One of the purposes of the Knox County Public Library’s weekly column is to offer some reading suggestions to library users. One of the advantages of being retired is having more time to read and thus being able to make more recommendations. Following are some of the books I read this spring and summer, one fiction and the rest nonfiction, most of which are well-known and have perched high on the best-seller lists.
One of the top literary fiction books of 2019 is Delia Owens’ “Where the Crawdads Sing.” I read the book after seeing the author profiled on a morning news program. Her story was so compelling and the book so popular that I thought I would give it a try and the book did not disappoint. The book is set along the North Carolina coast and centers around Kya Clark, known as the “Marsh Girl,” whose parents and siblings abandoned her as a young girl. It is the story of her survival alone, the encyclopedic knowledge she gains of the natural world (even becoming a published author), her interactions with townspeople, and an accusation and trial for murder in 1969.
While Owens’ character lives in virtual isolation, the author wrote the book in her own remote setting in the northern corner of Idaho. She was formerly a wildlife scientist in Africa and co-authored three nonfiction books. This is her first work of fiction.
Historian David McCullough’s new book, “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West,” about the settlement of the Northwest Territory is, of course, a must read for anyone interested in American history. This book tells the story of the pioneers who settled Ohio, specifically Marietta on the Ohio River. It focuses on Manasseh Cutler, who helped open the territory for settlement, and follows families who left New England in 1788, led by Revolutionary War veteran Gen. Rufus Putnam. McCullough takes the reader through the lives of Cutler, Putnam and three other men in the coming years, expertly illustrating how thriving settlements were created in the wilderness.
Unfortunately, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner has received legitimate criticism from some quarters for failing to adequately tell the story of American westward movement from the perspective of Native Americans. The latter scarcely play a role here at all.
A book I truly found fascinating was “The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century,” by Kirk Wallace Johnson, published in 2018. The book centers around the true story of Edwin Rist, who in 2009 broke into the Tring Museum, part of the British Museum of Natural History, and stole 199 preserved bird skins, some of them 150 years old. Why would anyone steal dead birds? The answer is that the feathers, from rare birds such as the Bird of Paradise and the Resplendent Quetzal, are worth a small fortune, obsessively coveted by people who tie flies for fly fishing. The most interesting part of the book, beyond the crime itself, is the history of feather collecting by naturalists, and how birds were mercilessly slaughtered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to decorate women’s hats.
Most people who know books are familiar with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir “Becoming.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a 400-page autobiography, but I started the book and found that it is far from the average political memoir. It is a very personal account of Mrs. Obama’s life, growing up on the south side of Chicago through her years in the White House and beyond. She comes across as very genuine and relatable, just as she does when she appears in television interviews. It is obvious that many people agree, since the book has sold an astounding 12 million copies.
A new book I highly recommend is “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,” by Casey Cep. This book recounts the shocking events, which took place in 1970s Alabama, surrounding the Rev. Willie Maxwell. Maxwell’s family members began mysteriously dying, after the reverend had taken out multiple life insurance policies on them. Maxwell was the principal suspect in the deaths and was even tried and found not guilty in one case. A vigilante eventually took justice into his own hands and shot Maxwell dead at the funeral of his final victim. The latter’s trial makes up a part of the book, too, with the attorney who had defended the reverend also defending his murderer.
What really makes “Furious Hours” a unique story is the interest that Harper Lee took in the case. The famous “To Kill a Mockingbird” author attended the vigilante’s trial, conducted interviews with people involved, and undertook extensive research into every aspect of the reverend’s life. Her plan was to write a book, one that never materialized. To this day, only a few pages of the manuscript survive, and it isn’t known what happened to the remainder, or if the reclusive author wrote it at all.
All of these books, and countless other titles, can be found at the Knox County Public Library, 502 N. Seventh St. Come see what the library has to offer and enjoy some summer reading of your own.