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Book News: Donald Antrim, Karen Russell Win 'Genius Grant' Awards

Karen Russell's debut novel, <em>Swamplandia!</em> was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2012. Her most recent work is a collection of short stories, <em>Vampires in the Lemon Grove</em>.
Michael Lionstar
Karen Russell's debut novel, Swamplandia! was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2012. Her most recent work is a collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Authors Karen Russell and Donald Antrim are among 24 MacArthur "genius" fellows announced Wednesday morning (though the news leaked on Tuesday evening). The $625,000 grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation are awarded annually, with no strings attached, to "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." The foundation wrote that Antrim's "fiction and nonfiction are marked by a contrast between elegant, concise language and the disorienting chaos in which his characters find themselves. Antrim creates fictional worlds that are both commonplace and yet surreal, combining close observations of the banality of everyday life with the absurd." Karen Russell, whose 2011 novel Swamplandia! was a finalist for the Pulitzer, writes "haunting yet comic tales [that] blend fantastical elements with psychological realism and classic themes of transformation and redemption," according to the MacArthur Foundation. Russell told The Washington Post that the award couldn't have come at a better time: "The day after I learned about this, I had to get an emergency root canal, and I don't have dental insurance."
  • After Ralph Ellison's Invisible Manwas banned from the library at North Carolina's Randleman High School, publisher Vintage Books donated copies to a local bookstore to be given away for free to high school students. Evan Smith Rakoff, a former North Carolina resident and editor at Poets & Writers, teamed up with Salon's Laura Miller to ask Vintage to donate the books. According to PBS, the school board is reconsidering its decision following an enormous public swell of support for the novel.
  • The New York Times asked authors Mohsin Hamid and Zoe Heller to debate the value of "likeable" characters in fiction. Hamind writes, "I'll confess — I read fiction to fall in love. ... In fiction, as in my nonreading life, someone didn't necessarily have to be likable to be lovable." Meanwhile, Heller worries that likeability is perceived as an "embarrassing solecism, committed only by low-rent writers and hopelessly naïve readers." She says, "Likability in fictional characters is a complicated matter, but it isn't exclusively the concern of philistines and dolts."
  • Peter Matthiessen, co-founder of the Paris Review as well as a novelist and wilderness writer who has won three National Book Awards, is coming out with a new book this spring.According to the press release from Riverhead Books, In Paradise is "the story of a group of men and women come together for a weeklong meditation retreat at the site of a World War II concentration camp." Matthiessen wrote in the release: "At age 86, it may be my last word."
  • A.S. Byatt considers the Icelandic poet Sjón for The New York Review of Books: "Every now and then a writer changes the whole map of literature inside my head...I think of Icelanders as erudite, singular, tough, and uncompromising. Sjón is all these things, but he is also quicksilver, playful, and surreal. His pen name is an abbreviation of his full name, Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson — Sjón means sight."
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    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.
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