Val Wang, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., wondering about her place in the world. "I didn't feel as though I belonged there," she wrote, "or anywhere yet, and I itched to travel to exotic places far away to look for what was missing in my life."
A few years ago, I taught Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild in a college freshman writing class. I thought the story of Chris McCandless, who turned his back on civilization to hike into the Alaskan wilderness, would resonate with undergraduates. Chris’ tragic journey may have ended with his death, but his quest for purity and adventure was inspirational. Or so I thought.
“Running a totalitarian regime is simple: tell the people what they’re going to do, shoot the first one to object, and repeat until everyone is on the same page.” Such was life in Ukraine for young Lev Golinkin and his family, and it might have been tolerable had he not also suffered daily beatings in school for being a Jew. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the family fled to Austria where they lived in a refugee hotel before immigrating to the U.S. A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is the story of that journey and of Golinkin’s struggle to reclaim his identity.
From “Game of Thrones” to The Pillars of the Earth, popular culture offers up medieval stories where royals grab for power, where crucial alliances are built between church and state, where important people suddenly fall over dead after a sumptuous meal, poisoned by a hidden rival. But this world did, in fact, exist, and the subject of Kirstin Downey’s fascinating new biography, Isabella: The Warrior Queen, maneuvered through it with unlikely and thrilling success.
To imagine what life was like growing up in a French village in the early 15th century, don’t think of A Year in Provence. Think of modern-day Syria.
Cleopatra, Nefertiti: These are the names that come to mind when thinking of the legendary female rulers of ancient Egypt. In her highly engrossing The Woman Who Would Be King, Egyptian scholar Kara Cooney shines a spotlight on Hatshepsut, Egypt’s largely overlooked, longest-ruling female pharaoh, who led her country through a period marked by peace, prosperity and architectural achievement.
Suki Kim, author of the highly regarded novel The Interpreter, went to North Korea to teach English under doubly false pretenses. Her fellow instructors at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) were evangelical Christians pretending to be nonreligious teachers. (“North Korea was the evangelical Christian Holy Grail, the hardest place to crack in the whole world,” she writes.) To be accepted into the program, Kim pretended to be an evangelical pretending to be a nonreligious teacher. She feared exposure on all sides.
Norman Lear wants to show you his scrapbook, and—after 92 years—it’s a pretty thick one. Although he established himself as a comedy writer at the dawn of television in 1950, writing for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Lear didn’t really become a public figure until the 1970s. During that golden decade, he revolutionized TV with such socially conscious sitcoms as “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” and “One Day at a Time.” Unlike the comedies that preceded them, these series explored such touchy subjects as racism, ethnic prejudices, homophobia, women’s rights, abortion, sex education and single parenthood.
Most non-poetry-reading Americans first encountered Richard Blanco in 2013, when he was the presidential inauguration poet. On that occasion, his moving poem “One Today” made passing reference to his Spanish-speaking mother who rang up groceries for 20 years and his father who cut sugarcane so Richard could move ahead in the family’s new country.
Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is such an iconic military figure that he is legendary to Civil War scholars and schoolchildren alike. So it’s hard to imagine an author breaking new ground with another Jackson biography. But S.C. Gwynne does just that in Rebel Yell, which deserves comparisons to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War for its depth of knowledge and graceful narrative. Gwynne, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Empire of the Summer Moon, casts Jackson as a human being, not as a bronze figure towering over a battlefield. Readers will come away from Rebel Yell with an understanding of the man that goes beyond his military exploits.