Books To Get You Thinking

April is an exciting time in the literary world. With the results of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award already under wraps, anticipation runs high for the announcement of the winners and finalists of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. This renowned Prize, first initiated in 1917, honors excellence in journalism and the arts. The Pulitzer Prize Board responsible for the judging process consists of twenty members including several luminaries from the literary world. Though the winners were announced on April 20th, the actual prizes are awarded in a luncheon ceremony at the Low Library at Columbia University in May.

All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize in the category of Fiction and was exemplified by the Committee as “an imaginative and intricate novel inspired by the horrors of World War II and written in short, elegant chapters that explore human nature and the contradictory power of technology.” This hauntingly beautiful novel is set against the backdrop of France and Germany before and after Germany’s occupation of France. The story’s principal characters are a young French girl named Marie Laure LeBlanc who lost her eyesight when she was six, and a young orphan, Werner Pfennig, who grew up with his sister in Germany. Marie Laure’s father, the master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History, helps her become courageous, independent and resilient - he enables her to navigate the maze of streets in Paris by building a full scale wooden model of their neighborhood. When the Nazis occupy Paris, the Museum entrusts Marie Laure’s father with the safekeeping of a priceless blue diamond. Both father and daughter flee from Paris to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to live with Marie Laure’s Grand Uncle Etienne, who is a member of the Resistance. At the same time in Germany, the young Werner who has a special fascination and talent for building and fixing radios, rises to the ranks of the elite Hitler Youth cell and is sent to Saint-Malo with the task of tracking down the Resistance. The paths of these two young people cross in a way that brings to the surface the many contradictions and deeper issues of wars, and readers witness the young Nazi-trained Werner conflicted and torn by the use of science for inflicting human suffering.

The Pope And Mussolini
The Pope and Mussolini: the Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer won the Pulitzer in the category of Biography. David Kertzer, Professor of History at Brown University, presents a fascinating biographical portrayal of Pope Pius XI, who headed the Vatican during the pivotal interwar years that witnessed the rise of Fascism under Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. This well researched book is based on records relating to Pope Pius XI’s leadership that had been archived at the Vatican since his death in 1939 and made public only in 2006. The book gives an engrossing account of the complex and dynamic political interplay between Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. Despite a deep distrust between them, they needed each other’s support to consolidate and expand their influence. An alliance with Pope Pius XI lent moral legitimacy to Mussolini’s fascist regime. In return, Mussolini signed the Lateran Accord establishing an independent Vatican City. This gave juridical and diplomatic authority to the Papacy, and allowed greater Catholic presence in schools and public places. Ten years after entering into this alliance, Pius XI become increasingly unhappy with Mussolini’s fascist regime, his alignment with Hitler, and his anti-Semitic policies. In his last days he prepared a sermon denouncing Mussolini’s racist treatment of Jews. Unfortunately, he died before he could deliver it. It was subsequently destroyed by his successor Pope Pius XII who was reluctant to have the Church take a stand against Mussolini. Through exacting details about an extensive list of characters in the Vatican as well as those in strategic roles surrounding Mussolini, David Kertzer weaves a fascinating narrative outlining a history of Papal diplomacy during the critical years leading up to World War II.

Encounters at the Heart of the World
Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn won the Pulitzer in the category of History. In the Prize awarding ceremony, Fenn’s book was cited by a Pulitzer Committee judge as “an engrossing, original narrative showing the Mandans, a Native American tribe in the Dakotas, as a people with a history." Fenn, a Professor of History at the University of Colorado, takes readers back to the early history of the United States centered in North Dakota, the ancestral home for centuries to the Mandan people. Despite the paucity of information, Fenn used novel research of discoveries encompassing archaeology, anthropology, geology and epidemiology to piece together disparate information into a more cohesive history of the Mandan people. We learn that in the face of harsh winters, drought, and a constant struggle for scant resources, the Mandans nevertheless were successful in setting up a commercial hub and lively bustling towns on the upper Missouri river. Fenn has chronicled the fascinating events of that time period, the interactions of the Mandans with the neighboring tribes of Hidatsas and Arikaras and the violent clashes with the Sioux, as well as the customs, attire, food and habitat of the Mandan people. In the mid-1400s, along with the European settlers, came new diseases and pathogens that wiped out large numbers of the Mandan tribe – today just a small number of Mandans inhabit the Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

Sixth Extinction
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in the category of General Non Fiction. In this compelling book the author, a prolific science writer from the New Yorker, makes an in-depth analysis of the increasingly devastating effects of global warming on the delicate balance making up the world’s ecosystem. In separate chapters, Kolbert describes some of the earliest forms of life that inhabited the earth and their eventual extinction: the American mastodon, the great Auks and the ammonites. Natural disasters as violent volcanic eruptions wiped out entire species while other groups relatively small in numbers were driven to extinction in the face of the expansion of humans into their natural areas of habitat. The latter part of the book switches from the past into the present - the world has witnessed a rapidly rising population and the short term view we place on industrial and agricultural policies has resulted in the dumping of enormous amounts of industrial and gaseous waste into the earth’s atmosphere. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen to the highest levels ever recorded and the resultant rapidly rising temperatures of both atmosphere and the ocean waters are jeopardizing many life forms and species as evidenced in the Amazon rainforest, the slopes of the Andes and the outer banks of the Great Barrier Reef. In the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History stands a plaque that states “Right now we are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, this time caused solely by humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape.”

-Nita Mathur


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