Reading Room Blog
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.
The last thing editorial assistant Billy Webb expected to stumble upon in his new job was an unsolved murder. But when fellow employee Mona Minot approaches him about references to something deadly in the company’s research files, Billy is immediately intrigued. And thus the two begin their amateur sleuthing in Emily Arsenault’s novel The Broken Teaglass.
Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, tells the story of one man's attempt to promote peace in the Middle East by building schools. Journalist David Oliver Relin chronicled Greg Mortenson’s life in order to encourage further support for his efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
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Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian
It is the dawn of the nineteenth century; Britain is at war with Napoleon's France. Jack Aubrey, a young lieutenant in Nelson's navy, is promoted to command of H.M.S. Sophie, an old, slow brig unlikely to make his fortune. But Captain Aubrey is a brave and gifted seaman, his thirst for adventure and victory immense. With the aid of his friend Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and secret intelligence agent, Aubrey and his crew engage in one thrilling battle after another, their journey culminating in a stunning clash with a mighty Spanish frigate against whose guns and manpower the tiny Sophie is hopelessly outmatched. (catalog summary)
If you like Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander, here are some suggestions of books dealing with men and the sea, from times gone by.
Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
Peter Blood, a physician and English gentleman, turned pirate out of a rankling sense of injustice. Barely escaping the gallows after his arrest for treating wounded rebels, Blood is enslaved on a Barbados plantation. When he escapes, no ship sailing the Spanish Main is safe from Blood and his men. (catalog summary)
Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
Harvey Cheyne is the over-indulged son of a millionaire. When he falls overboard from an ocean liner her is rescued by a Portuguese fisherman and, initially against his will, joins the crew of the We're Here for a summer. Through the medium of an exciting adventure story, Captain's Courageous (1897) deals with a boy who, like Mowgli in The Jungle Book, is thrown into an entirely alien environment. (catalog summary)
The plot and characters in The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson, are full of surprises. Grown-up siblings Annie and Buster Fang end up back home with their parents when both their lives implode in creative ways. Buster, while writing for a macho magazine, was shot with a potato gun, doing serious injury to his face. Actress Annie shed some extra clothes on a movie set and got blacklisted. Adrift and in need, they naturally return home.
But coming home for them is no staid Norman Rockwell gathering. Annie and Buster Fang grew up being conduits for their parents’ eccentric artistic visions. Chapters describe parents Caleb and Camille Fang’s disturbing performance art events with their children, stage-named Child A and Child B. The elder Fangs tightly tangled their family and their art, and, not surprisingly, the children are “messed up.” Funny, thoughtful and disturbing, this novel tests the boundaries of how most of us define art and family.
A nubile co-ed is missing from the same small, rural Mississippi town where another young woman had disappeared twenty-five years earlier—the mystery unsolved, her body never found. So begins Tom Franklin’s stellar novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.
Socially-awkward Larry Ott was 16 years old when Cindy Walker, both beautiful and popular, asked him out on a date. That momentous occasion—at least through Larry’s eyes—was the point when his young life began a downward slide from which it would not recover. Walker was never seen again. Although no evidence was ever found connecting him to the girl’s disappearance, the townspeople unanimously convicted Larry without the benefit of any trial. Shunned and taunted, he became the local pariah.
While some memoirs are incredibly complex and intrinsically difficult to categorize, most of the ones I’ve read tend to fit in one of two general groups: the experience-driven and the persona-driven. Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books exemplifies the experience-driven category. Steinberg was an unknown when his memoir was published, and that relative obscurity meant that most readers were not drawn to the book because of his persona or celebrity. It was the topic of the autobiography that caught the public’s attention--the fact that this young man had worked in a prison library and found a way to describe the disorienting experience with both clarity and depth.