Arguably the most important event in the Tennessee book world during the second half of the 1990s is still ongoing: Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library was launched in 1995. The program that started small in Sevier County is now international in scope and mails out two million books a month to eager young readers. It’s pretty hard for any single book to top that, but the state was connected to some exceptional literary achievements during these years, including a Pulitzer Prize for poetry awarded to a native son and a legendary journalist’s acclaimed book about the extraordinary young civil rights activists who worked to end segregation in Nashville.
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My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of Aids by Abraham Verghese. Born in Ethiopia to an Indian family, Verghese initially moved to Johnson City, Tennessee to complete his medical residency and later became an assistant professor of medicine at ETSU. My Own Country, his first book, recalls his experience there during the growing rural AIDS epidemic. (Simon & Schuster, 1994)
All Souls’ Rising by Madison Smartt Bell, who was born and raised in Nashville. All Souls’ Rising is the first novel in a trilogy about the Haitian Revolution. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. (Pantheon Books, 1995)
Black Zodiac by Charles Wright, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate in 2014. Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, Wright grew up in East Tennessee and North Carolina. Black Zodiac, his 11th book of poetry, won the Pulitzer Prize. (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1997)
The Foreign Student by Susan Choi, whose father emigrated from South Korea in 1955 to attend the University of the South at Sewanee. The Foreign Student, Choi’s debut novel, is set in Sewanee and informed by her father’s experience there. (Harperflamingo, 1998)
The Children by journalist and historian David Halberstam. The book chronicles the Nashville Student Movement to end segregation, which Halberstam covered as a reporter for The Tennessean. (Random House, 1998)
"In 'My Own Country: A Doctor's Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS,' Abraham Verghese tells a story he never expected to tell: that of the AIDS epidemic in America, witnessed from a remote rural vantage point where city troubles initially seemed very far away. The epidemic is seen by a man who found himself both a stranger — looking in at the town — and a crucial insider whose close personal ties to the people of Johnson City ultimately became a burden too heavy to bear." ~ Perri Klass in The New York Times, August 28, 1994
"In an astonishing novel of epic scope, Bell…follows the lives of a handful of characters from radically different social strata during the period of Haiti's struggle for independence. Nothing about that period was simple. … In Bell's hands, the chaos, marked by unspeakable acts of violence, that surrounds these characters somehow elucidates the nobility of even the most craven among them." ~ Publishers Weekly, October 2, 1995
"Perhaps because these poems were written around his 60th birthday or perhaps because an imperative moves all good Southern writers to flirt with dissolution, Wright has begun to consider the end that nears. On these pages he creates and explores an almost surreal present purgatory built from varying amounts of Zen Buddhism, memories, paradox and pastoral opulence. Gertrude Stein, Sappho, his physician and a golf buddy all cast their influence. The language is lilting and pacific even as its embedded imagery disturbs." ~ Publishers Weekly, March 31, 1997
“Susan Choi's first novel, ‘The Foreign Student,’ is a richly detailed exploration of a young man's escape from the nightmare of a country torn by war. … Moving from the present to the past, from America to Korea, Choi brings hundreds of small scenes to life, then uses them to construct an intricate portrait of lovers who must also prove (to themselves and others) that they are survivors.” ~ Kimberly B. Marlowe in The New York Times, October 18. 1998
“Mr. Halberstam had wanted to tell the story of the children since he covered the sit-ins on one of his first newspaper jobs, reporting for The Nashville Tennessean. … That he carried the story around with him so long seems reflected in the way his new book reads, with its driving novelistic narrative and its point of view so close to that of its heroes and heroines. … It is as if Mr. Halberstam had absorbed their history into his being and then poured it out as his own.” ~ Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times, March 30, 1998
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Tagged: 50 Books / HT50, Features