Books to Get You Thinking

Image 1: Pulitzer Medal Franklin; Pulitzer Medal Printer below it
Since 1917, Columbia University’s Pulitzer Prize Awards have celebrated distinction in journalism and writing across a range of subjects that include Biography, Poetry, Drama, Music, History, Fiction and General Non-fiction. Today the Pulitzer Prize has become one of the most respected marks of recognition in the literary and publishing world. The much anticipated 2017 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced the afternoon of April 10, marking the 101st anniversary of the prestigious awards.

The year saw a proliferation of rich literature, some of it winning multiple awards and literary recognition. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, featured in the January column of Books to Get You Thinking, was the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning title in the category of fiction and was also the winner of the 2017 National Book Award. This month’s column highlights the Pulitzer winners and finalists in the category of History and General Nonfiction. All titles can be found in the Mercer County Library System!

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in History. The author, a professor at the University of Michigan, spent over a decade researching this book. It is a richly detailed, compelling narrative about the September 1971 uprising and brutal massacre during the retaking of the maximum security Attica Correctional Facility located near Buffalo, New York. Based on thousands of interviews and transcripts from police records, inquiry commissions and government sources spread over thirty-five years, the book provides startling and hitherto unpublished details about one of the darkest hours in American history. The author details the horrific living conditions in the prison that led to the uprising and its subsequent events. Outside observers were in the process of successfully negotiating some of the prisoner demands when Governor Nelson Rockefeller, in a frenzy, decided to send in hundreds of armed state troopers and National Guardsmen to quell the uprising. What followed was a massacre, where forty-three men were gunned down by shots fired by the troopers, including ten prison guards who had been taken hostage. Scores of inmates were injured, maimed and tortured. Following the tragic turn of events, there were successive inquiry commissions and legal proceedings but the New York State authorities deliberately kept the most important details from the public. Boxes filled with vital Attica materials and documents were sealed and stored away from view. None of the officers responsible for the heinous infractions were ever indicted or brought to justice. Despite all efforts at cover up, historians, journalists and filmmakers have kept the history of Attica alive.

“The Attica prison uprising of 1971 shows the nation that even the most marginalized citizens will never stop fighting to be treated as human beings.”
Brothers At Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It by Larrie Ferreiro was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in History. A professor at George Mason University, Ferreiro discusses the pivotal role played by France and Spain in America’s Revolutionary War of Independence and dispels the simplistic belief that the War was largely won through concerted military efforts of indigenous American states. In this well researched book, that includes a study of historical documents from France and Spain, the author demonstrates the true global nature of America’s Revolutionary War against Britain. Around 1775, Britain’s military power was at its zenith after the country emerged victorious from the Seven Years’ War in Europe. They had an impressive military and naval presence against which the fledgling American rebel forces could not hope to compete. America, at the time, had very few factories that produced gunpowder and was severely short on both weapons and ammunition as well as critical supplies of uniforms, shoes, and tents. The Declaration of Independence in 1776, the author asserts, was essentially directed at the Royal Courts of France and Spain, inviting them to come to America’s aid while at the same time proving to them America’s commitment to fight for Independence. France and Spain, anxious to loosen Britain’s grip over Europe, readily came to America’s aid with a bounty of both military material and financial resources. The Franco-American alliance was formalized in Paris in 1778 with Benjamin Franklin and other American diplomats playing a key role. Both France and Spain sent thousands of soldiers and sailors to fight alongside American troops—an action that culminated in the defeat of the British army at the strategic battle fought in Yorktown, Virginia in 1781.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond was the 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner in General Nonfiction and earlier in March also received the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award. This highly acclaimed book that examines the nature of poverty in the United States through the lens of housing was also featured as a Best Book 2016 by the Washington Post, New York Times and Library Journal. Desmond’s study finds out how the widespread practice of evicting some of the poorest and most marginalized sections of the community has become a profitable industry. A fuller account of the book appears in last month’s edition of Books to Get You Thinking.

In A Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker
In A Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker was a Finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. Leading television journalists John Donvan and Caren Zucker provide a riveting narrative of the history of autism through the personal stories and experiences of persons living with the condition. Interwoven are the experiences of their families, physicians and psychologists that reflect the struggles, new breakthroughs, changing attitudes, and the evolution of society’s perception and treatment of individuals with autism spectrum disorder. The complex and mysterious condition of autism has no biological markers and can be recognized only through behavior patterns. Over time, this has led to the spread of many conflicting opinions about autism’s origins and treatments. Based on painstaking research, the authors take readers back in time to the days when children with autism were considered mentally defective and institutionalized; the eugenics movement popular in the 1900s; and to the belief in the sixties that the roots of autism lay in emotionally distant mothers who did not love their children enough—the refrigerator theory. Perhaps most damaging was the notion that autism could be triggered through childhood vaccination. It was based on a study published in 1998 by Bob Wakefield, a British doctor. Though the study was found to be flawed and subsequently retracted, the idea continued to gather credence through advocacy groups. What is striking in the history of autism is the vital role that has been played by parents and families in fighting back and advocating for a better understanding of the condition and acceptance of autistic individuals within society. Since the 1940s when Donald Triplett became the first child to be diagnosed with autism, there has been tremendous progress in our understanding of autism and neurodiversity but still much remains to be done to ensure that individuals with autism can lead an independent and fulfilling life within the community.

—Nita Mathur


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