November 21, 2013 by Reader's Connection
The winners of this year’s National Book Awards were announced last night.
James McBride won the award for fiction with his novel
The Good Lord Bird.
Abolitionist John Brown calls her “Little Onion,” but her real name is Henry. A slave in Kansas mistaken for a girl due to the sackcloth smock he was wearing when Brown shot his master, the light-skinned, curly-haired 12-year-old ends up living as a young woman, most often encamped with Brown’s renegade band of freedom warriors as they traverse the country, raising arms and ammunition for their battle against slavery. Though they travel to Rochester, New York, to meet with Frederick Douglass and Canada to enlist the help of Harriet Tubman, Brown and his ragtag army fail to muster sufficient support for their mission to liberate African Americans, heading inexorably to the infamously bloody and pathetic raid on Harpers Ferry. Dramatizing Brown’s pursuit of racial freedom and insane belief in his own divine infallibility through the eyes of a child fearful of becoming a man, best-selling McBride presents a sizzling historical novel that is an evocative escapade and a provocative pastiche of Larry McMurtry’s salty western satires and William Styron’s seminal insurrection masterpiece, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). McBride works Little Onion’s low-down patois to great effect, using the savvy but scared innocent to bring a fresh immediacy to this sobering chapter in American history. — Booklist
The nonfiction award went to George Packer for The Unwinding : An Inner History of the New America.
Sometime in the late 1970s, the foundations of the American Century began to unravel. In this trenchant account, New Yorker writer Packer charts the erosion of the social compact that kept the country stable and middle class. Readers experience three decades of change via the personal histories of an Ohio factory worker, a Washington political operative, a North Carolinian small businessman, and an Internet billionaire. Their lives follow the ups and downs of a changing country, where manufacturing jobs vanish, businesses thrive and fail, and political fortunes crest and recede. There’s a pervasive sense that “nothing was locked down,” thanks to the erosion of bank regulations that for 50 years averted the panics, and meltdowns that now push the middle class to the brink. Adroit homages to John Dos Passos’s “newsreel” interludes provide astute quips and headlines. Brief biographies of seminal figures that shaped the current state of affairs offer the book’s fiercest prose, such as in Packer’s brutal takedown of Robert Rubin, secretary of the Treasury during some key 1990s financial deregulation that amplified the severity of the Great Recession of 2008. Packer has a keen eye for the big story in the small moment, writing about our fraying social fabric with talent that matches his dismay. — Publishers Weekly
Cynthia Kadohata won the young people’s literature award with The Thing About Luck.
Twelve-year-old Summer and her Japanese-American family work every harvest season to earn money to pay their mortgage. But this year, they face unprecedented physical and emotional challenges. It has been a particularly hard-luck year. Among other strange occurrences, Summer was bitten by a stray, diseased mosquito and nearly died of malaria, and her grandmother suffers from sudden intense spinal pain. Now her parents must go to Japan to care for elderly relatives. So Summer, her brother and their grandparents must take on the whole burden of working the harvest and coping with one emergency after another. She writes a journal chronicling the frightening and overwhelming events, including endless facts about the mosquitoes she fears, the harvest process and the farm machinery that must be conquered. As the season progresses, her relationships with her grandparents and her brother change and deepen, reflecting her growing maturity. Her grandparents’ Japanese culture and perspective are treated lovingly and with gentle humor, as are her brother’s eccentricities. Kadohata makes all the right choices in structure and narrative. Summer’s voyage of self-discovery engages readers via her narration, her journal entries and diagrams, and even through her assigned book report of A Separate Peace. Readers who peel back the layers of obsessions and fears will find a character who is determined, compassionate and altogether delightful. — Kirkus Reviews
The poetry award went to Mary Szybist for Incarnadine.
In this highly anticipated second book from Szybist, love poetry and poetry of religious faith blend and blur into one transcendent, humbled substance, in which a beloved is asked, “Just for this evening, won’t you put me before you/ until I’m far enough away you can/ believe in me?” Also blended and blurred are the biblical and the contemporary, the divine and the self, as in “Update on Mary,” a quiet pun on the author’s name and that of her namesake, in which “It is not uncommon to find Mary falling asleep on her yoga mat when she has barely begun to stretch.” “Annunciation” poems spread throughout the book discover god in all sorts of unlikely places, such as beneath the clothes of a cross-dressing man: “And when I learned that he was not a man–/ Bullwhip, horsewhip, unzip, I could have crawled/ Through thorn and bee.” Finally, though, whether or not readers are attuned to the religious content, these are gorgeous lyrics, in traditional and invented forms–one poem is a diagrammed sentence while another radiates from an empty space at the center of the page–which create close encounters with not-quite-paraphrasable truths. This is essential poetry. — Publishers Weekly