Ben Lerner’s novel ‘The Topeka School’ earns end-of-year praise from Obama, New York Times

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Author Ben Lerner released his third novel, "The Topeka School," in October.

A recently released novel set in northeast Kansas has received high praise, including from a former U.S. president.

Ben Lerner’s “The Topeka School,” which was released in October, was named as one of the best books of 2019 by both The New York Times and Barack Obama.

The book places Lerner’s recurring character, a writer named Adam Gordon, into an environment reminiscent of Lerner’s own high school years at Topeka High School in the 1990s. But it also touches on current issues, such as exploring the state of white male identity.

Obama listed the book in a Dec. 28 tweet that outlined his favorite books of the year, an annual tradition for the former president going back to his days in the White House.

In an email to the Journal-World, Lerner said he appreciated Obama’s listing of his book.

“It’s strange and somehow satisfying to imagine Obama reading about the ’90s in Topeka. But of course you don’t write novels for presidents — especially now, since our president celebrates ignorance of every sort,” Lerner said, referring to President Donald Trump. “You write novels to imagine different relationships to language and power. But it’s a good feeling to know that people are reading my book.”

In its listing, The New York Times Book Review called the book “exhilarating” and praised Lerner, who is also a poet, for the quality of his writing. Additionally, in one of the paper’s reviews of the book, critic Parul Sehgal called Lerner “one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation.”

In October, The Raven Book Store owner Danny Caine said Lerner was well-known as a writer of “autofiction” — a genre that blends autobiography and fiction. Caine said Kansas readers would appreciate the local color of “The Topeka School” but that the novel speaks to broader political and social issues, as well.

“‘The Topeka School’ will be recognizable to not only us Kansas folks but anyone who’s paying attention to how the current era is wreaking havoc with truth and language,” he said.

Lerner grew up in Topeka and now lives in New York City. His parents, clinical psychologists Harriet and Steve Lerner, both currently live and work in Lawrence. His mother is also an acclaimed author.

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