Politics Center Stage at National Book Awards

The National Book Awards honor books dealing with the CIA, Vietnam, and growing up on an Indian Reservation. The two-day annual event tends to be a polite affair, but writers have a way of saying what they think, especially when a nation is at war.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to the winners of the National Book Awards. Last night in New York, books dealing with the CIA, Vietnam, and growing up on an Indian Reservation were honored. The annual event tends to be a polite affair, but writers have a way of saying what they think, especially when a nation is at war.

So this year, as NPR's Lynn Neary reports, politics briefly took center stage.

LYNN NEARY: Christopher Hitchens is a writer who seems to revel in his reputation for being an outspoken polemicist. So it was probably to be expected that when Hitchens was nominated in the nonfiction category for his book "God is Not Great," he would stir a little controversy at this year's awards. But at the author's readings, the night before the award ceremony, it wasn't his anti-religious views, which drew hisses from the audience, it was his aggressive defense of the war in Iraq.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Author, "God is Not Great"): And that's just to give you an idea of how I feel about it. And I spent my Veterans Day honoring those who guard us while we sleep, and I despise those who hiss them. And if you could hear how you sounded when you hissed, you wouldn't do it because you sound creepy and mediocre, okay?

NEARY: The hissing died down and the moment passed. Still, it left some lingering thoughts about what Hitchens might say if he actually won the National Book Award.

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NEARY: But the next evening's award ceremony proved to be more celebratory than controversial. For poet David Kirby nominated for his collection "The House on Boulevard Street," it was a rare brush with glittery thing.

Mr. DAVID KIRBY (Author, "The House on Boulevard Street"): It's totally exhilarating. It's hilarious and totally startling because I just sort of sit around my kitchen table and writes those poems. I live in Tallahassee, Florida, which only has about four people in it. So, you know, to be up here is just like being yanked up to another planet.

NEARY: Ultimately, the award for poetry went to Robert Hass for his book "Time and Materials." The winner of the award for young people's literature was Sherman Alexie for his novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." The story of 14-year-old Arnold Spirit, a Spokane Indian, whose decision to attend high school off the reservation, threatens his relations with his tribe. Here's Alexie reading from the novel.

Mr. SHERMAN ALEXIE (Author, "The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"): (Reading) From our vantage point, we could see for miles. We could see from one end of our reservation to the other. We could see our entire world, and our entire world at that moment was green and golden and perfect.

NEARY: The award for nonfiction didn't go to Christopher Hitchens, but the book that won made its own political statement about U.S. foreign policy. Winner Tim Weiner sifted through more than 50,000 documents in researching his book "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA."

Mr. TIM WEINER (Author, "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA"): It should be the goal of intelligence to know the world, but when that proved too hard, we set out to change the world and to make it fit our prejudices and our preconceptions. When you read through the files of the CIA, you see raw power at work toward that end.

MONTAGNE: And an errant CIA agent is at the center of Denis Johnson's epic novel about Vietnam "Tree of Smoke," which won the award for fiction. Johnson, on a writing assignment in Iraq, asked his wife Cindy Lee Johnson to accept the award and to remember to thank anyone he forgot. And so the evening ended on an unconsoling note for Mr. Hitchens.

Ms. CINDY LEE JOHNSON (Denis Johnson's Wife): Oh, and finally, perhaps in subsequent counterpart to one of our nonfiction nominees, I'd like to thank God. Thank you, God. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

NEARY: Also awarded at last night's ceremony were Joan Didion for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and public radio host Terry Gross for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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