National Book Awards finalists announced; 15 of 20 are women

The National Book Foundation has announced the finalists for the 2017 National Book Awards in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. Notably, of the 20 finalists, 15 are women. The winners will be announced at a ceremony on November 15.

Here are the finalists:

       

Fiction:

Elliot Ackerman — Dark at the Crossing

Lisa Ko — The Leavers

Min Jin Lee — Pachinko

Carmen Maria Machado — Her Body and Other Parties: Stories 

Jesmyn Ward — Sing, Unburied, Sing

Nonfiction:

Erica Armstrong Dunbar — Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

Frances FitzGerald — The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

Masha Gessen — The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

David Grann — Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Nancy MacLean — Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

Poetry:

Frank Bidart — Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016

Leslie Harrison — The Book of Endings

Layli Long Soldier —WHEREAS [all caps sic]

Shane McCrae —In the Language of My Captor

Danez Smith — Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems

Young People’s Literature:

Elana K. Arnold — What Girls Are Made Of

Robin Benway — Far from the Tree

Erika L. Sánchez — I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Rita Williams-Garcia — Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Ibi Zoboi — American Street

 

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Eight women make National Book Awards fiction longlist

The National Book Foundation announced the 10 finalists for the National Book Award for Fiction this morning, and it’s an impressive list full of pleasant surprises. The first is that eight of the 10 nominees are women; another is that six of the eight are women of color; and the last is the presence of several surprising dark horse selections from small presses.

    

While it’s no surprise to see Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach among the finalists, it’s gratifying to see this kind of attention given to Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, an epic saga of the struggles of ethnic Koreans in Japan, Lisa Ko’s Bellwether Prize-winning The Leavers, and Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma. 

Independent publishers are represented by Counterpoint Press of Berkeley with A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Graywolf Press of Minneapolis with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties: Stories and New Issues Poetry & Prose at Western Michigan University with Barren Island by Carol Zoref.

    

Finalists will be announced on October 4, with the awards ceremony to be held in New York on November 15.

The complete list:

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman (Knopf/Penguin Random House)

The King Is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarcón (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House)

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (Grove Press/Grove Atlantic)

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Algonquin Books/Workman Publishing)

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group)

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press)

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (Counterpoint Press)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

Barren Island by Carol Zoref (New Issues Poetry & Prose)

 

A Reading List for Men Who Talk to Me About Hemingway

  

By Angela Palm

At AWP this year, I was caught off guard when a young, white male writer said to me, “I’m surprised you’re not more well-read.” I was surprised, too — because I’m an author and editor and thus well-read through the nature of my chosen profession. Surprised, because over the course of my reading life, which is longer than his by at least a decade, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books. Surprised, because all day while I work in my home office, I’m surrounded by mounds of books that I’ve read or will soon read.

The young man and I had been talking about the ending of “Escape from Spiderhead” in George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December, and he brought up a short story by Ernest Hemingway to make a point about what short stories ought to invoke and how. I admitted to having read just three books from Hemingway’s oeuvre—none of them story collections, and none of them recently. That’s when he made his claim.

I walked away from the conversation stunned, without formulating a defense, and later it occurred to me that this wasn’t the first time I’d been told that I’m not well-read. Last spring, I was chatting with a white male musician about literature, and he, too, expressed similar surprise that I had not read the books that he held dear. This time, the authors were Marcel Proust and, again, Hemingway. I confess: I haven’t read Proust at all. And I’m fine with that.

When I thought about why I hadn’t read the works these men read and loved, and why they had no qualms about assessing my readership as subpar based on whether I had read these works, I realized that I hadn’t often sought out many works by white, cis, male writers since I’d been made to read them as an undergrad. It’s not that I find them problematic (though they sometimes are) or uninteresting or unworthy of reading—I’m sure I’m missing out on some great books—but I do feel I often already understand the human and worldly concerns frequently expressed in those works because I’ve been taught to consider them since I could read English. I’m hungry for other concerns, other voices, other characters. When selecting books to read for pleasure, I gravitate instead toward works by women, queer writers, and writers of color. This, to me, is being truly well-read.

I find that I most want to read contemporary stories about women, written by women who are writing right now, alive right now. Stories that are not only well-written, engaging, and full of heart, but also that inspire or influence my own writing in some way.

So, here are five short story collections by women that impressed me or motivated me in some way. Five books I couldn’t put down, a few of which I’ve read more than once.

* * * * *

Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith (Mojave River Press, 2014)

I discovered Leesa Cross-Smith’s work about five years ago via Twitter. I had come to Twitter in search of an online writing community and access to what indie lit journals were publishing. I began reading Leesa’s flash fiction online and was blown away by how she finesses a sentence, impresses a mood, a universe of joy and pain and longing, upon the reader. The way even her half-page flash stories gutted me. Her characters’ heartbreak became my heartbreak. Leesa’s work reminds me that every sentence can slay, ought to slay, and that life’s too sopping wet with intensity and love and disappointment and miscommunication and things said and not said to waste words on lightweight sentences. When Every Kiss a War came out from Mojave River Press, I bought two copies.

Almost Famous Women by Meghan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner, 2014) 

I heard Meghan Mayhew Bergman read a short story from her second book, Almost Famous Women, at a reading in our home state of Vermont. Meghan had studied the lives of women who were, well, almost famous or lived lives adjacent to fame in some way but were in their own right worthy of fame, giving them new life through her stories. My favorite story in this collection is “Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period.” (Norma Millay was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s younger sister.) Meghan’s stories bring fascinating women out of obscurity and put them in the spotlight, and she inspires me to seek out and tell the unexpected tales, the stories no one has heard.

The Other One by Hasanthika Sirisena (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016)

I met Hasanthika when we were Bread Loaf fellows last year and I fell in love with her work instantly. Her debut collection moves between Sri Lanka and the states, contending with the aftermath of civil war at home and abroad, bringing to life a cultural history and trauma I previously knew very little about. Here we have characters old and young, connected and scattered, presented with humor, hope, and certain beauty as the world changes and exhales. Hasanthika writes the way I hope to write fiction: coming right up to the matter at hand, unflinching. And her stories’ endings, to my mind, are masterful examples of how to close. They seem, somehow, to contain the entire world.

Half Wild by Robin MacArthur (Ecco, 2016)

Robin and I were paired for a string of readings last fall because our first books were released the same month, were both Indie Next picks, and we both live in Vermont. Robin’s stories have a lyric, musical quality to them. When I heard her read the line, “The one who wanted something other than what she was born with, who nursed me until I was three (little titty-monkey), the one who lays her hand on my shoulder when I come home from class and says, ‘Angel, you be good. You be real good, baby-o,’” from the story “Creek Dippers,” I knew two things: we were going to get along well, and I had to buy that book immediately. Now, when my sentences start sounding too mechanical, I open to a random page of Half Wild, and I remember the way words can sing—in a manner both half wild and wholly unexpected.

Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann (Dock Street Press, 2014)

Sara Lippmann is another writer I discovered on Twitter. The short stories in her collection, Doll Palace, often span only a handful of pages but somehow manage to precisely capture the modern lives of girls and women. Sara’s writing shows me, again and again, how narrative voice can propel everything from character to plot. Take these two short sentences from a story called “Tomorrowland,” for example: “Enthusiasm is contagious. I worry my daughter will meet a nice man.” Many of the stories in this collection are written in the first person. Whenever I try my hand at that point of view, I return to the dog-eared pages of Doll Palace to remember how to say things without saying things. How to lead a story through first-person point of view without directing.

* * * * *

If I could rewrite my responses to those men, I’d say, “Have you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mia Alvar, and Roxane Gay? Sandra Cisneros or Louise Erdrich? No? Leesa Cross-Smith or Robin MacArthur?” I’d give them this list. I have no doubt I’ll find myself in this position again—cornered by a man heralding Hemingway. Next time, I’ll be ready to reframe the accusation, quick with my response.

 

Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here (Graywolf Press), an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor. angipalm.com/

Los Angeles Times Book Prizes nominations announced

The Blazing World   department-of-speculation  Boy, Snow, Bird  A Girl is a Half-Formed ThingCitizen   LA Times Festival of Books 2015

The 35th Los Angeles Times Book Prizes nominees were announced today, with five finalists each in 10 categories. T.C. Boyle will receive the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award for his 30-year career as a novelist and short story writer, as well as founder of the creative writing program at USC, where he has taught since the late 1970s.

Three of the five nominees in the Fiction category are women whose novels received critical acclaim in 2014: Siri Hustvedt for The Blazing World, Jenny Offill for The Department of Speculation, and Helen Oyeyemi for Boy, Snow. Bird. [The links are to my reviews.] (The other nominees are the legendary Donald Antrim for The Emerald Light in the Air: Stories and Jesse Ball for Silence Once Begun.)

Women poets took the same number of slots in the First Fiction and Poetry categories.

In First Fiction, Diane Cook for Man v. Nature: Stories, Valerie Luiselli for Faces in the Crowd, and Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (which won the 2014 Booker Prize). (The other nominees are John Darnielle for Wolf in White Van and David James Poissant for The Heaven of Animals: Stories.)

In Poetry the nominees are Gillian Conoley for Peace, Katie Ford for Blood Lyrics: Poems, and Claudia Rankine for Citizen: An American Lyric. (The other nominees are Peter Gizzi for In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987-2011 and Fred Moten for The Feel Trio.)

Two small presses from Minneapolis elbowed in on the big publishing houses in the nominations. Graywolf Press published Rankine’s Citizen and Ford’s Blood Lyrics: Poems. Coffee House Press published A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and Faces in the Crowd. Graywolf is also the publisher of Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation, a blend of investigative medical journalism and essay (which Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently selected for his Year of Books reading project), and Leslie Jamison’s rapturously reviewed essay collection, The Empathy Exams (2013). Graywolf authors Eula Biss, Claudia Rankine, and Vikram Chandra (Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty) are finalists in this year’s National Book Critics Circle Awards (to be announced on March 12.

The L.A. Times Book Prizes will be announced at the Times’ 20th Festival of Books (to be held on the USC campus) on Saturday, April 18.

KARATE CHOP brings Danish writer’s dark, droll stories to U.S. readers

Karate Chop_Dorthe Nors

Karate Chop: Stories

Dorthe Nors (Translated by Martin Aitken)

Graywolf Press: Feb. 4, 2014

104 pages, $14.00

Dorthe Nors’s Karate Chop is one of the few books that truly deserves to be described with that overused adjective, “unique.” The Danish novelist’s first collection of stories is a short, sharp shock that hits you like, well, a karate chop to the neck.

In fifteen stories that run from three to eight pages, Nors examines key moments in the lives of her quirky, very human characters as they struggle to make sense of other people in their surreal world. She gets right to the central conflict, stripping everything else away. It’s probably cliché to say, but there is a palpable Scandinavian coolness and efficiency to her stories. Her prose is crisp and economical, with nary a word out of place. She has polished these diamonds to an icy sparkle.

The best stories are glimpses into strange lives or at least strange moments that lead to unexpected results. “Mutual Destruction” examines the relationship of two friends, Henrik and Morton, who hunt together and have agreed to shoot each other’s dogs when the time comes to put them down. But Morton’s wife Tina has left him, and there is clearly something amiss as Henrik watches Morton and his dog from just inside a stand of trees on a hill above Morton’s property.

“They’d always been friends, but there was a lack of balance in it,” Henrik thinks…. “Now it was the last of them, the last dachshund, going about the yard at Morton’s heels down there. A man and his dog in the twilight, but something more. He had to take it in. Take a good look, because that’s how it was: there was something in Morton that shunned the light. Something Tina said was a kind of complex. He didn’t know what it was.” Nors leaves much unsaid, relying on the reader to infer the other relationship that goes all but unmentioned in Henrik’s narrative.

“The Buddhist” follows a corporate type as he climbs the ladder to the top, where things don’t go quite as he planned. The narrative voice is so cynical and knowing, so droll, that what might be a dull and predictable series of incidents in the hands of a less talented author is instead taut and suspenseful.

In “Female Killers,” a husband feeds his addiction to weird websites. “When she goes to bed, which is earlier and earlier now, he stays up at the computer.” That opening line is pregnant with possible meanings. He visits a variety of websites. “People who can predict things. Clocks that stop when someone dies. Calves with two heads, and women who kill people.” He becomes obsessed with one serial killer, Aileen Wuorno, who was eventually executed. “The odd thing about Aileen,” he notes, “is that she was the kind of person you could have had fun with in a bar when you were young, if the chance came around.” The story concludes simply but with import. Nors makes her readers think.

“The Heron” features some of Nors’ sharpest writing and an especially weird and wonderful opening. “I won’t feed birds, but if you must, then you should do so in Frederiksberg Gardens,” the story begins. “There are tame herons in Frederiksberg Gardens, and the park authorities have placed the park’s benches at some distance from one another so as not to attract too many birds to one area. There are problems at the end of the park where the alcoholics sit, particularly with ducks, but I never go that way, and you can see the herons everywhere. Of the heron itself, one can only say that from a distance it looks impressive, but this doesn’t apply when you get close up. It’s too thin, and tame herons in particular look malnourished. Most likely all that bread gives the herons of Frederiksberg Gardens bad stomachs and is to blame for their not making an effort to fly. Last winter I saw one slouching on the back of a bench with its long, scrawny neck.”

The narrator goes on to ponder the discovery of a dead woman’s body in a suitcase by a man walking his dog by a pond in the park, mothers pushing strollers, and childhood games he played there with his friends.

The title story is one of the most powerful and haunting stories you are ever likely to encounter and should be widely anthologized. Annelise, a school psychologist, is dating Karl Erik, the father of a young boy she counsels. He told her when they met that “he had a temper, was something of a coward, and a poor father to boot,” but “she never believed what these men said about themselves. Mostly, she had considered this self-deprecation, if not a form of politeness.”

But Karl Erik had not lied to her, and as the story progresses, we find Annelise looking at her naked body in the mirror, locating bruises and marks. “Sitting there on the edge of the bed, she considered that she had most likely seen her worst and her best now.” Pressures and misunderstandings in their relationship had reached a head, and she had applied a metaphorical karate chop to the problem. The ramifications of her course of action remain unmentioned, and the last paragraphs reverberate in the reader’s mind.

These concise, elegant, and disturbing stories require (and reward) rereading. This slim volume packs quite a punch – and you’ll feel it for quite a while.