By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Historian Taylor Branch was on the road when he heard that his book, "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68," had been named as a finalist for the 2006 National Book Awards. He received the nod yesterday for this, the third and last volume of his monumental biography of Martin Luther King Jr.
Branch, who lives in Baltimore, said he welcomed the honor. "I'm absorbed in the stories so much," he said, that the writing of history "is its own reward." But recognition from the National Book Foundation "draws attention to the lessons" in the history he is chronicling. "I'm just thrilled," he said from Springfield, Mass.
The first volume, "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63," was nominated in 1989, but did not win. It did, however, cop the Pulitzer Prize.
"There are a handful of awards in our business that translate into sales," said Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Alfred A. Knopf. "The National Book Award is one."
For unknown writers, such a stamp of approval can make a career. For someone like Branch, whose books already sell well, this is cake icing.
"We live in a culture where endorsement has meaning," Bogaards said. "A National Book Award nomination is a mark of distinction for a certain reader."
When the list of 20 finalists was announced yesterday, also included were two novels and a nonfiction book predicated on the events of 9/11 and a firsthand account of war-battered Baghdad.
"The judges were looking for the artistry in the narrative," said foundation Executive Director Harold Augenbraum, who was at City Lights Books in San Francisco, where Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti announced the roster.
They were also ready to consider less conventional choices. For the first time in the foundation's 56-year history, according to spokeswoman Camille McDuffie, a graphic novel is a contender in the young people's literature category; and a lifetime achievement award is being presented, posthumously, to Barbara Epstein, the late co-founder of the New York Review of Books.
The finalists in fiction are "The Echo Maker" by Richard Powers; "Eat the Document" by Dana Spiotta; "The Zero" by Jess Walter; and the two stories that use 9/11 as a jumping-off point, "Only Revolutions" by Mark Z. Danielewski and "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country" by Ken Kalfus.
In nonfiction: "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" by Lawrence Wright; "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl" by Timothy Egan; "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present" by Peter Hessler; and "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who was The Washington Post's bureau chief in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004 and is now assistant managing editor for continuous news.
"The real challenge," Chandrasekaran said, "was to write something about a conflict that's still going on and that would also be timeless and take people to a place they haven't been." He wanted "to use the Green Zone to tell the broader story of American folly in Iraq" and to examine "the disconnect between the American occupation headquarters and the rest of Iraq."
In this, his first book, Chandrasekaran said he also tried to pull the curtain back on the selection of personnel assigned to work for the occupation administration, which was based in many cases on "political connection and loyalty instead of experience in post-conflict reconstruction."
In poetry, the finalists are: "Averno" by former U.S. Poet Laureate Louise Gluck; "Chromatic" by H.L. Hix; "Angle of Yaw" by Ben Lerner; "Splay Anthem" by Nathaniel Mackey; and "Capacity" by James McMichael.
And in young people's literature: "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party" by M.T. Anderson; "Keturah and Lord Death" by Martine Leavitt; "Sold" by Patricia McCormick; "The Rules of Survival" by Nancy Werlin; and "American Born Chinese," a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang.
This last group, Augenbraum said, is fascinating because it includes a variety of narrative structures, including McCormick's novel, which is told in free verse, and Werlin's, which is written as a long letter. "It makes it an unconventional list," he said. "People will be surprised."
Many of the writers are not that surprising. Besides Branch, Powers and Anderson have also been finalists in the past; Gluck has made it to the final round twice. None has won. Yet.
The awards will be handed over at a black-tie dinner, hosted by comic scribe Fran Lebowitz, in New York on Nov. 15. Each winner will be presented with $10,000 and a bronze statue; runners-up will take home $1,000 apiece.
More than 1,250 books -- the most ever -- were entered in this year's competition. To be eligible, the work had to have been written by a U.S. citizen and published in this country between Dec. 1, 2005, and Nov. 30, 2006.
This year's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters goes to poet Adrienne Rich and the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community will be given to Epstein and Robert Silvers, founders of the New York Review of Books. Epstein died in June.