Summer Reading 2010
Across the United States, communities (including Philadelphia), library systems, and schools participate in “One Book” programs. These programs are designed to encourage members of a community or school to read a common book, then allowing for community discussion, reflection, and analysis of the text. For colleges and universities, such programs allow the shared book to be woven across the curriculum, pointing to the interconnections between areas and bringing a coordination of learning to the student (and faculty/staff) experience A sampling of schools that have adopted the one book model include University of North Texas, Villanova University, Clemson University, University of North Carolina, Marquette University, Sacramento State, DePaul University, Florida State University, and Michigan State. While Rowan does not currently participate in a one book program, it is instructive to look at some of the texts that have been selected by others and use those to inform our summer reading plans. So, here, for your enjoyment, is a small sampling of “One Book” selections for 2010 from colleges across the U.S. Happy Reading!
Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption – by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo
(from Washingtonpost.com review by Kate Tuttle)
Nearly everyone in prison protests their innocence, but Ronald Cotton was telling the truth. Cotton was just 22 when he walked into a Burlington, N.C., police station to answer rape allegations; he spent the next 11 years seeking freedom. “Put a man in a cage with beasts and throw away the key, and it’s usually not long before the man is a beast himself,” he writes in this unusual joint memoir, written with his accuser and now friend, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. Considering the odds stacked against him — a bum alibi, a victim focused on being the strongest possible witness, a justice system all too willing to send another young black man to jail — it’s extraordinary that Cotton emerged from prison at all. More stunning still was his willingness, upon exoneration by DNA evidence, to forgive the people who had put him there, including rape victim Thompson-Cannino, whose erroneous identification of Cotton in a police line-up had begun his horrible odyssey. Their story, told here in alternating sections, emphasizes that both were victims. Still, as both acknowledge, Thompson-Cannino, traumatized as she was, spent the next decade in freedom, marrying and having kids, while Cotton endured prison. Left mostly unexamined is the role that race played in his incarceration, but even the most cynical reader will be impressed by Cotton’s resilience and grace.
The Help by Katheryn Stockett
(from Publishers Weekly)
What perfect timing for this optimistic, uplifting debut novel (and maiden publication of Amy Einhorn’s new imprint) set during the nascent civil rights movement in Jackson, Miss., where black women were trusted to raise white children but not to polish the household silver. Eugenia Skeeter Phelan is just home from college in 1962, and, anxious to become a writer, is advised to hone her chops by writing about what disturbs you. The budding social activist begins to collect the stories of the black women on whom the country club sets relies and mistrusts enlisting the help of Aibileen, a maid who’s raised 17 children, and Aibileen’s best friend Minny, who’s found herself unemployed more than a few times after mouthing off to her white employers. The book Skeeter puts together based on their stories is scathing and shocking, bringing pride and hope to the black community, while giving Skeeter the courage to break down her personal boundaries and pursue her dreams. Assured and layered, full of heart and history, this one has bestseller written all over it.
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
(from Publishers Weekly)
Jordan’s beautiful debut (winner of the 2006 Bellwether Prize for literature of social responsibility) carries echoes of As I Lay Dying, complete with shifts in narrative voice, a body needing burial, flood and more. In 1946, Laura McAllan, a college-educated Memphis schoolteacher, becomes a reluctant farmer’s wife when her husband, Henry, buys a farm on the Mississippi Delta, a farm she aptly nicknames Mudbound. Laura has difficulty adjusting to life without electricity, indoor plumbing, readily accessible medical care for her two children and, worst of all, life with her live-in misogynous, racist, father-in-law. Her days become easier after Florence, the wife of Hap Jackson, one of their black tenants, becomes more important to Laura as companion than as hired help. Catastrophe is inevitable when two young WWII veterans, Henry’s brother, Jamie, and the Jacksons’ son, Ronsel, arrive, both battling nightmares from horrors they’ve seen, and both unable to bow to Mississippi rules after eye-opening years in Europe. Jordan convincingly inhabits each of her narrators, though some descriptive passages can be overly florid, and the denouement is a bit maudlin. But these are minor blemishes on a superbly rendered depiction of the fury and terror wrought by racism.
This I Believe edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman
(from Publishers Weekly)
In the 1950s, the Edward R. Murrow–hosted radio program This I Believe prompted Americans to briefly explain their most cherished beliefs, be they religious or purely pragmatic. Since the program’s 2005 renaissance as a weekly NPR segment, Allison (the host) and Gediman (the executive producer) have collected some of the best essays from This I Believe then and now. “Your personal credo” is what Allison calls it in the book’s introduction, noting that today’s program is distinguished from the 1950s version in soliciting submissions from ordinary Americans from all walks of life. These make up some of the book’s most powerful and memorable moments, from the surgeon whose illiterate mother changed his early life with faith and a library card to the English professor whose poetry helped him process a traumatic childhood event. And in one of the book’s most unusual essays, a Burmese immigrant confides that he believes in feeding monkeys on his birthday because a Buddhist monk once prophesied that if he followed this ritual, his family would prosper. There are luminaries here, too, including Gloria Steinem, Warren Christopher, Helen Keller, Isabel Allende, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike and (most surprisingly, considering the book’s more liberal bent) Newt Gingrich. This feast of ruminations is a treat for any reader.
Flight: A Novel by Sherman Alexie
(from Publishers Weekly)
A deadpan “Call Me Zits” opens the first novel in 10 years from Alexie (Smoke Signals, etc.), narrated by a self-described “time-traveling mass murderer” whose name and deeds unravel as this captivating bildungsroman progresses. Half-Indian, half-Irish, acne-beset Zits is 15: he never knew his alcoholic father; his mother died when he was six; his aunt kicked him out when he was 10 (after he set her sleeping boyfriend on fire because the boyfriend had been forcing Zits to have sex). Running away from his 20th foster home, Zits ends up, briefly, in jail; soon after, he enters a bank, shoots several people and is shot dead himself. Zits then commences time-traveling via the bodies of others, finding himself variously lodged in an FBI agent in the ’70s (helping to assassinate radical Indian activists); a mute Indian boy at the Battle of Little Big Horn; an Indian tracker named Gus; an airplane pilot instructor (one of whose pupils commits a terrorist act); and his own father. Zits eventually comes back to himself and to an unexpected redemption. While the plot is wisp-thin, one quickly surrenders to Zits’s voice, which elegantly mixes free-floating young adult cynicism with a charged, idiosyncratic view of American history. Alexie plunges the book into bracing depths.
The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea
(from Publishers Weekly)
In May 2001, 26 Mexican men scrambled across the border and into an area of the Arizona desert known as the Devil’s Highway. Only 12 made it safely across. American Book Award winning writer and poet Urrea (Across the Wire; Six Kinds of Sky; etc.), who was born in Tijuana and now lives outside Chicago, tracks the paths those men took from their home state of Veracruz all the way norte. Their enemies were many: the U.S. Border Patrol (“La Migra”); gung-ho gringo vigilantes bent on taking the law into their own hands; the Mexican Federales; rattlesnakes; severe hypothermia and the remorseless sun, a “110 degree nightmare” that dried their bodies and pounded their brains. In artful yet uncomplicated prose, Urrea captivatingly tells how a dozen men squeezed by to safety, and how 14 others whom the media labeled the Yuma 14 did not. But while many point to the group’s smugglers (known as coyotes) as the prime villains of the tragedy, Urrea unloads on, in the words of one Mexican consul, “the politics of stupidity that rules both sides of the border.” Mexican and U.S. border policy is backward, Urrea finds, and it does little to stem the flow of immigrants. Since the policy results in Mexicans making the crossing in increasingly forbidding areas, it contributes to the conditions that kill those who attempt it. Confident and full of righteous rage, Urrea’s story is a well-crafted malange of first-person testimony, geographic history, cultural and economic analysis, poetry and an indictment of immigration policy. It may not directly influence the forces behind the U.S.’s southern border travesties, but it does give names and identities to the faceless and maligned “wetbacks” and “pollos,” and highlights the brutality and unsustainable nature of the many walls separating the two countries.
Brooklyn: A Novel by Com Toibin
Committed to a quiet life in little Enniscorthy, Ireland, the industrious young Eilis Lacey reluctantly finds herself swept up in an unplanned adventure to America, engineered by the family priest and her glamorous, “ready for life” sister, Rose. Eilis’s determination to embrace the spirit of the journey despite her trepidation–especially on behalf of Rose, who has sacrificed her own chance of leaving–makes a bittersweet center for Brooklyn. Colm Tóibín’s spare portrayal of this contemplative girl is achingly lovely, and every sentence rings with truth. Readers will find themselves swept across the Atlantic with Eilis to a boarding house in Brooklyn where she painstakingly adapts to a new life, reinventing herself and her surroundings in the letters she writes home. Just as she begins to settle in with the help of a new love, tragedy calls her home to Enniscorthy, and her separate lives suddenly and painfully merge into one. Tóibín’s haunted heroine glows on the page, unforgettably and lovingly rendered, and her story reflects the lives of so many others exiled from home.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
(from the New Yorker)
Through the story of one man’s experience after Hurricane Katrina, Eggers draws an indelible picture of Bush-era crisis management. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a successful Syrian-born painting contractor, decides to stay in New Orleans and protect his property while his family flees. After the levees break, he uses a small canoe to rescue people, before being arrested by an armed squad and swept powerlessly into a vortex of bureaucratic brutality. When a guard accuses him of being a member of Al Qaeda, he sees that race and culture may explain his predicament. Eggers, compiling his account from interviews, sensibly resists rhetorical grandstanding, letting injustices speak for themselves. His skill is most evident in how closely he involves the reader in Zeitoun’s thoughts. Thrown into one of a series of wire cages, Zeitoun speculates, with a contractor’s practicality, that construction of his prison must have begun within a day or so of the hurricane.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being “human.” When the lone survivor of the expedition, Emilio Sandoz, returns to Earth in 2059, he will try to explain what went wrong… Words like “provocative” and “compelling” will come to mind as you read this shocking novel about first contact with a race that creates music akin to both poetry and prayer.