Each month, the Columbia Public Library offers selections from its collection related to a current best-seller or hot topic. Public Services Librarian Kat Stone Underwood compiled this month’s selections.
This September, our community will have the chance to dive into a work of true crime that explores a dark chapter of United States history involving the murder of Osage Indians in 1920s Oklahoma. David Grann’s National Book Award finalist, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” (Doubleday, 2017) beat out “News of the World,” (William Morrow, 2016) a post-Civil War historical fiction by Paulette Jiles, when both titles were put to a public vote earlier this year.
Before the vote, a reading panel of community members considered 10 books. The list included science-fiction, Westerns and nonfiction, and addressed a wide array of timely topics, from race to consumer habits to mortality. Here is an overview of the remaining eight finalists:
Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” (Viking, 2016) is a moving Western. Thomas McNulty, an orphan who survives the Great Irish Famine and comes to America, meets John Cole, another orphan. The two join the U.S. Army to fight in the Indian wars, and later the Civil War. When they become more than compatriots, they struggle to make a life in a world that doesn’t recognize romantic relationships between men.
Another book set around this portion of American history is Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” (Doubleday, 2016), in which the freedom network is imagined to be an actual working railway hidden underground. Cora escapes the plantation she was born on, makes it to the Underground Railroad and travels to what she’s told is freedom. This dramatic novel reimagines what historical fiction can be and describes the horrors faced by black people in the pre-Civil War South in a new way.
Nonfiction books offer ways to contemplate difficult topics, and this year several were considered. In the captivating “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014), author and surgeon Atul Gawande makes the argument that prolonging the lives of terminally ill patients is not always what’s right for the patient or their family. Instead, he offers suggestions for approaching death in a more dignified way that puts quality of life at the forefront.
Another hard topic to navigate is mental illness, but Jenny Lawson does so in a hilarious way in “Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things” (Flatiron Books, 2015). In this candid reflection on her life and dealing with sometimes crippling depression, Lawson shares her outlook on life — why just be happy when you can be furiously happy? While her humor is often self-deprecating, this book provides a touching, much needed conversation-starter about mental illness.
Trying to create a better life for ourselves is a commonly held goal, and Mark Sundeen tells the stories of three families trying to live their best lives by living more simply. From off-grid living in Missouri, to urban farming in Detroit, these families attempt to live more sustainably in “The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America” (Riverhead Books, 2016). Attaining the good life is harder for some than others, and Michelle Alexander explores this in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” (New Press, 2010). Alexander passionately argues that the war on drugs and related policies, which keep convicted felons from accessing public assistance, have essentially created a caste system largely based on race. This is a sobering, thought-provoking work of nonfiction.
Last year’s One Read selection took place just after the financial crisis of 2008, and Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers” (Random House, 2016) takes place during this difficult time as well. The Jonga family, newly arrived in Manhattan from Cameroon, gets under-the-table employment from Lehman Brothers executive Clark Edwards. Just as their lives seem to pleasantly meld with the Edwards family, Lehman Brothers fails and both families are caught up in the aftermath. This novel is part immigrant story, part recession story, and wholly a thoughtful examination of the American dream.
The last finalist is an intriguing work of literary science-fiction. “The Wanderers” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017) by Meg Howrey features an international team of astronauts taking part in an incredibly real simulation to determine if they can handle being the first humans on Mars. They know they’re being observed, so they act how they expect they’re expected to act. This is a true character study mixed with the adventure of a space story.
Join the library and the One Read task force in September as we explore the topics and themes in “Killers of the Flower Moon” through discussions, films, art and presentations. Please visit www.oneread.org for more information.