For decades after they started, in 1950, the National Book Awards were the province of male authors: Not until 1966 did a woman (Katherine Ann Porter) win for fiction, and for many years after that, female winners remained a rarity.
The record has improved in recent years, though; since 1990 13 men and eight women have won NBAs. (In nonfiction, women made slower progress but are now on a roll, having won three times since 2005.) And last year marked the first time since 1970 that the National Book Foundation named female authors as NBA winners for both fiction (Jaimy Gordon for Lord of Misrule ) and non-fiction (PattiI Smith for Just Kids).That feat could be repeated when the NBAs are announced on Wednesday. Four of the five finalists for the fiction award are women, as are three of the five finalists for the nonfiction award. We asked Slate contributors to tell us about their favorite fiction and nonfiction finalists.
Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman
With this collection of short stories, Pearlman finally got the grand stage recognition she deserves in a cover in the New York Times Book Review, which began, “Why in the world had I never heard of Edith Pearlman?” I think I can answer that question. Pearlman’s stories have a kind of delicacy; they are entirely devoid of the gimmickry or obvious architecture of many short stories. Sometimes an event happens—a child gets lost on a city street, a party happens. But often the main events have already happened and left someone behind. Often the events are war or illness, and the characters are dealing with the subsequent loss or displacement. Many of her characters are in the Jewish diaspora. They are lost and edging on bitter but never raging. They can often feel like character sketches more than stories.
Most are old souls, even the very young ones. Here, for example, is 7-year-old Sophie assessing how life had changed after the arrival of her baby sister Lily, who has Down syndrome: “Lily didn’t clarify; she softened things and made them sticky. Sophie and her each parent had been separate individuals before Lily came. Now all four melted together like gumdrops left on a windowsill.” The language is simultaneously wise and childlike, the observation wistful and accepting, the emotions, as always with Pearlman, muted until suddenly they are not.—Hanna Rosin
The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka
In the early 1900s, thousands of Japanese picture brides arrived in America, prepared to marry men from their home country whom they’d only seen in photographs. In her lean, haunting novel, Julie Otsuka follows a group of these women from boat to shore, as they first become wives, then laborers, and then mothers—before finally becoming suspects, “traitors,” and internees during World War II . Narrated in the collective first-person, with a seeming cast of hundreds, The Buddha in the Attic is an incredibly moving self-portrait of a community. It’s also a master lesson in literary economy: Throughout the rhythmic, choral narrative, we see flashes of individual lives, and each of these brief anecdotes is as neat and as vivid as Hemingway’s story about the baby shoes. In just 129 pages, Buddha manages to have both the sweep of a history text and the sharp, mysterious intimacy of a box of flea-market snapshots. It’s just gorgeous.—Nina Shen Rastogi
The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht
I had mixed feelings upon finishing this debut novel, which was serialized in The New Yorker and landed its author on the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” list. Obreht* tells the story of Natalia, a young doctor in a Balkan country (a fictionalized version of the former Yugoslavia) that is still dealing with the fallout of a civil war that fractured its population along religious and ethnic lines. She is on a mission to innoculate orphans in a region that splintered off from her country when she learns of her grandfather’s death. The narrative then bounces between the present, wherein Natalia encounters a sick family that believes finding a dead relative’s lost remains will heal them, and the past, as she recalls her grandfather’s stories in an attempt to understand his death.
Obreht writes with the wisdom of someone far older than her 26 years, masterfully weaving together both past and present, myth and reality. But she also handles her characters unevenly. Those who populate the stories of her grandfather’s childhood—the tiger’s wife of the title; Darisa, the great bear hunter; even Luka, the abusive butcher with a colorful past—are rich and complex. But the modern-day characters, the ones who tie the story together and bring it to its conclusion, are two-dimensional by comparison.–—Rachael Larimore
The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, by Deborah Baker
Deborah Baker’s The Convert, the story of how rebellious Jewish teen Margaret Marcus of Larchmont, N.Y., became Maryam Jameelah of Lahore, India, whose writings on Islam inspired peaceful Muslims and jihadists alike, is an intentionally difficult read. It’s as much a journey as it is a story, and the author’s attempt to reach an understanding of the relationship between the West and Islam isn’t an easy (or successful) trip. The result is a rabbit hole of a book, following not so much Maryam Jameelah’s journey but Baker’s, as she stumbles across Jameelah in a search through the archives of the New York Public Library and discovers her, again and again, in different guises through her letters and those of the people around her.
It’s the rare biography review that risks “spoilers,” but this one does. I came to Maryam Jameelah cold, as Baker did. Every twist and turn (and there are a lot of them) in Jameelah’s letters and, eventually, Baker’s interviews with her friends and family that shifted Baker’s views surprised me as well. The 19-year-old American girl raised in a postwar New York suburb who persuaded “the man who laid the intellectual foundations for militant political Islam” to adopt her and assist in her immigration to Pakistan provides a fascinating story but defies easy explanation. Her ultimate role as one of the writers and thinkers whose work inspired Muslim extremism, including the events of 9/11, seems in the end to lie beyond even her own attempts to comprehend it. I put the book down reluctantly (it may be a difficult read, but it’s a good one), informed but unsatisfied, which I can only think is how Baker left her subject as well. But the lack of resolution to the conflicts between Islam and the West, between faith and politics, and between action and intent is exactly why Baker wrote this book, and exactly why we should read it.—KJ Dell’Antonia.
Love and Capital, by Mary Gabriel
Despite the many accolades Gabriel has received for Love and Capital, I was somewhat trepidatious about it; after all, a brick of a book on Karl Marx that opens with a 30-page list of characters does not scream “page turner.” And yet it is a page turner, an erudite, sensitive look at the world-changing man and, most of all, the overlooked women in his life, who sacrificed much happiness to help him evangelize his vision of class equality. To share a life with the brilliant Marx was not an easy path for his wife, Jenny (who waited for him for many years, made a home for him, and was later betrayed when he fathered a child with another woman), or his children (two of his three surviving daughters committed suicide). The children were stewed in Marx’s belief system. For instance, Gabriel writes, “Marx explained the story of Christ as the tale of a poor carpenter killed by rich men.” Should one compile a list of the world’s top 10 most-covered men, Marx would surely make rank; it’s about time someone paid respects to the important roles played by the women in his life.—Torie Bosch
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, by Lauren Redniss
I knew next to nothing about Marie Curie before reading Lauren Redniss’ Radioactive, and her story is amazing: At a time when almost no women became scientists, Curie, a native of Poland, not only won the Nobel Prize—she became the first person, man or woman, to win it twice. The first time she won it, it was with her husband Pierre; he was killed when a horse-drawn carriage struck him three years later. She received her second prize just after the press learned of her affair with another scientist (Paul Langevin), and so that time she “was cast as the conniving tramp who had ensorcelled a married man” (the Nobel committee asked her not to come to Sweden; she made the trip anyhow).
Redniss narrates Curie’s life in gorgeous fragments—and cutting ahead on occasion to illustrate the “fallout”—from children (her daughter also won a Nobel Prize in chemistry) to cancer treatments to nuclear war. Redniss uses pictures as well as words, many produced by “cyanotype printing,” in which the negative of an image is placed upon treated paper and then exposed to sunlight. The drawings owe something to the modernist art by Curie’s contemporaries (Dwight Garner called the people in Radioactive “etiolated Modiglianis”). At one point Redniss describes “Undark Paint,” a “luminous goulash of radium and zinc sulphide” that was “marketed for use on flashlights, doorbells, even ‘the buckles of bedroom slippers.’ ” The pages themselves seem coated in just such a miraculous, mysterious substance.—David Haglund
*Correction, Nov. 15, 2011: The article originally misspelled Téa Obreht’s last name.