Welcome back to Secret Library, Cafethinking’s weekly-ish attempt to find hidden literary gems that have inspired some of today’s writers but which don’t get the attention they deserve. Behind the librarian’s desk today is David Barbaree whose own debut novel, Deposed, a thriller set in Ancient Rome, is kicking up a bit of a storm. David is a lawyer and graduate of the Curtis Brown Creative Writing School, and he lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter. Welcome, David; you’ll find the Dewey Decimal index to your right.
Here are David’s choices:
Augustus by John Williams
Williams’ Stoner became a literary sensation when it was reissued after the author’s death in 2003. Augustus, also by Williams, was reissued by the New York Review of Books in 2015, but not to the same fanfare as Stoner. I’m not sure if I’m breaking the rules by referring to a National Book Award winner, but Augustus is a fantastic novel that deserves more attention. It concerns the life of Rome’s first emperor. It’s an epistolary novel, comprised of letters, senatorial decrees, lost histories, mostly from real historical figures: Cicero, Julius Caesar, Julia (Augustus’ daughter), Agrippa. A complicated, often contradictory, portrait of Augustus emerges. It’s not until the very end of the novel that we hear from Augustus himself. Williams’ use of the epistolary form is ingenious, how he slowly reveals the different – often contradictory – sides to the great man. The prose is beautiful throughout, but each character has a distinct voice. It’s a remarkable novel.
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
I’m not sure this book received the attention it deserves outside of Canada. It’s set in New France (or Canada) in the 17th century. It opens with Bird, a battle-hardened Huron taking two prisoners: Snow Falls, a young Iroquois girl; and Christophe, a Jesuit priest. After a harrowing escape from pursuing Iroquois, Bird raises Snow Falls as his daughter, and Christophe sets about converting Bird’s fellow Huron to Christianity. The story is inspired by the martyrdom of Saint Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary who was tortured and killed by Iroquois, and the war between the Huron and Iroquois. The book follows Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe through events that mirror these historical events. The 17th century world Boyden depicts is violent and unforgiving. But the characters are superbly drawn.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
When I was about eight years old, while visiting relatives in British Columbia, my uncle Terry gave me a copy of Hatchet. I devoured it. It tells the story of a boy being stranded in the Canadian wilds after his plane crashes. At first, all he has to survive is a hatchet. It has been decades since I read the book, but the images that captivated me as a child are still with me. On occasion, after a mosquito bite, I’ll think about the swarm that would attack the protagonist in the morning. There was a time I couldn’t enter a grocery store without thinking of the protagonist marveling at such luxury after he was finally rescued. This book was quite popular in the 1980s but I’m not sure that’s the case today. I’m looking forward to reading it to my daughter once she’s graduated from touch and feel books.
Thanks David for these picks. Do check out Deposed, and come back next time to see who’s in…the secret library!