Histories of reluctant mayors, edgy newspapers, and scandalous divorces, plus a book of moving conversations with New Yorkers speaking near-dead languages, remind us of the sheer breadth of stories available in the Five Boroughs.

Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York

Ross Perlin. Atlantic Monthly, $28 (432p) ISBN 978-0-802-16246-5
As home to more than 700 languages, New York is “the most linguistically diverse city in the history of the world,” writes Perlin (Intern Nation), codirector of the nonprofit Endangered Language Alliance, in this enthralling account of his attempts to document dozens of the rarest languages that have flourished there. He profiles six individuals in Brooklyn and Queens who speak an endangered tongue, among them Rasmina, who lives in a “vertical village” (a six-story apartment building) of some 700 Seke speakers that hail from five towns in northern Nepal. She is working to transcribe and preserve the language, even as the residents transition to speaking the more common Nepali of their neighbors. Other languages featured are Wakhi, which originates from the area where Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China converge; Nahuatl, which is spoken in remote areas of Mexico; and several West African languages that are being newly transcribed by the unifying N’ko alphabet. Perlin uses language as a window into N.Y.C. history, with engrossing deep dives into, for example, the “Harlemese” of the 1920s (sometimes called “jive”) that was influenced by several Black immigrant groups, elements of which quickly caught on around the world. The result is an immersive meander through N.Y.C.’s past and present that brings to the fore its multitudinous nature. Readers will be engrossed. (Feb.)

Strong Passions: A Scandalous Divorce in Old New York

Barbara Weisberg. Norton, $28.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-393-53152-7
Historian Weisberg (Talking to the Dead) digs through newspaper archives and legal libraries to deliver this captivating chronicle of a high-society scandal that riveted the nation during the final years of the Civil War. In a highly emotional state after the death of their third child in 1862, New York City socialite Mary Strong confessed to her husband, Peter, that she’d been having an affair with his brother. The couple soon separated, and Peter sued for divorce and custody of their two daughters. Mary countersued, alleging Peter had also committed adultery; she claimed he had forced her to have an abortion, then had an affair with the abortionist. By the time of the trial in 1865, Mary had disappeared with one of her daughters, in response to Peter having refused to return the other daughter after a visit. The jury was deadlocked and the divorce was not granted (based on two jurors’ opinions that Peter, the original claimant, was as guilty as Mary), though later negotiations allowed the couple to divorce. Weisberg presents her narrative as a suspenseful courtroom drama—related through witness testimony from servants, family members, and a “ladies’ physician,” among others—with informative contextual asides on new developments in women’s rights and the ongoing war. It’s a page-turning glimpse into the lives of 19th-century New York’s upper crust. (Feb)

The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the ‘Village Voice,’ the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture

Tricia Romano. PublicAffairs, $35 (608p) ISBN 978-1-5417-3639-9
Former Village Voice nightlife columnist Romano debuts with a phenomenal oral history of the alternative weekly from its founding in 1955 through the 2018 shutdown of editorial operations. Drawing on more than 200 interviews with Voice personnel, Romano explores the many vibrant personalities, colorful stories, and heated disputes that defined the publication. Founding editor-in-chief Dan Wolf is remembered for championing young writers who “were actually living what [their] byline was about,” and cultural critic Greg Tate comes across as an erudite polymath whom features editor Lisa Kennedy credits for opening up “an incredible space for people to imagine writing whatever the fuck they wanted.” There’s no shortage of drama, such as when short-tempered jazz critic Stanley Crouch punched music writer Harry Allen over Allen’s defense of hip-hop (“In the interest of talking against the promotion of thuggish behavior, I smacked him,” Crouch says). Romano is unafraid to cast a critical eye, devoting a devastating chapter to the Voice’s scant early coverage of the AIDS epidemic; editor Richard Goldstein recalls that “there was a reluctance on the part of people to do something that was so negative about sex.” Brimming with riveting anecdotes and capturing its subject’s rollicking spirit, this is a remarkable portrait of the “nation’s first alternative newspaper.” Photos. Agent: Betsy Lerner, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. (Feb.)

I Never Did Like Politics: How Fiorello La Guardia Became America’s Mayor, and Why He Still Matters

Terry Golway. St. Martin’s, $29 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-28578-2
Fiorello Henry La Guardia (1882-1947) was “one of those rare political figures whose reputation and legacy have stood the test of time,” according to this admiring biography from historian Golway (Machine Made). Born to Italian immigrants in New York City’s Greenwich Village, La Guardia found early work as a clerk at the U.S. consulate in Budapest assisting thousands of Eastern European immigrants leaving for America. After returning to New York, he became a translator on Ellis Island and graduated from law school. Elected the first Italian American representative to Congress in 1918, La Guardia interrupted his first term to enlist as a pilot in WWI. Following the war, he jumped back into New York City politics and eventually won the 1933 mayoral election. Inheriting a “mismanaged city on the verge of bankruptcy,” La Guardia utilized federal New Deal funds to get the city back on its feet with public works project such as the New York Housing Authority, which built more than a dozen public housing developments. Throughout, Golway presents La Guardia as a model for today, highlighting his cross-aisle politicking (he was a Republican who supported the New Deal) and his willingness to dissent from prevailing wisdom (he was pro-immigration at a time when it was unpopular). This will intrigue readers concerned with America’s current political polarization and government gridlock. (Feb.)