Thursday, December 31, 2009

When Your Time Machine Breaks Down

Everyone who’s ever seen the movie Back to the Future knows the theory of time travel is complicated. What if you your past self and your future self meet? How many different versions of a time line can exist at the same time? If you change an event in the past, does it alter the future? If you change an event in the future, does it alter the past? The space-time continuum can be a fun, messy, spontaneous adventure. But as the following books prove, you don’t always need a fancy tricked-out time machine to enjoy it.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, 2009, Penguin Classics, originally published 1889

Sometimes all it takes to travel through time is a good old-fashioned bump on the head. Industrial Revolution-era factory worker Hank Morgan is knocked unconscious and wakes up in the year 528. He is less than impressed. Even though he’s surrounded by the stuff of legends—literally, because he’s landed smack dab in the middle of Camelot, complete with King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Queen Guinevere, and Merlin the Wizard—Morgan sets out to reform the Age of Chivalry. As a time-traveler from a more advanced era, Morgan feels an obligation to bring technology and industry to these backward nobodies. He takes advantage of an upcoming historical eclipse and is soon the leading power at court. Styling himself as “The Boss” and mocking everyone who doesn’t agree with him, Hank Morgan belittles everything about the feudal system, the nobility, and the rules of court. Author Mark Twain uses Morgan’s overbearing, heavy-handed, small-minded approach to “progress” to criticize progress itself—business, religion, technology, industry, and war. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is not just a simple adventure story. It’s Mark Twain at his most cynical, satirical, witty, and wise.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, 2002, MacAdam/Cage Publications


Claire Abshire is passionately in love with Henry De Tamble. She’s known him since she was a girl. When she meets him again as a young woman in Chicago, Claire is ready to begin the romance of her life. But there’s a catch. Henry has a rare genetic condition that causes him to become displaced in time at moments of stress. He suddenly finds himself decades in the past or future, naked and alone, with only the younger or older version of himself in on the secret. The Henry who Claire meets in Chicago hasn’t traveled back to her childhood yet. So he’s confused when beautiful, intelligent Claire approaches him, but certainly intrigued and definitely attracted. The romance of their lives does indeed begin—it just takes a few more years for Henry to catch up to their first meeting. The nuances of Henry’s time traveling are intricate, but richly and delicately narrated in turns by Henry and Claire as they pursue their relationship in the past, present, and future. And despite the complexities of that relationship, the story is always told with heartfelt sincerity and emotion, not to mention a cast of finely-drawn characters and a few surprising twists and turns. The book is a best-seller and a film adaptation is a major motion picture; ultimately, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a classic love story.

Time and Again by Jack Finney, 1995, Simon and Schuster, originally published 1970

What if time travel is all in our heads? In the 1970s, artist Simon Morley has the opportunity to put just such a theory to the test when he is recruited by a top-secret government agency to experiment with time travel. Si is trained to ignore the modern world and to focus exclusively on a specific time and place in the past. After a complete education in the culture of the late Victorian era, Si is installed in one of New York City’s historic architectural landmarks, the Dakota. By immersing himself in the environment, clothing, food, reading material, and lifestyle of a different era, and with the right hypnotic influence at the right moment, Si is expected to be able to walk outside and find himself in Central Park circa 1880. Si is astonished and thrilled when the experiment works. But when his journeys to the past are complicated by romance and a reluctance to cooperate with the agency in charge, his success is severely questioned and everything Si believes in is challenged. This is a finely-wrought story, rich in atmosphere and intimate detail, so the reader is every bit as involved in the experiments and experiences as Si. Time and Again is an early example of an illustrated novel as well; there are pages of photographs of late nineteenth century New York so the reader can actually see what Si sees. Time and Again is as elegant and thoughtful a version of time travel as you will ever have the pleasure to read.

Thursday Next Novels: The Eyre Affair/ Lost in a Good Book/ The Well of Lost Plots/ Something Rotten/ First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde, 2002-2007, Viking Press


Thursday Next is a hard-headed, soft-hearted woman living in Swindon in an alternate England circa the 1980s. She is a veteran of the hundred-year Crimean War. Her pet, Pickwick, is an early model clone of a dodo bird. Her job involves hunting down criminals who, in this literature-obsessed version of England where citizens take their reading very seriously, can go to jail for forging Shakespearean verse. For a bit of extra cash, Thursday helps destroy the occasional vampire or ghoul. Then, just as Thursday has finally decided to win back her long-lost love Landon Park-Lane, things begin to get interesting. Her uncle Mycroft’s new invention, a Prose Portal that can transport readers into the books they’re reading, is stolen by a criminal mastermind. Soon, one of Thursday’s favorite characters of all time and a beloved heroine of Western literature has gone missing, kidnapped out of her book—Jane Eyre herself is in mortal danger, and only Thursday can save the day. And that’s just the first book. Throughout the rest of her wildly inventive genre-bending books, Thursday maneuvers between the world of fiction and the real world on a series of adventures involving literary characters like Hamlet and the Cheshire Cat, wooly mammoths, mind-controlling villains, Neanderthals, evil corporations bent on global control, and—tah da!—time travel. Thursday’s father is an ex-member of an elite team of government agents who specialize in time travel; years ago, he disagreed with his superiors and took refuge in constant time travel. Supposedly eradicated, completely erased from existence, Thursday’s dear old dad still manages to pop up to give her advice, warn her about events to come, or just have a cuppa tea. Zany, wickedly funny, and satirical, The Thursday Next novels are a highly amusing jumble of fantasy, science fiction, and mystery and without a doubt one of the more delightful ways to solve a crime, travel through time, or simple get lost in a good book.

Thursday Next Novels by Jasper Fforde
1. The Eyre Affair
2. Lost in a Good Book
3. The Well of Lost Plots
4. Something Rotten
5. First Among Sequels
6. One of Our Thursdays is Missing (due 2010)

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, 2004, Beacon Press, originally published 1979


In 1976, Dana and her husband are moving into their new home. Dana is unpacking boxes; then she’s overcome by dizziness and nausea and finds herself watching a little boy drown in a river. Dana acts on instinct and saves the boy. His parents seem angry rather than thankful, and slowly but surely Dana realizes that she’s been thrust back in time to the antebellum South of 1816. The boy she’s just saved is her ancestor, Rufus Weylin, and this is perhaps this biggest shock to Dana—because Rufus is the white son of a white slave owner, and Dana is a black woman raised in a future of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power. When Dana returns to 1976 only to be yanked back to the past again a few days later, she realizes she’s being called to, in a way, by Rufus whenever his life is in danger. Dana can’t control how long she stays in the past; only fear of her own life can send her back. At first, it’s easy to be afraid of life as a slave—violence is an appallingly consistent part of life on the Weylin plantation. Dana knows she has to keep Rufus alive until he can father the next generation of their family in order to ensure her own birth in the future. But Rufus seems likely to inherit all the brutal racism and cruelty inherent in his day, and Dana faces some intensely difficult choices. Only an author as purposeful as Octavia E. Butler could so elegantly ask her readers to “See how easily slaves are made?” Kindred features Butler’s customary realistic treatment of the complicated and complex nuances of race and gender. It presents a strong and forceful female character dealing with impossible circumstances. It asks difficult questions and shows painful truths. None of these things are easy to do, but Kindred is an blend of historical fiction, science fiction, and social commentary that is a force of fiction to be reckoned with.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, 1999, Dial Press Books, originally published 1969


Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. In World War II, Billy was captured by the Germans and sent to the prisoner of war camp in Dresden, Germany. In 1945 Dresden was firebombed by the Allies, killing over one hundred thousand civilians. Billy survives the frantic madness of the P.O.W camp and the panic of the Dresden bombing to return to the States and become an optometrist. But the events of the war have knocked something askew in Billy, and for the rest of his life he occasionally pops off to travel through time and space, from the mundane details of family life to his time in a zoo on the planet Tralfamador. The events of Billy’s unorthodox life are not nearly as neat and orderly as this summary of those events; the rapid-fire transfer of Billy from future to past to present would be disorienting for a reader in any the hands of any other author than the indomitable Kurt Vonnegut. But the disjointed vignettes and fragments of Billy’s memories mimic the way the human mind actually works. We can switch from daydream to memory to real life and back again; sometimes the transition is seamless and sometimes we’re jolted out of our thoughts rudely or with force. Based in part of Vonnegut’s own World War II experiences as a prisoner-of-war during the bombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse-Five has become a classic of war literature as well as a staple of Vonnegut’s oeuvre. With its characteristic and flawless union of satire, humor, and science fiction, Slaughterhouse-Five presents a vivid portrait of this crazy world and the mixed-up life that goes right along with it.

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, 2004, Vintage Books, originally published 1993


Author Alan Lightman is a physics professor at MIT, but you’d think he was a poet from reading the delightfully fable-like Einstein’s Dreams. Albert Einstein has dozed off at his desk in Berne, Switzerland, where he works as patent clerk in 1905. While he sleeps, the future greatest scientist of our time dreams about time. Time has been on his mind a lot lately, because in 1905 Einstein was putting the finishing touches on his theory of relativity, that whole E = MC2 thing. But in his daydreams, the nature of time is lyrical and magical as well as scientific. Each chapter in this little book presents one of Einstein’s visions of time. In one dreamy vignette, time is cyclical, forcing people to constantly relive all the tragic, triumphant, comic, and foolish moments of their lives. In another, time runs backwards; in others, time stands still, or is a sense, or a dimension, or people know the future, or they can stop time and stay in their favorite moments forever. Sometimes Einstein wakes up and goes home and eats dinner, but the young genius (and the reader) always returns to his desk to sit and doze and dream. Thought-provoking and pleasingly unusual, this elegant little tome is a captivating contemplation on the nature of science, fantasy, dreams, and time.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Untold Histories

“In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” This is one of the first history lessons we learn in school, and while it is factually accurate, there’s a lot of missing information—and much of it is violent, racist, inglorious, and shameful. This is the case for much of the past. Painful chapters in history are skimmed over and the voices of many are lost and forgotten, especially when it comes to war. This inequity is being rectified in history books for young readers. These histories are not dry, stale textbooks—they are vivid accounts of tough, brave choices made by survivors who have been pushed to the side but who have important, relevant stories to tell. This means that even though the audience for these books is children and teenagers, the tales they tell are sophisticated and strong enough to teach adult readers a lesson or two as well. History is written by the winner, but there are two sides to every story. The version you don’t know is often gripping, thrilling, shocking, and inspiring. You’ll close these books amazed at what you didn’t know, and you’ll be a wiser, better reader for it.

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle, 2008, Henry Holt and Co. (Teen Fiction/ Poetry/ Historical Fiction)


For many of us in the United States, Cuban history begins and ends in the late 20th century with the Cuban Missile Crisis and Fidel Castro. But the real revolution took place during the Cuban Wars for Independence, when Cuba fought for freedom from the colonizing power of Spain. In 1868, a few Cuban plantation owners freed their slaves and declared independence. For the next three decades, the island was wracked by near-constant warfare. From the turmoil emerges Rosa, a slave-turned-healer who spends the tumultuous years of the war hiding in the jungle and healing anyone and everyone—runway slaves, Cuban rebels, Spanish soldiers (many who change sides after Rosa helps them) and even the legendary Lieutenant Death, the son of a slave hunter and Rosa’s most feared foe. Rosa and her husband José camp out in make-shift hospitals in huts and caves, constantly on the move but always connected to the land by the plants, flowers, and herbs that Rosa uses as medicine. Rosa, José, Lieutenant Death, and others like Spain’s General Weyler, who in 1896 called for all Cuban peasants to be herded into so-called "reconcentration camps," and Silvia, a young girl who escapes from one of Weyler’s cruel camps, take turns telling the story from their own point of view. The subtitle of this book is Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, but don’t let that fool you if you’re not a poetry reader. Told in free verse (a style that doesn’t rhyme and focuses instead on a realistic rhythm), every poem is a glimmer of light into this little-known struggle for freedom. The novel becomes an interwoven, haunting tale of brutal tragedy, quiet triumph, and above all, the story of Cuba. Author Margarita Engle writes about real historical figures, though she takes a few liberties to weave a more completely unified story. In the end, she tells a powerful story in an elegant style to create a work that won her a Newbery Honor (the first Latino author to do so), a Pura Belpré Award (for Latino authors and illustrators), and a Jane Addams Award (for children’s books that promote peace, equality, and social justice). The Surrender Tree is a book that should be ignored by no audience.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and Volume II: Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson, 2006/ 2008, Candlewick Press (Teen Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation is a novel in two volumes that explores the American Revolution from a new point-of-view: that of an African American boy. When the founding fathers declared independence from British rule, they did so in the name of freedom from oppression. This is certainly something of a hypocrisy when you consider that the grand notion of freedom did not extend to the large population of African slaves  who also called America their home. Octavian is a young boy living in Boston on the eve of the revolution. Raised in near-isolation by a strange group of philosophers and scientists, Octavian receives a classical education of the finest order. Despite his privileged childhood, there’s a carefully guarded secret regarding this boy and when that secret is one day revealed, Octavian is horrified. He rebels against the men who have cared for him, only to find that his unusual upbringing has left him woefully unprepared to meet the prejudices of the real world. Octavian finds himself in the unique position of being forced to face a frightening future even while grappling with the terrors of his past—and with no time to linger in the present. There is a war on, after all, and Octavian must choose the lesser of two evils—the ruling British or the rebelling Americans, both of whom are making promises that all parties know can’t be kept. Author M.T. Anderson presents a way of life and a set of characters that don’t know the outcome of the Colonies’ war with England, and that have some very difficult choices to make. Anderson tells Octavian’s history in a forthright, intimate voice with no frills attached, and it is a story that the reader will feel utterly compelled to explore. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation asks a new set of questions about the history we thought we knew, questions that are worth asking whether we took American History last year or last decade.

My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling, 1997, Douglas and McIntyre Books (Children’s Fiction/ Teen Fiction)


It’s no secret that the United States has a troubled history with its native populations. American Indians/ Native Americans were prejudiced against, warred with, rounded up, stripped of their cultural heritage, and generally given a very raw deal. Sadly, this is not a history specific to this country. A similar story unfolded in Canada at the same time, and My Name is Seepeetza is a tale about the results of that history. Beginning in the 1940s, the Canadian government forced its native people to send their children to residential boarding schools. The goal was to teach these children how to become “civilized” members of “white society.” They were forbidden to practice their cultural traditions, speak in their native languages, or use their own names. The means to enforce this “civilization” were not gentle. Seepeetza, our young narrator, is renamed Martha at her school in British Columbia in the 1950s. Beaten if she speaks “Indian,” absued and looked down upon by her teachers, picked on by older students, and only allowed to return home for a few months in the summer, Seepeetza’s childhood is a decidedly difficult one. Her story is highly autobiographical; author Shirley Sterling is a member of the Nlakapamux First Nation of the Interior Salish tribal group in British Columbia and spent her own formative years at a residential school. The Canadian government closer the last of these schools in the 1990s and has since made reconciliation efforts with the country’s Native American population, but it’s a chapter in history that any country would be loathe to dwell on (the United States used similar schools to “reform” Native Americans). The strength of My Name is Seepeetza lies in its childish voice. Seepeetza is bewildered and afraid; she longs for home but also has a desire to please her superiors at the school. It’s a difficult conflict with no easy solution, and that makes it a history well worth learning.

Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenheim, 2006, Scholastic Books (Teen Nonfiction/ World War II/ Japanese Americans 1942-1945)


After Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese in 1941, attitudes towards Japanese Americans turned very ugly indeed. In 1942, the U.S. government made the decision to round up all people of Japanese origin and descent on the west coast and place them in “relocation camps” for the duration of World War II. For three years thousands of people, many of them American citizens, were crowded together because of their race, even forced to cram their family members and all their possessions into horse stalls at converted racetracks. For all that, not a single Japanese American was ever found to be involved in any anti-American war effort. In San Diego, a public librarian named Clara Breed was devoted to her young patrons. When the orders came for Japanese American families to pack up and leave their homes, Miss Breed responded with characteristic generosity and support. Exchanging letters with “her children,” Miss Breed sent supplies, treats, and above all, books to the young people in the camps whose lives were indefinitely on hold. Author Joanne Oppenheim presents a book chock-full of research supported by the real letters and lives of Miss Breed and the youngsters who wrote to her. The life of forced deprivation and humiliation in the camps is highlighted, but it is the determined attempts of Miss Breed’s teenage friends to make the best of any situation that stands out as exemplary. The optimism of these young people contrasts dramatically with the shameful treatment they received, driving home the message that racism is never acceptable and giving voices back to victims. Dear Miss Breed is not only a unique resource about this period in American history, but it is an excellent read as well.

Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, 2005, Scholastic Book (Children’s Nonfiction/ Teen Nonfiction/ World War II/ Germany 1933-1945)

Holocaust literature is over-flowing with poignant stories of survival from Jewish survivors and non-Jews who resisted the German war machine. The Nazi point of view is less represented, and to no surprise—Hitler’s crimes rank among the worst committed against humanity and his beliefs are difficult, to say the least, to discuss in depth. But author Susan Campbell Bartoletti accomplishes just that by focusing her Newbery Award-winning nonfiction book on the Hitler Youth. Hitler depended greatly on the German youth, whom he seduced into his service with camping trips and nature hikes before inundating them with Nazi propaganda. The Hitler Youth appeared to offer the chance for youngsters to rebel against authority and strike out on their own, but Hitler intended to mold his Aryan youth into zealots wildly devoted to his cause, and he was successful. At its peak seven million boys and girls belonged and former Hitler Youth members served in Hitler’s highest military and advisory ranks. Soon the tenants of Nazism were part of the curriculum in Germany’s schools and participation in the Hitler Youth was required by Nazi law. Bartoletti presents this forced “education” as nothing short of brainwashing. It’s not an excuse for the Nazis’ crimes, but it is a lens through which to understand the German children who grew up under Hitler’s influence. The book centers around the lives of real kids involved in the Hitler Youth, from those fanatically devoted to Hitler’s cause to those who resisted and rebelled (particularly compelling is the story of the White Rose, whose young members were executed for their actions against the Führer). This is nonfiction writing at its best—crisp prose, real testimonies, original documents, archival photographs, and varying points of view used in harmony to shed light on difficult truths.

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, 2004, Last Gasp Books, originally published 1987 (Teen Fiction/ Graphic Novel)


The United States is the only country to have used nuclear weapons. Knowing what we know today about the effects of nuclear warfare, it’s not something to be proud of, and the world’s nations have been very careful not to let it happen again. Author Keiji Nakazawa is a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing and Barefoot Gen is his fictionalized autobiography of that survival. Gen is a young boy living in Hiroshima, Japan with his family during the final days of World War II. The war effort has taken its toll on the Japanese economy and Gen’s family is poor. Gen and his little brother pretend to be orphaned beggars to keep their pregnant mother from becoming malnourished. Gen’s father has opposed the war which makes the family unpopular with their neighbors and with local government and law enforcement. When the children get excited over a few meager scraps of food, their parents are filled with guilt and shame which they, Gen’s father especially, tend to take out on the kids. It’s not an ideal family situation for sure, but readers won’t be able to resist precocious Gen as he runs amuck through the streets of the city while his little brother tags along. This, of course, makes it all the more difficult to accept what is coming: a new form of violent warfare that the world has never seen the likes of before, the near-total destruction of a thriving city, and the deaths of thousands of men, women, and children. Barefoot Gen is a multi-volume graphic novel series and an early example of Japanese manga; the following books continue Gen’s story after the bombing as he struggles to get by in a world that is forever and horribly changed. The comic-strip format is highly effective here, and not just for the shock value of showing terrifying events that words cannot describe. Nakazawa’s drawings show a time and a place that the Western world is not familiar with. The contrast between the everyday struggles of a simple family and the horrors they are about to undergo is a compelling lesson in compassion and humanity.

The Rabbits by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan, 2003, Simply Read Books, originally published 1998 (Children’s Fiction/ Picture Book)

The Rabbits is a picture book, but it is a beautiful and sophisticated picture book, the kind that can be read and reread from age eight to eighty. The story begins when a ship full of white rabbits arrives on a faraway shore with black muskets and other strange, wondrous technologies. The rabbits come to take rather than give, and to the marsupial-like inhabitants who have lived for generations in harmony with nature, the rabbits are terrifying indeed as they chop down trees, construct factories, and alter the land to suit their own purposes. Out of fear and anger, especially after their children are taken, the marsupials rise in rebellion against the rabbits, but by then it is too late—the rabbits are too many, the marsupials are too few, and the damage is done. Author John Marsden and illustrator Shaun Tan are from the land Down Under, and their story is an allegory for the European settlement of Australia and the destruction of the aboriginal people at the hands of the self-righteous European settlers in the 19th century. The story of colonization in the supposed name of progress and civilization is a common one that can apply to the histories of many nations, but the “stolen children” relates the tale of The Rabbits directly to Australia’s past, when aboriginal children (known as the “Stolen Generation”) were taken and given to white families to be raised. It’s a mature theme indeed, highlighted by Tan’s gorgeous, highly-stylized, intricate paintings of canon-wielding rabbits in high-colored imperialist garb marching to overcome the sand-colored marsupials armed only with their spears and their sense of right. The Rabbits is a complex history presented in a way that is child-like in its telling and elegant in its presentation. This story book is no fairy tale, and that means its powerful message hits home with eloquence and compassion.

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, 2008, New Press Books, originally published 1994 (Nonfiction/ American History)

Author James W. Loewen, a sociology professor at the University of Vermont, has dedicated much of his career to exposing the inaccuracies of history textbooks used in schools across the country. In Lies My Teacher Told Me, written in 1994 and updated in 2007, Loewen exposes those inadequacies for the world to see. The bottom line is that students are not being told or taught the truth. History is taught as mythology. The point of view is almost entirely Eurocentric. Primary sources are rarely consulted by the authors of history textbooks. There are more specific faults as well: More time in classrooms is devoted to the War of 1812 than to America’s longest war, Vietnam. Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America included the extermination of the Arawak culture. History teachers rarely manage to teach any event after 1970. With titles like Land of Promise, The American Way, and The American Adventure, these texts imply that the history of the United States is one where America is right all the time and can solve all its problems. History texts don’t teach about indigenous peoples’ struggles against their colonizing powers. The alternative points of view of America’s enemies or victims are rarely heard. And yet, as the other books on this booklist prove, these voices should be heard. America is not a perfect nation; knowing that won’t keep students from loving their country. In fact, understanding how America has learned from the mistakes of the past can only inspire its citizens to keep trying to improve for the future. Lies My Teacher Told Me is the ideal read for anyone who ever fell asleep in history class and for every discerning, critical reader who knows there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present by Howard Zinn, 2005, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, originally published 1979 (Nonfiction/ American History)


If history is written by the winner, then A People’s History of the United States tells the loser’s story. Author Howard Zinn doesn’t tell the usual histories of presidents, war generals, and government institutions. He tells the unknown histories of minorities, women, laborers, and immigrants. It’s the same history, really, just a different—a very different—point of view. Readers realize the arrival of Christopher Columbus from the Native Americans’ perspective; instead of “the Golden Age of Discovery,” the experience is one of betrayal and bloodshed. Readers understand the complexity of the issue of slavery during the Civil War; politics and control being the ultimate goal, not the freedom of thousands of men, women, and children. The real motives behind the Vietnam War are fully discussed instead of being dismissed and passed over in a paragraph or two. This is a history of oppression, persecution, and control, with the occasional small step in the right direction. It is decidedly not the history with the patriotic spirit that we are taught in high school. It is fascinating, complex, provoking, and persuasive. Zinn fully acknowledges that his history is biased, but he points out that the history we are taught is biased, as is all history, since it is written after the fact and generally with a specific motive or agenda in mind. Knowing that bias is there only makes the reading of history more accurate, interesting and realistic, and presenting a bias and a point of view that we rarely do see is very valuable indeed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Classics Never Die

The classics. They’ve been around forever and they’re certainly not going anywhere. They’ve stood the test of time and readers have suffered through them in English classes from grade school to grad school. Of course, there’s another way to read—or re-read—the classics. From time immemorial, authors having been borrowing plots from each other. Modern authors have an excellent source for inspiration in literature’s canon, and it’s long been a popular trend to dust off an old classic and rewrite it with a fresh perspective for a modern audience. Whether it’s a sequel, a prequel, another character’s point of view, or a spin-off into a different genre, the classics are thriving dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of years after their originals authors first penned them. The classics don’t die. They just get retold, reinvented, and rejuvenated in all sorts of inventive and creative variations.

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood, 2005, Canongate Press (Literary Fiction)


Greek mythology. We’ve all been there and done that, from memorizing the Greek Pantheon to studying The Iliad and The Odyssey. And so surely we can’t help but have noticed the raw deal that those ancient Greek women get—daughters sacrificed so their fathers can get a favorable wind to sail off to war, mothers’ warnings dismissed when their young sons head out to die as heroes, wives left home alone while their husbands go adventuring for fame and the fortune of the gods. Odysseus has one of the most famous wives in Greek history: Penelope, who is abandoned for twenty years while Odysseus fights (and wins) the Trojan War and then gets lost at sea to tangle with the one-eyed giant Cyclops and sexy sea-nymphs like Circe and the Sirens. Penelope is left with a small son and a household to manage; as the years passed and Odysseus failed to return, the son becomes increasingly rebellious and the household is overrun by men looking to marry her and inherit Odysseus’ substantial fortune. She manages to hold the suitors off and wait for her long-lost husband, but even he tests her thoroughly to determine her faithfulness once he finally returns. Today Penelope is renowned for her extreme patience--which, to be frank, is pretty boring. All that changes with author Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, which sticks to the same old story but gives us Penelope’s unique perspective. We’re not too surprised to find that Penelope is intelligent and compassionate, but she also turns out to be equally the match of her notoriously wily husband. In the spirit of ancient Greek theatre, Atwood lets Penelope’s twelve maids, who Odysseus ruthlessly kills when he returns, act as the chorus to Penelope’s story; the result is a poignant, insightful twist on one of the oldest classics of all time, and it serves to answer an important question: Just what was Penelope up to all that time?

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd, 2008, Chatto and Windus Books (Historical Fiction)


Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein more or less on a dare. Mary and her soon-to-be-husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were staying at Lord Byron’s house. Late at night around the fire, they got to talking about supernatural tales and decided to write a few spooky stories of their own. Young Mary’s short story (she was only eighteen years old) became the masterpiece known today as Frankenstein, the woeful tale of a slightly mad scientist who reanimates dead matter and brings life to a hybrid selection of body parts in the form of an unnamed, unloved, and misunderstood “monster.” In author Peter Ackroyd’s version of events, real life and fiction merge when Percy Bysshe Shelley and Victor Frankenstein are classmates at Oxford. Shelley is a romantic and free-spirited poet; Frankenstein is a moody med student obsessed with “the spark of life.” Frankenstein’s experiments with electrocuting corpses get carried away, and just like in the original, the good doctor is soon horrified when his grotesque creation is actually brought to life. The poor monster is understandably bitter about being so quickly reviled, dismissed, and abandoned, and the creature is not one to let matters lie. For the rest of his life, Frankenstein is shadowed by the man he made, who puts a new spin on many of the events in Frankenstein’s life and in the lives of those around him, including Shelley and his smart young love interest Mary. Ackroyd is a noted author of historical fiction and it’s his level of period research and detail that makes The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein such an appealing and compelling read, as well as the mixing of a well-known work of fiction with the real historical figures who had a hand in its creation. Atmospheric and with just the right touch of things supernatural, horrific, scientific, and historical, this is another classic re-created that’s really got a mind of its own.

Drood by Dan Simmons, 2009, Little, Brown and Co. (Historical Fiction/ Thriller/ Mystery)

When real historical literary figures merge with the works they’re writing, retelling the classics gets very interesting. In Drood, Charles Dickens is the main character, though his real-life friend (“frenemy” is perhaps more accurate) Wilkie Collins narrates the story. The starting point is a tragic and near-fatal train crash in 1865 that Dickens survived but never entirely recovered from. Author Dan Simmons uses this factual event to introduce a mysterious character who Dickens encounters amid the gore and wreckage of the train--a gaunt specter calling himself Drood who emits a decidedly creepy aura and has a sinister agenda of his own. Dickens becomes obsessed with tracking Drood and enlists Collins to assist him in nighttime voyages though London’s ancient and decrepit underground caverns and crypts. Collins, as portrayed in Drood, is bitterly jealous and opium-addicted; Dickens is an egomaniac of the highest order who’s keeping heavy secrets from friends and family, including the motive behind what will be his final, uncompleted book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Things get stranger, spookier, and more bizarre as the final years of Dickens’ life draw to a close for a wholly atmospheric blend of history, historical fiction, and supernatural horror that’s as dramatic (and melodramatic) as the novels by Dickens and Collins that inspired it. Be sure to check out Dickens’ novels (especially the real The Mystery of Edwin Drood), and don’t let Wilkie Collins, who remains largely in the shadow of his better-known contemporary, be forgotten again—his novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White are masterpieces in their own right.

Gemma Bovary by Posy Simmonds, 2005, Pantheon (Fiction/ Graphic Novel)


Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a classic tale of one woman’s utter ennui with her lot in life. In the 1857 original, Emma, a country daughter with a taste for the finer things, marries stolid Charles Bovary, quickly becomes bored with her dreary existence as a housewife, and embarks on numerous adulterous affairs to liven things up. Emma’s rebellions against the prescribed roles of the day struck an early blow for feminism, but she also suffers greatly for her transgressions. It’s a complicated work of literature, and it’s rendered more colorful but no less complex by artist/author Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel adaptation, Gemma Bovary. The plot is similar—Gemma marries a bore and has affairs to while away the tedium—but the story is told by a neighbor, an intellectual baker named Jaubert, who spends his time obsessively observing Gemma on her road to ruin. In fact, from the first page we know that Gemma is dead. The question becomes, who helped her get that way? Gemma Bovary is a true blend of forms—there are comic book-style panels and dialogue balloons typical of the graphic novel format, but Simmonds includes typed text like a traditional novel as well. Her illustrations are elegantly cartoonish and like Flaubert’s criticism of the bourgeois class of his day, Simmonds paints an all-too-real vision of today’s wealthy but shallow yuppie lifestyle. Gemma Bovary is a delightfully in-depth modern look at the classic truisms that hold true even today.

Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn, 2002, Ace Books (Science Fiction)

Jenna Starborn is no less than Jane Eyre—in space. Author Sharon Shinn is an award-winning science fiction writer who transforms Charlotte Brönte’s classic into a futuristic story with all the same mystery, romance, and suspense. The Gothic tale translates surprisingly well, and the space-age setting almost makes it possible to read Jane Eyre again for the first time. And yet, readers are immersed in a completely new world. Jane becomes Jenna, Mr. Rochester becomes Mr. Ravensbrook, and Thornfield Manor becomes a mining post on a remote planet protected by an energy field. Jenna is a product of science, a baby generated by request for a woman who doesn’t want her anymore when a real, biological son is born. Jenna grows up neglected and unloved, knowing that she will never be more than a half-citizen because of her artificial birth status. But Jenna is determined to find an equal place in her society, a dream that’s given some credence when she finds work as a force field engineer on a faraway planet and befriends her enigmatic employer, Mr. Ravensbrook. Fans of the original and new readers alike will be impressed at the creative futuristic twists and turns that mark Jenna’s relationship with Mr. Ravensbrook and the revealing secrets of Mr. Ravensbrook’s past. Shinn re-imagines Jane Eyre exceptionally well and still gives Jenna a unique voice and a story that is entirely her own.

March by Geraldine Brooks, 2004, Viking Books (Historical Fiction)


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is an episodic, allegorical novel about the life lessons learned by a quartet of sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March—living in New England in the mid-1800s. Their father is away fighting in the Civil War; the girls draw strength from their mother, Marmee. Little Women is pleasant and wholesome, domestic and sweet. March--which author Geraldine Brooks images from father March’s point of view--is not. Mr. March is idealistic man whose naïve trust in the goodness of his fellow men has left him and his family broke. When he joins the Union Army as a chaplain, he’s an ineffectual leader. A seeming indiscretion with a nurse lands him at a plantation managing newly freed slaves. Mr. March’s letters home are cheerful, but to us readers he shows the brutality of war, the cruelty of racism, and the weakness of men. He reveals his past history, including his friendships with scholars like Emerson and Thoreau and his courtship with Marmee, but when he falls ill the narrations switches and readers get Mrs. March’s varying side of the story. Brooks based the character of Mr. March on that of Louisa May Alcott’s own father; the research into the lives and times of the characters rings clear. Brooks paints a portrait of competing loyalties between husband and wife, duty and desire, right and wrong, North and South that is both poignant and true. March turns the light-hearted charm of Little Women on its head and delivers an introspective work that can stand solidly on its own.

Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman, 2001, Morrow Books (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)


“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This is the famous opening sentence of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a now-classic novel of mystery, romance and suspense. At the behest of du Maurier’s estate, author Sally Beauman pens a companion novel to deepen the mystery, complicate the romance, and up the ante on the suspense. In the original story, our plain Jane young narrator (who is never given a name) makes a match that shocks even herself—she marries impressively wealthy aristocrat Maxim de Winter. The meek new Mrs. De Winter is overshadowed and overwhelmed by the stately mansion of Manderley, the sneering and domineering housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, and by the lasting aura of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca, society’s darling and a stunning beauty who lived fast and died young under decidedly mysterious circumstances. The tension builds into a great novel of suspense, but lose ends are left untied—until now. Rebecca’s Tale is set in 1951, two decades after the original, and features a new cast of characters who fall under Rebecca’s ghostly spell to become obsessed with solving once and for all the mystery of her demise. We get four different perspectives on the case from four narrators—Colonel Arthur Julyan, an old family friend of the de Winters; Terence Gray, a historian who has his own reasons for digging up the secrets of Rebecca’s life and death; Ellie, the smartly practical daughter of Colonel Julyan; and Rebecca de Winter herself, who chimes in through newly-discovered journals that have been anonymously sent to the secluded Julyan home. Rebecca’s Tale is more than a sequel that offers an explanation of what really happened to Rebecca; it’s a fresh, entertaining mystery than incorporates new plots, characters, and themes while sticking true to all the suspenseful gothic stylings of the beloved original.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, or, The Segregation of the Queen: A Novel of Suspense Featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes by Laurie R. King, 2007, Picador Press, originally 1994 (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

Sherlock Holmes is the quintessential detective of our time. Wickedly intelligent, almost supernaturally observant, full of contempt for anyone else’s theories, a cocaine addict, and a beekeeper to boot, Holmes is drama enough without adding a gawky fifteen-year-old orphan girl who’s every bit as sharp as the great detective himself. Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, put his famous character through the wringer with cases like A Study in Scarlet, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and A Scandal in Bohemia. Today we still fondly remember such Holmsian lore as his “Elementary, dear Watson” quote and his address at 221-B Baker Street. Author Laurie R. King resurrects Holmes from peaceful retirement when our heroine, fifteen-year-old Mary Russell, nearly steps on him one day as she strolls through the fields with her nose in a book. The unlikely duo takes an immediate liking to each other, finding in the other a kindred spirit with whom to match wits and intelligence. Russell becomes Holmes’ apprentice in the art of sleuthing and is a superb student; as the years pass and they solve minor crimes together, a deep friendship and close understanding grows between them. Their unique partnership is threatened, however, by a strange case during Russell’s college years at Oxford after World War I. A master criminal is playing a deadly game with Holmes and Russell’s very lives. How the master and his novice crack the case is only slightly less intriguing than the evolving relationship between the two. This is all accompanied by a fine literary style, with Mary Russell as an intimately honest narrator, and a detailed sense of historical time and place. The first in a series that features Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice does modern wonders with a favorite classic.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, 2009, Harper Paperbacks, originally 1995 (Literary Fiction)

The Wizard of Oz is a modern fairy tale. Young Dorothy (and her little dog too) run away from home, get caught up in a storm, and are blown far away to a magical land of walking scarecrows, talking lions, curtained wizards, wicked witches, yellow brick roads, and emerald cities. Most readers will know the 1939 Hollywood movie starring Judy Garland best, but L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its thirteen sequels way back when in the early 1900s. But it is author Gregory Maguire’s Wicked that really blows the lid off this classic. He focuses on the future Wicked Witch of the West, who begins life as a small green girl named Elphaba. Elphie’s Munchkinlander parents are less than thrilled with this strange offspring, and more so when another daughter (normal-colored but armless) is born a couple years later. Still, the sisters survive their difficult childhood and attend university, where Elphie’s roommate is ditzy Glinda (better known as the Good Witch of the North). Elphaba is never wicked or evil; in fact she campaigns against the politically corrupt Wizard of Oz and fights for economic re-growth instead. Elphaba is ultimately an intelligent and out-spoken young woman, but fate and luck are just not on her side. Readers will sympathize with this other Wicked Witch of the West and relish the clever social satire and biting cynicism inherent in this alternate vision of fanciful Oz. Just as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz blew off the page and became the beloved Hollywood movie, Wicked has transcended its original form to become a popular Broadway musical. Maguire has proved something of a visionary with his reimaging of fairy tales and classics—he has most definitely cornered the market with other inventive perspectives like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Mirror Mirror, and two other entries in his Wicked Years series about the land of Oz, Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men.

Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure by Emma Campbell Webster, 2007, Riverhead Trade Books (Romance/ Adventure)

Your name: Elizabeth Bennett. Your mission: Marry for love and money. Your means: Nothing more than your wit and charm, of course, and a handy book called Lost in Austen. In the grand tradition of both Jane Austen and those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books from your youth, author Emma Campbell Webster brings us a romantic adventure that combines the two. You begin firmly rooted in Pride and Prejudice; a few twists and turns can land you in the city of Bath à la Persuasion, win you a stay in the mansions of Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park, and bring you into contact with rogues like Sense and Sensibility’s Mr. Willoughby or dreamboats like Emma’s Mr. Knightley. Mr. Darcy is the ultimate catch, of course, and the goal is harder than you think—you win and lose points based on your decisions that add or subtract to your various charms and therefore your eligibility as a suitable match. Whether you end up happily ever after with Captain Wentworth or get sent north in disgrace with Mr. Wickham, Lost in Austen is fantastic fun, and certainly one of the most creative ways to channel the magnificent Jane Austen, who is surely spinning in her grave at the inventiveness of this latest reincarnation of her ever-popular work.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Row, Row, Row Your Book

Boats are the ultimate plot device. The varieties are endless—rowboat, tugboat, eighteenth century schooner, luxury cruise liner. The characters are endless—sailor, stowaway, first class passenger, captain. The dangers are endless too—ocean crossings, mutiny, shipwreck, storms. This means, of course, that the opportunities for excellent books about rowboats, captains, and shipwrecks are endless. Mystery, adventure, historical fiction—boats float it all. Whether you hoist a sail or scrub a deck, a book about a boat makes for a swimmingly good read.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!) by Jerome K. Jerome, 2005, Penguin Books, originally published 1889 (Classic Fiction/ Humor)

Boats are funny. Especially when they’re packed full of hampers of food, fishing gear, three lazy Victorian gentlemen, and a dog. This comic travelogue recounts the misadventures of Jerome K. Jerome and his two companions George and Harris (three if you count the dog Montmorency) as they paddle down the River Thames in an open boat. When they’re not falling in the river or getting into scrapes with dogs, swans, and other boaters, Jerome finds time wax poetical about the world around him, making timely, comic, and thoughtful observations that still resonate over one hundred years later. There's an equally charming sequel about another fateful boating down a river, Three Men on the Bummel

The African Queen by C.S. Forester, 2000, Little, Brown and Co., originally published 1935 (Classic Fiction/ Adventure)

You might know The African Queen as an excellent old movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. This is the book that film is based on, and it’s every bit as good even without Bogie and Kate. They play Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer, a burned-out trader with a beat-up old steamboat and a stern, no-nonsense missionary’s sister. Rose is indignant with anger at the World War I German threat to the British way of life (even in the heart of the African jungle), and Mr. Allnutt is the unlucky fellow who gets roped into her outrageous plan. But first, they have to get their boat, the African Queen, down the river past rapids, waterfalls, malaria-ridden swamps, and German outposts. They also have to get to know each other—alone, in the jungle, on a rickety old boat. C.S. Forester knows boats and adventure, and what’s more, he knows character, dialogue, and human nature. The film’s pairing of Bogart of Hepburn is excellent and the novel has hidden depths that Hollywood left out; together, the book and film are excellent companions. Try them both.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester, 1998, Back Bay Books, originally published 1948 (Classic Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Adventure)

C.S. Forester decidedly had a thing for adventures on boats. The African Queen is a stand-alone title that has stood the test of time; the Horatio Hornblower series make up his best-known work. Set during the Napoleonic Wars and beginning in 1793, the first novel introduces readers to Horatio Hornblower, here an inexperienced boy but eventually one of the most fondly remembered adventurers in all of western literature. There’s a helluva squall blowing when a gawky seventeen-year-old lad climbs aboard the Justinian to report for duty as midshipman in charge of cargo. It’s a lowly position, but once he gets his sea legs, young Mr. Hornblower is more than ready to prove his worth as an able-bodied seaman of the first class. First, however, he has to survive and thrive through a number of interesting episodes that vary from everyday duties and interactions onboard a ship to full-fledged sea battles for the glory of the British Empire. The Hornblower series continues with this green young man developing into a hard-headed, soft-hearted, beloved hero through eleven novels that detail the grand adventure of life at sea.

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, 1990, W.W. Norton Books, originally published 1969 (Historical Fiction/ Adventure)

Patrick O’Brian’s Captain Jack Aubrey is the direct descendant of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower. Aubrey is another British naval officer during the Napoleonic era with a multi-book series, but O’Brian is writing seven decades later and focusing as much on the development of the friendship between Captain Aubrey and Dr. Steven Maturin as he does on sea-faring adventure and historical detail. Readers love Aubrey and Maturin and their series has been compared in terms of depth and complexity to the works of Jane Austen and Tolstoy. In this first novel, Aubrey has just received his first command onboard the man-of-war Sophie. Along with ship’s physician Maturin, Aubrey sets sail to accompany a convoy of merchant vessels and then to patrol independently for enemy ships from Spain and France. The Sophie is a bit out-of-date, but Aubrey is eager to improve his ship and his crew is determined to prove their mettle. Maturin has never sailed before; O’Brian uses his inexperience to fill in the gaps about life on board a warship in the 18th century for the reader as well. The result is a series of novels in which historical fast is seamlessly intertwined with superior plotting and subtle character development.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel, 2001, Harcourt Books (Literary Fiction)

It’s one thing to be shipwrecked and cast out to see in a small lifeboat. It’s another thing entirely if your only surviving shipmate is a 450-pound tiger named Richard Parker who takes up most of the lifeboat. Yet this is exactly the situation a young boy named Pi Patel faces when his ship, carrying his emigrating zookeeper family and a few select members of their menagerie from India to Canada, burns and sinks. For the rest of the book, we’re left with four characters—young Pi, who has to keep the tiger happy to keep himself alive; the tiger, completely at a loss when it comes to life at sea but still ferociously hungry; the twenty-two-foot boat they live on; and the relentless open sea. Pi is a curious, clever boy who has adopted several of the world’s major religions—Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism—as his own. Pi will need all his wits, knowledge, and faith to stay alive as his boat drifts across the sea, but his ordeal and his bright, sharp observations make the outlandish story real and memorable. Blurring the line between stark reality and wishful thinking, Life of Pi is a modern fable and a storytelling marvel

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, 2000, Random House (Historical Fiction/ Literary Fiction)

In 1857, Captain Illium Quillian Kewley is a rum smuggler. In order to lend an air of respectability to their escape from the clutches of suspicious customs officials, Captain Kewley and his crew take on three English passengers who are headed down under to Tasmania to find the original site of the Garden of Eden. This is the pet theory of Reverend Wilson; Dr. Potter is looking for supporting evidence for his sinister theories about the races of men. These guys are only slightly less odd than Captain Kewley and his rag-tag crew, who are currently on one of the worst runs of luck this side of the British Isles. Of course, it could be argued that the aboriginal groups of Australia and Tasmania have it really bad—they are being systematically hunted down, rounded up, and “civilized” by self-righteous colonialists. Peevay is one of these aborigines, a young boy whose greatest skill is his ability to endure. Kneale’s characters take turns narrating their stories, and they are distinct characters indeed. Captain Kewley is a clever rascal, Revered Wilson is priggish and sanctimonious, and Peevay has a powerful ability to observe. Author Matthew Kneale won the prestigious Whitbread Award (renamed the Costa Award in 2002) for this novel, and it’s a masterpiece of narrative voice that will make readers laugh and cry. The plotlines of Kewley’s ship and passengers are on a collision course with those of Peevay and the aborigines and settlers on Tasmania; the results of their meeting are the stuff great novels are made of.

The Terror by Dan Simmons, 2007, Back Bay Books (Fiction/ Thriller/ Horror)

In the 1840s, two ships carrying two hundred men disappeared while searching for the Northwest Passage. In The Terror, author Dan Simmons re-imagines what happened to them in a spooky blend of historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and above all, horror. Because what happens to the men of the two ships the Terror and the Erebus is this: They sail farther into unknown territory in their day than ever before; the effects of extreme cold in the far north play havoc on the minds of the men; scurvy, starvation, snow-blindness, and botulism put a real damper on the adventure aspect of the expedition; and a mysterious creature bigger than a polar bear and twice as fierce (the men call it the Thing) is stalking the expedition as the ships lay locked in the ice. Narrated by several characters, including alcoholic-but-effective Captain Crozier, The Terror is an atmospheric novel of suspense that’s supported by meticulous historical research. The frigid wilderness of the barren north becomes as much a character as any of the people (or monsters), and the many mysterious unknowns and stark realities will start to weigh as much on the minds of readers as they do on the sailors in the books. Stay warm while you read this page-turner—it’ll hold you in gripping suspense until the very end.

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes, 1989, A.A. Knopf Books (Literary Fiction)

It’s amazing how many histories of the world can be conveyed through trips and journeys, but that’s precisely what author Julian Barnes does here in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Not every chapter is about a nautical voyage, but some of the most compelling include a stowaway’s point-of-view on Noah’s Ark, the hijacking of a tourist yacht by pirate-like terrorists, a desperate woman’s attempt to escape on a raft from a world of radioactive fallout, a meditation on the historical events and painted depiction of the wreck of an 18th century ship called the Medusa, and an American astronaut’s search for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat. The stories are often only connected by apparent chance; the so-called patterns of history are little more than coincidental connections and random links. But the voices from these chapters echo loud and strong, providing a thought-provoking, unconventional, and utterly original set of stories.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, 2007, Black Dog and Leventhal, originally published 1937 (Mystery)

Agatha Christie is the queen of the “locked room” mystery, and a boat is the ultimate locked room. Unless you’ve got a murderer willing to jump ship into watery depths, the suspect has to be onboard. This is the situation dapper detective Hercule Poirot finds when he boards a steamer ship to travel in slow luxury up the Nile River into the land of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. His traveling companions include lovely young heiress Linnet Doyle and her handsome new but working-class husband. And shadowing them is Mr. Doyle’s ex-fiancé, Jackie, the girl he dropped to marry wealth and beauty. When Linnet winds up dead in her bed one morning, Jackie seems like the obvious candidate for murder—except that she has an ironclad alibi. Everyone, it seems, has an ironclad alibi, but no one is a match for Agatha Christie’s meticulous, observant Hercule Poirot and his “little grey cells.” This is one of Christie’s best and most popular whodunits and it’s got it all—ingenious plot, suspects a-plenty, exotic locale, glamour, romance, and a boat to boot.

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander, 1998, A.A. Knopf Books (Nonfiction/ Antarctic Exploration/ 20th Century British History)

In 1914, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition left port for the South Pole. Led by renowned polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, this crew of twenty-seven men lived aboard the Endurance, a fine ship specially made to withstand the heavy iceberg-filled seas of the southern hemisphere. Their goal was to be the first men to cross Antarctica on foot, a final accomplishment to cement Britain’s reputation and to boost moral when World War I was fast approaching. They didn’t make it. The ice-cold seas of the south closed in and froze solid around the Endurance, eventually crushing the ship to splinters and leaving the crew adrift on the ice floes—until the weather got warmer, and the ice started to melt. Even if the crew reached land, they were still thousands of miles from even the most remote outpost of civilization—with only a couple of barely sea-worthy life boats to their names. Author Caroline Alexander (who also curated an exhibit about the Endurance) brilliantly re-creates Shackleton’s journey through historical accounts, first-hand accounts from journals and expedition records, and lots of striking photographs (previously unpublished) by ship’s photographer Frank Hurley. All the crew members emerge fully-fledged, with personalities, strengths, and weaknesses that make them entirely real characters with whom readers will feel a true camaraderie and sense of adventure.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, 2005, Henry Holt and Co., originally published 1955 (Nonfiction/ Titanic/ 20th Century History)

Author Walter Lord was obsessed with the story of the Titanic since the since age ten, so when he grew up, he poured over document, interview, and shred of evidence he could find to put together this riveting account of the most famous shipwreck in history. From how the ship was built (“unsinkable”) and how it looked (complete with a French side-walk café) to first-hand accounts from the Titanic’s first-class millionaires, third-class steerage passengers, and able-bodied crew, A Night to Remember is moment-by-moment drama and suspense—even when we already know the tragic outcome. Lord’s account pays special attention the rigid social class system that existed on the Titanic (and in the larger world) and to the out-dated emergency procedures that kept the number of life boats to a minimum and resulted in the deaths of more half the people on board. There are accounts of heroism here as well as acts of cowardice; millionaires stoically deciding to go down with the ship while hundreds of steerage passengers, trapped below decks, never get the opportunity to make such a decision. That moving contrast is precisely what has made the Titanic first and final disaster so memorable and Walter Lord’s book is still the finest account of the grand ship’s first and final voyage.