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Talk Of Iowa 2021 Book Club Reading List Revealed

The 2021 reading list begins with Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night."

"The Talk of Iowa Book Club" is a team effort, and joining Charity Nebbe on this episode are two of the people she's worked most closely with to compile the 2021 reading list.

Selected books should be available in mass market paperback. Many are either written by Iowans or people who have spent time in Iowa or have another Iowa connection. Some don’t have any connection to our state, but we’re sure that Iowans will enjoy them.


Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night"

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” That’s the most famous quote from “Mother Night,” a strange, cautionary tale from Kurt Vonnegut. The novel is told in the first person by Howard W. Campbell Jr. as he awaits trial for war crimes. He is an American who was living in Germany when World War II broke out, recruited to serve by both Nazis and the Allied Forces. The book is set in the past, but feels timeless and relevant today.


Walter Tevis' "The Queen's Gambit"

At the age of eight, orphan Beth Harmon is quiet and withdrawn. That is, until she plays her first game of chess, proving herself a child protegee and finding her own sense of self and power for the first time in her young life. By her teens, Beth is competing in the U.S. Open championship and making a name for herself in the male-dominated world of competitive chess. But as her skill and international ranking grows, the stakes get higher, her isolation becomes deeper and the thought of escaping her world altogether becomes more intriguing. Whether you binged “The Queen’s Gambit” series on Netflix or just heard the hype, join us in reading the book that started it all.


Richard Powers' "The Overstory"

An ode to environmental activism and connection, the Overstory follows eight very different people unknowingly tied together by the lives and legacies of trees – some of which are rooted right here in Iowa. This book, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is split into four sections: Roots, Trunks, Crowns and Seed; weaving the characters together through their relationships with the natural world.


Joy Harjo's "An American Sunrise"

In this collection, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo returns to her family’s lands east of the Mississippi River two hundred years after the forced removal of the Mvskoke people. Harjo’s poems interrogate the historical erasure of the Mvskoke and other native people while finding strength and gratitude in the abundance of her homeland. “An American Sunrise” weaves Harjo’s personal story with tribal history and roots itself in the spirituality of her ancestors and righteous outrage over the historical atrocities committed against native people in the modern United States.


Nickolas Butler's "Little Faith"

Lyle Hovde and his wife Peg are thrilled when their estranged daughter Shiloh and her six-year-old son Isaac finally return to the family home in rural Wisconsin. But like any family reunion, the situation is complicated. In her absence, Shiloh has become deeply involved with an extremist church, courted by a devout pastor who believes Isaac has the spiritual ability to heal the sick. Over the course of a year, Lyle finds himself torn between his concern over his daughter’s growing religious extremism and his desire to keep his family close.


Octavia Butler's "Kindred"

It’s 1976 and the country is celebrating the Bicentennial. Dana, a young black woman, and her new husband, Kevin, a white man, have just moved into a new house in California. While she’s unpacking Dana is whisked away through time and space to Maryland in the early 1800s. Dana and Kevin shift back and forth through time and space as they experience the brutality of slavery and the reality of life when our nation was young. The novel is complex and compelling science and historical fiction that reveals some very deep truths about human nature and our history.


Elizabeth Acevedo's "Clap When you Land"

Written in a richly lyrical novel-in-verse format, “Clap When You Land” follows the lives of Camino and Yahaira Rios, half-sisters separated by language, culture and country for most of their lives but brought together by the sudden death of their father. Through shared grief, the two teenagers are forced to face what it means to be a family while exploring the power and pressures of culture, class and privilege. “Clap When You Land” is written for a young adult audience, but its thoughtful prose and compelling characters invite readers of all ages.


Bill Bryson's "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid"

Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines in 1951, smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boom generation. Like many so-called Boomers, Bryson grew up with a grand vision of becoming a crime-fighting superhero, and lived out his dreams by racing around his neighborhood in a homemade cape, dubbing himself “The Thunderbolt Kid.” This persona is the foundation for a touching and hilarious memoir that follows Bryson’s childhood and family life in Iowa through the 1950s and 60s penned in vivid and relatable observation.


Ray Young Bear's "Black Eagle Child: The Face Paint Narratives"

This is a coming-of-age novel that follows the life of Edgar Bearchild through the decades of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. The novel is semi-autobiographical. Bearchild grows up in the Black Eagle Child Community, a fictional stand in for the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama where Young Bear grew up and now lives. The novel is told in a combination of verse, prose and letters. Young Bear excels at illustrating what it’s like to straddle two very different cultures that exist simultaneously around and within his characters. It is at times funny, poignant and heartbreaking.


Tayari Jones' "An American Marriage"

Roy and Celestial are young, black, urban professionals living in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s a businessman and she’s a gifted artist. The book starts as an exploration of the kinds of challenges that any couple might experience in a marriage, the weight of secrets untold and paths untaken, but the book takes a sharp turn when Roy is accused of a serious crime he did not commit. It’s a beautifully written and resonant account of complicated relationships and an illustration of how systemic racism shapes the characters' lives in powerful ways beyond their control. Jones earned her master's degree at the University of Iowa.


Willa Cather's "My Antonia"

Published in 1918 “My Antonia” is a classic that brings the pioneer experience of the Midwest to life. Told as a flashback, the story begins as two young people arrive in Nebraska to build new lives. Jim Burden is newly orphaned and traveling to live with his grandparents on their farm. Antonia Shimerda is traveling with her Bohemian immigrant family, seeking a new life on the prairie. In telling the characters’ stories of growth, hardship and connection the book explores issues of class, gender and what it means to be American.


Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club"

This is a novel of mothers and daughters divided by culture and time, but connected through love. The book is told through sixteen interwoven stories that explore the experiences and identities of Chinese immigrant mothers and their first-generation American daughters. It is captivating and powerful from start to finish, filled with heartbreak and hope. This beautifully crafted book will resonate with anyone who has or is a mother or a daughter.

Books & ReadingTalk of Iowa Book Club
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Katelyn Harrop is a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa
Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk
Rick Brewer was a producer for IPR's Talk of Iowa and River to River