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National Book Award prizes announced

November 20, 2008


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Judges for the National Book Award honored a comeback Wednesday night, giving the fiction award to Peter Matthiessen's "Shadow Country," a thorough revision of a trilogy of novels from the 1990s. The 81-year-old author last won a National Book Award nearly 30 years ago.

"I'm back!" exclaimed Matthiessen, who received the nonfiction prize in 1979 for "The Snow Leopard," and was a finalist in two previous years. He consoled his fellow finalists, three of whom hadn't been born when he was first published. "And they're going to be back, too."

Other winners were Annette Gordon-Reed in nonfiction, for "The Hemingses of Monticello"; Mark Doty's "Fire to Fire" in poetry; and former genre writer-for-hire Judy Blundell in young people's literature, for "What I Saw and How I Lied."

Publishers, who paid up to $25,000 for a table during a time of poor sales, dined on baked tagliolini and roast filet of beef at a literary celebration held under the 70-foot ceiling and Wedgewood dome of Cipriani on Wall Street, a setting unlikely for literature or celebrating.

"Wall Street is not at the moment a street of riches, but of ruin and broken dreams," attendee Ron Chernow, the business historian and former book award winner, told The Associated Press. "We're having cocktails and wearing tuxedos and it doesn't feel completely right."

Awards host Eric Bogosian joked to the audience about the gilded venue: "This was a bank once, and they built banks like this because banks never fail."

The economy inspired nervous laughter; the name Barack Obama happy, relieved applause. Bogosian called the bookish president-elect, "in the broadest sense of the word, a reader."

Noting that Obama has been openly influenced by Doris Kearns Goodwin's Lincoln biography, "Team of Rivals," Bogosian commented, "That's just so cool."

Honorary award winner Maxine Hong Kingston, who, like Obama, spent many years in Hawaii, praised his way of "putting things right by talking them through."

Fellow honorary winner Barney Rosset, the publisher and literary agitator, called Obama "a dynamic leader," a miracle. Declared the 86-year-old Rosset, who walked gamely to the podium, with a cane, but grinned boldly: "For the first time in recent memory I am not thinking of renouncing my American passport."

Obama also starred in the acceptance speeches of the nonfiction winner, Gordon-Reed, and poetry winner Mark Doty, who cited the election and his recent marriage to his male partner: "We are on a path to equality for all Americans and nothing is going to turn us back."