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Past #PurdueEnglishBigRead Programs

Cover of Binti: The Complete Trilogy

2021-2022: Nnedi Okorafor's Binti: The Complete Trilogy

Our 2021 Big Read selection was Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: The Complete Trilogy. The collection includes a trio of novellas—Binti (2015), Binti: Home (2017), and Binti: The Night Masquerade (2018)—as well as a new short story. Binti won the Hugo, Nebula, and Nommo Awards for best science fiction novella.

Nnedi Okorafor is a bestselling, Nigerian-American writer who has quickly gained a reputation as one of the foremost voices in contemporary science fiction. The Binti series introduces us to a unique brand of “Africanfuturism,” Okorafor’s term for the deep investment in “African culture, history, mythology, and point-of-view” that pervades her fiction. Set on earth and in space, the Binti trilogy tells the story of a young woman from Namibia who negotiates the stress of leaving home and heading off to college, confronting past tradition and future prospects as she struggles to find her place in an alien environment. Relying on her love of mathematics and also newfound friendships, Binti must negotiate prejudice, self-doubt, and trauma as the narrative builds to high-stakes conflicts between groups on Earth and beyond.

Okorafor’s stories have been praised by critics. Neil Gaiman, for instance, writes, “Nnedi Okorafor writes glorious futures….Her worlds open your mind to new things, always rooted in the red clay of reality. Prepare to fall in love with Binti.”

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2020-2021: Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver

The 2020 Big Read selection was Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver (2018), which won the 2019 Locus and Mythopoeic Awards for Best Fantasy Novel and was a finalist for the 2019 Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel.

Naomi Novik is the NYT bestselling and fantasy award winning author of the historical fantasy Temeraire series as well as Uprooted and, of course, Spinning Silver. It’s a fantasy novel that re-envisions the fairy tale, “Rumpelstiltskin,” interweaving it with Jewish, Russian, and Eastern European folklore influences. The novel tackles topics ranging from fractured fairy tales (feminist retellings), to the Jewish diaspora and the suffocating legacies of antisemitism, the ravages of poverty, coming-of-age, romance, and more. But it’s wrapped in engrossing fantasy world building that makes the book an easy sell with readers.

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More on Spinning Silver:

  • Spinning Silver Audiobook (by Naomi Novik; narrated by Lisa Flanagan): Audible and Amazon

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2019-2020: Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey

Our third annual Big Read (2019-2020) was Emily Wilson’s splendid translation of The Odyssey.

In this, the first English translation of The Odyssey by a woman, Emily Wilson relays what has been described as “the first great adventure story in the Western canon.” Homer’s The Odyssey is a poem that explores the ramifications of war and violence, the intricacies of marriage and family, and the magnetism of wealth and power through one hero’s journey and subsequent search for home. Wilson’s translation, which matches the number of lines in the Greek original, conveys this stirring tale of shipwrecks, monsters, and magic in iambic pentameter verse while proving accessible for contemporary audiences.

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2018-2019: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

The English Department at Purdue presented its second annual Big Read, featuring Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Colson Whitehead was also the guest speaker for our 2019 Literary Awards Banquet.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom. Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. A genre-bending blend of historical narrative, science fiction, and adventure, The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

Special thanks to our 2018-2019 partners: Barnes & Noble Bookstores; Information Technology at Purdue & “Dawn or Doom”; Harrison High School; McCutcheon High School; Penguin Random House Speaker’s Bureau; Purdue Honors College; Purdue Office of Residential Life; Purdue Student Union Board; Purdue University Libraries; Tippecanoe County Public Libraries; Tippecanoe County Historical Association; Von’s Shops; Wabash Lifetime Learning Association; West Lafayette Public Library.

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2017-2018: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

“Because survival is insufficient.” Now, when support for the humanities is more important than ever, this motto (from Station Eleven by way of Star Trek) seems appropriate in and out of the world Mandel has created.

Station Eleven was the ideal choice for our inaugural “Big Read.” The work is critically acclaimed: it was a National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist in 2014 and an Arthur C. Clarke Award and Toronto Book Award winner in 2015. Although readily classified as science fiction, the book also invites discussion and collaboration with readers of many other genres and interests. The book’s representation of the killer “Georgia flu” lends itself well to discussions by writers and epidemiologists alike, bringing faculty and attendees together in interdisciplinary conversation. The persistence of Shakespeare after the apocalypse triggers questions about great art and an enduring canon of literature, and the book’s traveling troupe of actors could profitably be compared to Elizabethan troupes performing in Shakespeare’s own day, or even contemporary itinerant players, such as the Stone Soup Shakespeare Company, which tours much the same route covered by the players in Station Eleven, our own Midwestern parks and towns.

Special thanks to our 2017-2018 partners: Information Technology at Purdue & Dawn or Doom; Ivy Tech Libraries; Main Street Books; Penguin Random House Speaker’s Bureau; Purdue Convocations; Purdue Honors College; Purdue Office of Residential Life; Purdue Student Union Board; Purdue University Libraries; Stone Soup Shakespeare; Tippecanoe Public Libraries; Von’s Bookshop; Wabash Lifetime Learning Association; West Lafayette Public Library; West Lafayette and McCutcheon High Schools; West Lafayette Young Actor’s Workshop.

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