The Quick and Dirty on the National Book Awards

November 19, 2010 

Wednesday night I was feeling a little lonely down here in Buenos Aires as it seemed like everyone out there in the Twitterverse was at the National Book Awards in New York. Luckily, there were quite a few folks live-tweeting the event, so I heard all about the food (spinach and cheese cannelloni; branzino al forno in a bouillabaisse reduction; ricotta cheese cake with strawberry sauce), Elmo (wearing a tux; introduced Joan Ganz Cooney, co-founder of the Sesame Workshop and winner of the evening’s Literarian Award), and Tom Wolfe, who received the Medal for Distinguished Contributions (wearing a white suit; sang a bit of The Girl from Ipanema; talked way too long and people were starving). I ended up going to bed before the awards were announced (thanks Tom Wolfe!), but woke up early to hear all about the good news.

And the Winners are:

Fiction: Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule

Nonfiction: Patti Smith, Just Kids

Poetry: Terrance Hayes, Lighthead

Young Adult: Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird

I have to admit that I have not read any of the winning books, but they will all be added to my ever-growing Book Wish List.  (Friends and family: you’ll all be receiving a copy of this list as the holidays get closer.)

Patti Smith definitely wins the award for fan favorite. Not only had she brought everyone to tears the night before with a reading of the last letter she wrote (but never sent) to Robert Mapplethorpe before he died, but during her acceptance speech she delivered an impassioned speech in support of the book. “Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book,” she said. “There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.” Read the NYT’s review of Patti’s memoir here.

The buzz is that Jaimy Gordon was a dark horse, but the award is totally deserved. According to the National Book Foundation, Lord of Misrule is set in “the ruthless and often violent world of cheap horse racing, where trainers and jockeys, grooms and hotwalkers, loan sharks and touts all struggle to take an edge, or prove their luck, or just survive.”  Read Jane Smiley’s review in the Washington Post here.

I am also looking forward to reading one of the other finalists for the fiction prize, I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita, a book in ten novellas centering on a residential hotel during San Francisco’s Yellow Power Movement in the 1960s and 70s. Kirkus Reviews says, “Elements of the picaresque and the satirical play against passages that are almost documentary as the characters struggle to keep the hotel from being gentrified—and to keep the revolution alive in a time when just about everyone seems tired of politics.” Read Bookslut’s interview with the author here.

It has been a good year for small, independent publishers. Paul Harding’s Tinkers, published by Bellevue Literary Press, won the Pulitzer and Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists, until recently printed only by hand by Gaspereau Press, just won Canada’s Giller Prize. (Paperback rights to The Sentimentalists were sold recently to another publisher.) Both Lord of Misrule and I Hotel are also published by small presses — McPherson & Co. and Coffee House Press respectively. Here’s hoping the trend continues. Small presses deserve our respect, and our patronage, for publishing interesting and experimental stories that would not otherwise see the light of day.

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