The Pulitzer Prize is administered every year by Columbia University as an award for excellence in journalism, letters, and music. The award began in 1917 at the behest of publisher Joseph Pulitzer. I look forward to the announcement of Pulitzer winners in the category of letters every year; however, it was with an excess of enthusiasm that I awaited the decision on the prize for fiction. Not only was one of my favorite books of last year, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, nominated for the award but there was a major controversy within this category last year. The judges decided not to award any of the three nominees in the fiction category with a prize. The literary world was up in arms! So, I have been waiting for this year's results anxiously. I was thrilled when I heard that Adam Johnson's book had won; having a book that I have championed and recommended to many customers win the prize was exciting.
Prize for Biography
The Black Count is a story that seems too fantastic to be real. Alex
Dumas was born in Haiti from the union of a slave woman and a French
nobleman on the run from the crown. He lived briefly as a slave but
eventually travelled to Paris rising through the ranks of the military
and joing the French aristocracy. The novels of his son, Alexandre
Dumas, immortalized his life, but until Reiss work very little of the
elder Dumas has been known. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution,
Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo is peopled with the
swashbuckling rogues we've come to expect in adventure novels, but it
also tells a greater story of race, revolution, and fatherhood.
Prize for History
body of literature surrounding the Vietnam war is huge, but Embers of War by Fredrik Logevall looks at the war differenly than most of the
works we have seen by soldiers and historians. What surprised me most
about Logevall's book is the fact that it studies the years 1919 to
1959. The American idea of the Vietnam War usually has it taking place
between the years of 1955 to 1975, so it becomes clear immediately that
Logevall wants to tell a different story. Logevall looks at
historical records to determine the missteps and
miscalculations that all culminated in the disaster of war.
Prize for Poetry
is, to me, the idea that you are everything to just one other person.
To lose that person through death or divorce is a struggle that I cannot
imagine. In Sharon Olds new collection, Stag's Leap, she writes of her
husband leaving her for another woman after thirty years. Olds opening
herself to pain, fear, and renewal makes for a powerful collection of
Prize for Nonfiction
With many great
historical figures their life as a whole tends to overshadow the
independent aspects. That Thurgood Marshall was the first
African-American Supreme Court Justice will forever be the first thing
associated with his long and influencial life. In Devil in the Grove
Gilbert King takes us years before that appointment and even before the
landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education to show Marshall fighting
for the life of a young man accused of a murder he did not commit. A man
like Thurgood Marshall is not greater than the sum of his parts; it is
his striving toward greatness in all things that made him the man he
was. It is the in our battles both large and small that we become who we
are. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the
Dawn of a New America is a story about one man's battle for life,
another man's battle for justice, and the battle for equality in
Prize for Fiction
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
pulled me in so many directions. First there are the horrors of life
in North Korea which are almost hard to believe. Then there is the
truth of politics and fear mongering and the realization that no one
is too far from this sort of life. And finally there is the will of
the human spirit, the inevitability of death, and the question of
just how much one can take. This novel is very well written and very,
very intense. It was often hard to read but I could never put it
down. I was completely invested in the lives of Jun Do and Sun Moon.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
I have discovered the joy that is audio books. The fact that I want to read just about every book ever is a mystery to no one, but sometimes I have to stop reading and, you know, do things. This time spent away from books has always been a sad time for me. Until I met audiobooks. Doing laundry has never been better!
It all started a few weeks ago when I finally decided to conquer my grandmother's flower beds. The beginning of spring meant lots of weeding and the removal of great amounts of fallen leaves...this would take hours. I decided that the best way to go about it would be with a book. In some ways, I am a lot like a puppy (mostly in that I am adorable, but also because I have a short attention span) so I worried that I may not be able to focus my full attention on a book while working in the yard. For this very reason I chose a book that I hoped would be entertaining but would not be difficult to fall mentally in and out of. I listened to comedian Sarah Silverman's memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage,Redemption, and Pee.
Silverman is a comedian that is famous for a certain kind of humor that can only be described as “potty humor.” But what made me want to read her book is the way in which she uses her grossout, controversial jokes. Silverman is a smart woman and a savvy comedian – she attempts to build a greater narrative surrounding her bits. Using juvenile humor she introduces her audience to the the idiocy of racism or explains what it is like to be gay (in that it is the same as being straight – all relationships are weird). To the late night Comedy Central audience (where Silverman's television show ran for three seasons) these ideas were not the norm but were embraced by way of Silverman's style.
The best parts of the book were definitely when Silverman wrote about her intent behind her jokes. Especially when they failed by being misinterpreted. She writes about being young and naive and learning on the fly. It is a good read for anyone feeling lost or outranked in their profession. This was an entertaining memoir and while it is ultimately forgettable (like all celebrity memoirs) I am glad that I listened to it, and it made yard work a lot funnier.
I never read memoirs by celebrities, apparently unless they are by female comedians, but these books make perfect listening – they are easy to dip into and out of as I have time to listen and the authors reading their own words only make them more engaging. I loved Bossypants by Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me is the next book I'll be picking up on audio. I look forward to so many more audio books. It is a decidedly different reading experience, and I'm getting to the type of books that usually get pushed to the end of my TBR list (especially memoirs and genre fiction). I'm reading more, I'm doing more, it's perfect.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
The Tournament of Books is the bookish answer to March Madness created by the daily news site The Morning News. Each March, sixteen books that were published in the previous year are pitted against one another to be voted on by authors, bloggers, and critics. It is all kinds of wonderful to watch. The books meet up in brackets and move on through finals. The two books that make it through ultimately compete in a Tournament Championship - the winner enjoys the honor of the Rooster award (rightly named after the younger brother of David Sedaris). I enjoy the ToB every year, but this year the championship round was especially exciting for me personally as two of my favorite books from last year made it into the final round.
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson pulled me in so many directions. First there are the horrors of life in North Korea which are almost hard to believe. Then there is the truth of politics and fear mongering and the realization that no one is too far from this sort of life. And finally there is the will of the human spirit, the inevitability of death, and the question of just how much one can take. This novel is very well written and very, very intense. It was often hard to read but I could never put it down. I was completely invested in the lives of Jun Do and Sun Moon.
Then there is The Fault in Our Stars. There is no denying that I am a full on John Green convert after having read this novel. This is the third blog about him here in the last few months. The Fault in Our Stars in undoubtedly a great book. The writing is so great, the characters so clever and lovable. The romance is so absolutely believable because even the reader falls a little in love with Hazel and Augustus. Everyone worries that this is a “kids with cancer” book and in recommending it over the last year I have had to assure a few adult readers that it is so much more than that. TFiOS is a novel about life, what it is to be young and to fall in love, and what it means to be damaged. Not just a great YA novel but a great novel.
I can say with all honesty that I have no idea which of these novels I would have chosen as the winner of the Tournament of Books. What's so great about this tournament though is its transparency. Each bracket is accompanied by commentary by the judges so that followers know exactly why each book wins its bracket. Ultimately The Orphan Master's Son came out ahead of The Fault in Our Stars (14 to 3) and I found myself pleased by the results. What Johnson did in his novel was daring and tragic and ultimately beautiful. The scope and implications of what he wrote about life and fiction and the worlds we create for ourselves as well as those we are forced into has still got me thinking about my place months after turning the last page.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Among the thirty titles on last year's World Book Night list loneliness was definitely a theme. Whether that was intentional or not I have no idea, but I have found another running theme within this year's crop. The fighting spirit. These books are full of fight and strong will.
So, Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones is about children caring for a litter of pitbull puppies in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Yes, they make these dogs fight each other and yes, there is a twenty+ page description of a dog fight near the end of the book and no, I do not ever think dog fighting is forgivable. That being said, this book is fantastic. I felt literally all the feelings. The subject of this novel is such a “look away” one, but Ward wrote about it with absolute grace and it is so compelling. Often the book was difficult to read because I wanted to stop what was happening to the characters, but I had to finish it because I cared too much for them to not know what happened.
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier was a surprise for me. I was expecting a somewhat staid romance novel, but what I got was a full impression of 17th century Delft. Chevalier's novel absolutely succeeds as a historical work. The characters are not fully drawn, but this makes sense in the context. Mainly because we have few details about the life of Johannes Vermeer, the artist who painted the eponymous girl. More importantly though, the characters are not what matters in a story like this. The setting is more important – recreating the world. This is a novel that strongly evokes place and time through the first person narration of a young maid living in a famous household.
Best book on this list bar none would have to be City of Thieves. David Benioff told his tragic story with a humor that made it bearable. This levity added to the story of the siege of Leningrad is exactly the type of humor it takes to survive not only during the events being described but to live with them afterwords. This novel is a testament to humanity. It is introduced as a fictionalized version of a time in the life of the author's grandfather. Fictionalized because Benioff's grandfather could not remember the details necessary to a work of nonfiction, but it is with novels like this that we realize the job of fiction – to tell the greater truth.
As I said, all of these novels center around a fighting spirit but none so much as Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Alice Howland is a fifty year old Harvard professor that is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. The novel describes the disease as it takes the life and career of a deeply intelligent and ambitious woman. Alice fights the encroaching darkness of her diagnosis with every fiber of her being, but Genova describes her slipping away in such a thorough and heartbreaking way. This novel made me uncomfortable at every turn. It was hard to see this battle played out, but I definitely see why it is an important one and a story that needs to be told because it is so difficult to understand.
Lisa Scottoline's Look Again was another case of a book that is just not meant for me. I never really became invested in the characters so their struggle never set in with me. Ellen Gleason finds information that suggests her son may not be the child she thought he was, and her adoption of him is called into question. Within the confines of a thriller, Scottoline does a good job of pondering motherhood. What is a mother? Is it emotional or biological? Who does a child really belong to anyway? These thoughts are interesting but a little heavy handed and I like my novels a tad more subtle. Look Again is a good read, just not really for me.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
This year's World Book Night list was not peopled as heavily with my own TBR list as was last year's. The bulk of these were books I would probably not have encountered, so it has definitely been interesting reading.
To begin by admitting what is probably my greatest readerly sin, I have never read a novel by Mark Twain. Yes, that means I have never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I know. I know. But if anything, reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court has made me realize that I must rectify this error post haste. There is a part in this novel where it is recommended that we replace royalty with cats because they are basically the same. I laughed at this joke for two days. Connecticut Yankee is satire at its absolute best. The story is that of a 19th century man (from Connecticut) being transported to the 6th century (and King Arthur's court). The novel is humorous all the way through, but where it really gains its footing (both as a satirical work and as classic literature) is in the moments that it becomes blatantly obvious how little human nature has changed from the 6th to the 19th to the 21st century.
Almost as transportive as the time travel in Connecticut Yankee, Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency made me feel what it was like to be in Botswana. Precious Ramotswe uses the money she inherits from her father to open the first ladies detective agency in Botswana. She sees this as her way of helping people, and while she is able to help her customers the agency really serves as a way for readers to encounter Africa. Mma Ramotswe deals with people from every walk of life in Botswana, and Smith describes them all with care and an obvious devotion to his setting. Reading this book on a warm spring afternoon made me feel like I was traveling around the countryside in Botswana and more than anything it made me want to travel there.
Hillary Jordan's Mudbound is the social justice book on this year's WBN list (in case you are wondering, I have been looking at each book and comparing it to last year's list to decide what makes a WBN selection), but it could not stand up to last year's The Poisonwood Bible. There is a missing emotional element in Jordan's tale. Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson are soldiers returning to Mississippi after serving in WWII. One character is white and the other is black. Mudbound is the story of their very different homecomings. This novel often made me angry and sometimes made me sad but I never felt a genuine connection to the characters. All I had to hold on to was the horror of the story (and the deeper horror in knowing that things such as it described did happen time and again to families all over the south), and for me that just wasn't enough. Mudbound is a solid novel and very well written, it just did not resonate with me on an emotional level.
My Antonia by Willa Cather was a reread for me. This was one of those novels that I was assigned in high school which I was clearly not ready for. I hated it then and thought it a terrible novel. Oh, how wrong I was. I absolutely adored the descriptions of Nebraska and the fairytale quality of the stories told by the immigrant characters. The novel ends with the line “whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past,” such a beautiful sentiment about the people of our childhood. The novel is one that looks heavily at memory and time past. Jim Burden tells the story of Antonia, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants that grew up near his grandparent's farm. Antonia has come to mean childhood, excitement, and freedom to Jim as an adult and he tells his story of her with an abiding passion.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers was another book that just was not for me. Much like Grisham's Playing for Pizza, my disdain for the main character kept me from enjoying the novel. Victoria is an orphan who grew up in and out of the foster care system. The novel tells her story in an attempt to detail the cracks in the system and the troubles people who fall through are left to face alone. The problem was that in making Victoria troubled and flawed Diffenbaugh failed to make her real. The only way in which I did connect with Victoria was through flowers. She had been taught the Victorian language of flowers and they were both the lens through which she viewed the world and the way she forged emotional connections. Victoria's feelings about flowers and the way she communicated through them were absolutely the best parts of the book.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Review: Start Here: Read Your Way into 25 Amazing Authors by Jeff O'Neal and Rebecca Joines Schinsky (Ed)
I'm a regular reader of the the blog Book Riot. I am also a book lover, so books about books are obviously one of my favorite things. When the editors of Book Riot announced that they were publishing a book about books I knew that I would have to read it.
Start Here: Read Your Way into 25 Amazing Authors is a collection of essays that are meant to be suggested reading lists to get into authors whose backlists are often perceived as overwhelming. It is an admirable goal. For example, there is an essay on Herman Melville. Many people never read Melville because their instinct is to start with Moby Dick, but in Start Here blogger Nicole Perrin suggests you begin with Benito Cereno because it is a “faithful taste of the author” but of a less intimidating length.
Some of the the essays or “pathways” are quite obvious and a few of the essays were, I felt, superfluous. Do we need someone introducing us to Edgar Allan Poe as Linda Fairstein does here with “The Raven”? Is Zadie Smith really an author with a daunting catalog (she has only published five books)? Putting aside the few essays that fail, most read as enthusiastic recommendations, and there are some that really shine. Joe Hill's essay on Bernard Malamud made me want to read absolutely everything both authors have written. In fact, I immediately purchased copies of Malamud's The Assistant (Hill's recommended first step to Malamud) and Horns (Hill's 2010 novel about a man who sprouts horns after murdering his girlfriend).
This essay collection is a great way to build a To-Be-Read list - I defy you to read this collection and not come away with a tottering stack of books to buy and read, but it is best in creating a sense of community around each author. Part of what makes Book Riot such a great blog is the community around it; reading is absolutely a solitary pursuit, but it does not happen in a vacuum because we are never the only one experiencing these works. Start Here not only added immensely to my on TBR list, but it made me reflect on some of my favorite authors and the books that introduced me to them. This is a book for all readers and I can only hope that the editors choose another 25 authors who deserve the same treatment.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
My reading comfort zone is pretty wide. Being a bookseller forces me to read all over the spectrum, but even with that these thirty titles are tugging at the edges of my regular reading areas. I wanted to get to the titles that were furthest from my usual fare within the first five so I conquered Nora Roberts and John Grisham – to mixed results.
There were two titles on the WBN list that I had never heard of. One of these was Glaciers by Alexis Smith. I was really intrigued by this pick. Smith is a bookseller at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon and Glaciers is a small press title. Unlike most, if not all, of the books on this year's list Glaciers has not been a bestseller. I had to know what hoisted this slim volume onto the list and I knew it had to be my first WBN read. Glaciers is a brief novel about a single day in Isabel's life as a twenty something librarian living in Portland. Through ruminations on time, place, and a complicated love interest the short span of the novel is able to reflect on the life of a young woman. Smith has written a delicate, lyrical work that is both deeply sad and charming. I didn't love this novel, but it definitely captured the spirit of young adulthood and I can see myself recommending it to a lot of people (anyone who watches HBO's Girls for example) which makes it a great pick for World Book Night.
Looking for Alaska was John Green's first novel and his big book before the release of The Fault in Our
Okay, here's the thing, I enjoyed reading Nora Robert's Montana Sky. Believe me, no on was more surprised than myself. The novel begins with the line “Being dead didn't make Jack Mercy less of a son of a bitch,” and really it only gets better from there. This is the story of three estranged sisters and the ranch they must work together to maintain. And there's murder. And sex. And it's all pretty fun. There was a lot in this novel that felt odd to me (it is basically all plot for one) but reading it made me understand a lot about genre fiction. The bulk of which can be explained thusly, it's comforting to read. It's nice to know what's going to happen and just follow the author as she weaves the narrative together. Montana Sky is not a novel that you work at or need to digest – it's just entertaining to read. And that's great.
I can say with confidence that Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street is the most beautiful book onThe Book Thief on last year's list, that begs to be felt. What I can tell you about Cisneros' novel (or series of short stories) is that it will make you ache. For the loss, for the fight, and for the shame and the pride of the characters. Cisneros' tells a story that is real and true.the WBN list. The language is so poetic and full of life. It is a novel that is composed of a fluid poetry that I look forward to reading again and again. This is another novel, like
This last novel and I did not get along. John Grisham's Playing for Pizza is just not a novel for me. It completely lacks a plot and the main character is as unsympathetic as they come. No really, I have felt more towards murders described in novels than I ever felt for Rick Dockery. The novel is a mere recitation of football games and Italian meals (the novel is about an American football player who moves to Italy). I never felt lost while reading Friday Night Lights last year because the author did not set out to write a story for just football fans; Grisham obviously felt differently – I did not know what half of the football terminology meant. Clearly this is my own opinion and football fans and Grisham fans may love this novel, but I could not help but wish WBN had chosen a legal thriller as I would have much preferred that introduction to Grisham's work.