For those of you who choose to participate in this year's award you have a wonderful array of books. They're books that can be read at the beach, at night, at lunch (although it will be hard to put them down to go back to work!), at a slow pace, or at a more frenetic pace so you can get to the end. I also highly recommend two of them as audio books, as that's how I read them. They're long, but the reader makes the adventure so enjoyable.
Transatlantic by Colum McCann takes you from Canada during the early days of airplanes to modern-day Northern Ireland where George Mitchell is negotiating the Good Friday Peace Accord. Along the way Frederick Douglass, the African-American statesman, drops in for a visit. As always, McCann weaves together (or in this case, think of a knitted multi-patterned Irish sweater) diverse tales. This time the thread that binds is a letter sent on that early Transatlantic flight from Canada. It's absolutely wonderful.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, her first novel in ten years, has captured a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. It's a major work of more than 700 pages that tells the story of a young New York teen who loses his mother when the art museum they're visiting is the target of a terrorist bombing. As young Theo Decker leaves the museum alone, he takes with him a very rare painting that then becomes the anchor of the novel. Theo drifts from New York to Las Vegas and back to New York through the next ten or fifteen years. He is lost and alone, despite surrounding himself with a number of characters that have strong emotional ties to him. But, it's always the painting that takes some role in the story to move it along. Lots of unlikeable and curious characters combine to give the book the twists and turns that make it so successful. This is one of the books that I listened to and the reader is excellent.
Kent Haruf's Benediction is a return to the small Colorado plains town of Holt, the setting for his Plainsong and Eventide novels. Once again the book tells the tale of a close-knit community dealing with life, death, triumphs, and disappointments. The focus is on the family of "Dad" Lewis, who is dying of cancer. Woven into the story are a daughter who returns home to care for her father after a disappointing love affair, an estranged son, the dutiful wife, and some very interesting townsfolk - young and old. As always, Haruf's writing style is simple, languid, and descriptive without going overboard. You have characters to root for and others to wish away. This is an extraordinary novel about very ordinary people, which makes it such a beautiful read.
I'm not sure if I would recommend reading or listening to Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni.
It's a magical tale of a Jewish golem and an Arab jinni who both arrive in New York City at the very end of the 19th Century. Each has their own history and secrets that they must carry with them. While their mythological origins - she of clay, he of fire - are direct opposites and reflect their characters so well, this is a really an immigrant story. They both have their struggles with adapting to their surroundings in their new worlds, despite the attachment to their respective ethnic neighborhoods. For me, this is the novel where location plays the biggest role. It provides such a rich background for the story. Wecker's imagination is marvelous and her writing style brings that imagination to life. I listened to the audio with George Guidall as the narrator. He does a fine job with the characters' voices. It's like having a wonderful bedtime story read to you each time you settle in to listen.
I could not have been happier with our finalist list. It seems to me that 2013 brought forth an extraordinary number of excellent reads. Our committee considered more than 130 books for the award. The twenty members were divided into 5 teams. Each team read just about 25 books. From there each team recommended two for the short list. I'm proud to say that TransAtlantic came from our team, The T-ettes, which included Sally Leahey and Renee DesRoberts, both of the McArthur Library in Biddeford, and Maine author/playwright Monica Wood. With Monica's cat, Miss Minnie, by our side as our mascot, we had lively debates about which books to bring forward - all supplemented by chocolate, cheese, and wine. Our other recommendation was Visitation Street - another novel where a major character is the setting. This is a gritty read involving the mystery of a missing girl. When you're done with the finalists, make sure you add that to your reading list.
As we wait for the public to start reading and sending in their votes, rest assured that we're already on the hunt for outstanding 2014 novels!