The 2017 Book List

For the past 10 years or so, I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read. Lately, that’s been somewhere between 15 and 18 books. This year, it was 16. Here are the books I read in 2017, with some thoughts about each:

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (Timothy Egan) — I really enjoyed this book about photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis, who was famous for photographing American Indians over a 30-year period. Because I’m also working on a book project that could take decades, Curtis’s journey gave me hope that I can finish my “big idea” someday, too.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Trevor Noah) — I enjoy watching Trevor Noah videos on YouTube, but I like him even more after reading his book. It’s funny, touching and just a great memoir.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Gabrielle Zevin) — A novel about a bookshop owner who becomes an accidental father. I loved it. I don’t read a lot of novels, but I definitely recommend this one.

American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt (Daniel Rasmussen) — I didn’t know that this 1811 slave uprising even happened before I found this book at my local library. Also, it was good research on how to go about writing my own narrative nonfiction book, what do to about citing sources, etc.

The Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown) This book has been popular for a while, but I finally got it as a 2016 Christmas gift from my husband and read it. I learned a lot about rowing and enjoyed the story.

A Lucky Child (Thomas Buergenthal) — The true story of a boy who survives the Holocaust. Good book.

The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead) — I need to read this book a second time. I enjoyed it, but wondered whether there was something “deeper” that I had missed along the way. With all the press that it got and all the “smart” people that liked it, I think I was supposed to be more wowed than I was. I did enjoy the story, though, and plan to re-read it someday.

In a Sunburned Country (Bill Bryson) — I always like Bill Bryson. His books make me want to travel and have adventures. This book about his travels in Australia did that as well.

Thirteen Moons (Charles Frazier) — I really, really liked this novel, more than I thought I would. It’s the story of an orphan who is sent to operate a general store on the North Carolina frontier, in Indian Territory, in the early 1800s.

Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years (Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delaney with Amy Hill Hearth) — As the title indicates, two sisters tell the story of their lives. The African-American sisters grew up in North Carolina and later migrated to Harlem, where they were both very successful and never married.

Looking for Lost Bird (Yvette Melanson with Claire Safran) — The story of a Jewish woman who discovers her Native American ancestry and goes west to find her family. The book also was made into a move called, “The Lost Child.”

The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped our History (Molly Caldwell Crosby) — Worth reading just for the opening story, but I learned a lot that I didn’t know about the yellow fever. I definitely learned to stay away from it and it made me (temporarily) terrified of mosquitoes.

Memorials of a Southern Planter (Susan Dabney Smedes) — I confess, I skimmed a couple of chapters of this book because I read it primarily for research for my book project. I also skimmed a book about Natchez and two books about historical resources related to Natchez, including what can be found in the Natchez Trace Collection at the University of Texas. “Memorials,” however, is the story of the family of a “character” in my book, Col. Thomas S. Dabney.

The Training Ground (Martin Dugard) — Before reading this book, I knew nothing about the Mexican War. Now, I know something. It also sort of factors into my book project, because the story takes place at the same time as the Mexican War and would have been a topic of discussion among people. It also was prominent in the newspapers in 1847 and 1848, when my story takes place. Also, one of the people mentioned in my book (when it’s actually a book) will be someone whose son enlists in the Army during the Mexican War. So, it might come into play.

Truevine (Beth Macy) — Another book that taught me a lot about how to write the sort of book I’m working on. It also was a very good story and I learned a lot about the circus/carnival industry, which also plays into my book project.

The Optimist’s Daughter (Eudora Welty) — I found a copy of this book at Goodwill and figured I should get it and read it. After all, reading it would make me sound very smart, and Southern, right? In the end, I got through the book but I wasn’t impressed. Perhaps I’m not smart or Southern enough to “get” Eudora Welty. I guess that means I’d better not try any Faulkner!

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Zora Neale Hurston book about Cudjo Lewis to be published

I saw this article online today, about a previously unpublished book by the late-Zora Neale Hurston, author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The new book, titled “Barracoon,” is about one of the last surviving American slaves, Cudjo Lewis, who was brought to the U.S. in 1860 aboard the Clotilde (also spelled “Clotilda”).

Cudjo Lewis - NYPL
Cudjo Lewis. New York Public Library.

The book, based on conversations Hurston had with Lewis in Alabama in the 1930s, will be published in May 2018.

A barracoon, for those who haven’t heard the word (I hadn’t until recently), was a place where slaves were confined.

Also, I blogged about the Clotida about a year and a half ago. You can read that story and see photos of Africatown Graveyard, where Lewis is buried, here.

Thoughts on Yellow Fever

A few days ago, husband John and I were on our way somewhere, probably out to eat, when I noticed, flitting around the car’s dashboard, a mosquito.

Normally, a mosquito wouldn’t cause me great amounts of alarm. After all, it’s July, I live in the South, and it was hot and humid. It’s expected, once in a while, to see and even be bitten by a mosquito.

But instead of my usual annoyance at having a mosquito in the car, I had a moment of abject terror. Why? Because at the time I was reading a book about the yellow fever.

In case you’re not familiar with yellow fever, which arrived in the United States from Africa, thanks to the slave trade, it sounds terrible.

Yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes — the Aedes aegypti variety, to be exact. The symptoms include headache, fever, delirium, vomiting black stuff and literally turning yellow. If death comes, and it often does, it’s swift.

Yellow Jack Monster
This drawing, “Yellow Jack Monster,” by Matthew Somerville Morgan, 1839-1890, depicts “Yellow Jack,” another name for yellow fever, attacking a woman. Library of Congress.

In 1878, a particularly awful yellow fever epidemic hit the Mississippi River valley. According to some reports, it infected about 120,000 people, killing somewhere between 13,000 and 20,000. People were hysterical and everyone was worried about where “Yellow Jack” might strike next.

On this website, you can read more about the 1878 epidemic and look at drawings and other documents related to it.

One of the places yellow fever hit in 1878 was Hinds County, Miss. For those who read this blog regularly, Hinds County is one of the places I’m researching for a book I’m writing about a particular story from the overland slave trade.

Without going into lots of details, a few months ago, I was trying to find one of the “characters” in my book, a man named Beverly Mitchell. And by “find” I mean I was trying to find evidence of him, somewhere in the public record, after 1849. After much searching, I was having no luck.

After reading about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, however, I had a thought: “Maybe I can’t find Beverly Mitchell because he’s dead.” So, I tracked down a list of people who died of the yellow fever in Hinds County in 1878.

Sorry, Beverly, but I sincerely hoped you had died of yellow fever so I could move on to something else, but after scouring the list, I was disappointed — again, sorry, I’m a terrible person — not to find Beverly Mitchell among the dead.

In looking over the section on Dry Grove, one of the communities in Hinds County, I noticed lots of people with the same last names: five members of the Caston family, four Flewellens, five Stewarts and as many Williamses.

The same was true for other areas of the county. I can only imagine how terrified people were.

So, think about that the next time you see a mosquito fluttering around your car! You’re welcome!

Thoughts on a Book: ‘Thirteen Moons’

Thoughts on a Book: ‘Thirteen Moons’

Recently, I finished reading “Thirteen Moons,” a 2006 novel by Charles Frazier. Frazier also wrote the novel “Cold Mountain,” which was made into a 2003 movie starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger.

“Cold Mountain” also has been produced as an opera.

I’ve never read “Cold Mountain” or seen the movie or opera. No real reason why. I just haven’t.

My mother-in-law gave me “Thirteen Moons” as a Christmas gift, along with another novel, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” by Gabrielle Zevin. I read the latter a few months ago and loved it.

Without spoiling much, if anything, it’s the sweet story of a middle-aged bookstore owner and widower, A.J. Fikry, who unexpectedly acquires a child.

“Thirteen Moons” is the story of Will Cooper. Will is an orphan and indentured servant — he calls himself a “bound boy” — sent to the North Carolina mountains, just outside of the Cherokee Indian territory, to run a trading post in the early 1800s.

When he tells his life story, Will is an old man. The story follows Will through the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which he has lots of adventures and misadventures, and one lifelong love.

The book, for which Frazier appears to have done his research, also deals with the Indian Removal Act, a law signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830 with the goal of moving Indians from the southern U.S. to Oklahoma and points west of the Mississippi.

There were two passages in “Thirteen Moons” that struck me, so much so that I took time to write them down on a note card I was using for a bookmark.

In this one, Will is looking back on his life and how he lived it:

But I’d rather think I made my way more like a highwayman, by being willing to pull a pistol — or something metaphorically like it — on the world when I needed to. 

I liked that one a lot. It’s an empowering reminder that sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands and fight for yourself because no one is going to save you but you.

And this one, on how one might spend their last day:

If you knew that tomorrow afternoon the sun would flame up and consume all the world, would you spend the time between now and then praising the beauty of creation or would you sit in a darkened room cursing God with your last breath? 

I’d like to think that if I ever found myself in that situation, literally or metaphorically, I’d make the most of that last day.

It brings to mind times when husband John and I are on vacation, often in New Mexico or somewhere else in the American West. On our last day, we usually take a long drive, trying to make it to some far-off place we haven’t been yet, cramming it all in, like we might never have another chance to do it.

Realistically, morbid as it sounds, we might never have another chance. For the most part, I think life should be lived like that  like at any point, literally or metaphorically, you could be hit by a bus.

In short, though, I enjoyed “Thirteen Moons” very much and recommend it.

The black-and-white featured photo, used above, is of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, taken between 1895 and 1910. Citation: Detroit Publishing Co, P., Jackson, W. H., photographer. [Over the mts. from Mt. Toxaway, Sapphire, N.C]. Blue Ridge Mountains North Carolina Sapphire, None. [Between 1895 and 1910] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/det1994013352/PP/.

Thoughts on a Book: “The Boys in the Boat”

I’ve been a little slack about blogging over the past couple of weeks. One reason is I’ve been more interested in planning an upcoming research trip to Mississippi than I have been about writing.

That and I’ve been a bit lazy.

Anyway, I wanted to tell you about a book I read recently, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” by Daniel James Brown.

Husband John gave me the book as a Christmas gift. Actually, John gives me lots of books, which I really appreciate. This past Christmas, John and his mother gave me several books, and I’ve been working my way through them over the winter and spring.

“The Boys in the Boat,” as the subhead well indicates, tells the story of the eight-man rowing team (the ninth man is the coxswain) that represented the U.S. in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

While the author writes about all of the team’s members, their coaches and the Berlin Olympics in general, he focuses a lot on the life of rower Joe Rantz.

As the passage on the back of the book jacket describes him, Joe was “a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world.”

Joe, like the rest of the boys, was a member of the University of Washington’s rowing team. One might not think about the Pacific Northwest when one thinks about rowing — also called crew — but Washington has been a powerhouse in the sport of rowing for decades.

Like Joe, the other “Boys in the Boat” weren’t the sons of doctors, lawyers and titans of industry, like one might imagine their Ivy League counterparts to be. They were the sons of loggers, laborers and farmers who, like many people during the Great Depression, were struggling to make ends meet.

You can learn more about “The Boys in the Boat” on the PBS website. In 2016, the PBS series “American Experience” ran an episode on the team, and there are videos, photos and articles that tell more of its history and the history of rowing.

In addition to the history of this particular rowing team, by reading this book I also learned a lot about the sport of rowing and the history of the 1936 Olympic Games.

About rowing, among other things, I learned that one, six-minute race uses the same amount of energy a person would expend by playing two, 40-minute basketball games, back to back.

That kind of makes me want to take up rowing for its bang-for-your-buck quality, if nothing else.

About the 1936 Olympics, which occurred during the early years of Adolph Hitler’s reign, I learned about how the campaign against Germany’s Jewish population, which would eventually spread across Europe as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” was officially toned down for the Olympics.

The Berlin Olympics was Hitler’s chance to show off Nazi Germany, after all, and to normalize his regime in front of an international audience. Everything would look nice and pretty, all of the people visiting for the Games would have a good time, and Nazi Germany would look like an OK place to be.

Jesse Owens - LOC
Jesse Owens starts the 200 meter at the Berlin Olympics. Library of Congress.

So, I imagine it was extra satisfying for those spectators who didn’t fall for Hitler’s ruse to watch not only the Washington rowers defeat the German rowing team, but also to see Jesse Owens, an African-American sprinter and jumper, win four Olympic gold medals.

Regarding a completely different book — albeit one also set around World War II — I just finished reading, “A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy,” by Thomas Buergenthal.

You can read more about the author and his story here. The book was a quick and interesting read and I recommend it.

Thoughts on a Book: ‘American Uprising’

A few weeks ago, I was perusing the nonfiction section at the Lynchburg Public Library — truth be told, looking for a book about the Abraham Lincoln assassination — when I stumbled on a book titled, “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.”

nat-turner-rebellion
A woodcut depicting the Nat Turner Rebellion, 1831. Library of Congress.

My first thought was it was a book about the Nat Turner rebellion, which occurred in Southampton County, Va., in 1831. After all, that’s probably the best-known slave uprising. Books have been written about it and at least one movie made, including the 2016 film, “The Birth of a Nation.”

As a side note, I thought calling a film about the Nat Turner rebellion “The Birth of a Nation” was brilliant because the last movie by that name — a silent film from 1915, originally titled, “The Clansman” — was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan and contained all sorts of racist portrayals of African-American people. So, take that!

But “American Uprising,” written by Daniel Rasmussen, isn’t about the Nat Turner rebellion. It’s about a slave uprising that happened in 1811 on Louisiana’s German Coast, a stretch of sugar cane plantations along the east side of the Mississippi River, just north of New Orleans.

Husband John and I drove down what’s also called the River Road a couple of year ago, while in New Orleans for a family wedding. There are still a lot of plantation homes there and what looked like sugar cane fields, but there also are a lot of refineries and industrial sites.

Still, while reading “American Uprising,” it was nice to be able to see the German Coast in my head.

Destrehan Plantation figures prominently into the “American Uprising” story. Some of the approximately 500 slaves involved in the revolt were from Destrehan, a sugar cane plantation owned by Jean Noel Destrehan.

Also, after the revolt was put down by federal troops and local planters, one of the three trials condemning the rebels was held was at Destrehan.

slave-cabins-destrehan
Slave dwellings at Destrehan Plantation, circa 1938. Photographer: Russell Lee. Library of Congress.

Another thing I learned while reading “American Uprising,” something I’d never thought about before, was that some of the slaves who were brought from Africa had actually been soldiers in their homelands.

Tribes would war against each other and sometimes the losers were sold into slavery. At least two of the German Coast rebels fit into this category and had apparently been planning to revolt since they first touched American soil.

I also learned that the Haitian Revolution, which took place from 1791 to 1804 and ended slavery in what was then called Saint-Domingue, would have inspired fear in Louisiana planters and hope in their slaves.

You can watch a presentation by author Daniel Rasmussen here which talks more about that.

In the end, a handful of white planters and more than 100 slaves were killed, either during or after the revolt. As a deterrent to others who might consider taking up arms against their masters, the rebels’ decaying bodies were displayed along the Mississippi River for months.

Recently, I wrote about a slave revolt that happened along the James River near Lynchburg, Va. In that post, I mentioned a website where U.S. executions from the 1600s to the 1970s are listed. While not named, many of those executed after the 1811 German Coast revolt are included in that list.

The 2016 Book List

In tenth grade, I read “Gone with the Wind” during three weeks of classes. I remember sitting in my economics class — front row to boot — and my teacher saying, “Suzanne, put the book away.”

Looking back, regardless of the hot water I got into for ignoring my teachers for nearly a month, it was totally worth it.

A few years ago, I reread “Gone with the Wind,” revisiting the it’s 1,000-plus pages for the first time in 30 years. While I enjoyed Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era story the second time around, reading the book as an adult was quite a different experience.

To be honest, based on its negative stereotypes of African Americans, I’m pretty amazed “Gone with the Wind” hasn’t been torched in piles.

It was also during high school that my interest in history was piqued, perhaps by “Gone with the Wind,” but most likely by “Gizelle, Save the Children!”

The nonfiction book, which I checked out of the school library, was about a Hungarian Jewish girl named Gizelle whose mother implores her to save her siblings during the Holocaust.

“Gizelle, Save the Children!” was the first of many books I’ve read since then about the Holocaust and World War II. Most of these books have been biographical, centering on the experiences of specific individuals.

One I read this past year was fictional, but no less gripping.

All The Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr, tells two colliding stories — of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Warner, an orphaned German boy who longs to be an engineer. The story is set in France and Germany during World War II. So I don’t spoil the plot, I’ll just say I mourned a little when the last page was turned.

Here are the other 13 books I read during 2016:

A Walk in the Woods” (Bill Bryson)
The funny story of Bill Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. This life-affirming book made me believe that I, too, can attempt anything, even if it doesn’t work out exactly as planned.

“The Road to Wellville” (T. Coraghessan Boyle)
A novel set around the turn of the 20th century at the famous Kellogg sanatorium in Michigan. I blogged about this book a few months ago.

“True Grit” (Charles Portis)
The story of an Arkansas teenager determined to avenge the murder of her father in 1870s Indian Country. I also blogged about this book.

Dead Wake” (Erik Larson, who also wrote “Devil in the White City,” another good book.)
This book tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven” (Mitch Albom)
A novel about a man who learns lessons in the afterlife. I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did.

My Name is Asher Lev” (Chaim Potok)
The fictional story of a Hasidic Jewish boy who just wants to be a painter, and the struggles that result.

And The Dead Shall Rise” (Steve Oney)
About the 1913 Atlanta murder of Mary Phagan and the subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, the man accused of killing her. (While fascinating, this extremely well-researched tome took forever to read and I blame it for not achieving my 19-book goal this year.)

“The Prince of Tides” and “South of Broad” (Pat Conroy)
The former is my all-time favorite book, and as for the latter, I don’t know why I waited so long to read it. In each book, set in the South Carolina Lowcountry, the late-Pat Conroy tells the story of a dysfunctional family with secrets — and he does it in the most beautifully written way.

Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves” (Sana Butler)
In late 1990s through early 2000s, author Sana Butler was on a quest to interview the children of African-American slaves. And, yes, she finds several still alive.

For the Glory” (Duncan Hamilton)
A biography of Eric Liddell, the famous sprinter from the “Chariots of Fire” story.

Fast Girl” (Suzy Favor Hamilton)
Tells the true story of Olympic middle-distance runner turned Las Vegas call girl Suzy Favor Hamilton and her battle with bipolar disorder.

“The Coalwood Way” (Homer Hickam)
A memoir by NASA engineer Homer Hickam about growing up in West Virginia coal country.

navajo-riders-in-canon-de-chelly
Navajo riders in Canyon de Chelly, photographed by Edward S. Curtis (c. 1904). Published in “The North American Indian.” Library of Congress.

Currently, I’m reading, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” Timothy Egan’s biography of Edward S. Curtis. Curtis (1868-1952) is famous for his iconic photographs of Native Americans, such as the one pictured above.

The photographs were published in his 20-volume book series, “The North American Indian.” Curtis worked on the project for three decades. Photos from the series can be viewed on the Library of Congress website.

Also, I was given several books for Christmas — among them “The Boys in the Boat” and Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad” — so 2017 should be a good year for reading.

Happy New Year and happy reading!

hector-and-books
My cat, Hector, tucked in beside one of our many bookshelves.