This September, our community will get to know the Turners, a lively, complicated, resilient clan dealing with a dying matriarch, long-held grudges, personal secrets, an underwater mortgage on the family home – oh, and a ghost. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel and National Book Award finalist “The Turner House” narrowly beat out “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly to be named this year’s One Read.
Before the public vote, a panel of community members considered 10 finalist books that address extremely timely topics, from race and class in America to the effects of the technology-everywhere-share-everything culture on our lives. Here is an overview of the other eight finalists, a varied list that includes historical and contemporary fiction, nonfiction and a fantasy that defies categorization.
Like “The Turner House,” “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is an impressive and empathetically written debut that follows the lives of a single family through generations. Much more epic in scope, “Homegoing” examines the complexity of the history of slavery through the lives of the descendants of two half-sisters born in Ghana, one married to a white slaver and the other herself a slave. Each chapter alternates between the narratives of the two sisters’ descendants and their encounters with pivotal historical moments, a structure reminiscent of the intricately plotted “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks. In Brooks’ novel, a present-day story revolving around a young book conservator alternates with a historical one, moving backward in time to uncover the mysterious past of a rare illuminated Haggadah originally from medieval Spain.
“The Moonflower Vine” by Jetta Carleton is another family saga set much closer to home. The novel tells the story of Matthew Soames and his wife, Callie, as they raise four headstrong daughters on a western Missouri farm during the first half of the twentieth century. What begins as a seemingly simple and charming Midwestern family drama becomes more multifaceted as the narrative reveals haunting secrets and crises of each character’s inner life and past.
The crises faced by rural families in Jennifer Haigh’s “Heat and Light” are political and environmental in addition to personal. This ambitious, character-packed novel explores the impact of fracking on a dying Pennsylvania mining town, where unscrupulous developers compete to lease mineral rights from area residents, putting neighbors in conflict with each other and the oilmen who descend on their town.
Moving from fictionalized hardships to actual ones, next up are Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” and “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson. “Evicted” is a gripping study of the impact of the lack of affordable housing on the lives of the poor. Desmond embeds himself with a number of Milwaukee families in the throes of losing their homes and exposes eviction as one of today’s most pressing social issues. Ronson uses his own experience rallying a virtual mob to target computer programmers who impersonated him on Twitter as a jumping off point to explore the often brutal consequences of shaming via social media. By turns funny and terrifying, Ronson’s stories of people whose lives, families and/or careers were ruined by online attacks will at the very least make you think twice about your next tweet or status update.
The remaining nonfiction work on our finalist list is Michael Chabon’s “Manhood for Amateurs.” This collection examines boyhood, fatherhood and other masculine identities with wit and insight. Whether Chabon is meditating on serious issues (like the collapse of his first, short marriage) or light ones (coming to terms with carrying a man-purse, or “murse”), he does so in deft and heartfelt prose.
If Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Richard Adams’ “Watership Down” had a baby, you might get “The Bees” by Laline Paull. This dystopian tale is set in a beehive and narrated by a sanitation bee (Flora 717) who defies her community’s strict social order to rise above her station. Told in first-person, the narrative plunges you into Flora’s thoughts and ritualized behaviors. The hive’s fight for survival, along with Flora’s own struggles against the limitations of her caste, make this a thought-provoking and entertaining book.
Which brings us back to our aims with the One Read program: provoking thought, entertaining and creating community around reading. Join the library and our task force in September as we explore the topics and themes in “The Turner House” through discussions, films, art and presentations. Please visit www.oneread.org for more information.