Joan Silber’s novel Improvement wins the $15K PEN/Faulkner Award, only weeks after her National Book Critics Circle fiction award. “The art of this exquisite novel rests in Silber’s ability to weave the lives of her characters together into a complete whole, providing readers with intimate glimpses into the delicate and often unseen challenges of unassuming, everyday people,” the judges noted. Anthony Marra says he will use his $50K Simpson Family Award for midcareer authors “to finish my current project, a historical novel about the community of European refugees and exiles in 1940s Hollywood. This is my first work set in America, and though midcentury Los Angeles (‘Sunny Siberia,’ as exiles called it) is new terrain, this novel is preoccupied with the same concerns as my previous books: political coercion, historical amnesia, and falsified realities. At a time when these themes dominate American political life, this novel and the questions it raises feel all the more urgent to me.” The shortlist for the lucrative International Dublin Literary Award, worth about $122.4K, includes Elizabeth Strout for My Name Is Lucy Barton, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, and Han Kang’s Human Acts.
Madeline Miller plumbs the Greek myths for a new novel from a female perspective; Michelle Dean creates a group portrait of twentieth-century women critics, Yunte Huang’s biography of Siamese twins Chang and Eng “has volcanoes, earthquakes and a solar eclipse; epidemics, revivals and slave rebellions,” Charles Frazier’s Varina transforms the wife of Jefferson Davis into “a symbol of grit and wit, open-mindedness and tolerance,” and Angolan novelist Ondjaki sets his new novel in his hometown of Luanda.
Madeline Miller, Circe
Miller won the Orange Prize for Fiction for her first novel, The Song of Achilles. Her new novel reframes the story of the mythical Circe. “Epic has been so traditionally male,” Miller tells Alexandra Alter (New York Times). “All these stories are composed by men, largely starring men, and I really wanted a female perspective.”
Alex Preston (The Guardian) is a fan:
In her Circe, Miller has made a collage out of a variety of source materials—from Ovid to Homer to another lost epic, the Telegony – but the guiding instinct here is to re-present the classics from the perspective of the women involved in them, and to do so in a way that makes these age-old texts thrum with contemporary relevance. If you read this book expecting a masterpiece to rival the originals, you’ll be disappointed; Circe is, instead, a romp, an airy delight, a novel to be gobbled greedily in a single sitting.
“Miller’s Circe is not exactly the entire Odyssey retold through a new point of view,” points out Jenny Bhatt (PopMatters), “The novel is indeed a response to the myth of Odysseus because, through Circe, we see the hero very differently. This is definitely Circe’s story—one that has had various conflicting versions over time—with the Odyssey as the backdrop, or the side-show. Mostly, she has been portrayed throughout art as a jealous, malignant witch who transforms others into monsters or animals through her potions. Here, we get a somewhat different story of her growth into her powers as a witch or sorceress and her awareness of what they mean to her and others around her.”
Bethanne Patrick (Washington Post) writes, “Circe is a deep character study of how the daughter of the sun god, Helios, grew from a misunderstood child into an angry woman and finally a serene sage.”
Michelle Dean, Sharp
Award-winning cultural critic Dean’s group portrait of twentieth-century women with “the ability to write unforgettably” strikes a chord. “They were connected and they were forced, more or less, to reckon with each other, whether they liked it or not,” Dean tells The Rumpus’s Elon Green. “And they were all identified, at one point or another, as somehow exceptional. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, which I think is a point I was trying to make.”
Kate Tuttle (Los Angeles Times) writes:
The word [“sharp”] isn’t always complimentary. It implies intelligence and perception, but also danger and even violence, as in the blade of a knife. All of these women could wield a pen like a weapon, and one of the book’s most delicious pleasures is in reading about battles between critics. These days, book reviewers tend to avoid negativity or controversy—whether because we fear being ostracized on social media or worry about losing future freelance assignments. But the women Dean profiles here were willing to be unpopular. That made them not only sharp, but brave.
“In a happy case of it takes one to know one, Michelle Dean has delivered a penetrating book about penetrating American writers,” writes Jim Higgins (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel).
Maureen Corrigan (Wall Street Journal) writes, “In Sharp … Ms. Dean has pulled off a much rarer achievement: She’s written an entertaining and erudite cultural history of selected female thinkers who ‘came up in a world that was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything.’ Indeed, Ms. Dean herself performs the work of a public intellectual by doing justice to the substance of her subjects’ work, while also conveying—through her own wit and lively opinions—why their work matters.”
Yunte Huang, Inseparable
Huang, who won an Edgar for his biography of Charlie Chan, is back with the life story of the original “Siamese Twins” who were brought to the U.S. when they were seventeen in 1829. “So they were growing up in Siam in this kind of fishing village,” Huang tells NPR’s Terry Gross. “And one day, they were swimming in the river in the canal, and they were discovered by this traveling Scottish businessman by the name of Robert Hunter. And he thought he saw something kind of mysterious, kind of creature literally walking out of Greek mythology, almost. And when he got closer, he realized it was actually two boys joined together. And so he immediately realized it was a business opportunity.”
Jennifer Szalai (New York Times) notes, “Chang and Eng became an immediate national sensation, giving Huang a bounty of sources from which to choose when tracing the contours of their story. Modern writers like Mark Slouka and Darin Strauss have written novels based on the twins’ lives. A popular biography by Irving and Amy Wallace was published in the 1970s; more scholarly monographs have been published since. But it’s the contemporaneous accounts that give an unvarnished look at the degradation and disparagement the brothers had to endure.”
Ann Fabian (National Book Review) writes:
Learned and playful, Inseparable draws on Huang’s personal experiences and his astonishing literary and historical knowledge. Inseparable has volcanoes, earthquakes and a solar eclipse; epidemics, revivals and slave rebellions. Bulwer Lytton, Flannery O’Connor, Tecumseh, Alexander Pope, King Rama II, Black Hawk, Mary Shelley, Victor Hugo, Nat Turner, P.T Barnum, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Giambattista Vico, and Andy Griffith and Gomer Pyle all come into the story. Jane Austen makes a surprise appearance to introduce the seductive value of the good farmhouse Chang and Eng built to welcome their brides, Sarah and Adelaide Yates.
Charles Frazier, Varina
Frazier’s Civil War novel Cold Mountain won the National Book Award in 1997; the film won an Academy Award. He returns to that crucial point in American history for his new novel.
“Varina is a splendid historical novel just right for our time,” writes Dan Cryer (Newsday). “It transforms the wife of Jefferson Davis into a symbol of grit and wit, open-mindedness and tolerance. By contrast, the president of the Confederacy comes off as rigid, racist and self-righteous. Down with one icon, up with another! Coincidentally or not, the book seems an apt text for up-to-the-minute discussions of gender and racial inequality.”
Mary Ann Gwinn (Seattle Times) says “[Varina Davis] believed the Civil War was a doomed enterprise for the South, and after the war she often said that the right side won. She moved to New York City and became fast friends with Julia Grant, the widow of Ulysses Grant, the general who brought the South to its knees. And before the war began, she took on the care of a young black man named Jimmie Limber, who becomes a key character in Frazier’s book when the grown-up Jimmie, now James, tracks down Varina to fill in the blank spaces of his past.”
Mary Doria Russell (Washington Post) concludes:
This novel has much to offer those of us who are living through what Carl Bernstein has taken to calling a “cold civil war,” but in the end it is a finely wrought novel that will reward rereading. Elegiac without being exculpatory, it is an indictment of complicity without ignoring the historic complexity of the great evil at the core of American history.
Ondjaki, Transparent City
The Angolan author’s third novel, set in his hometown of Luanda, won the 2013 José Saramago Prize, the 2015 Prix Transfuge du Meilleur Roman Africain, and a Prix Littérature-Monde at the 2016 St. Malo literary festival.
“Ondjaki transports us to Transparent City,” writes Sloane Crosley (Vanity Fair).
“Since this is Ondjaki’s big urban novel, and one that’s set in the near-present, the characters speak a real post-colonial Portuguese that takes on board every source of authority with which ordinary Angolans have come into contact,”
Stephen Henighan, who translated Transparent City from the Portuguese, tells Conversational Reading’s Veronica Scott Esposito. “In many scenes, characters with a moderate level of education are repeating, and often parodying or re-inventing, phrasing they’ve heard from some official source. In the original, these subversive little parodies provide the novel with a lot of its humor.”