A book nerd dotes on literary awards + Margaret Atwood’s “The Heart Goes Last”

This is a literary week. Actually, a very literary 13 hours. Last night at 9:15 (Eastern Standard Time), The Booker Prize was awarded. This morning, the finalists (or shortlist) for the National Book Award were announced.

While scrolling through Twitter yesterday morning, I saw that Good Morning America was posting about awards. I thought I had missed something and the The Booker Prize had gone out earlier than I had marked. Nope. They were talking about the nominees for the American Music Awards (the AMAs). I only realized my mistake when I caught Taylor Swift’s name. I know she’s not an author of literature, just of very catchy tunes with great lyrics.

This is just further proof of my book-nerdiness. Last week I loved reading that The Nobel Prize in Literature was won by Svetlana Alexievich, a non-fiction Belorussian writer of kind of long-form reporting, very interesting. I can’t say I’ve read anything she’s written, but I probably will now. She’s written quite a bit about Chernobyl and other things Russian, and I hope that the whole ‘past is the future’ Russia doesn’t every quiet her. For these reasons, I think I need to read her now.

There are thousands of literature prizes throughout the US alone. I can’t follow them all, but there are certain ones I like to know immediately. I care more about these than the Oscars, the Emmys, or the Grammys.

CRRkPKpWIAA2FHwI love The Booker Prize, or The Man Booker Prize, which is its full title. This one goes to the best novel (according to a panel of judges) written in the English language and published in the U.K. This year a few of my favorites were on the list, as well as a few that are high up on my TBR pile. I was hoping for A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, one of my favorite books not only of 2015, but of all time. The award went to A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, a Jamaican writer. Now there’s a book I have to read, like tomorrow.

Just a few moments ago, The National Book Award finalists were announced. This award is meant to celebrate and expand awareness of American literature. In a not too surprising twist, A Little Life made the cut (and I say not too surprising because it is just that good). The winner will be announced in November. The rest are below:


The other awards I love are awarded in the new year and into the spring. The Edgar Awards  for mystery books, the Newbery Award for children’s books, or the PEN/Faulkner Award for American literature, and The Pulitzer Prize (I love the literature awards, of course, but also the reporting awards). There are many other awards on my periphery, mostly regional or genre related, but these are the biggies to which I really notice.

Most of my awareness in the book awards goes to fiction, but I do notice other categories. I love Poetry, and enjoy good non-fiction. But most of my time reading is spent trying to avoid reality, so most of my time is spent in fiction.

My love for the book awards gets deep into my book and word nerdiness. The  fact that they are a celebration of stories and great writing, of the authors that create these wonderful stories. These amazing wordsmiths open up worlds and invent stories that expand minds and spur on knowledge. Authors are unsung heroes of spare time, their fame often overtaken by their characters, and sometimes even the actors that play the characters in the movie adaptations.

Along with literary awards comes the rise in book sales for these writers, and these are the writers that deserve the sales. They are the best in their fields, and many lesser writers make more money (there are a couple off the top of my head that I could list, writers of lesser talent that seem to make big money writing books that get turned into bad movies, but I’m going to stay away from snarky, pretty much). Sometimes there are uproars and arguments about who did or did not make the lists or win the awards, but this just ups the profiles of all involved. And I love it.

These awards satisfy a sub-genre of my book nerdiness: my literary nerdiness. I love the ins and outs of these awards (although I don’t get into the politics of publishing too much), and love reading about the individual panel members. I love when they do interviews with the authors, and would love nothing better than to attend The National Book Award ceremony.

Awards and nominations for awards mean that you are at the top of your game, that you are the best right now in your field. It means that awards panels are giving readers a guide as to what to read (I say a guide, because reading is personal and individual, and these panels have their own ideas and prejudices, just like we do). I get those happy book feelings when a favorite of mine makes it to the top and wins an award. But there are years when those nominated or the winners are books that I didn’t particularly care for. Again, different tastes and ideals, and that’s okay.

So, literary awards. Exciting times for readers. Well, at least for this reader.

Onto a writer who has won a few awards, Margaret Atwood, and her literary science fiction book The Heart Goes Last.

“The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed; so, in a way, there’s nothing to dread.”

The Premise

Stan and Charmaine used to have the American dream. Nice starter house, good jobs, a nice marriage. But when the economy tanks, they lose it all pretty quickly. The jobs go, and then the house, and they’re stuck living in their car, living off of Charmaine’s meager wages as a bartender. Life is small, running from vandals and thieves, and they’re pretty much devoid of all hope.

And then Charmaine hears about the Consilience, a social experiment offering nice homes and decent jobs in a stable community. They can’t sign up fast enough. For the chance at the suburban dream on which they were raised, the two seem to be the perfect Consilience citizens.

With the dream, though, there is a catch. And so it is with Consilience. Every other month, citizens must leave their perfect house for a month in prison. There they also have jobs, and are contributing members of a different community.

All is going well, until both Stan and Charmaine become obsessed with their counterparts, their ‘alternates’ who inhabit their homes during their prison time. When Charmaine acts on her obsession, She forces both into danger, placing them both into the politics of Consilience, and the exposure games of the lies within its perfect walls. And it just may be their ticket out of what has become conformity hell.

My Thoughts

I was fascinated to read that The Heart Goes Last was first released as a series of e-book novellas known as the Positron stories. The stories were reworked and edited, and became this wonderful book.

In true Atwood fashion, she gives us a bleak view of the future (or an alternative present?), but doing so with panache and humor, and a lot of smarts. Charmaine and Stan are the kind of charming idiots we all know (and maybe are, at times), happy to live the American Dream of home ownership and lawn maintenance, hanging on without savings for their little slice of too much. When it all falls apart, they’ll do anything to get it back, including selling a bit of their souls.

What they don’t realize is that they miss the danger of living in their cars, of barely hanging onto their existence. Stan’s brother is a criminal, and, in many ways, Stan envies him and his freedom. In the same way, Charmaine envies the girls at the bar that work as hookers, their ability to let it all loose in an attempt to make some cash. When they get the Consilience version of ideal, both find ways to find a little bit of daring.


Skip ahead if you don’t want to spoil you appetite with a teaser. 

In the end, after all the danger and excitement is over, it’s funny how both choose to go back to a mind numbing existence. But, one wonders, do they really?!! This is a great book discussion question!!


I give The Heart Goes Last 4 stars. Thought provoking and interesting, and the fact that Stan and Charmaine are so milquetoast adds to the story. I love it!!!


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