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Reading One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank is like watching an artist piece together a mosaic. A splash of blue sea here. A mother’s song over there. The smell of Purim pastries. The flash of first love. But the mosaic is never completed. Instead, a terrible wind descends, leaving the artist to pick up the pieces as best she can and begin a new image.

Here, the artist is Stella Levi, a 99-year-old Jewish woman living in New York City. The mosaic is the Juderia, the main Jewish quarter on the island of Rhodes, where Levi was born in 1923. And the wind is the Holocaust, which reached the Juderia in the last months of World War II and scattered Levi’s parents, family, friends and community. One Hundred Saturdays is the story of that time and place, but it is also much more: a story of friendship, survival, reinvention and courage.

Frank, author of The Mighty Franks and What Is Missing and a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, met Levi by chance—or perhaps serendipity—when he rushed in late to attend a lecture, and the elegant older woman in the chair next to him struck up a conversation. The following Saturday, he found himself in Levi’s Greenwich Village apartment, the first of 100 Saturdays that he would spend with her over the following six years. Over the course of those visits, Levi became both a friend and muse as she recounted the minutest details of her life, from its rich beginning to its remarkable present.

Maira Kalman’s illustrations, heavily influenced by Matisse with their deceptive simplicity, rich colors and delicate textures, are perfect complements to Levi’s story, portraying vanished scenes from life on Rhodes before the Holocaust. Together with the text of Frank’s beautiful book, they create a sensitive portrait of an extraordinary woman. Fiercely independent, keenly intelligent and remorselessly honest, Levi refuses to be defined solely by the tragedy of her youth. Her life has been a constant evolution, and her final years are being lived with the same vitality as her earliest ones.

One Hundred Saturdays is the story of a Jewish community before the Holocaust, but it is also much more: a story of friendship, survival, reinvention and courage.
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Mark Twain wrote that “Jay Gould was the mightiest disaster which has ever befallen this country. The people had desired money before his day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it.” Gould’s fellow Gilded Age robber barons were more positive. Cornelius Vanderbilt called him “the smartest man in America,” and John D. Rockefeller said Gould had the “best head for business” of anyone. In American Rascal: How Jay Gould Built Wall Street’s Biggest Fortune, Greg Steinmetz briskly tells financier and railroad leader Gould’s rags-to-riches story and gives a nuanced view of this man of contradictions and why he matters.

Gould originally made his money through various ventures in New York. However, when the Civil War ended, railroads became the most important and powerful industry in the country, and thus the focus of Gould’s business dealings. By investing in various railroads, Gould did as much as anyone at the time to generate economic growth and steer the country toward becoming a world power. As the owner and manager of multiple railroads, Gould was one of the largest employers in the country and made rail travel faster, safer and more comfortable. At the same time, he bribed politicians and used deception to ruthlessly manipulate competitors.

The qualities Gould demonstrated in taking control of the Erie Railroad illustrate his strengths throughout his career: “his brilliance as a financial strategist, his deep understanding of law, a surprising grasp of human nature, and a mastery of political reality,” as Steinmetz writes. Above all, Gould was a pragmatist. He could be a visionary, but only when it didn’t clash with his primary objective, which was to make as much money as he could for himself.

Outside of work, Gould seemed to be less ruthless. Most evenings, he left his office to have dinner with his wife and six children and to read in his library. He did not drink alcohol. He loved flowers, owned the largest greenhouse in the country and cultivated a new breed of orchids. Despite their wealth, he and his family were not part of the city’s social aristocracy. “I have the disadvantage of not being sociable,” he once said.

Steinmetz’s fast-moving and eminently readable biography shows how Gould thrived within the context of his times but also that his greed led to necessary reforms for the health of the country’s economy.

In American Rascal, Greg Steinmetz tells robber baron Jay Gould’s rags-to-riches story and gives a nuanced view of why he matters to American history.
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“As a writer, I love change,” the award-winning journalist Eve Fairbanks notes on her website. It’s a good thing, because as the author of The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning, which outlines the depth and breadth of upheaval in South Africa in recent decades, there’s plenty of change to explore. By interviewing the people who were most affected when South Africa dismantled its white supremacist institutions, Fairbanks marries the overarching story the country’s turbulent apartheid history with Black and white individuals’ intimate experiences before and after 1994, when so much—and so little—changed.

Dipuo grew up in Soweto, a treeless, impoverished township of Johannesburg. It was strictly segregated during the years of white-minority rule but became increasingly politically active during the 1970s, as did Dipuo. “We were always told: Freedom first,” she remembers. Her daughter, Malaika, was 2 years old when their world became racially integrated. Malaika started going to a formerly white school, which Dipuo told her was so she could be “empowered, loose, and free” when she grew up.

Christo is the son of a successful white farmer. He joined the South African military at a young age, becoming one of the last fighters for apartheid even as it crumbled. When the laws around security force engagements changed, he simply wasn’t told. So when he shot and killed a Black man during a reconnaissance mission, he suddenly found himself charged with murder. 

Unable to find work in Johannesburg, Elliott became a chicken farmer. The farm’s former white owner had left it in ruins, overrun by antelopes, but Elliott strove to succeed against impossible odds, inspired to prove that Black Africans could be farmers, too, in a country where most land was owned and farmed by white people. 

As Fairbanks vividly demonstrates, South Africa’s complicated past continues to define the lives of Black Africans, white Afrikaners and immigrants from formerly colonized African countries such as Mozambique and Angola. The Inheritors covers a lot of ground, capturing Black heroes like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, as well as castigated white politicians like Frederik Willem de Klerk. She also examines how the rest of the world has handled racism and colonialism before and after 1994, including Angola’s own liberation in 1975 and the ongoing turmoil in 21st-century America. Glimmering throughout is the humanity she manages to find in all of it.

For the inheritors of these seismic changes, distrust and guilt can go unburied, and hope, progress and mutual respect can prove elusive. There are lessons here for readers the world over, especially as South Africa joins the global marketplace and as the U.S. continues to grapple with the human cost of racism. Fairbanks compels us to pay attention, learn and, above all, care.

Humanity glimmers throughout Eve Fairbanks' portrait of South Africa's turbulent apartheid history.

In the audiobook recording of The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil (18 hours), English author and journalist Tina Brown gives an energetic and engrossing performance as she shares juicy details about the strife and scandal that have surrounded the British monarchy for decades. Even before Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles’ sordid phone conversation, before Princess Diana won the hearts of people around the world, the royal family had long been the subject of rumors and shocking news, such as the abdication of King Edward VIII following his love affair with American divorc’e Wallis Simpson. As Brown explains, after the public’s obsession with Diana, the royal family sought to ensure that no family member would ever garner such superstar status again. And then came Meghan Markle.

In this scintillating listening experience, Brown tempers her ironic, scathing observations with straightforward, reverent tones. Anglophiles will easily succumb to this fascinating book, which is ideal for readers who enjoyed Diana: Her True Story—in Her Own Words by Andrew Morton and Meghan and Harry: The Real Story by Lady Colin Campbell.

English author and journalist Tina Brown gives an energetic and engrossing performance as she shares juicy details about the strife and scandal that has surrounded the British monarchy for decades.

Families separate for many reasons, but when war rips them apart, their longing for one another can be especially acute. Sometimes family members completely lose contact with each other, never knowing if the other is living or dead. In her riveting Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Zhuqing Li narrates the dual biographies of her aunts, who were separated by the Chinese Civil War.

At the center of Li’s story is the Flower Fragrant Garden, the idyllic setting where sisters Jun and Hong grew up in relative security in the early 20th century. Li writes that the compound was “one of Fuzhou’s biggest and richest homes. . . . The main building was a grand, two-story red-brick Western-style house rising from the lush greenery of the rolling grounds. A winding path dipped under the canopy of green, linking smaller buildings like beads on a necklace.”

In 1937, during Japan’s war with China, the sisters were forced into exile and left their garden behind. Then, in the political turmoil that followed the war with Japan, Jun and Hong followed different paths, separated by the Nationalist-Communist divide that erupted after the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. Jun moved to the Nationalist stronghold of Taiwan, where she became a successful teacher and later a businesswoman whose acumen brought her to America. Hong became a prominent physician on China’s mainland, “famous as a pioneer in bringing medical care to China’s remote countryside, and later the Ôgrandma of IVF babies,’ in vitro fertilization, in Fujian Province.”

Hong left her family behind completely as she embraced her life in the new People’s Republic of China, but Jun longed to reunite with her sister. In 1982, the two met again for the first time in 33 years, and through their conversations, Jun began to understand the reasons Hong had to pledge her unwavering support to the Communist party in order to survive. After that, the two sisters never met again. Jun died at 92 in 2014 in her home in Maryland, and in 2020, where the book ends, Hong was still seeing patients in China at the age of 95.

In Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Li eloquently tells a moving story of her aunts and their resilience throughout one of China’s most fraught centuries.

Zhuqing Li tells the moving story of her aunts, separated by the Chinese Civil War, and their resilience throughout one of China’s most fraught centuries.

Novelist, journalist, editor and television producer Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop radiates brilliance. In dazzling prose, she casts a spotlight on the creative genius of Black women musicians including Mahalia Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Mariah Carey, Marilyn McCoo and many more.

Weaving together the threads of memoir, biography and criticism, Smith illustrates how her intense love of music has been shaped by Black women’s art. These women helped her find her way as a Black girl in 1970s Oakland, giving her strength and the confidence to write about the music that defined her life. Now, when people ask Smith, “Why does Tina Turner matter? Why is Mary J. Blige important?” her answers, she writes, “are passionate and learned because I want credit to be given where credit is due.” For Smith, this especially includes giving Black women credit for being the progenitors of American soul, R&B, rock ’n’ roll and pop.

For example, Smith traces the career of Cissy Houston who, as part of the singing group the Sweet Inspirations, shaped the sound of megahits such as “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Son of a Preacher Man”—works that became foundational to the classic rock format and went on to influence everyone from the Counting Crows to U2. As Smith writes, “The Grammy Awards of the artists they have influenced would fill a hangar,” yet the Sweets are rarely mentioned in connection to these and other iconic songs.

As Smith teases out the immeasurable influence of both underappreciated background singers and idols who are household names, she illuminates the qualities these artists have in common, “most of which revolve around the transmogrification of Black oppression to fleeting and inclusive Black joy.” Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Danyel Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

John Keats exists in many minds as an effete, epigraphic nature lover (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”) rather than the spirited, earthy man he was. The profile that historian and literary critic Lucasta Miller assembles in her engrossing Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph is a welcome corrective that seeks a truer understanding of the life and work of the iconic British poet.

Keats’ life was short (he died in 1821 at 25), and some of its details are scant (the exact day and place of his birth, for example, are sketchy), but as in her previous literary study The Brontë Myth, Miller doesn’t offer a full-fledged biography in Keats. Instead, as the subtitle plainly states, she looks closely at nine of his most representative works in chronological order, threading in literary analysis as she unspools the pertinent life events that may have inspired or unconsciously influenced each piece.

Those seeking a truer understanding of John Keats will welcome this invigorating reappraisal of his short life and enduring poetry.

Miller is an avowed Keatsian, but one of the strengths of this study is her refreshing willingness to call out the poet for some inferior writing just as often as she extols the brilliance of his more enduring masterworks. The Keats she presents here was a work in progress, cut off in his prime (or perhaps before), and Miller is quick to point out the peculiarities, and sometimes failures, of even his most revered poems. This candor adds to rather than detracts from the affectionate picture she paints of a young man who alternated between ambition and insecurity: a poet who routinely compared his own work to Shakespeare’s yet wrote his own self-effacing epitaph as, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

Keats embraced the pleasures of life and art while wrestling with childhood demons. He was born in the waning years of the 18th century, into England’s newly formed middle class, and his father died under suspicious circumstances when the future poet was 8. He was fully orphaned by 14 but was effectively abandoned by his mother years earlier, when she ran off with a much younger man. Keats may have been somewhat emotionally crippled by parental longing, Miller suggests, but he was also a full participant in day-to-day life, devoted to his brothers and sister as well as to a passel of equally devoted friends.

The extraordinary language with which Keats fashioned his then-radical poetry percolates with striking neologisms and is laced with coded sexuality. Indeed, Keats himself could be profligate in matters of sex, drugs and money (he abandoned an apprenticeship to a doctor), and Miller sharply centers his life in the context of its time, detailing the moral ambiguities and excesses of the Regency period that would later be whitewashed by the Victorians.

While the U.S. publication of this superb volume misses the 200th anniversary of Keats’ death by a year, it is never a bad time to revisit a poetic genius. Miller has given us a thing of beauty, indeed.

Historian and critic Lucasta Miller assembles a candid yet affectionate portrait of poet John Keats in this creative blend of literary analysis and biography.
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The 1939 movie Wuthering Heights epitomizes golden-age Hollywood romance. However, the process of making the film was another matter entirely. It was a miserable set, in large part because Laurence Olivier, the brilliant British actor playing Heathcliff, hated his co-star, Merle Oberon, and regularly undermined her. But he would have hated any co-star who wasn’t his girlfriend, Vivien Leigh, whom he had failed to get hired for the part and with whom he was wildly in love.

As any movie buff knows, Leigh was about to become a star in her own right in another 1939 film, Gone With the Wind (also a miserable set). Olivier and Leigh had left their respective spouses and children for each other and would marry in 1940. They were the supernova show-biz couple of their day, paving the way for Liz-and-Dick and Brangelina. With Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, and the Romance of the Century, Stephen Galloway, former editor of the Hollywood Reporter, has written an astute biography of that marriage, with wonderfully dishy details of productions such as Rebecca and A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Oliviers’ fabled partnership reached its peak on stage in the 1940s and ’50s before ending in chaos in 1960. The biggest factor in the marriage’s collapse was Leigh’s bipolar disorder, which was little understood at the time and ineffectively treated. Medical understanding has evolved immeasurably since Leigh’s death in 1967, and Galloway reexamines her mood swings, public mania, infidelity and alcohol abuse in light of psychiatric advances.

In the early days of their relationship, Leigh was the more likable of the two. Olivier had enormous talent, but he was shallow and deceitful. However, he did “truly, madly” love Leigh, and he tried his best to help her before her unfathomable behavior finally confounded him. Leigh died at only 53 of tuberculosis. Olivier, afflicted by multiple painful illnesses, lived until 82, and Galloway’s account of his last years is moving.

Olivier dominated the English-language stage and reinvented Shakespearean cinema. Leigh’s film acting remains incandescent, although her indifference to Gone With the Wind’s racism receives due criticism in this book. Anyone who loves the dramatic arts will be engrossed by Galloway’s perceptive history of this iconic duo.

Anyone who loves the dramatic arts will be engrossed by Stephen Galloway’s perceptive account of supernova show-biz couple Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.
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“My mother was part of a generation of women who inherited all the burdens of the past and yet found the will and the means to reject them,” writes Jyoti Thottam, a senior Opinion editor at the New York Times. When her mother was 15, she left her home at the southern tip of India and traveled more than 1,000 miles to Mokama, a small town in an area considered to be the poorest and most violent in the country. There, she spent seven years studying nursing at a hospital run by a handful of Catholic nuns from Kentucky. As an adult, Thottam found herself wondering: How did these unlikely events transpire?

After 20 years of meticulous research, Thottam has chronicled Nazareth Hospital’s history in Sisters of Mokama: The Pioneering Women Who Brought Hope and Healing to India. This immersive, transportive read starts with the hospital’s founding in 1947, in the midst of the Partition of India into India and Pakistan. The fact that six nuns from Kentucky even managed to travel to Mokama at this time—much less stay and transform a vacant building into a successful hospital and nursing school—is nothing short of miraculous.

Once the sisters reached Mokama, they faced endless deprivations, including bone-chilling cold; suffocating heat; monsoons; a scarcity of food, medicine and supplies; and a lack of electricity and running water in the early years. Undaunted, the resourceful nuns nevertheless insisted on the highest of standards. They put a container of water upstairs, drilled a hole through the floor and ran a rubber hose down to the operating room so that surgeons could scrub under a continuous stream of water before surgery. One sister even built a still to provide distilled water.

Thottam has done an excellent job of transforming numerous interviews, letters and records into a compelling narrative that conveys the hardships and triumphs of these dedicated nuns and the nurses they trained. Everyone was overworked, and things weren’t always smooth. The young, homesick Indian girls were only allowed to speak English, and the nuns could be extremely strict. In telling their stories, Thottam makes a multitude of personalities come alive and shares a variety of perspectives without passing judgment.

On the surface, Sisters of Mokama seems like such an unlikely story. It’s a good thing Thottam has documented this little-known saga so that generations to come will know it really happened.

After 20 years of research, Jyoti Thottam shares the immersive and unlikely story of a group of nuns from Kentucky who opened a hospital in India in 1947.
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Getting to know a living, legendary author can be challenging, as their own reticence often prevents readers from venturing too far behind the curtain. Not so with Alice Walker. Her journals have been compiled and edited by the late writer and critic Valerie Boyd, and they fully reveal a complex and at times controversial life. Walker was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1983 for The Color Purple, and she remains a force at 78. Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965–2000 offers an intimate portrait of the iconic writer, human rights activist, philanthropist and womanist—a term Walker herself coined to describe Black feminists.

The youngest of eight in a poor family from Georgia, Walker was 8 when a brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. Her injury eventually led to a college scholarship, and after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, she returned to the South as a civil rights activist. In 1967, she proposed to fellow activist Melvyn Leventhal, who is Jewish. They became the first interracial married couple in Mississippi, where miscegenation was still illegal, though they divorced nine years later.

Gathering Blossoms Under Fire audiobook
Read our starred review of the audiobook edition.

Motherhood was a fraught choice for a feminist in the 1970s, and after becoming a parent, Walker struggled with feeling distracted from her work as an artist. She applauded childless writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and wrote that her daughter, Rebecca, was “no more trouble to me the writer than Virginia Woolf’s madness was to her.” Such ambivalence shaded their relationship. Meanwhile, her friendships with feminist Gloria Steinem and movie and music producer Quincy Jones fared better. Her romantic relationships didn’t always end well, but through their ups and downs, Walker embraced “The Goddess” and prayed to the “Spirit of the Universe,” who enabled her to celebrate her bisexuality.

It was the success of The Color Purple that allowed Walker to help her troubled family, acquire properties she loved and support causes that were important to her. In the 1993 book and documentary Warrior Marks, Walker drew attention to the practice of female genital mutilation. She has also passionately protested South African apartheid, the Iraq War and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Walker says she keeps a journal “partly because my memory is notorious, among my friends, for not remembering much of what we’ve shared.” That concern vanishes with Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, which contains copious, intimate details about her life. And as with all of Walker’s writings, the stories found in these pages are beautifully told.

This compilation of Alice Walker’s journals offers an intimate portrait of the iconic writer, human rights activist and philanthropist.
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When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in April 1945, World War II was not over. His successor, Harry S. Truman, faced crucial choices both then and in the years to come. Some, such as the custody and use of nuclear weapons, had never been faced by another president. As Truman’s longest serving secretary of state, Dean Acheson, said of that period, “Not only is the future clouded but the present is clouded.” As president, Truman was forced to make quick and risky decisions in a time of war scares, rampant anti-communism, the beginning of the Cold War, stubborn labor strikes and petty scandals. When he left office after almost eight tumultuous years, his approval rating was 31%. More recently, however, historians have begun to consider him in the category of “near great” presidents.

Jeffrey Frank, author of the bestselling Ike and Dick, considers Truman’s achievements and misjudgments in the engaging and insightful The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945–1953. In Frank’s assessment, Truman was “a complicated man concealed behind a mask of down-home forthrightness and folksy language.”

Truman thought the point of being a politician was to improve the lives of his fellow citizens. Overwhelmed at times, he at least made some excellent cabinet choices, such as George Marshall and Acheson. At the beginning of his presidency, Truman needed to conclude the war and assist in the founding of the United Nations. Other milestones followed, including the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin airlift, the recognition of the state of Israel, the creation of NATO, the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur and more.

Truman’s two most controversial decisions, to use the atomic bomb and to enter the Korean War, are covered in detail here. On domestic matters, Truman worked for a national health care program but was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1948 he sent a civil rights program to Congress that included a Fair Employment Practices Act, an anti-poll tax bill, an anti-lynching law and an end to segregated interstate travel, but it also failed to gain enough support.

The first detailed account of the Truman presidency in almost 30 years, The Trials of Harry S. Truman is very readable. Anyone who wants to go behind the scenes of those pivotal years will enjoy this book.

In the first detailed account of the Harry Truman presidency in almost 30 years, Jeffrey Frank engagingly considers Truman’s most controversial decisions.

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