Monday, January 31, 2011

National Book Critics Circle Award Nominees Announced!

I am a big awards buff (is that even a word?), and I follow most of the major prizes, not just in literature, but film and music as well.

After the surprising verdict at the National Book Awards (well, surprising to me at any rate), where Jaimy Gordon won for Misrule, I was quite looking forward to the nominees for the prestigious Book Critics Circle Award.  Alas, I have not read one of the five contenders ... yet.  And, shockingly, there is not a single duplicate from the National Book Award nominees list, and that includes Gordon's novel!

So here is who made the cut: Jennifer Egan for "A Visit From The Goon Squad" (not surprising, as she was on almost everybody's best-of-the-year list), Jonathan Franzen for "Freedom" (ditto), David Grossman for "To The End Of The Land" (which I confess I had never heard of before this announcement), "Comedy In A Minor Key" by Hans Keilson (sort of a surprise; and what's really awesome is that he's 101 years old), and Paul Murray for Skippy Dies.  So, one woman, two books translated into English from another language, one blockbuster, and one sort of hip, wild card (Murray).

I hope to read most of these before the winner is announced in March, and as always, I'll keep you updated on my progress.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

50 Book Challenge

I decided to take the 50 Book Challenge this year, at the invitation of my friend Casey on Facebook.  On first thought, I should not have any trouble reading this number of books over the course of twelve months.  However, in spite of the fact that I am always reading (and typically reading multiple titles), I am not always the fastest reader.  I like to think this is because I am a close reader, one who reads every word and pauses often to absorb things.  At any rate, I'll be doing my best to reach the hallowed goal of 50.  Between my two book groups and all my other reading, I think I'll make it with no problem.  And I plan to update my progress via this journal.

So, I started the year off with Exley, the third novel by Maine resident Brock Clarke, which just happened to be the January pick for my work book group, The Bailey Title Waves.  Brock Clarke spoke at the library at which I work (Bailey Public, in Winthrop), and he was fun, engaging, and animated.  He read a couple of passages from the book.  I enjoyed the novel, which chronicles a boy named M's search for the author Frederick Exley, whom his father is obsessed with, in the hopes that meeting Exley will help heal said father, who is in the hospital after a stint in the Iraq War.  Or is he?  I won't give away too much, but let's just say Clarke has created a very unreliable narrator in this novel.  I gave the book three stars, and then moved on to a non-fiction book, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran, by one of my favorite music journalists, Rob Sheffield.  This book is right up my alley, with Sheffield using songs from the 80s (by artists as diverse as Ray Parker, Jr., Madonna, and Psychedelic Furs) as touchstones for certain periods in his life, and the memories attached to those periods.  Beautiful writing, filled with great analyses of the pop music I love so much.  Five stars for this one!

Now, on to Book #3 in the 50 Book Challenge, one of Agatha Christie's most well-regarded mysteries, And Then There Were None, which I've wanted to read for years!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Underworld: A Discussion Over Al's Pizza

And so it was that The Book Whores gathered for the eleventh time, meeting this time at the residence of Eryne in Hallowell (we rotate as hosts).  The topic of discussion: Underworld by Don Delillo.  The food: due to one member (me) feeling antisocial, we opted not to dine out, and simply ordered pizza from local favorite, Al's.  I had not eaten pizza from Al's in years, since moving back to Augusta from Portland (but, I digress).

Underworld was a milestone in my life as a reader.  It's the book that finally broke me of a curse whose spell I've long been under: having to finish every single book I begin.  That's right, I cannot stand to put down a book once I've moved beyond, oh, page three.  This has resulted in a few wearysome battles, but overall, I like what I read.  Even books that I don't like, I usually glean something from.  In all honesty, I cannot recall an instance of not finishing a book in my adult life, with one exception, and that was Stephen King's The Eyes of the Dragon.  Putting that one down had nothing to do with the book's quality, but with the circumstances of my life at that time.  Other than that, though, I have finished everything, even an extremely boring book on Arctic exploration that nearly did me in.  And now, Underworld.  As I suffered through the ungodly prologue, which involves baseball (not my favorite passtime, so sue me), I reminded myself again and again that Delillo is one of America's best-reviewed authors.  Ultimately, I decided that I am getting older, there are hundreds (no, thousands) of books I want to read before I die, and why should I waste time on something as pretentious and dull as this.  Unfair?  Perhaps.  And knowing me, I'll go back to the book someday.  After all, I am the same guy who put an asterisk next to the handful of books I did not finish during high school and college, and went back to complete them years later, mainly so that I could remove the asterisk from my list of books completed.

So, Underworld broke me.  At least for now.  Eryne was the only one who finished the book, but she did not judge us.  In fact, she had encouraged the three of us not to finish it, as she thought it was so awful!  Still, we felt a little bad that she had expended all that energy and time.  However, our slight guilt was assuaged by Eryne's delicious apple crisp and some excellent pumpkin cookies made by Abigail.

We are usually a group of talkers, but this conversation consisted of little more than complaints about why we didn't enjoy the novel.  And we were not too proud to resort to banal umbrella statements: "It was boring," "He goes off on too many tangents," "The characters are unlikeable," etc.  Jen interjected that she liked the section with the nuns, with which I agreed.  However, I said it would have worked better as a novella and had no business taking up space in what was already a door stopper level book.  Eryne reaffirmed her hatred of Nick Shay and his wife.  Abbie hated them also.  Jen kept saying that she actually liked the writing, just not the storyline, getting more firm in her sentiments as the hour wore on.  Basically, she was the closest Delillo had to a supporter in that room.

We took the usual twenty minutes deciding on our title for next month, and our decision was momentous: Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.  I have never read her work, so this will indeed be an interesting month.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Reassessing The Lacuna

OK, so I was sitting in bed last night, and it suddenly hit me: I have short changed Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna in a big way!  Oh sure, I sang the book's praises when The Book Whores met back in July (in fact, I was the only one who really liked the book, in a group that included three Kingsolver fans).  And yes, it made my Top 10 Novels of the Year list, just squeaking in at Number 10.

The reality is, it should have ranked higher on my list: ahead of The Road, Imperial Bedrooms, and heck, even Little Bird Of Heaven.  I think it's one of those novels that is going to stay with me, but more interestingly, it is one that grew on me.  I didn't love it at the start, but I fell in love with it, and by the end, I was genuinely moved.  I blame Mrs. Brown, who made our protagonist Harrison all the more interesting.  Her devotion to him is beautifully rendered, and I dare say she's one of the best characters I've encountered on the written page in the past year.  Also earning The Lacuna extra credit is the way Kingsolver portrays the after effects of the Red Scare, a time period in history that I'm so thankful I missed, and which I feel I understand even better now than I did in 10th Grade Social Studies.  This novel serves as a history lesson, and when you can learn history in an entertaining way via fiction, I say kudos to the author.

Some people took issue with Frida Kahlo's appearance in this novel, feeling that she didn't fit, but to that I say: you're wrong.  One of our most vibrant historical figures lends color and, more importantly for such a depressing novel, humor.  Some of her exchanges with Harrison are downright hilarious!

So yes, I liked The Lacuna from the start, but it took me a little longer to realize that I love it.  Please give this book a chance.