Thursday, April 19, 2012

No Pulitzer Prize for Fiction!

I was shocked, shocked to discover that the folks that award the Pulizer Prize could not pick a winner in the category of Fiction.  Really?! No prize for fiction?  Ann Patchett (author of my favorite book--Bel Canto) wrote an excellent Op Ed for the NY Times berating them for their lack of a prize in this category.  In the editorial she surmises why it might have happened, reviews her own ideas for best fiction and concludes like this:

Let me underscore the obvious here: Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.

Unfortunately, the world of literature lacks the scandal, hype and pretty dresses that draw people to the Academy Awards, which, by the way, is not an institution devoted to choosing the best movie every year as much as it is an institution designed to get people excited about going to the movies. The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost.

In my last post, I wrote about storytelling as an important survival skill.  Ms Patchett makes the observation that reading stories--long ones--is also an important thinking and skill building  tool.  Fiction, reading, books, all vital to our life on this planet and in these times.  Pulitzer did miss the boat when they failed to award that prize. 

Read on!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When bad things happen to good writers

I am enjoying a gorgeous run of spring weather and for the first time in a long time, I am having a hard time reading and enjoying books.  I have been reading a lot of articles and stories from on-line news and magazines.  Most of what I read can fit into short time spans (or maybe that should be short attention spans.)  My book pile grows, but I can't seem to focus.

I came across an amazing article in the New Yorker this weekend which reminds me of the simple fact that when bad things happen to good writers, the result is often an amazing narrative that brings home heartbreaking truth.

The Aquarium by Aleksander Herman in a June 2011 issue details his families' witness to his baby daughter's brain tumor and ensuing death.  It is not an easy story to read.  It is every parent's nightmare told in sad and all to true detail, but he makes some interesting observations about the power of storytelling to bring us comfort and healing.  Herman, while watching an older, healthy daughter cope with her sister's illness, beleives that the older daughter develops narrative abilities simply to survive.  He equates storytelling with survival: a basic human need.

I recognize this need and believe that we all share this same propensity to tell stories.  We tell the stories we tell to learn about ourselves, to reflect our own experience to the wider world--asking ourselves the questions: am I sane?  am I real? am I who I am supposed to be?  Am I like you?  Aleksander Herman is quite correct, our ability to relate in story is and probably always has been second to only food, water, and air as vital to life. At our dying breath, it is final words we have to say to end the story, and nothing else.

I don't think many of us are lucky enough to be able to write it. Writing for me is filled with solace and import, and I feel grateful that I have been given the gift of being able to use the written word.  I recognize that for most of us simply being able to tell our story out loud or paint our story or perform our story is also soul satisfying.  

I can only imagine that this lovely piece of writing was for Mr. Herman only a small start at healing what for him will be a lifetime of pain, and his daughter's imaginary friend, who she imbued with all the qualities of her sick sister, was also only a stab at understanding the enormous situation playing out in front of her.  For me, it was a chance to relate and to understand, storyteller and listener, as we take part in a great tradition of understanding ourselves, healing ourselves, and making connection, through the power of writing.

I recommend this story.  Thanks Mr. Herman.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Reviewing the Early Reviewer Program

I have been a part of the Librarything Early Review Program for almost five years. I sign up for books I think I would like to read, the publisher sends me one of them, I read it, write a review, and post it on their website and my own (if I choose).  I love this program and have been sent some great books over the years and also some real dogs.

On a few occasions, I never received the promised book, but for the most part every book arrived, pristine and new and I have read and reviewed every single one.  I usually receive memoirs and special interest books: Bonk, The Happiness Equation, Situations Matter.  I've read about gastronomy in France and Middle Eastern CIA agents, travel memoirs, self-improvement and cooking and eating.  I've learned a lot about subjects I never would have picked up a book on, and I have become better at evaluating writing.

I try to refrain from reading other reviewers until I have written my own, and am surprised when someone likes a book I hated or vice versa.  I have discovered that I should never request a mystery because I don't like mysteries, and once I looked past my own personal disdain for e-books and put in a request for an interesting e-book.

In the beginning I would get skipped over for a few months in a row but I have received a book pretty solidly every month for the past two years. I have gathered an impressive array of publishers proofs.  I think they know I am good for the review.

I stopped to write this review of the program, which I love, because I finally met my match.  I actually got a book a couldn't review or read.  Suffice to say it was a book in a genre I am not particularly interested in and have no experience reading.  I did not feel I could fairly evaluate it at all and I honestly did not think I could finish the book.   I have learned a lesson in reading the book descriptions more closely.

I think I will send the book to a friend who will like it and ask her to read and review it if she likes.  Sound good?  What do you do when faced with a book you should read, but can't?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Happy National Poetry Month

April is here which can only mean one thing:  Poetry!  Last weekend I had an opportunity to take poetry into the local jail.  The women I read and write with enjoyed this Naomi Shihab Nye poem:

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

We had some wonderful writing and conversation about kindness and sorrow.