The Year of Magical Thinking

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Excerpts of Pulitzer Winners and Finalists

Comcast's Internet service was been down for about 36 hours which has made blogging difficult. Now that my day job is officially a work from home gig, I rely on steady Internet access like never before, and considering the amount of time I spend blogging and using the Internet for pretty much all of the information consumption in my life, going without is next to impossible for me. I'd say that's a little scary, but it's been like this for several years now so I'm pretty used to it. At any rate, hopefully I'm back up and running for good, no thanks to Comcast - it took three phone calls to them and 12 hours before they could even confirm that an outage was causing my problem. Luckily, Mrs. Millions was kind enough to let me use her office for work, otherwise I would have been really screwed.In the meantime, the Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday. To me, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is the most predictable of all literary prizes as it usually goes to the most well-known American literary work of the previous year, especially if the book deals with American themes, namely the American immigrant/Melting Pot idea. American history is usually an important theme as well. This year I figured E.L. Doctorow's The March was a lock, both because it sold well and because it's about an iconic episode in American history, General Sherman's great march during the Civil War. Instead, Doctorow's book was named a finalist, but the much less well-known, but similarly named and themed book March by Geraldine Brooks won the prize. March is about the Civil War as well, but the book is not simply a fictional account of a historical event, rather March tells the story of Mr. March, the father who in Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women is away fighting in the Civil War. This isn't the first time that what Booksquare calls a remix has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1999 Michael Cunningham's The Hours, a "remix" of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway won the prize.Listed below are this years winners and finalists in all the "Letters" categories. I've included links to excerpts and other interesting material where available.FictionWinner: March by Geraldine Brooks - excerptThe March by E.L. Doctorow - excerptThe Bright Forever by Lee Martin - excerptDrama:No Winner: (I rather like that the Pulitzer unlike most other prizes is unafraid to not pick a winner if they don't feel there's a worthy book in a category - though, admittedly, I'd be surprised to see them not pick a fiction winner any time soon.)Miss Witherspoon by Christopher Durang - New York Times reviewThe Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow by Rolin Jones - New York Times reviewRed Light Winter by Adam Rapp - New York Times reviewHistory:Winner: Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky - Bookslut reviewNew York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan by Jill Lepore - excerptThe Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln by Sean Wilentz - interviewBiography:Winner: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin - excerptThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion - excerptThe Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall - Megan Marshall at SlatePoetry:Winner: Late Wife by Claudia Emerson - a poemAmerican Sublime by Elizabeth Alexander - excerptElegy on Toy Piano by Dean Young - excerpt (pdf)General Non-fiction:Winner: Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins - (very short) excerptPostwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt - Judt in The NYRBThe Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer - excerpt

A Year in Reading: Laurie’s Best Books

I want to leave 2005 behind, but I keep getting great stuff to post, so I hope you don't mind. I got this great e-mail from Laurie who wanted to share her favorite books from amongst her considerable reading last year. I'll be following this up with another e-mail Laurie sent me about what makes a book really good for her:I just read your Jan. 5th entry about "year's best" choices by various people. I thought about sending you my list, but then figured you only wanted to post the lists of people you knew [Max: Not true! I welcome e-mails from anyone and everyone!]. I don't blog, but kept a reading journal this past year and totaled 60 books (some of them children's books). It was fun looking at it at year's end and figuring out what I enjoyed the most. I began reading your blog about midyear, I think, and your posts probably influenced some of those book choices.For what it's worth, the three top titles on my list were Cold Skin by Albert S. Pinol (Catalan 2002, English 2005), War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898), and Knee Deep in Blazing Snow by James Hayford (2005). Of those, my enjoyment of the last surprised me the most, because it's a poetry collection. It's also the only book of all 60 read this year that I'd recommend to just about anyone, kids and poetry-hating adults alike. The poems are short, unpretentious, mostly rhyme and are illustrated. Washington Post accurately called it "quietly lovely". It precisely captures the minutiae of the seasons and farm life that even a sheltered city-dweller can recognize with a smile. Also in my top ten were Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (chilling), Travels With Mr. Brown by Mark Twain (Letters to the Alta California 1866-1867), and Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin. The latter is a fun kids' book.29 of the 60 were first published in 2005.For some idea of what those "top choices" were chosen over, the 29 first published in 2005 are:From Sawdust to Stardust - Terry Lee Rioux (biography)The Bradbury Chronicles - Sam Weller (bio)Bradbury Speaks - Ray Bradbury (nf, essays)Pinhook - Janisse Ray (nonfiction, nature)Beware of God - Shalom Auslander (short stories)Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro (novel)Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land - John Crowley (novel)Storyteller - Kate Wilhelm (nonfiction)Science Fiction: the best of 2004 - ed. Karen Haber & Jonathan Strahan (ss)Year's Best SF 10 - ed. David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (ss)Blue Dog, Green River - Brock Brower (novel)Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling (novel)Cities in the Wilderness - Bruce Babbitt (nf, environment)Dahlonega Haunts - Amy Blackmarr (allegedly nf)Wonder's Child - Jack Williamson (updated autobiography)Cold Skin - Albert S. Pinol (novel)Beasts of No Nation - Uzodinma Iweala (novel)The March - E.L. Doctorow (novel)Diary of a Spider - Doreen Cronin (kids picture book)Don't Be Silly, Mrs. Millie - Judy Cox (kids picturebook)Whales on Stilts! - M.T. Anderson (short kids novel)Best American Science Writing 2005 - ed. Alan Lightman(nf)The Highest Tide - Jim Lynch (novel)Knee Deep in Blazing Snow - James Hayford (poetry)Travels With My Donkey - Tim Moore (memoir)Animals in Translation - Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson (nonfiction)From Another World - Ana Maria Machado (short kids novel)The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion (memoir)Confessions of a Recovering Slut - Hollis Gillespie (memoir)Funniest were:Diary of a Spider by Doreen CroninTravels With My Donkey by Tim Moore (Bill Bryson meets Monty Python)Grimmest were:Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma IwealaThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan DidionHardest to put down were:Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. RowlingCold Skin by A.S. PinolThere. More than you wanted or needed to know.Thanks, Laurie!

Vollmann and Didion win National Book Awards

After a decidedly quiet run up to this year's National Book Awards, the winners have been announced. William T. Vollmann, known, it seems, more for his graphomania than any of his books in particular, has won for his novel, Europe Central. Back in April, when the book came out, Tom LeClair in the New York Times called Europe Central Vollmann's "most welcoming work, possibly his best book." In the next sentence, LeClair calls Vollmann "an off-putting writer, sometimes intentionally so," and perhaps the judges figured now, when Vollmann has written a more accessible (or shorter, though only for Vollmann could 832 pages be considered short) book, is the time to give him the plaudits he deserves.The non-fiction award went, unsurprisingly, to Joan Didion for her heart-wrenching and much praised memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, The Year of Magical Thinking. In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley called it "a lacerating yet peculiarly stirring book."The other winners are: for poetry, Migration by W.S. Merwin and for young people's literature, The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall. You can see all the Finalists listed here.

Awards Mania: National Book Award Finalists

The Booker was awarded Monday, the Nobel Prize will be awarded tomorrow, and today this year's National Book Award finalists were announced (by John Grisham, no less). Last year the National Book Foundation was vehemently criticized by some and defended by others for nominating five relatively unknown women from New York in the fiction category, but there will likely be less controversy this year as big name (and past winner for World's Fair in 1986) E.L. Doctorow leads the list. As the Amazon rankings at the time of the announcement indicate, the Mary Gaitskill doesn't exactly qualify as obscure either. Though not a commercial superstar, another notable nominee is William T. Vollmann. The complete list of nominees in all categories follows:FictionE.L. Doctorow, The March (Random House) (rank: 17)Mary Gaitskill, Veronica (Pantheon) (rank: 786)Christopher Sorrentino, Trance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) (rank: 45,062)Rene Steinke, Holy Skirts (William Morrow) (rank: 423,858)William T. Vollmann, Europe Central (Viking) (rank: 51,709)NonfictionAlan Burdick, Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)Leo Damrosch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius (Houghton Mifflin)Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (Alfred A. Knopf)Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (Times Books)Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves (Houghton Mifflin)PoetryJohn Ashbery, Where Shall I Wander (Ecco)Frank Bidart, Star Dust: Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)Brendan Galvin, Habitat: New and Selected Poems, 1965-2005 (Louisiana State University Press)W.S. Merwin, Migration: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press)Vern Rutsala, The Moment's Equation (Ashland Poetry Press)Young People's LiteratureJeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks (Alfred A. Knopf)Adele Griffin, Where I Want to Be (Putnam)Chris Lynch, Inexcusable (Atheneum)Walter Dean Myers, Autobiography of My Dead Brother (HarperTempest)Deborah Wiles, Each Little Bird That Sings (Harcourt)
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