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National Book Award nominees: Plenty of surprises

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The biggest surprise in this year’s list of nominees for the National Book Award, announced today, may be Michigan writer Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, a story of working-class characters published by tiny Wayne State University Press. The other nominees come from more established publishers, though none is exactly a household name: Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (a series of vignettes set in 1970s New York), Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (a collection of linked stories set on a large family farm in the Pakistani countryside), Jayne Anne Phillips’ Lark and Termite (the story of a teenage girl and her young half brother spending the summer with their aunt in West Virginia in 1959), and Marcel Theroux’s Far North (about a sheriff who might be the last citizen on the Arctic frontier).

In nonfiction, the nominees cover a broad range of topics, from the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (T. J. Stiles’ The First Tycoon) to a Ford Motor Co.-built city in the jungles of the Amazon (Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia). The other nominees are: David M. Carroll’s Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook, Sean B. Carroll’s Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in Search for the Origin of Species, and Adrienne Mayor’s The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy.

In poetry, the nominees include familiar names — at least in the world of versifiers — like Ann Lauterbach (for Or to Begin Again) and Carl Phillips (for Speak Low) as well as Rae Armantrout’s Versed, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s Open Interval, and Keith Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy.

The nominees in the young people’s literature category are a pretty diverse lot: two fact-based books as well as a surprising fixation on muteness. The fact-based books are Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith and Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, about a pre-Rosa Parks African American teen in 1955 who refused to give up her seat to white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. — but with a very different outcome than Ms. Parks’. The other nominees include David Small’s graphic novel Stitches (about a boy who wakes up mute from an operation he was told was harmless), Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch: Three Times (about three girls, one of whom grows up mute due to a curse), and Rita Williams-Garcia’s Jumped (a gritty story about three teens).

The winners, who receive $10,000 and a bronze statue, will be announced at the NBA’s 60th anniversary gala dinner on Nov 18. Both the nominees and the winners are selected by panels of four or five distinguished authors in each category. (This year’s fiction panel, for instance, consists of the award-winning powerhouses Alan Cheuse, Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan, Charles Johnson, and Lydia Millet.)