Two million. That's the estimated number of books published each year according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization - UNESCO, with a million new titles published in the United States alone. As a writer, it doesn't surprise me that the lure of literary recognition still inspires so many authors to create, despite dwindling reading statistics. Rather, it is testament to the power of the word and our human need to tell stories. In this month's Essential Reading we look at a few of those books that were recognized for their excellence. These are the novels that may become fixtures on school curriculums, part of our cultural history, or perhaps award-winning movies that bring characters to life.
I can certainly anticipate a stage or movie adaptation of A Horse Walks Into A Bar, the 2017 Man Booker International Prize Winner. This strangely named, 196-page story by multi prize-winning author David Grossman, introduces us to Dovaleh, an aging stand-up comedian. As the story begins, our hero takes the stage for a brutal but vulnerable performance which, while deconstructing his life and revealing the universal complexities of human nature, will both fascinate and horrify his audience. Originally written in Hebrew and translated by Jessica Cohen, the book is set in a small Israeli town, pulling heavily on the local experience of growing up in the shadow of the holocaust and having to do mandatory army service. Dovaleh is brash yet mesmerizing as he reveals his story piece by piece, interspersing his monologues with mostly lame jokes and cruel taunts at the audience as he winds to a crescendo. Narration is provided by a long-lost childhood friend who has been specially invited to witness the show. Reading the book, you feel like both a participant and an onlooker, almost like a witness to a road accident. Something about Dovaleh's monumental public meltdown is fascinating. In Grossman's own words: "The crowd can feel it too. People look at each other and shift restlessly. They understand less and less what it is that they have unwillingly become partners to. I have no doubt they would have got up and left long ago, or even booed him off stage, if not for the temptation that is so hard to resist—the temptation to look into another man's hell." A Horse Walks Into A Bar is one of those novels that leaves a mark on you and for that very reason I recommend picking up a copy and delving in.
Kelsey Madges, Profiles Editor, was moved by a novel that suits the current climate of female empowerment: "I recently finished reading Naomi Alderman's The Power, which won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Everything about The Power feels determined to disorient the reader in the best possible way. The story is told as though it is a history, attempting to retell events that have taken place thousands of years in the past. This blend of fantasy and science fiction brings the reader into a world in which women have discovered a literal power source within themselves. Suddenly women throughout the universe find that they can produce electricity. Not only can they produce it, they can control it and learn to use it as a weapon. Most of The Power is told through four points of view; three female and one male. The reader witnesses how this evolution directly impacts the lives of those specific characters and views the shift in gender relations through each of their perspectives. Constructs of societies, religions, and governments are turned upside down. What if men are afraid to walk alone at night? What if certain countries no longer permitted men to travel without being escorted by a woman? What would it really look like if matriarchal societies were the norm? Alderman's vision took me by surprise. The Power's questions about the nature of gender and of power itself will stay with me for a long time."
Libby Maxey, Senior Editor and Literary Reflections Editor confesses: "I'm always slow to pick up the novels that everybody's reading, so I only recently got around to Hilary Mantel's Man Booker Prize-winning duo, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Mantel takes over familiar historical material—Henry VIII offloading his first two wives—and makes it new by focusing the story on upstart statesman Thomas Cromwell, an immensely likable protagonist if ever there was one. Clever, worldly, and pragmatic, yet also sensitive, loyal, and compassionate, Cromwell takes care of his own, all the while taking care to keep Henry, who will have his own way, from doing too much damage in pursuit of it. Mantel manages to create real suspense, despite the fact that we all know what happens in the end, and she makes Cromwell's strategic successes satisfying, even though we have to catch up on the religious politics of sixteenth-century Europe in order to follow them. Mantel creates Cromwell's world so completely that when I moved on to the 2015 miniseries, I was disappointed by the loss of every character, conversation, memory, and side plot that had been cut in the course of adaptation. For the best of both worlds, I highly recommend approaching the Cromwell novels via audiobook; keeping all the characters straight is less of a challenge when good readers give them distinctive voices. Regardless of approach, however, this masterful series is definitely worth your time."
Social Media Editor, Abigail Lalonde, shares: "There are many reasons why I love the recent Newbery winner, Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. One, (quick brag) I happen to know the author having had a novel construction class with her in my MFA program at Rosemont College. Two, the characters and story are heartwarming, complex, adventurous, and fun. And three, I love that the book offers diverse characters that will allow for an inclusive experience for readers and make me proud to put it on my daughter's bookshelf. Hello, Universe is told from multiple perspectives, with narrators in both first and third person. While this might sound confusing, Kelly's masterful techniques allow for smooth transitions from narrator to narrator. I became enthralled with the lives of the four main characters—Virgil Salinas, Valencia Somerset, Kaori Tanaka, and Chet 'the bull' Bullens—and how their lives became intertwined. Sure, it's a middle grade book, but the message transcends into adulthood and evokes memories of adolescence. As a parent, I appreciated the descriptions and inclusion of the parental characters. They helped define the characteristics present in the younger generation, especially the bully, Chet, whose father clearly shaped him. Hello, Universe ends with a sweet moment that brought me both joy and tears. Kelly has written two other books and I hope she continues to publish. I'd love to line my daughter's bookshelf with more titles like this one."
Which book would you award a prize to? We'd love to hear your vote in the comments below.