Far North: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Jennifer Egan

I had the pleasure of being a National Book Awards judge this year, and I’m proud to have helped choose our winner, Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin), and finalists Mary Jo Campbell (American Salvage), Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), Jayne Anne Phillips (Lark and Termite), and Marcel Theroux (Far North)

For this list, though, I’m returning to the comparatively tiny amount of reading I did this year BEFORE beginning to read the NBA submissions in May. I’ve been on an epic poetry kick inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is of course superb. Still, the work I got most thoroughly lost in was Lord George Gordon Byron’s Don Juan. Many editions are abridged, but there’s no reason not to take in the whole rollicking extravaganza: 17 cantos and counting… the work was unfinished when Byron died and ends mid-canto. Cut corners and you’ll risk missing the pirate scene, or Don Juan’s affair with Catherine the Great of Russia, or the part when he’s sold as a slave and then disguised as a member of a Sultan’s harem, or the shipwreck, or the ghost scene, or the battle… You get the picture; this mock epic is so crammed with adventure and wildness and great poetry that it will make your head spin. But none of that is the best part. The real achievement of Don Juan is the voice, unprecedented for its time: loose, casual, and utterly modern–full of asides about Byron’s daily life, his writing struggles, not to mention a lot of bitchy remarks about his peers, Coleridge especially. It’s an artifact so imbued with the essence of its maker that you can practically smell his sweat on its pages. And I call that a good thing.

More from A Year in Reading

2009 National Book Award Finalists Announced

Award season is hitting its stride, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have been announced. The big name among the fiction finalists is Column McCann. He is joined by an intriguing mix of newcomers and lesser known writers. Overall, it looks like the National Book Award is trying to push the envelope a bit this year, unsurprising with the likes of Junot Díaz and Lydia Millet on the judging panel. Not making the fiction cut are notable writers like Thomas Pynchon, Richard Russo, and Lorrie Moore. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (excerpt, review, Most Anticipated)
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (excerpt)
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips (excerpt)
Far North by Marcel Theroux (excerpt)

Nonfiction:

Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook by David M. Carroll (excerpt)
Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species by Sean B. Carroll (excerpt)
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin (excerpt)
The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor (excerpt [pdf])
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles (excerpt)

Poetry:

Versed by Rae Armantrout (excerpt)
Or to Begin Again by Ann Lauterbach (poem)
Speak Low by Carl Phillips (poem)
Open Interval by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon (poem [pdf])
Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy by Keith Waldrop (excerpt [pdf])

Young People’s Literature:

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose
Stitches by David Small
Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor
Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia

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