One Read 2014 – Final 10
by Lauren Williams, Public Services Librarian
The Fulton Flash. Jesse Owens. Hitler’s Berlin. There are so many athletes and stories from the 1936 Olympic Games that have lasting power in our collective memory. This year’s One Read selection, “The Boys in the Boat” (Viking, 2013) by Daniel James Brown, tells a story from the 1936 Olympics that has remained largely unknown – the story of the University of Washington crew team’s pursuit of a gold medal with a unique and unlikely group of men. From Joe Rantz, the gifted athlete with a difficult life story, to George Pocock, the eccentric British boat-builder, this cinematic work of narrative nonfiction is full of interesting and sympathetic characters. Our community chose “Boys in the Boat” over Ben Fountain's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" (Ecco, 2012). The runner-up is a novel following a group of soldiers during their final stop in an Army-organized series of PR stunts – participation in the halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys football game. The novel is a sometimes grim, sometimes absurd and darkly funny examination of America at war.
Before the public vote, a panel of community members read and considered 10 finalist books. Here is an overview of the remaining eight titles, many of which, like our winner, tell tales of overcoming hardship or real-life stories so affecting and important, you can't quite believe you know so little about them.
Sonia Sotomayor rose above poverty, language barriers, the death of her father and a childhood diagnosis of diabetes to attend Yale Law School and eventually become the first Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Her biography “My Beloved World” (Knopf, 2013) is a clear-eyed and inspirational account of her remarkable journey.
India's urban slums contain poverty on a completely different scale from that found in the New York City housing projects of Justice Sotomayor’s childhood. "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" (Random House, 2011) by Katherine Boo illuminates, in ways both beautiful and heartbreaking, the struggles of a scrap metal scavenger, a Muslim teen, an ambitious mother, and many others trying to fight against caste, religion and dire economic circumstances to make better lives for themselves.
Steven Johnson's "The Ghost Map" (Riverhead Books, 2006) likewise explains an important, but not widely known, story of a burgeoning city, as well as a turning-point in the history of public health. There’s a lot of talk about excrement in this book, but if you can get past the “ick” factor, you'll be truly engaged by Johnson's account of London's 1854 cholera outbreak and the work of Dr. John Snow to convince the medical community and the public that diseases are spread via contaminated water, not “bad air.”
Midlife can provide numerous obstacles, as the briskly paced novel “A Thousand Pardons” (Random House, 2012) by Jonathan Dee demonstrates. Housewife Helen is forced to reenter the job market after her husband’s sexual misconduct results in her marriage’s collapse, and she finds unexpected success in the public relations industry. Her talent? Persuading company representatives to apologize – sincerely and without shifting blame – for their wrongdoings.
Sometimes the greatest difficulties we must overcome arise in our childhoods. "Orphan Train" (William Morrow, 2012) by Christina Baker Kline uses a fictionalized account of parentless Vivian, shipped west in the late 1920s to live with families where she is treated as unpaid labor and worse until she finds a permanent home, to both shed light on the historical phenomenon of orphan trains and examine the difficulties of youth in today's foster care system.
In "The Gravity of Birds" (Simon & Schuster, 2013) by Tracy Guzeman, teenaged sisters Alice and Natalie Kessler cross paths with budding artist Thomas Bayber during the summer of 1963, and the aftershocks of that meeting shape the rest of their lives. Part art mystery and part family drama, this literary fiction bulges with eccentric characters, betrayals, secrets revealed and a satisfying end.
Bullying unfortunately shapes many childhoods, as it does for Japanese schoolgirl Nao Yasutani in "A Tale for the Time Being" (Viking, 2013) by Ruth Ozeki. Nao plans to kill herself as a way of escaping her tormenting classmates and her father’s own suicidal depression, but she decides first to document the life of her grandmother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun, and relays her own story in the process. The resulting diary washes up on the shore of Canada's Vancouver Island and is found by a novelist named Ruth. The narrative shifts back and forth between the contents of the diary and Ruth’s attempts to discover what has become of Nao. The novel’s unusual structure, the authentic voices of Ozeki’s characters and the story’s quietly magical and metafictional elements make this a beautiful and thought-provoking book.
In "Life After Life" (Reagan Arthur Books, 2013) by Kate Atkinson, the main character’s striving against the past is entirely unique. Ursula Todd is born in 1910, dies and is reborn numerous times in a trial-and-error sort of loop. Atkinson has an incredible talent for describing the same event through a different lens or with a shifted emphasis so that this lengthy book rarely feels repetitive. Fantastic world-building – the descriptions of the Blitz are especially vivid and haunting – and character development create an entertaining examination of the ways in which a single decision can affect the course of our lives and history itself.
We hope you will make the decision to join the library staff and One Read task force in September as we explore the topics and themes in "The Boys in the Boat" through discussions, films, art and more. Visit the One Read website at oneread.org for more information.