Books to Get You Thinking

Each year the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Awards are presented for some of the most outstanding books published in America in six different genres - Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Poetry and Criticism. Board members from each of the genre committees nominate books in their category which are then read and evaluated by all the members to decide on the winner and finalists. The 2015 Award ceremony was held at the New School Auditorium in New York on March 12. In addition to the winners of the National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Toni Morrison, a writer who has made an indelible mark on the American literary landscape.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson won the Award in the category of fiction. This is the author’s third book in a trilogy set in the fictional little town of Gilead, Iowa. The book is centered on the life of Lila, a woman who had been abandoned by her parents and whose earliest childhood was spent amongst poverty, violence and neglect. Locked out in the freezing cold one day, she was rescued and taken away by a lonely wandering woman named Doll. Much of Lila‘s life was spent on the road as she and Doll moved from place to place looking for work. Fate intervenes as Lila, on a cold and rainy day takes shelter in a church in the town of Gilead. Here she meets John Ames, the gentle silver-haired Minister who had dedicated his life to the study of theology, philosophy and history. Ames was almost twice her age, a scholar and virtuous minister, while Lila’s life was marred by poverty, suffering, and the harsh reality surrounding the life of a transient worker. However they both shared a deep sense of loneliness. Ames offers her love, security and the comfort of marriage and a home. The book is an exquisite portrayal of the myriad human feelings and emotions that can define a person. Even as Lila settles into her new life and is expecting their first child, she cannot escape the old feelings of rejection and sadness deeply ingrained in her – the feelings that she will be cast away and abandoned stay to haunt her in her new life.

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation
The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis, was declared the winner in the Nonfiction genre. Davis, eminent historian and professor at Yale, has spent more than fifty years studying the complex history and long struggle against slavery in the Western Hemisphere. This is the third and concluding volume of his brilliantly researched trilogy on the subject. In this volume, Davis analyses and reflects on how the contemporary American landscape was shaped by the practice of slavery and its eventual abolition following a long period of struggle and conflict. A key question that fascinates Davis is why, after centuries of slavery, was there a rising movement against it in the mid-nineteenth century. Central to Davis’s work is the premise that changing values and the rise of intellectualism, enlightenment and theology in society contributed in large measure to the strength and success of the abolitionist movement in America. Davis explores and provides deep insights to key historical milestones including the Haitian Revolution, Britain’s emancipation of 800,000 colonial slaves in 1834, the movement to recolonize the freed slaves in Africa, the opposition to the idea of colonization and the important role played by freed African American slaves, all of which opened the way to the eventual passing of the Thirteenth Amendment that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States…”

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast was the winner in the category of Autobiography. Roz Chast, popular cartoonist from the New Yorker, has been publishing her work in the magazine since 1978. She now writes this poignant graphic memoir about her parents and taking care of them in the last few years of their lives. Chast’s brilliant illustrations bring to life the small Brooklyn apartment that she grew up in, and where her parents Elizabeth and George spent over sixty years of their lives. Elizabeth was domineering and overbearing while George was gentle and kind but perpetually anxious and phobic. With no real friends, they remained each other’s sole companions. Along with old age came a plethora of problems as George developed dementia and Elizabeth lost her balance one day and fell from a step ladder in the apartment. Gradually the author came to the painful realization that her parents were no longer able to function in their apartment – it was becoming cluttered and unkempt - and she had to make the difficult decision of moving them to a nursing home. Interweaving words and pictures, Chaz captures the stark realities and different emotions of watching her parents turn old and helpless with rare wit and dark humor but underlying it all is the sadness surrounding the inevitability of aging, the visits to the hospitals and the final days in the nursing home.

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr was awarded the Book Critics Circle Award in the category of Biography. Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest playwrights of the century, changed the literary landscape of American theater. After extensive research into the childhood and later life of Williams, John Lahr, a distinguished theater critic from the New Yorker, presents readers with a critical biography that provides rare insights into the personality of Tennessee Williams, his genius, the darkness that shrouded his mind, and how his family and life experiences shaped his psyche. Williams' writings and plays were often autobiographical and a reflection of his own emotions and contradictions. Lahr makes extensive use of the letters and journals written by Williams to portray the tempestuous career of the brilliant dramatist, and the role played by the important people in his life – Frank Merlo, his partner; Audrey Wood, who was his agent for many decades and who secured the producers and actors for his plays; and Elia Kazan who directed and infused many of his Broadway hits with captivating power and sensitivity. In the six hundred pages of the book, John Lahr traces the many ups and downs in the life of Tennessee Williams while capturing the beauty of the work he left behind.

Nita Mathur


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