James McBride, George Packer are National Book Awards winners

James McBride won the National Book Award for fiction for his novel set during the Civil War, while George Packer picked up the non-fiction award for his examination of contemporary America.

By , Correspondent

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    The judges of this year’s National Book Award called James McBride, author of 'The Good Lord Bird,' a writer with “a voice as comic and original as any we have heard since Mark Twain.”
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This year’s National Book Award for fiction went to a writer with “a voice as comic and original as any we have heard since Mark Twain,” according to the event’s judges.

James McBride won the National Book Award for fiction for his novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” a satirical account of a cross-dressing slave who travels with abolitionist John Brown in pre-Civil War America.

McBride said he figured he wouldn’t need an acceptance speech for Wednesday night’s National Book Awards, so he didn’t write one.

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“I didn’t prepare a speech. I really didn’t think I was going to be up here,” McBride said in his remarks.

He was among five finalists, including “George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, Thomas Pynchon, and Rachel Kushner.

“They are fine writers,” McBride said of his fellow finalists. “But this sure is nice.”

George Packer picked up the non-fiction award for “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” that describes the breakdown of the US economy over the last 35 years from the perspective of a wide range of Americans.

Mary Szybist won the poetry prize for “Incarnadine,” and Cynthia Kadohata took the young people’s literature award for “The Thing about Luck.”

During remarks delivered at a lavish gala dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in New York, McBride said the protagonist of “The Good Lord Bird,” ‘Little Onion,’ was his friend during a difficult part of his life when he lost his mother, his niece, and his marriage.

McBride, who is also a jazz musician, is best known for his bestselling memoir “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” as well as his first novel, “Miracle at St. Anna,” which was adapted into a 2008 film by Spike Lee.

Two other awards were also presented at the dinner: Toni Morrison presented the Literarian Award for Outstanding Contribution to the American Literary Community to poet Maya Angelou, who said, “For 40 years, I have tried to tell the truth as I know it,” adding, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

And The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters was presented to novelist E.L. Doctorow, who warned that “for every advantage of the Internet, there is a disadvantage.”

Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” hosted the program, which she called “the Oscars of the book world … but as Fran Lebowitz said, ‘It’s the Oscars without money.’”

The awards honor American writers for works published over the past year in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. Winners take home a bronze statue, $10,000, and a small boost in recognition – and perhaps sales.

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