Confessions of a Book Award Junkie

There is always controversy over book awards.  Recently 30 publishers in the UK signed a letter to the organizers of the Man Booker Prize asking that the decision to include Americans  be overturned.  I’m neutral, though we do have plenty of American awards already.

So what better time to post “Confessions of a Book Award Junkie,” an essay I wrote in the 1990s?  Enjoy!


Those of us who grew up in the ’60s watching beauty pageants and the Oscars suspected early on that awards were arbitrary—a conjecture that never spoiled our enjoyment of the spectacle. My mother and I loved these shows. We huddled on the davenport and picked our favorites. Our criteria were self-evident and sound: Miss Alaska on the basis of cuteness! Julie Christie because of her British accent! The Sound of Music because we’d actually seen it! If the judges didn’t agree with our choices–and our odds were roughly as good as picking a winning horse in the trifecta–the evening was shot.

These days I lack interest in pageantry, and Hollywood glamour makes me cranky (the hair, the gowns, the shoes, the tearful speeches–where are the jeans-and-sweater types?).

No, my interest in awards is bookish. I confess, I am a book award junkie. I secretly wonder, Why can’t the National Book Awards and the Booker Prize do it up like the Oscars? Although I find book awards both silly and exciting (how can judges narrow the field to a single best?), I am enthralled each fall by the announcements of the winners. Even though I may not agree with the selections and sometimes dismiss them as politically motivated, it’s a good way to learn about the contenders on the literary scene. It is safe to give these books as Christmas gifts, because people are vaguely awed by awards, though many prize winners prove bloated disappointments, fated to be sold or traded at used bookstores.

In case you’re not an insider, the National Book Awards, sponsored by he National Book Foundation and selected by writer-judges for a single term, honor American works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. There is often grumbling about the choices, and this year (1996) was no exception, as reported in a recent New York Times article. Barbara Grossman, a senior vice president and publisher at Viking Penguin, commented, “Do you think the judges take a perverse pleasure in picking authors that no one has ever heard of?” And Jonathan Galassi, editor in chief of Farrar Strauss & Giroux, called the list of finalists “almost willfully fugitive.”

I admit, the choices are a bit strange. The fiction award went to Andrea Barrett’s workmanlike but uninspiring Ship Fever and Other Stories, a collection of short stories about scientists, several set in the 19th century, reminiscent of A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects, though without the brilliance and passion. In short, I was often bored. The other choices were also a bit obscure. For your Christmas shopping convenience, you may want to know them, though: they are Elizabeth McCracken’s overrated first novel, The Giant’s House, Ron Hansen’s Atticus, Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Janet Peery’s The River Beyond the World. I was more impressed by this year’s non-fiction winner, James Carroll’s An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us. This memoir about Carroll’s complicated relationship with is father is powerful, despite his dense style and tendency to pontificate. Carroll, a novelist, former priest, and the son of Lieutenant General Joseph F. Carroll, who directed the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War, documents his struggles to assert his own identity as a priest and anti-war activist during political and philosophical clashes with his father. Did I love this book? No. Would I recommend it? Yes.

There are some award-winning books this years that I whole-heartedly recommend. The Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, is a more reliable guide in terms of consistent quality and readability, perhaps because its field of contenders comprises English, Scottish, Irish, Canadian, Australian, South African, and the entire Commonwealth. In the 1990s, two of the more breathtaking winners have been Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and A. S. Byatt’s Possession. The 1996 Booker nominees are also stunners. The prize was awarded to Graham Swift’s Last Orders, a moving novel about four friends who come together after a friend’s death to scatter his ashes at the seaside. These working-class men, the central narrator being Ray, a good-humored man who frequents the racetrack, have complicated relationships with one another and their late friend. Their relationships are explored through flashbacks, tricky shifts of viewpoint, and Ray’s account of their trip to the seaside, marked by frequent stops and quarrels. This would make a wonderful Christmas gift.

Some of the runners-up, however, are easier reads. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is a historical novel, impressively researched and beautifully-written. It tells the story of Grace Mark, a Canadian convicted of murder in 1843 at the age of 16, and her relationship with Dr. Jordan, a young psychoanalyst who arrives at the prison in in 1851 to extract the details of the crime. Atwood, whose range is breathtaking, doesn’t let you down, though I prefer her novels about contemporary women. Be on the lookout for her twists and turns of thought and language.

I also enjoyed Sheila Mackay’s The Orchard on Fire, a novel set mainly in Kent, England, during the narrator’s ’50’ s childhood. Eight-year-old April and her best friend, the daughter of an abusive pub owner, have sometimes happy, more often puzzling encounters with other adults. And their observations of the world around them are often comical and always perceptive. And here my recommendations stop. Although I am eager to read the remaining nominees, I did not receive from the publishers my copies of the two available in the U.S. in time to read them for this article. They are: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself, and Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark.

So that’s the news on the award front, and I hope you can find the books!

Literary Award Gossip: World Fantasy Award, Sidewise Award. and Man Booker Prize Longlist

A finalist for the World Fantasy Award

A finalist for the World Fantasy Award

It’s been a thrilling week!

The Man Booker Prize longlist, the World Fantasy Award finalists, and the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History finalists  have been announced .

Jo Walton's My Real ChildrenSince I’m an SF freak, I’m  excited that David Mitchell’s brilliant genre-bending novel, The Bone Clocks, and Jo Walton’s alternate history, My Real Children, which I wrote about last year, have been nominated  for the World Fantasy Award.  Mitchell is known as a writer of  literary fiction, whereas Walton has won awards for SF.  The truth is that both are very literary writers who play with elements of SF and fantasy.

Walton’s My Real Children is also a finalist for the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Long Form. Last year, D. J. Taylor (one of my favorite writers) won it for The Windsor Faction.. (You can read about it here.)

The Man Booker Prize longlist is always exciting, because I am a shameless Anglophile.  This year however, only three titles are from the UK.   There are five Americans, one Irish, one Jamaican, one Nigerian, and one from New Zealand.

Poor Canadians!  They get no respect.

FIVE Americans IS a lot of Americans.  I’m not NOT a patriot—-I pledge the allegiance to the flag of the United, etc.–but are the odds not stacked in favor of Americans this year?

Here is the longlist:

Bill Clegg (U.S.) – “Did You Ever Have a Family” (Jonathan Cape)
Anne Enright (Ireland) – “The Green Road” (Jonathan Cape)
Marlon James (Jamaica) – “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (Oneworld Publications)
Laila Lalami (U.S.) – “The Moor’s Account” (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)
Tom McCarthy (U.K.) – “Satin Island” (Jonathan Cape)
Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) – “The Fishermen” (ONE, Pushkin Press)
Andrew O’Hagan (U.K.) – “The Illuminations” (Faber & Faber)
Marilynne Robinson (U.S.) – “Lila” (Virago)
Anuradha Roy (India) – “Sleeping on Jupiter” (MacLehose Press, Quercus)
Sunjeev Sahota (U.K.) – “The Year of the Runaways” (Picador)
Anna Smaill (New Zealand) – “The Chimes” (Sceptre)
Anne Tyler (U.S.) – “A Spool of Blue Thread” (Chatto & Windus)
Hanya Yanagihara (U.S.) – “A Little Life” (Picador)

Have you read any of these books?  I saw Marilynne Robinson read from Lila:  does that count?  My husband says Anne Tyler’s book does not belong:  it is her last book, and it is not quite up to her usual high standard.

To fan the fires of excitement,  let’s add a good gossipy segment on the News about the literary prizes.   Let Oprah host it, or Kelly Ripa.  After all, both of them have run TV book clubs.  We don’t need the PBS boys getting involved: Charlie Rose and Bill Moyer are so solemn in the presence of writers, and  Garrison Keillo, just keeps enunciating and babbling till he declares erroneously that novelist Caroline Gordon wrote poetry, when that would have been her husband, the poet Allen Tate.

Reading With RipaOprah and Kelly Ripa are unpretentious and will have a straight-ahead conversation with the writers based on facts and innuendo gathered by their   assistants.  Oprah will inquire how they overcame never learning to read or flunking the SAT essay,  and got sidetracked  into working  at a Ford plant in Detroit. Kelly will tease and joke about obstacles like hemorrhoids that keep them from sitting at their computers.  And cut to commercial!

Catalogues, Ruined by Classics, & Literary Award Burnout

Sears Catalogue 1968

Sears Catalogue 1968:

I love the summer.

Summer is the relief we feel when we shed thick coats and boots. We sit outside, walk, bicycle, go camping (ugh), rent a cabin (better), or stay in a lovely hotel (best).

Winter is cabin fever and going to the mall. We disembark from the bus with the other puffy-parka-clad stragglers, and begin to sweat. We drink a gigantic coffee and try on sweaters and wonder if anyone still eats Maid-rites and end up buying blankets and Yaktrax.

Summer is the end of mall rat season. Instead of being a mall rat, we do what little shopping we do via catalogues or online.

I have always loved mail-order catalogues, which have historically been a  lifesaver on the prairie. The first Sears catalogue was published in 1888. Catalogues provided a wider selection of goods than general stores for farmers and others in remote locations.

We loved the Sears catalogue at our house.  We circled everything we wanted for Christmas.  My mother was an ardent shopper in  department stores, but she also ordered clothes from Sears and Montgomery Ward.  It was very exciting.  Would that plaid jumper fit?  And how about those rather odd ’60s psychedelic pink and lime-green mini-dresses my mother ordered for me?

amazon_boxI am fond of catalogues and online stores.  Without leaving the house, you can order books, black-out curtains, tables, towels, pans, fine china….everything.

Ruined by Classics and Unable to Read Award Winners & Nominees.

I am ruined by classics.

Here is what has happened.

large_baileys_women_s_prizeYou cannot really go back and forth between Chekhov’s stories and, say, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which was longlisted for the Bailey Women’s Prize last year.

I do not know if Chekhov was nominated for any prizes, but guess which writer is better?

Semple’s novel is both enjoyable and dismaying.  Bee, the teenage narrator, arranges a mix of emails, reports. and letters  in chronological order to figure out why and where her mother Bernadette disappeared.  I like Bernadette’s voice best.  Her emails, reminded me slightly of E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady.  But there is a little too much here of the crazy neighbor’s emails.  And it essentially reminds me of a Y.A. book.

Now I realize that politics are involved in these prizes, though as I have said elsewhere, I DON’T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT IT.  I intend to avoid all articles this year that are likely to spoil the charm of the literary awards.

Oddly enough, reading Semple’s novel (not many pages to go) has made it impossible for me to go on to  Ali Smith’s How to Be Both .

How to Be Both Ali Smith 9780375424106_custom-66420141237c01275ebff57053eea17dc3e26d7f-s300-c85Smith’s How to Be Both won the Baileys Women’s Prize this year.  It is divided into two stories, one set in the present and the other in the Renaissance.  Half of the books have been printed with the present narrative first, and the other half with the Renaissance narrative first.  In my e-book, you are simply given a choice.

I chose the part set in the present, because it looked easier.

Smith’s writing is elegant, but oddly I am finding echoes of Maria Semple’s books.  In both books, a teenage narrator has lost her mother.

So I am simply going to have to start over with Smith’s book later.  I just can’t read it right now.

Perhaps it is a classic, but I cannot judge at this point.

I am put off by the opening of the Renaissance section, which seems to be a poem containing such extravagant phrases  as “Fathemotherplease spread/extempore”…

I’ve read so many classics that I need to go to literary rehab so I can appreciate this.

Or perhaps Semple’s book really IS better.  I’ve read 275 pages, but am not finished yet.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?  Maria Semple 13526165