March 27, 2010
There’s a do-over going on at the Man Booker Prize. An archivist discovered the prestigious U.K. book award missed a year — 1970 — when the award moved from presentation in April 1971 for books published in the previous year to presentation in November 1971 for books published in the current year. Oops! The flip caused 1970 authors and their novels to be skipped. So now there’s a one-off Lost Man Booker Prize to be awarded May 19 to fill the gap.
And that’s just what is going on – a fill-the-gap effort and not a true effort to rectify the mishap. Otherwise there would be a cash prize with the award and a committee of judges determining the winner, as is customary for the Man Booker. Instead, as reported by the U.K. TimesOnline, the award offers “only retrospective glory for the author, a likely sales spike and a special bound edition of their winning book.” In addition, the winner will be chosen not by a panel of judges but by the public. Voting on the website is open now and closes on April 23.
Certainly the Lost Man Booker Prize gives us a chance to look back to a list of recommended books from 1970, but I can’t help seeing the transparent gimmick and freaky neatness of it, let alone the flawed approach.
- Those who selected the shortlist of finalists were born in or around 1970. Who thought that was the right idea? Shouldn’t they have been fiction readers in 1970?
- I wonder also about John and Jane Public selecting the winner. There’s no surety they’ll have read all let alone any of the contenders. What if they’re owners of multiple email accounts and click happy?
- Finally, even though more than half the authors on the shortlist are dead, I say “no fair” there’s not a cash prize, the equivalent of what it would’ve been in 1970. Given the rate of inflation since then, I can’t imagine the monies would be that much of a dent in the Booker purse.
BTW, the living authors are Shirley Hazzard and Nina Bawden. Hilariously, and a signal of the absurdity going on, Bawden couldn’t remember what her book was about when she found out she was on the shortlist, according to the TimesOnline.
It’s unfortunate the Man Booker committee didn’t consider the richness of their history as it plays out over time and allow the gap to inform that history of a significant change. The Pulitzer Prize for the novel/fiction lists “no award” for 1917, 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954, 1957, 1964, 1971, 1974, 1977. The reasons create interesting literary history.
Here’s the shortlist of finalists for the Lost Man Booker Prize:
- The Birds on the Trees by Nina Bawden. Middle-class parents have their lives turned upside down by their rebellious 19-year-old son.
- The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark. A dark story about a woman bored with her job who seeks adventure with consequences.
- The Vivisector by Patrick White. A painter is obsessed with his work, and the people who love him become victims of his art.
- The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard. A British woman is introduced to a writer and her friends in Naples, changing her life.
- Troubles by J. G. Farrell. A military major returns from the Great War to find his Anglo-Irish fiancée and her family-owned hotel greatly changed.
- Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault. The first installment of Renault’s trilogy on the life of Alexander the Great.
March 24, 2010
I hesitated to read The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. A quick flip-through revealed it was written in varying viewpoints, and that technique doesn’t always succeed. Authors will fail to differentiate between the characters’ many voices. Even more annoying, the emotional rhythm can fragment as, chapter by chapter, we’re jerked between voices and viewpoints. But author Heidi Durrow quickly erased my doubt. Her characters speak with powerful, individual purpose and also merge to tell a moving family tragedy.
That tragedy is witnessed by Jamie, the son of a drug-addicted mother living in a Chicago highrise. He thinks he sees a bird flying past their window, grabs his Peterson field guide and runs outside to identify the bird. What he finds in the courtyard is not a bird but a boy, girl, mother and baby who’ve tumbled from the building’s roof. Nobody knows whether they fell, jumped or were pushed.
The girl is 11-year-old Rachel, and she alone survives the fall because she lands on top of her brother. Her dead mother is Danish, and her father is an absent African-American military man based in Germany. After the fall, Rachel moves to Portland, Oregon, to live with her paternal African-American grandmother and aunt. She is an exquisitely beautiful child with a light brown complexion and distinctive blue eyes. She’s recognized for her beauty, yet regarded as neither black nor white. So it is not only the fall that profoundly alters and shapes her growing up in the 1980s but also issues of bi-racial identity.
Rachel’s voice sensitively and wisely recounts her coming of age while four other characters reveal her past. In addition to Jamie, we hear from Rachel’s mother before the fall; her father, who keeps a vigil in Rachel’s hospital room after the fall; and her mother’s employer, who rethinks the days before the fall. Along the way, Durrow doesn’t let us down, deftly building the story with seamless elegance. By the time we reach the end, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky does more than successfully tell a good story from multiple viewpoints; it evokes a memorable world where tragedy and issues of race and beauty create a whisper of wonder about what really happened on the rooftop that tragic day and about the burdens a life is given to carry.
March 20, 2010
Meet Oolong. He was a Japanese rabbit with an unusually flat head on which his owner, Hironori Akutagawa, placed odd objects. Toilet paper. Carrots. Pancakes. Cookies. The strange assortment atop the bunny’s head became the visual subject matter for Akutagawa’s blog, one of the Web’s first in 1999, which became a huge success. Next the photos showed up in a book, In Almost Every Picture #8, published by Netherlands-based Kesselskramer Publishing.
Oolong’s book is the most recent in a series featuring eccentric images randomly discovered and then published by Dutch art director Erik Kessels. Flea markets, for example, are one source for these odd treasures. That’s where Kessels found the images for Book #4, showcasing twins arm-in-arm in different clothes and settings. What’s fascinating is their very simplicity — plainness, actually – and the understated glimpse into a twins’ togetherness found “in almost every picture.” Except the last one. It is thought the missing sister passed away by then.
Odd but familiar is Book #2, featuring photos of a couple’s parked car/taxi on the side of the road in various settings with the woman in the passenger seat. And then there’s the bizarre Book #7, illustrating a woman at a shooting gallery, rifle in hand, taking aim. Her photos start in 1938 and end in 2006.
All eight books can be viewed in a slide show on the website of the U.K.’s modern design Wallpaper magazine. (Go here.) While these books may appear to be quirky art photography, they are valued collectibles. The earliest ones are hard to find, and so a complete set is rare. But then, you never know. One day, in a flea market somewhere, a set of In Almost Every Picture may be found.
On a final note: Luxembourg’s Centre nationale de l’audiovisuel in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de Luxembourg is hosting an exhibition of the photos from Book #1 called “A venir: I was here,” March 26 through June 13, 2010, in case you’re headed that way.
March 15, 2010
I’d never heard of this popular German novelist, who died in 1947, until I came upon advertisements in The London Review of Books for his reissued novels. What caught my eye were the quoted praises about Hans Fallada by Graham Greene, Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse. They drove me to the website of the book’s publisher, Melville House, to learn more about this author. There I discovered Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone. Primo Levi described it as “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” And yet, before April 2009, it wasn’t available in English.
The plot is based on the true story of a working class German couple who lived a low-profile, non-political life in Berlin during Hitler’s years in power. When their only son was killed on the WWII front battle lines, they became resisters, launching a dangerous anti-Hitler campaign via postcards they circulated throughout Berlin. Eventually, the couple was found out, tried and beheaded by the Nazis.
According to Melville House publisher, Dennis Johnson, speaking about the novel on The Charlie Rose Show, someone contacted Hans Fallada (a pen name for Rudolf Ditzen) and gave him the couple’s Gestapo file — because inside the file was the stuff of a great novel. Fallada wrote his fictionalized version of the couple’s story in 24 days. It was his last novel, finishing a prolific literary career and a tough life of psychological struggle and addiction. Fallada died shortly before the book was published.
After the war, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, “Fallada’s reputation fell into steep decline. American and British publishers let his titles slip out of print, and in Germany, he was relinquished to school reading lists and dusty library shelves.” More than half a century later, Melville’s Johnson learned about Fallada’s books from friend and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. In an interview with biblioklept, Johnson says Furstenberg told him Fallada’s masterpiece had never been translated into English. “That was Every Man Dies Alone. And so we set about going after it and acquiring it.”
Acclaimed WWII espionage novelist Alan Furst blurbs the dust jacket, “One of the most extraordinary and compelling novels ever written about World War II. Ever….Please, do not miss this.” Liesl Schillinger from The New York Times calls it “gripping” on The Charlie Rose Show. The paperback edition is scheduled for release end of this month. Melville House also publishes Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? and The Drinker. Coming in May, Wolf Among Wolves.
March 11, 2010
The National Book Critics Circle tonight gave their 2009 fiction award to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The historical novel set in 1520s England about Thomas Cromwell won Britain’s coveted Booker Prize last fall.
I’m disappointed Bonnie Jo Campbell didn’t win for American Salvage (Wayne State University Press), but what great praise to have been a finalist not only for this award in fiction but also the 2009 National Book Award. As posted on TLC last November: “…American Salvage seemed to come out of nowhere. And so I discovered the work of a talented writer who can take readers into jobless, drug-addicted fictional lives with narrative intimacy and beauty without ignoring or simplifying the ugliness.”
Here are the National Book Critics Circle award winners in all the categories.
- The fiction award went to Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall (Henry Holt).
- The nonfiction award went to Richard Holmes for The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Pantheon).
- The autobiography award went to Diana Athill for Somewhere Towards the End (W. W. Norton). See the March 8 TLC post.
- The biography award went to Blake Bailey for Cheever: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf).
- The criticism award went to Eula Biss for Notes From No Man’s Land: American Essays (Graywolf Press).
- The poetry award went to Rae Armantrout for Versed (Wesleyan University Press).
March 8, 2010
Here’s a memoir by an author who was 89 at the time of its writing in 2007. It’s not about her life, but her old age. “Book after book has been written about being young … but there is not much on record about falling away,” Diana Athill writes. And so she picked up her pen, giving us a book that neither rages at nor complains about old age, rather looks it squarely in the face to live its unwanted challenges as best as possible.
Athill is not unfamiliar to me. I read her previous memoir Stet several years ago, about her career as a book editor with a London publishing house. Over five decades, Athill worked with such distinguished authors as V. S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys. I found her writing starched and the stories lacking an insider’s flare. The writing in Somewhere Towards the End again is starched, but this time her thoughts resonate an engaging warmth and vulnerability. Her musings range among topics that include past romantic affairs, children, atheism, gardening, the ebbing of sexual desire and caring for a longtime friend through illness. They also include regrets, of which Athill has two: her selfishness, and her never having had the guts to escape the narrowness of her life, lacking courage and energy.
Athill doesn’t offer advice, which is refreshing. The focus is on her experience, the personal scenery of her life’s last passage, not any preaching or grand sense of wisdom from the perch of high age digits. Even when she tells us what’s required to live old age well — a positive outlook and an active mind — she says, with her usual frankness that’s also refreshing, either you have it or you don’t. “Those able to draw on such qualities will be doing so already,” she writes.
Somewhere Towards the End is a small book at 182 pages. It was first published in Britain in 2008 and won that year’s Costa prize for biography. The United States published the memoir in 2009, and it’s a finalist for a 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award, to be announced this Thursday.
March 3, 2010
Michelle Huneven’s new novel gets off to a great start. It’s one of those beginnings that suggests we’ll be haunted up to the last page with questions about the truth. As it relates to Huneven’s young protagonist, a history professor, that question would be: “What really happened to Patsy MacLemoore the night she suffered an alcoholic blackout and killed two people with her car?”
Patsy shouldn’t even have been driving, what with her license having been suspended. She’s a frequent blackout drinker, but nothing this horrific has happened before. Nevertheless, she’s the one found at the steering wheel of the car that killed two Jehovah’s Witnesses, a mother and her daughter.
From here on we get a gentle story about how Patsy gets sober in prison, gets her old job back, discusses her guilt with a therapist and finds an older, fatherly man to marry. He’s rich, too, so she gets to live in a house with a to-die-for Southern California view. Meanwhile, the husband/father of the victims befriends Patsy, and she’s able to experience his forgiveness.
Occasionally, Patsy tells someone she doesn’t remember much about the accident or that night. Also, when she describes what the victims were wearing, she’s off by a designer mile. It’s a no-brainer to recognize these moments as hints of some shocker to come, only they’re not intense enough to haunt and the surprise takes too long to manifest. It’s also unimagined and so hits with a mild thud, far from what the dust jacket promises: “For the reader, it is an electrifying moment, a joyous, fall-off-the-couch-with-surprise moment.” (Not really.)
Despite this let-down, Blame is enjoyable to read; it’s successfully written with a faultless, engaging style. The choices Patsy makes for her resurrected, post-prison, sober life are meaningful. Also, Patsy is a companionable protagonist whose moments — even the moment – evoke a sense of comfortable normal as she learns to live guilt-ridden but content.
Blame is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction to be announced March 11. It’s not the high-calibre fiction of Wolf Hall and American Salvage, among the contenders. It’s a decent enough story, but I’m baffled by its nomination.