October 14, 2010
Two major literary awards –the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award – announced some unexpected results this week.
On Tuesday, Man Booker judges gave the coveted British award to 68-year-old Howard Jacobson for The Finkler Question. It’s the first comic novel to win the Man Booker since the inception of the prize 42 years ago. While many believe the award for Jacobson has been long in coming, The Finkler Question didn’t get as much “predicted winner” buzz as did Emma Donoghue’s Room and Tom McCarthy’s C.
On Wednesday, the National Book Foundation listed its 20 finalists for the 2010 National Book Awards (NBA), and guess who’s missing among the fiction finalists? “National Book Awards Snub Jonathan Franzen,” reports the Guardian.
Author Pat Conroy announced the Freedom-less 20 finalists in Flannery O’Connor’s Savannah, Georgia, childhood home. They include so many books I haven’t read, which is my big sigh every year when the finalists are announced. But that’s the beauty of the National Book Award selections: They’re unpredictable, bringing to the forefront impressive books deserving a wider audience. Last year, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection American Salvage published by Wayne State University Press rose into the literary limelight as an NBA fiction candidate. This year, Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel about Asian-Americans published by Coffee House Press, I Hotel, similarly rises.
Here is the full list of 2010 National Book Award finalists in the four categories. Two of the books aren’t available yet: James Richardson’s By the Numbers is set for publication November 1, and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule is to be published November 15. Unless the publishing houses release them earlier, the reading public doesn’t have access to them until a few days before the winner is announced, which will be November 17.
Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America
Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule
Nicole Krauss, Great House
Lionel Shriver, So Much for That
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel
Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq
Patti Smith, Just Kids
Justin Spring, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward
Megan K. Stack, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War
Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City
Terrance Hayes, Lighthead
James Richardson, By the Numbers
CD Wright, One With Others
Monica Youn, Ignatz
Young people’s literature
Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker
Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird
Laura McNeal, Dark Water
Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown
Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer
August 30, 2010
To read Andrew Ervin’s new book is to know why independent small-press publishing just may hold the ticket to our future in literary fiction. Ervin skillfully converges three lives in three stories by intertwining beautiful, minor details that bring separations into an exquisite whole. His impressive debut, published by Coffee House Press, is so masterfully composed, it moves the reader not with intrigue or romance, rather with gorgeous simplicity.
In the first story, “14 Bagatelles,” world-renowned Hungarian composer Harkályi Lajos returns to Budapest for the premiere of his opera, The Golden Lotus. His visit is emotionally charged, for Harkályi emigrated to America as a teen-ager after surviving Terezín. He entered the Nazi concentration camp in 1943 as a violin prodigy, a student of the famous Zoltan Kodály. The melody in the final string quartet of The Golden Lotus is a lullaby Harkályi’s mother sang to him and his brother on the morning they left for Terezín. It’s one of those beautiful, minor details that elevate this book into elegance.
The setting is Independence Day in contemporary Budapest. Harkályi explores the city crowded with revelers in his free time before the opera gala. At one point, he comes upon skinheads attacking an African-American U.S. soldier in the dim hallway of a train station. Harkályi’s presence and words stop the attack, but then the soldier refuses any further help. Back at the hotel, the composer meets his niece Magda, who will be accompanying him to the opera. She’s a translator, working for the U.S. military at a nearby base. Over coffee, she casually references her boyfriend, who’s the protagonist of the second story. He’s also the African-American soldier Harkályi tried to help in the train station.
In the second story, “Brooking the Devil,” Private First Class “Brutus” Gibson is on a gun-running mission that’s been forced on him by his commander at the near-by U.S. military base. Gibson, however, rebels. He hides the weapons, takes a room at a hotel — the same hotel where Magda and her uncle are staying – and antagonizes the gun dealers. In another one of those details that so elegantly tie these stories together, Gibson, who knows nothing about the opera or Magda’s presence in Budapest, smells her unique perfume in the hotel and wonders if she’s involved in his commander’s effort to frame him.
The third story, “The Empty Chairs,” is from the viewpoint of an American violinist in the Budapest Orchestra performing Harkályi’s opera. She, also, passes through the aforementioned hotel, to have her hair cut in the lobby salon. She drinks the same “surprisingly good” coffee sipped the same day by Magda. But this violinist’s greater connection to the composer is the final notes of the opera, the lullaby’s string quartet. She deviates from the score to the horror of her fellow musicians.
It would be unfair to reveal more of this powerful moment that transforms both the violinist and the composer. The three stories build to it and come together in a lasting message about courage and self-truth.
September 13, 2009
Coffee House Press releases Sam Savage’s new novel this month, and it more than lives up to expectations for this sharp-witted, amusing author of Firmin.
The narrator is Soap Editor Andy Whittaker, who also manages a few rental properties inhabited by combative, non-paying tenants.
The time is pre-email 1970s with a few mentions of Nixon in The White House. Andy writes hilarious letters of advice, want and ridicule to Soap’s contributors, his ex-wife, friends, local arts organizations and those difficult tenants. These missives create the tart, animated narrative along with a few excerpts from Andy’s unfocused novel-in-progress.
Responses to the letters aren’t included, and we don’t need them. Andy’s self-pitying and smartly-quipped effusions are enough to illustrate Savage’s clever take on self-aggrandizing writers, snobbish arts organizations and the scrabbling life of aspiring writers.
Hope for salvation lies in a Soap festival of literature and the arts. Andy attempts to lure authors by telling them it will be big. “‘How big?’ you ask, as well you should,” he writes to Mr. Mailer, whom we can safely assume is Norman. “Let me drop this small hint in lieu of an answer: There will be elephants.”
The more desperate Andy’s situation becomes, the more he uses his wit and mockery to beg, inform and deceive. His letters showcase a shrewd, spirited personality that’s high entertainment.