Do Awards Matter? Musings on Joan Silber’s “Improvement” & the Man Booker International Prize Shortlist

Do awards matter? I gloried in winning the college Latin Prize, but in my thirties I was blasé about winning awards for freelance articles.  There were two good things about grown-up award ceremonies:  (a) I always bought a new dress, and (b) there was always a catered dinner.

Book award ceremonies probably proceed along the same lines.  I depend on Margaret Drabble for details:  in the opening chapter of her brilliant novel The Sea Lady, the heroine, Ailsa, who is the chair of a panel of judges for a science book award, buys a new silvery mermaid dress, which coincidentally matches the fish theme of the winning book.  And she describes the venue, if not the menu, of the awards dinner.

The venue of the dinner might also shortly be observed to be something of a happy accident.  The diners were seated at elegantly laid round tables beneath a large grey-blue fiberglass model of a manta ray which hung suspended above them like a primeval spaceship or an ultra-modern mass-people-carrier.  They could look nervously up at is grey-white underbelly, at its wide wings, at its long whip-like tail, as though they were dining on the ocean floor….  The dominant theme of fish had prevailed by chance.

I wish I could write about  book award dinners, but alas!….   Still, I’m game to write about the awards.  Let me start with Joan Silber, who won two prizes this year, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, for her novel, Improvement.  She must have attended two dinners, but did she have two dresses?

I have long been a fan of  Silber, but I am 10 years behind on her books. (That’s because I don’t keep up with new fiction.)   I recently read Improvement, which I missed when it was published last year.   It is not quite a novel: it is really a collection of linked stories. Think Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible.  At a stretch, think George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

Silber is always graceful and witty, astute and entertaining.  And her characterization is spot-on.  My two favorite characters are linked by kinship: Reyna, a single mother in Harlem whose boyfriend is in prison for selling five ounces of weed, and her aunt Kiki, a former classics major who went to Istanbul in 1970 and stayed after she fell in love with Osman, a rug seller. In the first chapter, Reyna muses about Kiki,  who eventually left Osman and returned to the U.S.    Reyna recalls her surprise that Kiki was so normal.

Everybody wondered what she would look like when she arrived. Would she be sun-dried and weather-beaten, would she wear billowing silk trousers like a belly dancer, would the newer buildings of New York amaze her, would she gape at the Twin Towers? None of the above. She looked like the same old Kiki, thirty-one with very good skin, and she was wearing jeans and a turtleneck, possibly the same ones she’d left home with. She said, “God! Look at YOU!” when she saw her brother, grown from a scrawny teenager to a man in a sport jacket. She said, “Been a while, hasn’t it?” to her dad.

Silber is an excellent stylist. I love the anaphora in the second sentence of that passage, the repetition of “would” at the beginning of three clauses.

And she is insightful about a broad range of characters.  Kiki, who reads Marcus Aurelius, couldn’t be more different from Reyna, a high school graduate who seldom reads.  But Reyna and Kiki become closer after Hurricane Sandy, when Reyna’s father calls her and tells her to check on Kiki, who has lost power.  It’s a long walk for Reyna and her son Oliver, but Kiki is fine:  she’s rereading The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton, and and she wins over Oliver by feeding him melted chocolate ice cream.   And she agrees to babysit for Oliver while Reyna visits Boyce in prison.  She encourages Reyna to read and travel, trying to encourage her to change her life.  Reyna realizes Kiki doesn’t approve of her life-style, but she is mad about Boyce.

Kiki is right to be concerned about Reyna, whose life takes a dark turn after Boyce gets out of prison.  Boyce and his friends form a cigarette-smuggling gang.  Reyna disapproves, but Boyce and his ne’er-do-well friends are so happy with money!  And Reyna, a receptionist for a vet, enjoys the money, too,  and realizes that neither she nor her friends are qualified for good-paying jobs.  She relaxes her standards, and is briefly persuaded to drive them to Virginia on a smuggling trip, but backs out sensibly at the last minute.  And when the foolish young man who drives has a tragic accident and dies, she is blamed by Boyce and his friends.  It makes no sense, but that’s the way it is.

What happens?  Well, I hoped to keep reading about Reyna and Kiki, but Silber switches to other characters affected by the accident, a home health aide in Richmond, VA, who dated the driver, and the truck driver who survived the accident.

And I admit I found the transitions jarring.  I felt the same way when I read George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and he’d switch from one group of characters to another, just as I became interested in one group.  So I was relieved when Silber returned to Kiki, and we learned about her experiences in Turkey, how  Osman lost his business and they moved to the family farm,  where Kiki was so miserable that she became fascinated by three Germans who smuggled antiquities out of Turkey.  (She briefly considered traveling with them, because she loved the amphora and old coins so much.)  Kiki, too, has the sense not to do it. But later we also meet the daughter of two of the smugglers, who now establishes the provenance of art at the Met.

And so everybody is linked together.

What struck me about this deceptively simple book was Silber’s humor. Even in the depths of despair, she has a positive outlook:  her characters are never quite down and out.

There is a flow to the book that we don’t see much in contemporary fiction.  If you like linked stories, this is as good as it gets–better, I think, than Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible.


I haven’t read any of the books on the Man Booker International Prize shortlist, but Tony at Tony’s Reading List has.  Is he impressed with the shortlist?  Not particularly.  He writes,  “Well, without wanting to give too much away, let’s just say that there was definitely a raise of the eyebrow when I saw the list.  There are several big names there, but are they big books?”

Tony is a member of the “Shadow Panel of Judges,” a group of  bloggers reading and writing about this award list. Another of the Shadow Judges is the excellent blogger Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

Have you read Silber’s book or the Man Booker International Prize shortlist?  Do awards matter?