As you probably already know, the 2017 Pulitzer Prizes were just awarded for excellence in journalism, arts and letters. If you would like to read some of the prize winners, you’re in luck, because in the categories of fiction and nonfiction, the winners and some of the finalists are available right here at the Field Library.
The 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning novel shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention: it’s The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which also won last year’s National Book Award. I wrote about it then, in this post THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: 2016 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER FOR FICTION, and it’s still available as a new book and an express book on our shelves.
One of the finalists in the fiction category available here at the Field Library is Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (whose earlier book, You Are Not a Stranger Here, was also a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book awards; always a bridesmaid, never a bride, unfortunately). Imagine Me Gone looks, with deep sympathy and heart, at what it’s like to live with someone suffering from depression. The protagonist, Margaret, is on the verge of marrying her fiance, John, when he’s hospitalized for depression. Rather than breaking the engagement, she decides to marry him anyway and take on the difficulties she knows she’s going to have to face as his wife and the mother of his children. As time goes on, Margaret and John have three children, including a son who’s both brilliant and deeply troubled, and Margaret’s dedication and love are tested to their limits.
In the nonfiction category of history, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner is Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, by Heather Ann Thompson. Widely hailed as the first definitive history of the uprising and its aftermath, the book looks at the prison riot, the siege and the repression that followed from all perspectives, prisoners and hostages, guards, lawyers, politicians, survivors and families of the slain. In the same way that people thought they knew the story of the Columbine shootings before they read the book Columbine, by David Cullen, people think they know what happened in Attica but this book illuminates all the facts beyond the headlines and brings the time and place to vivid life.
A finalist in the history category that’s also here at the Field is New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, by Wendy Warren. Following in the footsteps of the brilliant American Slavery, American Freedom, Warren’s book traces the influence of slavery as an institution on 17th century New England. Contrary to the popular notion that slavery in America was exclusively a Southern issue, Warren demonstrates that the Northern colonies wouldn’t have been as financially successful as they were if they hadn’t been deeply involved in the infamous Triangle Trade, and that it was the fruits of the sale of African slaves that formed the foundations of many a lofty New England fortune. She illuminates the lives of Native Americans sold into slavery in the West Indies by northern colonists, as well as the lives of African slaves in the 17th century. The book has been described as “the most important work on 17th century New England in a generation,” and evidently the Pulitzer committee agreed.
The Field Library has both the winner and the two finalists in the category of Biography and Autobiography on its shelves. The winner is The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar, a wrenching book about exile and loss, and the “cunning and persistent hope.” Matar was a college student in England when his father, a prominent opponent of Muammar Gaddafi, was kidnapped by Gaddafi’s agents and taken to a secret prison in Libya. Matar would never see his father again, but 22 years after the kidnapping, when Gaddafi fell and the secret prison cells were opened, Hisham Matar returned to his family’s homeland with his mother and his wife, attempting to find out what happened to his father. In The Return, Matar reports on Libya on the cusp of change, and the terrible scars left on a land and a people after absolute rule, along with the personal pain and anger of his family’s suffering and uncertainty.
Another story of fathers and children and love and loss is Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom, a finalist for the prize in Biography. Susan Faludi, the author of, among other things, Backlash, sets out to find out the truth about her father, a man who had disappeared from her life for years, but whom she remembered as being violent and aggressive, a man who stabbed someone he claimed was having an affair with his wife in the aftermath of their separation. Hardly the sort of person, Faludi would have thought, who would have had gender reassignment surgery, but when her father reappears in her life, that’s what Stefanie (formerly Steven, formerly Istvan) has done. A feminist struggling to reconcile what she thinks she knows about her father with what she’s finding out about her (now that Stefanie has transitioned, I’m using female pronouns), Faludi traces her father’s past in an attempt to find the real person she never entirely knew before.
The true story of When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, another finalist for the Biography prize, is heartbreaking. Kalanithi seemed to have it all, or to be on the verge of having it all: he was in his early thirties, happily married, a baby on the way, Ivy League educated and just about to finish his training as a neurosurgeon. That’s when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and everything he’d struggled and hoped for was wiped out, and he was left to make sense of the short time remaining to him, and to ask the hardest question of all: given that everyone must die, what makes life meaningful? If you’ve read (as I have) Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, this is a book you should definitely read, but keep the tissues close.
In the category of general nonfiction, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. Anyone who’s read the book, or even read excerpts from the book (some of which were published in the New Yorker last year), will have no doubts that this book deserved the award. It’s an enthralling and terrifying look at the world many of our fellow citizens inhabit, where the cost of renting even a place that’s unfit for human habitation costs most of their income, and they can be evicted for having to call the police to protect them against domestic violence, for complaining to the landlord about problems with the space, or for having children living in the house and acting like children, among other things. He describes in painful detail the terrible choices people have to make when rent consumes most of their income: skip rent this month and buy food or necessities for your family, or pay the rent and go hungry or go without. He writes vividly about the court process (where poor tenants are at a huge disadvantage from the get-go) and the actual process of eviction itself, and brings the horrors of the low end housing market to life.
One of the finalists in the category of general nonfiction is In A Different Key: The Story of Autism, by John Donvan and Caren Zucker, which is also available here in our library. If you are at all interested in the autism spectrum, how autism has been described and treated (or not) over the years, this is a book to savor. The authors discuss the history of the autism diagnosis, how often it was blamed on parents (especially mothers) for their treatment of their children (autism seen as a defense mechanism on the part of helpless children against “refrigerator mothers”), how it’s been blamed on vaccines (also a pernicious idea without basis in fact), and what we now think is the cause. They also write about the changes in the way people with autism have been seen by society and how parents and family members are largely responsible for those changes.
So if you want to be au courant with the books the Pulitzer Prize Committee considers the best of the year, come on in to the Field Library and check them out!