TOPEKA — Capital city native Ben Lerner got a kick out of learning this past weekend that his novel, "The Topeka School," was among former President Barack Obama's favorite books of 2019.
"Since my book is in part about the pre-history of our political present, it's fascinating and flattering to imagine Obama reading it," Lerner said in an email Monday. "I disagreed with all sorts of Obama policies — from his drone wars to his bailout of the super rich — but it's nice to remember that we've had Presidents capable of reading books."
Obama continued his annual tradition of publicly highlighting his favorite books, movies and music by making public Saturday on Social Media a list of 19 books he said made the past year "a little brighter" for him.
Those included "The Topeka School," the third novel by Lerner, a professor of English at Brooklyn College whom The Capital-Journal recently named as a "Distinguished Kansan" for 2019.
"The Topeka School" was named one of the top 10 books of 2019 by publications that included the New York Times and the Washington Post. It was chosen as a "Best Book" for October 2019 by Amazon.com.
The latter's review said: "A high school debate champion growing up in Topeka, Kansas, sounds like a fairly conventional character for a novel. But this is not a conventional novel — it builds through shifting points of view, and it is a book concerned with language and cultural expectation, and how one conveys the other. By the end, you begin to realize that it is a story about how we reached the national state of consciousness we inhabit today."
"The Topeka School" focuses on the dramas and dangers of being a person — or a nation — enthralled, bombarded and imprisoned by rhetoric, according to the magazine "The Atlantic."
Lerner talked in September with The Capital-Journal about how his novel channels readers through a teenager’s world of the 1990s to an environment capable of nourishing the rise of President Donald Trump.
The 304-page book, which was published Oct. 1, shares the experiences of renowned Topeka High School debater Adam Gordon and his parents, psychiatric professionals Jane and Jonathan.
The characters were loosely based on Lerner — who earned a national forensics championship in 1997 while attending Topeka High — and his parents, Steve and Harriet Lerner, who worked at Topeka's Menninger Clinic. Harriet Lerner authored "The Dance of Anger," a New York Times bestseller.
Like Lerner, Obama had family members who moved to Topeka — but lived here only briefly, in the mid 1920s. Obama's great-grandmother died here of suicide in 1926.