Dan Slater’s vibrant The Incorruptibles chronicles the homegrown vice squad that took down New York City’s most notorious turn-of-the-century gangsters.
Dan Slater’s vibrant The Incorruptibles chronicles the homegrown vice squad that took down New York City’s most notorious turn-of-the-century gangsters.

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T.S. Eliot wrote, “There’s no vocabulary / For love within a family . . . the love within which / All other love finds speech. / This love is silent.” Not so for Nicole Treska, as she introduces her rogues’ gallery of a family in her debut memoir, Wonderland: A Tale of Hustling Hard and Breaking Even. Treska knows her family’s vocabulary by heart and speaks it with equal parts love, loyalty, chagrin and ambivalence. She paints her hometown of Boston with the same vibrant detail, offering both cityscape and cultural backdrop. Legendary attractions like the Hilltop, Kowloon and the Golden Banana strip club come alive, along with cherished and not-so-cherished memories of her family, some of them long gone but living on in their own notoriety.

Treska begins by envisioning the eponymous Wonderland, a short-lived, early-1900s amusement park on Boston’s Revere Beach. “Of course,” Treska writes, “we revered some kind of permanence—something to point to and say, ‘I came from right here.’ . . . There was yearning in what remained.” In this spirit, Treska dives into her family history. Her grandfather was a bookie for the infamous Whitey Bulger. His diner was host to the Winter Hill Gang, an Irish mob syndicate that dominated the city in the ’60s and ’70s: “They ran books and armed the IRA and engaged in your typical mob-type behavior: racketeering, robbery, drugs, murder.” When her father, Phil, worked at the diner, he took bets from “all the gamblers and wiseguys around town” and later did a stint in prison for federal drug trafficking. “My family met the devil regularly,” Treska notes dryly.

Meanwhile, Treska was the first to graduate from college, and she became an adjunct professor at City College of New York. But she notes, too, her skill at swapping price tags on artwork and stealing accessories for her Harlem apartment. She also became smart at tricking her landlord and profiting from the Airbnb rental of one of her bedrooms. “Begging, borrowing, and stealing were the only way I knew how to build a life, but I did build.”

Treska’s reckoning of her two lives—rising success in New York and her family’s heavy legacy of poverty and crime in Boston—continues. Phil gambles. “He breathed, he lied, he gambled, and then all the rest that makes up a life,” Treska writes. “I loved my father. And how do you love a thief?” For those who, like Treska, may have some skeletons in their family closet, Wonderland holds both good and bad news: We can honor them with our fonder memories, but the damage they caused may yet linger. But still, family is something to point to, to say, “I came from right here.”

Nicole Treska explores memory and legacy as she introduces her rogues’ gallery of a family in her debut memoir, Wonderland.
Despite its snappy, hardboiled style, Tracy O'Neill's memoir is a deeply human story of a search for home.
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In White Poverty: How Exposing Myths About Race and Class Can Reconstruct American Democracy, MacArthur fellow and activist-pastor William J. Barber II makes the logical but nonetheless surprising point that, even though poverty has a disproportionately high impact on Black Americans, there is a vastly greater number of white people living in poverty, leading lives of unacknowledged despair in plain view. Yet we often equate poverty with Black communities, and as a result, poverty and all its ills are seen as a “Black problem.” 

Barber argues that this equation is based on four racist myths that deliberately divide poor white people from poor Black people, and prevent them from uniting against the policies and structures that favor the rich and powerful. These myths—among them that all white people share common ground, regardless of economic and social status—both justify and perpetuate our malign neglect of the poor. His examination of each myth, from its cause to its effect, exposes that what we were told were fundamental truths about poverty were actually dog whistles and racist tropes. 

But, important as this lesson is, Barber’s most powerful message is that if these myths are dismissed, and if poor white people recognize that they have far more in common with poor Black people, they could unite to demand living wages, access to health care and safe housing. Barber calls this union a “moral fusion,” and his descriptions of the power that is unleashed when Black and white poor people discover their common ground are the most hopeful and powerful passages in White Poverty. For example, a queer, poor, white woman named Lakin gave testimony at a Black church about the debilitating isolation of white poverty and the fear it engenders. By exposing the wounds of white poverty, Lakin created a space for empathy and understanding—and action.

White Poverty resonates like a powerful sermon. Like Jeremiah, Amos and other Old Testament prophets, Barber condemns the injustice perpetrated on the poor. And also like them, Barber offers a hopeful way forward to a more just and equitable society.

In White Poverty, William J. Barber II urges poor white and Black people to unite against the policies that favor the rich and powerful.
Why We Photograph Animals encourages us to think deeply about the creatures that share our world—and our responsibilities toward them and our planet.

Hair can instill empowerment and confidence. It can also cause stress and anxiety, especially when it doesn’t fit Eurocentric perceptions of beauty. Tomesha Faxio, a self-taught documentary photographer, sets out to debunk myths about Black women’s natural hair and celebrate the rituals surrounding its care in her loving photo-essay book Wash Day: Passing on the Legacy, Rituals, and Love of Natural Hair.

Combining touching photography of mothers and daughters with a descriptive history of natural hair, Faxio explains how Black women and their hair have been misunderstood and misrepresented for centuries, and how the pressure to straighten and relax naturally curly, textured hair is a symptom of racism. By also focusing on the bonding that occurs on wash day between mothers and daughters, Faxio demonstrates that Black hair and beauty rituals can and should be honored. With its exquisite photography and heartfelt personal messages, the visually stunning Wash Day fills a gap regarding what it means for Black women not just to embrace their natural hair, but their whole selves.

With its exquisite photography and heartfelt profiles, Wash Day celebrates Black women’s natural hair.
Decades before Prohibition-era gangsters controlled New York City, a clever, driven crime boss had the town under her thumb. Margalit Fox tells all in The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum.
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Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, Americans have spent much time interpreting its meaning. As Corey Brettschneider, a professor at Brown University who teaches constitutional law and politics, points out in his informative and stimulating The Presidents and the People: Five Leaders Who Threatened Democracy and the Citizens Who Fought to Defend It, “two ingredients—popular sovereignty and a powerful executive—are an odd pair for the same constitutional system.” For many reasons, presidents can be tempted to overreach, but in our democracy, the legitimacy of the government comes from the preamble to the Constitution: “We the people.” The author reminds us that “The Supreme Court is not the final arbiter of constitutional meaning” and “constitutional rights throughout American history are won by citizens prevailing upon the political branches, not by courts proclaiming them out of thin air.”

This carefully researched book explores in detail how presidents in different eras abused their power. The Presidents and the People presents a litany of their misdeeds. When John Adams signed the Sedition Act in 1798, he targeted editors of newspapers owned by his political opponents, and at least 126 defendants were prosecuted as a result. The policies of James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Woodrow Wilson advanced slavery, guaranteed white supremacy after the Civil War and nationalized Jim Crow, respectively. And then there’s Richard Nixon, who ordered his aides to abscond with potentially damning evidence that proved he undermined democracy in the wake of the discovery of the Pentagon Papers. 

But concerned individuals who responded to these presidents’ anti-democratic approaches are, Brettschneider writes, “a testament to the power of citizens to push past authoritarian moments toward democratic ones.” No one of them is more important than Frederick Douglass, who is featured prominently in four separate chapters. His influence on Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant was crucial, as was his decision to support the Constitution rather than abandon it as other abolitionists advocated. Others who fought against abuse include journalists William Monroe Trotter and Ida B. Wells, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. 

These Americans stand as beacons of decency and hope, who sought to see the Constitution’s promise of “We the people” secured. Anyone interested in the ups and downs of American history should be inspired by reading about the courageous citizens who challenged powerful leaders and changed the direction of the nation.  

Corey Brettschneider’s carefully researched The Presidents and the People chronicles American heads of state who abused their power, and people who stood up to them.
In the inspirational The Garden Against Time, Olivia Laing restores a long-neglected garden, and makes a case for sharing our outdoor spaces.

“Rat stories are like ghost stories: everybody has one,” writes British author Joe Shute at the start of Stowaway: The Disreputable Exploits of the Rat. Shute’s own original rat story involves going to an alley to watch a ratcatcher and his trained dogs at work. The rats escaped down a sewer, sparing the author the carnage of a rat versus dog encounter. 

Still, it was unsettling. After all, as Shute points out, rats have long loomed as fearsome creatures in our imaginations. “We are obsessed as a society with the notion of rats mustering in the gloom and waiting to invade our lives,” he writes. That’s not surprising, given history. Although it’s now thought that the 14th-century bubonic plague was spread by lice and fleas, rats still shoulder the blame for the death of millions.  

To challenge his own biases and overcome his fears, the author purchased two dumbo rats, Molly and Ermintrude. In the early days of their relationship, Shute walked a “tightrope between disgust and fascination,” but as he continued his “rat therapy,” he was amazed by their social habits and how responsive the rats were to his touch. In fact, Shute interviewed a neuroscientist who, while exploring the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and the loss of touch on humans, studied—wait for it—how tickling rats impacted their behavior and hormone levels. (Conclusion: Touch helps both humans and rats build resistance against stress.)

One fascinating section delves into how rats help humans in unexpected ways. Shute traveled to Tanzania to learn about Apopo, an organization that trains rats to detect landmines as well as tuberculosis. Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, was awarded a Dickin medal for sniffing out landmines in Cambodia. “Not for the first time,” writes Shute, “rats are cleaning up humanity’s mess.” And, of course, rats have been used since the 1800s in laboratories that study human diseases. That use has accelerated, in part because, as Shute points out, almost all human genes associated with disease have counterparts in the rat genome. 

Stowaway may not be an obvious choice as a gift for a family member who loves animals. But it will undoubtedly be enjoyed. Be prepared, though: You may end up with your own rat experiment. In Shute’s family, Molly and Ermintrude were joined by Aggy and Reyta, forming a rat colony. In getting to know the rat better, Shute did not find a creature with no redeeming qualities, but “empathy, cooperation, mischief, fun, loyalty and resilience.”

In the entertaining Stowaway, Joe Shute explores and exalts the resilient, cooperative, derided and, ultimately, misunderstood rat.
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National Book Award-winning author Tiya Miles has tackled a variety of tough, intriguing subjects in books like Wild Girls and All That She Carried. She felt stymied, however, as she approached the life of the legendary Harriett Tubman. As one friend told her, “No one could catch her then. It’s going to be hard to catch her now.” 

And yet that is exactly what Miles so beautifully achieves in Night Flyer: Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People. One of the biggest hurdles Miles faced was Tubman’s illiteracy, which meant her life experiences were all documented by others—“typically white, middle-class, antislavery women who recorded her speech and told her story.” Despite the roadblock of such “swamped sources,” often “submerged in the perspectives and biases of others,” Miles applauds a number of existing traditional biographies. As she explains, her goal was not to replicate these, but rather to explore Tubman’s eco-spiritual worldview. 

In her trademark deeply researched, thoughtful and exquisite prose, Miles successfully avoids popular depictions of Tubman as a superwoman “prepackaged in a box of stock stories and folksy sayings” among other “abolitionist avengers.” Instead, she places her firmly within the realm of Black female faith culture, noting that she was “one of a kind—singularly special and part of a cultural collective.” To illuminate Tubman’s spiritual purview, Miles delves into several memoirs written or dictated by Black women evangelists of Tubman’s time, writing that their relationships with the divine mandated “challenging entrenched social systems of racial and gender subjugation at the risk of [their] own safety, health, and social acceptance”

Calling her “arguably the most famous Black woman ecologist in U.S. history,” Miles also brings to life the haunting sights, sounds and dark, bewildering moments that Tubman experienced as she led herself and others to safety through the night wilderness. Tubman studied the plants, animals and stars as a matter of necessity for survival, believing that these god-given guides were proof of the need for spiritual and political liberation. 

Often, when Tubman told her story to biographers, she touched the writer, as if “by laying her hand on this person, her feelings may be transmitted.” With Night Flyer, Tiya Miles seems to transmit the weight of her subject’s hand and heart.

With the exquisite Night Flyer, Tiya Miles looks at Harriet Tubman from an entirely new perspective: her spirituality.

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