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Beyond the Book Articles
Places, Cultures & Identities

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Crossing the Pyrenees (05/24)
In The Postcard, Jeanine Picabia, the author's grand-aunt, is a leader in the French Resistance movement. When she is betrayed, she becomes "one of the most wanted female fugitives in France." In December 1942, she flees to England by way of Spain, which she enters by crossing over the Pyrenees mountains. She takes a ...
A Brief History of Sicily (05/24)
We may think of Sicily today as merely an extension of the Italian mainland, but the island has its own unique history that dates back thousands of years and reflects the cultural, political, and economic influence of numerous civilizations.

Because of its convenient location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily has long been...
Fort Sumter Today (05/24)
As Erik Larson recounts in The Demon of Unrest, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter, off the coast of South Carolina, at 4:30 a.m. on April 12th, 1861. Thirty-six hours later, Union Major Robert Anderson and his small force surrendered with no loss of life. Ironically, the only casualties sustained came ...
Icarus and Helios in Greek Mythology (05/24)
The titular protagonist of K. Ancrum's young adult novel Icarus denies that his name is an allusion to the famous character from Greek mythology and reveals that his mother christened him after the scientific name of a beloved fern, Icarus filiformis. Nonetheless, Icarus's denial of this reference only draws more attention to the ...
Irish Vernacular in Glorious Exploits (05/24)
While it's impossible to determine for sure how ancient Greeks sounded, Ferdia Lennon asserts that, despite what one hears and reads in many works depicting this era, they didn't echo the tones of Oxford scholars. In his novel Glorious Exploits, set in 5th century BCE Sicily, the narrator Lampo converses in a contemporary Hiberno-English,...
The San Juan Mountains (04/24)
James McLaughlin's Panther Gap includes beautiful descriptions of the nature surrounding the novel's titular location in remote Colorado. Our First Impressions reviewers were taken with these landscape depictions, prompting some to imagine being or going there themselves. Luckily, this is possible…sort of.

In a recent ...
The Real Birnam Wood (03/24)
Eleanor Catton's novel Birnam Wood and the guerrilla gardening group at its center draw their name from lines in Shakespeare's Macbeth, serving as the novel's epigraph, in which one of the witches prophesies:

Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.

Macbeth, in the ...

Clytemnestra (03/24)
Constanza Casati's Clytemnestra focuses on the life of the title character, known in mythology as the vengeful wife of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, Greece. In her novel, Casati paints a full and nuanced picture of this much-villainized figure.

Clytemnestra is the daughter of Leda, a princess who becomes a Spartan queen. According to ...
Cultural Diversity in 15th Century North America (03/24)
Margaret Verble's novel, Stealing, centers around Kit, a young girl who is part Cherokee. Set in the 1950s, she is removed from her home and sent to a Christian boarding school where a significant portion of the students are Native American. Not only are the indigenous children systematically stripped of their heritage but Kit observes ...
Mobilian Jargon (03/24)
Joe Barrow, the protagonist of Francis Spufford's Cahokia Jazz, does not speak the titular city's common language, Anopa. He learns bits and pieces of it over the course of the novel, at around the same pace as the reader (heeding the suggestion of his friend Alan Jacobs, Spufford does not include a glossary). We learn the words for ...
A Quick Tour Through South Australia's Wine Region (02/24)
Jane Harper's third novel in the Aaron Falk series sees the Federal Police agent returning to the fictional town of Marralee, located in South Australia and home to an annual food and wine festival where a woman went missing the previous year. Harper is known for providing evocative descriptions and details for her Australian settings, ...
W. E. B. Du Bois and the Talented Tenth (02/24)
Throughout The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family, historian Kerri K. Greenidge repeatedly refers to the postbellum "colored elite" to which the Black Grimke family members belonged, using the term "the Talented Tenth." Made famous by the American sociologist and writer W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1903 ...
The Ramayana and Vijayanagara (02/24)
The Ramayana, which translates from Sanskrit as 'Rama's Journey,' is one of the two great epic poems of India and a foundational text of Hinduism; the other is the Mahabharata, which is longer and means 'Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty.' The Ramayana was composed by the poet Valmiki, probably around the 5th century BCE, though sources ...
The Djinn in Islamic Folk Culture (02/24)
In Shubnum Khan's debut novel The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years, set amidst the Indian diaspora of South Africa, fifteen-year-old Sana and her father move into a dilapidated house by the sea that is haunted by a djinn. The djinn is the link between past and present, a connection between the 21st-century tenants and the immigrant family who ...
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) Navy (01/24)
The plot of Mark Helprin's novel The Oceans and the Stars imagines the United States at war with Iran. At one point the heroes of the book end up in the Indian Ocean searching for an Iranian vessel, ultimately battling a force the US captain refers to as the NEDSA, the naval arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (Sepah-e Pasdaran-e ...
North Korean Immigrants in the United States (01/24)
In City Under One Roof, some characters living in the small town of Point Mettier, Alaska are hiding their status as undocumented North Korean immigrants. If their secret is discovered, they will face deportation. Their fear of being found out, and their general situation, is based in real-life troubles of North Korean immigrants in the ...
Leopards and Secret Societies in Nigeria (01/24)
In Chikodili Emelumadu's Dazzling, Ozoemena inherits the ability to transform into a leopard from her uncle, a power that comes with certain obligations and responsibilities. Her father's side of the family belongs to a secret society that maintains this tradition, a plot detail inspired in part by real-life phenomena. In an interview ...
A Brief History of Korean Relations in the Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries (01/24)
In EJ Koh's The Liberators, Insuk's friend Robert is an activist passionately in favor of the reunification of North and South Korea. Korea was occupied by Japan from the early 20th century through 1948; when the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II, Korea was split along the 38th parallel by the United States. The northern ...
Jacob Riis Beach (01/24)
In the essay 'We Swarm' from their debut collection How Far the Light Reaches, Sabrina Imbler reflects on their experience finding comfort and kinship in New York City's queer community. The primary setting of this essay is a part of the beach at Jacob Riis Park in the borough of Queens, which, they explain, 'had been a gay haven as early...
The Four Yugas (01/24)
Deepti Kapoor’s novel Age of Vice takes its title from the Hindu term Kali Yuga. In Hindu scripture and mythology, humanity is destined to cycle repeatedly through four great eras, known as yugas. Opinions as to the length of a single cycle (Kalpa) vary greatly — from around four million to four billion years — suffice...
The Red Hat Society (01/24)
'When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.' These opening lines to the poem 'Warning' by Jenny Joseph serve as inspiration (and uniform) for Glory Broussard, protagonist of Danielle Arceneaux's Glory Be, and for real-life members of the Red Hat Society, an international social ...
Irish Short Stories and Their Common Themes (01/24)
Storytelling has always been an integral part of Irish heritage and culture. Originally, Irish stories were passed down through the generations by ear, first by bardic poets, and later by storytellers called seanchaí (or seanchaíwere, which means 'bearer of old lore' in Gaelic). The bards and seanchaí weren't just ...
Iranian Americans (12/23)
Susanne Pari's In the Time of Our History focuses on an Iranian American immigrant family between New Jersey and San Francisco in the 1990s. The novel is inspired by the author's own family's experiences following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. While people of Iranian descent have lived in the United States since at least the 1930s, ...
The Carville National Leprosarium (12/23)
King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner takes place partly in a federal institute in Louisiana where young protagonist Victor Chin is sent to be treated for Hansen's disease — commonly known as leprosy — in the 1950s.

This inpatient center, often referred to simply as Carville, was built on the site of an abandoned ...
Saint Thomas Christians (12/23)
One of the overarching themes in Abraham Verghese's The Covenant of Water is faith, in all its various guises. For the character Big Ammachi and her family, it is their proud history as Saint Thomas Christians that sustains them in their bleakest hours.

The novel refers to the legend of Saint Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of ...
Cape Horn (12/23)
David Grann's The Wager is a nonfiction book about events surrounding the 1741 wreck of the British ship the HMS Wager, which met its doom while rounding Cape Horn, a rocky headland at the southernmost tip of the Chilean archipelago Tierra del Fuego, where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet. With this book, Grann sheds light on one ...
The Malaga Island Eviction of 1912 (12/23)
Paul Harding's novel This Other Eden takes place on Apple Island, where a Christian missionary arrives and becomes a catalyst for the destruction of a flourishing community of vulnerable people who did not, and could not, fit into societal norms. Harding's novel is inspired by true events that took place in the early 20th century on ...
Bolivia's Cerro Rico and the Mining God El Tío (11/23)
During the height of the Spanish colonization of Latin America in the 16th and early 17th centuries, conquistadors forced enslaved workers to extract vast amounts of silver from mines in Cerro Rico ('rich hill' in Spanish) near the city of Potosí (in what is now Bolivia), which once held the largest silver deposits on Earth. As many ...
The Pre-Columbian City of Tetzcoco (11/23)
In David Bowles' novel The Prince and the Coyote, Prince Acolmiztli is forced to flee his beloved city of Tetzcoco after it is overrun by enemies. Acolmiztli, later known as Nezahualcoyotl, was a real historic figure still famous today, and his city was one of the most important in the Aztec Empire.

Tetzcoco (also spelled Texcoco or ...
Historic Black Communities in the United States (11/23)
Jamila Minnicks' debut novel Moonrise Over New Jessup takes place in an all-Black town in 1950s Alabama. Residents are wary of integration, preferring to exist in their own space rather than being left to contend with racism in a white-dominated society. In an interview with The Rumpus, Minnicks explains that she wanted to write about...
Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (11/23)
Both the first hospital and the first medical school in the United States were founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, landing it the nickname 'City of Medicine.' Therefore, it seems only natural that it also became home to the first school in the world dedicated to providing women with a full formal education in the field, allowing them ...
Migrants in Italy (11/23)
Many of Jhumpa Lahiri's protagonists in Roman Stories, while not described as being of a specific ethnicity or nationality, are clearly foreign to Rome. So where might they be from? Italy's immigration statistics program only tracks non-EU newcomers to the country, giving an incomplete picture of immigration in general, but we can see ...
Korean Military Brides (11/23)
Franny Choi's The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On delves into how Korean women were treated before, during and after the Korean War, as well as the generational trauma and isolation resulting from this treatment. One aspect of this is the experience of military brides, or Korean women who married members of the American military...
Simchat Torah (10/23)
Human connections are arguably at their most powerful when experienced through communal dance, music and other communication beyond words. Events such as these are highlighted numerous times in Isaac Blum's debut young adult novel, The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen, which creates a picture of Orthodox Jewish life that sears into one's ...
Cabramatta, New South Wales, Australia (10/23)
Tracey Lien's debut novel, All That's Left Unsaid, follows a Vietnamese Australian family in Cabramatta, which is a suburb of Sydney, capital of the state of New South Wales. The presence of a migrant hostel in the area in the 1960s and '70s made it a hub for Southeast Asians fleeing the Vietnam War. By the mid-1990s, around a quarter ...
North Carolina's Ghost Lights (10/23)
In Ron Rash's The Caretaker, characters claim to have seen unexplained lights in Blowing Rock's cemetery and its environs: The previous graveyard caretaker, Wilkie, told Blackburn, the current caretaker, about a mysterious light that led a man to find his brother's grave after searching in vain in six other county burial grounds; and ...
Jian Bing (10/23)
In C Pam Zhang's Land of Milk and Honey, which takes place in a fictional near-future of worsening climate change and severely reduced biodiversity, the main character chooses to work as an elite chef for a wealthy employer on an isolated mountain in Italy rather than give up access to the ingredients she loves that are rapidly vanishing ...
The Churel (08/23)
In Melody Razak's novel Moth, one of the characters is fascinated by the legend of the churel, and the mythological being is mentioned several times throughout the plot.

A churel (also spelled 'chudail,' 'churail' and as other variations) is a staple of South Asian folklore, encountered most frequently in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh...
The Vietnamese Folktale of Chú Cuội (The Man in the Moon) (08/23)
In Banyan Moon, author Thao Thai interweaves references to a Vietnamese folktale about a 'man in the moon.' In the story, a woodcutter called Chú Cuội is walking through the jungle one day when he sees a trio of tiger cubs. He approaches, thinking he might be able to catch one and sell it, then use the money to buy an ox. He ...
The Kumhar Caste (08/23)
In Anuradha Roy's The Earthspinner, one of the central characters is Elango, who, despite his college education, chooses to practice pottery like his ancestors. Elango belongs to the caste of potters known by various names including Kumhar, Kumbhar, Moolye, Odari and Kulal. As per India's caste system, since Elango was born into this ...
Bristol, England (08/23)
Moses McKenzie's debut novel, An Olive Grove in Ends, is set in Bristol, UK, a port city in southwest England, about 120 miles due west of London.

The Romans built a settlement in what is now Bristol early in the 2nd century CE. The oldest castle in the area — Bristol Castle, at the confluence of the Avon and Frome Rivers —...
The "Dying City" of Civita di Bagnoregio (07/23)
Dominic Smith's novel Return to Valetto was in part inspired by his visit to Civita di Bagnoregio, a town roughly 60 miles north of Rome. Known as 'Il paese che muore' or 'The Dying City,' this tiny village sits atop a crumbling column of clay and tufa (a type of soft volcanic rock common in the region). As the column continues to erode ...
China and Taiwan: A Short Primer (07/23)
In Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Zhuqing Li writes of how her two aunts' lives were shaped by the events of the Chinese Civil War. One of them, Jun, ended up living in Taiwan after the war, married to a general from the losing side, the Nationalists, who ruled the island after the Communists took over the mainland.

The ...
Colonization and the Irish Language (07/23)
In Audrey Magee's The Colony, one of the characters dedicates his career to salvaging a language that is under threat of extinction: Irish. The source of his research is a multi-generational family, the oldest of whom speaks Irish exclusively, while the youngest is very much Anglicized. This family's linguistic patterns are representative...
Ramadan (07/23)
Aisha Abdel Gawad's debut novel, Between Two Moons, follows twin sisters Amira and Lina as they navigate self-discovery during the celebration of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month-long Islamic tradition characterized by spiritual devotion practiced through prayer, fasting, charity and other activities. It is considered one of the holiest times ...
Fiji and the Girmit System (06/23)
The country and archipelago of Fiji is in the South Pacific Ocean, approximately 1,300 miles north of Auckland, New Zealand and 2700 miles southwest of Hawaii. It consists of more than 300 islands, about 100 of which are inhabited. The largest island, at approximately 66 miles long and 91 miles wide, is Viti Levu, or 'Great Fiji.' The ...
The Los Angeles Aqueduct (06/23)
In Marianne Wiggins' novel, Properties of Thirst, one of the main characters is in an ongoing battle with the Los Angeles Department of Water over their aqueduct installation in California's Owens Valley.

Los Angeles was officially founded on September 4, 1781 as part of Spain's colonization of California. As the town grew so did its ...
The Zapatistas (06/23)
In Jess Row's novel The New Earth, the character Zeno's mother was a Zapatista in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, where she was killed. The Zapatistas are an indigenous peasant movement from Chiapas named for the Mexican Revolution leader Emiliano Zapata. They formed in 1983, organized secretly for 10 years, and then gained ...
Denmark: A Brief Overview (05/23)
Amulya Malladi's A Death in Denmark takes place in the country of Denmark in the north of Europe, which is comprised of the Jutland peninsula and an archipelago of over 400 islands. To the south, Denmark shares a border with Germany. On its west side, it is separated from the United Kingdom by the North Sea. The Baltic Sea and Sweden lie ...
Muskiiki: The Four Sacred Ojibwe Medicines (05/23)
In Firekeeper's Daughter, Daunis is interested in how her fellow Ojibwe tribe members use medicinal herbs. She chooses to study pre-med courses and plant biology at college so that she may go on to study ethnobotany through an indigenous lens, and also learns directly from her tribe's Elders.

Traditional medicine is an important part ...
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