ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Well, whether you read books on a Kindle or the old-fashioned way, we're going to end this hour with our series You Must Read This. It's where authors talk about books they love. Writer Susan Jane Gilman liked a book so much, she tracked down the author to tell him in person.
Ms. SUSAN JANE GILMAN (Writer): Until I read "A Hope in the Unseen," the only celebrity I'd ever stalked was Mick Jagger back in high school. But two decades later, when I finished Ron Suskind's symphonic book about a young man's odyssey from the inner city to the Ivy League, I called in sick so that I could read it over again in a single sitting, propped up in bed, a bowl of cereal disintegrating on my night stand. Then I tracked down Suskind at the Wall Street Journal and ambushed him. Hi. I'm a psycho fan. I'm absolutely floored by your book. Please let me recount the ways to you.
"A Hope in the Unseen" follows Cedric Jennings, a young black man from one of the worst public high school in the country on his amazing journey from Anacostia to his freshman year at Brown University. Cedric is a geek under siege.
His beginnings, to be sure, are ghetto cliche: father in prison for drugs, reckless immature mother with a predilection for bad men, short skirts, malt liquor; a neighborhood plagued by crack houses and drive-bys. And yet, when his mother, Barbara, looks down at her miraculous newborn, she pledges: Maybe if I can save this child, I can save myself, too.
Determined that Cedric will beat the odds, she keeps him on a tight leash. He ping-pongs between a strict Baptist church, a handful of dedicated teachers at Ballou High School and his mother's force of will. After a series of operatic struggles, he finally arrives at Brown University, but his story hardly ends there. That gilded world might as well be a foreign country to him.
The mythos of inner-city children surmounting the odds thanks to one inexhaustible teacher or a superhuman single mom is pretty much standard fare these days. But what makes Suskind's book so stunning and such a colossal personal obsession with me, what's made me go out and buy everyone I love a copy with the same fervency that I used to buy them "Exile on Main St.," is how the author tells the story.
Ron Suskind's literary talent is double-barreled. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, yes, but he's also a master storyteller with a lyricism of a poet. You're transported right from the prison cell where Cedric's father paces, to the ravaged classrooms where Cedric's dogged teachers struggle to maintain order, to the basketball shoes of his classmates who are turning bitter and violent with despair.
When Cedric dashes home, trying to avoid the neighborhood gangs, your heart pounds along with his. When he arrives at the Brown bookstore, picks up a biography of Winston Churchill and panics because he doesn't know who Churchill is, you share his rocketing anxiety. Suskind manages to avoid the icky paternalism that privileged white journalists display towards the poor and minorities. He knows better than to treat Cedric as a specimen.
The book is nonfiction, yet packs the emotional wallop of a great epic novel. And though there's plenty to extrapolate about social injustice, race, class, public education, there's no editorializing either. "A Hope in the Unseen" trusts that we'll get it simply by reading an astonishing story told one scene at a time the way that Homer or the troubadours might've told around a campfire, except that this tale, of course, is true.
SIEGEL: Author Susan Jane Gilman's latest book is "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven." You can find an excerpt from the latest You Must Read This selection, "A Hope in the Unseen," at npr.org.
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