George Saunders wins the 2017 Man Booker Prize with his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. In the book, Mr. Saunders uses the literary device of the dead in the cemetery commenting on the actions of the living visitors. The most celebrated of the visitors being President Lincoln visiting the grave of his recently departed son Willie, who died of typhoid fever at age 11. The novel, the first of Saunders, evokes Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Saunders also intersperses actual passages from Civil War era newspapers and periodicals to move the narrative and embellish characterization. Both literary techniques work splendidly, creating a brilliant and unique work of fiction.
The winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize will be announced on October 17 at a ceremony in London’s Guildhall. It’s an interesting and diverse shortlist of six authors, featuring three Americans, two British and one British/Pakistani. According to the chair of judges for the competition, Lola, Baroness Young “this year’s shortlist both acknowledges established authors and introduces new voices to the literary stage. Playful, sincere, unsettling, fierce: here is a group of novels grown from tradition but also radical and contemporary.”
Ironically, the two novels on the shortlist that seem best to represent “grown from tradition,” are written by the two youngest authors, the 38 year- American, Emily Fridlund and the 29 year-old British Fiona Mozley. Fridlund’s History of Wolves seems to me derived from the literary tradition of the isolated and marginal individual grappling with the prescribed mores of society, reminiscent of the writings in a bygone era by Robert Louis Stephenson, and today in the works of Stephen King. Linda, the teenage protagonist of the book, lives in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota, and has to fend on her own when the Hippie commune where her parents had lived falls apart.
Another teenager, Daniel, narrates Mozley’s debut novel, Elmet. Set in rural Yorkshire, Daniel’s family is also isolated from the mainstream society. I find derivatives in this fine novel in the writings of Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, especially in the struggle of the individual against society, as well the preference to live close to nature and all its attendant beauties and perils over placing one’s roots in the mundaneness of settled communities.
The most “radical” of the two shortlisted novels are by the esteemed American authors, Paul Auster and George Saunders. Auster’s book, 4321, experiments with four different narratives and timelines for the same fictional protagonist, who happens to resemble the author in so many aspects of his life. I must admit that I truly enjoyed the first two hundred pages of the book because Auster writes superbly. Then the author’s self-abortion started to run amok, and by its conclusion on page 862, I felt bored and intellectually dissatisfied.
The main ploy utilized by Saunders in his book Lincoln in the Bardo i.e. the dead in the cemetery commenting on the actions of the living visitors evokes Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Saunders also intersperses actual passages from Civil War era newspapers and periodicals to move the narrative and embellish characterization. Both literary devices work splendidly, creating a brilliant and unique work of fiction.
The “contemporary” novels that complete the shortlist are Ali Smith’s Autumn and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. This is the fourth time that Ms. Smith has been shortlisted. She is universally respected by the British writing establishment, and is an acknowledged mentor and role model for an ascending younger generation of women writers in her country.
Autumn is a complex and intricate novel with several parallel stories that move around in time. It is often described as a post-Brexit model for its setting of a mood of estrangement and xenophobia in contemporary Britain.
Exit West traces the long journey of a young man and woman escaping their unnamed war-torn country seeking to find open doors and safe havens in their wanderings. Hamid’s distant and objective writing tone is almost Kafkaesque. Yet the book that it most reminds me of is J. M. Coetzee’s 1983 Booker-winning Life & Times of Michael K.
Who will the coveted prize this year? If I were a judge, I would vote for Ms. Mozley’s Elmet. It stirred my emotions more than any of the other selections. The author carefully crafted each and every word, blending magnificent lyrical language within a suspenseful and powerful storyline.
Will it win? Perhaps. We are overdue to have a British woman win the prize. The last woman to capture the coveted Man Booker was Eleanor Catton in 2013. The last British writer to win was Hilary Mantel in 2012. Although I believe that Elmet is more deserving this year to win than Autumn, sentiment for Ms. Smith might overtake the merit of Ms. Mozley’s outstanding debut novel.
On Sunday morning, October 8, at 10:15 award-winning Canadian author/journalist Dean Jobb will be discussing his book “Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler who Seduced a City and captivated the nation” at Emanuel Congregation, 5959 North Sheridan Road in Chicago. The book details, in an engaging story, how during the 1920s, Chicago con-man Leo Koretz pulled off a Madoff-like swindle involving the loss of millions of dollars in a scandal that shocked both the United States and Canada. It is a fast-paced narrative that is brilliantly written. The event is free and open to the public.
It is hard to think of another American woman writer who was as prolific and successful as Margaret Ayer Barnes in the decade of 1928 through 1938. In those ten years, five novels of hers were published; one of them, Years of Grace, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931. She wrote three plays (two co-authored with Edward Sheldon); two of which played for more than a hundred performances on Broadway. She also wrote a book of short stories during that time.
We hope you can join us on Thursday evening, October 5, 2017, as Margaret Ayer Barnes is formally inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame at a ceremony from 7 to 8:15 pm at Volumes Bookcafe, 1474 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago.
This will be a wonderful opportunity to learn about this incredible Chicago born and bred woman, who is so deserving of this honor, and who began her writing career at age 40, after a debilitating injury sustained in a car crash. Once again, Don Evans, the founder and Executive Director has produced an informative and entertaining program, featuring Amy Danzer, Lisa Wagner, Valya Dudycz Lupescu and myself as presenters.
On a recent visit to Carmel, California, we stopped to see the home of the poet Robinson Jeffers. Overlooking the Pacific, the home, a lovely cottage, is named Tor House. Tor meaning hill in the Irish language. Adjacent to Tor House is Hawk Tower, reminiscent of the Norman Towers found in Ireland. Una Jeffers, an Irish-American, loved all things Irish, and her husband, along with a handyman, built the tower themselves from local granite boulders that matched those used in the construction of the cottage.
Robinson Jeffers was a contemporary of Robert Frost, and both achieved wide recognition of their poetry. Jeffers was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1932. Yet today, we seem to remember Frost and his work rather than Jeffers, the latter somewhat relegated to obscurity.
But now reading some of Jeffers’ poetry, one finds startling relevance to our tumultuous political times. Here are excerpts from “Be Angry at the Sun,” written in the tumultuous year of 1941 and echoing the power of poetry in the context of the madness of mankind:
“That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new………..
Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you………..
Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack”
Or read this passage from “Shine Perishing Republic” written in 1925:
“While this America settles in the of its vulgarity,
Heavily thickening to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops
And sighs out, and the mass hardens.”
Most of us first became acquainted with The Forsyte Saga when it ran as a dramatic serial on Masterpiece Theater. The Saga was brilliantly written by the Nobel Prize-winning British author John Galsworthy, and it consists of three novels with two interludes. It chronicles the vicissitudes of the upper-middle class Forsyte family from Victorian 1886 through the aftermath of the First World War. I will be teaching a five session course at the Oakton Community College Emeritus program on the Saga, considered by many to be some of the best British fiction ever written, starting on Thursday, October 5 and concluding on Thursday, November 2. The class is from 10 to 11:30 in the morning. You may register by contacting Oakton by phone at 847-982-9888 or online at http://www.oakton.edu/conted.
As all literary enthusiasts must do when in San Francisco, we visited City Lights bookstore. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, at age 98, is still a co-owner, and lives a few blocks from the bookstore in a second-story walk-up in the North Beach neighborhood. The city even named a street after him.
Ferlinghetti established City Lights in the 1950s, because as he said in his inaugural speech as poet laureate of San Francisco in 1998 that he “saw North Beach especially as a poetic place, as poetic as some quarters in Paris, as any place great poets and painters had found inspiration.” And indeed poets and other writers flocked to that “poetic place”-Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs, Cassady, and numerous others creating a movement in literature known as “Beat.”
City Lights remains a springboard for social activism in the Bay Area. As Ferlinghetti wrote in his “Challenges to Young Poets” in 2001 “Be committed to something outside yourself. Be militant about it. Or ecstatic”