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National Book Award Winners

National Book Award Winners — We review ‘Shop Fever’ and ‘An American Requiem’

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National Book Award Winners

Certain artistic prizes — the Nobel Prize for literature, Britain’s literary Booker Prize, the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress — carry with them a tradition of grousing. And chief among provocateurs in American lit circles are the National Book Awards — since 1950 a kind of Oscar race for authors. True to form, this year’s honors provided plenty of opportunity for Book People to get het up about what was left off the finalists’ roster: Obscure, little-reviewed books, the complaint goes, were nominated over bigger critical successes. Still, when the grumbling settled, more than 600 people turned up at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel on Nov. 6 to see Andrea Barrett receive her fiction prize for Ship Fever and Other Stories and James Carroll take the nonfiction cake for An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us. They’re fine books both — and a sign that the judges’ literary taste this year was for quiet, contained writing styles rather than more ambitious, big-canvas approaches.

Indeed, Barrett’s winning fiction is a collection of eight small stories (the title story is novella length). Each is intricate and beautifully chiseled; taken together, the tales flow one to the other, linked by the author’s fascination with and tender appreciation of science and scientists. Like a scientist herself, Barrett measures and experiments, moving her plots from locale to locale — Finland, Philadelphia, England, Schenectady. She changes eras. She switches narrative viewpoints from first person to third. Barrett integrates historical scientists magically into invented scenarios, with the great 18th-century Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus as a kind of magnetic north to whom all scientists bend. Her sentences move with a beautiful simplicity. In ”The Littoral Zone,” the most romantic of the lot, two scientists fall in love, wreaking havoc with their need to devour each other. How? ”I have an enzyme for you,” one lover explains to the other.

If Barrett is a scientist at heart, James Carroll is a priest, and in this family memoir, he writes with a theologian’s calm voice. Carroll, in fact, was a priest at one point, the son of a man who failed to become a priest but instead became a military general and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency throughout much of the Vietnam War. Carroll, meanwhile, became a poet, an antiwar protester, an organizer for Martin Luther King Jr., breaking his vows to marry and have children. Within the Carroll household — a family shaped by emotions unexpressed between parents and children — bewilderment and disappointment took a permanent place at the table. The author speaks softly (his writing style is sometimes dignified at the expense of passion), but his story encapsulates a big chunk of late-20th-century American history.

The lit-crowd chorus who wish their favorite books were chosen instead have no cause for complaint with these two admirable winners. Ship Fever: A An American Requiem: A-