I am a Book Groupie
It’s official: I am a book groupie. I realized this last night as I watched the live stream of the National Book Awards presentation, and became teary over poet Mary Szybist’s acceptance speech. I went into this business in the first place because of one basic belief: books can change lives. So let’s hear it for the all the wonderful authors of potentially life changing books in the hall last night at the National Book Foundation’s annual gala! (Note to the organizers: could you invite me next year? Pretty please? At least to the after party?)
This has been a very big week for the National Book Foundation. As Director of Programs Leslie Shipman said, they pack a large number of events into a scant three days, including the Finalists Reading, a teen press conference, and the 5 Under 35 reading and party, which I drove four hours round trip from Philadelphia to Brooklyn to attend on Monday evening (see, told ya—groupie!). There I heard this year’s coincidentally all-female panel of nominees read and had the chance to meet two authors whose books I greatly admire: 5 Under 35 winner Amanda Coplin, author of The Orchardist, and poet and novelist Kevin Powers, whose book The Yellow Birds (an NBA finalist for fiction in 2012) is a powerful and poetically-written story of two American soldiers at war in Iraq. (I urge you to read it!)
Last night’s awards had an Oscar-like presentation style, with James Bond-ish music playing in between presentations, and emcee Mika Brzezinski smoothly handling the intros for each presenter. (She managed quite gracefully when she was given the wrong speech and accidentally introduced the fiction award before the non-fiction, fiction being the marquee item that should obviously go last.)
A member of each nominating committee served as the presenter for that particular award, and each in some way addressed the plethora of choices and the difficulty of narrowing down to a long list of ten, five finalists and then to the ultimate winner. The New York Times’ Charles McGrath, the presenter for fiction, mentioned his committee having to select from among 407 nominees, which he says goes to prove that “the writing of fiction may actually be a growth area in America.” His committee included Gish Jen, Rick Simonson, René Steinke, and Charles Baxter.
While McGrath admitted that not all of the nominees’ books were good, he lauded the many that “performed that magical trick of prose [when it] takes you out of yourself and drops you down in another place” and lamented that a side effect of award-giving must needs be leaving out books that are equally desirable.
As most of you probably know by now, the fiction winner was James McBride, who delivered a moving, if impromptu, thank you speech. He spoke of some hard times in recent years (losing his mother and his niece in 2010 followed by the dissolution of his marriage), and spoke of how “Little Onion,” the main character of the prize winning novel The Good Lord Bird, was a comfort to him, explaining: “it was always nice to have somebody whose life I could just fall into.” (Check out McBride’s charming musical website too!)
Poet Nikky Finney, in presenting the award for poetry book, also spoke of coping with the large number of nominated books that would regularly appear at her doorstep and make their way into and throughout her home, where they often “found their way into the kitchen along with the other food.” After a week of celebrating literature, this is the image which I’d like to leave you: books as sustenance. Amen!