Who Won?

Although the outcome of the Presidential election in the United States remains in the minds of most Americans, tonight the National Book Award ceremony, hosted by Larry Wilmore, affirmed the power of books. The host wryly noted: “Books may be our only evidence of a civilized society at some point.”

Live streaming the National Book Award today on my iPhone was an easy way to rub elbows with literary luminaries. A few of my favorite authors were at tables eating dinner together; judges included Katherine Paterson (The Bridge to Terabithia) and Karen Joy Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves).

unknown  I saw an emotional U.S. Congressman John Lewis, civil rights activist and Freedom Rider, win the award for Young People’s Literature for  his graphic novel about the civil rights movement in March: Book Three.  I heard Daniel Borzutzky acceptance when he won the poetry prize for The Performance of Becoming Human – a book published in a New York apartment.

9780385542364_p0_v3_s192x300 The award for fiction was awarded to Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad.  Michiko Kakutani called the book “…a potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery” in a review for the New York Times.  Whitehead is a MacArthur Fellow but also had the dubious honor of being placed on the Oprah Book Club list.

Lynn Neary for National Public Radio offered a succinct assessment of the National Book Award and its influence…

The bitter presidential campaign exposed a fault line in the United States that will not easily be repaired. And while there’s no one simple answer, Lisa Lucas, head of the National Book Foundation, recommends one way to understand the other side: read.

“My life is small” she says, “and I think books are a way to make your life larger…We all need to be reading across the lines we’ve drawn in our lives…a book is a great connector, so the next time you’re looking for something to read, don’t just read the thing that you think is for you … read the thing that’s not.”



West of the Moon

9781419708961_p0_v1_s260x420A contender for the Newbery Award, Margi Preus’ West of the Moon channels the enchantment of a Norwegian fairy tale of a white bear who turns into a prince in her story of  a Norwegian girl who finds her way to the New World.  Unfortunately, the old goatherd who bargains for orphaned thirteen year old Astri is no prince, and the poor girl finds herself dreaming of freedom while shoveling out dung and keeping house among the goats.  With a mix of historical background and magical story telling, Preus weaves a tale for young readers that manages to inform while capturing the imagination.

When Astri is faced with marriage to the old goatherd, she orchestrates a daring escape, rescues her little sister from the cruel stepmother, and sails to America for a new life.  A real girl, Astri questions her own worth, as she is forced to lie and cheat to protect herself and her future, but her inner star shines through, and the reader knows she will be a success as she grows into her own.

Entertaining, informative, and a pleasure to read – West of the Moon should at least be on the short list for next year’s awards.  For me, it was a welcome respite.

Orfeo – on the Man Booker Longlist

9780393349849_p0_v1_s260x420Some books just make you smarter when you read them, and National Book Award winner and MacArthur Fellow Richard Power’s Orfeo raised my level of music appreciation while reminding me of the frightening power of modern science and technology.  Without the recommendation of the Man Booker long list – Powers is one of the first four Americans to be on that prestigious list – I would not have read this. Orfeo is both  a thriller focused on a fugitive fleeing across country from Homeland Security and the reminiscences of a seventy year old avant-garde composer whose retirement project is using bacterial DNA to splice musical patterns into living cells.

When his dog dies, Peter Els calls 911, annoying the policemen who answer the call – until they notice suspicious vials and Peter’s homemade laboratory.  The next morning, as Peter returns in his car from his morning walk (like many walkers Peter drives to a park to walk), he sees his house surrounded by the ubiquitous yellow tape, as men in hazmat suits are carefully packaging all his belongings.  He keeps on driving, and Powers begins a lifelong elegy uncovering how Peter’s life has brought him to this point.  Most of the novel is in flashback, from Peter’s childhood to his first love who convinces him in college that his talent for music should be acknowledged, as he switches majors from chemistry to music composition.  Eventually, he marries someone else, has a daughter, and falls into the perpetual search for the perfect score, with a few successes along the way – but too few to be noticed.

Powers invokes Mahler, Messiaen, and many others, using classical music the same way Melville used whaling.  At times, I skimmed over the information – much as I had in Moby Dick – searching for the thread that led back to the story.  Powers’ line: “Maddie’s eyes crossed a little when he went on too long about harmonic structure,” hit a chord with me.  Nevertheless, at one long interlude, when Peter plays the 5th Symphony, I found Shostakovich on my iPhone and played it as accompaniment to his description.

The novel really is more about music than bioterrorism, but Powers cleverly connects the easy access of modern technology and its dissemination.  As Els drives from Pennsylvania cross-country to his former wife, his old friend, and finally, his daughter, the watchful observance of ATM machines, phone logs, and highway cameras follow.  The possibility that anyone – even a well-meaning musician – could become the target of a zealous government pursuit may be the real terror, but, in the end, Els learns to use the social media to counterattack.

Despite the haunting remorse of not having listened more carefully in Music Appreciation 101, I found myself immersed in the story and finished the book quickly – in awe of Powers’ use of the “silence between the notes.” The emotional impact of following the protagonist had me lost in what Powers describes as “…the book’s power to erase  {the reader}…the single most useful trick of fiction…” If you decide to read the book, beware that the opener is only a teaser, and you will wallow through pages before you get the rhythm.  If you are an impatient reader, or one who must look up every obscure reference, this may not be for you.

The Man Booker Longlist 

No Pulitzer Prize for Fiction This Year

Somehow, the British always manage to name a winner for their prestigious Man Booker Award, but this year the Americans could not decide which among the three finalists in fiction warranted the honor.  Ann Patchett, author of The State of Wonder, berates the Pulitzer Board in her op-ed piece for the New York Times – And The Winner Isn’t –

“…it is infinitely more galling to me as a reader, because there were so many good books published this year.”

I agree.  With so many to choose from, the committee should have identified a winner.  If the three finalists were not “good enough,” time to go back to the pile and find more. Patchett suggests Edith Perlman’s Binocular Vision, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones – among others.

Were the finalists so alike or so mediocre?  Why was the dysfunctional board not able to decide?  One of the three committee members responsible for sending up the final list, Susan Larson, gave her opinion to National Public Radio (NPR) – here.   It’s happened before:  in 1974, the Pulitzer committee recommended that Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow be given the prize, but the board refused.

Maybe the authors should have taken out ads, as studios do to promote actors for the coveted Oscar awards.  Patchett notes that no one in the movie industry – or the public, for that matter – ever believes that the Oscar winner is the best, but the hoopla serves to alert movie-goers and tempts them to see a movie they may have not.  Prizes for books do the same.  Before Julian Barnes won the National Book Award for The Sense of an Ending, the one remaining mega bookseller in my city had only one copy; after he won, consumer demand forced a stack of those books – and they sold.

I have yet to read Paul Harding’s Tinkers (Pulitzer winner, 2010), or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad (Pulitzer winner, 2011). But I did read two of the three finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (reviewed books in red):

…And so many more that I might have recommended to the board.  Who would get your vote?

The Sojourn – National Book Award Finalist

When someone is miraculously saved from disaster, speculation often centers around why he survived, and how his life will affect others and the world.  In his National Book Award finalist story The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak  focuses on Jozef Vinich’s life, after his mother throws her baby son off a trestle and into the river to save him from an oncoming train.

Jozef’s sojourn begins and ends in America in this coming of age tale that follows his young life through the hills of Austria-Hungary, World War I, prison camp, and back again.  Jozef’s father leaves the Colorado mining town where his wife died, and returns with baby Jozef to his hometown in rural Hungary.  As he grows into a boy, Jozef follows his father to become a shepherd, and acquires the hunting and shooting skills of killing animals that he eventually uses as a sharpshooter when he enlists in World War I.

As the images shift to the brutal and raw horrors of war, Krivak’s descriptions vividly reveal how the war changes the boy.

“Soldiers rarely get to glimpse the maps of the high command and they maneuver out of discipline and duty to those positions where they are ordered, pawns needed to stand and hold until the enemy is drawn out and exposed, at the expense of the pawns.”

Rivalling Cormac McCarthy in his harsh yet simple descriptions, Krivak contrasts the savagery of battle against the intense single-minded purpose of its participants.  At times, the killings and maulings are hard to read, but the language held me to the page.

“One morning as I looked down at the river flowing below through a valley already turning into a tapestry of greens, yellows, and whites as far as the blue of the Adriatic, and back to the still snowcapped and windblown mountain range behind, rising all at once far into the Alps, I realized that I had no desire and no drive to fight anymore, no rage at having been wronged somehow, no belief in the right and purpose of kings.  I longed only to turn back and climb and begin life all over again in a place where I might find the peace I’d once known in mountains of another time and another place, and I wondered – if I could slip out of camp unobserved – whether I just might be ale to stay hidden and uncaptured until this war came to end.  But in the same moment this will to live overtook me, we were ordered to fall in, and so we shouldered our packs and rifles and set out like thin sheep kept in line with the promise of food and sleep, too numb to expect our slaughter.”

Jozef somehow survives the hellfire of battle, only to be taken prisoner.  When, finally, he is released and sent to walk across the border to home, he confronts yet another challenge – a young pregnant gypsy girl being attacked by soldiers.  The imagery shifts again – with another baby boy looking for survival.  But, to tell you how it all works out would spoil the ending.  It’s enough to know that Jozef’s father rescues him in the end, as he makes his way back to where he came from – his sojourn ended – his life yet to begin.

Krivak’s book is deceivingly simple looking – a small paperback that can easily fit into a pocket.  But the story is strong and breath-taking with images that will stay with you.