The 2023 Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week. Established in 1917 by provisions in the will of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, prizes are awarded yearly in twenty-one categories. For our purposes, we’ll skip the journalism awards and focus on the book categories. But don’t let that stop you from exploring all the awards.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, this is the story of a boy born to a teenaged single mother in a single-wide trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. In a plot that never pauses for breath, relayed in his own unsparing voice, he braves the modern perils of foster care, child labor, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even the superheroes have abandoned rural people in favor of cities.
Many generations ago, Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield from his experience as a survivor of institutional poverty and its damages to children in his society. Those problems have yet to be solved in ours. Dickens is not a prerequisite for readers of this novel, but he provided its inspiration. In transposing a Victorian epic novel to the contemporary American South, Barbara Kingsolver enlists Dickens’ anger and compassion, and above all, his faith in the transformative powers of a good story. Demon Copperhead speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.
Trust by Hernan Diaz
Even through the roar and effervescence of the 1920s, everyone in New York has heard of Benjamin and Helen Rask. He is a legendary Wall Street tycoon; she is the daughter of eccentric aristocrats. Together, they have risen to the very top of a world of seemingly endless wealth—all as a decade of excess and speculation draws to an end. But at what cost have they acquired their immense fortune? This is the mystery at the center of Bonds , a successful 1937 novel that all of New York seems to have read. Yet there are other versions of this tale of privilege and deceit.
Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power by Jefferson Cowie
American freedom is typically associated with the fight of the oppressed for a better world. But for centuries, whenever the federal government intervened on behalf of nonwhite people, many white Americans fought back in the name of freedom—their freedom to dominate others.
In Freedom’s Dominion, historian Jefferson Cowie traces this complex saga by focusing on a quintessentially American place: Barbour County, Alabama, the ancestral home of political firebrand George Wallace. In a land shaped by settler colonialism and chattel slavery, white people weaponized freedom to seize Native lands, champion secession, overthrow Reconstruction, question the New Deal, and fight against the civil rights movement.
A riveting history of the long-running clash between white people and federal authority, this book radically shifts our understanding of what freedom means in America.
Memoir or Autobiography
Stay True by Hua Hsu
In the eyes of eighteen-year-old Hua Hsu, the problem with Ken–with his passion for Dave Matthews, Abercrombie & Fitch, and his fraternity–is that he is exactly like everyone else. Ken, whose Japanese American family has been in the United States for generations, is mainstream; for Hua, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, who makes ‘zines and haunts Bay Area record shops, Ken represents all that he defines himself in opposition to. The only thing Hua and Ken have in common is that, however they engage with it, American culture doesn’t seem to have a place for either of them.
But despite his first impressions, Hua and Ken become friends, a friendship built on late-night conversations over cigarettes, long drives along the California coast, and the textbook successes and humiliations of everyday college life. And then violently, senselessly, Ken is gone, killed in a carjacking, not even three years after the day they first meet.
Determined to hold on to all that was left of one of his closest friends–his memories–Hua turned to writing. Stay True is the book he’s been working on ever since. A coming-of-age story that details both the ordinary and extraordinary, Stay True is a bracing memoir about growing up, and about moving through the world in search of meaning and belonging.
G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century by Beverly Gage
We remember him as a bulldog–squat frame, bulging wide-set eyes, fearsome jowls–but in 1924, when he became director of the FBI, he had been the trim, dazzling wunderkind of the administrative state, buzzing with energy and big ideas for reform. He transformed a failing law-enforcement backwater, riddled with scandal, into a modern machine. He believed in the power of the federal government to do great things for the nation and its citizens. He also believed that certain people–many of them communists or racial minorities or both– did not deserve to be included in that American project. Hoover rose to power and then stayed there, decade after decade, using the tools of state to create a personal fiefdom unrivaled in U.S. history.
Beverly Gage’s monumental work explores the full sweep of Hoover’s life and career, from his birth in 1895 to a modest Washington civil-service family through his death in 1972. In her nuanced and definitive portrait, Gage shows how Hoover was more than a one-dimensional tyrant and schemer who strong-armed the rest of the country into submission. As FBI director from 1924 through his death in 1972, he was a confidant, counselor, and adversary to eight U.S. presidents, four Republicans and four Democrats. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson did the most to empower him, yet his closest friend among the eight was fellow anticommunist warrior Richard Nixon. Hoover was not above blackmail and intimidation, but he also embodied conservative values ranging from anticommunism to white supremacy to a crusading and politicized interpretation of Christianity. This garnered him the admiration of millions of Americans. He stayed in office for so long because many people, from the highest reaches of government down to the grassroots, wanted him there and supported what he was doing, thus creating the template that the political right has followed to transform its party.
G-Man places Hoover back where he once stood in American political history–not at the fringes, but at the center–and uses his story to explain the trajectories of governance, policing, race, ideology, political culture, and federal power as they evolved over the course of the 20th century.
His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa
The events of that day are now tragically familiar: on May 25, 2020, George Floyd became the latest Black person to die at the hands of the police, murdered outside of a Minneapolis convenience store by white officer Derek Chauvin. The video recording of his death set off a series of protests in the United States and around the world, awakening millions to the dire need for reimagining this country’s broken systems of policing. But behind a face that would be graffitied onto countless murals, and a name that has become synonymous with civil rights, there is the reality of one man’s stolen life: a life beset by suffocating systemic pressures that ultimately proved inescapable.
This biography of George Floyd shows the athletic young boy raised in the projects of Houston’s Third Ward who would become a father, a partner, a friend, and a man constantly in search of a better life. In retracing Floyd’s story, Washington Post reporters Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa bring to light the determination Floyd carried as he faced the relentless struggle to survive as a Black man in America. Placing his narrative within the larger context of America’s deeply troubled history of institutional racism, His Name Is George Floyd examines the Floyd family’s roots in slavery and sharecropping, the segregation of his Houston schools, the overpolicing of his communities, the devastating snares of the prison system, and his attempts to break free from drug dependence–putting today’s inequality into uniquely human terms. Drawing upon hundreds of interviews and extensive original reporting, Samuels and Olorunnipa offer a poignant and moving exploration of George Floyd’s America, revealing how a man who simply wanted to breathe ended up touching the world.
Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007-2020 by Carl Phillips
Carl Phillips has aptly described his work as an “ongoing quest”; Then the War is the next step in that meaningful process of self-discovery for both the poet and his reader. The new poems, written in a time of rising racial conflict in the United States, with its attendant violence and uncertainty, find Phillips entering deeper into the landscape he has made his own: a forest of intimacy, queerness, and moral inquiry, where the farther we go, the more difficult it is to remember why or where we started. Ultimately, Phillips refuses pessimism, arguing for tenderness and human connection as profound forces for revolution and conjuring a spell against indifference and the easy escapes of nostalgia. Then the War is luminous testimony to the power of self-reckoning and to Carl Phillips as an ever-changing, necessary voice in contemporary poetry.