Books to Get You Thinking

Each November, there is much excitement and anticipation in the literary world as the National Book Foundation announces their annual literary book awards in the four categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature. The Foundation also awards a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to an author for a lifetime of literary achievement. The 2015 recipient was Don DeLillo, author of fifteen novels and a novella, including the 1985 National Book Award Winner White Noise. As one of the most prestigious awards honoring the best literary works published in America, the National Book Award winners are selected by four different panels of judges that include authors, research scholars, university faculty and other icons of the literary world. November 2015 marked the sixty-sixth year of the National Book Awards ceremony and winners in each of the four categories were announced from the shortlisted finalists. This month’s Books to Get You Thinking features the winners and select finalists from the fiction and nonfiction genres. All books can be found at the Mercer County Library System!

Non Fiction

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award in the Nonfiction category. A prize-winning correspondent for The Atlantic, Ta- Nehisi Coates is undoubtedly one of America’s most distinguished essay writers. The book is arranged in six chapters and is in the form of a letter by the author to his young adolescent son, Samori, sharing with him his thoughts on what it means to grow up African American in today’s America. Timeless in its content, the book nevertheless could not have come at a more opportune time, being released soon after the June 2015 massacre at the Church in downtown Charleston. Tracing the historical roots of racism, each of the 152 pages of the book reverberates with the legacy that slavery and segregation have left behind. Coates shares some of his experiences and feelings growing up in Baltimore, at Howard College, and the pain and anguish of losing his best friend, Prince Jones, who was shot by a police officer. Far away from home, visiting Paris, Coates was still not able to shake off “the deeper weight of my generational chains – my body confined by history and policy to certain zones. Some of us make it out … home would find us in any language”. In impassioned terms, Coates urges his son to “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of the Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name.”

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery was a finalist in the category of Nonfiction. Sy Montgomery, a naturalist from New Hampshire and author of nineteen previous books, takes on the unusual subject of researching the mind of an invertebrate – the octopus. Readers learn fascinating facts about the octopus, as well as share some of Montgomery’s poignant moments that she spends with the giant Pacific octopuses living at Boston’s New England Aquarium and around the waters surrounding the island of Polynesia. Unlike humans, an octopus has three brains with 300 million neurons that are spread over the brain and along all eight arms so that information converges from all parts of its body. They can taste with their 1,600 suckers, and change colors within a second to camouflage, as well as reflect, their present mood. Each of the octopuses that Montgomery encounters has unique characters but among them it is a giant octopus named Octavia who steals her heart. Especially moving is when a young volunteer Anna, traumatized by her best friend’s suicide, stands bereaved next to the aquarium and Octavia, sensing her sorrow, rushes up and gives Anna a hug with all of her eight arms. Playful, curious, compassionate, and with minds of their own, octopuses, Montgomery feels, have feelings and a soul. She raises important issues questioning our action in removing the octopuses from their natural habitat and holding them in captivity as exhibits.

Fiction

Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson
Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson received the National Book Award in the Fiction category. Adam Johnson, who teaches English at Stanford, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for his earlier novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son. His new and current book is a collection of six powerful stories, written with great beauty and creativity. In the title story, "Fortune Smiles", two defectors leave their life in totalitarian North Korea but struggle to make sense of their newly-found freedom in the modern city of Seoul where culture is defined largely by technology. In "Interesting Facts", an unsuccessful writer with a husband who wins the Pulitzer Prize battles with cancer and agonizes over life and its aftermath. "Nirvana" is the story of a programmer in Palo Alto whose wife is stricken and paralyzed by Guillain-Barre syndrome. He seeks comfort in his invention of an iProjector that produces a three-dimensional live hologram of an assassinated President while his wife listens endlessly to Kurt Cobain to ease her pain. In "Hurricanes Anonymous", a UPS driver confronts the trail of destruction and death left behind by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana as he sets out to search for the mother of his son. All stories share a common thread of being evocative, dark, and mesmerizing in their shocking conclusions that force one to confront reality and uncomfortable truths.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Angela Flournoy’s debut novel paints a vivid picture of an American family set against the backdrop of Detroit in 2008 - troubling times when the city was hit with the crisis in the auto industry. The novel was shortlisted as a finalist for the Award. Viola, the aging mother now in poor health, leaves the house on Yarrow Street, where she and her husband Francis raised their family of thirteen children, and moves in with her son. With houses lying abandoned all across the neighborhood and with home prices spiraling downwards, the Turner home is now worth just a tenth of its mortgage and the family faces the difficult decision of what they should do with the house. Skillfully interweaving Detroit’s political history over half a century with the lives of multiple generations of the Turner household, the author explores the ties that bind a family together, with the narrative largely encompassing the inner lives of Charlie, the eldest son, the youngest daughter, Lelah, and the secrets that lie buried in the past but must stay covered to keep the family together.

-Nita Mathur

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