One little medal, one big step for a writer's career.
Wednesday night, in the grand Cipriani dining room on Wall Street, a small group of novelists, poets and nonfiction authors will see their lives change when the National Book Awards are announced. There will be triumphant winners, gracious runners-up, and publishers buzzing around in both victory and defeat. But last night, inside the airy auditorium of the West Village's New School, the atmosphere was all celebration as the finalists for the NBA gathered to read short selections from their work. The night's MC was novelist Fiona Maazel (a former "5 Under 35" National Book Foundation honoree), who introduced readers as varied as punk legend Patti Smith and Australian Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey.
NPR was on site to record the happenings, and below are the readings from the five nominees for the fiction award. Feel free to pick your pony in anticipation of Wednesday night's big event — but remember that when it comes to great novels finding even greater audiences, everyone wins.
By Nicole Krauss
Hardcover, 289 pages, W.W. Norton and Co., list price: $24.95
Brooklyn-based novelist Nicole Krauss first gained national attention with her sophomore novel, The History of Love, which was published as an excerpt in The New Yorker in 2004. With Susan Sontag as a devoted fan, Richard Gere fighting to adapt her first novel into film, and her marriage to literary star Jonathan Safran Foer, Krauss has had the kind of writing career that any MFA graduate would envy. Fortunately for Krauss, she backs up all of the buzz with superb writing, playing with narratives of Jewish identity, aging, family secrets, foreign travel and the shifting nature of love.
Her third novel, Great House, tells the story of an antique writing desk passed between four interconnected generations. The book travels from Jerusalem to London to Chile, touching on topics as bold as the Holocaust, Pinochet's secret police, and a widower's loneliness. Fresh Air's Maureen Corrigan called the book "precisely the kind of work of art for which the phrase 'oddly compelling' was invented," and noted that "although most of her characters are prisoners of the past, Krauss herself is a fiction pioneer, toying with fresh ways of rendering experience and emotion, giving us readers the thrill of seeing the novel stretched into amorphous new shapes."
Listen to Lionel Shriver read from 'So Much For That'
Lionel Shriver changed her name from Margaret when she was just 15 years old, claiming that she was better suited for a more masculine name. In a way, her moniker has allowed Shriver's writing to become androgynous and universal — she has written biting social criticism for the Guardian and The Economist with intimidating bravado, attacking the British government, American health care and other hot-button topics.
Shriver's bravest writing, however, comes through in her novels. Her eighth book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, covered the controversial subject of a boy who had murdered nine classmates at his high school, and earned Shriver the prestigious Orange Prize. In her latest novel, So Much for That, Shriver took on an equally contentious issue by examining America's broken health care system. As NPR's Heller McAlpin observed, "So Much for That raises searching questions about the value of a human life and government's role in a democracy. It is filled with facts about cancer treatments and copayments, but Shriver does not allow this research to clog the arteries of her novel, which pulses with vivid characters."
Paperback, 640 pages, Coffee House Press, list price: $19.95
Karen Tei Yamashita is one of the break-out indie stars of the nominee list, with her under-the-radar novel on Minnesota's small Coffee House Press suddenly on the lips of many major publishers. But while she is enjoying a lot of new buzz, Yamashita is not new to publishing — a professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, she has been writing plays and novels about the Asian-American experience since the early 1990s.
I Hotel, as NPR's Michael Schaub describes it, "is essentially a novel composed of 10 smaller novels, each set in a different year in Chinatown, and Yamashita incorporates photographs, comics, diagrams and screenplay excerpts into her prose. If all that sounds complicated, don't be scared — it's a stylistically wild ride, but it's smart, funny and entrancing."
Listen to Peter Carey read from 'Parrot and Olivier in America'
Peter Carey is now a New Yorker but hails from Australia, where his name is often mentioned as that country's next nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Currently, he chairs the MFA program at Hunter College and is one of two writers to have won the Booker Prize twice. He is a perennial award-winner; Carey won the Miles Franklin Award three times, the Commonwealth Writers Prize twice, and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in France for True History of the Kelly Gang.
His latest, Parrot and Olivier in America, as NPR's Michael Schaub writes, is an "unlikely and slightly bizarre comic novel around the life of the influential political thinker. Carey's novel follows Olivier de Garmont, a very thinly disguised version of Tocqueville, and his initially unwilling traveling companion 'Parrot' Larrit from France to a still-young United States. ... Stories about two mismatched people who hate each other at first but eventually become friends got old about 500 cop buddy movies ago, but Carey's novel is smart, charming and original enough to transcend that formula."
Listen to Jaimy Gordon read from 'Lord of Misrule'
Another veteran novelist who is just now hitting her career peak, Jaimy Gordon teaches in the MFA program of Western Michigan University. Her third novel, Bogeywoman, made the Los Angeles Times' Best Fiction of 2000 list, but it is her fourth book, Lord of Misrule, that has launched Gordon into the national spotlight.
Lord of Misrule is set in the world of horse racing, at the downtrodden Indian Mound Downs in rural West Virginia. Gordon's characters — jockeys, loan sharks, horsemen, blacksmiths — are all chasing after the American Dream over the course of a year, placing their hopes and desires into four races and the horses that they long to see win big.