Thursday, October 7, 2010

What's On Your National Book Award Shortlist?

It won't be long before we're inundated with year-end best-of-2010 lists. I'm not complaining — I think they're great fun — I'm just sayin'. But with the National Book Award (NBA) nominations, a de facto "best of 2010" list, due out next Wednesday (Oct. 13), I wanted to put out a few guesses about the noms.

First, a few notes:
1) The nominations are being announced by Pat Conroy. That's funny. That'd be like Keanu Reeves presenting the nomination for the film that wins the Oscar for Best Picture. What? That happened this year? The world's going to hell in a hand basket, I tell ya. (You kids get off my lawn!)
2) Lady T over at the terrific pop culture blog Living Read Girl posted about her NBA noms earlier this week. Check it out — it's a good read! (Preview: The Passage is one of her picks!)
3) Last year's five nominations, more so than any other year I can remember, were really obscure novels not many people had read, or even heard of. The prize ultimately went Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann — a book that once I got around to reading, became one of my favorites of the last few years. But if the trend toward obscurity continues, trying to guess at the nominations is really an exercise in futility. 

That said, here's who I'd nominate:
1. Bloodroot, by Amy Greene — When I reviewed this book back in April, I predicted it'd show up on this list, so I'm hoping Conroy proves me a prophet. 
2. Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen — Yeah, it'll most likely be there.
3. Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes — I haven't read this huge Vietnam War novel yet (it's on my shelf), but even people who don't normally like war novels have raved about it. Here's a well-written review by the Reading Ape. And another by Patrick at The Literate Man. The novel has 311 reviews on Amazon, 235 of which are five-star. (This is my guess for the winner.)
4. Nemesis, by Philip Roth —  Just out this week, the novel has been pretty well-reviewed. Finally, Roth's back! So after a publishing a few so-so novels in a row, maybe Nemesis will earn Roth his 453rd (or so) literary prize.
5. The Instructions, by Adam Levin — A long-shot, to be sure, but I'm guessing this 1,024-page novel may get a nod because it's long, obscure and no one's read it — sort of like any William T. Vollmann tome, one of which actually won in 2005 (Europe Central).

So, what books would you nominate? Anything totally off the beaten path you've read and loved in 2010 that you think has an Obscurity Factor chance? 

(By the way, the American-less Nobel streak is officially at 17 years. Some Peruvian guy I've only vaguely heard of but never read won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Congrats to you, Peru!)


  1. First of all, sheesh, what's with the Pat Conroy animosity?

    That out of the way, although I'm not up on all the new releases this year, a couple I'd like to see get nods (but which most assuredly won't) are Next, by James Hynes, which was a gorgeous tour-de-force: eight hours (and twenty years of flashbacks) in the life of one American guy, looking to move on to the next step in his life and terrified by both the minutiae of day-to-day life and the very real threat of terrorist attacks that hang over the country's collective heads in the book. Funny, gut-wrenching, and so beautiful in its closely observed detail.

    And then, on a very different note, Charlie Huston's amazing post-apocalyptic police thriller, Sleepless, which is so beautifully written, with such psychological depths, that it barely qualifies as genre fiction.

    But, we probably won't see these two on the shortlist...

  2. Great list, here. I'm sad to say I've read none of them, though Freedom and Matterhorn are calling out from the shelves.

  3. 2 of my favorite books of the year - matterhorn and instructions....I have never read anything like "The Instructions" and would be absolutely ecstatic if it got a nod - it certainly would be a fantastic and deserving winner .....plenty of deserving books......but the instructions is unique and special

  4. @Rebecca - I know, the Pat Conroy animosity is a bit weird, isn't it? I think it stems from the fact that several people told me Beach Music was one of their favorite novels ever - and so I read, and was totally miserable (except for the times I laughed out loud at some of his over-written descriptions). Also, four words: The Prince of Tides.

    Now that that's out of the way: I love your two suggestions - just the type of novels that may end up on the list if it goes obscure again. Hey, I'd say those two have as much a chance as any of mine (with the possible exception of Freedom).

    @Kerry - Well, I've only read two of my own list of five! ;) No shame there.

  5. i haven't read matterhorn either, but based on all i've heard it's the one i'd pick to win.

    as for vargas llosa...i've only read one of his books, and this reminds me that i need to get back to him. That one was "The Bad Girl." Read it, read it, read it. (Assuming that you follow the comment box commands of people you don't know.)

  6. First off,thank you Greg for the linkage,it's truly appreciated.

    Next,while I haven't read any of your picks for the NBA,I do agree that Freedom has a strong shot at being nominated and based on your calculations,so does The Instructions. Philip Roth also might very well make it(I tried reading Portney's Complaint once,just couldn't get into it).

    I thought Prince of Tides was okay enough as a book but the movie was appalling,to say the least. I think that I read Beach Music but can't recall much about it(which I'm sure says a lot about the book's impact on me!)

    I don't usually get into the nonfiction part of the NBA but it would be great to see This Book Is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson get the nod. It's a wonderful look at the state of our libraries and the changes/innovations brought on by the next and current generation of librarians,something that some folks are really taking for granted lately.

  7. Great list, Greg. I've only read Matterhorn (thanks for the mention), but I found it to be very compelling story--one of those works that you're genuinely sad to leave behind. Freedom is high on my list, and I also mean to get around to Nemesis at some point soon. Now I'll have to add Bloodroot after reading your review. As for Vargas Llosa, he really is worth a try in my humble opinion. He's far removed from magical realism--which I've always been ambivalent about--if that's what's holding you back.

  8. While it's always nice to read the best of... it's much more fun to read about the worst of...

    Great list Greg, I'm ashamed to say I haven't read any of them (yet).

    My "off the beaten path" choice would be A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka

  9. Greg, try The Water is Wide by Conroy and repent! It really is that good (also it's nonfiction and inspirational without being preachy). Beach Music was incredibly awful, I agree.

    I haven't got my copy of The Instructions yet, but it's due any day for the Rumpus club so I hope it shows so I can read a bit of it by month's end.

    I'm not good with awards because I read many non-US authors, but I'd love to see a nod to Peter Geye for Safe from the Sea (in my top 3 of the year), Tom Rachmann's The Imperfectionists, Rosecrans Baldwin for You Lost Me There, and/or Emily St. John for The Singer's Gun.

  10. @Ellen - Done, and done. Just looking at the The Bad Girl's description on Amazon, and part of the blurb says "No one can quite understand why Llosa hasn't won a Nobel Prize yet..." Amusing.

    @lady T - I don't usually get into the nonfiction part either, but that book sounds like a fine nominee. Isn't it usually some stuffy history book that wins?

    @Patrick - Yeah, it was you review I got the idea that Matterhorn's a compelling book, even if you're not normally a fan of war novels. That's really what piqued my interest. And I will definitely take your advice on Llosa.

    @Man of la Books - Thanks for the recommendation - intriguing. Looks kinda Jonathan Safran Foer-esque.

    @Amy - Maybe I'll give Conroy another shot, but it probably wouldn't be nonfiction if I endeavor to try him again. My copy of The Instructions is due any day now too - I've been combing the 'net for reviews, and everyone who has read it just raves. I can't wait! Thanks for recommendations, too. I'm waiting for the paperback of The Imperfectionists in January - but looking forward to reading that, too.

  11. Good picks. Of the books I've read this year, these will probably make my short list: Freedom, The Wilding (by Benjamin Percy), The Passage, and The Wake of Forgiveness (by Bruce Machart). Matterhorn was good, but not quite up to the caliber of the others. Still, I wish only good things for it and the author.

  12. Of your five, I've only read Freedom. I'd love to see The Imperfectionists make the list as I thought it was completely wonderful. I tried Bloodroot a few months back and just could not get into it. I have it on my list for a second attempt because I had a lot on my plate at the time and couldn't seem to quiet my mind enough whenever I picked it up. And I'm hoping that Nemesis truly does signal a return to form for Roth. His last few have been real stinkers for me.