Books To Get You Thinking

For the book publishing world in the United States, December through June is when the "best of" fiction and nonfiction lists for the year are published followed by the National Book Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes.  On March 15, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Awards for the publishing year 2013 were announced in front of a packed auditorium at The New School, New York City. Founded in 1974, the NBCC awards are among America’s most prestigious literary awards and are designed to honor the best in fiction, nonfiction, biography and poetry. The panel of judges includes book reviewers and professional book review editors who first shortlist the finalists in each category before nominating the winners. Readers can find and enjoy all the winning titles at the Mercer County Library!

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s beautifully penned novel in which she explores the different facets of race and racism spanning the countries of America, Great Britain and Nigeria won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award in the category of fiction.  The novel’s principal character, Ifemelu, is a strong-willed young woman from Nigeria who leaves her homeland with a scholarship to study at a school in Philadelphia.  The book is emotional and satirical at the same time; it is both a heartwarming love story as well as a rare commentary on race from an author who interweaves many of her own personal experiences in America into the novel. Most of the book is in the form of a flashback as Ifemelu waits at a salon in Trenton to get her hair braided in preparation for returning to her homeland after spending 15 years in America.  Ifemelu’s struggle to find a part time job, the loneliness and dislocation she feels in a new country, her relationships over the course of time, provide readers with a rare glimpse of what it means to be Black and an African recently immigrated to America.

Five days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

Sheri Fink’s gripping narrative about the hospitals in New Orleans in the midst of the devastation following Hurricane Katrina received the National Book Critics Circle Award in the category of General Non Fiction.  Both a physician and a journalist, Sheri Fink presents a poignant narrative of the way that struggling hospitals in New Orleans dealt with patients in the midst of a crumbling infrastructure during the aftermath of Katrina. She pieces together many sources of information depicting how medically, morally, and ethically ambiguous the scenario at Memorial really was. Fink brilliantly recreates the dilemmas and conflicts faced by the medical staff who had to make decisions knowing that there was a good chance their patients would die due to the chaos and inadequacy of the medical disaster response. Sheri Fink has applied her experience covering humanitarian disasters in the Balkans to this gripping nonfiction work which raises important questions about the challenges of end-of-life care and the reality of rationing in medical disasters, particularly when contingency planning is inadequate. (Also featured in the January edition of Books to Get You Thinking)

Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti by Amy Wilentz

Amy Wilentz’s new memoir about Haiti won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the category of Autobiography. A journalist with the New Yorker and a veteran observer of Haiti from over twenty years, this is Wilentz’s second book about the country.  Amy Wilentz was in Haiti after the fall of the Duvalier regime interviewing ordinary people on the street who were at that time stereotyped and referred to as Fred Voodoo by journalists.  After the 2010 earthquake, Wilentz returned to Haiti and this book provides readers with a window not just into the devastation brought on by the earthquake but to a wider perspective on the tumultuous and violent history of Haiti, its culture and politics, challenges and problems, high rate of unemployment, and needs and suffering of its people.  With her deep insight and love for Haiti, the author tries to find an answer to why “the simplest hopes and dreams of the men and women they call Fred Voodoo have been abandoned.” In Wilentz’s analysis of the political and social landscape of Haiti, the foreign organizations, celebrities, and doctors attempting to assist with recovery have largely been unsuccessful because they fail to understand local culture while the Haitians often lack the skills to carry the projects forward.

Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch

Leo Damrosch , Professor of Literature at Harvard, was the winner in the category of Biography for his brilliantly written  book  about eighteenth century Anglo -  Irish novelist and political satirist, Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1745).  Swift is perhaps best known for his book , Gulliver’s Travels. Sifting through three hundred years of history and existing writings about Swift, Damrosch brings to life the many facets of his personality – he was not just a brilliant author and poet but actively pursued religion and politics as well. In this portrait of Swift, Damrosch writes a compelling narrative about his personal life, his longing for living in London, his relationships with friends Stella and Vanessa, his battle with Ménière’s disease and, in his final years, with memory loss. At a time when free speech often earned the wrath of the authorities in England, Swift held progressive views and was outspoken about several controversial issues including  learning and writing for women who were forbidden from Universities at that time, religious tolerance and slavery. Damrosch takes readers back through the centuries leaving them with a sense of coming face-to-face with the genius of Jonathan Swift.

- Nita Mathur


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