The 2012 National Book Award finalists were announced on October 10th on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the first time they’ve been announced on television. This year’s list of finalists includes a number of familiar literary faces, as well as some relative unknowns. In particular, Domingo Martinez woke up to discover himself listed among nonfiction giants Anne Applebaum, Katherine Boo, Robert Caro, and Anthony Shadid-all of whom have won Pulitzers. Mr. Martinez lives in Seattle, and his Amazon author page says, “He lives awkwardly in a small 1930s apartment building on lower Queen Anne, enjoying the absence of sunlight.” This week must feel a little less awkward.
Stories about the Iraq war hold a prominent place in this year’s National Book Award nominations. “The Yellow Birds,” a debut novel by Iraq vet Kevin Powers, and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” the first novel by Ben Fountain, are among the five finalists for the fiction award. Both books, which received positive reviews in The Washington Post and elsewhere, are powerful tales about soldiers coming back from Iraq.
The other three fiction finalists are “A Hologram for the King,” about an American businessman in Saudi Arabia, by Dave Eggers, who won a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation in 2009; “The Round House,” the story of an Ojibwe boy whose mother is attacked, by Louise Erdrich; and “This is How You Lose Her,” short stories by Junot Diaz, a recent MacArthur “genius grant” winner whose debut novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.
The five nonfiction finalists are similarly renowned: “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956,” by Pulitzer Prize winner and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum; “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” by Pulitzer Prize winner and former Washington Post writer Katherine Boo; “The Passage of Power,” the fourth volume of Robert A. Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Lyndon B. Johnson; “The Boy Kings of Texas,” a memoir by Domingo Martinez; and “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East,” by Anthony Shadid, the former Washington Post and New York Times writer who won two Pulitzer Prizes. He died earlier this year from an asthma attack while in Syria.
The finalists for young people’s literature have a decidedly dark cast this year: Carrie Arcos’s “Out of Reach” is a novel about a lost teen and drug addiction. Patricia McCormick’s “Never Fall Down” is based on the true story of a boy soldier in the Khmer Rouge. Eliot Schrefer’s “Endangered” is a novel about a girl trying to save a group of bonobos during the civil war in the Congo. Steve Sheinkin’s “Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon” is a work of nonfiction about efforts to build an atomic bomb during World War II. William Alexander’s fantasy “Goblin Secrets” is about a boy looking for his lost brother with a troupe of theatrical goblins.
The poetry finalists are “Bewilderment,” by David Ferry, who won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2011; “Heavenly Bodies,” by Cynthia Huntington, a former poet laureate of New Hampshire; “Fast Animal,” by Tim Seibles, a former fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts; “Night of the Republic,” by Alan Shapiro, a previous finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s poetry award; and “Meme,” by Pushcart Prize winner Susan Wheeler.
Novelist Elmore Leonard will receive a medal for distinguished contribution to American letters, and New York Times chairman and publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. will receive the foundation’s award for outstanding service to the American literary community.
The National Book Awards were established in 1950. To be eligible for this year’s awards, a book must be written by an American and published by an American publisher between Dec. 1, 2011, and Nov. 30, 2012. Self-published books are eligible if the writer also publishes works by other authors.
The judges considered more than 1,200 submissions in four categories. The Washington writer Dinaw Mengestu, who recently won a MacArthur “genius award,” is one of the fiction judges this year, along with Stacey D’Erasmo, Lorrie Moore and Janet Peery.
The nonfiction judges are Brad Gooch, Linda Gordon, Woody Holton, Susan Orlean and Judith Shulevitz.
All the finalists will receive $1,000. The winners, to be announced in New York on Nov. 14 at a ceremony hosted by Faith Salie, will each receive $10,000.