The 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners in letters and drama have been announced and this time there is at least one surprise. The winner for fiction is "Tinkers," a debut novel by Paul Harding, published by a small press (Bellevue Literary Press).
It's not as if the book had no fans. Even before it hit bookstore shelves, Publishers Weekly was calling "Tinkers" "an especially gorgeous example of novelistic craftsmanship." And "Tinkers" did receive a handful of glowing reviews from some prescient critics. (The Dallas Morning News called it "Not a fast read, but a fascinating one" and the Hartford Courant said it "defies expectations and proves to be one of 2009's most intriguing debuts.")
But after speculation about better known writers (more likely candidates included bigger names like Colum McCann, winner of a National Book Award for "Let the Great World Spin," and Jayne Anne Phillips, NBA nominee for "Lark & Termite"), Harding's award came as a surprise to most.
The other 2010 Pulitzer winners in the letters category are writers already garnering wider audiences.
(for history) "Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World," by Liaquat Ahamed (The Penguin Press). The New York Times called this "A grand, sweeping narrative of immense scope and power" about "the West after World War I, a time of economic fragility, of bubbles followed by busts and of a cascading series of events that led to the Great Depression.... From a literary point of view ... [it] is a beautifully written book."
(for biography) "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt" by T.J. Stiles (Knopf). Stiles also received an NBA award for "The First Tycoon." Randy Dotinga, writing for The Christian Science Monitor, called Stiles "a perceptive and witty writer with a remarkable ability to paint a picture of the America in which Vanderbilt lived."
(for poetry) "Versed" by Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press). "Versed" was a National Book Critics Circle winner just last month. In his blog, poet John Gallaher called it "a brilliant book, and a deserving win."
(for general nonfiction) "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy" by David E. Hoffman (Doubleday). The Minneapolis Star Tribune said that this "richly reported account vividly chronicles the insanity of the arms race and the efforts made on both sides to end it."
(for drama) "Next to Normal," music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. This musical about a mother and the impact her mental illness has on her family won three 2009 Tony awards. It now adds to those honors the fact that it has become only the eighth musical in history to receive a Pulitzer Prize.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.