Saturday, June 11, 2005

The 2004 National Book Award Hissy Fit

My book group has decided to read the winner and some of the finalists of last year's National Book Award stink. For those of you who missed the controversy, it goes something like this:

The winner was Lily Tuck for her historical novel The News From Paraguay. The other finalists were Sarah Shun-lien Bynum for her first novel Madeleine Is Sleeping; Christine Schutt for Florida; Joan Silber for Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories; and Kate Walbert for Our Kind: A Novel in Stories.

Do you notice anything unusual about the 5 authors listed above? Ah yes, they are all women and none is well-known.

This fact caused many in the publishing/reviewing/critical world to have a big old hissy fit, especially since a number of well-known white men were not in the running (the name that I heard mentioned most often was Philip Roth whose book The Plot Against America came out last year to good reviews. Personally, I think he's a good writer, but I haven't been able to finish even one of his books. Not my type.)

Granted, I'm a big fan of women writers and a sucker for lyrical prose, so I'm inclined to like the list based on the descriptions of the books. But it was the reactions and things said by major reviewers/publishers/critics that got the feminist in me supremely pissed off and made me want to defend the winner and finalists to the death (despite the fact that I haven't read them yet.) Read the following comments and see what your reaction is:

1). After the finalists were announced, novelist Tom McGuane (whose prose is often described as "muscular" and who hadn't read any of the novels) was quoted in The New Yorker as saying the award was "apparently tanking."

2) In the NYTimes Book Review, Laura Miller wrote that none of the finalists "could be reasonably expected to please more than a small audience." She implied that their low sales was an indication of low quality (when we all know that marketing is a big part of any book's sales). She also suggested the panelists had deliberately thumbed their noses at the "literary establishment" by selecting previously unnoticed books.

3) NYTimes book critic Caryn James said: "It defies logic to think that five such similar books just happen to be the best of the year."

4) Former co-chairman of the National Book Foundation, Herman Gollob, said he had didn't know any of the fiction finalists and wasn't asked to read them. "It's supposed to be an achievement award for the best that's been done, not a feel good award for aspiring writers."

5) The chairman of the fiction panel, Rick Moody, was accused of selecting the 5 authors as revenge for a lousy review of his own work in 2002. Here's what the Christian Science Monitor published:
In 2002, literary pugilist Dale Peck began his most infamous review by claiming, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." The book world gasped and snickered in faux alarm, aroused by the eruption of controversy in the dusty arena of critical debate. But now, as chairman of this year's fiction committee for the National Book Award, Mr. Moody has taken his revenge.

I don't know about you, but reading that kind of crap makes me want to come to the defense of these authors. Not surprisingly, a number of the nominated authors commented on the controversy: Lily Tuck said that the NBA is supposed "to recognize good writing." She added: "The idea that the quality of a book should be judged by sales figures is ridiculous." And here is Christine Schutt in an interview in the NYTimes Magazine with Deborah Solomon:

What is it like to be attacked by your fellow novelists for having written a novel that reportedly sold only 100 copies? Thomas McGuane said publicly that the National Book Awards underwent a ''meltdown'' by selecting finalists as obscure as you.

It surprises me very much. It surprises me that Tom McGuane could damn my book without having read it. And by the way, ''Florida'' has actually sold at least 1,099 copies.

The critic John Leonard suggested that a prize winner should be someone who has put in time and paid his dues.

I am 56. I have taught literature at a girls' school in Manhattan, Nightingale-Bamford, for more than 20 years. My first collection of short stories was titled ''Nightwork'' because I wrote it at night while I was divorced and raising two sons. How else can I pay my dues?

All the finalists in fiction this year are women. Do you think this has anything to do with the response you're getting?

Would they be doing this if we were five unknown men?

What do you think the award should stand for besides, obviously, literary excellence?

I do think you should honor some work that is trying to be a clean, hard object.

That could describe a washing machine.

True, it could. But what I mean is that a piece of writing should be hard and clean in the sense that there is nothing extraneous about it, no feathery adjectives.

I think that what strikes me the most is that concept of "paying one's dues." Why should suffering be a requirement for recognition? And what kind of suffering counts? Does not having given up everything in order to be a writer disqualify someone? This question seems particularly pertinent to me now after reading Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries. She was the mother of 5 children and didn't give up her family, move to a garret and starve. She said of her writing that it was her "knitting" when she was raising her kids. Does that mean that she isn't worthy of recognition because her beautiful prose wasn't excruciating to the author in its creation? (Of course, the Pulitzer Committee answered that in 1995 by giving her the prize for fiction.)

Time to take a deep breath since I am working myself into an equivalent hissy fit.

I noticed that all the 2004 NBA finalists are now out in paperback, so next month my book group will read The News From Paraguay and in August Madeleine Is Sleeping. And then I'll be able to write an informed rant about the controversy.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Not a good start....

Before my caffeine had even kicked in this morning Fiona had pooped on the floor. To her defense she was trying to get her underwear off and get on the potty but didn't make it in time. While I was cleaning up that charming gift she went upstairs and took a tube of toothpaste and smeared it all over herself. No excuse for that! I managed to refrain from yelling at her for her first offense, but the second one? Nope. I lost it, chucked her in the tub and used the word "naughty" about 50 times in 2 minutes.

Now I am searching through my 4 obsessions to figure out some way to turn this damn day around. Yarn shopping therapy ain't gonna cut it today and it doesn't look like I'll get the time to do any therapeutic reading. So I'm going to pack the two entropy kids in the van and head to the market to buy a load of strawberries and some whipping cream; I think another big batch of those terrific cream puffs is on the horizon and I also believe that after this morning, I deserve to eat as many of them as I want.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

5 women, 7 bottles...

Ahhhhh. Another lovely evening with the book group. This time both the food and the book were terrific (we haven't had a book that really inspired us in a while--the food, however, is always good). This month we read Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries.

Here is the book posing with Marilyn's beautiful salad with edible flowers.
Savvy photo viewers might also notice an impressive array of bottles in the background of the above photo. Let's see, I spy: Absolute mandarin, Gordon's gin, red wine, Skyy vodka, and hiding from the camera are also the Tanqueray vodka and two bottles of white wine. Quite an impressive quantity of alcohol when you consider that only 5 of our group's members could make it last night! I managed to put away Lea's lemonade/mandarin combos, a gin and tonic and a glass of white wine. Lucky for me we were at Lea's house so I just had to (literally) stumble around the corner to get home.

From left: Sarah, Marilyn, Lea, Juliet, and my over-loaded plate.
The menu consisted of: the beautiful salad (in honor of the main character's gardening skills), a delicious cold ham with garlic- apricot sauce (what the main character realizes she should have served one hot summer day rather than her disastrous jellied veal loaf), a corn relish (the main character's mother serves her husband cold meat and a homemade relish in the first few pages of the book) , a lemon gelatin (Juliet celebrating her Midwest roots and the Indiana setting of a portion of the book), and for desert, the amazing Malvern Pudding that is written about so vividly in the opening pages of the novel:

Raspberries and currants spilling out of the center.
Sarah did some research to make the beautiful pudding and discovered that Malvern Pudding is a bit of a misnomer. All the recipes for Malvern Pudding that she found were for a cooked pudding with apples, while what is being described in the book is clearly a cold summer berry pudding, of the sort shown here.

You can't quite see the flecks of real vanilla bean in the sauce in the photo, but they are there!
While not mentioned in the book, Sarah made the wise decision to accompany the pudding with homemade vanilla custard sauce. One of the few things I miss about my British relatives' cooking is the predominance of custard in the desert repertoire. After taking a few bites of the portion pictured above, I poured another half cup of custard over it.

We haven't decided what book to read next. That topic will buzz about on our e-mail list and I'll post the decision when we come to a consensus.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Disin' your Chick'n

Shoving a beer can up a (dead) chicken's butt is no way to treat a poor fowl with respect. But it sure does result in a tasty chicken.

Look! I'm a chicken and I'm sitting on a beer can!
I realized that I in my last post I let the delicious Beer Can Chicken that Sarah made go un-explained. Beer Can Chicken is the only way I'll roast chicken any more. I used to roast a chicken the normal way, inside the house in my oven. But ever time I did I triggered all the smoke alarms, ended up having to put the oven on cleaning cycle because the chicken spattered fat all over the place, and also had to deal with the smell of roast chicken for the next few days. I like the smell before I've eaten the chicken, but afterwards, and say, the next morning while I'm drinking my coffee, I'd prefer to breathe something else.

So Beer Can Chicken has the outside factor going for it--less clean up, no smoke inside the house, no heat being generated inside in the summer time when it is all you can do to keep the house at a tolerable temperature. But all these benefits would be negligible if it didn't turn out such a damn fine chicken. The beer steams the chicken from the inside and the grill crisps up the skin on the outside: a perfect roast chicken.

For those of you who have never experienced the dining pleasures of supremely undignified poultry allow me to clarify the technique. You take a whole raw chicken, rub in with your favorite dry rub, pop open a can of some cheapish beer, drink half the can of beer and then punch a few more holes in the can. My current favorite dry rub is equal parts kosher salt, black pepper, brown sugar and smoked Spanish paprika. You can get creative, put slivered garlic and lemon under the skin or any wild and wacky herbs and spices you like. Some people put some of the dry rub or garlic in the beer too. Next take hold of that half empty can of cheap beer with your delicate princess hand and shove it up the chicken's butt. Ta da! You made your own little chicken stand! Light half of the burners on a gas grill (or if you are a charcoal griller you heap the coals to one side of the grill). Then you put your perched chicken on the un-lit side of the grill: it'll make a tripod leaning on its drumsticks. Shut the lid to the grill and leave the chicken for a half hour. Then rotate it so the other side is facing the lit part of the grill and close the lid again. If you want, you can turn the lit side of the gas grill down to medium now, or you can leave it on high. I have a pretty cheap gas grill (only two burners) so I usually leave it on high but friends with classier grills turn theirs down. Leave it for another 1-1.5 hours (depending on the size of your chicken). If you are doing this in the middle of winter (as I have done), extend the cooking time to compensate for the temperature of the great outdoors. Do the normal stuff to check if it is done--use a meat thermometer if you have one; if you don't, cut into the thigh where it joins to the body and make sure nothing looks bloody in there.

Now for the only hard part of the recipe--separating the cooked chicken from the can of boiling beer. There are numerous recipes for Beer Can Chicken on the web but I have never found one that explains this important, and potentially dangerous, step. Nor can I say I've ever really figured out a graceful way to do this. I suppose having a pair of beer and grease-proof oven mitts designated just for chicken wrestling would be one way, but I'm too cheap. Instead I use two pairs of tongs, one that I shove down the neck to grasp the chicken from the top and one to hold the beer can from the bottom. Then I try to pull them apart. Sometimes the chicken is an accommodating bird and slides right off. Sometimes it decides to fight like the dickens and stick to its can. One thing you don't want to do is tip the chicken upside down and drench it with the left-over hot beer (though that would be an easy way to get the can out). And whatever you do, don't drop the chicken!

I've never maximized the humor potential when serving Beer Can Chicken to others. The lid is down while it's cooking, so you don't get to see it then, and when it is done, I'm too anxious that I'll pour boiling beer on one of my friends to invite them to witness the de-canning process. But more significantly, Beer Can Chicken has gone from a novelty cooking technique (like say, the Surreal Gourmet's Salmon cooked in your dishwasher) to my standard recipe for roast chicken. I'm sure that a more creative host could come up with a terrific chicken-butt-themed party--if you do, I'd love an invitation.