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Beyond the Book Articles
Places, Cultures & Identities

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Idaho—A Nonsense Name? (11/17)
In Idaho, Ann muses about a legend surrounding the state's name. She relates a delightful story about a delegate to Congress playing with a little girl named Ida lingering in the House chamber while others discussed proposed names for a new western territory. When the little girl runs away, the man shouts after her, 'Ida! Ho! Come back to...
Art on the London Underground (11/17)
The world's first underground railway opened in London in 1863 between Paddington and Farringdon stations using steam engines to pull gas-lit wooden carriages along the almost four-mile, 6-station, route. In its first twelve months, almost 10 million passengers were transported. The early network was built in shallow tunnels and needed ...
The Isle of Harris and the Flannan Isles (11/17)
Acclaimed crime novelist Peter May is famous for a trilogy of novels set on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Hebrides, but in his latest outing, Coffin Road, he has moved his sights south, to the harder, rockier terrain of the Isle of Harris.

Although Lewis and Harris are always referred to as if they are two separate islands, they ...
African American Women and the Black Church (10/17)
In Brit Bennett's debut novel, the mothers are the elderly African African women who devote themselves to Upper Room, the black church in town. 'If we laid all our lives toes to heel, we were born before the Depression, the Civil War, even America itself,' they report.

The mothers in the book depend on the church for much of their...
Adoption From China (09/17)
In The Fortunes, one of the main characters is adopting a baby from China. The U.S. Department of State reports that a total of 76,026 children were brought from China to the USA through adoption between 1999 and 2015. Of these, 87.1% were female and 12.9% male – a result of China's historical one-child policy and the frequent ...
Bletchley Park (09/17)
Bletchley Park, the setting for Lucy Ribchester's The Amber Shadows, is situated about an hour's train ride north of London. The estate has been turned into a heritage museum open to the public since 1993.

Bletchley was originally a manor house on about 500 acres with rural outbuildings, but by the 1930s had fallen into disuse. The ...
The Native American Tradition of Winkte (09/17)
The two main characters in Sebastian Barry's Days Without End, Thomas McNulty and John Cole, are white soldiers who at various points dress up as women for entertainment or disguise. They are thus surprised but bemused when they take part in the Indian Wars and encounter the Native Americans' winkte or berdache tradition of men who dress ...
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences (09/17)
Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution Through Painters' Eyes focuses on the ideal of a country-in-making and how the arts helped educate and manipulate its political leanings. In this drive for perfection, there was a need, once the Revolution was a success, to continue the young country's unique standing in the world by ...
Grupos Beta (09/17)
In the beginning of Lucky Boy, as Soli makes her way from Mexico to the United States, she spends several nights in a relief camp set up by Grupos Beta, a service agency operated by Mexico's National Institute of Migration (INM), that offers water, shelter, medical aid, and information to migrants at risk.

There are currently 22 Grupos...
The Tucson Samaritans (09/17)
'I feel sorrow. Anger. And sometimes a little desperation,' says Maria Ochoa, one of the people Sasha Abramsky interviews in his book, Jumping at Shadows. As a member of the Tucson Samaritans, a humanitarian group which aids migrants who cross the borders through the Arizona desert, she has reason to be. For more than a decade, she has ...
Gardens of Heligan (08/17)
The grounds of Black Rabbit Hall (In Eve Chase's eponymously named novel) are depicted as lush and untamed, a state of wildness that could be the site of enchantment or of danger. Several times Chase mentions 'giant rhubarb' growing wild in the woods around Black Rabbit Hall, a detail that immediately reminded me of a real Cornish garden ...
Belfast (07/17)
In So Say the Fallen, it is murder most foul in Belfast. Northern Ireland's capital city is as much a character in Neville's work as it is a place in the novel. It's where the author lives and, has been the home of a number of famous people; it is the birthplace of the Christian author and philosopher C. S. Lewis; John Wood Dunlop ...
London Fog (07/17)
Vyleta's Smoke draws inspiration from the very real issue of smog in Victorian London, the result of fog off the Thames river mixing with smoke from early industrialization and coal-burning fires in homes. This is hinted at when the novel's young protagonists are briefly hidden in a coal mine before making their way into the city. Making ...
San Francisco's Palace Hotel (06/17)
One of the special things about Thanks for the Trouble is its strong sense of place, utilizing several San Francisco landmarks and other locales as a backdrop for Parker and Zelda's story. One of the most important settings is the historic Palace Hotel, which is where the novel opens and which also plays a pivotal role later.

...
A Brief History of Uganda (06/17)
Kintu is set in Uganda, a landlocked country in central Africa bordered by South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of Congo. It is home to approximately 39 million individuals (2015).

click for bigger image

Human activity in the region that is now Uganda dates back at least 50,000 years as evidenced by ...

Shanghai (05/17)
The Street of Eternal Happiness, or Changle Lu, is the subject of Rob Schmitz's book and also his home. It is located in Shanghai, which means 'City on the Sea' in Chinese. Shanghai is located on a delta of land on the country's eastern coast, where the Yangtze River empties into the East China Sea. Home to over 24 million people (2014), ...
The Kremlin (05/17)
'Kremlin' is the Russian word for a castle or fortified complex, and many Eastern European cities, including Novgorod, Smolensk and Kiev have one. Most people however, associate the Kremlin with the seat of the Russian government in Moscow.

The site of the Moscow Kremlin, a hill near where the Neglina and Moskva Rivers converge, shows ...
The Ashanti Nation and the Gold Coast Slave Trade (05/17)
Homegoing is set against the backdrop of the Gold Coast slave trade. Protagonists Efii and Esi, the two half-sisters, come from warring states in 18th century Ghana, the Ashantis and the Fantes.

The Ashanti Nation was a loose group of fiefdoms, an ethnic subgroup that was formed in 17th century Ghana as a trading coalition with the ...
The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh (05/17)
In The Strings of Murder, Oscar de Muriel's historical crime novel set in Victorian times, detectives, Frey and McGray crisscross a city that has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. As someone who knows Edinburgh well - I was born and grew up there - I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. Abbeyhill, opposite the famous ...
The Rainbow Bridge (05/17)
The Rainbow Bridge spanning Tokyo Bay plays a fundamental role in Blue Light Yokohama. It becomes almost a character, as if the 800 meters (2,625 feet) spanning Tokyo's Shibaura Pier to Odaiba's waterfront is a metaphor for crossing the chasm between good (the enforcement of the law) and evil (murder).

But the double-deck ...
New York City's SoHo District (05/17)
Tuesday Nights in 1980 is set in the SoHo district of New York City, a neighborhood that was once far removed from the boutiques and arts destination it is today. SoHo is located in lower Manhattan and derives its name from its geography: South of Houston street and perhaps after its sister equivalent, Soho in London. It is widely ...
The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (04/17)
Consequence author Eric Fair first prepared for his role as an interrogator by enrolling in the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC).

According to its website, the DLIFLC is the 'premier school for culturally based foreign language education and training, with classroom instruction, mobile training teams, and ...
Lourdes (04/17)
It might not be surprising to learn that about three million people a year visit the Taj Mahal, the world-famous opulent marble mausoleum in Agra, India. It is often referred to as the world's most beautiful building. But would you be surprised to discover that fully twice as many people a year visit a muddy, rocky cave on the site of a ...
The United Arab Emirates (04/17)
Temporary People is set largely in the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven states located on the Persian Gulf. Each of the seven, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Qaiwan have their own local governments, which are overseen by a federal president in Abu Dhabi, the nation's capital. The current ...
Nestinarstvo or Ritual Fire-Dancing (04/17)
Nestinarstvo, or ritual fire-dancing, plays an important role throughout Stork Mountain.

The practice, which involves walking barefoot across burning coals, is specific to the Strandja Mountain region in southeast Bulgaria, an area that shares both borders and cultural ties with Greece. Indeed, it's believed that the rite originated ...
The Joint Family in India (03/17)
In Ghachar Ghochar, the narrator lives in a joint family, and it is really this sociological unit that has been the mainstay of Indian life for centuries.

A joint family is defined as a unit of extended members of a family all living together under one roof, who also cook and eat together. Usually driven by patriarchal order, the ...
Little Saigon Enclaves (03/17)
The name 'Little Saigon' is often given to an area where there are a large number of people of Vietnamese origin. When The Refugees author Viet Thanh Nguyen arrived in the United States in the mid '70s at the age of four, he lived in a refugee camp and then with a couple of sponsor families in Pennsylvania before being reunited with his ...
American Expats in Mexico (03/17)
Even if there's a lot of violence portrayed in Josh Barkan's short story collection, statistically, Mexico as a whole is comparable to the United States in overall crime incidents, but areas known to have high drug activity are more likely to include the 'headline' crimes such as murder, kidnapping and extortion. In fact, although ...
Seva in Sikhism (03/17)
In The Year Of the Runaways, most of the men are Sikhs as is Narinder Kaur, the only woman character. Sikhism (see Beyond the Book for A Moment Comes) is an integral part of Narinder's life and it is through practicing one of its central tenets, service or 'seva,' that she comes to be Randeep's wife.

While most religions ...
The Town of Rye (02/17)
The charming town of Rye rests in the county of East Sussex near England's south coast. Rye's recorded history can be traced back to before the Norman Conquest of 1066. For many centuries it was an important port town set in a naturally formed bay. But this changed in the 13th century when a combination of major storms led to its main ...
Vikings on the Isle of Man (02/17)
One of the main storylines of Merrow involves the arrival of a man, Ulf, who Auntie Ushag, using her native Manx language, calls a 'wiggynagh,' or what we'd call a Viking. Like many elements of the novel, this has a basis in historical fact, since the Isle of Man has a significant history of Viking exploration and settlement.

...
Vikings on the Isle of Man (02/17)
One of the main storylines of Merrow involves the arrival of a man, Ulf, who Auntie Ushag, using her native Manx language, calls a 'wiggynagh,' or what we'd call a Viking. Like many elements of the novel, this has a basis in historical fact, since the Isle of Man has a significant history of Viking exploration and settlement.

...
The Maze Prison and Its Most Famous Inmate (02/17)
In High Dive, Jonathan Lee references many aspects of 'The Troubles,' a term used to describe the turbulent decades in Northern Ireland between 1960 and 2000. At issue was a territorial challenge: the overwhelmingly Protestant Loyalists wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom while the nationalists and mainly Catholic republicans were...
The Kung Tribe (02/17)
Africa's Kalahari desert might seem an unlikely model for American society. But the Kalahari—a sparsely populated swath of sun-baked bushland that boasts temperatures regularly above 100 degrees during the day and just a few inches of rainfall every year—is home to a tribe of nomadic people called the Kung (part of the San ...
Internment Camp Newspapers (02/17)
In Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds, Harry Fukuhara, his sister Mary, and his niece Jeanie were forced into internment camps built to house people of Japanese descent who were living in the United States during World War II. Over 127,000 Japanese Americans, mostly from the West Coast where ...
What is Jihad? (01/17)
In The Kindness of Enemies, Leila Aboulela's twenty-first century protagonist Natalie asks: 'How did this historical change in the very definition of jihad come about?' This question is developed thematically though the historical storyline in Aboulela's novel which features Imam Shamil, a mid-nineteenth century Muslim leader of mountain...
Apex, North Carolina - One of the Best Places to Live in America (01/17)
When Dr. Clarice Watkins sets out to academically scrutinize one of the 'Best Places to Live in America,' she notes that the criteria for making the list include 'Good quality of life,' along with 'Quiet and safe.' For many years, Money magazine has compiled its own annual roundups of the 'Best Places to Live.' According to Money, their ...
The Farallon Islands (01/17)
The Lightkeepers is set on the Farallon Islands, which are officially part of the city of San Francisco. Even though they are located just about thirty miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, the islands are quite remote. 'There is nowhere more alone than the Farallon Islands,' Geni writes in The Lightkeepers, 'The rest of the world might ...
A Brief Recent History of Belarus (12/16)
The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko deals with the aftermath of Chernobyl and is set in a hospital in Belarus.

While most of us think of Belarus as a part of the now fragmented Soviet Union, the country has a colorful history of being handed back and forth between Poland and Russia for centuries. Belarus was part of Poland (which ...
The Hotel Metropol (12/16)
In A Gentleman in Moscow, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to live the rest of his life within the walls of his current residence – Moscow's Hotel Metropol.

One of the oldest hotels in Russia, the Metropol was originally named the Chelyshy after its owner, Pyotr Chelyshev, who opened the facility as a bath house and ...
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (11/16)
When English clergyman Reverend David Railton spied a British grave marked 'Unmarked British Soldier' in 1916, he developed the idea for a national war memorial. It would take until 1920, however, for his idea to come to fruition, but this proved to be the perfect time. Two years after the end of World War I there were still tens of ...
Bat Mitzvah (11/16)
One of the stories in Robert Oldshue's November Storm is about a 12-year old girl who is about to become a Bat Mitzvah. Most people have heard of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah – a Jewish rite of passage; a time when boys and girls are formally welcomed into the adult community. The word mitzvah means commandment or law, as well as good deed; ...
The Hokule'a (11/16)
In Pacific, author Simon Winchester closes with the image of the vessel Hokule'a, which he views as a symbol of hope for the people of the Pacific Islands and a physical manifestation of a return of respect for indigenous traditions.

The Hokule'a is built in the tradition of the ancient Hawaiian double-hulled voyaging canoe known as wa...
The Tridevi in Hinduism (10/16)
The Opposite of Everyone is peppered with elements from Hinduism, most prominently with references to the goddess Kali who is widely revered among Hindus for her ability to quell chaos during dark times (read 'Beyond the Book' for The Strangler Vine to learn more about Kali).

Left According to the tenets of Hinduism, the Supreme Being ...
Cyprus: Divided Loyalties (10/16)
One of the many historical events that are featured glancingly in A Strangeness in My Mind is the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

For a long time Cyprus was a part of the Ottoman Empire, which arguably explains why Turkey considered it its own, even after the Ottoman Empire handed over governance of the island to Great Britain in ...
Anegada - BVI (10/16)
Set on the remote British Virgin Island (BVI) of Anegada, Sun, Sand, Murder is a mystery novel that owes much to its setting.

Anegada is the northernmost island of the BVI archipelago chain (click map for larger image). Of the inhabited islands, Anegada is the only one made of coral and limestone, instead of being volcano-created like...
Hollywood's Margaret Herrick Library (09/16)
If you live in or near Los Angeles, you're guaranteed to have at least one Hollywood experience, be it a TV show taping, a star sighting, tickets to a premiere, or some crazy confluence of circumstances that gives you something you never expected.

Up until late summer 2012, I lived in the Santa Clarita Valley, 30 minutes north of ...
The Kibbutz (08/16)
Atwood's experimental Positron/Consilience project in The Heart Goes Last shares many similarities with the kibbutz movement in Israel, which began in the early 20th century as a way for Jews to develop and settle the land.

The basic philosophy behind the kibbutz embodied Karl Marx's maxim: 'from each according to his ability, to each ...
Pulau Bidong Refugee Camp (08/16)
In Dragonfish, Suzy writes about leaving Vietnam with her daughter, and arriving on an island before finally being resettled in the United States. She was one of many boat people, and this aspect of the story might well be modeled after Vu Tran's real-life experiences where he and most of his family were refugees at Pulau Bidong ...
Kibera (08/16)
Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya, is one of the largest slums in the world; in Africa, it is second only to South Africa's Soweto, with a population of anywhere from 200,000 to over a million depending on who is doing the measuring. Early in Find Me Unafraid, Jessica Posner writes:

In Kibera, hundreds of thousands of houses made from ...

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