At the end of January, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment announced One Book, One New York, a reading program that urges residents of all five boroughs to read the same book, starting in early March. If successful, this will form the largest reading community in the country. But can New Yorkers agree on the same book? Fifteen years ago, as the New York Times reported, a similar initiative collapsed because the organizers were unable to pick a title. This year, city officials asked an advisory panel of public library heads, publishers, and academics to suggest possible candidates, which they then winnowed down to five books. The public have until February 28 to vote online for the winner.
The main branch of the New York Public Library will host an event in June with the winning book’s author. [This might be a bit tricky as Betty Smith, the author of the nominated A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, died in 1972.] According to Julie Menin, the commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, publishers of the five nominated books will donate a total of 4,000 copies of their nominated titles to more than 200 library branches.
Below are Library Journal‘s reviews of the five candidates, which are being touted in promotional videos by celebrities Larry Wilmore, Bebe Neuwirth, William H. Macy, Danielle Brooks, and Giancarlo Esposito. [Sadly, our 1943 review of Betty Smith’s classic belongs in the Reviews-That-Got-It-Wrong Hall of Shame.]
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ifemelu, the Nigerian expat and Princeton lecturer at the heart of this latest novel by Orange Prize winner Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun), writes biting, dead-on blog posts taking aim at the cultural schism between non-African blacks, Africans, and everyone else. She also observes her Auntie Uju turning herself inside out to attract a man as Ifemelu’s nephew silently accepts his mother’s aspirations. Whether Ifemelu is writing a treatise on how to care for black hair or a scathing take on American students earning extra credit for bombast, her opinions bring her money and acknowledgment. But one day, as she is complimented on her nurtured American accent, Ifemelu senses that she has lost her way. A parallel plotline follows Obinze, the man Ifemelu left behind in Lagos, who emigrated to London and longs for a life in America with her. VERDICT Witty, wry, and observant, Adichie is a marvelous storyteller who writes passionately about the difficulty of assimilation and the love that binds a man, a woman, and their homeland. Her work should be read by anyone clutching at the belief that we’re living in a postracial United States. (LJ 5/1/13)—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Estero, FL
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Dickens, CA, is so embarrassing yet so inconsequential that it has disappeared from the map. One of its residents is Professor Mee, who teaches sociology at Riverside Community College. As a single parent, he homeschools his son while using him in a radical social science experiment with racial implications that might someday result in a profitable book. After Mee is killed in a police shoot-out, the son draws on what he has learned about sociology to launch a crusade that he hopes will put Dickens back on the map. To bring the town some national attention, he resorts to the shocking means of reinstituting slavery and segregation. While he seems to succeed, his actions ultimately bring him before the U.S. Supreme Court, which must consider the ramifications of the case. VERDICT Beatty (The White Boy Shuffle) creates a wicked satire that pokes fun at all that is sacred to life in the United States, from father-son dynamics right up to the Supreme Court. His story is full of the unexpected, resulting in absurd and hilarious drama. (LJ 10/15/14)—Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In this extended open letter to his young son, Samori, Atlantic national correspondent and senior editor Coates (The Beautiful Struggle) reflects further on his unlikely road to manhood and escape from the maw of America’s tradition—nay, heritage—of destroying the black body. Mixing memoir, discourse, and outcry, Coates details what it has meant and what it means to be black in America, especially what it has meant and means to be a black male. His review pays special attention to the American Dream amid the physically painful and exhausting realities of U.S. ghettos from slavery to the killing fields of Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore, where he grew up living in fear. Pleading for his son to understand the struggle even as it shifts in time and place, Coates cautions against illusions that America’s racism exists in a distant past that needs not be discussed. VERDICT This powerful little book may well serve as a primer for black parents, particularly those with sons. However, it is also a provocative read for anyone interested in a candid perspective on the headlines and the history of being black in America. (LJ 8/15)—Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Díaz follows up his breathtaking story collection, Drown, with a brief and wondrous novel about a second-generation Dominican nerd nicknamed Oscar Wao. More than a coming-of-age tale—and more than an account of the Latino experience—this robust work uses Oscar’s sharp and distinctive voice to delineate the human struggle to define oneself. (“Best Books 2007,” LJ 12/07)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Social novel depicting lives of the Nolans, a tenement family in Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, before and during First World War. Beauty, wholesome philosophy, and honesty intermingled with stark realism, poverty, and continued struggle. Of special interest to readers acquainted with Brooklyn, but the Nolans, their neighbors, and friends could be found in tenement district of any large city. Characterization good; plot well developed. Certain incidents may be too realistic for some readers. Not needed in most small libraries.