Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Good reads, sans Pulitzer

"I feel disappointment as a writer, indignation as a reader [and] manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller."—Novelist Ann Patchett, on the 2012 Pulitzer Committee’s decision not to name a winner for fiction writing.
Patchett, short-listed for Britain’s prestigious Orange award for her latest, “State of Wonder” (which she won in 2002 for “Bel Canto”), and a recipient of numerous awards and nominations for her other writing, expressed indignation last week at the Pulitzer Committee’s decision to ignore all of the good work available—more specifically, three juried finalists they were given to consider. Patchett, a bookstore owner and a much-published writer, joins thousands who were left with their mouths hanging open after such a high-and-mighty decision.
The publishing world is aghast, publishers, along with writers and readers, are disgusted by the committee’s omission, especially at a time when publishing is in dire fear for its future. Readers may not agree with the judges about what makes a book really click, but they do use these awards to help identify books and authors with the potential to change lives. Such books are exactly right for book groups to discuss.
So let’s put aside the incapable Pulitzer committee, and go to other award-winning books for a selection of top 2011-12 reads which clubs may want to consider. (A good number of them seem morose, but don’t despair—they have redeeming qualities.)

Start with the three finalists a qualified jury chose from 300 nominees in making its recommendations to the Pulitzer crew, all of whom were ignored: the late David Foster Wallace, for “The Pale King;” Karen Russell, for “Swamplandia!” and Denis Johnson for “Train Dreams.”
“The Pale King” is Wallace’s final work—he killed himself in 2008 and his editor completed the end of the book from Wallace’s notes. Some also call it his finest. With typical humor and unique observation, Wallace fearlessly wrote about the value of human life, work and society. “The Pale King” suggests, finally, a new definition for heroism. Wallace’s fiction is stunning; his short story, “Incarnations of Burned Children,” is one of the most horrifying and brilliantly written I’ve read.
“Swamplandia!” is Russell’s first published novel and its premise seems fantastical at the onset: an alligator-wrestling family losing its cash cow is beset by a bucks-up competitor, and the family makes diverse adjustments to try to survive. Odd, yes, but a family’s struggle to stay in business, and together, the subject is handled in a beautiful, creative manner.
Finally, we come to Johnson’s “Train Dreams.” Johnson won the National Book Award for an earlier novel, “Tree of Smoke” (also a Pulitzer finalist). Johnson wrote “Train Dreams” as the story of a day laborer in the American West who loses his family and his dreams as he struggles to comprehend a changing vista in America and the disappearance of traditional Western life and livelihoods.  Accolades surround this short, lyrical book, originally published in The Paris Review (a worthy note of recognition).
Julie Otsuka's  “The Buddha in the Attic,” won this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award. It’s about a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as "picture brides" nearly a century ago. The book follows the lives of these amazing women, journeying through hardship to wed strangers in San Francisco, then raising children who reject them and their culture. (Other PEN/Faulkner finalists: Don DeLillo, “The Angel Esmeralda;” Anita Desai, “The Artist of Disappearance;” Russell Banks, “Lost Memory of Skin,” and Steven Millhauser, “We Others.”)
Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for “Salvage the Bones,” set in the 12 days leading to Hurricane Katrina and evolving around an impoverished, sexually confused teenager—with each chapter a vignette of her life. It is a novel of endurance and eventual salvation within a brutal reality. A finalist in this competition is Téa Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife,” rapidly tacking up positive reviews. Set in the Balkans, it’s the story of a young doctor and her grandfather, who tells her stories of a girl who befriends a tiger. But it is also, its author says, “a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans.”
Acclaimed British author Julian Barnes won the most recent Man Booker Prize for “The Sense of an Ending.” It’s the story of a man trying to understand a past he thinks he knows, but does not clearly recall, in the wake of a loss.
Lauren Groff’s “The Monsters of Templeton” earned a New York Times Editors’ Choice nod and has been short-listed for the Orange Prize for New Writers. (Her latest novel, “Arcadia,” is also winning notice.) Templeton is the name of Willie Upton’s hometown, where she goes to seek her lost father.
Andre Dubus III received widespread honors, from Indie Choice’s Book of the Year to multiple listings as the top non-fiction book for 2011, for his memoir, “Townie.” It’s his story, about a life spent fighting bullies, then boxing foes, as he grew up in mill towns along the Merrimack River. It’s a haunting, honest recounting of his life as he seeks recognition from his absent father, the famed writer Andre Dubus, while he learns to use his gifts, rather than his fists, to make his way in life.
The New England Society Book Award for fiction, 2012, has just been announced, and Chris Bohjalian has won for “The Night Strangers,” a creepy little story wrapped in family and friendships. Loved it.
Jennifer Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner, “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” is due to become an HBO television series. It’s a compilation of short stories revolving around an aging rock music exec and his associates as they grow older and see their lives veer into unexpected directions.
Edith Pearlman’s short story collection, “Binocular Vision,” won the National Book Critics Award and was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Award. First-place honors went to Stephen King, for “11/22/1963,” the story of a time traveler who attempts to prevent JFK’s assassination, and Alex Shakar, for “Luminarium,” about the roles of technology and spirituality in shaping people’s reality. Both are novels.
Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding,” was a nominee for First Fiction in the L.A. Times contest, won by Ismet Prcic for "Shards.” Prcic has also won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. “Shards” is the story of a Bosnian who leaves his war-torn homeland and must reconcile to life in, of all places, California. But it’s not a comedy; it’s harrowing, brilliant and heartbreaking.

The Independent Publishing Industry, which covers everything from e-books to self-published books, recognized Rachel Levine for “Brooklyn Valentine;” “Daniel Bruce Brown of Westborough for “Roll Over Hitler!” and Bradford Tatum for “I Can Only Give You Everything” in its popular fiction category.
Boston’s Grub Street writing collaborative awarded its National Book Prize for Fiction to Eileen Pollack for “Breaking and Entering,” about a therapist who leaves his work after a patient’s suicide. His lonely wife, a school counselor, reaches out to their new community for comfort. Novelist Margot Livesey calls this “a compelling plot and resonant characters… a hugely enjoyable novel.”

How will your group meet to sum up the book club season (for those who stop in the summer)? Area book club profiles, input and questions are very welcome at ann.frantz@gmail.com