“The Goldfinch” wins 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction


The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s epic coming of age story set against a backdrop of the art world, has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Columbia University announced today.

The Pulitzer Committee described The Goldfinch (Little, Brown) as “a beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.” Tartt will receive a $10,000 award.

The other two finalists were The Son by Philipp Meyer (Ecco), “a sweeping multi-generational novel that illuminates the violence and enterprise of the American West by tracing a Texas family’s passage from lethal frontier perils to immense oil-boom wealth,” and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis (Atlantic Monthly Press), “a novel spanning 50 years and three continents that explores the murky world of American foreign policy before 9/11, using provocative themes to raise difficult moral questions.”

The awards will be presented at a luncheon at Columbia University on May 28.


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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves examines unique family, loss, memory


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

By Karen Joy Fowler

Marian Wood Books/G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

320 pages, $26.95

It’s quite likely that you have never read a book look We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It is the story of a two sisters — and a family — seemingly like many others and yet unlike any other.

The story is narrated by Rosemary Cooke, who is both a charming and eccentric storyteller and an unreliable narrator. Fowler’s achievement in crafting Rosemary’s persona and narrative voice is impressive. She is smart, self-effacing, witty, sardonic — and heartbroken. More importantly, her tale, and her way of telling it, is spellbinding.

The narrative moves back and forth between Rosemary’s childhood and her college and adult years, as she recalls the brief years of innocent childhood before tragedy struck the Cookes. For the first 75 pages, we are introduced to the lives of, and relationships between, the various family members: Rosemary’s research scientist parents (her father is a professor at Indiana University), aloof older brother Lowell, and fun-loving sister Fern.

There is a strong sense of foreboding in the first part of the book, a black cloud looming over Rosemary and the Cooke family, but it is mentioned only in vague terms. Something happened to Fern; she “disappeared” from their lives and no one has ever been the same. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves describes the effects of Fern’s disappearance on the family, each of whom copes with the loss in a unique way, one that confounds the other family members.

The events in this novel might seem far-fetched were it not for the fact that they are based on actual events. Fowler’s story reminds us that humans are capable of both amazing and shameful things, and that our hubris often leads us into uncharted and dangerous territory. Even when we do our best with what we know, and with good intentions, it is often not good enough; the damage is done.

Fowler received the PEN/Faulkner Award for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves on April 2. In a statement announcing the award, Manuel Muñoz, one of the three judges, said, “This superb novel is not only comic and smart, it packs a surprising emotional punch. Fowler captures an altogether new dimension of the meaning—and heartbreak—of family dynamics.” Judge Madison Smartt Bell added, “This is a book that really does tell us something new about what it is to be human—and what it is not to be.”

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an example of a novel that is both critically acclaimed and embraced by readers. It was a bestseller when published in May 2013 and was issued in paperback in late February. Fowler is best known as the author of The Jane Austen Book Club, her most accessible work, which was a huge hit in 2004.


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Ozeki, Bulawayo win Los Angeles Times Book Awards for fiction

A Tale for the Time Being -- Ozeki    We Need New Names -- Bulawayo

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names won the Fiction and First Fiction awards, respectively, at the Los Angeles Times Book Awards, held at USC’s Bovard Auditorium on Friday night.

The awards opened the L.A. Times Festival of Books weekend, held annually on the USC campus near downtown Los Angeles.

Other winners included Marie Arana in the Biography category for Bolivar: American Liberator and Sheri Fink in the Current Interest category for Five Days at Memorial about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. J.K. Rowling, writing as Kenneth Galbraith, won the Mystery/Thriller award for The Cuckoo’s Calling. Austrian-born, Berlin-based graphic artist/writer Ulli Lust won in the Graphic Novel category for Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life.

Susan Straight won the Robert Kirsch Award for her body of fiction set in Southern California. Kirsch was the longtime book critic for the Times. His son Jonathan is a well-known writer and critic.

John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars and other hugely popular Young Adult novels and a prolific video blogger with his brother Hank, received the Innovator’s Award.


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A conversation with Cara Hoffman on class, family, women in the Iraq war and PTSD

Cara Hoffman   Be Safe I Love You   


As someone who comes from a military family, it was important for me to tell this story about what war does to domestic life.

What led to your interest in writing about the Iraq War? Did you have a war-related novel in mind first, or a novel about a family dealing with poverty and class issues, or was it always about the challenges of homecoming?

It was always my intention to write about the wars the U.S. has been fighting this past decade because it’s part of the fabric of our culture, we’re steeped in it. For the working poor, who make up the majority of army personnel it’s even more immediate. As someone who comes from a military family, it was important for me to tell this story about what war does to domestic life. Exponentially more people than the one who enlists are affected by a deployment, a death, or a mental illness. We’re seeing this all unfold daily in the U.S., and we’ll be seeing it for a long time.

How did Lauren Clay come to you? I’m interested in the character you created, an academically gifted student with a rare musical talent who comes from a family that has fallen apart. Lauren is not your typical soldier, even beyond the fact that she is female.

Lauren is musically gifted but I don’t think she’s atypical of people in the military. There are plenty of musicians, artists, and creative people who enlist, especially if they don’t have another recourse to making money and can’t afford school. Lauren’s decision to join the army is good for her family economically, but bad for her personally and it’s this conflict that drives the central narrative. She trains to kill instead of continuing to train her voice.

Lauren is a classically trained singer with an opportunity to study at a prestigious school. I know you have a background in classical voice. Why did you choose to add this passion to your portrayal of Lauren Clay?

I trained as a classical musician, and still sing in a choir. (We’re doing Mozart’s “Great Mass in C Minor” this May!) Part of Lauren being a singer is simply about writing what I know; the other part has to do with the symbolism of sacred music and holy minimalism. Vocal music is primal, deeply emotional, something that requires immense training to perform. A book about war is well suited to all of these things.

Can you discuss Lauren’s increasing obsession with the Jeanne d’Arc basin oil fields in Canada? It is an unfamiliar place that provides haunting imagery, as well as a key symbol in the story.

Jeanne d’Arc is a salient symbol throughout the novel; a teenage soldier who had to disguise herself as a man, who suffered hallucinations, she’s the precursor and a counterpoint to Lauren, who is a grounded, capable, loving woman burdened by an enormous responsibility for her whole family. Jeanne d’Arc becomes a saint the way most saints do — connection to religious phenomena, and terrible torture. Lauren’s view of religion is cynical at best and often hostile, but she holds things sacred and makes sacrifices, she’s inspired by holy music and recognized for her gifts, she’s rational and practical, but is transformed by her service in the military, imprisoned by the needs of weak men around her. And unable to break free. The actual physical site is a mirror of the place she came from. These reflections and poles and “distorted mirrors” are an essential part of the narrative.

The relationship between Lauren and her younger brother Danny is central to the story and her motivations. Danny seems to be her reason for living, the way spouses or lovers often are for those at war, rather than her boyfriend Shane or her parents. Danny is such a special kid, a really well-drawn and memorable character. How does her love for Danny anchor her through her post-war storm?

Thank you. Danny and Lauren have a bond based on intellect and humor. They’ve cared for each other emotionally while their family was disintegrating, and Lauren has provided for Danny materially. Her main motivation in life is that he should do better than her, he should have everything, be happy, see beautiful things. Understand the world better. She believes deeply that Danny, if well cared for, has the power to transform the terrible environment they come from. Seeing him do well and preventing him from experiencing pain is her commitment to staying in the world. Whether she’s able to keep that commitment is the primary question of the novel.

There are certainly some memoirs and non-fiction accounts of war by women, which is a good thing. But it’s going to take about a generation, and a lot more women publishing fiction, before we can see if there’s truly a distinction [between war novels by men and women].

There are other novels about soldiers suffering from PTSD. But what I especially liked about Be Safe I Love You is that much of the stress in Lauren’s life is caused by her family’s situation and her relationships with her parents, rather than just her nightmarish experiences in Iraq. I loved the family scenes, which reminded me of the realism of Russell Banks and Richard Russo, who are the bards of rural upstate New York.

Thank you, Bill. I am very flattered to be compared to those guys. I love them both, and obviously we come from the same environments, so we are describing some of the same landscapes and poverty-related issues. A person’s early environment is a big contributing factor in PTSD, but I’ve yet to read anything about war that really explores that, and I wanted to write about it.

You have a distinctive prose style that is both muscular and lyrical. I was occasionally reminded of James Agee’s writing in A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (although you avoid his Faulknerian sentences). Did you begin as a poet? Do you write poetry as well as fiction?

When I was a child I wrote poetry. The language in Be Safe all has a particular lyrical sense and meter and dynamic because I wrote it to mirror musical composition. I wanted it to be like a song. The phrasing and prose is very deliberate, but the language is not “tarted up like Faulkner,” as my brother likes to say.

What would you say distinguishes the recent flurry of books by female authors about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? What do women have to say that male authors don’t (or at least haven’t said yet)?

I don’t think we’ve seen enough fiction about war written by women to know if there is a difference yet. There are certainly some memoirs and non-fiction accounts of war by women, which is a good thing. But it’s going to take about a generation, and a lot more women publishing fiction, before we can see if there’s truly a distinction. I would say in general so far, there’s less aestheticising of violence done by women war writers. They don’t lovingly linger over the carnage, you don’t get the ambient sense of solipsistic machismo from it. There’s a maturity to it, less ambivalence. They’re not writing about being victims of the killing they signed up to do.

If you could put one book in the hands of President Obama, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and members of Congress, what would it be, and why? Would you want every American to read it as well?

I would want every American to read Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz. It was written at a time when the U.S. government actively contributed to a plague raging unchecked throughout the world because they thought it would only kill queer people. The book is so filled with transgressive beauty, it’s staggering. I cry every time I read it.

What have you read recently that you recommend?

Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War. It’s a fantastically written, morally responsible, brilliant book, containing multiple perspectives. I’m very excited to be part of a panel with Katey and Helen Benedict at Word Bookstore in Brooklyn on April 24th. Helen’s writing on women veterans is groundbreaking. [See my review of Flashes of War here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6E; and my review of Benedict's Sand Queen here:  http://wp.me/p3EtWm-9k]

I was intrigued by your biography. You have such an unusual life story that I think you have the material for a great memoir. What made you decide to drop out of high school to travel and work in the Middle East? How did a job delivering newspapers eventually lead to working as a full-time reporter? And I have to ask: How did you manage to gain admittance to an MFA program without a high school diploma or college degree? (For that alone, you are no doubt a heroine to many.)

Well, thank you. That’s a pretty big question. I didn’t like school from an early age because it interfered with the things I wanted to do and study. I was always working on a number of projects and ideas as a kid and an adolescent; and living upstate, going to schools with no funding and terrible teachers, was an immense drag. Deadening. I started skipping school in 9th grade, only going when there were tests, so I could maintain good grades. I read independently and did no homework, focused on voice lessons and music theory, reading literature, and writing. By 10th grade I went only for extracurricular things I was involved in—Allstate Choir or Model UN, I was still enrolled in AP classes and getting college credit. Finally I dropped out, got two jobs and my own apartment, and began writing. I worked seven days a week in a restaurant, and later in a bookstore. When I saved enough money, I left the country, but quickly learned that to make it on my paltry $1,500, I’d need to live in a squat or sleep outside, and that meant getting somewhere warm.

I lived for quite a while in Athens, Greece working under-the-table jobs and then later in Israel, working in an orchard and on a landscaping crew and meeting my son’s father, who was also a musician. When I came back to the States three years later, I’d nearly a whole manuscript and enough material for a lifetime. I’d also soon have a baby, but no means to support him, so I took a job for a weekly independent delivering papers, hounding the editor to let me write. Eventually a staffer couldn’t make it to cover a Teamsters’ strike and I got sent. It was my first assignment, and I actually had my baby with me. After that the editor put me on a beat covering environmental issues. I worked there for four years, moving my way up to the City Desk, amassing enough clips and doing enough investigative work to eventually get a job at a daily covering government and crime.

The whole time I was also writing fiction, reading lots of great stuff like Jean Genet and Celine and Zora Neale Hurston. The idea of studying any of these things at school seemed ridiculous and I never would have applied to graduate school at all, but I wanted to teach community college, and needed a MFA to do it — so I applied to the only school I was philosophically interested in (Goddard, which comes out of the tradition of John Dewey and the idea that education and experience are intricately linked). I was accepted based on a portfolio of fiction.

So Much Pretty – which was based on an abduction and murder I covered in my early 20s — sold the third semester of school, but I still wanted to teach. Community colleges are simply amazing places for dialog and social change, and class issues are not swept under the rug. They’re full of organic intellectuals, people who’ve had to work hard their whole lives, and generally have a depth of emotional and experiential intelligence that makes them some of the smartest, quickest people I’ve known. After I’d lectured at places like Cornell and Oxford, I valued my students and work in the Bronx more than ever, and was grateful I’d gotten the degree.

What are you working on now, or what do you have in mind for your next project?

I’m writing a novel about homeless bookish kids living in Greece, a woodland fire fighter living in the Pacific Northwest, and the poetry of John Donne.

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Short list announced for prestigious Women’s Prize for Fiction






AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Hay festival 2012

Final Lowland cover.indd  jhumpa-lahiri

burialrites  Hannah Kent

the undertaking  Audrey Magee

half formed thing  Eimear McBride

The judging committee for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announced the short list of six novels, narrowed down from the long list of 20 titles, on Monday, April 7 in London. The favorites to win the most prestigious award for women’s fiction are Donna Tartt for her epic coming of age tale, The Goldfinch, which too ten years to write, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her story of African immigrants adapting to life in the U.S., Americanah. Adichie won the award for her previous novel, Half of a Yellow Sky, in 2007, when it was known as the Orange Prize. She was born and raised in Nigeria but attended college at Drexel University in Philadelphia and Eastern Connecticut State University, where she graduated summa cum laude in 2001. Other finalists include Jhumpa Lahiri for her story of two brothers and the woman they both loved, The Lowland; Hannah Kent for her debut novel set in 19th century Iceland, Burial Rites; Audrey Magee for The Undertaking, set in Berlin during WWII; and Eimear McBride for her challenging debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. McBride has already won the Goldsmiths Prize for 2013 for the novel.

Interestingly, there are no British (English, Scottish, or Welsh) writers on the short list. Tartt is American, Lahiri was born in England to Indian parents but raised in the U.S.; Kent is Australian; and Magee and McBride are Irish. Four of the books are available in the U.S., but he Magee and McBride novels won’t be published here until September 2014.

The winner will be announced at the awards ceremony in London on June 4.


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BE SAFE, I LOVE YOU: a riveting portrait of a female soldier’s homecoming

Be Safe I Love You  Hoffman__Cara

Be Safe, I Love You

By Cara Hoffman

Simon & Schuster, 2014

304 pages, $26.00

The latest in a remarkable series of books by women about the Iraq War, Be Safe, I Love You tells the story of returning soldier Lauren Clay and the challenges she faces in re-entering the lives of her family, friends, and civilian society.

What makes these female-authored novels distinctive is the authors’ decision to focus on aspects of the war that usually fly under the radar of both media and public awareness: what it’s like to be a female in the military; what life is like for the wives (and, increasingly, husbands), children, and family members left behind; surviving the homecoming; coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; and adjusting to a world in which the war seems distant both literally and figuratively and civilians often have inaccurate and distorted views of the war and what our military personnel are doing while on deployment.

Hoffman’s book is both a fever dream of one soldier’s struggle with PTSD and a domestic drama about a splintered family and an isolated upstate New York town with little to offer the soldier or its civilian residents. When Lauren Clay arrives in Watertown, her severely depressed father Jack and precocious younger brother Danny are understandably overjoyed to have her home and in one piece. Seemingly. But it soon becomes evident to Lauren’s boyfriend Shane, best friend Holly, and even to Danny that “she is not herself.” She tries valiantly to “act as if” she is well and happy to be home, and in occasional moments, she is. But there are warning signs: she is sullen, distracted, and preoccupied. She has a hair-trigger temper and is particularly annoyed when people fail to do what she says. As a sergeant with a platoon under her command in Iraq at age 21, she is used to giving orders and being obeyed without hesitation.

“She’d come home to a world of fragile baby animals. Soft inarticulate wide-eyed morons with know-nothing epiphanies and none of them — not one of them — did what she said, which was beginning to grate on her, cut to the heart of how wrong things were. Still, she could accept that these people didn’t know how to lead or follow, but they could at least shut up. If anyone owed her anything for serving in Iraq it was to shut the fuck up.”

She refuses to talk about her experiences in Iraq or even what the war was like generally. It is a nightmare best ignored. When her father’s best friend, PJ, a Vietnam veteran, says she can tell him about Iraq later, she thinks, “She would not be wasting one more second talking about acts that shouldn’t be described and couldn’t be undone.” Later she thinks about the soldiers who relied on their religious faith to get them through the war. She didn’t understand how they could believe, and in time she couldn’t understand the war. “People loved this religious stuff because it actually made no sense. Just like the war made no sense. And she knew now for certain that feeling of mystery, that impenetrable false logic was necessary to make people do stupid things.” The morning after a fight with her boyfriend, Lauren realizes “[s]he’d seriously fucked things up with Shane but she wasn’t about to let him get close to the thing she brought home that lived inside her skin. And she needed to protect herself, make sure she didn’t get soft.”

We learn the key elements of Lauren’s back story. Following her parents’ divorce, she took care of her depressed and bed-ridden father and younger brother all through high school while having no contact with her mother, who remained incommunicado in Buffalo. Lauren is a gifted student and singer with a bright future at the college of her choice. But with the family’s money problems, she feels obligated to join the Army for the relatively lucrative pay. She puts her college education and singing career on hold to take care of her family the only way she can devise. During her time in Iraq, she is caught in the double pressure-cooker of her family’s needs and her duties as a sergeant in a surreal war environment.

Her thoughts of Danny helped keep her sane while in Iraq. “[S]he felt the world order itself in the sound of his voice, his throaty baby laugh. This was the thought she called upon in training, in transport, in the emptiness of waiting that would never again be called boredom. It was with her the whole time, that sound. And there was no way she would have come home without it. No place outside that sound where she could live. No home, no country, no body to inhabit. It was the last breath of music she still felt in her belly, a little fire that she needed to stoke and carry.”

We also learn that she became very close with a fellow soldier, Daryl Green, with whom she made plans to reunite and possibly work together in the Jeanne d’Arc oil basin off the coast of eastern Canada. Daryl remains a mystery to us, presented only through Lauren’s memories of their time in Iraq and thoughts of continuing their friendship at home. But something doesn’t feel right about this situation, and the foreboding feeling only grows as the story progresses. Lauren’s relationships with everyone except Danny, whom she adores, soon deteriorate and she becomes increasingly obsessed with visiting Daryl and moving ahead with their plans in order to establish the new future she desires. After reestablishing tenuous contact with her mother, who asks her and Danny to come visit, Lauren decides to make the trip, but only after a detour into Canada to visit Daryl and the coastal oil fields, to which she feels she must make a pilgrimage. The mystery deepens, the ominous mood increases, and the last quarter of the novel becomes a suspenseful psychological thriller as we watch Lauren’s untreated PTSD play out.

Lauren is trying to escape from herself, with little success. “[S]omehow she’d forgotten that she had not returned at all. The woman she was supposed to be, was meant to be, would have been, could never exist at all now, and she was stuck dragging around this ruined version of herself. She owed it to the memory of her real self to get rid of this doppelganger that she was trapped inside….”

Although the plot was compelling, I was equally impressed by the quality of Hoffman’s writing, which alternated between a powerful directness and moments of haunting prose poetry. The supporting characters of Shane and Holly, Shane’s three uncles (so similar they are known as “the three Patricks”), Lauren’s eccentric Gulf War-damaged vocal teacher Troy, and her mentally ill father are well-drawn and credible, and they play a key role in making Lauren’s story realistic and riveting. The reader cares about these people and wants things to turn out well for them.

Be Safe, I Love You is just Cara Hoffman’s second novel, but you will know you are in the hands of a master here. You can add Hoffman’s name to those of Benedict, Fallon, Robinson, Carpenter, and Schultz as writers who have shown us the true and long-lasting consequences and costs of war.

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Karen Joy Fowler has been named the winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for her 2013 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The book, about a unique sibling relationship and resulting family drama, was both critically acclaimed and a bestseller. Fowler will receive a $15,000 award.

The other nominees included two story collections  (Joan Silber’s Fools and Valerie Trueblood’s Search Party) and two somewhat experimental novels (Daniel Alarcon’s At Night We Walk in Circles and Percival Everett’s Percival Everett by Virgil Russell).

This year’s judges were novelists Madison Smartt Bell, Manuel Muñoz and Achy Obejas. The PEN/Faulkner website states that they considered 430 novels and short story collections. In a statement announcing the award, Muñoz said, “Fowler captures an altogether new dimension of the meaning — and heartbreak — of family dynamics.”

The winning novel is Fowler’s sixth in a wide-ranging body of work. She is perhaps best known for The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), her most accessible novel. Her 2001 novel, Sister Noon, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner award in 2001. Fowler has won a Nebula Award, a Shirley Jackson Award and a World Fantasy Award.

The awards ceremony will take place on May 10 at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.

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