The Finalists: National Book Award, 2013

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Out of the Man Booker frying pan, into the NBA fire. I bounce from torture to torture, gritting my teeth in angst from the wanting.  So bad it makes my stomach hurt.

OCD much? Yes. Yes, I do. When you get a chance I’d like another serving, if there’s any left. And there’s always more, sooner or later.

 

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First, the fiction:

• Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers, Scribner/Simon & Schuster

• Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House

• James McBride, The Good Lord Bird, Riverhead Books/Penguin Group (USA)

• Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge, The Penguin Press/Penguin Group (USA)

• George Saunders, Tenth of December, Random House

[Kushner was a 2008 NBA fiction finalist, Lahiri won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, and Pynchon was a 1964 fiction finalist and won the award in 1974 for Gravity’s Rainbow. Saunders is a MacArthur fellow.]

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Alright. I own The Lowland and The Good Lord Bird. I know I had a copy of Tenth of December but haven’t seen it lately, not since I read a couple of the stories and thought meh, it’s okay. Note that, now. Since I had a meh reaction, it’s likely to win. [SEE: Man Booker, 2013.] May as well go ahead and send her flowers.

Pynchon… Well, it’s Pynchon. You either know what I mean or you haven’t had the pleasure. And I don’t have the book.

Don’t have the Kushner, either. Here’s what author Lauren Groff had to say about The Flamethrower:

 

Every so often, you’ll come across a book that burns so hot and bright it’ll sear a shadow on your vision. For a while afterwards, everything you look at will have the book’s imprint on it; your world will be colored in the book’s tones, and you will glimpse the book’s characters on the street and feel your heart knocking in your chest for a few blocks, as if you’d escaped a close call.

This is how I felt after I read Rachel Kushner’s brilliant The Flamethrowers. The night I finished it, I dreamt of racing motorcycles across sun-shot salt-flats and of floating in glimmering Italian swimming pools. In the morning, I tried to describe the book to a friend but I eventually faltered into silence.

This is a beautiful book, I finally said, a book full of truth, a book about art and motorcycle racing and radicalism, about innocence and speed and stepping up to a dangerous brink, a book very deeply about the late seventies in New York City and its powerful blend of grittiness and philosophical purity.

Oh, said my friend. So. What is it about?

I tried again. I said: It’s a love story, about a young artist under the sway of an older, established artist, scion of a motorcycle family, who betrays her, and she joins up with an underground group in Italy. It feels like a contemporary European novel, philosophical and intelligent, with an American heart and narrative drive, I said.

Oh, said my friend.

Just read the book, I said and my friend did, and loved it to speechlessness, as well. Wow, is all he could say when he returned the book to me.

 

Hmm. Not sure that encourages me much. I’m not one for motorcycles on salt flats. On the one hand, I loved Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton, so her opinion isn’t without influence. On the other, I know most authors will sell their souls to help other writers sell books, because what goes around comes around. Not being privy to Groff’s relationship with Kushner, I can only speculate it’s an overblown review – since the prose lays it on a mite thick – but maybe the book is roughly half as good as she asserts.

What scares me are the words “Every so often,…” Ever heard a movie preview? This is the literary equivalent of “In a world where…” Lauren, Lauren, Lauren. At least you were blatant, I give you that. And it’s not that I’m against your promotion of Rachel Kushner, in theory. I’m more jealous of my time, angry when it’s wasted.

But okay. If I can read a few pages for free I’ll give it a whirl.

 

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And the nonfiction:

• Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House

• Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

• George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

• Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, W.W. Norton & Company

• Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House

[Lepore is a Bancroft Prize recipient and Pulitzer Prize finalist, who served as a NBA nonfiction judge in 2011, and Wright was a 2006 finalist. Taylor won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in History.]

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And I have zero of these titles. Dang it.

Lepore’s book is about Ben Franklin’s younger sister, Jane. HELLO! I need read no further. I am reeled in. Number one, it’s American history. Two, it’s Colonial American History. And three, the Ben Franklin connection. I love Ben Franklin.

Hitler… I could live the rest of my life without reading another book related to the Holocaust. May have to take a  pass. Not sure my heart can take it.

Packer’s The Unwinding:

A riveting examination of a nation in crisis, from one of the finest political journalists of our generation

American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward. In The Unwinding, George Packer, author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story of the United States over the past three decades in an utterly original way, with his characteristically sharp eye for detail and gift for weaving together complex narratives.
     The Unwinding journeys through the lives of several Americans, including Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers, who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in the Rust Belt trying to survive the collapse of her city; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington insider oscillating between political idealism and the lure of organized money; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who questions the Internet’s significance and arrives at a radical vision of the future. Packer interweaves these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era’s leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics that capture the flow of events and their undercurrents.
     The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation. Packer’s novelistic and kaleidoscopic history of the new America is his most ambitious work to date.

 

YES! YES! YES! A thousand times YES!

Alan Taylor’s book on slavery – YES!

Wright on Scientology? Not so much. Intriguing in its way but yuck.

Lepore, Packer, Taylor. In a pinch, just Lepore and Packer. And Kushner. And Pynchon. And it ain’t gonna happen. Perhaps a better woman could juggle so much but not this woman. What gets read will get read – my new mantra. But I do want to sample a few of these, as I’m able. And I’ll report back, as is my habit, with my largely uninformed opinion as to who should win what. When it’s over I’ll compare my notes with those of the NBA. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry. It will be a cathartic experience.

 

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For poetry and YA, I’m not reading any of these. Poetry I’m not keen on. YA I am, to an extent, but I have to cut things off somewhere:

 

Poetry

• Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

• Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion, Alfred A. Knopf

• Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke, Penguin Poets/Penguin Group USA

• Matt Rasmussen, Black Aperture, Louisiana State University Press

• Mary Szybist, Incarnadine: Poems, Graywolf Press

[Four of this year’s poetry finalists are on the list for the first time, the exception being Frank Bidart, who is a three-time National Book Award Finalist (1997, 2005, and 2008) and a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.]

lineplainYoung People’s Literature

• Kathi Appelt, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster

• Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck, Atheneum Books for Young Readers/ Simon & Schuster

• Tom McNeal, Far Far Away, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House

• Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone, G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Group (USA)

• Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints, First Second/Macmillan

[The young people’s literature list includes two prior NBA finalists: Kathi Appelt in 2008 and Gene Luen Yang in 2006, when Yang was the first graphic novelist to be selected as a NBA finalist.]

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Thar she blows, my dears. Thar she blows.

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Man Booker Shortlist 2013

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And then there were six…

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  • Eleanor Catton – New Zealand

  • Jhumpa Lahiri – UK/US

  • Colm Toíbín – Ireland

  • Ruth Ozecki – Canada/US

  • Jim Crace – UK

  • NoViolet Bulawayo – Zimbabwe

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From The Telegraph:

The Books:

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

The only debut novel on the shortlist. The 31-year-old Zimbabwean author tells the story of Darling who lives in a shanty called Paradise.

Judges said: “In the course of our epic readathon we met many, many child narrators, an exhausting number of child narrators, but none stood out quite like Darling.”

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

New Zealander Catton, 27, is the youngest author on the shortlist. Her debut novel, The Rehearsal (2008), was longlisted for the Orange Prize.

The book features Walter Moody, who is drawn into a mystery when he attempts to make his fortune in New Zealand’s goldfields.

Judge Natalie Haynes, a classicist and critic, added: “When an 823-page book turns up in a parcel, a sinking sensation could occur to a person who is trying to read a book a day while doing the things that pay their mortgage, but within about six pages of the book I felt like I’d got into a bath.”

Harvest by Jim Crace

Hertfordshire-born Crace, 67, the oldest author on the shortlist, has been writing fiction since 1974. Quarantine (1997) was previously shortlisted for the Booker.

The book charts, over the course of seven days, the destruction of an English village and its way of life after a trio of outsiders put up camp on its borders.

Crace has said the book will be his last work of fiction.

Judges said Harvest continued to “haunt” them after months of reading, adding: “When you think about the eruption of strangers into this enclosed world, the resentment caused by these outsiders, you begin to get a glimpse of some of the troubling debates in modern life.”

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

London-born Lahiri, 46, lives in the US and holds UK and US citizenship. She has written four works of fiction including The Namesake, which was adapted into the film of the same name.

The Lowland, featuring the lives of two once inseparable children raised in Calcutta, is a novel about entangled family ties.

Judges said: “This is a novel about distance and separation … a novel about the impossibility of leaving certain kinds of past behind.”

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Canadian-American writer Ozeki, 57, was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 2010 and is the author of three novels.

A Tale For The Time Being, which features cyberbullying and a 105-year-old Buddhist nun, centres around a mystery that unfolds when the protagonist, Ruth, discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of her beach home.

Judges said: “It’s a Zen novel if such a thing is possible. It’s about dualities at every level – East to West, cruelty and kindness, forgetting and remembering, and releasing and enclosing.” The book is “incredibly clever, incredibly sweet and big-hearted”, they added.

The Testament Of Mary by Colm Toibin

Irish author Toibin, 58, is the author of five novels, including The Blackwater Lightship (1999) and The Master (2004), which were both shortlisted for the Booker.

“A woman from history (is) rendered now as fully human” in the book, which features Mary, “living in exile and fear, and trying to piece together the events that led to her son’s brutal death”.

Judges said the book was a “beautifully crafted, passionate story that most people think they already know”, which the author “turns into something wonderfully fresh and strange”.

Judges admired “the power of Mary’s voice” and said it was a short novel but one that “lives long in the memory” with a narrative that ranges over a lifetime in just over 100 pages.

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My take:

I’ve read The Harvest and pronounce it positively masterful. It’s very dark and grim, a sepia-toned portrait of Medieval Britain and the conversion from an agrarian economy to the wool trade. Sound dull? Oh, no. The plot is menacing and riveting. More about the loss of livelihood of former serfs, narrated by one living amongst them but shunned for being born “outside,” it draws a picture of the basic inhumanity of man when faced with impending poverty and homelessness.

It is anything but dull.

I’ve reviewed the book, then interviewed Crace and was impressed with his candor and the cut of his jib. He says this is his last novel of his writing career. Read all his books to understand what a travesty this would be. A Booker win could change that. Part of me pulls very strongly for Crace.

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I’m currently reading The Luminaries. It’s a sprawling, many-charactered novel set during the gold rush in Australia. It’s a HUGE tome and it’s difficult keeping the characters straight. Fortunately, Catton knows this and repeats who each one is, from what profession and how s/he relates to the story frequently enough the reader can rest a bit easier. It starts slowly but builds very well. Its Booker potential lies in its entertainment factor, partially. I’m finding parts of it funny, in a low-key way. It has the quality of being a sort of comedy of errors at times. And then there’s the mystery element, who killed whom for gold and how will the whole thing come together? In more than 800 pages.

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Knopf/Random sent me a copy of The Lowlanders, bless them! Haven’t had a chance to even open the cover yet but I’m reading as fast as I can…

The others I don’t own but can remedy easily enough. Well, save the $ issue. Can’t take that lightly.

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Remember how I said I wasn’t going to get sucked into the Booker race this year? I’ve been sucked into the Booker race this year. ‘Tis a pity she’s a book whore.

Particularly tight race this year. I’m torn between believing the committee wants Jim Crace to keep writing, and the quality of his book is stellar, but competition is fierce. I am pleased by the diversity, though, and happy to see writers of partial US citizenship in the running. Toíbín, The Telegraph fails to say, is currently Mellon Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, right here in the U.S. So I’ll claim him, just a little.

The winner? Still leaning toward Crace. What can I say? But I’ll keep reading.

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