Themes of Family, Struggle In National Book Awards

Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995

By Hayden Carruth

Copper Canyon Press

101 pp., $14

An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us

By James Carroll

Houghton Mifflin

279 pp., $23.95

Ship Fever: And Other Stories

By Andrea Barrett

W.W. Norton

254 pp., $21

Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida

By Victor Martinze

HarperCollin

216 pp., $14.89

The 46th annual National Book Awards were conferred last week in New York to authors in four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and for the first time, Young People's Literature. The selections, based on the opinion of judges appointed by the National Book Foundation, are considered the most outstanding American works written in the past year. The Monitor offers a brief review of each winner.

Nonfiction

James Carroll, a columnist and much-published author, has written an impassioned memoir that works well at three different levels. An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us is first a classic account of growing up as a Roman Catholic in the 1950s and '60s. Carroll examines all the tensions that entailed: to be part of - yet apart from - American society as a whole; to hanker for personal freedom and fulfillment while dealing with hierarchy and authority; and somehow to find stability and belief in a religion swept by change. Though filled with doubts, Carroll studied for the priesthood and was ordained, but then left it in 1975.

The book also presents a young man's shift from the middle-class conventions of his parents toward a different perspective influenced by an era of free thinking, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War.

Finally, it portrays an intense, troubled father-son relationship between Carroll and his distant father, an Air Force lieutenant-general and head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

- Leonard Bushkoff

Fiction

Andrea Barrett, in Ship Fever And Other Stories, offers a consistent theme in her methodically crisp style: discovering after the fact what the facts really are. It's much like reading the diary of an aunt who really knew the family secrets. You can't put it down.

Barrett moves her narration back and forth across decades, even centuries. Sometimes she blends science - experiments with hawkwoods, or bird collecting - with a confusion over love.

The two Marburg sisters, for instance - one wild, the other a sort of schoolmarm scientist - hallucinate a conversation with their deceased mother. They learn that a white dog is perhaps the only creature who ever loved their father. They conclude he had an emotional life, "although it was not one we could recognize."

Barrett's prose tends to be colorless, even melancholy. But the brilliance of the monochrome shades is dazzling.

- David Holmstrom

Poetry

Hayden Carruth has never been afraid to wrestle with life's hardest questions. Now he struggles to understand his grown daughter's cancer, his own eventual death, the lack of justice in this world, and the love he shares with his wife, 30 years his junior.

The poems in Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey are straightforward and simple. They demonstrate a consistency of voice and quality that has helped make Carruth one of this country's most decorated poets. But for all the power of the honesty in this collection, the magic is missing. One would hope for more of the stunning music and imagery that occasionally allows the work to change the reader as well as challenge.

- Elizabeth Lund

Young People's Literature

Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida, Victor Martinez's first novel, gives a powerful and poetic voice to a culture often overlooked in American literature. In this stunning coming-of-age novel, he sympathetically crafts Chicano characters who struggle with their own fears and failures in the midst of prejudice, violence, and poverty.

Growing up in the projects of a California desert town, Manuel Hernandez watches his mother desperately hold the family together through his father's incarceration, brother's unemployment, and teen sister's pregnancy. His alcoholic father, alternately tender and brutal, chides Manny for his too-trusting nature. But in the end, Manny's innate goodness helps him realize who he is and who he wants to become.

- Karen Williams

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