Russell Banks grew up in a working-class world that has played a major role in shaping his writing. Through a dozen novels and short story collections that have won him Guggenheim and NEA grants and a St. Lawrence Prize for fiction, Banks has made a life’s work of charting the causes and effects of the terrible things “normal” men can and will do. He writes with an intensely focused empathy and a compassionate sense of humor that help to keep readers, if not his characters, afloat through the misadventures and outright tragedies in his books.
Suggested Title: The Sweet Hereafter
Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a sweeping, epic tale of the adventures of two young men through New York City’s cultural and commercial life in the 1930s and 1940s. The novel weaves together themes of the relationship between art and political resistance, the Holocaust, McCarthyism, homophobia, and friendship. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Suggested Title: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Billy Collins (US Poet Laureate 2001-2003) is an American phenomenon. No poet since Robert Frost has managed to combine high critical acclaim with such broad popular appeal. Collins sees his poetry as “a form of travel writing” and considers humor “a door into the serious.” The typical Collins poem opens on a clear and hospitable note, but soon takes an unexpected turn; poems that begin in irony may end in a moment of lyric surprise. The accessibility of his work offers students an appealing entry into the study and appreciation of poetry. According to Billy Collins, poems can inspire and make us think about what it means to be a member of the human race.
Suggested Title: The Trouble with Poetry
Firoozeh Dumas is the bestselling author of Funny in Farsi, her smart and funny memoir of growing up in Iran and California. Jimmy Carter called Funny in Farsi “a humorous and introspective chronicle of a life filled with love—of family, country and heritage.” Funny in Farsi is now on the California Recommended Reading List and is used in many junior high, high schools, and universities across the country. Firoozeh Dumas’ most recent memoir is entitled Laughing Without an Accent (May 2008).
Timothy Egan is an acclaimed writer and veteran chronicler of the West whose interests range wide across the American landscape and American history. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, a popular columnist, and a National Book Award-winning author. His book The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, has been called "can’t-put-it-down history." It won the 2006 National Book Award for nonfiction.
In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman chronicles the trials of an epileptic Hmong child and her family living in Merced, California. Fadiman’s sensitive, incisive treatment of the unbreachable gulf between the Hmong and American medical systems won her a National Book Critics’ Circle Award. In her talks, Anne Fadiman deals with the cross-cultural challenge she faced, and she discusses the lessons she learned about how American health care providers can provide more sensitive and effective care for patients from other cultures.
Suggested Title: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
Alexandra Fuller is the author of the national bestseller Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, which was a New York Times Notable Book and a Booksense Nonfiction Pick of the Year. Her most recent work, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant (May 2008), recounts the life (and death) of a young roughneck in Wyoming. Fuller has also written extensively for magazines and newspapers including The New Yorker and National Geographic.
Suggested Title: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
Growing out of a ground-breaking three-part series in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert’s book Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change brings the environment into the consciousness of the American people and asks what, if anything, can be done, and how we can save our planet. With interviews from researchers and environmentalists, Kolbert explains the science and the studies, and unpacks the politics, offering a clear, succinct, and invaluable report from the front.
Suggested Title: Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change
A Renaissance Man for the 21st century, Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, artist, and author who writes on numerous topics, including high-technology business, the social impact of technology, the philosophy of consciousness and information, Internet politics, and the future of humanism. In 2010, Lanier was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. He has also been named one of top one hundred public intellectuals in the world by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines, and one of history’s 300 or so greatest inventors in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Erik Larson is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, including The Devil in the White City, which remained on the Times‘ hardcover and paperback lists for a combined total of over three years. It won an Edgar Award for nonfiction crime writing and was a finalist for a National Book Award. His most recent book is In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. A vivid portrait of Berlin during the first years of Hitler’s reign, Larson has crafted a gripping, deeply-intimate narrative with a climax that reads like the best political thriller.
Suggested Title: The Devil in the White City
To read Barry Lopez is to commune with a deep thinker. His writings have frequently been compared to those of Henry David Thoreau, as he brings a depth of erudition to the text by immersing himself in his surroundings, deftly integrating his environmental and humanitarian concerns. In his nonfiction, he often examines the relationship between human culture and physical landscape. In his fiction, he frequently addresses issues of intimacy, ethics, and identity.
Suggested Title: Arctic Dreams
Anchee Min’s writing has been praised for its raw, sharp language and historical accuracy. Her bestselling memoir Red Azalea, which recounts her childhood in communist China, has been compared to The Diary of Anne Frank. Min credits the English language with giving her a means to express herself, arming her with the voice and vocabulary to write about growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution. “There was no way for me to describe those experiences or talk about those feelings in Chinese,” she has said of a language too burdened by Maoist rhetoric.
Suggested Title: Red Azalea
Azar Nafsi is best known as the author of the national bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which electrifed its readers with a compassionate and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in Iran and how it affected one university professor and her students. Earning high acclaim and an enthusiastic readership, Reading Lolita in Tehran is an incisive exploration of the transformative powers of fiction in a world of tyranny.
Suggested Title: Reading Lolita in Tehran
Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye describes herself as a “wandering poet.” She has spent 37 years traveling the country and the world to lead writing workshops and inspiring students of all ages. Nye was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother and grew up in St. Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio. Drawing on her Palestinian-American heritage, the cultural diversity of her home in Texas, and her experiences traveling in Asia, Europe, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America and the Middle East, Nye uses her writing to attest to our shared humanity.
Suggested Title: 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East
Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto was a New York Times bestseller. Pollan’s is a crucial voice in the growing discussion about our current way of eating. He is also a narrator of the feature documentary film Food, Inc., which highlights the increase of genetically-modified foods and unsavory practices in the modern food industry.
Luis J. Rodriguez
Luis Rodriguez is convinced that a writer can change the world. Indeed it is through education and the power of words that Rodriguez saw his own way out of poverty and despair in the barrio of East LA and successfully broke free from the years of violence and desperation he spent as an active gang member. Achieving success as an award-winning Chicano poet, he was sure the streets would haunt him no more — until his young son joined a gang himself.
Suggested title: Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.
Mark Salzman’s experiences in China were the inspiration for his first book, Iron & Silk. His great sense of humor—so integral to his marvelous ability to tell a story— is a highlight of his public appearances. Mark Salzman’s book True Notebooks is a fascinating look at his experiences as a writing teacher at Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for violent teenage offenders. Common to each of his works is the theme of how people struggle to reach an ideal but often fall short.
Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky
Stress expert and researcher Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky is the author of several books, including A Primate’s Memoir. He investigates the body’s response to stress, combining insights from the field and the lab; Sapolsky reveals how relationships between physiology, personality, and stress affect our health and our ability to meet personal and professional challenges. He has the rare gift of being able, as Dr. Oliver Sacks puts it, “to deal with the weightiest topics both authoritatively and wittily, with so light a touch they become accessible to all.”
Persepolis tells the story of Satrapi’s youth in Iran in the 1970s and 80s, and of living through the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. It is a book about childhood, beset by the unthinkable, but buffered by an extraordinary and loving family. Persepolis has been lauded with comparisons to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and won several prestigious comic book awards. The feature film of Persepolis has been released in the US to great acclaim.
Suggested Title: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Eric Schlosser’s first book Fast Food Nation helped start a revolution in how Americans think about what they eat. With a background as an investigative reporter, Schlosser offers an incisive history of the development of American fast food and indicts the industry for some shocking crimes against humanity, including systematically destroying the American diet and landscape, and undermining our values and our economy.
Novelist Zadie Smith was born in North London in 1975 to an English father and a Jamaican mother. She read English at Cambridge, graduating in 1997. Her acclaimed first novel, White Teeth (2000), is a vibrant portrait of contemporary multicultural London, told through the story of three ethnically diverse families. The book won a number of awards and prizes, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book), and two BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Awards (Best Book/Novel and Best Female Media Newcomer).
Suggested title: White Teeth
Art Spiegelman has almost single-handedly brought comic books out of the toy closet and onto the literature shelves. In 1992 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his masterful Holocaust narrative MAUS. His work MAUS II continues the remarkable story of his parents’ survival of the Nazi regime and their lives later in America. His comics are best known for their shifting graphic styles, their formal complexity, and controversial content. He believes that in our post-literate culture the importance of the comic is on the rise, for “comics echo the way the brain works.”
Suggested titles: MAUS I & II
Born in the US to immigrant parents from China, Amy Tan rejected her mother’s expectations that she become a doctor and concert pianist. She chose to write fiction instead. Her novels are The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter's Daughter, and Saving Fish from Drowning, all New York Times bestsellers and recipients of various awards.
Sarah Vowell is the New York Times’ bestselling author of five nonfiction books on American history and culture. By examining the connections between the American past and present, she offers personal, often humorous accounts of everything from presidents and their assassins to colonial religious fanatics, as well as thoughts on American Indians, utopian dreamers, pop music and the odd cranky cartographer.
Chris Ware was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1967. Ware moved to Chicago in the early 90s and began publishing in the pages of The Chicago Reader, which has formed the bulk of material that he's been collecting in his regular periodical, The ACME Novelty Library, since 1994. From both this strip and periodical emerged the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan — the Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 2000) which received an American Book Award in 2000, the Guardian First Book Award in 2001, and the French comics award "L'Alph Art" in 2003. In 2009 Jimmy Corrigan was named as one of the “100 Best Books of the Decade” by The Times (London).
Suggested title: Jimmy Corrigan — the Smartest Kid on Earth
Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams is perhaps best known for her book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, in which she chronicles the epic rise of the Great Salt Lake and the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in 1983, alongside her mother’s diagnosis with ovarian cancer. This work is now regarded as a classic in American nature writing. Terry Tempest Williams believes landscape shapes culture. A passionate advocate for public lands and a fierce voice for freedom of speech, Williams was named by Utne Reader as one of its “Utne 100 Visionaries.”
Suggested Title: Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place