Lauren Williams, Public Services Librarian
Parent-child relations can be choppy waters in the best of circumstances. Throw in differences in lifestyles or belief systems, and the whole family boat can tip. This year’s selection for One Read, the library’s community-wide reading program, is “Bettyville” by George Hodgman (Viking, 2015), which examines the fierce love and deep silence between an aging mother and her gay son who returns to Missouri from New York City to care for her. Hodgman’s funny, warm and honest memoir beat out “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford (Ballantine Books, 2009), a sentimental work of historical fiction set largely in WWII-era Seattle. This story of Chinese-American Henry Lee’s relationship with a Japanese classmate investigates not only the racism of that time, but also the gulf that often exists between immigrant parents and their American-born children.
Before the public vote, a panel of community members considered 10 finalist books. Here is an overview of the remaining titles, many of which, like our finalists, explore the rich terrain of that fraught, wonderful, complicated thing that is the parent-child relationship.
“H Is for Hawk” by Helen MacDonald (Grove Press, 2015) is primarily a memoir of grief, the author funneling her sorrow over her father’s death into the training of a goshawk. Hard to categorize, but gorgeously written, this haunting work is part nature journal, part biography of T.H. White and part hawk training manual.
The novel “The Book of Madness and Cures” by Regina O’Melveny (Little, Brown and Co., 2012) also features a daughter losing a parent. Set in 16th-century Europe, the story follows physician Gabriella Mondini as she travels the country looking for her vanished father, also a doctor and without whom Gabriella, as a woman, is not allowed to practice medicine.
The author’s father in “The Oregon Trail: An American Journey” by Rinker Buck (Simon & Schuster, 2015) figures only slightly in this true account of two brothers using a custom-made wagon to follow the 2,000-mile long Oregon Trail. But his memory ghosts around its edges, with Buck wrestling through unresolved feelings about their relationship. This big-hearted adventure tale is a history lesson, a celebration of perseverance and a love letter to the American mule.
“Rocket Boys” by Homer Hickam (Delacorte Press, 1998) and “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 2015) likewise celebrate American grit and ingenuity. In Hickam’s bittersweet, nostalgic memoir, a group of boys in 1950s West Virginia engineers homemade rockets and dreams of escaping a future in the coal mines. Hickam, who would eventually work for NASA, struggles throughout to be seen and appreciated by his father. McCullough’s focused and engaging biography provides in-depth portraits of self-taught mechanical geniuses Orville and Wilbur Wright, as well as a past when America was a place where anything seemed possible if you worked hard enough.
If there is any nostalgia in Kathleen Winter’s “Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage” (House of Anansi Press, 2014), it comes in the form of a nearly spiritual longing for a connection with the wild, untouched places of the natural world. As the writer-in-residence on a ship going through the Northwest Passage, Winter weaves personal memories with big philosophical questions and lyrical writing about the other passengers, the land and its indigenous peoples.
Robert Putnam uses his own experience growing up in 1950s Ohio to expose the greatly diminished opportunities for upward mobility in this country. “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” (Simon & Schuster, 2015), employs personal narratives as well as sound research, making this a very readable – and alarming – account of economic disparity, its causes and possible actions we could take to reverse this distressing trend. An illuminating book, particularly in this political season with many in the upper classes professing surprise at the anger and frustration among the working class and others living on the economic edge.
To avoid ending this list on a note of despair, I present the remaining One Read finalist: the cerebral, playful and weird novel “The Story of My Teeth” by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, 2015). This novel’s hero, Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez (nickname: Highway), is a security guard turned world’s best auctioneer. An insatiable collector, he purchases Marilyn Monroe’s teeth and has them installed in his own mouth. His former teeth he then auctions off, spinning incredible yarns about their origins, claiming that they belonged to a variety of famous writers, from Petrarch to Virginia Woolf. This novel also includes a juice factory, clowns, mediations on language, the sudden appearance of a second narrator and even, to come full circle, an estranged son.
Please join the library staff and One Read task force in September to explore family relationships and other themes in “Bettyville” through discussions, panel presentations, art and more. Visit the One Read website for more details.
Literary Links, compiled by library staff, appears monthly in the Ovation section of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Each article contains a short list of books on a timely topic.
Read more from Literary Links.