Julie Hale

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Books—especially great ones—beget other books. If you don’t believe it, check out the selections that follow. Providing new perspectives on past works, these critical studies, appreciations and fresh editions prove that classic pieces of literature are inexhaustible. Just right for the writer or devoted reader on your holiday gift list, the books below will make any bibliophile smile.

SHADOWING SHAKESPEARE
Few figures inspire more speculation than William Shakespeare. Richard Paul Roe, an accomplished scholar and lawyer, tackles one of the most intriguing Shakespearean what-ifs in his compelling new book The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels. Addressing a controversial question—whether Shakespeare visited the country that provided the backdrop for many of his finest works—Roe tracked the dramatist’s 10 Italian plays back to their geographical roots. The author, who died in 2010, invested 20 years in the project.

Guided by the text of the Italian plays, which include Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest and Othello, Roe pinned down settings scene by scene only to discover that—after four centuries—the Bard’s descriptions of Verona, Venice and Padua are uncannily accurate. His conclusion: The playwright almost certainly visited Italy, a verdict that contradicts the accepted view that Shakespeare never traveled outside of England. This controversial conclusion is bound to cause tremors in the academic world, but Roe’s book is more than an inspired piece of literary detection. Beautifully illustrated with paintings, photos and maps, the volume offers an engaging look at life in 16th-century Italy. Roe is a delightful travel guide, and his search for “the secret Italy that lies hidden in the plays of Shakespeare” is fascinating from start to finish.

NAVIGATING A CLASSIC
Answering a question that has crossed the mind of many a reader, Nathaniel Philbrick offers an earnest argument on behalf of a classic in Why Read Moby-Dick?. In his compact critique, Philbrick casts himself as Herman Melville’s champion and sets out to prove that the novel is more than a quaint antique.

Philbrick, whose National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea examined the historical events that inspired Moby-Dick, highlights themes, characters and symbols from the novel that take on new significance as the decades go by. In addition to an in-depth look at the crazed captain Ahab, this brisk volume has chapters on Nantucket, nautical matters and the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne on Melville’s work. Facet by facet, Philbrick reveals what this vibrant novel has to tell us about the contemporary world. In an era when brevity sells books, Melville’s epic style can easily intimidate, but wise readers will heed Philbrick’s advice regarding the tale of the whale: Dive right in.

A FINAL WORD FROM UPDIKE
John Updike’s Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism shows a player at the top of his game. The book was in the works when Updike died in 2009, at the age of 76, and serves as a superb retrospective of his genius.

Drawing on a remarkably broad assortment of sources—from Golf Digest to National Geographic—the pieces in Higher Gossip are a testament to Updike’s astonishing range. He writes with equal expertise about art and sports, analyzing Max Ernst and Vincent van Gogh with the same authority that he brings to discussions of Tiger Woods and Fuzzy Zoeller. In addition to his essays, the volume includes poems, forewords, introductions, letters and book reviews. Best of all, it features Updike’s insights into his own work, with pieces on the novels Gertrude and Claudius, Licks of Love and The Poorhouse Fair. “Gossip of a higher sort” is how Updike once defined a well-written review. As demonstrated in this final collection, he was a pro when it came to sharing inside information, writing in a way that was accessible yet always stylish.

A POSTMODERN MASTERPIECE
It’s a rare breed, indeed: Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic classic from 1986, simply can’t be cornered. A hybrid of historical narrative and illustrated storytelling, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book is based on the experiences of Spiegelman’s father, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust to settle in New York City. In an ingenious twist, Spiegelman animalized his characters, casting Nazis as cats and Jews as mice in the maze that was Europe during World War II.

To celebrate the book’s 25th anniversary, Spiegelman has produced MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus, a scrapbook of sorts that explains how the masterpiece came to be. A family-album chapter contains pictures of the main characters (in human form), while an interview with Spiegelman’s father Vladek provides dramatic background. And the author himself answers all the pressing questions—why he took the Holocaust as his topic and the comic book as his medium. Meta­Maus comes with a terrific bonus DVD that features interviews, historical materials and the complete Maus.

TRANSLATING AN EPIC
In the family tree of Western literature, it’s one of the roots: The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem, is the source of countless symbols, themes and narrative conventions that have stood the test of time. Award-winning author Stephen Mitchell interprets the story for modern readers in his elegant new edition of the epic. Based on scholar Martin L. West’s work in assembling a definitive version of the Greek text, Mitchell’s The Iliad powerfully communicates the spirit and the spectacle of the classic story through a subtle poetic style that reflects the essence of the original.

Mitchell, who produced much-praised translations of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Gilgamesh, brings fresh life to the tale of Achilles, Agamemnon and the Greeks’ sack of Troy, the bloody siege that lasted a decade. Whether you’re reacquainting yourself with the work or coming to it for the first time, you’ll find Mitchell’s interpretation of The Iliad intensely rewarding. Reader, enjoy the spoils.

A MAGICAL TALE TURNS 100
It’s hard to believe that the story of Peter Pan has been lightening the hearts of readers for a century. Celebrating the birthday of J.M. Barrie’s magical tale in high style, The Annotated Peter Pan: The Centennial Edition contains the complete text of Peter and Wendy, along with informative notes and essays. Assembled by Maria Tatar, chair of Harvard’s folklore program, this volume is a must for those who believe in the power of pixie dust.

Barrie’s mischievous imp made his first appearance in print in The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, written in 1901 for the Llewelyn Davies family, whose puckish children served as sources for Peter’s personality. Only two copies of the book were made. Barrie gave one to the Davies clan, while the other made its way to the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where Tatar discovered it. The Annotated Peter Pan makes it available to readers for the first time, along with other rare Barrie treasures, including his screenplay for a silent movie. Critical commentary regarding the various treatments of Peter on stage and screen provide fresh perspectives on his character, while classic, full-color illustrations bring the text to life.

GROUNDBREAKING NARRATIVES
The Library of America’s gorgeous new boxed set, Harlem Renaissance Novels, pays tribute to a group of writers who left an imprint on the face of a nation through their fearless radicalism, taste for innovation and infectious energy. During the 1920s and ’30s, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance produced some of the country’s most significant literature. In two beautifully designed volumes—Five Novels of the 1920s and Four Novels of the 1930s—the collection brings together narratives from a range of writers whose works merit fresh examination.

Five Novels of the 1920s includes Jean Toomer’s classic Cane, a unique blend of poetry and prose that explores the author’s years as a teacher in Georgia, and Claude McKay’s spirited Jazz Age story, Home to Harlem. Four Novels of the 1930s examines different storytelling modes, from Langston Hughes’ beautifully crafted bildungsroman, Not Without Laughter, to George S. Schuyler’s sci-fi spoof, Black No More. Compiled by African-American studies expert Rafia Zafar, the classics get the lavish treatment they deserve in this impressive collection.

 

Editor's Note: The review of Steven Mitchell's translation of The Iliad has been updated to reflect the following corrections: Martin L. West's edition of The Iliad, published in 2000, was a restored Greek edition of the text, not a translation. Stephen Mitchell's translation is not the first published in the U.S. in the last 20 years; it was preceded by Stanley Lombardo's 1997 edition of The Iliad, published by Hackett Publishing Co.

Books—especially great ones—beget other books. If you don’t believe it, check out the selections that follow. Providing new perspectives on past works, these critical studies, appreciations and fresh editions prove that classic pieces of literature are inexhaustible. Just right for the writer or devoted reader on your holiday gift list, the books below will make […]
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Black History Month is a special period of celebration and commemoration—a time for looking back at the individuals and events that made progress possible. In honor of this special time, BookPage has rounded up a group of new picture books that chronicle some of the highlights of the African-American legacy.

MAKING SPIRITS SOAR
In Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper, Ann Malaspina revisits a thrilling chapter in American sports—the story of the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Born in Albany, Georgia, to impoverished parents, Alice Coachman seems destined to defy gravity. Leaping over tree roots and shooting baskets with towering boys, practicing the high jump with a crossbar made of branches and rags, Alice, as depicted in Eric Velasquez’s dynamic paintings, seems always to be airborne. Her father disapproves of her tomboyish behavior, but when she’s invited to join the Tuskegee Institute’s famous Golden Tigerettes track team, Alice develops skills that take her to the 1948 London Olympics. There she soars farther than she ever imagined, setting a new Olympic high jump record. Malaspina employs a spirited prose style to tell the story of Alice’s extraordinary career.

A LEADER GETS HIS START
Proving that knowledge really is power, Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass recounts the rise of one of America’s greatest orators. Frederick Douglass spends his early childhood on a Maryland plantation where slaves caught reading are severely punished. When he’s transferred to the home of the Auld family in Baltimore, Frederick gets his first taste of formal education. Kind-hearted Missus Auld gives him lessons in the alphabet, and Frederick is soon obsessed, practicing in secret with a brick and chalk. At the age of 12, he buys his first newspaper and encounters words like “abolition” and “liberty.” Against all odds, Frederick educates himself and—later on, at great risk—his fellow slaves. By unlocking the secrets of language, he arms himself for the future. Featuring beautifully nuanced pictures by the author’s husband, James E. Ransome, this moving book comes with a clear message: Education is the key to success.

OVATION FOR A LEGEND
With Jazz Age Josephine, Jonah Winter offers an irresistible homage to a groundbreaking performer. Born dirt poor in St. Louis, Missouri, young Josephine Baker spends part of her childhood in the city slums, where she’s taunted by other kids. Using theatrics as a survival tactic—clowning and dancing to hide her hurt—she makes a little money and eventually joins a traveling show as a dancer, but the blues follow. At one point, she’s so broke, a bench in Central Park serves as her bed. At the age of 19, Josephine takes off for Paris, where she finds her artistic footing and gets a taste of what liberation is like. Embracing her race and blossoming as a performer, she hits the heights of fame but never forgets her St. Louis roots. Winter’s blues-inflected writing style is perfectly complemented by Marjorie Priceman’s bright, impressionistic visuals. Brimming with infectious energy, Winter’s book is a showstopper from start to finish.

HOME RUN HERO
Showing how team spirit in sports helped break down racial barriers, Chris Crowe’s Just as Good: How Larry Doby Changed America’s Game is a wonderful depiction of the brotherhood of baseball. It’s the fall of 1948, and the city of Cleveland is humming with anticipation for game four of the World Series—a contest between the city’s own Indians and the Boston Braves. An African-American boy named Homer narrates the events of the big day, as he and his parents gather around the radio to listen to the game. Homer’s hero, Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, will be stepping up to the plate. When Doby hits a home run in the third inning, he makes history, becoming the first African-American ballplayer to do so in the World Series. Mike Benny depicts Homer’s wide-eyed excitement through luminous illustrations, while Crowe seamlessly weaves facts and stats from the actual game into the storyline.

VERSES OF FREEDOM
Ntozake Shange is a beloved African-American playwright, poet and novelist. With Freedom’s
a-Callin’ Me
, she delivers a timeless collection of verse inspired by the Underground Railroad—dramatic and impassioned poems about slaves dreaming of escape, the white folks who help them and the trackers who trail them. Shange writes with wonderful authenticity and an ear for syntax, conjuring up a group of unforgettable narrators who experience hope, danger and loss on the road to a better life. The book’s title poem eloquently describes one man’s plan to flee, to “mix myself way low in the cotton . . . wind myself like a snake / till ah can swim ’cross the stream.” The poems are filled with arresting imagery—slave hunters leading ferocious hounds, overseers wielding their whips—which Rod Brown brings to life in his sensitively rendered paintings. Throughout the book, Shange offers different perspectives and stories to create a multifaceted look at the secret system that changed so many lives. This is a wonderful introduction to an important chapter in African-American history—and to the narrative possibilities of poetry.

A REMARKABLE DAY
Written and illustrated by acclaimed author Shane W. ­Evans, We March is a stirring account of a history-making event as seen through the eyes of one African-American family. On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people came together for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an episode forever inscribed on the American memory thanks to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Evans’ tale brings the momentous day down to a personal level, as the family prepares to march, painting signs, praying and joining the procession to the Lincoln Memorial. Evans’ brief, poetic lines have a simple majesty that reflects the significance of the occasion. His vibrantly illustrated story gives readers a sense of what it might have been like to join the crowd taking crucial steps on the road to freedom.

Black History Month is a special period of celebration and commemoration—a time for looking back at the individuals and events that made progress possible. In honor of this special time, BookPage has rounded up a group of new picture books that chronicle some of the highlights of the African-American legacy. MAKING SPIRITS SOARIn Touch the […]
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National Poetry Month is a time for applauding poetry’s unique appeal—its capacity to surprise and move us, to show us the world in new ways. The new collections below are stellar examples of the genre’s timeless attraction.

POETRY OF TRANSFORMATION

Much like the moon, the human heart waxes and wanes—a fact that provides the foundation for Jonathan Galassi’s beautifully wistful Left-Handed. Following the phases of that fickle organ with a sensitive eye, Galassi’s perceptive poems document the ways in which our desires change with time. “I don’t / know how my dream / became a contraption / for unhappiness,” he writes in “The Scarf,” one of many pieces that show a mind struggling to make sense of an attachment gone awry.

Galassi frequently employs rhyme in the service of mood, using it to exude playfulness, melancholy or awkwardness, as in “Tinsel Tinsel”: “All the fool for love can do is stare. / His neck is permanently out of whack; / he doesn’t care.” Overall, the collection tracks a movement from confusion to clarity, to a place of fresh possibilities, where relationships actually work. The president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and author of two previous collections of verse, Galassi is honorary chairman of the Academy of American Poets. His latest book is everything a poetry collection should be: companionable, wise and expertly crafted.

A POETIC DEPARTURE

In Almost Invisible Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Strand forgoes verse for prose, offering a transportive group of poems, each in the form of a short paragraph. Despite their orderly exteriors, the pieces are often surreal, with a touch of the fairy tale about them. Some are full-fledged narratives, and some are musings; others are sharply etched portraits of characters without bearings in the world, who have no sense of connection. In “Like a Leaf Carried Off by the Wind,” a man works at a place “where he is not known and where his job is a mystery even to himself,” while the narrator of “Bury Your Face in Your Hands” struggles with the vagueness of daily existence: “There is no way to clear the haze in which we live . . . The silent snow of thought melts before it has a chance to stick.”

Strand achieves his very own tone—an ominous quality offset by dark humor—and he sustains it from start to finish. These poems soar thanks to his great wit and his remarkable understanding of humanity—its capacity for miscommunication, its tendency to cultivate discontent. “What is it in us that lives in the past and longs for the future, or lives in the future and longs for the past?” he writes in “No Words Can Describe It.” Like all great poets, he articulates the big questions beautifully.

A SOUL IN TRANSIT

Across the Land and the ­Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 is a watershed volume that makes the collected poetry of German writer W.G. Sebald available in English for the first time.  The author of numerous celebrated novels, including Austerlitz, Sebald died in 2001. Rich with historical allusion, international in scope, these visionary poems—translated from the German by Iain Galbraith—tell of departures and returns, of hotel interludes en route. They’re snapshots of a life marked by transience. Many of the poems reflect a sifting of daily experience as they touch upon everything from art, religion and mythology to past conversations and memories. In the midst of this sifting, spare yet crystalline images serve as points of clarity, like these beautifully refined verbal visuals from a poem called “Panacea”: “A club moss / and a cube of ice / tinted with a jot / of Berlin blue.”

Sebald, whose father served in the Nazi army, was no stranger to the weight of history, and in many of these poems, the past is a force to be reckoned with. “Memo” reads as a telling note to self: “Build fire and read / the future in smoke . . . / Be sure / not to look back / Attempt / the art of metamorphosis.” Sebald’s later poems are delicate balancing acts between memory, the moment at hand and whatever awaits. His mind, it seems, is usually in at least two places at once. “Day Return” contains references to (among other things) Samuel Pepys’ diary, graffiti scrawled on an urban wall and the city of Jerusalem. The products of an expansive intellect and an inquisitive mind, the pieces in this collection are nothing less than transcendent.

National Poetry Month is a time for applauding poetry’s unique appeal—its capacity to surprise and move us, to show us the world in new ways. The new collections below are stellar examples of the genre’s timeless attraction. POETRY OF TRANSFORMATION Much like the moon, the human heart waxes and wanes—a fact that provides the foundation […]
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Literature lovers have cause to rejoice this holiday season, with riches aplenty in the way of new releases. Need a gift that will impress your favorite bibliophile? Here’s your cheat sheet for holiday shopping!

Since its debut in 1953, The Paris Review has served as a platform for outstanding fiction. A terrific new collection pairs gems from the journal’s archives with expert analysis. For Object Lessons, 20 of today’s top authors picked their favorite stories from the review and composed introductory essays about each work. The contributors—including Wells Tower, Ali Smith and Jonathan Lethem—offer critical praise and sterling insights into the craft of fiction writing. In his essay on James Salter’s “Bangkok,” Dave Eggers describes the story as “an eight-page master class in dialogue.” For Jeffrey Eugenides, the Denis Johnson classic “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” succeeds in part because of the author’s instinct for “knowing what to leave out” of the narrative. Object Lessons will appeal to both aspiring writers and lovers of the short story form.

KING OF THE ROAD, AND MORE

Author of On the Road, the 1957 novel that immortalized the edgy, uninhibited nature and questing sensibility of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac never seems to lose his allure. Yet, as Joyce Johnson demonstrates in her thoughtful new biography, The Voice Is All, there’s more to the Kerouac myth than meets the eye. Beneath his reckless exterior was a committed artist who took his craft seriously. A former flame of Kerouac’s, Johnson had rare access to her subject, and she draws on personal recollections, important Beat writings and newly available archival materials to create a compelling portrait of the author’s early years, the factors that shaped him as a writer and his quest for an authentic authorial voice. “Jack’s voice was his center,” Johnson says. “Outside that center was chaos.” The Voice Is All is an invaluable biography that gives an icon of cool some well-deserved critical validation.

WHAT WRITERS ARE READING

For bibliophiles, this is bliss: My Ideal Bookshelf, an irresistible new anthology, features the favorite literary selections of more than 100 artists and writers. Providing a peek at the private libraries of David Sedaris, Junot Dí az, Rosanne Cash and other notables, the volume includes brief interviews with the participants, who discuss the significance of their picks. “I derive strength from these books,” Jennifer Egan says of her selections, which include Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy—both narratives that demonstrate “how flexible the novel form is.” Photographer William Wegman chose titles he loved as a kid—science texts, encyclopedias, a Hardy Boys mystery. “These books are nostalgic for me,” he explains. “That’s the spell.” Jane Mount’s stylish illustrations of the selected titles—spines colorfully rendered, typefaces faithfully reproduced—underscore the allure that books possess as objets d’art. My Ideal Bookshelf is a treat from cover to cover.

LETTERS FROM A LITERARY LIFE

While she was editing material for Selected Letters of William Styron, Rose Styron, widow of the acclaimed author, had a revelation about her husband: “I realized that half the endless hours I thought he was working on novels . . . he was actually writing letters.” Spanning almost six decades, the book is an intriguing chronicle of one writer’s interaction with his peers, including Henry Miller, Philip Roth, George Plimpton and Robert Penn Warren. Styron, who died in 2006, earned numerous honors for his fiction, including a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner and a National Book Award for Sophie’s Choice. The letters document his student days at Duke University, his steady artistic ascent and his path as a world traveler. They’re studded with classic anecdotes—the stuff from which literary legends are spun. Styron spots T.S. Eliot on a London subway, engages in a verbal brawl with Norman Mailer and locks horns with Harold Bloom, whom he refers to as “a foolish ass of a Yale professor.” Offering an in-depth look at the esteemed author, this collection proves that letter-writing is indeed an art.

A CRIMINAL COLLECTION

Mystery aficionados will be captivated by Books to Die For, a spine-tingling anthology edited by two masters of the genre, John Connolly and Declan Burke. In this one-of-a-kind collection, today’s crime pros offer insights into their favorite works of suspense. The collection kicks off with essays on books that were foundational to the genre (such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), then moves on to the the heyday of hardboiled crime fiction with contributions from David Peace, Michael Connelly and Laura Lippman on classics like Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister. Moving decade by decade, this expansive anthology offers plenty of surprises. Pieces on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (contributed by Minette Walters and Tana French, respectively) underscore the breadth of the mystery genre and the ingenuity of its practitioners. With essays from 119 authors, Books to Die For will thrill any mystery enthusiast.

NEW LIFE FOR CLASSIC TALE

They’ve been in circulation for two centuries, yet the Grimms’ fairy tales feel more vital than ever. Now, in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Philip Pullman, himself a spinner of fabulous stories, retells 50 time-tested favorites. In his hands, the simple magnificence of stories like “Cinderella” and “Rapunzel” shines through. He successfully channels the unsettling mix of innocence and perversity, horror and delight for which the tales are famous. In addition to the standards, Pullman shares less prominent stories, including two spellbinding little selections whose startling titles speak for themselves: “Godfather Death” and “The Girl with No Hands.” Beguiling from beginning to end, Pullman’s skillful retellings will surely enchant the book lover on your gift list.

Literature lovers have cause to rejoice this holiday season, with riches aplenty in the way of new releases. Need a gift that will impress your favorite bibliophile? Here’s your cheat sheet for holiday shopping! Since its debut in 1953, The Paris Review has served as a platform for outstanding fiction. A terrific new collection pairs […]
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Poetry has a capacity that other literary forms lack—the lightning-quick ability to provide a sense of connection on an intimate scale. These new collections will open your eyes to the ways a skilled poet can conjure fresh meaning from our familiar language.

POET AT PLAY

Named England’s poet laureate in 2009, Carol Ann Duffy writes linguistically extravagant poems that mix an appealing sense of play with a disciplined awareness of form. In her new collection, The Bees, she examines nature and history, relationships and politics through the lens of her visionary sensibility, deftly capturing the abundance of everyday experience.

The pieces in this accessible collection celebrate the poet’s transformative urge—the practice of remaking in words whatever meets the eye, a theme Duffy mines in “Poetry”: “I couldn’t see woods/for the names of trees—sycamore,/yew, birch, beech.” Elsewhere, elm trees are “green rhymes” and birds “verbs.” In “Invisible Ink,” Duffy turns the urge on the air itself, presenting it as a “fluent, glittery stream”—a communal medium we all inscribe with a “vast same poem.”

Duffy is a calculating and precise poet, a genius when it comes to line design. Positioned to produce the maximum amount of sound, words rub elbows in her work, and the results are often lavish, like these verses from “Virgil’s Bees”: “each bee’s body/at its brilliant flower, lover-stunned,/strumming on fragrance, smitten.” For Duffy, poetry’s purpose is to “pursue the human.” As The Bees proves, the chase can produce glorious associations.

NAVIGATING THE PAST

Complex and symphonic, with sections and movements that unfold slowly and inform each other, the poems in Rick Hilles’ lovely second collection, A Map of the Lost World, examine the nature of memory and the trials of coming to grips with the past. Many of the poems are narrative-based—story-like, plotted and wonderfully compelling. In “The Red Scarf & the Black Briefcase,” Hilles takes on the daring persona of real-life French Resistance activist Lisa Fittko, who reflects on her experiences during World War II: “Red, the color of my hat but also the way my walking/with it through the raging Brownshirts still causes/them to part around me like the Red Sea.”

Throughout the collection, the past invades the present—often quite literally, as in “Nights & Days of 2007: Autumn.” Written during a stay in the apartment of the late poet James Merrill, the piece chronicles the author’s attempt to contact a dead college buddy via Ouija board, a device “whose ghost-galleon absinthe-glow rides the dark.” Whether sifting through his own memories or channeling the voices of the past, Hilles composes poems that, ultimately, honor history and the personal stories that lie behind it.

BEST OF THE BEST

Think of it as American poetry’s hot 100: Spanning a quarter of a century, The Best of the Best American Poetry: 25th Anniversary Edition collects 100 classic pieces from the yearly anthology The Best American Poetry. This indispensable volume, with its rich mix of voices, forms and techniques, serves as a melting pot of contemporary American verse. Curated by former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, this diverse anthology is filled with some of literature’s most respected names, including Adrienne Rich, James Merrill and Jane Kenyon, as well as newer writers like Kevin Young and Meghan O’Rourke.

Poetry has a capacity that other literary forms lack—the lightning-quick ability to provide a sense of connection on an intimate scale. These new collections will open your eyes to the ways a skilled poet can conjure fresh meaning from our familiar language. POET AT PLAY Named England’s poet laureate in 2009, Carol Ann Duffy writes […]
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If your child is fighting the back-to-school blues, then check out these terrific picture books. Sure to allay first-day fears, each one takes a lighthearted look at life in the classroom. The lesson is clear: School’s not awful—it’s awesome!

CANINES IN THE CLASSROOM

Parents looking for a painless way to broach the subject of school with their young ones will love Dog-Gone School by husband-and-wife collaborators Amy and Ron Schmidt. Pairing her original, school-related poems with his colorful photographs, this hilarious book lets readers tag along to class with a pack of mischievous, adorable dogs. Ron Schmidt posed the pooches in classic school settings and somehow caught them on camera: A wirehaired terrier stands atop a tower of books in order to access a water fountain; a Jack Russell terrier and his pit bull sidekick—partners in crime—wait outside the principal’s office. With examples of haiku, free verse and onomatopoeia, this charming collection serves as a terrific introduction to poetry while making the prospect of school seem awfully appealing. Sure to get high marks from little readers.

A WARM SCHOOL WELCOME
Ready and Waiting for You by author Judi Moreillon is an appealing little story that’s tailor-made for soothing school-related stress. With flapped pages that open up like doors and sensational torn-paper collage illustrations by Catherine Stock, this visually beguiling book depicts school staff and students in a variety of vibrant scenes—on the crowded playground, in the bustling cafeteria, aboard the big yellow bus—where they’re waiting to welcome new arrivals. “Come in through this door. Are you new?” are words repeated regularly throughout the book. The cheery salutation makes new students feel comfortable and gives them a sense of belonging. Stock achieves an incredible level of detail through her precise, expressive collages, which overflow with energy and texture. This lively story is perfect for youngsters who need a bit of back-to-school nurturing.

CALMING THE NERVES

The title of Heather Hartt-Sussman’s new book says it all: Noni Is Nervous. The prospect of the first day of school sends Noni, the story’s adorably anxious heroine, into a nail-biting, hair-twisting frenzy. She worries about wearing the wrong thing and envisions her teacher as a fanged monster. Her family tries to assuage her fears, to little avail. Noni somehow survives the first day, and on the second, her luck picks up: She meets an extroverted girl named Briar, who introduces her to a slew of new friends. Noni soon gets the hang of the school routine and finds that she fits right in. Geneviève Côté, who contributed the story’s appealing illustrations, is the sort of artist who can create an expressive figure with a few well-placed lines. She gives Noni a broad, beaming, peaches-’n’-cream face.

A character kids will love, Noni has an important lesson to share: This school stuff is a cinch! All it takes is patience, time and—yep!—a little bit of courage.

If your child is fighting the back-to-school blues, then check out these terrific picture books. Sure to allay first-day fears, each one takes a lighthearted look at life in the classroom. The lesson is clear: School’s not awful—it’s awesome! CANINES IN THE CLASSROOM Parents looking for a painless way to broach the subject of school […]
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It’s never too early for kids to get acquainted with history—to have aha! moments as they identify role models and make important connections. The picture books featured here serve up factual information in story form and provide great introductions to significant figures from America’s past.

AVID READER, GREAT LEADER

Barb Rosenstock’s Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library (ages 8 to 11) is a lighthearted profile of our third president—a statesman with a serious book fixation. Born in Shadwell, Virginia, in 1743, Tom Jefferson grows up with a love for books, a passion that serves him well as he enters politics. Through the years, he collects thousands of titles on all sorts of subjects. His wife, Martha, is a kindred spirit, and together, they instill a love of reading in their children. John O’Brien’s jolly, rollicking pen-and-ink illustrations show the great man reading in the unlikeliest of places (while balancing on the bowsprit of a ship, for instance). Teeming shelves and precariously stacked piles deliver a sense of the density of Tom’s personal collection, the vast size of which enables him to resupply the Library of Congress after the British burn it in 1814. Rosenstock, who knows how to make facts fun, has written a spirited story that stands as testament to the impact of books. This is a biography that young readers will learn from and enjoy—at the same time!

A PIONEERING SCIENTIST

With The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever (ages 5 to 10), H. Joseph Hopkins offers an appealing, easy-to-understand profile of one of America’s greatest gardeners. Kate Sessions spends her childhood exploring Northern California’s lush forests, and their beauty ignites her imagination and her intellect. In 1881, she earns a degree in science from the University of California, becoming the first woman to do so. When a job lands Kate in San Diego, she sets her mind on transforming the dry, barren town into a site of tree-filled splendor. The story of how she makes her vision a reality is a remarkable one. Artist Jill McElmurry contributes the book’s delicate yet vivid gouache illustrations. Her colorful renderings of trees, leaves and bright blossoms (and ginger-haired Kate, of course) are the perfect vehicle for Hopkins’s intriguing bit of horticultural history.

THE STORY OF A POWERFUL PARTNERSHIP

The latest title from acclaimed husband-and-wife collaborators Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney, Martin and Mahalia: His Words, Her Song (ages 6 and up) is a great way to introduce the Civil Rights era to children. This inspiring book pairs the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. (a “master minister”) and gospel vocalist Mahalia Jackson (a singer with a “voice like brass and butter”), who worked side by side to break down racial barriers. He comes from a distinguished line of preachers in Atlanta. She grows up in New Orleans and sings in the church choir. Both use their gifts to deliver messages of freedom. Their partnership reaches a high point in 1963 at the March on Washington, where Mahalia sings and Martin delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech. Brian Pinkney’s swirling, impressionistic watercolor illustrations add to the narrative’s sense of uplift and victory. Andrea Davis Pinkney, who contributed the book’s accessible text, writes in a style that’s plainspoken yet poetic. Together, they’ve created a moving tribute to two history-making figures.

It’s never too early for kids to get acquainted with history—to have aha! moments as they identify role models and make important connections. The picture books featured here serve up factual information in story form and provide great introductions to significant figures from America’s past. AVID READER, GREAT LEADER Barb Rosenstock’s Thomas Jefferson Builds a […]
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Has the countdown to the most mischievous night of the year already started at your house? October 31 is creeping closer, but we’re not quite there yet! In the meantime, treat your costumed crowd to some pre-Halloween fun with one of the picture books featured here. Happy haunting!

HALLOWEEN FUN ON THE FARM

The ingenious team behind the classic books Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type and Giggle, Giggle, Quack is back with another uproarious animal adventure. Click, Clack, Boo!: A Tricky Treat by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin features Farmer Brown and his beloved barnyard crew in a tale with a chilling twist.

Farmer Brown is anti-Halloween (he scares easily!), so he opts out of the holiday by setting a bowl of candy on the front porch, hanging up a “Do Not Disturb” sign, and retiring behind drawn blinds. Meanwhile, out in the barn, preparations for a Halloween shindig are well under way, and the guests are arriving—in costume, of course: There are cats dressed as bats, chickens draped in ghostly sheets and mice disguised as princesses. Absent from the scene is the chief mischief-maker, Duck, which means he’s probably up to something.

Back at the house, Farmer Brown is seriously spooked by the sight of a robed figure out in the yard. He takes refuge in bed, but there’s no escaping the sounds of Halloween—the ominous crunch of leaves, the foreboding creak of front-porch boards. When a “quack, quack, quackle” enters the mix, though, Farmer Brown knows who’s haunting him. Wearing his PJs—a hilarious ensemble consisting of a red neckerchief and a union suit with a flashy pattern—he dashes outside only to fall prey, once again, to Duck’s wily designs.

Fans will be happy to see that—despite Farmer Brown’s best efforts—the animals still run this outfit. Lewin brings the barnyard to life through her wonderful watercolor illustrations, and Cronin’s use of sound words (creak, crunch, tap) lend the story extra Halloween spirit. This is a four-star addition to their irresistible series.

A CREEPY COUNTING BOOK

Ammi-Joan Paquette’s Ghost in the House is a fiendishly fun introduction to numbers. The story begins with a “Boo!” as readers meet a lonely ghost (a cute little fellow with a quizzical grin) who’s floating down the hallway of a haunted house. He’s not alone for long, though. A loud groan indicates company, and the ghost soon gains a bandaged sidekick: “a mummy makes two … in the creepy haunted house.” Ghost and mummy continue down the hall together, but they freeze when a growl issues from the staircase: A monster, furry, striped, and fanged, swells their eerie ranks to three. As the night progresses, the ghostly gang grows. A loud “click-clack” signals the arrival of a skeleton, while a witch makes her presence known with a spine-chilling “shriek!”

The creepy crew—now five in number—is surprised by a sixth arrival: “A sudden FLASH makes them topple and crash, and suddenly they hear, ‘Who’s there?’” The query comes from a wide-eyed lad in striped pajamas, who has turned on a light. The sight of a flesh-and-blood boy frightens the ghost and his friends, and they fly from the house. The book’s striking final page shows a spectral set of silhouettes—the five creatures fleeing.

Hair-raising and hilarious, Ghost in the House is a practically foolproof way to get kids counting. Paquette’s simple yet effective rhymed verses give the little story momentumm while Adam Record’s digital illustrations have a wonderful sense of texture. With its dingy walls and grubby carpet, his haunted house has definitely seen better days! He conjures up a distinctive expression for each member of the ghoulish group. A true treat regardless of the season, Ghost in the House is a book readers will have fun with throughout the year.

A BEWITCHING BATCH OF POEMS

Trick-or-Treat: A Happy Haunter’s Halloween by Debbie Leppanen is a frolicsome anthology of poems filled with clever rhymes, playful language, and—of course—plenty of Halloween hijinks. “Hallow’s Eve,” the book’s opening poem, sets the mood: “The wind is howling; / the leaves are blowing. / A sliver of moon is barely showing… With shrieks and howls / and make-believe, / let’s prowl the night— / it’s Hallow’s Eve!” From there, all manner of mischief follows, as readers visit a graveyard, cruise via broom with a group of witches and attend a party where a guest loses his head—literally.

Two of the collection’s sweetest treats pertain to parents.In “Mummy Dearest,” a gauze-wrapped boy lists the benefits of life with his monster mom: “She draws my bath with mud and ice, / then rubs me down with tickly lice.” In “A Vampire Makes a Wonderful Daddy Because…” father gets his due, too: “He’ll let you stay up late at night… When someone picks on you, he’ll bite!”

Thanks to Tad Carpenter’s colorful digital visuals, the book brims with Halloween eye candy—grimacing jack-o-lanterns, antic one-eyed monsters and cute, costumed kids. His meticulously composed pictures contain plenty of spooky minutiae: What does a vampire dad drink at night? A bottle of type O blood, of course!

Although she covers familiar holiday themes in these poems, Leppanen has her own angle on Halloween, and her unique vision gives the collection extra oomph. From short four-liners to longer, story-like pieces, her poems are fresh, original and very funny. A terrific introduction to poetry, this creepy collection will have little readers howling for more.

Has the countdown to the most mischievous night of the year already started at your house? October 31 is creeping closer, but we’re not quite there yet! In the meantime, treat your costumed crowd to some pre-Halloween fun with one of the picture books featured here. Happy haunting! HALLOWEEN FUN ON THE FARM The ingenious […]
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It’s a tried-and-true storytelling adage: Show, don’t tell. The wordless picture books featured here follow that advice in literal fashion. Plot points are laid out and events unfold via pictures alone. As a result, each book reveals something new about the possibilities of storytelling and the ways in which the pieces of a narrative fit together, all without the typical verbal directives and prompts. Perfect for budding brains, these books will challenge youngsters to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE

David Wiesner’s delightful new picture book, Mr. Wuffles!, is filled with detailed illustrations that speak for themselves. A black-and-white feline with imposing yellow eyes, Mr. Wuffles can’t be bothered with commonplace cat toys. He’s unimpressed with the fake fish urged on him by his owner, and he ignores a row of playthings so new they’re still wearing price-tags. Polka-dotted mice, a ball with a bell inside it—Mr. Wuffles is not amused.

That changes when he notices a curious object—a small round-ish item made of metal with a strange slot near its top. Mr. Wuffles claws it and paws it until it starts emitting smoke, and then—in classic cat fashion—he turns his back on it and takes a nap. But the intriguing object isn’t a toy—it’s a spaceship filled with tiny green aliens. Mr. Wuffles’ rough treatment of the craft has left the crew a bit queasy and, worse, caused their equipment to go on the fritz. Repairs must be made! The little gang of greenies disembarks, and—hoping to evade Mr. W.—tiptoes across the living room floor. Beneath a radiator, they find a bunch of friendly bugs who are all too familiar with the feline terror outside. Bugs and aliens bond, an escape plan is formed, and the craft is soon back in the air. Mr. Wuffles watches helplessly as his toy sails over the sill of an open window and out of reach.

Expertly illustrated in watercolor and India ink by Wiesner, who’s a three-time winner of the Caldecott Medal, this off-the-wall story is a visual feast. Some of the pages are cut up into panels, providing the author with extra room for play. Wiesner’s illustrations successfully capture the essence of cat (Mr. Wuffles’ eyes look more alien than those of the aliens themselves), and he cleverly provides the extraterrestrial travelers with their own lingo—a code young readers will have fun trying to crack. An irresistibly amusing tale from start to finish. 

PASSAGE TO ANOTHER WORLD

Every picture tells a story in Aaron Becker’s beguiling new book, Journey. This lavishly illustrated tale features a daring heroine who—thanks to the power of a simple crayon—learns that magical worlds are just a dream away and surprisingly easy to access. All that’s required is a little imagination.  

On a humdrum day when no one seems to have time for her—mom’s chatting on the phone; big sis has her head in a book—Becker’s lonely protagonist retreats to her room, where she spies a bright red crayon on the floor. Inspired to take action, she uses the crayon to draw a door on her bedroom wall. Stepping through it, she finds herself in a gorgeous forest with a winding river. The girl sets out in a small boat to encounter still more marvels, including a vast castle with an armada of strange dirigible-like ships hovering in the air above it. The imposing guards manning one of the crafts have captured a beautiful bird. After the girl goes to dangerous lengths to free the creature, it leads her back home, where her prospects are decidedly brightened by a new friend with a crayon of his own.

Art-whiz Becker has worked for Disney and Pixar, and his genius is in evidence on every page. With its complex architecture and cunning system of waterworks, his castle could’ve come from a movie set. His delicate watercolor illustrations have a special radiance. The book’s lack of text creates a quality of silence—a sort of hush that adds to the enchantment of the story. In Becker’s whimsical world, words would only be superfluous.

WHEN HISTORY COMES TO LIFE

Nature and its power to surprise serve as the basis for Bill Thomson’s fascinating Fossil, a beautifully illustrated book that showcases the author’s signature photo-realistic painting style.

On a sunny day, a boy and his dog hike to the shore of a lake that’s dotted with rocks. The boy soon makes a strange discovery about the stones. Through an accident, he breaks one open and finds a fossilized fern inside. Perfectly preserved, the fossil itself is magical enough, but when ferns suddenly materialize on the shore, the boy realizes that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Splitting open another stone, he finds the remains of a dragonfly. The bug immediately appears before him.

A third rock holds the most impressive relic of all—a dinosaur bone. What happens next? You guessed it: This haunting remnant of the past summons a scary pterodactyl! When the winged creature wheels above him, dips down, and makes off with his dog, the boy is forced to find a fast way of reversing the fossil-come-to-life process.

Executed with crisp clarity and uncanny accuracy, Thomson’s illustrations—done by hand with acrylic paint and colored pencils—communicate the wonder, puzzlement and panic the boy experiences thanks to his unusual predicament. The author of Chalk (2010), another wordless picture book, Thomson has an instinct for telling details, which he renders with scientific precision. From the pattern on the soles of the boy’s sneakers to the water droplets that cling to the coat of his cocker-spaniel companion, no element is overlooked. Youngsters are sure to see a bit of themselves in Thomson’s boy-hero, and they’ll have fun unraveling his quirky blend of science and magic. This is a thrilling hike they’ll want to go on again and again.

It’s a tried-and-true storytelling adage: Show, don’t tell. The wordless picture books featured here follow that advice in literal fashion. Plot points are laid out and events unfold via pictures alone. As a result, each book reveals something new about the possibilities of storytelling and the ways in which the pieces of a narrative fit […]
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Best-of collections and one-of-a-kind compilations are as abundant as twinkling lights this time of year, and we’ve rounded up a few of the best new volumes. Mysteries, poetry, witticisms, mythology and more—there’s something for all kinds of readers.

Whether writing about the intrusiveness of email or the futility of the war we all wage against aging, Nora Ephron infused her essays with a confidential tone—a comforting, we’re-all-in-this-together quality that made the reader feel select. Ephron, who died last year, was a writer of extraordinary range, a journalist, novelist and author of screenplays who also blogged regularly for The Huffington Post. Her many dimensions are generously represented in The Most of Nora Ephron, an expansive new collection that, once dipped into, quickly becomes addictive.

Along with choice cuts from her acclaimed collections I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing, the book includes Ephron’s best-selling novel, Heartburn; the never-before-published play Lucky Guy; and the complete screenplay of When Harry Met Sally. . . . What’s not to like about this terrific anthology? As a compassionate commentator on the absurdities of everyday experience, Ephron is unrivaled. To read her is to love her.

MERRY LITTLE MYSTERIES

Otto Penzler, the prime minister of crime fiction, delivers the goods once again with his latest anthology, a collection of holiday whodunits that’ll have you eyeing the department-store Santa with suspicion. The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries is the 12th discerningly curated collection from Penzler, who owns the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.

The book features 60 Christmas capers, including a number of forgotten and hard-to-find chestnuts. Penzler has sorted the stories into clever categories—pulpy, scary, classic, uncanny . . . the list goes on (who knew that Christmas was such a prime time for crime?)—and the result is a well-rounded anthology that represents the many facets of the mystery genre. There are old-fashioned tales of Sherlockian sleuthing, dark noir dramas and unsettling yarns along the lines of A Christmas Carol. With contributions from Agatha Christie, Damon Runyon, Donald Westlake and Mary Higgins Clark, Penzler’s new compilation is a future classic. Can you crack these Christmas cases? We dare you to try.

THE CLASSICS + GRAPHICS

There’s no denying it: College skirmishes with the masterworks of modern literature left many of us permanently scarred. Fortunately, a corrective has arrived. An extraordinary anthology of art inspired by prime pieces of literature, The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest will make readers forget old grievances and contemplate the classics anew. 

This remarkable anthology—the third in a series created by visionary editor by Russ Kick—focuses on 20th-century literature and features art by more than 70 contributors. It contains graphic adaptations of both time-tested works (“The Waste Land,” Ulysses) and contemporary fare (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). High points include Dame Darcy’s hallucinatory take on Blood Meridian: stark, black-and-white drawings that accurately capture the fever-dream quality of Cormac McCarthy’s classic; and selected scenes from Infinite Jest, a group of colorful, in-your-face outtakes by Benjamin Birdie that serve as teasers for David Foster Wallace’s monumental work. A heady trip through the land of high literature, this mad, inspired anthology is sure to lure new readers to the canon while arousing curiosity in those already acquainted with it. 

AN AMERICAN COLLECTION

The latest entry in the much-praised poetry series that started 25 years ago, The Best American Poetry 2013 is a can’t-go-wrong-with-this gift for the literature lover on your list. Guest editor Denise Duhamel, herself an acclaimed poet, chose 75 pieces for this powerful new collection, and many of them articulate unmistakably native mindsets. Stephen Dunn’s bull’s-eye observation that Americans “like to live in the glamour between exaltation and anxiety” is one of many revelatory moments in his poem “The Statue of Responsibility.”

Other selections evoke a distinct sense of place. Emma Trelles’ vivid “Florida Poem” describes the humid, overripe environment of her home state: “ Gardenias swell, / breathing is aquatic and travel / is a long drawl from bed to world.” War—perhaps unsurprisingly—is also a recurring theme in the book. Sherman Alexie’s chilling “Pachyderm” features a Vietnam veteran confined to a wheelchair that’s “alive with eagle feathers and beads and otter pelts” and who has lost a son in Iraq.

A contemporary chronicle of the American experience, this visionary collection also includes poems by Kim Addonizio, Billy Collins, Louise Glück, James Tate, Kevin Young and the late Adrienne Rich.

Here’s to another 25 years of amazing poetry!

ANCIENT STORIES REBORN

In the intriguing anthology xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Kevin Wilson and a host of other notable writers re-imagine timeless tales from around the world. Edited by Kate Bernheimer, the collection presents ingenious retellings of a wide range of archetypal narratives, from ancient coyote myths to the story of the Trojan Horse to the tale of Sinbad the Sailor.

Newly interpreted, these classic stories take on fresh resonance for the reader. In “Demeter,” Maile Meloy modernizes the well-known myth, setting it in present-day Montana and giving the heroine a pharmaceutical habit and an ex-husband named Hank. Joy Williams spins an unforgettable yarn from the perspective of Odysseus’ loyal dog in “Argos,” while Elizabeth McCracken updates the terrifying Greek tale of a child-eating demon in “Birdsong from the Radio.” This one-of-a-kind collection serves as a testament to the open-endedness and staying power of great stories—and also to the world’s enduring hunger for them.

Best-of collections and one-of-a-kind compilations are as abundant as twinkling lights this time of year, and we’ve rounded up a few of the best new volumes. Mysteries, poetry, witticisms, mythology and more—there’s something for all kinds of readers. Whether writing about the intrusiveness of email or the futility of the war we all wage against […]
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The past is packed with remarkable women whose achievements deserve special recognition. Just in time for Women’s History Month, three new books provide in-depth looks at a few of the courageous, far-sighted women who served as early champions of change. Inspiring narratives about friendship, kinship and the quest for equality, these compelling books salute a group of winning women who were ahead of their time.

Sensational in every sense of the word, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson looks at the lives of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, free-thinking feminist sisters who took New York City by storm in the 1860s by fearlessly addressing the taboos of the time. They were proponents of free love, suffrage, sex education and labor reform, and they stumped for their causes bravely. Originally from rural Ohio, where their father, a snake-oil salesman, used them in his act, the sisters were a canny and intelligent pair, both strikingly handsome and unfazed by public scrutiny. They never shied from a scandal. Their accusations of infidelity against minister Henry Ward Beecher nearly trumped the Civil War for press coverage.

Victoria WoodhullTennessee Claflin

Mathew Brady portraits of free-thinking sisters Victoria Woodhull (left) and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, who never shied away from challenging the conventions of their era.

 

The duo’s accomplishments are astonishing: Victoria was the first woman to make a bid for the presidency (her running mate was Frederick Douglass). With the assistance of millionaire magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, Tennie’s reputed lover, the sisters launched the first female-owned brokerage firm. Their taste for controversy and ultra-progressive attitudes (tenacious Tennie proposed that women be trained for army combat) were frowned upon by more reserved feminists, but they remained steadfast in their desire for reform. MacPherson, an award-winning journalist, takes a theatrical approach to these radical proceedings. She provides a cast of characters and unfolds the sisters’ story over the course of five irresistible “acts.” This is a grand tale presented on a grand scale.

A SAVVY SISTER-IN-LAW

Carol Berkin’s Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte features a heroine whose fierce independence and indomitable will made her an early model of change for women.

Bright, well read and remarkably beautiful, Elizabeth Patterson—known as Betsy—came from a well-to-do Baltimore family. When the dashing Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon’s spoiled younger brother, arrived in Baltimore and made her acquaintance, he was smitten. The pair wed in 1803, and their union drew the attention of the American government while scandalizing Napoleon, who blocked Betsy’s entry at ports throughout Europe. To Jérôme, the French emperor issued an ultimatum: Give up Betsy or relinquish the Bonaparte fortune.

Jérôme, of course, caved. Betsy, who bore him a son, took a defiant stance in the wake of his betrayal, forging a life for herself that did not include the refuge of another marriage. Thanks to her beauty and intellect, she shone in European society and spent many years overseas. She also set herself up handsomely through investments and profits from Baltimore real estate. Through it all, she remained proud of the Bonaparte name.

Berkin, a historian and the acclaimed author of Revolutionary Mothers and Civil War Wives, brings a fascinating chapter of feminist history to life in a narrative that’s brisk and vivid.

FEMINIST FAMILY TIES

Diane Jacobs explores an intriguing facet of a famous family in Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters. In this artful biography, Jacobs spotlights the friendship that existed between Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, and her sisters, Mary Cranch and Elizabeth Shaw Peabody, with whom she shared progressive ideas regarding education and gender. The sisters came of age in the mid-1700s in Weymouth, Massachusetts, raised by a minister father and a book-loving mother. They were a tightly bound bunch until marriage parted them. Avid letter writers, over the years they produced a correspondence that was polished and insightful, filled with wit and commentary on current events.

Drawing on their letters and other archival materials, Jacobs has created a well-rounded, thoroughly readable biography of the threesome. Each sister shines in her own way: Mary, the eldest sibling, served as mayor of her small hamlet, while Elizabeth, the youngest and an ambitious writer, established the second coeducational school in America with the help of her husband. Middle sister Abigail took charge of the Adams farm while her husband forged a path to the presidency. The sisters’ independence, integrity and spunk shine through Jacobs’ expertly crafted narrative, which also provides a fresh look at life in colonial-era America.

The past is packed with remarkable women whose achievements deserve special recognition. Just in time for Women’s History Month, three new books provide in-depth looks at a few of the courageous, far-sighted women who served as early champions of change. Inspiring narratives about friendship, kinship and the quest for equality, these compelling books salute a group of winning women who were ahead of their time.

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Early in her new memoir, Dancing Through It, when Jenifer Ringer writes, “It would take a while for us to realize that the world we were entering might well prove impossible to survive in,” she sounds as though she’s crossing into a combat zone or embarking on an expedition to Everest. But it’s the ballet world and the unseen hazards it holds for her younger self and fellow students that she characterizes so grimly. As the book progresses, Ringer—recently retired from her position as an acclaimed principal dancer with the New York City Ballet—becomes so fixated on her art form that she loses the ability to enjoy it. The ballet realm itself, so orderly and pristine, where she experiences both spectacular success and crippling pressure, morphs into a kind of “monster.” It “warped and twisted my spirit until I was almost destroyed,” Ringer recalls.

Ballet is, of course, an uncommon vocation—an extreme career that often inspires extreme behavior. Performers who push themselves (sometimes right over the edge) with unusual intensity are standard in the dance world, and Ringer, as Dancing Through It makes clear, was no exception. In her case, “the ballet-centric lens” through which she perceived her life led to problems that forced her to step back, take stock and grow outside of the studio. The core of her story lies in her personal metamorphosis—a slow, often difficult transformation from an eager-to-please, up-and-coming dancer into a secure and confident artist.

It’s a quality her narrative shares with another upcoming ballet-related memoir, Life in Motion by Misty Copeland (on sale March 4). As the only black woman at American Ballet Theatre, an 80-member troupe that’s one of the nation’s best, Copeland has spent her professional years defying the status quo. Her background and upbringing differ dramatically from Ringer’s, but the two have much in common. As adolescents, they devoted their lives to dance (neither started dating until she reached her early 20s) and were sidelined by injuries. Both have grappled with eating disorders and refer to themselves as perfectionists. Both have struggled to find ways to practice their craft without being undone by it. And both make it clear that the physical demands of their career are severe but not impossible to manage. The dancing is indeed doable. It’s the psychological stuff that’s the real killer.


Ballerinas Misty Copeland (left) and Jenifer Ringer

A LATECOMER TAKES HER PLACE AT THE BARRE

 “Ballet has long been the province of the white and wealthy,” Copeland writes in Life in Motion. Indeed, women of color are rare in America’s most prominent ballet companies. When American Ballet Theater (ABT) promoted Copeland from corps member to soloist in 2007, she was the first African-American woman in two decades to achieve that rank in the company. Prior to her promotion, in its 76 years of existence, ABT had only two black female soloists.

In her engaging autobiography, Copeland, now 31, traces the complex chronology of her unusual personal life and her remarkable rise as a performer. She’s a poised, intelligent writer whose temperament—disciplined, determined, driven—gives the book a special spark.

Along with her five siblings, Copeland grows up poor and—for the most part—fatherless in San Pedro, California. Her childhood is rocky thanks to her half-Italian, half-black mother, an exotic beauty whose succession of husbands results in frequent upheaval for the family. At one point, they relocate to a grubby motel where the kids are forced to bed down on the floor.

Despite the instability at home, Copeland develops into an overachiever, channeling her anxiety and energy into excelling at school. She applies the same drive to ballet. At the age of 13, she takes her first class at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and proves to be a prodigiously gifted mover with the ability to mimic any step or gesture she sees. Although she’s a latecomer to ballet, she quickly blossoms.

Copeland is able to prepare for a professional ballet career through scholarships and the aid of sympathetic patrons. She trains with typical tenacity and focus—until she’s blindsided by family friction. The custody conflict that arises between her mother and her dance teacher, Cindy Bradley, is one of the most extraordinary occurrences in her very eventful life. The incident results in a media circus, landing Copeland on national TV at the age of 16.

When she’s in her late teens, Copeland’s hard work pays off, and she’s invited to dance with ABT. She’s thrilled to become a corps member but disappointed to discover the prejudice that lurks in the big-time ballet world—a place where conformity counts. Copeland learns the hard way about those “who believed there was no place in ballet for a black swan.” She writes openly about her outsider status at ABT and the ways in which it eroded her confidence and made her question the future. Would certain coveted classical roles always be off-limits because of her skin color? And would she ever have the chance to dance principal parts like Juliet and Odette?

These are questions that remain unanswered. After 13 years at ABT, Copeland is a celebrated ballerina who’s still climbing the ranks, hoping to be promoted to principal dancer. Yet she’s arrived at a place of acceptance. In Life in Motion, she looks back on the past without bitterness or anger, only gratitude. Hers is an out-of-the-ordinary story about defying stereotypes, and she shares it in an inspiring narrative that’s enlivened by her own grace and generous spirit.

FINDING BALANCE IN THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION

Compared to Copeland’s against-all-odds autobiography, Jenifer Ringer’s Dancing Through It reads like a fairy tale at times. As she recalls in this smoothly recounted chronicle of her rise from the small studios of the South to the hallowed ranks of New York City Ballet (NYCB), Ringer was blessed with advantages Copeland lacked, including a secure family life and money to pay for training, which she started at the age of five.

Yet Ringer encountered obstacles of a different kind, and because they were, for the most part, deeply personal and interior, hers is a darker story.

A North Carolina native, Ringer is raised by supportive parents who encourage her to dance. She joins NYCB, one of the country’s top companies, at the age of 16 and a mere three years later is being cast in plum roles and praised in the press. The quintessential ballerina, she spends her days in the studio and her nights on the stage of the New York State Theatre. Her very first kiss occurs during a performance of Romeo and Juliet.

Despite her early and overwhelming success, though, Ringer is miserable. She’s plagued by self-doubt and frequently exhausted by the pressures that come with life as a performer. But—despite the stress—she’s determined to maintain a “perfect” exterior.

Ringer’s façade cracks when, after a few years at NYCB, she develops an eating disorder. She writes with unsparing honesty about the loneliness and shame that accompany her condition.  “I could make myself feel better with food,” she says. “Or I could just somehow not feel with food.” When Ringer gains weight and loses her job at NYCB, she’s despondent. But out in the “nondancing world,” she grows in new ways, finishing her college degree and achieving a sense of normalcy that allows her to overcome her disorder. She also finds comfort in the Christian faith.

After a year’s absence, Ringer returns to NYCB in full force and as a new person—an adult comfortable in her own skin. In 2010, when her curvy physique is criticized in the New York Times, she bravely faces the media blitz that follows and appears on "Oprah" to discuss body-image issues.

Ringer is a more reserved and measured narrator than Copeland. But the survey of her 23-year-career that she presents in Dancing Through It has immediacy and an emotional rawness, and in its focus on the dangers that often attend the pursuit of perfection, it’s just as compelling as Life in Motion. Despite her past difficulties, Ringer isn’t a whiner. She’s a modest, likeable figure with the ability to laugh at herself, and her book contains many funny moments (she doesn’t shy from sharing memories of mid-performance falls and other unglamorous, on-stage occurrences). Now married to NYCB alumnus James Fayette and a mother of two, Ringer danced her final ballet with the NYCB on February 9. She has clearly found her balance. 

Her memoir, like Copeland’s, illuminates the ballet world in a distinctive way, providing fascinating access to an environment that can seem mysterious to outsiders. Both books demonstrate that a ballerina’s achievement of radical grace is a battle of the mind as well as the body—one that involves more grit than glamour. There’s a strange kind of necessity in the struggle. Ringer isn’t exaggerating when she says of Serenade, one of her favorite ballets, “If I were not allowed to dance these steps to this music, something would always be missing from my life.” On the page, as on the stage, both ballerinas earn ovations.

As adolescents, they devoted their lives to dance . . . Both have grappled with eating disorders and refer to themselves as perfectionists. Both have struggled to find ways to practice their craft without being undone by it. And both make it clear that the physical demands of their career are severe but not impossible to manage. The dancing is indeed doable. It’s the psychological stuff that’s the real killer.
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For National Poetry Month, we’re highlighing new collections from four American poets that offer fresh insights into the state of the nation. These visionary writers provide unique perspectives on both inner and outer conflicts: the horrors of war, the decline of the environment, the challenges of relationships.

SPIRIT OF '76
Dan Chiasson moves with sleight-of-hand smoothness through varied poetic forms in ­Bicentennial. This shape-shifting collection features a pair of plays, a number of compact, epigrammatic poems and longer pieces that unfold over the course of several movements. Cultural references abound as Chiasson revisits his adolescent years in 1970s Vermont, dropping allusions to cartoons, sports and drugs. “Tackle Football” offers an unforgettable verbal sketch of high-schoolers playing in waist-high snow: “We’re Pompeian before Pompeii was hot. / We have the aspect of the classic dead / Or of stranded, shivering astronauts. . . . ”

Chiasson trades the touchstones of adolescence for the paradoxes of parenting in poems like “The Flume,” in which he’s all too aware of “The future doing its usual loop-de-loop, / The sons all turning into fathers.” Chiasson never knew his own father, whose enduring absence seems to be the impulse behind works that explore symmetry and balance—poems in which equilibrium is achieved, and relationships are complementary. In “Nowhere Fast,” the parallelism is literal: “O my compass / Your wilderness / Awaits reply: / Say you and I / Will find our way / Eventually— / Like see and saw, / Or sea and sky.” Chiasson is a master of poetic construction, and his facility with form is on full display in this rewarding collection.

A COLORFUL TAPESTRY
Although the title might indicate otherwise, Maureen N. McLane’s excellent new collection, This Blue, is filled with green imagery: a “tapestried field” is “mossed ferned & grassed,” and the earth itself is “embroidered” with all manner of plants and trees. McLane writes with a deep awareness of geological time, history and human behavior, and the ways in which they’ve influenced the world. Poems like “Another Day in This Here Cosmos” address mankind’s abusive relationship with our world: “A park’s a way to keep / what’s gone enclosed forever.” Instead of being in sync with nature, McLane says, we’re “commuters” to it.

McLane makes delightful use of contemporary syntax. Contractions and abbreviations—sd stands in for said, yr for your—appear at unexpected points in her brief, sculpted lines. Her insights are often sociological in their precision. In “Replay / Repeat,” a playful and profound poem that examines the endurance of human habits, kids do what they’ve always done—“climb trees they’ve eyed for years / in the park, their bicycles / braced against granite.” Frisbees “saucering / the summer into a common / past” point to shared experience and collective memory. Again and again in these radiant, probing poems, McLane excavates the layers of contemporary experience and gets at the heart of what it means to be human.

THE POETRY OF REALITY
W.S. Di Piero’s Tombo could be read as the work of what the author calls a “vagrant imagination,” a mind that “rushes toward the world / in fear of forgetting anything: / witness and invent, it says. . . .” Di Piero seems to possess just such a psyche—capacious and insatiable and motivated by wonderment. He’s a precise recorder of everyday experience for whom small moments are sublime. In “Other Ways to Heaven,” he ponders “systemic pleasures”—preparing breakfast, reading a book—that in their regularity are remarkable because they “make us feel at home in our elusive lives.”

Many of the poems are prompted by a sense of inquiry, an effort to make sense of the world: “Let me be fool enough / to read meaning into / the twiggy lightning that cracks / the darkening distance / such meaning as animals / like me need to see.” In “Bruised Fruit,” Di Piero explains that his intention as a writer is to take readers “beyond / the sleepiness of selfhood” and “to give a right voice to scenes, to breakage and joy, / to plain plates of jam and bread.” In his reverence for details, Di Piero reveals what we might otherwise miss: “the unspeakable beauty of facts.”

ARMS AND THE MAN
U.S. Army veteran Kevin Powers explores the brutality of war in Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, an urgent, haunting book that—like his acclaimed novel The Yellow Birds—draws on his experiences as a machine gunner in Iraq. The disconnection between his reality and civilian reality warps the way he sees the world. In “Separation,” he eyes some “Young Republicans” in a bar: “I want to rub their clean / bodies in blood. I want my rifle / and I want them to know / how scared I am still . . . when / I notice it is gone.”

Other poems find Powers pondering his own pre-war history. He writes effectively about his Southern boyhood and offers striking characterizations of his parents. As a whole, this collection is masterful—composed and controlled, taut and contained, with a sense of tamped-down passion that can stop the reader cold.

For National Poetry Month, we’re highlighing new collections from four American poets that offer fresh insights into the state of the nation. These visionary writers provide unique perspectives on both inner and outer conflicts: the horrors of war, the decline of the environment, the challenges of relationships.

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