While staying safe at home we are continuing our journey into the world of award winning books with a look at some of the Pulitzer Prize winners that were announced in April. Last week we took a look at the Miles Franklin Literary Shortlist for 2020, which you can read here.
The Pulitzer Prize is an award for achievements in newspaper, magazine and online journalism, literature, and musical composition in the United States. It was established in 1917 by provisions in the will of Joseph Pulitzer.
There are a number of categories, you can see them all here, so we have chosen our top 6 books from the genres of fiction, drama, history, biography and general non-fiction. The winners all share stories, some true, others fictional, but all important and worth reading.
Pop the jug on for a cuppa and settle in…
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – Winner of Fiction
Elwood Curtis has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart: he is as good as anyone. Abandoned by his parents, brought up by his loving, strict and clearsighted grandmother, Elwood is about to enrol in the local black college. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his future, and so Elwood arrives at The Nickel Academy, which claims to provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ which will equip its inmates to become ‘honourable and honest men’. In reality, the Nickel Academy is a chamber of horrors, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse is rife, where corrupt officials and tradesmen do a brisk trade in supplies intended for the school, and where any boy who resists is likely to disappear ‘out back’. Stunned to find himself in this vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr King’s ringing assertion, ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’ But Elwood’s fellow inmate and new friend Turner thinks Elwood is naive and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors. The tension between Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision which will have decades-long repercussions. Based on the history of a real reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped and destroyed the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating and driven narrative.
A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson – Winner of Drama
A Strange Loop has been performed as a musical however it is being published in book form in September this year. You can pre order a copy by clicking through the link above.
A Strange Loop is a metafictional musical that tracks the creative process of an artist transforming issues of identity, race, and sexuality that once pushed him to the margins of the cultural mainstream into a meditation on universal human fears and insecurities. Usher is a black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical: a piece about a black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical. Michael R. Jackson’s blistering, momentous new musical follows a young artist at war with a host of demons, not least of which, the punishing thoughts in his own head, in an attempt to capture and understand his own strange loop.
Sweet Taste of Liberty by W Caleb McDaniel – Winner of History
Born into slavery, Henrietta Wood was taken to Cincinnati and legally freed in1848. In 1853, a Kentucky deputy sheriff named Zebulon Ward colluded with Wood’s employer, abducted her, and sold her back into bondage. She remained enslaved throughout the Civil War, giving birth to a son in Mississippi and never forgetting who had put her in this position.
By 1869, Wood had obtained her freedom for a second time and returned to Cincinnati, where she sued Ward for damages in 1870. Astonishingly, after eight years of litigation, Wood won her case: in 1878, a Federal jury awarded her $2,500. The decision stuck on appeal. More important than the amount, though the largest ever awarded by an American court in restitution for slavery, was the fact that any money was awarded at all. By the time the case was decided, Ward had become a wealthy businessman and a pioneer of convict leasing in the South. Wood’s son later became a prominent Chicago lawyer, and she went on to live until 1912.
McDaniel’s book is an epic tale of a black woman who survived slavery twice and who achieved more than merely a moral victory over one of her oppressors. Above all, Sweet Taste of Liberty is a portrait of an extraordinary individual as well as a searing reminder of the lessons of her story, which establish beyond question the connections between slavery and the prison system that rose in its place.
Sontag by Benjamin Moser – Winner of Biography
Susan Sontag was a great literary star. Her brilliant, serious mind combined with her striking image, her rigorous intellectualism and her groundbreaking inquiries into what was then seen as ‘low culture’ – celebrity, photographs, camp – propelled her into her own unique, inimitable category and made her famous the world over, emblematic of twentieth-century New York literary glamour.
Today we need her ideas more than ever. Her writing on art and politics, feminism and homosexuality, celebrity and style, medicine and drugs, radicalism, Fascism, Freudianism, Communism and Americanism, forms an indispensable guide to our modern world. Sontag was present at many of the most crucial events of the twentieth century: when the Cuban Revolution began, and when the Berlin Wall came down, in Vietnam under American bombardment, in wartime Israel and in besieged Sarajevo. Sontag tells these stories and examines her work, as well as exploring the woman behind Sontag’s formidable public face: the broken relationships, the struggles with her sexuality, her agonising construction of herself and her public myth.
Sontag is the first biography based on exclusive access to her restricted personal archives and on hundreds of interviews conducted with many people around the world who spoke freely for the first time about Susan Sontag, including Annie Leibovitz. It is a definitive portrait of an endlessly complex, dazzling woman; one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers, who lived one of its most fascinating lives.
The End of the Myth by Greg Grandin – Winner of General Non-Fiction
Ever since this nation’s inception, the idea of an open and ever-expanding frontier has been central to American identity. Symbolising a future of endless promise, it was the foundation of the United States’ belief in itself as an exceptional nation; democratic, individualistic, forward-looking. Today, though, America has a new symbol: the border wall.
In The End of the Myth, acclaimed historian Greg Grandin explores the meaning of the frontier throughout the full sweep of U.S. history from the American Revolution to the War of 1898, the New Deal to the election of 2016. For centuries, he shows, America’s constant expansion, fighting wars and opening markets, served as a “gate of escape,” helping to deflect domestic political and economic conflicts outward. But this deflection meant that the country’s problems, from racism to inequality, were never confronted directly. And now, the combined catastrophe of the 2008 financial meltdown and our un-winnable wars in the Middle East have slammed this gate shut, bringing political passions that had long been directed elsewhere back home.
It is this new reality, Grandin says, that explains the rise of reactionary populism and racist nationalism, the extreme anger and polarisation that catapulted Trump to the presidency. The border wall may or may not be built, but it will survive as a rallying point, an allegorical tombstone marking the end of American exceptionalism.
The Undying by Anne Boyer – Winner of General Non-Fiction
A week after her forty-first birthday, the acclaimed poet Anne Boyer was diagnosed with highly aggressive triple-negative breast cancer. For a single mother living pay-check to pay-check who had always been the caregiver rather than the one needing care, the catastrophic illness was both a crisis and an initiation into new ideas about mortality and the gendered politics of illness.
A twenty first century Illness as Metaphor, as well as a harrowing memoir of survival, The Undying explores the experience of illness as mediated by digital screens, weaving in ancient Roman dream diarists, cancer hoaxers and fetishists, cancer vloggers, corporate lies, John Donne, pro-pain ”dolorists,” the ecological costs of chemotherapy, and the many little murders of capitalism. It excoriates the pharmaceutical industry and the bland hypocrisies of ”pink ribbon culture” while also diving into the long literary line of women writing about their own illnesses and ongoing deaths: Audre Lorde, Kathy Acker, Susan Sontag, and others.
A genre-bending memoir in the tradition of The Argonauts, The Undying will break your heart, make you angry, and show you contemporary America as a thing both desperately ill and occasionally, perversely glorious.