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The National Book Critics Circle Finalists for 2010 Awards

Last night, as a member of the National Books Critics Circle, I attended the Circle’s event announcing the finalists for its 2010 book awards (see the full list below). I’m happy to report that there was some good news, like Dalkey Archive Press being awarded The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Dalkey is one of my favorite presses, which consistently publishes a substantial percentage of literary works-in-translation in the United States, while also rescuing the works of a number of great American authors, like Stanley Elkin, William Gass (who I nominated for the The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award), John Hawkes, Flann O’Brien, etc. I was also happy to see, at least conceptually, that two of the finalists for fiction were books-in-translation, including David Grossman’s To the End of the Land (Knopf) and Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A pity that the quality of their translated prose (and here I defer to those who can attest to whether the translations are faithful to their respective sources) doesn’t merit the distinction of their having been nominated (I should note that I hardly got past more than a few passages of their respective books (see my, perhaps, unfair reasoning below). As expected, most of the finalists in the Poetry category came from independent presses, and includes Anne Carson’s Nox (New Directions), Kathleen Graber’s The Eternal City (Princeton University Press), and C.D. Wright’s One with Others: [a little book of her days] (Copper Canyon). Further inroads by the independent and university presses were made, like Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne (Other Press), which received a nomination in the Biography category; like the following four books in the Autobiography category: David Dows The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve), Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch-22: A Memoir (Twelve), Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s Hiroshima in the Morning (Feminist Press), and Darin Strauss’s Half a Life (McSweeney’s); like these three books in the Criticism category: Clare Cavanagh’s Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (Yale University Press), Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance (University of Chicago Press), and Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (Graywolf). Nice to see the N.B.C.C.’s board thinking out of the box by selecting Monson’s excellent cross-genre book as a finalist for the Criticism award. Eleven out of the thirty spots were taken by the so-called small presses, making this a very good year for this publishing domain, but the real measure, I think, will be which books finally receive the awards.

Considering that both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for fiction of 2010 both went to independent presses, I rather naively hoped that we were observing a kind of sea change in the perception of the so-called small press, and that this recognition of the vitality and quality found outside of the so-called major presses would be reflected in the N.B.C.C.’s choices for fiction. Instead, what was offered were five rather tepid choices.

Time is short, so, like most people, I don’t have time to give writers my attention beyond a few lines or paragraphs, or, in some cases, a few pages. Unless I’m reviewing a book, if my interest isn’t captured within that narrow stretch of time and space, then I have to move on to something else. There are just too many great books for me to catch up on that I just can’t see myself trudging along after a weak opening. I can’t see how you’d get past the first page of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (Knopf), containing this introductory paragraph:

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that at, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand — it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.

It’s hard for me to get past the cliches and generally dull observations, e.g., “barely visible,” “ half a chance,” “in plain sight“, “teach the woman a lesson,” and “take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously”; and the voice, while blustery, hardly provokes me to continue reading. It’s possible to argue that this character mirrors reality since most people speak in cliches anyway, but its an argument that doesn’t work for me since one of the reasons why I read is to escape the rattling beat of the humdrum.

Here is the first paragraph from Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray:

Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race one evening when Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair. It is a Friday in November, and Ed’s is only half full; if Skippy makes a noise as he topples to the floor, no one pays any attention. Nor is Ruprecht, at first, overly concerned; rather he is pleased, because it means that he, Ruprecht, has won the race, his sixteenth in a row, bringing him one step closer to the all-time record held by Guido ‘The Gland’ LaManche, Seabrook College class of ’93.

There’s something about so-called invisible prose, the kind of prose Murray mismanages here, that makes it even more visible, which reminds me of that moment in Gertrude Stein’s book Everybody’s Autobiography, where, after failing to find her childhood home in Oakland, CA., she writes that “there is no there there.” In other words, as I work to find something there in Murray’s prose, I fail, which makes the recognition of the lack of something there ever more pronounced. And there’s a jarring oddness to this sentence that doesn’t seem intentional: “It is a Friday in November, and Ed’s is only half full; if Skippy makes a noise as he topples to the floor, no one pays any attention.” What’s exactly “half full” here? Ed’s Friday? Strange. Seems like there’s an antecedent clause, or something, missing here.

Here’s Franzen’s tepid attempt at mimicking John Updike from Freedom:

The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

The trouble here is that Franzen’s clunky sentences simply don’t match Updike’s lyrical brilliance. Why should I continue reading when I haven’t read anywhere near enough Updike? Bland qualifiers like “long and very,” and cliches, like “quite a mess,” hardly rise above the imagined Times article here containing more of same; and the bit on Walter being “greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural,” doesn’t quite save the paragraph, considering that its almost-cleverness only makes me wish for witty writing that is more commandingly managed. Speaking of which, there was at least one book from the major presses, namely, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, which had that very quality, and much more, that might have earned it a nod from the N.B.C.C. Surely this is a better first paragraph than those belonging to the award finalists, which  I describe above:

America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.

Here we find what we expect from an accomplished author, that is, careful attention to language. In just a few lines we have a voice, whose corrosive observations can only draw this reader in; an indelibly drawn character; and nouns with unexpected qualifiers (“frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler”; “some gummy coot”; “soggy yellow eyes”).

And here’s the first paragraph to Robert Steiner’s Negative Space (published by Counterpoint Press, an independent publisher), a book I read in a single sitting, and then read again quickly afterward:

In the hour before sunrise, I lie beside the woman I love, studying her face in the darkness, as if I have studied it in a dream, just as I used to awaken in the night, covering her body with mine because in a dream my body covered hers. I know she is unfaithful to me because I dream of it, so in the darkness I see in her sleeping face the need to be elsewhere, to be someone else elsewhere, with someone who is not me. I observe the face of her infidelity, resting my head beside hers, my eyes watching hers in case they open. I slip from our bed to an armchair while my wife wrestles the dawn—ash yellow, or ash gray, now and again red as a peach. While my wife is unfaithful to me, she is faithful to her new needs, among which her lover is the most urgent. During her hour before sunrise, in the torpor of my wife’s infidelity, I smoke in an armchair in the bedroom because everything has changed, and nothing will be the same, and what I have believed between nothing and everything is no longer what it was, whatever it was. I begin to discern day from night, then true from untrue, then her torpor from my despair, then I think I am, our shortest sentence, the simplest observation to thwart death.

Carefully navigating a somewhat clinical depiction of detail with an evocative and wrenching self-reflexivity, Steiner’s prose almost pulsates off the pulp its printed on. Steiner also uses repetition to great effect, offering a peculiar limning of a peculiar consciousness, one which tinkers with pairs (opposites and other combinations), a type of exploration further mined throughout the novel; a consciousness that castigates human duplicity as much as it recognizes its inevitability; a consciousness that revels in language, which can find terrifying meaning within the smallest of sentences, that sentence expressing a kind of futility; it doesn’t, after all, say, as that imagined god in the Old Testament, says, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” which means “I am that I am.” There’s actually a lot more I can write about this first paragraph, but suffice to say that this paragraph propelled me toward reading the entire book.

Of course, a first sentence or paragraph should not be the measure of a book’s entire worth, but they do offer some signals about the writer’s project, and is one indicator of whether a reader should give up the time he or she would use to read something almost guaranteed to be better, whether a book already read and needs to be reread, or one sitting on a shelf, gazing at them, tempting them, like Lance Olsen’s Calendar of Regrets, The Poems of Marianne Moore, Samuel Beckett’s The Complete Short Prose, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, or any number of books that are doing this to me, right now, as I write this.

There are any number of books that could have been nominated by the N.B.C.C. for the best in fiction (not to mention every other category) for 2010. Which books would you have selected? Here are the The National Book Critics Circle Finalists for 2010 Awards:


Jennifer Egan: A Visit From The Goon Squad (Knopf)

Jonathan Franzen: Freedom, Farrar (Straus And Giroux)

David Grossman: To The End Of The Land (Knopf)

Hans Keilson: Comedy In A Minor Key (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Paul Murray: Skippy Dies (Faber & Faber)


Sarah Bakewell: How To Live, Or A Life Of Montaigne (Other Press)

Selina Hastings: The Secret Lives Of Somerset Maugham: A Biography (Random House)

Yunte Huang: Charlie Chan: The Untold Story Of The Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History (Norton)

Thomas Powers: The Killing Of Crazy Horse (Knopf)

Tom Segev: Simon Wiesenthal: The Lives And Legends (Doubleday)


Kai Bird: Crossing Mandelbaum Gate Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 (Scribner)

David Dow: The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve)

Christopher Hitchens: Hitch-22: A Memoir (Twelve)

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto: Hiroshima in the Morning (Feminist Press)

Patti Smith: Just Kids (Ecco)

Darin Strauss: Half a Life (McSweeney’s)


Elif Batuman: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Terry Castle: The Professor and Other Writings (Harper)

Clare Cavanagh: Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (Yale University Press)

Susie Linfield: The Cruel Radiance (University of Chicago Press)

Ander Monson: Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (Graywolf)


Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau)

S.C. Gwynne: Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American (Scribner)

Jennifer Homans: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (Random)

Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner)

Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random)


Anne Carson: Nox (New Directions)

Kathleen Graber: The Eternal City (Princeton University Press)

Terrance Hayes: Lighthead (Penguin Poets)

Kay Ryan: The Best of It (Grove)

C.D. Wright: One with Others: [a little book of her days] (Copper Canyon)

  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

15 thoughts on “The National Book Critics Circle Finalists for 2010 Awards

  1. I’m with you on Lipsyte: a great writer who does wonderful things with words.

    Re: the opening line of “Skippy Dies”: “Ed’s” is a diner. It’s where Skippy and Ruprecht are having the doughnut-eating race.

    Not sure I’d make it past that opening paragraph of the Steiner (“I lie beside the woman I love” doesn’t sound cliched to you?). De gustibus non disputandum est, I guess.

    1. Thanks for checking in David.

      And thanks for clearing up the ambiguity of “Ed’s” actually being a restaurant. Context is everything, of course, and mistakes like that one reveal one of the pitfalls of only giving a writer a small space in which to prove themselves worthy of my attention, though the clarification doesn’t change my mind about the overall blandness of the passage, not to mention the content, and what I suspect will be more of the same kind of blandness to follow, at least as regards the prose.

      As for that line (“I lie beside the woman I love”), I’d say it falls somewhere between a simple statement of fact and something potentially cloying, but the potentially cloying quality of it is mitigated by what’s surrounding it, which I’ve detailed a bit above.

      All of this is tempting me to read all of the fiction finalists’ books, in their entirety, before whatever book is finally chosen to win, if only to see if my suspicions about the books play out over the long haul. But I can’t imagine getting over the anxiety of not having read all of those books I have a greater suspicion will be worth my ever-dwindling time left on this planet.

  2. man. tons of respect for you john, but more and more, im tired of writers complaining about the quality of books from a sentence or writerly point of view. i’ll stick up for freedom. that first paragraph, while not stylistically insteresting, is structurally fascinating in context to the rest of the book in a way that is much more meaningful to me than whether the prose is lyrically interesting. freedom is a really great book i think more stylistic writers should read, it helps you re-realize that what’s good about a book doesn’t have to be wound up in its writerliness. im hoping it wins all the awards this year.

    1. Thanks, Darby.

      And I hear you about tiresome critiques of a book that don’t look at the entire text at hand, ignoring what should be the greater picture, that is, the disparate elements of writing working together. One of my points here, though, is that the opening of a work may be just one gateway into a book, but it’s a critical one, at least for me, especially if I’m not reviewing it, and also considering how much I haven’t read that I want to read, and how much I’ve read that I want to reread. Also, though there may be a bit of noise, about the minutiae of prose in certain circles, and maybe even a lot, in the smaller ones, this kind of critique is hardly reflective of mainstream discussions about literature, and, usually what I get from book reviews are a heavy dose of plot synopsis, dubious pronouncements about where the work under examination falls, unconvincing raves or vicious, and equally unconvincing, takedowns, and very little examination of what’s being done language-wise, this lack having something to do with the paucity of things to talk about, language-wise, within those respective works.

      Your mentioning the “writerly point of view” reminds me of Roland Barthes’s rather eloquent distinguishing between what he calls “texte lisible” and “texte scriptible,” translated respectively as “readerly” and “writerly” texts. Simplifying it a bit, “readerly” texts, while they may bring pleasure, don’t challenge the reader’s position as subject, while “writerly” texts provide bliss, disrupting literary conventions, thereby offering the reader a chance to challenge their own subjectivity. While I don’t necessarily see literature as falling into these kinds of dichotomies (largely because things often don’t fall neatly into categories, no matter how much effort may be put into fixing them there), I would agree that most of what’s out there does little to challenge, surprise, disrupt, but instead throw the reader into a numbed and passive state of acceptance.

      Style, structure, dialogue, are just a few of the devices that need to be handled well in order to make a work of art. It may be difficult, though certainly not impossible, for writers to imply the overall structure of their book in its first few passages, and so it makes sense for a reader to give the work more of a chance to see how that overall structure is revealed, and whether it’s actually interesting, but if the language is mismanaged, or just generally bland, why should I trust that the writer will deliver the other elements to me? I really just don’t have the time to find out.

      1. yeah books are a curious medium, we’ve got to pick and choose based on some kind of criteria, and i kind of like that everyone’s criteria’s focus is on different things. take care.

        1. John’s critiques of the language are spot-on, but Darby’s also right to note that, in the small-press scene, highly stylized/gorgeous language are overvalued (are dominant) in a way they simply aren’t in the larger, more commercial scene. There is a sense in which small press folk criticizing the language of the larger presses smacks of complaining that an abstract painting doesn’t look at anything.

          Which is also to say, I think it’s very valid for people to prioritize one aspect of the work, then huddle off and make work that highly values that aspect (which is where a lot of movements come from), but it’s also cool to recognize that not everyone else out there is going to share that one particular concern. It’s a bit silly for the Minimalists, say, to complain when everyone else isn’t making minimalist art.

          Mainly, though, I wonder where that impulse toward highly stylized/gorgeous language comes from, and why it’s become so politicized–so much of the small presses’ collective identity. Partly from the Language folks, I imagine. And from writers like Gass, Barthelme, Sorrentino, who really pushed language to the forefront. Even in “realists” like Carver, Williams, Beattie, there’s still a great degree of stylization (which is why small press writers like those realists).

          …Half of this has been me thinking aloud. I’m with you on the one hand, John. But I also agree with Darby/ Mainly, I’ve been very sensitive lately to comments I’ve heard a lot recently (and independently) from many different small press friends: “I couldn’t read that; the language is so bad!” “I read primarily for the language.” Etc.

          1. Hey Adam,

            It seems to me that the fiction writers whose work I’ve criticized above, based on a brief sample of their nominated books, using a perhaps unfair approach to establishing their respective merit (that approach, though subjective, and necessarily limiting, is still a useful one, at least for me, considering the many books vying for my attention that offer greater evidence will satisfy me on all the levels that I wish to be satisfied, however temporarily), are straddling between strictly “entertaining” fiction and “literary” fiction (a dichotomy, with due respect to Steven Moore, that I’m still suspicious of), and as such might be held to a more demanding criteria, particularly when those works are being lauded as the best of what’s been produced in a given year.

            As much as I want to revel in language whenever I pick up a book, I also want to forget about language and think about nothing but what’s happening in the world or worlds fabricated by a writer (though, it’s probably impossible, at least for me, not to in some way think about language, language being the very medium used to create the effect I’m desirous of). This forgetting about everything and subsequently being ensconced in a surround, however intermittent, is created by the words, and writers circumvent this effect when they call attention to their language in ways that make me think of their inattentiveness to their own words, their words sticking out even more than any writer playing their dear word games.

            I don’t see the correlation between what I have said remotely sounding like a philistine looking at an abstract painting and saying it doesn’t look like anything. I would say that if you’re going to make an abstract painting, make a great one, and if you can’t do that, then make a good one, and if you can’t do that, keep trying, until you figure out that you’re no good at it and finally give up, or not, but don’t expect me to keep looking at what you’ve made once I’ve determined the quality of it, or to give you a prize for it, for that matter. I think it’s possible to look at a painting and be able to make an immediate judgment about it; in fact, it’s probably impossible not to make some kind of a judgment. That judgment might be wrong, and you might have to spend more time with that work. Then again, you might be right, and it doesn’t help matters when you know that there are plenty of other paintings that you suspect are going to engage you on the sensory levels and whatever other levels that you’re hoping will be affected in the ways you want to be affected. I recently went to MoMA to see “Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture.” I only had about two hours to see it. Among the many paintings were several awful Motherwells. These were not his giant elegiac paintings. I gave them the summary glance they deserved at the moment so that I could spend more time looking at the Rothkos and Gorkys, and also the artists who often get short shrift by shows like these, and actually still did in this one, namely, the women painters: Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Ethel Schwabacher, all of whose paintings I generally admire. What I’m saying is that Franzen et al. were, in this case, like the Motherwells I’d looked at and quickly dismissed, not because they weren’t something I wanted but because they weren’t an exemplary form of what I wanted.

            I want whatever I look at, read, eat, listen to, or whatever, to be at least good (that’s hard enough to find). With books, that is, books with words in them, the first thing that you encounter, beyond how it’s packaged, where it comes from, who wrote it, etc., are the words, just like paint (whatever medium) or the overall image is—after you’ve thought about how it’s been contextualized, framed, or what have you, the first thing you see when you look at it. Actually the analogy falls apart because, unlike paintings in general, with a book it’s usually hard to get an overall gestalt just by looking at it.

            My sense is that people in general are inattentive about just about everything they experience, so I’m generally suspicious when anybody says anything about why they read what they read, or write what they write, or paint what they paint, or whatever, so I can’t really respond to what you’re criticizing coming from “small press folk.”


            1. Hi John,

              I think you and I have different needs/desires when it comes to art these days…which is a totally fine thing.

              I’m not in any hurry at the moment. I have a lot of free time, and am not trying to experience a ton of art. If anything, I’m trying to limit what art I expose myself too. The end result is that I’d rather spend a week looking at a single novel (of any quality) than rushing through a dozen books, trying to evaluate them, see which one best fits my schedule.

              I’m trying to learn patience with art. Recently, I was given an Oliver Rohe book to review (Vacant Lot, translated by Laird Hunt). I put it in my bag and opened it up here and there, started reading it a few times. I couldn’t get into it. I put it aside, picked it up again, started flipping through it, looking at the illustrations, reading random sections. Eventually one of them caught my attention, so I read through from there to the end. After a while, I could see the book’s logic, the way the sentences worked, and they started appealing to me. I finished and went back to the beginning and read it straight through; this time I really liked it. But it took me a good long while to get into it. Were I in a hurry, I would never have read the thing. But I’m glad I took the time to stretch myself to where I needed to be to appreciate it.

              These days, I’m trying to know less about art a priori, and rather just experience new works, or old works returned, see if they have anything new to say to me. Whether they can stretch me, expand me. I’m not trying to evaluate things so much.

              Actually, recently, my favorite thing to do is to watch televised football games while working out on an elliptical machine. Which is something I never had any interest in until now! I thought I hated football—I didn’t even go to the games when I was at Penn State. But for some reason, right here and right now, I love watching it: I can appreciate its strategy, its intense physical requirements. It’s pretty beautiful, I think, even poetic at times. I’m pretty excited about watching the Super Bowl! (Well, some of it. I still haven’t watched a full game—ever, in my life.) I’ll watch at least half of it while doing cardio.

              So that’s more where my mind is these days.

              Stan Lee back at ya’,

    1. Hi Michael,

      As always the Poetry category gives most of its attention to the small presses, which makes me happy, and I was definitely happy to see Anne Carson and C.D. Wright on the N.B.C.C.’s list. Your post, though, has prodded me to think that that category may have limited itself to the usual suspects.

      I asked this question at your site, but I’ll ask it again here, to everyone. What accounts for what may be regarded as “consensus opinion”?

  3. John,

    My entry point into the Egan was rather different–the excerpt “Safari” that appeared in The New Yorker, which I dug for several reasons. For one, she manages omniscient point of view like nobody’s business in this excerpt, sliding seamlessly through a range of perspectives without calling attention to the marble’s leaping from chute to chute. Secondly, she wins me over thoroughly when she introduces Mindy, an anthro grad student who sees her immediate world in terms of “structural” elements (“structural hatred,” “structural resentment,” etc.), which she then goes on to frame in terms that snack of the authoritative hubris of theory that has been freshly gleaned from textbooks and which one has rushed to apply, systematically and overreachingly, to one’s life. Egan pokes fun but ultimately manages to limn the characters–yes, I love that word, thanks for handing it off to me–with a tragicomic spotlight in a matter of pages. So when I started reading the novel, I was reading toward rather than reading into the book. Nevertheless, I find her opening devices might have lured me in regardless. It’s not merely a deliberate use of cliches to underscore how we use language blandly, but the way she calls attention to it–the crossing-guard-stop-sign wielded by the therapist who calls her on it–and thus its use as defense mechanism, verbal smokescreen, the word “fucking” wanting to rupture through, what she wanted to say all along; this is what I take from that.

    Lipsyte’s is some of the best prose I’ve read period, so it’s not surprising how well it holds up–any page in the book can pretty much hold its own.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on the Egan, Tim. Still not sure it’s enough to alleviate my anxiety of not having read all the things I know I really want to read, those books that I have a greater degree of certainty will give me the most out of the time I would spend devoting my attention to them.

      What I’m more curious about, though, is whether you think it deserves the N.B.C.C. award for best fiction in 2010. If not, what other books might deserve that honor?

      I didn’t mention it above, but Tom McCarthy’s C, in my mind, is also more deserving of the distinction.

      1. I share your anxiety about all the things I want to read, which is probably why I’m woefully-read when it comes to the 2010 releases–I lag and linger and feel like I’m always catching up on older stuff. One book that I haven’t seen come up enough in discussions is Joshua Cohen’s Witz, which I’m in the midst of now. On the flip side of the linguistic-density spectrum I just started Ben Percy’s The Wilding as well…both of these are contenders to be contenders.

        Right now I’m reading Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale, which is a knockout thus far, and also happens to have just been released. So talk to me this time next year…

  4. John,

    I am halfway there with you on this piece. When I (think I) am ready to start a new book, the first thing I do is read the first page. If it hooks me, I continue. Here, we are on the same page (so to speak).

    Where we diverge is that I am willing to give books and authors a second chance. If the opening page does not strike me, for whatever reason, I open and read a random page in the middle of the book. If the prose or lyricism or witty dialogue grabs me there, then I give the book a shot.

    I guess I have a two strikes you’re out policy.

    Off the top of my head I cannot think of a great example, but I can offer a current example. The opening paragraph to “Stoner,” by John Williams, which I am now reading, is not great by many measures. (It is good by other measures, though). Hesitant, I flipped to a random page and read about a party scene, which intrigued me, and so I started the book again, and with great pleasure. While it is smothered in a gravy of proper grammar and Victorian pastiche, it is a good story nonetheless, and I will recommend to friends to read on snowy evenings. Had I not given it a second chance, though, I might not have continued.


    On another note, I just finished “Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City,” by Greg Grandin. Had I finished that in time, I would have nominated it for the Nonfiction category.

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