(Current fiction and quality fiction of the past.)
There are 23 readers waiting in line (on paper) at Albuquerque public libraries for the five ordered copies of “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward, the National Book Award for Fiction winner. But local bookstores are well stocked at last report.
Indeed, the third week of November 2011 won’t be memorable for the National Book Award given for fiction, Ward’s novel about a community devastated by Hurricane Katrina. What is more likely to endure is the memory of the Occupy Wall Street movement outside Cipriani Wall Street, the elegantly ostentatious palatial setting in which the award ceremony was held at 55 Wall Street in mid-November.
Everybody inside dressed properly, even sparkling, for the occasion, while everybody outside clung to what they could for warmth. Cipriani Wall Street likes to append its name with an ®, indicating a registered trademark. The elegance of the interior evening of the award announcements itself registered in sharp contrast to the few remaining bedraggled protestors outside in a park down the street.
Notably, Laura Miller at Salon.com, had written earlier that, “The National Book Award in fiction, more than any other American literary prize, illustrates the ever-broadening cultural gap between the literary community and the reading public.”
That’s not to imply that all the folks outside were readers, although, according to most news reports, the movement does indeed include some fairly bright people. Most bright people do read, it has been reported.
“I thought I should mention, because no one else has,” said the poet Ann Lauterbach, who introduced Poet John Ashbery, who got a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, “that we are in Wall Street.” Nikky Finney won the poetry award for “Head Off & Split.” The Young People’s Literature Award went to Thanhhai Lai for “Inside Out & Back Again.”
Over the centuries, writers have more often been found on the outside at the barricades, according to most historians. But enough — Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones” (Bloomsbury) is a heck of a fine piece of work. According to her publisher, Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won five Hopwood Awards for essays, drama, and fiction. She has been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and a Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama. Her debut novel, “Where the Line Bleeds,” was an Essence Book Club selection, a Black Caucus of the ALA Honor Award recipient, and a finalist for both the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.
Appropriate to the award setting, and well in advance, The Wall Street Journal wrote: “The novel’s power comes from the dread of the approaching storm and a pair of violent climaxes. The first is a dog fight, an appalling spectacle given emotional depth by Skeetah’s love for the pit bull China (their bond is the strongest and most affecting in the book). When the hurricane strikes, Ms. Ward endows it, too, with attributes maternal and savage: ‘Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.’” Copyright © The Wall Street Journal
The other 2011 finalists for the National Book Award fiction were Andrew Krivak, for “The Sojourn” (Bellevue Literary Press), a novel set during World War I; Téa Obreht for “The Tiger’s Wife” (Random House), a best-selling debut novel set in the war-torn Balkans; Julie Otsuka for “The Buddha in the Attic” (Knopf), a fictional retelling of the postwar Japanese-American experience; Edith Pearlman for “Binocular Vision” (Lookout Books), a story collection whose characters confront issues of identity and relocation.
In accepting the award, Ward noted that the death of her younger brother had inspired her to become a writer. She realized that life was a “feeble, unpredictable thing,” but that books were a testament of strength before a punishing world.
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