National Book Award Nominees
Nominations for the National Book Award were greeted by shouts of joy and gasps of outrage last week.
In the nonfiction category, the judges nominated "Darkness in El Dorado," even though W.W. Norton has delayed publication till November so the text can be re-edited in response to criticism about its controversial claims.
Meanwhile, the fiction list includes a novel by Susan Sontag that contains a number of unattributed quotations from other sources.
Including books that aren't entirely finished or original must have complicated the selection process enormously.
The black-tie awards dinner will again be hosted by Steve Martin, the author/comedian who last year accidentally omitted one of the fiction nominees from the drum-roll line-up.
Science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury will receive a special medal for "distinguished contribution to America letters" at the ceremony Nov. 15.
FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE, by Jacques Barzun, HarperCollins, $36
What do Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, Johannes Kepler, Pablo Picasso, and a host of disparate giants have in common? Drawing on almost three-quarters of a century of historical scholarship, teaching, and writing, Barzun tells us they have shaped what's commonly called the Modern Era. Not content with a ticker-tape transmission of dates, he goes deeper into the whys and wherefores. Written with compassion, respect, dignity, and wit, Barzun's latest is probably the best single-volume account of the evolution of modern Western culture to date. Sure to be the standard for years to come, it should be required reading for every college freshman. (877 pp.) By Alan Messmer
THE COLLABORATOR, by Alice Kaplan, University of Chicago, $25
During the "purge" of Nazi collaborators in post-World War II France, Robert Brasillach, a right-wing writer and news editor, was convicted and executed for treason. In this thorough treatment of Brasillach's work, trial, and growth into an almost mythical figure, Kaplan gives detailed documentation of events and raises intriguing ethical questions. She examines the responsibility a writer has for his words and the dangers of historical revisionism, while painting a portrait of both occupied and liberated France and the moral ambiguity they fostered. The writing is compelling, though at times academic. For anyone interested in this period of France's history, the book has useful insights. (308 pp.) By Amanda Paulson
W.E.B DU BOIS: THE FIGHT FOR EQUALITY AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY, by David Levering Lewis, Holt, $29.95
In this second volume, Lewis completes a 15-year odyssey to define the life of W.E.B. Du Bois: NAACP founder, widely published novelist, and one of the most important African-American leaders, who was denounced by contemporaries after espousing communism later in life. Lewis begins with Du Bois's position as editor and activist and ends with his death in Ghana on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963. Dense but compelling, the biography emphasizes Du Bois's determination to depict what it was like to be "black in a white world." Lewis also handles with sensitivity some of the sensational aspects of Du Bois's personal life and reveals surprising sides of his personality. (715 pp.) By Leigh Montgomery
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, by Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking, $24.95
Philbrick recounts the tragedy of the whale ship Essex, which sank after being rammed by a sperm whale west of South America. Melville modeled the end of "Moby Dick" on the 1820 incident. The author uses the recently discovered journal of the ship's cabin boy to create a vivid narrative of this entire voyage, including the survivors' concessions to cannibalism. He includes fascinating historical information without slowing the narrative's pace or neglecting the personal stories of the ship's crew. History lovers will be keenly interested in Philbrick's fascinating portrait of Nantucket, the epicenter of the 19th-century whaling industry, which generated its own peculiar set of legends and customs. (302 pp.) By Noel Paul
DARKNESS IN EL DORADO, by Patrick Tierney, W.W. Norton, $27.95
Nowhere is there a better case study of the effects of intervention on tribal peoples than that of the Yanomami of the Amazon basin. Tierney claims that the portrait of warring Indians created by filmmakers such as Napoleon Chagnon in 1968 was far from accurate. Much of the notorious intratribal conflict was not due to their nature but to what had been introduced by outsiders - including a deadly virus. This book is as much about the deeds and misdeeds of men like Chagnon as it is the Yanomami. (416 pp.) By Peter I. Rose
THE FEAST OF LOVE, by Charles Baxter, Pantheon Books, $24
A clever and skillfully written tale of Midwestern love and coffee grinds, with a nod to "Midsummer Night's Dream." Wandering the night streets, a sleepless writer comes across his neighbor Bradley Smith - a painter who manages Jitters, the local coffee shop. Bradley suggests that the novelist write a story about love. Thus, through the ears of the writer, we hear the interconnected tales of Bradley, a lawyer, a philosopher, a lesbian, and two under-achieving teens who work at Jitters. In first person, the characters discover, complain, and delight in the complications and surprises of relationships. (320 pp.) By Kendra Nordin
THE DIAGNOSIS, by Alan Lightman, Pantheon Books, $25
Everyone around Bill Chambers is scrambling to process the huge flow of information coming their way. Parents e-mail their kids while at home, companies do business without face-to-face meetings, and intimate relations are consummated through digital encounters. As Bill undergoes a loss of memory and subsequent physical numbness, the notion of time is redefined. It stops being measured in minutes and is, instead, seen by a leaf's shadow in his room or the reassembling of memories he hasn't bothered to recall. Gradually, he comes to terms with his life, family, and values, even while searching for a diagnosis for the condition that afflicts him. (384 pp.) By Alfredo Sosa
BLONDE, by Joyce Carol Oates, Ecco Press/HarperCollins, $29.95
Despite the sun, L.A. lends itself to the gothic genre. So it's little wonder Oates chose to skewer it on her prolific pen. What's puzzling is her subject choice: Norma Jean Baker, the young girl turned Marilyn Monroe. She has been so picked apart, there seems little left to say. Nonetheless, Oates fills 738 pages with her abuse as a child, her marriages, abortions, drug abuse, and sporadic practice of Christian Science. The first third is the strongest, covering the least-known material. After she becomes Marilyn, it devolves into sex and self-loathing. There's no denying Oates's ability, but it's hard to imagine anything drearier than a night with this star. By Yvonne Zipp
BLUE ANGEL, by Francine Prose, HarperCollins, $25
In this raw, funny portrayal of a Vermont college, Prose explores the boundaries between truth and fiction while satirizing academia and political correctness. Swenson, a novelist and creative-writing professor, hasn't produced a novel in 10 years. Struggling to lead a seminar on a student's story about an amorous encounter with a frozen chicken, he wonders, "Was this story written expressly to torment me?" From this unfolds a highly engaging tale in which Swenson embarks on a fatal relationship with a tatooed student who has written a brilliant novel called "Eggs." The book is laugh-out-loud funny and gripping to the last page. (314 pp.) By Liz Marlantes
IN AMERICA, by Susan Sontag, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26
As the sun of a circle of admirers, Maryna is at the zenith of her power in Polish theater, but yearning for simple authenticity, she persuades her husband and friends to begin a utopian community in California. When the enterprise falters, as they all suspected it would, Maryna hopes to reincarnate her former theatrical glory in the new land. But she discovers painfully that the costs and rewards of being a great European actress are not the same as being an American celebrity. The result is a fascinating exploration of what's real in a culture that preaches authenticity but worships artificiality. (387 pp.) By Ron Charles (Full review March 9)
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