Nature preservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir is considered the father of the United States National Parks system, thanks to his influence over President Teddy Roosevelt. Muir’s philosophy permeates author Garth Stein’s newest novel, A Sudden Light, which pits the Riddell family members against each other alongside the backdrop of a fortune built of trees.
The year is 1990. Thirteen-year-old Trevor Riddell’s parents are bankrupt, their marriage crumbling under the strain. In a last ditch effort to lure back his wife, Trevor’s dad Jones hauls Trevor to the Pacific Northwest where demoralized Jones hopes to reunite with his estranged sister and their father while tapping into his family’s enormous wealth. Trevor finds himself on the Riddell’s vast estate populated with old growth woods, living in a decaying timber mansion and becoming acquainted with his disconcertingly sexy aunt and a grandfather succumbing to dementia. Grandpa Samuel hears his dead wife dancing in the ballroom at night; Jones and Aunt Serena’s conversations have a disturbing subtext which leaves Trevor unsettled. As Trevor begins to explore the manor, he uncovers (with a little help from a long dead uncle) evidence of a tragic family history which reaches back to his great-great grandfather, Elijah, a lumber baron, businessman and eventual philanthropist.
Stein is the author of the bestselling book The Art of Racing in the Rain, in which the story is told from the perspective of a dog. In A Sudden Light, trees and the notion of preserving undeveloped land are mute characters whose looming presence shape the Riddells’ fate over generations. Stein has surely written another book club favorite with this modern gothic coming-of-age story.
“Between 2001 and 2012, 63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million American factory jobs went away.” Author Beth Macy quotes these figures in her best-selling new book Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local and Helped Save an American Town. Macy writes about the impact of free trade and globalization as it affects rural Henry County, Virginia, and its century old furniture manufacturing industry. Think this sounds a bit dry? Meet the driven factory man of the title: John Bassett III.
J.D. Bassett built his first furniture factory in his front yard around 1902. Twenty years later, his Bassett family furniture dynasty, with multiple factories employing hundreds of workers, was thriving thanks in part to the native “assets:” cheap southern labor and Piedmont forests ripe for lumber harvest. With Bassetts building churches, banks and schools, Bassett, Virginia, became the quintessential company town and the Bassett family its royalty, marrying its sons and daughters to scions of other local manufacturers. John Bassett III, grandson of J.D., seemed destined to inherit the Bassett Furniture throne until family politics and imported Chinese-made bedroom suites intervened.
Elbowed aside in favor of a brother-in-law, John Bassett III was determined to succeed on his own merit, and eventually settled at Vaughn-Bassett Furniture in nearby Galax. In direct competition with his own family, he found the larger threat to his business to be the growing stream of wooden furniture imported from Asia, priced well below what American companies could charge for their domestic product. With Virginia factories shutting down and double digit unemployment figures skyrocketing, Bassett struck back. Taking on foreign manufacturing, United States economic policy and the Furniture Retailers of America trade group, Bassett fought to enforce fair trade regulations while reinventing his furniture company over and over to remain viable. Factory Man is not just John Bassett III’s story but an eye-opening account of small towns dependent on blue collar industry in a changing global economy.
To join in an ongoing discussion about Factory Man, which includes many local residents' comments about the book and the Bassett, Virginia, area, visit https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/FactoryManFans/.
'You can run but you can’t hide' could be the motto for Mike Earp and David Fisher’s book U.S. Marshals: Inside America’s Most Storied Law Enforcement Agency. Earp, a retired associate director of operations for the Marshals Service, served with the organization for nearly 30 years, and has the hair-raising stories to prove it. The Marshals are tasked with bringing in some of America’s most wanted, and they do it well. In 2012, they arrested 123,006 fugitives and each marshal averaged four felony convictions apiece. Created by Congress in 1798, the service has both an illustrious and romanticized past, and chapters in this book often begin with historical accounts about the OK Corral, wild west African-American Marshal Bass Reeves or the capture of Billy the Kid. Packed with tales of stake-outs, stings and chases, U.S. Marshals tracks the growth of this law enforcement agency from a deputized posse on horseback to the tech-savvy federal agency with international reach and task force authority doing what Marshals do best: getting the bad guys off the streets.
Detective work of another kind also figures in The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. Author Deborah Halber says that “tens of thousands of unidentified human remains” are in storage across the United States. Enter the modern Miss Marple; townspeople are sitting at their home computers, using the Internet to match up clues to give these anonymous deceased an identity and provide some closure to families whose loved ones have disappeared. Working independently or using online resources like the aptly named Doe Network forum or NamUs, a federal website for missing persons, civilians sift through images, news stories and databases, connecting dots and solving cases which had confounded the police. True crime readers will enjoy The Skeleton Crew, following the hobbyists’ detective work which leads to real-life mysteries solved.
How are houseguests like fish? They both start to stink after three days, or so the joke goes. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and The Quick by Laura Owen, both set in London, are stories involving some houseguests that have truly gone bad.
In The Paying Guests, Francis Wray and her mother live alone in their upper crust dignified home, struggling to keep up appearances. Francis’ father died and her brothers were killed in the War, leaving mother and daughter penniless. To make ends meet, they decide to take in lodgers, euphemistically known as “paying guests.” Young newlyweds Lilian and Leonard Barber make the not-yet-30-year-old Francis feel like life has passed her by, until she begins a surreptitious love affair with one of the Barbers, which ends in tragedy and the courtroom. Waters, a frequent flyer on British writing prize lists, pens a literary thriller that examines the consequences of the societal and moral strictures placed on women in early 20th century England.
Author Owen’s debut novel The Quick opens with motherless siblings Charlotte and James exploring their moldering country estate home. As they grow, James heads off to boarding school and then to Victorian London, leaving Charlotte to a quiet country life with an elderly aunt. James becomes a paying guest at the home of a city widow, sharing lodgings and passion with a former schoolmate. What starts as dreamy period piece takes a sharp turn when James and his lover are attacked by a supernatural being and Charlotte leaves her narrow settled existence to become a vampire hunter. From the elite members-only Aegolius club to the Dickensian working poor, Owen’s vampire world is richly and eerily imagined. Fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or John Harwood’s The Asylum should give The Quick a try.
By now, the secret is out: J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, has a new mystery series for adults written under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith. Last year saw the publication of The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first book featuring British private detective Cormoran Strike, and it made a splash when it was “leaked” that Galbraith was actually Rowling. Just released is the second Galbraith book, The Silkworm.
Cormoran Strike is an unusual man. The illegitimate and estranged son of a rock star, a former military special investigations officer and missing a leg thanks to an encounter with an IED, The Silkworm opens with Strike’s star on the rise. After unraveling the suspicious circumstances surrounding a supermodel’s death in The Cuckoo’s Calling, the hoi polloi are flocking to Strike’s detective agency, which is finally turning a profit. Mousy and odd, his new client Leonora engages Strike to locate her husband, Owen Quine, a has-been author desperate for a bestseller. While Quine may be missing, his latest novel is not. Unauthorized copies of his Bombyx Mori are popping up all over London, and since the perverted story disgustingly skewers a number of barely disguised book world luminaries, Quine’s enemies are becoming legion. Strike and his secretary/assistant Robin pick up the case, finding themselves at odds with the local police.
Rowling’s writing style is straightforward as she moves these plot-driven whodunit stories along at a steady clip, and her characters are likeable and well-drawn. Readers will return to this entertaining series to find out if Strike maintains a clean break from a long-term but toxic relationship, or if Robin attains her goal to move beyond office secretary to become a detective herself in spite of her stuffed shirt fiancé’s objections.
Some books are beautifully written while others tell a fascinating story. And then there is Anthony Doerr’s new novel All the Light We Cannot See, which combines exquisite prose with an engrossing and layered tale of history, science and myth set in Europe during the era of World War II.
In August of 1944, the French coastal city of St. Malo was the location of a battle between the occupying Nazi troops and the Allied forces determined to drive out the Germans. In the city, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a 16-year-old blind girl, is home alone, hiding under her bed when the shelling begins. Across town, German army private Walter Pfennig is stationed with his radio team in the basement of the Hotel of Bees.
Doerr moves his story back and forth within a 10 year time frame. Marie-Laure was living in Paris with her father, the locksmith for the vast complex of the National Museum of Natural History. The pair fled Paris as the Occupation began, possibly carrying with them a priceless diamond steeped in legend from the museum’s collection. As a boy, Werner lived in an orphanage where he repaired a radio discarded as trash. He and his little sister would tune in to French radio broadcasts about science. Gifted with an analytical mind, Werner is drafted by the Nazis, using his skills to hunt down amateur broadcasters for the Resistance. Doerr carefully unfolds each character’s narrative as they gradually converge in St. Malo.
The center of this story might be a peerless gem, as cursed as the Hope diamond, both precious and horrifying. It might be the realization that both good and evil — or caring and callousness — can live within one heart. All the Light We Cannot See is a finely crafted work and deserves its place on The New York Times best sellers list. Readers of World War II literary fiction might also enjoy Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, a 2012 Man Booker finalist.
Two memoirs hit the library shelves recently. One is tender, the other brash, but each author writes with much love. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart by Virginia author Carol Wall is a poignant account of her friendship with Giles Owita, a Kenyan immigrant. Celebrity gossip blogger Elaine Lui writes about her Chinese mother in the blunt and brassy Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When a Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do? A Memoir (Sort Of).
Carol Wall looks at her Roanoke neighbors’ verdant gardens and lawns and knows her shabby yard needs help. Wall hires a friend’s gardener, Mr. Owita, and hands him a list of her gardening desires which Owita politely ignores. Wall and Owita cross racial and cultural boundaries as their relationship morphs from one of employer and gardener to student and teacher and eventually, dear friends. Wall is frank about her emotional struggles as a breast cancer survivor, and the support provided by Owita as both a gardening mentor and fellow traveler becomes increasingly important to her. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening is a lovely and spiritual homage to Giles Owita, whose guidance and example allow Wall to see the beauty in life despite its fleeting nature.
Elaine Lui opens Listen to the Squawking Chicken with a description of her petite mother as a “China Woman Elvis” dressed in a rhinestone-studded, denim popped-collar pantsuit, massive visor and sunglasses. Ma’s Cantonese nickname is Tsiahng Gai, meaning Squawking Chicken, and when she speaks, her daughter compares her voice to a siren. Ma is loud, pushy and controlling, and embraces the use of guilt and threats as parenting tools. Lui ‘s recollections often portray her mother as harsh and judgmental, holding cruel court in her mahjong rooms, but a different picture emerges as Lui shares stories of the atrocious deprivation and brutality of Ma’s childhood. Ma’s methods may be unorthodox, but Lui recognizes her mothering is done out of love and the desire to protect her daughter from the horrors which shaped her. Lui talks about her book and posted an absolutely adorable picture of Ma on her website.