This September, our community will explore resilience in isolation with Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow,” a spellbinding work of historical fiction. This novel beat out the legal historical thriller “The Last Days of Night” by Graham Moore to be named this year’s One Read.
Before the public vote, a panel of community members considered a varied list of ten finalist books that includes other works of historical fiction, thought-provoking nonfiction, explorations of identity and, this year’s wild card, a darkly satirical story of a serial killer.
In “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan, the titular 11-year-old field slave becomes assistant to his master’s younger brother, the eccentric scientist and naturalist Titch. Wash learns to read, draw and keenly observe before circumstances force the two to flee the Carribean and venture as far as the Arctic. Edugyan vividly draws the horrors of slavery, but she also captures in lyrical prose the strange, epic adventures and complicated relationship of this unlikely pair.
Kim Michele Richardson tells the tale of librarian Cussie, who has blue skin due to a rare genetic condition, delivering books on horseback in rural 1930s Kentucky in “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.” In this novel packed with historical research, Cussie braves intolerance and physical danger to bring the magic of words and reading to her impoverished neighbors.
Next are two delightfully obsessive works of nonfiction. “The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements” by Sam Kean transforms the familiar poster from chemistry class into a series of stories about the elements’ discoverers — sometimes funny, sometimes thrilling, but always interesting. In “The Library Book,” Susan Orlean explores the unsolved mystery of the catastrophic 1986 Los Angeles Public Library fire, and delivers a dazzling love letter to libraries.
While finding one’s self is a common literary theme, these next two books describe two vastly different experiences. In her thought-provoking memoir “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love,” Dani Shapiro, who grew up assuming she was 100 percent Jewish, takes a DNA test on a whim and discovers she shares no genetics with her father. It’s an engaging journey that goes back to the 1960s and the early days of artificial insemination. Elliot Reed, on the other hand, tells the coming-of-age tale of the abandoned teenager William in “A Key to Treehouse Living.” William sets off on a raft down the river to try to learn how his mother died and why his father left. His quest of self discovery is told through entries in an alphabetical reference glossary that starts with “Absence” and goes all the way to “Yonder, the wild blue.”
In a kaleidoscopic look at Native American life, “There There” by Tommy Orange follows 12 characters as they make their way to the Big Oakland Powwow. They are all going for different reasons: to meet family for the first time, to steal the prize money or to connect with their ancestry, just to name a few. This story takes on heavy subjects like domestic violence, alcoholism, pain and addiction, but it also showcases the perseverance and spirit of its Native American characters, and shows how the present is molded by decisions from the past.
The novel “My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite, asks just how far one should go to protect family. Realizing that her beautiful, beloved younger sister has murdered yet another boyfriend, an embittered Nigerian nurse works to direct suspicion away from the family, until a handsome doctor she fancies asks for her sister’s number. This intricate and darkly humorous story illustrates the complex contradictions of sisterhood.
Join the library and the One Read Task Force in September as we explore the topics and themes in “A Gentleman in Moscow” through online discussions, presentations and more. Please visit www.oneread.org for more information.