Last year, I fell so in love with one of the National Book Award fiction nominees that I decided to read all five contenders, simply to prove that my favorite deserved the win. While this didn’t exactly work out in my favor, I’ve decided to make my November reading challenge a tradition. I’ll admit that because I wasn’t trying to prove a point this year, my reading wasn’t as enthusiastic or driven as it was in 2014. However, I do appreciate the opportunity to read some really excellent, contemporary literature every year, some of which would otherwise never cross my path. So, once again, since you probably don’t have time to read five books before the National Book Awards tonight, here are my reviews.
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
I always have difficulty reading collections of short fiction, so I was dismayed to see that there were two short story collections among the five fiction nominees this year. I have trouble keeping track of point of view shifts when I’m trying to read quickly, and this makes me try and find coherence among stories that are not necessarily connected. This was certainly my struggle with Fortune Smiles, which tells stories as diverse as: a Silicone Valley tech developer and his recently paralyzed wife; a UPS driver in Louisiana in the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes; a breast cancer patient and her author husband; a pedophile computer programmer and the children he cares for; a former Stasi prison guard who denies the injustices of his past; and a pair of North Korean defectors trying to adapt to life in Seoul.
It is absolutely refreshing to read a book that attempts to capture such very different voices and perspectives within its pages. I recommend taking more than a single night to read this book, as each stories stands alone, and deserves to (the exception being “Dark Meadow,” the story about the pedophile which we learn is the creation of the breast cancer patient’s husband in the story “Interesting Facts”).
My favorite story was the first in the collection, “Nirvana,” in which a man grapples both with his wife’s rare disease and the recent assassination of the American President by programming a digital holographic projection of the President. The main character, and ultimately, everyone he sees, uses the President as a vessel for their problems and solutions, and I could have read an entire novel that took place in this world.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This 736-page novel, also short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is a daunting masterpiece. It follows four college roommates—JB the artist, Willem the actor, Malcolm the architect, and Jude the lawyer—as they grow, struggle, and become successful in their fields. At first, I despaired; I did not have the patience to read the struggle-until-you-make-it stories of four privileged men in New York City for more than 700 pages. Thankfully, the focus of this novel shifts primarily to Jude, the friend whose mysterious past separates him from the others, and which they sometimes resent. Over the course of the novel, we follow Jude into the secrets of his past while watching their ramifications unfold in his present.
This novel was beautiful, and intimate, and I am still thinking about the characters. It should be noted that its realistic, honest portrayals venture into realms of trauma that are painful, and at times might be triggering to readers. I don’t know how the Man Booker nomination will affect the decisions of the National Book judges, but this novel is my pick based purely on the immersive reading experience.
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
This novel tells the story of the Turner family, their thirteen children, and their house in Detroit. It jumps back and forth in time, between the Turners’ initial migration from Arkansas to Detroit in the 1940s, and their children’s present-day personal struggles. Most compelling among these is the eldest son, Cha-Cha’s, haunting by a “haint” as he tries to keep his family together through a period of change. The changes within the family are clearly mirrored by the changes to their neighborhood in Detroit.
Mostly, I wish this novel were longer. With the exception of those brief glimpses into the past, the matriarch and patriarch’s characters are developed through the eyes of their thirteen children. While this is perhaps an accurate portrayal of family history and collective memory, I really wanted to hear more from Viola and Francis Turner—especially Viola—as they transitioned to their new lives in Detroit. I also wanted to understand more about Cha-Cha, and formerly his father’s, “haint.” It was easy to care about these characters, and I would have enjoyed learning much more about them.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
This book is probably the most popular of the five nominees, so I was confused by how little I was enjoying the first half of the book. It tells the story of a young married couple, Mathilde and Lotto (short for Lancelot, of course) as they struggle to come into their own as artists and lovers. The first half of the book, “Fates,” is from Lotto’s perspective, and I did not enjoy reading about this vapid actor/playwright who barely acknowledges his wife within his narrative. As I have already mentioned, I have very little patience for the struggles of the artistic bourgeoisie.
I understood the book’s hype by the second half of the novel, “Furies,” which is told from Mathilde’s much darker and more interesting perspective. Here we see that where Lotto fondly remembers their bohemian poverty in their first New York apartment, Mathilde remembers skipping meals in order to pay the bills. Throughout, themes of Greek tragedy pervade, including interjections into the narrative by a sort of Greek chorus in parentheses. This device is clever, and serves to unify the two disparate narratives in a satisfying way.
Refund by Karen Bender
This is another short story collection, which, again, I have difficulty reading even when I’m not rushing through self-imposed reading challenges. I therefore appreciated that this collection of short stories was unified around the theme of money; all of the characters are motivated by needing, wanting, getting, and having money. Karen Bender is excellent at rendering relationships between characters, whether the wealthy grandfather and his estranged granddaughter, the husband and wife in debt, or the woman grieving the sudden death of her friend. I also really enjoyed Bender’s writing style; it’s simple, but beautiful in that way that addresses universal concepts in ways you’ve never thought about before. I kept finding myself highlighting phrases and thinking, “huh, I’ve never thought about competition between siblings like that before, but you’re absolutely right.” While I did appreciate a unifying theme to tie the stories together, I felt that the characters portrayed were less diverse and uniquely interesting than those from Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles.
The verdict: A Little Life ought to win for its beautiful scope and intimacy with its characters. The Turner House will win for telling the story of a place as much as a family, especially because Detroit stands out among a pool of novels that take place in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area. Fortune Smiles will win for its creative diversity of perspectives. All are absolutely worth reading, no matter which one the judges pick tonight.