Priscilla Kipp

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It should come as no surprise that a book about the legendary Mississippi River covers centuries of history, tons of mud, hundreds of levees and a rogues’ gallery of characters. Boyce Upholt turns it all into an absorbing tale in The Great River: The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi.

When Upholt took on a writing assignment about a paddler and tourist guide in 2015, he had no experience with the Mississippi. In the following years, he would go on to catch rides in oyster boats, tour the delta with a parish councilman and absorb the worries of the president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

Of course, many before Upholt were also drawn to the river. Spanish explorers are credited with “discovering” the river on a mission to plunder the riches of Indigenous people—a historical narrative Upholt calls “that tired idea that a white man can discover something that has already been used as a watery highway for thousands of years.” Enslaved and free Black people and generations of restless migrating white settlers found their way to the territory alongside the river. Mark Twain and his iconic character, Huck Finn, lured cramped, disillusioned city dwellers to the wild river’s endless spaces. Flatboats gave way to steamboats, and railroads hauled people to the river’s banks in droves. Property battles, poverty, greed, murders and graft ensued.

The Army Corps of Engineers built the longest levee in the world along the lower Mississippi—the second largest human-made structure on Earth, only after the Great Wall of China. Local and federal commissions, boards and agencies would attend to the political wants and economic needs of those invested in the river (especially the powerful and wealthy) ever since. Climate change heightens the river’s many challenges. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina “woke the world,” Upholt writes, as it “ripped through the marshland and put much of New Orleans underwater.” But the life of the river goes on. Mud is dredged here and moved there. Industrial pollutants irrevocably change ecosystems. Engineers continue to construct, deconstruct, rearrange, recreate, divert and revert the waterway. Our attempts to control the wild Mississippi are an endless pursuit.

Upholt manages to wrestle a staggering amount of details into a narrative that is at times a challenge to read. But thanks to his concise yet lively writing style, The Great River is worth the effort. It compellingly pays homage to a waterway worthy of its moniker.

Boyce Upholt wrangles the geological, political and cultural history of the wild Mississippi River in a compelling, lively narrative.
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When Deborah Paredez describes the women she awards diva status as “extraordinary, unruly, fabulous,” she is just getting started. In tributes as impassioned and exuberant as any of her subjects, the college professor and poet offers a diverse collection of women to be celebrated and emulated. American Diva: Extraordinary, Unruly, Fabulous is the grand platform Paredez creates for her stars as she tells their stories, bedecked with her own scintillating flourishes. 

Paredez memorializes divas at a propulsive pace. Here is the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz; the effervescent and doomed Selena; Tina Turner performing “Proud Mary” with “inimitable ferocity”; Rita Moreno, on-fire dancer and vengeful victim in the movie West Side Story; Venus and Serena Williams, “defying the naysayers” and dominating the courts; Aretha Franklin, “a queen bee dripping with so much nectar” at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration. These iconic women, both here and gone, have earned their diva status and, Paredez insists, stand as beacons of feminism for future generations.

Divas, by Paredez’s definition, are “strong, complicated, imperfect, virtuosic women who last and last and last.” But competing definitions of divas have made their way into the culture. Newsweek cautioned parents against “Generation Diva” in 2009, and divas, “once synonymous with virtuosity, became symbols of vitriol.” Meanwhile, tween icons like Miley Cyrus—whose exploits as Hannah Montana came “adorned with sparkly merchandise”—were on the rise. Young girls have learned to dress, dance and perform as the stars they yearn to be. Paredez wonders, has a diva instead become “a means of convincing girls that singing along to a power ballad in a sequined T-shirt emblazoned with ‘Li’l Diva’ equals actual power”? The downside to such youthful appropriation becomes clear by contrast: The women whose careers Paredez showcases in American Diva are real and powerful in their sheer fearless embrace of their own best selves—rendering moot any worshipful imitation.

Paredez doesn’t hold back, and is especially startling in her candor about her own impetuous coming of age. Bookending this star-studded lineup is the author’s own beloved Lucia, the aunt who introduced her to all things diva: Dress up, dance, sing or ace your serve—and always accessorize. The rest—success, money, fame, love—will happen only if you are strong enough to make it so.

The exuberant American Diva celebrates “extraordinary, unruly, fabulous” women who earned their diva status and stood the test of time.
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In 2014, Misty Copeland became the first Black dancer to ever take the stage as Swan Queen in Swan Lake. The next year, she was promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre, making her the first Black dancer to ever secure the role. She has been heralded as a prodigy and celebrated as a trailblazer. Yet in the first decade of her career, she was made to paint her face to look less like herself, less Black. White choreographers had long tried to steer her toward modern dance, where her skin color was more acceptable, and where she would not “break the line” of pale flesh. 

Today, large dance organizations boast diversity, equity and inclusion programming, and all dancers can finally find ballet tights and shoes that match their skin tone. Thanks to Copeland, other Black girls may not feel so alone in their unquenchable desire to dance classical ballet. 

But decades before Copeland took to the stage, as she frequently acknowledges, Black girls and women were performing to accolades all over the globe and in U.S. cities generally hostile to anyone of color. The change began in Harlem, when the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a Black dancer, Arthur Mitchell, to found his own ballet company. The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History is journalist Karen Valby’s spirited account of Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem, and of five principal dancers who, half a century after their time in the spotlight, formed the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council to tell their story. 

In 1968, Lydia Abarca was working as a bank secretary and about to enter Fordham University  on a partial scholarship. She had given up on ballet at 15, “tired of giving her whole self over to something that never seemed to love her back.” But a Black principal dancer teaching ballet in a neighborhood church basement lured her back in. Abarca’s mother, a part-time telephone operator, was skeptical, but her father, a janitor from Puerto Rico, did not object. So began Abarca’s rise to international fame. 

With respectful attention to their occasionally troubled lives, Valby introduces Abarca’s peers: Sheila Rohan, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Karlya Shelton and Marcia Sells. Their “lighthouse,” Arthur Mitchell, is portrayed in his all-too-human complexity, fighting to keep his company funded and recognized, and his ballerinas under his thumb. Mitchell cast a long shadow over the dancers; he was their champion, teacher and employer—and their most unrelenting critic. 

Valby’s extensive interviews with the dancers lend an intimacy to the narrative, the details of their lives elevated and their perspectives clearly observed. The women of the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council are determined to bring their story out of obscurity. In The Swans of Harlem, they become unforgettable.

Karen Valby’s spirited The Swans of Harlem brings the remarkable story of trailblazing Black ballerinas to center stage.
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RuPaul, drag superstar and pop culture icon, has been busy on his lifelong way to stardom—a destiny, he reveals, foretold by a psychic before he was born. He has been an actor, producer, author, model, dancer, singer, songwriter, media host, business mogul and creator of the multi-Emmy-winning reality TV series, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” He has worked his way from unhoused nomad to celebrity star, including an actual one on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Now 63, RuPaul turns his penetrating gaze inward, looking for deeper meanings within his journey. In The House of Hidden Meanings, he shares all with a tender clarity that renders him unforgettably human. 

Ernestine Charles chose her only son’s name because, she said, there was no one else “alive with a name like that.” Raising four children in San Diego after her abusive husband left, she was “always in a bad mood.” RuPaul entertained her with “imitations, bits, sketches, little scraps of makeshift theater. . . . I put her powder on and whipped a towel around my head as if it were a lustrous head of hair,” he recalls. As a teenager, he escaped to Atlanta and eventually worked his way to New York City. Club scenes kept him performing and partying. He always acted like a star, he says, because he knew he was one.

RuPaul paints wildly vivid city scenes: gritty New York, Atlanta alive with punk and drag, and San Diego, where his complicated childhood haunts him still. Relationships were often sidetracked by too many drugs and risky sex, but he somehow survived, always believing in his destiny—and in drag. His 1993 breakthrough video, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” turned gay stereotypes on their heads and showcased an exuberance that appealed to both the mainstream and the LGBTQ+ community.

Here, we don’t find his rise to fame, the lead-up to “Drag Race” or even his activism and philanthropic work. That information about the often-profiled star is readily available elsewhere.  The House of Hidden Meanings is about beginnings. RuPaul reveals the inner work of healing from past wounds and repairing his relationship with himself, and his memoir celebrates the potential for reinvention. “In a system where things insisted on being one or the other, drag was everything,” he writes. “That made it magic.”

In his refreshing memoir, drag superstar and pop culture icon RuPaul tells his life story with a tender clarity that renders a larger-than-life figure unforgettably human.
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Conventional wisdom has long held that mental illness is disconnected from physical health, requiring two separate courses of treatment. In Facing the Unseen: The Struggle to Center Mental Health in Medicine, psychiatrist Damon Tweedy aims to debunk this long-standing theory. The acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller Black Man in a White Coat, Tweedy offers what feels like a personal invitation into his office, his expertise and, most of all, his hard-earned wisdom. 

Tweedy straightforwardly describes his training through Duke University School of Medicine, including his growing frustrations with an unsatisfactory system of care. He is critical of his colleagues for overlooking, stereotyping or dismissing the “unseen” signs of mental illness, bringing issues of class, race and gender into focus. He also questions his own biases, first as an aspiring cardiologist, and then as a psychiatrist struggling to understand how mind and body work together. 

Mostly, though, Facing the Unseen is about his patients. Tweedy is an excellent storyteller, making the people whom he treats unforgettably visible in all their complexities. Their stories embody why recognizing the mind-body connection is critical. There’s Natalie (all patients’ names are pseudonyms), an Iraq war veteran with PTSD, who came to the ER desperate for help. But treating her drug withdrawal was not considered a medical priority, and she was left to seek outpatient psychiatric care elsewhere. A passionate advocate for integrated medical and psychiatric care, Tweedy cites statistics that tally addiction and opioid abuse, PTSD, depression and anxiety, and the prevalent use of prescription pills. Throughout, he uses powerful descriptions that yield keen insights, showing us how the health care system sets doctors up to fail their patients, and offering solutions that will help. 

Improving access to effective treatments by coordinated caregivers is improving, but the need for better care is also growing. Facing the Unseen sounds both an alarm and a rallying cry. 

In Facing the Unseen, Black Man in a White Coat author Damon Tweedy makes an impassioned call for better mental health care.
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Morgan Parker, acclaimed poet and winner of a 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award for her collection Magical Negro, marries memoir with cultural critique in an unsparing, intimate and provocative book of essays, You Get What You Pay For, which infuses the titular idiom with the perspective of her wronged race. “Becoming a person,” she writes in the first essay, “forming an identity, had been a sham assignment from the start—for an African American person, there is a multistep process of backtracking and reinterpreting hundreds of years of American history, peeling apart film from adhesive to hold under the light and make out a cloudy reflection.”

Parker was named after a minor character in “The Cosby Show,” who, in her single appearance, comically eats olives despite knowing she’s allergic to them. Parker writes: “I come from . . . self-destructive impulses, swallowing what I shouldn’t, becoming a punchline.” Later, writing for the feminist platform Lenny Letter, she attended Cosby’s trial for sexual assault. “I’m one of maybe three Black women in the room . . . wrestling with that familiar triple-consciousness chicken or egg. Am I Black today or a woman? Where do I pledge allegiance? Which injustices should I fight first?”

Parker tells of her depression, anxiety and self-hatred, which she describes as “something palpable, something ugly and inadequate and all wrong.” She interrogates the relationships between Black people and treatment for mental illness, citing her father’s assertion that “Black people don’t go to therapy.” Eventually, she did. When a white therapist admitted she knew nothing about the rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown’s death, Parker moved on. With time, she began to link her mental illness to that of her ancestors’ experience as slaves and the century-and-a-half of racism that has followed, “finally com[ing] to understand [self-hatred] as extension of the white supremacist ideologies permeating and governing the nation of which I am a citizen.”

The 22 essays in You Get What You Pay For cycle through Parker’s urgent concerns about white supremacy, police brutality, her often tenuous mental health and her ongoing search for love. She handles these heavy issues with incisive humor and a poet’s eye for detail. The “you” in that titular idiom becomes “we.”

Morgan Parker examines how racism and intergenerational trauma can affect mental health in her provocative, incisively humorous debut essay collection.
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After 20 years of trying and failing to rebuild Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, NATO allies pulled out of the country, promising sanctuary in the United Kingdom to the hundreds of Afghan interpreters, base workers and their families. In The Gardener of Lashkar Gah: The Afghans Who Risked Everything to Fight the Taliban, award-winning British journalist Larisa Brown uses her considerable reporting skills, astute insights and conflict zone experience to uncover the stories of those left behind.

Shaista Gul’s beautiful garden at the British base in the southwestern Afghanistan city of Lashkar Gah served as a place of comfort and respite for Afghan base workers and military personnel, for whom “life outside was an incongruous contrast to the patch of garden paradise inside.” Gul’s earnest teenage son Jamal became an interpreter for the British soldiers there and soon found himself on the front lines. His translating skills often made the difference between life and death for the troops as they moved across roads embedded with bombs, and into villages where he had to discern if people were farmers or insurgents ready to kill. Because interpreters were usually beside commanders, they were frequently targeted. Jamal barely made it out alive, only to return home to death threats from people intent on killing those who cooperated with the allies.

As NATO forces began their 2021 pullout, Afghan workers were hopeful that they’d be resettled in the U.K., instead of being left behind at the mercy of the Taliban as they reclaimed the country with brutal force. NATO broke its promise, and the final days at the Kabul Airport were a living nightmare marked by chaos and despair. Thousands were left behind and still wait to be rescued.

Brown relies on specificity and detail in her storytelling: the terrifying knock on the door when the Taliban came looking for a man accused of working for British troops; the rocky mountain paths where the very old and very young slept while attempting to escape to Pakistan; an entitled British commander who prioritized the escape of his pets over hundreds of Afghans desperate to be rescued. This forthright, unsparing account lays bare the failures of British and American leaders to keep their many promises, and succeeds in honoring the tenacity and courage of Afghans like Shaista Gul and Jamal.

Larisa Brown’s The Gardener of Lashkar Gah tells the harrowing story of the Afghan aid workers that NATO left to their fates when the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan.
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In his intimate, inspiring memoir, Soundtrack of Silence: Love, Loss, and a Playlist for Life, Matt Hay celebrates the power of music, technology, the brain and how the human spirit can be made invincible by love.

When Hay was in elementary school, he copied his classmates’ annual audio tests to hide the fact that he couldn’t hear the tone. He continued to cover up symptoms of hearing loss until he was a college sophomore, when a free checkup at the school’s medical center led to an MRI, which led to a diagnosis of a rare disorder. Hay had neurofibromatosis type 2, which meant that tumors were growing on the hearing nerves of his brain and eventually, he would be deaf. Hearing aids worked for a while, but surgeries were necessary to remove the tumors, one of which was growing at the base of his brain. Hay practiced lip reading and learned sign language with his future wife, Nora, preparing for the day his world would go silent, and still hoping it would never come.

Hay wanted to preserve the sounds that mattered most, the music that conjured up memories of his youth, coming of age and falling in love. He listened to his favorites: The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” Beck’s “Beautiful Way,” Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” over and over again, embedding them in his brain, training it to preserve and be stimulated by vibrational information that corresponded with memorable times. Together, Matt and Nora created a playlist that would become the soundtrack of his life.

And then it happened: At work one day, Hay’s hearing left him. He was 25. Research led him to try a new device, an auditory brainstem implant (ABI) then in use by only 200 people.

Hays tells his story in an endearingly plain, straightforward style. His fearless approach to an insidious disease is inspirational; his attention to the science of hearing and technical remedies is educational; and his ability to showcase his personal plight in order to raise awareness and thus further benefit research is true generosity. Soundtrack of Silence is a testament to the human spirit and the forces of love and science, all wrapped up in the universal power of music.

Matt Hay’s memoir, Soundtrack of Silence, is a testament to the human spirit, the forces of love and science, and the universal power of music.
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The word “listen” can function both as a noun —“Give a listen”—and as a verb: “Are you listening?” In Michel Faber’s first work of nonfiction, Listen: On Music, Sound and Us, he gives both uses a workout. Known for category-resistant fiction like 2002’s The Crimson Petal and the White and 2014’s The Book of Strange New Things, Faber promises that this book, which was decades in the making and exhaustively examines genres, their artists and their respective audiences, “will change the way you listen.” True enough. In doing so, it also broadens the act of listening in directions that are surprising, sometimes unsettling and ultimately endearing.

Faber has his opinions, and he doesn’t hold back. He thinks composing and playing classical music is often more a test of musical skill than true creative work. Rock is still too Anglocentric, its audiences unreceptive to listening to songs sung in languages other than English; the loss is ours, he notes. Today’s multimedia-infused performances are a “synergy of illusions.” He weighs in on the vinyl versus digital debate and the practice of lip-syncing. His thoughts on The Beatles and their albums are included, along with those on David Bowie, The Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. It would be easier to point out his omissions than the many artists he includes, but let’s give it a try: He opines about Beyoncé, Beethoven, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Britney Spears, Whitney Houston and Marvin Gaye, among others. It’s a sprawling survey that sometimes feels unwieldy, but Faber covers miles of ground with knowledgeable panache.

Music needs audiences, and Faber spotlights joyful children first introduced to rhythm and the elderly keeping their memories alive in the tunes embedded in their minds. Music is known for its healing properties as well, and Faber gives special attention to and heartfelt praise for caregivers who use it to benefit people with Parkinson’s disease, dementia and other conditions.

Exploring the act of listening through the prisms of history, culture and his own troubled childhood, Faber—who has chronic tinnitus—dances through chapters titled “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Let’s Hear It One More Time for Ludwig!” In “The Tracks of My Tears,” he arrives at what it is about music that makes some people cry. With that, he brings his listeners to common ground where music thrives: our humanity.

In his compelling nonfiction debut, award-winning novelist Michel Faber vows to change the way you listen to music.
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The written narratives of enslaved people offer a window into circumstances that are, to most of us, unimaginable. These vital documents immortalize the names of their authors: Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup and Harriet Jacobs, among them. But one woman wrote anonymously, perhaps trusting history to keep her secret until it was safe for her identity to be revealed. In The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts: The True Story of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Harvard University professor Gregg Hecimovich sets out to find the woman who wrote The Bondwoman’s Narrative, an unpublished manuscript bought at auction by renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2001. Hecimovich relies on the scholarship of Gates and others to celebrate the life and work of the first Black female novelist, Hannah Bond—more than a century after her death.

Scholars have suggested other candidates to fit the bondwoman’s identity—women who walked similar paths from slavery to freedom in the antebellum South of North Carolina, Virginia and Washington. Yet Hecimovich successfully braids together the fictitious details of the novel’s protagonist with Bond’s autobiography, leaving little doubt about the truth. Thanks to his deep research—and despite remaining gaps in the historical record—the titular bondwoman comes vividly to life.

As a “domestic servant,” Bond was at the mercy of her enslavers, who sexually abused her and cruelly severed her family ties—a practice especially rampant after the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, when slave owners increasingly forced their captives to reproduce and then sold their children. Bond lost her mother and her child, but she held onto her hunger to learn and become literate. She especially leaned on Charles Dickens and Bleak House for help in creating her writing.

The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts is a vivid introduction to America’s first Black female novelist.
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Sixty-seven years after the savage murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, his cousin still seeks some kind of justice. Haunted by the 1955 hate crime that ignited the civil rights movement, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. brings everything and everyone back to life in A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till. The title comes from the Bible—“Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1, NIV)—and is aptly applied to the short life and violent death of 14-year-old Till, while also ironically relating to the decades of delayed and denied justice that followed.

Till’s murder became international news when his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open casket at the boy’s funeral, inviting the world to see her mutilated son. People fainted, the press raged—and yet the two white men accused of his murder were soon acquitted by an all-white jury. Not that the men worried about their fate; during their trial, they were allowed to leave their jail cells for supper with their families, carrying guns. Four months later, Look magazine published “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” by William Bradford Huie, which featured an exclusive interview with Till’s acquitted killers, Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam. Milam admitted that they shot Till, tied a gin fan around his neck and rolled him into the river. Their confession earned them $4,000 and had no significant consequences.

Several investigations by the FBI and Department of Justice ensued, hindered by possibly racist politics and questionable sources. In 2017, Timothy Tyson published a bestselling book that contained a quotation from Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who claimed that Till had accosted her at the grocery store, motivating her husband and brother-in-law to pursue and eventually murder Till. In the quote, Donham recanted part of her original story. Or did she? As the Mississippi district attorney worked to confirm the quote in Tyson’s book, evidence of the author’s conversation with Donham vanished—if it ever existed.

Parker, with the help of his co-author, Christopher Benson, takes a hard look at everything that has transpired since 1955, including Parker’s own feelings of guilt. He was there the night Bryant and Milam came for Till, but he survived and went on to become a barber, minister and major force behind the family’s effort to achieve justice and right the record. His is a vivid chronicle of racism in America, an intense read that may make some readers uncomfortable. Perhaps that is the point. 

Anti-lynching bills struggled through Congress for years after Till’s murder. Finally, in March of 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime. As Benson writes in an afterword, “the work to achieve justice has just begun.”

The story of Emmett Till’s violent death in 1955 is retold by his cousin Wheeler Parker Jr., the force behind decades of attempts to achieve justice and right the record.
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In 1767, Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston via a slave ship at the age of 7. In the years leading up to the start of the American Revolution in 1775, she became famous across New England and in London for her poetry. For all her talent and influence on the issues of her day, such as abolition, emancipation and revolution, the details of Wheatley’s life are still unknown to many. Award-winning historian David Waldstreicher sets out to change that with his in-depth, engrossing biography, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence.

At a time when enslaved—and free—Black people were regarded by many colonists as barely literate “barbarians” and possible threats to Massachusetts’ rebellion against England, Wheatley earned her fame with words. Recognizing her unique ability, Wheatley’s wealthy, white enslavers gave her the time and privacy to write. Her poems, such as “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” were metered, not free verse, and spoke to the intellectual and impassioned Christian beliefs of her times. Wheatley’s elegies for the dead were distributed as broadsides at funerals, and her poems—which managed to praise British soldiers as well as American patriots and abolitionists—were published in newspapers on both sides of the churning political divide. Waldstreicher includes the text of many of Wheatley’s poems, explaining them well for those less familiar with the classical forms she used.

When an enslaved man fled his captors while they were visiting England, the ensuing public and legal controversy revealed the hypocrisy of a group of colonies seeking freedom while allowing slavery to persist. Within this context, Wheatley’s own position was precarious. She often had to prove that a young enslaved Black girl could indeed be a brilliant poet. In 1773, she achieved her emancipation with the help of her many patrons in Boston and England after the publication of her first book—at a time when very few women could get published.

Waldstreicher documents the long, tortuous journeys toward independence for both the poet and the American colonies in The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley. Along the way, the likes of Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Abigail Adams cross Wheatley’s path, and events like the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre feature prominently. This account of Wheatley’s life adds much to the tumultuous Revolutionary chapter of America’s political and racial history.

David Waldstreicher’s engrossing biography of the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley adds much to the tumultuous Revolutionary chapter of America’s political and racial history.
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Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the controversial first lady of 28th president Woodrow Wilson, had some impressive predecessors. There was women’s rights advocate Abigail Adams, wife of second president John Adams and mother of sixth president John Quincy Adams. During the War of 1812, Dolley Madison, wife of fourth president James Madison, rescued the nation’s treasured artwork from a burning White House. Edith was also followed by trailblazers, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, whose looming legacies have sometimes left Edith in history’s shadow. With Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson, historian Rebecca Boggs Roberts gives Edith her due, demonstrating that, as the first unelected woman to govern the country, Edith has no match.

Like several other first ladies, Edith had little formal education. She came from a Virginia family who had been dispossessed after the Civil War and grew up in a crowded apartment above a general store, which she eventually left for Washington, D.C., where a tall, striking beauty like herself could better shine. When she married Norman Galt, a jewelry business owner, she became his helpmate; when he died, she became a working widow. 

Woodrow lost his first wife, Ellen, soon after taking office in 1913. When he was introduced to Edith, he promptly fell in love. He shared with her every aspect of his work, soon darkened by the looming threat of a world war that many Americans wanted no part of. During those early years of her marriage, Edith knew her place—and how to get around it. When women were not allowed at important White House meetings, she hid in drapes to watch. When a stroke left Woodrow incapacitated shortly into his second term, Edith quietly took over, deciding which pieces of news wouldn’t be too stressful for him, who could visit and how to keep everyone, especially his political enemies and the press, from seeing the truth of the president’s condition.

Untold Power brims with details, from the colors of the signature orchids Edith wore to the troubled corners of Woodrow’s mind after his stroke. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge is there, bent on destroying the president’s obsessive quest for a League of Nations, and sheep populate the White House lawn (one of Edith’s successful—and profitable—wartime ideas). This well-told history, based on sources that are often at odds with Edith’s own memoir, also begs the question: How could so much in the White House have gone unseen and unknown for so long? And, chillingly, could it happen again?

With Untold Power, Rebecca Boggs Roberts gives first lady Edith Wilson her due, demonstrating that, as the first unelected woman to govern the country, Wilson has no match.

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