Thursday, January 1, 2009

The 2008 Johnny Bingo Awards

Yes, it’s time for the least-anticipated literary awards of the year – the Johnny Bingo Awards!

The nice thing about being judge and jury for an award nobody cares about is I can change the rules every year without protest. And I’m changing the rules again. Last year I gave out a bunch of different awards in different categories. And in the years before that I simply gave out one award. But this year I’m going to name five finalists and then pick a winner. (That’s my plan now anyway; it could change in a few paragraphs)

Luckily, no matter how ridiculous I make it, I can't make it sillier than the Nobel Prize in Literature, bestowed annually on obscurities and mediocrities, the only qualification being that the winner not be American.

This award too has only one criterion – for a book to be eligible, I had to have finished reading it in 2008. It could’ve been written by a blind Greek poet in the 8th century BC or be an unpublished galley hacked from an MFA candidate’s MacBook in a Brooklyn cafe. As long as I read the final paragraph before Dick Clark’s puppeteer walks him through the New Year’s Eve Countdown, it can be a winner.

But before we hand out this year’s awards, I’d like to say a few words about books I don’t read.

A Few Words About Books I Don’t Read
I don’t read books written by people who got famous doing something different. So you’ll see no sensitive novels by Ethan Hawke or counterfactual histories by Newt Gingrich. Kirstie Alley’s How to Lose Your Ass and Regain Your Confidence: Reluctant Confessions of a Big-Butted Star might be a literary masterpiece, but I’ll never know it.

I don’t read current events books. Perhaps I’ll expand this thesis in a larger post, but I don’t think current events lend themselves well to book form. First, not enough time has passed for perspective. And second, events have a way of overtaking the book. I tried to read George Packer’s Assassin’s Gate last year, and while parts of it were excellent, as I got to the last few hundred pages it was clear that the Iraq he was writing about was different than the one that existed by the time of my reading. So I stick to magazines and newspapers for the events of the day.

I don’t read memoirs, particularly memoirs by people who’ve led massively self-(and others) destructive lives, but who’ve now put all the pieces together and found wisdom. Somehow I’ll muddle through life without their wisdom.

I don’t read books by Mitch Albom.

Apparently I don’t read books by women. This isn’t a policy but it appears to be the truth. I didn’t read a single book written by a woman in 2008. I did better in 2007, thanks to Barbara Tuchman and J.K. Rowling. Considering how much I enjoy the works of those two women in particular, as well as the histories of Catherine Drinker Bowen and Doris Kearns Goodwin, I may have to correct that.

Which reminds me – I don’t read books that everybody else is reading. I’ve been a fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin since before she became a television star and I’ve read more Lincoln books than most, but I’ve kind of avoided Team of Rivals because everybody else is reading it. I will read it eventually, but long after the rest of the world has lost interest.

There are all kinds of exceptions to these “rules”. I’ll read Mark Bavaro’s new novel because one of the best presents I got this Christmas was an inscribed copy of it. I read Bill Bryson’s Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir because it was written by Bill Bryson.

I also read Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father*, which breaks most of my rules: it’s a memoir, it’s a current events book (sort of), it’s written by someone who doesn’t write books for a living, and it’s a book everybody was reading. But I was very interested to read a book written by a Presidential candidate long before he was one.

* a mini review: it started out fascinating and impressive, but became dreadfully boring and self-absorbed. Hopefully not a harbinger for his Presidency…

There is no exception to the Mitch Albom rule.

So, without further ado the five finalists are:

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1845
Daniel Walker Howe

We tend to think of the years between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War as boring. Not as boring, perhaps, as the Era of Obscure Bearded Presidents (1872-1896), but still pretty boring.

Yeah, Andrew Jackson was a colorful guy, but everyone else seemed small by comparison – dwarfed by the shadow of the Founders (Adams and Jefferson died in 1824) and the specter of the Civil War (Lincoln, Lee and Grant walked the earth, but few knew who they were.).

Even the 2nd most famous guy of the period, John Quincy Adams, was the less famous son of a Founder who can’t even get a monument on the Mall.

But Howe – who has the great gift of weaving diplomatic, political, and economic history into a compelling whole – shows that the period was, as the sub-title says, transformational.

(For an excellent review on WHGW, go here.)

Duma Key
Stephen King

As I said earlier, I tend not to read things everybody else is reading. Thus, I’ve read very little John Grisham and Stephen King through the years.

But this year, in separate acts of airport desperation, I bought Grisham and King paperbacks. The Grisham book – The Brethren – was entertaining but nothing special; it was like one of Elmore Leonard’s lesser works, peopled with quirky Florida lowlifes. But Duma Key grabbed me by the collar and wouldn’t let go.

It’s odd that King is still considered a horror novelist. The Shawshank Redemption, based on a King novella, is by one measure the most popular movie ever made – and there is not a supernatural moment in it. The same is true of Stand By Me, based on a King short story. But I guess it’s hard to shake the image left by books/movies like Carrie, Cujo, and Pet Semetary.

Duma Key is about a middle-aged guy who – like King – was severely injured in an accident. While recovering he discovers he has untapped powers as a painter – well, for a description of the book go here. All I’ll say is that King’s genius stems in part from his storytelling, in part from his ability to tap into our fear – but mostly from his understanding of human emotion.

I realize I might be banned from the unofficial book snobs’ club, but what King is up to in his later years just might be called literature.

The Spies of Warsaw
Alan Furst
Speaking of popular fiction that borders on literature…

There are some authors who sell only a fraction of the books John Grisham sells, but whose fans are even more devoted. Furst’s novels, all set before or in the early years of World War II, has a devoted following and I number myself among them.

The books are formulaic – one or more Europeans, recognizing the impending calamity of war with Germany and presented an opportunity to do something about it, do something about it. Gauloises are smoked, cafes are visited, and Polish countesses slip into bed with French naval attachés.

But Furst’s novels prove that formulas executed with literary style and thorough historical research are as impressive as any higher-brow work.

Blue Latitudes: Sailing Boldly Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before
Tony Horowitz
I think of myself as a knowledgeable guy, historically speaking. But reading Blue Latitudes, I was shocked at how ignorant I was of the accomplishments of James Cook.

Most discoverers happen upon their discovery – the Hudson River, America – and, if they survive, tend to stay in that part of the world looking for more stuff or head home to enjoy their fame. But Cook travelled all over the world, to places untouched by Europeans, multiple times. New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, parts of Alaska. He circumnavigated the globe multiple times and covered 140 of the 180 degrees of the earth’s longitude.

But most people don’t know Captain Cook from Captain Hook. Tony Horowitz, former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and author of Confederates in the Attic, sets off to find out why. Part travelogue, part history, Horowitz re-traces Cook’s voyage, and interviews just about anybody he meets along the way in search of Cook’s story and his legacy.

Cook’s is a great story – and Horowitz is wonderful company for the telling of it.

Corelli’s Mandolin
Louis de Bernières
You know the old phrase, “the book was better”. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was a terrible Nicolas Cage movie, but this is an excellent novel, set on a small Greek island during the Second World War.

It’s kind of hard to describe, but check it out here.

And the winner is…hmmm….well I liked all of them, obviously. But none are books I’ll be talking about five years from now. I’ve already forgotten what The Spies of Warsaw is about (that’s the problem with formulaic fiction – no matter how good it’s executed, the details slip away).

Oh, I’ll give it to What Hath God Wrought. Congratulations, Mr. Howe. You must be proud.

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