What a treat that American poet laureate Joy Harjo shared with an audience at the Peter White Public Library last month, as part of the NEA Big Read. The National Endowment for the Arts recently released the 2022/2023 List of Books for which communities can select and write grant applications, for next year’s Big Read. Here are a few from the list.
“Nothing to see here” by Kevin Wilson tests the bond of family ties, with the pressure to preserve appearances, all enveloped in children who spontaneously ignite when they are upset. The twins come to live with their father, who hopes to become secretary of state in the coming months. This means that they will need to be present, but only for the photos, not to bond with their father, stepmother and stepbrother. Enter Lillian, a 28-year-old grocery clerk who went to school with the mother – Madison. She was asked to take care of the children, to try to find a way to help them control the outbreaks of fire. Lillian is at the forefront of politics, pain and growth that can arise in families, and finds herself defining her own role in the family. This laughing book has the most satisfying end.
“The bear” by Andrew Krivak. In an Edenic future, a girl and her father are the last two humans on Earth. They live off the dirt in a log cabin on a mountain in New England. Every year of her life, the father teaches the daughter a new survival skill, how to hunt, how to salt meat, how to sew clothes, how to make a bow – to name a few. While traveling east to the ocean to find salt to cure the meat, her father has an accident, becomes ill and dies. The girl is now lost and alone in the desert. A bear appears and offers to guide the girl home. The journey will test her resolve and newfound skills, as she mourns her loss and discovers her strength to continue.
“Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on the Planet” (memory) by Sarah Smarsh. Journalist Smarsh documents her family history in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s. Cyclical poverty, abusive relationships, unsafe working conditions, untreated health issues, all create tension for Smarsh’s family who yearns for a burst of success offered by the American Dream. Smarsh shares memories of what the economic crisis of the 80s meant for his Heartland community. How her family dreamed of a better life, took a risk, but failed, not once, but again, and again and again. It is a testament to the courage of people who did not dream of riches, but of affording the basic supplies of life.
“Can’t we talk about something nicer?” “ By Roz Chast is a funny laugh. Often. In these graphic novel-style memoirs, Chast recounts how she experienced her parents’ final years in their Brooklyn apartment, then in a retirement home. And they don’t want to talk about death. This leaves Chast to make the decisions, while respecting the dignity and independence of his parents. And his parents are fiercely independent. Split between going to town to meet the needs of his parents, raising his own family in the upstate and working as a designer, Chast explains it all. The good, the bad, the funny, the crude, the hurt, the tough. Those with aging parents and those who support caregivers will identify with and appreciate this book. It’s full of great topics for conversation with your own aging parents.
“Sitting pretty: the sight of my ordinary resilient disabled body” by Rebekah Taussig. In her revealing memoir, Taussig doesn’t suffer at all when she writes her thoughts on disability today. Through stories about when she lived with others and alone, Taussig is straightforward, honest, and hilarious. She challenges the complex issues of charity and acts of kindness, how disability is portrayed in the media, and how disability affects us all. It is a book that everyone should read.
“Infinite country” by Patricia Engel is a story of finding your identity, when one half of a family exists in one culture, and the other half exists in another. For 16-year-old Colombian Talia, the reunification of her family (in Bogota and America) could help her give meaning to her life. She has lived with her father in Bogota since he was deported from the United States when she was little. Her mother, older brother and sister stayed behind. It is the story of two countries and a family that cannot be together because of immigration status. Both a story of love and loss, this book provides meaningful insight into a national conversation and the impact of policies on real life.
By Jenifer Kilpela