Sunday, November 16, 2008

Oh, What The Heck

My original intentions were to hold off on posting odds to win the National Book Award for fiction until I had finished reading every last one of the five finalists, an undertaking that began in mid-October when this year's Fab Five was unveiled. But things happen. I ended up covering way more October baseball than I normally do, including that suspended World Series Game 5 that left us dangling for three days in Philly. And the team I'm paid to cover has thrown a huge, plumber's wrench in my reading schedule by going trade-crazy the past few weeks. It all comes down to not being able to read and write at the same time, if you know what I mean.

So with the big "and the winner is" announcement set for Wednesday at the Marriott Marquis in New York City, a Times Square hotel that sounds far grander than it actually is, I've decided to go ahead and rank the five books even though I'm not quite done with the fifth -- Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country. I have about 220 pages left to read of the 891 page epic, and I should have it finished before the 2008 award is conferred. But, just in case.......

Odds Title Author
2-1 Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen
Comment: Sprawling historical novel based on E.J. Watson, a Florida Everglades outlaw figure at the turn of the last century, Matthiessen's work was originally published in three volumes but was 'condensed' into this fist-thick masterpiece.

5-2 Home, Marilynne Robinson
Comment: Robinson, who won the Pulitzer a few years ago with Gilead, (CLICHE ALERT!!!) delivers another home run with this poignant sequel about a family's rogue sibling who returns home decades later to discover he can't shake his past.

5-1 Telex From Cuba, Rachel Kushner
Comment: Entertaining work concerning an enclave of American families living in Cuba and overseeing sugar operations owned by U.S. firms at the time of the island country's revolution in the 1950s.

10-1 The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon
Comment: Another historical novel, this one built around the suspicious "self-defense" killing by Chicago's chief of police in 1908 of a Russian-Jewish immigrant accused of having anarchist intentions. The black-and-white photo of the deceased on page 52, propped upright in a straightback chair with his eyes half-closed and his head held in place by a police detective, is haunting and transfixing.

15-1 The End, Salvatore Scibona
Comment: Dreamy intertwining of lives in a 1953 period piece. The first-time novelist has all the earmarks of a rare talent who could be embarking on a path to greatness but needs to reign in his prose. Too much dreaminess for me. Scibona could be a major force for years to come or, like so many, could disappear into literary oblivion.

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