Literary award season is nearly upon us, and it’s safe to say that, in the case of the National Book Awards, 2015 offers an improved longlist — at least over 2014. Although I’ll admit that there are many books I would have liked to see on this list that didn’t make it, I can also express my satisfaction that Nell Zink — the most original American novelist currently writing — has been recognized with her second novel, Mislaid. A notable absence? Her supposed mentor, Jonathan Franzen.
Jesse Ball, A Cure for Suicide (Pantheon Books)
Arguably Ball’s best work of fiction, A Cure for Suicide is an elegant, spare novel about a man with no memory and the woman who guides him through life.
Karen E. Bender, Refund: Stories (Counterpoint Press)
Set in contemporary America, Refund is a collection of stories about money and the nature of value — or, you know, America. It’s sort of the popular magazine (as opposed to the literary magazine) pick of the lot.
Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have a Family (Scout Press/Simon & Schuster)
A celebrated literary agent who later wrote bestselling memoirs about his drug addiction (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man: A Memoir and Ninety Days), Clegg has turned here to the story of a woman who loses her family in a fire. Did You Ever Have a Family is saccharine, poorly structured, and shouldn’t have been nominated.
Angela Flournoy, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
As far as “page-turners” go, I prefer Flournoy’s debut, about a family and their home in Detroit, to Yanagihara’s A Little Life. But if The Turner House wins, it will be a surprise.
Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House)
Of Groff’s bipartite Fates and Furies, my colleague Sarah Seltzer writes, “Fates and Furies is a tour de force, a culmination of the marriage-switch novel mini-genre,” while voicing some reservations. Probably the most buzzed book on this list at the moment.
Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles: Stories (Random House)
Readers won’t change their minds about Johnson’s fiction, which has been compared to Vonnegut’s, on the basis of this collection of stories. But his novel The Orphan Master’s Son won the Pulitzer, so we know what award committees think about him. Still, I doubt Fortune Smiles has fervent enough critical support to win the award.
T. Geronimo Johnson, Welcome to Braggsville (William Morrow/HarperCollins)
A bit of a sleeper, T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville deals with the ridiculousness of America’s never-ending culture wars through the lens of a provincial college freshman who goes to school at Berkeley.
Edith Pearlman, Honeydew (Little, Brown/Hachette Book Group)
Even though Pearlman’s Binocular Vision won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2012, she may be overdue for an NBA. Honeydew is a story collection that privileges small moments over bombast (here’s looking at A Little Life).
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Doubleday/Penguin Random House)
The giant on the list, Yanagihara’s A Little Life is simultaneously competing for a Booker. A book that insists on privileging the ecstatic over the worthwhile, I found it tedious, and I hope the judges don’t make the mistake of rewarding a book that is already overvalued.
Nell Zink, Mislaid (Ecco/HarperCollins)
Mislaid is imperfect, but its failures are more interesting than most of the successes of the other books on this list. A rolling comedy of identity, it argues that an expansive inner life may still be possible in America, given a basic willingness to reject its (seemingly) immutable platitudes about the family, gender, race, and class. It deserves to win the National Book Award.
Cynthia Barnett, Rain (Crown Publishing Group/Penguin Random House)
You’d think a readable book on the history of rain would already exist, but there you go.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau/Penguin Random House)
The most direct and eye-opening American book on race since 2014’s Racecraft, Coates’ letter to his son is a rare case of moral and political urgency finding its fullest expression. It deserves to win the National Book Award, but more importantly, it demands to be read and discussed as widely as possible.
Martha Hodes, Mourning Lincoln (Yale University Press)
Part of a welcome trend of histories from below, Hodes’ book on Lincoln’s assassination explores its impact on “everyday” Americans living at the time. One hopes history written in this way becomes the rule instead of the exception.
Sally Mann, Hold Still (Little, Brown/Hachette Book Group)
If Coates’ book somehow doesn’t win, Mann’s memoir, which combines lyrical prose with photographs, may be the one to take the award. It’s the story of an American South beset with “deceit and scandal, alcohol, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs, dearly loved and disputed family land… racial complications, vast sums of money made and lost, the return of the prodigal son, and maybe even bloody murder,” which suggests it should be read alongside Nell Zink’s Mislaid (see above).
Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus (Atria/Simon & Schuster)
Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus is exactly what it purports to be: a book about the soul of an octopus. It helps the author’s chances that the reading public has recently become enamored with the creature, even if it misguidedly believes it to be an alien species.
Susanna Moore, Paradise of the Pacific (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Hopefully Moore’s robust, beautifully written, often captivating history of Hawaii will get more attention with an NBA longlist. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on the the shortlist, either.
Michael Paterniti, Love and Other Ways of Dying: Essays (The Dial Press/Penguin Random House)
This collection of literary essays, vaguely about large-scale topics like love, death, and life, has the institutional support of writers like Anthony Doerr and George Saunders.
Carla Power, If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran (Henry Holt and Company)
The story of a friendship between the secular writer and a madrasa-trained sheikh that centers on a reading of the Quran, one that is meant to dispel the myth that it is a fount of violence and oppression.
Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light (Alfred A. Knopf)
Smith, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer for poetry (for Life on Mars), here delivers one of the year’s best memoirs. A bildung about race and family, Ordinary Light is distinguished by its lyrical prose, the quality of which should land Smith on the shortlist.
Michael White, Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir (Persea Books)
Perhaps the least expected nonfiction nomination and the second memoir by a poet on the list (the other is Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light), White’s Travels in Vermeer finds its author immersing himself in the work of the famous painter amid a bad divorce.
Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Gay’s short lines work wonders, especially here, where many are given over to examining loss (or passing or death: whatever you want to call it) as a generative force. Here’s a sample.
Amy Gerstler, Scattered at Sea (Penguin/Penguin Random House)
Gerstler’s Bitter Angel, published 25 years ago, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s fitting that she could return to the awards podium this year, when her subjects (“hedonism, gender, ancestry, reincarnation, bereavement, and the nature of prayer”) match so neatly with readers’ interests.
Marilyn Hacker, A Stranger’s Mirror (W. W. Norton & Company)
Formally diverse and polyvocal, Hacker’s new and selected poems make a strong case for a second National Book Award. Her first came more than 40 years ago with the collection Presentation Piece.
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn (Penguin/Penguin Random House)
Hayes, who won the award five years ago, should be considered a favorite with this new collection, described by the New Yorker as “[fitting] strong emotions into virtuoso forms.”
Jane Hirshfield, The Beauty (Alfred A. Knopf)
It’s sort of surprising that Hirshfield, chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, now with her eighth collection, has never won a National Book Award. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if she won for The Beauty (with its spare “My” poems).
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (Alfred A. Knopf)
Claudia Rankine describes Lewis’ brilliant triptych debut as “[a]ltogether new, open, experimental and ground-breaking.” Anchored by its title poem, which uses the titles of Western artworks to historicize the black female figure in art and history, it is one of the most deserving works on this list.
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions)
Limón’s work is destined to find a place with readers on the strength of her voice alone. Her intensity here is paradoxically set against the often slow burn of life in Kentucky, and the results will please readers and, quite possibly, the NBA judges.
Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine (Alfred A. Knopf)
Phillips’ book of elegies seeks to restore death to its proper place in a world where it is automated and routinely cheapened. This is one of my favorite collections on the longlist — I think it at least deserves to make the shortlist.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In January, I wrote that we’d be seeing Phillips in the 2015 award season, and here he is. The collection is so formally pristine and effortlessly singular, it’s hard to imagine it falling off the shortlist. See for yourself.
Lawrence Raab, Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts (Tupelo Press)
Writing about this collection, Tony Hoagland suggests that we think of Raab as “a Kafka-Andrade-Calvino character from Serbo-Chechnya-Lithuania,” even though he is, well, American. It makes perfect sense. The collection’s final poem (“A Cup of Water Turns into a Rose”) is one of the best of the year.