April 12, 2010 by Reader's Connection
The winners of the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes were announced this afternoon. Here is a list of the winners and finalists in the fiction and nonfiction book categories.
For information about the winners in other categories–journalism, drama, music–visit the Pulitzer Prize website.
Tinkers by Paul Harding
A tinker is a mender, and in Harding’s spellbinding debut, he imagines the old, mendable horse-and-carriage world. The objects of the past were more readily repaired than our electronics, but the living world was a mystery, as it still is, as it always will be. And so in this rhapsodic novel of impending death, Harding considers humankind’s contrary desires to conquer the “imps of disorder” and to be one with life, fully meshed within the great glimmering web. In the present, George lies on his death bed in the Massachusetts house he built himself, surrounded by family and the antique clocks he restores. George loves the precision of fine timepieces, but now he is at the mercy of chaotic forces and seems to be channeling his late father, Howard, a tinker and a mystic whose epileptic seizures strike like lightning. Howard, in turn, remembers his “strange and gentle” minister father. Each man is extraordinarily porous to nature and prone to becoming “unhitched” from everyday human existence and entering a state of ecstasy, even transcendence. Writing with breathtaking lyricism and tenderness, Harding has created a rare and beautiful novel of spiritual inheritance and acute psychological and metaphysical suspense. — Booklist
Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet
Millet follows her sixth novel (How the Dead Dream) with a collection of stories, some previously published, combining celebrities with animals. In “Sexing the Pheasant,” Madonna has not quite killed a pheasant on her Scottish estate and obsesses over her adoptive Englishness, among other things. The titular tale examines Harry Harlow’s detached efforts to study his controlled “absence of love” in infant rhesus monkeys. A man at the Wellfleet town dump encounters Noam Chomsky, who is trying to give away his granddaughter’s gerbil condo in “Chomsky, Rodents.” In perhaps the most surreal and humorous yarn, “Lady and Dragon,” an Asian billionaire attempts to win the admiration of actress Sharon Stone by adopting the Komodo dragon who bit her ex-husband. VERDICT Ranging from the mundane to the surreal, Millet’s satirical yet sometimes touching stories will appeal to fans of the author’s previous novels, especially Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, and to fans of T.C. Boyle’s fictionalizations of well-known figures.– Library Journal
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
In eight beautifully crafted, interconnected stories, Mueenuddin explores the cutthroat feudal society in which a rich Lahore landowner is entrenched. A complicated network of patronage undergirds the micro-society of servants, families and opportunists surrounding wealthy patron K.K. Harouni. In “Nawabdin Electrician,” Harouni’s indispensable electrician, Nawab, excels at his work and at home, raising 12 daughters and one son by virtue of his cunning and ingenuity–qualities that allow him to triumph over entrenched poverty and outlive a robber bent on stealing his livelihood. Women are especially vulnerable without the protection of family and marriage ties, as the protagonist of “Saleema” learns: a maid in the Harouni mansion who cultivates a love affair with an older servant, Saleema is left with a baby and without recourse when he must honor his first family and renounce her. Similarly, the women who become lovers of powerful men, as in the title story and in “Provide, Provide,” fall into disgrace and poverty with the death of their patrons. An elegant stylist with a light touch, Mueenuddin invites the reader to a richly human, wondrous experience. — Publishers Weekly
Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed
Ahamed, an investment banker, has written an engrossing biographical history of four central bankers who played key roles in reconstructing the gold standard after WW I: Mortagu Norman of the Bank of England, Emile Moreau of the Banque de France, Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank, and Benjamin Strong of the Federal Bank of New York. In many ways his book is a biographical companion to Barry Eichengreen’s Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939 (CH, Dec’92, 30-2190), which argued that the gold standard increased the severity of the Great Depression. Ahamed also blames the gold standard for the severity of the Great Depression and presents the economics of the argument in an accessible way. But he intertwines this core argument with fascinating biographies of the key players. His writing style makes the 500 pages seem short. — Choice
Henry Ford’s doomed attempt to establish a rubber industry and an attendant “work of civilization” in the rain forests of Brazil.The rising price of rubber and a threatened British-led cartel inspired the famously independent Henry Ford in 1927 to purchase a Connecticut-sized plot of land for the purpose of growing his own. The South American leaf blight and the advent of synthetic rubbers forced the company to abandon Fordlandia in 1945, long after Ford had poured millions of dollars and years of strenuous effort into the project. So why did he persist? Grandin convincingly argues that, for Ford, the enterprise was more than a purely economic venture. It was a missionary application of Ford-style capitalism–high wages, humane benefits, moral improvement–to a backward land. Ford’s belief that he could harmonize industry and agriculture was always at war with the forces he had unleashed in the United States–mass-produced, affordable cars that encouraged mobility and fear induced in workers by hired thugs like Harry Bennett, who assured that the company would remain nonunion. With his vision of an industrial arcadia slipping away at home–due to what Grandin acutely terms “a blithe indifference to difference”–Ford attempted to construct in the Amazon a world he had helped obliterate in America. — Kirkus Reviews
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood
Surveying American history during its first decades under the Constitution, Wood locates a baseline in the ascendance of populist over aristocratic values. Expressed in the eclipse of Federalists by Jeffersonian Republicans, by growth of commercial activity, and by the evangelism of the Second Great Awakening, alterations in American society by 1815 made it scarcely recognizable to the generation of 1776. Wood, an esteemed scholar on the early republic, composes a narrative replete with telling incidents and well-sketched personalities to support his thesis of a sociopolitical transition from aristocracy to something like democracy. Noting the trebling of population during the period, Wood tracks the movement of a restless people, such as the advance of settlers to the west. Affecting political events in the foreground, whether inducing proto-modern electioneering or inducting some unlettered representative into Congress, the leveling tendencies of this era’s demographic growth underlie the history Wood relates. With attention to institutionalization of the government, as in John Marshall’s makeover of the Supreme Court, Wood applies an expert but accessible pen to everything that makes this a seminal era in American history. — Booklist
Biography or Autobiography
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles
Stiles presents a thoroughly researched, annotated, and illustrated account of the rise of the visionary Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) from boatman to railroad entrepreneur, revealing his difficult personal and family life, struggle to attain a place in New York society, and role in establishing the arguably individualistic, lightly regulated financial system that America has today. Stiles shows that as America moved from a communal, rural society to a competitive, industrial one, framed by the antebellum conflicts between laissez-faire Jacksonian and controlled-market Whig ideas, Vanderbilt came to exemplify the contradictions of the masters of competition who stifled rivals by later enacting monopolies similar to the kind they had first opposed. Instrumental in providing transportation to the California gold fields, consolidating railroad lines to make them among the first modern corporations, and helping to reconcile the post-Civil War North and South, the gruff Vanderbilt was often misjudged in his own time as well as by history. — Library Journal
Biography or Autobiography Finalists
Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
Displaying empathy for Cheever (1912-82) as both man and artist, this is a biographical exploration of great depth. Bailey begins this exploration of Cheever’s life in the 1600s, with the Cheever family roots. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of one of contemporary literature’s most compelling artists. Bailey has an uncanny ability to root out the truth while still presenting the popular legend. Navigating the seeming inconsistencies of a life lived in the limelight, he makes no attempt to conceal or gloss over Cheever’s ills and discusses Cheever’s alcoholism and his struggle with his own sexuality with grace and insight. Well researched and exquisitely written–Bailey writes nonfiction with the flair of a novelist–this biography will serve students interested in Cheever and in American letters more broadly. — Choice
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper Jr.
A meticulously researched life of the Progressive Era president, Cooper’s portrait of Woodrow Wilson provides realistic depictions of the person and historical assessments of the politician. Wilson’s salient traits included adherence to Presbyterianism, an active libido, and an intellectualized passion for politics. Cooper taps these anecdotal sources over the course of his chronology from Wilson’s upbringing in the post-Civil War South to the demise of his presidency as an ineffectual invalid. Wilson’s abundant writing, including stacks of love letters, books on government (some still in print), speeches, and state papers, must have posed a formidable challenge; the fluency of Cooper’s narrative demonstrates he mastered it. His Wilson is one general-interest readers can understand both sui generis and as a man of his times. Espousing morality in politics, Wilson was indifferent to blacks and sanctioned infringements of civil rights, and although dedicated to peace, he led America into World War I. Capturing Wilson’s complexities, Cooper presents the personality behind one of the most consequential presidencies in American history. — Booklist
Stanley Kubrick got it wrong in Dr. Strangelove: There was a Doomsday Machine, but it was in the other bunker. So we learn in this penetrating look at the history of the Cold War and its many curious assumptions, specifically the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, bearing the apt acronym MAD, courtesy of the late Robert McNamara. One of its offshoots was the notion that the Soviet military created “Dead Hand,” a missile system that led to further assumptions that the civilian leadership and military command system were dead and gone. The Soviet brass, writes Washington Post reporter Hoffman, worried that human operators might have pangs of conscience and tried to push through a computer-loop design by which the machines would decide when to unleash hell without human intervention. Fortunately, more sensible heads prevailed–but not without a fight. One of the many virtues of Hoffman’s book is that it depicts not just the death-tainted hand of the military-industrial complex in the United States, but also in the Soviet Union, where supposed strongmen like Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov had considerable trouble keeping the warmongers under control. Despite diplomatic agreements and good assurances, the Russian city of Sverdlovsk pumped out anthrax spores as “the Soviet Union promptly betrayed its signature on the [arms control] treaty.” Indeed, readers will realize how lucky we are to have escaped being destroyed at their hands. — Kirkus Reviews
General Nonfiction Finalists
How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities by John Cassidy
Market disasters–and the cycle of delusions responsible–receive lively, engaging analysis by Cassidy, a journalist at the New Yorker. The author focuses primarily on the rise and fall of free market ideology and the mostly unrealistic ideal of a self-correcting marketplace. An excellent comprehensive history of the economic thought that led to this kind of utopian economics provides a refresher course in Adam Smith, Friedrich August von Hayek, Kenneth Arrow and Hyman Minsky. Both a narrative and a call to arms, the book provides an intellectual and historical context for the string of denial and bad decisions that led to the disastrous “illusion of harmony,” the lure of real estate and the Great Crunch of 2008. Using psychology and behavioral economics, Cassidy presents an excellent argument that the market is not in fact self-correcting, and that only a return to reality-based economics–and a reform-minded move to shove Wall Street in that direction–can pull us out of the mess in which we’ve found ourselves. — Publishers Weekly
The Evolution of God by Robert Wright
While the diatribes of the “new atheists”-Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and company-have made headlines in recent years, Wright takes a decidedly more friendly approach to human religiousness. Although he shares their materialist, naturalist assumptions, he argues that over time human notions of God have “gotten closer to moral and spiritual truth. Religion hasn’t just evolved, it has matured.” Making the best recent scholarship accessible to the general reader, Wright follows the historical trajectory from polytheism through monolatry (worship of one god among many) to monotheism, focusing primarily on the evolving vision of God in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an, and ending with a discussion of religion’s place in human evolution . . . Wright’s approach will appeal to a broad range of readers turned off by the “either/or” choice between dogmatic atheism and religious traditionalism. — Library Journal
Versed by Rae Armantrout
What you see is what you get in Armantrout’s ninth book of free-verse poetry. A professor at the University of California, San Diego, Armantrout was part of the West Coast poetry community of the 1970s, which gave rise to language poetry. At best, her latest work contains brief, impressionistic poems–a few words surrounded by white space–held together by a subtle tension in the connections between words and phrases. Armantrout’s poems possess a fleeting light as opposed to an epiphany and a half-heard sound as opposed to rhyme and rhythm . . . It’s difficult to know whether Armantrout’s sound is, say, a mouse inside the wall or a tree branch brushing the roof of the house. When these poems achieve beauty, it lies not so much in the craft as in the eyes–and ears–of the beholder. — Library Journal
Inseminating the Elephant by Lucia Maria Perillo
Perillo is poet who aggressively, unflinchingly and humorously takes it all in; her poems here feature an ode to Motorola, a fat junkie, a bra fitting and Plath’s hair, not to mention the act described in the title poem. She is not afraid of beginning a poem with a list of great men who all “had a woman and child/ they needed to ditch,” and then comparing the way the universe regards everyone to the way those great men regarded their children. She avoids sentimentality while confronting the rebellions of her own body, which landed her in a wheelchair: “She rolls up/ to watch me board, as people do,/ because it is interesting/ to see the wheelchair maneuvered backward/ into the van.” She manages to write a surprising poem about Viagra, with Niagara Falls’ “silver surge” as its central image. Perillo is never uninteresting. In the title poem, her chutzpah and roving eye blend perfectly, demonstrating in fairly intricate detail how a German zoologist’s preparation and approach toward an elephant’s “vestibule” compares to the reader approaching the speaker’s own inner life, her “seed-pearl” and “opalescent sorrow.” — Publishers Weekly
The second Finalist for Poetry is Tryst, by Angie Estes, which isn’t currently owned by IMCPL.