Book Review: “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

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Donna Tartt is the bestselling author of The Goldfinch, The Little Friend, and The Secret History. Each of these novels involves suspense and intense character studies.

The Secret History is about an eclectic group of college students who find themselves in a lot of trouble as close-kept secrets are revealed.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Secret History gets right: Terrible people doing terrible things? Check. Secrets, murder, drugs, and pagan rituals? Check. An engrossing setting, to the point that you feel like you are actually in the book? Check.

Donna Tartt is excellent at drawing you in to the world that she’s created. Right away, you are introduced to a bizarre crime, and the rest of the book has you scrambling to figure out how the story ends up there.

Any book with an unreliable narrator is going to have your brain spinning, but few books do this quite so well as The Secret History. A lot of the book’s events and character development is seen through the eyes of someone who slowly begins to realize that he doesn’t really know that much about anything after all. This allows the reader to piece together the puzzle, and guess what? Some of it is entirely up to your imagination! I guessed several twists accurately throughout the book, but there were a few that weren’t fully explained (such as the characters’ true motivations and feelings).

Reading about Richard, the story’s narrator, and his university experiences in Hampden reminded me of both my own time in college and the college students that I manage at work. I loved seeing the dichotomy between Richard and his friends’ great intellect and their terrible decision-making and lifestyle habits. How can they be so intelligent as to speak to each other in Latin one minute and then try to live in a freezing warehouse in the middle of a Vermont winter the next? Honestly, this dichotomy is pretty realistic for what I recall of myself and my friends in that stage of life.

Richard wanting to be a part of the strange but exotic Greek students group is a relatable feeling. It can be hard to find your place in a new environment; however, you don’t want to pick the wrong group of people that everyone else warns you about (as Richard inevitably does). Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, and Bunny are in turns fascinating, terrifying, hilarious, and deeply disturbing people; as Richard gets sucked further and further into their sordid lives, so do we.

In spite of the sometimes flowery prose and the pretentious characters who are spouting Greek one moment and stoned out of their minds the next, I couldn’t put this book down. It’s a testament to Donna Tartt’s writing that she made such unlikable characters and their various crimes so intriguing and their college, despite its obvious flaws, so nostalgic.

What The Secret History gets wrong: Most of the characters in this book are unlikable. It’s kind of like a modern The Great Gatsby in that way- still a great story, but you may get annoyed by how pretentious and selfish the characters are. (Side note: the main character’s favorite book is The Great Gatsby because he identifies with Jay Gatsby, which is hilarious because he is totally a Nick Carraway instead.)

Who should read The Secret History: Readers who enjoy academia, mythology, suspense, crime, and literary writing.

Who shouldn’t read The Secret History: Readers who are looking for a shorter, faster-paced story. It’s easy to get lost in the world of The Secret History, but the plot does take a while to develop. This is a dark story that explores the evil in human nature, so if you’re looking for a light read, don’t pick this one up yet.

 

The Secret History is available in our Recreational Reading section at the library.

Content note: violence; sexual content (most of which happens off-screen); moments of racism, homophobia, and sexism from a few characters; lots of substance abuse; pagan rituals. Reader discretion is advised.

Book Review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

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Normal People by Sally Rooney is the bestselling story of the ups and downs of an Irish millennial couple’s relationship. Since its publication in 2018, Normal People has been adapted into a popular TV show on Hulu.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Normal People gets right: The writing in Normal People is simple, direct, and poignant; I flew through this book because it was easy to read and understand without oversimplifying its subject matter. Likewise, the characters are believable- they have flaws and virtues that constantly pop up alongside each other. Connell worries about what others think and wants to be a “nice” person; yet he is at his best when he allows himself to be vulnerable and to stand up for others. In contrast, Marianne feels different from everyone else and is not afraid to express her opinions, but she is burdened with her abusive family and fear of close relationships.

As someone the same age as the main characters, I found most of their interactions and cultural references relatable (albeit some of their political conversations were specific to  Ireland and I needed to look them up).

What Normal People gets wrong: There’s definitely some moments that will make you cringe. I was genuinely worried about both Connell and Marianne at times. It’s impressive that the book can get such a strong emotional reaction out of its readers, but at the same time, it’s not a fun book to read.

I also wasn’t a fan of the open-ended conclusion. I am usually fine with open endings, but I really thought this book was moving in a clear direction and the plot just didn’t end up there. I expected more personal growth out of the characters than how they were acting on the last few pages.

Who should read Normal People: Readers who enjoy books about relationships, recent history, and mental health awareness.

Who shouldn’t read Normal People: This is a sad one, guys. If you, like me, occasionally like to read something that will make you cringe and maybe even cry, then pick this one up. But if you’d rather read to escape, or if you don’t want to read about abusive situations, just skip this one. Readers who like linear plots and strong conclusions will not like Normal People, either.

 

Normal People is available in the Recreational Reading section at the library.

Content note: suggestive scenes, language, substance abuse, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse. Reader discretion is advised.

Top 5 Beach Reads For Spring Break

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With spring break comes much-needed time away from school and (hopefully) some beautiful weather! If you find yourself with some free time this spring break, you may want to pick back up the tried-and-true habit of “reading for fun.” We’ve compiled a list of the best “beach read” books in the library so that you can read by the water this break (or travel to fun places through the world of literacy, even if you’re still in your dorm)!

 

Out Of Africa by Isak Dineson

Author Isak Dinesen, whose real name is Karen Blixen, tells her story of the 17 years she ran a coffee farm in Kenya, Africa. This book is a well-written classic that will take you to new places.

 

Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

From the author of the bestseller The Girl On The Train, Into The Water is a tale of suspense and mystery. When two people turn up dead in the local river, who will discover their stories?

 

The Paris Wife by Paul McLain

What would it be like to be married to a struggling author in a new city? Historical fiction fans may enjoy this novel’s fictionalized look at the life of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, with a focus on their time in Paris.

 

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin Craig

On a remote island estate, Annaleigh Thaumas, the sixth-born of twelve sisters, enlists the aid of an alluring stranger to unravel the family curse before it claims her life. This retelling of a Grimm Brothers tale is hauntingly interesting.

 

Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Dive into the world of magical realism with Marquez’s unique storytelling. These short stories will keep you interested without taking up all of your vacation time.

Book Review: “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

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Gone Girl was one of the top bestselling books when it debuted in 2012. In 2014, the novel was turned into a movie adaptation of the same name. For those few years it was a hot topic of conversation, but I remained clueless about what it was really about. So a few days ago, I picked up Gone Girl to see why this story hooked thousands of readers and viewers.

Non-spoiler summary: Gone Girl is about Nick, a down-on-his-luck writer, and his wife, Amy, who goes missing at the beginning of the book. Throughout the story, we learn more about their dissolving marriage and the problems that follow.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Gone Girl does right: It’s different, that’s for sure! Thankfully I went into this novel pretty spoiler-free, so it was a wild ride as each piece of the plot fell into place. I guessed a few things correctly, but I was also surprised a few times as I read. Gone Girl is one of those books that you don’t want to put down until you know just what happened. It’s definitely not boring!

What Gone Girl gets wrong: I think this book veers into the territory of being edgy for edgy’s sake. This isn’t always a bad thing, but I probably would have liked Gone Girl better when I was a much edgier teenager than the person I am now. The characters aren’t likable- which doesn’t necessitate a bad book- but they also aren’t relatable, and that’s more of a problem. There are multiple unreliable narrators in this book, which is creative but also frustrating at points since they are so narcissistic. It would be like if every Game of Thrones chapter was from Cersei’s point of view: neurotic, self-obsessed, and delusional. (I just finished A Dance With Dragons and the comparison had to be made.)

Spoilers right here, so skip this whole paragraph if you want: Essentially this book is about two antagonists. You don’t feel right rooting for either Nick or Amy, and ultimately Gone Girl left me disappointed because of this. People really need characters- even villains- that they can empathize with. This is what makes shows like Breaking Bad so popular. Even though Walter White isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, he has problems that people can understand: trying to keep his family together and provided for, working jobs he doesn’t enjoy, balancing his sense of morality with the shady business he’s getting in to. He’s at least interesting enough that you’ll stick with him through five seasons: what will Walter do next? How will he get out of this crazy problem he’s created? I didn’t feel this way about either of the main characters in Gone Girl. I wanted them both to fail, whereas when I watched Breaking Bad, I wanted Walter White to succeed in spite of the evil things he’d done. That’s the difference between a compelling antagonist/antihero and one who’s not.

*I know that this is kind of a hot take on Walter White and that some people can’t stand him, so take it with a grain of salt (I still find him fascinating several years and rewatches later).

Who should read Gone Girl: Readers who enjoy thrillers, dramatic twists, and trying to figure out mysteries.

Who shouldn’t read Gone Girl: Readers who want relatable or moral characters. People who only want one narrator to keep up with, or who dislike an excessive amount of language.

Gone Girl is available in the Recreational Reading section of the library.

 

*Content note: language, some suggestive scenes, some violence.

 

 

Top 5 Recent Bestsellers At The Library

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Since the Union library is an academic one, the books we have on our shelves are primarily for research and school-related purposes. However, we also have some “fun reads” and bestsellers in our Recreational Reading section (which is on the 2nd floor near the DVDs). Several of these bestsellers have been popular here at the library, appearing on our most checked out items list for several months now. You can find brief descriptions of them, as well as links to where they are located in the library, below:

 

Educated by Tara Westover

Publication Year: 2018

Genre: Memoir

Description: Tara Westover describes her upbringing in an isolated, survivalist family who did not trust conventional schools or medicine. Westover eventually went to college and learned about the world beyond her mountains.

 

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Publication Year: 2018

Genre: Mystery

Description: The “Marsh Girl” is a local legend in Barkley Cove, North Carolina. This mysterious figure emerges in the midst of local crime.

 

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Publication Year: 2019

Genre: Historical fiction

Description: Two boys struggle to survive the horrors of their juvenile reformatory and racism in the Jim Crow era.

 

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Publication Year: 2018

Genre: Historical fiction

Description: A family moves to Alaska in the 1970’s and deals with harsh wilderness, PTSD, and complicated relationships.

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Publication Year: 2019

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Description: More than 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the oppressive Gilead regime is still standing- but there are signs that it is beginning to rot from within. (You can read our review of The Testaments here.)

 

 

 

Harry Potter: Expectations and Isolation

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In this blog post, student assistant Donny Turner recounts his experience of reading the Harry Potter series for the very first time!

Warning: This Blog Post Contains Spoilers

When I was growing up, parents were skeptical about the Harry Potter fad. Like many Christian kids, I was not allowed to read the Harry Potter books until I was 13. As I grew up, the series became something of an urban myth to me- the taboo of something I felt like I was not supposed to have. In my head, the stories became something of a legend, and I kept building up how amazing the books were going to be once I turned 13. By the time I turned 13, my expectations towards the books became something that no book, no matter how good it may be, could match. So, when I ended up starting to read the first book, I was admittedly underwhelmed. The book was great, but when I found out that Harry Potter was an adventure story about a group of friends trying to save the world and it just happened to include magic, I was almost disappointed. I never even finished the first book, and for years I had no desire to read the other Harry Potter books. Throughout all of this I felt extremely out of touch and alone with a lot of my friends who had been obsessed with and read every single Harry Potter book.

Years later, in my sophomore year of high school, I stumbled upon the entire Harry Potter series in a used book store. I was able to purchase the collection for less than $50, and I was really excited about getting all of the books. I decided to attempt to read the series again, and for a while, it worked. I read through the first 3 books in less than a month, but then I stalled about 200 pages into the 4th book. For whatever reason, I just could not get past the Quidditch World Cup. I would read the first 200 pages, get busy and it would get set aside for a few months, and I would have to reread those pages again. Another few years would pass before I was able to get past those first 200 pages. Eventually, I began to read less in general; it just never took a precedence in my life.

When I first began college, I once again experienced a feeling of isolation again. I was at a new school full of new people that I had to meet. Often times I felt like an outsider at school; I had a very difficult time finding my niche. For the most part, I felt isolated and outside of the whole community. I remember thinking back to how I felt when my friends were talking about the Harry Potter books. Everyone had these shared ideas, and I couldn’t latch on to them. I felt detached from others. Eventually, I did find my groove, but those first few months of school were difficult.

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In my junior year of college, during the month of January, I found myself having to drive 4-10 hours a week and listening to music in the car was getting old; I needed something new. I realized I was able to check out the 4th Harry Potter book from the library (here), and I decided to listen to it on my long drives. While on the road, I was able to get about 400 pages into the book, and then I decided I had to start reading it in print. I flew through the last 400 pages in less than a month, and I immediately picked up the 5th book.

The 5th book is quite a bit darker than all the others. The tone is more somber and there is an edge to everything that is going on. Voldemort, the main antagonist, is on the rise, and it seems like something bad could happen at any moment. Throughout all of this Harry beings to feel more and more isolated. None of the awful things that are happening seem to be happening to anyone else. Harry begins to feel more depressed and more alone as time goes by. To top it all off there is a new professor at the school that is the literal worst. She specifically targets Harry, and she actively attempts to make Harry’s life worse. Harry feels utterly alone. The story focuses around this idea of loneliness and builds more and more that Harry has to learn to rely on his close friends. He must realize that he is not, nor was he ever, alone in any of what is happening to him. At the end of this book, the closest thing Harry has to a father figure, Sirius, dies. Once again, Harry experiences those feelings of expectations being destroyed and a great feeling of isolation. Once again I was able to relate very strongly to the character.

The 6th book of the story has some lighter tones, but ultimately ends on a very dark note. Harry is growing older, and Voldemort continues to gain more and more power. He is learning more about the history of who Voldemort is, and through these lessons, Harry learns of some of the humanity of Voldemort. The main antagonist is still extremely evil, but through multiple backstories, we are able to better understand Voldemort as a character. He is revealed to be more human, although definitely a very sociopathic human. Harry’s expectations of him change as a whole. He understands that he has love while Voldemort never will. Also, Harry’s expectations shift slightly towards the end of the story towards Draco Malfoy. Throughout the entirety of the series, Draco has been considered the antithesis of Harry Potter, and Harry absolutely suspects him of malicious intent at different times throughout the story. As the story is nearing its ending, Draco, ordered by Voldemort, matches up against a very weak Dumbledore and is poised to kill him. Yet, he cannot do it. There is a flicker of humanity in Draco, and he is unable to murder his headmaster. Harry, watching silently in the room notices this. Harry’s perception of Draco has changed in this moment, if only slightly. Where previously Harry had not seen any humanity there was some.

At this point, I was totally hooked on the books. Much of my free time was spent reading on and talking about the books. I can now say with certainty that the 6th book is my favorite, and I would tell anyone who would listen about it. Unfortunately for me, the fad of Harry Potter, while still quite prevalent, has definitely faded. I was dealing with isolation once again. Most people don’t want to listen to someone talk about how much they adore Harry Potter. Nevertheless, I persisted on towards the 7th book.

If you’ve ever read the 7th Harry Potter book, you know how different this book is compared to the rest of the series. The protagonists are no longer at Hogwarts, everything around them seems to be falling apart, and many of the main characters that you have grown to love end up being killed off. The book is gut-wrenching, and it seems like every chapter has a new main character dying. With each death, I felt more and more sadness and isolation. Throughout this book, the main characters become more and more removed from everyone as they are trying to find and destroy the horcuxes, the items that contain Voldemorts soul and ensure his survival.  At one point, Ron leaves Harry and Hermione, leaving them even more alone than they already were. Without Dumbledore, and with wicked stories of what Dumbledore has done, the main characters feel utterly alone.

As the story nears the end, however, the main characters learn of all the different people that are still on their side, supporting them. They are encouraged, and they are able to find and destroy almost every single horcrux. It is only when Harry returns to Hogwarts at the end of the story that he realizes he must sacrifice himself to save everyone. This singular moment, the moment he realizes that he must die in order for everyone to live, is a pivotal moment. This is when he reaches his most isolated, but he stays brave and dives deep into the darkness. He sacrifices himself, and through his sacrifice he is able to destroy the last bit of Voldemort that exists. Through his sacrifice, he is given the option to live again. In the moments proceeding his death, he is given a choice. He can decide to stay dead, and go on to the afterlife or whatever happens to witches and wizards after they die, or he can come back to a life that has caused him suffering and pain. He has to choose to make another sacrifice, and once again he makes the choice to come back and fight one last time to save his closest friends.

Despite his isolation and fear, Harry Potter is able to be strong and courageous when he needs to be. Sure, he absolutely makes a lot of really dumb decisions throughout the books that would have saved everyone a lot of time and pain, but I think that is what makes these books so special. Many of the characters are flawed, and even some of the main characters that seem downright evil throughout the entire series have redemption arcs. The Malfoys end up regretting their actions, and, most famously, we get to see and understand why Snape made the decisions that he did. We get to understand his love for Harry’s mother and how isolated and alone he has been throughout most of his life. Finally, the reader is able to understand why Snape acts how he does, and that he was actually acting out of love this entire time. He clings to one aspect of his life that will keep him from being completely isolated, and as a result, dies for an extremely heroic cause.

Every single Harry Potter book has some themes of isolation, and dealing with feeling misplaced or alone in the world. Reading these in the first years of college or whenever you are in a new place in your life can be especially helpful because often people feel out of place and alone at times of change. These books can help give one perspective about isolation, and they can show how one can emerge from that isolation and be a much stronger and better human being.

Plus, the books themselves are fantastic stories, with deep characters. These books are probably the most famous series of the 21st century. They personally have helped me get through a challenging time in my life. Harry Potter is absolutely incredible and 100% lives up to the hype, and if you have not read them yet, there is no time like the present.

 

*written by Donny Turner

Featured Book: “How To Decorate”

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If you’re looking for a book with beautiful photos, watercolor typography, and tons of do-it-yourself ideas, How To Decorate is the right choice for you. The book’s author, Shannon Fricke, leads workshops on decorating for beginners, and How To Decorate collects her wisdom from these events and presents them in an easy-to-access format. Along with Fricke’s advice, the book is packed with full-color photos from photographer Prue Ruscoe.

How To Decorate starts off by emphasizing the importance of your own workspace. Before you can begin to decorate your house or workplace, you need a personal space to begin brainstorming and collecting supplies. Fricke writes:

Fashion your workspace exactly as you need it to operate for you. Always underpin it with a degree of order, and then layer it as colourfully and creatively as you like.

Fricke encourages her readers to take it slow, and to develop a plan before just buying furniture to fill up a room. Decorating your home is about telling your story- and that may look different for each individual. While decorating according to what’s currently in fashion can be fun, it is not necessarily long-lasting. Fricke suggests instead to decorate with people in mind: who will use this space? What do they require to feel comfortable or inspired?

Once you’ve begun answering questions about your lifestyle, you can move on to more hands-on brainstorming. By gathering different items- color swatches that you’re drawn to, pieces of ribbon or cloth, etc.- you can create a moodboard. Moodboards help set the tone of your decorating, and can bring together disparate ideas into one cohesive brand. They can also be made virtually, whether on Pinterest, Microsoft Publisher, or a blog.

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Finally, Fricke elaborates on how to make a floor plan for each room of your home and how to use the existing architecture to your advantage. Everything from color theory to floor types is examined and explained. Fricke warns the reader to cull items before bringing in new concepts, since it’s easier to work with less.

How To Decorate ends on a positive note, with the mantra “When we decorate our home thoughtfully and with love (not necessarily with large funds), we’re creating a space we love living in, a home with meaning, a house that feels comfortable, a place to feel at peace with ourselves.” Pick up this book if you’re looking to feel refreshed in your space!

Book Review: “To Shake The Sleeping Self” by Jedidiah Jenkins

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Jedidiah Jenkins was a seemingly random traveler I found on Instagram. He was always taking beautiful landscape photos of places I’d never been; I warmed to the creative clothes and cultures of Latin America and the busy importance of U.S. cities that he depicted with his photography. When I read his captions, I realized he was a writer as well, and actually a really good one. He talked about what he was learning on his journey- about himself and his preconceptions, and how he was growing. I enjoyed following his story and got even more excited when his trip ended, and Jenkins began writing in earnest to make a book about his experiences.

Now, that book has been released as To Shake the Sleeping Self, and it came to rest on our library bookshelf this October (annoyingly, it arrived at the library before I received my own pre-ordered copy for my personal bookshelf). The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve turned to nonfiction when I want to read something. Maybe I’m looking for advice, or maybe I just want to know how other people live, and think, and figure things out. To Shake the Sleeping Self is the perfect book to get inside someone else’s mind and feelings. Jenkins writes in a genuine, self-aware tone. He’s easy to relate to because he wonders about things we all do- who he is and who he will be in the future.

Jenkins grew up in a setting familiar to many people at Union: a Nashville, TN, Christian-based home. However, as Jenkins grew older, he began to face doubts about his faith and how to live it out in the modern world. Jenkins thoughtfully discusses these struggles in To Shake the Sleeping Self. He not only shares his personal reflections with the reader, but he also records conversations that he had with friends about spirituality, mysticism, sexuality, theology, and different cultures and lifestyles. These conversations provide an intimate look into the lives of other twenty and thirty somethings who are figuring things out.

The book also records comic adventures that stem from Jenkins’ differences with his cycling partner, Weston. While Jenkins tries to play by the rules, Weston enjoys rebelling and pushing the limits. The contrast between these two men can even be seen in their two bikes: Jenkins bought the nice, sturdy bike that the shopkeeper recommended for his journey, while Weston chose a cheap, rundown bike that constantly breaks down at inconvenient times. Despite their differences, the two men seem to learn from each other and rely on each other for most of the trip.

From the cities of Colombia to the jungles of Machu Picchu, Jenkins takes the reader through each part of his travels. To Shake the Sleeping Self is an honest look at one man’s self-discoveries through the metaphor of discovering places he’s never been, via unwieldy transportation that he is responsible for. It’s a great book for those who love travel and who seek out prompts for contemplative introspection.

You can check out this book right here in the library- it’s located in our Recreational Reading section.

Content note: language, sexuality, substance abuse

Top 5 Travel Books For Fall Break

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With fall break comes much-needed time away from school and (hopefully) some beautiful weather! If you find yourself with some free time this break, you may want to pick back up the tried-and-true habit of “reading for fun.” We’ve compiled a list of the best travel books in the library, so that you can read on the go this break (or travel to fun places through the world of literacy, even if you’re still in your dorm)!

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On The Road by Jack Kerouac.

A cult classic, On The Road features two young friends and their experiences in a changing America.

 

To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedidiah Jenkins.

This brand new travel memoir describes the author’s journey from Oregon to Patagonia, via bike. Jenkins originally documented his story through Instagram.

 

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem.

From following campaign trails to roadtrips with her father, Gloria Steinem has traveled near and far. She tells her stories in this inspiring autobiography.

 

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Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

Cheryl Strayed needed a change after several tumultuous life events- so she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Edgy and honest, Wild shows Strayed’s journey through ups and downs.

 

Blue Highways: A Journey Into America by William Least Heat-Moon.

Ever wanted to drive down America’s many backroads? William Least Heat-Moon not only traveled these paths, but he also wrote about how he did it and the people he met along the way.

 

Take off on your trip with one of these great travel books! Or stay at home and dream of faraway places- that’s what books are for.

Our Books Are Shifting!

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This summer, we are moving books onto different shelves to make room for- you guessed it- more books! The Recreational Reading section has been moved to the shelves behind the DVDs, and sections A (General Works) & B (Philosophy, Psychology, & Religion) will be shifted to the left. If you’re having trouble finding a book during our shifting period, please ask us about it at the Circulation Desk. We’re happy to help!