Like the Oscars, Without Billy Crystal

14 Oct

Ooh gurrrll, it’s that time of year. The National Book Award finalists were announced yesterday, and you know what that means: Someone needs to hold on to my credit card for the next few weeks. Or at least get me some sort of collar that distributes electric shocks when I go near a Barnes & Noble.

Anywho, since I don’t much care for poetry (whatever, we all have our faults), let’s do what all educated intellectuals do: judge the remaining ten finalists (five fiction, five nonfiction) by totally legitimate metrics, like 100-word summaries, cover art choice and number of stars awarded by Amazon.com customers. (Why, as such a supposedly avid reader, I consistently fail to have ever read anything nominated for an award is beyond me. Probably has something to do with reality television.) I should clarify: I have little doubt all of these books are quite excellent, but since everything I decide to read now has the official one-week timeframe attached to it, a girl’s got to be selective. So…


MY FICTION PICK:
GREAT HOUSE
, by Nicole Krauss

If there were ever an argument that quantity of political ads might in fact influence voting, this is it: I have seen no fewer than three reviews of this book, so the positive cacophony has reached such a crescendo that I feel I must read it in the near future.

The novel consists of four stories, which apparently center on a massive writing desk that resurfaces among different households, whose characters don’t appear to be related to one another except through the existence (analogy? metaphor? symbolism?) of the desk. Sounds like one of those deals where everyone seems separate until by some turn of events you realize they aren’t.

But more than the mystery of the book, I have to admit I’m kind of enthralled by the whole desk thing. I remember years ago reading Stephen King’s memoir-esque On Writing, which documents the author’s (multiple, like…super multiple) years spent writing, in terms of his approach to the process. King devoted either a whole chapter—or just enough of one to stick in my memory—to the notion of the desk: Should it be in the center of the room or against a wall? In front of a window or not? Stacked with notes or free of detritus? I believe the resolution was (obviously) to each his own, but I’ve always remembered the imagery of individual authors sitting down in their individual ways to pen some of the greatest novels in history. (Personally, I’m a laptop-on-the-couch kind of girl).

So long story short, yes: I’m making my pick based almost not at all on the book itself, and instead on a) the number of reviews I’ve seen and b) an obscure reference to a 2000 Stephen King book I read when I was 15. This is the stuff of science, I tell you.

MY FICTION REJECTS:
PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA, by Peter Carey

This book lost me at “Alexis de Tocqueville,” who is ostensibly the inspiration for the lead character in Parrot, French aristocrat Olivier de Garmont. I know I’m smart enough to appreciate historical fiction—in fairness, I actually love de Tocqueville’s nonfiction Democracy in America—but I simply don’t love it. I prefer to keep history and fiction separate, sort of like nacho cheese and birthday cake.

LORD OF MISRULE, by Jaimy Gordon

This book isn’t out yet, and the information available on it is fairly limited, so I have to plead ignorance. All I DO know is that searching for Lord of Misrule first turns up this book, a young adult title about vampires. No thank you.

SO MUCH FOR THAT, by Lionel Shriver

It’s about health care. In case that alone isn’t enough to deter you, the book wasn’t universally heralded by critics; some say it’s a little contrived (though in fairness, how not to be when addressing an issue like health care?) But I don’t know, unless we’re talking nonfiction, book time is when I get to escape real-world problems in favor of fake-world ones. If I wanted to enjoy health-care-inspired fiction, I’d just (re)watch Saw VI.

I HOTEL, by Karen Tei Yamashita

Also a bit of historical fiction, though masked perhaps more cleverly. In reality, the reason I’m not vying for this one is because it seems to be a series of novellas with different characters and voices. I have—perhaps as related to my general inability as of late to appreciate attention-requiring things—a hard time with books where I’m forced to recollect dozens of characters. (Oddly, in life, I have a great memory for both faces and names. Go figure.)

So there you have it: I’m placing my bets, based on little more than a cursory glance at each book, on Great House. I hope, for the sake of all that is intellectual, that I’m wrong and something like I Hotel, which documents the “Yellow Power Movement,” something I’ve never even heard of, wins instead.

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