Book Discussion Series with Phil Burnham
America is a nation of immigrants, but Americans have long shown ambivalence toward those who seek a better life in our country. Emma Lazarus’ words, “Give me your tired, your poor,” have often been at odds with how the “tired and poor” have been treated upon arrival. We seem to go through periods of tolerance and intolerance, sometimes related to economic conditions, and other times because there is a perception that there are too many people coming from a single place, or they’re “taking over” and tarnishing what it is to be an American.
What is it to be an American? What is life like for those who come here from a different culture and try to become “American”?
The book discussion series this fall and winter at Cleveland Park Library will take us through a variety of immigrant experiences, mostly fictional, in different periods of history. Phil Burnham, who teaches at George Mason University, will once again be our discussion leader. We will meet each time from 7 to 8:45 p.m. We thank the Friends of Cleveland Park for their continuing generous financial support for the series.
Ready to start reading? Here is our list of titles for the series:
September 15, 2011
Elizabeth Street by Laurie Fabiano
This is the story of the Italian immigrant experience at the start of the 20th century. Culled from her own family history, the author paints an entrancing portrait of Giovanna Costa, who, reeling from personal tragedies, tries to make a new life in a new world. Shot through with the smells and sights of Scilla, Italy, and New York’s burgeoning Little Italy, the story follows Giovanna as she makes her way, achieving modest successes and also gaining the increasing attention of the brutal extortionists known as the “Black Hand.”
October 20, 2011
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Like the comic books that animate and inspire it, this novel is both larger than life and of it, too. Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, and it brims with hope. Samuel Klayman—self-described little man, city boy and Jew—first meets Josef Kavalier when his mother shoves him aside in his own bed, telling him to make room for their cousin, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Prague. It’s the beginning, however unlikely, of a beautiful friendship.
November 17, 2011
A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee
The author explores the dilemma of being an outsider—and the corrupt, heartbreaking bargains an outsider will make to adapt to his surroundings. The protagonist has spent his whole life donning one variety or another of existential camouflage. First, as a native-born Korean, he bends over backwards to fit into Japanese culture. Then he attempts a similar bit of environmental adaptation in postwar America—more specifically in the slumbering New York suburb of Bedley Run.
December 15, 2011
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
The gulf that separates expatriate Bengali parents from their American-raised children—and that separates the children from India—is the author’s central exploration, as it has been in her previous writing. In this set of eight short stories, the results are stunning.
January 12, 2012
Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat
In a single day in 2004, Danticat learns that she’s pregnant and that her father, Andrè, is dying—a stirring constellation of events that frame this Haitian immigrant family’s true story, rife with premature departures and painful silences. It was eight years before the author and her brother could join their parents, who had left Haiti for the U.S. During those years they were raised by Andrè’s brother Joseph.
February 9, 2012
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants, perhaps because of a curse that followed his family on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the U.S. The novel presents an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevere—and risk it all—in the name of love.