A Diner, Coffee Rings And The Pulitzer

Do books that win or are finalists for literary awards make you more interested in reading them? Are awards such as the Man Booker, PEN/Hemingway, or the Pulitzer enticing, or do you even care?

Personally I’ve felt both ways. A few years ago I was sort of anti-Pulitzer books, which stemmed largely from the 2015 win of All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. A fan of that book I was not and to win such a prestigious prize made me want to choke. But that’s just me and I know most would disagree with that assessment.

I have a list of all of the fiction Pulitzer winners and it’s interesting to peruse and see which on the list I have read over the years. Some of the books that have taken the prize amaze me and not in a good way. While writing requires a honed skill, it also needs the right eye to see its beauty. We are entitled to our opinions and some opinions are clearly the majority and some are not.

To each their own, I suppose.

Some Pulitzer Prize favorites of mine and the year they won:

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, 1981

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, 1992

Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides, 2003

The Road by Cormac McCarthy, 2007

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, 2014

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, 2016

A few years ago there was a friend on social media who only posted about books that had won the Pulitzer. I thought this was really interesting and informative and I liked hearing him speak about the various prize-winning books. Of the favorite books listed above, all but A Thousand Acres were read in the last few years. It was his insight and views that kind of opened my mind again to those books.

I love book people!

Empire Falls by Richard Russo has been on my shelf for a long time. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winning book (2002) that I always come across in used book stores for whatever reason. I am familiar with Russo because he wrote Nobody’s Fool, which became a movie that is one of my favorites to this day. If you haven’t somewhat guessed, Russo writes about the average person living a normal life. His contemporary domestic dramas are right up my alley and my favorite genre to boot.

Here is a synopsis from Amazon:

• Miles Roby has been slinging burgers at the Empire Grill for 20 years, a job that cost him his college education and much of his self-respect. What keeps him there? It could be his bright, sensitive daughter Tick, who needs all his help surviving the local high school. Or maybe it’s Janine, Miles’ soon-to-be ex-wife, who’s taken up with a noxiously vain health-club proprietor. Or perhaps it’s the imperious Francine Whiting, who owns everything in town–and seems to believe that “everything” includes Miles himself. In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace

Empire Falls has a (sort of) lengthy prologue, which I read last evening after finishing another book. Today I peeked a little at the first chapter and of course it sucked me in.

Russo has a brand new book titled Chances Are, which is sort of what prompted this whole post. I don’t have this book yet, but I am on hold for it and I can’t wait to read it. I’d give you the synopsis, but I’ve already worn your eyes out, so go check it out.

FYI, I’m still reading Lonesome Dove (which also won the Pulitzer in 1986), in case you were wondering.

Sincerely,

tmc

“I don’t believe one reads to escape reality. A person reads to confirm a reality he knows is there, but which he has not experienced.”

– Lawrence Durrell

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If You Can’t Find Me, Just Look In The Middle Of The Forest

Richard Powers is really smart.

I don’t know his IQ or anything, it’s just a quality he seems to radiate. People give off all kinds of vibes (like creeper vibes), if you will, and from the first time I picked up one of his books, his intelligence was obvious. A few years back The Echo Maker was a bookclub selection. This book is about a sister who comes to care for her brother, who has a brain injury (Capgras Syndrome), which was the result of a recent car accident. The Echo Maker was not well received by the other book club-ers and not everyone finished it. These different reactions are not uncommon to the books we read. I bring it up simply because while I remember the majority disliking it, it was this book that introduced me to Powers, and ultimately my interest and fascination in to his thought process.

Several months passed and another friend was raving about Orfeo by Powers. Orfeo is about a retired composer who does genetic engineering as a hobby. When government officials arrive at his home he flees. During his journey you learn about his past, which coincides with such world events like the JFK assassination, 9/11, and H5N1. You find out about his love for music, a particular woman as well his struggle with needing to invent versus pleasing the world around him. To me, just reading the synopsis kind of blows my mind. How do you put all of those factors together and form a cohesive story?

The Time of Our Singing has musical roots as well. This story follows a interracial family and their three children who grow up during the Civil-Rights era. The husband and wife meet in college and bond over their love for music. I don’t know as much about this book, but I did buy it because Power’s wrote it.

Well, now to the big dog.

The Overstory, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this past April. Powers was a finalist for this prize in 2006. He has many other literary awards under his belt such as the National Book Award, the Man Booker (both short and longlist), the PEN/ Hemingway and so many others. When it was announced that he was this year’s PP winner, I remember thinking, Finally! So incredible well-deserved.

When I first heard the title, I looked up the word overstory. I had never heard it used and wanted to see what the definition was.

Overstory:

1. The highest layer of vegetation in a forest, usually forming a canopy.

2. The trees in a forest whose crowns constitute this layer.

The beautiful cover of this book does feature trees, so go with it. In a nutshell The Overstory is about trees, like really and truly about trees.

By the way, you’re welcome for that in-depth synopsis. Just kidding I’ll give you more, just in case his name alone and my awesome synopsis doesn’t send you racing to Amazon or the nearest book store.

Here is the cut and pasted book summary:

An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers―each summoned in different ways by trees―are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest.

To me, it’s just strange enough to grab my attention. It’s a little out there, but completely intriguing. Or maybe I just really like trees?

I came across a great article about Powers on theguardian.com. It talks about his life, career, awards, and then delves in to his interest in trees before he wrote The Overstory,

Powers hadn’t particularly considered trees until his first encounter with a giant redwood a few years ago, while he was in California teaching on Stanford’s creative writing fellowship course. “When they’re as wide as a house and as tall as a football pitch you don’t have to be particularly sensitive to be wowed by it,” he says. “But once I started looking, I realised it’s not about the size and scale … it’s that I’ve been blind to these amazing creatures all the time.”

After he wrote this book he took a trip to the Smokies, he realized after a research trip that he felt better than he ever had. Powers was then teaching at Stanford and within six months, decided to give up that lucrative job and move to the middle of the forest.

Just Fascinating.

Powers’ books revolve around music, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and genetics. These are areas that although I only know a little of, I find to be extraordinary subjects to learn about. Hopefully there’s some food for thought in this post and if nothing else, maybe you’ve learned about a new-to-you author. Or as Powers was dubbed in theguardian.com article, “the best novelist you’ve never heard of.”

“Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.”

-Ezra Pound