Thursday, April 26, 2012

No Pulitzer?

So, apparently there will be no Pulitzer prize awarded for fiction this year. Which I find sad, but not for the typical reasons.

I don't really care much about awards in the sense of awards as some definitive thing, as tablets handed down from on high. We have a ridiculously competitive culture obsessed with ranking things, often pointlessly. Books are not in competition. This is not reality television. Books are discrete things, and if they are connected, it is not as rivals but as pieces in a larger conversation, a vast, sporadic, and endless (so I hope) communication between people and cultures. And the thought that three people can sit down, read a couple hundred books, and somehow decide the best book written in an entire year is rather ludicrous when you think about it.

And I find some of the arguments for the Pulitzer a little wayward, too. It's been suggested that everyone will think that no good books were written this year if the award isn't handed out, which seems logically preposterous. Maybe people who never read books will read the news about the Pulitzer and think that there must be no good books, but if they don't read books what does it really matter anyway? It's like being really concerned about what people who don't eat Cheez Whiz will think if they stop making Cheez Whiz. People who actually read books will probably (remarkably!) find a way to actually think and feel things about the books they've read. And if there are people who only read one book a year and who depend on the Pulitzer prize to tell them what to read, well, I can live with their loss. Maybe they can read this year's National Book Award winner. Or, for that matter, Jincy Willet's National Book Award Winner.

And, yeah, it would be annoying for the Jury, who read the books and selected the finalists. I'm sure they probably want to kick a chair (or chairperson) or two. Especially when the "no award" decision was given because no book had a "majority." I mean, if one book had more votes, go with that. Why would a majority be necessary? They're not deciding power in Parliament here. It's a book award. Haven't they ever heard of a tiebreaker? The "no decision" strikes me as weirdly self-important. Just pick a book. Rock, paper, scissors has always worked for me.

The reason I care at all is simply because I like talking about books, and book awards and book lists increase book talk. They're conversation starters in which the word "Kardashian" rarely appears. And lots of stupid things will be said, most likely, but so will some interesting things. But instead of book talk, this year we get one more discussion about the state of the industry, full of hand wringing and whinging. All while people are actually, you know, still reading books.

I'd be curious to talk about books. I have Karen Russell's Swamplandia, which is one of the finalists. I haven't read it yet, but I will. Judging by her last name, it will be brilliant. I don't have Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, but his Tree of Smoke is high on my TBR list. I'd be happy to hear some conversation about him. I have read David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, which is full of snippets of genius but seems like a grossly flawed novel (perhaps because he didn't write and organize all of it), and I say this as someone who was hugely influenced by Infinite Jest. It probably shouldn't have won the award (if handed out), but people won't really talk about that one way or the other.

Instead we have more muttered doomsaying. But maybe the way to fix publishing is to talk less about the industry and more about books. If only we could pick a winner.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The mists come in...

My new novel-in-progress revolves around fog, so I've been looking at some of my old photos for inspiration. Here's one from my archives. I think the mood is right for the story...

And check out Leila's story below, if you have a chance.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Summerbaby - The World in Miniature

by Leila


I was born two seasons before him, and already I saw the river between us. Each night in my sleep, I saw the cold, harsh disparity, and his unwillingness to break from it. Perhaps this is the way. Perhaps this is fate.

I'm a summer baby. I know only laughter and endless sun. I know only the scent of lemongrass and the wavering hum of a wayward lark. Lilacs are blessed every morning, and crickets sing to the twilight's glare. The world is bright for a summer baby, and love is always near. I knew happiness this way. I knew life this way.

From the horizon, I saw the distant winter. The charcoal clouds loomed above the summer grass, and I thought that death has come. Life owes its lease to the winter storm.

That's how I knew him, my winter lover. He is afraid and gentle, but coarse and rugged. His eyes are pale, sharp, and all-seeing. He knows only of withered pine and the echoes of a wolf's ravenous howl. The moon is his friend, and he is blessed nightly by its pallid shade. His skies are wisps of faded gray, void of my iridescent summer days. I knew him as cold and perfect, unchanging in his ways.

Now there is a river between us. Each night at dawn, I beckon to him, hands outstretched against the emerald light of the vanishing stars. "Join me!" I say. "Love me!" I beg.

My poor lover, born from a tomb he knows only death. His father is a ghost, and his mother the desolate Earth of yesteryear. He could not accept my warmth or my radiant sunlight. To him, gold is harrowing, blinding. I loved him still, the unwavering maid.

"When we will be together?" I say. "There is a river between us, and I cannot wade its unforgiving torrents."

He smiles at me, his gaze a cold embrace sweeping the midnight breeze. "When snow melts, it surges through mountains and valleys. It thunders like a raging storm, digging through the soft Earth, and waking it from tempestuous slumber. This river will travel far and wide, and it won't be long before we reach the calm before the storm. When winter fades and summer calms, when autumn breaks paltry alms; and seeds have sprouted, budding forth. I shall come for you, my lady, when Spring has come."

And I waited. I waited. The snow has melted, and I drowned in its torrential tears, down the mountains to a valley of waves rushing to the crashing sea. There in the midst of a sapphire ocean, I have come to thee.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Crimes in Southern Indiana - Under the Microscope

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This book is a bit like being punched. A few times. Frankly, it might be an old-fashioned beatdown. A country noir fashioned out of the broken lives of the down and out in Southern Indiana. Meth deals, insurance scams gone horribly wrong, a family land grab (on account of needing a location to hold an illegal fighting ring), human slavery: Frank Bill likes to chart those moments when things go wrong, when everything hangs in the balance and every life that falls into the water leaves wide ripples.

This is a dark and brutal book of vaguely interconnected stories. Almost too much for me, really. The writing lacks the luminosity of a Ron Rash, a William Gay, a Daniel Woodrell, and that may be part of it. Do I, as a reader, perhaps want more payoff for what I'm put through? And yet it can be haunting, as the choices made by the bad and the ugly, and the effect these choices have on the good and innocent left behind, seem to linger in the mind, a shadow on the world as the light fades. Though, of course, innocence is hard to find in these stories.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Wave - Under the Microscope

The Wave

I like this sort of book, when done well: part biography, part memoir, part science, and part historical narrative. This is a book about waves - and, in particular, about giant rogue waves - and the people who study them, navigate through and around them, and surf them. This book looks at the confounding science of waves (did you know that waves, on average, have grown increasingly larger over the last fifty years?) and what this science - and its discoveries - might mean to us in the future. And yet it's also as much about the call of the sea, about the spiritual and metaphysical yearning to experience what the seas throw up at us. The core of the book is based on the author's experiences with the surfer Laird Hamilton and his friends, the world's greatest big wave riders. What does it mean to skim along beneath the drop of an 80 foot wave as it races to shore? Beautifully written, carefully researched, and personally experienced, this book is an interesting look at the endless motion across the surface of the world.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Chess Story - Under the Microscope

Chess Story

Chess Story, by Stefan Zweig, is an odd little book. It's a book about chess, but as much as it's about chess it's also about obsession, and about how the obsessions that save us can also be the obsessions that destroy us.

This is a classic narrator as witness story, where the narrator is a character in the story, but not central to it: he is there to tell the events of others. In this case, it's an ocean trip on a liner, in which the narrator finds out that he's traveling with the chess world champion. One of the other passengers decides to challenge the champion and predictably loses. Unalbe to accept this, however, the passenger challenges the champion again, and soon (again) finds himself in a poor position. This time, however, another passenger intervenes and offers advice. His advice is so good that the others force him to take over the game -- a game he wins.

Who is the stranger? How is it that he can beat the world champion? And can he do it again?

The writing here is strong, both lucid and precise, and yet around the edges of this clarity lie madness, lie the telling details of obsession, and what obsession can mean in the lives and minds of individuals.

This book seemed particularly interesting to me right now because my five-year-old is currently obsessed with chess (and, um, can probably beat me. Which is likely a sign of both his talent and my un-talent). Hopefully his ending is a little happier...

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Beginning a New Novel: Writer's Limbo

There's something exciting and fearful about the blank page: it is both open and closed. Open to possibility, open to the moment of discovery, open to the potential of a new creation, but closed, yet, to words, and somehow impenetrable. The blank page is opaque, and yet there is an eternal hint of translucency. There's a hint of something beyond, of images and movements, of stolen moments from strange lives. Yet never clear. It's like words heard from a distance, so faint that you are not entirely sure whether they are sounds or imaginings. And yet the wall of the white page ascends before you. Is there a door? If there is, you need a key.

I always find this moment strange, the moment when I'm between one thing and another. Standing on a precipice, deciding whether to jump. For the last few years I've been revising. I've been writing, too: blogs, short stories, new scenes in old novels -- even entirely new storylines woven through these old stories. But never a new novel. And there's something about that, above all other things, that engages me: writing the first draft of a new novel.

It is both exciting and fearful. Perhaps this is always the case with the unknown, the inherent potential for both bliss and catastrophe, whether fictive or real. I've recently finished some drafts of old novels, and now I have this wide white space before me. Calling. Voices are whispering beyond the white page, the white wall. And yet each day the page seems a little more translucent and I see a little more of the world beyond. Faces, mere shadowed silhouettes, press close to the page from the far side, as if they, too, are listening for me; waiting for what? Instructions? Demands? Supplications? Prayers? The animating touch of fingers upon keys?

I know it is a matter of momentum, a matter of imaginative force. I hesitate, always, at the beginning. Beginnings are always the hardest for me, both in a technical sense and in the sense of my own impetus. But there is rich soil on the other side of that white wall, and the ideas are cimbing out of the ground. Whispering. Calling. Wondering. I know, soon, soon, soon, they will get stronger. The din of the voices will grow loud. Fingers will scratch the back of the white page. Tentative at first, but then stronger and stronger. A rip will appear, and then a tear, and then a face will press through, a question on its lips. Now?

Yes, yes: now.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Climber - The World in Miniature

by Meredith Towbin

At twenty, Jack bought a beat-up Ford and told his mother he wanted to climb big rocks. He pushed the backseat down at night and slept with his head in the trunk and his feet by the gearshift. Five miles outside Devil’s Tower, a hitchhiker stabbed him in the gut with a jackknife. While he bled in the road he wondered why anyone would steal a beat-up Ford with an industrial-sized bag of Lucky Charms in the trunk.