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Arts & Culture

NPR's favorite history books of 2021

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

The end of the year is a time to reflect, to look back. If you want to look way back, Books We Love - NPR's list of the best reads from 2021 - has hundreds of recommendations, including books about history. These are four that our colleagues recommend.

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TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: I'm Tom Huizenga, a producer at NPR Music. And, you know, sometimes, a book comes along that completely breaks new ground - a total eye-opener. And that's the book called "Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians In The Land Of Bach, Beethoven And Brahms." And it's written by Kira Thurman, a professor of history and Germanic languages and literatures at the University of Michigan. And the book offers the history of the many Black musicians who, because they were denied opportunities in the U.S., fled to German-speaking Europe as early as the 1870s. They were in search of artistic freedom. And they found it, but they also discovered new forms of racism. Some Germans applauded them, you know, wholeheartedly. Many others rejected them, fearing that Germany's sacred art was being encroached on. I love the book because it's meticulously researched, but the writing style is not academic at all. It goes down like water. Most importantly, it uncovers a story of people and a performance practice and rebuilds an unknown period in music history.

EMIKO TAMAGAWA, BYLINE: I'm Emiko Tamagawa, and I'm a senior producer for Here And Now.

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TAMAGAWA: I'm recommending Danielle Dreilinger's "The Secret History Of Home Economics" because before I read it, I thought of home economics as a class I took in junior high with the aptly named Mrs. Housekeeper. But then I did read it and discovered that, in the early 20th century, home economics provided jobs for women in the sciences, corporations and government. It was also an area where Black women could and did make significant contributions. And Dreilinger makes a convincing case that because home economics teaches real-world skills like cooking and managing a budget, it should still be part of the school curriculum. So thanks, Mrs. Housekeeper.

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ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: I'm Eric Deggans, NPR TV critic. The book I'm talking about is "On Juneteenth" by Annette Gordon-Reed.

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DEGGANS: Gordon-Reed mingles her own personal story - she was the first Black student to desegregate schools in her hometown of Conroe, Texas - and used that as a window into a way to talk about how to look at Texas's mythology and consider some of the things in Texas's history that were rooted in slavery, rooted in lynching, rooted in oppression of Black people so that we have a more accurate understanding of the history of the state and, by extension, the history of the nation. This book in a lot of ways points out how history has been tweaked to serve the sensibilities of the white-dominated mainstream. And this book is a really elegant argument for widening that lens and a very elegant argument for facing up to the truth of what America is.

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HOLLY MORRIS, BYLINE: Hi. My name is Holly Morris, and I'm part of the NPR training team. My book is "A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" by the historian Emma Southon. It's about all the ways ancient Romans murdered each other.

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MORRIS: For a lot of Roman history, murder wasn't really a crime in the eyes of the law. Even after killing people got more regulated, there weren't, like, Roman homicide detectives looking into suspicious deaths. There was a lot of crucifixion and gladiatorial combat, and some people got really creative. One guy wanted to feed someone to lampreys, which are kind of like giant eels, but he was talked out of it. My favorite part was the curse tablets. People would scratch mean things on sheets of lead, roll them up and nail them shut. There's one that conjures demons to kill and smash a hated sports team, that sport being chariot racing. I read this book because I'm a fan of ancient Rome - well, maybe not a fan. They were pretty bloodthirsty. Not a fan of murder. But it really is pretty fun for a book about death.

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PERALTA: That was Holly Morris recommending "A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum," Eric Deggans with "On Juneteenth," Emiko Tamagawa, who suggested "The Secret History Of Home Economics," and Tom Huizenga, who recommended "Singing Like Germans." For more ideas on what to read, you can find the full list of Books We Love at npr.org/bestbooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.