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A Spanish queen. A Florentine printer. An English wool merchant. A disgruntled German monk. A Genoese explorer. According to Patrick Wyman, author and narrator of The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World (11.5 hours), these are among the actors who gave birth to the modern world. Wyman argues that from 1490 to 1530, a series of economic, religious and state-building revolutions transformed Europe from a backwater into the dominant global power. And like the song says, it was money—in the form of increasingly available credit—that made the world go round.

Creator of the podcast series Tides of History and Fall of Rome, Wyman is a skilled performer with obvious enthusiasm for his subject. His reading is also enhanced by the book’s structure: Each chapter focuses on a particular historical figure who in some way acted as a midwife to the new age, and Wyman’s narration emphasizes their humanity, warts and all. As a result, he makes this economic history of Europe an entertaining and informative audiobook.

Podcaster Patrick Wyman skillfully narrates his engaging economic history of Europe.

All statues are raised, but relatively few are razed; when they are, somebody is always upset. In recent years, statues have been vandalized, pulled down by crowds and plucked from public plinths and placed in secret warehouses in the dead of night—to both applause and outcry. Whenever a statue is removed, the same questions arise: Are we erasing history? Wasn’t he just a man of his time? Is this the beginning of a slippery slope?

In Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History, historian Alex von Tunzelmann addresses these questions by examining 12 different case histories of statues from around the world that fell (literally) out of favor. Tunzelmann makes the argument that statues are not history but rather representations of history. Josef Stalin’s statues were propaganda to justify his grip on the Soviet Union, for example, not depictions of historical fact. The statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans was erected as part of a deliberate campaign to rewrite the history of the Civil War by self-avowed white supremacists.

It’s clear from Fallen Idols that there are many reasons to tear down a statue. Removing Stalin’s statue in Budapest was the start of a revolution. Pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue was a symbolic end to the Iraq War—a symbol that turned out to be disastrously wrong. Taking down a statue can also be an act of truth telling. Leopold II of Belgium was not a benevolent ruler of the Congo, for example, even though that’s how monuments depict him. Even during his lifetime, he was widely condemned for his bloodthirsty exploitation and colonization of the Congolese. In cases like these, Tunzelmann finds that, far from erasing history, the eradication of a statue can actually illuminate it.

In discussing these and other statues, Tunzelmann invites us to consider all public monuments. What are these statues commemorating? What are they hiding? Are there other, better ways to depict history in public spaces without resorting to images of great men (or women)? Fallen Idols is an illuminating guide to a much-needed discussion about history and how it is represented.

Historian Alex von Tunzelmann examines 12 different case histories of statues from around the world that fell (literally) out of favor.

Edward Dolnick, author of The Clockwork Universe, has a remarkable ability to explain and contextualize complex topics and create compelling, lucid nonfiction narratives. In his new book, The Writing of the Gods, he tackles the Rosetta Stone, a broken stone slab weighing three quarters of a ton that was discovered in a heap of Egyptian rubble in 1799.

Once news of this discovery got out, linguists and scholars were ecstatic. The stone contained three different kinds of inscriptions: Egyptian hieroglyphs (undecipherable at the time), a mysterious middle section (which turned out to be another form of Egyptian writing) and, at the bottom, 53 lines of Greek. “The first guesses were that it might take two weeks to decipher the Rosetta Stone,” Dolnick writes. It seemed plausible that the task would be simple: If all three sections were the same text in different forms, the Greek section should provide the key. The reality? It took 20 years to interpret. Along the way, Dolnick clearly lays out the high stakes of this battle to translate Egyptian writing for the first time.

Readers are immersed in the urgency of these scholars’ task and the weight of why it mattered.

In a conversational, accessible tone, Dolnick draws readers into the mystery. He introduces linguist rivals Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion and takes immense care to illustrate the daunting nature of their quest. The result is a book that’s much more than a simple biography or dull history. Readers are immersed in the urgency of these scholars’ task and the weight of why it mattered.

Reading The Writing of the Gods is like tagging along for a dazzling intellectual journey of discovery, akin to listening to a fascinating lecture. Dolnick brings this period of history to life in the same way the Rosetta Stone revived ancient Egypt.

With a conversational, accessible tone, Edward Dolnick draws readers into the dazzling intellectual mystery of the Rosetta Stone.

The range of comic book storytelling is vast, and this selection of 2021’s best graphic novels, memoirs and histories runs the gamut in terms of artistic style and narrative approach, yet all of them have two things in common: a mastery of the form and a unique sense of expression.

Bubble

The stakes of the gig economy have never been higher than in Bubble, a graphic novel by Jordan Morris and Sarah Morgan with illustrations from Tony Cliff and colors by Natalie Riess. Adapted from the scripted podcast of the same name, Bubble is set in a world where corporate-funded cities have sprung up as domes of safety, walling off humanity from a monster-ridden wilderness known as the Brush. Morgan was born in the Brush, and though she’s grown accustomed to life in the bubble, she’s retained a few of her more useful Brush skills, including the ability to kill pesky mutated imps. Naturally, her employers have just the thing to help her monetize that ability.

Bubble crackles with wit and biting commentary on piecing together a living one app at a time. Cliff's art enriches the whole wild affair, lending a grounding sense of reality to the reading experience despite the fantastical setting. He’s as adept at depicting action-packed scenes as he is at homing in on a character’s eyes at a key moment of personal discovery. There’s tremendous glee to be found in Bubble, but also tremendous heart.

Ballad for Sophie

A young woman talks her way into the mansion of one of the world’s most reclusive musicians and convinces him to give her an interview. That’s the premise from which Ballad for Sophie springs, and with a sense of adversarial yet whimsical tension, we are propelled into a world of bittersweet wonders, tragedy and music.

Written by jazz composer Filipe Melo, illustrated by Juan Cavia and translated from the original Spanish by Gabriela Soares, Ballad for Sophie unfolds as the aging pianist tells his story. We meet a lifelong rival, a lost love, a tormented mother, a devilish piano teacher and more, their rich narrative tapestry unfolding against backdrops that range from World War II to the luxury of 1960s Paris. 

Through it all, Melo’s characters are either constantly growing or constantly resisting growth, while Cavia’s art sweeps across the page with lithe figures and elegant depictions of bygone eras. When the story dips into the past, his art grows slightly more magical, turning piano teachers into great horned creatures and piano recitals into dramatically lit clashes of titans.

Emotionally dense, texturally rich and humming with humanity, Ballad for Sophie is a moving portrait of the ways in which art can both save and doom us.

Interior image from Ballad for Sophie
From Ballad for Sophie. Used with permission from Top Shelf.

Lore Olympus

Some elements of Greek mythology are simply timeless. In Lore Olympus: Volume One, Rachel Smythe reminds us of this using her acclaimed artistic magic. This is the first volume of her webcomic “Lore Olympus,” and it’s striking to see her work collected in such a lavish tome after its celebrated web release.

As Smythe unveils her retelling of the Hades and Persephone myth, her gorgeous art elevates each scene. She uses precise color and shading to bathe the Greek gods in neon hues of purple and blue, like they're perpetually in some mythic nightclub. Readers will revel in how seamlessly Smythe has adapted this classic story, and in no time at all, they’ll find themselves utterly lost in her beautifully dark, often startlingly timely world of sex, lies and immortality. 

The Middle Ages

You’ve probably heard that the Middle Ages wasn’t really the period of darkness and ignorance that popular culture has made it out to be, but you’ve never seen that truth demonstrated quite like in The Middle Ages: A Graphic History. Medieval historian Eleanor Janega and illustrator Neil Max Emmanuel set out to reveal how this period took shape and why it became so consequential, and they never miss in that mission. 

Rather than attempting a strictly linear dissection of centuries of human history, The Middle Ages unfolds almost as an illustrated textbook, with sections devoted to everything from the fall of Rome to the rise of Charlemagne to the growth of major European cities. Janega’s prose is precise, informative, digestible and witty. Emmanuel’s simple but effective black-and-white art carries that same wit through to the visuals, alternating between modern compositions and homages to medieval aesthetics, with amusing revisions to the Bayeux Tapestry and clever representations of church schisms.

It all adds up to an utterly essential volume for history buffs, whether they’re diving into the medieval period for the first time or just brushing up on a few things. 

★ Run

The follow-up to Congressman John Lewis’ monumental, award-winning March series, Run: Book One kicks off a new graphic trilogy that further establishes Lewis as a fundamental, undeniable force in the mid-1960s American civil rights movement.

Lewis completed work on the script for Run before his death in 2020, and illustrator L. Fury joins writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell (both of whom collaborated on the March trilogy) in carefully layering Lewis’ recollections with vivid depictions of celebrations and violence, hope and heartbreak, despair and determination. The story picks up after the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act, as Lewis encountered new roadblocks and hurdles in the wake of that legislative victory. Through dramatic composition and movement, Powell and Fury’s illustrations capture the same energy as the March trilogy, while also conveying Lewis’ maturation as he grows out of his student organizing era and enters the realm of American statesmanship.

Run is another indispensable chronicle of the life and work of one of 20th-century America’s most exceptional figures, but it’s also a mission statement for the work yet to come.

Interior image from Run: Book One
From Run: Book One. Used with permission from Abrams ComicArts.

★ Seek You

It might sound like a cliche to say that a book delving into America’s loneliness epidemic will make you feel more connected to the world around you, but that’s exactly what writer and illustrator Kristen Radtke achieves in this ambitious book. 

Part memoir, part sociological study and part cultural history, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness digs deep into the many ways that loneliness affects our daily lives. Through incisive, often disarmingly confessional writing, Radtke gets to the core of what loneliness is and what it does to our bodies and minds, exploring everything from its neurological roots to the impact of the sitcom studio audience laugh track. 

Throughout Seek You, we are guided by Radtke’s beautifully muted art. Some pages are powerful in their simplicity, such as a wide view of a massive apartment complex with a single lit window, while others are effective in their complexity, such as a spread showing a lone figure amid a fog of words describing their most alienating experiences. 

Seek You is a captivating combination of raw emotional exploration and thoughtful, sophisticated imagination.

The Waiting

A chance encounter with a dog on a city street pulls a character back through decades of memories and serves as the launching point for a stirring graphic novel by author-illustrator Keum Suk Gendry-Kim.

Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong, The Waiting explores a very particular kind of loss on the Korean peninsula. In bold, fluid black-and-white imagery, Gendry-Kim tells a story inspired by her own mother, who lived under Japanese occupation in Korea before World War II, then was forced to migrate during the Korean War and the permanent division of Korea along the 38th parallel. Many Koreans fled their homes amid the fighting, causing a surge of family separations that led to lifetimes of waiting and hoping. 

Though The Waiting is set amid some of the most consequential events of the 20th century, Gendry-Kim never makes the book’s scope wider than it needs to be. The Waiting is better for it, succeeding as a deeply intimate portrayal of one woman’s struggle to not only survive but also keep some measure of hope and determination alive. It’s also about the broader goal of an entire culture to somehow come back together after war, through individual efforts and massive group reunions. 

In depicting a people’s efforts to find each other, The Waiting is one of the most moving graphic novels of the year.

★ Wake

Writer and activist Rebecca Hall and illustrator Hugo Martínez present a powerful meditation on hidden history that transforms into a haunting, necessary statement on exactly why that history has been hidden, and how much of it still lives with us.

In Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, Hall, whose grandparents were enslaved, recounts her process of researching several 18th-century revolts that were led by enslaved women. Though some of the book’s most affecting sequences re-create these revolts, much of Wake is a memoir of Hall’s search for the brave, rebellious women who led them, the punishments they suffered and what, if anything, they managed to leave behind. In the process of constructing their stories, Hall tells much of her own, laying bare how the echoes of enslavement inform our political world as well as her own daily interactions.

Hall’s prose is stunning, and Martínez’s art takes it to another level, delivering expressive representations of the history Hall carries with her and of the reminders of slavery’s cruelty that are etched into the landscapes we walk now. His artwork bleeds past and present together, depicting the city streets around Hall as shadowy memorials of the slave markets that once stood there. When he projects the images of enslaved men and women onto the facades of skyscrapers, he transforms these feats of architecture into monuments to atrocities.

Wake is as poetic as it is powerful. Readers who adored the March trilogy and the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred will find it to be an essential addition to their shelves.

A sampling of the year’s best graphics and comics includes a neon-bright retelling of a Greek myth and the continued memoirs of a civil rights legend.

No one called it the “American Revolution” while it was happening. The British spoke of the American rebellion. Those protesting in the colonies merely called it “the Cause” and insisted they were not engaged in revolution. Even now, the question of whether it was a true revolution remains controversial.

Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling historian Joseph J. Ellis superbly captures the issues, personalities and events of the American Revolution from the perspectives of both England and the colonists in his eminently readable The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773–1783. Using rigorous scholarship, Ellis offers vivid portraits of and penetrating insights about this period in history, while challenging our conventional understandings of it.

For the British, Ellis argues, the defining issue was power, not money. Imposing new taxes on the colonies was a way to establish parliamentary sovereignty, not to reduce the debt they accumulated during the Seven Years’ War. Trade with the American colonies was lucrative for Britain, after all, and any taxation policy that put their trade relationship at risk would have been too costly.

Also counter to the narrative we usually hear, those early colonial Americans had a conservative character. From their perspective, the British were more revolutionary than they were. Britain was causing revolutionary change by taxing colonists without their consent, and even then, no American delegate to the first Continental Congress advocated for independence.

Likewise, John Trumbull’s famous painting, “The Declaration of Independence,” depicts an event that never happened. Thomas Jefferson wrote the original version on his own, then Congress made 85 specific changes to Jefferson’s draft, revising or deleting slightly more than 20% of the text. The final version was sent to the printer on July 4, and the printer put that date on the published version. Most delegates actually signed it on August 2, although there was no single signing day.

By the end of the war, a majority of Americans felt that the creation of a nation-state was a distortion of the Cause. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, among others, were outliers, not leaders of the dominant opinion.

This riveting, highly recommended book by one of America’s major historians will change how you see the American Revolution.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis superbly captures the issues, personalities and events of the American Revolution in The Cause.

As long as there has been death, there have been ghosts—or at least, ghost stories. Ghosts fascinate us. They star in cautionary tales, promise existence beyond death and provide glimpses of lost loved ones. For these reasons and many more, ghost stories have both frightened and delighted humans throughout history.

In Chasing Ghosts: A Tour of Our Fascination With Spirits and the Supernatural, Marc Hartzman, who has previously written about Oliver Cromwell’s embalmed head and sideshow performers, gives a lighthearted account of ghostly legends, haunted houses and other unearthly visits from beyond the grave. Using humor, fun illustrations and interesting anecdotes that will appeal to readers of all ages, Hartzman makes the serious point that ghost stories say as much about the world of the living as they do about the dead. After all, a good ghost story not only entertains the listener but also reminds them not to break their vow of chastity or forget to bury their dead relatives properly.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The year’s best Halloween reads, ranked from slightly spooky to totally terrifying


The bulk of Chasing Ghosts is devoted to humanity’s attempts to reach out to the dead. There are hucksters galore in this entertaining book, and Hartzman goes into great detail about different mediums who used all kinds of gimcrackery and stagecraft to pull off their frauds. He also catalogs the lesser-known spirit photographers, levitators, automatic writers and other con artists who separated the susceptible, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from their healthy skepticism—and money. Hartzman also documents the serious scientists who, even today, use sophisticated equipment to explore the other world. Once the scientific method is applied, most “visitations” have reasonable explanations—but there are many others that remain mysterious and, well, haunting.

So, what are ghosts? Mass hysteria or hoaxes? Reactions to invisible environmental factors or the lingering embodiments of souls? Chasing Ghosts raises these questions but wisely avoids offering any definitive answers. So the next time you walk through a sudden cold spot on a hot, humid evening, you might want to consider the possibility that ghosts are chasing you.

Marc Hartzman gives a lighthearted account of ghostly legends, haunted houses and other unearthly visits from beyond the grave.

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