Notebook: August 5, 2018

from Ann Kjellberg, Book Post Editor

At Book Post we try not to pay too much attention to prizes (or lists), but the news from some of the big ones has been juicy the last few weeks. The grandfather of them all, the Nobel for Literature, was suspended in May after sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against the husband of one of the members of the Swedish Academy, the outfit that selects the winner; the couple, Katarina Frostenson and Jean-Claude Arnault, ran a literary club together in Stockholm where, from the at times torrid accounts, they appear to have exploited their position as literary rain-makers with almost comical wickedness. The formerly august Academy was engulfed in scandal and the Nobel Foundation, keeper of dynamite-maker Alfred Nobel’s millions, withdrew the dough until the Academy cleans up its act. (Those with long memories will recall that Academy member Horace Engdahl, a defender of Arnault who calls his opponents “a clique of bad losers,” a few years ago raised a ruckus by declaring the US too provincial to produce Nobel-worthy writing. Critic Adam Kirsch and New Yorker editor David Remnick, among others, made spirited ripostes.)

In response a group of a high-minded Swedish citizens has arisen to propose an alternative prize, presumably without the lucre, inviting Swedish librarians to nominate from among those who have the told story of “humans in the world”—a pretty broad charge. The librarians produced an eclectic long list, including expected figures like Marilynne Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon, and unexpected ones like J. K. Rowling, Patti Smith, and Neil Gaiman, and expanding the demographic reach quite a bit with Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, Jeanette Winterson, Nnedi Okorafor, Édouard Louis, Kim Thuy, and Maryse Condé (there has not, so far as one reader was able to establish a couple of years ago, ever been an LGBT or Q Nobel winner in any field). And look who’s there, our very own Jamaica Kincaid—author of last week’s Book Post Diary!  Swedish-American critic Erika Harlitz-Kern, who finds Swedish librarians and their patrons hipper to the state of international letters than the Academy, has noted that the New Academy and its long list have been met with silence and derision in the Swedish press. Voting is open though through August 14, so vote, now and let your voice be heard!

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, authorities were censoring the most recent book of perennial Japanese contender Haruki Murakami (also on the New Academy long list) for indecency. Cultural annointing is a perilous business it seems; one person’s story of humans in the world is another person’s brown-paper-wrapped smut. Over at England’s Times Literary Supplement, Terri Apter wrestled with the decision by American librarians to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from her children’s book award, on grounds of cultural insensitivity in her much-loved Little House books. Also in England, readers were invited to vote for the most popular all-time winner of their annual prize, the Man Booker, choosing Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.  (Ondaatje’s most recent book, Warlight, set, like The English Patient, in the aftermath of war, itself spent a few weeks on the US bestseller list earlier this summer.) In his acceptance speech Ondaatje charmingly insisted that his book was neither the best nor the most popular one on the list—really, as far as he could remember, it had lots of faults—and there were many other good books that hadn’t won the prize at all. The candidates for this year’s Man Booker were announced at the same time, including for the first time a graphic novel (Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina). Elsewhere in English prize-giving, the Commonwealth Prize took attention for going for the first time to a speaker of Trinidadian English Creole, Kevin Jared Hosein. You can read his story, “Passage,” in Granta; it seems to us pretty close to the English we speak around here. 

Earlier this year the Man Booker International Prize surprised everyone by going to a little known, genre defying Polish work by Olga Tocarczuk called Flights, published by the admired and tiny press Fitzcarraldo (Riverhead will bring it out here this month). Tocarczuk also shows up on the New Academy long list! Reading about Tocarczuk’s surprise win reminded me of the middle European adventures of the Nobel’s perhaps notorious neglectee, Philip Roth, whom we lost earlier this year at the age of eighty five, plenty of time for the Academy to take notice.  During the seventies, after encountering the works of Kafka for the first time and falling hard, he took a Kafka-following journey to Prague and, upon striking up a friendship with an employee at his publishing house, learned that the simpatico-seeming publishing executives who had served him drinks in the office were “all swine,” and the real action was among the barely published novelists, playwrights, poets, and filmmakers living quietly around the city on menial jobs.  Roth managed to befriend a few of them, found more back in New York, took the ferry once a week watch Czech movies with his friend Tony Liehm’s film class in Staten Island, and eventually produced a series of paperbacks, Writers from the Other Europe, that opened the door for many American readers to the writing of Eastern Europe. (None of those guys have gotten the nod from the Swedish Academy either, although Milan Kundera is said to be a perennial favorite.) Here is a wonderful video in which Roth describes the long-gone world in which these friendships sprang up, an unusually generous moment in his literary biography.

Leaving the rarified summits of world literature, the summer has seen an unexpected boom, we learn, in the sale of meaty nonfiction. Publishers theorize that perhaps readers are starting to find it “exhausting to spend all day checking Twitter for the latest outrage and then to go home to read about recent outrages in more detail.” Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, a study of the evolutionary history of human cooperation, has proved a sleeper bestseller, leading an unexpected surge in the sales that also includes food historian Michael Pollan’s book on psychedelic drugs and Jon Meacham’s study of political conflict in American history. Entertainment Weekly notes that sales of non-political nonfiction (by David Sedaris, Tara Westover, and the late Anthony Bourdain) have finally taken over from the political diagnostics and tell-alls that had been dominating the charts. (For those keeping track, Publishers Weekly offered a helpful table of known and rumored book deals of current administration officials.) History made a foray into real life this summer when the Thomas Jefferson museum at Monticello formally acknowledged Jefferson’s relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings and dedicated an exhibit to her story, owing a large debt to the intrepid scholarship and vivid historical envisionings of Annette Gordon Reed.

Just as Bourdain’s infamous Kitchen Confidential began banging the pots again we lost another earthy, voracious writer-eater, the self-described “belly of Los Angeles,” longtime L. A. Times food columnist Jonathan Gold. Longreads met the moment with a mouth-watering Jonathan Gold reading list.  Just a few minutes with Laura Gabbert’s documentary City of Gold leaves a one with a vivid sense of the guy—how his generosity, his appetites, and his zesty writerly abilities came together actually to nourish the all-too-human worlds of cooking and eating he described.

Food and writing join company also at the Paris Review, where Valerie Stivers is having fun, in her new feature Eat Your Words, imagining and cooking meals out of books, most recently a sizzling barbecue from Homer and some truly weird stuff from English surrealist Leonora Carrington, recent reissues of whose pretty wild stuff by NYRB Books and the feminist Dorothy Project have been rapturously received. Over at the New Yorker: again the ghost of Philip Roth, this time with readers sampling a strawberry jam that pops up both in his great novel, Sabbath’s Theater, and Lisa Halliday’s new book Asymmetry, in which the character Ezra Blazer is admitted by both author and subject to have been drawn lightly on Roth, with whom Halliday had a youthful affair (“She got me,” he is reported to have averred). The verdict on the jam? Meh.

Around other tables, Turkish writer Ayşegül Savaş, in the Paris Review, reflects on the Turkish tradition of fasıl—family and friends getting together to sing long slow traditional songs, carried in emigration and across generations—and ruminates on all things that are slow, melancholy, and meandering, and their delicacy in a period so driven by the purposeful and the urgent. The New Yorker had a chiming report on singing and memory: A Yiddish scholar and a group of musicians has reconstructed a batch of songs long thought lost: a compilation discovered mouldering in a Ukrainian library of Yiddish songs composed in the face of the Holocaust (by children, soldiers, prisoners) and collected by a contemporary ethnomusicologist, Moisei Beregovsky, to save them from extinction. They’ve been released under the title Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II. Have a listen!


We hope you’ve enjoyed this little diary, a semi-regular installment in the Book Post newsletter service!  We are currently basking in our Book Post Summer Vacation—all our offerings are free through August, until our bi-weekly book reviews will become available by subscription (other morsels like this will remain free).

Our hope is to provide a bit of mobile sustenance to that weary figure, the American general reader, as you make your way through your day. We’ve so far featured reviews by novelists Padgett Powell, Anakana Schofield, Christian Caryl , and Michael Robbins. Coming soon we have Joy Williams, Ingrid Rowland, Geoffrey O’Brien, Robert Block, and Edward Mendelson.  We also partner monthly with a local bookstore (currently the Boulder Book Store, in Boulder, Colorado), to support local book culture and bring news of readers throughout the land.

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