Monday, February 26, 2007

Roth wins third PEN/Faulkner Award

The following news release was issued by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation today:

Philip Roth’s work Everyman (Houghton Mifflin) has been selected as the winner of the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Roth is the first writer to receive the PEN/Faulkner Award three times, the first time in 1994 for Operation Shylock and again in 2001 for The Human Stain. The announcement was made today by the directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, Patricia Griffith and Robert Stone, Co-Chairmen.

Four finalists were also named. They are Charles D’Ambrosio for The Dead Fish Museum (Knopf); Deborah Eisenberg for Twilight of the Superheroes (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux); Amy Hempel for The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (Scribner); and Edward P. Jones for All Aunt Hagar’s Children (Amistad/HarperCollins).

The judgesJohn Dufresne, Debra Magpie Earling, and David Gates—considered close to 350 novels and short story collections by American authors published in the US during the 2006 calendar year. Submissions came from over 90 publishing houses, including small and academic presses. There is no fee for a publisher to submit a book.

Founded in 1980, the PEN/Faulkner Award is the largest peer-juried prize for fiction in the United States. As winner, Roth receives $15,000. Each of the four finalists receives $5,000. In a ceremony that celebrates the winner as “first among equals,” all five authors will be honored during the 27th annual PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony on Saturday, May 12th at 7 pm at Folger Shakespeare Library, located at 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC. Tickets are $100, and include the award ceremony followed by dinner and dancing. They can be purchased by phoning the Folger Box Office at (202) 544-7077 or online at

About the Winner

Praised as a brief masterpiece, admired for its precise physicality and lyrical brilliance, the honored novel, Everyman, takes as its subject an unnamed hero at the time of his death, being buried in a Jewish cemetery in New Jersey by his grown children, ex-wife, and a few friends. Its title drawn from the 15th century English morality play, Philip Roth’s novel describes the frailty, illness and deterioration of the hero’s body as he undergoes a series of medical procedures that frame his process of aging. The narrative which casts back across the ordinary life of this man: creative artist for an advertising agency, three-times married, father of two sons and a daughter, is filled with the enormous questions, longings, regrets, and desires, universal and elegantly detailed, that make up life.

"It's such a slim volume,” says PEN/Faulkner judge Debra Magpie Earling, “and the book haunts me, its simplicity and brutishness, the unflinching look at life. Roth never looks away, never trivializes, never shrugs. He manages to wrestle with grief, the immensity of losing self."

In addition to the PEN/Faulkner Award, Roth has twice won The National Book Award and twice the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1997 he was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. He has been awarded the National Medal of Arts, and, from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Gold Medal in Fiction. Roth divides his time between New York and Connecticut. Everyman is his 27th novel.

About the Finalists

The Dead Fish Museum is the second collection of short stories by Charles D’Ambrosio. Called “dark and graceful, as deeply nuanced as novels” by the Miami Herald, these eight stories are set in various American landscapes and articulate the misadventures and aspirations of his beautifully-rendered characters. D’Ambrosio’s prose has been praised for its deft minimalism, his stories for their exuberant range and individuality. The majority of these stories originally appeared in The New Yorker Magazine. The Point, D’Ambrosio’s first collection, was a Finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. D’Ambrosio is also the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and has published Orphans, a collection of essays. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Deborah Eisenberg is the author of five prior short fiction collections. She is the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Rea Award for the Short Story, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Twilight of the Superheroes features six surprising narratives of human interaction and miscommunication, told with the author’s characteristic intelligence, humor, and innovation. In the title story, a group of 20-something friends luck out when they are pointed to a great deal on a loft sublet. Yet the apartment is within view of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Eisenberg portrays the reactions of these hapless innocents with an unsparing compassion. Eisenberg is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel brings together this author’s four celebrated volumes of short fiction, Reasons to Live (1986); At The Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990); Tumble Home, a Novella and Stories (1997); and The Dog of the Mariage (2005). Masterfully honed minimalist short stories, Hempel’s compact narratives have long been admired for their ability to illuminate emotional truths within the lived moment. In his introduction to the collection, Rick Moody writes, “These Hempel sentences, with their longing and their profound disquiet, do not rage or posture the way men of the minimalist realist period did. They ache. And this ache seems to have everything to do with a rather profound and cruelly underestimated lineage of women writers in North America.” The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Hobson Award, Hempel lives in New York and teaches in the graduate writing programs of Bennington College.

Awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Known World, Edward P. Jones returns to his native city, Washington, DC, for the backdrop of his third book, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. This collection of 14 stunning stories, noted for their technical complexity, focuses on the African-American experience in DC. Yet while tales in the previous collection, Lost in the City, were set in the 1960’s and 70’s, the current volume spans the entire 20th century. Jones’ memorable characters are often faced with the complicated realities of dysfunctional families, war, and prison, narrated in prose that is luminous and technically complex. Lost in the City was the recipient of the PEN/Hemingway Award and a finalist for the National Book Award. A recent recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, Jones currently resides in Washington, DC.

About these five remarkable books, PEN/Faulkner Judge, David Gates, writes, “The books all have in common a formal elegance and rigorous control. And they show how brevity and compression can create a focused intensity that’s impossible—or at least unadvisable—to sustain in longer fiction. Less isn’t always more, but here less isn’t any less.”

About PEN/Faulkner

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation is committed to building audiences for exceptional literature and bringing writers together with their readers. This mission is accomplished through a reading series at Folger Shakespeare Library by distinguished writers who have won the respect of readers and writers alike; the PEN/Faulkner Award, the largest peer-juried award for fiction in the United States; the PEN/Malamud Award, honoring excellence in the short story; and the Writers in Schools program, which brings nationally and internationally-acclaimed authors to public high school classrooms in Washington, DC, and in Kansas City.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 16
Title: Lords of the North
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 2-25
Pages: 314

The best writing in genre fiction can be an intoxicating brew. This is largely true because at heart such writers are storytellers. Think Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos or Robert Crais among mystery writers. Robert Sawyer or Charles Stross in science fiction. In historical fiction – a genre I have studiously avoided in the past – Arturo Perez-Reverte and Bernard Cornwell stand head and shoulders above the pack. Perez-Reverte for the Captain Alatriste series. Cornwell apparently for many works of fiction, but those books which are known to me are the three that make up his Saxon series. Essentially, this is Robert E. Howard’s Conan for adults. It is superb writing and solid historical research that never, never, overshadows the story. And the story is rousing, pulse-pounding fun. Raise a toast of ale to Cornwell for Lords of the North and all the works to come.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

An author's journey to publication; Hamilton's Madeline is a miss

Books now read in ’07: 14
Title: Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties
Author: Robert Stone
Genre: Memoir
Date Completed: 2-13
Pages: 229

Robert Stone’s Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties isn’t simply a memoir of life in the sixties. Stone’s publishers have positioned this book in such a manner that it could be a disappointment to a reader expecting nothing but vast quantities of hippies, free love, weed, acid and rock ‘n roll. Some of that’s here, including Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, but this book is vastly more important as an author’s journey from prayers to publication than as a paean to the sixties.

The book begins with Stone as a lonely Merchant Marine, aboard a naval transport ship in the Southern Ocean, and concludes with the publication of his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors. It is both, a commercial and critical success. Paul Newman lures Stone to Hollywood to make a movie based on the book. Sadly, the film, WUSA, doesn’t match the success of A Hall of Mirrors.

“There are almost enough unintentional laughs in WUSA, the movie to which I allegedly reduced A Hall of Mirrors, to make its history seem funny even to me. Almost but not quite, considering it provided me with enough regrets to fuel one lifetime’s worth of insomnia. Not to mention aggregate hours of boredom and disappointment inflicted as punishment on an innocent audience. All I can say by way of apology is that I suffered too.”

Hollywood has rarely been kind to authors of Stone’s caliber. One suspects that it was as much the movie as it was the Manson Family and other unfortunate events of the summer of 1969 that sent Stone and his family to London for four years. Stone eventually returns to America. He also recovered sufficiently from his experience in Hollywood to write such notable works as Dog Soldiers, Bear and His Daughter: Stories and Damascus Gate.

Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties is an interesting read, and a good one. I recommend it more for its insight into the development of an author, however, then as a memoir of the sixties.

Books now read in ’07: 15
Title: When Madeline Was Young
Author: Jane Hamilton
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 2-20
Pages: 274

There’s a great story lost within the pages of When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton. Madeline, of the title, is the first wife of Aaron Maciver. After Madeline suffers brain damage in a bicycle accident, Aaron eventually divorces her and marries Julia, who is both a friend of Aaron’s sister and, coincidentally, Madeline’s nurse.

We’re OK so far, but here’s where the story quits working for me. Aaron and Julia – she’s the personification of liberal sensibility – decide to “raise” Madeline. The Maciver children, Mac and Louise, regard Madeline as a simply a big sister. It is a preposterous concept. And it doesn’t work on two counts: 1) it is incredibly unlikely and 2) Hamilton suggests that Madeline’s very presence ennobles the entire Maciver clan as well as their black housekeeper in the bargain.

Hamilton’s contention is well intended, but it is ultimately insensitive and demeaning. Whatever choice a family makes regarding a blighted family member – to keep them at home or to institutionalize them – there is a cost and it is a painful one. I do not see that pain in these pages.

Hamilton would have been better served to have abandoned this conceit and focused instead on the Maciver clan and the rift that develops within the family because of the Vietnam War. These Madeline-free sections of the novel are powerful and moving. The rest is just wrong.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Spot of Bother is a bit of fun

Books now read in ’07: 13
Title: A Spot of Bother
Author: Mark Haddon
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 2-11
Pages: 354

A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon’s second book, is not the tour de force that was the author’s debut novel. That book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, told from the perspective of a young man suffering from Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, was a smart, affecting empathetic work. A Spot of Bother is, instead, a light, breezy book about the multiple woes that beset a family leading up to a wedding. The casual tone, inter-laced with humor, suggests the style of another Brit – Nick Hornby.

A Spot of Bother is the story of George Hall; his wife, Jean; son, Jamie; and daughter, Katie. Katie, who has a young son, has just announced she’s going to be married to boyfriend Ray, who no one in the Hall family believes is right for Katie. Katie is struggling to understand whether she truly loves Ray or merely desires the financial comfort he offers. Jamie, a homosexual, is despondent because his lover, Nick, has fled to Crete because Jamie won’t invite him to the wedding. Jean is having an affair, almost literally under George’s nose. And George is suffering from a self-described “spot of bother,” a series of panic attacks that spiral into depression fueled by whiskey, Valium and wine. Driving George’s panic is the knowledge he’s going to die; a rather reasonable fear prompted, in part, by his certainty that a scabby spot on his thigh isn’t eczema, but cancer.

It all sounds quite grim, but it manages not to be. Haddon’s style is to keep the tone light and the pace brisk. There’s not much insight here, but I’m not certain we care. Ultimately, Haddon serves up an enjoyable, but not terribly serious read. A Spot of Bother – after all – is only a bit of fun.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A medical mystery and a post-Vietnam memoir

Books now read in ’07: 11
Title: The Family That Couldn’t Sleep
Author: D.T. Max
Genre: Non-Fiction
Date Completed: 2-6
Pages: 256

The sub-title to D.T. Max’s first book The Family That Couldn’t Sleep is A Medical Mystery – and it’s every bit that. The family of the title suffers from Fatal Familial Insomnia, a disease passed with deadly results from generation to generation in one Italian family. For decades doctors were unable to identify the disease, which is understandable since FFI is both rare in the extreme and upsets conventional scientific understanding about the nature of disease itself. FFI is one form of the human equivalent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad cow disease.

FFI, BSE, kuru (another related disease that afflicts humans) and scrapie (which afflicts sheep) are all caused by prions – a nasty, infectious protein that is almost impossible to eradicate -- it is resistant to both heat and radiation, for example. And its results are devastating. “The symptoms of FFI are remarkable and grim,” writes Max. The sufferer first begins to sweat profusely, his pupils shrink to pinpricks and he begins to hold his head in an odd, stiff way. Women suddenly enter menopause. Men become impotent. “The sufferer begins to have trouble sleeping and tries compensating with a nap in the afternoon, but to no avail. His blood pressure and pulse have become elevated and his body is in overdrive . . . Their exhaustion is immense, beyond comprehension. Once the sufferer can no longer sleep, a downward progress ensues, as he loses his ability to walk or balance. Perhaps most tragic, the ability to think remains intact . . .”

Death, as the name so obviously suggests, is the inevitable outcome of FFI, as it is with kuru, mad cow and every other prion-based disease. Ultimately, the actions of the prions leave the sufferers’ brain – whether human, cow or sheep – resembling so much Swiss cheese. Much of the mystery has to do with the nature of prions, which are proteins. Proteins are accumulations of ordinary molecules, but are not alive. Typically, science held that infections could be created only by living agents, such as a virus. Prions put the medical and scientific community into a spin.

Besides charting the efforts of the Italian family to identify the disease that has decimated generations after generation (and its struggle to come to terms with the sheer horror of what confronts them), Max traces the investigation into the nature of prions and furnishes a frightening account of the failure of the British government to act in a timely fashion when Mad Cow Disease first surfaced in that country. The Family That Couldn’t Sleep is a riveting, sobering chronicle. Max has written one of today’s genuine horror stories.

Books now read in ’07: 12
Title: Falling Through the Earth
Author: Danielle Trusson
Genre: Memoir
Date Completed: 2-9
Pages: 240

Some 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam. They were not the only victims of that misguided conflict. As Danielle Trussoni shows in her memoir, Falling Through the Earth, many of the victims included the war’s survivors and their families. Trussoni’s father, Daniel, is a Vietnam veteran, who was deeply scarred by the violence in which he found himself immersed.

Daniel Trussoni is not a sympathetic figure. He is a violent, brooding alcoholic, who cheats on his wife and withholds affection from his children. He is the sort of man who mistakes obstinacy for principle and rationalization for reason. It is remarkable that Danielle Trussoni survived her upbringing and it is a testament to her spirit that she emerged as a bright, creative adult, who becomes both a wife and mother. Falling Through the Earth is an elegant, elegiac book. Its truth will never touch Dan Trussoni, but it is certain that this memoir goes a long way to bring healing and comfort to his gifted daughter.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Peter Taylor's final collection a mixed bag

10. The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court, Peter Taylor. Stories, 2-5, p. 324

Peter Taylor’s final story collection, which appeared in 1993 before his death in 1994, is a mixed bag. His “ghost” stories, including the title story and three brief plays, all leave something to be desired. It is when Taylor focuses on the mores and manner of his native Tennessee that he is at his best. Nowhere is this on better display than in The Decline and Fall of the Episcopal Church (in the Year of Our Lord 1952).

Consider this brief selection from an extended passage on what separated the “old-time” Episcopalians from every other church-goer in this small Tennessee town:

What a different breed they had been from their Methodist and Presbyterian contemporaries. They danced and they played cards, of course, and they drank whiskey, and they did just about whatever they wanted on Sunday. They indulged in what their Baptist neighbors called “that barbarous ritual, infant baptism.” They starved themselves during Lent, and they attended services on Christmas Day, even when it didn’t fall on Sunday. There were no graven images in the old church, and there was no altar stone, of course, but the Episcopalians had talked about the church as thought it were the temple in Jerusalem itself. That was what their neighbors resented. Yes, they always spoke of it as “the Church,” as though there were no other church in town.

This story and others – Cousin Aubrey, Nerves, The End of Play and In the Waiting Room – are reasons to pick up Taylor’s final collection. However, if you are unfamiliar with Taylor, his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Summons to Memphis, remains the one book of his to read.