Books to Get You Thinking

Since its inception in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) recognizes, each March, the best literature published in English in the United States in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography, autobiography and criticism. The NBCC is comprised of more than one thousand book critics and editors from across the country and its twenty-four member Board of Directors selects the finalists and winners in each of the categories. The organization was founded with the mission of not just honoring the best in literary writing but also inspiring a national conversation about reading, criticism and literature. On March 16, 2017, the 2016 NBCC winners were announced in a ceremony hosted at the New School in New York. Acclaimed Canadian author, poet and literary critic Margaret Atwood was awarded the prestigious Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award while the John Leonard Prize for a first book went to Yaa Gyasi for her novel Homegoing.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich won the NBCC award in the fiction genre. Erdrich, a recipient of multiple literary awards including the O. Henry, PEN, and the National Book Award, pens this haunting, compelling story set in rural North Dakota. It is a story of two Native American families, the Irons and the Ravels, whose lives are inextricably entangled after a tragic event. Landreaux Iron, while hunting, accidentally shoots Dusty Ravich, the five year old son of his wife’s half-sister Nola and his neighbor and best friend Peter. Anguished and ridden with guilt, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline seek retribution through a traditional Ojibwe tribal practice. They offer their own son LaRose to the grief-stricken parents of the slain boy. Though the years soften the pain, the wounds reopen when Romeo, a drug addict and trouble maker, seeks revenge on Landreaux by convincing Peter that Dusty’s death was not an accident. Erdrich’s book deals with the complexity of feelings each of the families struggle with and the burden of sadness interwoven with anger, rage and guilt as they face the irreparable loss of a beloved child. At the heart of the book lies the question of whether it is ever possible to forgive a wrong that has been inflicted.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett was a finalist in the category of fiction. The novel draws on many elements from the author’s childhood in Los Angeles. It is a multi-generational saga of two families over a span of fifty years. It is written in the form of vignettes that connect the present with the past as narrated by different characters. The novel hinges on the saga of the Keating and Cousins families—four parents and their six children. The novel opens with Fix Keating and his wife, Beverly, celebrating the christening of their daughter, Franny. Among their guests is Albert Cousins, a colleague of Fix Keating, who arrives uninvited with a bottle of gin. In the dancing and drinking that ensues, Cousins shares an adulterous kiss with the beautiful Beverly Keating. In the pages that follow, readers see two marriages shattered with Albert Cousins abandoning his family and marrying Beverly Keating. The four Cousins children and the two Keating children find themselves moving in and out between two homes in California and Virginia. Years go by and the lives of the two families remain tangled together, trapped within a host of emotions—resentment, affection, guilt and forgiveness with the shadows of the past never far behind.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond was selected as the winner in the category of nonfiction. Desmond’s book was also named as a Best Book 2016 by The New York Times and The Washington Post and was featured in the January 3 column of Books to Get You Thinking. The author examines the nature of poverty and inequality in the US by drawing attention to the common practice of eviction of low-income families from their homes when they are unable to pay rent. The book is the result of many years of intensive research and fieldwork on this subject and focuses on eight different families living in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee, Wisconsin—a town which, in many ways, serves as a microcosm of urban life in America. Rents have soared in the face of stagnating and falling incomes and often make up seventy to eighty percent of the income of poorer families living in the inner city. With not enough money left for groceries or utilities, it becomes commonplace to miss a month’s rent payment—the result in most cases is the eviction of these low-income families from their homes. African Americans and women with children are particularly vulnerable to the practice of eviction. It is a traumatic experience, especially for young children who repeatedly get displaced from school. Ironically there are landlords who, at the same time, reap substantial profits from renting out decrepit places to people who can ill-afford to pay for them.

Dark Money
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer was selected as a finalist for the NBCC awards in the nonfiction category. The author, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has documented the rise of the Republican Party since 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. Mayer’s study, based on in-depth research and hundreds of interviews, examines the role of the Koch brothers and a network of wealthy families in the rising political dominance of the Republican Party. David and Charles Koch, brothers and wealthy industrialists, spent millions of dollars over decades on funding conservatives in state and general elections, as well as financing conservative think tanks, academic programs and media networks. The ideology they sought to promote was that of a free market orthodoxy unfettered by any kind of government regulations, including measures seeking to address climate change. Mayer contends that such resistance stemmed not just from ideological beliefs but was strongly motivated by efforts to maximize their business profits that would be negatively impacted by the implementation of the Clean Air and Clean Water measures. Mayer traces the personal story of the Koch brothers, going back in time to when their father founded the oil refineries that eventually burgeoned into the vast financial empire that the Koch brothers control today. Readers share insights into the personal story of the brothers, the internal family feuds and their conversion to libertarianism early in life.

—Nita Mathur


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