Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Station ElevenThis is a beautiful, elegiac, heartbreakingly sad novel of the post-apocalyptic genre, that transcends the usual preoccupations we have about the End of the World and weaves meditations on fame, regret, culture, and human relationships throughout its 333 elegantly written pages.

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That Duel

211 years ago today, Aaron Burr (the Vice President) shot and killed Alexander Hamilton (the former Treasury Secretary and still leader of the Federalist Party) on a dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey.Aaron Burr

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Sarah Carr, Hope Against Hope

This is a profound, beautifully written, intelligent and moving book about the jarring changes in the New Orleans public school system since Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. As you may have heard, our Crescent City is now on the cutting edge of the school privatization/reform/charter movement that has been sweeping the Sarah Carr Hope against Hopenation, and has been cited by Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, as a model for the nation. Those of us who actually live here tend to see things differently; in┬ámy own opinion, New orleans becoming a model for the nation would be a tragedy of the first order. In any case, what is really wonderful about Carr’s book is that she avoids the postage-stamp caricatures that both sides in the debate generally make of each others’ points of view. She explores all viewpoints with nuance and compassion, following a freshman at a KIPP high school, a young white teacher at Sci High, and an experienced black woman principal at O. Perry Walker school, through the ups and downs of a whole school year. While doing this she also considers the history of public education in the United States and New Orleans in particular, segregation and integration, No Child Left Behind and the quantification movement, Teach for America, and many other aspects of the subject. There are many books about these issues — I also like Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System — but Hope Against Hope is one of the best out there, a must read for anyone interested in education.

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Robert Gordon, Respect Yourself

This history of Stax Records is simply a fantastic book by any standard. It’s compulsively readable, it’s painstakingly researched, and it is about a wonderful topic. It works very well on two levels: one, the personalities (on both sides of the art/business divide) that make timeless, deeply influential music at Stax from 1958 to 1975; and two, for more serious historians, the parallels between the Stax story in Memphis and the broader regional and national stories of racial oppression, unrest, and the golden years of the Civil Rights movement.

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Taylor Branch

One thing I did manage to do during the last six weeks of general unproductivity was to read Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch’s wonderful first volume of his America in the King Years trilogy. I read the book slowly, enjoying every bit, and honestly it was as much a needed diversion from 1803 New Orleans as it was a learning exercise. I have an impression that Branch is taken pretty seriously by academic historians; more so than, say, Robert Caro or David McCullough, for instance. But not being a 20th century specialist, it’s hard to judge how important the King trilogy is from a scholarly perspective.

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Mark Fernandez “From Chaos to Continuity”

This is a useful book, a clearly argued book, and a really comprehensible book. I say all these things because From Chaos to Continuity is also very much a legal history — and “useful,” “clear,” and “comprehensible” are not always words I find applicable to legal histories.

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Jon Kukla “A Wilderness So Immense”

There’s a lot to admire about this narrative history of the Louisiana Purchase. Kukla takes a geopolitical and diplomatic story of enormous scope and complexity and fashions it into an account that is coherent, readable, even entertaining. He rightly stresses that the factors that led to American possession of Louisiana were global in area and long in duration.

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