National Book Award winners include at least one upset victory

Although many expected popular novel "The Tiger's Wife" to win, Katrina saga "Salvage the Bones" took the 2011 National Book Award for fiction.

Tina Fineberg/AP
National Book Award winners Stephen Greenblatt, Thanhha Lai, Nikky Finney, and Jesmyn Ward hold their awards as they pose for photographs at the National Book Awards yesterday in New York.

If the National Book Award is the Oscars of the publishing world, then Jesmyn Ward is best actress.

In what some have described an upset victory, Ms. Ward’s “Salvage the Bones,” won the National Book Award for fiction. The novel is a grim tale about a community devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In it, 14-year-old narrator Esch describes the 12 days leading up to the catastrophic hurricane. “Narator Esch has read 'As I Lay Dying,' and echoes of Faulkner's black comedy resonate throughout,” writes the Monitor’s Yvonne Zipp. “As the storm approaches, the Batiste family's story takes on the resonance of one of the Greek myths Esch has studied in class.”

In her acceptance speech, Ward talked about her deceased brother, saying "my first stories were attempts to honor my brother," and “my journey has just begun."

In addition to widespread recognition and a sure boost in book sales, Ward receives $10,000.

A black-tie ceremony not entirely unlike the Oscars, the 62nd annual National Book Awards were held in Cipriani Wall Street, a luxurious Manhattan landmark known for its gilded Greek revival architecture. Actor and author John Lithgow hosted the event.

The prize for Young People’s Literature received special attention this year after author Lauren Myracle was erroneously listed as a nominee for her novel, “Shine,” and then asked to withdraw her name. The award was ultimately granted to Thanhhai Lai’s “Inside Out & Back Again,” about Ha, a 10-year-old Vietnamese girl who is forced to leave her Saigon home for foreign Alabama when the Vietnam War reaches her shores. Monitor reviewer Augusta Scattergood called the book "the classic immigration tale, powerfully and beautifully shared by an authentic narrator who lived the story."

In other categories, Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” which the AP describes as "a dramatic account of the Renassance era rediscovery of the Latin poet Lucretius,” won for nonfiction. 

The poetry prize went to Nikki Finney’s “Head Off & Split,” “an impassioned summation of African-American history,” according to the AP.

The National Book Awards are awarded in four categories for literature published in the current year. They were established in 1950 “to celebrate the best of American literature."

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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