In the summertime, readers often look for books that are light and easy — vacation reads, beach reads — like the latest in suspense series, escapist romances, and bestselling potboilers. Ordinarily, I’m there, as well, but this year brought many unusual and unique new books to the library and I’ve been reading outside my customary zone all summer long. Here are some of the surprising new books I’ve read and am happy to recommend.
“The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code” by Margalit Fox. In 1900, British archeologist Arthur J. Evans unearthed fragments of clay tablets in the ruins of Knossos on the island of Crete, tablets with messages written in an unknown language and an unrecognized pictographic script. This is the story of the fifty-year effort to crack the code and decipher the tablets’ secrets. Charismatic aristocrat Evans’ enthusiasm and wealth funded the excavation of the site. Obscure and reclusive American linguist and classical scholar Alice Kober brought analytical brilliance and a meticulous scientific process to the task and came within a hairsbreadth of deciphering the script in the 1940s. Then in 1952 British architect Michael Ventris finally solved the riddle, only to die shortly thereafter under questionable circumstances. This is an absorbing book for folks who enjoy ancient history, archeological mysteries, solving puzzles, and decoding cyphers.
“Crazy Rich Asians”, a novel by Kevin Kwan, has been a surprise smash hit this summer, acclaimed by readers and reviewers as addictive, guilty-pleasure reading. It’s a hilarious fictional look at the over-the-top opulent lifestyles, global family networks, and convoluted relationships of the wealthy jet-set Asian elite. New York-based NicholasYoung, heir to one of the most massive fortunes in Asia, has brought his ABC (American-born Chinese) girlfriend, sweet, middle-class Rachel Chu, home to Singapore to meet The Family. Once there, unsuspecting Rachel must overcome her shock and learn to navigate the crazy rich world of the Overseas Chinese, where pedigree and old money are all-important and dynastic machinations, luxurious excess, and gossip are all-absorbing. I was hooked from the first scene.
“The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family” by Joshua Hanagarne. This joyful, touching, and laugh-out-loud funny memoir is utterly unique and delightful. Author Hanagarne has struggled most of his life to understand, control, and conquer the alarming tics and sudden movements of his Tourette Syndrome. Along the way, he has found refuge in books, received amazing counsel and support from his family, met inspiring people whose life challenges equaled or surpassed his own, become a 6’7” tall weightlifting strong-man, made peace with his Mormon faith, found love and started a family, and discovered that public libraries are wonderfully accepting and entertaining places to work. I heart Josh Hanagarne and his book.
“The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island” by Mac Griswold. Sylvester Manor, a New England plantation at the far eastern end of Long Island, has survived for over 300 years and has been owned by eleven generations of the Sylvester family. Somewhat surprisingly, the original Sylvesters were slaveholders and key participants in the 17th century “Triangle Trade” — slaves purchased in Africa traded for West Indian molasses, molasses made into New England rum, rum sales financing another cargo of African slaves for work in the New World. Researching the manor’s history, author Griswold traveled to West Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe and discovered the extensive but little-known story of slavery in early New England, where at one time, Rhode Island had the highest number of slaves of all the American colonies. The region had a complicated demography that included enslaved, indentured, or free Africans, Indians, and Europeans, and Sylvester Manor had just such a diverse set of people living and working together. This story of the rediscovery of the manor, its excavation, and the recreation of the lives of its inhabitants through the years is an engaging look at a unique niche in American colonial history.
“The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime” by Judith Flanders. This book by British social historian Flanders will appeal to devotees of true crime stories, detective fiction, and Victorian cultural history. Backed by her meticulous historical research, Flanders explains how an explosion of sensational coverage in the Victorian popular press changed the history of crime, contributed to the evolution of an official police force, and ignited an interest in crime fiction and murder that continues to the present day. This book earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.