Book Talk: Uncovering written gems

The selection of the books previewed in this column occurred by happenstance...

It is like finding flecks of gold in a handful of sand. The selection of the books previewed in this column occurred by happenstance – a direct result of paring down a thick file folder and finding a few pages of forgotten notes.

The Toilers of the Sea (1866) by Victor Hugo is perhaps one of the least known works of the great French author and rarely read today despite selling briskly when first published. But the splendid novel, intended by the great French author to be part of a triptych with Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is simply unforgettable.

The 2012 translation by Scot James Hogarth is the first unabridged English edition of the novel and it tells the tale of an illiterate fisherman from the Channel Islands who must free a ship that ran aground in order to win the hand of the woman he loves, a ship owner’s daughter. Gilliat, the embattled fisherman, must battle violent sea storms and monstrous predators, described in searing detail by the author, and draw on his ingenuity, resilience and discipline to hope for any kind of success.

Battle Cry Freedom (1988) by James McPherson is essential reading for anyone interested in the second American revolution we know as the American Civil War, an epic war that transformed America and continues to reverberate to this day. This is a historical work of the highest order – it won the Pulitzer Prize among other awards – and is without question the definitive one-volume history of the Civil War.

The author’s brisk narrative fully integrates the political, social and military events of the two decades from the outbreak of one war in Mexico to the ending of another at the Appomattox Court House. It vividly recounts the momentous developments that preceded the Civil War, including the Dred Scott Decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and masterfully chronicles the war itself, with immediacy, scholarly acumen and deep analytical insight.

Cutting for Stone (2009) by Abraham Verghese is an epic saga of a man on a mythic quest to find his father.

It is a magnificent, sweeping tale that begins with the dramatic birth of twins slightly joined at the skull, with their severing by the surgeon as their mother lies dying on the operating table. The father, horrified by the ordeal, vanishes and the now separated boys are raised by two Indian doctors living on the grounds of a mission hospital in early 1950s Ethiopia.

The boys, Marion, the more studious, and Shiva, a moody genius and loner, are drawn to study medicine. Genet, the beautiful and mysterious daughter of one of the maids, also lives on the hospital grounds and tears the two brothers apart. Marion, fresh out of medical, is forced to flee his homeland for political reasons and begins his medical residency at a poor hospital in New York City. But when his past catches up to him, Marion must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted the least in the world—the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.

These three titles are all available at your Okanagan Regional Library branch, orl.bc.ca.

Peter Critchley is a reference librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.