What does it mean to be an American?
That's the question author Cristina Henríquez poses in her novel "The Book of Unknown Americans," which has been selected as the Lake Oswego Reads title for 2019.
Published in 2014, the book is a story of hopes and dreams, guilt and love. It examines life in America today from the perspective of various immigrants — primarily the Toros and Riveras families — while also offering insights into the lives of others living in the apartment complex where it's set.
"We are very excited about the upcoming LO Reads program," says Bill Baars, director of the Lake Oswego Public Library. "This was one of those years where we spent extra time making the decision on a title, as we wanted to get it exactly right. When we read Cristina Henríquez's book, we knew we found the one for which we had been searching.
"'The Book of Unknown Americans' is an excellent read," Baars added. "But more than that, we feel that this will be a catalyst for wonderful, wide-ranging and provocative conversations and programs."
Now in its 13th year, Lake Oswego Reads is designed to strengthen civic pride, foster discussion among the city's residents and bring the community together through the common bond of reading. The program turns the library into a cultural hub, with a variety of special events that feature speakers, music, food, art and more.
Most of the events are free, thanks to the financial support of the Friends of the Lake Oswego Public Library, the Lake Oswego Rotary Club and The Lake Oswego Review.
Next year's official kickoff celebration is scheduled for Jan. 7, 2019, at the library. Complimentary copies of "The Book of Unknown Americans" will be distributed to Lake Oswego Public Library cardholders, thanks to the Friends of the Lake Oswego Public Library. Special events will then be held throughout the month of February, including an appearance by the author.
"The Book of Unknown Americans" was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014 and one of Amazon's 10 Best Books of the Year. It was the Daily Beast Novel of the Year, a Washington Post Notable Book, an NPR Great Read and a Target Book of the Month selection.
Henríquez's novel was also chosen as one of the best books of the year by BookPage, Oprah.com and School Library Journal, was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
"'The Book of Unknown Americans' flies in the face of the usual approach to immigrant issues," says Paul Graham, a member of the Lake Oswego Reads steering committee that chose the book. "You won't want to put it down. Cristina Henríquez has masterfully written a story of inclusion that bursts through the stereotypes. These are not 'those people.' They are us, our children, neighbors and friends. This is about our shared journey."
Steering committee member Andrew Edwards, executive director of the Lakewood Center for the Arts, says the book invites the reader to experience the world and lives of the Central American immigrants.
"An apartment building in Delaware is the new home of families from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who have come to better their lives. Their stories, largely unknown and unheard, are told in turn by different characters," Edwards says. "The experiences they reveal are eye-opening, uplifting, sometimes harsh, yet full of hope and longing. How little most of us know of those who come seeking a dream."
Born in 1977, Henríquez grew up in Delaware, graduated from Northwestern University and received her MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is also the author of the novel "The World In Half" and "Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories," which was a New York Times Editors' Choice selection.
Henríquez's stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and American Scholar; her non-fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, The Oxford American and Preservation.
She presently lives with her husband and children in Illinois and says she was thrilled to learn that her book had been chosen for Lake Oswego Reads.
"One of the themes of my novel is community, so it's great to see that reflected in the idea that an entire community is coming together around a book," she told The Review this week. "I wrote the book mostly with the intention of telling a good story, but my hope, too, is that it might broaden readers' empathy, especially at a time when that empathy is sorely needed."
"The Book of Unknown Americans' was one of several books recommended for Lake Oswego Reads by the grassroots community group Respond to Racism. It was selected by a steering committee that includes librarians, community leaders, high school English teachers and high school students.
The committee had its work cut out for it: Last year's selection, Lily Brooks-Dalton's apocalyptic novel "Good Morning, Midnight," was an incredibly popular tale set at what appeared to be the end of the world. It told the story of two outsiders who found themselves on the fringes of civilization with no idea about what has happened.
Baars says he thinks the committee found another winner with "The Book of Unknown Americans."
"It's a powerful and unforgettable book, and we can't wait to get started," he says. "Bring on February!"
"I love it when we select a book that includes a country because it allows for more opportunities for programs," says Glazer, program manager for Lake Oswego Reads and the library's coordinator of programs and volunteer services. "We will be able to experience Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, Venezuela, Paraguay and Puerto Rico while creating a multicultural experience."
Henríquez herself is scheduled to be in Lake Oswego on Feb. 13 for a presentation at Lake Oswego High School. For current members of the Friends of the Library, tickets to hear the author are guaranteed. To join, visit friendslopl.org.
For a complete list of the 40 books the committee read and considered, go to www.ci.oswego.or.us/loreads/books-considered-2019. For Lake Oswego Reads updates, visit www.www.lakeoswegoreads.org.
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