"I went to the National Book Awards ceremony in New York last month for a very simple reason. I wanted to tell James McBride, in person, what I’m going to tell you now: his novel, The Good Lord Bird, one of five finalists for the fiction award, is the most astonishing book I read all year. It’s one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.” Our own Bill Morris on his Year in Reading.
Our own Edan Lepucki interviewed National Book Award finalists George Saunders and Rachel Kushner for the National Book Foundation. Saunders discussed money issues in his writing. “Now I feel like paucity vs. grace is one of the great American issues—we all live with it every day.” Kushner explained her writing process. “The sentences are beads on a string; I see each one as essential.”
For my money, Domingo Martinez was the coolest person in the house. And that’s saying something because the house — a cavernous marble ballroom on Wall Street, site of Wednesday evening’s National Book Awards ceremony — was full of very cool people, including Elmore Leonard, Martin Amis, Terry Gross, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, and Dave Eggers.
Of the novels selected as National Book Award finalists in the Young People’s Literature category, Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down is the title that my high school students would reach for. McCormick’s latest novel is based on the life of Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide. It is a story of a young boy who grows into a teenager on the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, a young boy who endures unspeakable trauma, and survives. My students are drawn to books that feature violence and drama and tragedy, in part because they crave perspective: a way to understand the small and large tragedies of their lives, to appreciate the bounty of resources and freedoms available to them, and to feel grateful rather than burdened.
I would love it if everyone who read one of my reviews went out and obediently read every book, no matter how challenging, that I recommended — even if they’d been disappointed and put off by books I’d recommended in the past. Unfortunately, real readers are no longer so docile (if they ever were). When they feel you’ve steered them wrong in the past, they learn to disregard your suggestions. That seems to me to be the situation the NBAs are in.