2012 National Book Awards: Discussion of the finalists and personal preferences

November 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Later tonight, the winners of the 2012 National Book Awards in Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature will be announced.  This is the second year that I have read all twenty finalists (in addition, I have also read/am in the process of reading the related 5 Under 35 authors that the National Book Foundation has selected; reviews of those will appear over the course of the next few days) and overall, I found the twenty finalists this year to be slightly stronger than the 2011 finalists, at least in Non-Fiction and Fiction (Young People’s Literature was slightly worse and Poetry was not as strong).

There are those reading this who no doubt feel that it is not worth their time to read any of these finalists because the National Book Awards cover “literary fiction” and thus presumably are unfriendly to “genre fiction.”  It is hard to know what to say to these people.  No wait, it is not difficult at all:  they are missing out by presuming that they know what qualities of fiction/non-fiction work for them and which do not.  It goes beyond a mere noting that Junot Díaz is a vocal fan of SF/F fiction and is currently working on a SF novel (an excerpt of which appeared recently in The New Yorker) or that some of Louise Erdrich won the World Fantasy Award for The Antelope Wife.  There just are a wide array of fictional styles and motifs on display here that should appeal to a wide readership. 

This year’s shortlists contained moving memoirs, well-researched biographies and histories, as well as a YA fantasy, a middle grades-oriented history of the atomic bomb, a harrowing story of survival, and so forth.  Although some of these finalists failed to achieve all of their ambitious goals, it is safe to say that the majority of them at least managed to craft stories that capture the reader’s attention quickly and fail to let go until story’s end.  With possibly a couple of exceptions, I would not hesitate for a moment to recommend these to family members, friends, former students, and to readers here, even for the stories that I found to be relatively weaker than in past years.  Sure, there are alternatives that I would have loved to have made this list (Steve Erickson’s These Dreams of You immediately comes to mind), but for the most part, these stories were well worth the time and money I spent on them.

Below are my personal preferences in the four categories (I’ll edit this after the awards are presented to note the winners with an asterisk), with links to the reviews:

Fiction:

Junot Díaz, This is How You Lose Her 
Louise Erdrich, The Round House
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds
Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King

Non-Fiction:

Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson:  The Passage of Power
Domingo Martinez, The Boy Kings of Texas 
Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain:  The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1945-1956 
Anthony Shadid,  House of Stone:  A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East
Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers:  Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity 

Poetry:

Susan Wheeler, Meme
Tim Seibles, Fast Animal
Alan Shapiro, Night in the Republic
Cynthia Huntington, Heavenly Bodies
David Ferry, Bewilderment

Young People’s Literature:

Patricia McCormick, Never Fall Down
Carrie Arcos, Out of Reach
Eliot Schrefer, Endangered
Steve Sheinkin, Bomb:  The Race to Build – and to Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
William Alexander, Goblin Secrets

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