Source: USA TODAY
NEW YORK — James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, which imagines a teenage slave joining abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, won the National Book Award for fiction Wednesday night.
The judges praised McBride for “a voice as comic and original as any we have heard since Mark Twain.”
McBride, 56, who said he hadn’t prepared an acceptance speech because he didn’t expect to win against the likes of Thomas Pynchon, Jhumpa Lahiri and George Saunders, said, “They are fine writers. But it sure is nice to be here.”
The other winners, announced at the 64th annual awards ceremony, are:
Non-fiction: George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, which the judges praised for dramatizing “the widening gulf between rich Americans and everyone else.” Packer thanked his subjects, struggling workers, “for trusting me with their stories to illustrate what’s gone wrong with America.”
Young People’s Literature: Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck, about a 12-year-old Midwestern girl and her Japanese-American grandparents. The judges praised how it explores “generational and cultural differences, the fragility of life, and the weighty yet cherished ties of family.”
Poetry: Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine which recasts the myth of the Biblical Mary. The judges called it “a religious book for non-believers, or a book of necessary doubts for the faithful.”
The winner of the fiction award, which tends to get the most attention, was a bit of an upset, at least to Ladbrokes, the British betting operation. It had made Saunders’ short story collection (Tenth of December) the favorite among the five fiction finalists at 9-to-4 odds. (McBride’s odd were given at 3-1.)
It was the first time that Ladbrokes, which has long set odds on the Booker Prize in Britain, set odds on the National Book Award.
McBride, who’s also a jazz composer and musician, is best known for his best-selling memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. The Good Lord Bird is his third novel. His first, Miracle at St. Anna (2002), was adapted into a 2008 film by Spike Lee.
The organizers of the awards, which are financially supported by publishers, have tried in the past few years to attract more attention for an event that some consider the book world’s version of the Oscars, or as Fran Lebowitz once called them, “the Oscars without money.” (Each winner did get $10,000 and a bronze sculpture.)
The awards ceremony, hosted by Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, featured a red carpet for literary celebrities, but no major network TV cameras. It was broadcast live, for the first time, on C-SPAN2, which will rerun its coverage Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.
This year, after criticism the awards had become too high-brow, booksellers and book critics were added to the five-member judging panels that previously were composed entirely of authors.
In one of two awards announced in advance, Toni Morrison presented the Literarian Award for Outstanding Contribution to the American Literary Community to poet and memoirist Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings).
From a wheelchair, Angelou, 85, sang lyrics from a spiritual — “God put a rainbow in the clouds” — and said, “For 40 years, I have tried to tell the truth as I know it.” To laughs and applause, she added, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters was presented to novelist and playwright E.L. Doctorow, 82 (Ragtime and The Book of Daniel), who warned that “for every advantage of the Internet, there is a disadvantage.”
In a speech that mentioned government surveillance and threats to privacy, Doctorow added, “What the techies don’t know is that reading is the essence of interactivity. Only when a book is read is it complete.”
And for readers who want more, on Thursday, the National Book Foundation’s Executive Director Harold Augenbraum will participate in an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit ( reddit.com/r/books) at 3 p.m. ET.