Thursday, November 18, 2010

National Book Award Winners: A Long Shot and a Sentimental Favorite

Award Season continues with the announcement of The National Book Awards Tuesday of this week.

Awards like this help draw attention to literary works that would otherwise go unnoticed by the general reading public.  While an award is no guarantee of unimpeachable artistic quality, it helps define the cultural and artistic preferences of the moment, and I think literary awards like NBA and the Pulitzer (in April) at least attempt to recognize something lasting and universal. 

This year's winners in the Fiction and Non-Fiction categories are notable.

The Fiction Prize was awarded to Jaimy Gordon for her novel about the world of cheap horse racing, "Lord of Misrule."  Gordon was considered the darkest of dark-horses, so to speak.  She herself felt she was a long-shot from the start.  Gordon's publisher pushed her to finish her tale of lowlifes, losers, and one remarkable woman who loves horses, in time to be submitted for nomination for the Award.  Gordon thought he was crazy.  Finish she did, and was surprised to be among the five finalists...and the eventual winner.  The book is starting to gain a solid critical reputation. 

(Other Fiction finalists were: Peter Carey, "Parrot and Olivier in America"; Nicole Krauss, "Great House"; Lionel Shriver, "So Much for That"; and Karen Tei Yamashita, "I Hotel".)

The Non-Fiction Award went to artist, performer and punk icon Patti Smith for "Just Kids", the story of her friendship with gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  The book has been widely praised, and is definitely on my short list of must-reads.

Smith gave a heartfelt, tearful thank-you to nearly 1300 attendees, as reported in the story on NPR:
"I have loved books all my life," she said, reminiscing about her time as a clerk at New York's Scribner bookstore. "I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf."
Smith also...gave a teary defense of the book as a physical object. "There is nothing more beautiful than the book," she said. "Please don't abandon the book." The applause in the room after her speech was close to thunderous...and Smith seemed to win two awards at once: an NBA medal, and the room's heart.
(Other Non-Fiction finalists were: Barbara Demick, "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea"; John W. Dower, "Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq"; Justin Spring, "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward"; and Megan K. Stack, "Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War".)

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