Summer Reading, Part II: Mystery, Murder and Mayhem

July 12, 2011 — Two writers at the University of Virginia, author Christopher Tilghman and Ginger Moran, associate director of the Women's Center, suggest some books that explore unexplained disappearances, the mayhem of certain time periods, a famous murder and the mysteries that reside in each of us.

Ginger Moran

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report by Anne Bromley on Ginger Moran's summer reading suggestions:

Moran, the editor of Iris: A Magazine for Thinking Young Women, published by the Women's Center, is also a writer with a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. A voracious reader, she said she always has several books going at the same time, and wishes she had a revolving tabletop bookstand like the one that Thomas Jefferson had in his Monticello library that holds several books at a time.

Doing research for a novel-in-progress, she came across the nonfiction title, "I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson and the Killing that Shocked a New Nation," by Bruce Chadwick. Wythe was one of the early nation's most illustrious jurists and public figures, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution. He was a beloved law teacher and friend to George Washington, James Madison and John Marshall, as well as Jefferson.

Wythe and two other members of his Richmond household were poisoned with arsenic in 1806, and Wythe lived for almost two weeks – long enough to tell who his murderer was.

What was Jefferson's involvement in the case? You'll have to read it to find out.

Another nonfiction title she found in her research is British writer Jon Ronson's "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry," which Moran said is a good read and somehow hilarious. A psychopath isn't necessarily a serial killer or someone creepy, she said.

"Do you know what the No. 1 characteristic of a psychopath is? Charm – superficial charm," said Moran, who has published stories and essays in Oxford American and Salon, among others. She also finished a novel this spring at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, funded by the Dave Matthews Band's Bama Works Foundation.

Moran also recommends New York Times columnist David Brooks' "The Social Animal," a sociological exploration of how humans' emotions and characters develop. She said it reveals "people's profound irrationality" and how they make decisions that can have political consequences.

Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute, said of Brooks' latest: "In 'The Social Animal,' he makes the recent revolution in neuroscience understandable, and he applies it to those things we have the most trouble knowing how to teach: What is the best way to build true relationships? How do we instill imaginative thinking? How do we develop our moral intuitions and wisdom and character?"

A lover of mysteries, Moran is working on writing her own. She gives a strong endorsement to author James Lee Burke's series set in Louisiana with detective Dave Robicheaux. His latest, "The Glass Rainbow," takes readers into bayou country, evoked in beautiful writing and language, she said. Even the violence is well done, she said.

"It's just a really good, ripping mystery," said the Charlottesville native and U.Va. alumna.

She also liked Joshilyn Jackson's "The Girl Who Stopped Swimming," set in Florida and Alabama, about a woman who sees the ghost of her daughter's friend after the girl drowns in their swimming pool. Laurel, the main character, is convinced it wasn't accidental and determined to get to the bottom of what happened. With the help of her feisty sister, she learns a lot more than she bargained for in the process.

Christopher Tilghman

Tilghman, director of U.Va.'s Creative Writing Program and an English professor in the College of Arts & Sciences, recommends two first novels from alumni of the program, both of which have garnered good reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report by Anne Bromley on Christopher Tilghman's summer reading suggestions:

The first –  "The Fates Will Find Their Way" by 2007 alumna Hannah Pittard – is based on a mystery: After a 16-year-old girl disappears, several boys in her class speculate on what might have happened to her over the years.

"It's a mystery of sorts, an unsolved mystery, but it's really a meditation on growing up and growing into middle age," Tilghman said. "It's a tour de force for a young woman to follow the attitudes and changes and expectations of these several men as they grow older. ... I would recommend it to anyone."

Where Pittard's novel is "a jewel" in its economical and lyric prose, the second recommendation, Eleanor Henderson's "Ten Thousand Saints," is "a vast saga," according to Tilghman.

"Henderson's novel, 'Ten Thousand Saints,' is an intense return to the '80s New York scene of music and Hare Krishnas and the beginning of the AIDS plague," Tilghman said. "Its protagonist is a teen-aged lost soul named Jude who finds in this milieu and the 'straight-edge' movement's resistance to it, some sort of shelter from the storm."

The punk band Minor Threat coined the term "straight edge" in a song decrying the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco products. The movement's followers commit to abstaining from using any of those substances.

Henderson, who graduated in 2005, spent eight years working on the novel and brought the first chapter to her first writing workshop with Tilghman. She's now an assistant professor at Ithaca College in New York. "Her persistence helped her," he said.

"It's a real ride. It's something that'll make people forget where they are and give themselves to that time and place. Whether readers know anything about this scene, Henderson describes it so exhaustively that they'll all emerge feeling as if they've lived in it," Tilghman said.

Another 2011 publication that Tilghman said sounds good for summer reading is Michael Parker's "The Watery Part of the World," the 1988 alumnus' fifth novel. Set in North Carolina's Outer Banks, it imagines that Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr, survives on one of the barrier islands after her ship is attacked by pirates. Alston actually disappeared off the coast with others on the schooner The Patriot in January 1813. The novel makes connections to contemporary ancestors still living on the island.

The Washington Post deemed the novel "a lush feat of historical speculation." Said Kirkus Reviews: "Parker invokes magic as well as mystery in exploring the ways the past not only haunts the present but in some ways anticipates it."
The U.Va. Creative Writing Program's website lists more than 20 alumni and the books they have published in the past year.

The Reading List

  • David Brooks, "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement"
  • James Lee Burke, "The Glass Rainbow"
  • Bruce Chadwick, "I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson and the Killing that Shocked a Nation"
  • Eleanor Henderson, "Ten Thousand Saints"
  • Joshilyn Jackson, "The Girl Who Stopped Swimming"
  • Michael Parker, "The Watery Part of the World"
  • Hannah Pittard, "The Fates Will Find Their Way"
  • Jon Ronson, "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry"

Check out the U.Va. Bookstore's trade books section for these and other titles. To order online or make inquiries, email

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications