Book Buzz: Pulitzer Winners and Those Who Came Close
Clearly, the bar is set high if you hope your book will win a Pulitzer Prize. No award was even granted this year for fiction -- a category that recognizes the great American novel. To me, that's a bit like not declaring a Super Bowl champion. Evidently, not one of the strong finalists was deemed worthy of standing alongside the landmark novels of the past: Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, to cite a few.
Another possibility, as strange as it sounds, is that Pulitzer jurors simply couldn't make up their minds, author Ann Patchett speculates in an op-ed piece in The New York Times. Either way, the result is terribly disappointing. "The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction," Patchett says. "This was the year we all lost."
Despite all that, the Pulitzer announcements remain an excellent time to think about the very best. Honors were given to non-fiction books. The award for biography went to George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis, about the globe-trotting diplomat who famously laid out the containment strategy employed by the U.S. during the long Cold War against the Soviet Union. The work is a major achievement that captures the full range of Kennan's career and personality, says reviewer Alonzo L. Hamby of The Wall Street Journal. "Mr. Gaddis's admiration for Kennan is obvious," Hamby writes, "but it does not stop him from portraying his subject's flaws -- an immense ego, a deep insecurity, a volatile temperament."
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention also won a Pulitzer Prize, for history. Written by former Columbia University professor Manning Marable, who died a year ago, at 60, the book traces Malcolm X's rise from a difficult childhood to his status as one of the galvanizing figures in the racial unrest of the 1960s. It also addresses the activist's murder and its controversial aftermath. The author's own death, shortly before his book's release, makes the biography (which the Pulitzer jurors moved to the history category) feel "like a last gasp of herculean effort, a final, noble offering from a path-breaking historian and political scientist," writes reviewer Imani Perry of the San Francisco Chronicle. The book, Perry says, "is a masterpiece of meticulous detail and powerful social history."
For now, let's return to fiction. Although no award was granted for 2012, it's well worth adding any of the finalists to your reading list. These three wonderful books came oh-so-close:
1. Train Dreams: A Novella by Denis Johnson. Billed as an epic in miniature, this shorter work weaves the struggles of a day laborer with the broader story of change sweeping the American West. Johnson's off-kilter humor shows up throughout a work that is often poetic and even hallucinatory, says reviewer Anthony Wallace of the culture blog The Arts Fuse. The life of an ordinary man comes across in "extraordinarily spare yet magical prose," Wallace writes. "It is a book of wonders both real and imagined, of locomotives that traversed the continent and sawmills that conquered the big woods. . .. In Train Dreams the world of beauty and terror is balanced as only our best writers have been able to balance those things." Bob Minzesheimer, writing in USA Today, says the novel left him feeling "warm, buoyant and haunted." He labels it "a gem of a story, set in rough times, in a tough terrain, and tenderly told."
2. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. An eccentric family seems to be falling apart -- and for good reason -- at their failing alligator-wrestling theme park in the Everglades, and it's left to their teenage daughter to save them. "Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride," says reviewer Emma Donoghue in The New York Times. "Russell has style in spades." The real surprise is how funny the novel is, says the book blog Nomad Reader: "To me, Karen Russell is a combination of Alice Hoffman, Audrey Niffenegger, Carl Hiaasen and Janet Fitch. She's Gothic, funny, flirts with magical realism, but is first and foremost a storyteller with a talent for descriptive language."
3. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Incomplete at the time of Wallace's death in 2008, the manuscript was later organized and published with the help of the author's friend and editor, Michael Pietsch. The novel is typical of Wallace's avant-garde, footnote-laden excesses as it examines boredom and bureaucracy in the American workplace -- aptly enough, at a branch of the Internal Revenue Service. "The Pale King features an array of laid-back yet scintillating sentences, bucketloads of anecdotes and comic asides, a number of indelible characters to add to the Wallaceian roster, and more dull tax facts than the average CPA or even the most fanatic Wallace nerd will care to swallow," writes Richard Rayner in the Los Angeles Times. Reviewer Garth Risk Hallberg of New York Magazine is more enthusiastic, writing that, "The Pale King is, for great swaths, an astonishment, unfinished not in the way of splintery furniture but in the way of Kafka's Castle or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. . .. The book demands our attention precisely because while we're reading it, David Foster Wallace is again the most alive prose writer of our time -- and the one who speaks most directly to our condition."
SecondAct asks: So what books are you enjoying? Share your recent reads in the comment field below.
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