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.
The Folded Clock, as crafted by novelist Heidi Julavits, is intricate and delicately worked. Time doesn’t flow linearly in this memoir as we might expect. What at first glance appears to be the diary of a writer in her 40s living an enviable life—an apartment in Manhattan, a house in Maine, sabbaticals in Europe—turns into a structure more complex, like an origami crane. Meditations on marriage and friendship appear and reappear. Diary entries might skip six months, or jump back a year. Julavits arranges the raw material of her diary in such a way as to provoke insight across the units of time that we normally experience: the day, the week and the month.
The end of World War II in Europe brought a wide range of reactions, especially in Germany. From concentration camp prisoners to top Nazi officers, from refugees crowding the roads to soldiers eager to see the war finally over, there was a mixture of heartbreak, relief, chaos and disbelief. For German novelist Walter Kempowski, who died in 2007, researching and compiling those responses, through eyewitness accounts, letters and diaries, became a lifelong mission. The result was 10 volumes and a diary of his project’s progress.
“Let’s get one thing straight right from the beginning: I didn’t set out to be a comma queen.” In fact, Mary Norris explored quite a few interesting career paths before finding her calling as a copy editor at The New Yorker. Her work life began at the age of 15, checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland. She went on to drive a milk truck, package mozzarella at a cheese factory, and wash dishes (all the while managing to pursue a graduate degree in English).
Clad in Starfleet regulation red and black, Kate Mulgrew helmed the USS Voyager for seven seasons as Captain Kathryn Janeway in “Star Trek: Voyager.” In the hit series “Orange Is the New Black” she co-stars as take-no-guff Galina “Red” Reznikov, who shrewdly navigates the echelons of a minimum security federal women’s prison. Now, Mulgrew proves equally commanding as a storyteller—with a new memoir that is equal parts triumph and heartbreak.
Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half physical, Yogi Berra once said. That precise calculation is debatable, but, however you cut it, the game has always been the thinking person’s sport. So it’s appropriate that each of these books on the national pastime highlights some aspect of baseball’s brain.
Easter is a time for self-discovery and reflection on relationships, faith and the soul. Five new books offer fresh perspectives to help readers find God, themselves and each other, and renew their hearts for another year.
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.
Los Angeles would not exist as the sprawling, highly populated global center it is today were it not for one man. At the turn of the last century, William Mulholland, a civil servant self-educated in the ways of water engineering, all but willed Southern California’s future when he masterminded one of the greatest engineering projects of all time: the Los Angeles Aqueduct.