The staff book group at Williamsburg Regional Library has been having a great time reading our way through the collection. In alternating months, we read fiction by an author whose surname begins with a selected letter (next month is G), and nonfiction from a different Dewey range. Each reader selects a title or two and gives a quick book talk at the meeting. We’re almost a year into this routine, but because of the variety and freedom of choice, the concept isn’t remotely stale.
The books shelved between 350 and 400 in the Dewey system are an interesting mix. The big circulation draw here are the true-crime books in the early 360s, but it’s a section with something for everybody, good for curious pleasure readers because there are more narratives here than most nonfiction sections. Military, local government, education, modes of transportation, life, death, costumes, folklore, etiquette—while in classification theory they all fit within the social sciences, in practice, the subject matters and approaches are all over the place. Here are some of the great choices that came to the table with our readers.
Jen from Youth Services had Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army, by Kayla Williams (2005). It’s a memoir of service in Iraq, thick with the tension of working at dangerous checkpoints, the bad food, the crushing heat, and the constant possibility of violence. In this account, it’s an atmosphere that leads to some appalling sexism among some male soldiers and some equally upsetting attitudes toward the locals. Jen’s conclusion was that she ended up hoping in some way that Williams’ experience was exaggerated or atypical, but that, even if it were the case, the book was an eye opener.
Connie from Outreach’s first selection was another war memoir, Until Tuesday: a Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever who Saved Him, by Luis Carlos Montalván (2011). From the cover, Connie expected a little bit more of the Golden Retriever service dog and a little bit less of Captain Montalván’s war wounds, and she felt a little beat up by his physical and psychological trauma. While the arrival of his service dog Tuesday does lead to some redemption, readers should come to the book ready to learn about the challenges of living with post-traumatic stress. It’s in bringing that to life where the memoir really shines.
Connie had even higher praise for her second selection, naming Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Dr. Atul Gawande (2014), as her favorite book of last year. Gawande’s deceptively simple book confronts the question of how general practitioners handle the change to a world where more patients die from the chronic and degrading problems of old age than from infectious disease or sudden trauma. In the end, he believes our abilities to sustain life have outreached our humanity in many cases. With four books, all very well reviewed, Gawande has staked a claim as one of our great nonfiction writers.
Cheryl from the Adult division is our group leader, and this shelf range hit her favorite spot in the library: true crime, especially historical true crime. She brought a stack of books to the table and had recommended choices for many others. She found two favorites. Monk Eastman: the Gangster who Became a War Hero, by Neil Hanson (2010), tells the story of a well born New Yorker who by 25 had become the leader of a feared army of Five Points pickpockets, prostitutes, and thugs. But with his fortunes shifting, and finding himself no longer politically protected, he went to prison, then joined the National Guard to escape likely retaliation from old rivals. In 1917, he found himself in the thick of WWI, where his experience under threat made him a brave and highly decorated soldier. He came home to a hero’s welcome, a pardon . . . and a rival’s bullet. Cheryl said she couldn’t put down this tale of Tammany Hall, rival gangs, and turn-of-the-century Manhattan.
Her other recommendation was In the Arms of Morpheus: the Tragic History of Laudanum, Morphine, and Patent Medicines, by Barbara Hodgson (2001). In 160 quick-reading pages, Hodgson highlights how opiates took over the lives of regular people and famous writers and artists alike in the nineteenth century. Both research and style blended to great effect for Cheryl.
If you think today’s wild, idle rich are new
or unsurpassed by previous generations,
this book might open your eyes.
Barbara from our Outreach Division loved The Temptress: the Scandalous Life of Alice de Janzé and the Mysterious Death of Lord Erroll, by Paul Spicer (2010). It’s the tale of an American multimillionairess who, like others of her generation, ultimately behaved too outrageously for American or European high society and found escape among the British emigres in Kenya’s Happy Valley. There the wild crowd indulged bad habits, swapped wives, and lived it up to their dissipated delight. In 1941, the title heiress became embroiled in a true-crime classic when her lover, Lord Erroll, was found shot in his car. Her husband was brought to trial, but did he do it? Author Spicer’s mother was de Janzé’s confidante, which gave him access to letters that other chroniclers of this crime didn’t have. If you think today’s wild, idle rich are new or unsurpassed by previous generations, this book might open your eyes.
I’m well into this post, but only half way through the books. Tune in next week for part two of our adventures in the late 300s.