March 21, 2006

The "March Madness" of Modern Literature

Generally speaking, I don't pay much attention to the major book awards. The Pulitzers and its brethren (with the possible exception of the Newbury medal) just don't seem any more relevant to me than who Oprah's picked for this month's club.

All that changed this afternoon when I came across a new exception to this rule and realized that part of what made those awards boring was that we only get to see the results, not the process that led to those decisions. The process is the fun part, of course, and the online magazine The Morning News understands that. For their Tournament of Books, just beginning its second incarnation, the process is entirely transparent, completely out in the open, and promising to be a lot of fun.

They, with some help from their readers, have chosen 16 widely hyped books from 2005 and laid them out in classic atheltic tournament brackets for a cascading set of one-on-one, mano a mano, no-holds-barred faceoffs with each contest's winner advancing into the next round. Each weekday, starting today, the results of one pairing are announced via a short essay by that competition's pre-chosen judge. There's even a kind of play-by-play commentary by the Tournament's chairman, author and TMN contributing writer Kevin Guilfoile.

Pavel sez, "Check it out!" As the website proudly proclaims, "the Tournament of Books brings the bloodlust so lacking in the publishing world's awards." Who among us couldn't get into a little literary bloodshed?

August 06, 2005

Remembering the Bomb

Today is the 60th anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, so it seems an apt time to offer this review of a book that I read only very recently, and purely by coincidence.

Very shortly after the bomb was dropped, journalist (and later, novelist) John Hersey went to Hiroshima on a commission from The New Yorker and spoke in depth with some of the survivors about their own experiences of that awful day and its aftermath. When he returned to the States, he wrote a 31,000-word article that was published in the August 31, 1946 edition of The New Yorker; no other articles and no cartoons appeared in that issue. (Steve Rothman has written an excellent paper on the effects of the publication of that article.) Soon afterwards, the article was republished as the book, Hiroshima. Forty years later, Hersey returned to Japan and spoke again with those of the same survivors who were still living. The material from that second visit was published as an added chapter in a new edition of the book.

The great strength and impact of this book comes from its completely personal approach. Hersey documents the event entirely through the eyes of his six survivor informants: a personnel clerk, a tailor's widow, two doctors, a German Jesuit priest, and a Methodist pastor. From their awakenings on the fateful day, through their survival of the blast itself, and into their experiences of the following days and weeks, this is always a deeply personal story. We are never given the chance to stand aloof from the human side of this event, considering the greater political or military motivations, or amazed by tidy statistics about kilo-tonnage or blast radius. Hersey always pulls us back down into these people's confusion, suffering, and quiet heroism. It was a very powerful document when it appeared in 1946, the first look most Americans had then at the very local impact of the bomb, and it retains its ability to move us to this day.

I picked up my copy of Hiroshima by happenstance, at a used book store in Seattle. If you live near me, I'd be happy to loan it to you; if not, I urge you to pick up a copy or borrow it from your library. It's an important story for all of us, never to be forgotten.

October 03, 2004

Surprising Grace

I just finished Christopher Moore's 2002 novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal and I'm writing here to recommend it to you.

The layout of the book cover, and the content of many of its reviews, led me to expect a gonzo, irreverent, and perhaps crude, tale of frat-boy-like antics set against (and exploiting) the outlines of the biblical Gospels. This expectation kept me from actually opening the book for several months after a friend loaned it to me. What finally, and fortunately, overcame my reluctance in the end is my good opinion of that friend: she's an observant Christian, after all, and a children's librarian; surely she wouldn't lead me astray, right?

Right. This is an unashamedly down-to-earth story of a childhood friendship between Levi, who is called Biff, and Joshua, the Son of God. It takes us from their first meeting, at the age of six, with Joshua calmly (and repeatedly) reviving dead lizards, through many years of their growing up and traveling together on a quest for the wisdom Joshua needs in order to fulfill his obvious destiny as the Messiah his people are waiting for, and into the events familiar to us from the New Testament.

Throughout, though, the point of view is that of Biff, not of Joshua. Biff is not the Son of God, nor particularly wise, nor clever, nor saintly. What he is, is a funny, earthy, stubbornly loyal friend to a boy, and then man, who desperately needs that kind of a tie to the real world of the people he's been sent to save.

You see, it's never in any doubt, in Lamb, whether or not Joshua is the Messiah. What is uncertain is how he'll deal with this destiny. Moore has written a witty yet sensitive story whose ending you know already, but whose characters you haven't seen in this light before.

I'm sure that, if I were to look at the reviews of this book on Amazon, I'd find some one-stars from outraged and offended Christians. From this atheist's point of view, though, Lamb is a well-written, funny, and ultimately reverent story of a truly unique coming of age.