In her latest work of immersive journalism and historical exploration, Susan Orlean takes on the myriad functions and nuances of libraries, celebrating the profound dedication of librarians and the buzzing hubs of knowledge, information, and public service in which they work.

Food From the Radical Center is one of two new books by Gary Paul Nabhan to be published this month. The stories the book tells are based largely on initiatives Nabhan has worked on and written about in the past, such as the re-establishment of heritage turkeys and chickens, the protection and regeneration of agave plants, and the reopening of rangeland to bison herds.

Southern New Mexico is Wheeler’s home terrain, and Acid West is his phenomenal ode to it. A sadomasochistic shorthand for the region, SNM, is introduced early in Wheeler’s collection of essays on nuclear fallout, video game refuse, “patrionoia” (a mashup of patriotism and paranoia), and other features, past and present, of the landscape.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a mermaid gives up her voice so she can have a pair of human legs, which cause her so much pain that she feels as though she is walking on knives. Many of the stories we grew up with don’t need to be recast as horror, yet Ortberg’s revisionism adds new tensions and tantalizing complications. 

Amuse-Bouche [Culinary Musings]

To maize, to life

As David Sterling explains in this 560-page tome — which is as much an immersive travel guide and cultural encyclopedia as it is a cookbook — “Yucatán” can refer both to one of the 31 states in Mexico as well as the peninsula. 

One celebrity who gets a pass pretty much no matter what he does is Tom Hanks. He comes across as affable and clever, and appears to be a good family man who demonstrates not only talent but also staying power in his day job. It’s nearly impossible not to want him to succeed. 

A divided GOP. A New York peacock turned Washington top dog. President Chester A. Arthur may rarely figure in the media these days, except for cameos on lists of most forgotten, or forgettable, presidents. But his story resonates with past-is-not-past implications. In writing The Unexpected President, journalist Scott S. Greenberger could hardly have been more timely.

In his final work, the author rakes up the leaves of his life, turning them over and over again for inspection, knowing the end result is not quite a neat and tidy collection. He began the book in 2016 and finished it with the willfulness of a seasoned storyteller who recognizes the lengthening of the shadows that surround him.

In the spring of 1719 in Santa Fe, fourteen-year-old Manuel Domínguez planted cactus in the vacant space between his family’s house and that of the neighboring Vialpando family. He was trying to prevent people from walking across a boundary previously marked by a simple fence. Two children kept using the pathway anyway, pulling up the prickly pear cactus. Manuel hit the girl and pushed the boy. The girl called her twenty-six-year-old sister Catalina, who came and continued to uproot the cactus. Unflattering words were exchanged with Manuel, and then Catalina threw a rock at him, injuring his head.

Taste, in both the physical and figurative senses, has had a history replete with philosophical and religious implications. Before it had connotations of good judgment — as in that of the tastemaker — taste as a physical sense was more typically associated with pigs and gluttons. How taste got from porcine to polished is the fascinating story told in this academic work.

The subtitle of Bruder’s first-rate journalistic work suggests that survival is the goal of the men and women she profiles. Of retirement age, they are “workampers,” traveling laborers who get seasonal jobs at places like Amazon’s fulfillment centers or the American Crystal Sugar Company’s annual sugar beet harvest. 

Not many people know that Queen Victoria was learning Hindustani in the last decade or so of her life. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once described that language as a golden mean between Hindi and Urdu. Under the guidance of Abdul Karim, a Muslim Indian man, Queen Victoria assiduously wrote several journals worth of Hindustani sentences, and took pride in speaking the language with her attendants. 

When one thinks Scotland, one does not think fine cuisine. Kilts and heather, yes. Bagpipes, various plaids, and clan blood feuds, absolutely. And if you, like so many others, have fallen under the time-traveling spell of either the TV show or the novel series Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, you immediately think of strapping young men whispering to horses and fighting with rapiers while wearing a pleasantly torn shirt.

Hayes traces Vaughan’s career with details about the singer’s appearances and recording sessions along with observations about the cultural hurdles that stood in her way. She describes the music scene as it relates to Vaughan’s life, taking us into clubs and to negotiations for recording and sideman salaries. 

If the Indian boarding schools that were set up across the United States in the late 19th century were designed to wipe out Indian culture, sever ties to reservation families, and stamp out young Native Americans’ use of their tribal religion and language, then why did these same schools invest so much effort into making their students create Indian art and produce tribal crafts?

What Islam stands for — and how younger Muslims can live peaceably in the modern world — are some of the subjects Ghobash addresses in this book, which is framed as letters to his teenage son, Saif. Letters to a Young Muslim gives a philosophical but grounded sketch of the larger Muslim world, which is useful in understanding the turmoil that the Middle East faces today.

Rockmore roped in 27 Dartmouth professors (including himself) to write 10 or 12 pages each on what kinds of questions their respective fields address and how they go about examining them. The essays range in quality, but many of them very successfully frame these disciplines — classics, geography, linguistics, political science, theater, and many others — in ways that would make a person want to dig deeper. 

Callahan begins his book with Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropy. In 2011, Bloomberg gave the Sierra Club a $50 million check, so that the organization could “stop fundraising and get to work” on its Beyond Coal campaign, but not before he put the organization “through the ringer,” demanding detailed analysis that would guide the project.

Mary Green has a baby on her back step. “The surprise came not from seeing the baby, but from seeing what was around her. A baby on the back step. It was the step that was wrong.” With those brief sentences in the second paragraph, Cocozza lets readers into a space in which perception is especially cryptic. There is nothing surprising about a baby, but doorsteps become highly suspicious when they have babies on them.

If you could take the pulse of a novel, Cabo de Gata’s is a steady 80 bpm. There are rare emotional spikes. So it is all the more surprising when the protagonist’s wry, honest voice draws you into his story, and never lets go despite the fact that very little actually happens here.

Malena Sevilla is distraught over her father’s recent suicide when, while going through his belongings, she discovers a note buried deep in a trunk. “Giving my daughter away was a deplorable, unforgivable thing,” Malena reads, astonished to discover that her mother did not die in childbirth.

"Homunculus" is a big word for any very small humanoid creature. Artistic renderings of such beings have historically made their way into scientific and medical illustrations. Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), a German Jewish physician and popular science writer, embraced the metaphor of the homunculus as an educational and artistic tool.

Authoritarian rule changes a society. Everyday life is colored by unpredictability and fear. Trust erodes, as does the economy. The threat of violence, or violence itself, is pervasive. Even love and music are altered. Atogun’s first novel — part dream, part nightmare — is a love story set in such a society. 

Julius Caesar died again last month in Central Park, but this time his death had a more ominous ring than usual, and not because the slain leader was depicted with orange skin and a yellow wig and a red necktie that drooped below his bulging belt. 

Amuse-Bouche [Culinary Musings]

Feast your eyes, feed your head: Books on food

You don’t have to love food or be from the South to appreciate The Potlikker Papers, the thorough and engaging new volume from John T. Edge, writer and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. 

There is no shortage of books foretelling the catastrophe to which climate change shall deliver us. But what about a perfectly decent field guide to the flora and fauna of rising seas and ruined forests? Into this vacuum comes a volume packed thick with descriptive essays of life in the Anthropocene — the emergent word to describe our own era, in which human hands have reshaped the planet’s environment and climate.

There are three revolving stories in the book, each with the same protagonist — the painter Kevin Pace, seen at different stages of his life. Each stage has its own section, one taking place recently (“House”), one set a decade ago (“Paris”), and the third in El Salvador nearly 40 years ago (“1979”). The three periods spin in a dizzying waltz time — one, two, three; one, two, three — and then swirl together at the end in a slightly off-balance pirouette. 

Gilmore's book examines the narratives surrounding noted women witnesses, including Anita Hill, Guatemalan indigenous-rights activist Rigoberta Menchú, and Oprah Winfrey, that illustrate the insidious infiltration of sexism in places as diverse as confirmation hearings, film documentaries, and memoirs, along with the injustices that occur when women’s testimony about their own experiences is tainted by the motives and biases of those who control the setting in which they deliver it.

Pollen, the middle of three children, craved her parents’ attention. She looked for interesting facts and amusing anecdotes with which to regale them — and courting danger was part of her repertoire. Once, when she was ten years old, she orchestrated a ride home from Central Park with a strange man in order to scare them and get her sister, who had left her there alone, in trouble. 

The territory of Kashmir, parts of which are claimed by India and Pakistan, has been a center of conflict for at least seven decades. In Arundhati Roy’s second novel, the trauma of warfare and its divisions — not just between regions or religions but in caste, class, gender, and personhood itself — are the thread with which Roy weaves a modern history of India. It is an unflinching portrayal.

“Playwrights don’t talk about writing with each other much,” Jeffrey Sweet reveals in the introduction to his new book. They dish about other things — “directors, actors, producers, agents, alimony, and real estate.” But the actual craft of writing — the tricks and the pitfalls and the wells of despair and the moments of elation — these topics don’t get aired much in open conversation.

For those of us who came of age in the 1960s and identify with the music, the politics, and the whole zeitgeist, it may be a surprise to learn that some of our classmates and contemporaries regard the nation’s current state of affairs as a direct consequence of that unruly decade — as if the road to Mar-a-Lago originated at Woodstock.