Aaron Krumheuer | Staff Writer
Every book is a challenge: to be enjoyed, to be finished and, especially, to be understood. This summer, the 2011 Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle’s 2011 reading list presents a season-long theme of challenge.
“Challenge is a broad enough theme that will get us into the depth and variety of places you can look, whether it be someone growing up in Africa, or Memphis in ’67 and ’68,” said Jeff Miller, coordinator of CLSC activities. “As you apply it week to week, it really starts to open up the conversation.”
As in years past, the CLSC Roundtable discussion will be held at 3:30 p.m. Thursdays in the Hall of Philosophy.
The CLSC reading list will commence with Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, a collection of five short stories about the challenges of childhood for young Africans.
These stories, published in 2008, pull back the veil from the headlines of African tragedy, made all the more poignant through Akpan’s dazzling writing: a patchwork of language, custom and belief. They traverse the most brutal conditions across the continent, from abject poverty in Kenya to the sex trade between Benin and Gabon.
Akpan’s home country of Nigeria is the subject of “Luxurious Hearses,” a tale of a young Muslim boy forced to hide his faith among resentful refugees on a crowded bus — all fleeing the rioting of the boy’s former friends. Akpan was ordained a Jesuit priest in 2003 and serves at Christ the King Church in Ilasamaja
Lagos, Nigeria. He earned his master’s degree in creative writing in 2006.
The tales are brutal, yet Akpan weaves hope through the positivity and resilience of children.
Week Two brings in two reading selections, with presentations on both Thursday and Friday. The first is Hampton Sides’ Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin. The book’s name is taken from the heartbreaking blues song, “Hellbound on My Trail,” by Robert Johnson, and it is a work of painstaking research and expert storytelling from the editor of Outside magazine. Sides traces the impending assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. by the eccentric outsider James Earl Ray, a drifter determined to make his name by toppling a giant. Sides is a gifted historian, author of the best-selling Blood and Thunder and the 2002 PEN USA award winner Ghost Soldiers.
The second selection for Week Two is Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel. The book mirrors Sandel’s undergraduate course of the same name, employing the Socratic method to unravel some of the hotly contested ethical issues of today: immigration, affirmative action, same-sex marriage, Wall Street bailouts, free markets and individual rights.
Sandel draws from both ancient and modern philosophical standpoints to lay bare the foundations of claims from the right, left and everywhere in between. His ethical quest for understanding is accessible to beginners in philosophy while still being compelling for those already versed in Immanuel Kant, Aristotle and John Stuart Mill.
Sandel, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has written five other works of political philosophy and served on the President’s Council on Bioethics. Publishers Weekly called Justice “erudite, conversational and deeply humane … truly transformative reading.”
Returning to history, Week Three’s selection is an account of one family’s disillusionment in the early days of the Third Reich. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by best-selling author Erik Larson, is the story of the United States Ambassador William E. Dodd, who travels with his family to Berlin in 1933. Dodd’s daughter Martha becomes enraptured with Hitler’s officers and their heady bravado, but the facade begins to crumble as Jews are attacked and the Reich tightens its grip on the nation.
Larson is also the author of three New York Times bestsellers, and his The Devil in the White City was a National Book Award Finalist and Edgar Award winner. He received his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, and his research skills and honed storytelling shine in this book.
The theme of Week Four is “A Case for the Arts,” and Sonata Mulattica: Poems is a fitting first foray of the season into verse. Former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove has written a quasi-historical narrative poem, chronicling the true life of biracial violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower. Bridgetower was a contemporary of Haydn and Beethoven, a man who claimed to be an African prince and rose to fame in Vienna. The New Yorker calls the book “a virtuosic treatment of a virtuoso’s life . . . stuffed with historical and musical arcana.”
At the midpoint of the season, the next reading takes place in a small town 150 miles east of Chautauqua. Week Five’s selection is Amy Dickinson’s The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them.
Dickinson is the author of the syndicated advice column “Ask Amy,” and she became the late Ann Landers’ replacement for the Chicago Tribune in 2003. For her columns, Dickinson draws wisdom from the faults and foibles of her life, but this memoir tells the story straight.
After a divorce and several relocations between London, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, Dickinson returns with her daughter to Freeville, her tiny hometown where the Dickinson family matriarchs have lived for over 200 years. After every visit back, she reconnects with her personal history and the indefatigable Mighty Queens, the tough, down-to-earth women who sustain her.
Week Six continues a string of female voices with Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht is the youngest on The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list of new authors, and this novel is a cryptic unraveling of myth, memory and family history.
Natalia is a young doctor traveling with her friend Zóra to an orphanage in an unnamed Balkan country, which is a war-torn place where superstition dwells alongside ethnic hostility. Strangely, Natalia’s grandfather, also a physician, sets off to an unknown settlement and dies. She must sort out the clues to his death through the fables he told and find the meaning of the tiger that haunted his childhood village during World War II.
Obreht’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times. Her debut novel has garnered serious critical success, and Obreht will discuss her work on her Aug. 4 CLSC Roundtable Lecture.
The theme of Week Seven is “The U.S. Economy: Beyond a Quick Fix,” and growing up along near the Rust Belt in Baltimore, author Philipp Meyer is no stranger to industrial decline. Meyer’s story is unique: a high school dropout, he earned his GED at age 16. He worked construction jobs, as a derivatives trader on Wall Street and as an EMT. He studied English at Cornell University and has been published in McSweeney’s and The Iowa Review.
His first published novel, American Rust tells the story of two friends, Isaac English and the Billy Poe, who set out to finally escape their hometown of Buell, Pa., a beautiful but devastated steel town. But a violent encounter and accidental death threatens to derail their plans.
Meyer’s writing has been compared to that of both John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, and American Rust has topped countless best-of lists. It was named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times.
In Week Eight, Diane Ackerman will again grace the CLSC roundtable with a discussion of One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing. She is the author of Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden and several others, including collections of poetry and books for children. Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story was a 2009 CLSC selection, but her new memoir is a much more personal story.
Her husband, Paul West, was a gifted critic, intellectual and wordsmith, and the two writers delighted in sharing a rich common vocabulary. But in 2005, West suffered a stroke following a kidney surgery and lost the ability to speak all but one word: “mem.”
In this memoir, Ackerman chronicles her ceaseless devotion to guide West back to words, drawing on memories, word games and previous research she did for her book An Alchemy of Mind. It is a revealing and compassionate novel about the effects of aphasia, the loss of speech, and Joyce Carol Oates called it “an intimate, richly documented, and beautiful memoir… double portrait of two remarkable people.”
Although the theme of Week Nine is “The Path to the Civil War,” the final CLSC author Isabel Wilkerson will discuss the path from the Civil War: the exodus that took place from 1915 to 1970 of nearly six million African-Americans from the South to the promising cities of the North and West. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is a story of challenge and perseverance.
“What we’re doing with the topic that week is looking at those issues that the founders left unresolved that eventually caused the Civil War,” said Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education. “We’re looking earlier in our history than the Civil War sesquicentennial. The reason we chose Wilkerson’s book on the great migration… is that we’re also questioning whether or not those issues are resolved today, and in many ways they’re not.”
Wilkerson was the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1994 and the first black American to win for individual reporting. She is a professor of journalism and director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University, and she conducted extensive archival research and more than 1,200 interviews to craft this sweeping, Pulitzer Prize-winning history.
Inspired by her parents’ journey and told through the perspectives of three individuals who also made the move, this is an exhaustive, rich account of not only the migration of people but a culture and a way of life.
In all, each book of the 2011 CLSC Season asks readers to consider themselves challenged.
“It’s like putting a big puzzle together. We hope the book will be interesting to the people that are on the grounds, and that it is also an enduring book that 10 years from now, we know we chose a really good selection of genre, authors, first books and bodies of works,” Babcock said. “So that unifying theme is simply that, it’s unifying across a lot of differences.”