The Known World

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Review: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.

Quick Notes

Arts & Letters Daily links to a Washington Post article by a former Amazon.com employee, James Marcus, picking up on February’s story about a programming glitch at Amazon.ca. He gives us a little insider perspective on the customer review phenomenon, but perhaps more interesting for Amazon-watchers is the prospect of his upcoming book: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut chronicling the early days of the online superstore through the internet bust. This will likely be an interesting portrait of the dot-com era.Also at aldaily.com, a link to a review of Kingsley Amis’ comic masterpiece Lucky Jim in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication. Believe the hype, this book is fantastic.Folks in Los Angeles, and probably most big cities, have probably noticed the proliferation of stencil and paste-up graffiti appearing on sidewalks and walls. The images range from blatant advertisements (usually for bands) to beguiling and intriguing symbols. The British artist Tristan Manco has collected these odd hybrid art forms into a couple of good-looking volumes, Stencil Graffiti and the soon to be released Street Logos. Here are some images from the first book: Stencil GraffitiI’ve added The Clerk’s Tale by Spencer Reece to the Reading Queue, and I’m almost done with The Known World by Edward P. Jones. It is fantastic.

Pulitzer Day!

I’m back from Vegas just in time for the announcement of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize. Here are the winners and finalists in all of the book categories:NOVELThe Known World by Edward P. Jones Winner!American Woman by Susan ChoiEvidence of Things Unseen by Marianne WigginsDRAMA: I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright Winner!Man from Nebraska by Tracy LettsOmnium Gatherum by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-VassilarosHISTORY: A Nation under Our Feet : Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn Winner!They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace Vietnam and America October 1967 by David MaranissGreat Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center by Daniel OkrentBIOGRAPHY OR AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Khrushchev: The Man and his Era by William Taubman Winner!Isaac Newton by James GleickArshile Gorky: His Life and Work by Hayden HerreraPOETRY: Walking to Martha’s Vineyard by Franz Wright Winner!Middle Earth by Henri ColeEyeshot by Heather McHughGENERAL NON-FICTION: Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum Winner!Rembrandt’s Jews by Steven NadlerThe Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military by Dana PriestI have to commend the Pulitzer committee; they really got it right this time. I actually started reading The Known World today because it’s the selection for my book club. I’ll be able to add my two cents at the end of the week, but based on the lavish praise this book received from critics and readers, there’s no doubt it was deserving. Also, the more I hear about Jones, the more I like him. Check out this excerpt from an AP story announcing his victory:The Pulitzer was a shot of energy on an otherwise down day for Jones, author of a previous book, the acclaimed story collection “Lost in the City.” He was feeling so ill Monday he didn’t bother at first to answer his phone. He also was in the middle of moving from his longtime home in Arlington, Va., because of noisy upstairs neighbors.”This (award) should give me strength to finish up tomorrow,” said Jones, who next week expects to move into Washington, D.CI think it’s a particularly writerly trait to be distracted from the demands of the outside world by your inner concerns. As for the other winners, I was thrilled to see Anne Applebaum lauded for her truly astonishing book, Gulag. I’m glad that the Pulitzer did not stick to its bias of rewarding books with American themes in selecting a book that is of universal importance and that greatly expands our knowledge and understanding of what was until now a hidden part of 20th century history. For similar reasons, I was also happy to see Taubman’s biography of Khrushchev get the prize. Daniel Okrent, another favorite author of mine, was named a finalist, as well. All in all, I have no complaints.

Award Winner, New Book, Big Book

Edward P. Jones continues to receive accolades for his National Book Critics Circle Award. This AP article gives some more insight on Jones and his book, The Known World. Could a Pulitzer be around the corner? In the San Francisco Chronicle, a considerable profile of T. C. Boyle. It looks like Boyle’s next book will be called The Inner Circle. This one will be about Dr. Alfred Kinsey, a real life sex researcher from the 1940s and 50s. And the New York Times Book Review finally finished reading William Vollmann’s massive treatise on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, (weighing in at 3,299 pages) and makes the review its cover story. They appreciate the expanse of the work, but not so much the content.

Award Season

Now that Hollywood’s “award season” is over, the book world’s is getting started, and, in what may be a preview of the Pulitzer, Edward P. Jones’ much lauded novel, The Known World, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. It took him so long to write this book that he was too embarrassed to call his agent when he finally finished it. Lucky for him, it seems to have worked out quite well. The winners in the other categories are: Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy by Paul Hendrickson in the general non-fiction category; Khrushchev: The Man and His Era by William Taubman in the biography category; River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit for criticism; and Columbarium by Susan Stewart for poetry. As I may have mentioned before, the NBCC Award is great because it is not limited to American books — it includes all books written in English — and because, unlike the Pulitzer, it doesn’t skew towards rewarding books that are focused on American themes, thus allowing a book like Khrushchev to be praised.A New Wave of Graphic NovelsScott McCloud writes on his blog that the runaway experimentalism in comics in recent years has given way to a return to storytelling. The shining stars of this new trend are Blankets by Craig Thompson and an upcoming anthology called Flight.

One Last Best of 2003

Somehow I waited two months to take a look at the “best of 2003” column from my favorite book critic Jonathan Yardley. For him 17 rather interesting books make the cut, and his two picks for best of the year are The Known World by Edward P. Jones and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale. Both of these are on the reading queue, and I’m very much looking forward to reading them. Here is Yardley’s column.

A Reading Queue for 2004

I recently reorganized my bookshelves. I straightened and categorized the books, and I separated out all of the books that I haven’t read and that I hope to read sooner rather than later. These are books that I’ve bought at the store, received as gifts, and unearthed on bookfinding expeditions. There are 31 of them. For a while now, I’ve had a quite large “to read” pile, and I add titles almost every week, it seems. The problem is that stacks of books are constantly getting pushed aside while I read whatever book I’m most excited about at the moment. There’s not really anything wrong with this except that there are books that I really would like to read, but never seem to get around to it. So, since I obviously am not to be trusted, I have decided to take some of the decision making out of my hands: I have set aside a special shelf to hold my new “Reading Queue.” On it are all of the books that I own and would like to read but haven’t yet. From this shelf full of books, I will randomly select the next one to read. Before I get into that though, here’s my reading queue, some of the books that will keep me occupied during the coming year:Without Feathers by Woody AllenThe Summer Game by Roger AngellOnce More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader by Roger AngellGame Time: A Baseball Companion by Roger AngellAn Army at Dawn by Rick AtkinsonThe Sheltering Sky by Paul BowlesThe Hole in the Flag by Andrei CodrescuDon Quixote by Miguel De CervantesParis Trout by Pete DexterThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre DumasThe Last Amateurs by John FeinsteinA Season on the Brink by John FeinsteinLiving to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezLast Train to Memphis by Peter GuralnickThe Great Fire by Shirley HazzardRound Rock by Michelle HunevenThe Known World by Edward P. JonesBalkan Ghosts by Robert D. KaplanShah of Shahs by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Price of Admiralty by John KeeganEverything’s Eventual by Stephen KingLiar’s Poker by Michael LewisThe Coming of Rain by Richard MariusThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLooking for a Ship by John McPheeMoviegoer by Walker PercyFraud by David RakoffThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver SacksEast of Eden by John SteinbeckQuicksilver by Neal StephensonMr. Jefferson’s University by Garry WillsOnce I had a full shelf to pick from, the only question was how to pick randomly. I thought about writing down names and picking out of hat, but that seemed like a pain, and I would have had to go look for a hat, so instead I located a random number generator to help me make my choice. I’m going back east tomorrow for two weeks, so I picked three books to take with me: Everything’s Eventual, Paris Trout, and Don Quixote. I’m guessing most folks will be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks, and so will I, so I’ll probably only post a couple of times while I’m gone. They should be good, though. Look for “My Year in Books” and a post about the books I gave as gifts. Happy Holidays, all.

More Awards

So, they announced the nominees for the National Book Award yesterday. Interesting choices. Here they are with some comments:Drop City by T. C. Boyle: I read this one about a year ago. The book is definitely better than some of the, in my opinion, duds he has produced of late, but it does not come close to surpassing his three best books: The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, and one of my all-time favorites, Water Music.The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard: I haven’t read this one, but I have a copy. If you would like to read it and write a little review for this website, I will send the book to you at my expense. Any takers?The Known World by Edward P. Jones: I have not read this one but I hear it’s quite good. It was extremely well-reviewed.A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer: This one came out a while back and was also well reviewed, although I only ever seemed to hear Scott Spencer fans talking about it.Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins: this one slipped under my radar because this is the first I’ve heard of it. I know, not very helpful.My pick to win: The Known World by Edward P. JonesAnd the nominees for non-fiction are…. (drum roll):Gulag by Anne Applebaum: I read this book and was completely floored by it. Applebaum was able to get to the heart of a multi-generational tragedy that affected literally tens of millions of people yet is curiously underrepresented in history books. Bravo to her for braving the horrors and writing an unflinching book.The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt: this one was very well reviewed, and, though the subject matter is rather quaint and sentimental, it is pretty clever to follow the history of a house across many generations. Apparently, Colt does a good job of it.Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D’Emilio: This one pretty much slipped under my radar as well. Rustin is the man responsible for organizing the historical Civil Rights March on Washington.Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire: This one came out a while ago to not a whole lot of fanfare. It is pretty highly regarded, and is a must read for folks who are interested in Cuba.The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson: This one was a huge seller. The book provides a healthy dose of historical true crime excitement as it traces the steps of a serial killer who terrorized the Chicago Worlds Fair at the turn of the century. Would love to read this one.My pick: I hope Applebaum wins, but I think the award will go to Colt.For all the details and author bios as well as the nominees in the childrens and poetry categories go to the National Book Award website.

What People Are Reading (Part 1)

First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, “a loner who reads the mail before delivering it.” Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon’s paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter’s latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter’s latest is thoughtful, reflective and “quietly triumphant.” Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.

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