Non-Fiction

THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER: A SHOCKING MURDER AND THE UNDOING OF A GREAT VICTORIAN DETECTIVE by Kate Summerscale

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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. 

FATHER JOE: THE MAN WHO SAVED MY SOUL by Tony Hendra

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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.