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.