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And the Pulitzer Prize Winner Is . . .

April 20, 2009 by Reader's Connection

The winners of the 2009 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.


Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge

 Hell. We’re always alone. Born alone. Die alone, says Olive Kitteridge, redoubtable seventh-grade math teacher in Crosby, Maine. Anyone who gets in Olive’s way had better watch out, for she crashes unapologetically through life like an emotional storm trooper. She forces her husband, Henry, the town pharmacist, into tactical retreat; and she drives her beloved son, Christopher, across the country and into therapy. But appalling though Olive can be, Strout manages to make her deeply human and even sympathetic, as are all of the characters in this novel in stories. Covering a period of 30-odd years, most of the stories (several of which were previously published in the New Yorker and other magazines) feature Olive as their focus, but in some she is bit player or even a footnote while other characters take center stage to sort through their own fears and insecurities. Though loneliness and loss haunt these pages, Strout also supplies gentle humor and a nourishing dose of hope. People are sustained by the rhythms of ordinary life and the natural wonders of coastal Maine, and even Olive is sometimes caught off guard by life’s baffling beauty. — Booklist




Fiction Finalists

  The Plague of DovesThe Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich’s 13th novel, a multigenerational tour de force of sin, redemption, murder and vengeance, finds its roots in the 1911 slaughter of a farming family near Pluto, N.Dak. The family’s infant daughter is spared, and a posse forms, incorrectly blames three Indians and lynches them. One, Mooshum Milk, miraculously survives. Over the next century, descendants of both the hanged men and the lynch mob develop relationships that become deeply entangled, and their disparate stories are held together via principal narrator Evelina, Mooshum Milk’s granddaughter, who comes of age on an Indian reservation near Pluto in the 1960s and ’70s and forms two fateful adolescent crushes: one on bad-boy schoolmate Corwin Peace and one on a nun. Though Evelina doesn’t know it, both are descendants of lynch mob members. The plot splinters as Evelina enrolls in college and finds work at a mental asylum; Corwin spirals into a life of crime; and a long-lost violin (its backstory is another beautiful piece of the mosaic) takes on massive significance. Erdrich plays individual narratives off one another, dropping apparently insignificant clues that build to head-slapping revelations as fates intertwine and the person responsible for the 1911 killing is identified. — Publishers Weekly


 All Souls by Christine Schutt All Souls

In this latest novel by Schutt (Florida ,), the angst of very rich girls undergoing the stress of senior year in a Manhattan prep school is leavened by their reactions to a classmate who is ill in the hospital with a rare form of cancer. Astra Dell, who lost her own mother a few years ago in a violent accident, haunts her classmates: she becomes a rationalization for their bulimia and a reason to blame themselves for caring so deeply about their college applications. Her best friends rarely visit, or they resort to sending her thoughtless letters, but Marlene, a scholarship student, finds herself more comfortable on the neutral ground of the hospital room than in school. She regularly brings Astra her homework and becomes her most devoted visitor. Schutt’s spare and artful prose strikes a balance between poignancy and cynicism in illustrating the interconnections of classmates, parents, and teachers. Some chapters are mere brief impressions, but these snippets cohere into a picture of the school’s community and its sharp divisions of class and wealth. –Library Journal





 The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed

The Hemingses of Monticello

 In the long-awaited sequel to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), Gordon-Reed delivers a powerful composite portrait of the African American family whose labors helped make Jefferson’s Virginia residence a fountainhead of American culture. Primary interest naturally attaches to Sally Hemings, the gifted black woman who chose—at age 16—to live as Jefferson’s enslaved mistress in America rather than as a free woman in France. But Gordon-Reed highlights the family role of Sally’s mother, Elizabeth Hemings, whose experience in bearing children to both black and white fathers schooled her in the racial dynamics of early America. Biracial relationships immensely complicated life at Monticello, where the Virginia planter famous for declaring the equality of all men counted among his slaves four of his own children, fathered in a union he never publicly acknowledged. Gordon-Reed teases out telling clues from correspondence and journals of the Hemingses’ struggle for dignity despite the cruel constraints of slavery. That Jefferson finally freed his children by Sally does not obscure those restraints, nor does it hide the tragedy visited upon other Monticello slaves when Jefferson’s posthumous debts licensed the auctioneer to break up black families to increase their market value. — Booklist




History Finalists

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust

This Republic of Suffering

This is a readable history of the effect the Civil War’s death toll had on transforming American society and the way it looked at and handled death. Faust (Harvard) divides her text into eight chapters covering evocative issues about the war and its dead: “Dying,” “Killing,” “Burying,” “Naming,” “Realizing,” “Believing and Doubting,” “Accounting,” and “Numbering.” The text flows smoothly but is not trite. Excerpts from letters, diaries, journals, and other firsthand accounts sweep readers up in the pathos of the war’s carnage. The accounting is balanced, with both Union and Confederate observations. The magnitude of Civil War casualties transformed US attitudes toward death and dying, especially commemoration. New federal policies emerged regarding accounting for the number of war dead and the identification of remains. Emergency transport services evolved for handling the wounded. The overwhelming need for burial space became a public nightmare and a cause for public outcry. The national cemetery movement evolved from this period, as did the creation of national days of remembrance, such as Memorial Day, along with other regional commemorative days. — Choice

The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960’s by G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot

The Liberal Hour

Depending upon one’s perspective, the 1960s were an era of racial progress, sexual liberation, and environmentalist awakening, or they were characterized by wretched excess and self-indulgent, irresponsible behavior. Mackenzie and Weisbrot, both college professors, place themselves in the former camp, but with an interesting twist. Many of the examinations of this tumultuous decade stress the bottom-up pressure and energy provided by civil rights activists, feminists, and various counterculture figures. Instead, the authors strongly assert that the progressive gains were primarily the result of political leaders in Congress and the executive branch, who took advantage of a rare window of opportunity to skillfully advance their reform agenda. This “liberal hour” was facilitated by unprecedented prosperity and a national spirit of optimism, in which government was assumed to be the agent of positive change. Ultimately, Mackenzie and Weisbrot indicate that the natural conservatism of the electorate and the draining disillusionment of the Vietnam War closed the window, but not before our social and political landscape was transformed. — Booklist




Biography or Autobiography

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham

American Lion

Newsweek editor Meacham makes a solid case that the war-hero president was largely responsible for expanding the power of the executive branch.The fiercely independent Jackson was a tough customer, to be sure, and never one to back down from a fight. He challenged at least 13 men to duels during his lifetime, killing one of them, and he attacked his political enemies with equal fervor. During his presidency (1829-1837), he waged a crusade against the national bank, which he felt wielded too much power, and promised military action against South Carolina when the state threatened secession over federal tariffs. More than any chief executive before him, Jackson went out of his way to assert his presidential authority, all the while crafting a public image as a valiant defender of the people against the powerful. As a result, he often clashed with members of his own cabinet, including Vice President John C. Calhoun. Five cabinet members were replaced during Jackson’s first term alone, and Meacham ably portrays the aggressive behind-the-scenes politicking and power plays. Though the author is clearly captivated by his subject’s drive and ambition, he avoids hagiography, and is clear-eyed about Jackson’s flaws. He particularly condemns the president’s unwavering support for the forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans, which led to the infamous Trail of Tears. — Kirkus Reviews



Biography or Autobiography Finalists


Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.W. Brands


Traitor to His Class

 Bringing his historical and biographical skills to the task of sifting through a huge number of earlier books on FDR, [Brands] provides a broad yet nuanced overview. Though Brands does not break new ground, neither does he sensationalize the more controversial aspects of FDR’s personality and politics–contrary to what the subtitle might suggest. Rather, FDR is presented as a man who, in mapping his own career, relied heavily on the political career of Theodore Roosevelt and learned from the mistakes of Woodrow Wilson, in whose administration he served. The President’s ordeal with polio tested and matured him so that he was ready to inspire a crippled nation during the Great Depression. Though he would blunder in the 1937 Supreme Court packing plan, which Brands labels “the biggest mess of his presidency,” by 1942 he is considered by Brands to have been “the most powerful man in American history.” — Library Journal


 The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century by Steve Coll

 The Bin Ladens
 The sprawling and immensely wealthy Bin Laden family has a past and present far more complex and interesting than that of one middle-aged man holed up in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coll, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a staff writer for the New Yorker, has written an impressive family saga that spans three generations and four continents and intersects with some of the key events of the last century. Osama is, of course, part of this story, but he isn’t necessarily the most interesting or even the most important family member. Coll begins with an examination of the life and career of the family patriarch, Mohamed, who was born in poverty in southern Yemen, where he toiled in menial jobs. As a teenager, he immigrated to the port city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. His cleverness and ambition meshed perfectly with the building boom fueled by the oil revenues of the Saudi royal family. Before his death in 1967, Mohamed had fathered more than 50 children by various wives, and Coll offers portraits of some of them. He effectively shows how the creation of the Bin Laden family fortune was, and continues to be, tightly bound to the fate of the Saudi royal family. This is a well-done, sweeping chronicle of a clan that continues to exert worldwide power and influence. — Booklist




General Nonfiction

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enlavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

Slavery by Another Name

 Wall Street Journal bureau chief Blackmon gives a groundbreaking and disturbing account of a sordid chapter in American history–the lease (essentially the sale) of convicts to “commercial interests” between the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Usually, the criminal offense was loosely defined vagrancy or even “changing employers without permission.” The initial sentence was brutal enough; the actual penalty, “reserved almost exclusively for black men,” was a form of slavery in one of “hundreds of forced labor camps” operated “by state and county governments, large corporations, small time entrepreneurs and provincial farmers.” Into this history, Blackmon weaves the story of Green Cottenham, who was “charged with riding a freight train without a ticket,” in 1908 and was sentenced to “three months of hard labor for Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad,” a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. Cottenham’s sentence was extended an additional three months and six days because he was unable to pay fines then leveraged on criminals. Blackmon’s book reveals in devastating detail the legal and commercial forces that created this neoslavery along with deeply moving and totally appalling personal testimonies of survivors. — Publishers Weekly



General Nonfiction Finalists

Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age by Arthur Herman

Gandhi and Churchill

 The complex task of drawing comparison and contrast between two of the most chronicled lives of the 20th century is easily and compellingly handled by Herman (How the Scots Invented the Modern World ). Spanning the globe and dozens of decades, Herman never sinks into the clichs of these two men’s biographies but rather deconstructs some of the cherished myths surrounding them while maintaining a warm and lively tone. From India to South Africa to London, they seemed to cross paths in life yet could never reach a true understanding of each other. Churchill, the ardent defender of the British Empire, had trouble accepting modern political realities and fixated upon Gandhi as the ultimate threat to his beloved England’s legacy. Gandhi, in turn, achieved global superstar status but could not unite Indian politics and eventually became a hindrance, then an irrelevance, to Indian independence. These two men may have been presented historically as enemies, or at least proxy enemies, but Herman brings out the true issues that divided them yet made them remarkably similar holdovers of the Victorian era. — Library Journal



 The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe by William I. Hitchcock

The Bitter Road to FreedomThis history of Europe’s liberation in 1945 centers on what happened to civilians as, and after, the Allies overran Germany. An assiduous researcher, historian Hitchcock emphasizes personal stories, an effective tool for humanizing events that enveloped millions upon millions of traumatized survivors of Nazi brutality. The victims had to be fed and housed pending repatriation or resettlement, while their victimizers had to be dealt out justice. How well or poorly these imperatives were met courses through Hitchcock’s subtopics, which encompass civilian casualties in France and Belgium, improvised relief of starvation in the Netherlands, the performance of the Allies’ formal relief organization, the UNRRA, and the operation of displaced-persons camps. Hitchcock also considers whether German civilians were victims. In balancing context and the illustrative anecdote, Hitchcock successfully recovers in contrast to the euphoria of victorious memory the less enlightened acts and attitudes of the liberators toward the liberated, without, however, compromising the basic rightness of the Allied cause. — Booklist




 The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin

The Shadow of Sirius

 In his best book in a decade–and one of the best outright–Merwin points his oracular, unpunctuated poems toward his own past, admitting, “I have only what I remember,” and offering what may be his most personal, generous and empathic collection. Somehow, he manages to dissolve the boundaries between one time and another, seeming to look forward to the past or remember what has yet to happen, as in a recollection of traveling to Europe by boat and seeing “a warship I recognized/ from a model of it I had made/ when I was a child/ and beyond it/ there was a road down the cliff/ that I would descend some years later/ and recognize it/ there we were all together/ one time.” The poems show the marks of having weathered “…the complete course/ of life,” but also feel fresh and awake with a simplicity that can only be called wisdom: “the morning is too/ beautiful to be anything else.” Gorgeous poems about enduring love melt time as well, looking toward a moment when “we will be no older than we ever were.” These are among Merwin’s best poems, because, as he says, “it is the late poems/ that are made of words/ that have come the whole way/ they have been there.” — Publishers Weekly



Poetry Finalists


 Watching the Spring Festival by Frank Bidart


Watching the Spring Festival

 Long admired for his lengthy dramatic monologs, Bidart (Star Dust ) here channels his poetic energies into relatively compressed lyrical forms, honing what could have been expansive meditations on mortality, illusion, transformation, and rebirth down to thunderbolts of image (“At the threshold/ you can see the threshold: –/ it is a precipice”) and aphorism. Nearing 70, Bidart writes as if under a deadline, emphasizing essence over exposition (“A good photograph tells you everything/ that’s really going on is invisible”) and cutting straight to the poem’s metaphysical core (“What none knows is when, not if”). This work exudes an almost visceral poignancy–a bitter half-acceptance of a world that distracts us from recognizing the brevity of our lives with fleeting manifestations of beauty. Bidart sometimes speaks through the imagined lives of others (Marilyn Monroe’s mother, Tu Fu), but his masks have grown transparent, and when he writes (in “Under Julian, c.362 A.D.”), “the fewer the gestures that can, in the future,/ be, the sweeter those left to you to make,” we know who’s really doing the talking. — Library Journal


  What Love Comes To by Ruth Stone

What Love Comes To

 For this late-life writer, who will turn 93 this year and is the state poet of Vermont, “clotheslines/ where the laundry lashes the bitter air” present a “microcosm of the world.” This wry and thoughtful poet, akin sometimes to Stanley Kunitz, sometimes to Grace Paley, appears again in the many new poems here, whose raw moments are a small price to pay for their power: “I am complicated,” she writes, “and yet, how simple is my verse.” But the real news is found in the selections from Stone’s earlier books–beginning in 1959, but especially with Topography (1971) and Cheap (1975), which may stun younger readers with their sheer variety. There are transcribed speeches from working-class lives, nursery rhyme couplets of uncanny force, angry political allegories and explorations of second-wave feminism–in short, the evidence of an ambitious career, one that has been not only long, but full of constant change. — Publishers Weekly

1 comment »

  1. sssawyer says:

    Thanks for this post. I usually have to search to find the Pulitzer Prize books. Here they all are, and with reviews to boot!

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