Lark and Termite

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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

The Notables: 2009

This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (a most anticipated book)
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (my review, Millions Top Ten book)
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon (a most anticipated book, The Millions Interview with Dan Chaon, Best of the Millennium Longlister)
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (a most anticipated book, The Kakutani Two-Step)
Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson (Jean Thompson on Edward P. Jones)
Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill (Best of the Millennium Longlister)
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (Wells Tower’s Year in Reading, a most anticipated book, my review, Best of the Millennium Longlister, Millions Top Ten book)
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (a most anticipated book, Edan’s review)
Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers (a most anticipated book)
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (Manil Suri’s Year in Reading selection, National Book Award Finalist)
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips (National Book Award Finalist)
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (a most anticipated book, my review, National Book Award Winner)
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Booker Shortlister)
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Lion, The Witch and Ishiguro)
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead (a most anticipated book)
The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips (Anne’s review, Arthur Phillips’ Year in Reading, Arthur Phillips on Kelly Link)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Booker Prize Winner)
Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (a most anticipated book)

Gender Confusion: On Literary Sausage Parties

I originally thought I wouldn’t write about the Publishers Weekly Top 10 Books of 2009, a list that quickly became infamous not for who’s on it, but who isn’t. Namely: women. I noticed the absence immediately, but I was more puzzled than troubled. Come on, PW, have you not read Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson? This year, readers and critics have gone gaga for lady authors, from Hillary Mantel to Jayne Anne Phillips, and so it was strange that none would be included on the list. It didn’t seem like these editors would have to consciously choose a woman–it would just happen, like breathing. Perhaps I’m naive, or I just like lady authors too much.

I was happy to see Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon and Big Machine by Victor LaValle included, two novels I liked a lot and have championed here on The Millions. But, I also felt sad for these two wonderful writers: would they want to be associated with this list? Chaon and LaValle certainly deserve our attention, but the kind of attention they got from PW, I fear, is a reminder that they use the men’s room. See, that’s what’s happened: the maleness of the list is all people can talk about. A cynical part of me wonders if Publishers Weekly went with these picks precisely because of the outrage they were sure would follow. Nothing increases visibility–and web traffic–like outrage.

Lizzie Skurnick’s take on the list is compelling and worth a read; she writes about the topic with both perspicacity and good humor, and she (rightfully, I think) suggests that the term “ambitious”– as it’s defined by critics and prize judges–is questionable, partially because it is gendered. Like Skurnick, I also don’t find the list of notable books by women on the Women in Literature and Literary Arts (WILLA) website all that helpful, either. The wiki nature of the list means that the only requirement to get on this list is that you don’t use the men’s room. You see, women write good books, and they also write very bad ones. One’s gender, like one’s ethnicity, isn’t a sign of your literary merit or lack thereof. And anyway, ladies don’t really need this list. We’re doing pretty well for ourselves. After all, women read more than men, and women writers sell more books than male writers. And we do win prizes. Don’t forget that this year’s Nobel prize winner for literature was female, and that Elizabeth Strout won the Pultizer. In 2004, all of the National Book Award nominees for fiction were female. I remember my annoyance at how much gender was discussed that year. “What about the books themselves?” I kept crying. But, look at me now, lamenting that only sausages got invited to the Top 10 Publishers Weekly party.

My double standard, I suppose, comes from the fact that there’s a long and undeniable history of women not getting critical recognition for their writing. I read nearly equal numbers of male and female writers (I keep a record. Seriously.) but I’ve met numerous male readers (many of them booksellers), who rarely, if ever, read books by women. This argument also extends to work by writers of color. Books by white men are considered universal, while books by women, or people of color, aren’t. A male author wins a prize because he deserves it. A Latina woman wins a literary prize because, well… there was pressure… it was time. That’s a dangerous and unfair line of reasoning, for it undercuts the talent and accomplishment of these writers.

Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer for The Known World, not because he’s a black dude, but because he wrote an exceptional, brilliant novel. Yes, by giving Jones the prize, the Pulitzer committee championed and validated a narrative about African-Americans, by an African-American, and that is significant. But the writer’s race was not the reason he won the prize.

Which brings me to why I’m writing about this when I figured I wouldn’t. Last week, the National Book Award winners were announced, and all of them were white men. You might expect me to be upset by this, but I wasn’t. A few people I follow on Twitter were, however, and on her blog, author Tayari Jones wrote a genuine and heartfelt reaction to the awards (she attended the ceremony): “I will admit that I don’t know what to make of it. I know how it felt to be a woman writer of color that evening. I had a number of weirdly marginalizing personal encounters that evening. I arrived in high spirits and left feeling a bit deflated.” This reaction makes a lot of sense to me, and I respect it. But it also must be acknowledged that the judging process was fair–or as fair as can be (Jones does acknowledge this in her post).

The judges for each genre–fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature–don’t talk to one another. That is, if the fiction judges choose a white male writer to win, they don’t know that the nonfiction judges have as well. Furthermore, the list of nominated books was varied and interesting, and the judges were diverse. (Quite frankly, I’d read anything deemed the best by fiction committee Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Charles Johnson, Lydia Millet and Alan Cheuse.) So I’m all right with the results this year, as discomfiting as they might have been, coming on the heels of that terrible PW list. (And, perhaps it’s worth reiterating: do we even need the prizes? Do we need to “put a ring on it” so to speak?)

I’m most weary of lamenting this year’s National Book Award winners because it sets up an expectation for next year’s winners to be chosen on the basis of something other than literary merit. And if a woman and/or person of color wins the award, the last thing I want to hear is, “Oh, the judges felt pressure,” or, “It was time…” That kind of discourse is insidious.

In a dream world, the winners and best-of lists would always be diverse and surprising, and equality would just happen because people read widely, without any ingrained, problematic notions of what’s universal or ambitious or important. Now, the question is: how can we make that a reality?

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

Curiosities: Pretend Lunch

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In Open Letters, Sam Sacks writes “Quietude is godliness in Lark & Termite” and traces Faulkner’s influence on the new book.n+1 on the 10th anniversary of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time”: “After her came the deluge: the end of the record industry as we know it, yes, but also the end of America as it used to conceive of itself.”Soft Skull’s Richard Nash on how to publish in a recession at Conversational Reading.William Safire on “the deluge of books occasioned by the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.” Millions reader Scott says, “I wish the Book Review would do a LOT more of this kind of stuff.”The Internet is amazing I: J! Archive, “The fan-created archive of Jeopardy! games and players – 160,032 clues and counting!”The Internet is amazing II: The NY Times has a crossword puzzle blog.Maud Newton in Granta: “Exactly how long the prostitute, unbeknownst to my father, stayed at our house and slept in my bed is hard to gauge.””Sometimes, instead of eating alone, I pretend I’m having lunch with American literary legends. Today’s pretend guest was Cormac McCarthy.”Is MacKinlay Kantor’s Andersonville “the best Civil War novel ever?” (via)At Jacket Copy, Carolyn discovers Faulkner and Delillo in the Sports Illustrated archive.Sara Paretsky: “My editor tells me this is the last time the company will let her send me a marked manuscript.”Jenny Davidson on her special pencils.Dan Radosh exposes yet another tired journalistic cliche.The novel of manners, with zombies:: Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesIn praise of the long sentence. (Hear, hear!)

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