A look at the National Book Awards nominees

Remember "Charming Billy," by Alice McDermott? Don't feel bad, you're not alone. It's a bleak, though beautifully written, novel about a lovable Irish alcoholic. (Now there's a cliché breaker.) It's remembered today primarily for beating Tom Wolfe's spectacular "A Man in Full" at the National Book Awards ceremony in 1998.

History may repeat itself this year. Once again, an enormous and enormously popular social novel from Farrar, Straus & Giroux (also Wolfe's publisher) heads the nominees in fiction. Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" is already a No. 1 bestseller and was recently chosen for Oprah's book club - even though Franzen confessed that he'd never seen the show. Will all that accumulated success attract or repel the judges? In the case of "A Man in Full," Roger Straus told me the morning after it lost that he didn't mind. "Tom doesn't need it," the legendary publisher said. But neither did FSG; they published "Charming Billy," too.

The black-tie awards ceremony, hosted for the third year in a row by Steve Martin and attended by about a thousand authors, editors, and publishers on Nov. 14 in Times Square, will include a special citation for playwright Arthur Miller.

The winners, chosen from 1,023 titles submitted by 208 publishers, will receive $10,000 each.

NONFICTION

American Chica: Two worlds, one childhood, by Marie Arana, The Dial Press, $23.95

Daughter of a Peruvian father and an American mother, Marie Arana grew up in both cultures and arrived at the brink of adulthood feeling that having two identities perhaps meant that neither was truly authentic. This memoir is the fruit of her struggle to make sense of that dual identity - to place herself and her family in the larger context of the politics, history, sociology, and even geology of the Americas, north and south. An engaging family history, the book also offers an extraordinarily candid portrait of her parents' unconventional marriage - a long-distance commuter relationship, long before anyone used the term. Arana is now editor of The Washington Post Book World.

(Reviewed May 17) By Ruth Walker

The Lost Children of Wilder: The epic struggle to change foster care, by Nina Bernstein, Pantheon Books, $27.50

Nina Bernstein, a reporter for The New York Times, explores a lawsuit, Wilder v. Sugarman (1973), that attacked the New York foster-care system on the grounds that it gave philanthropic organizations free rein to discriminate against African-American children. Marcia Robinson Lowery, the young, bullheaded civil-liberties lawyer, argued that the city demanded far too little from the charities providing foster care. Bernstein found Shirley Wilder, the girl in whose name the suit had been filed. The sad story of Shirley's and then her son's journey through foster homes, psychiatric hospitals, juvenile lock-ups, homeless shelters, and the streets forms the backbone of this meticulously reported book. (Reviewed March 1) By Peggy Farber

My story as told by water, by David James Duncan, Sierra Club Books, $24.95

"As a child," says David James Duncan in this book's first chapter, "running water ... felt as necessary to me as food, sleep, parents, and air." What follows is a moving tribute to such water and the life it supports. Writing part memoir, part meditation, Duncan describes wild rivers, faith, wonder, fly fishing, and environmental politics with eloquence, intensity, and humor. Read it by water if you can, and read it slowly. Each chapter can stand alone, and as you slip through Duncan's thoughts, you're likely to digress into your own. By Amanda Paulson

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan Gross, Princeton Univ. Press, $19.95

On July 10, 1941, the 1,600 Jews of Jedwabne, Poland, were viciously murdered by their neighbors. With this little book, Jan Gross, a professor of European studies at New York University, vividly describes how ordinary Polish citizens - farmers and shoemakers - committed acts of unimaginable brutality, sometimes with laughter and cheering. His account of the carnage is so disturbing, you wish it were fiction. Gross struggles to understand the motivation: baseless charges of communist collaboration, medieval anti-Semitism, or the chance to loot the victims' possessions. He makes it clear that Poland, a nation still viewing itself as the victim of Nazi terror, must confront its own eager participation in the Holocaust. By Seth Stern

The noonday demon: An Atlas of depression, by Andrew Solomon, Scribner, $28

"Losing your mind, like losing your car keys, is a real hassle," Andrew Solomon observes in this sometimes humorous and always horror-filled account of depression. He details his own struggle with the condition and three resulting breakdowns, while weaving scientific data and medical research with narratives of other depression victims, ranging from Emily Dickinson to the Unabomber, that help us visualize their inward suffering. He travels as far as a mystical ceremony in Senegal to learn about treatments. Solomon clearly comprehends his own emotional pain and its toll on his loved ones' lives. There's also a disturbing thread of self-destructiveness in his story, including drug abuse and high-risk sex that can't be blamed solely on depression. But Solomon's exhaustive account leaves little out, sparing himself least of all in the process. By Seth Stern

FICTION

Among the missing, by Dan Chaon, Ballantine Books, $22

Dan Chaon, a creative-writing teacher at Oberlin College, gets it right in this collection of a dozen short stories. The internal lives of the narrators are as stirring, authentic, and raggedly lonely as anyone could live or imagine. The stories circle certain preoccupations the way Faulkner's do: They're peopled with alcoholic fathers, sons struggling with how to be sons, wives contemplating infidelity, and collectors of odd details who feel themselves set apart in some way from the lives of their small Nebraska towns. Their worlds, all half in shadow, are by turns suffocating and totally mesmerizing. Chaon's use of the first-person memoir style is particularly successful in the story "Big Me," which inspires a queasy sympathy with the fantasy life of an abused child and a deep dread of the physical and psychological danger hovering at the edges of his real life. By Mary Wiltenburg

Look at me, by Jennifer Egan, Doubleday, $24.95

While visiting her childhood home, Charlotte Swenson, an over-the-hill model, is involved in a car accident that shatters her face. After reconstructive surgery, she returns to New York City to find that no one recognizes her. Thus begins this stunningly creative, at times compelling exploration of identity, which artfully weaves together Charlotte's story with that of another Charlotte - the teenage daughter of her estranged best friend from high school. Although occasionally heavyhanded, the plot is refreshingly unpredictable and clever. Most moving is the portrait of the young Charlotte, whose feelings of adolescent isolation lead her into a relationship with a high school teacher. By Liz Marlantes

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little no Horse, by Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins, $26

In this novel of striking variety and imaginative power, Erdrich returns again to the Ojibwe natives of North Dakota. Having lost everything, Agnes DeWitt steals the identity of a dead priest and walks with bloodied feet into a community ravaged by disease and sapped by clever lumbermen.

From the first mass she celebrates, Agnes is tested in body and spirit for the next 80 years. Only a wholehearted devotion to the healing effect of forgiveness enables her to survive and bless these desperate people. The history of her life is a startling collection of stories that shift like seasons from tragedy to humor, legend, and mysticism. (Reviewed April 12) By Ron Charles

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, FSG, $26

Bristling with energy and erudition, this is an omnivorous social comedy about a Midwestern family dealing with chronic dysfunctions and illness. The Lamberts are a Norman Rockwell portrait in acidic hues. The retired patriarch is wasted by Parkinson's disease, but his wife throws herself into one last Christmas at home with their three adult children - each a facet of personal failure. In a wonderful sendup of biotech hype, Wall Street hucksterism, and pharmaceutical hubris, Franzen weaves the private tragedies of the Lambert family through a culture gassed up on the American promise of self-invention. (Reviewed Sept. 13) By Ron Charles

Highwire Moon, by Susan Straight, Houghton Mifflin, $24

Serafina, a Mexican Indian, was 18 when she was deported - unable to speak enough English to explain that her toddler was locked in a car nearby. A dozen years later, her daughter, now pregnant, begins a search among California's migrant workers for the mother who left her to foster homes and her drug-addicted father. The plot makes one fear the novel should be titled "The Joads Boil Water for Chocolate at the Joy Luck Club." But Straight's strong characterizations and sense of humanity raise it above cliché. And her willingness to find kindness in poverty-riddled places and flawed people make the search for motherhood a moving one. By Yvonne Zipp

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