The National Book Awards are the Oscars of the publishing industry. There are viewing parties at bars, and I’ve been known to cancel dinner plans with non-industry friends to watch it. It’s a big deal and the only NBA I care about. I love the celebration of literature and authors, and the acclaim that comes with winning the prized seal. There are five categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young people’s literature. Here’s a list of nominated authors and books from the past (and one from this year’s list) that should be on your radar.
Bill Clegg’s debut novel is a portrait in vignettes of grief, loss, and humanity in the wake of catastrophe. Each chapter centers on a character dealing with devastating heartbreak and angst. What at once feels like disparate points of view pulls back to reveal a poignant tapestry of healing, connection, and, in some cases, untidy resolution. It’s a captivating novel with profound depth.
DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY asks how one goes on after the worst happens. This tender novel shows how we are all connected and how that very connection is the basis for redemption and hope. We won’t lie; you might need Kleenex for this one.
THE MOOR’S ACCOUNT is perfect historical fiction. Based on an expedition by Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez to the New World, we follow a Moor slave, Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico. As the first black explorer of America, we see the treatment of Native Americans as he journeys through the land to become highly respected. At the heart of his account is a testament to the power of storytelling and poses questions about historical retelling and who should get to pass it forward. Full of heart and compassion, this meticulously researched novel reframes history to offer a version of events closer to the truth.
Fresh off a Nobel Prize award, Flights is a hard to pin down but joyous reading experience. The book is comprised of fragmented stories centered on themes of movement: travel, journeys, transitions, and adventure. The format and narrative structure reminded me of how people think—how nonlinear we deal with memory, time, and a sense of being. The book is a wildly humorous, inventive, and thought-provoking masterpiece of fiction.
I was initially drawn to this novel because of a weird obsession with the Patty Hearst story. Focused not on the “Patty” of this situation but on another member of the kidnapping, AMERICAN WOMAN provides us with a complicated fictionalized reimagining of a notoriously nuanced situation. While pulled in by the plot, I became quickly enamored with Susan Choi’s writing and her complex, layered, and fully formed characters.
In the late 1970s there was an assignation attempt on Bob Marley, and in A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS, we get Marlon James’s play-by-play of the world in Jamaica leading up to it, along with the event’s repercussions. Told as an oral history, we meet all the players involved—good, bad, and even dead. Part historical fiction, part political thriller and true crime story, this is an ambitious and challenging read with immense payoff. Strewn with Jamaican Patois, this is an engrossing and transporting read that shines a light on Jamaica’s political and social turmoil of that era.
THE NEED is a taut psychological speculative fiction fever dream. After ethnobotanist Molly uncovers artifacts in one of her dig sites that look familiar but feel a little bit off and then encounters an uncanny stranger prowling around her home, she is catapulted into a bizarre wormhole where things aren’t as they seem. Told in propulsive prose, Phillips created an interesting and subversive meditation on motherhood and otherness.
Jason Reynolds primarily writes for children, but like all true wordsmiths, his storytelling transcend age. In GHOST, the first in his Track series, we meet Castle “Ghost” Cranshaw, who is constantly running away from his troubles at home and his haunting past. After begrudgingly joining an after-school track team, we learn of his all too realistic home life and begin to get to know his teammates and lovable but stern coach. Reynolds’s penchant for sincere, simple, and effecting prose is powerful reading for everyone.
National Book Award winner Jason Reynolds is a dynamic and essential voice on race in the YA space. The first installment of his Track series, GHOST follows the titular character who wants to be the fastest sprinter on his middle-school track team…but he lacks formal training and “ghosts” on all of his problems. Then Ghost meets his ex-Olympic medalist coach, who is determined to keep him and the other kids from blowing their shots at life.
ZONE ONE is a clever zombie tale. Infused with bone-cutting satire and social commentary, this apocalyptical literary horror novel is full of brains and smarts. Told in the span of three days and set in lower Manhattan, this is essentially a Survivors tale as we learn of the aftermath of a global plague that makes humans either living or undead. Whitehead shows his incredible power of taking a genre and flipping it on its head to create something new and exciting.
In Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed novel, a pandemic has ravaged the planet, dividing humanity into two groups: the infected and the non-infected. Over the course of three days, Mark Spitz, a member of a unit charged with clearing lower Manhattan of the infected, comes to terms with the fallen world and the new dangers that have emerged.