Wednesday, April 9, 2008

This Year's Literary Pulitzer Prizes

In the week of Joseph Pulitizer's birth here are this year's winners of the Pulitizer Prize for "Letters, Drama, and Music."


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz's dark and exuberant first novel makes a compelling case for the multiperspectival view of a life, wherein an individual cannot be known or understood in isolation from the history of his family and his nation.Oscar being a first-generation Dominican-American, the nation in question is really two nations. And Dominicans in this novel being explicitly of mixed Taíno, African and Spanish descent, the very ideas of nationhood and nationality are thoughtfully, subtly complicated. The various nationalities and generations are subtended by the recurring motif of fukú, the Curse and Doom of the New World, whose midwife and... victim was a historical personage Diaz will only call the Admiral, in deference to the belief that uttering his name brings bad luck (hint: he arrived in the New World in 1492 and his initials are CC). By the prologue's end, it's clear that this story of one poor guy's cursed life will also be the story of how 500 years of historical and familial bad luck shape the destiny of its fat, sad, smart, lovable and short-lived protagonist. The book's pervasive sense of doom is offset by a rich and playful prose that embodies its theme of multiple nations, cultures and languages, often shifting in a single sentence from English to Spanish, from Victorian formality to Negropolitan vernacular, from Homeric epithet to dirty bilingual insult. (Publisher Weekly.)

General Nonfiction

The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 by Saul Friedlander

In this second compelling volume of Friedländer's history of the Holocaust (see its predecessor, Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939), the author (history, Univ. of California, Los Angeles) takes into account recent scholarship on the Holocaust but avoids bogging down in the intentionalist/functionalist historiographic debate. He succeeds at integrating the analysis of the decision-making processes of Hitler and his coterie with stories of how individuals were affected by these decisions. The narrative largely conveys the voices of the victims clearly, and while Friedländer might be criticized for an overreliance on published memoirs, it is interesting to see how Victor Klemperer's story, already made famous by his published diary, is woven into the general history of the war years. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story is the manner in which the Nazi regime relied on the consent and participation of the masses to carry out its activities. That orders for deportation and eventual extermination were being issued into the spring of 1945 demonstrates how the Nazi war against the Jews was not merely obsessive but existential. (Library Journal)


What Hath God Wrought: the transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe

This authoritative addition to Oxford's "History of the United States" series is a product of synthesis and astute analysis. Intellectual and cultural historian Howe (Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln) touches upon the rapidly expanding nation's economy, foreign relations, and social structures, taking into account race, gender, and ethnicity, and bringing special insights to his discussion of religious revivals and the evolution of moral consciousness, reform movements, and political institutions. The evocative title, which was the first message carried by Morse's telegraph, refers to the changes wrought by religious sensibilities as well as those wrought by technological breakthroughs. Howe boldly emphasizes the "communications revolution" rather than the "market revolution" of the early 19th century, asserting that the latter largely happened among 18th-century commercial farmers. On the other hand, he does not emphasize a "Jacksonian America." Andrew Jackson, he asserts, was not as uniformly democratic or influential as his supporters maintain (Library Journal)


Eden's Outcasts: the story of Louisa May Alcott and her father by John Matteson

Matteson (English, John Jay Coll., CUNY) relates that "in the marvelous year of 1868, there were suddenly two best-selling authors residing under the roof of Orchard House…father and daughter achieved their most significant literary breakthroughs in the same month." In his account of Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson Alcott, he relies heavily on the journals, letters, and works of both authors to portray their unique lives, also quoting extensively from the writings of famous friends and neighbors like Ralph Waldo Emerson. In doing so, he allows readers to glimpse both the minds of these two literary figures and the times in which they lived. Matteson succinctly covers major events in his subjects' lives, e.g., the publication of Louisa May's novel Little Women and Bronson's attempts to establish "a saintly community of scholars in which money would be unknown." Adding another dimension to his portrayal is his concise and perceptive analysis of both Alcotts' literary works. Matteson's graceful style and careful scholarship confirm his premise that the two were indeed "Eden's outcasts… for both, life was a persistent but failed quest for perfection." (Library Journal)


Time and Materials: poems 1997-2005 by Robert Hass

In this long-awaited volume, his first in ten years, former U.S. poet laureate Hass (Human Wishes) asks readers to consider what we have to pay for living a life in a culture that not only encompasses war and atrocities but also profound love and the tenacity for survival. Time and materials: the price to get something done, to get something fixed, something that we may have "broken." In "State of the Planet," a long poem written in a series of vignettes, he proposes that what might have been done to the planet "was something we've done quite accidentally." No matter. There is a price to pay. In poems that are sometimes elegiac, prophetic, and wise, he asks readers to consider these costs. His style is varied—from short, almost haikulike couplets to long narrative riffs, conversations (so Whitman-like) with the past, present, and future. These poems filled with modern life at the same time ponder the mythologies that create and bind our often flawed but survivable culture. Hass translates Japanese haiku poet Basho when he writes, "If the horror of the world were the truth of the world,/… there would be no one to say it/and no one to say it to." (Library Journal)


Failure: poems by Philip Schultz

The careful, compassionate sixth outing from Schultz (Living in the Past) reverses the plot many poetry books imply. Rather than show an emotional problem (in the first poems) followed by its gradual solution, Schultz begins with warm, even heartwarming, short depictions of love, marriage, fatherhood, and mourning, in which even the elegies find reasons to love life. Schultz addresses the deceased poet David Ignatow: "I didn't go/ to your funeral, but, late at night, I/ bathe in the beautiful ashes of your words." As a reader moves through the volume, and especially in "The Wandering Wingless"- the sequence whose 58 segments and 54 pages conclude the book\-Schultz's gladness gives way to regret and grim fear. Devoted (like several of Schultz's short poems) to the virtues of dogs and of dog-ownership, and to the horrors of September 11, "Wingless" meanders through the poet's own depression and his young adult life before settling on his continuing grief for his unstable, suicidal father. "Why/ did Dad own, believe in,/ admit to, understand/ and love nothing?" It is a question no poet could answer, though Schultz sounds brave, and invites sympathy, as he tries. (Publisher Weekly)


August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

"A fraught, densely plotted saga of an Oklahoma clan in a state of near-apocalyptic meltdown, “August” is probably the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Oh, forget probably: It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Fiercely funny and bitingly sad, this turbo-charged tragicomedy — which spans three acts and more than three blissful hours — doesn’t just jump-start the fall theater season, recently stalled when the stagehands went on strike. “August” throws it instantaneously into high gear. " (New York Times Review 12/5/2007)

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