Fragments of perspectives from the shadowy past characterise much of this month’s picks. Stories as painfully recent as Mike Smith’s Boko Haram are included as well as those as culturally imbued as Weegee’s depictions of NYC and the colonial mission of the Pacific in Margaret Pointer’s freshly illustrated Niue 1774-1974. Fragments from these sometimes uncertain and buried histories make for exciting reading that is elucidated here especially by the nuanced and powerful voices of individuals.
The fortunes of Francis Barber : the true story of the Jamaican slave who became Samuel Johnson’s heir / Michael Bundock.
“This compelling book chronicles a young boy’s journey from the horrors of Jamaican slavery to the heart of London’s literary world, and reveals the unlikely friendship that changed his life. [...] There were thousands of black Britons in the eighteenth century, but few accounts of their lives exist. In uncovering Francis Barber’s story, this book not only provides insights into his life and Samuel Johnson’s but also opens a window onto London when slaves had yet to win their freedom.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)
A spy in the archives : a memoir of Cold War Russia / Sheila Fitzpatrick.
“Moscow in the 1960s was the other side of the Iron Curtain: mysterious, exotic, even dangerous. In 1966 the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick traveled to Moscow to research in the Soviet archives. [...] Full of drama and colorful characters, her remarkable memoir highlights the dangers and drudgery faced by Westerners living under communism.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)
We’re still here, ya bastards : how the people of New Orleans rebuilt their city / Roberta Brandes Gratz.
“The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is one of the darkest chapters in American history. [...] By telling stories that are often ignored by the mainstream media, We’re Still Here Ya Bastards shows the strength and resilience of a community that continues to work to rebuild New Orleans, and reveals what Katrina couldn’t destroy: the vibrant culture, epic history, and unwavering pride of one of the greatest cities in America.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)
Boko Haram : inside Nigeria’s unholy war / Mike Smith.
“An insurgency in Nigeria by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has left thousands dead, shaken Africa’s biggest nation and worried the world. Yet they remain a mysterious-almost unknowable-organization. Through extensive on-the-ground reporting, Smith takes readers inside the violence and provides the first in-depth account of the conflict. [...] Interspersed with Nigerian history, this book delves into the roots of the unholy war being waged against the backdrop of an evolving extremist threat worldwide.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)
The porcelain thief : searching the Middle Kingdom for buried China / Huan Hsu.
“A journalist travels throughout mainland China and Taiwan in search of his family’s hidden treasure and comes to understand his ancestry as he never has before. [...] Melding memoir, travelogue, and social and political history, The Porcelain Thief offers an intimate and unforgettable way to understand the complicated events that have defined China over the past two hundred years and provides a revealing, lively perspective on contemporary Chinese society from the point of view of a Chinese American coming to terms with his hyphenated identity.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)
Niue 1774-1974 : 200 years of contact and change / Margaret Pointer.
“Tiny Niue lies alone in the south Pacific, a single island with formidable cliffs rising from the deep ocean. [...] Yet Niue has a surprisingly rich history of contact, from the brief landings by James Cook in 1774 through to the 19th-century visits by whalers, traders, and missionaries, and into the 20th century [...] Together, text and images unravel a fascinating and colorful Pacific story of Nukututaha, the island that stands alone.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)
Dancing with the devil in the City of God : Rio de Janeiro on the brink / Juliana Barbassa.
“In the tradition of Detroit: An American Autopsy and Maximum City comes a deeply reported and beautifully written biography of the seductive and chaotic city of Rio de Janeiro [...] this kaleidoscopic portrait of Rio introduces the reader to the people who make up this city of extremes, revealing their aspirations and their grit, their violence, their hungers and their splendor, and shedding light on the future of this city they are building together.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)
The Weegee guide to New York : roaming the city with its greatest tabloid photographer / researched and compiled by Philomena Mariani and Christopher George.
“Take a walk with Weegee and discover New York City through the eyes of its most unflinching chronicler. During his storied career as the quintessential New York photojournalist, Weegee explored the city’s least glamorous pockets, depicting brutal crimes, horrific accidents, tenement dwellers, street vendors, and mischievous kids. And although his perspective was often dark and cynical, he was also tremendously sentimental about his subjects’ hard lives [...]” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)
The fall of the Ottomans : the Great War in the Middle East / Eugene Rogan.
“In 1914 the Ottoman Empire was depleted of men and resources after years of war against Balkan nationalist and Italian forces. [...] The Great War spelled the end of the Ottomans, unleashing powerful forces that would forever change the face of the Middle East. [...] The postwar settlement led to the partition of Ottoman lands between the victorious powers, and laid the groundwork for the ongoing conflicts that continue to plague the modern Arab world.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)
Out of ashes : a new history of Europe in the twentieth century / Konrad H. Jarausch.
“Konrad Jarausch describes how the European nations emerged from the nineteenth century with high hopes for continued material progress and proud of their imperial command over the globe, only to become embroiled in the bloodshed of World War I [...] Out of Ashes explores the paradox of the European encounter with modernity in the twentieth century, shedding new light on why it led to cataclysm, inhumanity, and self-destruction, but also social justice, democracy, and peace.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)