Reading Room Blog
“Most kids grow up leaving something out for Santa at Christmas time when he comes down the chimney. I used to make presents for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
When I picked up a copy of Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, I couldn’t wait to start the first page. I’ve been fascinated by Winterson’s novels for years, but never imagined she would narrate her life in the coherent, linear style associated with memoirs. In Winterson’s fiction, she constantly manipulates the boundary between fantasy and reality, integrating personal experience, mythology, and philosophy into a fluid conglomeration. Although Why Be Happy does feature some of Winterson’s trademark structural experimentation, it is also an engrossing story about one woman’s experience of dysfunction, madness, violence, love, and religion.
The personal histories included in All There Is are compelling and powerful. Some are joyous celebrations of love and companionship, while others are stoic accounts of tragedy and perseverance. Despite their differences, each narrative is characterized by an overpowering sense of authenticity. The stories recorded in All There Is were not shared for personal gain or publicity. Rather, they were collected through the efforts of StoryCorps, an oral history project that allows any willing volunteer to record his or her most precious memories and experiences. The participants share the most essential aspects of their lives in interviews that are recorded for their personal archives and, in many cases, for the American Folklife Center.
Since its debut in 2003, the StoryCorps project has spread across the United States, recording over 40,000 interviews. As Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ founder, states, “StoryCorps’ mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. With a relentless focus on recording the stories of people who are often excluded from the historical record, StoryCorps captures lives that would otherwise be lost to history and reminds the nation that every story matters and every voice counts.”
The Seventeenth Child, by Dorothy Marie Rice & Lucille Mabel Walthall Payne, sets down the memories of a childhood lived in the countryside of 1930s Virginia by a black woman who grew up before the Civil Rights Movement made so many gains. These remembrances are plain, soft-spoken and ring true to an age that was certainly different from the one we know. In some ways, it was a harder time as in her earliest years even basic food was very hard to come by and the sharecropping system made it difficult for all farmers, black and white, to get ahead or even stay afloat during the bad harvest years.
But it was the warmth of family, faith, shared hardship and simple joys that made those days good as well as difficult. The children worked, not only because their help was needed but because it was understood that working was a good thing in and of itself. They helped pull and tend tobacco, can vegetables, sew quilts, raise chickens, and shell corn. Lucille Payne tells of how hard it was to earn money. How sometimes her mother might not be paid much more than fifty cents for a hard day’s washing of filthy clothes in a dark and cold shed. Well, fifty cents and a hambone that might not be fit to eat without it being scrubbed, too, and sometimes not even then. But her mother said, “Well, you accept what they give you; next time it might be better.”
It wasn’t all about acceptance. Sometimes Lucille would see her mother spit in the water while she washed and she would ask her why she did that. “That helps to get them clean.” But I know she was just so angry because she had to survive. When you have so many children you have to survive the best way you can. Likewise, when white children rode the bus to their segregated school, leaving the black children to walk and even calling them names, the black children got a bit of revenge…and a chance to be better than their so-called betters with an act of charity.
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Transfer of Power by Vince Flynn
The stately calm of a Washington morning is shattered when a group of terrorists descends, killing dozens and taking nearly one hundred hostages as they massacre their way into the White House. The Secret Service evacuates the president to an underground bunker--and while officials argue over how to negotiate with the enemy, Mitch Rapp, the CIA's top counterterrorism operative, moves stealthily among the hidden corridors and secret passageways of the executive mansion, to save the hostages before the terrorists reach the president. But another adversary--someone within Washington's elite--is determined to see Rapp's rescue mission fail. (catalog summary)
If you like Transfer of Power by Vince Flynn, here are some titles and authors that you may enjoy:
The Black Echo by Michael Connelly
For LAPD homicide cop Harry Bosch -- hero, maverick, nighthawk -- the body in the drainpipe at Mulholland Dam is more than another anonymous statistic. This one is personal. The dead man, Billy Meadows, was a fellow Vietnam "tunnel rat" who fought side by side with him in a nightmare underground war that brought them to the depths of hell. Now, Bosch is about to relive the horror of Nam. From a dangerous maze of blind alleys to a daring criminal heist beneath the city to the tortuous link that must be uncovered, his survival instincts will once again be tested to their limit. (catalog summary)
By Order of the President by W.E.B. Griffin
Army Maj. Carlos Guillermo Castillo, whose Spanish name belies his fair-haired, blue-eyed appearance (he had a German mother), is working as a special assistant to the secretary of homeland security. Because of post-9/11 concerns, when a Boeing 727 is hijacked from a remote airport in Angola, it becomes a top priority for the U.S. government. Vicious infighting between several agencies results in a snafu that leads the U.S. president to assign Charley Castillo to use the search for the plane as an excuse to launch an investigation into the internal workings of all the government agencies and personnel who need to cooperate in terrorist situations. (Publisher's Weekly)
It’s been almost forty years since Secretariat made horse-racing history, winning his Triple Crown races with record times. Born March 30, 1970, at Meadow Farm in nearby Caroline County, Virginia, “Big Red’s” driving runs to the finish, “like a tremendous machine,” as one sportscaster phrased it, caught the country’s imagination in a decade of woes from Watergate to the Energy Crisis.
Check out the official Web site devoted to this incredible horse, and check out books from our list, And, They’re Off: Books About Thoroughbreds and Their People.
The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, seeks to determine through investigative journalism exactly what goes into deciding what we should eat. Pollan explains that as omnivores, humans have such a vast variety of foods that they are able to eat—plant, animal, and even fungi--that it creates a problem within the human mind. Other species such as the koala bear only have one choice for dinner, eucalyptus leaves; because humans have so many choices, deciding what to eat can take up a large part of humans' time.
In order to investigate exactly how we have come to use the supermarkets and the industrial-style meal preparations today, Pollan looks at all of the ways in which people are able to feed themselves. He analyzes first the industrial-style food change, which starts with large farms in other parts of the country—or, in some cases, other parts of the world—and consists mostly of corn products, which leads to a meal served at your local McDonald's. Then he looks into the organic phenomena that we're seeing today, which stemmed out of early ideas about better ways to manufacture food that does not contain hormones and antibiotics that other industrial food chains add. Next, he looks at some alternative food production models, such as grass feed farms. The one that he examines most thoroughly is Polyface Farm, which is located in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Lastly, Pollan looks at the most traditional way of food production—food foraging—with which he produces an entire meal using his own skills in Berkley, California.
If you don’t live in Vermont, the name Ethan Allen may just be a furniture brand to you. But the life of this key figure in the American Revolution embodied a lot of the conflict between the colonists and their English overlords. From relatively humble beginnings, the Allen family became involved in trade and land ownership. The problem was, wildly rich speculators from New York had in mind to keep New Hampshire land under the tenant farm system whilst the struggling farmers wanted to be able to own their land outright.
Richard Wright’s Native Son is an exceptional example of dynamic, participatory literature. Rather than allowing the reader to effortlessly absorb the words on the page, Wright undermines the passivity and comfort we often expect when reading. Both the content of the novel and Wright’s literary style provoke and disturb, immersing the reader in a dense psychological terrain that is simultaneously intimate and larger-than-life.
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Native Son follows the life of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man living in squalor with his mother and siblings. Bigger’s mother holds him accountable for the welfare of the family, but his ability to work towards a stable life seems perpetually hindered. He can’t overcome his poverty because he can’t get a job that pays well, and he can’t get a decent job because of his lack of education and limited social mobility. He is also imprisoned by the sense that, as an African-American man, his mere existence has been criminalized: “There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong.”
It is a year after the death of Sherlock Holmes when Watson again sets pen to paper to record another of his sensational investigations, a series of events so scandalous they could not be related earlier, as told in Anthony Horowitz’ The House of Silk.
When Edmund Carstairs believes he and his family are being threatened by a man in a flat cap, he turns to Holmes for help. It appears that the man has followed him from America seeking revenge. The pursuer’s murder does not solve the puzzle, but instead leads Holmes and Watson ever deeper into a dangerous London underworld of opium dens and worse with links to the most powerful and influential levels of British society. In this dark world, they hear whispers about the House of Silk. But inquiries lead to threats, and they are warned off the investigation in no uncertain terms by those in the highest levels of government. Soon Holmes finds himself in prison, accused of murder.
Author Reginald Hill died January 12th, 2012, at the age of 75. Best known for his "Dalziel & Pascoe" series, he also wrote a number of stand alone novels. The Woodcutter is a fairy tale of a thriller set in the almost mythic Cumbrian countryside.
Hadda Wolf has been living Happily Ever After. The son of a Cumbrian woodcutter, he fulfills three tasks--getting an education, some social polish, and amassing great fortune--to win the hand of an almost-princess, the daughter of the lord of the castle. Hadda and Imogen marry, have a daughter, and he truly feels he is living beyond his wildest dreams.