Bursting on the scene

Helga’s Post # 76:  I haven’t made a great deal of progress on the writing front for a shameful period of time, and that’s putting it generously. There are good and solid reasons of course, but fear not, I won’t indulge you.

This lack of progress did however prompt me to take a departure from ‘writing about writing’, to ‘writing about reading’. I thought it might be interesting to look at what’s trending in the book world these days, and by extension, what kinds of books are snatching the coveted prizes. While this is about literary fiction rather than commercial, it still gives us a glimpse of what kind of stories people love to read at this point in time.

One of the most coveted prizes is the Pulitzer, which has awarded writers yearly since 1917. For this year, the word is just out: The 2014 Pulitzer goes to….

You probably heard it too: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. _74243621_donna-tartt-composite

What an amazing story. Not just the novel, but also its 51-year old author. Goldfinch is Donna’s third novel (writers take note: it took her 11 years to complete it), following her critically acclaimed The Little Friend, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2003. She began writing her first book, The Secret History, at age 19 while studying at Bennington College. A pretty impressive list of achievements.

I always love to read summaries or blurbs of books that win prizes. They tell so much more than contemporary reading trends and what kinds of books ultimately sell. These blurbs also tend to shed light on issues that occupy us within our society, issues we writers would do well to be aware of when choosing a topic for our next novel.

Let’s start with Donna Tartt’s novel and then take a look at the other two finalists.

The book received lavish praise from the moment it was published. One example, from Booklist had this to say: “Drenched in sensory detail, infused with Theo’s churning thoughts and feelings, sparked by nimble dialogue, and propelled by escalating cosmic angst and thriller action, Tartt’s trenchant, defiant, engrossing, and rocketing novel conducts a grand inquiry into the mystery and sorrow of survival, beauty and obsession, and the promise of art.”

So what’s all the fuss about? Here is how the story starts:

A thirteen-year-old boy in New York City, Theo Decker, survives a terrorist bombing attack in an art museum that takes the life of his mother (and dozens of other art-loving citizens). His father was not there, having deserted the family some time prior to these events. Theo adored his energetic, beautiful mother – as did many other people in Manhattan – and thinks of his father as an alcoholic, occasionally abusive, and as a thief.Theo accepts a ring and an enigmatic message given to him by a man, elderly Welty Blackwell, who dies in the rubble of the explosion. Theo is willing to unravel the puzzle, because (before the bomb went off) he had found himself fascinated by a red-headed girl, Pippa, also at the Museum that day and who was somehow related to the old man, and on her account, he will grant the dying man’s last request. Believing that the old man, Welty, is pointing at a painting (The Goldfinch) on the wall, Theo takes that also in his panicked escape. The taking of these items – one handed over freely, a family heirloom, the other a literally “priceless” painting by Carel Fabritius – was done by Theo in a state of terror, concussion, and shock, with no ability to reason how these minor-seeming actions would influence the rest of his life.

And that’s just the beginning. The sprawling epic, weighing in at 755 pages, starts as a coming of age story. It then follows protagonist Theo years later to Las Vegas, New York City’s Lower East Side, and Amsterdam. It’s definitely on my reading list.

Let’s look at the two other Pulitzer nominees, The Son by Philip Meyer and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis. PhilippMeyer

“The Son,” by Philipp Meyer (Ecco), is 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.

In the first few pages, a 100-year-old man called Eli McCullough describes the Texas he knew, before its glories were trampled: “the land and all the animals who lived upon it were fat and slick. Grass up to the chest, the soil deep and black in the bottoms and even the steepest hillsides overrun with wildflowers … the country was rich with life the way it is rotten with people today.” Eli had come to Texas as the child of pioneer settlers, but was abducted by Comanche warriors, with whom he lived for some years before returning to the white world to build a cattle and oil empire by the usual methods of armed landgrab and state-sanctioned illegality favoured by empire-builders everywhere. The rise and fall of that empire, and the moral and psychological costs its maintenance imposes on five subsequent generations of McCulloughs, is the subject of The Son, a work of extraordinary narrative power and contrasts, in which destruction seems inevitable and enjoyment of victory’s fleeting pleasures bittersweet at best. (Excerpted from a review by The Guardian)

The second finalist, “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul,” by Bob Shacochis, is 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.BobShacochis_AF

The earliest part opens on the wasted landscape of Croatia during the German occupation of World War II. Eight-year-old Stjepan Kovacevic sees his father beheaded by one of Tito’s Muslim partisans. Before the blood even stops flowing, the boy and his mother flee toward the sea, determined to reach the United States, “the only place strong enough to defeat the enemies of Christ our savior.” In Shacochis’s electrified narrative, this is a frightening odyssey through a society with nothing “left to believe in except the horror of existence.” Military order has collapsed; soldiers devolved into thugs bribe and shoot and rape, knowing they don’t have long to live anyway. For little Stjepan, this ordeal is an indelible introduction “to his destiny, the spiritual map that guides each person finally to the door of the cage that contains his soul.”

When we see Stjepan Kovacevic again, he’s been transfigured into an elegant, though shadowy, undersecretary named Steven Chambers. The little boy’s inchoate desire for vengeance against the enemies of Christ now finds expression in the spycraft of the most powerful nation on Earth. Wielding almost magical military technology, bottomless black-box funding and special ops men trained to godlike prowess, Chambers and his “Friends of Golf” (FOG) pursue “the self-dramatizing schemes of overheated minds, unrestrained in power and influence and felonious inspiration.” Their crusade against the infidels rages away entirely beyond the purview of Capitol Hill and those silly politicians who imagine they’re in control. (Excerpted from a Washington Post review).

So here we have it: Three epic books that follow their protagonists over many years, starting when they were children or teens. All have elements of violence, some quite explicit and gory, and all are grounded in historical events. Will this become the new trend for bestselling novels?

I don’t know which of the three books to pick up first. They all sound enticing. The chronology doesn’t really matter. What’s important is to pick them up.

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One thought on “Bursting on the scene

  1. I hope that historically based novels are the next trend, not only because that’s what I am writing, BUT also because it is a great way to learn about history. These books should be used to teach “History through Literature.”

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