Martha Anne Toll | WYPR

Martha Anne Toll

Amidst a barrage of horrific news, The New York Times recently ran a story decrying shrinking rooftop spaces to raise pigeons. Pigeons, it turns out, are far more than urban pests that poop on passers-by below. They have a fascinating history spanning the globe.

Smashing the patriarchy is hard work.

The Doctors Blackwell, by historian Janice P. Nimura, profiles two sisters who faced what was a daunting lack of choices for 19th century women. They achieved a series of near-impossible feats to become America's first and third certified women medical doctors. Nimura's account is not only an exhaustive biography, but also a window into egregious 19th century medical practices and the role these sisters played in building medical institutions.

Brutality grinds on in Syria, but other horrific news drowns it out. In the cacophony of current events, it is heartening to remember that heroes emerge in unpredictable places.

The Book Collectors, by Delphine Minoui, translated from French by Lara Vergnaud, depicts the savagery of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime contrasted with that life-saving symbol of civilization: a library.

The Upswing, written by Robert D. Putnam in partnership with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, argues that history holds the answers for how to move out of today's tumultuous age.

Putnam is the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and author of 14 books. Garrett is a social entrepreneur, writer, and founding contributor to "Weave: The Social Fabric Project," an Aspen Institute initiative.

Last January, I attended a writing residency in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I was five miles from Christ of the Ozarks, a 65-foot, 340-ton statue erected in 1966 by Gerald L.K. Smith, who had been an organizer for populist demagogue Huey Long. Tom Zoellner's new essay collection, The National Road, explores this kind of Americana, peeking into corners few of us get to see.

Most of the world knows we're in the midst of a very consequential election. Against twin pandemics of illness and racism, deep economic insecurity, and a president whose relentless fearmongering has reached fever pitch, the ability to vote has never been more important.

Desmond Meade's Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens is a compelling story about one man's rise from addiction, homelessness, and prison to run a successful campaign to re-enfranchise more than one million Florida voters.

America suffers continued, devastating fallout from chattel slavery.

Our nation did not act alone; Europe's colonial powers also reaped mighty profits from the African slave trade.

Our twin pandemics in the forefront at the moment — racism and health — underscore a democracy in crisis.

In 1921, my grandmother moved from the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan to Rochester, New York to get married. There she lived until her death at age 109, outlasting my mother by eight years.

Nana lived in a high rise close to Mom's childhood home, a home I came to know after Mom died. Rochester was a stark and lonely place for me.

One long ago St. Patrick's Day, I wandered into an Irish book festival and picked up Colm Tóibín's essay collection, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar. The book made a deep impression about the dangers of gayness, loneliness that stems from the queer community's inability to hear or read its own stories, and literary codes that developed to signal queerness between the lines.

I wonder how Paul Lisicky's Later would read if the dawn of AIDS weren't in living memory.

Lisicky's memoir would no doubt be deeply affecting, but it is even more so for recalling that time of terror and frustration, when no treatment or prevention was available for a disease that causes prolonged, horrific death. The extent of loss and cataclysm to the gay community and their loved ones during that time surpasses words.

It is a cruel irony that we find ourselves in the midst of another pandemic, making Lisicky's book uncannily timely.

"It did not have to be this way, and there was a time when it was not," Adam Cohen writes in his introduction to Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court's Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America.

America could have top-notch, racially integrated schools, a criminal justice system that hadn't ballooned to the world's largest by locking up generations of black and brown people, a political system that wasn't suffocating in money and a legal system that valued individuals over big business. Today, though, the likelihood of implementing such a vision looks dim.

How can one mourn a parent whose harsh judgments frame childhood? This question haunts Philip Kennicott's Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning.

Halfway through Garth Greenwell's exquisite story collection, Cleanness, the narrator and his boyfriend wander through a Bologna museum devoted to a single, unnamed artist. The narrator becomes transfixed by paintings "humming at a frequency I wanted to tune myself to catch."

Aarti Namdev Shahani reports on Silicon Valley for NPR. She's also the daughter of an immigrant who served time for a "felony."

Her riveting memoir, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, recounts a story of personal success against the backdrop of her family's contorted, painful path to citizenship. Close-knit, they discovered the hard way that American justice is neither just nor colorblind.

Sarah M. Broom's gorgeous debut, The Yellow House, reads as elegy and prayer.

The titular house is the fulcrum for Broom's memoir about her large and complex family. Perhaps more important, it stands in for the countless ways America has failed and continues to fail African Americans.

I'm not sure I would have argued for another memoir in which a white man's life implodes from alcohol and cocaine addiction. But now comes Idiot Wind by Peter Kaldheim, its title from the Bob Dylan song, with something to offer.

Three Summers, by Magarita Liberaki [1919-2001], weaves a dreamy, cinematic tapestry of Greek village life. Originally published in 1946, the novel has been reissued, translated by Karen Van Dyck. It's set in the countryside around Athens, "where all the gardens were."

Massoud Hayoun is a member of the Arab diaspora. With Moroccan, Egyptian, and Tunisian heritage, he is also Jewish.

His new book, When We Were Arabs, is an absorbing family history that spans continents and epochs.

Hayoun uses his grandparents' stories to illuminate the fading history of a once thriving Arab Jewish community. In the process, he delivers a scathing indictment of colonialism. He considers his Arabness "cultural," "African," and "Jewish," but "retaliatory" as well.

The German viola I played during my serious music days failed to accrue value; twentieth century German instruments don't produce a warm enough sound. For tone, you need Italian or French or English. In some cases, American will do, as Gregory Spatz attests in his new collection. Set in and around Seattle, Spatz's What Could Be Saved plumbs the rarified world of high-end stringed instruments. Spatz teaches writing at Eastern Washington University; he is also a professional fiddler, which lends his book an authenticity often lacking in fiction about musicians.

Some years ago, on vacation in New Hampshire, I picked up a copy of Lorene Cary's Black Ice, a memoir of her two years attending an elite New England prep school. Riveting for its honesty and straightforward storytelling, the book opens a window into what happens when a black girl from an educated family enters such hallowed halls.

Since its founding, America has been fertile ground for conspiracy beliefs. While every generation produces rumor-mongers, today we anoint them with special powers through social media.

Anna Merlan, a journalist at Gizmodo Media Group, explores our contemporary fixation with conspiracy theories of all political stripes in Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power. Throughout the book, she reports from gatherings of people whose beliefs are both extreme and false.

Can a writer put visual art on the page? Or render a visual artist's creative impulses into words?

Now, Now, Louison is Jean Frémon's freewheeling effort to do so. Frémon — lawyer, writer and gallery owner — inhabits artist Louise Bourgeois as if she herself were writing this novel-cum-memoir. Elegantly translated by Cole Swensen, Now, Now, Louison portrays a woman whose mind never rests, whose capacious memory serves as a bottomless source of artistic inspiration.

Who Killed My Father, by French writer Édouard Louis (lyrically translated by Lorin Stein), is a brief, poetic telling of the myriad ways societal contempt, homophobia, and poverty can kill a man.

Following Louis' autobiographical novel, The End of Eddy, this book is a deeply personal meditation: a gay man speaking to a father mired in toxic masculinity, whose absence is louder than his presence, but who ultimately finds love and understanding — even respect — for that same son.