Here are the finalists for the 2010 National Book Award; winners will be announced Nov. 17.
So Much for That, Lionel Shriver
Great House, Nicole Krauss
Lord of Misrule, Jaimy Gordon
I Hotel, Karen Tei Yamashita
Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq, John W. Dower
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Justin Spring
Every Man in this Village is A Liar, Megan K. Stack
The Eternal City, Kathleen Graber
Lighthead, Terrence Hayes
One With Others, C.D. Wright
Ignatz, Monica Youn
YOUNG PEOPLE'S LITERATURE
Ship Breaker, Paulo Bacigalupi
Mockingbird, Kathryn Erskine
Dark Water, Laura McNeal
Lockdown, Walter Dean Myers
One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia
The bookies favored Tom McCarthy's C - but then again they thought some Scandinavian poet was going to win the Nobel. Instead London author and columnist Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question.
The book is "about love, loss and male friendship" and "what it means to be Jewish today," according to the Booker website, and managed to beat the formidable two-time winner Peter Carey' and his Parrot and Olivier in America.
The other shortlisted books: Emma Donoghue's Room, Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room and Andrea Levy's The Long Song.
I've only read Room and would've been thrilled had it won.
Visitors who get up close and personal with the inhabitants of the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, aren't selected by the scientists who work there. The apes have final say about who is allowed to meet them -- and who isn't.
Sara Gruen decided to stack the odds in her favor for her visit to the research facility. Like one of the characters in her new novel Ape House (Spiegel & Grau, $26), she bought backpacks and filled them "with everything I thought an ape might find fun or tasty -- bouncy balls, fleece blankets, M&M's, xylophones, Mr. Potato Heads, etc. -- and then e-mailed the scientists, asking them to please let the apes know I was bringing ‘surprises.' ''
The apes didn't have to be coerced to see Gruen; they demanded to meet her. The day after her visit, Panbanisha, a female, asked the scientists: "Where's Sara? Build her nest. When's she coming back?"
The intriguing -- and frequently startling -- potential for communication between our species and Panbanisha's lies at the heart of Ape House, about which the Canadian-born Gruen will talk at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Temple Judea for Books & Books (free tickets are required and available at any B&B location). The novel features a family of bonobos -- an endangered species once thought to be chimpanzees and known for cheerfully casual sexual behavior -- at a university research facility that communicate using American Sign Language and lexigrams (graphic symbols that represent words). Gruen explores what happens to them and their human counterparts when a mysterious group "liberates'' the apes, a porn king buys them and they end up as stars of a reality TV show (looking much smarter, less aggressive and more compassionate than any Jersey Shore cast member).
Gruen is the author of three other novels, including the bestselling Water for Elephants, set in a traveling circus during the Depression. The book has sold 2.8 million copies (with presumably more
sales to come when the film tie-in edition hits shelves next spring, its cover adorned with the teen-dream face of Twilight's Robert Pattinson).
"A lot of people were going to be expecting Water over and over. But I don't want to write the same thing over and over again. . . . And I like to mix fiction with nonfiction. I get to do research that is amazing. I think writers do like to come away knowing something they didn't know before."
And so Gruen became fascinated with the great apes, studying the language of lexigrams in order to communicate with them. The task was not easy; she had to learn more than 380 symbols.
"I'm certainly not fluent," she says. "It's very difficult but a wonderful thing. . . . It was as I was speaking to apes that I actually became remotely competent."
The conversations between the apes and scientist Isabel Duncan in the book are warm and often funny, as when Bonzi, the matriarch, requests coffee. "Sure, I can make coffee," Isabel tells her. "WANT CANDY COFFEE. ISABEL GO. HURRY GIMME," Bonzi replies. Was there ever a more eloquent plea for a caramel macchiato?
"I was so impressed with how much research went into the book and how well she had bonobos down," says research scientist Vanessa Woods, author of the nonfiction book Bonobo Handshake, who works at Duke University and the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"What I really love about Sara's depiction is that it was based on some kind of interaction she or someone else had with bonobos. My favorite moment in the book is this beautiful scene where the porn king wants to sex the show up more, so he sends the bonobos a blow-up doll, and they cover the doll with a blanket. It's such a bonobo thing to do. Bonobos would be puzzled by our ideas about and fascination with sex."
Animals -- horses in particular -- also played crucial roles in Gruen's first two novels, Riding Lessons and Flying Changes. She's always been an animal lover; she, her husband and three children live in North Carolina with four cats, two dogs, two horses and a goat. She's boarding another goat in Illinois.
"People ask me, ‘Have you always been like this?' and I say, ‘Like what?' I guess I do really like animals. I surround myself with them in my real life. So when I'm working six to eight hours a day in the fictional world, it makes sense to have them there, too."
One of the highlights for Gruen of studying the bonobos was her tea party with Panbanisha at the Great Ape Trust. (You can see photos of the apes at greatapetrust.org; you can also donate to the trust and other animal causes on the "Critters in Need'' section of saragruen.com.)
"She's very cheerful," Gruen says. "She makes a choice about you. If she doesn't like you, she won't talk to you. We really hit it off. She knew that the book was dedicated to her -- I had the manuscript there and explained it was a story about bonobos and opened the dedication page and explained it was dedicated to her -- and she pointed to her name.
"She saved her cookies for a week, and she made the tea. . . . The really funny thing is it was a Tuesday, and the apes are on diets on Tuesday and Thursday. I think that's why she asked for the tea party on Tuesday. She asked if I wanted milk. I took some, and I handed it back to her, and she drained the bottle. She offered cookies and after I took mine she did the same thing -- tipped all the cookies into her mouth. Then she went and brought me a branch from the forest because she felt bad she'd eaten the cookies. I saw one of the volunteers eating a leaf, and I thought, ‘Wow, I really hope they're not poisonous.' ''
The close genetic link between humans and bonobos -- scientists estimate we share more than 90 percent of our DNA -- is touchy for readers uncomfortable with evolution. So far Gruen hasn't had any unpleasant encounters over the subject, but she believes it's irrelevant anyway. In her book she equally skewers religious fanatics, hostile vegans, animal-rights activists, the media, the publishing industry and the shallowness of Hollywood.
"I'm not vilifying anyone specifically. There are so many shades of gray, and everyone decides where they are on that scale. We're not always going to agree. . . . and it really doesn't matter if you believe it or not. It does not mean these apes don't deserve protection."
You might think days pass slowly in Room, but you would be wrong. Five-year-old Jack is always busy there. And so is his Ma.
"We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser," explains the precocious narrator in Emma Donoghue's startling new novel. There's also Breakfast and Bath and one TV show (only one, though, because "before I came down from Heaven Ma left it on all day long and got turned into a zombie. . . . So now she always switches off after one show, then the cells multiply again in the day and we can watch another show after dinner and grow more brains in our sleep."
Later, there's Phys Ed and Lunch and Scream, where Jack and Ma shout at the top of their lungs. Jack doesn't know why they must yell so loud, but he's 5; he likes to yell. Sometimes there's Orchestra (‘‘where we run around seeing what noises we can bang out of things'') and always there's reading, although there is only a handful of books to choose from, and Ma is getting awfully tired of repeating Dylan the Digger.
Room, you see, is Jack's whole world, even though it is only an 11-by-11-foot shed with a skylight in the back yard of a monster they call Old Nick, who kidnapped Jack's Ma off the street seven years earlier. But Jack doesn't know that part. He doesn't really know that Outside is real -- Room has never seemed like a prison because of his mother's determination that they create a life together -- until Ma begins to wonder if there isn't a way to expand their world.
Donoghue's story -- urgent, sly, funny, terrifying, affirming and sometimes all those things at once -- is remarkably simple but full of hidden complexities, a heartbreaking story of love and survival that's every bit as compelling as any thriller. It's based only loosely on real-life cases of abduction, though it brings too easily to mind the horrific Josef Fritzl case out of Austria (if you're not familiar with Fritzl, who kept his daughter in a dungeon for 24 years, Google him and await nightmares). Room has been shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize, and it deserves the award for its extraordinarily graceful navigation of horror, compassion and humor observed through the eyes of an extremely bright child whose imagination and courage can't be contained by four walls.
Author of three story collections and six novels including the bestselling Slammerkin, the Dublin-born Donoghue never strays from Jack's unique voice, deftly conveying more information than even he understands. Jack doesn't know exactly why he has to shut himself up in Wardrobe when Old Nick makes a visit every few nights, but when he goes to bed "I always try to squeeze my eyes tight and switch off fast." Good plan. He wouldn't understand what Old Nick is doing to his mother or the fact that the terrible act is why he exists. But we do, and our horror can't be quelled.
When Jack and Ma find themselves having to confront life Outside, Donoghue's novel becomes slightly less thriller and more a poignant psychological exploration of resilience. She never lets us forget that her story is essentially about plain human heroism -- from a mother, from a son -- a spark that can be kindled in the most unlikely circumstances.
A recent Harris Poll reveals that Americans truly have a taste for horror: A survey says that Stephen King is their (our?) favorite writer. Good news, America! King's latest book, Full Dark No Stars - a collection of four novellas - is due out Nov. 9
Rounding out the top 10 are some not-terribly-surprising names: James Patterson, John Grisham, JD Robb (Nora Roberts to you), Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, Danielle Steel, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling (I wondered when we were going to get to her) and J.R.R. Tolkien. Doesn't it seem Stephenie Meyer should be on this list? The poll, taken online in August, surveyed readers over 18, but still...
Among those who say they read at least one book in an average year (!!!!! one!) eight in 10 have read a fiction book in the past year (79%); 78% say they've read a nonfiction book. Among fiction readers, almost half say they read mystery, thriller and crime books; a quarter read science fiction and literature. One in five confess to reading romance novels and one in 10 have read graphic novels in the past year. Less than one in 10 read chick-lit and westerns.
One in 10 use an e-reader, but the poll indicates those who use e-readers read more. Click here for to read all of the results.
I'm a little late posting this because my work computer - which needs to be taken out in the woods and exterminated like a rabid dog - refused to cooperate, but yes: Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, despite the Nobel committee's disdain for non-European writers.
Vargas Llosa has written more than 30 novels, play and essays and won Spain's Cervantes Prize in 1995. The Associated Press reports that he's the first South American winner of the $10 million kroner prize (that's $1.5 million to you) since Gabriel Garcia Marquez won it in 1982.
In the past six years, the Nobel lit prize has gone to five Europeans (surprise!) and one Turk, despite plenty of giants of American letters who might deserve the honor. Philip Roth, say? (Yes. I've been converted by American Pastoral.)
Click here to read Fabiola Santiago's story on how Vargas Llosa won the award.
So apparently the rumors are true, if a bit skewed: Stieg Larsson's family reports that the Swedish author, who died in 2004, did write another book in his The Girl WIth the Dragon Tattoo series. Only it's not the fourth in the series but the fifth.
Father Erland and brother Joakim, who will appear at 9 a.m. Sunday on CBS News' Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood, say they've seen and held the mysterious unpublished manuscript that has been the subject of rumor since the Millennium trilogy became an international bestseller.
Larsson originally planned a 10-book series, but wrote the fifth book before the fourth because "he thought that [it] was more fun to write than book number four,” says Joakim.
Erland and Joakim, who inherited the rights to the books and the millions they generate, are immersed in a legal battle with Larsson's longtime partner Eva Gabrielsson, who declined CBS' request for an interview.
Events continue to shape up for this year's Miami Book Fair International, which runs Nov. 14-21 at Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami.
Nov. 14: Novelist Carlos Fuentes will appear at 7:30 p.m. He'll speak in Spanish with simultaneous translation in English by ProTranslating
Nov. 15: Humorist Nora Ephron, 8 p.m.
Nov. 16: Nonfiction writer Christopher McDougall, 6 p.m. and novelist RObert Goolrick, 8 p.m.
Nov. 17: Filmmaker John Waters, 8 p.m.
Nov. 18: Columnist Eugene Robinson, 6 p.m. and novelist Pat Conroy, 8 p.m.
Nov. 19: Scientist E.O. Wilson, 6 p.m. and rocker Patti Smith, 8 p.m.
Tickets for the "Evenings with . . .'' programs are $10. Info: 305-237-3258 or miamibookfair.com.
The fair will also show documentaries on Nov. 17 in the Auditorium. At 6 p.m. you can see The Soul of the People: Writing America's Story; at 7 p.m., Key West: Bohemia in the Arts.
This year's fair poster, which will adorn T-shirts, coffee mugs and tote bags, was also unveiled; it's by Alejandro Cabrera De La Mora, better known by his artistic name, Maximus Blanc. You can see more of his work at maximusblanc.com.
Are you ready for some poetry? Tigertail launches the eighth edition of its annual collection at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, with a reading at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables.
Tigertail, A South Florida Poetry Annual: Selected Collective, Poetry, Prose and Projects by The Miami Poetry Collective features works by 28 local poets. In this volume's introduction, Campbell McGrath (at right), who founded the collective in 2008, writes, "In short, the MPC wants to rescue poetry from the airless box in which American society has locked it away, help it feel the sun on its skin again, maybe toss a Frisbee with it, share a drink or two, let it rub shoulders with the other arts, music and painting and film.''
You'll need to pay for that drink, but the event is free. Info: 305-324-4337 or tigertail.org.