On MSNBC’s Morning Joe today, David Steinberger, the Board of Directors Chairman of the National Book Awards, announced the finalists for the coveted award in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. The fewest surprises appear in the fiction category, with Rachel Kushner and George Saunders looking like the popular favorites and 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri mounting some stiff competition (even though I wasn’t totally sold on The Lowland).
There’s also Thomas Pynchon’s latest, Bleeding Edge, giving the reclusive author an opportunity to win a rare second National Book Award (and maybe show up wearing a Ronald Reagan mask so as not to finally reveal what he actually looks like). But was Bleeding Edge really better than the other books in the category? That’s a difficult sell.
But you know what I’m going to go ahead and do here? I’m going to say that if you have a betting pool for these awards (and who doesn’t?), put your money on James McBride’s Good Lord Bird. McBride has been producing strong work since his brilliant 1995 autobiography The Color of Water, and has been working towards a book like this one, which puts him in a position to win the award he has so long deserved. On a list full of upstarts and icons, the bestselling McBride might seem like an underdog, but a win for him would hardly be surprising.
Nonfiction also offers relatively few shockers: three of the five authors (George Packer, Jill Lepore, and Lawrence Wright) are New Yorker staff writers, and Packer especially blitzed the media with appearances for his wonderful study of “the New America,” The Unwinding. Wright’s epic piece in the magazine on Scientology was talked about by just about everybody who had the time to finish it (and some who didn’t), but I’m not so sure if the book can wrestle the award away from his colleagues.
While I don’t usually find myself getting behind books about the Holocaust, Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies was a fascinating read, examining women who participated on Germany’s behalf in the atrocities committed during the Second World War. I won’t say that Lower is most likely to win, but hopefully her nomination will get a few readers who are burnt out on books on the topic to pick up Hitler’s Furies. I’m going with Packer on this one.
Poetry: Frank Bidart has been to the poetry-finalist rodeo three times before this year. Metaphysical Dog might be his best shot at wining the award, but my favorite of this year’s crop is Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine: Poems, put out by one of Flavorwire’s favorite indie presses, Graywolf.
Young People’s Literature: I want to believe that Gene Luen Yang’s young adult historical graphic novel(s), Boxers and Saints, are going to capture the award this year — but I’m also a big fan of racoons, and Newbery honoree Kathi Appelt gives us those furry little buddies in The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, so I’m also a little hopeful for that one as well.