National Book Award

The National Book Award is one of my favorites possibly because it is the last major book award of the calendar year.  I enjoy that night in November where I stay up and wonder how on earth they can keep the finalists waiting through a long dinner and long speeches.

The National Book Award awards books in several categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and  “Young People’s” Literature.

For information about the National Book Award, go to their Homepage.  Here you can also see the finalists in the other categories.

Go here for a list of past winners.

47 thoughts on “National Book Award

  1. Hey thanks Trevor. This is exactly what I was hoping for. I can’t hope to read 20 longlist books — I’d sure like to know whhich five or six I should read. You are supplying a wonderful service.

  2. I’m also looking forward to anything people have to say about the books. I don’t think I’ll have read many if any this year, so I need some help figuring out which ones to spend my time with.

  3. Trevor: I am thinking we may need a reading strategy when the longlist is announced. I intend to go through it (expecting to have read hardly any of the books) to identify four or five that interest me. If you do the same thing, and we don’t have too much overlap, we may be able to cover more than half the list.

    I will be in touch Wednesday when the list is out. If the Booker jury makes the right choice, I’ll have more than enough funds to indulge in my choices.



  4. Fortunately, I wasn’t counting on winning a Booker bet to finance buying these books. I will have thoughts tomorrow I assure you.

  5. Quite an interesting list, and only five of them, so I think I’ll try them all. Rob has a review up of The Lazarus Project (both he and John Self found it waned in the latter half) so I have heard of it. The Robinson and Matthiessen I’ve certainly heard of and look forward to both. Telex from Cuba and The End are unknown to me, but that’s reason enough to give them a shot. I’m all caught up on my Giller reading (discipline, discipline, discipline) with almost a month to go before the winner is announced, so I should be able to fit these in.

  6. Good luck Kevin! Let me know your thoughts on the books. I figure I should read Gilead before I read Home, and I was planning on reading Housekeeping before reading Gilead. We’ll see what happens!

  7. I do note that Gilead is linked to Home — although the blurb I read said both do stand alone. I’m going to try reading them in reverse order. Gilead is one of those books that I’ve probably looked at more than 10 times and never bought — after our discussion elsewhere on the blog I’ll admit that I figured it was time to explore Robinson. So I’ll do it in reverse order and see how that works. I’m quite intrigued by what I’ve found on Telex from Cuba — I’m old enough that I remember the revolution, leftie enough that I kept in touch with Cuba (we Canadians can do that) and from the couple of reviews I saw of it the premise looks most interesting. As for the Matthiessen, I’m interested that a rewrite (which looks pretty much like a severe edit) qualifies. Having said that, a Canadian writer (actually U.S. Viet Nam draft dodger) who I quite like — Keith Maillard — did this with his first novel a few years back (only he expanded it — into four books) and I found the project quite worthwhile.

  8. I agree with you, Kevin. I’m interested in all of the books. My main problem will be time (well, and money but that’s not changing when it comes to books). I’m especially interested in Shadow Country but at over 900 pages, I don’t think I’ll get it done!

  9. Trevor,

    The library currently has two of the fiction books (Home, which I’m sure has a small waiting list, and The Lazarus Project.) The other three will be ordered soon.

  10. An interesting list. I’ve read Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, but didn’t post on it as in the end I didn’t feel I gave it a fair reading: rushing the second half before I went on holiday the next day. It does have some lovely writing, but for me the 1908 chapters were much stronger than the modern day chapters. Otherwise I defer to Rob’s review at the ever-reliable Fiction Desk.

    I’ve read Gilead and thought it beautifully written and a great ‘voice’, but it didn’t stay with me. I have no plans to read Home.

  11. Michael, that’s good news. I would rather get the books from the library than purchase them this time around. I hope to get The Lazarus Project from you soon. I hope it’s not gone when I get there, hopefully tonight . . .

    And John, do any of the other books call to you? I’m actually pretty excited about them, but after Booker, I’m not sure I want to commit myself in writing to read them all.

  12. I’ll get hold of at least a couple and let you know what I thought. Probably ‘The End’ and ‘Telex From Cuba’.

  13. I look forward to your thoughts, Lee. I’d like to read them all, but I’m not sure I’m going to be able to. Your reviews might just point me to the ones I want to read (or away from one or two :) ).

  14. I have now read Telex from Cuba and would like to offer this report.

    By far the best part of this book is its story, Cuba from 1952 to 1958. All of the book is set in Cuba, virtually all of it deals with American business managers and their families there during this period.

    It is a very interesting twist and Kushner deserves credit for it. Predictably, the American managers are a collection of misfits, philanderers, semi-criminals and real criminals. More interesting is that she chooses to tell her story through the voices of their wives and children (one of whom goes off to join Castro’s rebels).

    All of these people are out on the east end of Cuba, where United Fruit and the nickel mining factory are. They live in a very protected world, but that world keeps shrinking.

    That’s the good part of the book. The rest, I’m afraid, is disappointing.

    Kushner has so many narrative voices driving the book that none of them get enough air-time to become a character. They are all interesting, but what we get is a stew of people we would like to know more about and then they disappear for 70 pages.

    There is also a subplot involving a French arms dealer and a Havana stripper that is important to the story line but useless from the character line.

    In the final analysis, if you care about this period of American history — or about what American companies are now doing in the world–, this is a most useful book. While America likes to pay attention only to the Cubans who have fled in Florida, this book offers another view.

    Having said that, as a novel, it simply has too many flaws. I am very glad that it was written, but it does not deserve to win this prize.

    (Kevin has later said that after time, this book has gotten better: click here.

  15. The End, by Salvator Scibona.

    This is one of those frustrating novels that, at first glance, seems to have a most interesting premise and then, in its execution, fails badly to deliver on that promise.

    The End is set in Elephant Park, an Italian neighborhood in Cleveland, in 1953 on the festival day of the local saint. It explores the history of how a handful of characters (a baker, a jeweler, an abortionist, a seamstress and a youth) came to be there.

    The adult characters have a couple of things in common. All of them escaped FROM Italy, rather than TO America — and all of them have found the New World wanting. All have developed survival strategies, but those stories are pretty bleak. All are also, because of spousal death or desertion, alone in this new world. And none of them ever leave the neighborhood — it’s kind of like an Italian regional town dropped into Cleveland.

    There is promise to that premise — the opposite of the streets paved with gold — but it is simply never developed. It is hard not to conclude, from what Scibona presents, that the characters are not as much victims of their fate as authors (which I do think was his intention). Alas, there is nothing in any of them (with the possible exception of the abortionist) that gives reason to move from sympathy to empathy.

    The flyleaf of the book also promises a crime that links them all (so I am not being a spoiler with this) but for me it was a literary device that failed completely. More disturbing, there are elements of the book that reference the racial tension of the times but do so in such a shallow way that it almost becomes racist in itself.

    The immigrant experience in America is the source of a lot of very good fiction (given its Mid-West setting, it was hard not to reference Augie March while reading it — and it sure suffers in the comparison). This book ranks well down the list in what it contributes to that story.

  16. Thanks for your thoughts Kevin! I’ve added a link to your comment on the page above, so hopefully people will find your review when browsing the site.

    That’s too bad about this book. I was interested in it, but not quite as interested as I am in Home and Shadow Country. Probably I’ll skip it unless it wins. And maybe even then.

    You do have me more interested in Augie March, though. I still have not started on Bellow even though one of my favorite teachers at my MA program was a Bellow scholar and recommended him to me many many times. I still feel unready, as if I need more experience to be able to tread there. I suppose the best thing for me to do is jump in and get my experience in the pages.

    I’m not sure if you read “Unsafe at Any Read,” the essay at the end of the NY Times Book Review a few weeks ago, but it got me interested in Herzog, too. I feel my time with Bellow is coming.

  17. I am one-third of the way into Home and find it very, very well written. That said, plot (it is a companion to Gilead which I haven’t read but am not finding that lacking) is not something Robinson does and, given that the three characters are all introverts who avoid other people, even interaction is a bit thin.

    I can’t help but think of John Self’s final para in comment 12 above. I have a dreadful suspicion that when I finish Home, I could substitute Home for Gilead in his comment and feel that it sums up my opinion. Damn you, John Self.

    On the Bellow front, I must admit that, if forced to make a choice, I would take him over Roth — although the debates and commentaries here and on Asylum are starting to make me think I have to give Roth a more sympathetic read. The two authors are also both so good and so different that it is unfair to compare the two — one day you would like one, the next the other, depending on how your felt on the particular day. I really like Augie March (the introductory essay in the Everyman’s Library edition I read said there was no need to write The Great American Novel, because this was it — a bit of hyperbole, but I would put it on my shortlist). It is one of those great novels that is both active and contemplative, epic and introspective. There are precious few books about which I would make that observation. I’d say it is the best place to start with Bellow — it comes from early in his career (I think it was novel number three) and is somewhat more straightforward than his later work. I don’t pretend to have read them all, I like all that I have read.

  18. Two afterthoughts, Trevor:

    1. Another reason to start with Augie March for Bellow is that (of the ones I have read) it is closest to some of Roth — Bellow explores Chicago in the same way Roth explores Newark. Given your comments on American Pastoral, you are more than ready for Augie March and I suspect reading them both relatively close together in time would be an interesting contrast.
    2. Also in rereading my post on Telex from Cuba, I want to say that one week on the memories of the book are better than the quick comments indicate. That is usually a sign that may have read and judged the book too quickly. I certainly am remembering the good parts more often than the ones I found lacking then. If I did stars, I would be adding one to the original review.

  19. Again, thanks for the encouragement, Kevin. It makes me anxious to get some of the more humdrum tasks in front of me completed so I can focus on things more pleasurable.

    By the way, I supplied a link to your first post on Telex that takes people to your last comment where you give it a bit more credit.

    On another note, I am almost done with Housekeeping and I think its tone sounds a bit like Home, though I have to say that I’m really enjoying it. On the basis of that book alone I would put Robinson up in the first tier of American Authors. Though one can lose this status if the books all appear too much the same. I’ll soon make my way through Gilead and Home, so my mind might change.

  20. I have read Home and I will not be commenting on it. Robinson is obviously a very good writer, but much of this book is devoted to a debate about the soul, belief and individual religious practice. I am not religious and acknowledge a strong personal bias against dogma and organized religion. Which means that any opinion that I might offer of this book would be more a reflection of that bias than of the merits or demerits of the book. I’ll also admit that I can’t remember the last time I felt I could not offer an opinion on a novel. I put this humble offering forward only because I said I was going to read every book on this list. I have read Home.

  21. Very interesting, Kevin. I read somewhere that while Robinson attends a church, she goes because she likes what going to church (or being at church, or some variation on that idea) makes her think of. From the quote, wherever I saw it, I got the sense that she’s spiritual but doesn’t necessarily believe in any one particular religion. Does Home support me in this?

    While we’re talking about Robinson, I have finished Homecoming and don’t think it discusses religion much at all. I will be posting on it this Sunday. A fine fine book.

  22. I’d say your sense is right — perhaps even that she finds the dogma-inspired (that might be an overstatement) aspects of organized religion a barrier to spirituality, which is part of what the numerous debates in Home are about. Alas, I’m not very spiritual, so that passed me by. There is no doubt that the “home” aspects of the novel are very impressive — given your comment on Homecoming, I look forward to your review and feel that I should try it eventually. I think I’ll give it some time before I do, however.

  23. Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

    This book ranks as the most challenging I have attempted in a long time — not just the 890 pages (a challenge in itself) but the entire structure of the book.

    Shadow Country is Matthiessen’s rewrite of his earlier trilogy of the Bloody Watson legend. The promotion says he always meant it as one book and in the rewriting has taken out more than a third. That still leaves a lot.

    Edgar Watson’s life starts with the end of the Civil War and extends into the 20th century — he was murdered by a lynch mob in the Everglades in 1910. He was definitely an entrepeneur, definitely shady, certainly had a way with women, maybe was a murderer of up to a dozen people, maybe not.

    The lynch mob murder occurs right at the start of the book, so I am giving no spoiler with that. Book one (even in this single volume there are three distinct books) consists of short (two to ten pages) first person accounts of what they saw as the Watson story developed — both history and the present. Book two is similar, but told through the voice of Watson’s alleged favorite son, Lucius, now a professor who has written a history of Florida to date and now is moving on to a biography of his father that (maybe, maybe not) will clear his name. Book three is the same set of incidents, experiences and facts (?) told from Watson’s point of view.

    While Watson’s life is the framing story, the author’s two dominating themes are the development/ecological destruction of the Everglades and the racism that was a part of life in the southern U.S. in this post-Civil War period. The legend is an allegory to explore these dismal broader themes.

    Memory is always imprecise. The most faithful witnesses see a story from only one perspective. Memory is also selective — again even the honest have to make choices. Memory is open to abuse, either deliberately or through laziness or a willingness to accept gossip. Matthiessen uses these characteristics, particularly in books one or two, to create a shadowy web of possibilities that may or may not be true. We know Watson is a questionable man — as are most of those around him, be it family, enemies or friends — but we don’t really know which versions that we have been presented is the truth. We also certainly don’t know how many, if any, people he actually killed. Book three, in theory, tells us the real story — but maybe that to is a web of lies.

    Which is how the author builds his allegory. There is no doubt he does it well — any book that attracts enthusiastic cover blurbs from Saul Bellow, Annie Dillard and Richard Ford has to be admired.

    Despite this, I’ll admit that if it wasn’t for the blurbs I would have put this book down before finishing book two. The voices come at you like buckshot from a gun (to use a frequent Shadow Country image) and you are not really sure where they have hit. Trying to figure out who is saying what, let alone what is true, becomes daunting. And the story itself — beyond the obvious overarching themes — never goes anywhere. So why spend the time?

    Part of that I can attribute to my style of reading. I read in five or six hour stretches — this book needs to be read for only 50 or 60 pages and then set aside for contemplation. Also, the Florida Everglades and Gulf Coast, where it is set, — and for that matter, slavery — is about as far from my life experience (Canadian urban centre in the foothills between the Rockies and a near-desert prairie) as you can get.

    I can recommend it only to the most serious of readers and even then with the caveat of “hang in there through the first 410 pages, because the next 480 are much better” — which hardly seems a recommendation. I do think it is an important book, although I can’t help but think of the Nobel jury chairman’s observation about the insular nature of American writing. I don’t think that applies in every case — I do in this one. Shadow Country may well be a great book for some people — it was not for me.

  24. Who will win?

    I have not read The Lazarus Project, but off of two reviews (including Trevor’s) I think it is okay to delay reading it for a while. So, when the jury decides on this prize, what will they do? I think it is totally unpredictable.

    1. If the jury opts for a “new” voice, they have three choices — The End, Lazarus and Telex from Cuba. I think Telex from Cuba is the best of these, albeit a book with flaws, and it would be my choice.

    2. If the jury gets more traditional, and I suspect it might, it has the daunting choice of Home or Shadow Country. I’m betting they’ll opt for Matthiessen.

    Finally, for readers this is a most disappointing shortlist. There have been far better books (Netherland, Trauma, Unaccustomed Earth) published in the U.S. this year. This NBA shortlist is interesting, but backward — and definitely not reader friendly.

  25. Most of my insights on this year’s prize come from you, Kevin. I definitely don’t want The Lazarus Project to win, and that’s the only one I’ve read. From what you’ve said, I think Shadow Country sounds most like a book that I would need a good excuse to read – like a National Book Award.

    I’ll have to put some thought into this and study your reviews a bit more carefully to see what I think the judges are likely to pick. I’m usually okay with the winner, even if it is not my favorite book, so we’ll see how it all goes.

    I like your comment on the list not being reader friendly. Did you find that welcoming after the Booker? Did you find the Giller Prize an appropriate middle-ground between the extremes?

  26. On another note, Kevin, I hope that for future prizes and in future years with this prize, we have the benefit of multiple readers’ comments. I’ll do my best to recruit. For this year, thanks for all of your contributions and insights into the books.

  27. I don’t think there is a tradition of commenting on these books beforehand, so we will have to take a year or two to establish that. I certainly don’t mind reading books, since I am going to do that anyway, and spending a half hour drafting a commentary is not really hard work — even if you and I are the only ones who read it.

    As for the three prizes, I’d say (without too much national chauvanism) that I thought Giller shortlist had the best selection — and the best winner. I think we will see a better U.S. list with the National Critics Circle and Pulitzer when they get announced. This NBA list is pretty anal-retentive.

  28. Then that’s good news for me, Kevin. From your Canadian bookstore, I have Through Black Spruce and Boys in the Trees on the way. I also ordered Three Day Road, and some others you have recommended. I look forward to getting to know the Giller and some more Canadian literature in general.

  29. Shadow Country won. Be sure to check out Kevin’s review above on note 24.

    I’ve definitely been interested in this one since I heard about it, and now I have a better excuse to attempt the 900+ page monster.

  30. Actually, Trevor, it is note 26 but I am sure people will find it. And I will note that in note 27 I offered a half-hearted prediction that this would be the winning book.

    I’m not surprised at the result, but I would not rush out to buy copies of the book as Christmas presents for all your friends.

    I would characterize Shadow Country as a tour-de-force for writers (as some of the cover blurbs show) but a very difficult force-de-tour for readers. Matthiessen has undertaken and executed an epic in a manner that I think authors admire but that most readers will find difficult to handle. Having said that, serious readers will find it worth the effort to give it a go. I found that it needed to be read in relatively short sections, so plan on at least a couple of weeks. The action and voices get so complex and confused that you need time away from the book to put them in order.

    I don’t criticize the selection, particularly given the history of the National Book Awards. I do think there have been several more reader-friendly books published in the U.S. this year.

  31. Interesting stuff. Cheers for the extensive review, Kevin; it gives me exactly what I need before deigning to throw a bit of moolah Matthiessen’s way. Your review evoked assumptions on my part that it was a Gaddis/Barth/Gass-type of a read (which I’m a sucker for, despite knowing that the whole will not equal the sum of parts) and if that’s the case your reservations are totally understandable. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with epic, copious word-mountains that are verbose and playful (a kind way of establishing that the writer is mucking about with form, normally for no good reason) and that strive for the big fish; I just find that those books are normally either impossible to read properly (time-constraints, jagged chunks of the thing read in isolation and you can’t recall a darn thing the next time you pick it up) or are simply chasing air with a net and, as the writer fails to get at his idea, pages flip by full of characters with nowhere to go and disparate scenes fizz and burn and fail to coalesce. Exceptions there are some, I know. And your comment about 50-60 page chunks followed by contemplation is interesting. I will, as ever, give it a go.

  32. Thanks Stewart. That’s really interesting! I knew people were upset about the venue, but I didn’t quite gather up all of what was underneath it all. I do think it’s a bit unfair to lambast the NBA organization for the venue since it was underwritten. That puts the NBA in a tough spot because the underwriters obviously are giving the money for the show, and you want the underwriters to come back.

    I need to do more research here because I found this to be an interesting argument, but I found myself on the side of the NBA in almost every regard, and I don’t typically side with that type of organization.

  33. Thanks for the post Stewart. As someone who actually paid to buy (and then took the time to read) the finalists, I cannot believe how pompous both these two pricks are. At great length they discuss whether the dinner should be at a “posh” or “moderate” New York hotel — this is relevant to books? I regret ever having spent a dollar on their enterprises — but then regret that, because I think authors deserve to earn a living. If only the authors did not have to deal with publishers (and I used to be one).

    Is there any wonder that the American publishing industry is in absolute total disarray when jerks like this are in charge? They make the auto industry CEOs look like geniuses. And it is certainly hard to do that.

  34. I’ll admit that I was probably a bit over the top in comment 38 above — I should not have described the NAB posters as “pricks” and “jerks” and I do apologize.

    Having said that, please visit the link that Stewart has provided and then ask the question: Would you want either of these letter writers, who here display their wisdom, to edit your book?

    If your answer is yes, I’d sure like an explanation why. For my part, their argument illustrates why we are seeing so many badly edited books these days.

    Cheers and, again, my apologies for my excess language. At least it was not in a run on sentence.


  35. I’m not sure where to place this question, Trevor, so thought I would park it here and open this year’s discussion of the National Book Award.

    Have you read any Lorrie Moore? I haven’t and her name has hit my radar over the last few months. Her new title, A Gate at the Stairs, looks interesting — although I’ll admit some personal hesitancy since I’ve found a lot of post 9/11 fiction to be disappointing. Since she hasn’t published a book in 11 years, I did figure that any reading of her that you might have done would be pre-blog. Now that I’m finished the Booker longlist, U.S. fiction is starting to draw my attention — That Old Cape Magic is definitely on my shortlist for best book of the year.

  36. The only Lorrie Moore I’ve read was her recent short story “Childcare” in The New Yorker. I am actually doing a Year-in-Review of The New Yorker‘s short fiction, to be published in December. Here’s a peak at what I wrote after reading “Childcare”:

    I’ve been interested in reading something by Lorrie Moore because some of my friends get very anxious whenever something by her is put out there. They were really excited when this piece was published. When I began the piece, here’s what I was thinking: This is excellent stuff! She really does have a natural fluency in her writing! Then because of some distraction I put the magazine down and didn’t feel the need to pick it up again until two weeks later. I was ultimately pleased with the story which deals with a young woman getting a childcare job before the employer has even adopted her child. They go together to an interview with the birth mother, a sassy teen wearing an electronic bracelet. On the whole I enjoyed perspective this young employee provided on the tension between the birth mother and the hopeful adoptive mother, though I have to say that somewhere the steam ran out — but that was probably just me and my distractions. It was definitely excellently written and made me more interested in Moore.

    When the short story was published quite a few American bloggers were thrilled, calling her one of their favorites. But that was my first and so far only genuine encounter. It did make me go look up her backlist. Seems a lot of people really liked Self-Help.

  37. I did read that story as well and had a somewhat similar response. I’m thinking I’ll give the new novel a try once I can create some reading time. Thanks for the prompt response.

  38. I only read two of the finalists this year — Let The Great World Spin and In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (must say, I liked them both better than any of last year’s finalists). If one of the other three wins, I’ll probably give it a go but for now my choice is In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.

  39. Then it looks to be a good year because I liked Lark and Termite. Even if the other two are not that great, 3 out of 5 is a pretty good selection. I did manage to read one of the YA finalists — Stitches, a graphic novel — and its review will go up on Wednesday.

  40. Hi Trevor –
    I’m a little behind in reading the comments, so if I repeat what someone else has already mentioned apologies.
    I saw that you were interested in reading Shadow County but the length seemed like it might be more of a commitment than you wanted to make. It’s actually divided into 3 books – so you can easily break between books. In fact, Shadow Country was originally a trilogy. Matthiessen was unhappy with it and edited it all into 1 huge book – which then won the National Book Award. The original first book was called “Killing Mr. Watson” and you may want to just read that. The second book is pretty terrible – even in its edited Shadow Country form. It’s very reminiscent of Quentin Compson in “Absalom, Absalom!”, just not as good. Book 2 was painfully slow to get through, so I haven’t gone back for book 3 yet.
    Other than Remarkable Creatures by Sean B. Carroll I haven’t read any of this year’s pick. To be honest, none stuck out enough for me to go looking for copies.

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