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Beyond the Book Articles
Places, Cultures & Identities

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Iceland and the Catholic Church (09/20)
One of the main characters in The Sacrament is truly its setting: Iceland. Serving as the emotional nexus for multiple characters in the novel, it stamps the narrative with an authoritative and unyielding presence.

Iceland is a Nordic country located in the North Atlantic, an island that is the 18th largest in the world and Europe's ...
The Musée Rodin (09/20)
Several important scenes in Louise Penny's mystery, All the Devils Are Here, take place in the gardens of the Musée Rodin. Located in Paris, just south of the River Seine and about a mile east of the Eiffel Tower, the museum and its grounds boast thousands of Auguste Rodin's sculptures, casts and drawings, as well as thousands of...
The Origins of Islam in Pakistan (09/20)
In Homeland Elegies, author Ayad Akhtar explores Pakistani characters' relationships to Islam. The roots of Islam in the area now known as Pakistan can be traced back almost as far as the birth of the religion itself. As early as the 7th century, Arab armies attempted to spread Islam to the Indian subcontinent, but it took centuries ...
Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Prison (09/20)
At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four occupation zones governed by France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1949, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), also referred to as East Germany, was formed as a communist state in the Soviet territory. The most notorious apparatus of the GDR's repressive...
Venezuelan Cuisine (09/20)
In the novel It Would Be Night in Caracas, protagonist Adelaida endures food scarcity in Venezuela's capital city, Caracas, while recalling favorite foods from happier times. Venezuela—situated along the Caribbean Sea in South America —is home to a vibrant blend of culinary traditions. The country's cuisine has European, ...
Cameroon: Past, Present and Future (09/20)
Located in West-Central Africa, Cameroon is about the size of California, with an estimated population of 25 million. The country's two main cities are Yaoundé, the capital, and Douala, a major industrial port along the Gulf of Guinea in the South Atlantic. It borders many nations: Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of Congo...
The Segregation of St. Louis (09/20)
In Marilynne Robinson's novel Jack, the title character, a white man, meets and falls in love with a Black woman named Della. However, America's racism, segregation and anti-miscegenation laws in the 1950s present a nearly insurmountable obstacle for the couple. One of their specific concerns is how and where they will live together as ...
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) (08/20)
David Joy's novel When These Mountains Burn is set in and around the town of Cherokee, North Carolina, which is situated in the far western corner of the state, abutting Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cherokee is the capital and cultural center of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and is located in an area known as The...
A History of the Appalachian Region (08/20)
The Appalachian region of the United States (not to be confused with the entirety of the Appalachian Mountains, which extend into Canada) stretches over 1,000 miles from southern New York to northeastern Mississippi. A mountainous crossroads, the area is defined by disparities and variety in its history, economics and culture. Today, ...
Greene County, Pennsylvania, and Coal (08/20)
Sarah Elaine Smith's Marilou Is Everywhere is set in Greene County, Pennsylvania, in the southwest corner of the state, bordering West Virginia. The novel vividly reflects the economic distress of the struggling communities and families that make up this county. It's a mostly rural area, with just under 39,000 residents in the last census...
Little Haiti (08/20)
Several stories in Edwidge Danticat's Everything Inside take place in Florida's Little Haiti neighborhood, a popular residence for Haitian immigrants and exiles (along with individuals from other Caribbean nations) located in Miami Dade County. The neighborhood has a population of 28,000 people, with 73 percent identifying as Black and 20...
India's Street Children (08/20)
Jayant Kaikini's short story collection, No Presents Please, does some of its best work exploring Mumbai's marginalized communities, including the prominently featured community of the city's street children, many of whom roam the streets alone, neglected, undernourished and with few prospects for the future. Stories like 'A Spare Pair of...
Auschwitz-Birkenau Today (07/20)
The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp (the setting of Jack Fairweather's riveting history The Volunteer) was liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945. In 1946, Poland's Ministry of Culture and Art recognized the need to preserve the site of so much horror for memorial and educational purposes, and set to work on a museum. ...
Purim (06/20)
In The Book of V., Lily is a wife and mother living in modern-day Brooklyn and struggling to find her purpose in life. As she works to manage her relational roles, she is also working to understand her Jewish heritage and particularly the story of Esther, a young Jewish woman in ancient Persia who became queen and used her influence ...
Rhinebeck, New York (06/20)
Clapham, the idyllic Hudson Valley town in which Emma Straub sets All Adults Here, is fictional, but the author places it in a very real geographical setting. Her characters mention real places, including Rhinebeck, 'one town north' along the Hudson River, which bears some resemblance to Straub's description of Clapham.

Rhinebeck is a ...
The Geography of Iceland (06/20)
As A. Kendra Greene writes in The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, 'Everywhere in Iceland is some kind of remote. It is almost always a word I reach for when describing a place here, though I mean it differently every time.' Greene makes it clear that understanding Iceland requires understanding its geography, which affects not only...
Korčula: Past and Present (05/20)
Korčula is a Croatian island in the Adriatic Sea off the Dalmation coast, and the setting of Karen Russell's story 'Black Corfu' from her story collection Orange World. It's the second most populated island in the Adriatic (after Krk), and it has a long, storied history of being occupied by various superpowers reaching back to the ...
Mayotte: A Community in Crisis (05/20)
An official department of France, Mayotte is a group of islands located in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of southeast Africa. This unique political and geographic setup has led to the development of a complex, fraught national identity for many of its people, with problems related to crime, population density, poverty and poor social ...
The Islands of Maine (05/20)
Sarah Blake's The Guest Book is set predominantly on a private island off the coast of Maine owned by the Milton family. There are roughly 3,000 islands in Maine's territory, some that are popular vacation spots, others that are entirely uninhabited.

Islands like Chebeague, Vinalhaven and Mount Desert are some of the most popular ...
Freya, the Norse Goddess of Love, Fertility, War & Death (05/20)
The Boneless Mercies is based on the classic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, a sweeping tale of heroes, monsters and epic battles influenced by the culture and mythology of sixth-century Scandinavia. While there are no gods or goddesses in Beowulf, there are references to mythological heroes like Sigmund of the Völsunga saga (a Norse epic ...
The Ancient Druids (05/20)
It is likely that when you hear mention of the ancient Druids or Druidism, certain images arise–perhaps there are flowing white robes or oak leaves involved, there are also probably long, bushy beards and maybe a sprig of mistletoe. Over the centuries that separate us from this enigmatic group, we have done a great deal of ...
Greek Influence on the English Language (05/20)
As Mary Norris notes in her travelogue/memoir/historical narrative Greek to Me, many words and terms in the English language are derived from Greek. These range from somewhat arcane medical and scientific terminology, to more commonly used words and phrases. The etymological evolutions are generally divided into three categories: learned ...
"Women Who Survived" from Classical Mythology (05/20)
In Starling Days, Mina mulls over an idea for an academic work that she dubs 'The Women Who Survived.' Her starting point is a list of female characters in classical mythology who survive the stories in which they appear. She observes that most women in Greek and Roman myths are ultimately killed or transformed in some way, and that few ...
Feminist Movements in South Korea (05/20)
South Korean society has long been profoundly patriarchal, with traditional expectations that designate men as breadwinners and women as homemakers remaining intact even as more women have entered the workforce. According to a 2017 report, Korea has the highest gender pay gap among all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and ...
Nymphs in Greek Mythology (05/20)
The nature of nymphs, the 'least of the lesser goddesses,' as they are referred to in Circe, is central to the novel. Circe, herself a sorceress or witch nymph, is most famous for turning Odysseus' crew into wild pigs and later becoming the hero's lover and adviser. In Greek mythology, nymphs are female spirits associated with the natural...
The Indigenous People of Kamchatka, Russia (04/20)
The remote Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, where Julia Phillips' debut novel Disappearing Earth takes place, is very isolated. It is located on the far east side of Russia, surrounded by the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean, riddled by volcanic activity from the Pacific tectonic plate, part of Earth's 'Ring of Fire.' ...
The History of Chinese Immigration in the United States (11/19)
Large-scale Chinese immigration to America began in the mid-1800s, partly in response to economic instability in China during the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war that lasted from 1850-1864. Like many others, Chinese immigrants were also drawn by the California Gold Rush.

After the gold rush ended, many Chinese people stayed on in the U...
Brisbane, Australia (04/20)
Brisbane (pronounced 'brizz-binh'), the capital city of Queensland, Australia, is the setting for Trent Dalton's debut novel Boy Swallows Universe. In an essay in the Weekend Australian Magazine, Dalton describes his hometown with his trademark literary flair: 'Brisbane is a bat-sucked mango wedged in your mower blades...Brisbane is all ...
The Flying African in the Americas (04/20)
The story of the flying African is as old as the history of Africans in the Americas. Thus, it is no surprise that this trope finds its way into Afia Atakora's debut novel, Conjure Women.

The basic notion behind the folktale lies in a secret power, a secret magic known to a select few. This power allows a person to grow wings, or in ...
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran (04/20)
Dalia Sofer's novel Man of My Time spans from the mid-20th century to the present day. Set in both Tehran and New York City, it encompasses the decades leading up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution—when Iranians from both Islamist and leftist organizations overthrew the Western-backed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi—as well as the...
Tigers in Chinese History and Culture (04/20)
In C Pam Zhang's How Much of These Hills Is Gold, signs of and references to tigers consistently appear around its characters, although they are presumed to be in the American West where (at least in the real world) native tigers don't exist. For example, Lucy, the main character, mentions that her mother draws a tiger in the doorway of ...
Indian Casinos: Who Profits? (04/20)
When most people hear the word 'casino,' they think of slot machines trilling and the tinny crashing of coins. But there is a deeper significance to gambling, especially as it pertains to casinos located on federal Indian reservations. While a fun pastime for many, casinos are the lifeblood for the Native American tribes across the ...
1970s Hangouts in New York City (04/20)
Among other things, Hustvedt's novel Memories of the Future is a vivid portrait of what it was like to live in New York City as a young woman in the late 1970s. She writes evocatively about many of her character's favorite haunts, which include several establishments that are still operating today. Interested in a glimpse into 'Minnesota'...
The Underwater World of Haenyeos (03/20)
Lisa See's novel, The Island of Sea Women, highlights the lives of haenyeos – women from the South Korean island of Jeju who support their families by free-diving for plants and animals that thrive in the ocean. They're known to be able to hold their breath for two to three minutes at a stretch and can descend to depths of 30 to 45 ...
The Legendary Esalen Institute (03/20)
In Rajeev Balasubramanyam's novel, Professor Chandra Follows his Bliss, about a man's golden years' journey to finding himself, Oxford Professor P. R. Chandrasekhar takes a course in self-awareness at California's legendary Esalen Institute. Tucked between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Esalen is gifted with the relaxing sounds of ...
Patriarchy in the Mennonite Community (03/20)
Miriam Toews' novel Women Talking is inspired by events that took place in Manitoba Colony, a Mennonite community in eastern Bolivia with a population of about 2,000. From 2005-2009, hundreds of girls and women were drugged and raped during the night, which religious leadership claimed was the work of God or the devil, punishing them for ...
Why Hindu Gods Have Multiple Arms (03/20)
While investigating a series of missing children taken from an unnamed Indian slum, Jai and his friends Pari and Faiz, the central protagonists in Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, come across many pictures and iconography depicting Hindu gods. Here are some brief insights into the mythology surrounding a handful of these deities.

...
Kotzebue, Alaska (03/20)
Caroline Van Hemert's memoir, The Sun is a Compass, chronicles a 4000-mile journey that concludes in northwest Alaska in the city of Kotzebue.

Kotzebue is located on a three-mile-long sand spit at the end of the Baldwin Peninsula, where the Noatak, Kobuk and Selawik rivers converge. Although it was named after Otto von Kotzebue (1787-...
The History of the Sunset Strip (02/20)
Titular character Daisy Jones from Taylor Jenkins Reid's novel Daisy Jones & The Six comes of age in the 1970s, visiting rock clubs on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. This 1.6 mile stretch of music venues, nightclubs, restaurants and retail stores on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard has a long, fascinating history full of intrigue, and ...
A Brief History of Cienfuegos, Cuba (02/20)
The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala is set in a run-down neighborhood known as Punta Gotica in the real Cuban city of Cienfuegos, where an architecturally unique cathedral is planned for the Church of the Holy Sacrament. This may be all the more significant considering that Cienfuegos is known for its own particular brand of architecture ...
Arab Americans at a Glance (02/20)
The term 'Arab' designates those who share a specific cultural, linguistic and in some cases political heritage. According to the Arab American Institute (AAI), the Arab world is comprised of the 22 countries that make up the Arab League, an organization formed in 1945 to represent the interests of Arabs worldwide. The nations (Algeria, ...
Cattle Ranching in Australia (01/20)
Jane Harper's The Lost Man takes place on a cattle station in the Australian Outback. Cattle stations function quite differently than American or European beef cattle ranches. Many are extremely large; the territory devoted to raising the livestock is generally hot and arid, producing little vegetation, and so an immense area of land is ...
Hadrian's Wall: Remains of a Fallen Empire (01/20)
Sarah Moss' novel Ghost Wall is set in Northumberland, Britain where Emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138) ordered his troops to build a wall about AD 122 when the region was under Roman rule. It's estimated that the wall was built over a six year span by at least 15,000 men. Excavations reveal that many sections of the wall were originally ditches...
A History of Acapulco and Ongoing Cartel Control (01/20)
Acapulco de Juárez, commonly known as Acapulco, is a city located on the coast of Mexico in the southwestern state of Guerrero. The name 'Acapulco' is believed to come from a word in the Náhuatl (Aztec) language meaning 'place of the reeds.' Once considered a desirable vacation spot and bustling resort town, Acapulco has in ...
Mosul Before, During and After ISIS Occupation (01/20)
Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city after Baghdad, lies on the banks of the Tigris River. Mosul's current boundaries encompass the remains of the old Assyrian city of Nineveh, and signs of civilization in the area date back as far as 8,000 years ago. From the 8th century onward, Mosul was considered a key cultural and economic hub, and it ...
Circassian Ethnic Identity and History (01/20)
In All-American Muslim Girl, Allie Abraham's family is ethnically Circassian, which accounts in part for her fair, reddish blonde hair. As Allie observes, few Americans have ever heard of Circassians, so in the novel she gives a very cursory background that only begins to describe the history and struggles of this group of people. Author ...
India: A Feast of Languages (12/19)
In Madhuri Vijay's novel The Far Field, characters speak a variety of languages: Hindi, Kashmiri, English, Tamil and Urdu. India has a shimmering history as the crossroads of civilizations and cultures, so it's not surprising that its inhabitants speak many languages. The constitution of India recognizes 22 official languages, but a 2011 ...
The Barbershop and Black Male Bonding (11/19)
As a young teen, Michael (in David Chariandy's Brother) begins spending time at the neighborhood barbershop, Desirea's, with his older brother and his friends. In the book, just as in life, black men visit the barbershop not just for haircuts, but to share their personal lives, discuss current events, listen to music and just relax with ...
Café Loup (11/19)
In Zadie Smith's story 'Downtown,' characters mourn the closing of Café Loup. The West Village restaurant and bar, founded in 1977, had become a beloved institution to its loyal patrons when it was suddenly seized in September 2018 for over $100,000 in unpaid taxes. The tributes poured in immediately, as did the accounts of the spot'...
Swarthmore College (10/19)
Much of Kurt Eichenwald's memoir, A Mind Unraveled, takes place while he attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

Swarthmore is the product of a meeting of the Joint Committee of Friends (aka Quakers) in 1861. The liberal Hicksite branch of the Society of Friends pushed for the establishment of a co-ed school 'under the care of ...
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