Friday, January 29, 2010

The J.J. Ellstrom Award for Literature, 2009

Dear Readers Everywhere,

All of this year I have been putting off a decision. It has been too hard. It has been fearful. I was scheduled to make this decision last March, but I delayed.

The Ellstrom Award for Literature is auspicious. It is the award for the best book of all the ones I read during the course of a year. 2008 was a competitive year. See the list of potentials at Books and Music in 2008.

The competing authors are like a list of who's who in writing: Ayn Rand, James Joyce, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Juan Rulfo, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Zora Neale Hurston, Don DeLillo, etc. And the books are among the best of the authors in question. These are some of the best books in the canon of American Literature. So before I announce the winner, let me do homage to those who also ran.

J.J. Ellstrom, for whom this award was named would want the other renowned authors named here to receive their proper nod. I remember his sense of respect. My grandfather was straight and gruff. To me he was tall, though I have no record of his physical measure. The house in which he lived in Altoona was light green. The wooden kitchen table was also green. I remember that table covered with flour and dough while my grandmother kneaded a sticky rye bread dough. I remember sitting at that table, spooning up delicious chicken noodle soup. And at that table my grandfather taught me to respect.

We never had much money, so a dollar bill was wealth. One afternoon, my grandfather called my sister and me to the table. He was prepared to bestow upon us a fortune. In his hands were ten crisp dollar bills. One by one, he counting them out, alternately placing one before my sister and one before me. Five dollars! For me! Then he called for our wallets and began instructing us how to place those bills into the pocket. "Never," he said, "place the head of our president upside down in the wallet. Make sure every head is up and facing front. These were the leaders of our country. Treat them with respect."

So, with that same measure of respect, I want to give homage to the greatness of the works of literature that I have read, not this last year, but the year before, during 2008.

Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo is an incredible example of Latin American magical realism. It held me fascinated. I am not sure I totally understood it and so may reread it next year. Perhaps it will take the Ellstrom honor second time around.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville is held in such high esteem that I must mention it here. I was extremely impressed by parts of it. I loved most especially its description of courage in Chapter 26. As a whole, however, I didn't think it held together. Some call it the Great American novel. I think that perhaps it is the Great Ocean novel.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was a good read for me, but I loved, better, Fitzgerald's Babylon Revisited, which I read in 2009.

If any book contended for the 2009 Ellstrom Award, it was, for me, Harper Lee's, To Kill a Mockingbird. This truly is one of the finest stories that I have ever read. When Harper Lee was asked why she never wrote another book, she stated that she had said everything she had to say in To Kill a Mockingbird. And she said it well.

Huckleberry Finn, likewise, is a wonderful story and a great novel. Mark Twain gave a great gift to literature in this book. The ending kind of falls apart, deteriorating into some kind of tall tale. I'm not sure why Twain let it peeter out. It's unfortunate.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is a stunning book. I liked it very much. This book, as well as the study by Brannon Costello in the book Plantation Airs led me to her other, more mature book, I think, Seraph on the Suwanee, which is in contention for the 2010 Ellstrom Award.

Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes is perhaps not the weightiest book in all the world, but I think it is one that is overlooked. I would recommend this book highly.

Jazz by Toni Morrison is, I think, one of Morrison's best, at least in it's form. It mimics the Jazz form. I loved that about it and thought it was a marvel in that way. But the story wasn't as compelling. I'll have to reread it one of these days to figure out why it is both great and not quite so great.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand hugs the top of the list of best one hundred populist-rated American novels. I find that quite curious. I was fascinated by it, for sure, but the writing itself is not great. The combination of philosophy and novel is what makes it fascinating.

Dubliners by James Joyce is an amazing collection of short stories. Certainly if I were giving an award for the best short story, it would be The Dead from this collection.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy, stands with To Kill a Mockingbird as a book that certainly deserves an award. It is probably the best post-apocalytic book ever written. Though the movie was a bit disappointing, the book is spectacular.

So, that was the field. You can see why I was flummoxed.



cadh 8 said...

Wow, this is a good list!! I checked out all the books you read in 2008, so I have some comments on those who didn't make your list.

It has been a long time since I have read any LeGuin, and I don't know where my censored version of "Left HAnd" is...have you got it? I think I would get more our of it reading it now. But I would also like to read her Trilogy again too.
I can't believe we did not talk in 2008 about Something Wicked this way Comes. What a weird story!! A must read, I think, in the sci fi genre. No Ellstrom award winner, but a solid read. And I LOVE Bradbury's Martian chronicles, so you may want to read those too.

Finally, and I don't know who your winner is, but I am doubting it will be " Old Man and the Sea", but I LOVE that book. I mean there are parts I hate, but overall I found it stirring.

And to the runners up. I think that I must read "Great Gatsby" this year. Both you and Asha have recommended it. She noted that she had read it in high school and re-read it recently and really found more understanding of the themes as an adult.

And, as I have said before, I loved The Road. Just something about it. Again, not the happiest story, but a great read.

BUT I am dying to know what book could possibly compete with To Kill a Mockingbird. That book is really unbeatable.

So I can't wait for the envelope to be opened and the winner announced.

cadh 8 said...

I meant to say LEGuin's Earthsea trilogy...

brd said...

Yes, yes, yes to LeGuin. Left Hand of Darkness is the best sci fi ever. I think it's treatment of sexuality puts it into the category of not just sci fi, but really important literature.

You are probably right about Old Man and the Sea.

We must talk about Bradbury.

And, you will be right to disagree with my final decision and stand up for To Kill a Mockingbird. But, I don't want to give away the final decision. That is for later this week.