Brief thoughts on the 2013 National Book Award finalists for Fiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature

November 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

I had every intention of reviewing each of the 20 finalists in the Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature categories of the 2013 National Book Awards in advance of the November 20 awards banquet.  But due to having very little energy the past few weeks (I have been battling a nascent bronchitis infection since Thursday, one that I fear might worsen with the fluctuating weather here), in large part due to my two jobs, I have only reviewed 1 of the Fiction finalists (and that was actually reviewed back in January, right after George Saunder’s Tenth of December was released), 1 of the Non-Fiction (Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies, also reviewed before the shortlist was announced), 2 of the Young People’s Literature finalists (Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers/Saints graphic novel duology and Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone), and none of the Poetry finalists.

This is not to say that I haven’t been reading the finalists.  I have only 120 pages remaining in James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird to finish off reading the Fiction finalists; I have read all of the Poetry and Young People’s Literature finalists.  True, I haven’t even purchased any of the other Non-Fiction finalists yet due to minor things like making a large student loan payment, but outside of that, I have read enough to have informed opinions on the other three categories.  While I do plan on writing reviews whenever I can later this week/month on those finalists, even though many will be after the awards are announced, the least I can do is provide a personal ranking of the finalists for those who place more weight on such things than any substantive words that I might have to say about each individual work:

Young People’s Literature:

This was a very strong group of finalists (and having read two others from the longlist, Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses and Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, I cannot think of one of the five that I would replace with one of those two, no matter how much I enjoyed DiCamillo’s work – Johnson’s was a bit more problematic for me).  None of them resembled the others much in structure, plot, or tone; the wide-ranging category of “YA” certainly can be seen in the diversity of the authors and their tales.  With very little separating one from another in terms of quality or enjoyment, this is the ranking that I would do at the moment, with the caveat that a re-read could change my opinions slightly:

1.  Gene Luen Yang, Boxers/Saints
2.  Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck (review forthcoming)
3.  Tom McNeal, Far Far Away (review forthcoming)
4.  Kathi Appelt, The Blue Scouts of Sugar Moss Swamp (review forthcoming)
5.  Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone

Poetry:

These finalists as a whole took more chances with theme and structure.  Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke is devoted to a singular man and theme, that of early 20th century African American heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson.  Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture views the author’s brother’s suicide through a variety of angles.  The other three were a bit more diverse in the material covered, but there were certain themes that were revisited even then, especially in Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine.  As a whole, these finalists were more of a joy to read and consider than those of the previous two years.  Will try to write more in-depth reviews of each of these later in the year:

1.  Matt Rasmussen, Black Aperture
2.  Mary Szybist, Incarnadine
3.  Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke
4.  Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion
5.  Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog

Fiction:

Compared to the other categories that I mentioned above, the Fiction finalists left me feeling lukewarm.  There were some truly excellent works (Saunders and McBride come to mind), but the others either covered a topic/theme that didn’t interest me as much as I wished it would (Rachel Kushner’s otherwise very good The Flamethrowers) or were works by authors whose previous works I had enjoyed more (Thomas Pynchon, Jhumpa Lahiri).  While none of these were precisely mediocre, there was just a sense that most of these established writers had produced better work in the past and that these were just merely very good but not necessarily excellent later fictions.

1.  George Saunders, Tenth of December
2.  James McBride, The Good Lord Bird (review forthcoming)
3.  Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (also a 2013 Booker Prize finalist; review forthcoming)
4.  Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (review forthcoming)
5.  Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (review forthcoming)

Of course, as what seems to be the case these days, any of these forthcoming reviews might take upward of a month to write.  I have a long queue as it stands and am weeks behind due to having to devote over half of my weekends to just sleeping in order to recover just enough energy to make it through the grueling 13-14 hours of work/travel that I do each weekday/night.  Hopefully things will change in the future, but until it does, reviewing and other blogging will have to take a backseat to rest/recovery/work.

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