Over the last several years, the Champaign Public Library has been honored to bring a number of best-selling authors to our community. Just in time for summer reading, three authors who have appeared as part of our Great Authors at the Library series have brand-new books to enjoy.
In July 2016, J. Ryan Stradal visited as our first Great Author. His new novel, “The Lager Queen of Minnesota,” has a number of similarities to his much-loved debut, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest” — an Upper Midwestern setting, everyday characters in extraordinary situations and enticing descriptions of both food and drink.
We meet Edith Magnusson in 2003, making strawberry-rhubarb pie in the kitchen of a nursing home in a small town in rural Minnesota. Edith becomes a minor local celebrity when her pie is named the third best in Minnesota, and the unexpected notoriety launches a surprising new chapter of her life.
Stradal then introduces Edith’s younger sister, Helen, in a flashback to 1959. Helen’s bit of teenage rebellion — sneaking a beer with some local boys — becomes an obsession that marks the trajectory of her life.
She studies chemistry in college so she can learn how to brew beer; she marries the son of a fading brewing empire; she guides the Blotz Brewing Company into regional dominance during the 1970s. Along the way, she sells the family farm, investing the proceeds into Blotz, leaving nothing for Edith — an action that leaves the sisters estranged.
During the craft beer boom, Helen finds that Blotz is losing market share rapidly, and her best hope is to acquire an up-and-coming craft brewery. The most promising is Artemis Brewing, where the brewmaster is Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, along with several unusual partners-in-beer.
2018 was a marvelous year for our Great Authors series, and two of 2018’s featured authors have new releases in July.
Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” has already received numerous rave reviews, and a recent profile by Time magazine described him as “America’s Storyteller.” Whitehead has a talent for examining issues of race and racism in America, and “The Nickel Boys,” set in Florida in the early 1960s, tells the story of Elwood Curtis. Raised by his grandmother in the Frenchtown neighborhood of Tallahassee, Elwood is drawn to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, becoming involved in efforts to desegregate local businesses.
His grades qualify him to take classes at a nearby black college as a high school student, but on the way to his first day of classes, he unknowingly accepts a ride with a man driving a stolen car. The car is pulled over, and innocent Elwood is arrested and sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a segregated reform school where boys are routinely abused. Survival is difficult — minor transgressions lead to beatings, and boys who raise the ire of the faculty disappear forever. Whitehead draws a direct line from the treatment of enslaved people to the treatment of the young black men at Nickel Academy. Both the instruments of torture and the purpose of the brutality are the same, and while these men may survive Nickel Academy, the physical and emotional scars will haunt them for life.
Nnedi Okorafor visited us at Champaign Public Library last November. It was a homecoming for Okorafor, who is a UI graduate, and it was an opportunity for the community to meet an author whose star is very much on the rise.
Okorafor’s latest is a brief memoir, “Broken Places and Outer Spaces,” which explores creativity, imagination and inspiration. The summer after her freshman year at the UI, Okorafor had spinal surgery that resulted in temporary paralysis from the waist down. This life-changing event inspired her to begin writing short stories and novels, and she has integrated some of her experiences during her recovery into her fiction.
Readers will admire Okorafor’s tenacity and determination, which is boldly evident throughout the book. The hope and inspiration that she finds in this devastating situation is inspiring, and the insight into her creative process is fascinating.
In one of the final chapters, she looks back on what this experience meant to her and how it launched her to greater heights: “Before the Breaking, the day I awoke paralyzed from the waist down, I could not have written these words, this world, this character. The cracks the storyteller in me required weren’t there. It was because of and after the Breaking and my subsequent journey that I acquired this part of my self.”