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Ann Kingman on Project Short Story

Note: This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on April 29, 2013.

George SaundersWith George Saunders’ Tenth of December (Random House) and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf) already drawing strong praise from literary critics and several other short story collections inching toward publication this summer and fall, short stories are looking to make a big comeback this year.

Popular book blog and podcast Books on the Nightstand — run by Random House reps Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness, though not as an official Random House project — has gone so far as dub 2013 “The Year of the Short Story.” Kingman has even taken on an ambitious effort to read one short story a day for the entire year that she is calling Project Short Story.

Kingman took a few minutes to talk about how the project is going.

What’s the last story you read?

“Shakespeare’s Memory” by Jorge Luis Borges, read by Hisham Matar on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. It’s a brain-bender in every sense of the word, about a man who is offered the gift of Shakespeare’s actual memory.

Have you missed a day yet?

Sadly, I have. I had about a week and a half of heavy travel that also included the death of a family member and the Boston marathon bombing; I was too exhausted or distracted to read on several of those days. I did make up for it, though, by reading or listening to multiple stories on a few days, so I think that the numbers will even out.

Has it added to what you have to read for work, or have you just shifted the balance of novels and short story collections?

This project is strictly additive; only two of the stories I’ve read have also counted as “work” reading. I try to squeeze in the short stories during the day, and read novels and nonfiction books in the evening before bed.

Have you heard from many people who follow your blog or the podcast who are doing their own Project Short Story or at least reading more of them?

Yes, and I’m delighted! There are a few people who are also reading a story a day, and I’ve heard from several of our listeners that they have increased their short story reading. Dan Wickett of Dzanc Books has declared May to be Short Story Month, so I’m hoping that many more will jump on the short story bandwagon, at least for a little while.

What has the balance been of stories you found online vs. stories you are reading from collections?

I’d say it’s a fairly even mix. Several of the stories I’ve chosen have been in collections I own, but as I’ve blogged them, I’ve found them online. I love when stories are online because it feels that I can more easily share them, and that others may read them. I do own well over one hundred collections, both single-author and anthologies, so I am trying to at least sample most of them over the course of this year.

The New Yorker has always been sort of a home base for great short story authors like Alice Munro, Richard Ford, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Is that part of your reading routine?

It’s a more important part than I realized it would be at the beginning of this project, thanks to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, a monthly podcast that features one short story read aloud and discussed. I spend several hours each week in my car driving to and from bookstores, and I have fallen completely in love with the podcast. I especially love the conversation between the author who has chosen the story and the podcast host, Deborah Treisman. It’s like a mini lit class. It’s a monthly podcast, and I’m dreading the day when I’ve listened to all of the episodes.

Seems to me that George Saunders’ Tenth of December (Random House) and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf) — both published in early 2013 — are the two titles that have really marked this as the year of the short story collection. Is that your sense?

Yes. I had read both collections in the fall of 2012, and they were both instrumental in my declaration that 2013 was going to be the year of the short story. Of course, I had no idea that on January 3rd New York Times magazine would put Saunders on the cover and callTenth of December “the best book you’ll read this year.” I have to say it made me feel good about my proclamation.

Were there other collections you had read in galleys or heard advance buzz about that signaled to you that 2013 was going to be a noteworthy year for short stories?

Yes, I knew that Jess Walter had a new collection coming, We Live in Water (Harper). I was a huge fan of Walter’s novel, Beautiful Ruins [published in 2012]. Ethan Rutherford’s first collection, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories (Ecco, May 7th) has been getting a lot of buzz and is terrific. And there’s a new Aimee Bender collection, The Color Master (Knopf) coming in August.

Is there a big short story collection for summer that are you are looking forward to?

Definitely the Aimee Bender. I have the manuscript, but I am saving it for closer to publication because I know I won’t be able to stop talking about it once I’ve read it.

T.C. Boyle’s ginormous, 944-page Stories II (Viking) collection of stories he has published since 1998 will be out in October.  Have you read much of his last three collections that will make up the bulk of this mega-collection?

I have not, and am very much looking forward to reading it. I don’t think I’ve read any T.C. Boyle stories at all, come to think of it.

Is there a Twitter hashtag for short stories like #longform for short nonfiction? Have you thought about starting one?

According to the Short Story Month website, Knopf started #shortreads. I think it’s time to give it some more traction, so let’s spread the word…

Who will win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction?

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on April 10, 2013.

On Monday afternoon, the Pulitzer Prize Board will announce the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Or not. Last year, for the first time in 35 years, there was no prize awarded for fiction. Imagine Bono walking on stage to award the Grammy for Album of the Year and announcing that there wouldn’t be an award for Album of the Year. It was like that. The snub earned the Pulitzer Prizes more publicity — and not the good kind — than the actual awards, and I can’t imagine them laying an egg again this year.

NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan, one of three jurors on the panel that narrowed the 300-book fiction field to three finalists, was openly critical of the Pulitzer Prize Board for failing to award a prize for fiction. “The Pulitzer is too prestigious and crucial an award to book lovers, authors and the publishing industry to be sporadically — and unaccountably — withheld,” Corrigan wrote in the Washington Post shortly after the awards were announced.

The Pulitzer Prize is sort of an Academy Award for authors — a career-defining, zeitgeist-bestowing, income-enhancing marker that ensures your calls and emails will get returned for at least the next few years. Since Las Vegas odds-makers and red carpet hosts aren’t particularly interested in the Nerd Oscars, here’s a look at some of the books and authors who are generating the most buzz ahead of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes.

The Pulitzers are the last of the major annual book awards to be announced for the publishing year, so the winners tend to be known quantities. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf), Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead) and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) all won the National Book Critics Circle Award en route to Pulitzers. All but one Pulitzer for fiction since 2000 have been awarded to books published by a Big Six publisher, so most winners have had considerable marketing dollars behind them and a considerable number of copies in print.

First, let’s knock out three of the most praised books of the year on technicalities. The Pulitzer for fiction is limited to American authors (how rude!), so Alice Munro’s much-loved short story collection Dear Life (Knopf) is out because Munro is — wait for it — Canadian. Also out: UK’s Hilary Mantel, who wrote the Booker Prize-winning Anne Boleyn novel, Bring Up the Bodies (Henry Holt), and Zadie Smith, who wrote the London-set NBCC finalist NW (Penguin).

There is no consensus favorite this year in the fiction category, but two Iraq War novels have received significant attention and are the likely frontrunners. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk (Ecco), about a group of veterans honored during halftime of an NFL football game, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a National Book Award finalist. Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown), a piercing and lyrical war novel, was a National Book Awards finalist and one of the New York Times ten best books of 2012.

The two issues that have dominated American politics for the last six years have been the economy and health care, so the more politically inclined members of the Pulitzer Prize Board may want a novel that speaks to those dual frustrations. Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King (McSweeny’s), about a struggling U.S. businessman with a suspicious lump in his neck and a make-or-break opportunity in Saudi Arabia, was a National Book Award finalist and made numerous ten-best lists. Eggers, the publisher of the independent McSweeney’s, should get indie-cred points for breaking through the noise outside of the Big Six publishers. Also, most of the voting members are journalists, and Eggers is respected for his nonfiction work.

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House (Harper), a literary thriller set on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota that won the National Book Award, is a sequel to The Plague of Doves (Harper), which was a Pulitzer nominee in 2009. The Pulitzer Prize Board, though, tends to steer clear of National Book Award winners; Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News is the only novel in the last 30 years to win both prizes.

The most intriguing possibility by far is Chris Ware’s Building Stories (Pantheon), a collection of 14 graphic novels about the residents of a Chicago apartment building. The books are not ordered and are varied in format, so you experience them intermittently and randomly the way you would memories of your own life. It’s not clear whether a graphic novel is eligible in this category, but Art Spiegelman won a “Special Citation” Pulitzer — presumably because the Pulitzer Prize Board couldn’t decide where to put it — for his graphic novel/memoir/history Maus (Pantheon) in 1992. I’m crossing my fingers for Building Stories.

Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead), a collection of short stories featuring the “Yunior” character from his two previous story collections, was a National Book Award finalist, a fixture on nearly every top-ten list, a best-seller, and a media fixture. Diaz won the Pulitzer in 2008 for Oscar Wao, and only three authors (Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and John Updike) have won multiple Pulitzers for fiction, so Diaz is something of a longshot despite the high praise.

Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House) in 2001, is also an unlikely repeater for Telegraph Avenue (Harper), his novel about music, race and gentrification in Oakland, California. Same for Richard Ford’s Canada (Ecco); Ford won for Independence Day (Knopf) in 1996.

Those are the big names.

If the Pulitzer Prize Board goes for a less-obvious title as with last year’s Pulitzer nominee Swamplandia! (Knopf) by Karen Russell, consider these possibilities: Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (Harper), Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (Voice), Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House), Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, or Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver.

UPDATE: The winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House).

New Penguin Classics series gets an ‘A’

If you count books, typography and collections among your most intense obsessions, then hang onto your serifs! Today, Penguin Classics is releasing the first six volumes of its new Penguin Drop Caps series of hardcover classics:

A Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,
B Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre,
C Willa Cather’s My Antonia,
D Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations,
E George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and
F Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

(Madame Bovary is a reprinting of the highly regarded Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary that Penguin published under its Viking imprint in 2010.

A “drop cap” is that oversized letter you sometimes see at the beginning of books and magazine articles. The Drop Cap covers — each with a single, elegantly designed letter — are a collaboration between illustrator/type designer Jessica Hische and Penguin art director Paul Buckley. (You may not know Hische’s name, but you know her work: the opening titles of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the hardcover edition of Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King, and the Barnes & Noble Classics series.)

Penguin says there will be 26 volumes of the series in all. Good luck with X!

Three politics books for early 2013

Here’s a roundup of several early-2013 politics books with publishers’ descriptions:

Fred KaplanJanuary 2.  Slate columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (Simon & Schuster) looks to be one of the first important books of 2013 — with glowing blurbs from national security heavies like George Packer, Tim Weiner and Peter Bergen. (And probably a tacked-on postscript about the Paula Broadwell scandal that led to the resignation of CIA director David Petraeus).

The Insurgents is the inside story of the small group of soldier-scholars, led by General David Petraeus, who plotted to revolutionize one of the largest, oldest, and most hidebound institutions—the United States military. Their aim was to build a new Army that could fight the new kind of war in the post–Cold War age: not massive wars on vast battlefields, but “small wars” in cities and villages, against insurgents and terrorists. These would be wars not only of fighting but of “nation building,” often not of necessity but of choice.

Al GoreJanuary 29.  Former Vice President Al Gore’s The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change (Random House), looks like a prescriptive along the lines of Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s That Used to be Us but with a global focus.  The Future is oriented around six “emerging forces”: economic globalization, digital communications, shifting international power, sustainable growth, scientific advances, and the disruption in the relationship between people and the environment.

With the same passion he brought to the challenge of climate change [in An Inconvenient Truth], and with his decades of experience on the front lines of global policy, Al Gore surveys our planet’s beclouded horizon and offers a sober, learned, and ultimately hopeful forecast in the visionary tradition of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and John Naisbitt’s Megatrends. In The Future, Gore identifies the emerging forces that are reshaping our world.

UPDATE: The untitled Chuck Todd book was cancelled. April 9. NBC News White House correspondent Chuck Todd‘s as-yet untitled book about Barack Obama (Little, Brown):

Chuck Todd draws upon his unprecedented inner-circle sources to create a gripping account of Obama’s tumultuous first term and campaign to win another. And not only does he give us the most revealing portrait of this fascinating president and his struggles, Todd also seeks to define what “Obamism” really is, what the president stands for, and how his decisions have changed — and will change — American politics for generations.

April 30.  Bloomberg View columnist, MSNBC contributor, and The Promise author Jonathan Alter‘s The Center Holds (Simon & Schuster) is a behind-the-scenes narrative about the 2008 campaign.

In this sequel to his bestselling The Promise, Jonathan Alter digs into the back story of the campaign and Obama’s performance as president. This will be the most penetrating account of how Obama won or lost the election and how he confronted the implacable forces arrayed against him—a sluggish economy, vicious partisan opposition, his own failures as a politician and communicator.