Another theme for another year — a year of books based on true events. You can decide if you want to do books with a factual or fictionalized account of an event or mix it up and read some of both. When my book club chooses this theme, I’ll do a reading list that looks like a newspaper with mock headlines and articles that feature the twelve books we’ve chosen. I’ve put together books to choose from and have assigned them to categories that were generated based on the kinds of books I was finding. There are three to five choices for each category, but you can always modify the list to remove books that don’t appeal. I’ll call the paper the Fictional Free Press and I’ll put our names/addresses/phone numbers in the want ads. You don’t have to do any of that crazy stuff, but I can’t guarantee it will be as much fun.
Ripped From the Headlines: Books Inspired by Actual Events Choose one book from each of twelve subject categories.
Subject #1: Animals
Red Dog by Louis de BernieresIn early 1998 Louis de Bernières went to Perth in Western Australia in order to attend the literature festival, and part of the arrangement was that he should go to Karratha to do their first ever literary dinner. Karratha is a mining town a long way further north. The landscape is extraordinary, being composed of vast heaps of dark red earth and rock poking out of the never-ending bush. De Bernières went exploring and discovered the bronze statue to Red Dog outside the town of Dampier. He felt straight away that he had to find out more about this splendid dog. A few months later De Bernières returned to Western Australia and spent two glorious weeks driving around collecting Red Dog stories and visiting the places that Red Dog knew, writing up text as he went along.
The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis by Elizabeth Letts In the chaotic last days of the war, a small troop of battle-weary American soldiers captures a German spy and makes an astonishing find—his briefcase is empty but for photos of beautiful white horses that have been stolen and kept on a secret farm behind enemy lines. Hitler has stockpiled the world’s finest purebreds in order to breed the perfect military machine—an equine master race. But with the starving Russian army closing in, the animals are in imminent danger of being slaughtered for food. With only hours to spare, one of the U.S. Army’s last great cavalrymen, Colonel Hank Reed, makes a bold decision—with General George Patton’s blessing—to mount a covert rescue operation. Racing against time, Reed’s small but determined force of soldiers, aided by several turncoat Germans, steals across enemy lines in a last-ditch effort to save the horses.
Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick The first person to successfully raise newborn elephants, Dame Daphne Sheldrick has saved countless African animals from certain death. In this indelible and deeply heartfelt memoir, Daphne tells of her remarkable career as a conservationist and introduces us to a whole host of orphans―including Bushy, a liquid-eyed antelope, and the majestic elephant Eleanor. Yet she also shares the incredible human story of her relationship with David Sheldrick, the famous Tsavo National Park warden whose death inspired the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the orphans’ nursery, where Daphne works to this day. From her tireless campaign to preserve Kenya’s wildlife to the astonishing creatures she befriended along the way, Love, Life, and Elephants is alive with compassion and humor, providing rare insight into the life of one of the world’s most fascinating women.
Subject #2: Art
Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese From the dawn of the twentieth century to the devastation of World War II, this exhilarating novel of love, war, art, and family gives voice to two extraordinary women and brings to life the true story behind the creation and near destruction of Gustav Klimt’s most remarkable paintings. In the dazzling glitter of 1903 Vienna, Adele Bloch-Bauer—young, beautiful, brilliant, and Jewish—meets painter Gustav Klimt. Wealthy in everything but freedom, Adele embraces Klimt’s renegade genius as the two awaken to the erotic possibilities on the canvas and beyond. Though they enjoy a life where sex and art are just beginning to break through the façade of conventional society, the city is also exhibiting a disturbing increase in anti-Semitism, as political hatred foments in the shadows of Adele’s coffee house afternoons and cultural salons. Nearly forty years later, Adele’s niece Maria Altmann is a newlywed when the Nazis invade Austria—and overnight, her beloved Vienna becomes a war zone. When her husband is arrested and her family is forced out of their home, Maria must summon the courage and resilience that is her aunt’s legacy if she is to survive and keep her family—and their history—alive.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice HoffmanGrowing up on idyllic St. Thomas in the early 1800s, Rachel dreams of life in faraway Paris. Rachel’s mother, a pillar of their small refugee community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition, has never forgiven her daughter for being a difficult girl who refuses to live by the rules. Growing up, Rachel’s salvation is their maid Adelle’s belief in her strengths, and her deep, life-long friendship with Jestine, Adelle’s daughter. But Rachel’s life is not her own. She is married off to a widower with three children to save her father’s business. When her husband dies suddenly and his handsome, much younger nephew, Fréderick, arrives from France to settle the estate, Rachel seizes her own life story, beginning a defiant, passionate love affair that sparks a scandal that affects all of her family, including her favorite son, who will become one of the greatest artists of France.
The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art, by Matthew Hart In the annals of art theft, no case has matched-for sheer criminal panache-the heist at Ireland’s Russborough House in 1986. The Irish police knew right away that the mastermind was a Dublin gangster named Martin Cahill. Yet the great plunder -including a Gainsborough, a Goya, two Rubenses, and a Vermeer- remained at large for years. Cahill taunted the police with a string of other crimes, but in the end it was the paintings that brought him low. The challenge of disposing of such famous works forced him to reach outside his familiar world into the international arena, and when he did, his pursuers were waiting. The movie-perfect sting that broke Cahill uncovered an astonishing maze of banking and drug-dealing connections that redefined the way police view art theft. As if that were not enough, the recovery of the Vermeer-by then worth $200 million-led to a remarkable discovery about the way Vermeer achieved his photographic perspective.
Subject #3: Children
Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie FordFor twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But only once he’s there, does he discover that he is the one who is actually the prize. The half-Chinese orphan is astounded to learn he will be raffled off—a healthy boy “to a good home.” The winning ticket belongs to the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel, famous for educating her girls. There, Ernest becomes the new houseboy and befriends Maisie, the madam’s precocious daughter, and a bold scullery maid named Fahn. Their friendship and affection form the first real family Ernest has ever known..Fifty years later, in the shadow of Seattle’s second World’s Fair, Ernest struggles to help his ailing wife reconcile who she once was with who she wanted to be, while trying to keep family secrets hidden from their grown-up daughters.
Phenomena: The Lost and Forgotten Children by Susan TarrAs a child I knew Malcolm, who was then a young man. Dad often invited him home for meals. Malcolm was one of the ‘lost children’ forgotten or abandoned by their families into the Seacliff Mental Asylum, New Zealand. We followed his story from childhood to adulthood as best we could even after he was eventually discharged back into the community. When considering the tragedy and abuse of Malcolm’s wasted earlier years, it is a story of immeasurable sadness. Yet he ultimately rose above it all, and with admirable strength, courage and innate resilience, was able to free ‘the regular boy within’ as he had always wanted.I was raised within the community of the Seacliff Mental Hospital village. To separate the truths from the almost-truths at this stage would be an impossible task so I have blended together various stories as representative of what most probably did happen during the period covered.This is Malcolm’s story as I believe it unfolded.
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history.Before We Were Yours is based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country
Subject #4: Civil War
The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois LeveenBased on the remarkable true story of a freed African American slave who returned to Virginia at the onset of the Civil War to spy on the Confederates, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a masterful debut by an exciting new novelist. Author Lois Leveen combines fascinating facts and ingenious speculation to craft a historical novel that will enthrall readers of women’s fiction, historical fiction, and acclaimed works like Cane River and Cold Mountain that offer intimate looks at the twin nightmares of slavery and Civil War. A powerful and unforgettable story of a woman who risked her own freedom to bring freedom to millions of others, The Secrets of Mary Bowser celebrates the courageous achievements of a little known but truly inspirational American heroine.
Henry and Clara by Thomas MallonHenry Rathbone and Clara Harris were engaged to be married, when they were invited to share the Presidential box with the Lincolns at Ford’s Theater on the evening of Good Friday, 1865. When John Wilkes Booth crept into the box, the young couple became witnesses to a central tragedy in American history. But Lincoln’s assassination is only one part of this novel–for in researching the lives of Henry and Clara Rathbone, Mallon uncovered an even more dramatic story of passion, scandal, heroism, murder, and madness. Imaginatively re-creating their lives, he tells the larger story of nineteenth-century Victorian America: a society structured above suppressed impulses and undercurrents that grew stronger as the century progressed.
Jubilee by Margaret WalkerA 50th anniversary edition of Margaret Walker’s best-selling classic with a foreword by Nikki Giovanni. Jubilee tells the true story of Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and one of his black slaves. Vyry bears witness to the South’s antebellum opulence and to its brutality, its wartime ruin, and the promises of Reconstruction. Weaving her own family’s oral history with thirty years of research, Margaret Walker’s novel brings the everyday experiences of slaves to light. Jubilee churns with the hunger, the hymns, the struggles, and the very breath of American history.
The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren WangRooted in the history of the only secessionist town north of the Mason Dixon Line, Daren Wang’s The Hidden Light of Northern Fires tells a story war that tore families and the country apart. Mary Willis has always been an outcast, an abolitionist in a town of bounty hunters and anti-Union farmers. After college, she dreams of exploring the country, but is obligated to take over the household duties and management of her family’s farm, while her brother Leander avoids his own responsibilities. Helping runaways is the only thing that makes her life in Town Line bearable. When escaped slave Joe Bell collapses in her father’s barn, Mary is determined to help him cross to freedom in nearby Canada. But the wounded fugitive is haunted by his vengeful owner, who relentlessly hunts him up and down the country, and his sister, still trapped as a slave in the South.
Subject #5: Espionage
The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneIn 1916, at the height of World War I, brilliant Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the U.S. government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code-breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the “Adam and Eve” of the NSA, Elizebeth’s story, incredibly, has never been told. Fagone unveils America’s code-breaking history through the prism of Smith’s life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that would help shape modern intelligence. Blending the lively pace and compelling detail that are the hallmarks of Erik Larson’s bestsellers with the atmosphere and intensity of The Imitation Game, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is page-turning popular history at its finest.
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris Paris in 1895. Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer, has just been convicted of treason, sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island, and stripped of his rank in front of a baying crowd of twenty-thousand. Among the witnesses to his humiliation is Georges Picquart, the ambitious, intellectual, recently promoted head of the counterespionage agency that “proved” Dreyfus had passed secrets to the Germans. At first, Picquart firmly believes in Dreyfus’s guilt. But it is not long after Dreyfus is delivered to his desolate prison that Picquart stumbles on information that leads him to suspect that there is still a spy at large in the French military. As evidence of the most malignant deceit mounts and spirals inexorably toward the uppermost levels of government, Picquart is compelled to question not only the case against Dreyfus but also his most deeply held beliefs about his country, and about himself. Bringing to life the scandal that mesmerized the world at the turn of the twentieth century, Robert Harris tells a tale of uncanny timeliness––a witch hunt, secret tribunals, out-of-control intelligence agencies, the fate of a whistle-blower–richly dramatized with the singular storytelling mastery that has marked all of his internationally best-selling novels.
Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith Pearson Virginia Hall left her Baltimore home in 1931 to enter the Foreign Service and went to work for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) when Hitler was building toward the peak of his power in Europe. She was assigned to France, where she helped the Resistance movement, escaped prisoners of war, and American Allied paratroopers. By 1942 she was considered so dangerous to the Gestapo that she had to escape over the Pyrenees mountains―on an artificial leg, no less. When she got to England, she was reassigned to France by the OSS, disguised as an old peasant woman. She helped capture 500 German soldiers and kill more than 150, while she sabotaged Nazi communications and transportation. Hitler’s forces were hot on her trail, however, and her daring intelligence activities and indomitable spirit defied the expectations of even the Allies until the very end of the war. Her story was ignored for more than fifty years, and this book now brings Virginia Hall’s story to patriots young and old.
Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day by Stephan Talty Agent Garbo tells the astonishing story of a self-made secret agent who matched wits with the best minds of the Third Reich — and won. Juan Pujol was a nobody, a Barcelona poultry farmer determined to oppose the Nazis. Using only his gift for daring falsehoods, Pujol became Germany’s most valued agent — or double agent: it took four tries before the British believed he was really on the Allies’ side. In the guise of Garbo, Pujol turned in a masterpiece of deception worthy of his big-screen namesake. He created an imaginary million-man army, invented armadas out of thin air, and brought a vast network of fictional subagents whirring to life. His unwitting German handlers believed every word, and banked on Garbo’s lies as their only source of espionage within Great Britain. For his greatest performance, Pujol had to convince the German High Command that the D-Day invasion of Normandy was a feint and the real attack was aimed at Calais. The Nazis bought it, turning the tide of battle at the crucial moment. Based on years of archival research and interviews with Pujol’s family, Agent Garbo is a true-life thriller set in the shadow world of espionage and deception.
Subject #6: Famous Men
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard At once an incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating biographical portrait, The River of Doubt is the true story of Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing exploration of one of the most dangerous rivers on earth. The River of Doubt—it is a black, uncharted tributary of the Amazon that snakes through one of the most treacherous jungles in the world. Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows haunt its shadows; piranhas glide through its waters; boulder-strewn rapids turn the river into a roiling cauldron. After his humiliating election defeat in 1912, Roosevelt set his sights on the most punishing physical challenge he could find, the first descent of an unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon. Together with his son Kermit and Brazil’s most famous explorer, Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Roosevelt accomplished a feat so great that many at the time refused to believe it. In the process, he changed the map of the western hemisphere forever.
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes As boys, George, the son of a Midlands vicar, and Arthur, living in shabby genteel Edinburgh, find themselves in a vast and complex world at the heart of the British Empire. Years later—one struggling with his identity in a world hostile to his ancestry, the other creating the world’s most famous detective while in love with a woman who is not his wife–their fates become inextricably connected. 1903 was the year of the ‘Great Wyrley Outrages’, when a number of cows, horses and sheep were “slashed”. Suspicion fell on George who did three years hard labour for the crime before he was proved innocent by Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Master by Colm Tóibín “Colm Tóibín’s beautiful, subtle illumination of Henry James’s inner life” (The New York Times) captures the loneliness and hope of a master of psychological subtlety whose forays into intimacy inevitably fail those he tried to love. Beautiful and profoundly moving, The Master tells the story of Henry James, a man born into one of America’s first intellectual families who leaves his country in the late nineteenth century to live in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London among privileged artists and writers. With stunningly resonant prose, “The Master is unquestionably the work of a first-rate novelist: artful, moving, and very beautiful” (The New York Times Book Review). The emotional intensity of this portrait is riveting.
Subject #7: International
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of Benny and Khin, husband and wife, and their daughter Louisa. After attending school in Calcutta, Benny settles in Rangoon, then part of the British Empire, and falls in love with Khin, a woman who is part of a long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. World War II comes to Southeast Asia, and Benny and Khin must go into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation, beginning a journey that will lead them to change the country’s history. After the war, the British authorities make a deal with the Burman nationalists, led by Aung San, whose party gains control of the country. When Aung San is assassinated, his successor ignores the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and in doing so sets off what will become the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin’s eldest child, Louisa, has a danger-filled, tempestuous childhood and reaches prominence as Burma’s first beauty queen soon before the country falls to dictatorship. As Louisa navigates her newfound fame, she is forced to reckon with her family’s past, the West’s ongoing covert dealings in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people. Based on the story of the author’s mother and grandparents, Miss Burma is a captivating portrait of how modern Burma came to be and of the ordinary people swept up in the struggle for self-determination and freedom.
What is the What by Dave Eggers From the bestselling author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What Is the What is the epic novel based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng who, along with thousands of other children —the so-called Lost Boys—was forced to leave his village in Sudan at the age of seven and trek hundreds of miles by foot, pursued by militias, government bombers, and wild animals, crossing the deserts of three countries to find freedom. When he finally is resettled in the United States, he finds a life full of promise, but also heartache and myriad new challenges. Moving, suspenseful, and unexpectedly funny, What Is the What is an astonishing novel that illuminates the lives of millions through one extraordinary man.
A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 by Frederic Morton On January 30, 1889, at the champagne-splashed hight of the Viennese Carnival, the handsome and charming Crown Prince Rudolf fired a revolver at his teenaged mistress and then himself. The two shots that rang out at Mayerling in the Vienna Woods echo still. Frederic Morton deftly tells the haunting story of the Prince and his city, where, in the span of only ten months, “the Western dream started to go wrong.” In Rudolf’s Vienna moved other young men with striking intellectual and artistic talents—and all as frustrated as the Prince. Among them were: young Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Theodor Herzl, Gustav Klimt, and the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, whose La Ronde was the great erotic drama of the fin de siecle. Morton studies these and other gifted young men, interweaving their fates with that of the doomed Prince and the entire city through to the eve of Easter, just after Rudolf’s body is lowered into its permanent sarcophagus and a son named Adolf Hitler is born to Frau Klara Hitler
Subject #8: Murders
A Double Life by Flynn Berry Claire is a hardworking doctor leading a simple, quiet life in London. She is also the daughter of the most notorious murder suspect in the country, though no one knows it. Nearly thirty years ago, while Claire and her brother slept upstairs, a brutal crime was committed in her family’s townhouse. The next morning, her father’s car was found abandoned near the English Channel, with bloodstains on the front seat. Her mother insisted she’d seen him in the house that night, but his powerful, privileged friends maintained his innocence. The first lord accused of murder in more than a century, he has been missing ever since. When the police tell Claire they’ve found him, her carefully calibrated existence begins to fracture. She doesn’t know if she’s the daughter of a murderer or a wronged man, but Claire will soon learn how far she’ll go to finally find the truth. Loosely inspired by one of the most notorious unsolved crimes of the 20th century – the Lord Lucan case – A Double Life is at once a riveting page-turner and a moving reflection on women and violence, trauma and memory, and class and privilege.
This House of Grief by Helen GarnerIn 2005 an event occurred that horrified all Australians. Robert Farquharson, estranged from his wife, was returning his three young sons, Jai, Tyler and Bailey, to their mother after an access visit on Father’s Day when his car swerved off the road, through a fence and across a paddock plunging his car into a seven metre deep dam. While he managed to escape and swim to safety his three children drowned. He claimed to have blacked out after a coughing fit and came to as the car was filling with water. Both he and his estranged wife asserted he loved his children and would never hurt them, let them kill them. However, the police were less convinced as several factors didn’t seem right, including the path travelled by the car and Farquharson’s behaviour during and after the accident and he was eventually charged with the murder. Helen Garner sat through the entire six week trial in 2007 and then an appeal and retrial in 2010 hoping to learn the truth. Throughout the trial Garner doesn’t take sides, she vacillates between thinking this can’t have been an accident and feeling sorry for the sad, downtrodden man on trial.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?
Subject #9: Native Americans
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine BrooksBethia Mayfield is a restless and curious young woman growing up in Martha’s vineyard in the 1660s amid a small band of pioneering English Puritans. At age twelve, she meets Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia’s father is a Calvinist minister who seeks to convert the native Wampanoag, and Caleb becomes a prize in the contest between old ways and new, eventually becoming the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Inspired by a true story and narrated by the irresistible Bethia, Caleb’s Crossing brilliantly captures the triumphs and turmoil of two brave, openhearted spirits who risk everything in a search for knowledge at a time of superstition and ignorance.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee BrownAn eloquent, meticulously documented account of the systematic destruction of the American Indian during the second half of the nineteenth century. Using council records, autobiographies, and firsthand descriptions, Brown allows great chiefs and warriors of the Dakota, Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes to tell us in their own words of the series of battles, massacres, and broken treaties that finally left them and their people demoralized and decimated. A unique and disturbing narrative told with force and clarity, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee changed forever our vision of how the West was won, and lost. It tells a story that should not be forgotten, and so must be retold from time to time.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David GrannIn the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe. Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. One of her relatives was shot. Another was poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more Osage were dying under mysterious circumstances, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll rose, the newly created FBI took up the case, and the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including a Native American agent who infiltrated the region, and together with the Osage began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.
Subject #10: Natural Disasters
Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum After Hurricane Katrina, Dan Baum moved to New Orleans to write about the city’s response to the disaster for The New Yorker. He quickly realized that Katrina was not the most interesting thing about New Orleans, not by a long shot. The most interesting question, which struck him as he watched residents struggling to return, was this: Why are New Orleanians—along with people from all over the world who continue to flock there—so devoted to a place that was, even before the storm, the most corrupt, impoverished, and violent corner of America? Here’s the answer. Nine Lives is a multivoiced biography of this dazzling, surreal, and imperiled city through the lives of nine characters over forty years and bracketed by two epic storms: Hurricane Betsy, which transformed the city in the 1960’s, and Katrina, which nearly destroyed it. These nine lives are windows into every strata of one of the most complex and fascinating cities in the world. From outsider artists and Mardi Gras Kings to jazz-playing coroners and transsexual barkeeps, these lives are possible only in New Orleans, but the city that nurtures them is also, from the beginning, a city haunted by the possibility of disaster. All their stories converge in the storm, where some characters rise to acts of heroism and others sink to the bottom. But it is New Orleans herself—perpetually whistling past the grave yard—that is the story’s real heroine.
Isaac’s Storm by Erik LarsonSeptember 8, 1900, began innocently in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. Even Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged in a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over six thousand people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history–and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devastating personal tragedy. Using Cline’s own telegrams, letters, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our latest understanding of the science of hurricanes, Erik Larson builds a chronicle of one man’s heroic struggle and fatal miscalculation in the face of a storm of unimaginable magnitude.
The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve From a New York Times best-selling author comes an exquisitely suspenseful new novel about an extraordinary young woman tested by a catastrophic event–based on the true story of the largest fire in Maine’s history. In October 1947, Grace Holland is experiencing two simultaneous droughts. An unseasonably hot, dry summer has turned the state of Maine into a tinderbox, and Grace and her husband, Gene, have fallen out of love and barely speak. Five months pregnant and caring for two toddlers, Grace has resigned herself to a life of loneliness and domestic chores. One night she awakes to find that wildfires are racing down the coast, closer and closer to her house. Forced to pull her children into the ocean to escape the flames, Grace watches helplessly as everything she knows burns to the ground. By morning, her life is forever changed: she is homeless, penniless, awaiting news of her husband’s fate, and left to face an uncertain future in a town that no longer exists.
Subject #11 Protest/Revolt
In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez Set during the waning days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1960, this extraordinary novel is inspired by the true story of the three Mirabal sisters who, in 1960, were murdered for their part in an underground plot to overthrow the government. Alvarez breathes life into these historical figures–known as “las mariposas,” or “the butterflies,” in the underground–as she imagines their teenage years, their gradual involvement with the revolution, and their terror as their dissentience is uncovered. Alvarez’s controlled writing perfectly captures the mounting tension as “the butterflies” near their horrific end.
Human Acts by Han Kang In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed. The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho’s own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice. An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.
Kings of Broken Things by Theodore Wheeler With characters depicted in precise detail and wide panorama—a kept-woman’s parlor, a contentious interracial baseball game on the Fourth of July, and the tragic true events of the Omaha Race Riot of 1919—Kings of Broken Things reveals the folly of human nature in an era of astonishing ambition. During the waning days of World War I, three lost souls find themselves adrift in Omaha, Nebraska, at a time of unprecedented nationalism, xenophobia, and political corruption. Adolescent European refugee Karel Miihlstein’s life is transformed after neighborhood boys discover his talent for baseball. Jake Strauss, a young man with a violent past is drawn into a criminal underworld. Evie Chambers, a kept woman, is trying to make ends meet. As wounded soldiers return from the front and black migrant workers move north in search of economic opportunity, the immigrant wards of Omaha become a tinderbox of racial resentment stoked by unscrupulous politicians. Punctuated by an unspeakable act of mob violence, the fates of Karel, Jake, and Evie will become inexorably entangled with the schemes of a ruthless political boss whose will to power knows no bounds.
Subject #11: Women at Work
The Silver Baron’s Wife by Donna Baier-SteinColorado’s Baby Doe Tabor (Lizzie) worked in the silver mines and had two scandalous marriages, one to a philandering opium addict and one to a Senator and silver baron worth $24 million in the late 19th century. A divorcee shunned by Denver society, Lizzie raised two daughters in a villa where 100 peacocks roamed the lawns, entertained Sarah Bernhardt when the actress performed at Tabor’s Opera House, and after her second husband’s death, moved to a one-room shack at the Matchless Mine in Leadville. She lived the last 35 years of her life there, writing down thousands of her dreams and noting visitations of spirits on her calendar. Hers is the tale of a fiercely independent woman who bucked all social expectations by working where 19th century women didn’t work.
The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd The year is 1739. Eliza Lucas is sixteen years old when her father leaves her in charge of their family’s three plantations in rural South Carolina and then proceeds to bleed the estates dry in pursuit of his military ambitions. Tensions with the British, and with the Spanish in Florida, just a short way down the coast, are rising, and slaves are starting to become restless. Soon her family is in danger of losing everything. Upon hearing how much the French pay for indigo dye, Eliza believes it’s the key to their salvation. But everyone tells her it’s impossible, and no one will share the secret to making it. Thwarted at nearly every turn, even by her own family, Eliza finds that her only allies are an aging horticulturalist, an older and married gentleman lawyer, and a slave with whom she strikes a dangerous deal: teach her the intricate thousand-year-old secret process of making indigo dye and in return — against the laws of the day — she will teach the slaves to read. Based on historical documents, including Eliza’s letters, this is a historical fiction account of how a teenage girl produced indigo dye, and laid the foundation for the incredible wealth of several Southern families who still live on today. Although largely overlooked by historians, the accomplishments of Eliza Lucas influenced the course of US history. When she passed away in 1793, President George Washington served as a pallbearer at her funeral.
Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricca Mrs. Sherlock Holmes tells the true story of Grace Humiston, the lawyer, detective, and first woman U.S. District Attorney who turned her back on New York society life to become one of the nation’s greatest crime-fighters during an era when women were still not allowed to vote. After agreeing to take the sensational case of missing eighteen-year-old Ruth Cruger, Grace and her partner, the hard-boiled detective Julius J. Kron, navigated a dangerous web of secret boyfriends, two-faced cops, underground tunnels, rumors of white slavery, and a mysterious pale man, in a desperate race against time. Brad Ricca’s Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is the first-ever narrative biography of this singular woman the press nicknamed after fiction’s greatest detective. Her poignant story reveals important clues about missing girls, the media, and the real truth of crime stories. Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is a nominee for the 2018 Edgar Awards for Best Fact Crime.
Subject #12 World War II
The Great Escape by Paul BrickhillOne of the most famous true stories from the last war, The GREAT ESCAPE tells how more than six hundred men in a German prisoner-of-war camp worked together to achieve an extraordinary break-out. Every night for a year they dug tunnels, and those who weren’t digging forged passports, drew maps, faked weapons and tailored German uniforms and civilian clothes to wear once they had escaped. All of this was conducted under the very noses of their prison guards. When the right night came, the actual escape itself was timed to the split second – but of course, not everything went according to plan…
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall KellyNew York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences. For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power. The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women.
The Boat Runner by Devin MurphyBeginning in the summer of 1939, fourteen-year-old Jacob Koopman and his older brother, Edwin, enjoy lives of prosperity and quiet contentment. Many of the residents in their small Dutch town have some connection to the Koopman lightbulb factory, and the locals hold the family in high esteem. On days when they aren’t playing with friends, Jacob and Edwin help their Uncle Martin on his fishing boat in the North Sea, where German ships have become a common sight. But conflict still seems unthinkable, even as the boys’ father naively sends his sons to a Hitler Youth Camp in an effort to secure German business for the factory. When war breaks out, Jacob’s world is thrown into chaos. The Boat Runner follows Jacob over the course of four years, through the forests of France, the stormy beaches of England, and deep within the secret missions of the German Navy, where he is confronted with the moral dilemma that will change his life—and his life’s mission—forever. The Boat Runner tells the little-known story of the young Dutch boys who were thrown into the Nazi campaign, as well as the brave boatmen who risked everything to give Jewish refugees safe passage to land abroad.
Bonus Category –Psychological Studies (just in case there is a topic you’d prefer not to include)
The Man Who Walked Away by Maud Casey In a trance-like state, Albert walks — from Bordeaux to Poitiers, from Chaumont to Macon, and farther afield to Turkey, Austria, Russia — all over Europe. When he walks, he is called a vagrant, a mad man. He is chased out of towns and villages, ridiculed and imprisoned. When the reverie of his walking ends, he’s left wondering where he is, with no memory of how he got there. His past exists only in fleeting images. Loosely based on the case history of Albert Dadas, a psychiatric patient in the hospital of St. André in Bordeaux in the nineteenth century, The Man Who Walked Away imagines Albert’s wanderings and the anguish that caused him to seek treatment with a doctor who would create a diagnosis for him, a narrative for his pain.
Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath by Kate Moses This engrossing debut novel depicts Sylvia Plath’s feverish artistic process in the bitter aftermath of her failed marriage to Ted Hughes–the few excruciating yet astoundingly productive weeks in which she wrote Ariel, her defining last collection of poems. In December 1962, shortly before her suicide, Plath moved with her two children to London from the Hughes’s home in Devon. Focusing on the weeks after their arrival, but weaving back through the years of Plath’s marriage, Kate Moses imagines the poet juggling the demands of motherhood and muse, shielding her life from her own mother, and by turns cherishing and demonizing her relationship with Ted. Richly imagined yet meticulously faithful to the actual events of Plath’s life, Wintering is a remarkable portrait of the moments of bravery and exhilaration that Plath found among the isolation and terror of her depression
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer. But the landscape shifts when Vanessa unexpectedly falls in love and her sister feels dangerously abandoned. Eerily possessive, charismatic, manipulative, and brilliant, Virginia has always lived in the shelter of Vanessa’s constant attention and encouragement. Without it, she careens toward self-destruction and madness. As tragedy and betrayal threaten to destroy the family, Vanessa must decide if it is finally time to protect her own happiness above all else.