Posts Tagged ‘NBCC Award’

I don’t get too excited by longlists, but both the Miles Franklin and The Orange Prize for Fiction longlists have been announced, and already there are interesting ‘clash of the titans’-type billings in each. 

In the Miles Franklin, heavy-weights Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally lead the list, with some other notable inclusions such as Alex Miller:

Lovesong by Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)

The Bath Fugues by Brian Castro (Giramondo Publishing)

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin)

Sons of the Rumour by David Foster (Picador)

The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster (Vintage)

Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest (Vintage)

Boy on a Wire by Jon Doust (Fremantle Press)

Figurehead by Patrick Allington (Black Inc.)

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Hamish Hamilton)

Truth by Peter Temple (Text Publishing)

Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett (Penguin)

The People’s Train by Thomas Keneally (Knopf)

In the Orange Prize, will it be another shootout between Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Waters’ The Little Stranger?  Or will someone else surprise?  I know a couple of people who will be cheering Waters on that’s for sure. 

Also, I read a very interesting article by Daisy Goodwin, one of the Orange judges for this year who, after reading 129 entries(!!) has pleaded with authors and publishers to ‘spare us the misery’ and asks the question: where is all the humour?  I couldn’t agree more!  It seems the misery memoir just won’t die. 

The longlist is:

Clare Clark, Savage Lands

Amanda Craig, Hearts and Minds

Roopa Farooki, The Way Things Look to Me

Rebecca Gowers, The Twisted Heart

M.J. Hyland, This is How

Sadie Jones, Small Wars

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna

Laila Lalami, Secret Son

Andrea Levy, The Long Song

Attica Locke, Black Water Rising

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Maria McCann, The Wilding

Nadifa Mohamed, Black Mamba Boy

Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs

Monique Roffey, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

Amy Sackville, The Still Point

Kathryn Stockett, The Help

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger

Now that is a long list!

Also, continuing her remarkable run of success, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in the US. 

Your thoughts?

The D!


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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award (2007) and The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2008), and, for what it’s worth, Time Magazine’s #4 rated book of the decade (2000-09), The Brief Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz came to me with a reputation very much proceeding it.  And right from the first few pages you know you’re in for one hell of a ride, with rippling humour, narrative pyrotechnics and boundless energy that draws you happily into Oscar’s life and the Dominican world: a world of fukú – the strange curse or doom that seems to plague most families, of the infamous and ruthless dictator Rafael Trujillo whose reign of violence terrorises the country, and the Dominican Diaspora.  It tells the story of Oscar de León and his continual failure to find a girl, his sister Lola, their fierce mother Beli – and her traumatic childhood in the DR – and the story of their family’s ‘Fall’ as depicted by the brutal demise of Beli’s father Abelard, a doctor, who tries to keep his family safe from the lecherous Trujillo, whose spies are everywhere.  And thus it is very much the story of the Dominican Republic and its fraught history.

Narrated in turns by Yunoir de Las Casas – Lola’s sometime boyfriend – and Lola herself, we witness the childhood of Oscar de Leon, a “fat, sci-fi-reading nerd” growing up in Paterson New Jersey, a unique and very un-Dominican Dominican male.  This allows Díaz to explore the theme of masculinity.  Oscar is so much of a nerd that he: “Could write  in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe that Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic.”  He is the ultimate outcast, shunned even by those who have similar interests and heartaches: he soon realises “his fucked-up comic-book-reading, role-playing-game-loving, no-sports-playing friends were embarrassed by him.”  It is his complete lack of success with girls – as marked by his early ‘golden age’ zenith when he is but seven, and a much slimmer version of the fat adolescent he would become, when he has a short ‘relationship’ with two girls at the same time – that continues to define his search for love in his teenage and college years.  In high-school Oscar falls in love with Ana, but she maintains her relationship with her Army boyfriend who continually beats her; Oscar can’t give her up.  Getting into Rutger College, nothing changes.  Not even the proximity of Yunoir – who volunteers to look after Oscar during college as a means of courting favour with his sister Lola – works.  It is this ongoing search for love that ultimately spells trouble for Oscar when he finally gets his girl.  He finds that escaping the grasp of history and cultural expectation is a tough and often impossible task.

We also trace the relationship between mother and daughter, Beli and Lola, how Lola finds her mother’s breast cancer.  Told from Lola’s point of view, theirs is a troubled relationship, Beli is very cruel, and it is Lola who brings up both herself and Oscar, though only because Beli is working multiple jobs.  Eventually, Lola runs off with a dead-end boyfriend to a dead-end town, until Oscar gives her away.  Lola is sent to her grandmother, La Inca, in the Dominican Republic as punishment.  It is here that we are drawn further into the distinctive Dominican world and the family history: the childhood of Beli and the father she never knew.  The portion of the novel that deals with Beli and her relationships, including her pivotal love of ‘The Gangster’, is particularly engaging; it alternates between witty-hilarious and fizzing violence.  The story of Abelard’s sorry fate – of being a father to attractive girls in the reign of Trujillo – is also wonderfully depicted though, perhaps if I’m allowed to split hairs, slightly long.

The narration is punctuated throughout by streams of colloquial Spanish and strides atop many various – and often long – footnotes which deal mostly with the terrible nature of Trujillo and his henchmen.  These historical notes bubble along beneath the surface of the Dominican story.  The Spanish that is liberally dispersed throughout might not be to everyone’s taste.  There were many times where I could have done with an English-Spanish dictionary or ready-access to babelfish  – I’m sure it would have added to the experience.  For example:

And then the big moment, the one every daughter dreads.  My mother looking me over.  I’d never been in better shape, never felt more beautiful and desirable in my life, and what does the bitch say?  Coño, pero tú sí eres fea. 

We non-Spanish speakers are left at a loss as to what Beli says to her daughter, though we can guess at its direction given our understanding of her character. (Roughly translated:  ‘Coño, but you are ugly’.  I’m still not sure what Coño means!).  In the very next paragraph we get another helping as Lola reflects:

Now that I’m a mother myself I realize that she could not have been any different.  That’s who she was.  Like they say: Plátano maduro no se vuelve verde. 

Translation: ‘(A/The) mature banana does not become green.’  This is a wonderful little expression, but unless we have our translation handy, we lose out.  This gives rise to a debate about how much a writer should demand of their readership.  The book would undeniably be lesser had it not contained the Spanish because it adds Dominican flair and personality to the story and its characters.  However, it does seem a little excessive at times.  But there is so much energy and heart in the writing, so much to admire, that you forgive the excess and are swept along in its dizzying force.  Yunoir’s narrative voice is particularly energetic and spirited, and of course, what with Oscar’s sci-fi interests, the literary and cultural references from the likes of: Star Trek, Star Wars, the Watchmen, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, Ursula Le Guin, Akira & anime, DC & Marvel; the list just goes on and on, the references too numerous to note.  Even the title of the book is a nod to Hemmingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and Oscar’s pet name of ‘Oscar Wao’ is given to him in mock homage of Oscar Wilde.

Another point worth noting is the choice of the name Oscar.  It is perfect for the character, and makes me think of other famous fictional Oscars, such as the eponymous Oscar of Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda, and the truly wonderful Oscar, (little Oskarnello!), of Gunter Grass’s mighty The Tin Drum; (apparently Carey loved The Tin Drum so there is no surprise he wanted to create his very own Oscar).  There is something in the name Oscar that attaches certain character traits to its owner without, it seems, the need for depiction – a certain amount of pluck and courage, the ability to ‘punch above one’s weight’ – (which for Oscar Wao is saying something!).  Of course, that could be just me!  What do you think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts – are there any other famous fictional Oscars?

Díaz reportedly took ten years writing this book, and I’m sure during that time there were moments of doubt regarding whether it would ever see the light of day, perhaps even whether a manuscript might be finished at all.  It is endurance – an endurance that Oscar’s family and all Dominicans have in abundance as they fight the scourge of poverty and the weight of history.  For those of us who love great reads, I thank him for persevering and showing us all what it sometimes takes to achieve a dream, to see a vision come to life.  As Díaz himself might write: The beauty!  The beauty!

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Faber & Faber

ISBN: 9780571239733

335 pages

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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

What would you write if, God forbid, you were faced with the task of writing a letter to a young son you knew you would not live to see grow up?  Words of advice, wisdom, heartfelt love, and farewell.  Perhaps you would also explore and explain family history and the links you had to a place, in this case, to the secluded town of Gilead, Iowa.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 & the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year, Gilead is this letter, the fictional autobiography of Reverend John Ames who, knowing he is dying of a failing heart at the age of 76, writes this autobiographical letter to his son, who is aged ‘nearly seven’.  In the Bible, ‘Gilead’ means ‘hill of testimony or mound of witness’, (Genesis 31:21), and is an apt title for the Reverend’s testimony of a life lead from the pulpit.

For those of you who love to read a writer at the very top of their craft, one who creates and inhabits such a distinctive and pitch-perfect narrative ‘voice’, then Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is for you.  Set in 1956, the letter recalls the Reverend’s life and his memories of his father and grandfather – both of them preachers.  There are tales of his gun-toting grandfather, a radical abolitionist, who served as a Chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War, and his pacifist father.  Needless to say these two characters rarely saw eye-to-eye.  Indeed, early in the story, the Reverend recalls his and his father’s search for his grandfather’s lost grave, a search that his father feels compelled to undertake owing to the final harsh words between them.  Robinson’s drawing of characters is superb; the grandfather is “a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it.”  Many of the early highlights of the book relate to the grandfather’s eccentricities, including his constant pilfering of family monies to give to the poor, even when his own family had nothing to give.

This is a tale of fathers and sons, both human and religious, as the Reverend relates his own family’s relationships as well as those of his neighbour and good friend, Old Boughton, also a minister.  We follow the Reverend’s internal struggle with his theology, revealed through a number of stories, such as his brother Edward’s atheism and his father’s loss of faith – both of whom leave this ‘backwater’ of a town.  The Reverend also recalls the loss of his first wife and child through illness, and his childhood loneliness, which are set against the bounty of Old Boughton’s growing family.  Yet the counterpoint to all this loss is the love the Reverend finds with a young woman, a woman who becomes his wife and bears him his own son, the son for whom the letter is addressed.

There is a recurring sense of the Prodigal Son too, as Old Boughton’s estranged son and the Reverend’s namesake, John Ames Boughton, better known as Jack, returns to the town.  It is the arrival of Jack together with a past that still casts shadows over the two families that drives much of the tension in the story.  We read the Reverend’s exploration and struggle of what Jack means to him, as a man of the cloth and, more directly, as a man.  He tries not to judge Jack, tries to forgive him his past actions, but he struggles with his presence, his perceived meanness, and his past – a past that stretches back to his earliest days, for it was the Reverend John Ames who baptised the infant Jack.  He is even moved to consider at one point whether it was a ‘cold’ baptism, one that in some way affected the person that Jack was to come, and is so doubting that he decides that he carries a burden of guilt about it.   The Reverend is troubled by the nagging question of whether he should warn his wife and his son about Jack and the harm he might do them, as he notes the growing relaxation that Jack and his wife share; it is, for Jack, a state of being that is unique to her presence.  Even Jack’s father, old Boughton, comes over to warn the Reverend, for ‘something is not right with him’.  But it is Reverend John Ames who eventually, after several failed attempts, finds out the secret truth of Jack, a secret so powerful that it cannot be shared with Old Boughton in his frail health for fear it might kill him.  And it is this truth that finally enables John Ames to forgive Jack and to settle his own stresses, both theological and familial; they become reconciled enough for the Reverend to offer Jack a blessing before his final entries in this diarised story are made.

Gilead has a wise and slow rhythm, and it takes a little time as a reader to fall into step with a book-long letter, but once made, the full splendour of the narrative – and its layering – can be experienced.  There is such lucid beauty in the writing, in its contemplative exploration of being, and the pensive faith and doubt of Reverend John Ames.  The ending is touching, the last few lines of a long letter to a son who may grow up to want to leave this little town of Gilead, just as the Reverend’s father left, just as his brother Edward left too, indeed just as many have left.  And that is ok; but for the Reverend John Ames, he will gladly sleep within its soil, for it is a place he loves.  It is apt that the Reverend’s thoughts often revolve around ‘grace’, the grace of the world where “there are pleasures to be found wherever you look”, the grace of being – for it is grace that is to be found on every page of Gilead; it is a wonderful book.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


ISBN: 9781844081486

282 pages

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