The winners of the Lettre Ulysses Award – a prize for book-length reportage that I discussed a few weeks ago – have been announced. Alexandra Fuller’s account of her travels with a white, African mercenary, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier took the 50,000 Euro first prize while A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage by Moroccan Abdellah Hammoudi and Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq by Riverbend won the 30,000 Euro second prize and 20,000 Euro third prize, respectively.
Last year we noted that by honoring William T. Vollmann in 2005 and then Richard Powers the following year, the National Book Award seemed to be making a move toward "honoring some of the names on the leading edge of American fiction," as opposed to the old guard or the merely obscure. One could say that the NBA has always filled this roll, but it seemed to have lost its focus in the years before 2005, particularly in 2004, when five relative unknowns were nominated for the fiction prize and the entire literary community seemed collectively bewildered.The NBA has stayed true to form, however, in 2007 with a strong slate of nominees and with this year's fiction winner, named last night, Denis Johnson, for his Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke. In discussing the finalists, we called Johnson the "presumptive favorite," and he was a favorite that many readers seemed to want to win. We have a review of the book available, and curious readers can also check out an excerpt. With Johnson away on assignment in Iraq, his wife accepted the award for him.Moving to the other categories, Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes: The History of the C.I.A. (excerpt) took home the non-fiction prize, beating out Christopher Hitchens. Sherman Alexie, whose adult fiction has never made the cut for the fiction award, was a winner in the Young People's Literature category for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (excerpt). The poetry award went to Robert Hass for Time and Materials (poem).For more on the award ceremony, check out the Times writeup. And Ed, who attended with several other bloggers, offered his own coverage as well.
This year's "Genius grant" winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are: Maggie Nelson is known best for her non-fiction. Often described as some combination of "lyrical" and "philosophical," Nelson's five book-length works of nonfiction have won her a steadfast following. She might be described as a "writer's writer." The evidence is in how often her books are named by other writers in our annual Year in Reading series. Bluets, a meditation on the color blue, won praise from David Shields ("utterly brilliant"), Stephen Elliott ("excellent"), Haley Mlotek ("I read Bluets twice in the same plane ride."), Leslie Jamison, Jaquira Díaz, and Margaret Eby. Meaghan O'Connell wrote of Nelson, "She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair." Many of the above writers also praised Nelson's more recent The Argonauts, "a genre-bending memoir," as did Bijan Stephen, Olivia Laing ("It thinks deeply and with immense nuance and grace"), Karolina Waclawiak ("I found myself underlining on nearly every page"), and Parul Sehgal. Nelson herself appeared in our Year in Reading last year, shining light on books by Eileen Myles and Ellen Miller, among others. Claudia Rankine, poet, has received especially wide acclaim for her "provocative meditation on race" Citizen: An American Lyric, a book that (perhaps along with Between the World and Me by last year's "Genius" Ta-Nehisi Coates) that can be pointed to as a literary catalyst. Many may have first become aware of Rankine earlier this year, when her book -- wielded as an object of protest -- was caught by cameras behind a ranting Donald Trump at one of his rallies. MacArthur rightly describes Rankine as "a critical voice in current conversations about racial violence." Ed Simon named Citizen this moment's best candidate in his search for America's great epic poem. In its announcement, MacArthur says artist and writer Lauren Redniss "is an artist and writer seamlessly integrating artwork, written text, and design elements in works of visual nonfiction. Redniss undertakes archival research, interviews and reportage, and field expeditions to inform every aspect of a book’s creation, from its text, to its format and page layout, to the design of the typeface, to the printing and drawing techniques used for the artwork." Redniss is probably best-known for 2011 National Book Award finalist Radioactive, a vibrantly illustrated biography of pioneering scientists Marie and Pierre Curie. Our own Hannah Gersen described it as "elaborately beautiful." Gene Luen Yang has smashed stereotypes with his vibrant graphic novels, American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile (with Derek Kirk Kim), and Boxers & Saints. Our 2010 interview with Yang explored his influences and his work. The lone playwright to be named a "genius" this year is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. "Many of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays use a historical lens to satirize and comment on modern culture, particularly the ways in which race and class are negotiated in both private and public settings." Sarah Stillman has become a byline to look for in The New Yorker, carrying out journalistic investigations that have raised public outrage and spurred recalcitrant politicians into action. "Taken" is perhaps her best-known article. It investigates how local police forces have used the principal of "civil asset forfeiture" to plunder citizens and enrich themselves.
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My moment in the Tournament of Books spotlight has come and gone, but I've enjoyed following the series throughout. It's been particularly interesting, from the perspective of a "judge," to see how the other judges have responded to the books I read.The Lazarus Project got surprisingly little ink during its run. I suspect that the book was something of a trendy pick for those following the Tournament. Aleksandar Hemon has a compelling back story and not long ago joined the elite ranks of young, literary superstardom like Jonathan Lethem, Edward P. Jones, George Saunders, and David Foster Wallace in winning a MacArthur "Genius" Grant. I had actually read The Lazarus Project last summer (and was all set to write a review then - I'm glad I held off), and I felt lukewarm about it at the time. In her first round judgment, Monica Ali noted "the narratives simultaneously unfolding and folding up on themselves," and that was what stood out to me much more in my second reading of the book. In rereading it, I caught more threads to the story, and the ending, even though I knew it was coming, hit me harder.But I still wasn't entirely won over. In his commentary on the first round match, John Warner pretty much hits the nail on the head, "I got the sense in reading that Hemon was also fascinated by the Averbuch story, but at some point became more interested in his own fascination than in Averbuch himself."For my match, meanwhile, Lazarus didn't merit much attention from the commentators. Instead the focus was on Shadow Country (which, like that other Frankenstein of the Tourney 2666) gave pause because of its heft and peculiar path to publication. As I was reading the book I was a bit thrown by that as well - Shadow Country is really three books, all previously published, cobbled back together and revamped by Peter Matthiessen. At times, it really did feel like three books smashed into one package, particularly, as I noted in my ToB piece, when I began the book's third part and, poised to read another retelling of Edgar Watson's life, I felt the whole thing growing a bit tiresome. Luckily, the third part of the book is stunning, and it ultimately won me over. In the end, I felt that the book stood well as a repackaged whole in that it heightened its obsessiveness and highlighted the complexity of Matthiessen's Watson. In the long book, the reader is given the opportunity to peel back layer after layer of Watson, until finally only Watson's own voice is left. This was where the book derived its power.Interestingly, though, it was the repackaging that was the main focus of the Shadow Country discussion during the ToB, and it was ultimately the cause for its departure. The two commentators were quite ambivalent about it. In his commentary on my judgment, John Warner posited a question: "I ask, rhetorically, if any of the sections of Shadow Country were in the tournament individually, would they have even sniffed the semis?" In the commentary on Junot Díaz's judgment, Warner writes "I don't think we'll be seeing any passionate blog postings or comments protesting the bouncing of Shadow Country from the tournament." Meanwhile Díaz bounced the book for the quite credible reason, in my opinion, that he had previously read the three original parts of Shadow Country. I know that for me, having already experienced the three parts of as discrete stories would have robbed Shadow Country of its weightiness and obsessive power. This seemed to be what happened for Díaz.It's rare that I get a chance to read along side other readers like this, and its hard to think when I might ever have the opportunity to write in this way alongside others about the same books, but it definitely added to my reading experience.
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The winners of the 2004 National Book Awards have been announced:Fiction: The News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck (excerpt)Non-fiction: Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle (excerpt)Young People's Literature: Godless by Pete Hautman (excerpt)Poetry: Door In The Mountain: New And Collected Poems, 1965-2003 by Jean Valentine (poems)
The finalists for the annual NBCC award are now out. The fiction list pairs a couple of less buzzed about books with three that have already received either award love or copious amounts of ink in the book pages and on blogs. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is the only major award that pits American books against British ones.FictionVikram Chandra, Sacred Games (excerpt, Garth's review)Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao (excerpt, Edan's review)Hisham Matar, In The Country of Men (excerpt, Booker shortlisted)Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravediggers Daughter (excerpt)Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher (excerpt, a Millions most anticipated book)NonfictionPhilip Gura, American Transcendentalism (excerpt)Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848 (New Yorker review)Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (excerpt)Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA (excerpt, NBA Winner)Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (excerpt) For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, check out the NBCC's blog.
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