The National Book Awards shortlists — for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature — were announced October 15 on Morning Edition by Mitchell Kaplan, co-founder of Miami Book Fair International and former president of the American Booksellers Association. On November 18, finalists for the National Book Awards read from their nominated works at The New School in New York City. The National Book Foundation will announce the winners Wednesday night. Read more about each of the finalists — and hear the authors read from their works — below.
All the Light We Cannot See
This novel follows two young protagonists: Marie-Laure, a blind French girl waiting out the war in the French coastal city of Saint-Malo, and a German orphan named Werner who gets caught up in the Nazi youth. The book jumps back and forth in time, and includes a set of mysterious radio broadcasts, a reclusive uncle and a legendary (and cursed) blue diamond. NPR critic Alan Cheuse loves Anthony Doerr's linguistic style. "It's a marvelous thing, to read a book studded with epiphanic sequences," he writes. "But there's just something about the ragged timeline that makes Doerr's approach and execution all too jarring."
Interview: World War II In A New 'Light': Empathy Found In Surprising Places
Review: A Fractured Tale Of Time, War And A Really Big Diamond
Listen to Anthony Doerr read from 'All the Light We Cannot See'
An Unnecessary Woman
Rabih Alameddine has set his latest novel in Beirut — specifically, in the apartment of 72-year-old Aaliya. She lives alone and has what some might consider a small or boring life: She stays home, translates her favorite writers into Arabic (though she never publishes them) and lives mostly in books and in her memories. But NPR critic Rosecrans Baldwin writes, "Aaliya is thoughtful, she's complex, she's humorous and critical. A neighbor's movements upstairs, a sip from a glass of red wine at dinner — the smallest things inspire sequences of memories, ideas, quotations from her favorite authors. It's the drama of daily life, only highly informed." Alameddine splits his time between Beirut and San Francisco, and makes his Middle Eastern home almost a character in the book. "Aaliya's ... devoted to Beirut, its gossip and turmoil," Baldwin writes. "She makes the reader want to love her city, too, even while relating what it was like to live through years of fear and violence."
Interview: 'Unnecessary Woman' Lives On The Margins, Enveloped In Books
Review: A Widow's Quiet Life Leaves Room For Sex, Guns And Literature
Listen to Rabih Alameddine read from ' An Unnecessary Woman'
In 2004 Marilynne Robinson published her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, which was set in a fictional Iowa town. In her latest book, she follows the story of a minor character in Gilead, Lila, the wife of the reverend-protagonist, and unwinds her backstory. "Abandoned as a child," NPR's Lynn Neary writes, "she was rescued by a homeless woman named Doll and grew up in a makeshift family of itinerant workers." But she makes her way eventually to Gilead and falls in love with the town's reverend, John Ames. It is this unlikely relationship between the intellectual Ames and the mostly uneducated Lila that forms the basis for most of the book.
Interview: In 'Lila,' A Nomad Finds Solace And Love In The Arms Of A Preacher
Listen to Ayana Mathis read from Marilynne Robinson's 'Lila'
From 2007 to 2008, Phil Klay served in Iraq as a public affairs officer in Anbar province. It was an experience he mined for this book of short stories about, among other things, an American billionaire who tries to bring baseball to Iraq and a Marine handling the bodies of soldiers who died in combat. "What I really want — and I think what a lot of veterans want — is a sense of serious engagement with the wars," Klay tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer, "because it's important, because it matters, because lives are at stake, and it's something we did as a nation."
Interview: Reminder From A Marine: Civilians And Veterans Share Ownership Of War
Review: 'Redeployment' Explores Iraq War's Physical And Psychic Costs
Listen to Phil Klay read from 'Redeployment'
After an apocalyptic plague wipes out much of Earth's population, a theater troupe roams around the Great Lakes region performing the works of Shakespeare. Emily St. John Mandel focuses her narrative on a young member of that troupe — Kirsten, who was a child actor in a production of King Lear in the time before the plague hit. Kirsten and her troupe struggle to survive in the new environment, but she's more concerned with uncovering her King Lear co-star's history, and with a mysterious comic strip, whose creator remains unknown. Writing in The New York Times, author Sigrid Nunez says Station Eleven "is as much a mystery as it is a post-apocalyptic tale, and Mandel is especially good at planting clues and raising the kind of plot-thickening questions that keep the reader turning pages."
Listen to Emily St. John Mandel read from 'Station Eleven'
Age of Ambition
Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
Evan Osnos was the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorkerduring a period of immense social and economic change. Age of Ambition documents what he calls China's Gilded Age, and the personal stories of people trying to negotiate it, from a Taiwanese soldier who defected to China, to a peasant who started a dating website. "China's transformation — its extraordinary economic growth — to put in perspective, is 100 times the scale and 10 times the speed of the first industrial revolution which transformed Britain," Osnos tells NPR's Fresh Air.
Interview: A 'New Yorker' Writer's Take On China's 'Age Of Ambition'
Listen to Evan Osnos read from 'Age of Ambition'
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Roz Chast — a popular cartoonist whose shaky, humorous art can often be found in the pages of The New Yorker — is an only child. When her parents were in their 90s, both began to have health issues. It was the beginning of a long process, which Chast faced mostly alone and which she reflects on in her memoir, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? The book is a mixture of text and illustration chronicling the last years of her parents' lives. It's full of stories, some painful, others painfully funny. She tells NPR's Melissa Block about a shopping trip with her father when she held up a red sweater for his consideration: "I can't wear that!" her father said. Chast replied, "Why not?" Her father answered: "It's RED ...Communism."
Interview: Why Bring Up Death When We Could Talk About 'Something More Pleasant'?
Interview: A Cartoonist's Funny, Heartbreaking Take On Caring For Aging Parents
Listen to Roz Chast read from 'Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant'
The Meaning of Human Existence
Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson continues his examination of what he calls the "Anthropocene Epoch" in The Meaning of Human Existence. He doesn't shy away from the deep questions: Why did the human species arise on this planet? Do we have a destiny, a special role in the universe? Where exactly is our species going? Wilson concludes that science and technology have advanced to the point where we can begin to answer those questions, and test the answers.Publisher's Weekly calls it a canny and candid probe into the nature of human existence.
Listen to Jonathan Weiner read from E.O. Wilson's 'The Meaning of Human Existence'
No Good Men Among the Living
America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes
Anand Gopal moved to Afghanistan in 2008. As Kim Barkerwrites in The New York Times, "Gopal learned the language, grew a beard and traveled to remote corners other correspondents rarely ventured." The result is a book that traces the effect of the war on three Afghan lives: a housewife turned senator, a Taliban commander and a U.S.-backed warlord. But his subject is the war itself. As Barker puts it, "Gopal's book is essential reading for anyone concerned about how America got Afghanistan so wrong."
Listen to Anand Gopal read from 'No Good Men Among the Living'
Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
A longtime drama critic for The New Yorker, John Lahr built this biography using not only the writings of Tennesee Williams, but also a trove of diaries, letters and previously untranscribed interviews with the playwright and his friends and lovers. Lahr's book is both gossipy — it features unhappy love affairs, binge-drinking actresses and a drug-addicted Williams — and aesthetically serious. He tells The New York Times, "I just hope I'm able to expand people's appreciation of the plays by making these connections, by giving a detailed sense of his bulldog battle for sanity and for his art."
Listen to John Lahr read from 'Tennessee Williams'
An American Lyric
In Citizen, Claudia Rankine examines everyday racism in America. The writer mixes poetry with art, essays and images from the news to share her own experiences of racism (the girl who doesn't want to sit next to her on a plane because she's black; being overlooked in the checkout line), and to reflect on stories that have made their way into the national conversation about race, like the death of Trayvon Martin and fallout from Hurricane Katrina. She writes, "You are not the guy and still you fit/ the description because there is only one guy/ who is always the guy fitting the description." The message, according to The Rumpus' Shaelyn Smith, is clear: "We must all serve as witnesses. We must all answer to the responsibility of self as citizen. And we all must defend our citizenship, as well as that of those around us."
Listen to Claudia Rankine read from 'Citizen'
Faithful and Virtuous Night
Louise Glück has been writing poetry for more than four decades, and still her most recent collection feels like a departure. Much of Faithful and Virtuous Night takes place in the countryside and features an aging painter facing his own decline; the poetry itself is abstract and lovely. But as NPR critic Annalisa Quinn writes, "A mist has settled over these poems — they've become clouds in which you can divine whatever you like — ships or volcanoes or your mother's nose — but there's ultimately little to hold on to."
Review: The Ecstatic Blankness Of Poet Louise Glück
Listen to Louise Glück read from 'Faithful and Virtuous Night'
The Feel Trio
From soul singer Philippe Wynne to filmmaker John Akomfrah to anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, Fred Moten's The Feel Triois jam-packed with black culture references. The Rumpus' Patrick James Dunagan recommends that those unfamiliar with the names Moten drops make liberal use of Google "to discover what all is being said and unsaid" in this collection. "Slinging language about in a frenzied assault across the page," Dunagan writes, "Moten's poetry sits upright in the spit sizzling off yesterday's breakfast bacon, sputtering and growling as it engages readers in an across-the-board wake up call. ... He's an off the chart, catastrophic riffing risk-taker challenging readers to keep up as he throws down."
Listen to Fred Moten read from 'The Feel Trio'
Fanny Howe's poetry is often immersed in Christianity. In her newest collection, she blends that focus with childhood and how, as adults, we might revisit it. Through a mix of narrative clarity and mystical ambiguity, Howe examines the un-self-consciousness and fresh perspective that only a child enjoys. She writes: "If we had been grown-ups, we wouldn't have been/ able to see the stars or the storms. We would have/ perished./ So my commitment to childhood has once again been/ affirmed./ Read the signs, not the authorities." The Rumpus' Cynthia Cruz writes, "Howe demonstrates both her ability to see the world as a child as well as her commitment to continue to work to keep this gift ... and not fall prey to referring first to the 'authorities' and their reduced understanding of the world, of the stars."
Listen to Fanny Howe read from 'Second Childhood'
Maureen N. McLane's This Blue is notable for its opposing forces. She writes about nature, but as The New York Times'Jeff Gordinier writes, "Calling her a nature poet would be inaccurate. ... If they qualify as nature poems, then they are nature poems for this moment in which nature itself appears to be going haywire." And then there's the language itself, which blends the timeless and lovely with the contemporary and profane; in "Late Hour," McLane writes, "isn't it time/ to say the garden is wasted/ on us? untended/ roses the japanese/ beetles gone/ apes- - -t the labor/ theory of value/ will not redeem/ the labor required/ to reclaim/ this." Lambda Literary's Julie Marie Wade calls her poetry sly — "part silk dress, part canvas sneaker, and in some sense, all reversible raincoat."
Listen to Maureen N. McLane read from 'This Blue'
Young People's Literature
Brown Girl Dreaming
Newbery Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson uses poetry to tell the story of her childhood in Brown Girl Dreaming. Born in Columbus, Ohio, as the civil rights movement was gaining steam, she grew up in both the North and the South, experiencing both Jim Crow segregation and subtler forms of racism. Brown Girl Dreaming isn't just for brown girls, Woodsontells NPR's Code Switch: "There was something about 'brown' that felt more universal, and it was speaking to more people than myself. ... I do believe that books can change lives and give people this kind of language they wouldn't have had otherwise."
Interview: Jacqueline Woodson On Being A 'Brown Girl' Who Dreams
Listen to Jacqueline Woodson read from 'Brown Girl Dreaming'
"Travis Coates was alive once and then he wasn't. Now he's alive again. Simple as that," writes John Corey Whaley. But it turns out to be seriously not simple for Coates: His head was preserved after he died from leukemia at 16, but just five years later science has advanced to the point where Coates is revived, his head attached to a new body — and he has to figure out how to live his new life after death. In The New York Times, reviewer A.J. Jacobs compares Noggin to the work of funny-sad YA master John Green, and says "the good news is, Whaley can just about keep up with Green."
Listen to John Corey Whaley read from 'Noggin'
The Port Chicago 50
Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
In July 1944, a massive explosion at California's segregated Port Chicago naval facility killed more than 300 sailors and civilians — mostly African-American — who were loading bombs and ammunition onto ships docked there. Hundreds more refused to return to work until their unsafe working conditions were addressed — and 50 of them were convicted of mutiny in a racially charged court-martial. New York Times reviewer Sarah Harrison Smith says Steve Sheinkin "tells this shameful history with the deft, efficient pacing of a novelist. ... It's an impressive work and an inspiring one."
Listen to Steve Sheinkin read from 'The Port Chicago 50'
Revolution is the second volume in Deborah Wiles' series about the 1960s. While the first book, Countdown, focused on the Cuban missile crisis, volume two offers alternate viewpoints on the Freedom Summer of 1964 — a white girl worries about the Northerners coming to sleepy Greenwood, Miss., and an African-American boy becomes aware of the ways segregation limits his life. Publisher's Weekly gives it a starred review, sayingthat while Revolution is long, "it's also accessible and moving, and it will open many eyes to the brutal, not-so-distant past out of which a new standard of fairness and equality arose."
Listen to Deborah Wiles read from 'Revolution'
Luc, a young orphan in Gabon, is eking out a living wiping glasses at a train station cafe when he meets the Professor, an Egyptian researcher studying chimpanzees. Together, they head out into the jungle to search for undiscovered chimp populations — and the human hunters who threaten them. Author Eliot Schrefer has said he wanted to revisit chimps after casting them as somewhat villainous in a previous book about bonobos. School Library Journal says Luc's voice doesn't always ring true, but overall the book is "fascinating and sure to lead to discussion."
Listen to Eliot Schrefer read from 'Threatened'