The best books about conquering adversity

Why are we passionate about this?

Gershen Kaufman, Ph.D., professor emeritus in psychology at Michigan State University, is a pioneer in the study of shame and author of ground-breaking books on shame. His work is considered foundational in the Recovery Movement and in Psychology. Lev Raphael, Ph.D., is an educator, editor, and author publishing in genres from memoir to mystery.  We've co-authored several books based on an innovative program we created at Michigan State University, which Free Spirit Publishing invited us to adapt for kids. This program teaches you how to build self-esteem: a crucial skill that can be taught just like reading, writing, and arithmetic—and is equally essential to living a secure, confident life.

We wrote...

Stick Up For Yourself!: Every Kid's Guide to Personal Power and Positive Self-Esteem

By Gershen Kaufman, Lev Raphael,

Book cover of Stick Up For Yourself!: Every Kid's Guide to Personal Power and Positive Self-Esteem

What is our book about?

Everyone faces challenges in life, kids as well as adults. Powerlessness, uncertainty, and insecurity are some of the most difficult challenges we will ever face. Shame is another. Uncertainty too often leaves us anxious and afraid.  Powerlessness can render us humiliated or enraged, or both. And shame is like a wound made on the inside by an unseen hand, a sickness of the soul. Though specifically aimed for 9-13 year-olds, this book teaches kids of all ages, along with parents, vital skills for strengthening one’s inner self. Learn how to overcome shame and how to affirm oneself from within. Learn how to move from powerlessness to enhanced personal power, and to shared power in a relationship. Learn how to live with uncertainty without becoming overwhelmed by it. Acquire the necessary skills for building personal power, positive self-esteem, and inner security.

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The books we picked & why

Book cover of A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City

Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael Why did I love this book?

When the Russians seized bombed-out Berlin near the end of WWII, it was a landscape of rubble where the surviving Germans lacked the most basic necessities: food, water, and heat. Women fared much worse than men because of a terror campaign of rape directed at them by the conquering Russian soldiers. This memoir, describing eight weeks living under siege, was written by a courageous journalist who watched her neighbors with a keen Berliner's eye, and who did whatever was necessary in order to survive while still trying to keep her dignity intact. Heroism in the face of adversity takes many forms, and in this book, sheer survival itself was one of those forms.

By Anonymous, Philip Boehm (translator),

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked A Woman in Berlin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. "With bald honesty and brutal lyricism" (Elle), the anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. "Spare and unpredictable, minutely observed and utterly free of self-pity" (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland), A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the…

Book cover of Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael Why did I love this book?

Abraham Lincoln is the subject of hundreds of books, but no historian has ever before explored his role specifically as Commander-in-Chief and how he not only grew into that role but triumphed at it. Well-read in military strategy and possessing a sophisticated grasp of strategy itself, Lincoln was all too often way ahead of his dithering generals who failed to take advantage of their successes with an eye toward bringing the war to an earlier conclusion. With a very hands-on approach, Abraham Lincoln persisted in pushing the army always to do more, to be more, while learning from battlefield mistakes in ways many of his generals seemed incapable of. Despite tragic losses and many missed opportunities, Lincoln never gave up or gave in, and never lost his compassion, either, for the soldiers in the field.

By James M. McPherson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tried by War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"James M. McPherson’s Tried by War is a perfect primer . . . for anyone who wishes to under­stand the evolution of the president’s role as commander in chief. Few histo­rians write as well as McPherson, and none evoke the sound of battle with greater clarity." —The New York Times Book Review

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author reveals how Lincoln won the Civil War and invented the role of commander in chief as we know it

As we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, this study by preeminent, bestselling Civil War historian James M. McPherson provides a rare, fresh take on…

Book cover of Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought England Back from the Brink

Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael Why did I love this book?

A nation at war, facing seemingly insurmountable odds, with much of Europe already conquered and Germany winning every battle, triumphant over all—leaving Britain isolated, its very survival now imperiled. Yet a solitary voice defies the inevitable. “We shall never surrender,” cries Winston Churchill.  Single-handedly, Churchill turns back the voices of defeatism, standing firm against all those both in and out of his government who wanted to sue for peace with Adolf Hitler. He was defiant to the end. This is a book about England’s darkest hour, when she stood alone on the brink of catastrophe, and about one man, Winston Churchill, whose courage, enormous strength of will, and clarity of purpose, saved Britain from disaster and arguably saved Western Civilization along with it.

By Anthony McCarten,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Darkest Hour as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


From the prize-winning screenwriter of The Theory of Everything, this is a cinematic, behind-the-scenes account of a crucial moment which takes us inside the mind of one of the world's greatest leaders - and provides a revisionist, more rounded portrait of his leadership.

May, 1940. Britain is at war, European democracies are falling rapidly and the public are unaware of this dangerous new world. Just days after his…

Book cover of Under a Dark Sky

Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael Why did I love this book?

Eden Wallace’s husband is dead and she’s deeply phobic about the dark, but she’s going to take the northern Michigan vacation he planned for them anyway — at a "sky park" where there’s no light pollution at night to keep you from seeing the spectacular starry skies. The dream turns into a nightmare when she becomes the prime suspect in a grotesque murder and subsequently suffers unexpected torments.  Rader-Day delivers a fiendishly clever plot and there are truly superb twists along the way. This is finely wrought crime fiction with great psychological depth. The dialogue is natural all the way through, the characters are beautifully individualized, and the author deftly builds tension while taking us deep into the heart of Eden’s grief. All of that makes her eventual triumph over both circumstances and her crippling fear truly unforgettable.

By Lori Rader-Day,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Under a Dark Sky as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Anthony Award!

"Fans of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None will be riveted by Rader-Day's latest psychological thriller, which makes you question who you really know and trust and whether you should be afraid of the dark."-Library Journal, Starred Review

"A brilliant concept, brilliantly told!" --Jeffery Deaver, New York Times Bestselling Author

Only in the dark can she find the truth . . .

Since her husband died, Eden Wallace's life has diminished down to a tiny pinprick, like a far-off star in the night sky. She doesn't work, has given up on her love of…

Book cover of Blanche on the Lam

Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael Why did I love this book?

Blanche White is one of the most unusual amateur sleuths you'll ever meet: she's a fiercely independent, heavy-set Black maid who makes no apologies for who she is or what she does. Working in a wealthy Southern home where secrets and arrogance collide, she sees her employees and the privileged world they inhabit with keen eyes and a wicked tongue. Wise, compassionate, and indefatigable, while at the same time keeping a low profile, Blanche solves a murder and offers up commentary about money, power, and race relations that blends beautifully with the mystery at the heart of this novel.  Given who Blanche is and her role in the household, suspicion inevitably falls on her, but she never flags or fails in her search for justice. Truth triumphs in the end. Though short, this novel is nevertheless rich with cultural insight and packed with wonderful satire.

By Barbara Neely,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Blanche on the Lam as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Award-winning author Barbara Neely presents the first in a series of novels featuring Blanche White, bla ck domestic worker extraordinaire and accidental sleuth. '

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Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…

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