It’s that time of year again – the time of year when various orginizations and institutions take the cue from the NCAA basketball tournament to create their own contest in which various products are placed into brackets so that, via head to head competition, the best of the best can be determined. Usually this sort of thing is reserved for beer commercials, and it’s hard for anyone to pay that much attention to it, but, as they proved last year, The Morning News has taken the March Madness ripoff to a new level with its Tournament of Books. It was good fun for basketball fans and book fans alike last year and it promises to be good fun this time around to. To play along, meet the judges and download your bracket (pdf). Anyone want to start a pool?
This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $500,000, “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside, scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:
If you weren’t already aware that The Wire was a special TV show, then perhaps its creator David Simon receiving a genius grant will persuade you. The show and its creator have already been written up and effusively praised by cultural arbiters like the New Yorker, the series has been analyzed in academic journals, and the travails of McNulty, Bunk, Omar and the rest are now the subject of numerous college courses, so the conferring of geniusness on this particular corner of the small screen should really come as no surprise, a final confirmation of The Wire’s unique contribution to the medium and to the culture at large. We include Simon in the “literary” camp of the latest crop of geniuses because he and his show have been of enduring interest to the literary set (for example). Simon’s credits also include Homicide: Life on the Streets and his new series Treme.
Yiyun Li has been having a good year. First she was named to the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list, and now she has joined some very esteemed company (Deborah Eisenberg, Aleksandar Hemon, Edward P. Jones, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Powers, George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, etc.) among the few dozen literary writers who have been honored by the MacArthur Foundation over the years. Li’s stories are typically set in her native China and she wields a darkness and weightiness of tone that she has used to carve out a place for herself among the broader community of first generation immigrant writers. Her debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers came out in 2005, followed by a novel, The Vagrants, and then another collection of stories this fall, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Li participated in our “Best of the Millennium” series last year, and wrote up Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses for us.
Historian Annette Gordon-Reed deserves much of the credit for our reconsideration of Thomas Jefferson over the last two decades, particularly his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and the overall implications of slave ownership among the country’s founding fathers. The Harvard law professor’s books on the topic include Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. The latter book won Gordon-Reed the National Book Award in 2008.
Mark Sarvas is the next to weigh in on this year’s Tournament of Books, deciding between Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. He spends much of the review lamenting the early loss of Robert Bolano’s The Savage Detectives (as Garth did here), but he’s able to momentarily put his chagrin aside to judge the two novels at hand. Since I haven’t read any of these three books, I can’t agree or disagree with Sarvas’ assessment. I was most interested, though, in the commentary by Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner. Guilfole wonders if Sarvas’ description of Vida’s novel as “effective if slight” is really praise at all. He goes on to say:To be fair to Mark, I’m now going well beyond what I think is either his conscious or even subconscious intention, but the “slight” business in this case strikes me as vaguely sexist as well, as though a book about a young woman literally searching for her identity, no matter how skillfully it is rendered, could live up to the grand (at least judging by physical size) ambitions of either Bolano’s or Johnson’s opuses.Guilfoile admits he might be reading too much into Sarvas’ commentary because he loved Vida’s novel so much, bit it did get me wondering: Was Sarvas correct in advancing Denis Johnson’s novel because it is, in his words, the “Big Literary Book”?There’s also some interesting commentary, mainly by John Warner, about how Sarvas, with the publication of his debut book, Harry, Revised, is “about to make the complicated transition from critic to novelist.” A sticky (and exhilarating) situation to be in, for sure.
The big news is that Ian McEwen’s On Chesil Beach stays alive. I’ve heard pretty good things about the book, but I’d guess it’s not winning. He’s already won one for Amsterdam, and Atonement, considered by most to be his best, didn’t win in 2001 (True History of the Kelly Gang took it home that year). For the slight On Chesil Beach to win the prize would seem odd. Clearly, I’m not alone in this thinking, as the bookies, who favored McEwen when the longlist was announced, now favor Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. The longlist was offered here with some excerpts less than a month ago, but since you might not have gotten around to them then, we’ll offer the same with the shortlist below.Darkmans by Nicola BarkerThe Gathering by Anne Enright (excerpt)The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (excerpt)Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (excerpt)On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (excerpt)Animal’s People by Indra Sinha (excerpt)
You may have heard. In a surprise upset, the Booker Prize was awarded to Alan Hollinghurst for Line of Beauty. Oddsmakers, literary professionals, and speculating bloggers all considered David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to be a lock, but the Booker, as is so often the case, proved too wily to predict. The award will lead to many newspaper write-ups (NYT reg req’d), and a big boost in sales, although, from the looks of things, I would expect relatively modest Vernon God Little numbers rather than blockbuster best seller list Life of Pi numbers. With the Booker overwith, all eyes turn towards the National Book Awards, which will be announced on November 17th. A look at the non-fiction finalists.Bookspotting on the ElI meant to link to this post from Conversational Reading a while ago as it really captures the particular afflictions of many book lovers. His first question caught my eye: “Do you surreptitiously observe what people are reading on public transit?” Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I have the odd habit of posting about the books I spot people reading during the course of my day. (Bookspotting I call it.) Some might find this odd, but I think it’s fascinating, and better than any newspaper article or bestseller list at seeing what books people are interested in. Sure you lots of people reading the bestsellers, but you also see a delightfully random sampling of the books that our fellow citizens bury their noses in each day. Some my find this to be an odd hobby, but I it manages to affirm my faith in civilization. Here are the three books that I noticed from my seat on the Red Line today: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Morrison is an essential of American lit), The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (I’d wager that this book has been a huge seller here in Chicago), and Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare (I love seeing people casually reading Shakespeare on their way to work).
After a decidedly quiet run up to this year’s National Book Awards, the winners have been announced. William T. Vollmann, known, it seems, more for his graphomania than any of his books in particular, has won for his novel, Europe Central. Back in April, when the book came out, Tom LeClair in the New York Times called Europe Central Vollmann’s “most welcoming work, possibly his best book.” In the next sentence, LeClair calls Vollmann “an off-putting writer, sometimes intentionally so,” and perhaps the judges figured now, when Vollmann has written a more accessible (or shorter, though only for Vollmann could 832 pages be considered short) book, is the time to give him the plaudits he deserves.The non-fiction award went, unsurprisingly, to Joan Didion for her heart-wrenching and much praised memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, The Year of Magical Thinking. In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley called it “a lacerating yet peculiarly stirring book.”The other winners are: for poetry, Migration by W.S. Merwin and for young people’s literature, The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall. You can see all the Finalists listed here.
The IMPAC shortlist is in. If you don’t know about the IMPAC, it’s very unique prize with a very long longlist. The longlist is composed of nominees from over 150 libraries around the world. Those picks are then whittled down to a shortlist via a panel of judges. As you’ll see from the shortlist, since the process leading up to this award takes so long, some of the books aren’t exactly new. I think involving libraries makes the IMPAC unique compared to a lot of other awards out there. It seems a lot more egalitarian than, say, the Booker or the National Book Award, and I appreciate the international flavor as well. That’s why I included it in my prizewinners post last year. There’s more info about the award at the IMPAC site. Now, here’s the shortlist with some comments:Graceland by Chris Abani – This book about Nigeria was nominated by a library in Sweeden. – excerptMaps For Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam was an LBC nominee – we wrote about it for five posts sarting with this one. Another example of the multiculturalism of the IMPAC: this book about Pakistanis living in England was nominated by libraries in Belgium and South Africa. – excerptHavoc in Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett – I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I first heard about it. Was read and loved at Book World. – excerptsThe Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe – excerptAn Altered Light by Jens Christian Grondahl – excerptBreaking the Tongue by Vyvyane LohDon’t Move by Margaret Mazzantini – excerptThe Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra – excerptThe Master by Colm Toibin – excerptThe Logogryph by Thomas Wharton
So, it wasn’t Philip Roth, Amos Oz, Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, or Thomas Pynchon. Instead the honor has gone to Doris Lessing, a British writer who has explored themes of social issues and dabbled in science fiction. She debuted in 1950 with The Grass is Singing and has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, for Briefing for a Descent into Hell in 1971, The Sirian Experiments in 1981 and The Good Terrorist in 1985 (two out of three of which are now out of print, though likely not for long). Lessing’s most recent book is The Cleft, which came out in August. And, though I’m no Lessing expert, her most notable work is thought to be The Golden Notebook from 1962. Interestingly, dating back to my bookstore days, out of all the major literary awards – the National Book Award, the Booker, and the Pulitzer – only the Nobel reliably drove significant interest. On the day the prize was announced, customers on the phone and in person would descend on the store, occasionally leading to problems when a relative unknown with little in print, like Imre Kertesz or Elfriede Jelinek, won the award.Bonus Links: The curious can dig into articles on Lessing and reviews of her work dating back to 1984 at the New York Times; much of Lessing’s copious output is available at Amazon.