Books To Get You Thinking

The National Book Awards are among the most prestigious literary awards in the United States. Each year in November, the National Book Foundation, first established in 1950, selects the top books in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and books for the young from among thousands of books nominated for the award by publishers. A panel of five judges that includes eminent writers and literary critics then reads and evaluates each of the books nominated for the Award before coming up with the winners and finalists in each category. This month’s column highlights the winning titles and some finalists in the fiction and nonfiction genres.  National Book Award titles are available at the Mercer County Library System for the reading pleasure of our patrons.

Non Fiction

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packard

George Packard, a New Yorker staff reporter presents this well researched volume that highlights the evolving contradictions and intricacies of the American economic and social infrastructure that have appeared over the last four decades. Packard does this through the voices and absorbing sagas of characters from disparate backgrounds that he selects. Packer follows their experiences and travesties over the years, interspersed in-between headlines and clips from old newspapers that echo the changing American landscape and the many different elements contributing to America’s “unwinding.”   The book provides a glimpse into American life, into the gradual fading of familiar institutions and in their place the rise of organized big money with an increasingly complex and poorly regulated financial system, lost work and poorly paid jobs. It is also a system that the author stipulates has fostered personal freedom “freedom to go away, freedom to return, freedom to change your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke, begin again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to the limit, walk away from the ruins, succeed beyond your dreams and boast about it, fail abjectly and try again.”   A freedom, that the author notes, leaves an individual completely isolated with no infrastructure to fall back on and no one to help.


The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
James McBride won the Award in the category of fiction for his new novel which is part history and part imagination centered on the critical years of the 1850s leading up to the Civil War and the struggle against slavery. Central to the novel is the character of John Brown the legendary white abolitionist and the time he spent in Kansas on his quest against slavery.  In this well researched novel, the story of John Brown, his frequent misdirected attempts at fighting slavery and the catastrophic 1859 attack he organized  on Maryland ’s Harpers  Ferry,  unfolds through the eyes of a young adolescent named Henry Shackleford - born a slave but then freed from his master by John Brown and placed  under his wing. John Smith mistook Henry for a girl who consequently remains disguised as “Henrietta” to avoid trouble and stay alive.  He was nicknamed “Little Onion” by John Brown and became his good luck charm, travelling with him on all his missions to end slavery. Behind all the action and drama, the author skillfully conveys the underlying pathos and complexities of slave life, of the struggle to survive and ultimately the search for one’s true identity.

 Select Finalists

The Internal Enemy by Alan Taylor
This beautifully crafted, deeply researched book is about the War of 1812 and about slavery in Virginia – the 2,400 slaves who were able to escape and  played a pivotal role in helping the British army gain strategic wins in Virginia through the detailed knowledge they had about its geographical layout and military positions. In return, they earned their freedom with many of them settling in places as distant as Nova Scotia. For the plantation owners who equated their freedom and economic prosperity with maintaining the practice of slavery, the slaves became their dreaded “Internal Enemy.”

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
Jill Lepore writes a fascinating historical narrative about Jane Franklin’s life and her abiding relationship with her brother Benjamin Franklin. In addition, the book draws attention to an era of American history when women received little or no education and had no voice of their own. With very few sources available, Lepore has painstakingly woven together bits of information that document the difficult times Jane faced throughout her life, as well as her thoughts on different issues as expressed in her letters to her brother. (Also featured as Best Books of 2013 by Washington Post in the January edition of Books to Get You Thinking)

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
Lawrence Wright, who earlier won a Pulitzer Prize for his excellent study on Al Qaeda, now presents readers with a deeply researched and penetrating account of the history and practice of Scientology. Readers are introduced to the originsand beliefs of Scientology and the people who have been behind its growth. Interviewing over two hundred leading Scientologists including famous names such as Paul Haggis, the renowned Hollywood screenwriter who won Oscars for his films Crash and Million Dollar Baby, Lawrence Wright explores in-depth the fundamental question of what draws and holds people to the beliefs of Scientology.

-Nita Mathur


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