Saturday, January 19, 2013

Reading the NBA 2012

For the first time in years I actually read all five of the National Book Award finalists for fiction. Perhaps my motivation came from my interest in all of the nominees. Perhaps the lack of a Random House title among the finalists both made me receptive to the choices as a bystander, but also made me curious to see if this group of books actually surpassed some of my Random House favorites for the year. (For the sake of full disclosure, while McSweeney's Press published the hardcover of A Hologram for the King, Vintage, one of my publishers, has the paperback rights.) Here are my impressions on the five finalists, and ranked in order of my preference.

1. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. Had I been judging the awards this year, this book would have been my winner. Billy Lynn's squad, after surviving combat in Iraq, are sent back to the US for a whirlwind publicity tour during the fall of 2004. The trip culminates in a visit to the Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys game, where Billy and his pals will schmooze with players, cheerleaders, the team's wealthy owner and his rich friends, and, possibly, Beyonce. On top of this, a movie producer is tagging along, trying to secure funding to finance the movie version of the troops' struggle. Billy is the native Texan, and during the trip he briefly returns home. One of the strengths of this book is Billy's family. They are messed up in quite believable ways.  I also loved the ways in which Billy and his pals interact. They are constantly insulting each other, making juvenile jokes, showing off. They are kids, and they look to their senior officer for guidance in how to behave in situations. The book's story does wrap up rather too cleanly for my taste, but all in all I loved this story and characters.

2. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Both Gianna and I are huge Junot Diaz fans, and this collection of interconnected stories only solidifies our love for him. The stories of Dominican immigrant Junior are funny, sad, and most definitely wonderfully written. Junior might be a scoundrel to the women in his life, but I still love him. Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize a couple of years ago, and this book just as easily could have taken home the National Book Award this year.

3. The Round House by Louise Erdrich. This year's winner, and also a deserving one. Mostly I'm happy that Louise Erdrich, after thirteen strong books, finally won with number fourteen. Set on a reservation in North Dakota during the 80's, thirteen year-old Joe's world is shaken when his mother is brutally assaulted. While she struggles to recover as her attacker remains free, Joe and his friends begin their own search for the rapist. The Round House is a great coming of age story that also deals with violence against women, reservation politics and struggles, and family dynamics, but without being preachy. It actually reads more like a thriller.

4. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. Alan Clay is a former Schwinn Bicycle executive, but he's fallen on hard times. The Schwinn factory moved to China and Alan lost all of his money on various ventures that left him more and more broken spiritually. He's divorced and he can't afford his daughter's college tuition. In a last ditch effort to right his course, he joins a group of young techies working for Reliant, a company hoping to woo a contract from King Abdullah, on a trip to Saudi Arabia. Alan is isolated and floundering, and that continues in Saudi Arabia.  The king isn't actually around, and no one can tell him when the king will arrive. Alan is stuck in middle age purgatory in the middle of the desert. Eggers knows how to write about other cultures, and he knows how to write humor situations for his characters. I do think that Dave Eggers tends to appeal more to male readers; I don't relate as well as some to Alan Clay's problems and decisions and I think I'm not enough of a dude to fully appreciate him.

5. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Ugh. I don't get the fuss over this book, even though many of my bookseller pals included it among their favorite books of the year. It's an Iraq War story told from a veteran of the war. It's not bad, and Kevin Powers has potential. Here's my question: would this book have been lauded if the author hadn't been a veteran? It seems like most of the press focused on his autobiography as much as the quality of the book.  As for the quality of the book, it screamed "I wrote this in creative writing school!" to me. Formulaic style and story, and overwritten prose plagued it.  The book has a great first line--"The war tried to kill us in the spring"--but it's downhill from there. Of the five finalists for the National Book Award, this is the one to which I could point and say "______ is a better book than that one," and come up with more than one title to fill in that blank. (Examples? Fine. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. Home by Toni Morrison. In Between Days by Andrew Porter, Building Stories by Chris Ware, Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru, to name a few.) At least The Yellow Birds didn't win, and hopefully Kevin Powers's next book works for me.

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