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Everything You Need to Know about the National Book Awards Fiction Longlist

Everything You Need to Know about the National Book Awards Fiction Longlist


The National Book Awards—widely regarded as the Man Booker of the US—recently unveiled their longlists for fiction, nonfiction, young people’s literature, and poetry. This year, the lists feature several timely works calling attention to issues of racism and slavery. The finalists will be announced on October 6 and the winners on November 16.

Back in 1950, three organizations (the American Book Publisher’s Council, the Book Manufacturers’ Institute, and the American Booksellers’ Association) joined forces to foster the country’s literary community by honoring the year’s best writing in fiction, nonfiction and poetry published in the United States. Over the years, the recipients of this awards have included distinguished literary figures such as William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, W.H. Auden and Saul Bellow.

Here’s a breakdown of all 10 book on the fiction long list, including my own (biased) ranking of how likely each book is to become a finalist in October. This year’s fiction judges are James English, Karen Joy Fowler, T. Geronimo Johnson, Julie Otsuka, and Jesmyn Ward. Happy reading!

Note: The shortlist was announced on October 6, and the five finalists have been noted below.

9780385542364_b2a61The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Oprah Winfrey’s selection of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for her Book Club last month instantly propelled this book up to No. 4 on Amazon and generated enough buzz for the publishers to move the publication date of the book up a month to coincide with the Oprah Book Club announcement. Since then, The Underground Railroad has garnered unanimous glowing reviews with Michiko Kakutani hailing it as “a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.”

Whitehead brilliantly recreates the torturous horrors blacks had to endure in pre-Civil War America. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of a young slave girl who dares to escape the plantation after finding out about the Underground Railroad and a harrowing documentation of the bloodstained history of the US. With comparisons being made to Toni Morrison and Gabriel García-Márquez, this novel is definitely one of the strongest contenders for the title.

Chance of making the shortlist: 90% [Update: Finalist]
Our review at the Chicago Review of Books.

9780393249460_4efc6-1The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

This profound and startlingly original novel offers a unique take on the psyche of the American male. The Throwback Special is the engrossing story of twenty-two men who gather every fall to painstakingly reenact what ESPN called “the most shocking play in NFL history”: the November 1985 play in which the Redskins’ Joe Theismann had his leg horribly broken by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants live on Monday Night Football.

This novel garnered critical praise for its pitch-perfect depiction of contemporary American life, middle-aged manhood and marriage. This satirical take on the ordinary nature of life is a delight to read because of Bachelder’s distinctive prose and quirky characterization.

Chance of making the shortlist: 40% [Update: Finalist]

9780316261357_38751Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

Full disclosure; Since I have a predilection for books dealing with psychological issues, I’m personally rooting for this one, not only because of the subject matter but also because of the meticulous execution. Haslett has previously been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and with the Wall Street Journal hailing him as “… the country’s most talented writers, equipped with a sixth sense for characterization”, he has delivered another literary masterpiece in his latest book.

Imagine Me Gone is a moving exploration of mental illness, heredity and its impact on the family dynamics, rendered with remarkable pathos. Told in alternating points of view by all five members of the family this searing, intense, and yet subtly amusing novel brings alive the trials and tribulations of living with a psychological disorder. It poignantly depicts the love of a mother for her children, the complexities of sibling relationships, and the legacy of a father’s pain in the life of a family.

Chance of making the shortlist: 70%

9781250117892_d4339What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

What Belongs to You is a stunning debut novel of loneliness, desire, and their consequences. The novel’s lyrical prose and evocative writing has drawn comparisons to last year’s literary success, A Little Life. This is the only debut novel in the list but Greenwell’s sensitive handling of a delicate subject made it one of the year’s most talked-about books.

With Telegraph bracketing this novel to literary masterpieces such as Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Nabokov’s Lolita and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star and James Wood comparing its prose to that of Woolf and Sebald, What Belongs to You is definitely one of the strongest contenders in the list.

Chance of making the shortlist: 85%

9780062409201_2396aNews of the World by Paulette Jiles

In the aftermath of the Civil War, an aging itinerant news reader agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people in this exquisitely rendered, morally complex, multi-layered novel. In the wake of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings from newspapers to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio. Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. After a rocky start, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forming a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land. The captain must hand Johanna over to an aunt and uncle she does not remember—strangers who regard her as an unwanted burden. A respectable man, Captain Kidd is faced with a terrible choice: abandon the girl to her fate or become—in the eyes of the law—a kidnapper himself.

This novel, based in post-Civil War Texas is a beautiful piece of historical fiction which vividly portrays the 1870s country landscape. The minimalist prose and lyrical writing evokes the true essence of the West.

Chance of making the shortlist: 40% [Update: Finalist]

9780143109273_5d309The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

In 1996, brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor when a disaster strikes without warning. A bomb—one of the many “small” bombs that go off seemingly unnoticed across the world—detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys. Mansoor survives, and we follow him through his life as he bears the long-reaching physical and psychological impact of the bomb. Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who is willing to risk his own life for the independence of his homeland.

This novel, which has already made its way on NY Times, Esquire and Times best books lists of 2016, examines the nature of terrorist violence in this dynamic story about the long term effects of terrorism on victims and perpetrators.

Chance of making the shortlist: 70% [Update: Finalist]

9781101981597_b4a12The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

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This quirky, vivacious novel about family, ethics, nature, and the tug of war between money and values generated a lot of buzz earlier this year when it was named as one of the finalists for the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction. The Portable Veblen offers witty insight into an array of topics ranging from family dynamics, mental illness to consumerism and marketing propaganda.

Set in and around Palo Alto, and featuring endearingly dysfunctional characters, this is an engaging read. Complete with deadpan photos and wry appendices, The Portable Veblen is a whimsical comedy of errors about a courtship amidst dysfunctional families.

Chance of making the shortlist: 60%

9780393285543_a3e5d-1Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet

This double-edged and satisfying story with a strong female protagonist, a thrilling plot, and a creeping sense of the apocalyptic, follows a mother fleeing her estranged husband. Blending domestic thriller with psychological horror, this engrossing read builds to a cataclysmic climax that will leave you reeling.

According to Kirkus, “Millet has a knack for planting plainspoken, world-weary narrators in otherworldly circumstances, and Anna is one of her sharpest, most intriguingly philosophical creations.” This novel combines literary mystery and metaphysical musings in the form of a compelling page turner.

Chance of making the shortlist: 70%

9780393241730_bb5c4Miss Jane by Brad Watson

Brad Watson, whose previous book was also an NBA finalist, returns with a vivid exploration of the life of Miss Jane Chisolm, born in rural, early-twentieth-century Mississippi with a genital birth defect. Jane Chisolm’s, which is loosely based on his own great-aunt, possesses an irrepressible vitality and generous spirit which gives her the strength to live her life as she pleases in spite of the limitations that others, and her own body, would place on her. Free to satisfy only herself, she mesmerizes those around her, exerting an unearthly fascination that lives and inspires even now.

With the Washington Post comparing it to Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex and unanimous rave reviews, this book is yet another strong contender for the prize.

Chance of making the shortlist: 80%
Our review at the Chicago Review of Books.

9780062359988_9209fAnother Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

According to the Los Angeles Times, Another Brooklyn “joins the tradition of studying female friendships and the families we create when our own isn’t enough, like that of Toni Morrison’s Sula, Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde. Woodson uses her expertise at portraying the lives of children to explore the power of memory, death and friendship.”

This is the first adult novel of the acclaimed New York Times bestselling and National Book Award–winning author Jacqueline Woodson. It illuminates the life of 1970’s Brooklyn as August looks back with bittersweet nostalgia at the female friendships of her childhood that crucially determined who she was to become as a person. This succinct and thoughtfully written novel is a tender ode to girlhood.

Chance of making the shortlist: 50% [Update: Finalist]

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