Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Joyous Defeat

"Lord of Misrule" won the National Book Award for fiction, which goes down as a loss in my ledger. I picked "Great House" for the prestigious award.

But I've never felt better about losing than I was when, while watching the live Twitter feed of the announcement with J.G. (trust me, our lives really aren't that dull the rest of the year) the big news was delivered in under 140 characters.

I loved the book, and was THIS close to picking it. But, as I told J.G. while Thursday morning quarterbacking afterward, I backed off for two reasons.

One, the ending was too neat. I'm one of those oddballs who prefers an ending -- I can't explain why -- that contains an element of huh-ness.

Two, and this was the biggest one, I have a thorough, near-expert understanding of the novel's subject, horse racing. I love the sport, grew up surrounded by it, and immersed myself in it as part of my work for 10 years. I could hardly wait for the book to show up in my mailbox, and finally on Monday it did.

What impressed me with "Lord," beyond the richness of the writing and compelling storyline, was author Jaimy Gordon's expert command of the race track's language and inner workings. I was awed, and told J.G. as I was reading that I thought the layman might have trouble with the terminology, much of which went undefined and was left to the reader's imagination to figure out.

I know what a "spitbox" is and what it means when someone says a claiming horse is in "jail." I know where the "frog" is located on a horse's body. I can tell you what "bute" does and why the wagering odds on a horse would suddenly plunge from 22 to 6 in a single flash of the toteboard. But most readers -- and the book award judges -- probably don't, and I figured that would be a points against.

I wanted "Lord" to win. Boy, how I did. But I thought my affection for the novel was swayed greatly by my interest in the sport. And so I bet against, if you will, because one of the first lessons learned at a race track is that one should never bet with the heart. So much for that.


  1. Very interesting. As the announcement was being made, I was offline so I could finish Lord of Misrule! I did wonder if the horseracing language was authentic so I'm glad to hear that it was. I didn't figure out quite what all those terms meant, but I was able to pick up enough from context to get by, so I'm guessing the judges could too. I didn't love this quite as much as I did Great House, but it might have been my second choice. (I'd waver between this and I Hotel.)

  2. I'm glad the best book won, and it was interesting hearing about your decision making process in the end.

    I may have to read that one, though I could only answer one of those items, I am reasonably certain that the frog is part of a horse's hoof, indeed I think, maybe, it is the kind of tender bit tucked up inside. I may however be completely wrong on that one.

    Why did you have to find out the winner on Twitter, on another level? Nothing wrong with that I suppose, but one would think there would be other ways.


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