One Community, One Book

Begun in 2001, the UICHR’s One Community, One Book reading program invites community members to read and come together to discuss the same book with human rights or social justice themes. These discussion forums typically take place from September through November each year and a capstone event will be held during that time. When discussion questions for each book are completed they are posted on the website. Below is a list of book choices over the years.

2001 The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout

Djaout’s short novel, only 145 pages long, is about the haunting absurdities of a religiously fanatical state and its brutal assault upon a small bookstore owner, Boualem Yekker. On May 26, 1993, Djaout, a poet and journalist as well as a novelist, was himself attacked by fanatical assassins as he was leaving his home in Bainem, Algeria. The unfinished manuscript for “The Last Summer of Reason” was found among his papers after his premature death.

2002 First They Killed My Father: a Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung

Written in a child’s voice, the book tells in stark detail the horrors that Ung and her family suffered under the regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which, through starvation, disease, forced labor, torture and execution, systematically killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians between 1975-1979. Almost one-fourth of the entire Cambodian population — men, women, and children — died. Ung bears poignant witness to this senseless slaughter. Her harrowing story of the degradation of the human spirit and the loss of innocence, of the atrocities she saw and her struggle to survive against all odds, is one of incomprehensible tragedy and inspirational triumph.

2003 Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

“Bel Canto” is a moving and often surprising story of terrorism gone awry and the power of music to create unlikely connections between disparate people. As opera star Roxanne Coss completes her performance during a birthday party thrown by a small South American government for a powerful Japanese businessman, the lights go out and the entire party is taken hostage by a group of terrorists hoping to kidnap the country’s (absent) president. Failing to capture their intended prize, the terrorists settle in for a long siege inside the vice-president’s home. Across barriers of language and culture, the captives — and eventually their captors — create a functioning, if uneasy, community centered on the beauty of Coss’ art. Her singing bridges the distance, if only temporarily, between kidnapper and kidnapped.

2004 The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, “The Kite Runner” describes the rich culture and beauty of a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal and the possibility of redemption. It also demonstrates the power of fathers over sons – their love, their sacrifices, their lies. The first Afghan novel to be written in English, “The Kite Runner” tells a sweeping story of family, love and friendship against a backdrop of history that has not been told in fiction before, bringing to mind the large canvases of the Russian writers of the nineteenth century. But just as it is old-fashioned in its narration, it is contemporary in its subject by capturing the devastating history of Afghanistan over the last 30 years – from the last days of the monarchy, to the Soviet invasion, and on to the atrocities of the Taliban.

2005 When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

This heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental debut describes in poetic detail the travails of a Japanese family living in an internment camp during World War II, raising the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion. After a woman whose husband was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy sees notices posted around her neighborhood in Berkeley instructing Japanese residents to evacuate, she moves with her son and daughter to an internment camp, abruptly severing her ties with her community. The next three years are spent in filthy, cramped and impersonal lodgings as the family is shuttled from one camp to another. They return to Berkeley after the war to a home that has been ravaged by vandals; it takes time for them to adjust to life outside the camps and to come to terms with the hostility they face. When the children’s father re-enters the book, he is more of a symbol than a character, reduced to a husk by interrogation and abuse. Otsuka describes the family’s everyday life in Berkeley and the pitiful objects that define their world in the camp with admirable restraint and modesty. Events are viewed from numerous characters’ points of view, and the different perspectives are defined by distinctive, lyrically simple observations. The novel’s honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power. Anger only comes to the fore during the last segment, when the father is allowed to tell his story—but even here, Otsuka keeps rage neatly bound up, luminous beneath the dazzling surface of her novel.

2006 Tortilla Curtain by T.Coraghessan Boyle

The Tortilla Curtain explores Topango Canyon, home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community; he is a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive real-estate agent. Undocumented Mexican immigrants Candido and America Rincon desperately cling to their vision of the American Dream as they fight off starvation in a makeshift camp deep in the ravine. And from the moment a freak accident brings Candido and Delaney into intimate contact, these four and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragic comedy of error and misunderstanding. In the United States which defines itself as a nation of immigrants, the novel questions who gets to slam the door on whom?

2007 Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson

“Blood Done Sign My Name”, which won the Southern Book Award for Nonfiction, is the true story of 23-year-old Henry Marrow, who was murdered in 1970. In the wake of the killing, young African-Americans took to the streets. The author’s father, the pastor of Oxford’s all-white Methodist church, urged the town to come to terms with its bloody racial history. In the end, however, the Tyson family was forced to move away. Tyson returns to Oxford 30 years later to make sense of what happened and how the events changed his life. As he weaves together childhood memories with the realities of present-day Oxford, he sheds new light on America’s struggle for racial justice.

2008 A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier  by Ishmael Beah

“A Long Way Gone” is a gripping story of a child’s journey through hell and back. There may be as many as 300,000 child soldiers, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s, in more than fifty conflicts around the world. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them. He is one of the first to tell his story in his own words. In “A Long Way Gone”, Beah, now twenty-six years old, tells a riveting story. At the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts. Eventually released by the army and sent to a UNICEF rehabilitation center, he struggled to regain his humanity and to reenter the world of civilians, who viewed him with fear and suspicion. This is, at last, a story of redemption and hope.

2009 Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year in Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” tells the story of how Kingsolver and her family for one year deliberately ate food produced in the place where they live. Kingsolver wrote the central narrative, and her husband, Steven Hopp, wrote in-depth sidebars about various aspects of food-production science and industry. Kingsolver’s 19-year-old daughter, Camille, wrote brief essays on the local-food project, plus nutritional information, meal plans and recipes.

2010 Gardens of Water by Alan Drew

“Gardens of Water,” is the story of two families and two faiths in Turkey during and after a massive earthquake near Istanbul. A devout Muslim family and an American Christian family must co-exist in a large refugee camp when the apartment building where both families lived is destroyed. Drew, a graduate of the UI Writers’ Workshop, lived and taught in Turkey during the earthquake and its aftermath.

2011 Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

“Zeitoun” is the story of the Zeitoun family during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath in New Orleans. Abdulrahman is a Syrian-American with a successful contracting business in New Orleans. While using his canoe to help families still in their homes, he is arrested by armed guards. The reason is unclear until a guard accuses him of being in Al Qaida. Then Mr. Zeitoun realizes that race and culture may explain his arrest.

2012 The Latehomecomer: a Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang

The book begins with the history of the Hmong people as they become increasingly a people without a country after the Vietnam War. Much of the book follows Yang’s extended family as they made a dangerous escape from the jungles of Laos to the refugee camps of Thailand where they remained for six years. Eventually they were accepted to settle in the United States, and her nuclear family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota.  She describes beautifully the cultural assimilation process as the Yang family members become Americans.

2013 The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The book tells William’s inspiring story of human inventiveness and its power to overcome crippling adversity. Kamkwamba was born in Malawi, a land withered by drought and hunger, where hope and opportunity were hard to find. He had read about windmills and dreamed of building one that would bring electricity and water to his village, thus changing his life and the lives of those around him. But his goal to study science in one of Malawi’s top boarding schools came to a halt in 2002 when his country was stricken with a famine that left his family’s farm devastated and his parents destitute. Unable to pay the 80-dollar-a-year tuition for his education, Kamkwamba was forced to drop out and help his family forage for food as thousands across the country starved to death. Yet Kamkwamba refused to let go of his dreams. He embarked on a plan to bring his family a set of luxuries that only two percent of Malawians could afford—electricity and running water. Using scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves, he created a windmill that eventually powered four lights, as well as a second machine that turned a water pump that could battle the drought and famine that loomed with every season.

2014 The Distance Between Us: a Memoir by Reyna Grande

This book is the story of the difficulties families face when they are separated by borders. Four-year-old Grande and her two older siblings were left behind in a small, impoverished rural town in Mexico when her mother joined her father in El Otro Lado (the Other Side). He had left when Grande was two years old and she had no memory of him. Both parents left in search of better jobs as work was scarce in their small town of Iguala, leaving the children with their paternal grandparents. Young Grande grappled with abandonment, uncertainty, malnutrition, and mistreatment. Her older siblings, especially her sister, were her only sources of comfort. Family changes occurred and when Grande was 10 years old, her father reluctantly took all three children across the border with him. They faced many adjustments—learning English and avoiding deportation until they eventually got green cards and later citizenship, getting reacquainted with their father, and the feeling of not belonging in either the U.S. or Mexico. Grande discovered books and writing, worked hard in school, earned a college degree and later a Master of Fine Arts, and found her place in her adopted country.

2015 Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever. Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.