Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Amy W’s Picks

According to this post, it seems I only read coming of age literary novels and hard-hitting non-fiction. But really look at it this way, I have spent a summer on an Ojibwe Indian reservation and in a small Midwest town both faced with terrible crimes, followed a Civil Rights icon on our nation’s path to equality, lived in rural Mississippi a few days before Hurricane Katrina hit and examined the day to day life of soldiers returning home with PTSD and/ or traumatic brain injury. I learned a lot, not just facts, but also about the human spirit.

The Round HouseRound House by Louise Erdrich
This book grabbed me in the first paragraph. The narrative is compelling as Joe, his tribal judge father and his community try to process the violent crime committed against his mother. The investigation is complex since his mother, traumatized, is unable to provide details and the laws governing the reservation and state laws strangle any chance of justice with red tape. Joe and his friends decide to take matters in their own hands. Erdrich balances this story nicely, with humor and excitement but also a serious examination of justice. This book also makes a great book club discussion.

Thank You for Your ServiceThank You for Your Service by David Finkel
Journalist David Finkel follows members of the US 2-16 Infantry Battalion as they return home from service in Iraq. The soldiers often hear the sentiment “Thank you for your service” from appreciative Americans. However, that appreciation, no matter how heart-felt, has no real impact on their day to day life at home after returning from war. Many of the soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and/or traumatic brain injury. Their families are at a loss when it comes to caring for them, the public cannot seem to grasp the pain of invisible injuries and veteran assistance, when available, can also require great sacrifice ultimately adding to the stress of daily life. A notable book of 2013, Thank You for Your Service is a close look at the tragedy of a war that never ends for members of the armed forces.

The Devil in the GroveDevil in the Grove by Gilbert King
The Pulitzer prize-winning book is Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King and it is much more than an account of the trial of three young African-American men accused of kidnapping and raping a white woman in rural 1948 Florida. It is a detailed glimpse in the complex machinations of the Civil Rights Movement as played out in the courtroom. Marshall’s landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954 Supreme Court decision disallowing school segregation) was the result of years of planning and small victories that ultimately overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. I just had no real understanding of the complex planning it took to make it to that one important case. Thurgood Marshall (chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) and the NAACP frequently took on lots of cases like the Groveland Boys. Their strategy was never acquittal but to kick the case up to higher courts through appeals with a decision that not only acquits the innocent but also has broader significance to civil rights with each case building on top of one another. If you think this book sounds like a somewhat interesting, but probably overly detailed academic snooze fest you are wrong. Devil in the Grove is a well-written, accessible and at times, a page-turner.  See my full review.

Ordinary GraceOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Life is idyllic in a small, northern Minnesota town during the summer of 1961 until the town is rocked by a series of murders. 13 year-old Frank Drum gets caught up in the the excitement as he and his friends speculate about who may have committed the sinister acts. Frank’s amateur investigations reveals the complexities of life in a simple, small town as those around him struggle with their life decisions. Ordinary Grace is a beautifully written, compelling page turner.

Salvage the BonesSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
It wasn’t that the Batiste family decided to stay in their home while Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, it was that they had bigger battles consuming their lives. Every chapter moves the storm one day closer with some chapters the storm is not mentioned at all. Having never recovered from the death of their mother, Esch (the narrator), her brothers and her alcoholic father live a hand to mouth existence in rural Mississippi. As the storm approaches, their lives become unraveled. Esch, is fifteen, pregnant and alone with her secret. At a time Esch needs a mother the most, the memories of her mother fade all too quickly. This 2011 National Book Award winner is a tough read. Sometimes I find a book so incredibly heart-breaking, I struggle to turn the page and consider closing the book. Ward, growing up in the rural Gulf Coast did not have a chance to turn the page either or close the book on her life. Instead, she put words to paper creating a beautiful novel, rich in hope.  See my full review.

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