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A Coretta Scott King Award Honor book Black Hands, White Sails describes the nineteenth century whaling industry, focusing on African-Americans whalers.  Although the whaling industry began before slavery ended in the United States, many free African-Americans took jobs on whaling ships, since racial prejudice often precluded them from safer, higher paying land-bound jobs.  Patricia and Frederick McKissack explore all aspects of the whaling industry–from the technology, to the people involved, to some terrifying catastrophes and survival stories–while also putting the events in context with the American Revolution and the development and eventual abolition of slavery in the United States.  This book is fascinating, but dense enough to interest middle grade, teen, and adult readers more than young readers. 

If you liked Black Hands, White Sails and have the stomach for a more gruesome story, you should check out Revenge of the Whale by Nathaniel Philbrick–another nonfiction book about the whaling industry.  You may also enjoy The Longitude Prize by Joan Dash.


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The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary was the most expansive and grueling project that Sir James Murray ever undertook.  The goal of the project was to create a comprehensive record of every word in the English language, including its origins and examples of its usage in literary context.  Such a feat would have been impossible were it not for all of the volunteer submissions from philologists around the country, who mailed Murray examples of words quoted in context from literature.  One of the most frequent word-donors was a man called Dr. W. C. Minor.  Outside the man’s obvious love of literature, Murray knew nothing about this doctor, but he was determined to meet the man who had provided so many of the OED’s valuable contextual examples.  When he discovered that Minor was a convicted murderer incarcerated in an insane asylum, however, he realized that the doctor’s past was even more startling than his immense vocabulary.

This is one of my favorite non-fiction books for grown-ups.  The history of the dictionary is fascinating to a word nerd like me, and each chapter is paired with entries from the OED.  The story of Minor’s life and the glimpses into the nineteenth century criminal justice system are also very interesting.  I highly recommend this book to non-fiction readers and lovers of words.

Readers who enjoy reading about criminal justice in previous centuries may also enjoy The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale.


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Avi Steinberg did not plan on becoming a prison librarian.  In fact, he once planned on devoting his life to the study of the Torah and Talmud.  But after a Harvard education, a falling-off from Orthodox Judaism, and a brief career as an obituary writer, he finds himself on the staff of a Boston “correctional” facility.  The experience challenges him in ways he could never have expected.  He spends his day cracking jokes with pimps, scouring the library stacks for forbidden messages between prisoners (and secretly saving them), leading prison creative writing groups, and struggling to balance his professional work, his almost-friendships with inmates, his often-dashed hopes for the inmates’ futures, and his knowledge of the terrible crimes many have committed.

Running the Books is both funny and touching.  It is entirely character driven, not always chronological, and occasionally confusing.  But if you enjoy reflective memoirs and character studies, I definitely recommend this book.  I greatly enjoyed it.


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1066 and All That: a Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates, is a humorous survey of British history from the Roman conquest through 1930, when the book was originally published.  The short book is framed as a mock history textbook, complete with absurd essay questions, pointless footnotes, and a plethora of humorous errors. The authors blend actual history with Shakespeare plays, intentionally mix up people and events, combine quotes, alter timelines, etc., which results in a mixture of clever parody and just plain silliness.  If you have a basic familiarity with British history and enjoy the sense of humor of Dave Barry, Monty Python, and/or The Simpsons, you will probably find this book as hilarious as I did.

Thanks for the recommendation, Sarah!


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In June 1860, three year old Saville Kent was brutally murdered during the night, taken from his bed in his family’s manor in Wiltshire and stabbed to death, his body finally being thrown into an outhouse.  As the manor had been securely locked overnight, it was immediately apparent that someone inside the house must have killed the child.  Thus began a true “manor house mystery” that would inspire mystery writers for years to come.  The murder occurred at a time when detectives had just begun to appear in law enforcement, as well as in literature.  Some viewed men like detective Jonathan Whicher as gods of genius, piecing together seemingly unconnected bits of a story to reach justice.  Others saw detectives in a more sinister light:  as voyeurs or spies who pried into people’s private lives and exposed their family secrets without discretion–a horrible thought for Victorians.

Summerscale explores these tensions in her account of the Saville Kent murder.  She tells the story in the style of a murder mystery novel, following the detective and his investigation, and keeping readers in the dark until the truth is finally revealed in the final chapters.  She also weaves the literary history of the detective into her narrative, as well as the origins of words we now take for granted–such as clue and sleuth.  I had difficulty putting this book down, mostly because I wanted to find out who actually committed the crime, but also because I found it fascinating how the real history of detectives was interwoven with the development of the detective mystery genre, each influencing the other.  (For example, Whicher was a personal friend of Charles Dickens.)  I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys mysteries, true crime, or Victorian Gothic literature.

If you like historical mysteries, you might like Tess Gerritsen’s novel The Bone Garden.

REVENGE OF THE WHALE by Nathaniel Philbrick

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In 1819, the whaleship Essex departed from Nantucket with a crew of twenty islanders.  A year later, the ship experienced a deliberate and fatal attack from a giant sperm whale, which sank the ship itself and left the entire crew stranded, thousands of miles from land, in small whaleboats.  Although they could have reached the Society Islands in about a month–during which their salvaged provisions would have sustained them–the first and second mates feared that the islands might be inhabited by cannibals, and persuaded the captain to sail for the coast of South America instead, a much longer journey that would require a considerable amount of luck.  In the end, this decision would cost the lives of over half the crew.  When the eight men who survived were rescued by another whaleship over 90 days later, they were starving, dehydrated, and muttering in madness–clutching the bones of their shipmates whose flesh they had been forced to eat.

Revenge of the Whale tells the harrowing story of the attack and the 93 day ordeal that followed–the horrifying tragedy that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick.  Revenge of the Whale is the teen-version of Philbrick’s National Book Award winning In the Heart of the Sea, which I am sure is equally if not more engaging.  Philbrick bases his narrative primarily on the written account of one survivor, the fourteen year old cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, with some additional detail from the account of the first mate, Owen Chase.  The only slightly frustrating thing about Revenge of the Whale is that Philbrick does not provide citations for his quotes, so it is impossible to trace his sources.  I would also not recommend reading this book during lunch, like I did.  It is a bit gruesome.

If you liked Revenge of the Whale, you might like Black Hands, White Sails, The Longitude Prizeor Titanic: Voices from the Disaster.

MAUS by Art Spiegleman

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Art Spiegleman’s parents survived a Nazi concentration camp before moving to America.  Years after his mother’s suicide, Art decides to tell his parents’ story in words and pictures, hoping that the bonding experience might ease some of the tension in his relationship with his father relationship.  This Pulitzer Prize winning memoir captures Spiegleman’s struggle of growing up in the shadow of his parents’ past, as well as the poignant and heartbreaking story of Vladek and Anja Spieglman’s love and life in Nazi occupied Poland.

This is one of my favorite books, and I highly recommend it.  It is written for adults, but I read it for the first time in 8th grade and appreciated it as much then as I do now.  The reading level is not difficult, but the subject matter is heavy.  I realize that some people do not like books in graphic novel (panel art/comics) format, but if you have never tried reading a graphic novel, or assume that graphic novels are limited to stories of superheroes or fantasy worlds, this is a superb graphic memoir to try.   I cannot recommend it enough!

Spiegleman’s story is completed in Maus II. 


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At the age of fourteen, Tony Hendra was caught having an affair with a married woman.  It was shortly after this event that he decided he wanted to become a Benedictine monk.  Decades later, looking back on a successful career which includes stage appearances with Cambridge Footlights (where Monty Python’s John Cleese and Graham Chapman got their start), writing credits with National Lampoon, and films such as This Is Spinal Tap, the British comedian recounts his spiritual history and honors the life of the most influential friend in his life: Father Joe.

As Lily’s husband dragged him up to the Benedictine Abbey to confess his sins, Tony could not have predicted the significant impact that this first meeting with Father Joe would have on his life.   Although Hendra eventually moved away from a monastic vocation–and even from the Catholic Church–his spiritual advisor remained a rock in his life, helping him through the challenges of marriage, divorce, miscarriage, and substance abuse, as well as sharing the joys of his family and his love of writing.  Candid and inspirational, the comedian’s memoir recounts his colorful life with the wit and humor that is characteristic of his writing and pays tribute to the man he holds responsible for securing his salvation.

STITCHES by David Small

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David grew up in a house full of secrets.  Some of the secrets were well kept and known by no one.  Others, such as his grandmother’s mental instability, were known by everyone but never discussed. Although they never communicated with one another, everyone in David’s family had a habit of nonverbal self-expression.  For his brother, drumming was a language.  David’s language was illness.  As an infant he had trouble breathing.  As he became a teenager, a tumor began to grow in his neck.

But the family silence extended even to David’s medical health.  After an operation that was never fully explained to him, David had lost a vocal chord and could no longer speak.  As his teenage years continued, he struggled to sift through the family secrets and discover what actually happened to him.

If you enjoy memoirs about dysfunctional families, this is the book for you!  It’s a graphic memoir (in format), and Small’s black and white drawings help convey his story in a powerful way.