Books To Get You Thinking

Closely following on the heels of the National Book Awards and the Book Critics Circle Awards, April heralded the announcement of the coveted and much anticipated 2014 Pulitzer Prizes presented at Columbia University on April 14, 2014  honoring exceptional contributions in journalism, literature and musical composition. The judging process was presided over by a Board of nineteen distinguished personalities from the world of journalism and the arts that included familiar names as Gail Collins, Katherine Boo and Junot Diaz. You can find all the outstanding titles that received this year’s Pulitzer at your branch of the Mercer County Library!

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt 
Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer in the category of Fiction for her new novel that took more than ten years to complete.  Spanning over seven hundred pages, the book is a modern literary tale with a distinctly nineteenth century flair. Set against the dramatic landscapes of Manhattan, Las Vegas and Amsterdam, its vast canvas is filled with memorable characters described in vivid detail. The story explores the many faces of life – grief, loss, guilt and the beauty and inspiration of art through the life of Theo, the central character of the novel. On a fateful day when thirteen-year-old Theo visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his beloved mother, a terrorist explosion occurs which kills his mother and changes Theo’s life forever. Stopping to help a dying man in the midst of the rubble, he finds himself entrusted with a ring and a cryptic message related to the famous painting The Goldfinch by the Dutch artist Carl Fabritius. Theo escapes from the scene of destruction with the painting that happened to be a favorite of his mother’s.  This sets in motion a story of  drama and suspense that keeps readers anxiously turning the pages.


Toms River: Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin
Dan Fagin, a leading environmental journalist and professor at NYU, won the Pulitzer in the category of General Nonfiction for his  investigative work on the childhood cancer cluster that surfaced in the mid-1990s in Toms River. An outstanding piece of scientific journalism based on in-depth research of thousands of documents and newspapers as well as interviews with hundreds of people,  Fagin presents a powerful story centered on the small town of Toms River, not far from the Jersey Shore. In the nineties, a company with a large presence in the area was producing dyes from coal tar and dumping toxic waste water into the Atlantic Ocean through pipelines that leaked into the porous Jersey soils and contaminated the town’s water supply. It was common to see clouds of gases spewing into the blue skies from the industrial plant. The book reads like a thriller as the author skillfully weaves the complex interplay between the vested interests of the corporations looking to keep production costs down, unions looking to protect high paying jobs and the parents who ultimately took up arms against the dangerous waste dumping practices that was striking down the children of Toms River with life threatening cancer. In 1999, the industrial plant ceased its operations in Toms River and made a huge legal settlement with the cancer stricken families.

The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by Alan Taylor
Alan Taylor, a leading historian of colonial America  won the Pulitzer in the category of History for this beautifully crafted, deeply researched book  about the War of 1812 and  slavery in Virginia. The book  was also a finalist for the National Book Awards earlier this year.   More than two thousand slaves living in the Chesapeake Bay area were able to wade through the waters and seek refuge with the approaching British warships retaliating against the declaration of War on the British Empire by America. Seeking freedom from the shackles of slavery, they offered to actively help 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, Bermuda and Trinidad. Thousands of slaves were freed by the British and they played a critical role in the outcome of the War of 1812 becoming the dreaded “Internal Enemy” of the plantation owners whose prosperity depended on maintaining the practice of slavery.

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall
A vivid portrait and an absorbing biography of Margaret Fuller, 19th century writer, scholar, and feminist has earned its author, Megan Marshall, the Pulitzer in the category of Biography. From an early age, Margaret’s father made every effort to provide her with an unrivalled education. Growing up, she enjoyed the company of leading intellectuals of her times though regretfully, being a woman, she was denied admission to many professions. The author draws a portrait of a woman who, at a time when woman’s role in society was restricted to the home and children, chose to carve a distinctive path for herself through her brilliant writings, essays and unwavering support for the rights of women. She became literary editor of an intellectual magazine and America’s first female newspaper correspondent who travelled to Europe.  At the same time, Megan Marshall also allows readers to see the more human and vulnerable side of Margaret Fuller’s personality, her struggles and heartaches along with her triumphs.  Ironically, she met with much criticism when she fell in love, had a child, and married an Italian soldier with little education.  Soon after while returning to New York with on board the Elizabeth, she tragically drowned in a shipwreck at the young age of forty and America lost a scholar, intellectual and brilliant writer.

-Nita Mathur 

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