Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sizing up the competition

They announced this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ever the bridesmaid. All right, maybe not a bridesmaid, but I’ve been in church. Well, maybe not exactly in church, but I know someone who knew someone who dated an usher.

Even if I took the baby steps – wrote a book, for instance – it would never be enough. And that’s because those who sit on the Nobel committee are a lot like the dudes who vote in a new pope. The short list addresses immediate geo-political concerns. His holiness will never hail from Memphis. Fresno may be the land of certain kinds of opportunity, but I doubt we'll ever see a Pope Matt.

Of all the book awards, the only one I believe is the Newberry. From ages five to ten, I read all the Newberry winners, and every one was a ripping good yarn. I could always identify with the hero, though I had never been a sharecropper’s son, or a princess, or a mouse.

I think what unites the best in literature, for whatever age, is the clean, just-brushed-my-teeth prose. And the humanity. I find no qualitative difference between a Dahl and a Kundera.

Aside from Pinter, the last Nobel writer who took my breath away was a Polish poet; she won the prize in 1996. So I leave you with something of hers:

Hitler's First Photograph
Wislawa Szymborska

And who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That's tiny baby Adolf, the Hitler's little boy!
Will he grow up to be an LL.D.?
Or a tenor in Vienna's Opera House?
Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?
Whose tummy full of milk, we just don't know:
printer's, doctor's, merchant's, priest's?
Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander?
To garden, to school, to an office, to a bride,
maybe to the Burgermeister's daughter?
Precious little angel, mommy's sunshine, honeybun,
while he was being born a year ago,
there was no death of signs on the earth and in the sky:
spring sun, geraniums in windows,
the organ-grinder's music in the yard,
a lucky fortune wrapped in rosy paper,
then just before the labor his mother's fateful dream:
a dove seen in dream means joyful news,
if it is caught, a long-awaited guest will come.
Knock knock, who's there, it's Adolf's heartchen knocking.
A little pacifier, diaper, rattle, bib,
our bouncing boy, thank God and knock on wood, is well,
looks just like his folks, like a kitten in a basket,
like the tots in every other family album.
Shush, let's not start crying, sugar,
the camera will click from under that black hood.
The Klinger Atelier, Grabenstrasse, Braunau,
and Braunau is small but worthy town,
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soap.
No one hears howling dogs, or fate's footsteps.
A history teacher loosens his collar
and yawns over homework.


  1. I've often wondered about their selections. They seem to have very strange criteria.

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  3. I'd vote for you, kiddo, but, dammit, I'm not on the committee.

    Thanks for the poetry--this one is new to me.


  4. I think you've identified a game: How many degrees of separation from a Nobel Prize?

    Meanwhile, aside from all the prestige and money, who needs it?

  5. I'm currently reading a book that won a Pulitzer in the 1970's. It's a good book, but I can see that the prize might have been given because of the time in which the book was written. Does that make sense? The same book couldn't have been written a decade earlier, and might not have been so lauded a decade later.

    Thank you for the poem. Like Des, it's new to me, too.

  6. I have a plan. As I recall, Linda Dove's mother is from or lives in South America. So we move her down there long enough to get on the short list. Not for pope, for poet. I don't often wear socks, but I put them on when I read her work, just to watch the way she knocks them off.

  7. What plan? No one included me in any plans!
    It makes me feel...megaegomaniacal..,

    how 'bout that last line of the poem. huh?

  8. I wonder if the Committee included an apology to Llosa, saying 'we wanted to award so much more; the Peace prize would have done but ...'

    Was it ever awarded to Theodore Geisel? "Fun is good".

  9. Agreed, Brenda. He did sound like runner up for the peace prize. I do take all the Lit winners out for a spin, but usually hit the brakes after a chapter or so.

  10. Ha on the plan. Mom's from Hazelton, Pennsylvania. But thanks for the socks and kind words!

    I love Szymborska. I used to teach her, but I'm not sure my students knew enough history to appreciate a lot of her nuance. They're at an age when confessional poetry seems the height and depth of all feeling. I'm happier with a little less first-person pronoun.

  11. It's all a big crap shoot but what do I know.

  12. I don't keep up with these things. Did I hear you right...? They just elected a new pope?

    Very interesting perspective, re: the infamous Hitler boy.

  13. I, too, don't understand any awards beyond the Newberry. Some Newberry Award books I enjoyed more than others, but isn't that the case with everything?

    And I think Jean Spitzer has a point: You have identified a new game!

  14. What about a Pope Jimmy?


  15. I have to say, I kind of hate most of the Newberry winners. They are always so depressing, always such "Important life lessons." There are a few exceptions, but not quite enough for my liking.

  16. The Swedes ... you know.

  17. Oh Margaret, you made me laugh. I don't know who all the Newberry winners are, but I do know this: I decided not to renew my subscription to "Glimmer Train" for the same reason you say you hate the Newberry winners. I just didn't want to read about one more homeless kid with a dead mother and a crack habit. I read for pleasure, not for pain. Jesus.

  18. Well, pardon my Newberry. But ok, it has been a few years or decades since I've checked in, so I'm going to read this year's winner and give a book report. With my number 2 pencil and black eraser.

  19. I'm close to deciding that there should be no prizes of any kind at any level.

    I almost always like Szymborska, but I rarely fall over in wonder the way so many do. But there are a lot I could say that about. er, about whom I could say that.

    Hence no prizes. Negatory on prizes.

  20. It's sometimes impossible to grasp that pope or monster were once darling little dependent vulnerable babies.

  21. I know, I sometimes think about hard-core criminals, and how they were once cute innocent little kids. The idea that Hitler actually had a mother, that threw me off.

    I went to the Newberry website because I thought maybe Newberry's was for dime-store novels (not sure if you had J.J. Newberry stores.) I was disappointed, however, when I saw that the description of the Newberry Awards used the phrase "as to." "As to," in my book and in the book of many English grammar books is something that should never be used.

  22. Ha ha, Banjo.

    As to you, Mister Earl, I say this about that.

    Looking forward to that book report, Miss Hiker.

  23. Well now, that just begs the question, doesn't it Earl? I'm not so sure, P, you guys are a pretty tough crowd.

  24. You're right, KB, I was begging the question by not addressing the Newbery Medal head on, but instead focusing on a minor grammatical point on a website that (not which) may not even have been Newbery's. Good for you for using it correctly!

  25. I'm fascinated by the symbolism of the 'black eraser'.

    What does it all mean, anyway?

    wv: wayards

  26. Yesterday I attended a writing seminar. The presenter showed several clips of people he'd interviewed. There was one of the late writer, David Foster Wallace, who talked about the burden of knowing correct grammar. The more you know, he said, the more opportunities to become irritated, for example in the Express Lane where the sign says, "Ten items or less."

    Here's another part of the same interview:


  27. Pope Matt. I'm for him.

    I had forgotten about Szymborska. I just adore her irony and wit. I wish she had a larger body of work but what's there is choice.

    I agree with your plan for Linda. She can just revise her history, or change her last name to Marquez or something. Put me in the blown-off sock category with her poetry, too.

    THe last Newberry winner I read was Holes. I loved it. I think it was back in the late 90s.

    I have yawned at most of the prize-winning novels in the last few years. But Dahl always inspires.

    And so do you.

  28. "Ten items or less" just makes me cringe.

    It should be at least fifteen.

  29. Here's what I'm going to do, because I loooooove you. (Sorry, earlier post.) I'm getting my hands on the 2010 Newberry winner and a classic, 21 Balloons. Then I'll do my book report. Both are available at Alt Lib because, you know, nobody goes to this library to actually borrow a book.

    I was reading the list of the past Newberry winners, and come on, you've got to love this award. Caddie Woodlawn, Little House, Charlotte's Web...Did you know the very first was by Van Loon?

  30. Baby Hitler not to be confused with Baby Einstein

  31. I love the idea of reading all the Newberry winners. Charlotte's Web was my favorite. Perhaps I'll join you on that quest although I'll leave the book reports to you.

    I'm not familiar with Szymborska. Thanks for posting. It does have "the clean, just-brushed-my-teeth prose. And the humanity." Good stuff from both of you.

  32. Susan, I wish you would. Maybe take one recent winner and one of the classics you've never read. Then we'll choose a day to post our book reports. Maybe we can get Marjie's son to join us, as he can give us the kid's perspective.

    (Bandit, a black eraser would rub out the pencil marks and leave strings of black rubbery stuff that you could roll into worms.)

  33. I'm not going to bother reading any Newbery prizewinners - I'll wait for the movie. Although only the runners-up seem to get made into movies.

    20 tins of Fancy Feast count as one item, in my view.

  34. A black eraser isn't like using a black highlighter is it?

  35. A black highlighter?

    Like a couple of NSA analysts before releasing high security documents might smugly say,
    "I've gone over the material in question with the black highlighter."

    Or they could install a secret computer virus, "I've let loose 'The Black Worm'!"

    Freedom of Information...

  36. The British, you know...

    Bellis, plenty of winners made it big in Hollywood. (And I was behind you in line.)

  37. Amazing poem - thanks for sharing. Newberry award winners and kid's movies are about my speed but occasionally I can enjoy something more serious, like this poem.

  38. Oh not a black eraser, they leave smudgy marks.

    I'm all about reading uplifting or just plain ole fluff. Life gives us enought hard knocks. I'm not reading or watching any movies that bring me down. I'm sure that just moved me way down on the list with this literary group ( come to think of it I was probably on the bottom anyway,) but I"m too old to pretend anymore. I read what I like and I watch what makes me laugh, fantasize, well you know what I mean.

    Teacher hat on now. I read a lot of Newberry and Caldecotts aloud to my students. For kids there are some wonderful ones. I can't opine on anything beyond that.

  39. Wow - thanks for the poem. Amazing.

    I'm often not so impressed with prize winners either, though I have had good luck with the Man Booker Prize. Many of the winners are among my favorite contemporary authors: Gordimer, Atwood, McEwan, Roy, etc.

    Just finished The White Tiger, 2008 Booker winner, and loved it. Just to forewarn: Not an uplifting, fun read by any means. But terrific.

  40. Some of that prize-winning children's lit is pretty bleak too.
    I love Charlotte's Web, but it's not exactly light-hearted.

  41. There are two Newberry medalists blogging within the CDPB group.

  42. Julie, pray tell us whom?

    (I might have said "who," but we're talkin' literature here. Plus, my WV is "fashoom.")

  43. Can't say, Petrea. Sorry. Gave my word ... But I dont think you visit them ...

  44. I admire your loyalty, Julie. Damn, though.

  45. Egads, I love Szymborska. I teach a couple of her poems and the kids love them. They find their own ways to access them.

    I had a Polish student once who was so excited that I knew of Szymborska's poetry. When I brought in some of her poems in English, my student was disappointed. She told me that in Polish, they were even better.

    I'm sure they are. But for me, in English, they're certainly enough.

  46. Actually, Petrea, it should be,

    "Julie, pray tell us who?" is correct. "Who" and not "whom" because "who" is the subject of the implied rest of the sentence, which is, "Julie, pray tell us who [are the two Newbery medalists]?"

    If, on the other hand, you'd said, "Julie, pray tell us whom you've already told about this," "whom" would be correct, because "you" is the subject of the clause and "whom" is the direct object.

    But of course I know you were kidding.

  47. Had to go with "fashoom," Earl. Poetic license.