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Before Geena Rocero was a successful model, she was a child in the Philippines who was interested in feminine clothes. The country’s popular transgender beauty pageants drew her in first as a viewer and then as a competitor. It was in those pageants that she picked up the nickname “Horse Barbie”—a reference to both her stupendous manelike wig and her tall stature. Rocero dominated pageants throughout the late 1990s alongside a sisterhood of supportive trans beauty queens; she also began to take off-label estrogen to DIY her own medical transition. A move as a teenager to San Francisco enabled a social transition and subsequently a medical transition under a doctor’s care. 

The discrimination Rocero experienced as an Asian and Pacific Islander woman with a dark complexion made life in America difficult. But soon the long-legged beauty caught the attention of a fashion photographer in New York City, and her international modeling career took off, landing her on billboards, in music videos and even in a 2005 Complex magazine feature called “The 10 Most Beautiful Women in the World.” Yet Rocero remained closeted—and constantly afraid of being outed and potentially losing her career—for nearly a decade.    

Rocero’s life story is a completely engrossing whirlwind. Readers don’t need to have previous knowledge of the colonialist history of the Philippines, gender-affirming care for transgender people or the modeling industry to enjoy Horse Barbie. She explains everything in accessible language, imparted like a trusted friend. 

Rocero’s outsider-to-insider perspective as a Filipina immigrant underscores America’s mixed acceptance of transgender people, who, Rocero explains, are “legally recognized here but culturally misunderstood.” In the Philippines, the presence of trans folks in pageants is mainstream, but she found that many Americans only see transgender people depicted negatively or offensively on talk shows such as “Jerry Springer.” Despite her accomplishments, Rocero remained in fear of becoming a statistic of another murdered trans woman. “I had crossed an ocean for recognition,” she writes. “But what good was that recognition without safety?”

Horse Barbie is an emotionally engaging read. Rocero’s pride in her success as both a fashion model and a highly visible trans woman of color is hard won, and having the chance to read about it feels like a privilege.

Geena Rocero was a trans pageant queen in the Philippines who became a successful model in the United States. As you'd expect, her life story is a completely engrossing whirlwind.
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The appalling history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma is becoming better known, albeit a century later. But journalist Victor Luckerson understands that what happened following those horrific events, as the survivors persevered and rebuilt, is also an important part of this history. In his debut book, Built From the Fire, Luckerson tells the story of the massacre, the people who restored the Greenwood district of Tulsa after that violent night in 1921, and their descendants who continue to fuel and inspire change.

The book is divided into three parts as Luckerson chronicles the last century of Greenwood’s history. Part 1 recounts the district’s beginnings circa 1901, when a segregated slice of oil-rich Tulsa became a destination for Black Americans looking for a future that the Jim Crow South would not deliver. But hope dimmed after the widespread race riots of 1919’s “Red Summer.” Black soldiers returning from World War I, where racism in the military meant menial assignments and segregated units, found that their service also failed to earn them equality at home. Yet Greenwood prospered, with movie theaters, dance halls, restaurants, hotels and a newspaper with a distinctly Black voice.

Luckerson fills every page with humanity distilled from his prodigious research. For example, there’s Dick Rowland, a young Black worker who got caught in a malfunctioning elevator with a white girl on May 30, 1921, the day before the massacre. She screamed, and he was almost lynched. Loula Williams, a successful Black entrepreneur, escaped the mob the night of May 31 but lost almost everything she had built—and later lost her mind. Prominent community member J.H. Goodwin diverted white terrorists from his home possibly because he passed for white.

During the night, Greenwood’s thriving businesses were reduced to smoking rubble. White rioters, including many citizens who were spontaneously deputized as policemen, stormed into the area and dragged people from their homes, shot them in the street and burned everything in their path. Planes even dropped explosives as they flew low over fleeing families. Luckerson holds nothing back in this description of hell, so terrifying that for years, survivors kept silent and such lurid history went untaught. But this, as Luckerson makes clear, was only the beginning.

Part II follows Greenwood’s survivors as they began the daunting task of salvaging, rebuilding and fighting back. Their descendants reclaimed the city’s entrepreneurial spirit while becoming civil rights activists and adamant reformers. Part III brings Greenwood into the still-turbulent present, as Goodwin’s great-granddaughter Regina, a Democratic state representative, pursues a relentless legislative quest for justice. As the search for the massacre’s mass graves continues, recovery from the gentrifying urban-renewal wrecking ball of the 1970s makes progress and demands for reparations intensify, Luckerson’s point is clear: Greenwood is alive again.

Victor Luckerson’s Built From the Fire documents what happened following the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, centering the survivors who persevered and rebuilt.


Ice might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of coveted “luxury” goods. In fact, many Americans take ice for granted as a now-ubiquitous product that is dispensed out of their refrigerators and can be purchased in bags from nearly every grocery store, convenience store and gas station.

But as Amy Brady (co-editor of The World as We Knew It) explains in her new book, Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—a Cool History of a Hot Commodity, ice has indeed been a very “hot commodity” throughout history. Flash forward to today on our rapidly warming planet, and ice is in even higher demand. This paradox was not lost on Brady. As she writes, “The irony lay in the fact that I was driven to seek out and consume ice because of a phenomenon that’s eliminating ice on the planet.”

Amy Brady, author of ‘Ice,’ recounts the lost history of the doctor who invented the ice machine.

Brady found ice to be an untapped subject and did enormous amounts of research to fill in the gaps in its history. Divided into four parts that each focuses on an aspect of ice—obsession, food and drink, ice sports, and the future—Ice outlines how frozen water “profoundly has shaped the nation’s history and culture.” Commentary from food writers, scientists, physicians and historians are interspersed with historic resources such as newspaper articles, diaries and journals, creating unique connections between the past and present.

Historical facts and statistics help contextualize the important role ice has played in events like Prohibition, when breweries pivoted to other business ventures that would make use of their existing ice cellars. (Yuengling opened a dairy, Anheuser-Busch made infant formula and Pabst sold cheese.) Another especially interesting chapter covers ice’s use as a medical treatment for injuries, chronic ailments and even cancer. Throughout the book, Brady uses timelines to help illustrate the trajectory of ice’s journey from an amenity to an everyday item, emphasizing how quickly it became mainstream. Taken all together, Ice makes an important case for securing the future of those freezing cold cubes in a warming world.

Amy Brady uses commentary from food writers, scientists and physicians to illuminate how something as commonplace as ice came to shape America’s history and culture.

“On December 5, 1955, a young Black man became one of America’s founding fathers. He was twenty-six years old and knew that the role he was taking carried a potential death penalty.” With these riveting opening sentences, journalist and author Jonathan Eig pulls readers into King: A Life, his vibrantly written biography of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. This monumental book takes King down from his pedestal, revealing his flaws, needs, dreams, hopes and weariness.

King: A Life draws on recently released FBI documents, as well as other new materials, including audiotapes recorded by Coretta Scott King in the months after her husband’s death, an unpublished memoir by King’s father and unaired television footage. In cinematic fashion, Eig follows King from his childhood through his seminary and graduate school days, his marriage and his steady insistence on the reformation of a society broken by racism. As Eig points out, King developed a rhetorical style and shaped a new moral vision when he spoke to the crowd gathered at Holt Street Baptist Church to rally in support of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. “On this night, King found a new voice,” he writes. “He discovered or sensed that his purpose was not to instruct or educate; his purpose was to prophesize. With a booming voice and strident words, he marked the path for himself and for a movement.”

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King felt that the work he had begun in Montgomery was validated, but he recognized that the movement would be incomplete if it remained confined to the South. King desired to “root out racism” all over America, Eig writes, in all its “hidden and subtle and covert disguises.” He also began to turn his attention to issues beyond civil rights for Black Americans, focusing on poverty and the war in Vietnam. By the time he arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to support the sanitation workers’ strike, King was exhausted, wondering whether the “arc of justice would not bend toward freedom.” In spite of his fatigue and the lack of broader racial reform in the U.S., King refused to give up hope. On the last day of his life, he thundered in his “Promised Land” speech, “I may not get there with you. But . . . we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

Eig candidly asserts that “in hallowing King we have hollowed him.” King: A Life makes him a real human being again, one who had affairs, smoked and drank, got angry and even plagiarized. But Eig encourages readers to “embrace the complicated King, the flawed King, the human King, the radical King” if we are to achieve the kind of change King himself preached in America.

Jonathan Eig’s monumental biography takes Martin Luther King Jr. down from his pedestal, revealing his flaws, needs, dreams, hopes and weariness.
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The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not immediately bring World War II to an end. Bestselling author Evan Thomas (Ike’s Bluff) explains why in his superbly crafted military and diplomatic history Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II. “This book is a narrative of how the most destructive war in history ended—and very nearly did not,” he writes. “It asks what it was like to be one of the decent, imperfect people who made the decision to use a frighteningly powerful new weapon.” 

The three main figures, two American and one Japanese, were quite different from one another. The only thing they had in common was a desire to end the war. Henry L. Stimson, a Republican lawyer from New York, had been the secretary of state for Herbert Hoover and the secretary of war for William Howard Taft, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. His responsibilities included making decisions about the use of the atomic bomb. Thomas writes that Stimson “embodied and preached a philosophy that would make the United States, for all its flaws, the world’s essential nation: the belief that American foreign policy . . . should balance humanitarian and ethical values with cold-eyed power used in the national interest.”

The other American was General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, a West Point graduate who had been commander of strategic bombing in Europe before he was assigned the same responsibility in the Pacific. He was initially opposed to using the atomic bomb, but when the Japanese military continued to resist surrendering, he recommended dropping a third atomic bomb on Tokyo. Throughout his career, he remained deeply disturbed about the devastation and loss of life caused by these dreadful bombs.

The third man, career diplomat Shigenori Togo, became Japan’s foreign minister in 1941 and was very much against going to war with the United States. He left office for several years but returned in 1945 to take on a virtually impossible task: to push his military-led government toward surrender. As Thomas describes Japan’s predicament in 1945, “Some of the men now running the Japanese government want to bring the war to an end, but in a society where even the word surrender is forbidden, they cannot admit it.”

Whether the A-bomb should have been used at all remains a controversial subject. Thomas effectively shows, with meticulous scholarship, that even after two atomic bombs had been dropped, the most influential military leaders in Japan insisted on continuing to fight. “Had Japan fought on,” he writes, “likely many more people would have died, possibly millions more, in Asia as well as Japan.”

Drawing on a wide range of sources, including the primary figures’ diaries, Thomas makes the period come vividly alive. This moving account of three men of peace who had to make life or death decisions will interest history lovers everywhere.

Contrary to popular belief, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not immediately bring World War II to an end. In his new book, Evan Thomas explains why.
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In 2018, a group of protestors demanded the removal of a statue in New York City of J. Marion Sims, known as the “father of gynecology.” Sims was given this title for inventing a surgery in the mid-1800s to treat vesico-vaginal fistulas, holes between someone’s vagina and bladder or intestines (or both) that are usually caused by difficult childbirth. He developed his technique through horrific experiments performed on three enslaved women named Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, without either anesthesia or meaningful consent. Anarcha endured at least 30 experiments, but her condition never improved, mainly because Sims’ approach was ineffective—and frequently fatal. Say Anarcha: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women’s Health is Guggenheim fellow J.C. Hallman’s dual biography of Sims and Anarcha.

Sims, a shameless self-promoter, provided Hallman with an ample record to work with. His memoirs, articles and newspaper notices (written primarily by Sims himself) make it clear that he was dangerously, violently misogynist and racist. Cloaked by his medical degree and bolstered by a system that transformed human beings into disposable property, Sims was able to perform acts of brutality on Lucy, Betsey and Anarcha with impunity. And they were not his only victims: After perfecting his “cure,” Sims and his adherents maimed or killed women of all classes, from enslaved people to countesses.

Hallman’s greater challenge was reconstructing Anarcha’s life. The structure of chattel slavery ensured that the few references to Anarcha in the historical record merely reflected her status as property, leaving Hallman with the dilemma of how to tell the true story of a woman whom history had almost entirely erased. Historian Tiya Miles confronted a similar issue in All That She Carried, a brilliant reconstruction of the life of another enslaved woman and her descendants. Like Miles, Hallman uses the technique of “creative fabulation”—consulting various oral and written histories from Anarcha’s lifetime to creatively fill in the gaps within an archive distorted by racism and misogyny. The result is a nuanced and sympathetic speculative portrait of a woman who would otherwise remain anonymous.

Double biographies are fairly unusual and tend to be about people who were linked together in the minds of their contemporaries. But Anarcha was not associated with Sims in the public mind because Sims took great pains to ensure that she would not be—not because of any shame he felt about exploiting an enslaved woman but because the recurrence of her fistulas belied Sims’s narrative. Hallman’s determination to bring Anarcha out of obscurity restores her humanity and allows readers to reexamine the corrupt foundations of women’s health care.

Say Anarcha is J.C. Hallman’s dual biography of the so-called “father of gynecology” and the enslaved woman he experimented on without anesthesia or meaningful consent.
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Every collection of Samantha Irby essays—this is her fourth, following 2020’s Wow, No Thank You.—is a masterclass in situating pitch-perfect comedy and deep sincerity side by side. Irby’s appeal, at least to this reader, has always been how she’s found humor in some of life’s most difficult experiences, including losing both parents when she was a teenager and living with chronic illness.

In Irby’s new book, Quietly Hostile, she’s still sharing her delightfully bizarre opinions—like in the essay “Dave Matthews’ Greatest Romantic Hits,” which ranks 14 of the musician’s tenderest songs in an attempt to convince people that her love for him is not a bit. Irby also hits readers right in the feels with essays about complicated families, like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” about reconnecting with her older brother after 25 years. And as always, there are numerous gross-but-mostly-funny pieces about bodily fluids, including but not limited to diarrhea, peeing her pants and peeing on a sexual partner.

Yet Irby’s rising profile as a bestselling author and cult favorite television producer has had an impact on her Everywoman relatability. Quietly Hostile contains classic Irby humor, but her well-deserved success means the subjects she applies that humor to have irrevocably changed. For example, a handful of the essays are about writing for TV, including for Aidy Bryant’s Hulu comedy “Shrill” and HBO’s “Sex and the City” reboot. In this context, the otherwise on-brand diarrhea jokes (“During my interview I said ‘Can I give Carrie diarrhea?’ and I was hired immediately”) feel somewhat awkward. There is a dissonance between her self-deprecation and the reality that “Sex and the City” creator Michael Patrick King specifically reached out to Irby’s agent to ask if she’d be interested in writing for the new show.

This dissonance aside, Quietly Hostile is still very much worth a read. Irby is a truly hilarious writer and mines laughs from the wildest situations (even a trip to the emergency room for anaphylactic shock). And as a 40-something Black woman, a Midwesterner and a stepmother, she brings a unique and underrepresented perspective to the humor shelf of your local bookstore. This newest version of Irby’s unhinged yet subtly complex humor may not quite capture the magic of previous iterations, but she’s still someone who can (and did) write hundreds of words about what to do if you clog a public toilet—and you’ve got to admit, that’s pretty special.

Samantha Irby’s fourth essay collection plays the hits, offering readers a masterclass in situating pitch-perfect comedy and deep sincerity side by side.
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New York City-based book publicist-turned-writer Amelia Possanza dedicates her book “to all the queers, ordinary and extraordinary, whose names have been destroyed by history, and to the rosy-fingered custodians of the queer archive.” Possanza is one such rosy-fingered custodian, a queer person attracted to the archives not just to understand history but also to understand her own story. “I was certain that if I uncovered enough lesbians in history, they would reveal a message or a lesson, a blueprint of how I might build my own life,” she writes.

Possanza’s debut book, Lesbian Love Story, is part archival research and part memoir. It includes seven chapters, each of which historicizes a lesbian love story. While the chapter on Sappho harkens back to antiquity, the other six span the 1890s through the 1990s, offering a lively lesbian mix: golf star Babe Didrikson Zaharias, groundbreaking memoirist Mary Casal, Chicana activist and writer Gloria Anzaldua and others. Possanza digs into the details of their lives with passionate engagement, frequently turning the narrative from the archival subject back to herself and exploring personal topics vis-a-vis these historical women: gender identity, the vagaries and politics of cross-dressing, the insidious narrowness of second-wave feminism, friendship, power dynamics in relationships and, most of all, obsessive love.

“In case it isn’t obvious yet,” Possanza writes in a late chapter, “I am an unforgivable romantic. I love love. Not as a means to an end, a steppingstone on the path to marriage and children, but as a surrender to passion, even when it’s surely doomed. Obsessive, selfish love that feasts on its own ruin.” As she unearths these romantic stories, Possanza also identifies the gaps within them, the moments when she wants to know more. To fill these silences, she imagines the scenes she longs to see, engaging with history not as a disembodied historian but as a young lesbian who wants answers, who wants to find her people. Though a blueprint does not, and cannot, neatly emerge from this sea of stories, Possanza does find the space, movement and complexity provided by a multifaceted past to buoy her ongoing becoming.

Amelia Possanza weaves her own memories through seven moving lesbian love stories from the archives in her debut book.

Are lesbian bars endangered places? Down from a high of 206 bars recorded in 1987, there are currently only 20+ of these beloved, sticky, red-painted bars left in the U.S. Moby Dyke, the chronicle of Krista Burton’s obsessive quest to visit each of these remaining bars, offers readers a hilarious and affectionate investigation into the past and future of queer gathering spots.

Traveling from San Francisco to New York City, from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Mobile, Alabama, Burton visits both historic neighborhood bars and newer nightclubs, talking to owners and patrons about why they love these bars and who is welcome there. Virtually every bar Burton visited is lesbian-owned but welcomes everyone, including the full range of queer identities: trans men and women, nonbinary folks and the emerging generation of gender-diverse young queers. Burton also asks why so many gay bars for cisgender men continue to thrive as exclusive spaces, while lesbian bars thrive on inclusion.

An accomplished and very funny journalist, Burton is able to track serious issues around queer belonging in a fresh and lively voice. The personal narrative underlying her pursuit of lesbian bars—including her marriage to Davin, a trans man, and coming out to her conservative Mormon family—is as topical and good-humored as the interviews and reportage contained here. 

Burton’s road trip was also shaped by COVID-19, and her experiences reveal how the isolation of the pandemic stoked a real hunger for the joy of being with others in crowded, sweaty rooms, singing karaoke, partaking in dildo races and people-watching (after showing a vaccination card, of course). Even the details about the economics of Burton’s quest (such as how to fund a road trip on a book advance while still working a day job) offer a fascinating glimpse into the reality of a writer’s life. 

Burton’s portrait of the evolution of lesbian bars into communal spaces offers a timely and engaging snapshot of queer life in America.

Krista Burton’s obsessive quest to visit each lesbian bar in the U.S. offers a hilarious and affectionate investigation into the past and future of queer gathering spots.
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At the intersection of books on witchcraft, creative writing guides and poetry anthologies alights Poetry as Spellcasting: Poems, Essays, and Prompts for Manifesting Liberation and Reclaiming Power, which manages to pull off something utterly unique.

Centering the experiences and perspectives of writers of color and queer writers, the contributors’ essays honor the work of Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Selah Saterstrom and Rainer Maria Rilke, among others. They examine the connections among poetry, prayer and chant, and they explore the liberation that can come with revision. One writing prompt invites readers to compose a letter to an “absent presence” or an ancestor; another provides instructions for writing a collective poem with friends. “In this book,” editors Tamiko Beyer, Destiny Hemphill and Lisbeth White conclude, “we remember how the nexus between ritual and poetry can be a sacred container to manifest change and transformation.”

At the intersection of books on witchcraft, creative writing guides and poetry anthologies alights the utterly unique Poetry as Spellcasting.
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In Archives of Joy: Reflections on Animals and the Nature of Being, French Canadian author Jean-François Beauchemin looks back, around and into the mystic, to great effect. His brief and often breathtaking reflections on creatures he has encountered throughout his life meld into a salve for the troubled, weary or distracted mind and will appeal to fans of Brian Doyle, Ross Gay and Margaret Renkl.

In a one-paragraph essay called “Useful,” Beauchemin writes, “It might be said that I am rummaging around a lot in that great big suitcase of my childhood, but why the devil do we age, if it is not to encounter ourselves once more?” In “A Visitor,” he recounts a spiritual encounter from childhood, when “I had just learned my dog’s life expectancy was only fourteen years.” Immediately after reading this piece, I snapped a picture of it and sent it to a friend who is grieving a beloved pup; that’s the kind of small treasure this book is.

Jean-François Beauchemin’s brief, breathtaking reflections on creatures he has encountered throughout his life will appeal to fans of Brian Doyle, Ross Gay and Margaret Renkl.

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