Though I'm firmly in the camp who believes that Hilary Mantel deserves all of the praise and prizes that a grateful readership can bestow on her, I was delighted to see another one of my favorite books from 2012—and a definite underdog—nab the "Prize Formerly Known as Orange" for 2013 (next year, the prize will be sponsored by Bailey's Irish Cream).
Yes, the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013 winner was none other than A.M. Homes, author of May We Be Forgiven, a picaresque, darkly funny tale of one man's journey to acceptance.
The chair of the judges, actress Miranda Richardson, did a good job of summing up the book's appeal: "It is a book where we all found ourselves laughing out loud on trains or wherever we were reading," she told the crowd at London's festival hall, where the £30,000 prize was awarded. "You're laughing in kind of fear or horror as much as anything else. It's relentless, but great."
This year's shortlist was incredibly strong, and included, along with Homes and Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver and Maria Semple.
Though they may have been a bit overshadowed in the U.S. by yesterday's Pulitzer announcement, this week has also brought two important literary news items from the UK.
First, the shortlist for the prize formerly known as the Orange Prize and now known simply as the Women's Prize for Fiction. It's an incredible list—Hilary Mantel seems to be up against her toughest competition yet. Will she sweep all three of the U.K.'s major awards?
Speaking of Zadie Smith, she also figures in the second item of literary news from the U.K: She's one of the 2013 "20 under 40" list from Granta magazine. Created every 10 years, the list honors the most promising 20 British writers under the age of 40. It's Smith's second time on the list, which for the first time contains a majority of female authors—12/20. It's also the most international list yet.
Click on the author's name to see their author page on BookPage.com.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Viking • $27.95 • ISBN 9780670026630
On sale March 12, 2013
Magical, playful, inventive and compelling, Ruth Ozeki's third novel arrived like a breath of fresh air on my desk. A Tale for the Time Being entwines the stories of a Japanese teenager, Nao, and a middle-aged Japanese-Canadian author named Ruth. Nao, who is 16 and something of a loner, is writing down the story of her 104-year-old grandmother in a diary—a diary that Ruth discovers when it washes up, preserved in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, on the shore of the Canadian island she lives on with her husband Oliver. They wonder: Is it flotsam or jetsam? (Precision is important to Ruth.) Detritus from the 2011 tsunami, or a message in a bottle? From the first page of the diary, Ruth is captivated by Nao's voice, and determined to uncover her fate.
Ozeki uses this intriguing premise to explore the reader-writer relationship and the interconnectedness of human life. But this is a novel to be enjoyed as much for its graceful writing and vivid characters as its provocative ideas. Here, Ruth opens the diary for the first time:
Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction with the human eye.
Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin.
Ruth stared at the page. The purple words were mostly in English with some Japanese characters scattered here and there, but her eye wasn't really taking in their meaning so much as a felt sense, murky and emotional, of the writer's presence. The fingers that had gripped the purple gel ink pen must have belonged to a girl, a teenager. Her handwriting, these loopy purple marks impressed onto the page, retained her moods and anxieties, and the moment Ruth laid eyes on the page, she knew without a doubt that the girl's fingertips were pink and moist, and that she had bitten her nails down to the quick.
What are you reading this week?
Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 by Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee
Viking • $27.95 • ISBN 9780670026661
On sale March 11, 2013
If you truly want to know an author intimately, you must read their letters. For example, if you want to discover the man behind Slaughterhouse-Five, you read Vonnegut's Letters, featured in our November Well Read column. I especially love when two writers find mutual respect and creativity through letters—like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Their correspondence begins, aptly enough, with a discussion of friendship. It moves on to the financial crisis (which, mercifully, Auster puts a kibosh on pretty quickly), and then to sports and competition, language and style, American poetry, film, sports again, Israel, libraries and much, much more. By skipping from one subject to the next, the letters never drag or feel sluggish or boring. The time and distance between letters and the frequent changes in topic allow the correspondence both levity and quickness. Meaning: Those who don't spend time pondering Samuel Beckett will enjoy these letters, and those who do will enjoy them, too.
Perhaps my favorite topic was the concept of names. Coetzee writes:
Your name is your destiny. Oidipous, Swollen-foot. The only trouble is, your name speaks your destiny only in the way the Delphic Sibyl does: in the form of a riddle. Only as you lie on your deathbed do you realize what it meant to be "Tamerlane" or "John Smith" or "K." A Borgesian revelation.
To which Auster responds:
We grow into the names we are given, we test them out, we grapple with them until we come to accept that we are the names we bear. Can you remember practicing your signature as a young boy? Not long after we learn how to write in long-hand, most children spend hours filling up pieces of paper with their names. It is not an empty pursuit. It is an attempt, I feel, to convince ourselves that we and our names are one, to take on an identity in the eyes of the world.
Needless to say, I have spent my whole life exploring and meditating on my own name, and my great hope is to be reborn as an American Indian. Paul: Latin for small, little. Auster: Latin for South Wind. South Wind: an old American euphemism for a rectal toot. I therefore shall return to this world bearing the proud and altogether appropriate name of Little Fart.
Today is your first chance to pick up A.M. Homes' new novel, May We Be Forgiven. And that's something you want to do! In a fall filled with fiction heavyweights (including the new J.K. Rowling, which also goes on sale today), Forgiven holds its own, keeping the reader glued to the pages as the darkly humorous and oddly hopeful tale of Harold Silver unfolds.
Homes is brilliant at depicting the absurdity of modern life—and then turning it up 10 notches, without losing the emotional resonance that a good novel needs. We asked her about the significance of forgiveness and what she means by the title in an email Q&A:
Redemption is a concept that appears very early in the novel, but doesn’t become realized until the very end. From whom do you think Harry—or for that matter anybody—is seeking forgiveness? How do we know when we have, in fact, been forgiven?
That’s a very good question, and I’ll answer it by saying that in the Jewish religion every year at Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—we fast and ask for forgiveness. We begin by saying, “ For the sin we committed before you”—by being ignorant—or for the sin of envy or speaking poorly about others. We literally beat our breast and go over a litany of possible sins and whether or not we have committed them and we ask to be forgiven.
I find it deeply satisfying to confess, even for things I have not done—to repent for ideas, to repent for transgressions of the mind—to raise the bar for the coming year and hope to do better.
Importantly it is also at this time that we forgive others—as much as we ask for forgiveness for ourselves.
OK, so I’m getting a bit lofty here, but the idea is that we should accept responsibility for our transgressions and importantly go beyond that and make an effort to do better in the future.
San Miguel by T.C. Boyle
Viking • $27.95 • ISBN 9780670026241
On sale September 25, 2012
San Miguel is something entirely new for people who, like me, read T.C. Boyle like the world's about to end (get it?). As Boyle told me during an interview at the Nashville Public Library, this is a historical novel entirely without comedy or irony. It's not, as he says, a "wise-guy" novel. Boyle also told me that he and his publisher think this one is something special, and they certainly aren't wrong.
San Miguel returns to the setting first introduced in When the Killing's Done: the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. Boyle's newest is based on the lives of real families who inhabited San Miguel in the 1880s and the 1930s, and more specifically, the three women who were brought there by their men.
In 1888, Marantha and her family move to San Miguel in search of sunny Californian weather to help with her consumption. She spends six months at the sheep ranch, trying to restore her health and stave off the creeping boredom that comes with total isolation. Two years later, her adopted daughter Edith will do anything within her power to escape the remote island and her controlling stepfather. The novel then jumps to 1930, when newlyweds Elise and Herbie start their lives together, far away from the Depression and the rest of the world. They call themselves the King and Queen of San Miguel, and they consider themselves truly lucky—until WWII threatens to break their world apart.
As in so many of Boyle's novels, humans appear powerless before the elements, such as in this scene from Marantha's early days on the island:
Now, as she lay there in the dark, the thing in her chest quiet for once, she was afraid. The wind kept beating, keening, unholy, implacable, and it was as if it were aimed at her and her alone. As if it had come for her. Come to blow her away across the waters and force her down beneath the waves, down and down and down to the other place, darkness eternal. The roof heaved, the house rocked and groaned beneath the joists. Everything seemed to compress, as if waiting to blow like the cork from a bottle. She wanted to waken Will, wanted to cling to him and feed off the low consoling murmur of his voice, but she didn't because she knew he needed his rest—now more than ever—and there was nothing he could have done in any case, nothing anyone could do except God, and God had deserted her. Will was right there beside her, and she'd never felt more alone. She couldn't sleep. She'd never sleep again. And though she needed to get up and relieve herself she was afraid to move, as if even the slightest perturbation would upset the balance and bring the whole ramshackle structure crashing down around her.
Is this one you've been looking forward to?
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
Viking • $26.95 • ISBN 9780670025480
on sale October 1, 2012
But unlike DeLillo's work, May We Be Forgiven allows for the possibility of making something real out of the craziness of modern life, even as it acknowledges the difficulty of doing so. In this excerpt, Harry is visiting his brother George, whose life he's virtually taken over after a series of horrific events and acts land George in a mental institution.
"Fuckin' freak show," George says when they're all gone.
"And you're the star," I say.
"How's my dog and kitty?"
"Fine," I say. "It would have been nice to know about the invisible fence, but we figured it out."
"Are you giving Tessie [the dog] the vitamins and the anti-inflammatory?"
"Which ones are hers?"
"In the kitchen cabinet, the big jar."
"I thought they were yours," I say. "I've been taking them daily."
"You're a moron," George declares.
I pull the accordion file out from under my ass. "There are some things I have to ask you. I'll start with the small stuff: How does the outdoor light for the front yard work? Also, I met Hiram P. Moody, he came to the funeral—does he pay all the bills? . . . What's your PIN number? Also, I tried to use the credit card but it was password protected; they asked for your mother's maiden name. I typed in Greenberg, but it didn't work."
"Dandridge," George says.
"Whose name is that?"
"It's Martha Washington's maiden name," he says, like I should know.
"Funny enough, that had never occurred to me; I thought they meant your mother's maiden name, not like the mother of America."
"Sometimes I forget the actual family, but I never forget Martha," George says. "I'm surprised you didn't know, you call yourself a historian."
"Speaking of history, I tried to enter your place of birth as New York, but again I was wrong."
"I use Washington, D.C.," George says. "It's really a question of what I can keep in mind."