So Many Books, So Little Time: Judging the Kiriyama Prize

Interview by Alden Mudge

separating wheat from chaff

Separating the wheat from the chaff
is harder than it looks.

WaterBridge Review: What was the best part of the judging experience?

Alma Lee: Having one of the best e-mail interactions I’ve ever had!

Abby Pollak: Discovering previously unknown (to me) authors and talking about the books with other judges. It’s a pleasure to take a break from reading and writing to actually think about the book you’ve just read, raise questions and form opinions, then exchange both with serious colleagues. And I confess … the dinners were fabulous.

Janet Brown: I love reading books that I wouldn’t ordinarily look at, and then discussing them with a group of smart people. That springtime trip to San Francisco to meet the faces behind the e-mails is very nice as well.

Alden Mudge: Yes, discussing the new books we jurors had suddenly become most passionate about.

Joanne Sandstrom: And finding new and wonderful books—especially when, after the first few, I began to despair.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston: Foremost for me was the opportunity of reading (forced to take time to read, rather) some of the finest works of fiction written today by world-class writers. Secondly, but certainly not less, was working with and finally meeting ensemble a truly interesting group of humans—one was so taken by a novel, she yearned for a cellophane dress until she was distraught. I have been searching paper stores for that elusive cellophane dress, but to no avail.

Pam Chun: I liked receiving Alden, Alan’s, Jeanne’s and Abby’s reviews. Some were inspiring. Some made me laugh. Some made me sigh. I miss them! Getting to meet the faces behind the e-mails was wonderful. And our stimulating dinner conversations. It should be mandatory that Kiriyama judges get to have dinner with fellow judges once a month for a whole year.

Sally Ito: The best part of the judging experience was receiving the books, actually. It felt like Christmas every day for a while there! However, actually reading the books—the really good ones—was deeply satisfying and enriching. 

WBR: What was the hardest part?

Alma: Constantly looking at this pile of books that have prevented me having people to dinner for months since they are all piled up (still) on my dining room table.

Abby: Choosing the shortlist … and watching my favorite author not make the cut. An exercise in humility.

Janet: I usually found myself cursing over some of the academic press offerings, muttering things like "Not even the author’s mother would want to read this" and "Doesn’t clarity of expression count for anything in the world of academia?"

Alden: Narrowing my wide-ranging list of favorites to just five. I’ve never been good at comparing apples and oranges—prefer a robust fruit salad with many flavors.

Joanne: Trying to rank my children. Which one do I love the most? Why? Can wildly different books be fairly compared? Am I truly representative of a wider audience?

Jeanne: Worrying about receiving the books in Hawaii, where I was for part of the time.

Pam: Deciding… Was this book more worthy than that one? Which moved my heart more? What book would I stake my reputation on?

Sally: Keeping up with the other judges! I’m a slow reader so I couldn’t always be relied upon to stay on top of everyone else’s reading; certainly I felt inadequate at times talking about books I’d only gotten into a little bit.

WBR:  Did you learn anything about yourself during the experience?

Alma: I learned that I’m not as adverse to nonfiction as I thought.

Abby: Oho, yes! I have a tendency to pontificate, which gets in the way of communication. I learned to shut up and listen and … saints preserve us, change my opinion and admit to mistakes.

Janet: I learned that I was capable of compromise when listening to opinions of other judges.

Alden: This is self-serving, perhaps arrogant, but I learned that I’m a pretty good chair, especially when I get to lead (by following) such a wise, articulate group of fellow jurors.

Joanne: That my taste isn’t quite so quirky after all. Other judges liked the same books I liked!

Jeanne: Two things. One: Who the hell did I think I was trying to be an "author"? Two: I wasn’t such a bad writer, after all.

Pam: I’ve always been known as someone who LOVES to read. But after reading some of the "not for us" submissions, I realized I didn’t love to read THAT much!

Sally: Other than that I’m a slow reader? Actually, I discovered that I was "virginal" in some respects. Every book held the potential of being Mr. Right, so to speak, and I was eager for the experience of finding that out. Of course, eventually this kind of receptivity wears off, but with books on topics I’d never read about before, I always felt a sort of a giddy curiosity.

WBR: What did you do for light relief?

Alma: Judged another prize (ha ha, but true). Actually I took a month off in the middle of it all and went to the UK to visit my family.

Abby: Ate donuts, cleaned out part of the garage, and agonized over crosswords.

Janet: I watched a lot of Hong Kong police movies. Johnny To is my primary drug of choice.

Alden: Took long bike rides with thrilling climbs (and descents!) in the Oakland Berkeley hills.

Joanne: The new season of "24" debuted in January.

Jeanne: Stopped reading.

Pam: Cook! Eat! The week I was in Washington DC, my son played his complete DVD collection of James Bond at night. Great mind candy!

Sally: Shop for bookshelves. Or would that be heavy relief?

WBR: What are you doing now with all the extra time?

Alma: Hah—what a question! I’m a very busy gal, ya know, tripping about here and there!

Abby: Going to the movies, reading non-Kiriyama books (the stacks tower), talking to my partner and friends about something other than literary juries and … bearding my own manuscript (third draft) every morning.

Janet: Ask me that question when I’ve finished writing my WaterBridge reviews. (The answer will probably be "re-introducing myself to my family and the few friends whom I might still have after emerging from Kiriyama house arrest.")

Alden: Longer bike rides.

Joanne: Judging scholarship applications for Phi Beta Kappa Northern California. Reading job applications (publications assistant for my office). Final proofreading on two books soon to go into production. Final editing on two books soon to go into production. First-round editing on two new manuscripts. (I’m retired, right?)

Jeanne: Well, guess what? It’s not reading. Catching up on real correspondence (no e-mails), actually cooking meals—like from Trader Joe’s instead of Costco. And THINKING about exercising.

Pam: Well, I thought I was writing a book. If I could only remember what the book was about…

Sally: What extra time? Ack! I’m going to Japan, so finishing with the judging was like finishing one job and then going on to the next!

WBR: Any withdrawal symptoms when the reading was over?

Alma: No, but I have to think about what my table will look like when they’re gone. I think I might miss them.

Abby: Yes, big time. Since I stopped smoking a hundred years ago, I’m now reduced to cooking, gardening, imbibing pink stem drinks and partaking of "Ici" (College Ave.) exotically flavored ice creams. I’m also working on the design of the cellophane dress, which my colleagues have promised to deliver.

Janet: Only a feeling of loneliness when I check my empty e-mail box. It was always fun to wake up in the morning and find a fresh argument from another judge waiting there.

Alden: What? The reading is over? Says who?

Joanne: I keep looking for packages and e-mail. They come, but not the right kind! Going cold turkey is hard.

Jeanne: Other than crazed elation, I did have moments of panic when a book package arrived, signaling another late entry.

Pam: I miss my "e-mail review" fix from my fellow judges and their comments on my reviews.

Sally: Well, I do miss the e-banter with the other judges.

WBR: Would you ever judge a book prize again?

Alma: Depends on the prize. I have been coerced into judging this one again!

Abby: Yes!

Janet: Kiriyama, definitely, but only for nonfiction.

Alden: Very likely.

Joanne: Yes. I’d even go to fiction.

Jeanne: Absolutely … if my eye doctor says okay.

Pam: Absolutely.

Sally: Oh yes. I recommend it for every writer. How else to know the field and what is out there? Judging a book prize is really the best way.

WBR: What have you done with all the books you received?

Alma: My intention is to have a book sale (of the books from both prizes) and send the money to Greg Mortenson for notebooks and pencils for the children in the schools he has helped to build in Baltistan.

Abby: Kept @ 12, donated a couple of cartons to my local library, and swapped the remainder.

Janet: Some I’ve given to friends, a few I’ve kept, and the rest I’ve donated to community groups who can use them.

Alden: Kept a number to reread and donated the rest to the Friends of the Oakland Library.

Joanne: I’m sorting through them. Some will go to grad students who need them for their research. (Not any of our winners; the poor students get the books excoriated for their turgid prose. Can’t help it: those are the titles they need.) Some will go to the new library at UC Merced. Some will go to the Oakland library (especially the children’s books).

Jeanne: I actually have one whole room—well, large closet—that’s devoted to Pac Rim books. (Hey, this is my third go-around.) Most I have donated to libraries and, one year, to a fund-raising event. This year I haven’t brought myself to sorting them out yet.

Pam: Kept my favorites, passed others on to my book lover friends when there was a "fit," and donated others to our library.

Sally: I’ll give away some to friends, donate some to the library where I teach (Canadian Mennonite University), and give to our local writers’ guild book sale. The Japanese-related titles I give to my local Japanese Canadian center. 

WBR: What are you reading now?

Alma: I just finished reading two novels—Boogie Woogie by Danny Moynihan, The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson—and am in the midst of reading the 2006 Canadian Giller Prize winner, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam. If it’s available in the US, I highly recommend The End of the Alphabet. It’s a lovely little book, beautifully designed and falls into the surreal category.

Abby: Colm Toibin’s The Master.

Janet: Poor People by William T. Vollmann, a very personal survey of global poverty, and an advance copy of The Big Girls by Susanna Moore, a grueling novel about women in prison and the people who work with them.

Alden: The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo by Peter Orner, Talk, Talk by T.C. Boyle, The Places in Between by Rory Stewart, Beyond the Summit by Linda LeBlanc, Off-Season Training for Cyclists by Edmund Burke, and so on…

Joanne: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. And I have to give the book report tomorrow night. I loved this book—but I’m not sure what it’s "about" or what it "means."

Jeanne: National Enquirer and People Magazine. Damn, I want to know what’s at
the bottom of the Anna Nicole Smith story! Who is the father of Dannielynn? Stern or Birkhead? To hell with Bush bombing Iran and the exposure of mold-papered walls at Walter Reed! We need to solve the mystery of the decade. Whose sperm impregnated Anna Nicole?

Pam: Just finished Nemesis and Blowback before we had dinner with Chalmers Johnson last night and I wanted to sound intelligent. I’m glad I read Audacity of Hope the week before.

Sally: Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson. A wonderful children’s story for adults in mid-life.