2016 NBA finalists announced

 

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And then there were five…

I’m still set on Colson Whitehead winning the 2016 NBA. Seeing that distinctive red cover of The Underground Railroad, I paused nary a second. He’s got this. While not the greatest living American writer, he has undeniable cachet. His kaleidoscopic imagination is impressive; his status as a writer of serious literary fiction cannot be contested. Having read and reviewed his prose, I’m well aware how very good he can be.

The Underground Railroad has serious forward momentum unrelated to its NBA nomination. The Oprah endorsement unleashed the great masses, bringing Whitehead a much-deserved wider audience, but I’m wondering if snobbery will rear its head when the judges bring down their gavels. While Whitehead is a literary writer, opinion about Oprah’s seal of approval is a lot more mixed. There’s a chance she’ll do him more harm than good.

 

NYTimes:

Colson Whitehead’s novels are rebellious creatures: Each one of them goes to great lengths to break free of the last one, of its structure and language, of its areas of interest. At the same time, they all have one thing in common — the will to work within a recognizable tract of popular culture, taking advantage of conventions while subverting them for the novel’s own purposes.

 


 

“I lianotherbrooklynfted my head to look up into the changing leaves, thinking how at some point, we were all headed home. At some point, all of this, everything and everyone, became memory.”

– Another Brooklyn

 

I’ve read pieces of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn, a short but meaty novel easily downed in the space of an afternoon. Effortlessly elegant, it’s very heavy in ideas and depth of truths revealed. But for all its smooth perfection, I don’t see it beating out the Magnificent Whitehead.

It’s simply not big enough: not in scope, not in power.

 

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Paulette Giles I know purely through osmosis, from bits I’ve read becoming lodged in my consciousness forming my vague impression of her. From what I’ve gathered, she writes great book club picks. Never have I considered her works heavily literary. I was a bit surprised seeing her here.

If one of these things is not like the others, I’d have to pick Paulette Giles.

Reviews of her book are sparse, a little curious considering the NBA committee pushed her through to the final round. Even the Kirkus review I found says precious little of substance:

 

Kirkus:

In post–Civil War Texas, a 10-year-old girl makes an odyssey back to her aunt and uncle’s home after living with the Kiowa warriors who had killed her parents four years earlier.

 

A bit less than compelling.

I found no long-form reviews of News of the World. Curious.


About the other two I know not at all, so I did a little digging:

 

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NYTimes:

In his wistful and elegantly written fourth novel, “The Throwback Special,” Chris Bachelder plays Jane Goodall to a large group of middle-aged men who assume the role of his chimpanzees. Bachelder observes their rituals with a blend of affection and befuddlement over the course of a weekend, when they have gathered to take part in an activity that feels somehow both wildly imaginative and completely familiar. For 16 straight years, they have re-enacted one of the most iconic and gruesome plays in football history, when the Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked the Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann in 1985, shattering Theismann’s leg and ending his career.

 

I could never have imagined a book about sports-addicted men appealing to me, but dammit, this one does. The review left me bug-eyed. I can’t imagine a premise less appealing, yet I found it fascinating.

 


 

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The New Yorker:

In “The Association of Small Bombs” (Viking), Karan Mahajan’s second novel, Shaukat (Shockie) Guru, a Kashmiri terrorist, considers the explosion he has just set off at a busy market in Delhi and glumly concludes that it “was all anticlimax.” This is a dark thought about mass murder, and a dark joke about the narrative nature of terrorism.

 

Reading The New Yorker’s review, it becomes readily apparent this is a heavy-weight contender. Are we ready for such a treatment on the topic of terrorism? Mainstream as it’s become, ubiquitous in its everyday-ness, I think so.

“Too soon” has passed.

The Association of Small Bombs is described here as “daring(ly) imaginative,” and “promiscuous.” But don’t imagine his is a dismissive treatment of terrorism, nor any silly rendering:

 

“In the first few pages of his new novel, he renders the spectacle of the bombing with a languid, balletic beauty, pitting the unhurried composure of his prose against the violence of the events it describes.”

 

Terrorism is another topic near the bottom of my list of favorite fictional themes, but this review is simply phenomenal.

 


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Count me on Team Whitehead, though if any other book comes back to bite The Underground Railroad, it will be The Association of Small Bombs. Because if there’s one thing a literary award should honor, it’s big, relevant themes – which both these books share.

That’s where the money is.

NBA, we’re waiting.

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.]

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• 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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