Literary Masters Salons: THE LIST 2019-2020 Season
Order may vary slightly among facilitators
Book 1: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
In her compelling novel which alternates between the emerging gay scene in Chicago during the mid-80’s and Paris in 2015, Makkai offers one of the first examinations of the AIDS crisis from its initial outbreak through to almost present day. With the progress that has been made in treatment and prevention of AIDS, it is easy to forget how terrifying the early days of the epidemic were, how muted the government’s initial reaction was and how far reaching the consequences of the disease have been. Makkai gives us a family saga, a public health history lesson and an enormously engaging story about the power – and limitations – of love.
Book 2: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
You may have read it in high school or college. Or maybe it was banned in your school as it was in many others, but as our classic for the season celebrates its 50th anniversary, Slaughterhouse-Five is as relevant as ever. Written during the Vietnam War era but in reaction to Vonnegut’s experience as a prisoner of war who witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden up close, it is an examination of free will, a statement about the uselessness of war, and a very funny, even hopeful, novel in its own way. How much power do we have over our lives? Are our stories pre-determined for us? We will surely be debating these questions and many more.
Book 3: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
The narrator of this 2018 National Book Award-winning novel is mourning the loss of her friend, mentor and former lover to suicide while grappling with his bequest – a 100+ lbs. Harlequin Great Dane. In a compelling and often funny story that juggles great loss, womanizing men adapting to a #metoo world, the feared obsolescence of fiction, and the snarkiness of publishing, Nunez gives us much to enjoy and discuss.
Book 4: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
In a book whose power and scope might be easy to underestimate at first, Keane, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 author, serves up a family drama of domestic turmoil starting in New York City in the 1970’s and moving forward over the next 40 years. The intertwined story of two families of New York City police officers living next door to each other in the City’s suburbs, explodes in a moment of tragedy that will allow us to examine many essential questions about the power of empathy, forgiveness and family.
Book 5: The White Devil’s Daughters: The Fight Against Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown by Julia Flynn Siler
Our non-fiction selection for the season is a gripping account of the rampant sex trafficking in the mid-1800’s of young Asian girls in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and the formidable figures who built a haven to free and educate these exploited young women. We will “dig deep” into a portion of our history which has been largely unknown and ignored, and which was fueled by overwhelming racism and sexism. How much has changed? How much has not? We’ll decide!
Book 6: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
In his follow-up to The Underground Railroad, the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize- winning novel about slavery in America, Whitehead explores a new slice of American history: Jim Crowe and the early Civil Rights era in the American South. The book focuses on two residents of The Nickel School – inspired by the real-life, notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in northern Florida, where more than 100 boys died between 1913 and 1960. Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, says, “A writer like Whitehead, who challenges the complacent assumption that we even fathom what happened in our past, has rarely seemed more essential.”
Book 7: The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells
Our book in translation this season spent a year-and-a-half on a major, German best-seller list and won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2016. Despite this success, it is the first of Wells’ four novels to be translated into English. Written from the perspective of the youngest of three children in a family marred by misfortune, it gives us the opportunity to explore how people facing great tragedy manage to find purpose, meaning and even love as they move forward.
Book 8: Loving Day by Matt Johnson
At the start of the novel, taking place in current day Philadelphia, our mixed-race protagonist describes the teenage daughter he never knew he had: “It’s a white girl. My white girl. It’s my black girl who looks like a white girl with a tan and a bad hair day.” This genre-bending book is, as Johnson describes it, his “coming out as a mulatto,” which he does with razor-sharp humor while examining race and mixed race in current day America. Johnson is a gifted storyteller, and he gives us the opportunity to examine how racial identity – or lack thereof – impacts how we tell and receive stories.