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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.
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“What an amazing world we live in today,” Laura Baanstra said. She was speaking at a 2018 press conference to announce the scientific process that had been used to solve the 1987 murders of her brother and his girlfriend. The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder details this brutal crime, the failed efforts to solve it and how its eventual unraveling led to the first genetic genealogy murder trial. Fans of Michelle McNamara’s acclaimed I’ll Be Gone in the Dark should clear their schedules, because Edward Humes’ riveting account is nearly impossible to put down.

Pulitzer Prize winner Humes is no stranger to true crime writing. His 16 books include Mississippi Mud: Southern Justice and the Dixie Mafia and Burned: A Story of Murder and the Crime That Wasn’t. In The Forever Witness, he takes on the murders of 20-year-old Jay Cook and 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg, who set out by van from Victoria Island, Canada, to Seattle, Washington, to pick up a furnace for Jay’s father. Baanstra vividly remembers waving goodbye to her brother as he drove away in the family van for what was meant to be a quick overnight trip. Instead, Tanya’s body was dumped alongside a lonely road in Washington, Jay’s body was tossed over a bridge, and the van was abandoned. There were no eyewitnesses, no way of knowing what happened and little physical evidence, except for semen and a palm print on one of the van’s rear doors.

Hume’s account brings the young victims alive: Tanya, a photography buff planning to head to Europe as an au pair, and Jay, a kindhearted soul toying with becoming a marine biologist. Their families’ ongoing anguish is palpable, and details of the police investigation offer sharp reminders of how difficult such cases were to solve before the advent of technology such as cell phones and surveillance cameras, not to mention widespread DNA processing. 

Deputy Sheriff James Scharf had been working the graveyard shift in Snohomish County, Washington, when he got an alert to be on the lookout for the missing Canadian couple. Decades later, after becoming a cold case investigator, he would take the case to CeCe Moore, a self-taught genetic genealogist featured on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Her amazing detective work—done in just two hours from her couch—led the authorities to William Earl Talbott II, a truck driver with no criminal convictions or known connection to the victims. Along the way, Hume explains the advent of DNA technology and databases in highly readable terms and examines the continuing debate about their use.

With over 30 years separating the crime from the arrest and trial, Hume does an exceptional job of navigating the vast time frame and re-creating the victims’ last journey. The results are heartbreaking as well as heart pounding. The Forever Witness has earned a well-deserved place among top-notch true crime reads.

Fans of Michelle McNamara’s acclaimed I’ll Be Gone in the Dark should clear their schedules, because Edward Humes’ The Forever Witness is nearly impossible to put down.

Who would have thought a discussion about the intelligence (or lack thereof) of humans and animals could be so fascinating and fun? Such is the case in If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity (7 hours), thanks to the conversational prowess and keen (I’ll go ahead and say it) intellect of behavioral scientist Justin Gregg.

Gregg excels as both author and narrator, laying out arguments for and against humankind’s intellectual advancements in concise, accessible language. With witty commentary and humorous anecdotes, he draws comparisons to our counterparts in the animal kingdom, who appear to be doing just fine without technology, political discourse or overriding ambitions for power, wealth or popularity. 

Each of the seven chapters starts with a thought-provoking passage from German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, whose criticisms of the human condition laid the groundwork for modern thinkers. In whimsical fashion, Gregg breaks down Nietzsche’s arguments into easily digestible chunks of information. All in all, it’s a joy for listeners.


Image of author Justin Gregg

Read more: Justin Gregg, author of If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal, extols the virtues of stupid animals.

Behavioral scientist Justin Gregg excels as both author and narrator, laying out arguments for and against humankind’s intellectual advancements in concise, accessible language.
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Adam Rutherford (A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Humanimal) earned his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. from University College London, including several years studying in the university’s Galton Laboratory. This straightforward sentence hides a deep irony. As readers of his book How to Argue With a Racist know, Rutherford is passionately anti-eugenics—while Francis Galton, for whom the Galton Laboratory is named, was the 19th-century scientist who coined the term eugenics and pioneered its ideology.

Divided into two distinct parts, Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics first outlines the history of eugenics, then lays out the scientific, ethical and moral arguments against it. The history is messy indeed. Galton and his contemporaries were brilliant scientists, statisticians and polymaths—but also white supremacists with repugnant ideas. First hailed as a way to promote positive attributes in humanity, eugenics quickly devolved into a racist movement that used mass sterilization and even murder to remove people with “undesirable” traits such as alcoholism, Down syndrome and schizophrenia from the human gene pool. Eugenics laws in the United States inspired Nazi euthanasia laws, and the Nazi classification of races owes a lot to the American model. Most ironically, the pseudoscience of eugenics gave birth to the actual science of genetics.

Rutherford believes this history is not over. He fears the politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs who use eugenic ideas for their own advancement or profit, and this fear gives the second half of the book its power. Rutherford has faith in science. It is genetics, he argues, that provides the best proof that eugenics has never and will never work. Our genome is too complex and intertwined for scientists to cleanly pluck negative traits from or insert positive traits into our biological makeup.

Eugenics is not science, Rutherford explains, but the corruption of science for the purpose of controlling people who are weak, vulnerable and poor. And it is this very corruption, as Control clearly demonstrates, that makes eugenics’ followers unworthy to determine who is and isn’t worthy of life.

Adam Rutherford builds on his previous works in Control, a powerful book that outlines the history of eugenics and offers impassioned arguments against it.

Astrophysicist Moiya McTier gives a stellar performance of her book The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy (6.5 hours), a thoroughly entertaining and mind-expanding exploration of our galaxy as told in the first-person voice of the Milky Way itself. McTier’s unique portrayal is refreshing, engaging and funny as she imbues the galaxy with a sassy, grandiose tone—rightly so, given its galactic grandness. 

McTier’s love affair with the universe began when she was a child, and this early appreciation of celestial aesthetics developed into a lifelong devotion to the logical data-driven science of astronomy. McTier’s down-to-earth style makes this science approachable, giving listeners the opportunity to experience a cognitive shift—to form their own romance with the galaxy.

The Milky Way is an out-of-this-world listening experience for anyone who has ever looked up at the sky with wonder.


Moiya McTier

How did an ancient galaxy pen its own autobiography? The Milky Way explains, as dictated to Dr. McTier.

Moiya McTier’s down-to-earth style makes science approachable, giving listeners the opportunity to form their own romance with the Milky Way.

In 2010, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies provided a stunning history of cancer and medical scientists’ ongoing research into ways to overcome it. In 2016, he delivered a similarly breathtaking treatment of genetic biology in The Gene. Now, in The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human, Mukherjee tells the compelling story of cell biology and the ways that cellular engineering can help us rethink what it means to be human.

Drawing on case studies, interviews, visits with patients, scientific papers and historical archives, Mukherjee tries to understand life in terms of its smallest unit: the cell. As he puts it, he’s listening to a cell’s “music” when he observes its anatomy and the way it interacts with surrounding cells. For example, the genes, proteins and pathways used by healthy cells are “appropriated” or “commandeered” by cancer cells. “Cancer, in short, is cell biology visualized in a pathological mirror,” Mukherjee writes.

Such knowledge allows medical researchers and doctors to imagine how cellular therapy could modify a patient’s cellular structure to treat their disease or medical disorder. In one case, a girl named Emily Whitehead, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, received CAR T-cell therapy: Her own T-cells were extracted, modified to target her disease and infused back into her body. Although there was an initial setback because of an infection, the cellular therapy succeeded. Mukherjee includes other stories like Whitehead’s, as well as those of heroes such as Rudolf Virchow, who discovered that “it isn’t sufficient to locate a disease in an organ; it’s necessary to understand which cells of the organ are responsible”; John Snow, the founder of germ theory; and Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who discovered insulin.

According to Mukherjee, the cell sings of a new human who is “rebuilt anew with modified cells [and] who looks and feels (mostly) like you and me.” Using cellular engineering, he writes, “we’ve altered these humans to alleviate suffering, using a science that had to be handcrafted and carved with unfathomable labor and love, and technologies so ingenious that they stretch credulity: such as fusing a cancer cell with an immune cell to produce an immortal cell to cure cancer.” Captivating and provocative, The Song of the Cell encourages us to rethink historical approaches to medical science and imagine how cellular biology can reshape medicine and public health.

This captivating, provocative book from Pulitzer Prize winner Siddhartha Mukherjee encourages us to imagine how cellular engineering can reshape medicine.

Listening to music is a uniquely personal experience. It can evoke strong feelings and memories. It can unite us or be a source of debate. In This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You, Susan Rogers (cognitive neuroscientist and Berklee College of Music professor) and Ogi Ogas (mathematical neuroscientist and co-author of Journey of the Mind) explain why we connect with certain aspects of a record. As a producer for artists as distinct as Prince and Barenaked Ladies, Rogers calls on decades of expertise regarding the musical preferences of herself and others. This real-world experience is intertwined with both authors’ scientific explanations of how the mind processes music. It’s like two books in one: stories of some of our most beloved musicians, singers and songwriters, coupled with insights about how and why our brains decipher musical notes, melodies and lyrics in particular ways.

Rogers refers time and again to an activity called a “record pull,” a music-sharing experience where friends discover things about one another by listening to their favorite records together. “Good record pulls feature as much storytelling as music,” she writes. Each chapter features a record pull suggestion to help us understand how we connect with music. It’s a fun, informative exercise that will undoubtedly open many readers’ minds and increase their musical knowledge.

In a tone that is both logical and approachable, the two authors explain that because each brain is wired to experience rewards from different facets of music, “it is misguided to suggest that anyone’s taste in music is superior to anyone else’s.” After reading This Is What It Sounds Like, lovers of all music genres will never listen to their favorite records the same way again.

This Is What It Sounds Like is like two books in one: stories of some of our most beloved musicians coupled with insights about how our brains decipher music.

New York Times bestselling author Alexandra Horowitz (Our Dogs, Ourselves) has done it again. She’s created a heartwarming and personal story about dogs that seamlessly incorporates captivating science about our beloved canine companions. In The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves, Horowitz, a specialist in canine cognition and head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard University, follows the first year of a puppy’s life—her own family’s new puppy, as it happens.

In part one, Horowitz describes the birth and early development of their puppy, Quiddity (Quid). Many owners never experience the early weeks—or even years, with many rescues—of their dogs’ lives, and this section makes fascinating reading as Horowitz meets not just her puppy but the puppy’s mom: Maize, a young dog surrendered to a shelter in Georgia when her owners realized she was pregnant. Maize was transported to New York, where she was fostered by an experienced woman named Amy who took on responsibility for the new mom and her pups—11 in all, it turns out.

In part two, Horowitz and her family choose Quid as their own, and she traces the puppy’s weekly development and integration into their family, where every experience is new: new people, new big dogs, new cat, new house. Training at the outset consists of taking Quid out to pee every two hours and rewarding her for positive behaviors—though the puppy often moves through 12 behaviors in 10 seconds. Fortunately, there are also naps.

Horowitz writes with a gentle humor that any pet owner will appreciate. “After bringing a puppy home, that potential dog vanishes and is replaced by an actual biting, running, peeing, whining dog in our home every hour of every day,” she writes. “She bites the cat in the face and bothers the dogs, who have taken, rightfully, to just turning away in disdain.”

The book is more than an entertaining personal narrative, however. Along the way, Horowitz draws on her extensive knowledge to offer insights into canine behavior. She goes beyond training-focused instructional manuals to show that often what humans label as “misbehavior” is actually normal puppy behavior. We expect dogs to live in our world. But, as Horowitz chronicles one year in Quid’s life, she gently urges us to become more aware of the incredibly rich and complex world dogs inhabit. The better we understand our pooches, the more likely we are to succeed at providing a wonderful home for everyone.

It’s a given that for dog lovers, The Year of the Puppy is a must-read. But even cat lovers will find much to enjoy in this endearing scientific memoir.

Alexandra Horowitz has created another heartwarming and personal story that seamlessly incorporates captivating science about our canine companions.
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By and large, our enterprising American ancestors hated swamps, which they saw as obstacles to travel and agriculture. In the timeless war between swamp folk and swamp drainers, most were firmly in the latter camp—supported with vigor by the government.

Count Annie Proulx as one of the swamp folk at heart. The acclaimed author of The Shipping News, Barkskins and “Brokeback Mountain” turns her perceptive eye to the calamitous destruction of the world’s peatlands in Fen, Bog & Swamp, an information-packed short history that argues for their preservation and restoration.

As a nonscientist, Proulx explains in accessible language how fens, bogs and swamps differ by water level and vegetation, and how crucial each of these ecosystems is to a balanced environment. The very short version is that they store carbon dioxide and methane, so when peatlands are disrupted, those gases are released and contribute to the climate change crisis, which is itself one of the things causing those disruptions. Peatlands are also home to a staggering number of plant and animal species integral to a healthy ecological community.

One of Proulx’s chapters is called “Discursive Thoughts on Wetlands,” which sums up her approach. She ranges widely, both thematically and geographically, from the small Limberlost Swamp in Indiana to the huge Vasyugan Swamp in Siberia. She considers plenty of archaeology (the Shigir Idol), history (the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and literature (A Girl of the Limberlost) along the way, sprinkling in reminiscences of her own wetland encounters as well. Among the most interesting discussions are her explorations of the interactions between human and peatland, as in the ritual sacrifices later turned up as “bog bodies” by terrified peat cutters.

In truth, Proulx argues, humans are able to coexist very well with peatlands if they harvest their bounty with respect. When the drainers win, they’re usually sorry in the long run. She notes that luckily, there are a number of promising restoration projects around the world, but they’re small. It turns out it’s a lot harder to re-create a swamp than to preserve one.

Acclaimed author Annie Proulx is one of the swamp folk at heart, and in Fen, Bog & Swamp, she argues for the preservation and restoration of peatlands the world over.
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Mary Roach investigates the uneasy relationship that exists between humans and wildlife in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. Traveling to India, Vatican City and other locales, she meets with a wide cast of characters that includes predator attack investigators, a bear manager and a human-elephant conflict specialist, all in an effort to understand how humankind is striving to coexist with the animal kingdom. Roach mixes expert reporting with moving insights into the natural world while unearthing pertinent questions about wildlife and habitat preservation.

In Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives, Mark Miodownik examines the prominence of liquids (drinking water, bottled soap, the list goes on) and the critical roles they play in the modern world. The narrative is framed by a transatlantic flight during which Miodownik notes the ubiquity of liquid matter, from the fuel that powers the plane to the offerings on the airline’s refreshment cart. Illustrations and photos add an appealing visual dimension to the book, and topics like climate change and conservation will inspire lively dialogue among readers.

Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants is an engaging survey of the human physique. Bryson delves into the history of anatomy, examines the nature of disease and pain, and generally explores the ways in which our bodies function. He blends scientific fact and input from experts with humanizing anecdotes, and his trademark wit is on display throughout the proceedings. An illuminating look at the systems, organs and processes that define the human organism, The Body is filled with fascinating facts. From start to finish, it’s vintage Bryson.

Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski is a reader-friendly overview of the ways in which physics shapes our lives. Making connections between commonplace activities (popping popcorn, for instance) and larger phenomena, from weather patterns to medical technology, Czerski demonstrates that scientific processes large and small take place all around us. Over the course of nine chapters, she covers a range of fundamental physics concepts, writing in an accessible, offbeat style. With a gift for intriguing anecdotes, Czerski makes physics fun.

You don't need scientific training to enjoy these entertaining, offbeat books.

Yes, you read the title correctly. This is indeed an autobiography of our galaxy, and yes, it is nonfiction. The Milky Way’s debut book—a creative, humorous and enormously entertaining one at that—comes to us earthlings via Dr. Moiya McTier, who studied both mythology and astronomy at Harvard before earning her Ph.D. in astrophysics at Columbia University. 

The galaxy begins its life story this way: “Take a look around you, human. What do you see? Actually, don’t answer that. Why would I bother listening to you when I know you’ll get it wrong?” The Milky Way, it seems, is rather a stuck-up know-it-all. (Superior, omniscient, haughty—perhaps a bit like your cat. As Dr. McTier explains in the acknowledgements, whenever she needed to get into the Milky Way’s voice, she would look at her cat, Kosmo.) Although, once you stop to think about things from our galaxy’s perspective, it’s easy to see why. After all, the Milky Way is more than 13 billion Earth years old and home to more than 100 billion stars. Impressive, to say the least.

Read the Milky Way’s behind-the-scenes story of how an ancient galaxy managed to land a book deal.

And that’s just the beginning. In chapters covering its early years, growing pains, constellations and modern myths, the Milky Way details a page-turning life story, full of drama (massive black holes!), major changes (the death of stars!) and tumultuous relationships with neighboring galaxies, such as Andromeda. It is quite adept at explaining complex scientific concepts to us (vastly more ignorant) humans, but the most surprising aspect of this book is that the Milky Way has a buoyant sense of humor, as well as a passion for “inspiring others.”

As with any translation from another tongue, readers may marvel at the role of the translator in creating a book that is both informative and truly inspirational. Here, it’s clear Dr. McTier has harnessed the sense of marvel she felt as a child, when she imagined the sun and moon as celestial parents who watched over her and talked to her on a regular basis. That childlike wonder, combined with her expertise in mythology and astronomy, makes her the perfect human to assist in telling this story.

At any rate, since the Milky Way took the time to help us all understand more about our universe, it would be only polite to put this highly recommended title at the top of your reading list.

As told to Dr. Moiya McTier, the Milky Way details its page-turning life story, full of drama and humor.

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Leif Enger’s third novel, Virgil Wander, centers on the eponymous protagonist who lives in the quaint, rustic town of Greenstone, Minnesota. By day, Virgil begrudgingly works as the town clerk, but by night, he is the proprietor of the Empress, a fledgling movie theater that specializes in projecting its exclusive and illegal film collection. During a drive one snowy evening, Virgil’s car skids off the road and crashes into Lake Superior. Luckily, he is a saved by Marcus Jetty, the owner of the local junkyard. Virgil emerges from the accident with a fleeting grasp of language and flickering memories of his former life.

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