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National Book Awards Honor 'Echo Maker,' 'Worst Hard Time'

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

NEW YORK, Nov. 15 -- Richard Powers won the National Book Award for fiction Wednesday night for his novel "The Echo Maker."

"I've got to say, that does a number on your brain chemistry," Powers said in accepting the award -- an appropriate remark for a man whose book was described as "a kind of neuro-cosmological adventure" by Sebastian Faulks, reviewing it for The Washington Post.

Timothy Egan won the nonfiction award for "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl." Egan, a reporter for the New York Times, mentioned Abraham Lincoln's dictum that we cannot escape history, then pointed out that "this history of the Dust Bowl almost escaped us," because its last survivors are now in their 80s or 90s.

Nathaniel Mackey won the poetry award for "Splay Anthem." Mackey said he was particularly gratified to receive an honor first awarded to William Carlos Williams, an early influence.

The award for young people's literature went to M.T. Anderson, who also took the unofficial award for biggest mouthful of a title: "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party."

Anderson's novel is set in the era of the American Revolution, unlike his previous NBA nominee, a futuristic take on corporate consumerism called "Feed." Asked earlier in the evening about the apparently enormous contrast in subject matter, he found common ground. "Both are in essence about the things we're willing to do to others to secure small luxuries for ourselves," he said.

In his acceptance speech, Anderson made a point of noting that Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese" was the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award. "There is a lot of dithering in the blogosphere," he said, about whether graphic novels are worthy. This can now be laid to rest.

The finalists in fiction included Mark Danielewski for "Only Revolutions," Ken Kalfus for "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country," Dana Spiotta for "Eat the Document" and Jess Walter for "The Zero." Nonfiction finalists were Taylor Branch for "At Canaan's Edge," Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran for "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," Peter Hessler for "Oracle Bones" and Lawrence Wright for "The Looming Tower."

In poetry the other finalists were Louise Gluck ("Averno"), H.L. Hix ("Chromatic"), Ben Lerner ("Angle of Yaw") and James McMichael ("Capacity"). Young people's literature finalists included Martine Leavitt ("Keturah and Lord Death"), Patricia McCormick ("Sold"), Nancy Werlin ("The Rules of Survival") and Yang.

Before the ceremony, which was held at Manhattan's Marriott Marquis Hotel, writers and publishing folk drank and mingled.

Yang said he thinks we're "in the middle of a renaissance for the graphic novel" -- finally seeing "an entire body of work" in the form that aspires to be literature.

Branch, who'd been nominated in 1989 for the first volume of his trilogy on Martin Luther King Jr. and his times -- it was originally supposed to be just one book -- said, "It's great to be back 17 years later." After spending more than two decades on the trilogy, Branch said he was finally ready to commit to a new project, which Simon & Schuster will announce soon.

There were some mutterings at the news that Judith Regan of ReganBooks had signed O.J. Simpson to a contract for a book whose working title is "If I Did It." The essence of those mutterings, as one publisher put it, were: "How low can you go?"

Association of American Publishers President Patricia Schroeder, asked how she felt about it, used her fingers to force her mouth into a grin and said: "Delighted." Then she expressed concern that the Simpson news "takes some of the glitter out of this."

But once the award proceedings got rolling, not a word more was heard about O.J.

Master of ceremonies Fran Lebowitz eschewed Simpson jokes, though she got one off at the expense of the Bush administration's Iraq Study Group that drew a roar of approval. If you were in the third grade and had a math test coming up, she asked, when do you think the best time would be to study -- "before the test? Or three years after the test?"

Adrienne Rich, awarded this year's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, drew a standing ovation as she wheeled her walker toward the lectern. Poetry, she said, has sometimes been accused of aestheticizing human suffering. And yet "if poetry had gone mute after every genocide in history," there wouldn't be much poetry in the world.

It is the poet's job, she added, to give the lie to "that brute dictum: 'There is no alternative.' "

When New Yorker Editor David Remnick took the stage to introduce an award for "outstanding service to the American literary community," he drew a laugh by quoting some advice a Washington Post colleague once gave him when he was whining about changes made in his copy. "Son, stop complaining," sportswriter Shirley Povich said, and remember, "an editor is only a mouse training to be a rat."

Then Remnick called this year's Literarian Award winners, Robert Silvers and the late Barbara Epstein -- founding editors of the New York Review of Books -- the greatest exceptions ever to this rule.

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