Times are changing for the National Book Awards — at least according to the New York Times. They have achieved a new level of glamour complete with a red-carpet entrance to the awards ceremony at the glitzy Manhattan restaurant Cipriani. Apparently the National Book Foundation, which awards the prize, is sick of playing second-fiddle to the Booker Prize. While the literary elite fuss over what the National Book Awards’ makeover means in the publishing world, the rest of us tend to focus on the basics — what we should be reading. Of course we shouldn’t let whether a book wins an award dictate what we read, but if you find yourself overwhelmed with choices, award winners are as good a place as any to start. With that in mind let’s take a look at this year’s winning novel, as well as those that were nominated. Their versatile subjects range from family to war to football. Some are serious. Some are funny. All are brilliant.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Erdrich’s 14th novel was this year’s National Book Award winner. If one were to describe it in simple terms, he or she could say it’s a mystery set on a North Dakota Indian reservation. But this isn’t a simple novel. Disturbing not just because of incidents of rape, but also because of the sad reality of the oft-ignored poverty that is so prevalent on reservations, The Round House is a uniquely powerful story of the search for justice in the gray area of Native American and U.S. law. The narrator Joe, an Ojibwe who reflects back upon the horrific rape of his mother in the summer of 1987, is told by his father, a respected Native American judge, that the prosecution of his mother’s rapist is unlikely. Joe sets out conducting his own investigation. The question we’re left with is, what is the true meaning of justice?
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
There’s something especially meaningful about a war story told by a veteran. Even if it’s a novel, we feel like there’s more autobiographical truth beneath the tale than usual. This, however, is just part of the reason that Powers, who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, wins over readers. It’s also his poeticism that distinguishes it from so many other gruesome war stories. Powers examines the relationship between two young soldiers, 21-year-old Private Bartle and 18-year-old Private Murphy. We find out immediately that Murphy will die, and soon realize this will leave Bartle unmoored. Moving back and forth during the years from 2003 to 2009, the story addresses empathy (and lack thereof), broken promises, and how what is moral may not always coincide with what is legal.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
A war novel does not just look at war. It evaluates the many things surrounding it: patriotism, reluctant heroism, unintentional celebrity, public enthusiasm for something said public will likely never understand. On Thanksgiving Day, Billy Lynn arrives with members of his “Bravo Squad” in Texas for the Dallas Cowboys-Chicago Bears game, where they will be honored at half-time. The group has Fox News to thank for a four-minute film of a fierce battle they conducted in Iraq. With their fame has come a “Victory Tour” through the United States, as well as, if the movie producer accompanying them is to be believed, a possible movie deal. As Billy finds himself immersed in absurdity that’s swallowing him and his cohorts, he revisits the battle that brought them to that day. Brutal, yet wickedly funny, Fountain takes a hard look at what the American public chooses to believe.
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
Ever since Eggers’ 2000 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius carved him a comfortable spot in the literary world’s list of somebodies, he’s hasn’t tripped up. All those awaiting his downfall take warning — odds are looking like it will never happen. In his latest, he asks, what becomes of a 54-year-old man, who, due in part to his push to send manufacturing abroad, has become a flailing consultant with nothing of quality to sell? Answer: He lands in Saudi Arabia desperately waiting to meet a king. The flailing Alan Clay needs to win an IT contract from King Abullah Economic City (KAEC) — a planned development which aims to be the next Dubai, but has progressed little. Divorced, lonely, and unable to pay his daughter’s absurdly expensive college tuition, Clay knows that winning the contract from the King is the only way to recover from all the “foolish decisions in his life.” If only the King would show up to meet with Clay and his team, things might go smoothly. As he waits, he begins establishing relationships, a friendship with an Arabian driver and even a small romance, suggesting that maybe there is some excitement to squeeze out of a slightly pathetic middle-aged businessman.
Diaz’s short story collection, Drown, is what initially piqued the public’s interest. Then his Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao solidified his literary standing. Now he has handed us a collection of nine love stories filled with relationships gone wrong, infidelity, and the complications of human nature. Those familiar with Diaz’s previous work will recall Yunior, a self-destructive young Dominican immigrant; in This is How You Lose Her, he is the connecting link between the stories. Yunior is philandering and immature, and in his collection of escapades, told through raw, electrifying, and funny language, we understand exactly why he doesn’t find success in love.