Reader Question: Which book award lists are the best?

January 21, 2010

Powell’s Books, which happens to be not only my local non-chain bookstore, but also possibly the largest bookstore in the free world or whatever, gives away these free bookmarks with lists of award winners on them. I hoard them like a freak and use a highlighter to mark off which books I’ve read.

These lists include not only award winners but, say, the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, which I’m working my way through. But let’s talk about award winners.

Suffice it to say, I strongly think that some annual book awards have a tendency to pick better winners. And by “better,” I mean:

  • Books I like to read. This is my opinion mememememe me me me me me.
  • Approachable books. Like, I don’t need an advanced degree in English to dissect the book’s Deeply Meaningful Metaphors.
  • Memorable books. Stuff that, five years down the road, still rings a damned bell of some sort.

David’s totally groaning right now, because I’m about to say that the Booker Prize usually is the most consistent for me (he thinks I’m dreadfully Anglophilic). I also am partial to the Pulitzer for fiction and find that its choices usually have a timelessness. Contrast this against the National Book Award, which always seems like a cruel, academic joke on the reader.

But what do you think? My opinions about the recent selections from each of the three award lists I mentioned just now below. Keep in mind I am aware and care about things like the National Book Critics Circle Drum Blanket Group Commemoration Club Annual Potluck and Reading Group Award (or whatever), as well as the Nobel Prize in (Obscure, I-bet-you-haven’t-heard-of-THIS-guy-or-gal, Didn’t you go to college? You pillock. It’s just because you’re American that you haven’t read this fella’s entire catalog. Ignoramus!) Literature.

Powell’s (yep, mentioning them twice in one post) actually has the best single page/rundown of the significant annual (etc.) awards for books and writers on their site that I have seen online, if you are looking for a reference.

And now. My opinions. Titles in bold, I’ve read.

Man Booker Prize

Man Booker Prize 2002-present:The Man Booker Prize is awarded for the best novel written in English by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.
Year Title Author 3-Word Summary (if I have read it)
2009 Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel lucid, revolutionary, synthesis
2008 The White Tiger

Aravind Adiga relentless, topical, grueling
2007 The Gathering

Anne Enright plotless, grim, remote
2006 The Sea

John Banville evocative nostalgia. Reflective.
2005 The Inheritance of Loss

Kiran Desai Landscape, humidity, turmoil
2004 The Line of Beauty

Alan Hollinghurst [Aborted halfway through for no good reason. Need to return and re-read. So far so good.]
2003 Vernon God Little

DBC Pierre Good. Read it.
2002 Life of Pi

Yann Martel Expect strong reaction.

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Pulitzer Prize in Fiction 2002-present: Awarded annually by Columbia University to American fiction writers; primary focus on coverage of American topics.
Year Title Author 3-Word Summary (if I have read it)
2009 Olive Kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout [On my short list to read]
2008 The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz youthful, urban, awkward
2007 The Road

Cormac McCarthy Best book ever.
2006 March

Geraldine Brooks Romantic yet unromantic.
2005 Gilead

Marilynne Robinson God, so boring.
2004 The Known World

Edward P. Jones slavery, oppression, sad
2003 Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides Everyone’s read this.
2002 Empire Falls

Richard Russo Saccharine, yet enthralling.

National Book Award for Fiction

National Book Award 2002-present: Recognizing great American literature.
Year Title Author 3-Word Summary (if I have read it)
2009 Let the Great World Spin

Colum McCann [Will read in next few weeks...just watch]
2008 Shadow Country

Peter Matthiessen [It's on my bookshelf. But it's so...big.]
2007 Tree of Smoke Denis Johnson [This book intimidates me]
2006 The Echo Maker Richard Powers [Huh? I think I forgot about this one. Anyone?]
2005 Europe Central William Vollmann [This book. O, this book. OH THIS BOOK! Arcane, baffling, impossible. Has anyone successfully read this book?]
2004 The News from Paraguay Lily Tuck [...anyone?]
2003 The Great Fire Shirley Hazzard Pretty awful book.
2002 Three Junes Julia Glass Finally! Liked it.

One Comment

  1. Todd says:

    I am the last person you should ask about books, and yet I, too, have found the Pulitzer and Booker lists to be good — if only inasmuch as the books I did manage to read find themselves on said lists, or at least short-listed for them. (Have you read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, short-listed for the 2005 Booker? I feel like a complete ass recommending books to you.)

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