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Now Hear This: 2010 National Book Award Nominees

Nov 17, 2010

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Wednesday night, in the grand Cipriani dining room on Wall Street, a small group of novelists, poets and nonfiction authors will see their lives change when the National Book Awards are announced. There will be triumphant winners, gracious runners-up, and publishers buzzing around in both victory and defeat. But last night, inside the airy auditorium of the West Village's New School, the atmosphere was all celebration as the finalists for the NBA gathered to read short selections from their work. The night's MC was novelist Fiona Maazel (a former "5 Under 35" National Book Foundation honoree), who introduced readers as varied as punk legend Patti Smith and Australian Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey.

NPR was on site to record the happenings, and below are the readings from the five nominees for the fiction award. Feel free to pick your pony in anticipation of Wednesday night's big event — but remember that when it comes to great novels finding even greater audiences, everyone wins.

Great House

By Nicole Krauss

Hardcover, 289 pages, W.W. Norton and Co., list price: $24.95

Brooklyn-based novelist Nicole Krauss first gained national attention with her sophomore novel, The History of Love, which was published as an excerpt in The New Yorker in 2004. With Susan Sontag as a devoted fan, Richard Gere fighting to adapt her first novel into film, and her marriage to literary star Jonathan Safran Foer, Krauss has had the kind of writing career that any MFA graduate would envy. Fortunately for Krauss, she backs up all of the buzz with superb writing, playing with narratives of Jewish identity, aging, family secrets, foreign travel and the shifting nature of love.

Her third novel, Great House, tells the story of an antique writing desk passed between four interconnected generations. The book travels from Jerusalem to London to Chile, touching on topics as bold as the Holocaust, Pinochet's secret police, and a widower's loneliness. Fresh Air's Maureen Corrigan called the book "precisely the kind of work of art for which the phrase 'oddly compelling' was invented," and noted that "although most of her characters are prisoners of the past, Krauss herself is a fiction pioneer, toying with fresh ways of rendering experience and emotion, giving us readers the thrill of seeing the novel stretched into amorphous new shapes."

So Much For That

By Lionel Shriver

Hardcover, 448 pages, Harper, list price: $25.99

Lionel Shriver changed her name from Margaret when she was just 15 years old, claiming that she was better suited for a more masculine name. In a way, her moniker has allowed Shriver's writing to become androgynous and universal — she has written biting social criticism for the Guardian and The Economist with intimidating bravado, attacking the British government, American health care and other hot-button topics.

Shriver's bravest writing, however, comes through in her novels. Her eighth book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, covered the controversial subject of a boy who had murdered nine classmates at his high school, and earned Shriver the prestigious Orange Prize. In her latest novel, So Much for That, Shriver took on an equally contentious issue by examining America's broken health care system. As NPR's Heller McAlpin observed, "So Much for That raises searching questions about the value of a human life and government's role in a democracy. It is filled with facts about cancer treatments and copayments, but Shriver does not allow this research to clog the arteries of her novel, which pulses with vivid characters."

I Hotel

By Karen Tei Yamashita

Paperback, 640 pages, Coffee House Press, list price: $19.95

Karen Tei Yamashita is one of the break-out indie stars of the nominee list, with her under-the-radar novel on Minnesota's small Coffee House Press suddenly on the lips of many major publishers. But while she is enjoying a lot of new buzz, Yamashita is not new to publishing — a professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, she has been writing plays and novels about the Asian-American experience since the early 1990s.

I Hotel, as NPR's Michael Schaub describes it, "is essentially a novel composed of 10 smaller novels, each set in a different year in Chinatown, and Yamashita incorporates photographs, comics, diagrams and screenplay excerpts into her prose. If all that sounds complicated, don't be scared — it's a stylistically wild ride, but it's smart, funny and entrancing."

Parrot And Olivier In America

By Peter Carey

Hardcover, 400 pages, Knopf, list price: $26.95

Peter Carey is now a New Yorker but hails from Australia, where his name is often mentioned as that country's next nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Currently, he chairs the MFA program at Hunter College and is one of two writers to have won the Booker Prize twice. He is a perennial award-winner; Carey won the Miles Franklin Award three times, the Commonwealth Writers Prize twice, and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in France for True History of the Kelly Gang.

His latest, Parrot and Olivier in America, as NPR's Michael Schaub writes, is an "unlikely and slightly bizarre comic novel around the life of the influential political thinker. Carey's novel follows Olivier de Garmont, a very thinly disguised version of Tocqueville, and his initially unwilling traveling companion 'Parrot' Larrit from France to a still-young United States. ... Stories about two mismatched people who hate each other at first but eventually become friends got old about 500 cop buddy movies ago, but Carey's novel is smart, charming and original enough to transcend that formula."

Lord Of Misrule

By Jaimy Gordon

Hardcover, 296 pages, McPherson, list price: $25

Another veteran novelist who is just now hitting her career peak, Jaimy Gordon teaches in the MFA program of Western Michigan University. Her third novel, Bogeywoman, made the Los Angeles Times' Best Fiction of 2000 list, but it is her fourth book, Lord of Misrule, that has launched Gordon into the national spotlight.

Lord of Misrule is set in the world of horse racing, at the downtrodden Indian Mound Downs in rural West Virginia. Gordon's characters — jockeys, loan sharks, horsemen, blacksmiths — are all chasing after the American Dream over the course of a year, placing their hopes and desires into four races and the horses that they long to see win big.

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The Long Ships ()

Historical Fiction: The Ultimate Summer Getaway

by Michael Schaub
Jun 7, 2010

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War, recession, environmental disaster — unless you have a superhuman ability to withstand bad news, you're probably looking for a way to escape this summer. I've been indulging my own escapist urge in two ways: The first involves pretending it's already next year, when all countries in the world will sign a peace treaty after scientists discover a way to harvest the energy from kitten smiles.

The second, more satisfying way is escaping with the help of a good historical novel. Luckily, there's been a bumper crop this year. If you want to be taken back to a time when, say, the ocean was full of Viking long ships instead of leaking oil, wait no more.

The Long Ships

The Long Ships, by Frans G. Bengtsson (translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer), paperback, 520 pages, New York Review Books Classics, list price: $17.95

It might be difficult for anyone younger than 30 to remember, but there was a time when you could talk about a "smart summer blockbuster" without everybody laughing. Even though The Long Ships was first published in 1941, it remains the literary equivalent of an action- and intrigue-filled adventure movie that won't insult your intelligence. Bengtsson's novel follows a 10th-century Swedish boy named Red Orm who is kidnapped by Vikings as a child and then enslaved by Moors in Spain, eventually escaping to Ireland, where he begins to play a part in various political intrigues of the day.

Orm is a charismatic character, and Bengtsson is an infectiously enthusiastic and surprisingly funny writer — even readers with zero interest in the Europe of a millennium ago will want to keep turning the pages. All novels should be so lucky as to age this well. The new edition contains an introduction by Michael Chabon, who's been agitating for more of this kind of adventure novel for years. (Read Bengtsson's compelling backstory for young Red Orm, a "scatter-limbed" survivor from the earliest age.)

Parrot and Olivier in America

Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey, hardcover, 400 pages, Knopf, list price: $26.95

If The Long Ships is an action blockbuster, Parrot and Olivier in America is the book version of both a buddy comedy and a road trip movie. It's just that in Peter Carey's funny and inventive novel, the buddies in question happen to be a fictionalized version of the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville (Olivier) and the hardened British jack-of-all-trades forced to watch over him (Parrot). And the "road" contains not just the byways of 19th-century America, but also the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

It might sound like a stretch, but Carey, an engaging and disarmingly witty writer, handles it perfectly. The novel is, at its heart, a comedy, but it's one with great respect for history, and real reverence for its subject matter. (Read Olivier's witheringly arch description of his childhood home and his beloved, maddening, long-suffering mother.)

The Last Rendezvous

The Last Rendezvous, by Anne Plantagenet (translated from the French by Willard Wood), paperback, 288 pages, Other Press, list price: $14.95

The Last Rendezvous is a beautiful, tragic romance about a real-life leading lady: Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, the French singer, actress and poet of the early 19th century. Desbordes-Valmore's poetry was famously dark, though obsessed with themes of love; French novelist and biographer Plantagenet follows her through a series of failed pregnancies and unsuccessful relationships. Her prose is nearly flawless: elegant, self-assured and filled with a profound sense of longing.

Plantagenet has picked the perfect subject in Desbordes-Valmore, one of the most troubled and introspective of the Romantic poets, for her second novel. As Marceline reflects: "History constantly remakes itself, sometimes leaving me, in the shadow of the strangers who surround me, fallen to earth, drained and dazed. Something is about to, must, explode." (Read The Last Rendezvous' first pages, where the heartbreak of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore begins with a lover named Henri: "Night has come. Time for it to be over.")

Stettin Station

Stettin Station, by David Downing, hardcover, 320 pages, Soho Press, list price: $25

In literature, thrillers are notoriously hard to pull off. It helps to have a setting where the stakes are high — like, say, 1941 Berlin, where Stettin Station takes place. This is Downing's third novel featuring John Russell, an English-born American journalist-turned-spy living in Deutschland's capital city and dating a German movie actress named Effi. In this installment, Russell realizes (finally) that he and Effi need to leave; he has become embroiled in intrigues with intelligence agencies and is working on a story about the fate of Germany's Jewish citizens.

World War II thrillers are obviously not a new concept, but Downing distinguishes himself by eschewing the easy ways out. He doesn't shy away from portraying the cold brutality of the Third Reich, and his characters are far from stereotypes — they're flawed, confused and real. (Read as Downing's protagonist John Russell feels the Nazi forces tightening around him, prompting the urge to retreat from Berlin — if only the Third Reich would let him.)

I Hotel

I Hotel, by Karen Tei Yamashita, paperback, 640 pages, Coffee House Press, list price: $19.95

It seems like every year brings a breakout indie hit in movie theaters; it's great to imagine a world where I Hotel is this year's bookstore equivalent. Published by one of the country's best independent publishers, Minnesota-based Coffee House Press, Yamashita's fifth novel is a sprawling, postmodern epic of Asian Americans in San Francisco in the civil rights era of the late 1960s and 1970s.

I Hotel is essentially a novel composed of 10 smaller novels, each set in a different year in Chinatown, and Yamashita incorporates photographs, comics, diagrams and screenplay excerpts into her prose. If all that sounds complicated, don't be scared — it's a stylistically wild ride, but it's smart, funny and entrancing. (Read about a seething confrontation between hundreds of displaced Asian Americans and the heavily armed San Francisco police.)

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I Hotel ()

Excerpt: 'I Hotel'

by Karen Tei Yamashita
Jun 1, 2010

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By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city's hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city's plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that serviced us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated by zoning and blight laws allowing the city to use eminent domain to liberate our homes for the public good, even if the public good meant giving up our property for the wealthy few. Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren't expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. So that night in August, far past our five p.m. curfew and into the next morning, we gathered around the I-Hotel to face four hundred officers of the police, sheriff's, and fire departments all dressed up in riot gear, to demonstrate that we had not disappeared and that we were finally fed up. What was the total cost to us as taxpayers, not just in overtime and equipment, but everything — everything it took over how many months in anticipation to deploy the full force of the city's and county's final retribution? No doubt more than a million dollars, the insipid worth of the structure we defended.

Had we not ourselves elected these men of good intentions: the mayor who ran out of promises, the judge who ruled for eviction despite a hung jury, and the sheriff who carried out a law he thought to be unjust? Did these elected officials also think that our city was only useful for trading posts, a courthouse, and a jail?

Armed with only our bodies, we faced our officers of the law — heavily protected by face helmets, gloves, sticks, given height by their tall animals, speed by their motorcycles, reach by their aerial ladders, and ultimately power by their deadly weapons. We saw the barricades part for the Sheriff himself, driving up to the I-Hotel. He emerged from his vehicle as if it were his powerful steed and stood in the blinding spotlights of that evening, young and handsome, dressed informally in a gold turtleneck sweater and casual jacket, bidding his dinner partner a sweet good-night. Perhaps it was a brash double-oh-seven gesture lost to our angry chanting. We knew he had been convicted for contempt of court, spending five days in his own jail for refusing in January to carry out the court order of eviction of the tenants of the I-Hotel. Was he not one of our own people, our own gallant knight, and would he not once again take a stand in our favor? Had he not himself complained that the laws of our society were written to protect those with property and money? Would he later justify his part in the eviction based on having, as an officer of the law, to carry out the law, just or unjust as it may be?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and that the room, though housed in a hotel, was still a home.

So when we saw our sheriff place his sledgehammer to the first door, banging and splintering the old dark wood into jagged pieces, we were ourselves diminished by every stroke of his hammer. We heard the wretched sobbing cry of horror, an anguished plea but also a warning, No! Don't do it! Don't do it! But our sheriff had made his decision, perhaps, he justified, to take responsibility by being an actor in this painful event, to mitigate what he imagined could have been a more violent end. But we would never forget his violent presence on that night and the sad betrayal of his actions.

Shame! Shame! Shame! we cried.

Where will you live when you get old?

Where will we live when we get old?

From I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. Copyright 2010 by Karen Tei Yamashita. Published by Coffee House Press. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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