Books to Get You Thinking

The literary world is abuzz with the recent announcements of the 2011 winners of the coveted Pulitzer Prize. First initiated in 1917, the Pulitzer is administered by Columbia University and the winners are selected by a special Board of judges that evaluate for both journalistic excellence, as well as excellence in different categories of the arts. The winners for this year include Jennifer Egan in the category of distinguished fiction by an American author, Eric Foner received the award for a distinguished documented work in United States History, Ron Chernow was awarded the Pulitzer for a distinguished Biography by an American author, Siddharth Mukherjee was the Pulitzer winner for distinguished and documented work of Nonfiction, and Kay Ryan was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction earlier this year. A remarkable book, where several stories and characters are interlocked together, with a cohesiveness that makes this an outstanding work of fiction. The novel centers around Sasha a young woman, and Bennie, a record company executive. Every chapter brings a totally different narrative voice along with new characters who inevitably touch the lives of Sasha and Bennie. Readers witness the gradual passage of time as it leaves its indelible mark on each of the characters in the novel.

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner
Amongst the sizeable literature about Abraham Lincoln that exists today, this new work by Eric Foner, a Professor of History at Columbia University, stands out in the unique perspective and insight that it provides readers about Lincoln the President, his gradual moral and political transformation, as he navigated through the shifting political landscape of the 1800s, and his final role as a leader who put an end to the institution of slavery in America through alliances with both his allies as well as his opponents. As an expert on the Civil War era, Foner is able to shed new light on the subject of Lincoln and slavery in this fascinating read.

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
The author brilliantly portrays the personal and public facets of Washington’s life to provide readers with a unique and intimate portrayal of the first president of the United States that is quite different from the many other excellent biographies that exist on Washington. Chernow draws on the vast amount of new information about Washington that has been accumulated in the Papers of George Washington, a research project under way at the University of Virginia. Chernow seeks to take away some of the elusiveness that surrounds Washington and bring to light hitherto unknown traits of his personality and qualities that may well cause us to reassess our perception of this enigmatic leader. In the 900 plus pages of the book Chernow also provides a detailed analysis of the military decisions made by Washington during the Revolutionary Wars that demonstrate his political acumen and his incredible powers to hold his troops together in the most adverse of times.

Emperor of all Maladies: Biography of Cancer by Siddharth Mukherjee
The book is a fascinating account of different facets of cancer that provides readers with a time line of how this disease has been perceived and treated over the centuries. Scientific discussions are interspersed with stories about real people, and the hope and despair that become an intrinsic part of the lives of cancer patients. Mukherjee also explores emerging genomic research and novel treatments and the important question of whether cancer can be completely eradicated. His answer is eloquent and disturbing at the same time, “We can rid ourselves of cancer, then, only as much as we can rid ourselves of the processes in our physiology that depend on growth — aging, regeneration, healing, reproduction.” Also featured in the January 11, 2011 column of Books to Get You Thinking.

Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan
The book spans the entire 45 years of the author’s career organizing some of her best works in one volume. America’s 16th Poet Laureate has won widespread praise for her unique writing style. Her poems are short, conversational with rhyming words interspersed in unlikely places. Booklist writes “Her strength lies in creating short-lined poems that slide past the reader like notes from a journal but that, unlike many such efforts, are not merely self-indulgent anecdotes or predictable bromides. Rather, readers find surprise arising from each incident or pondering, creating an effect like that of the classical Zen haiku that starts out commonplace and rises to philosophical heights.”

- Nita Mathur