Books to Get You Thinking

The National Book Foundation was founded in 1950 with the aim of recognizing literary excellence. The National Book Awards, presented in November, expand the audience for literature through honoring American authors of different genres. On November 16, 2016, the 67th National Book Awards Ceremony was held in New York City and awards were announced in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature, in addition to the Foundation’s Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In her address, Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Association, stressed the vital role that literature plays in societies: “Let us remember that books give us hope, give us comfort, that they light our way, and that they bring us together. Together, we can work to make that community of readers bigger, and stronger, and more powerful.”

Robert Caro (From http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/magazine/robert-caros-big-dig.html)
Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of several outstanding political biographies, won the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters—the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2010, President Barack Obama had presented Robert Caro the National Humanities Medal. His most well-known writings include his first biography of Robert Moses—The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York and his biography of Lyndon Johnson in four separate volumes—The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, and The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Passage of Power.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Underground railway was a network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape from the South by arranging safe houses and routes to follow up to the North. In this poignant book, Colson Whitehead takes readers on an unforgettable journey back to one of the most troubling periods of American history. His narrative is a unique blend of several different genres, including fantasy and history, fused and interwoven into the story of Cora, a young slave who tries to escape from a Georgia cotton plantation whose owner, Mr. Randall, was known for his cruel treatment of slaves. The author takes the metaphor of Underground Railroad and brilliantly transcribes it into an imaginative working railroad with steam engines and hidden stations built underground from tons of iron, stone and wood—a symbol of tenacity, courage and the dauntless spirit of the oppressed. The horrors and inescapable brutalities inflicted on slaves are vividly portrayed as Cora flees from one town to another, always under the threat of being intercepted and taken back into captivity by Arnold Ridgeway, a vicious slave catcher. Crossing different states during her journey to the North, she encounters varied faces of slavery—all equally grim and horrific.

Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi
Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi
Ibram Kendi, professor of history at the University of Florida, defines a racist idea as “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” He uses this concept to trace the history of racist ideas all the way back to the 15th century. Central to the main premise of the book is the distinction between segregationists and assimilationists. Examining the history of prejudice in America, Kendi argues that racist ideas are not always clearly visible and have often appeared in the form of assimilationist policies. Freedom and equality were two distinct concepts and famous names like Abraham Lincoln and W.E.B Du Bois, who were known for their progressive ideas and anti-segregation views, subscribed to assimilationist thinking that indirectly strengthened the belief of Black inferiority. Kendi also faults the notion of “uplift suasion”—the concept that racist views would diminish if there was visible evidence of Blacks making an effort to uplift themselves through economic mobility. Kendi asserts that “no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene…All cultures, in all their behavioral differences, are on the same level. Black Americans’ history of oppression has made Black opportunities—not Black people—inferior.”

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson, a recipient of multiple awards that include four Newberry Awards and the Coretta Scott King Award, has penned Another Brooklyn. Nominated as a finalist for the 2017 National Book Awards in the category of Fiction, the book is an exquisite portrait of a deep friendship between four young girls growing up in Brooklyn during the 1970s. The central character of the novel is August, an anthropologist who returns to New York after twenty years when her father dies. Memories of her childhood come flooding back. The joys and pains of growing up on the streets of Brooklyn are captured beautifully in the form of a series of exquisite vignettes covering different time periods etched in her mind. August reflects on the time when her father decided to move the family from Tennessee to Brooklyn to start a new life and the years when, unable to accept the tragic death of her mother, she continues hoping and waiting for her return. It was difficult to settle in her new surroundings where danger, drug abuse and violence lurked around every corner. August and her friends share their hopes and dreams, their laughter, secrets and sorrows. They find strength in and encourage each other. Their deep friendship, aspirations and youthful anticipation about the future are ultimately unable to stand against the brutal realities of the world surrounding them.

—Nita Mathur

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