This past June, I was asked to be one of three judges for the $50,000 Kirkus Prize for fiction, a flashy new prize five times greater than either the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. The same 50K would be given to a nonfiction and a young-adult author, and each winner would be picked by a committee of three, a bookseller, a critic, and an author. For fiction, the bookseller was Stephanie Valdez of the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, the novelist was the great Kate Christensen, and the critic was me.
The nominees for the award included all the books that received a starred review from Kirkus between November 2013 and October 2014. (Like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus does pre-publication reviews that have quite an impact on the fate of the volume in question. It isn’t easy to get a star.) There were about 300 of them in all. Because it was June when we started, many of the books were already out. In the first two weeks, I came home every day to a front door obscured by stacks of boxes and packing envelopes, and it only let up a little after that.
Just unpacking and recycling the containers was a daunting task; where the hell to put them was a whole ‘nother thing. I cleared out one large bookshelf and dragged a second in from the garage. A through H was in the dining room and I through Z in the living room, but by the end everything from T on out was in piles on the carpet as tall as I am. I trained my daughter Jane to help with intake, checking off the books on the spreadsheet, sorting and shelving. For this she received Oprah chai lattes at Starbucks.
As the literary bounty poured relentlessly in, we judges devised a rating system using a Googledoc spreadsheet. C meant I don’t think so, B meant worth a look, and A meant this could very well make the short list.
It turns out you can usually tell a C in the first 50 pages; sometimes less. But reading to decide whether you can toss a book aside is a little depressing, and this is compounded by the fact that many novels are pretty depressing themselves. People in novels by definition have a lot of problems, ranging from ennui, bereavement, and bunions to violent crime, war and dystopian apocalypse. Depression itself is common among fictional characters. Or maybe this was just 2014. If so, another 2014 thing was long. Why stop at 500 pages, many authors asked themselves, and just kept going. I blame Donna Tartt, whose October 2013 The Goldfinch was just barely out of competition.
Every two weeks we judges had a conference call to discuss our progress. It was soon obvious that Stephanie Valdez was an intellectual reader who liked to be challenged, where I hoped for nothing more or less than well-written escapism. When she happily described a book as “ambitious,” I learned to feel a certain chill. On the other hand, my profile of a novel I liked as “an upmarket Jodi Picoult” might have been the kiss of death in the Valdez camp.
Fortunately, we had Kate Christensen as our middle child, who liked sexy plots AND pages of conversation about Kierkegaard. In the end we had no trouble picking the shortlist, then choosing from them The One. Our way was eased by the fact that Kirkus brought us all down to Austin, Texas, where we bonded over margaritas, used book stores, vintage dress shopping, and big plates of migas on a sticky table at Polvo’s on South First, where I typed up our final decision. (This was the very table where in 1988 my son Hayes ate his first bite of solid food, guacamole, unsupervised, though the place was called Seis Salsas at the time.)
Now you can join our book club, and lucky for you there are only six books left. Here they are.
Set in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, Lily King’s Euphoria, the prize-winner, packs as much narrative power and intellectual energy into its 250 pages as novels triple its size. (And you know I feel about that.) King’s story is inspired by the life of Margaret Mead and her passionate entanglement with two fellow anthropologists. Euphoria explores the interplay between character and culture, between the darkness of humanity and the tenderness of the human heart. All three judges had read it and loved it before the competition began and we never found anything we liked more.
Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World is a hugely ambitious novel-in-documents, a series of articles, interviews and other texts purportedly assembled by a fictional editor to shed light on the life of the late artist Harriet Burden. “Harry,” as she was known to intimates, is most famous for a series of three large-scale artworks which she secretly arranged to have presented not as her work but as the work of three male artists. But very little about these projects is known for sure. The book is a kind of logic puzzle or brain teaser, each section complicating and revising the story, recasting it in different philosophical, narrative or historical terms. (Guess which judge loved this book the most.)
Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names tells the haunting story of “Isaac,” which is not his real name, a young man who moves from Kampala, Uganda in the violent period just before Idi Amin assumed power to a college town in the Midwest. There he is assigned to a caseworker named Helen, a woman who has been cooped up in a boring white-bread job and a boring white-bread life for too long. The story moves back and forth between their love affair, played out against a backdrop of provincial 1970s racism, and a relationship even more intense: a friendship Isaac had back in Africa with another down-and-out young man who was almost his brother — except when he was lying to him, manipulating him or betraying him.
Florence Gordon, by Brian Morton, is an irresistible novel written in crisp, wry vignettes which you can stop reading no more easily than you can stop eating a bag of high-end potato chips. The eponymous protagonist is a brilliant, cranky, 75-year-old feminist writer who can’t be bothered to attend her own birthday party. Ferocious and weirdly irresistible, Florence is facing, none too graciously, a sudden and unexpected public lionization for her contribution to feminist thought. Morton paints his domestic scenes like a Dutch master, illuminating them with poignancy as well as irony.
Bill Roorbach’s The Remedy for Love is a page-turner, a love story and a vivid drama of man and woman against the elements. Small-town Maine lawyer Eric Neil befriends an odd, possibly mentally ill woman who says her name is Danielle at the grocery story, and gives her a ride home through the first flakes of the storm of the century. For most of the remainder of the book, the two are stuck together in an isolated cabin under relentlessly falling snow, filling the tiny, claustrophobic room with high-energy, off-color banter and flirtation as they work their way through the groceries and a few boxes of wine. This hair-raising, exciting and very sexy story of love in the time of climate change is deeply romantic at its heart.
Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is a melodramatic, pulpy and super-smart emotional thriller set in post-WWI London — a book that caused this judge to read until 3 a.m. Twenty-nine-year old protagonist Frances Wray lives with her mother after the loss of her father and brothers during the war; as the novel opens, the once-wealthy Wrays have been forced to rent out the top floor of their house to a loud, middle-class couple. Quickly Frances is caught up in an intense affair with the woman, and their passion leads to unexpected violence. This book drives you nearly crazy with suspense even as it calmly lays out a fascinating analysis of the mood in London after the war.