Zoe Burnett

I Am Murdered by Bruce Chadwick

(Library of Congress NEW HV6555.U62 R42 2009)

Do you enjoy Colonial American history? Do true crime procedurals have you turning pages? If either of these niche interests fits your reading list, then Bruce Chadwick’s I Am Murdered; George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation will keep you company in this season’s weary days. Wythe was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and mentor of Virginia’s most prominent sons, including Thomas Jefferson and Chief Justice John Marshall. Despite his lofty position and professional success as a judge on the Virginia Court of Chancery, Wythe was revered by all who knew him for his fortitude of character and gentleness of manner. Not once does Chadwick list a bad word spoken against Wythe, who maintained his office up until his unexpected, grisly end at the age of eighty. Indeed, the extreme generosity shown to his alleged and likely murderer, his reprobate grand-nephew George Wythe Sweeney, is one of the many ways in which Chadwick illustrates why and how Wythe was revered by his contemporaries. 

Chadwick’s text reads much like a true crime special, first describing the murder to grab the reader’s attention, then examining the people and places surrounding the event. His approach is meticulous, providing the reader with the background and motives of each man tasked with confirming or denying Sweeney’s guilt. In doing so, Chadwick gives us a look at the shining new republic’s scurrilous underbelly. Williamsburg and Richmond’s socioeconomic classes did not exactly become integrated as these cities grew in population and diversity, but the wealthy, educated elite often brushed more than elbows with the cities’ lower elements. Members of the democratized gentry frequented alehouses, gambling dens, and “houses of ill repute,” creating a cocktail of debt and danger that plagued Virginia society and ensnared Sweeney. 

The span of research Chadwick conducted for I Am Murdered is evident, yet like all procedurals, it takes some time to reach the actual murder after its initial preview. Plentiful anecdotes are interspersed with comprehensive biographies of the investigation’s key players, and some of Chadwick’s descriptions can border on the repetitive or excessive. Information is provided that seems more suitable for footnotes, sometimes cluttering the text with protracted lists. However, just as the reader may become distracted, Chadwick nimbly transitions to the next subject and recaptures our attention. When the narrative finally arrives at the autopsy and trial’s gritty details that true crime lovers relish, he turns on the documentary flair with a multitude of rhetorical questions. These are duly answered as he describes the trial’s frustrating outcome. A verdict more than two hundred years old is difficult to spoil, and unfortunately the conclusion of I Am Murdered is still relevant to American readers. Aggressive ignorance and willful blindness remain great enemies of truth in our country. Until these silk masks are pried from the eyes of those in power, the guilty will continue to be acquitted despite crowds of pointing, marginalized fingers.

Maria Daniels

Get In Trouble by Kelly Link

(Library of Congress PZ4.L7575 Ge 2015)

Raise your brain a notch with this Pulitzer Prize finalist story collection from Massachusetts resident Kelly Link, famous for opening portals into wildly imaginative, sinister, dazzling, and delightful worlds. If you’ve ever wondered what happens in summer houses when the residents are away, or considered the logical—or surreal—escalations of celebrity culture, this book is for you.

The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák

(Library of Congress PZ4.K9361 Si 2017 ​​)

Readers with a taste for the lyrical will devour this moving novel by a Somerville writer and National Book Award finalist. Set in rural Pennsylvania in the early 1970s, the story unearths the most wrenching emotions of the Vietnam era in a family still grieving the aftermath of the Second World War. Heartache, loss, and hope unfold in a harsh and beautiful landscape.

Daria Hafner

The Black Prince by Michael K. Jones

(Library of Congress NEW DA234 .J66 2017)

Michael K. Jones takes on the myths and history surrounding the medieval warrior known as the Black Prince, the eldest son of King Edward III of England and Prince of Wales. Jones provides a detailed examination of the life of Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine during the fourteenth century, focusing on his military prowess, religious convictions, and contributions to the early stages of the Hundred Years War between England and France. Although he uses a wide range of historical documents, Jones narrates The Black Prince in a way that makes it accessible to both scholars and lay-readers alike. I highly recommend this book to medieval history lovers and those who are interested in learning more about chivalry in fourteenth-century Europe.

Andrew Hahn

The Prodigal Tongue by Lynne Murphy

(Library of Congress NEW PE2808 .M87 2018)

Though this is an autumn list I decided to offer a fall suggestion. In this well researched book, Murphy presents the intertwining, converging, and diverging of American and British English. For those interested in words, and particularly for those with bookmarks to the OED, this book avoids the bellicose dismissals of the English found on the other side of the Atlantic, whichever side that may be, and instead offers a more nuanced and historical view.

Carolle Morini

Small Country by Gaël Faye, translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone

(Library of Congress NEW PZ4.F281 Sm 2018​​)

One of the best books I’ve read in 2018. Very powerful and beautifully written. Burundi, 1992. The main character is a ten-year-old boy named Gabriel who lives with his French father, Rwandan mother, and little sister Ana, as well as with a close group of friends. As they go about their lives it is soon drastically disturbed when Burundi and neighboring Rwanda are brutally hit by war and genocide. 

Kaelin Rasmussen

Blake or, The Huts of America: A Corrected Edition by Martin R. Delany; edited and with an introduction by Jerome McGann
(Library of Congress NEW​ PZ3.D3726 Bl 2017​)

Martin R. Delany’s extraordinary speculative novel Blake (originally published serially about 1859–1862) imagines the antebellum South poised on the edge of a revolution. The story follows Henry Blake, who, after his wife is sold away, escapes from a southern plantation and travels in the U.S., Canada, Africa, and Cuba on a mission to reunite his family and to unite blacks of the Atlantic region in the struggle for freedom. In direct opposition to his fictional contemporary Uncle Tom, Blake advocates violent rebellion rather than resignation as a response to the outrage of slavery, and he rejects outright the slaveholders’ false Christian piety. Blake’s journey lays the foundation for a massive, coordinated uprising in the American South. Traveling on to Cuba in search of his wife, Blake encounters slavery under the Spanish rule, and resolves to overthrow it. Martin R. Delany (1812–1885) was a free African American abolitionist and advocate for emigration. He traveled the South observing slavery and would later become an officer in the Union Army. Blake stands as his only work of fiction, and (fair warning!) it is incomplete, the final chapters being lost. It is a surprising and powerful work, less a novel than a summation of Delany’s revolutionary ideas and his empathy for the oppressed. Jerome McGann’s 2017 edition offers the first correct printing of the work and an authoritative introduction.

Mary Warnement

East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” by Philippe Sands

(Library of Congress KZ7180 .S26 2016)

Autumn seems an appropriate time to return to serious subjects, and East West Street certainly qualifies. Most reviews have commented with surprise that a book by a lawyer specializing in international law—with a focus on mass murder—could be so enjoyable. He humanizes his subject by including his own family’s past, coincidentally linked to the place where the two men lived who independently developed the terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.”

Sands connected with others who had family stories to tell, most notably Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter, both sons of Nazis who have reacted quite differently to their fathers’ deeds. Sands treats both with a sensitivity one doesn’t expect from a lawyer. In fact, he and Niklas became friends, and Sands opens the book by describing their visit to Nuremberg together. I was at first shocked to read Niklas refer to the courtroom where his father was sentenced to death as “a happy room, for me, and for the world” (5). That story doesn’t continue till page 221. Sands then tells the story of the city, his family, and the atrocities suffered by both. He outlines his research as well as shares his thoughts and doubts with a light touch.

Sands was close to his grandfather Leon and yet knew so little of his life. How many of us ever know our parents or grandparents as youngsters? He asks hard questions about their behavior. Why didn’t they leave together? Was his grandmother having an affair? Was his grandfather gay? Many would ignore the evidence or write to titillate, but Sands writes with both respect and honesty.

He mentions exchanging memories and ideas with a woman on a train: “It was an intimate journey, a moment of acknowledgment and remembrance, and we never exchanged names”(41). It’s often easier to share with a stranger; one has fewer expectations, no worry about disappointment or judgment to stay one’s tongue.

If this interests you but you’re not quite ready to invest in 425 pages about genocide and crimes against humanity, try Sand’s briefer essay in Pushkin Press’s republication of Wittlin’s early twentieth-century description of Lviv/Lvov/Lemberg. The city’s frequent name changes evoke all that happened there in the past 150 years.