Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Maine-litzer

When this year's Pulitzer Prize committee declined to name a fiction winner, one of my fellow library consultants decided that she would set up her own committee to pick a winner for the "Maine-litzer."  (We're from Maine -- we'll show those critics how to pick a winner!)  So, for the last few months Maine librarians and friends have taken on the challenge of reading  the 2012 Pulitzer fiction nominees - "The Pale King" by David Foster Wallace, "Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell, and "Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson.  The deadline for voting is near and I've just about completed the assignment.

First I read "Train Dreams," a wonderfully written story of love, loss, survival, and pioneering in the Far West around the turn of the 20th Century.  It is a short novel that was a previously published prize-winning story in "The Paris Review" from about ten years ago.  The author has created a strong sense of place and life.  He has also thrown in a bit of folklore which figures prominently at the conclusion.  Robert Granier faces challenges from the time he's born an orphan.  He's a stoic man who lives life simply and is able to accept all that life throws at him. A very enjoyable read and a quick one, too.

Next on the docket was "The Pale King."  Because of its length, nearly 600 pages, and the fact that I'm a slow reader, I opted to listen to it.  What an audio and reading treat.  The transcript for the book was discovered after Wallace's death and was edited by Michael Pietsch, who very lovingly birthed the book.    Focusing on what can best be described as a rag-tag group of IRS employees who are as quirky and nerdy as we have been accustomed to see them portrayed Wallace tackles the hum drum of everyday life and turns it into a hilarious reading adventure.  This is a book that I wish I had had to read at some point in my career as a student.  Why? Because I could have written a really good paper, and a long one at that.  And, I have to admit that I'm not so sure I would have enjoyed the reading experience as much if it hadn't been an audio endeavor.

Finally, it was time to begin "Swamplandia!."  This is Russell's first novel and to say that it has been well-received is a bit of an understatement.  It is the tragi-comedic story of a family mired in a dubious existence in an alligator-themed amusement park on an island off the coast of Florida.  The mother, who is the star performer, passes away, leaving the family adrift.  Just the names of the children - Kiwi, Osceola, and Ava - give a good indication of the unusual nature of the story.  They live a very odd existence to say the least, which invites a great deal of pathos from the reader and a need to suspend belief at times. As a Pulitzer nominee, of course it's well-written and well-imagined, just as I like my fiction to be.  However, I am having a hard time in getting this book to hold my interest.  It's taking me a long time to read this and I'm still only half-way through.  I doubt that I will have this finished in time for the final vote, but I will persevere and get it done at some point in time.

While reading critically for book clubs for years and for selecting materials for libraries' collections, this challenge was a bit different. I was constantly asking myself - why this book?  How did it get to be nominated?  Is it really that good?  It bothered me a bit that "Train Dreams" was previously published as a story and that "The Pale King" required significant editing without the benefit of the author's input.  Did that make "Swamplandia!" the only really pure qualifier for such a distinguished prize?  I had to put that thought out of my mind more than a few times.  Maybe those are the same doubts that the Committee had and is why they couldn't decide.

Well, even though I haven't finished the third book, my mind is made up.  My vote is for "The Pale King."  Think of it this way - anyone who can make the IRS such a compelling read and address life in such a large way deserves the prize. I can only imagine how absolutely more wonderful the book would have been if Wallace had stuck around to finish it.

By the way, if you want a bit more insight into the Pulitzer selection process and reaction to the Committee's decision to to forego the fiction award for the first time in 40-plus years, read Pulitzer juror Michael Cunningham's pieces in "The New Yorker."  An excellent defense of choices for the finalists or a rant at the jurors' selections being snubbed?  You decide. As always, the readers' comments are just as good.

By the way, the winner?  "Swamplandia" by a mile. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Senator Snowe: Thank you.

Maine Senator Olympia Snowe has announced that she will not seek reelection this year.  This is a crushing blow, in my opinion, to the State of Maine and our country.  I have always viewed Senator Snowe as a moderating voice in a sea of nastiness.  She has provided a ray of hope for those of us who are fed up with the Washington scene.  Now, with her leaving, things look bleaker than ever.

I certainly understand why she would want to get out and have a degree of normalcy in her life.  She has dedicated herself over the last four-plus decades to public service.  I wish you all the best.  In the years to come you will be seen as a fine example of what a politician should be.  You will be remembered as standing more ways than one.............................

Thank you, Senator Snowe.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reading Frenzy...

For me the reading frenzy continues with mixed results.  This week I finished "The Fall of Giants" by Ken Follett, the first in a trilogy about the 20th Century.  This book covers the first world war and Russian revolution.  It took me more than a year to finish this book.  While I got off to a good start, I got bogged down in the minutiae of the revolution.  The characters play well, but making progress was difficult.  Glad to have this one in the "2012 Finishes" column.  I am looking forward to the next installment, "Winter of the World," coming out in September.

The next book on the "ta-da" list is "A Visit from the Goon Squad."  Another book with which I got off to a good start.  However, I got lost in the various stories.  There were times when it was difficult to tell where in time the stories were taking place.  The story told in diagrams and charts seemed trite. The end picked up the story in a more clever way. The fact that this won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle prizes was lost on me.  I treated this a a novel, but many critics treated it as a collection of stories.  Maybe if I had looked at it from that point of view it would have been a better read for me.

As always, the best has been saved for last.  Just as soon as I finished "Goon Squad" I decided to start with another book so I wouldn't lose my momentum. Some time ago I had put "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating" by Elisabeth Tova Bailey on my Kindle. People at the library that I used to work at always recommended it. I had just never gotten to it and now was the time. Who could have imagined that the story of a very ill woman who keeps company with a solitary wild snail would be so enchanting. It is the perspective in which the author puts her story and that of the history/habits/life cycle of the snail - period. I zipped through this book in record time, but not so quickly that I didn't take time to appreciate Bailey's fine prose. She is a wonderful writer who could probably make reading about paint drying exciting.

Next up is "The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance and the Minimum Wage" by Kirstin Downey.  I started this for a book group months ago, but got sidetracked.  Now, I'm back on track and happy to be there.  I can't promise that I'll see it through, but I'm making great many books, so little time!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

My books.....

I have been in a reading funk for the last few months.  If I do read, it's only in fits and starts.  My rate of finishing books has dropped off precipitously.  Not a good thing for a librarian.  The causes?  I'm sure it's a number of things.....busy at work, busy at home, the distraction of the the computer (especially Facebook), and, more recently, a change in jobs.

I look at my pile of books and the list on my Kindle.  I can say that my interest in acquiring books has also waned a bit. Since I'm not traveling to hockey games any more, I'm not stopping at Borders on my way home from weekend games.  I went to BAM which bought out the nearest Borders for the first time last week.  Unfortunately I was on a mission and didn't have time to browse. 

Now I have found a couple of books that have captured my interest and I hope that the current trend is reversing itself.  Over the weekend I finished "Left Neglected" by Lisa Genova.  I read a very big chunk of "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain.  They are both excellent reads with very strong protagonists. 

I started "Left Neglected" the weekend before because I knew I was going to see the author speak mid-week.  Well, like Genova's first hit, "Still Alice," I was sucked in by the story and main character.  I sailed through the book. Genova knows her stuff and can convey a medical condition very well from the sufferer's point of view.  She is an excellent speaker and the opportunity to hear her talk about "Left Neglected" was a treat (made even more special by dinner beforehand at my aunt's house with my Aunt Gert, cousin Patti and sister Maureen).  In the Q&A session after Genova's talk, a woman in the audience who has Left Neglect told the author that she "nailed it."  I'm not going to say anything more about the book, because you need to discover the background and meet Sarah, the main character, on your own.  Thanks, Lisa Genova, for re-awakening my need to read. 

So, now it's off to bed to continue with "The Paris Wife" and to reacquaint myself with my huge stack of books at my bedside and the wonderful collection on my Kindle.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Oh, I should have watched "Downton Abbey" tonight.  While it was a great game, the outcome was such a disappointment.  Everyone is saying that the Patriots will be back next year, but that doesn't dull the ache any.

So, it's off to bed while dreams of what could have been dance in my head.  Thank goodness I have a good book to turn to.  I highly recommend Paula McLain's "The Paris Wife."  It's an excellent distraction...hard to believe that it's fiction.  The author really gets inside of Hadley Hemingway's head.  Oh, no wait a's a book about disappointments.  Well, then, I guess it's an appropriate read for tonight.