Books to Get You Thinking

2016 marks one hundred years of Pulitzer history. The Pulitzer’s founder, Joseph Pulitzer, made an indelible mark in the field of American journalism in the later years of the nineteenth century – he was a newspaper publisher determined to expose any dishonesty or corruption. His vision and acumen is reflected not just in newspaper journalism, but in the present day Pulitzer Prizes awarded to the literature, history, music, poetry and biography that is published in America today. After months of eager anticipation, the names of the 2016 winners were announced on April 18th. This centennial year, the Prizes will be awarded at a special dinner hosted in October at the Low Library on the campus of Columbia University. The eighteen member board that presides over the judging process included, among others, literary and journalism luminaries - Gail Collins from the New York Times, Katherine Boo from the New Yorker and Junot Díaz, Professor of Writing from MIT.

The Sympathizer by Viet Than Nguyen
The Sympathizer by Viet Than Nguyen
The Pulitzer Prize in fiction went to a book authored by a Vietnamese American Professor from the University of Southern California. Forty years after the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, this thought-provoking book explores the wider ramifications of the War - not just on the politics of war today but also literature and film. The principal character is the nameless Narrator in the novel, an aide to a General serving in the South Vietnamese army but actually an undercover agent for the Communist Party. As the General and a small contingent of his army exit Saigon and head for the shores of America, the Narrator accompanies them. He is assigned with the task of spying on them and reporting back any plans directed at unsettling the communist regime. The Narrator settles down to a new life in Los Angeles, sharing a house with Bo, a friend and patriot who comes with him from Vietnam but who has no idea that the Narrator is a communist sympathizer. A combination of historical fiction and satire, Nguyen skillfully traverses the conflicts that rage on in the mind of the Narrator, who is torn between his Communist affiliation and the ties that bind him to the people around him in America - “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds….I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
Joby Warrick, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from the Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize this year in the category of nonfiction. The book is a riveting narrative that explores the birth and rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, as a firmly entrenched jihadi group and political entity. Based on a wealth of primary sources from Jordan and the CIA, as well as over two hundred interviews with generals and heads of State, it is expansive in its scope; covering events and characters across the borders of the US, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Warrick ties the rise of ISIS to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and several missteps of two successive American Presidents. While America continued to describe ISIS as the work of a handful of extremist jihadis, the organization, using the power of social media and the Internet, was successfully recruiting hundreds of people from all around the world. ISIS was quickly transformed into a formidable force that was well funded and technologically advanced. Warrick’s book includes an engrossing biographical narrative of the Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi and his phenomenal rise as a leader who laid the foundations of the group that is today known as ISIS. Underpinning the developing narrative are interwoven stories of the many important players in the political landscape, including prominent figures from the CIA and Jordan's counterterrorism unit, the American Ambassador to Syria, and the doctor who treated Zarqawi in prison.

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T. J. Stiles
Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T. J. Stiles
For history buffs, T.J. Stiles follows up his 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning book on Cornelius Vanderbilt with this biography of George Custer, the Civil War general who died in the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana in 1876. Custer is most often remembered for the brutal war he waged on Native Americans, bringing them to near annihilation, as well as the savage defeat and death he faced at the hands of the fighters from the Sioux Nation. In this well-researched biography, Stiles brilliantly draws a portrait of Custer’s life, drawing the reader’s attention to lesser known stories about Custer as well as the changing, turbulent times that he lived in. He was a cavalry commander who graduated from West Point at the bottom of his class with a long list of misdemeanors, who proved himself to be skilled in war strategy and tactics and quickly becoming famous for his successive wins on the battlefield. He fought for the Union with grit and determination in the Civil War and yet remained opposed to the equality of African Americans, opposing the Federal protection of civil rights. He waged savage battles in the West but, in the process, enabled the transcontinental expansion of the American railroad and the advances of technology to the American Frontier. With all the conflicting paradoxes, Custer continues to remain one of the most contradictory figures in American history.

-Nita Mathur

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