• The cover of the book Dead Wake

    Dead Wake

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    Lusitania disaster, 1915

    With World War I reaching the end of its first year, the luxury liner Lusitania set sail, those aboard believing that, despite it being wartime, maritime law and honor would allow the ship a peaceful voyage. Instead, its torpedoing by a German U-boat would take more than 1,000 lives and eventually push America into joining the war on the side of the Allies. Larson’s retelling highlights new details and makes each character—from the boat’s architect to President Woodrow Wilson to its passengers—stand out through their impact on the voyage and the ensuing disaster.

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  • The cover of the book The Night Watch

    The Night Watch

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    WWII air raids, 1941

    By moving back through time, Waters highlights three fierce, tenacious women staying alive during World War II. Whether driving ambulances and sorting through homes reduced to rubble or exploring their sexuality among each other, these characters represent the larger female population, who were granted freedom and agency in the war but then forced to abandon that new independence once the men returned home.

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  • The cover of the book The Scarlet Letter

    The Scarlet Letter

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    Puritan era, 1642

    No other book sums up the Puritans’ toxic blend of private sin and public shame like Hawthorne’s classic. The bold red “A” borne by Hester Prynne has become an unforgettable trope; the novel was one of the first to tackle the taboo themes of adultery through a literary lens.

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  • The cover of the book A Brief History of Seven Killings

    A Brief History of Seven Killings

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    Attempted assassination of Bob Marley, 1976
    New York City crack wars, 1980s
    Redefining Jamaica, 1990s

    James’s Man Booker Prize–winning novel straddles more than one turning point. Starting with gunmen storming “the singer’s” home just days before the Smile Jamaica Concert, the novel carries these motifs of violence and invasion through the next two decades—especially where the CIA’s involvement in Jamaica changes the course of history more than once.

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  • The cover of the book The Crucible

    The Crucible

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    The Salem witch trials, 1692
    Second Red Scare, 1953

    Miller wrote his classic play about a few girls’ hysteria snowballing into the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for another turning point in history: the 1950s McCarthyism, during which the House Un-American Activities Committee helped to blacklist prominent members of the entertainment industry, including Miller himself.

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  • The cover of the book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

    Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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    Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864

    Plenty of friendships can’t survive the misunderstandings and betrayals that weaken Lily and Snow Flower’s laotong bond. But few are as resilient as these “old sames,” who weather not only the aforementioned petty squabbles but also literally keep each other alive during the bloody civil war that forces them to escape into the mountains during a savage winter.

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  • The cover of the book Girl at War

    Girl at War

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    Croatian War of Independence, 1991

    In Nović’s debut novel, it’s 2001 and 20-year-old college student Ana is haunted by the wars of her childhood in Croatia a decade earlier. While Ana is in denial to her friends and boyfriend, flashbacks reveal how she lost her family in the war and was forced to become a child soldier as the only means of survival. Just as the Yugoslav Wars broke up Yugoslavia into independent nations, so too does this novel follow a girl’s brutal coming-of-age.

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  • The cover of the book A History of the World in 100 Objects

    A History of the World in 100 Objects

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    100 turning points in history

    Perhaps it’s cheating to include MacGregor’s massive book (inspired by his landmark radio program with the BBC), but this collection brings both quantity and quality. By examining objects ranging from friezes to figurines to flagons, MacGregor asks questions about how competing regimes shape their citizens, the movement of goods and ideas, and how we first started identifying as humans.

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