Sunday, August 24 will mark the 200th anniversary of the night British troops set fire to the White House, the only time other than 9/11 when the U.S. capital city sustained a direct attack. First Lady Dolley Madison had fled the building just hours before the redcoats arrived, famously exclaiming "Save that painting!" and ordering that a precious Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed from the wall and carted off to safety, along with the red velvet curtains from the White House drawing room.
British journalist Peter Snow gives a stirring account of that fateful night, as well as the days before and after, in When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington. The book was published in the U.K. last year to glowing reviews and was released this week in the U.S. by Thomas Dunne Books.
Snow keeps the action moving and adds immediacy by citing the letters, diaries and other accounts of those who witnessed (or participated in) the attack. As the British advanced, Americans on horseback sounded the alarm to the fearful residents of Washington, D.C. "Fly, fly! The ruffians are at hand. If you cannot get away yourselves, for God's sake send off your wives and daughters, for the ruffians are at hand." Under the command of Admiral George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross, British invaders set fire not only to the White House, but to the U.S. Capitol building as well. "Never shall I forget my tortured feelings," one resident recalled, "when I beheld that noble edifice wrapt in flames, which . . . filled all the saddened night with a dismal gloom."
If you've always been a bit hazy about what led to the War of 1812 (and why it was still going on two years later), Snow's excellent account of these crucial events in U.S. history will sharpen your understanding—and make you surprised and grateful that the U.S. today counts Britain among its staunchest allies.
Fall always brings a bounty of fabulous books, and this year is no different. Here's our guide to the 30+ books we're looking forward to seeing in bookstores this fall.
Lock In by John Scalzi (Tor).
The Hugo Award-winning author sets his latest in the near future, where a very contagious virus causes 1% of the people it infects to become locked in their bodies.
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Smith Thompson (S&S).
Set in North Carolina during the American Revolution, this accomplished first novel is a lyrical exploration of one man's loves and losses.
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley (Little, Brown).
The acclaimed author of Jim the Boy returns with a collection of linked short stories.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House). Welcome to a world where lifespans are negotiable—Mitchell's latest is a tour de force of imagination, suspense and literary chops.
The Secret Place by Tana French (Viking). A new crime novel from the talented French is always news. This time, she's delving into the secret-filled world of an all-girl's school, which just might be harboring a murderer.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Doubleday). Would it feel like fall without an Ian McEwan novel? Here, the action takes place in family court, where a successful judge faces personal challenges as well as a complicated case that pits faith against medicine.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf). Yes, we know you think you've been there, done that when it comes to post-apocalyptic fiction, but Mandel brings something fresh to the genre with a story that focuses on what remains after most everything is lost.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. In a novel that early readers say could be her best yet, the British writer turns to 1920s London, where a widow and her daughter take on a young married couple as boarders—needless to say, things don't work out quite as planned.
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (FSG). The lead singer of The Mountain Goats makes his fiction debut with a world-bending story featuring a role-playing game and its mysterious creator. (read more)
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (Little, Brown). When an Israeli politician finds himself attacked by his own for taking a moderate position on settlements in the West Bank, he retreats to Yalta, the place he vacationed as a child. But in running away, he is instead forced to confront his past.
Rooms by Lauren Oliver (Ecco). The popular YA author makes her adult debut in this story of a family who inherit a mansion when their father dies—along with its ghosts.
A Sudden Light by Garth Stein (S&S). In his first adult book since the runaway bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain, Stein returns to the Pacific Northwest—but this time, he's telling a story of fathers and sons.
Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner). A journalist whose first work of history (Empire of the Summer Moon) was a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Gwynne applies his stellar storytelling skills to the story of Stonewall Jackson, a mediocre professor from the Virginia Military Institute who became one of the Confederacy’s most brilliant generals.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories by Hilary Mantel (Holt). As the world eagerly awaits the final volume in her Wolf Hall Trilogy, Mantel throws us a bone with this collection of accomplished short fiction. (read more)
The Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco (Ecco). The first Latino and openly gay inaugural poet (he read his poem “One Today” at Barack Obama’s second inauguration) offers a lyrical, hilarious account of growing up in Miami as the son of Cuban immigrants.
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin (Scribner). In his seventh novel, the acclaimed Irish novelist follows the quiet life of a widowed young mother, who must bring her four sons up alone in her small community of Wexford, Ireland.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Riverhead). In this literary tour de force that recalls Toni Morrison, James takes on Jamaican history through the attempted assassination of reggae star Bob Marley.
Some Luck by Jane Smiley (Knopf). The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres is back with an ambitious new project: a trilogy that spans from 1920-today. This first installment introduces the Langdon family, an Iowa farming clan at the center of her story. (read more)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (FSG). Robinson returns to the quiet Iowa community she created in Gilead with the story of yet another of the town's inhabitants: Lila, the mysterious young woman who comes to town and marries John Ames. (read more)
The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue (Picador). Donohue is known for his ability to craft eerie and magical tales. His latest is no exception: It tells the story of a young boy whose talent for drawing monsters suddenly starts affecting the real world.
The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster). Journalist and author Isaacson, who has penned biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, turns now to the "Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks" who brought us the computer and the Internet. His narrative reveals the contributions of little known engineers and programmers, as well as the stars of the show (Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Larry Page, etc.).
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (Ecco). One of America's most beloved Southern writers returns with another story of modern-day Appalachia, where a young park ranger and a longtime sheriff join forces to solve a crime that threatens their community.
Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (Ballantine). An elephant sanctuary is at the heart of Picoult's latest, which finds a lonely young woman attempting to track down the mother who left her without a word a decade before.
The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury). The sequel to The Bone Season promises more thrills in a near-future London, where clairvoyant Paige Mahoney continues to uncover the secrets of the Rephaim. [EDITOR'S NOTE: This book has been moved to January 2015.]
Prince Lestat by Anne Rice (Knopf). Rice returns to the genre that made her famous with her latest, which brings back everyone's favorite vampire: Lestat. Vampires around the world are being massacred, and Lestat may be their only hope.
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg (Harper). It’s an author/subject match made in heaven: The chronicler of hardscrabble Southern life recounts the adventures of the hell-raising musician who brought us “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
Yes Please by Amy Poehler (Dey Street). The first book from the SNL alum and “Parks and Recreation” star promises personal stories and advice on everything from sex to parenting. We hope it’s as funny and appealing as Poehler herself.
Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford (Ecco). In case you couldn't guess by the title, Frank Bascombe (The Sportswriter) is back in Ford's latest book, which finds Frank attempting to put his life back together after Hurricane Sandy.
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin (Pantheon). The author of Waiting investigates the secrets that can be hidden within even the closest of families in his latest book, which veers between post-WWII China and the modern-day U.S.
Us by David Nicholls (Harper). The best-selling British writer, whose tear-jerker One Day was a dark horse hit back in 2009 and later became a film starring Anne Hathaway, returns this fall with a second novel that follows one man's attempt to rescue his broken marriage.
*Pub dates subject to change.
Hampton Sides' true-life Arctic thriller, In the Kingdom of Ice is our August Top Pick in nonfiction.
Sides, best-selling author of Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers, displays his knack for narrative history yet again as he chronicles the journey of American officer George Washington De Long and his crew of 33 aboard the USS Jeannette. The crew set out from San Francisco in 1879, hoping to prove the popular theory that the polar sea was free of ice past the Bering Strait, but those hopes are soon dashed when the Jeannette becomes trapped in ice—where it stayed for the next 21 months.
Drawing on newly available letters, diaries, journals and other archives as well as his own first-hand experience in the Arctic terrain, Sides delivers an utterly spellbinding tale that's sure to keep you reading into the wee hours.
Watch the trailer from Doubleday below:
What do you think, readers? Are you interested in this heroic and harrowing tale?
As summer begins winding down, it's about time to kick off the new school year.
When Kim Bearden began her teaching career, she never expected so many of her school day's teaching moments to come from her own students.
Bearden delves into her 27 years of experience in the education field and tells the story of her founding of the Ron Clark Academy (an innovative middle school in Atlanta with a world-renowned reputation) in her uplifting new memoir, Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me.
Crash Course is filled with anecdotes about the importance of bringing creativity into the classroom, advice for tackling problems from a place of honesty and embracing and celebrating her students' cultural differences—all relayed in Bearden's down-to-earth voice.
While aimed at fellow teachers, Bearden's memoir is a beautiful read with insights for anyone working with youth or the public at large.
See Bearden and some of her real students discuss Crash Course in the trailer below:
What do you think, readers? Any teachers out there looking for a back to school read?
In today's guest post, BookPage contributor Carla Jean Whitley discusses what it's like to go from critic to critiqued on the eve of the publication of her first book.
I was recently part of a group of readers who were assessing recent reads and recommending a variety of books. A dozen people curled themselves around cups of coffee in the second-story nook of my local bookstore, eager to hear what upcoming books the booksellers would suggest.
Some of those gathered—including me—were equally excited to share the best books we’d read lately. But as the conversation grew more analytical, I was taken aback by a realization: Soon, readers could be assessing my book.
I’ve grown accustomed to reviewing other people’s work. Review writing was my favorite course in grad school, and my first writing paycheck was for a book review. I’ve reviewed books and music for much of the 10 years since that first piece was published. I try to consider the reader or listener, not the author or musician, when I write a review; even so, I’m keenly aware that there’s nothing to be gained in beating up on an artist. Even when I’m editing at my full-time magazine job or grading the work of college students, I’m quick to offer criticism coupled with praise.
Will reviewers be so kind when they read my work?
My first book, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music, goes on sale today. It’s a history of a tiny recording studio in northwest Alabama and how it became a destination for artists such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, The Black Keys and the Rolling Stones. Eleven-and-a-half months lapsed between the day I received a signed book contract and the moment I hit send on an email containing my manuscript. I spent those days buried in research, poring over album reviews and old interviews, watching documentaries and searching for mentions of the historic Alabama recording studio. And as I did, I battled the voices in my head, which were quick to assess every stroke of the keyboard.
As I wrote, I often returned to my writing mantra, care of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: shitty first drafts. I practice this daily as a magazine editor, but writing a book amplified every insecurity I’ve got. Rather than obsessing about whether people would like the book, if it would sell well or what I might write in the future, I labored to redirect my attention to the thing I know best: Writing.
After months of questioning myself—but never the story of this remarkable recording studio—I’m ready to hold the finished product in my hands.
Carla Jean Whitley is a writer, editor and teacher based in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is managing editor of Birmingham magazine. She is a regular BookPage contributor, and is still talking about her favorite book of 2013, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Carla Jean volunteers with literacy organizations and teaches journalism at the University of Alabama and Samford University. Connect with her at carlajeanwhitley.com.
Author photo by Cheryl Joy Miner.
I dare anyone who doubts the ability of the personal essay to enlighten to remain in that mindset after reading even two pages of The Empathy Exams. In a dozen wide-ranging essays, Jamison, a Brooklyn-based writer who previously published the novel The Gin Closet, seems to leave no nook or cranny of the human experience unexplored. With fearless honesty, she reveals the ways pain—both physical and mental—affects us and the ways we respond to others around us. Take the title essay, which takes on the subject of empathy using the lens of Jamison's experience as a medical actor, as she displaying symptoms for doctors-in-training who must ask the right questions to unlock a diagnosis. During this process, she reflects on her own response to others in pain, and on the ways she expects those around her to react when she is in need of empathy.
I wonder which parts of my brain are lighting up when the med students as me: "How does that make you feel?" Or which parts of their brains are glowing when I say, "the pain in my abdomen is a ten." My condition isn't real. I know this. They know this. I'm simply going through the motions. They're simply going through the motions. But motions can be more than rote. They don't just express feeling; they can give birth to it.
Empathy isn't just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it's also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for one another because we know we should, or because it's asked for, but this doesn't make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we've committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I'm deep in my own. To say going through the motions—this isn't reduction so much as acknowledgement of effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person's state of heart or mind.
What are you reading this week?
Are you set for vacation reading this summer? If not, we're here to help! Follow the flowchart below to your ultimate summer read. Click on the graphic for an interactive version that will lead you more information about each book, or download it here.
What are you reading this summer?
International model Cea Sunrise Person may have an unconventional career, but she had a very unconventional childhood.
In her memoir North of Normal, Person deftly details the "miserable excesses and occasional beauty" of her off the grid upbringing in the Canadian wilderness. Until the age of 13, Person lived with her free-spirited mother, grandparents and two aunts in a tipi. That's right: No running water, no plumbing and no electricity. They formed a totally self-sufficient community, foregoing modern amenities and living off the land.
Their tiny hippie utopia—where little clothing is worn, lots of pot is smoked and sex is rarely private—is soon interrupted by Person's mother, whose string of whirlwind relationships threaten any possible stability.
Watch the trailer, narrated by Person herself, below:
What do you think, readers? Will you pick up a copy of North of Normal?
Our June Nonfiction Top Pick is Joanna Rakoff's new memoir, My Salinger Year. In this absorbing account, Rakoff (A Fortunate Age) describes her time as an assistant for one of the most storied literary agencies in New York City—one that represented such literary legends as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Judy Blume, along with the agency's star client, J.D. Salinger.
At just 23, Rakoff found herself thrown into an office perpetually frozen in time where the agents still smoked at their desks, and the typewriter and Dictaphone reigned supreme. Aside from her more predictable administrative tasks, Rakoff learned that one of her duties would be answering fan mail for the reclusive Salinger. She soon found a rebellious courage to ditch the form-letter response, and secretly composed her own thoughtful replies to the passionate letters.
Although Salinger will certainly draw most readers in at first, Rakoff offers "a deeply moving but unsentimental coming-into-your-own story" that resonates long after the final page is turned.
Of course, Rakoff explains it better herself: Watch her video from Knopf below.
What do you think, readers? Interested? My Salinger Year hits shelves today! You can also read our lengthy Q&A with Joanna Rakoff for even more details.
The book currently near the top of Amazon's Movers and Shakers list is one you may not have heard about — and we hadn't either, until today.
The surprise title is The Most Dangerous Animal of All, which had been kept under wraps by publisher HarperCollins until today's release date. Author Gary L. Stewart, writing with co-author Susan Mustafa, asserts that a search for his biological father led to a disturbing conclusion: Stewart's father was the notorious Zodiac Killer, who murdered at least seven people in an unsolved crime spree in Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. The killer's murderous rampage inspired the 2007 David Fincher film Zodiac, as well as several documentaries. While many suspects have been mentioned, no conclusive proof of the killer's identity has ever emerged.
A HarperCollins spokesperson told New York magazine that the book had been vetted by company lawyers who concluded it was "legally sound." The company says Stewart, who was adopted and now lives in Baton Rouge, began his search for his father at the age of 39 after his birth mother contacted him for the first time.
Expect much controversy in the coming weeks as experts on the mysterious case debate the merits of Stewart's evidence.