Musings on NBCC Finalists – 2011, redux

So sorry about yesterday's mysterious disappearing post. Once again Typepad gobbled a long piece I'd been working on for more than an hour. It upset me that I'd expended all that time and energy only to lose it all. At least it wasn't a novel, eh? I know, I know, perspective… yadda  yadda. But when you're already having a bad life day stuff like this doesn't do a person any favors.

Regardless, it's embarrassing Tweeting I'd posted a new blog post, only to send visitors to a blank page. And Twitter's customer service? Underwhelming, to say the least. I'm still irate at how little they cared, giving the most cursory response, solving nothing. I've been with them six years, giving them a big chunk of money for the privilege. I could go elsewhere for free, yet I've stayed here. You'd think that would mean something but I suppose apathy rules, as it does pretty much everywhere.

As I'd been saying before my post went amiss, my personal nomination for the fiction prize didn't make the cut. My choice was Goldie Goldbloom's The Paperbark Shoe, the book that was for 2011 what Jon Clinch's Finn was for my 2007 – an unexpected smack to my gob. It's these first-time novelists I love discovering; it's such a rush being among the first to see their skill and future potential. And it was satisfying Finn went on to make a big splash, being added to several university reading lists as a companion to Huckleberry Finn. I can't claim responsibility for all that but I spread the word every chance I got. I can only hope I brought The Paperbark Shoe to a wider reading audience. Who knows? Maybe.

This year's out of nowhere nomination is Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia. Just so happens I've read it, when The Rumpus chose it as a bookclub selection a few months ago. Because I was late to the discussion and wanted to participate I read it quickly, not giving it much time to impress me. Then again, when a book knocks me sideways I know it right away. The first sentence is key and the first paragraph almost always seals the deal. And that didn't happen with SA. I'll give it one more go but honestly I don't see it as the winner. But just to be nominated is an incredible honor for one of the more obscure titles.

Then there's Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child, another underwhelming read, one I dumped halfway through when a major character fell off the scene, angering me and making me lose interest. Hollinghurst's prose just wasn't there for me, either. I know the critics fell all over themselves praising it. I just don't quite understand why. Maybe it took a turn for the better after I left off but a prize-winning novel shouldn't lose the reader, ever. As with SA, I'll try it one last time, reserving final judgement 'til I do.

Teju Cole's novel Open City was an exception to my first paragraph rule. For the first half to three quarters I would have given it a full five stars, no reservations. Then came a long, dull political screed interrupting the narrative. Political themes are all well and good but don't slip them in halfway through a novel. Give the reader a little inkling what's coming earlier on, include a transition.With no major segue the politics turned a fantastic book into a slog. I didn't even finish the book. And, okay. I'll try it again.

I'm seeing a theme here. You?

That leaves Eugenides and Pearlman, the only two whose nominations I haven't tried. They're both queued up on my Kindle, so I officially own all the fiction finalists. This one category is all I can handle this year but I'll have my pick ready before the board declares the winners in early March. Disclaimer: And, so you know, though I have nomination privileges I have no part or influence over the winners.

Alas, the rest of my original post is lost to the ages. I recreated a lot of the original but it pains me knowing a lot of it was lost. Maybe it would have pained you had my little disaster not happened. Sometimes things work out for the better.

If you have any thoughts on the 2011 nominations/awards I'd love to hear them. Just drop me a comment in the usual place, and, again, sorry about Typepad's gaffe. I'll post thoughts on the fiction finalists as I read. I, for one, will be interested to see if re-reading any books I disliked the first time changes my opinion. Truthfully, I doubt it. Without that prior knowledge my early prediction (and don't hold me to this…) is either Eugenides or Pearlman, though Hollinghurst has gotten an awful lot of critical acclaim. And sometimes awards go to critically beloved books which have been passed over for other awards, intentionally or not I honestly don't know.

One book I'm surprised didn't make the list is Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones. What a masterwork! Yes, she won the National Book Award but frankly I don't think there's an award out there this book doesn't deserve. It's just that magnificent. If she wasn't a consideration I'd be shocked. Guess you can't let every deserving book make it into the finals. I recommend putting this novel on your reading list, if you haven't already. Then try and tell me it didn't deserve a spot here.

Congratulations to all the nominees. I wish you the bet of luck.

But here they are, the finalists for books written in 2011:


NBCC Finalists 2011



Teju Cole, Open City (Random House)

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (Knopf)

Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision (Lookout Books)

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner)



Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random)

James Gleick, The Information (Pantheon)

Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Maya Jasanoff, Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War (Knopf)

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead: Essays (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)



Diane Ackerman, One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing (W.W. Norton)

Mira Bartók, The Memory Palace (Free Press)

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (Little, Brown)

Luis J. Rodríguez, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone)

Deb Olin Unferth, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (Henry Holt)



Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of the Revolution (Little, Brown)

John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin Press)

Paul Hendrickson, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (Knopf)

Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking)

Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Belknap Press: Harvard University Press)



David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber)

Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews (Graywolf)

Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence (Doubleday)

Dubravka Ugresic, Karaoke Culture (Open Letter)

Ellen Willis, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press)



Forrest Gander, Core Samples from the World (New Directions)

Aracelis Girmay, Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions)

Laura Kasischke, Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon Press)

Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Bruce Smith, Devotions (University of Chicago Press)


The Sunday Salon – August 7, 2011 edition


Welcome to this week's edition of The Sunday Salon, in which I bring to you a mere fraction of what I've been reading throughout the week, because my ADD renders a full transcription a superhuman ideal to which I cannot live up.

Books finished:

Howtolivesafely A plot line centering on time travel would have had much less success with me before I became enamored with Doctor Who and his grand adventures in the TARDIS. Honestly, the absolute hotness of the present (Matt Smith) and prior (DAVID TENNANT) actors playing the lead role in the series did have a little something to do with my initial interest, but beyond that I became sucked into the world of time lords, quirky aliens and unpredictable plots. Now I'm a rabid fan, making the idea of time travel – though, in reality, negated by Stephen Hawking – irresistable.

So, in the mail comes Charles Yu's book, arriving at pretty much the height of my Who-mania. Main character Charles Yu (coincidence!) opens the book describing his job involving policing time travellers, in order to keep them from bending or breaking the rule declaring one mustn't mess with the past, or God alone knows the ripple effect. He travels around in a box sounding for all the world like the TARDIS, guided by his computer, TAMMY, and accompanied by a sort of robotic dog.

Sound familiar at all, Doctor Who fans? Me, too. A little too familiar.

The main theme is the alienation Charles suffered from his father – the ubiquitous constantly-distracted/disconnected from real life scientist – before and after his sudden, unexplained disappearance, and how this has haunted Charles all his life. The book bounces back and forth betwixt a young  Charles desperately seeking his father's attention and the adult Charles, operating the very time machines which his father's life's work involved, in the midst of searching for his father in order to find the proverbial closure.

The only time travel book I can recall reading previously is H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, an odd eyebrow scruncher/head tilter of a book, one I didn't particularly care for aside from the fact it was an early attempt at science fiction writing and interesting as such. I can't recall what led me to read it, whether it was for a book group or lark, but the impression it left me with was not positive. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe went better, but didn't replace Doctor Who in my heart. Yu's work lacked a certain something in the way of plot complexity, and general tension. It felt incomplete to me, though I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style – witty, and generally lovely. Pity, that, but can't win them all.

Bunnersisters A much better experience came in the form of a short foray with my beloved Edith Wharton's novella Bunner Sisters, the story of two impoverished spinsters – Evelina and Ann Eliza – living modestly, operating a small sewing/millinary business in their home. The two live miserly lives, but things are satisfactory; they can meet their needs through their own work, without need of a husband to support them.

"The Bunner sisters were proud of the neatness of their shop and content with its humble prosperity. It was not what they had once imagined it would be, but though it presented but a shrunken image of their earlier ambitions it enabled them to pay their rent and keep themselves alive and out of debt; and it was long since their hopes had soared higher."

But then enters a MAN – Herman Ramy – who sells Evelina a clock she gives Ann Eliza for her birthday. When the clock proves to need repair one of the sisters takes it back to his shop. It turns out there was only a speck of dirt in the way, after removal of same the clock was in perfect order.

What starts as a simple transaction blossoms into something suggesting more when the man decides to visit the ladies again, to ensure the clock remains in working order (lame, dude). You can see this one coming: the two sisters begin spending more and more time with him, each believing his attentions are due to her. One is left giddy, and the other broken-hearted, until…

Twist! Turn! Delightful stuff.

As far as actual finished books, let's say these two make up the total list, as I need to go grocery shopping in a few minutes.

Books in Progress:

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. Reading this with The New Yorker book discussion group, which I didn't even know existed until last week but had to join because, hey, it's THE NEW YORKER. Roughly halfway through, reading on my iPhone Kindle app. Plot: a rather eccentric/artsy, brilliant brother and his adoring but less exceptional sister and the lives they lead, narrated by the sister. Kind of short on actual plot, come to think of it, but interestingly character-driven.

The Infinite Library by Kane X. Faucher. Shazam! No idea how I found this Kindle book, but so far I'm torn between thinking it brilliant and merely approaching/mirroring brilliance as it's heavily influenced by Borges' "The Library of Babel," and no writer can live up to THAT. A mysterious man approaches a book researcher/lecturer asking for help filling in obscure titles in his library, using less than legal means. Reeeallly interesting.

Luminarium by Alex Shakar. Good stuff! Twin men, one in a coma, one participating in a study in which the objective is something approaching becoming one with the universe, with a spiritual slant. Not very far into it, but it's great so far. Reading with The Rumpus Book Club.

Have a lovely week.