The 2012 National Book Award Nominees were announced this morning on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Five finalists were selected for each of four categories, including Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People's Literature.
Literary darlings Junot Díaz and Dave Eggers were selected in the Fiction category alongside two fairly decorated writers and a debut novelist. Unsurprisingly, Robert A. Caro was nominated in the Nonfiction category for the long-awaited next installment of his Lyndon Johnson saga.
Perhaps the most notable literary prize in America, the National Book Awards are in their 63rd year. Past winners have included both revered literary greats--William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow--and forgotten talents.
Whether the awards accurately predict which books will catch fire with the American public has been a point of contention among writers. Critic James Wood called literary awards "the new reviews," but Salon's Laura Miller has called the National Book Awards "irrelevant," calling the 2011 finalists "an assortment of low-profile and/or small-press offerings, with the exception of Tea Obrecht’s bestselling debut, 'The Tiger’s Wife.'"
Obrecht’s bestseller may have been a finalist last year, but it didn't take home the award in the fiction category. Instead, Jesmyn Ward, a relatively little-known author won for her mystical, Hurricane Katrina-inspired tale, Salvage the Bones. According to the New York Times, the eyebrow raising induced by the selection of less seasoned writers can be justified by the sales increases these young novelists see.
A member of the 2011 Fiction panel, Victor LaValle, denied accusations that he and other judges chose intentionally obscure and heady nominees, stating, "These five books worked some special kind of magic on us. In the end, what’s any good reader really hoping for? That spark. That spell."
Check out this year's nominees, as described by the National Book Award staff, and let us know what you think about the books in the comments!:
Junot Díaz, "This Is How You Lose Her" (Riverhead Books)
Fiction: On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness―and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own.
Dave Eggers, "A Hologram for the King" (McSweeney’s Books)
Fiction: In a rising Saudi Arabian city, far from weary, recession-scarred America, a struggling businessman pursues a last-ditch attempt to stave off foreclosure, pay his daughter’s college tuition, and finally do something great. In <em>A Hologram for the King,</em> Dave Eggers takes us around the world to show how one man fights to hold himself and his splintering family together in the face of the global economy’s gale-force winds. This taut, richly layered, and elegiac novel is a powerful evocation of our contemporary moment—and a moving story of how we got here.
Louise Erdrich, "The Round House" (Harper)
Fiction: One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared. While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.
Ben Fountain, "Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk" (Ecco)
Fiction :A ferocious firefight with Iraqi insurgents at "the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal"—three minutes and forty-three seconds of intense warfare caught on tape by an embedded Fox News crew—has transformed the eight surviving men of Bravo Squad into America's most sought-after heroes. For the past two weeks, the Bush administration has sent them on a media-intensive nationwide Victory Tour to reinvigorate public support for the war. Now, on this chilly and rainy Thanksgiving, the Bravos are guests of America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, slated to be part of the halftime show alongside the superstar pop group Destiny's Child. Poignant, riotously funny, and exquisitely heartbreaking, <em>Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk</em> is a devastating portrait of our time.
Kevin Powers, "The Yellow Birds" (Little, Brown and Company)
Fiction: The war tried to kill us in the spring." So begins this powerful account of friendship and loss. In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year-old Private Bartle and 18-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. Bound together since basic training when Bartle makes a promise to bring Murphy safely home, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for. In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes actions he could never have imagined.
Anne Applebaum, "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956" (Doubleday)
Nonfiction: At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union unexpectedly found itself in control of a huge swathe of territory in Eastern Europe. Stalin and his secret police set out to convert a dozen radically different countries to a completely new political and moral system: communism.<em> Iron Curtain</em> describes how the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were created and what daily life was like once they were complete. The book describes how political parties, the church, the media, young people’s organizations―the institutions of civil society on every level―were eviscerated, how the secret police services were organized, how ethnic cleansing was carried out, and how some people were forced to collaborate while others managed to resist.
Katherine Boo, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" (Random House)
Nonfiction: Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter will soon become its first female college graduate. But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.
Robert A. Caro, "The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4" (Alfred A. Knopf)
Nonfiction: The fourth installment in Robert Caro’s monumental work on President Lyndon Johnson,<em> The Passage of Power </em>follows Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his career: 1958 to 1964. For the first time, we see the Kennedy assassination through Johnson’s eyes. We watch Johnson step into the presidency, inheriting a staff fiercely loyal to his slain predecessor, a Congress determined to retain its power over the executive branch, and a nation in shock and mourning. This is not only the story of how he surmounted unprecedented obstacles in order to fulfill the highest purpose of the presidency but is also a revelation of what can be accomplished when the chief executive has the vision and determination to move beyond the pragmatic and initiate programs designed to transform a nation.
Domingo Martinez, "The Boy Kings of Texas" (Lyons Press)
Nonfiction: Domingo Martinez lays bare his interior and exterior worlds as he struggles to make sense of the violent and the ugly, along with the beautiful and the loving, in a Texas border town in the 1980s. Partly a reflection on the culture of machismo and partly an exploration of the author’s boyhood spent in his sister’s hand-me-down clothes, <em>The Boy Kings of Texas</em> delves into the enduring and complex bond between Martinez and his deeply flawed but fiercely protective older brother, Daniel, and features a cast of memorable characters. Charming, painful and enlightening, this book examines the traumas and pleasures of growing up in South Texas and the often terrible consequences when two very different cultures collide on the banks of a dying river.
Anthony Shadid, "House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Nonfiction: Last spring, when Anthony Shadid—one of four New York Times reporters captured in Libya as the region erupted—was freed, he went home. Not to Boston, Beirut, or Oklahoma where he was raised by his Lebanese-American family, but to an ancient estate built by his great-grandfather, a place filled with memories of a lost era when the Middle East was a world of grace, grandeur, and unexpected departures. For two years previous, Shadid had worked to reconstruct the house and restore his spirit after both had weathered war. Now the author of the award-winning <em>Night Draws Near </em>tells the story of the house’s re-creation, revealing its mysteries and recovering the lives that have passed through it.
David Ferry, "Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations" (University of Chicago Press)
Poetry: To read David Ferry’s<em> Bewilderment</em> is to be reminded that poetry of the highest order can be made by the subtlest of means. The passionate nature and originality of Ferry’s prosodic daring works astonishing transformations that take your breath away. In poem after poem, his diction modulates beautifully between plainspoken high eloquence and colloquial vigor, making his distinctive speech one of the most interesting and ravishing achievements of the past half century. Ferry’s translations, meanwhile, are amazingly acclimated English poems. Once his voice takes hold of them they are as bred in the bone as all his other work. And the translations in this book are vitally related to the original poems around them.
Cynthia Huntington, "Heavenly Bodies" (Southern Illinois University Press)
Poetry: In this blistering collection of lyric poems, Cynthia Huntington gives an intimate view of the sexual revolution and rebellion in a time before the rise of feminism. <em>Heavenly Bodies</em> is a testament to the duality of sex, the twin seductiveness and horror of drug addiction, and the social, political, and personal dramas of America in the 1960s. Echoing throughout are some of the most famous—and infamous—voices of the times: Joan Baez and Charles Manson, Frank Zappa and Betty Friedan. Jinns and aliens beckon while cities burn and revolutionaries thunder for change. At the center is the semiautobiographical Suzy Creamcheese, sensual and rebellious, both almighty and powerless in her sexuality.
Tim Seibles, "Fast Animal" (Etruscan Press)
Poetry: The newest collection from one of America’s foremost African-American poets threads the journey from youthful innocence to the whittled-hard awareness of adulthood. Along the way it immerses the reader in palpable moments―the importance of remembering, the burden of race, and the meaning of true wakefulness.
Alan Shapiro, "Night of the Republic" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Poetry: In <em>Night of the Republic,</em> Alan Shapiro takes us on an unsettling night tour of America’s public places―a gas station restroom, a shoe store, a convention hall, and a race track, among other locations―and in stark, Edward Hopper-like imagery reveals the surreal and dreamlike features of these familiar but empty night spaces. Shapiro finds in them not the expected alienation but rather an odd, companionable solitude rising from the quiet emptiness.
Susan Wheeler, "Meme" (University of Iowa Press)
Poetry: A meme is a unit of thought replicated by imitation. Occupy Wall Street is a meme, as are internet ideas and images that go viral. But what could be more potent memes than those passed down by parents to their children? Susan Wheeler reconstructs her mother’s voice—down to its cynicism and its mid-twentieth-century Midwestern vernacular—in “The Maud Poems,” a voice that takes a more aggressive, vituperative turn in “The Devil—or —The Introjects.” In the book’s third long sequence, a generational inheritance feeds cultural transmission in “The Split.” One read, and the meme “Should I stay or should I go?” will be altered in your head forever.
William Alexander, "Goblin Secrets" (Margaret K. McElderry Books)
Young People's Literature: Rownie, the youngest in Graba the witchworker's household of stray children, escapes and goes looking for his missing brother. Along the way he falls in with a troupe of theatrical goblins and learns the secret origins of masks. Now Graba's birds are hunting him in the Southside of Zombay, the Lord Mayor's guards are searching for him in Northside, and the River between them is getting angry. The city needs saving—and only the goblins know how.
Carrie Arcos, "Out of Reach" (Simon Pulse)
Young People's Literature: Rachel has always idolized her older brother Micah. He struggles with addiction, but she tells herself that he’s in control. And she almost believes it. Until the night that Micah doesn’t come home. Rachel’s terrified―and she can’t help but feel responsible. She should have listened when Micah tried to confide in her. And she only feels more guilt when she receives an anonymous note telling her that Micah is nearby and in danger. With nothing more to go on than hope and a slim lead, Rachel and Micah’s best friend, Tyler, begin the search. Along the way, Rachel will be forced to confront her own dark secrets, her growing attraction to Tyler… and the possibility that Micah may never come home.
Patricia McCormick, "Never Fall Down" (Balzer + Bray)
Young People's Literature: When the Khmer Rouge arrive at his hometown in Cambodia, Arn is just a kid, dancing to rock 'n' roll, hustling for spare change, and selling ice cream with his brother. But after the soldiers march the entire population into the countryside, Arn is separated from his family and assigned to a labor camp. One day, the soldiers ask if any of the kids can play an instrument. In order to survive, Arn must quickly master the strange revolutionary songs the soldiers demand. This will save his life, but it will also pull him into the very center of what we know today as the Killing Fields. And just as the country is about to be liberated, Arn is handed a gun and forced to become a soldier. He lives by the simple credo: “Over and over I tell myself one thing: never fall down.” Based on the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, this is an achingly raw and powerful novel about a child of war who becomes a man of peace.
Eliot Schrefer, "Endangered" (Scholastic)
Young People's Literature: When Sophie has to visit her mother at her sanctuary for bonobos in Congo, she’s not thrilled to be there. It’s her mother’s passion, and Sophie doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. At least not until Otto, an infant bonobo, comes into her life, and for the first time she feels the bond a human can have with an animal. But peace does not last long for Sophie and Otto. When an armed revolution breaks out, the sanctuary is attacked, and the two of them must escape unprepared into the jungle. Caught in the crosshairs of a lethal conflict, they must struggle to keep safe, to eat, and to survive.
Steve Sheinkin, "Bomb: The Race to Build―and Steal―the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon" (Flash Point)
Young People's Literature: In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a Uranium atom split in two. That simple discovery launched a scientific race that spanned three continents. In Great Britain and the United States, Soviet spies worked their way into the scientific community; in Norway, a commando force slipped behind enemy lines to attack German heavy-water manufacturing; and deep in the desert, one brilliant group of scientists was hidden away at a remote site at Los Alamos. This is the story of the plotting, risk-taking, deceit, and genius that created the world's most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb.