New literary prize in honor of late Politics & Prose Bookstore co-owner

(Courtesy of Farrar Straus Giroux)
(Courtesy of Farrar Straus Giroux)

The first winners of a literary prize honoring the late co-owner of Politics & Prose Bookstore are Anthony Marra for “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” and Washington Post writer David Finkel for “Thank You for Your Service.”

The Carla Furstenberg Cohen Literary Prize was established by the family and friends of Carla Cohen, who with her business partner, Barbara Meade, turned the Washington-area bookstore into one of the most celebrated bookstores in the United States. Cohen died in 2010.

The new $5,000 literary prize — for fiction and for nonfiction — will be awarded annually at Politics & Prose. The fiction prize this year was judged by Meade, P&P buyer Mark LaFramboise and Washington novelist Howard Norman. The nonfiction judges were former Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson, public radio producer Darcy Bacon and America’s Promise president and CEO John Gomperts.

(Courtesy of Crown)
(Courtesy of Crown)

Marra, who grew up in the Washington area and now teaches at Stanford University, has been widely praised for his debut novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.” It tells the story of a village doctor trying to save the life of a little girl during the Chechen civil war in 2004.

“The literary community that Carla Cohen created and shaped at Politics and Prose was a large part of my life when I lived in D.C.,” Marra said via email. “I wouldn’t have become a writer had I not first been a reader, and the books that made me a reader were the kind of artistically bold literary novels that Carla spent her career supporting and advocating for. I’m deeply honored and grateful to receive an award bearing her name.”

Finkel, a former Pulitzer Prize winner and recent MacArthur “genius,” is currently on the National Book Critics Circle Award shortlist for “Thank You for Your Service.” It details the shoddy treatment that U.S. soldiers receive when they return home.

“It’s a great honor,” Finkel said in reaction to the news. “I’m flattered and humbled, and I hope that anyone who reads the book will think that it measures up to Carla’s lifelong example.”

Both Marra and Finkel’s books were on The Washington Post’s Top 10 list for 2013.

In a statement announcing these prizes and the first winners’ names, David Cohen, Carla Cohen’s husband, wrote, “Anthony Marra and David Finkel have an uncommon understanding and feel of courage and building lives under continuing adversity. I can see Carla thrusting Marra’s and Finkel’s books into customers’ hands and telling them and me, ‘You just have to read these books.’ Who says there’s no future for serious books that dig deeply.”

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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