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National Book Awards Winnow Field Of Finalists


OK, let's dim the lights, cue the music, start the jazz hands and...


GREENE: The National Book Awards will be announced on the evening of November 18, but the finalists for each category have been selected. And today, you, our listeners, will hear them exclusively here on MORNING EDITION. I am joined in the studio by NPR editor Barrie Hardymon and NPR contributor Glen Weldon, two people who know books and culture and a lot of other stuff. They're going to preview some of the books in each category. Good morning to you both.


GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: I know we're short on time. Let's get right to it. Fiction is really like the best picture category in the Oscars, but we're going to get to it first. Oscars, take note, that's a better idea. Here we go.


STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: And the finalists in the fiction category include Karen E. Bender for "Refund," published by Counterpoint Press.


Angela Flournoy for "The Turner House," published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

INSKEEP: Lauren Groff for "Fates And Furies," published by Riverhead Books.

MONTAGNE: Adam Johnson for "Fortune Smiles," published by Random House.

INSKEEP: And Hanya Yanagihara for "A Little Life," published by Doubleday.

GREENE: Steve and Renee really should do the Oscars. OK, Glen, Barrie, what stands out on this list?

HARDYMON: I really want to talk about "The Turner House" 'cause it's - A, it's a first time novelist, Angela Flournoy, and it also brings together a lot of themes that we see throughout all of the categories. So it is a book about domestic drama. It is a book about financial insecurity - an American feeling at the moment. And it's also this story about children and parents and, you know, grieving. It tells the story of generations in Detroit in a massively underwater house in 2008. It is a lovely, lovely book.


WELDON: And it traces the collapse of an American city through the eyes of this sprawling, huge family.

GREENE: Detroit we're talking about.

WELDON: Detroit, absolutely, and it really shows you all the little intimacies that exists between this family, the stuff that they kind of give to the family, the stuff they hold back for themselves. It's fascinating.

GREENE: It's a fiction book about a big city but in a very personal way it sounds like.

WELDON: Exactly.

GREENE: OK, next up - no less important - this collection of journalists here. It's in the nonfiction category.


MONTAGNE: The finalists in the nonfiction category include Ta-Nehisi Coates for "Between The World And Me," published by Spiegel and Grau.

INSKEEP: A periodic guest on this program - also Sally Mann for "Hold

Still," published by Little, Brown, a division of Hachette Book Group.

MONTAGNE: Sy Montgomery for "The Soul Of An Octopus," published by Atria Books, a division of Simon and Schuster.

INSKEEP: Carla Power for "If The Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship And A Journey To The Heart Of The Quran," published Henry Holt and Company.

MONTAGNE: Tracy K. Smith for "Ordinary Light," published by Alfred A. Knopf.

GREENE: Who picked this music (laughter)? OK, Glen, first to you.

WELDON: Well, the Coates book, "Between The World And Me," is a letter to his teenage son about being a black youth in America today, in an America that was built on the bones of his ancestors. What's striking about it is that it's not this urgent feeling of outrage. The tone is of implacable, fatalistic dread.

GREENE: This Ta-Nehisi Coates book made a lot of news this year...

WELDON: Really did.

HARDYMON: It is pure desolation.

GREENE: ...Given a lot of what happened and a lot of questions about race.

WELDON: Yeah, and it is striking and it is desolate, as you say.

HARDYMON: And it - and I think also it will be a book that everyone will read, probably in school. It will probably be assigned reading at some point, as it should be. Another thing that's interesting about this category is two of the other memoirs and that were written by people where memoir is not actually their medium they work in. Sally Mann is a photographer - wrote this wonderful book about growing up in the American South. And then you have Tracy K. Power, who is a poet, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who wrote a beautiful memoir, which is about her sort of deepening awareness of race and her relationship with her mother who died.

WELDON: And the faith of her mother and where that faith belongs in her life. It's fascinating.

GREENE: Well, authors flexing different muscles and really doing well. OK, let's move on. Take it away, Steve and Renee.


INSKEEP: The finalists for the young people's literature category include Ali Benjamin for "The Thing About Jellyfish," published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

MONTAGNE: Laura Ruby for "Bone Gap," published by Balzer and Bray, a division of HarperCollins Children's Books.

INSKEEP: Steve Sheinkin for "Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg And The Secret History Of The Vietnam War," published by Roaring Brook Press.

MONTAGNE: Neal Shusterman for a "Challenger Deep," published by HarperCollins Children's Books.

INSKEEP: Noelle Stevenson for "Nimona," published by HarperTeen/HarperCollins Children's Books.

HARDYMON: Well, this category I like to think of the antidote to "Frozen." If you were a person who thought, well, that's kind of that slightly insincere feminism, there are two books in this category that are just so marvelous. First, I want to start with "Nimona," which is just...


HARDYMON: ...A beautiful graphic novel. It is goofy. It is charming, but it has some - a real message about how we talk about women and how we talk about girls and particularly a coming of age message, which is, as I said, is sort of an antidote to "Frozen." And I, too, love "Let It Go," but I will now let it go to Glen.

WELDON: Well, no...

GREENE: You were whooping over there for "Nimona," right?

WELDON: "Nimona" started out as a web comic. I was concerned on how it would look and feel in a bound form. And it reads great because a through line through it. It is funny. It is charming. But there is this sadness, a kind of wistfulness that kind of elevates it in a real powerful way. It's a great book.

HARDYMON: And that nostalgia and sadness is what I think of in the best of YA literature.


HARDYMON: That kind of - that it is both, you know - that you're growing up and it's wonderful, but you know that there's nostalgia and some sadness to come.

GREENE: All right, from young adult to, last but not least, poetry.


MONTAGNE: The finalists in the poetry category include Ross Gay for "Catalog Of Unabashed Gratitude," published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

INSKEEP: Terrance Hayes for "How To Be Drawn," published by Penguin.

MONTAGNE: Robin Coste Lewis for "Voyage Of The Sable Venus," published by Alfred A. Knopf.

INSKEEP: Ada Limon for "Bright Dead Things," published by Milkweed Editions.

MONTAGNE: Patrick Phillips for "Elegy For A Broken Machine," published by Alfred A. Knopf.

HARDYMON: I love jazz flute.

GREENE: So do I.


GREENE: OK, Barrie.

HARDYMON: There's almost no more jazzy instrument.

GREENE: All right, did you guys like the poetry finalists?

HARDYMON: I adored them, and I really, really loved Ada Limon's book. It's called "Bright Dead Things," which I know doesn't really...

GREENE: It's a title to love.

HARDYMON: I know. Look it - as we pointed out, there's a lot of grief in these lists, but this one is actually a beautiful collection. It has - the first poem is called "How To Triumph Like A Girl," so I will say that one is worth looking up and reading for all you ladies and all you men out there. It's a beautiful deconstruction of her emotional life in Brooklyn and in Kentucky and a little bit in California. But it's a narrative that isn't just about place. It's really lyrical, really emotional. I loved these poems. I was tempted to read them out loud.

WELDON: And in "Voyage Of The Sable Venus," Robin Coste Lewis takes the titles and the catalog entries for hundreds of works of Western art that depict the black female figure and arranges them into this sprawling poem and finds all kinds of connections and contradictions and associations among them. And you'd be forgiven for thinking, well, that sounds like a gimmick. That sounds like it couldn't possibly work, but it very much does.

HARDYMON: It's really an achievement is what it is. It's incredible.

GREENE: All right, you heard it here first, the finalists for the National Book Awards. Barrie, Glen, thanks so much.

HARDYMON: Thank you.

WELDON: Thank you.

GREENE: And you can hear Barrie Hardymon and Glen Weldon at our podcast "Pop Culture Happy Hour." And for all of you book fans, for more on the National Book Awards, a list of the finalists and also for more on the Man Booker Prize that was given last night, go to our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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