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  • Kat Sarfas 1:52 am on 2020/05/05 Permalink
    Tags: , , pulitzer prize fiction, pulitzer prize winners   

    The Pulitzer Prize Winners for 2020 

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    There are literary awards, and then there’s the Pulitzer Prize. Those winners are the books that open your eyes and shake you around a bit – stories by American authors that will forever linger in a reader’s subconscious. Recent winners for fiction include The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, and The Overstory, by Richard Powers – must read, heavy hitters that cut to the heart of humanity and American life. This year’s winners are:

    In the category of Fiction – The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead.

    “Colson Whitehead continues to make a classic American genre his own… with gravity and care, the steward of painful, suppressed histories; his choices on the page can feel as much ethical as aesthetic…” – The New York Times

    This is the second Pulitzer for author, Colson Whitehead in 4 years – he also won the prize for Fiction back in 2017 for The Underground Railroad. This brilliant and blistering story of two boys in Jim Crow-era Florida was a BN Book Club pick last July – we also had the good fortune to sit down with Colson to talk imagination, courage, and The Nickel Boys on our B&N Podcast.

    Fiction finalists include The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner (“Ben Lerner has redefined what it means for a writer to inhabit an American present by showing how a family reckons with its past… The Topeka School is brave, furious, and, finally, a work of love.” – Ocean Vuong, author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), and The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett, both fresh takes on classic coming-of-age stories. No one writes about sibling relationships as well as Ann Patchett; The New York Times goes further: “Expect miracles when you read Ann Patchett’s fiction.”

    In the category of History – Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America, by W. Caleb McDaniel, which Tony Horwitz, author of Spying on the South, called “A chilling, inspiring, and timely examination of both the necessity and complexity of redressing historical crimes.”

    In the category of Biography – Sontag, by Benjamin Moser. “Don’t be fooled by the length. This book is compulsive reading: moving, maddening, ridiculous and beautiful scenes from the life of Susan Sontag… Moser has a true and deep love for his subject, and it shows,” says Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers.

    In the category of Poetry – The Tradition, by Jericho Brown. “These astounding poems…don’t merely hold a lens up to the world and watch from a safe distance; they run or roll or stomp their way into what matters… This is one of the most luminous and courageous voices I have read in a long, long time.” – U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

    This year, the Pulitzer for General Nonfiction is shared by two books: The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care, by Anne Boyer, “a profound and unforgettable document on the experience of life itself,” says Sally Rooney, author of Normal People, and The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, by Greg Grandin, which Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Twilight of the American Century, says is “written with insight, passion, and uncompromising moral clarity.”

    And while tie-in books may not be available, we have to still give a big shoutout to the impressive works in the category of Music – The Central Park Five, by Anthony Davis which premiered last year at the Long Beach Opera, and in the category of Drama – A Strange Loop, by Michael R. Jackson, an original musical.


    The post The Pulitzer Prize Winners for 2020 appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 6:46 pm on 2015/05/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , pulitzer prize winners, ,   

    Three Things You Missed When You Read The Goldfinch 

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    In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, “Haters gonna hate hate hate,” which can translate into a bloody-minded contrariness when it comes to great successes: the more the world showers someone or someone’s creation with praise, the more some folks are going to take the opposing position and complain that they/it really isn’t all that amazing. In the modern literary world, no one brings out the lovers and the haters like Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History, The Little Friend, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch.

    Tartt has been a polarizing personality in the literary world ever since she received an astounding $450,000 advance for her first novel, The Secret History. She was 28 years old, and the print run for her first novel was 75,000—a pretty large number for a debut. Immediately, people began lining up to explain to anyone within earshot that Tartt might be a good writer and the novel might be very strong, but there was no way she was that good. Not nearly-half-a-million good. And of course, once you start from that perspective it’s almost impossible to read a novel and come away with a rational, objective impression of it.

    The Little Friend was published about a decade later, and while it won awards and certainly sold well, it didn’t quite reach the levels of adulation of her debut. Reviews were a little more mixed, and while the novel is certainly an artistic and economic success—and is likely to grow in estimation as time passes—it represents a bit of the classic “sophomore slump” for Tartt, which naturally delighted her detractors, who nodded wisely and smugly informed all and sundry that they always said Tartt was overrated.

    And then, The Goldfinch.

    The Goldfinch was an Event from the start. It was the sort of book that people talked about long before it was published, the sort of book people passed around in galleys and advanced reader copies (ARCs). Tartt was once again on everybody’s mind, and expectations for the book were huge.

    The novel tells the story of Theo Decker. At the beginning he’s living a happy, fairly typical childhood with his mother in New York City. He’s better off than most, but not nearly as rich as some of the other kids at school. His father is a shadowy figure, long gone, and he loves his mother fiercely. While visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her, Theo notices an elderly man and a striking red-haired girl who immediately fascinates him (the girl’s name, he later learns, is Pippa, and she becomes a lifelong obsession). Then, without warning, a bomb goes off, killing Theo’s mother and many other people. In the chaos and wreckage, a literally shell-shocked Theo is encouraged by the old man to steal the famous painting The Goldfinch—which Theo does, unsure of his own motivations.

    The novel follows Theo as he navigates Child Protection Services, is taken in by rich friends, is claimed by his disastrous father and moved to Vegas, lives an adolescence of indolent, unsupervised drug abuse and boredom with his alcoholic, hilarious, and sketchy friend Boris (the son of a Russian “businessman”), and flees back to New York where he is taken in by the grieving partner of the old man who inspired the painting’s theft. Through it all, the painting haunts Theo, wrapped up under layers of cardboard and plastic and hidden (or so he thinks) in a climate-controlled storage unit he fears to visit.

    Reviews were mixed. The Guardian called it “overlong and tediously Potteresque.” The Washington Post noted its “rather mundane ideas.” The New Yorker wrote that “its tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature,” and critic James Wood later complained loudly about a perceived “infantilization of our literary culture” when discussing the novel. There were also reviews that praised the novel as a new classic, rich and dense with layered meaning, full of beautiful language that startled and inspired. The point isn’t that everyone hates the novel—the point is that no one can agree on it, or Tartt. Just as when she received her notable advance for The Secret History, the Haters have come to Hate.

    Boom Goes the Pulitzer

    When The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize last year, the internet and print world exploded in a flurry of think pieces about it. Some were celebratory, but cocktail parties around the world suddenly brimmed with critics taking the book down a notch and complaining about the quality of the novels the now win the world’s hugest prizes. The Goldfinch is poorly plotted, with startling things happening for no reason! It relies on film references for its descriptions and emotional beats! Characters come and go randomly, and important details are suddenly introduced with no prior warning, and given paragraphs of detailed backstory, as if no one beta-read the manuscript and pointed out how disjointed everything feels! The language is purple and overcooked, Tartt’s sense of geography is wonky, and her author photo is overly severe!

    These people are, in a word, wrong. Maybe not about the author photo, but about everything else.

    Is The Goldfinch a perfect novel? It is not. It’s an immense shaggy dog of a book, filled with ideas, observations, and plot. Oh, so much plot. It occasionally dives into unrealistic territory as the main character, Theo Decker, makes his way through his youth from the traumatic day his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing to the final adventure when he finds himself thrust into a second-rate crime thriller.

    But one can easily argue that any classic novel has flaws. Negativity and cynicism are easy, after all—every college freshman knows that a new band is only worth praising when it’s your own little secret, and the moment it becomes R.E.M., you have to immediately start complaining that their old stuff was better. Admitting awe and an emotional response to a novel always feels shallow; pointing out its flaws always feels smart.

    If you enjoyed The Goldfinch and find yourself on the defensive at some social gathering against a blowhard telling you how wrong you are to admire it, here is some ammunition to use against him: three aspects of the book very few people have noticed that elevate it into the Pantheon of Great Novels.

    Theo is an Unreliable Narrator
    These days an unreliable narrator is almost always a showy, almost gonzo thing, often complete with dramatic revelation, “twist” ending, and a Sixth Sense-like recap of the plot from this new, transformed perspective. It’s often a Fight Club moment, and while Fight Club is itself a brilliant novel that uses an unreliable narrator device exceptionally well, it’s possible to employ a trickster point-of-view voice more subtly.

    Theo Decker, in The Goldfinch, appears to be a reliable narrator. He employs no tricks of speech or prose, he doesn’t present any obvious inconsistencies or contradictions, and he lets the reader in on his biggest secret from the very first pages. Theo’s lack of reliability is exposed in subtle, almost unnoticeable ways, notably in details that pop up only when Theo is forced to admit them. At first blush these bouts of exposition can seem like lazy writing—Tartt suddenly realizing that she never mentioned an important fact before and now needs to cram it in. But this is a misreading. Tartt isn’t disorganized; Theo is a liar.

    The biggest clue is so big it’s almost invisible: Theo is a professional liar. His adult career, once he makes his way back to Hobie in New York City, is to fake up antiques and sell them as famous pieces, inventing histories and provenances with an expert eye. Theo is, in other words, a con artist. For him, reality stopped having any meaning the moment his mother died. As a result, he lives entirely in the moment. He doesn’t like to think about the past because the past is the country where his mother died. People and details well up from the blackness of Theo’s past and surprise him as much as they surprise us, and because he does not ever consider his past, we can’t trust his present.

    The fact that he’s a narrator who avoids thinking of the past while telling us his life story also explains the endless, nearly infinite (albeit subtle) inconsistencies in that story. His timeline is all over the place—trying to pin down when, exactly, thirteen-year old Theo is involved in the museum bombing is almost Heisenbergian in its impossibility. 2001? 2002? Some other year? Theo remembers things suddenly, like a favorite song that moves the adult Theo and Boris to a sentimental recollection of their time in Las Vegas despite the fact that the song was never mentioned once during that passage in the book, and is in fact never mentioned again. Theo is sifting through memories, and those memories are jumbled. The time frame of the story is vague because Theo is vague.

    The Male-Female Divide

    Something else people overlook in this book is its careful structure. Yes, on first read it’s superficially shambling: Theo survives the explosion, steals the painting, and then seems to lose all agency for a while as he shuffles first to the Barbour’s hermetically-sealed uptown apartment, then to Las Vegas with his horrible father, then to New York again (on a bus, no less!) where he embarks on a seemingly random career choice of furniture dealer. The plot meanders, and it’s just a series of experiences until Theo’s latter-book adventures in the criminal underground, right?

    Wrong. There’s method to this madness—subtle, masterful method. In fact, the book is ingenious in the way it organizes Theo’s journey by sex. First, the feminine world of New York, dominated by his mother and then Mrs. Barbour, a world of cozy meals, homey apartments, and a wide-ranging social world filled with quasi-siblings and social contacts. Then, the masculine world of Las Vegas that Theo’s father takes him to, a world of drugs and alcohol, gambling and superficial glamor, violence and emptiness, with long stretches of the story just Theo and his new friend Boris (the best character in the book, perhaps the best character of 2013) ambling around an empty desert.

    Finally, Theo comes home to New York to live with Hobie—the homosexual but largely sexless Hobie, a gentle older man who offers neither family (aside from the brief, painful glimpses of Pippa, Theo’s unrequited love with whom he feels a permanent, painful bond) nor aimless freedom, but something in between. Theo goes from being a child in New York, ensconced in family, to being an adolescent in Las Vegas, acting out and exploring his limitations, to being an adult with Hobie in the furniture shop. He’s still Theo—he still has the hidden painting and the drug addictions, trailing him from his past—but he’s a fully-formed Theo, combining in many ways the aspects of his previous chapters.

    The Nature of Value

    The Goldfinch is, ultimately, a story about value. What are things, people, experiences actually worth?

    Consider the titular painting. It’s priceless because of its beauty and craftsmanship, its age and provenance. Theo steals it almost thoughtlessly, numb from shock, and doesn’t look at it again once he has safely hidden it away. If an object considered valuable because of its beauty is never looked at, does it actually have any value?

    Later in the story, the painting is stolen by Theo’s friend Boris, and replaced in its wrappings. Because Theo never looks at the painting he values so much (as a link to his mother, to his past, as a prize he took from life) he does not realize the switch has happened until Boris informs him of it years later, and yet in the intervening years he valued the lump of wrapping and tape hidden in a storage facility as if it were a priceless work of art.

    And the painting—even the real, actual painting—only has value in theory. The adult Boris, now connected to sketchy organized crime elements around the world, can use it as collateral for loans, or as a bargaining chip, but cannot actually sell the painting, because it does not have any actual value. That’s the thing about “priceless” objects: people hear that word and think it is so valuable you cannot ascribe a price to it. In reality, “priceless” means it’s impossible to sell, at least not openly—or not for money.

    This concept is applied to people as well. Pippa is Theo’s obsession, a girl he first saw in the museum before the blast, whom he got to know as a young child recovering from her injuries. He loves her—he values her—above all others. And yet, as with the painting, he hardly ever sees her, and his relationship with her is tortured and unrequited. On the other hand, Theo is engaged to the unfaithful and apparently heartless Kitsey Barbour. The relationship is passionless, although Theo feels affection for Kitsey, and even the revelation of her faithlessness isn’t enough for Theo to immediately cancel the engagement. With Kitsey, he has all the superficial value of a romantic relationship: time spent together, the wedding planning, intertwined lives. With Pippa, he has none of these things. And yet he values his relationship with Pippa far more, despite the fact that in a sense it doesn’t exist: Pippa does not return his love, or think of him nearly as much as he does her.

    In the end, Theo concludes that nothing really matters—that nothing has real value. “We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth,” he says. Without choice, nothing is of consequence—whatever is going to happen to you will happen, no matter what you decide or choose. Steal a painting, don’t steal a painting, it doesn’t matter. You’ll never actually look at it anyway.

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  • Alexandra Salerno 4:30 pm on 2015/05/08 Permalink
    Tags: author spotlight, , , pulitzer prize winners, , steven millhauser   

    7 Great Reads To Celebrate the Release of Steven Millhauser’s Voices in the Night 

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    Magical kingdoms. Mysterious elixirs. A mermaid washed ashore. Contemporary fabulist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Steven Millhauser’s newest collection of short stories, Voices In The Night, released last month, bringing us more of the modern-day fables and uncanny tales he’s known for. April also marked the premiere of The Sisterhood of Night, a movie based on Millhauser’s story of the same name. In celebration of both, here are the must-reads of Millhauser’s oeuvre for fans of the startling and strange.

    Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943–1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright
    Millhauser most often writes short stories; his almost yearly appearance in the Best American Short Stories anthology is a testament to his talent and his craft. But of his three novels, two are especial standouts. This is the dark and delightful story of a late boy genius narrated by his best friend. Edwin, obsessed with animation and comics, writes his magnum opus, Cartoons, then dies under mysterious circumstances. The story is told in the style of an old-fashioned biography, but with a focus on child characters, it’s both dark and whimsically funny.

    Martin Dressler 
    This is one of Millhauser’s best and best known books, which won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Sly, dreamlike, and evocative, it’s the story of Dressler, a turn-of-the-century Horatio Alger who goes from bellhop to hotel magnate. As the book goes on, his architectural feats grow all the more grand: hotels with subterranean courtyards, indoor theater districts, and an enclosed lake with an island reachable only by boat. Pushing the boundaries of the possible, these buildings are cities unto themselves. Dressler’s hungry ambition is tempered by his fraught relationship with the cold, quiet Emmeline.

    The Barnum Museum
    Here Millhauser is in top story form. In “A Game of Clue,” a family reunited for the holidays plays a game of…you guessed it, Clue. But their tense relationships run parallel to the machinations of the game’s characters: the tawdry, bored Miss Scarlet; the lost and wandering Professor Plum. You’ll never think of Clue the same way again. Of the nine remaining stories, the strongest is “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” which also made its way onto the big screen as The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel. It’s the tale of a shadowy nineteenth-century European magician, whose sublime feats escalate further and further until finally he seems to make ghostly children appear from thin air. Or does he?

    The Knife Thrower
    A common Millhauser move is the use of unnamed narrators, unofficial town spokespeople trying to account for some uncanny series of events. A few of this book’s standout stories work this way. In “Beneath the Cellars of Our Town,” a network of labyrinthine tunnels of unknown origin lie under an otherwise unextraordinary burg. “Some say that we descend in order to lose our way,” the narrator says of the townspeople’s explorations, as if describing the experience of reading Millhauser’s stories themselves. “The Sisterhood of Night,” with its film adaptation premiering last month, focuses on an exclusive club of schoolgirls who meet in the woods at night for mysterious reasons. Millhauser’s children are often strange, secretive creatures, and the ones in this story are no exception; imagine The Crucible set in a present-day high school, the adults looking on in confusion and fear.

    Dangerous Laughter
    In “The Wizard of West Orange” and “The Room in the Attic,” characters find themselves lost in the dark, but in very different ways. The first story’s narrator works in the library of a fictional scientific compound a la Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park grounds, and he unwittingly becomes an early experimental test subject. The contraption involved evolves from a glove to a full suit that obscures all but sense of touch, taking its wearer to new heights of tactile stimulation.

    The teenaged protagonist of “The Room in the Attic” meets the shy sister of a friend, a girl who refuses to leave her pitch-dark bedroom. Neither knows what the other looks like, but as they get to know each other better, this becomes part of the allure. Both stories tap into the rush of feeling that comes with new love, but in surprisingly different ways. Bonus story: “In the Reign of Harad IV,” a sublime story about a palace miniaturist, is available on The New Yorker fiction podcast, read by the amazing Cynthia Ozick.

    Voices in the Night: Stories
    “I should have said no to the stranger at the door,” says the narrator of Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish.” But if he had, there wouldn’t be a story, would there? The narrator of this story, one of the sixteen in Millhauser’s latest collection, buys himself some household cleaner from an odd traveling salesman. “It seemed an ordinary bottle, a bottle like any other,” he thinks, but soon realizes he has got hold of something much more extraordinary: a polish that can not only brighten up a mirror, but the life of the person reflected there, too.

    In “Mermaid Fever,” the body of a young mermaid washes ashore in a small beach town on the east coast, setting the community wild. Innocent mermaid costumes and pool parties lead to far more sinister events—lies, speculation, disappearances. “It was a time of exaggerated rumors, of impossible stories, which we ourselves invented in order to see how much we could bear,” the narrator says. This impossible story is itself a standout, and shows us again the boundless imagination of a great American storyteller.

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  • Whitney Collins 7:17 pm on 2015/04/21 Permalink
    Tags: , pulitzer prize winners, , ,   

    Spotlight on the Elusive and Brilliant Donna Tartt 

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    Donna Tartt might be one of America’s most mysterious contemporary fiction writers. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author rarely gives interviews, and when she does, she speaks little of her interests or routines. She also dislikes book tours, believing they detract from the very thing they’re meant to promote.

    She was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, just a Sunday afternoon’s drive from the stomping grounds of Southern Gothic greats Faulkner and Welty. The Telegraph describes Tartt’s childhood as lonely. Her father was a “wild card,” her mother was “not particularly interested in small children.” Tartt threw herself into books and writing, entering literary contests and getting published by age 13. At the University of Mississippi, she was a reluctant sorority girl. During her freshman year, writer and professor Willie Morrisher noticed her preternatural talent and introduced her to Barry Hannah, who promptly admitted Tartt into graduate-level classes.

    Tartt transferred to Bennington College in Vermont, where she rubbed elbows with other up-and-coming writers, notably American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, whom she briefly dated. While at Bennington, Tartt began her debut novel, the ecstatically reviewed The Secret History, published when she was 28. Tartt now lives in a quiet world all her own, where she keeps herself to herself and writes in a meticulous longhand method that seems fitting for the intricate prose she creates.

    But, as Tartt says, “The books are the important thing.” She famously takes her sweet time completing her manuscripts (approximately a decade for each one), which combine literary brilliance with thrilling plots. They are as beautiful as they are frightening.

    The Secret History
    Tartt’s riveting debut, The Secret History, is a reverse murder mystery—a whydunit rather than a whodunit. It centers around two homicides (one intentional, one accidental) and a group of elite, jaded New England college students who worship their Classics professor and insulate themselves from the real world while indulging in excessive amounts of alcohol, pills, literature, and Bacchanalian delights. Narrated by a lonely, lower-class California academic, Richard Papen, who dances on the periphery of this novel’s tight-knit Greek group before his eventual acceptance into the fold, it’s a story about those who live and die inside a bubble of boredom and brilliance. Sprawling and satirical, The Secret History set contemporary fiction on a new trajectory, proving literary elegance and riveting plot can coexist. It draws readers into a high-brow world without alienating them, with stakes as high a any 20th-century Greek tragedy.

    The Little Friend
    Tartt’s sophomore novel also involves a murder or two. This time around, the pivotal death is the unresolved hanging of a young boy named Robin. Narrated by Harriet Dufresnes, the victim’s young sister, The Little Friend is a both poetic and horrifying (and delicious, and grim) whydunit, seeking to unravel the who and why of the killing. One sweltering summer, Harriet and her best friend take up the investigation, finally settling on their suspect: a backwoods, drug-pushing redneck named Danny Ratliff. Set in the arcane corners of 1960s Mississippi, this book reads like a page-turning thriller, while exploring a stark take on the ruthlessness of the world. It’s a propulsive story of revenge and grief with a sultry, Southern Gothic setting.

    The Goldfinch
    This hefty, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the gripping story of Theo, a boy who loses his mother in a museum terrorist attack and somehow escapes with his life in pieces—and with a famous painting, The Goldfinch. The plot follows him through deep grief, then bewilderment, then rebellion. Readers are taken on a dense and descriptive journey as he tries to rebuild his life, taken in first by a wealthy family in Manhattan, then by his dad and his dad’s girlfriend in Las Vegas, before eventually escaping to Amsterdam. The Goldfinch is a masterfully woven tale about passionate friendships and obsessions, post-traumatic stress and drug use, not to mention the dodgy underworld of stolen art and antiques. Simultaneously a suspense story and a tale of devotion, it’s an ambitious testament to both the mother-son bond and the rollicking desperation of white-collar crime.

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