A look at the National Book Award Nominees

The National Book Foundation has nominated a decidedly muted and international list of books for its 50th award ceremony. Only one of the titles, Mark Bowden's "Black Hawk Down," has ever appeared on the Monitor's bestseller list. After the blockbuster battle last year between Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" and Alice McDermott's "Charming Billy," this year's collection of nominees seems like a luncheon of college professors.

The black-tie awards ceremony, hosted by Steve Martin and attended by the country's literati on Nov. 19, promises to be considerably more showy. Oprah Winfrey will receive a special gold medal for her contribution to reading.

The winners, chosen by panels of writers from 881 submissions, will receive $10,000 each. The New York awards dinner raises money for education programs sponsored by the foundation.

NONFICTION WOMAN: AN INTIMATE GEOGRAPHY, by Natalie Angier, Houghton Mifflin, $25 A self-described celebration of the female body, "Woman" sets out to dismantle various biological myths that have labeled women as physiologically destined to be weak, monogamous, and passive. Angier argues, "As easily as we can be abused by science, we can use it to our own ends." Through a close examination of the female anatomy that starts with the egg and expands outward, Angier draws her own hypotheses about the female sex with great conviction and humor. Her tone is sometimes a bit contrived but, on the other hand, it makes the scientific and medical analysis an easy and entertaining read. And her conclusions about women are so affirmative, they're hard to resist. (398 pp.) By Liz Marlantes

BLACK HAWK DOWN: A STORY OF MODERN WAR, Mark Bowden, Atlantic Monthly Press, $24 Reporter Mark Bowden retells the story of a 1993 peacekeeping mission gone wrong: the deadly firefight in the streets of Mogadishu that generated ghastly images, but then descended into obscurity. The book offers reminders that satellites, night-vision goggles, and high-tech gunships are nice to have but can't guarantee success in a cruel city whose culture American forces don't understand. His work recalls the epic Vietnam narrative "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Recommended for those hungering to understand the world of one superpower and the forces swirling around it. But Bowden could have put the battle into better historical context. (Full review March 11.) (386 pp.) By David Moniz

EMBRACING DEFEAT: Japan in the Wake of World War II, By John W. Dower, W.W. Norton & Co., $29.95 Dower describes the American occupation of a post-WWII Japan, reexamining every facet of its culture, social mores, and institutional structures. The book provides a compellingly detailed picture of two cultures American and Japanese - circling each other with a mixture of admiration and wariness. Would- be social planners on both sides subtly and sometimes not so subtly tried to invent a democratic Japan. In the end, the Americans inadvertently strengthened a bureaucratic hierarchy during their tenure. Dower's empathy with all the players, particularly the everyday Japanese men and women, transforms a historical snapshot into a lively moving picture. (676 pp.) By Stephen Humphries

PLACES LEFT UNFINISHED AT THE TIME OF CREATION, by John Phillip Santos, Viking, $24.95 Santos, a Mexican-American journalist, crafts a thoughtful memoir of his heritage, rich with family legacy and Mexican history. Combating his culture's "selective forgetting," Santos strives to rekindle tradition he fears has faded since his family's migration from northern Mexico to Texas during the revolution of 1914. He chronicles a childhood in la Tierra de Viejitas, the land of the little old ladies, where magical tales and folklore abound. Santos lovingly scripts a colorful cast of relatives from Madrina, who has a profound intuition, to a grandfather, whose suicide Santos struggles to comprehend. (284 pp.) By Stephanie Cook

SECRETS OF THE FLESH: A LIFE OF COLETTE, by Judith Thurman, Alfred A. Knopf, $30 Often associated with amoral sexual hedonism, Colette is given a more sympathetic portrait in this new biography. Thurman does the usual psychoanalysis of her early years - the domineering mother, the unfaithful, manipulative husband - but roots out much fact from fiction, a complicated task in view of Colette's self-mythologizing. What's left is a more rounded picture of a talented writer who had a sometimes outrageous lack of concern for social mores. (592 pp.) By Susan Llewelyn Leach

FICTION HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, by Andre Dubus III, W.W. Norton & Co., $24.95 This story is centered around a real estate dispute between an Iranian immigrant family and the former owner of their house, a recovering addict abandoned by her husband, trying to reclaim what little she has in the world. Dubus's second novel is a tragic tale of the immigrant experience in late 20th- century California. Dubus, son of the late essayist Andre Dubus, writes convincingly from the perspectives of his characters, their lives tangled by circumstance. The book is somewhat predictable, but it's an honest assessment of what happens when cultures collide and are tinged by misunderstanding and cultural bias. (365 pp.) By Leigh Montgomery

PLAINSONG, by Kent Haruf, Alfred A. Knopf, $24 Holt, Colo., seems to be normal. But under the guise of daily life, things start to go wrong in the lives of these richly written characters. When Tom Guthrie's wife leaves, he finds himself trying to raise two sons alone. At work, he must deal with the violent parents of a hot-tempered student. Across town, two old bachelor brothers begrudgingly take in a pregnant girl and slowly construct a family bound together by pink baby blankets and rusty farm machinery. "Plainsong" delivers a delicate message of interdependence, all the while showing how landscape affects who we are and how we think. (Full review page 13.) (301 pp.) By Christian Staynor

HUMMINGBIRD HOUSE, by Patricia Henley, MacMurray & Beck, $22 From refugee camps in Mexico to contra-wars in Nicaragua and assassinations and massacres of native peoples in Guatemala, tragedy is the central element of this novel. The period is from the mid-1980s to the present. An American midwife copes with compassion fatigue after witnessing violence against children and leftist political activists at the hands of one-dimensionally evil, right-wing, American-sponsored military forces. Her love life is a mess, too. That this haltingly written first novel has been nominated for the National Book Award reflects the political and feminist ideology of the judges, not the quality of its writing. (326 pp.) By Jim Bencivenga

WHO DO YOU LOVE: STORIES, by Jean Thompson, Harcourt Brace, $23 Jean Thompson's collection of 15 short stories forces readers with a narrow conception of love to consider a broader view. Each story's central relationship - involving characters such as a battered mother, a bored firefighter, an isolated social worker, and a murderous widower explores a different kind of emotional bond. Eventually, the collection finds love in change and continuity, timeless memory and the fleeting moment. Thompson presents many barriers to love, but all are toppled by the omnipotence of human empathy. The book brings readers along through the same transitions from judgment to empathy. (320 pp.) By Ben Arnoldy

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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