhearted. Goodies such as blackberry lemon yogurt loaf cake and strawberry basil crumb bars taste like they were made during a lackadaisical Sunday afternoon, not whipped up in a spare 15 minutes. We all need to take a little time for ourselves, after all.

These recipes are perfect to eat while you’re snug as a dormouse, watching the leaves turn.
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 All the Living and the Dead

We are not born with the innate knowledge that we, and all those around us, will die. At some point, someone has to tell us. A beloved pet or grandparent might pass into the great beyond, prompting a bedside conversation with a parent about the finitude of life. Alternatively, if you are journalist and writer Hayley Campbell, you might absorb the concept of death while sitting in your father’s drawing studio as he studies the decomposition of a kidney. In the background, perhaps crime scene photos of the long-ago victims of Jack the Ripper stare down from a bulletin board.

As the daughter of the artist who created the classic graphic novel From Hell, which fictionalizes the brutal Whitehall Chapel murders, Campbell grew up fascinated by death. In All the Living and the Dead, she takes readers on a tour of the professionals of the death industry, interviewing embalmers, executioners, midwives who work exclusively with stillbirths and more.

In one chapter, Campbell assists two employees in a funeral home as they care for a body and prepare it for burial, and she is moved by their admission that they got into this line of work because of their desire for a meaningful occupation. Most of her subjects are driven by this kind of loving kindness for the deceased and their bereaved, but not all of them. In another chapter, she interviews the boss of a death cleanup crew that scrubs blood from carpets and removes other physical signs of death from a home. This business posts exploitative photos of gruesome and sad scenes to Instagram for shock value and advertising.

But for the most part, All the Living and the Dead shines a light on those with a tenderness for death, and Campbell is an equally entertaining and sensitive guide to these interesting people and their grisly but indispensable jobs.

Over My Dead Body

It is this same appreciation for the dead, as well as for history, that drives journalist Greg Melville as he explores America’s cemeteries in Over My Dead Body. Melville escorts us through 17 of America’s most notable burial grounds, from the mossy colonial graveyards of New England to sparkling Hollywood memorial parks, all with a perfect balance of geeky joy, deep reverence and a meticulous knack for research.

Melville’s prose is pure pleasure mixed with wry asides. A running theme throughout is the difficulty Melville has in convincing any of his friends or family to accompany him on his explorations (Melville, if you are reading this, I am available), but even among his most amusing anecdotes, he never loses sight of the gravity that still vibrates through the stories of the dead. Upon visiting segregated cemeteries across the American South, underfunded and unmapped, Melville’s writing grows hot and indignant. The same tone arises again when Melville visits Arlington National Cemetery: A veteran himself, he flatly rejects the notion of war providing a glorious death, and he is not afraid to challenge this very American idea.

Though one covers the bodies of the dead and the other covers the ground they are laid to rest in, Campbell and Melville meet in their shared belief in the continuing importance of lives that have ended, and in their willingness to examine the complexities of the death industry. For them, the dead continue to speak to us from beyond the grave. Are you listening?

Dying leaves, dying crops, the dying light of a crackling fire. If October fills you with macabre joy, you will find kindred spirits in the authors of these books.
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“Finis Austriae” was the only entry in Sigmund Freud’s journal on the day the Nazi army flooded over the Austrian border. In Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom, former Newsweek foreign correspondent Andrew Nagorski maps the Nazi takeover of Austria and the urgent operation to rescue Freud, one of Austria’s most famous and most devoted Jewish sons, along with fifteen other people, including his personal doctor, in-laws and other family members.

Nagorski is masterful at juxtaposing the evolution of the global emergency that became World War II with the deep interiority of a man whose passionate life work concerned people’s half-hidden thoughts. The father of psychoanalysis downplayed the threat the Nazis posed, clinging to his optimism that humans would turn back to the light and all would be made right, until it was almost calamitously too late. Saving Freud is the sort of book that, though you know the outcome of the events, still makes you hope with Freud that something might take a turn for the better. Nagorski has a gift for revealing that everything—worldwide emergencies, far-away news, political decisions—is, in the end, about people. This is wonderfully appropriate for a book about Freud, who laid the groundwork for interrogating and understanding the inner self.

It is dizzying to think of everything that had to be achieved to move a large, wealthy and well-known Jewish family out of Nazi territory and into the relative safety of the broader world, which was still often unwelcoming to both Jews and immigrants. Yet Saving Freud tells the story of a group of people—including Freud’s daughter Anna and her lover, Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham (heiress to the Tiffany & Co. fortune); the U.S. ambassador to France, William Bullitt; and Marie Bonaparte, princess of Greece and great-grandniece to Napoleon—who did just that. Motivated by love and towering respect for a man and his work, the unlikely team cooperated seamlessly to achieve the near impossible. It is a tale of good-heartedness, of human devotion and of people who unhesitatingly rushed in to do the right thing. In this way, it feels like a relief to read. Far from being a dry historical account, the book’s emphasis on the personal creates a compelling, page-turning narrative that is wholly engrossing and difficult to put down. Nagorski has written a book for our time, reminding us of the potential for good and adherence to higher ideals in moments of global emergency.

Far from being a dry historical account, Saving Freud is a compelling, page-turning narrative of the urgent operation to rescue Sigmund Freud from the Nazis.
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The final separation of death is so frightening, so thorny and so difficult for humans to grasp that we tend to distill it into something simpler, with easy-to-follow directives and guidelines. Perhaps the most well-known guideline is that we do not speak ill of the dead. Instead, we rewrite history. Fights and foibles are mysteriously erased. Troubling moments dissolve into nothingness. We loved them, we say. We miss them every day. We do not know how to go on without their goodness. We would give anything to have them back again.

But in Rebecca Woolf’s case, her relationship with her late husband wasn’t just imperfect but toxic. Her memoir, All of This, eschews any such flattering postmortem revisions in favor of the messy, freeing truth.

Woolf had been planning to leave her husband, Hal, when he was diagnosed with an advanced form of pancreatic cancer and given only months to live. With four children, they had hacked it as far as they could through a relationship riddled with acrimony, casual cruelty and Hal’s control issues, which left Woolf feeling desperate and stifled. Their impending divorce felt like a rapidly approaching springboard to freedom for Woolf, until Hal’s diagnosis threw up a confusing and painful wall. Suddenly she found herself fulfilling the wedding vow she had been determined to escape: that she would stay until the end.

Woolf does not mince words or deal in niceties in this memoir. Hal was frequently difficult to like even as he was dying: He was demanding and childish about the fast-moving course of his illness. He was distant from his children, and the stress he caused his wife seemed deliberate. Shortly after his death, Woolf began looking for new partners, mostly brief hookups, as her joy and relief became braided with her grief. Along the way, Woolf reveals more of Hal’s humanity, showing that within the strife and heartbreak of their marriage, there were bright moments as well. Aptly titled, All of This is an all-encompassing portrait of a marriage that didn’t work, and Woolf is as unflinchingly honest about that marriage as she is about the experience of loss that terminated it.

“I loved this man once and then I hated him and then I loved him and then I hated him and then I loved him and then I hated him and then I loved him again, and then he died,” Woolf writes. “This was our love story.”

In All of This, Rebecca Woolf is as unflinchingly honest about her marriage as she is about the messy, freeing experience of her husband’s death.
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A scream in the night. A tangle of clues. Befuddled police being led by the nose as a sharp-eyed and unlikely detective examines the evidence. The drawing room denouement. All these are, of course, well-known tropes of the classic murder mystery—a genre made famous in part by the queen of the sleuthing story herself, Agatha Christie.

Christie’s works are so engrossing, and enduring, because they manage to tread that thin line where the cozy mystery and the high-stakes whodunit meet. While readers are wrapped up in the fantasy of an English country home or hamlet, the imminent danger is truly spine-tingling. Somewhat less examined, however, are Christie’s reputation as a meticulous researcher of forensics, a field that was newly developing in the early 20th century, and her medical and pharmacological background. A perfectionist who volunteered as a nurse and pharmacist during World War I, Christie was businesslike about blood and gore, more than aware of the effects of certain chemicals on the body and keenly curious about the new scientific methods being used to investigate real-life murders. Her appetite for the crossroads of science and crime was so great, in fact, that she co-founded the Detection Club, a social club of crime writers who gathered for supper and lively discussions on murder.

In The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie, Carla Valentine, a longtime mortician, curator of a museum of Victorian pathology and voracious Christie reader, expertly moves through the study of fingerprints, toxicology, ballistics, blood spatter and wounds. (A memorable example: The practice of “gloving” involves the autopsist wearing the skin of the deceased’s hand like a glove in order to collect fingerprints.) Christie ignited Valentine’s own curiosity about the forensic sciences, and with the enthusiasm of the true fan, Valentine illuminates Christie’s meticulous genius by dissecting some of her most famous fictional murders and illustrating how both the crime and the solution are supported by science. It’s an engrossing read for any Christie lover, or simply any true-crime obsessive. However, a strong stomach is recommended; Valentine, like Christie, has no qualms about gore.

The best murder is the well-researched murder. Happy reading.

Of all the ways there are to kill a person, poison is the one most inextricably associated with Christie. Dispatching over 30 of her victims in this way, Christie was well versed in toxins from her wartime days in a pharmacy. In fact, she wielded her toxic substances with such descriptive accuracy that her novels have been used to detect symptoms of poisoning in real murder attempts. Author and toxicologist Neil Bradbury pays homage to this fact in his book A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Used Them by opening three of his chapters with excerpts from Christie’s novels. All together, this is a book that Christie herself would have found excellent fireside reading material, as Bradbury devotes a chapter each to 11 major poisons used throughout history, including real-life murder cases in which they were used and, sometimes gruesomely, how they work on a molecular level to kill their victims.

Bradbury’s poisons run the gamut from the unexpected (insulin) to the gothically romantic (belladonna and wolfsbane). There’s even a section on polonium, the radioactive poison carrying a very famous victim count of one. Far from being dry molecular science, A Taste for Poison makes the reader horrifyingly aware of the devastating effects these substances have on the body’from corroding their organs to interrupting their essential electrical impulses to death. Yet it is with an excitement and love for his subject matter that Bradbury discusses these baneful materials, frequently reminding us that they are themselves blameless and often used in smaller doses to heal.

Christie’s murder mysteries were so steeped in science and so brilliantly complex that some think her novels were used as manuals to carry out attempts at the perfect murder. (Note: The would-be criminal masterminds failed in every known case.) Both Bradbury and Valentine seem to nod at this with their own warnings to readers who might use the knowledge their books impart to nefarious purposes. Forensic science will catch you, warns Valentine. Bradbury absolves himself in the appendix with a note informing us that his book is educational in nature and strictly not for the encouragement of murder. However, as Christie knew, the best murder is the well-researched murder. Happy reading.

Poison, fingerprints and toxicology—oh my! Carla Valentine and Neil Bradbury reveal how murderers have wielded chemistry and biology.
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In Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, David George Haskell admits that, in all his formal training as a biologist, he was rarely asked to use his ears as an evaluative tool. This may come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Haskell’s work, which often focuses on the sonic offerings of the natural world. Visit the website of this Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and scientist, for example, and you’ll find links to symphonic soundscapes recorded from each of the sylvan subjects of his 2017 book, The Songs of Trees.

In his latest book, Haskell continues to delve into aural worlds that often go unnoticed, beginning with the breathtaking story of the evolution of sound. Haskell describes the complex apparatus of hearing in all its minute, sensitive brilliance. From vibrations picked up by single-celled organisms, to the childlike babbling of newly hatched birds, to the astounding invention of the first human instruments, played in cave chambers selected for their resonance, this tale brims with enchanting facts you won’t believe you never knew. 

Haskell’s prose is suffused with enthusiasm and poetic in form. The way in which he loads each sentence with information is so animated, it’s fair to say this is a book that would talk with its hands if it could. Even so, his descriptions of bacteria that “murmur” and “purr,” or the “voices of tree elders” heard in the polished wood of a symphony, are lilting, spellbinding and songlike in themselves.

Where Sounds Wild and Broken truly glows, however, is in the way it invites readers to imagine the listening experiences of others, breaking down the assumption that we all hear alike. With the long history of sound in his grip, Haskell’s definitions of hearing, communication and song become expansive and inclusive. A favorite moment is when he addresses a high-handed philosopher of music who said that animal noise is but a “yowling of cats” and only humans create music. Haskell mounts a graceful and entirely sound argument that the yowling of cats may be music if the felines who are listening experience it as such.

Haskell also examines the ways Indigenous peoples, often experts in the soundscapes of their ancestral lands, are pushed out of the business of forest management and land stewardship. He does not shy away from indicting a certain colonial and corporate refusal to hear. His examination of sound, after all, is grounded in the seriousness of what it means when things go quiet. Thankfully, scientists are leveraging soundscapes in new ways to more responsibly manage these forested and oceanic philharmonics. Haskell’s warning is cradled in awe as he holds up for us the magic and delight we stand to lose.

Throughout Haskell’s body of work, his invitation has always been, “Pay attention! Isn’t it amazing?” Sounds Wild and Broken expands this invitation: Listen carefully. Listen to others. 

Sounds Wild and Broken offers an invitation: Listen to nature carefully. Consider all sounds and all songs. What you will hear is astonishing.
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The harrowing realities of being female in a wicked world have inspired horror, gothic and speculative fiction for centuries.

In late 2018, prominent horror film producer Jason Blum came under fire on Twitter for defending his production company’s failure to hire female directors, saying it was the result of women’s disinterest in exploring horror. Women, it turns out, not only like the dark just fine, they’ve staked it out as their own. Indeed, it’s largely due to women that the horror genre developed as it has. When literature that was gothic, dramatic and shocking was thought to be trash unfit for the highbrow male, women writers and readers flooded the macabre void. Through horror, they began to write the dark side of the female experience: endangered, haunted, preyed upon.

In Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction, scholars of the weird Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson trace the genealogy of women who’ve dealt in the unsettling, from the 17th century into the present. This book is inspired not only in the way it explores what the off-kilter, the monstrous and the half-known has meant to women for centuries but also in how it illuminates the often unusual lives of the women who crafted these dark worlds. Amelia Edwards was a swashbuckling explorer who traveled Egypt with her female partners in the Victorian era and wrote stories about mummies. Daphne du Maurier enigmatically referred to herself as a “disembodied spirit” throughout her childhood. Shirley Jackson was whispered to be a witch. As rebels within the male-dictated feminine role, were these women writing themselves as monsters? Or was it the world around them that was malformed, menacing?

Sady Doyle would answer, “Why not both?” The engrossing Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power embarks on a fascinating exploration of the women we make into monsters in film, in literature and in life. (Behind every male serial killer is a bad mother, society would say, as Doyle rolls her eyes.) When a woman steps outside her prescribed role, Doyle argues, suddenly everyone’s a Puritan minister, signing the cross and hissing, “Witch.” What is Lucy Westenra from Dracula if not a woman who consumed as she pleased? What were the protagonists of the film The Craft but disempowered girls who finally stood up? Doyle uses these tales to examine what feminine power can mean to us now.

It’s thought that Mary Shelley wrote her Creature as a metaphor for womanhood—a trod-upon and mistreated thing that famously stated, “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!” upon discovering that being nice got it nowhere. Doyle might agree. In an era that seems to reflect renewed violence against women, it might be time to sweetly remind those around us that we are dangerous. Monsters, after all, have claws.

It’s largely due to women that the horror genre developed as it has.
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If you can’t convince your introverted friends to come out to your holiday party, just leave one of these comfy, cozy, beautiful books on their doorstep instead.

I was not surprised when BookPage asked me to write their gift guide for homebodies. I work from home. I have been known to go a few days without speaking aloud to anyone but my cat. One of the most satisfying endeavors of my year was redecorating my house in the endlessly comfortable style of a 1940s absentminded Oxford professor, creating an atmosphere that I would never, ever want to leave. If you have a recluse in your life who is dear to you, upon whose doorstep you intend to leave a gaily wrapped package expressing your affections, I am the expert called in to help. 

Bibliostyle by Nina Freudenberger
While the love of books doesn’t belong exclusively to those who are quiet and inward, it’s true often enough that Nina Freudenberger’s Bibliostyle: How We Live at Home With Books is a safe bet. Pages upon pages of towering, impressive personal libraries, alongside interviews on reading habits and cataloging techniques from their owners, are enough to move any bookworm to tears. I was awed by these aspirational collections and comforted to learn that the endless to-be-read list is a universal problem. And as an object itself, Bibliostyle is lovely. A weighty tome in dark green with gold lettering on the cover, it sits very seriously and beautifully on my coffee table, marking me as a literary sophisticate who is deeply serious about her books.

Board Games in 100 Moves by Ian Livingstone
Of course, I would only be noted as such by those select friends who chanced to see it. Yes, reader, I do sometimes host a little gathering. As any homebody will tell you, such evenings call for a board game, and when you aren’t discussing strategy over your game of choice, you can wow your guests with the encyclopedic knowledge of games you picked up from Ian Livingstone’s Board Games in 100 Moves: 8,000 Years of Play. Fill your cozy evening in with conversations about what the games we have played through time say about humankind (Germany, for example, lost their taste for war- and battle-based games after World War II), and keep the interesting conversation flowing.

Girls and Their Cats by BriAnne Wills
That, however, is only for the rare social night. Most nights of the week, my most constant companion is a sentient piece of black fluff named Jonas (in homage to author Shirley Jackson). Cats are often found living alongside introverts. They share a distaste for loud noises and a fondness for watching the neighbors through the windows. For the homebody who shares their home with a familiar of the feline variety, Girls and Their Cats by BriAnne Wills cannot be more fervently recommended. Cat lovers are known for being somewhat obsessive in their devotion, and here is a book filled with like-minded people (and their cats!) telling their “how we met” stories. It’s also a handsome book in its own right, with a velvet spine that’s almost as nice to pet as your cat.

★ Cosy by Laura Weir 
Homebodies are always in pursuit of an ideal: of a dream of quiet, of peaceful evenings in the bath or under blankets, of restorative reflection, of (as our friends across the pond term it) “cosy.” In Cosy: The British Art of Comfort, Laura Weir moves to take back the simple pleasures of a Sunday in one’s pajamas or a long evening walk, especially now that interior designers have savaged the Danish notion of hygge. There’s no need to whitewash your floorboards or purchase a sheepskin rug. After all, decorating all in white inevitably leads to more cleaning, when you could be relaxing under something woolen with a book and a nice piece of cheese instead. Gently dragging us back from the wild-eyed edge of consumerism, Weir reminds us that simply taking the time to cook a meal can be enough. Forget giving this one for Christmas, actually. Give it before. We’ll all need it.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our interview with Laura Weir, author of Cosy.

If you can’t convince your introverted friends to come out to your holiday party, just leave one of these comfy, cozy, beautiful books on their doorstep instead.
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The perilous state of our planet is a grim subject that often makes us feel powerless. Is it even possible as an individual to mount much of a defense against such a complex global threat? Two books help cut through the anxieties of climate change and suggest a place to start.

In The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac urge readers to push back against overwhelmed, hopeless mindsets. Far from ill-informed but earnest optimists, the authors led negotiations for the United Nations during the Paris Agreement of 2015 and are the co-founders of Global Optimism, working to incite environmental change from the personal level and extending globally. Their book is indeed a manifesto, but an elegant and hopeful one that acknowledges difficult realities while refusing to sink beneath them. They present a faultless argument supported by hard science and, alongside it, paint mesmerizing images of a potential future—reforested cities, shaded and carless streets, skyscrapers trailing vines and wall gardens, and neighbors who come together to grow food and share resources.

Equally appealing is their argument that, far from an austere world where we miss the extravagances of our past, a clean future would not only be healthy for the planet but would also provide mental and physical advantages for human beings. Greater community, better health through more exposure to the beauty of nature and more flexibility for spending time with loved ones are all benefits of their vision of a new society.

Chief among the benefits Figueres and Rivett-Carnac foresee for us is better health through better eating, and in How to Be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good for You, Others, and the Planet, Sophie Egan takes a deeper look at the personal and global effects of ethical eating. While acknowledging that individual effort on a collective level creates large-scale change, Egan opts to address her reader one-on-one. A food writer for publications such as Bon Appétit and the Washington Post, she understands the tension between wanting to do what’s right and wanting to preserve what food often means to us. Therefore, she doesn’t guilt readers or hold them to unrealistic standards. With illustrations and a conversational voice, Egan takes note of the many ethical issues associated with the food industry and then lays out the options available to us to improve them.

Though we might think of dedicated ethical eaters as belonging to the ranks of ultra-healthy, well-moneyed vegans—those with resources to burn at the co-op and untold willpower—Egan’s common-sense tone makes eating according to our values an accessible and relatively stress-free realm for everyone.

Celebrate Earth Day with two books that remind us of our own power to honor, protect and save our threatened planet.
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In the age of “CSI,” it’s hard to imagine the world of crime solving before the introduction of forensic science. These books transport readers to the birth of the innovative police work that’s still cracking cases today.

In 1932, America was gripped by the headlines coming out of rural New Jersey: 20-month-old Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., the son of celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, was stolen from his crib as his parents sat downstairs. His tiny skeleton would later be found on the side of the road, breaking hearts and inciting outrage around the world. The crime shocked the nation and created a ripple effect that echoed through history.

Though certainly the most famous kidnapping of the era, the Lindbergh case was by no means a singular event. In The Kidnap Years: The Astonishing True History of the Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic That Shook Depression-Era America, journalist and author David Stout recounts the bewildering rash of kidnappings that swept the United States as gangland rose to prominence and much of the country was swallowed by desperate poverty. Interweaving the Lindbergh kidnapping through narratives of lesser-known abductions from coast to coast, Stout examines this wave of crime from many angles: the lives of the abducted, the circumstances of the abductors and the state of a nation in which organized crime flourished because of people’s dire financial circumstances. This movement coincided with the rise of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and the Lindbergh case itself saw the first flickerings of psychology and forensic analysis, including fingerprinting, being used in criminal cases.

It is surprising, then, that in 1951, Hoover would turn down a visit from a grandmotherly figure who seemed particularly insistent upon gaining an audience with him. An unlikely presence in the world of criminal investigation, Frances Glessner Lee was a leader in the emerging forensic sciences and a staunch advocate for the adoption of the medical examiner system. Best known today as the creator of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of dioramas depicting homicides in miniature for officers to practice their observational skills upon, Lee is the subject of Bruce Goldfarb’s 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics. Born to wealth but denied a career because of her gender, Lee employed her considerable curiosity, intellect, willpower and fortune toward the burgeoning field of “legal medicine,” the application of medical sciences toward criminal investigation. The scope of what Lee accomplished in her lifetime is breathtaking, and Goldfarb has written a worthy tribute to the passionate life’s work of a deeply singular woman.

In the age of “CSI,” it’s hard to imagine the world of crime solving before the introduction of forensic science. These books transport readers to the birth of the innovative police work that’s still cracking cases today.

In 1932, America was gripped by the headlines coming out of rural New Jersey: 20-month-old Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., [...]

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