2018

"Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi (Vintage, 2017)

Homegoing book cover

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of two sisters, born in Ghana in the eighteenth century, each unaware of the other. One marries an Englishman and leads a life of comfort. The other is captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned, and enslaved.

We meet their descendants through eight generations and two continents: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. This extraordinary novel illuminates slavery's troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed-and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.

2017

"The Turner House" by Angela Flournoy (Plume Books, 2014)

The Turner House book cover

Love, sacrifice, pride, and unlikely inheritances; The Turner House is a compelling consideration of the price we pay for our dreams, and the ways in which our families bring us home.

Growing up in California, Angela Flournoy often visited the place where her father is from, Detroit, Michigan. The fiction she read never depicted the experiences of people like her family – working class African Americans who made up the majority of a city. The Turner House explores this American story.

2016

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler (Plume Books, 2014)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Fowler’s smart, funny, heartbreaking novel, is about a middle-class American family, ordinary in every way except one: Fern, being raised by psychologist parents, is a chimp. Rosemary, the narrator, knows Fern as her sister. Then something happened, and Fern disappears from the family. The novel explores memory, family life, childhood, child rearing, what it means to be human.

2015

"The Painter" by Peter Heller (Vintage Books, 2015)

The Painter book cover

Jim Stegner, a famous expressionist painter from Taos, struggles to manage the dark impulses within him. Jim suffered a tragedy that he's still grieving. He now lives peacefully in rural Colorado, spending his days painting and fly-fishing, until one day he encounters a brutal act of violence that rips his life wide open. Pursued by men dead set on retribution, Jim returns to New Mexico and the high-profile life he left behind, where he'll reckon with past deeds and the dark shadows in his own heart. 

2014

"For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey" by Richard Blanco (Beacon Press, 2013)

For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey book cover

In this brief and evocative memoir, Richard Blanco tells the story of the call from the White House committee and all the exhilaration and upheaval of the days that followed. He shares his life as a Latino immigrant and openly gay man discovering a new, emotional understanding of what it means to be an American. He reveals the inspiration and challenges behind the creation of the inaugural poem, "One Today," as well as two other poems commissioned for the occasion and included in the book, with translations of all three poems into his native Spanish.

Finally, Blanco reflects on his spiritual embrace of Americans everywhere through the power of poetry and his vision for its new role in our nation's consciousness. Like the inaugural poem itself, For All of Us, One Today speaks to what makes this country and its people great, marking a triumphant moment in American history and letters.

2013

"Stories for Boys" by Gregory Martin (Hawthorne Books, 2012)

Stories for Boys book cover

Stories for Boys is Gregory Martin’s memoir about coming to terms with his father’s homosexuality after an attempted suicide and the revelations that all during 39 years of marriage to Martin’s mother he was having anonymous sexual encounters with men. It also came to light that for years Martin’s father had been sexually abused as a child by his own father, an alcoholic. The book follows Martin’s deeply ambivalent journey toward reconciling his fond childhood memories with the father he must now get to know anew.

Angered over the betrayal to himself and his mother and confused by his own conflicted feelings, Martin is perplexed over how to talk to his own children about their grandfather, yet intrigued by the evolving riddle that is his father. In a narrative both heart-wrenching and redemptive, Martin shares his experiences and roller coaster emotions with startling candor and his own quirky brand of humor as he struggles to reach a place of understanding and acceptance.

2012

"The Submission" by Amy Waldman (Picador Press, 2012)

The Submission book cover

The Submission opens with a Manhattan jury's charge to choose a memorial for the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Through a blind admissions process, the jury is torn between two design finalists but eventually decides on the Garden, a four-square geometric design with a pavilion. When the jury learns that the plan they selected was drafted by a young Muslim American architect, Mohammad Khan, they know that their selection will unleash a firestorm of controversy and they are proven right.

The novel focuses on two central characters, Claire Burwell, the wife of a victim and a memorial juror who fought for the selection of the Garden, and Mohammad Khan, the stubborn, inscrutable architect who defends his design and his right, as an American, to enter and win the project. A well-drawn cast of secondary characters add their voices to create an atmosphere of urgency and controversy.

2011

"Little Bee" by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Little Bee book cover

Little Bee tells a story of two intertwined lives and the hidden world of refugees. Little Bee, a young Nigerian, is released from a British immigration detention center where she has been held under horrific conditions for two years. She seeks out the only English person she knows: Sarah, a posh young mother and magazine editor. Eventually, what happened on a beach in Nigeria, when the two first met, is revealed. Their brief encounter, a traumatic event, has haunted each woman ever since.

Narrated alternately by Little Bee and Sarah, the novel also features Sarah's young son, Charlie, who refuses to take off his Batman costume and whose "goodies/baddies" worldview leavens an otherwise dark story.

2010

"Secret Son" by Laila Lalami (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009)

Secret Son book cover

Secret Son tells the story of a young man who grows up in the slums of Casablanca with his mother, believing that his long deceased father was a poor, respected schoolteacher. Early on in the novel, Youssef El Mekki discovers that his father is in fact alive, a wealthy businessman living in the same city. Youssef sets out to find Nabil and for a time enters his father's sophisticated world.

The novel chronicles Youssef's rise in society, from the slums of Casablanca to a penthouse apartment. Set in modern Morocco, against a background of Islamic fundamentalism and corrupt liberalism, "Secret Son" looks at the struggle for identity, the need for love and family, the factors that can turn disaffected youth to religious extremism, and the desperation that grips ordinary lives in a world divided by class, politics, and religion.

2009

"My Jim" by Nancy Rawles (Three Rivers Press, 2005)

My Jim book cover

Nancy Rawles's powerful, moving novel is a harrowing account of slavery and a testament to the power of love and longing for freedom, survival of families and tradition. In My Jim, the author re-imagines Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the slave's perspective. The story follows Jim's family as they struggle to cope with his loss after his escape down the Mississippi.

My Jim is told in the voice of Sadie, the wife of Huck's enslaved traveling companion. The novel recasts Jim as more than a runaway drifting down the Mississippi River with a delinquent youth, more than the gullible victim and moral father figure to Huck in Twain's work. In telling the familiar tale from a different perspective, Rawles considers the shattered families of many slaves.

2008

"The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears" by Dinaw Mengestu (Riverhead Books, 2007)

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears book cover

Set in a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C., The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears tells a story of the African immigrant experience through three main characters: narrator Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant, who runs a small corner grocery store, and his friends, Joseph, from the Congo, and Kenneth, from Kenya. All share nostalgia for their home countries; none has come close to achieving the American dream. When a white academic and her biracial daughter move into the neighborhood and befriend Sepha, tensions build and it becomes clear they are not welcome in the gentrifying neighborhood.

The novel explores themes of race and class relations, what it means to lose family and a country, what it takes to create a new home, what it means to be an immigrant in America. The book's title comes from Dante's Inferno, where the poet is about to leave hell, on his way to purgatory, and catches a glimpse of the stars.

2007

"The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri (Mariner Books, 2004)

The Namesake book cover

The Namesake is Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel, following her Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. It takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of an arranged marriage, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle in Cambridge, Mass., where Ashoke does his best to adapt while his wife pines for home. When their son, Gogol, is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world.

Named for a Russian writer and left with his pet name rather than a proper Bengali first name, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name. He stumbles along the second generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. 
- From the publisher

2006

"Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon Books, 2003)

Persepolis book cover

Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi's wise, funny, and heartbreaking memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her childhood in Tehran from age 6 to 14. These years saw the overthrow of the Shah's regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent, outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran's last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country. Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran: of the bewildering contradictions between home and public life and of the enormous toll repressive regimes exact on the individual spirit.

2005

"When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka (Anchor Books, 2003)

When the Emperor Was Divine book cover

When the Emperor Was Divine is the story of an unnamed Japanese American family's internment during World War II. Shifting narrative points of view with each chapter, from the mother to the 11-year-old girl, to the 8-year-old boy, Otsuka portrays the devastation, dehumanization, and hardships of the camp experience. The fourth chapter looks back on the family's return to their ransacked home. In a heartbreaking reunion, the father returns home, and in the final chapter, titled "Confession," expresses his anger against those who imprisoned him.

2004

Seattle Reads Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende

The 2004 series featured seven titles from Allende's body of work.

  • My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile (HarperCollins, 2003)
  • City of the Beasts (HarperCollins, 2002)
  • Paula (HarperCollins, 1995)
  • The Infinite Plan (HarperCollins, 1993)
  • The Stories of Eva Luna (Atheneum, 1991)
  • Eva Luna (Knopf, 1988)
  • The House of the Spirits (Knopf, 1985)

2003

"A Gesture Life" by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead Books, 1999)

A Gesture Life book cover

A Gesture Life tells the story of Franklin (Doc) Hata, recently retired owner of a medical supply store in Bedley Run, a wealthy suburb of New York where Hata came to live after World War II. Although Hata is well respected in the community, his life is subtly infused with a melancholy alienation from the world and from his own feelings. As the novel unfolds, we learn more about his past, both his time in the Japanese military during World War II, during which he witnessed many horrors, and his more recent estrangement from his adopted daughter Sunny.

2002

"Wild Life" by Molly Gloss (Mariner Books, 2001)

Wild Life book cover

Set in southwest Washington State in the early 1900s, Wild Life is the story of Charlotte Bridger Drummond, a single mother who supports her five irrepressible sons by writing popular women's adventure tales. When a young girl goes missing from a logging camp near Mount St. Helens, Charlotte joins in the search for her - setting off unknowingly on an adventure both like and unlike any that she had ever imagined in her own fiction.

2001

"Fooling With Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft" by Bill Moyers (William Morrow, 1999)

Fooling With Words book cover

In featuring poetry in the third year of the project, the challenge was to find a way to open the world of poetry to people who thought they didn't like or understand it, or for whatever reason, didn't read poetry. The book chosen was Fooling with Words, a collection of interviews Bill Moyers did with 11 poets at the 1998 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.

1999

"A Lesson Before Dying" by Ernest Gaines (Random House, 1993; paperback by Vintage Books, 1997)

A Lesson Before Dying book cover

A Lesson Before Dying tells the story of Jefferson, a young black man condemned to die for a murder he didn't commit, and the teacher Grant Wiggins, who is sent to teach Jefferson how to die with dignity.

1998

"The Sweet Hereafter" by Russell Banks (HarperCollins, 1991)

The Sweet Hereafter book cover

The Sweet Hereafter tells the story of an accident on a snowy road, the resulting deaths of a town's children, and the varied ways the survivors cope with issues of acceptance and blame. Four narrators - Dolores, the bus driver; widower Billy Ansell, who loses his two children; lawyer Mitchell Stephens; and Nichole, a teenage girl who survives the crash but is in a wheelchair - tell the story.

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