It’s reassuring to discover that heroes, both ancient and modern, are not somehow supernaturally endowed after all. Indeed, they may come by their skills quite naturally. In the thoroughly absorbing Natural Born Heroes, which tracks heroism from the times of Zeus and Odysseus to the World War II bravery of a motley crew of fighters, Christopher McDougall makes it clear that incredible acts of strength and endurance are doable. His extensive knowledge of fitness training, nutrition and physiology winds artfully around a tale of superhuman resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Greek island of Crete, Hitler’s designated launching pad for the invasion of Russia.
Each April, National Poetry Month promotes the enduring art form in the classroom and beyond, celebrating the integral role that poetry has played in our literary tradition. Yet, this once-a-year focus on poetry also reminds us of how few readers still make poetry a regular part of their reading diet. We encounter poetry every day, of course, in its most populist forms—song lyrics, advertising—but the meager sales of poetry collections would indicate that few of us are curling up by the fire with a volume of verse. If asked, many readers might cite their lack of interest as growing out of intimidation—they just don’t “get” poetry, its language is hard to crack, its subject matter arcane.
It’s rare that a memoir is so emotionally engaging that a reader may wish to reach back through time and envelop the author in a warm parental hug. But that’s the impulse poet Tracy K. Smith engenders in this account of growing up as a dutiful daughter in a small town in northern California during the 1970s and ’80s. “My mother was proud of my decorum,” Smith recalls. “She liked having a little girl who instinctively wanted to obey.” Smith was much more than a compliant child, though. She was also preternaturally attuned to everything happening around her and determined to find a place for it in her rich imagination.
Many readers first encounter the work of Langston Hughes in school but may not revisit it much beyond that early exposure. A seminal voice in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes lives on in a handful of widely anthologized poems, but the vast majority of his prolific output goes unread. His literary light has waxed and waned since his death in 1967, but the publication of the Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, as well as a new edition of his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, could help spur renewed interest in Hughes and his work.
During the years after World War II, a group of ambitious, idealistic, affluent and well-connected young people settled in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Until at least 1975, their strong influence was felt, for good or ill, in virtually every aspect of government, especially foreign policy decisions, and in shaping public opinion on such issues as the founding of NATO, the military and covert actions of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis and the war in Vietnam.
A harried reader could get the gist of The Secret History of Wonder Woman by opening it just past dead center and reading through the 16-page comic-book version of the story.
In a Rocket Made of Ice is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary place. Wat Opot Children’s Community is a Cambodian orphanage started with $50 by Wayne Matthysse, a former Vietnam medic driven to make life better for children in war-torn countries. The orphanage is home to children and women affected by HIV and AIDS, where they can get the powerful antiretroviral drugs they need to stay healthy, as well as education and a community in which they belong.
BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, June 2014
It was on a gray December day that 23-year-old Joanna Rakoff, nestled into her couch rereading Persuasion, received the call that she had gotten the job. Fresh out of grad school and without much of a game plan—aside from a deep-rooted desire to become a poet—Rakoff landed a position at one of the most storied literary agencies in New York City, one that represented such literary legends as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Judy Blume.
In her lovely new memoir, My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff takes readers on a tour of mid-1990s New York City—from the hallowed halls of an esteemed literary agency to the not-yet-gentrified streets of Williamsburg—as she settles in to her first real job.
What inspired you to write the book? Is there any significance to the timing of the publication?
This is a surprisingly difficult and complicated question, as My Salinger Year could also be called “The Book I Kept Trying Not to Write!”
Mohandas K. Gandhi was born and raised in India and is best known for his work there as a world-renowned social reformer, political thinker, religious pluralist and prophet. If his life had followed the traditional path for someone of his family and caste, he would have remained in India, served in a prominent position and been unknown to most of the world. But as the noted scholar Ramachandra Guha demonstrates in his eminently readable and exhaustively researched Gandhi Before India, the 20 years that Gandhi spent in South Africa before his return to his home country in 1914 were fundamental to his success.