The winners of the Lettre Ulysses Award – a prize for book-length reportage that I discussed a few weeks ago – have been announced. Alexandra Fuller’s account of her travels with a white, African mercenary, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier took the 50,000 Euro first prize while A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage by Moroccan Abdellah Hammoudi and Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq by Riverbend won the 30,000 Euro second prize and 20,000 Euro third prize, respectively.
Alice Munro, called by the Nobel committee “Master of the contemporary short story,” has won the 2013 Nobel Prize for literature. Munro, 82, is the first Canadian to take the prize. She told a National Post reporter earlier this year that she’s retiring from writing.
Those looking for an in depth introduction to Munro’s work should read Ben Dolnick’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro,” which he introduces thus:
Considering which of Alice Munro’s stories to read can feel something like considering what to eat from an enormous box of chocolates. There are an overwhelming number of choices, many of which have disconcertingly similar appearances — and, while you’re very likely to choose something delicious, there is the slight but real possibility of finding yourself stuck with, say, raspberry ganache.
Munro has published a number of books over her long career:
Dance of the Happy Shades (1968)
Lives of Girls and Women (1971)
Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974)
The Beggar Maid (1978) (As close as Munro has ever come to writing a novel)
The Moons of Jupiter (1982)
The Progress of Love (1986)
Friend of My Youth (1990)
Open Secrets (1994)
The Love of a Good Woman (1998)
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) (#9 on our Best Books of the Millennium List)
The View from Castle Rock (2006)
Too Much Happiness (2009)
Dear Life (2012) (Our review)
The 2015 National Book Award winners were announced last night in New York City. The big prize for Fiction went to Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson, who is racking up the hardware after his prior book, the novel The Orphan Master’s Son, won the Pulitzer. Fortune Smiles is a collection of stories, making it two years in a row that a collection has won the NBA for fiction. As we noted in our second-half preview, this collection “of six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer ‘finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,’ echoes [Johnson’s] early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.”
The Nonfiction award was yet another honor for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s lyrical open letter to his son, Between the World and Me. The book has sat atop our Top Ten list for a few months now, and Sonya Chung dissected some of the reaction to the book in her persuasive essay in August. In September, we noted (with relief) this year’s unusually diverse nonfiction longlist.
The list at the end of this post is arbitrary. Necessarily so, because awards, by their nature, are arbitrary. Nonetheless, after a couple of weeks full of awards news, including the inaugural appearance of the Quills, I was curious to see if all these awards are really pointing us towards good books.If we are dissatisfied with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, the Quills, which casts the net very wide and relies on voting from the reading public, have been presented as a populist alternative. The results are less than satisfying. It is not news to anyone that the reading public likes Harry Potter and books by Sue Monk Kidd and Janet Evanovich. I hold nothing against those bestsellers, but naming them the best books of the year does little to satisfy one’s yearning to be introduced to the best, to have an encounter with a classic in our own time. We like those bestsellers because they entertain us, but while monetary success is the reward for those entertaining authors, awards have typically honored books with qualities that are more difficult to quantify. These award-winners are supposed to edify and challenge while still managing to entertain. But, as we saw with last year’s National Book Awards, readers are unsatisfied when recognition is reserved only for the obscure. We want to know our best authors even while they remain mysterious to us. So, pondering this, I wondered which books have been most recognized by book awards in recent years, and could those books also be fairly called the best books.It turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Whitbread Book Award, bold=winner11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio – C, I, N, P7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – N, P5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, WI find the list to be fairly satisfying, especially at the top, though it does skew in favor of men. There are also a preponderance of “big name” literary authors on this list, but it begs the question: Does the fame come first or do the awards? I’d love to hear other opinions on this list, so please, share your comments.See Also: Award Annals compiles similar lists (though much more comprehensive than this one.)
The winners of the 2004 National Book Awards have been announced:Fiction: The News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck (excerpt)Non-fiction: Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle (excerpt)Young People’s Literature: Godless by Pete Hautman (excerpt)Poetry: Door In The Mountain: New And Collected Poems, 1965-2003 by Jean Valentine (poems)
There are plenty of awards for fiction and quite a few for different types of non-fiction, but, according to the people behind the Lettre Ulysses Award, “no world prize for reportage literature existed before 2003.” That’s when a couple of German foundations got together “to provide symbolic, moral and financial support for reporters whose courage, curiosity, and integrity drives them to create in-depth, well-researched texts, bringing unknown, forgotten, and hidden realities to light. The prize is also intended to publicly honor and highlight the extraordinary achievements of literary reportage.” Each year they award a first, second and third prize worth 50,000, 30,000 and 20,000 Euros, respectively. One of the most interesting aspects of this award is its international reach. In the award’s first two years, a Somali, a Russian, two Chinese and two Americans have been prizewinners. Indeed this international bent is a part of the award’s mission: “By facilitating the translation and publication of texts from often inaccessible places or languages, this project aims to focus attention on diverse topics and issues.”This year’s award will be announced on October 15th, and the Shortlist looks very interesting:Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq by Riverbend (Iraq)Von den Kriegen: Briefe an Freunde (Of the wars: Letters to friends) by Carolin Emcke (Germany)Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier by Alexandra Fuller (Zimbabwe)A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage by Abdellah Hammoudi (Morocco)The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche (USA) (my review)Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta (India)Muerte en el Pentagonito: Los cementerios secretos del Ejarcito Peruano (Death in the Pentagonito: The Secret Cemeteries of the Peruvian Army) by Ricardo Uceda (Peru)
The annual MacArthur “Genius” Fellows were named today. This award gives people from diverse fields $500,000 with “no strings attached,” for “exceptional creativity, as demonstrated through a track record of significant achievement, and manifest promise for important future advances.” There are typically a handful of literary types among the scientists, artists, and musicians who become Fellows, with this year being no exception. George Saunders is probably the best known among them, but I’ve listed all of the literary winners below along with some relevant links:David Carroll – Naturalist Author/Illustrator – From the bio on his site: “David is an active lecturer and turtles/wetlands preservation advocate. His art and writing, as well as his extensive fieldwork with turtles and wetlands has been widely recognized, and been the subject of many feature articles.” He is the author of a recently published memoir, Self-Portrait with Turtles and “the wet sneaker trilogy” of The Year of the Turtle, Trout Reflections, and Swampwalker’s Journal.Atul Gawande is a prominent surgeon, but he is better known for his book Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science and his articles in the New Yorker, including “The Bell Curve: What happens when patients find out how good their doctors really are?”, “Piecework: Medicine’s money problem,” and many others. In my opinion, Gawande’s best quality is his ability to bring his perspective as a surgeon to his stories. Nearly all of his articles start with an observation he has made on the job that he then investigates further. (In this respect, he’s not unlike another great medical writer Oliver Sacks.) Other links: A Slate diary Gawande did in 1997; Gawande’s 2005 commencement address at Harvard Medical SchoolAdrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family was an incredible work of journalism. To write the book, she spent ten years following the lives of an extended family in the Bronx to paint a detailed portrait of the lives of people that don’t get typically get such attention in the press. In an interview with Salon from 2003 (you have to watch an ad to read it), LeBlanc explains what she discovered while writing the book. See also: a recent article by LeBlanc on child actors in the New York Times Magazine, reprinted here.David Macaulay is the illustrator and author behind those incredible “The Way Things Work” books. In them, he deconstructs everyday objects as well as big buildings and other structures in engaging, lighthearted, yet incredibly detailed illustrations. You can see a few of those illustrations here. Macaulay is probably best known for The Way Things Work, but his architectural books, like Mosque are fascinating as well.I can’t pretend to know much about Sarah Ruhl – theater is a blind spot for me – so I’ll point instead to this long and glowing profile from the Washington Post: “She has been writing and rising steadily ever since, creating plays that aren’t easy to categorize. (An anthology of her plays will be published this fall.) The Clean House is tight and funny, skirting the polemics you might expect from a scenario that begins with a demanding WASP doctor and her recalcitrant immigrant maid. Yet it deepens by sly degrees, sweeping the audience on a surprising cloud of feeling as the characters deal with terminal illness in unorthodox ways.”George Saunders likely needs little introduction here as he’s been a favorite at The Millions and on many other book blogs. He is known for his unique, dystopian yet bleakly funny style that somehow manages to capture everything that is weird about our world without being obvious about it. For more George Saunders fun, check out an interview at Identity Theory, his story “Adams” from the New Yorker (there’s more where that came from), or his books, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, and In Persuasion Nation.