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Beyond the Book Articles
Places, Cultures & Identities

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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 ...
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...
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 ...
Zār Exorcism (01/20)
Throughout Celestial Bodies there are a smattering of references to zār exorcisms, but little detail is given on what these ceremonies actually are. What becomes apparent, though, is that many al-Awafi villagers look forward to these gatherings.

For one character in the book, these exorcisms become a source of entertainment which...
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 ...
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...
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 ...
Glastonbury and Arthurian Legend (10/19)
Nowadays famous for its music festival, held in nearby Pilton, Glastonbury is a small English town in Somerset, with a population of around 9000 people. In the 10th century, before Dunstan, the character in The Abbot's Tale arrived there and built the first great Glastonbury Abbey, it was little more than a medieval village, but still one...
The Shinchonji Church (09/19)
In The Incendiaries, Phoebe Lin is gradually drawn into a fictional Christian cult called Jejah. South Korea is home to a few such apocalyptic religious cults, the most prominent among them being Shinchonji.

Shinchonji, whose full name is Shinchonji, Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, was founded in 1984 by...
Godstow Abbey (07/19)
In his first trilogy, His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman brings readers into the story through an intense use of space; he gives us a fantastical Oxford, but described in such a way that readers could visit the real place and trace Lyra's adventures around the city and colleges and thus bring the fantasy world into their own. Pullman's ...
Georgia: Crossroads of History (07/19)
In Lands of Lost Borders, author Kate Harris and her friend Melissa Yule bicycle through eastern and central Asia, stopping in the Eurasian nation of Georgia. Bordered by Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, Georgia was a member of the Soviet Union until the latter's dissolution in 1991, at which time it regained its independence. The ...
Rwanda Today (06/19)
Many of us remember reading about the events that Clemantine Wamariya experienced as a six-year-old girl in Rwanda in 1994, when over barely 100 days, Rwanda's Hutu ethnic majority went on a rampage, brutally murdering the ethnic Tutsi minority. The state-sponsored slaughter, a culmination of at least 30 years of unrest, took the lives of...
Baltimore's Storied Past (05/19)
Clock Dance, like many of Anne Tyler's novels, takes place in Baltimore, Maryland. The largest city in the state, Baltimore is home to over 600,000 residents, or 2.8 million people including the entire metro area. Located just 40 miles northeast of Washington, D.C. on the Patapsco River close to where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay, ...
The Intricacies of Interwoven Cultural Identities (05/19)
You Bring the Distant Near is successful, in large part, because of the way Mitali Perkins reveals the many, many intricacies of cultural identities, quietly challenging a western sense of the immigrant as stereotypical 'other.' She makes many references to Bengali culture, sometimes called Bangla culture, which plays a large part in how ...
The Flamingo Hotel (05/19)
The Flamingo Hotel, opened by Bugsy Siegel in 1946, where Esme spends her teenage years, was the third gambling establishment to open on the Strip. It is now Las Vegas' oldest hotel.

The hotel had been the brainchild of Billy Wilkerson, who envisioned a European-style hotel and casino, a far cry from the rustic, western-themed ...
The Unarmed Police Force of Norway (04/19)
In Derek B Miller's American by Day, which takes place in 2008, Oslo Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård doesn't carry a gun. She is a member of Norway's unarmed police force, one of nineteen countries worldwide with cops who don't carry guns. This is despite the fact that Norway falls eleventh among first world ...
The Jinn of Senegal (04/19)
In Fisherman's Blues, Anna Badkhen takes us on a trip to the West African nation of Senegal. Although her primary focus is on the families who make their living in and around the ocean, another thread emerges - the fascinating stories of the jinn. The magical power of these equally magical creatures is described in stories of great ...
Indian Muslim Marriage Ceremonies (03/19)
A Place for Us, Fatima Farheen Mirza's debut novel about a Muslim family of Indian descent, begins with a wedding. Marriage is an important part of the Muslim culture and is mandated by the Quran. While all that is required to be legally married is a simple ceremony involving the bride and groom, two Muslim witnesses and a male guardian ...
Zoroastrianism (03/19)
One of the motivating factors for the various conflicts Zarin faces in Tanaz Bhathena's debut YA novel A Girl Like That, is that she is a Zoroastrian - a religion that is far less recognizable than some of the other major world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism. This is because, though it is one of the ...
A Different California: The State of Jefferson (03/19)
Barbed Wire Heart is set in the wilderness forest of northern California. In a state widely known for its big money areas of Southern California and the Silicon Valley Bay Area, as well as its rich farmland in the center, the northern region—from Sacramento to the Oregon border—is starkly different in geography, economics, and...
Romani Fortune Tellers (02/19)
Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists begins with four children visiting a fortune teller in New York in the '60s. The fortune teller is nameless. Her whereabouts is only gleaned from hearsay and neighborhood gossip. What's more, the psychic is said to regularly change address to avoid being detected by the authorities. Despite being shrouded...
Chateau-sur-Mer (02/19)
The Windermere estate where the contemporary arm of The Maze at Windermere is set, is modeled after one of the historic Newport mansions, Chateau-sur-Mer. Until the Vanderbilts' Breakers mansion came on the scene in the late nineteenth century, the Chateau was the most palatial estate in Newport known for its Victorian architecture ...
Syrian Culture: A Rich, Layered Legacy (01/19)
The voices and stories of Syrian refugee experiences are not the only thing drowned out by the international news agencies' overwhelming focus on conflict, war, and death tolls. Underneath the tragedy, now literally buried beneath the rubble in many cases, is a cultural legacy that has spanned centuries and empires. The empires that ruled...
Spartan Mothers (01/19)
In Mothers of Sparta, author Dawn Davies compares herself and her decisions about her son to those made by mothers in Ancient Sparta.

Sparta was a city-state in Greece that reached its pinnacle in the 5th century BCE. Its name, now and then, conjures up the image of powerful warriors that thrived on austerity and deprivation. Its ...
Chastleton House (01/19)
The Wychwood of Lucy Hughes-Hallett's novel Peculiar Ground, an English estate built in the 1600s, sets the stage for the personal intrigues of characters spanning several centuries and generations. Secluded from the rest of the public, the estate and its enclosed garden are also symbols of social divisions and how they often trap people....
Cats in Japanese Culture (11/18)
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa is set in Japan, a country where felines are held in high esteem. Cats first arrived in Japan around 500 CE as stowaways on ships returning from China, where the animals had already been domesticated for centuries. They were quickly adopted in Buddhist temples by the resident monks, who ...
Liberals Love Guns Too (10/18)
In his memoir, Let It Bang: A Young Black Man's Reluctant Odyssey With Guns, R.J. Young takes readers into his obsession with guns, and in the process explores race, guns and self-protection in the U.S.

But who exactly owns guns? While gun ownership skews strongly to rural white men who most likely vote Republican, the American ...
The Looting of the National Museum of Iraq (10/18)
When looking back on the Iraq War, many American policy decisions stand out for their shortcomings, such as de-Baathification, which removed all experienced civil servants from government in one stroke; and disbanding the army, thereby leaving thousands of trained soldiers out of work and on the street. Another example, while less deadly,...
Mauritania (10/18)
In A Moonless, Starless Sky, author Alexis Okeowo profiles, among other heroes, anti-slavery crusader Biram Dah Abeid, who is a citizen of Mauritania.

This West African nation has a rich cultural history. Early settlements include Berber herders (an ethnic group indigeneous to Northern Africa) around the 3rd Century B.C., followed by ...
Tanglewood (08/18)
The cluster of small towns in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts where The Locals is set is near Tanglewood, a fact referred to several times in the narrative.

The Berkshires have long been a summer get-away destination. There are lodges, cultural sites, and several historical spots, including the homes of Edna St. Vincent ...
The Beguines (08/18)
In Bernard MacLaverty's novel, Midwinter Break, Stella is intrigued by the Beguines, a lay Catholic sisterhood, and while she and her husband are on vacation in Amsterdam she meets with a spiritual director at the Begijnhof to investigate how she might become more involved.

click for bigger image

Amsterdam's Begijnhof was founded ...

The Angelus Prayer (08/18)
Solar Bones is set in the county of Mayo in Ireland, where the narrator can distinctly hear the village church bell ringing its 'six chimes of three across a minute and a half;' he refers to it as the Angelus bell.

The Angelus bell is essentially a church bell that rings as a reminder to recite the Angelus prayer. The Angelus prayer ...
Norse Settlements in Canada (08/18)
The Half-Drowned King, Linnea Hartsuyker's wonderful Norse saga, is set prior to the end of the first millennium, significantly before the major explorations of the Norse to the west, an era when anthropologists have traced their footprints to the edges of the North American continent.

It was only a few decades ago when school ...
Whitewashing Argentina (08/18)
In her memoir Tango Lessons, author Meghan Flaherty says that tango is 'more than its prurient reputation. It contains genres, movements, cultures, continents. It is both African and European, yet uniquely Argentine - and carries within it the early story of that nation. A nation built upon a heritage it would rather see obscured.'

Provincetown (08/18)
In Who is Rich?, Matthew Klam deliberately avoids setting the story in any specific place, but we do know it's in New England. 'Everybody knows a spot like this, a fishing village turned tourist trap, with pornographic sunsets and the Sea Breeze Motel,' Rich says.

Nevertheless Klam does drop clues, including this crisp sentence: ...
Jazz, Sweden, and WWII (08/18)
While most people might think of Harlem, New Orleans, or Paris when they think of jazz music, Swedish jazz is the thread that binds the past and present in the lives of Steffi and Alvar in Sara Lövestam's Wonderful Feels Like This. Alvar is a jazz musician in 1940s in Stockholm, right before what was considered the golden age of ...
Appendix from Star of the North (07/18)
Star of the North is full of intriguing asides about the North Korean regime. The author, D. B. North, includes much of the background behind these nuggets as an appendix at the end of the novel. Below is an excerpt from it, and you can read the rest of it here.

The idea for this story came to me during a visit to North Korea in 2012, ...
Petra (06/18)
Petra, the ancient city that is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, features in The Confusion of Languages as one of the sights that Margaret longs to visit.

The remains of Petra, once a bustling city more than 2,000 years ago, were rediscovered in the early nineteenth century by a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It is ...
Rastafarianism and Dreadlocks (05/18)
In the acknowledgments in Augustown, Kei Miller reveals that the novel was inspired by a story told to him by fellow poet Ishion Hutchinson, who had his dreadlocks cut off by a teacher when he was a young boy in Jamaica. Wearing dreadlocks and the ritual smoking of marijuana are two well-known practices in Rastafarianism, an Abrahamic ...
Marriage in the Catholic Clergy (05/18)
While Catholic priests are not permitted to be married, exceptions are made for those who convert after marriage, as was the case with Lockwood's father. This loophole was established in 1980 by Pope John Paul II, and as a result there are roughly 120 married Catholic priests in the United States. Celibacy in the Church is a longstanding ...
St. Petersburg by Other Names (05/18)
The subtitle of Caught in the Revolution is Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge. Petrograd is more familiar to most today as St. Petersburg, a city that saw its name change three times in the 20th century.

It was founded in 1703 during the reign of Peter the Great for geopolitical reasons: he was looking for a way to keep ...
Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary (04/18)
What do the following people have in common? James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King; Former NFL star quarterback Michael Vick; and Carl Panzram, a confessed serial killer who committed more than 20 murders.

If you have no idea, then congratulations – you've led a life of moral rectitude. Or, at the very least, you've...
Wigtown: National Book Town (04/18)
Located in southwest Scotland in the Dumfries and Galloway district, Wigtown, the setting of Catriona McPherson's novel Quiet Neighbors, became Scotland's National Book Town in 1998. The Wigtown website touts it as: 'A book lovers' haven…with over a quarter of a million books to choose from, old and new.'

This claim...
Staten Island Stats (03/18)
New York City consists of five boroughs: Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. The latter is the home of Sgt. Denny Malone, the street-wise detective in Don Winslow's The Force. Denny may keep an apartment in Manhattan, but Staten Island is home. That's where he grew up. That's where he keeps his wife and ...
The Bardo (02/18)
The word bardo comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and means 'in-between.' It refers to a transitional state when one's awareness of the physical world is suspended. According to the concept is an 'umbrella term which includes the transitional states of birth, death, dream, transmigration or afterlife, meditation...
Eastern State Penitentiary (01/18)
The catalyst for Long Black Veil takes place within the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary, located in the heart of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Now remade into a museum and identified as a National Historic Landmark, the former prison stood unattended and in shambles from its closing in 1971 until 1994.

The author cites a visit to...
Castaways on the Antipodes Islands (01/18)
In The Mannequin Makers, a mysterious character called The Carpenter finds himself shipwrecked on a tiny island, part of the Antipodes Islands that lie several hundred miles south of New Zealand. He has no idea where he is, beyond being lost somewhere in the Southern Ocean. The island which he describes as the 'lemon wedge' (and his ...
Christian Science (11/17)
Christian Science was founded in 1894 by Mary Baker Eddy as a means of embracing 'primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.' The foundational text is Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, published in 1875, which Emily Fridlund references several times in History of Wolves.

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) grew...
The Sugar House (11/17)
In The Second Mrs. Hockaday, Susan Rivers' historical novel about the Civil War, Mr. Hockaday says to his new wife: '... there's an Armory in Holland Crossroads. A market hall in Traveler's Joy. In Charleston, it's the Sugar House. It's where servants are sent to be corrected.' This novel, of course, like all historical novels, is based ...
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