The winner of the fiction medal is Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. Other books shortlisted for the fiction award were Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. We considered all three of these fiction titles as future book club selections but decided ultimately to only read Lincoln in the Bardo. Perhaps we will go back and pick up the other two titles now that they have been so honored.
The nonfiction medal winner is You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: a Memoir by Sherman Alexie. The shortlisted titles are The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg and Flowers of the Desert Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. I have more to say about the nonfiction titles than the fiction titles because I have read two of the books and heard the author of the third speak about nuclear war.
My husband and I listened to the audiobook of You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: a Memoir by Sherman Alexie last fall when we were on a car-trip together. We have heard Alexie speak several times and have listened to audiobooks of several of his earlier titles. He reads his own books and the listener is treated to the interesting cadence of his voice as he recounts stories from his own life.
When Alexie's mother died at the age of 78, this famed author did what he knew to do-- he wrote. The book isn't just a straight memoir about his mother's life and his relationship with her, but it is a collection of poems (78), essays (78), and lots of family photos that give the reader a good idea of what it was like to grow up Alexie on a reservation in Eastern Washington state.
"Alexie shares raw, angry, funny, profane, tender memories of a childhood few can imagine--growing up dirt-poor on an Indian reservation, one of four children raised by alcoholic parents. Throughout, a portrait emerges of his mother as a beautiful, mercurial, abusive, intelligent, complicated woman. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me is a powerful account of a complicated relationship, an unflinching and unforgettable remembrance " (Book Jacket).The book is heartbreaking, funny, and very enlightening. Though we enjoyed hearing Alexie read his own poems and essays, we missed seeing all the photographs by listening to the audiobook and will need to check out a print edition from the library to see them. Though his story, and his mother's story has so many heartbreaking elements, Alexie's ironic humor make the book bearable, even enjoyable. We found ourselves laughing right after we cried.
If you haven't read any Alexie, I suggest you start with his much-awarded, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, a semi-autobiographical/fictional account of a young Indian growing up on the Wellpinit Reservation (Spokane tribe) in Washington state, but going to school off the Res...making him a part-time Indian in both places. Then read or listen to this book You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: a Memoir and the picture of his life will be filled in. I really want to encourage you to read anything and everything by this author but I want to warn you---you will be a changed person when you do. It is impossible to stay neutral about the deplorable history Indians have had to endure in our country.
Thinking about the death of his mother, with whom Alexie had a very complicated relationship, I found this quote from his fictional masterpiece. It seems like a good quote with which to end this review.
“When anybody, no matter how old they are, loses a parent, I think it hurts the same as if you were only five years old, you know? I think all of us are always five years old in the presence and absence of our parents.” ― Sherman Alexie,
Back in the 1920s the richest people on earth were members the Osage Indian tribe in Oklahoma. Their land, which they had purchased when the government displaced them several times from other ares of the country was sitting on an oil field. Then suddenly one by one the members of the tribe were being murdered and no one could get to the bottom of it. Mollie Burkhart's whole family was killed one by one until all that was left of her family was her own husband and children.
"In this last remnant of the Wild West...virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations... Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history." (Goodreads).This true-crime murder-mystery reads like the very best of crime fiction except it is all true. Somehow this very notorious event has been essentially swept clean from our history books. But thankfully the author David Grann decided it was worth investigating nearly 100 years later and unbelievably he uncovers new discoveries as he searched for information about the Osage murders and the mysteries still surrounding them even as he prepared the book.
The book is divided into three parts. Part one is the accounts of life for the Osage in the 1920 and the murders. Part two is the work of the FBI by Tom White and his agents and the court cases that ensued. And part three is David Grann talking about his research and the new discoveries he made while writing the book. We listened to the audiobook and each part was read by a different voice actor, with Will Patton, one of my favorite narrators of audiobooks, reading the middle section.
The book is horrifying in its message and enlightening (again) about the poor treatment that Indians have received throughout our history. Families of the murdered Osage members are still haunted by what happened to their forefathers and by the question of what would have their lives been like if these relatives hadn't been murdered. Just because something happened in the past, doesn't make it any less relevant to those of us living today.
As I said before I consumed this book in its audio version. I was completely caught up in the mystery and outraged at what I was learning. This is a book club selection for this month and I am the host and the discussion leader. As I listened, I knew my husband would enjoy (is that the right word?) listening it, too. I handed off the CDs as I finished them. Every night at dinner we would compare notes and discuss the book. Honestly, it is so well written it seems impossible that the details really happened, but they did. I highly recommend this book but warn you, just like I did for the Alexie book, this is not easy, frilly stuff to learn. It is hard and demands that the reader view history wearing a new set of glasses.
The last book of the three honored nonfiction books The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg I haven't read. But last fall I attended a lecture where Ellsberg was the keynote speaker. What he has to tell us about nuclear war is not pretty. At the time of his lecture, Trump was threatening Kim of North Korea and made statements like my button is bigger than your button (meaning the button he could push to start a nuclear war.) What Trump doesn't seem to understand, or he wouldn't make glib comments like that, is that one hydrogen bomb will not be enough, and that exploding one will likely lead to the end of mankind. It will cause a nuclear winter which will lead to the starvation and annihilation of almost all living things. Sounds grim, I know, but I still want to read the book.
Tough stuff, all three books, but excellent, possibly life-changing reading