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Beyond the Book Articles
Places, Cultures & Identities

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Hampstead Heath (08/16)
After his wife's death in Owen Sheers novel I Saw a Man, Michael Turner moves from their home in Coed y Bryn in Wales to a flat in London owned by the very friend that informed him of Caroline's death. While he is reluctant to do much of anything after her death, he knows he must inch himself forward and the noncommittal ...
Mnemosyne, the Mother of the Muses (07/16)
The title of Jonathan Galassi's novel Muse, refers to the fictional poet that the story centers on, Ida Perkins, who provides inspiration to the literary world.

A set of Ida's narrative poems is titled 'Mnemosyne,' whom Paul quickly recognizes as 'the Titaness Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and mother of the Muses.' The powerful ...
Two Haunted Houses in England (07/16)
You might not find Slade House in the real world, but England, where the novel is set, boasts of haunted houses with their own sinister histories. Here are two of them.

The Borley Rectory

The rectory in the village of Borley in Essex was built in the 1860s for the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull. After his death in 1892 his ...
The Synagogue Made With Molasses (07/16)
Much of The Marriage of Opposites is set in the town of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and concerns the main characters' Jewish heritage and traditions.

The Virgin Islands were 'discovered' by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. Many European explorers visited the islands in the ensuing decades and ...
A Tour of New York Public Libraries (05/16)
At the beginning of chapter 2 of Murder at the 42nd Street Library, Con Lehane describes the New York Public Library's famed 42nd Street branch thusly:

The 42nd Street Library stretches along the west side of Fifth Avenue from 42nd to 40th Street. The landmark beaux arts structure houses the humanities and social sciences ...

Reincarnation and the Dalai Lamas (05/16)
Susan Barker's The Incarnations explores the five lives of one man who, in his present life, is a taxi driver in Beijing. The highest-profile example of reincarnation is that of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet – 14 in all, so far. The Dalai Lamas come from the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhists, which was founded in the late 14th century...
Coney Island Amusements (05/16)
Coney Island, Brooklyn has long been known as a seaside vacation destination. As early as the 1830s, it was a retreat for New York City workers, and its attraction grew as it became more accessible by train, streetcar, and steamboat. Between the 1880s and World War II, Coney Island was the nation's foremost leisure area, with three large ...
The Norwegian Seamen's Church (05/16)
At several points in Per Petterson's I Refuse, two different characters find themselves feeling lonely while in Singapore. One character says she begins to feel a 'certain weariness inside, a reluctance to speak English and nothing else for a long time to come' and decides to head to the Norwegian Seamen's Church, which is not ...
Afghan Women's Writing Project (05/16)
When the Moon is Low has Fereiba narrate much of the action as she flees Afghanistan, along with her children, for refuge in England. While Fereiba's story is one of escape, there are countless women left behind who must endure daily life in a country where the Taliban's extremely stifling laws leave a suffocating footprint.

The Afghan...
Swiss-German (04/16)
Switzerland has four official languages, each primarily spoken in different regions of the country (please click map below). A portion of the West speaks primarily French; Italian dominates in some portions of the South; and Romansh, the closest living language resembling ancient Latin, works in a very small section of the southeast. A ...
Detroit's Property Crash and the Road to Recovery (04/16)
In 2013, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy. The decline of the automotive industry, the growth of the suburbs, unemployment, poverty, and high crime rate are all cited as factors in the city's decline. From a peak population of 1.85 million in 1950, the city shrank to around 700,000; it steadily leaked people to the Michigan suburbs...
Modern Day Miracles? (03/16)
Andrew Roe's The Miracle Girl follows the life of Anabelle Vincent, a comatose girl who many believe grants miracles. Of course, there are skeptics who surround the young Anabelle, too, and so the novel asks readers to question whether they are believers or skeptics.

The occurrence of alleged miracles is, of course, not a new topic. ...
What is it Like to Live in Jerusalem? (03/16)
Most of the action of Joinson's novel, The Photographer's Wife, takes place in Jerusalem. Just the name suggests so much. Known as the seat of three major religions, it has gone by the names the City of David, the City of Peace, and even the Holy City. It is also the city that I've called my home for over 30 years. Joinson's book notes ...
The Goddess Kali (03/16)
In The Strangler Vine, a nomadic tribe of Indian bandits, known to history as Thugs, first charm and then strangle fellow travelers in the name of the Hindu goddess Kali. The appropriation of Kali by the Thuggee to justify their murders is the subject of some ongoing historical debate. While Kali is a Hindu goddess, it has been argued ...
Beyond the Book: Orality, Politics, and the Evolution of Nigerian Literature (02/16)
E. C. Osondu's debut novel, This House Is Not For Sale, is rooted in Nigerian oral tradition. Orality, the transmission of thought and idea through speech, was the primary method of communication before the advent of the written word. In West Africa, this function falls to the griot, a singer, storyteller, and musician who serves as ...
Shenzhen, a Special Economic Zone (02/16)
One of the key elements of Whispering Shadows features Westerners conducting business in China, in particular in Hong Kong and the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen about 20 miles north of Hong Kong.

Before being anointed as the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) by then premier Deng Xiaoping in 1980, Shenzhen was an idyllic fishing...
The Lighthouse of Alexandria (02/16)
In Light, author Bruce Watson references the Lighthouse of Alexandria as one of the first instances where light was used in a large-scale manner for a practical purpose.

Alexander the Great built the city of Alexandria, Egypt, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in 331 BCE, and as part of the subsequent construction had a stone ...
The Day of The Dead (01/16)
Leigh was born on November 1. The day following Halloween is known as All Saints Day. In Mexico, where Dario, her friend the gravedigger is from, it is also known as Dias de Los Muertos — The Day of the Dead. On Leah's fifteenth birthday, and the first day they meet, Dario gives her a tiny clay skeleton, La Catrina, the patron saint...
Made in Greece (01/16)
In choosing to set Outline in Athens, Rachel Cusk is the latest in a long line of authors, poets and playwrights who have gravitated toward or drawn inspiration from Greece - its geography, its history and its vast canon of ancient writings.

The tradition of Grecian influence on literature began over two thousand years ago when the ...
Animal Ark in Reno, Nevada (01/16)
In the acknowledgments section at the end of The Animals, Christian Kiefer reveals that the inspiration for Bill Reed's North Idaho Wildlife Rescue came partially from Animal Ark in Reno, Nevada. Opened in 1981, Animal Ark provides a haven for injured and abandoned animals that, for whatever reason, cannot be released back into the wild. ...
The Soviet Union's Uranium Gulags (01/16)
In Oblivion, the unnamed narrator travels to the abandoned uranimum mines on the outer edges of the Siberian taiga to discover the truth about Grandfather II, a family friend who played an important role in his upbringing.

In the race for the atomic bomb in the lead up to World War II, the Allies had effectively secured most of the ...
The Tenement Museum (01/16)
Like many immigrant families in New York at the turn of the 20th century, Clara and her family lived in a tenement very much like the one preserved and recreated at the Tenement Museum in Manhattan's Lower East Side, a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service. This five-story brick building on Orchard Street was built in ...
Congo and Dirty Minerals (11/15)
In The Laughing Monsters, Denis Johnson shows that Africa has been exploited for minerals for a good long time. 'This time we concern ourselves with metals and minerals,' points out the main character, Roland Nair, trying to explain his mission that takes him from Sierra Leone to Congo.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is ...
North Korea's Pyongyang University of Science & Technology (11/15)
Dr. Kim Chin-Kyung (aka Kim Jin Kyong, James Kim) is the founder of both the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) and its older sister institution, the Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST) in China. It is at PUST that Suki Kim worked on assignment as an English teacher.

Born in 1935 in Seoul, Kim was a ...
Brookline: Boston's Streetcar Suburb (10/15)
Many of the stories in Honeydew are set in the town of Godolphin, an imaginary suburb of Boston that bears a great deal of resemblance to Pearlman's home town of Brookline.

Brookline, first settled in 1638 and incorporated as an independent town in 1705, is what's commonly known as a 'streetcar suburb,' a residential community ...
The Shower Posse (10/15)
A Brief History of Seven Killings chronicles the rise of a Jamaican drug gang in the United States. This fictional organization seems to be loosely modeled after the real-life Shower Posse, a violent Jamaican gang linked with numerous killings, with strongholds in large American cities such as New York and Miami.

The origins of the ...
Saint-Pierre and Miquelon (10/15)
At one point in the novel, Moses Sweetland travels to a nearby island to stock up on supplies. While there, he is questioned by the French authorities and asked for his passport. Readers might do a double-take when they read this section — the island in question is only a few miles off the coast of Newfoundland, after all — ...
The Mütter Museum (10/15)
The author of Dr. Mütter's Marvels, Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, has said that the inspiration for her book came from a school field trip taken to Philadelphia's Mütter Museum. The museum got its start when the surgeon bequeathed a collection of interesting anatomical specimens to the College of Physicians with a ...
The Hỏa Lò Prison (09/15)
Who would have ever guessed that Hỏa Lò, the notorious Vietnamese prison compound derisively dubbed the 'Hanoi Hilton' would become a tourist attraction? But that's what's happened, and the ironic, even troubling transition from a place of torture to a ticket-selling tourist trap provides the backdrop for David Freed's mystery ...
Pele, Fire Goddess Of Hawaii (09/15)
In The Islands at the End of the World, Leilani's grandfather tells her, 'Pele's your guardian spirit, yeah? Goddess of lightning.' Leilani, who suffers from epilepsy, replies, 'Yeah. Goddess of the lightning in my head.'

Pele (pronounced 'pell-ay') is the fire goddess of Hawaii, and is powerful and even destructive. According to ...
Syrian Refugees (09/15)
Unlike Laila, who is a member of the ruling family of her Middle Eastern country, most child refugees don't have the luxury of fleeing to a more hospitable country when their own plunges into war. While The Tyrant's Daughter is set in an unknown Middle-Eastern country probably closer to Iraq than Syria, the plight of the refugees in Syria...
A Brief History of the U.S. Virgin Islands (09/15)
Land of Love and Drowning opens in the early 1900s when the Virgin Islands were still under the control of Denmark. European powers, namely France, Denmark, and England, had taken an interest in the Virgin Islands since the early 1600s. Denmark settled St. John and St. Thomas by the mid-1600s, and purchased St. Croix from the French in ...
Muslim Women's Dress Styles (08/15)
The Underground Girls of Kabul explores the custom of bacha posh where girls are dressed as boys and pass off as sons in families. While, by definition, the bacha posh wear male clothing, I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore the various items of Muslim women's attire as I suspect that, like myself, many readers will be ...
Farm Life in Iowa in the first half of the 20th Century (08/15)
Michelle Hoover's The Quickening covers roughly the same timeframe and space as Jane Smiley's Some Luck: from the beginning of World War I (rather than its end in Smiley's novel) to 1950, on neighboring farms in the upper Midwest. Hoover, the granddaughter of four farming families, grew up in Ames, Iowa – where Smiley...
The Winter Palace (07/15)
From 1711 until 1917, the Winter Palace was the home to Russian Tsars, Tsarinas and their families. The need for fortified residences was lessening in the 18th century, and the palaces reflected this shift. Three distinct Winter Palaces were built, torn down and rebuilt until 1754 when the fourth and final palace was created for Empress ...
New Orleans' Spanish French Quarter (07/15)
Nestled on page 69 of Empire of Sin is a surprising blink-and-you-might-miss-it sentence in parentheses: 'Spain did, however, rebuild much of the central city after two devastating fires, which is why the architecture of the French Quarter is actually Spanish.'

In 1718, John Law, a Scottish financier who had established a private bank ...
Montana's Journey To Statehood (06/15)
Much of Lin Enger's novel, The High Divide, is set in the Montana Territory of the late 1880s. ('The High Divide' is an area of mountain ranges that crosses the Continental Divide between eastern Idaho and western Montana. It includes a small portion of the Badlands.) The Lewis and Clark expedition passed through what is now Montana in ...
Brooklyn's Bushwick Neighborhood (05/15)
In The Snow Queen, Michael Cunningham sets many scenes in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, an area that's still working toward revitalization after decades of economic strife and urban turbulence.

Bushwick and the areas now known as Williamsburg and Greenpoint were originally one Dutch settlement, the Town of Bushwick. The land ...
The Rise of Las Vegas (05/15)
The story of Las Vegas's meteoric rise from desert backwater to world-class city provides the backdrop to Laura McBride's debut novel, We Are Called to Rise, in which four city residents' lives intersect in unpredictable ways. The characters have a wide range of opinions about their hometown. While Roberta and Bashkim love the bleak ...
San Francisco's Chinatown (03/15)
San Francisco's Chinatown (the setting of Lisa See's China Dolls) is the oldest in the United States, and the largest confluence of Chinese people and culture outside of Asia. In 2013, the San Francisco Planning Department announced that Chinatown is 'the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan' – some 15,000 residents ...
The Enigmatic City of Trieste (03/15)
One cannot read Daša Drndić's compelling novel Trieste without being intrigued by its namesake - the affluent and cosmopolitan industrial seaport city of 200,000 residents with historically fluid national allegiances. Located in Italy on the remote northeastern borders of Slovenia and Croatia, Trieste has flown flags of many ...
A Brief History of the United States Marine Corps (03/15)
Redeployment author Phil Klay's service as a Marine made him part of what is arguably the most revered part of the United States military. The Corps is not technically a branch of the U.S. military, but is a special service affiliated with the Navy. The Army was established by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1775 and the Navy on...
Vietnamese Legends (02/15)
As evidenced in The Frangipani Hotel, Vietnam abounds with mythology and ghost stories. In the country's creation myth, Dragon Lord Lạc Long Quân and his fairy wife, Au Cợ, hatched their 100 children from eggs, giving rise to Vietnam's 100 family surnames. Lạc Long Quân had an undersea palace at the southern ...
The Columbia River (02/15)
The mouth of the Columbia River – where it meets the Pacific Ocean at the state border between Oregon and Washington – was John Jacob Astor's intended location for a trading center.

The Columbia River flows for 1,243 miles from its source at Columbia Lake, British Colombia through Washington and Oregon. It is the ...
Hoodoo (02/15)
To the untrained eye, the strain of magic involving animal spirits and the use of charms and powders in Cynthia Bond's novel might seem to be a branch of voodoo - a belief system that finds its origins in the Western African religion of Vodun. It is crucial to note that Ruby is, in fact, along with others in the community, a practitioner ...
Iselin, New Jersey: The Ethnoburb (02/15)
In Family Life, the Mishras make their home in the New Jersey suburb of Iselin. Iselin and its sister suburb, the township of Edison, are known to most Indians across the United States as the place to visit for anything Indian. It's here that you can indulge a craving for Mumbai street food, check out the latest fashions, or pick up a new...
Spiritualism (02/15)
The notion of 'life after death' is a core tenet of Christianity, but when the Fox sisters said they communed with dead spirits in their farmhouse in upstate New York in 1848, many began to define this central belief differently. After the Fox daughters heard repeated tapping in their wood-framed house, they were convinced that the ghost ...
Sami Religion (01/15)
Forty Days Without Shadow sheds light on the native Sami people of northern Norway, most of whom are Lutherans. The Sami also take part in shamanic rituals that emphasize strong connections between the natural and spiritual worlds, although Christianity has been slowly making inroads over the centuries forcing the practice of the native ...
Macau (01/15)
Like Hong Kong, Macau (also spelled Macao) is a 'Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China' (SAR), but is a fraction of its size - about 28 sq km, (11 sq miles) compared to Hong Kong's 1,100 sq km. The terrain is mostly flat and has a humid, subtropical climate. It is located approximately 40 miles west of Hong Kong,...
New Delhi and Edward Lutyens (01/15)
One of the cities Tristram Hunt visits in Cities of Empire is New Delhi, built separate from Delhi (the original Delhi later came to be called 'Old Delhi'). In India, the Empire's capital started off in the port city of Calcutta, but Delhi became an increasingly appealing proposition. Once the seat of the Mughals who ruled India for ...
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