Microhistories: History on a Small Scale
These are a few of the recent books with a narrow focus on a single subject, event, or place. I’m reading Paper, enjoyed Consider the Fork, The End of Night, and have Butter on my list of books to read. These titles and many more are on display this month at the Woodridge Public Library. Enjoy!
Bogard, Paul. The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, 2013.
Brox, Jane. Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2010.
Donovan, Tristan. Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, 2014. Eckstut, Joann. The Secret Language of Color, 2013.
Foy, Simon. Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, 2010.
Garfield, Simon. Just My Type: A Book about Fonts, 2011.
Hucklebridge, Dane. The United States Of Beer : A Freewheeling History Of The All-American Drink, 2016.
Kawash, Samira. Candy: A Century of Panic, 2013.
Kosrova, Elaine. Butter: A Rich History, 2016.
Kurlansky, Mark. Paper: Paging Through History, 2016.
Lukacs, Paul. Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Ancient Pleasures, 2012.
Metcalf, Allan. OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, 2011.
Roach, Mary. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, 2013.
Shaffer, Marjorie. Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice, 2013.
Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, 2012.
British Library Crime Classics
Recently I’ve read three of the British Library Crime Classics, mysteries originally published in 1935 and 1936. The series is described as “forgotten classics from the golden age of British crime writing”. 18 titles so far have recently been published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press. I think that the books I’ve read will have broad appeal today.
The Cornish Coast Murders, by John Bude, is set in a small village on the coast of Cornwall. The mystery is discussed and partly solved during fireside chats in Reverend Dodd’s study, where he meets with the local doctor and Inspector Bigswell. When a local magistrate is apparently shot through a picture window, there are very few clues, suspects, or motives.
Death in the Tunnel, by Miles Burton, involves the death of a wealthy semi-retired businessman while alone in a locked train compartment, in a railway tunnel. There is no obvious motive for murder or suicide. The mystery is solved by the combination of careful detective work by Inspector Arnold and other, unnamed police officers, and the imaginative ideas of of Arnold’s friend, amateur criminologist Desmond Merrion.
Death on the Cherwell, by Mavis Doriel Hay, is set at a woman’s college at Oxford University. An unpopular member of the college staff is found dead in a canoe on a cold January afternoon by several of the students, who proceed to help police investigate the death.
The settings of these novels are charming to a modern reader, the intricate plotting is first-rate, the violence level is low, and the writing is compelling and richly detailed, making for quite a pleasant reading experience.
Crosstalk by Connie Willis
After a minor medical procedure intended to make Briddey Flannigan and her boyfriend Trent able to sense each other’s emotions, Briddey hears a man’s voice, and panics. She’s hearing the thoughts of C.B. Schwartz, a nerdy coworker at Commspan. C.B. tries to convince Briddey that she’s now telepathic, and that no one else must know. Trent wants help to develop a new phone app, while Briddey just wants some peace and quiet, unlikely given her overly intrusive Irish-American family and gossipy coworkers. Briddey’s young niece Maeve gets involved as C.B. teaches Briddey how to quiet her mind before Trent and their doctor find out what really happened. Fans of slapstick romantic comedy will enjoy this fast-paced romp, which skewers our society’s dependence on digital technology and avoidance of self-reflection and true intimacy. The author nicely contrasts internet dating sites with the simple pleasures of reading in a library surrounded by others, or taking a walk late at night.
Unreliable Narrators in Fiction
If you’re looking for more fast-paced suspense novels that are readalikes for The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl, then check out these books:
Barton, Fiona. The Widow
Carter, Ally. All Fall Down
Chapman, Emma. How to Be a Good Wife
Crawford, Susan. The Pocket Wife
Donoghue, Emma. Room
Ellison, J. T. No One Knows
Hannah, Sophie. A Game for All the Family
Harrison, A.S.A. The Silent Wife
Healey, Emma. Elizabeth is Missing
Hogan, Phil. A Pleasure and a Calling
Kubica, Mary. Good Girl
Lapena, Shari. The Couple Next Door
LaPlante, Alice. Turn of Mind
Larbalestier, Justine. Liar
Little, Elizabeth. Dear Daughter
Lockhart, E. We Were Liars
Lutz, Lisa. The Passenger
Mackintosh, Clare. I Let You Go
Marwood, Alex. Wicked Girls
Moriarty, Liane. Big Little Lies
Morrow, Bradford. The Forgers
Oliva, Alexandra. The Last One
Paris, B.A. Behind Closed Doors
Rindell, Suzanne. The Other Typist
Walker, Wendy. All is Not Forgotten
Ware, Ruth. The Woman in Cabin 10
Waters, M. D. Archetype
Watson. S. J. Before I Go to Sleep
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
I was charmed by this short and funny memoir by a copy editor at The New Yorker. Between explaining the eccentricities of spelling and grammar at The New Yorker and a chapter titled “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie”, Norris entertains and educates. Gender in the English language, how to decide if commas in a sentence should stay, and an enlightening look at the history of compound words which may or may not be separated by a hyphen are a few of the topics covered. Anyone who has groaned at the sight of a sign boldly stating: “Buckle Up! Its the Law” will likely enjoy Norris’ personal and literary anecdotes; I certainly did.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Elderly Britons Axl and Beatrice are a devoted couple who decide to leave their cave dwelling to go on a journey to visit their son in another village. Why leave now? Beatrice is clearly upset at losing the privilege of a candle in their room at night, and would like advice for a pain in her side. We gradually learn that there is a mist of forgetfulness throughout the land. What secrets are Axl and Beatrice forgetting, and is there a valid reason for the mist? Axl begins to worry that Beatrice will stop loving him if she remembers their past, and they both wonder if their long-lost son will welcome their visit. Traveling slowly, they encounter wonders, terrors, and adventures, but the pacing never increases in this dreamlike fable for grown-ups, set in the fifth or sixth century, decades after the death of Arthur, a leader of the Britons. There is an uneasy peace between the Celtic Britons and the Saxon invaders. In a Saxon village, Axl and Beatrice hear of a boy stolen by ogres. Edwin is rescued by Wistan, and the four journey together for a while. Wistan, a Saxon warrior, is determined to find and slay the dragon Querig, but elderly knight Gawain claims that quest for himself. A leisurely read, this is a beautiful portrait of an elderly couple and their quest to remember their past, no matter what happens.
Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
A beautiful book about isolation and connectedness at what may be the end of the world. Astronomer Augustine, in his seventies, is the last scientist left at an observatory on Ellesemere Island, in the Canadian high arctic. It’s midnight all the time in the Arctic winter, but that also makes for spectacular views of the Northern Lights. After a rumor of war, when the other scientists were evacuated, he finds young Iris hiding in the observatory. Augustine has always put his career first and his relationships with his colleagues and family a distant second, so it’s a big adjustment to relate to the mostly silent girl. Together, they wait for spring and sunrise to arrive, and then journey to a well-stocked camp at Lake Hazen. During the long arctic nights and later the long summer days, Augustine scans the radio bands, looking to connect with someone, anyone else. Eventually he hears the voice of Sully, an astronaut in the spaceship Aether, on the way home from a voyage to Jupiter and its moons. Sully has also put her family second in her quest for the stars, and she and her shipmates are haunted by the continued radio silence from Mission Control. Augustine has two bouts with fever, and suffers from arthritis. He worries about what will happen to Iris, but doesn’t seem that interested in the rest of the world, unlike the crew on Aether, anxious about what they will find as they approach earth, and how to live in a world gone dark and quiet. This is one of those novels likely to stay with the reader well after the book is finished, with vividly drawn settings, complex characters, and thought-provoking scenarios. Readalikes include Station Eleven by Hilary St. John Mandel, and The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, although these two books are very different from each other.