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The 2013 Pulitzer Prizes

April 15, 2013 by Reader's Connection

Winners of the 2013 Pulitzer Prizes, and the finalists, were announced on Monday, April 15th. The book-related categories are listed below. The results in other categories can be found at the Pulitzer Prize website.

 

General Nonfiction

Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, my predicted winner, turns out to have not been in the running for the General Nonfiction award. The winner was Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New AmericaThis account of the Groveland Four, defendants in the 1949 Jim Crow-era rape case, sheds new light on the fate of four African American men. King shows the lengths to which Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund went to defend them, and to which Lake County, Florida, Sheriff Willis McCall and his deputies, prosecutors, and jurors went to enforce race-based justice. Drawing on FBI investigation files and personal papers of key NAACP lawyers, King elucidates the gendered and racial assumptions that denied the Groveland Four a fair trial and that justified arson, bombings, beatings, and murder to uphold southern racial mores. The case reached the US Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial for two of the defendants, who were then shot under suspicious circumstances. One defendant, Walter Irvin, survived, and his death sentence was commuted. King demonstrates that no rape likely occurred, and the examining physician’s testimony was deliberately excluded from both trials. Set against the Cold War and on the eve of the Brown case, this saga illustrates that equal justice under law was honored in the breach in the post-WW II South. — Choice

General Nonfiction Finalists

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai UndercityHalf an acre. 335 huts. 3,000 people. And a concrete wall that is supposed to hide them from view: this is Annawadi, the Mumbai slum that comes vibrantly to life in this book’s pages. Ms. Boo says that she chose Annawadi because the scale of this “sumpy plug of slum” bordering a lake of sewage was small, and its location was fraught with possibilities. Annawadi sits beside the road to the Mumbai airport, on “a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late.” In 2008, at the time the events in the book unfolded, scavenging and trash sorting were the children of Annawadi’s most promising career choices. — The New York Times

The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell

The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in NatureAn extraordinary, intimate view of life in an old-growth forest. “Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water?” This is the question Haskell (Biology/Univ. of the South) set out to answer by examining one square meter of old-growth Tennessee woods. Highly informative and entertaining, these short essays are dense with sensory details and deserve to be read slowly and carefully. The sights, smells and sounds of the forest permeate the pages, bringing readers face to face with a panoply of simple natural wonders: leaves, wildflowers, mosses, ferns, snails, salamanders, deer and more. Throughout an entire calendar year, Haskell scrutinizes this “mandala” of space, connecting the microcosm of birds, plants and animals in this patch of woods to the macrocosm of the outer world. This in-depth look into the natural biosphere emphasizes the idea that nothing–not even the small microbes that exist in the leaf litter–lives unrelated or unconnected to any other thing. — Kirkus Reviews

Fiction

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's SonJohnson’s novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native, from its orphanages and its fishing boats to the kitchens of its high-ranking commanders. While oppressive propaganda echoes throughout, the tone never slides into caricature; if anything, the story unfolds with astounding empathy for those living in constant fear of imprisonment–or worse–but who manage to maintain their humanity against all odds. The book traces the journey of Jun Do, who for years lives according to the violent dictates of the state, as a tunnel expert who can fight in the dark, a kidnapper, radio operator, tenuous hero, and foreign dignitary before eventually taking his fate into his own hands. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, a government interrogator, who tortures innocent citizens on a daily basis, remembers his own childhood and the way in which his father explained the inexplicable: “…we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.” In this moment and a thousand others like it, Johnson (Parasites Like Us) juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope. — Publishers Weekly

Fiction Finalists

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne FrankIt’s a tribute to Englander’s verve and scope that the eight stories in his new collection, although clearly the product of one mind with a particular set of interests (Israel; American Jewry and suburbia; writing and reading; sex, survival, and the long shadow of the Shoah) never cover the same territory. Each is particular, deeply felt, and capable of pressing any number of buttons. The title story, which features a reunion of old friends, a lot of marijuana, and a series of collisions between Israel and America and Orthodoxy and laxity, starts out funny and gets funnier, until suddenly it’s not a bit funny. “Sister Hills” traces an Israeli settlement from its violent founding to its bedroom community transformation and reads like a myth, simple, stark, and, like many a myth, ultimately horrifying. And as you spend a few days with the beleaguered director of “Camp Sundown,” a vacation camp for elderly Jews, you’ll find, as he does, that things you think you’re sure about–guilt, justice, silence, and the morality of revenge–start to get fuzzy. What we talk about when we talk about Englander’s collection turns out to be survival and the difficult–sometimes awful, sometimes touching–choices people make, and Englander, brings a tremendous range and capacity to surprise to his chosen topic. — Publishers Weekly

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow ChildHere’s a modern retelling of the Russian fairy tale about a girl, made from snow by a childless couple, who comes to life. Or perhaps not modern–the setting is 1920s Alaska–but that only proves the timelessness of the tale and of this lovely book. Unable to start a family, middle-aged Jack and Mabel have come to the wilderness to start over, leaving behind an easier life back east. Anxious that they won’t outlast one wretched winter, they distract themselves by building a snow girl and wrap her in a scarf. The snow girl and the scarf are gone the next morning, but Jack spies a real child in the woods. Soon Jack and Mabel have developed a tentative relationship with the free-spirited Faina, as she finally admits to being called. Is she indeed a “snow fairy,” a “wilderness pixie” magicked out of the cold? Or a wild child who knows better than anyone how to survive in the rugged north? Even as Faina embodies a natural order that cannot be tamed, the neighborly George and Esther show Jack and Mabel (and the rest of us) how important community is for survival. VERDICT A fluid, absorbing, beautifully executed debut novel. — Library Journal

History

Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall

Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's VietnamMost American studies of the Vietnam War concentrate on the period following the introduction of U.S. combat units under President Johnson. However, contemporary Vietnamese accounts view the “American phase” as the concluding act of a prolonged nationalist struggle to gain independence from Western imperialism. Logevall, professor of history at Cornell, leans toward the latter approach–that is, American involvement must be inseparably linked to the doomed French effort to maintain imperial control over Indochina. Of course, American policy makers insisted their goals were different; unlike the French, they wanted an independent South Vietnam free from both colonial and communist control. Yet, as Logevall eloquently illustrates, the U.S. followed essentially the same dreary path and made the same errors as its French predecessors. We failed to comprehend the nationalist yearnings of Vietnamese “communists” and were blind to their support among a wide swath of the people. That blindness led us to prop up hopelessly inept or hopelessly compromised Vietnamese “leaders” like Ngo Dinh Diem. This is a superbly written and well-argued reinterpretation of our tragic experience in Vietnam. — Booklist

History Finalists

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 by Bernard Bailyn

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675This weighty book distills a lifetime of learning of one of our most authoritative historians of colonial America. Continuing his exploration of the demographic origins of the colonies (begun in The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction), Harvard professor emeritus Bailyn offers a history of the colonies built up of brilliant portraits of the people who interacted in these strange and fearsome lands. Much of it is the story of the costs, savagery, terrors, and conflicts that attended the establishment of European outposts in what became the U.S. This is not your school-book colonial history; there’s no Anglo-American triumphalism in its pages. Rather, Bailyn describes “confusion, failure, violence, and the loss of civility” and the extraordinary heterogeneity of the white and Indian populations. Only a historian as penetrating and stylish of pen as Bailyn could convince you that there was something important to say about the few Finns settling in the colonies. And the squeamish should be forewarned: the true barbarousness of people, European as well as Indian, and white against white, is appalling and shows how thin the veneer of civilization often is and was in the colonies’ early decades. An extraordinary work of profound seriousness, characteristic of its author. — Publishers Weekly

Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt

Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History“Let slip the dogs of war,” proclaims Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Yet even in the most merciless wars, efforts have been made to put restraints on the violence perpetrated upon both soldiers and civilians. In a civil war, as President Lincoln quickly realized, that task is particularly difficult, since Lincoln viewed the rebels as traitors rather than an army of a foreign nation. Witt, professor of law at Yale, shows how Lincoln’s struggles with this dilemma resulted in a “civilized” code that still governs American and international military behavior. Witt first examines the conduct of soldiers in earlier American conflicts, from the Revolutionary War to the Mexican War. But Lincoln found those precedents as well as the advice of military professionals inadequate as he tried to fight and win the war. Late in 1862, a commission chaired by Francis Lieber, a college professor, gave Lincoln what he wanted. It was a code that allowed him to apply the “hard hand of war” to both southern soldiers and civilians without descending into pure savagery. This is a well-written and provocative examination of the effort to modify the inherent barbarism of war. — Booklist

Biography or Autobiography

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte CristoAlex Dumas, an extraordinary man whose sensational life had been largely lost to history solely because of his race, takes the spotlight in this dynamic tale. Thanks to Reiss’s excellent research, combined with the passionate memorial his son, Alexandre Dumas, consistently built in his own novels and memoir, Dumas’s life has been brought back to light. Father to the well-known novelist and clear inspiration for The Count of Monte Cristo, as well as the adventurous spirit of The Three Musketeers and other stories, Dumas (1762-1806) rose through the ranks of the French army from a lowly private in the dragoons to become a respected general who marched into Egypt at Napoleon’s side. (The rivalry and juxtaposition between these two leaders proves fascinating.) Born in what is now Haiti to a French nobleman father and a slave mother, the biracial Dumas chanced to come of age during the French Revolution, a brief period of equality in the French empire; he was thus granted numerous opportunities that the son of a slave 20 years before him (or even 20 years later) would not have enjoyed. Reiss capitalizes on his subject’s charged personality as well as the revolutionary times in which he lived to create an exciting narrative. — Publishers Weekly

Biography or Autobiography Finalists

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American MasterpieceIn this innovative biography, written with flair and unostentatious erudition, Smith College English professor Gorra tells the life of Henry James through the story of the composition of his novel, The Portrait of a Lady. First published in 1881, the novel was a landmark work: James’s scrupulous devotion to craft led him to dramatize the interior life of his heroine, Isabel Archer, in unprecedented fashion. Instead of transparent plots and clear moral conflicts, James opted for subtle clashes of personality and morally ambiguous stories in which action was character and character action. Analyzing James’s letters, journals, stories, and travelogues, Gorra traces the author’s life and literary milieu, alternating a reconstruction of his travels with extensive attention to the novel’s composition and reception. The book reads like an exciting voyage of discovery, beginning with James revising his novel 20 years after it was written, and later depicting his blooming consciousness as an author torn between an American and a European identity. Gorra’s highly engaging introduction to James will be most attractive to lovers of literature who want to learn more about the craft of novel writing and will likely send readers back to the shelves to discover James all over again. — Publishers Weekly

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. KennedyWhen one reads in the introduction that Nasaw was asked by the Kennedy family to write this biography, the obvious question is, How did the request affect the finished product? Nasaw was granted access to papers denied to other researchers and worked for six years on the project. Some of his conclusions clash markedly with what has been written about Kennedy (Nasaw dismisses rather lightly the long-held conclusion that Joe made part of his fortune as a bootlegger). But he gives readers a much fuller look at various accusations made against Kennedy, especially the charge that he was an anti-Semite. Through quoted letters, it is clear that Kennedy did have a grudge against the Jews, mostly because they interfered with what he wanted, be it getting a foothold in the movie industry or keeping the U.S out of WWII. His isolationism never really wavered. He believed that “victory over Hitler had cost much and accomplished little.” Perhaps the key element to Kennedy, Nasaw suggests, is that rather than being larger than life, he was much smaller. He was all about protecting his family and his fortune. Though fortune remained, the family shattered, cutting Kennedy, in many ways, adrift. The book becomes more fascinating the farther one gets into it, and while there may be areas for dispute here, there’s no doubt it makes a major contribution to Kennedy history. — Booklist

Poetry

Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds

Stag's LeapKnown for her unadorned, emotionally direct, sometimes sexually explicit free verse, Olds has amassed a large and loyal following over 30-odd years and 10 books. In her new collection every poem speaks to the collapse of a 30-year marriage, precipitated by the ex-husband’s affair. Hence the memorable title: “The drawing on the label of our favorite red wine/ looks like my husband, casting himself off a/ cliff in his fervor to get free of me.” Olds begins as the marriage is ending: “I want to ask my/ almost-no-longer husband what it’s like to not/ love, but he doesn’t not want to talk about it.” Years later, he is a memory: Olds can “watch my idea of him pull away/ and stay, and pull away,” like a kite. In between there are violently mixed feelings, erotic memories, loneliness, anger, and resolve in a book that takes its arc from the divorce, but its organization from the seasons, moving from winter to spring to “years later,” and frequently looking back: “Maybe I’m half over who he/ was, but not who I thought he was, and not/ over the wound, sudden deathblow/ as if out of nowhere.” — Publishers Weekly

Poetry Finalists

The Abundance of Nothing by Bruce Weigl

The Abundance of NothingThroughout his award-winning career, Bruce Weigl has proven himself to be a poet of extraordinary emotional acuity and consummate craftsmanship. In The Abundance of Nothing, these qualities are on full display, animating and informing poems that combine rich, metaphoric imagery with direct, powerful language. Deftly weaving history and everyday experience, Weigl transports readers from the front lines of the Vietnam War and all the tangled cultural and emotional scenes of that time to the slow winds of the American Midwest that softly ease the voice of the veteran returning home. Though the poems struggle with themes of mortality and illness, violence and forgiveness, the poet’s voice never wavers in its meditative calm, poise, and compassion. Elegiac yet agile, ethereal yet embodied, The Abundance of Nothing is a work of searching openness, generous insight, and remarkable grace. — Chicago Distribution Center

Collected Poems by the late Jack Gilbert

Collected PoemsGilbert has long held legendary status among poetry readers for his wise, hard-won poems about the joys and complexities of romantic love, about grief and about the power of experience deeply felt. His 1994 collection The Great Fires (which is included here in its entirety) is, for many, practically a sacred text. The publication of Gilbert’s complete body of work to date is doubtless a literary event. From his Yale Younger Poet’s Prize-winning debut, Gilbert’s poems have felt wise beyond their years and yet youthful, full of contradictions that give them life: “Joy has been a habit,” he writes in one early poem, which concludes, “Now/ suddenly/ this rain.” Here are also many and many kinds of poems about travel or life in far-flung places, particularly Greece. Plentiful, too, are poems of marriage–its difficulties (“Eight years/ and her love for me quieted away”), its ecstasies, and its ending: divorce is memorably figured as “looking/ out at the bright moonlight on concrete.” Gilbert is perhaps best known, however, for the grief-stricken poems that chart the dying of and then mourning over his wife, Michiko, of whom he writes, “The arches of her feet are like voices/ of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,/ where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.” All poetry lovers will want this book. — Publishers Weekly

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