Top Ten Finalist of One Read 2012
by Lauren Williams, Public Services Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
"Who are we but the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and believe?" — Scott Turow
The public has spoken! The book our community will read together this year is a spellbinding work of literary fiction, "The Tiger's Wife" (Random House, 2011) by Téa Obreht. Our 2012 One Read selection follows a young physician in the former Yugoslavia as she faces the death of her beloved grandfather under mysterious circumstances. Obreht weaves compelling tales around the themes of personal myth, reason versus superstition and the aftermath of war. "The Tiger's Wife" narrowly beat runner-up "Turn of Mind" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011) by Alice LaPlante, a well-crafted thriller told from the perspective of a woman suffering from dementia and unable to recall whether she was involved in the murder of her longtime best friend.
Before the public vote, a reading panel of community members considered 10 finalist books. Here is an overview of the remaining eight titles, several of which, like the two finalists, explore the effects of war. Others are intriguing mysteries or simply fine examples of plain old good storytelling.
Who would have more stories to tell than death? The grim reaper himself narrates Markus Zusak's "The Book Thief" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), a beautifully haunting young-adult novel set in Nazi Germany during World War II. Liesel steals her first book at age 9 and with the help of her foster father learns to read. Her storytelling—then that of a Jewish refugee—sustains her and many of her neighbors throughout the war. "The Chosen" (Simon and Schuster, 1967) by Chaim Potok also tells a character-driven, coming-of-age tale set at the end of World War II, but the real focus of this classic is the complicated relationship between two boys in Brooklyn, one a Hasidic Jew and the other an Orthodox Jew.
A modern conflict—the war on terror—forms the backdrop of Amy Waldman's "The Submission" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). A Sept. 11, 2001, widow sits on the jury selecting the memorial for the World Trade Center site. She must deal with the blowback when a Muslim American's design is chosen. Both dramatic and thoughtful, Waldman's navigation of emotionally complex and difficult terrain has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality.
"Half the Sky" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn addresses an issue appearing in actual news headlines, the oppression of women in the developing world. The authors include numerous firsthand, personal stories that put a human face on the loads of horrifying statistics they report (an estimated 1 million children are forced into prostitution each year, for example). Surprisingly upbeat for a book that includes graphic details regarding the trafficking and abuse of girls and women, the authors convincingly argue that the education, emancipation and empowerment of girls is the key to economic success in developing countries, and they call for financial and other support of grass-roots efforts already under way in these areas of the world.
The One Read panel considered two additional nonfiction titles, both using a somewhat narrow subject to investigate aspects of American history, society and psyche. Sarah Vowell, a frequent contributor to public radio's "This American Life," uses her trademark wit in "Unfamiliar Fishes" (Riverhead Books, 2011) to trace Hawaii's history, beginning with its colonization by New England missionaries in the early 1800s. Her analysis of America's imperialism is as irreverent as it is informative. "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend" (Simon & Schuster, 2011) by Susan Orlean functions similarly, tracing the life of this dog star from his birth on a World War I battlefield to his transformation, with the help of owner Lee Duncan, into an American film and television star. Exhaustively researched, Orlean's book uses the story of Rin Tin Tin and his canine successors to explore the history of film, the evolution of humans' relationships with companion animals and our desire for continuity and enduring symbols.
Nothing endures like a good story, as illustrated by the continued popularity of "The Maltese Falcon" (Knopf, 1930) by Dashiell Hammett. Mystery as a genre owes much to this gritty classic that follows Detective Sam Spade as he helps supposed damsel in distress Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Their hunt for a golden bird leaves a trail of dead bodies that begins with the death of Spade's partner. Sharp dialogue, straightforward prose and quick pacing make this novel a real pleasure to revisit or pick up for the first time. As rich in detail as Hammett's book is spare, "Year of Wonders" (Viking, 2001) by Geraldine Brooks tells the story of a 17th-century English village whose inhabitants voluntarily quarantine themselves after the plague strikes. Elegantly narrated by young widow Anna Frith, who becomes an unlikely source of strength and healing for her neighbors, the book examines the ways villagers cope — turning to religion, superstition and forbidden love — as the Black Death decimates their community.
Each year the process of selecting the book for our communitywide reading program uncovers some real gems in the library's collection. We hope you will include these books on your summer reading lists in addition to "The Tiger's Wife." Please join the library staff and One Read task force in September as we present programs related to this year's selection, including a discussion of the runner-up, "Turn of Mind." Visit the One Read website for details.