Evette Dionne braids the personal with the political in Weightless, breaking down society’s beliefs about fat people and advocating for new standards that allow them to thrive.
Evette Dionne braids the personal with the political in Weightless, breaking down society’s beliefs about fat people and advocating for new standards that allow them to thrive.
Previous
Next

Sign Up

Get the latest ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

All Nonfiction Coverage

Filter by genre
List by
Image for 2022 gift ideas from BookPage
STARRED REVIEW

December 2022

2022 gift ideas from the editors of BookPage

The BookPage editors share their favorite gift books for the 2022 holiday season.

Share this Article:
Feature by
Book jacket image for Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

An Italian-born friend, who is a very fine cook, once texted me a recipe for Bolognese sauce. The recipe, she explained, was by Marcella Hazan, and the meal we made from it was a gorgeous triumph. You can find that recipe on page 210 of the new edition of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a classic tome now outfitted in cheerful bright yellow for its 30th anniversary. Hazan, who died in 2013, is often credited as the most significant teacher of northern Italian cooking in the United States, and her guidance on fresh pasta, sauces and vegetables is without match, her objective “not to astonish, but to reassure.” Hazan’s cooking is unfussy, powered by good, fresh ingredients (which she explains in loving detail) and firmly rooted in family memories. 

Book jacket image for A Dish for All Seasons by Kathryn Pauline

A Dish for All Seasons

A Dish for All Seasons: 125+ Recipe Variations for Delicious Meals All Year Round is a collection of 26 recipe templates and suggestions for how to mix them up for each season—in other words, a brilliantly useful concept. For example, quesadillas: an easy weeknight favorite, but possibly a bit boring? Not so when stuffed with steamed root veggies in winter or grilled corn kernels in summer. Or consider pesto four ways, depending on what’s in season. Kathryn Pauline, a Saveur award-winning writer, provides a meal-making approach suitable for all levels of kitchen wizardry. Beginners can develop fluency through repeating familiar go-tos with simple twists, while those with kitchen skills will jump at the opportunity to improvise within constraints. “Use what you’ve got” is advice that never grows old, and this book puts a clever, adaptable spin on it. 

For something uniquely comforting, check out these four cookbooks perfect for browsing while you’re snug as a dormouse.

Book jacket image for I Am From Here by Vishwesh Bhatt

I Am From Here

In Vishwesh Bhatt’s cooking, the flavors and foodways of Mississippi and India converge in dishes like okra chaat, saag-style collards and succotash with garam masala. Until now, one had to visit Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi, where Bhatt is executive chef, to experience that fare. Now, I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From a Southern Chef showcases the inventive cuisine on which the James Beard Award-winning chef has made his name. A dinner might include grown-up stir-fried rice (based on a snack from Bhatt’s childhood in Ahmedabad, India), collard-wrapped catfish and Mom’s rice pudding. Stories of Bhatt’s mother, who kindled his early interest in food, pepper these pages. The book beautifully represents an individual immigrant’s experience through food; at the same time, it is a welcome addition to the canon of elevated Southern cooking. 

Book jacket image for Chinese-ish by Rosheen Kaul

Chinese-ish

Rosheen Kaul and Joanna Hu, the two young Asian Australians behind the delightful Chinese-ish: Home Cooking Not Quite Authentic, 100% Delicious, encompass a wealth of identities and influences between them: Kashmiri, Singaporean, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian and, of course, Chinese. Their collaboration, born during the COVID-19 pandemic, dances merrily through all of that territory with insouciant verve and a dash of humor. There are sections called “Chinese-ish snacks that feel kinda wrong” (including Beijing hot chicken and prawn toast) and “A few desserts we don’t hate” (such as mango pudding and pumpkin cakes). Hu’s watercolor illustrations play so nicely with the vivid photography throughout, and the recipes are remarkably accessible. Get yourself a carbon steel wok (as my husband did recently; he’s loving it), hit up the supermarket’s international aisle or your local Asian market, and you’ll be dishing up variations on fried rice, Sichuan-style noodles and chiffon omelets in no time.

Book jacket image for Bread Head by Greg Wade

Bread Head

“The bread I’m going to teach you to make is a little rough around the edges, a little louder than is polite, and stupid good.” That’s Greg Wade, head baker at Chicago’s Publican Quality Bread, in Bread Head: Baking for the Road Less Traveled. Wade’s bread is “an eff-you to the factory-farmed, industrially made versions” ubiquitous in supermarkets, as he often forges standard wheat for organic heritage whole grains such as barley, buckwheat and millet. Or how about a sorghum and rosemary ciabatta, or a rye naan? Wade’s creations pull from around the globe; for example, there’s khachapuri, a fermented dough stuffed with cheese and eggs that sounds like the stuff of my wheatiest dreams. Even if you burned out on sourdough during the pandemic, this book will make you want to try again.

Kiss the cook—but maybe buy them a present too. These five gorgeous cookbooks will wow any culinary artist worth their salt.
Feature by

Bake

Though he’s best known as the “Great British Baking Show” judge with an icy blue stare fit to scare any hopeful contestant, Paul Hollywood is also an exceptional baker in his own right. With BAKE, he shares his go-to recipes for all the classics, from cakes and cookies to doughnuts, pastries and pies. There is, of course, an extensive chapter on bread in which Hollywood really shows off his expertise.

Book jacket image for Chetna’s Easy Baking by Chetna Makan

Chetna’s Easy Baking

The latest offering from beloved 2014 contestant Chetna Makan includes over 80 recipes for sweet and savory bakes. Chetna has always been known for her flavor combinations, and Chetna’s Easy Baking showcases this skill with mouthwatering offerings like pear, chocolate, star anise and hazelnut tarte Tatin and mini saffron vegan cheesecakes.

Book jacket image for Simply Vegan Baking by Freya Cox

Simply Vegan Baking

Freya Cox made a splash in 2021 as the first contestant to create all vegan bakes. Her first book, Simply Vegan Baking, takes 70 recipes for familiar treats—such as carrot cake, cinnamon rolls and jam doughnuts—and shows bakers how to make them without eggs, milk or butter, and without sacrificing that delicious, comforting flavor.

Read our review of ‘Bliss on Toast’ by “Great British Baking Show” judge Prue Leith.

Book jacket image for Baking Imperfect by Lottie Bedlow

Baking Imperfect

Lottie Bedlow felt underqualified and ill-prepared for her time as a contestant on “The Great British Baking Show” in 2020. With Baking Imperfect, she vows to tell the truth about her baking struggles and imperfections so that others might feel brave enough to give baking a go. Each recipe is rated on a scale of one to five broken eggs so that bakers of every skill level will know where to start.

Book jacket image for Showstopping Cakes by Rahul Mandal

Showstopping Cakes

Winner of the 2018 season Rahul Mandal defied expectations when he awkwardly, endearingly rose to the top. His first book, Showstopping Cakes, captures the decorative pizazz he is known and loved for by breaking down each element of an eye-popping cake—from ganache to mirror glaze to marzipan—so that bakers can construct their own masterpieces at home.

Book jacket image for Cook as You Are by Ruby Tandoh

Cook as You Are

Ruby Tandoh is one of the most published “Great British Baking Show” contestants, and Cook as You Are is her fourth release. This collection focuses on recipes that are easy, affordable and accessible to everyone, no matter what relationship you have to food or to your body. With recipes for whatever-you’ve-got fried rice and goes-with-everything groundnut soup, there’s truly something for every appetite and energy level.

Book jacket image for Bake

Bake, Make, and Learn to Cook Vegetarian

Winner of the 2019 season David Atherton thinks kids should be able to whip up their own meal, snack or treat when they’re hungry. Bake, Make, and Learn to Cook Vegetarian will teach them how, with adorable illustrations by Alice Bowsher that break down each step of the process for creating vegetarian stir fry, cheesy rabbit crackers, jam tarts and more.

Book jacket image for Giuseppe’s Italian Bakes by Giuseppe Dell’Anno

Giuseppe’s Italian Bakes

When Giuseppe Dell’Anno won the 2021 season, fans everywhere shouted “Saluti!” Now he’s packed all his favorite home bakes, inspired by his dad’s recipes and notes, into Giuseppe’s Italian Bakes. From polenta sponge cake to panna cotta and focaccia, every recipe is rustic, delicious and authentically Italian.

The contestants and judges of “The Great British Baking Show” share their signature styles, technical tips and showstopping skills.
Feature by

Documentary filmmaker and historian Ken Burns believes that photographs are portals “not just to a different time and space but also to dimensions and possibilities within myself.” Through photographs and illustrations, these books are guaranteed to transport you.

Apollo Remastered

Book jacket image for Apollo Remastered by Andy Saunders

Apollo Remastered: The Ultimate Photographic Record is a weighty, large-format coffee table book that beams readers right into its cosmic world. The original NASA film from the Apollo missions (which includes some 35,000 images) has been safely secured inside a frozen vault at the Johnson Space Center, but new technology has allowed digital restoration expert Andy Saunders to painstakingly remaster this treasure trove of photographs, many of which have never been published. The results are pure magic, full of clarity, sharpness and color that make readers feel like part of the team—a far cry from those grainy images that were broadcast on TV at the time. 

During their spaceflights, many astronauts were shocked by how moved they felt looking back at Earth, and readers will see why. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell notes, “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.” Apollo 9’s Rusty Schweickart recommends reading this book at night, surrounded by darkness and silence, to allow the gleaming spacecraft and spacesuits to shimmer and shine.

Our America

Book jacket image for Our America by Ken Burns

In the tradition of Walker Evans’ groundbreaking 1938 book, American Photographs, Ken Burns has assembled a collection of his favorite images in Our America: A Photographic History. “I’ve needed forty-five years of telling stories in American history, of diving deep into lives and moments, places and huge events, to accrue the visual vocabulary to embark on this book,” he writes in his introduction. 

These black-and-white photographs are arranged chronologically from 1839 to 2019, with only one on each page for full visual impact. They’re labeled by date and place (at least one for each state), with fuller explanations at the back of the book, and they are mesmerizing, drawing on a multitude of personalities, emotions and events. The images depict the brutally scarred back of an enslaved man, decomposing bodies at Gettysburg, frozen Niagara Falls, a 1909 game of alley baseball in Boston, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Elvis onstage and, finally, a stunning portrait of Congressman John Lewis from 2019.

Illustrated Black History

Book jacket image for Illustrated Black History by George McCalman

For Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen, artist, designer and creative director George McCalman created 145 original portraits spotlighting Black pioneers in many fields, each accompanied by a short biographical essay. Moving alphabetically from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to cinematographer Bradford Young, McCalman uses a bold array of acrylics, watercolors, pen and ink and colored pencils, to capture each personality in an individualized way. “I document body language, I document exuberance, I document pain,” he writes. “I draw like a reporter because I am a reporter.” 

McCalman began this project by challenging himself to paint one such portrait every day for a month, and the result overflows with energy and color. His choices are inspiring and well-rounded, running the gamut from Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin to activist Alicia Garza and food journalist Toni Tipton-Martin.

My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy

Book jacket image for My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy by Clint Hill

Despite the mountains of books already written about the Kennedys, I couldn’t put down My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy, a conversational memoir and very personal photo album by Clint Hill. A former Secret Service agent who served under five U.S. presidents, Hill was present during John F. Kennedy’s assassination and later assigned to the first lady and her children. He’s written other books about those experiences, including several with his wife and co-author, Lisa McCubbin Hill. 

This book was sparked by the process of cleaning out the garage of Hill’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, going through boxes of memorabilia, including a forgotten steamer trunk. Dialogue between the co-authors makes the book immensely readable as they discuss their discoveries and Hill’s memories. Numerous photos bring each scene to life, capturing intimate moments that reveal the first family’s personalities, especially that of Jackie. Of their relationship, Hill writes, “It wasn’t romantic. But it was beyond friendship. We could communicate with a look or a nod.”

The Only Woman

Book jacket image for The Only Woman by Immy Humes

The Only Woman is a unique gallery of group portraits that contain a lone female figure surrounded by men. There’s Marie Curie, for instance, with her head in her hand, looking downright bored among a group of suited scientists at a 1911 conference in Belgium. There’s 9-year-old Ab Hoffman, who earned a spot on a Canadian hockey team for one season in 1956 because her coaches hadn’t noticed her gender. In a 1982 photo, a white male U.S. Army Diver candidate sneers at Andrea Motley Crabtree, a Black woman who made the training cut when he didn’t. “Most of the men hated me being there,” Crabtree recalls. “He couldn’t understand how I was better than him.” 

Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Immy Humes provides concise commentary throughout her collection, which spans from 1862 to 2020. She speaks to “the pleasure of spotting them, and then, most of all, the mystery of them: What was she doing there?”

Affinities

Affinities book cover

In need of some creative downtime? Curl up with the hefty Affinities: A Journey Through Images From the Public Domain Review and lose yourself in a delightfully imaginative, visionary game. The book’s 350-plus pages contain a miscellany of images arranged to showcase unexpected similarities. For example, one section features the shapes of outstretched arms as seen in a 16th-century drawing of a mechanical arm, an image of the Borghese Gladiator sculpture, a John Singleton Copley painting and—of all things—a photo of damage sustained to the bow of the HMS Broke during a World War I battle. 

With images old and new from around the world, all selected from the archive of the Public Domain Review, this is a book designed for random perusal. Some images come with suggested paths to different pages, creating a sort of chutes-and-ladders effect. As explained in the introduction, the result is “a maze of rootlike cut-throughs that allow you to move through the book in different ways, to disrupt the sequence and carve through your own serpentine trajectory.”

The armchair historian’s wish list isn’t a tough nut to crack. Just give them a great book.
Feature by

All That Is You

Bestselling author Alyssa Satin Capucilli offers an imaginative series of rhymed metaphors for love. Her text playfully twists colloquialisms (“you’re the wide in my world”) striking on heartfelt truths rather than cloying sentimentality. Illustrator Devon Holzwarth’s vibrant artwork matches the elegance and emotion of Capucilli’s prose and elevates All That Is You from very good to breathtaking.

The Birthday of the World

A young girl’s grandfather recounts how “the world of a thousand thousand things” was created when a beam of light pierced the darkness and scattered sparks into “everyone and everything.” Author Rachel Naomi Remen adapted The Birthday of the World from a tale originally told to her by her grandfather, an orthodox rabbi. Remen writes in unadorned, moving prose about the power in finding the lights inside ourselves and others, while illustrator Rachell Sumpter’s artwork is suffused with warmth and wonder. 

The More You Give

Marcy Campbell’s deceptively simple The More You Give follows three generations of a family as they share gifts and plant seeds both literal and figurative. Campbell anchors the story in wonderful specifics (“big hugs, and bigger laughter, and the very biggest Sunday-morning pancakes”) and skillfully repeated phrases, such as the “wild and wooly caps” of acorns that each generation plants in the field surrounding their house. Illustrator Francesca Sanna’s bold colors and stylized figures enable readers to track characters as they grow from child to adult, their faces clearly expressing the love they feel for one another.

For a gift that can be enjoyed again and again, consider one of these picture books.
Feature by

Great Short Books

Anyone who’s eternally time-strapped will treasure Kenneth C. Davis’ Great Short Books. This nifty volume highlights 58 works of fiction chosen by Davis for their size (small) and impact (enormous). Each brisk read weighs in at around 200 pages but has the oomph of an epic.  

“Short novels,” Davis writes in the book’s introduction, “have been shortchanged. They occupy the place of the neglected middle child of the literary world.” With its eclectic roster of authors (Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, James Joyce, Nella Larsen—the list goes on), his volume challenges this perception.  

Davis’ picks include something for every reader. Classic selections such as James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway are spotlighted alongside contemporary offerings like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. The entry for each title consists of a plot summary, an author bio, suggestions on what to read next and—the perfect bait for hooking book lovers—the work’s first lines.  

Davis, the bestselling author of the Don’t Know Much About series, delivers readerly insights and plenty of literary trivia in this handy guide. Outside of extra time, it’s the perfect gift for busy bibliophiles. 

Reading the Stars

Readers in need of a little inspiration should try tapping into the power of the zodiac. That’s the premise behind Reading the Stars, the new release from the literary website Book Riot. 

This quirky title encourages readers to connect with their astrological signs as a way to deepen and enrich their relationships with books. Astrology, according to Book Riot, can “give you some hints about what kind of books you like to read, what books can help you grow as a person, and how you engage with the reading world.” 

The volume covers the basics of astrology and provides an intriguing profile of every sign in the chart, with details on the characteristics and reading styles of each. Aries readers, for instance, focus on meeting their reading goals, while Virgos read to destress and love getting lost in a good fantasy. Cancers savor extended story arcs and happily ever after endings. 

Filled with atmospheric illustrations, Reading the Stars offers sign-specific reading recommendations and reveals which signs are compatible with one another—from a literary standpoint. Sure to pique the interest of bibliophiles, this delightful title will give them a whole new way to think about books.

Marple

Here’s a merry surprise for mystery fans: Miss Jane Marple is back. Marple is a collection of new stories featuring Agatha Christie’s widely hailed detective written by some of today’s top thriller writers. Ruth Ware, Lucy Foley, Dreda Say Mitchell and Alyssa Cole are among the dozen authors who salute the sleuth in this spine-tingling anthology. 

Christie introduced Jane Marple in the 1927 story “The Tuesday Night Club.” An elderly spinster and first-rate cracker of crimes from the quiet village of St. Mary Mead, England, Miss Marple appeared in 12 Christie novels, becoming one of the most beloved figures in detective fiction.  

In the new volume, fresh mysteries take Miss Marple to far-flung locales. A cruise ship headed for Hong Kong is the setting for Jean Kwok’s “The Jade Empress,” which finds Miss Marple investigating the death of a fellow passenger. In Alyssa Cole’s “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan,” sinister events plague a Broadway rehearsal, where the lady detective is providentially in attendance.  

Miss Marple logs many a mile in these new adventures, and fans will be elated to find that she remains a redoubtable force when faced with a case. The new stories are suspenseful and—of course—deliciously cozy. What’s not to love about more Miss Marple?  

Revenge of the Librarians

Bibliophiles will find a kindred spirit in cartoonist Tom Gauld, whose clever new collection, Revenge of the Librarians, is all about books and the literary life. 

The setting of the volume’s opening strip is a world taken over by librarians—a what-if tale of terrific proportions compactly recounted in five panels. “With superior organizational skills, they quickly seized power,” Gauld writes. “Opponents were mercilessly shushed. Every building was converted into a library.” 

Gauld’s perfectly pithy cartoons feature soft background colors and emphatic silhouettes. Arch humor abounds as he drops amusing author allusions, spoofs the literary establishment and plays with writer stereotypes. Ardent memoirist and precious poet, tormented novelist and cutthroat critic—none are exempt from his pen. Gauld also lampoons hallowed literary traditions. The titles in the cartoon “Summer Reading for Conspiracy Theorists” include Slaughterhouse 5G and The Old Man and the CIA. In “Waiting for Godot to Join the Zoom Meeting,” Vladimir and Estragon sit expectantly before their computers, but alas: “Nobody comes. Nobody goes.” 

Gauld, whose work has appeared in The Believer and the New York Times, gets up to all manner of literary mischief in this quick-witted, must-have collection for book buffs.

If you’re shopping for someone who always has books on the brain, we’ve got your gift needs all wrapped up.
Feature by

Game On

Give this to a reader who has a competitive streak, whether it manifests on the field, in the classroom or at game night. 

Game On: 15 Stories of Wins, Losses, and Everything in Between highlights the importance of “playing the game” to find yourself. In each tale, characters interact with a game, from sports and video games to neighborhood pastimes and more. Many stories illustrate the thrill of competition, even as characters grapple with why rivalries and the act of winning mean so much to them. Nearly all the stories capture the central game’s emotional underpinnings, allowing characters to become closer to one another, to find courage in other aspects of their lives or to see something in a new light. 

Standout story: Gloria Chao’s “Mystery Hunt” follows two college freshmen who share an adorably nerdy passion for language puzzles as they embark on the linguistics department’s annual scavenger hunt. As they race to piece clues together, Faye’s growing friendship with her cute classmate, Pierce, inspires her to form deeper connections with other people in her life. The story’s puzzles are challenging, the emotional stakes are high, the pace is fast, and by the end of the hunt, readers will be eager for more adventures with Faye and Pierce.

—Annie Metcalf

★ Tasting Light

Give this to a reader who yearns to expand the limits of what is possible.

Every story in Tasting Light: Ten Science Fiction Stories to Rewire Your Perceptions masterfully demonstrates how powerful science fiction can be. Whether the teens in these futuristic tales are sipping coffee in a spinning city, exploring parallel universes or experiencing bold new technologies, they’re contemplating themes like race, class, disability and gender as thoughtfully as teens today, while dreaming up new and inventive ways to improve themselves and their worlds. As one character muses, “You can be a teenager and make things happen. They’re not mutually exclusive at all.”

Standout story: Junauda Petrus-Nasah’s “Melanitis” begins in the middle. What’s a FAN, and why is it a big deal that another one has been murdered by police? To give away more would spoil the experience: As narrator Amari processes the unfolding news, so do we. Petrus-Nasah takes a classical sci-fi theme—the perils of scientific overreach—and applies it to the disparity between joyous Black energy and the dangers of being Black in a white-dominated society. The result is daring and devastating.

—Jill Ratzan

Eternally Yours

Give this to a reader who is smitten with all things magical, mysterious and macabre.

In Eternally Yours, editor Patrice Caldwell collects 15 paranormal romance stories that feature supernatural suitors ranging from ancient immortals to undead high school students. Many of the tales have contemporary settings, their speculative elements intertwined with familiar teenage concerns like part-time jobs and parties. These realistic details—and the often relatable protagonists—give the collection a grounded core that allows readers to truly connect with larger-than-life dramas such as hunting vampires or making out with mermaids. This anthology will sweep romance-minded readers away into one otherworldly love story after another.

The standout story: Marie Rutkoski’s dreamlike “Bride-Heart” follows a teenage waitress caught up in the ominous affections of a wealthy older man. As it becomes clear that there is far more to the rich stranger than anyone suspects, a test of agency, control and subtle magic unfolds. Rutkoski crafts an atmosphere of creeping dread as she upends many paranormal romance tropes. Her tense, twisty tale will keep readers guessing all the way to the end. 

—RJ Witherow

Generation Wonder

Give this to a reader who knows exactly what they’d do if they woke up with superpowers. 

Many of today’s most successful superhero stories were dreamed up long before current teenage readers were born. The 13 tales in Generation Wonder: The New Age of Heroes introduce brand-new, contemporary superheroes across a range of genres, from comical adventures to fast-paced thrillers. In a clever touch, each story opens with an illustration in the epic style of a comic book cover by artist Colleen Doran. Diverse, imaginative and entertaining, these stories prove that extraordinary heroes can truly come from the most ordinary circumstances.

The standout story: In Nulhegan Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac’s “Ordinary Kid,” Leonard is a Native American teen just trying to survive high school—and figure out how to use his newly acquired superpowers, of course. After an encounter with a mysterious entity called Crow, Leonard becomes telekinetic and gains an “uncanny ability to sense when someone [is] picking on someone else.” He decides to use his powers to disrupt his town’s drug trade before turning his attention to an even more dangerous target. Leonard’s self-deprecating humor and hunger for justice call to mind such well-known superheroes as Captain America and Spiderman. 

—Hannah Lamb

Teens will discover whole new worlds within the short stories of these four anthologies.

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!

 

Recent Features

The BookPage editors share their favorite gift ideas for the 2022 holiday season.
Review by

After sharing her life story in Becoming, former first lady Michelle Obama now offers readers an exceptional follow-up—“a glimpse inside my personal toolbox”—in The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times.

Obama describes the publication of Becoming as “one of the happiest and most affirming periods of my life so far.” That said, the night before starting her international publicity tour, she lay in bed, terrified at the thought of the arena-size audiences she would soon face. As it turns out, Obama is a worrier who understands all too well that “your fearful mind is almost always trying to seize the steering wheel and change your course.” She offers a supreme example: When her husband wanted to run for president, he first asked for her blessing. “I was pretty ready to shut it down,” she writes, because she didn’t want to launch their orderly family life into inevitable chaos. “It’s strange to think that I could have altered the course of history with my fear.”

Much later, the COVID-19 pandemic knocked Obama off her feet, sending her into what felt like a “low-grade form” of depression. During lockdown, she found salvation in an unexpected place: teaching herself to knit by watching YouTube videos. That story is one of many private moments she shares in The Light We Carry. For instance, she admits to an ongoing frustration with her husband’s lack of punctuality, writing that “when feeling cornered, it turns out, I am capable of saying some stupid, hurtful things.” It’s comforting to hear that our heroes are human, and Obama’s signature openness—in addition to her encouraging, sometimes funny, always chummy voice—make her relatable and admirable throughout the book.

The Light We Carry contains a multitude of other poignant, amusing anecdotes and helpful advice for all types of readers: anyone feeling marginalized; young people finding their way in love, education and careers; parents of young children; and just about anyone trying to keep a steady course in the world. Obama writes about the importance of forming and nurturing friendship (which isn’t easy to do when the Secret Service surrounds a potential new friend’s car) and imparts a lifetime of lessons from her parents, who showed her “what it felt like to be comfortably afraid.”

In these frequently dark times, The Light We Carry feels like a hug from a trusted advisor and a good friend. As Obama writes, “The practice I’ve had in finding and appreciating the light inside other people has become perhaps my most valuable tool for overcoming uncertainty and . . . keeping my hopefulness intact.” As one of the brightest lights in America, Obama helps shine the way for others along our shared path.

Michelle Obama’s signature openness—in addition to her encouraging, funny voice—make her relatable and admirable throughout The Light We Carry.

What is it about butts, exactly, that has made them such a source of fascination throughout history? In her debut book, Butts: A Backstory, reporter Heather Radke seeks to answer that question with wit, empathy and verve. The author spoke with BookPage about what she learned when she looked at butts head-on.

Congratulations on your first book! Did you always want to be an author? What’s been the most exciting aspect so far?
Yes! I have wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl wearing bifocals, thumbing through the pages of Anne of Green Gables at Schuler Bookstore in Okemos, Michigan. It is incredibly difficult to write a book, and a true honor and thrill to have it published. For me, one of the most exciting parts was doing oral histories with different women about their bodies for the initial background research. I spoke with people who had very different bodies from mine and came from very different backgrounds, and it was always fascinating to hear how people feel about their bodies and what helped shape those feelings.

What made you decide that butts merited more than an interview or essay, but instead an entire book? Why were you moved to write about butts now?
I started this book as an essay about the connection between the bustle and the life of Sarah Baartman—a Khoe woman from rural South Africa who was taken to London in 1810 and put on exhibit so people could pay to view her butt—but I quickly realized that the questions I was asking had answers that were much larger than a single essay could contain. In order to understand the symbolic significance of womens’ butts, I would need to explore many historical moments, as well as the science of the butt and the recent explosion of interest in mainstream pop culture. It was this recent interest in the butt that made me think it might be a potent topic to write about now. One of the questions I had was about why and how mainstream beauty standards change, and the butt is such a powerful example of what that looks like.

Read our starred review of ‘Butts’ by Heather Radke.

It’s clear that you put a great deal of time, effort and care into learning about a dizzying variety of people, places, eras, fashions, cultures and more for Butts. Will you share a bit about what it was like to manage such a massive amount of information?
It was a lot of information! It felt like I was trying (and failing) to become an expert on everything, from Jane Fonda’s career to the gender politics of drag to the history of South Africa in the 18th century. I tried to read as widely and deeply as I could on each subject, talk to scholars in the various fields I was covering, and report on the people whose lives were touched by the topics in each chapter. In a lot of ways, it felt like what I used to do when I curated exhibits at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and I used some of the organizational and research tools I learned when I did that work. But there is always a bit of a feeling of drinking from a firehose when taking on such an enormous topic. I’ll never be able to learn as much as I want!

Was there anything you had to leave out of Butts that you wish you could’ve included?
The butt is a HUGE topic, because it’s as old as the human species and as varied. I wish I’d been able to research and include more about other parts of the world besides the United States and Europe, but I decided that it made sense to narrow the scope because of my own personal experience and the enormous influence the U.S. has had on beauty standards worldwide. I also did some research on art history, pornography and the midcentury pinup girl, each of which could have been its own chapter!

“The work is to try and interrogate our assumptions about bodies and ask where they came from, if they are true and why we cling to them.”

Book jacket image for Butts by Heather Radke

In your Introduction to Butts, you reflect on your childhood view that your mother’s butt was “a body part like any other, something to love because I loved the human it was part of. It was not a problem or a blessing. It was only a fact.” Of course, as your book amply illustrates, “butts are not so simple.” Do you think we will ever be able to back off of butts enough to view them as fact, to see them as a body part rather than a symbol?
Honestly, no. We use bodies and body parts as symbols constantly—whether breasts, skin, hair or butts—and that feels very unlikely to change. I think the real problem isn’t actually using bodies symbolically but doing so unconsciously, or confusing the symbolism for reality. The work is to try and interrogate our assumptions about bodies and ask where they came from, if they are true and why we cling to them. Maybe then we can find new kinds of symbolism, or new ways to make meaning that aren’t so hurtful to so many people. 

Considering race is vitally important when examining attitudes toward butts and the women they belong to. From Sarah Baartman and the racist so-called “scientific inquiry” that was used to exploit her, to the more modern-day obsession with Jennifer Lopez’s posterior—there is a seemingly endless mix of fascination, envy, desire and anger projected onto the butts of women of color. When you think about that aspect of your work in Butts, what has stayed with you the most? 
As a white woman, I was very interested in when and why white women become interested in the butts of women of color. Of course, there isn’t a single answer to that question, but something that twerk instructor Kelechi Okafor said really stuck with me. She talked about how many white women she encountered as a dance instructor were uncomfortable with their own sexuality and turned to twerk as a way to express themselves sexually. Obsession with butts is almost always adjacent to angst about sex and race. The more we can talk about that openly, the more likely it is that fewer people will be objectified and harmed by that obsession.

“Because they are funny, and easy not to take seriously, there is a lot of subtext that goes unexamined in butt-related cultural products.”

“Baby Got Back” is a song that everyone knows, and your deep dive into its origins offers lots of interesting context in terms of how the song and its creator, Sir Mix-A-Lot, were received in 1992—and the ways in which its lyrics and video still affect our perceptions of butts today. But while the song and video are in many ways a celebration, you also note that one professor called it “empowered misogyny.” Can you share a bit more about that dichotomy?
I think that “Baby Got Back” is a very complicated text, largely because it is so popular. I believe that Sir Mix-A-Lot meant for it to be a celebration of a beauty standard that, at the time, was not mainstream. But when I watch it now, my conversation with Kyra Gaunt, the scholar who called the song “empowered misogyny,” is the one I think about the most. She talked about how it was part of a larger trend in hip-hop of objectifying women, but that because it’s about butts and therefore seems like a joke, it’s easier to give it a pass. It is one of the things that is truly fascinating about butts: Because they are funny, and easy not to take seriously, there is a lot of subtext that goes unexamined in butt-related cultural products. 

You note that when you were around 10 or 11, suddenly exercise was “no longer a game. It was a necessity.” Aerobics were a rite of passage for women in the 1980s, especially “Buns of Steel” and Jane Fonda videos. Is there any form of exercise today that occupies the same sort of butt-obsessed space in our culture?
There were lots of classes in the mid-2010s that promised to help create butts that looked like Kim Karashian or Beyonce. Those classes, which likely used very similar exercises as “Buns of Steel,” promised to create a big butt, whereas “Buns of Steel” was much more invested in a small, tight butt. It’s in these promises that you can really see the ways that trends around body shape ebb and flow. 

“The things that we don’t take seriously, the things we laugh about or feel are too small to notice, are often things that hold tremendous meaning.”

What were you most hoping to convey or accomplish with Butts? What’s been the most surprising reaction to the book so far?
I’ve definitely gotten the sense that some people are surprised that a book like this exists. When I posted the cover on social media, there were a few retweets where people said, essentially, “Is this some kind of joke?” But in a way, I suppose that is part of the bigger point I’m trying to make with this book: The things that we don’t take seriously, the things we laugh about or feel are too small to notice, are often things that hold tremendous meaning. Butts contain multitudes, and it can be both meaningful and fun to discover just what those multitudes are. 

What’s next for you?
Great question! I just had a baby, so my hope is that a little more sleep lies in my immediate future. Beyond that, I’m working on a couple of projects that take up some of the themes of Butts—gender, identity, the importance of the small—and explore them from very different angles.

Author headshot of Heather Radke © by Andrew Semans

Butts examines our most infamous body part through the lenses of racism and sexism, science and pop culture, fitness and fashion.

Babel by R.F. Kuang

Set in an alternate Victorian Britain, R.F. Kuang’s standalone historical fantasy is an unforgiving examination of the cost of power.

Babel

Everywhere With You by Carlie Sorosiak, illustrated by Devon Holzwarth

Carlie Sorosiak and Devon Holzwarth’s flawless picture book rings with a tender truth: When you are with the ones you love, everywhere you go is home.

Everywhere With You by Carlie Sorosiak and Devon Holzwarth

Honey and Spice by Bolu Babalola

This enemies-­to-lovers romance set on a British university campus hums with Bolu Babalola’s energetic, intelligent voice.

Honey and Spice jacket

An Immense World by Ed Yong

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ed Yong’s nonfiction study of animal senses is an immersive, page-turning reading experience.

An Immense World book cover

In Love by Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimacy in her fiction, but she has never gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her husband’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In Love book jacket

Lolo’s Light by Liz Garton Scanlon

Liz Garton Scanlon’s compelling middle grade novel glows with empathy and understanding.

Lolo's Light by Liz Garton Scanlon book cover

Man o’ War by Cory McCarthy

This YA novel’s exploration of queer identity ferociously resists the idea that coming out is a simple or straightforward process.

Man O' War by Cory McCarthy

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Despite its doomed Midwestern setting, Tess Gunty’s debut novel makes storytelling seem like the most fun a person can have.

The Rabbit Hutch book jacket

Trust by Hernan Diaz

Hernan Diaz’s second novel is a beautifully composed masterpiece that examines the insidious disparities between rich and poor, truth and fiction.

Trust book cover

Winter Work by Dan Fesperman

Dan Fesperman’s intense post-Cold War mystery savvily addresses both the personal and political pressures facing an East German spy.

Winter Work book cover

Discover more of BookPage’s Best Books of 2022.

2022 brought innumerable literary wonders, but as far as the year’s very best, we’ve narrowed it down to 10 outstanding titles.

Also a Poet by Ada Calhoun

Calhoun’s biography of the poet Frank O’Hara unexpectedly transformed into an absorbing and insightful memoir about her father.


Free by Lea Ypi

Political scholar Ypi’s poignant, funny memoir views Albania’s journey out of socialism through a child’s eyes.


Half American by Matthew F. Delmont

Delmont provides a top-notch overview of the contributions of Black service members and civilians during WWII.

Book jacket image for Half American by Matthew F. Delmont

How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo

Castillo brilliantly argues that being a good reader means learning how to interrogate the stories all around us.

Book jacket image for How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo

An Immense World by Ed Yong

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Yong’s nonfiction study of animal senses is an immersive, page-turning reading experience.


In Love by Amy Bloom

Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimacy in her fiction, but she has never gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her husband’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In Love book jacket

In the Shadow of the Mountain by Silvia Vasquez-Lavado

Unlike mountaineering memoirs that celebrate the individual, Vasquez-Lavado’s is intimately collaborative.

book jacket for In the Shadow of the Mountain

Inciting Joy by Ross Gay

Gay’s powerful and poetic sixth book asks: What incites joy? And more importantly, what does joy incite in us?

Inciting Joy by Ross Gay

The Invisible Kingdom by Meghan O’Rourke

O’Rourke compassionately chronicles the rise of autoimmune disease alongside her own search for healing.


Last Call at the Hotel Imperial by Deborah Cohen

Historian Cohen brilliantly captures the complicated lives of America’s most influential interwar journalists.


The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Rojas Contreras makes the history of Colombia immediate and personal.


Raising Lazarus by Beth Macy

Macy’s follow-up to Dopesick ​​will radically change your opinions on the opioid crisis.

Raising Lazarus by Beth Macy

Red Paint by Sasha LaPointe

LaPointe offers a poetic narrative of trauma and healing through ancestral rites and punk rock.


The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacy Schiff

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Schiff vividly renders an essential Founding Father: Samuel Adams.


River of the Gods by Candice Millard

In this unforgettable history of the Nile, European explorers’ egos loom godlike, but East African guides save lives.


The Song of the Cell by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This captivating book from Pulitzer Prize winner Mukherjee explores how cellular engineering can reshape medicine.


South to America by Imani Perry

In a vibrant blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, Perry shows the South’s iniquity and beauty.


Stay True by Hua Hsu

Hsu’s remarkable memoir examines the reverberations of a friendship frozen in time by untimely death.

Stay True by Hua Hsu

Strangers to Ourselves by Rachel Aviv

This stunning book profiles people whose experiences of mental illness exceed the limits of Western psychiatry.


Tell Me Everything by Erika Krouse

Krouse’s compelling, highly personal account of a landmark Title IX case reads like a detective novel.


This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan

Carvan makes an excellent case for embracing what you like and the delight it brings—no shame allowed.

Jacket of This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan

Under the Skin by Linda Villarosa

Villarosa’s wonderfully written book makes stunning points about the health risks of racism.

Book jacket image for Under the Skin by Linda Villarosa

Virology by Joseph Osmundson

Sparkling prose, glittering insights and accessible writing make this one of the best science books of the year.


Discover more of BookPage’s Best Books of 2022.

This year’s best nonfiction books ran the gamut from timely to timeless. Meghan O’Rourke, Siddhartha Mukherjee and Linda Villarosa broke new ground in our understanding of illness. Memoirs by fiction writers including Amy Bloom, Ingrid Rojas Contreras and Erika Krouse told gripping true stories with a novelist’s flair. And beloved favorites such as Ed Yong, Ross Gay and Stacy Schiff rose to meet their fans’ high expectations.
STARRED REVIEW

November 30, 2022

From stage to page

Give the gift of intrigue with a celebrity memoir that captures all the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame.

Share this Article:
Review by

Sam Heughan, known to legions of fans as Jamie Fraser in the popular TV show based on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, recently decided it was time to walk the rigorous West Highland Way in Scotland, a long-distance hiking trail that runs from north of Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. He wanted a solitary challenge and a pause in the acting career he has worked tirelessly at, and packing 96 miles into five days seemed like it would provide the right combination of endurance and introspection. In his remarkable, thought-provoking memoir, Waypoints: My Scottish Journey, he welcomes readers along for the journey.

6 more celebrity memoirs that capture the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame

Before Heughan stepped out the door onto the West Highland Way, he was a runner, not a walker. Marathons, yes; walking slowly, not his thing. His camping and hiking experiences were limited; he even thought hiking poles were “cumbersome” and almost threw them away once he hit the trail. His overstuffed rucksack, complete with whiskey and cigars, weighed him down. The rain in late October almost ruined him on the second day, and he soon chose comfortable wayside inns over his tent. But he was nearing his 40th birthday (making him the same age as the Way) and, despite these challenges, felt it was simply time he got this done.

Bracketing Heughan’s journey is an account of his visit to his dying father in faraway British Columbia, Canada. The man was a stranger who abandoned his family long ago, but Heughan and his brother felt nonetheless compelled to offer a goodbye. Once they arrived, Heughan was stunned to learn that his father had been following his acting career all along. He recorded their visit on his phone, but later, back on the set of “Outlander,” the phone vanished. It was, he writes, “a fitting epitaph.”

The award-winning actor, author, philanthropist and entrepreneur offers plenty of details of his walk to Fort William, including a daunting hike up Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom. Along the way, Heughan has a clear, precise and entertaining style. He is a funny man, and his encounters with roaming sheep, other hikers and clusters of mushrooms are wonderfully comic. 

If Waypoints were merely about Heughan’s walk, it would be delightful, instructive and enticing. But this is a memoir, after all, and it is his reflection on his life and work, interspersed with the challenges and discoveries of the Way, that lend his story heft and grit.

“Outlander” star Sam Heughan’s reflections on his life and work add heft and grit to his memoir about walking the West Highland Way in Scotland.

A few years after British actor Tom Felton hung up his Slytherin robes for good, he hit rock bottom. It was the first step toward reclaiming his identity, as it prompted him to ask how and when he left the wisecracking kid from Surrey behind and instead became dependent on the numbing effect of alcohol. In Beyond the Wand: The Magic and Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard, Felton looks back in order to uncover the path forward as he candidly details the surreal experience of being a prominent part of a pop culture juggernaut.

Felton’s first major on-screen role was in 1997’s The Borrowers, an adaptation of the classic children’s book. This opened the door to other promising opportunities, notably playing The Boy Who Lived’s archenemy: sneering, peroxide-blond Draco Malfoy. At the time of his audition, 12-year-old Felton had never read a Harry Potter novel and couldn’t quite understand the breathless excitement that the books inspired.

6 more celebrity memoirs that capture the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame

Felton spent nearly a decade immersed in the world of witches and wizards, where he became accustomed to a singular life on set. The final stretch of filming was bittersweet, and when it was through, he hoped to transition into a career brimming with star-studded blockbusters and high-end craft services. Instead, Felton’s move to Los Angeles made him feel like a rudderless ship. “I missed having an ordinary conversation with an authentic human, who didn’t know who I was, and didn’t care,” he writes.

Felton’s memoir isn’t a shameless tell-all or a cautionary tale about the ills of fame. He frequently expresses gratitude and praises the skills and professionalism of older actors who were in the Harry Potter films, such as Jason Isaacs and Alan Rickman. He has no problem poking fun at himself, but his moments of self-reflection are compassionate. Beyond the Wand may focus on Felton’s Harry Potter days, but it’s so much more than fan service. With introspection and charm, Felton’s narrative captures the growing pains of adolescence.

In his memoir, Draco Malfoy actor Tom Felton captures the growing pains of adolescence with introspection and charm.

Lauren Graham is perhaps best known for her acting, particularly her role as the young, headstrong single mom Lorelai in the television show “Gilmore Girls.” But Graham, who has a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College and master’s of fine arts in acting performance from Southern Methodist University, is also the accomplished author of a novel (Someday, Someday, Maybe), a collection of personal essays (Talking as Fast as I Can) and a book of advice for graduates (In Conclusion, Don’t Worry About It). 

6 more celebrity memoirs that capture the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame

Graham’s second book of personal essays, Have I Told You This Already?: Stories I Don’t Want to Forget to Remember, is composed of 15 insightful pieces relaying impactful moments and life lessons that have shaped who she is. She explains how her creative outlook was molded by people and experiences from her youth. For example, although her mother was largely absent from her upbringing, Graham sees a positive side to this fact: “I think not growing up with my mom means I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what a mom is supposed to be!” 

Graham takes the reader on a behind-the-scenes tour of Hollywood, sharing acting jargon such as “pumpkin” (the term for when child actors have to be done working for the day) and “sold it in the room” (getting backing from someone with clout). She’s candid about the demands of show business, too, and the acrobatics that actors have to perform to fit into the Hollywood mold. In a chapter aptly named “Forever 32,” Graham reflects on aging, comparing her recollections of being a 20-something to when, at the age of 32, she realized “I had a sense of myself I’d never had before.” She also muses about her days as a young actor, hustling to various jobs while trying to make it. These stories and anecdotes are especially raw, real and humorous.

Graham’s writing is fresh, sharp and very funny, with fast, staccato sentences that evoke what it must be like to have a conversation with her. Her voice invites the reader in, emanating a refreshing openness that will make them want to be her best friend. Have I Told You This Already? is an enjoyable, amusing revelation.

Actor Lauren Graham’s second collection of essays is fresh, sharp and very funny, with staccato sentences that evoke what it must be like to have a conversation with her.
Review by

Oh, Lord Grantham, patriarch of Downton Abbey! We feel as though we already know you, with those twinkling eyes and deep, reassuring voice. In Playing Under the Piano: From Downton to Darkest Peru, stage and screen actor Hugh Bonneville shares what he calls “a series of snapshots I’ve taken along the way,” allowing us to know him more truly. As you might expect, his account is intriguing, breezy and full of intellect and humor. It’s also a delicious stroll down a red carpet lined with big names, including Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Laurence Olivier, Celia Imrie, Leonardo DiCaprio and many more.

6 more celebrity memoirs that capture the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame

The memoir is divided into sections discussing Bonneville’s childhood, theater years and film roles. His father was a urologist and his mother a nurse—or so he thought before learning after her death that her second job was with MI6, the British Secret Service. “I may not have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth but I realised I had a nice set of crockery compared to so many others,” he writes. Early on, he began thinking of the theater as a “magic toybox,” although he originally thought he would become a lawyer and also contemplated theology until drama school beckoned.

There’s no mean-spirited gossip in this memoir, just plenty of humorous self-deprecation and some laugh-out-loud anecdotes—like the time an actor in a live theater performance was popping peanuts while making a confession and ended up choking and passing out. Or the time Judi Dench dropped a note that said “Fancy a shag?” in the lap of an audience member she thought was a friend. Turns out, the man was not her pal.

Bonneville’s years of rich stage, television and film performances are nicely detailed, including amusing audition mishaps and disappointments. Although he offers a number of anecdotes about his parents, siblings, wife and son, he remains largely private about his personal life. But the “Downton Abbey” stories are wonderful, even if rabid fans like myself will wish for more. We shouldn’t complain though, given tidbits like Shirley MacLaine’s comment, “I had lovers all over the world. Overseas was fun. This one time, three in a day.” To which Maggie Smith responded, “Oh darling, you have been busy.”

Playing Under the Piano is a must-read for Bonneville fans, as well as an excellent look at the ups and downs of being an actor. Now excuse me while I go watch Paddington again.

Hugh Bonneville’s memoir is intriguing, breezy and full of intellect, a delicious stroll down a red carpet lined with big names and laugh-out-loud anecdotes.

Actor Paul Newman was known for many things: acting, car racing, philanthropy through his Newman’s Own food business and, of course, his rugged good looks and piercing blue eyes. He was a beloved Hollywood icon, but he didn’t think of himself that way. In fact, he wrestled with internal demons throughout his life.

Newman’s memoir, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, composed posthumously from interviews he began conducting in 1986 with the help of screenwriter and close friend Stewart Stern, is raw, honest and revealing. Through his own reminiscences and those of his contemporaries, including Elia Kazan, Stuart Rosenberg, Eva Marie Saint and Tom Cruise, the book provides a firsthand glimpse of Newman’s life and how his choices affected those around him. His upbringing, military service in World War II, first marriage to Jackie Witt, second marriage to actor Joanne Woodward, six children and professional and personal endeavors are all laid out on the table.

6 more celebrity memoirs that capture the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame

Even after he became famous, Newman was often unsure of himself. Part of this stemmed from the fact that he likely had a learning disability. The way he was treated by his parents, especially his mother, was also detrimental. She could be hurtful and treated him like a dress-up doll rather than a son. Newman’s memories of his father depict the man as an indifferent alcoholic. Unfortunately, this contributed to Newman’s own problems with alcoholism, as well as his son Scott’s substance issues and depression—burdens Newman carried his whole life.

But Newman also had more positive traits, from charisma and humor to compassion and business savvy. These qualities pop up throughout the book and were obvious to those who knew him. But even after all his success, he just couldn’t seem to shake his feelings of self-doubt. “If I had to define ‘Newman’ in the dictionary, I’d say: ‘One who tries too hard,’” he writes. The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is a humble and candid look into the life of a celebrated but often misunderstood man.

In Paul Newman’s posthumous memoir, his upbringing, military service, marriages, children and professional endeavors are all laid out on the table.

Nothing could have prepared Melanie Jayne Chisholm—aka Sporty Spice—for the loneliness, isolation and debilitating episodes of imposter syndrome that accompanied the extreme highs (and lows) of fame. In The Sporty One: My Life as a Spice Girl, the singer, songwriter and tracksuit-wearing Brit carefully unpacks her nonlinear journey toward self-acceptance while pinned under the glare of the spotlight.

The Spice Girls were a pop culture supernova at the turn of the new millennium. Contrary to the narrative wrought by the misogynistic media, the group was not the brainchild of industry executives. After answering a magazine advertisement, Victoria Adams (Posh), Geri Halliwell (Ginger), Melanie Brown (Scary), Michelle Stephenson and Chisholm came together to form the band Touch. When Stephenson proved to be a weak link, Emma Bunton (Baby) was recruited. It would take a pivotal name change and the reclamation of creative autonomy from their early male managers, but the Spice Girls would go on to smash records and, even more importantly, disrupt the cultural and musical landscape.

6 more celebrity memoirs that capture the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame

This type of rise at a young age leaves a few scars, and Chisholm isn’t afraid to recount her personal battles. The pressures of being a ubiquitous pop star coupled with her innate perfectionism brought on depression and severe anxiety. At one point after the Spice Girls had gone on hiatus and Chisholm had embarked on a successful solo career, she was nearly agoraphobic and plagued by incessant panic attacks. And despite her public image of health and fitness, the singer was secretly contending with disordered eating, which eventually led to anorexia and binge eating disorders. In 2009, Chisholm gave birth to her daughter, Scarlet. Motherhood wasn’t a cure-all for her mental health issues, but this new caregiver role allowed her to appreciate the extraordinary power of her body and all she has put it through.

Chisholm’s narrative voice is warm, funny and unabashedly real. Fans will feel as though they’ve been invited to an enlightening soul session with a close friend. Hard truths about patriarchal oppression and the fickle nature of celebrity are examined with sympathy and understanding. The Sporty One is more than the memoir of a pop star; it’s an emotional revelation.

Melanie Chisholm, aka Sporty Spice, unpacks her nonlinear journey toward self-acceptance while pinned under the glare of the spotlight.

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!

 

Recent Features

Give the gift of intrigue this holiday season with a celebrity memoir that captures all the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame.
STARRED REVIEW

November 15, 2022

The best World War II histories and memoirs of 2022

Even the most devoted history buffs will discover fresh perspectives among these 11 outstanding World War II reads.

Share this Article:
Review by

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.
Review by

From 1932 to 1942, Joseph C. Grew served as the United States ambassador to Japan, where he was devoted to cultivating peace between the two countries. Despite his extraordinary efforts, he left the post in 1942 following six months of internment in the Tokyo embassy after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Author Steve Kemper draws on a wide range of sources, including Grew’s memoirs and diary, diplomatic messages and Japanese accounts of events, as he recounts the lead-up to America’s involvement in World War II in Our Man in Tokyo: An American Ambassador and the Countdown to Pearl Harbor.

Grew was an unlikely career diplomat. His background—Boston, Groton, Harvard—indicated a different path, perhaps a career in business or banking. But he sought adventure. On his way to assume new duties in Tokyo, he wrote in his diary that of all his 14 posts, Japan “promises to be the most adventurous of all.”

Kemper takes readers behind the scenes to see the complex realities that Grew coped with on a daily basis. He tried to alert America’s leaders to the challenges of Japan’s increasing militarism and fervent nationalism while doing what he could to keep their foreign policy in check. Where he was open-minded and pragmatic, his boss, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, had a fundamental distrust of Japan. Grew strongly protested Japan’s many devastating acts against Americans, but he was also concerned by the ignorance of American isolationists and pacifists at home who saw the U.S. as a warmonger. 

On January 27, 1941, long before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ambassador first heard the rumor that if the Japanese government broke with the United States, it would plan a surprise mass attack. He passed that word along to the U.S. State Department—however, the Navy had already studied the possibility of a Pearl Harbor attack and considered it unlikely.

Grew’s tireless efforts to avert war with Japan demonstrate both the value and the limitations of any one person in international power politics. This enlightening and well-written history should be of interest to a wide range of readers.

Steve Kemper’s splendid portrait of the American ambassador to Japan during the lead-up to World War II will be of interest to a wide range of history lovers.
Review by

When award-winning British journalist Simon Parkin (A Game of Birds and Wolves) dug through the National Archives in London looking for a story idea, he literally found one: A newspaper called The Camp was mistakenly folded between some pages. Produced by German and Austrian internees at a camp for “enemy aliens” during World War II, the newspaper revealed details about a time and place discreetly buried within a shameful chapter of England’s fight against the Nazis. The Island of Extraordinary Captives: A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Internment Camp brings to light a truly extraordinary example of humanity at its best and worst in a country at war, sometimes with itself.

With copious and often heart-wrenching detail, Parkin brings this interlude back to life through the experiences of those imprisoned in Hutchinson camp on the Isle of Man and their thwarted yet persistent rescuers. In 1938, Peter Fleischmann, a Jewish teenager thought to be an orphan, escaped Berlin via the legendary Kindertransport train and landed in England. Then, in 1940, he was arrested. Suspected of (but never charged with) being a Nazi spy, he was released, then arrested again, as British fears about refugees intensified. Thousands of people, young and old, Jews and Nazi sympathizers alike, were deported or imprisoned in camps on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. 

In Hutchinson camp, the arts were encouraged as an antidote to anxiety and despair, enabling imprisoned painters, composers, journalists, scholars, poets, sculptors and musicians to create “Hutchinson University.” There, Fleischmann flourished. He and many others—such as his mentor, Dadaist pioneer Kurt Schwitters—would later excel in their fields.

Justice seekers like Bertha Bracey of the Germany Emergency Committee kept pressure on the government to end the misbegotten idea of mass internment, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill defended it as a necessary wartime protection. “Most regrettable and deplorable things have happened,” Sir John Anderson said in an address to Parliament in 1940. It was as close as England ever came to an apology.

In addition to the prison newspaper, Parkin’s primary sources include firsthand accounts of the tragic sinking of the SS Andora Star, an ill-equipped former cruise ship that deported hundreds of “enemy aliens” to Canada and was attacked by a German U-boat, and interviews with internees’ friends and descendants. It is a cautionary yet inspiring tale, one that bears remembering.

Simon Parkin brings the shameful history of British internment camps during World War II to life in The Island of Extraordinary Captives.

Caroline Moorehead, author of the New York Times bestselling Resistance Quartet, brings her prodigious research and storytelling talents to Mussolini’s Daughter, her study of Edda Mussolini, the eldest and favorite child of Benito Mussolini and one of the most powerful women in 1930s Europe. In her foreword, Moorehead notes the challenges facing any biographer of the Mussolini family, including the difficulty of separating swirling myths from facts. Yet through her skillful mining of archival materials, personal papers and memoirs, Moorhead has created for readers—even ones previously unfamiliar with the rise of fascism in Italy—a nuanced portrait of a complex woman.

One of the pleasures of a deeply researched biography is being transported into the past through rich details that bring historical figures to life. Moorehead is masterful at this. For instance, we learn early on that in 1910, Edda’s mother, Rachele, already pregnant, defied her family and left home to live with Mussolini. The young couple walked five kilometers in a downpour, taking with them only “four sheets, four plates and six knives, spoons and forks.”

Moorehead writes that “Mussolini and Fascism made Edda what she was.” With this in mind, the author devotes considerable space to tracing Mussolini’s rising political career, which paralleled Edda’s youth. By the time Edda was 11, her father was the editor of a successful newspaper “and the leader of a quickly growing political movement.” In 1922, he became prime minister of Italy and set about consolidating power to become dictator.

In 1930, in an impressive ceremony Moorehead describes as “the wedding of the century,” glamorous, mercurial 19-year-old Edda married Count Galeazzo Ciano, son of one of the founders of the Fascist Party. Although she was part of a “golden couple,” Edda also had a fierce independent streak.

Moorehead spends ample time covering World War II and the ways in which the military conflict, Italy’s alliance with Germany and complex internal power struggles determined the fates of the two men closest to Edda. Despite her efforts to save him, her husband was executed for treason in January of 1944—an outcome Mussolini did little to prevent. Mussolini himself was killed in April 1945. Edda, meanwhile, escaped to Switzerland with her three children. Though for a time she professed to hate Mussolini, Edda once told an interviewer that her father “was the only man I ever really loved.”

Moorehead’s clear, compelling prose and sure-handed grasp of historical events combine to make Mussolini’s Daughter read like a page-turning thriller, one that will have special appeal for readers fascinated by European history, World War II and the conditions that gave rise to fascism.

Caroline Moorehead’s clear, compelling prose and sure-handed grasp of historical events combine to make Mussolini’s Daughter read like a page-turning thriller.

As World War II recedes further into the past, Jonathan Freedland has revived one story from the Holocaust that’s both historically significant and a riveting read. Freedland, the author of several thrillers and a correspondent for The Guardian, writes with a novelist’s verve to tell the story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jewish person to escape from Auschwitz.

The Escape Artist opens with Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg) and Fred Wetzler, another young prisoner, in the middle of an escape attempt. With the help of two other prisoners, Vrba and Wetzler climbed into a woodpile to hide, the first step in escaping the death camp. “For the teenage [Vrba], it was an exhilarating feeling—but not a wholly new one,” Freedland writes. “Because this was not his first escape. And it would not be his last.”

In the late 1930s, leaders in Slovakia seized Jews’ assets and steadily banned them from public life, including schools. Even so, a young Vrba taught himself new languages and learned chemistry from an illicit textbook. As deportation approached, Vrba tried to escape to England but landed in a transit camp. He escaped the camp, got captured again and was eventually sent to Auschwitz. The Nazis had convinced the deported Jews that they were merely being resettled, but once inside Auschwitz, Vrba began to understand the truth: The Nazis were methodically killing millions of Jewish people.

When Vrba was put to work in the section of Auschwitz that processed stolen Jewish belongings, he found a new level of corruption: The Nazis had stolen every material possession from each deported Jewish person, and SS guards were making deals with enslaved workers to keep certain valuables. The brutality and inhumanity of Nazis at every level is chilling and can make for difficult reading. At the same time, Freedland’s depth of research gives a more complete picture of Auschwitz, and Vrba’s inventiveness and ultimate escape from the camp, and his efforts to tell the world the truth about its horrors, make for a gripping narrative.

The book’s last section follows Vrba through his long postwar life in Canada, where he worked as a biochemistry professor at the University of British Columbia. Vrba wrote his own memoir in the 1960s, but now The Escape Artist vividly brings his story to a new generation of readers.

Jonathan Freedland tells the story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jewish person to escape from Auschwitz, with a novelist's verve.
Review by

“Finis Austriae” was the only entry in Sigmund Freud’s journal on the day the Nazi army flooded over the Austrian border. In Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom, former Newsweek foreign correspondent Andrew Nagorski maps the Nazi takeover of Austria and the urgent operation to rescue Freud, one of Austria’s most famous and most devoted Jewish sons, along with fifteen other people, including his personal doctor, in-laws and other family members.

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

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

Far from being a dry historical account, Saving Freud is a compelling, page-turning narrative of the urgent operation to rescue Sigmund Freud from the Nazis.

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!

 

Recent Features

Even the most devoted history buffs will discover fresh perspectives among the best World War II histories and memoirs of 2022.
Review by

In their first book on racism, late-night talk show host Amber Ruffin and her sister Lacey Lamar primarily wrote to each other, exchanging stories in a comedy-infused back-and-forth. You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey emerged from the phone calls, texts and stories they shared from their respective positions in New York and Nebraska. (Let’s just say that Lamar’s experiences in the predominantly white city of Omaha were quite different from Ruffin’s in New York City.) They weren’t trying to persuade resistant readers about the ills of racism with their first book. They merely offered their own perceptions of people and incidents, whether it was an overzealous security officer from J.C. Penney or a rude doughnut maker—and the book was a huge success.

Now Ruffin and Lamar are back, and they’ve broadened their scope. “People honestly thought we didn’t have more stories,” Ruffin writes in the introduction. “So, it’s kinda like a dare.” In The World Record Book of Racist Stories, the other members of the Ruffin family—mom, dad, brother and two more Ruffin sisters—are brought into the fray. Their stories range from lighthearted misunderstandings with racist undertones to frightening instances of unchecked bias, and everything in between.

What’s super valuable here is reading how Ruffin and Lamar perceive these instances: how they frame them, connect them, share them with each other and, when they’re able, laugh about them. Each of these new stories is “the best” (or worst) of something—”Most Racist Bus Driver,” “Worst Reaction to a Nice Car,” “Worst Celebrity Look-Alike”—and as you’d imagine, it’s not an award you’d want to win. Readers do win something, though: They get unvarnished straight talk about racism from a Black family that has lived in predominantly white communities for decades. To read stories you won’t soon forget, told in a totally memorable way by some very funny and generous writers, check out The World Record Book of Racist Stories.

To read stories you won’t soon forget, told in a totally memorable way by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar, check out the very funny The World Record Book of Racist Stories.
Feature by

Great Short Books

Anyone who’s eternally time-strapped will treasure Kenneth C. Davis’ Great Short Books. This nifty volume highlights 58 works of fiction chosen by Davis for their size (small) and impact (enormous). Each brisk read weighs in at around 200 pages but has the oomph of an epic.  

“Short novels,” Davis writes in the book’s introduction, “have been shortchanged. They occupy the place of the neglected middle child of the literary world.” With its eclectic roster of authors (Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, James Joyce, Nella Larsen—the list goes on), his volume challenges this perception.  

Davis’ picks include something for every reader. Classic selections such as James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway are spotlighted alongside contemporary offerings like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. The entry for each title consists of a plot summary, an author bio, suggestions on what to read next and—the perfect bait for hooking book lovers—the work’s first lines.  

Davis, the bestselling author of the Don’t Know Much About series, delivers readerly insights and plenty of literary trivia in this handy guide. Outside of extra time, it’s the perfect gift for busy bibliophiles. 

Reading the Stars

Readers in need of a little inspiration should try tapping into the power of the zodiac. That’s the premise behind Reading the Stars, the new release from the literary website Book Riot. 

This quirky title encourages readers to connect with their astrological signs as a way to deepen and enrich their relationships with books. Astrology, according to Book Riot, can “give you some hints about what kind of books you like to read, what books can help you grow as a person, and how you engage with the reading world.” 

The volume covers the basics of astrology and provides an intriguing profile of every sign in the chart, with details on the characteristics and reading styles of each. Aries readers, for instance, focus on meeting their reading goals, while Virgos read to destress and love getting lost in a good fantasy. Cancers savor extended story arcs and happily ever after endings. 

Filled with atmospheric illustrations, Reading the Stars offers sign-specific reading recommendations and reveals which signs are compatible with one another—from a literary standpoint. Sure to pique the interest of bibliophiles, this delightful title will give them a whole new way to think about books.

Marple

Here’s a merry surprise for mystery fans: Miss Jane Marple is back. Marple is a collection of new stories featuring Agatha Christie’s widely hailed detective written by some of today’s top thriller writers. Ruth Ware, Lucy Foley, Dreda Say Mitchell and Alyssa Cole are among the dozen authors who salute the sleuth in this spine-tingling anthology. 

Christie introduced Jane Marple in the 1927 story “The Tuesday Night Club.” An elderly spinster and first-rate cracker of crimes from the quiet village of St. Mary Mead, England, Miss Marple appeared in 12 Christie novels, becoming one of the most beloved figures in detective fiction.  

In the new volume, fresh mysteries take Miss Marple to far-flung locales. A cruise ship headed for Hong Kong is the setting for Jean Kwok’s “The Jade Empress,” which finds Miss Marple investigating the death of a fellow passenger. In Alyssa Cole’s “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan,” sinister events plague a Broadway rehearsal, where the lady detective is providentially in attendance.  

Miss Marple logs many a mile in these new adventures, and fans will be elated to find that she remains a redoubtable force when faced with a case. The new stories are suspenseful and—of course—deliciously cozy. What’s not to love about more Miss Marple?  

Revenge of the Librarians

Bibliophiles will find a kindred spirit in cartoonist Tom Gauld, whose clever new collection, Revenge of the Librarians, is all about books and the literary life. 

The setting of the volume’s opening strip is a world taken over by librarians—a what-if tale of terrific proportions compactly recounted in five panels. “With superior organizational skills, they quickly seized power,” Gauld writes. “Opponents were mercilessly shushed. Every building was converted into a library.” 

Gauld’s perfectly pithy cartoons feature soft background colors and emphatic silhouettes. Arch humor abounds as he drops amusing author allusions, spoofs the literary establishment and plays with writer stereotypes. Ardent memoirist and precious poet, tormented novelist and cutthroat critic—none are exempt from his pen. Gauld also lampoons hallowed literary traditions. The titles in the cartoon “Summer Reading for Conspiracy Theorists” include Slaughterhouse 5G and The Old Man and the CIA. In “Waiting for Godot to Join the Zoom Meeting,” Vladimir and Estragon sit expectantly before their computers, but alas: “Nobody comes. Nobody goes.” 

Gauld, whose work has appeared in The Believer and the New York Times, gets up to all manner of literary mischief in this quick-witted, must-have collection for book buffs.

If you’re shopping for someone who always has books on the brain, we’ve got your gift needs all wrapped up.

In her fascinating and frank debut, Butts: A Backstory, journalist Heather Radke ponders why this body part is so polarizing, the collective cultural obsession so enduring. 

As the author notes in her introduction, “Butts are a bellwether. The feelings we have about butts are almost always indicative of other feelings—feelings about race, gender, and sex.” Radke explores the societal forces that underlie such feelings as she guides readers on an impressively well-researched tour of butts throughout history, beginning with a functional analysis (hominids and horses take center stage) and ultimately alighting in the present (twerking, social media and celebrity butts).

Heather Radke shares why now was the perfect time for a thoughtful exploration of this cheeky topic.

In between, Radke considers the persistent, pernicious attitude toward women’s bodies as things to critique. She shares the story of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman of the Khoe tribe who was effectively enslaved and exhibited in England and France in the early 1800s under the guise of scientific inquiry. From there, Radke segues into eugenics and its emphasis on big butts as supposed markers of sexual deviance.

These so-called scientific endeavors have had a ripple effect, Radke explains, influencing media and pop culture, creeping into beauty standards and body image. She offers examples of butt-obsessed media with positive posterior impacts, too; a deep dive into the 1992 hip-hop sensation “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot is entertaining and edifying, and Beyoncé’s 2001 hit “Bootylicious” gets a shoutout as well.

Radke also touches on fitness sensations (“Buns of Steel”) and fashion trends (Victorian bustles), as well as her complicated feelings about her own “generous” butt. While she, like so many others, has felt shame about her body shape, Radke also believes that “a close examination of the parts of ourselves that can feel unbearable . . . can be transformative.” Certainly, Butts can usher readers onto this more positive path, thanks to its top-notch reportage, assured and respectful voice and invitation to butt-centric contemplation.

In Butts: A Backstory, journalist Heather Radke ponders why this body part is so polarizing, the collective cultural obsession so enduring.
Feature by

Documentary filmmaker and historian Ken Burns believes that photographs are portals “not just to a different time and space but also to dimensions and possibilities within myself.” Through photographs and illustrations, these books are guaranteed to transport you.

Apollo Remastered

Book jacket image for Apollo Remastered by Andy Saunders

Apollo Remastered: The Ultimate Photographic Record is a weighty, large-format coffee table book that beams readers right into its cosmic world. The original NASA film from the Apollo missions (which includes some 35,000 images) has been safely secured inside a frozen vault at the Johnson Space Center, but new technology has allowed digital restoration expert Andy Saunders to painstakingly remaster this treasure trove of photographs, many of which have never been published. The results are pure magic, full of clarity, sharpness and color that make readers feel like part of the team—a far cry from those grainy images that were broadcast on TV at the time. 

During their spaceflights, many astronauts were shocked by how moved they felt looking back at Earth, and readers will see why. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell notes, “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.” Apollo 9’s Rusty Schweickart recommends reading this book at night, surrounded by darkness and silence, to allow the gleaming spacecraft and spacesuits to shimmer and shine.

Our America

Book jacket image for Our America by Ken Burns

In the tradition of Walker Evans’ groundbreaking 1938 book, American Photographs, Ken Burns has assembled a collection of his favorite images in Our America: A Photographic History. “I’ve needed forty-five years of telling stories in American history, of diving deep into lives and moments, places and huge events, to accrue the visual vocabulary to embark on this book,” he writes in his introduction. 

These black-and-white photographs are arranged chronologically from 1839 to 2019, with only one on each page for full visual impact. They’re labeled by date and place (at least one for each state), with fuller explanations at the back of the book, and they are mesmerizing, drawing on a multitude of personalities, emotions and events. The images depict the brutally scarred back of an enslaved man, decomposing bodies at Gettysburg, frozen Niagara Falls, a 1909 game of alley baseball in Boston, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Elvis onstage and, finally, a stunning portrait of Congressman John Lewis from 2019.

Illustrated Black History

Book jacket image for Illustrated Black History by George McCalman

For Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen, artist, designer and creative director George McCalman created 145 original portraits spotlighting Black pioneers in many fields, each accompanied by a short biographical essay. Moving alphabetically from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to cinematographer Bradford Young, McCalman uses a bold array of acrylics, watercolors, pen and ink and colored pencils, to capture each personality in an individualized way. “I document body language, I document exuberance, I document pain,” he writes. “I draw like a reporter because I am a reporter.” 

McCalman began this project by challenging himself to paint one such portrait every day for a month, and the result overflows with energy and color. His choices are inspiring and well-rounded, running the gamut from Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin to activist Alicia Garza and food journalist Toni Tipton-Martin.

My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy

Book jacket image for My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy by Clint Hill

Despite the mountains of books already written about the Kennedys, I couldn’t put down My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy, a conversational memoir and very personal photo album by Clint Hill. A former Secret Service agent who served under five U.S. presidents, Hill was present during John F. Kennedy’s assassination and later assigned to the first lady and her children. He’s written other books about those experiences, including several with his wife and co-author, Lisa McCubbin Hill. 

This book was sparked by the process of cleaning out the garage of Hill’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, going through boxes of memorabilia, including a forgotten steamer trunk. Dialogue between the co-authors makes the book immensely readable as they discuss their discoveries and Hill’s memories. Numerous photos bring each scene to life, capturing intimate moments that reveal the first family’s personalities, especially that of Jackie. Of their relationship, Hill writes, “It wasn’t romantic. But it was beyond friendship. We could communicate with a look or a nod.”

The Only Woman

Book jacket image for The Only Woman by Immy Humes

The Only Woman is a unique gallery of group portraits that contain a lone female figure surrounded by men. There’s Marie Curie, for instance, with her head in her hand, looking downright bored among a group of suited scientists at a 1911 conference in Belgium. There’s 9-year-old Ab Hoffman, who earned a spot on a Canadian hockey team for one season in 1956 because her coaches hadn’t noticed her gender. In a 1982 photo, a white male U.S. Army Diver candidate sneers at Andrea Motley Crabtree, a Black woman who made the training cut when he didn’t. “Most of the men hated me being there,” Crabtree recalls. “He couldn’t understand how I was better than him.” 

Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Immy Humes provides concise commentary throughout her collection, which spans from 1862 to 2020. She speaks to “the pleasure of spotting them, and then, most of all, the mystery of them: What was she doing there?”

Affinities

Affinities book cover

In need of some creative downtime? Curl up with the hefty Affinities: A Journey Through Images From the Public Domain Review and lose yourself in a delightfully imaginative, visionary game. The book’s 350-plus pages contain a miscellany of images arranged to showcase unexpected similarities. For example, one section features the shapes of outstretched arms as seen in a 16th-century drawing of a mechanical arm, an image of the Borghese Gladiator sculpture, a John Singleton Copley painting and—of all things—a photo of damage sustained to the bow of the HMS Broke during a World War I battle. 

With images old and new from around the world, all selected from the archive of the Public Domain Review, this is a book designed for random perusal. Some images come with suggested paths to different pages, creating a sort of chutes-and-ladders effect. As explained in the introduction, the result is “a maze of rootlike cut-throughs that allow you to move through the book in different ways, to disrupt the sequence and carve through your own serpentine trajectory.”

The armchair historian’s wish list isn’t a tough nut to crack. Just give them a great book.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Nonfiction

Author Interviews

Recent Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!