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Thursday, September 17, 2015

2015 National Book Awards Longlist - Fiction

Today the National Book Awards fiction longlist was announced.  Here are brief plot summaries (from of the ten books on that list.

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball
In this dystopian tale, a man, suffering from amnesia and known simply as the “claimant,” with the help of a mysterious woman, must relearn how to function in society.  At first the lessons are basic and literal—this is how a chair is used, here is how to greet a stranger—but they grow in difficulty and complexity.  But soon, urged on by unpleasant dreams, he discovers the truth behind his state.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
This début novel is about a circle of people who find solace in the least likely of places as they cope with a horrific tragedy.  Everyone touched by the tragedy is changed as truths about their near and far histories finally come to light.
This novel was also longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, though it didn’t make the shortlist.

Refund by Karen E. Bender
This is a collection of short stories that explore the ways in which money and the estimation of value affect the lives of her characters.  The stories reflect the contemporary world - swindlers, reality show creators, desperate artists, siblings, parents - who try to answer the question: What is the real definition of worth?

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
This début novel follows a black family living in Detroit during the city’s economic collapse.  The Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for over fifty years.  Their house has seen thirteen children grown and gone—and some returned; it has seen the arrival of grandchildren, the fall of Detroit’s East Side, and the loss of a father.  The house still stands despite abandoned lots, an embattled city, and the inevitable shift outward to the suburbs.  But now, as ailing matriarch Viola finds herself forced to leave her home and move in with her eldest son, the family discovers that the house is worth just a tenth of its mortgage.  The Turner children are called home to decide its fate and to reckon with how each of their pasts haunts—and shapes—their family’s future.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
This book is an examination of a marriage and also a portrait of creative partnership.  Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives.  And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets.  At the core of this novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.  At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness.  A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed.  With stunning revelations and multiple threads, Groff delivers a novel about love, art, creativity, and power.

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
This collection of stories gives voice to the perspectives we don’t often hear.  In six stories, Johnson delves into love and loss, natural disasters, the influence of technology, and how the political shapes the personal.  For example, in “Hurricanes Anonymous,” a young man searches for the mother of his son in a Louisiana devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” follows a former warden of a Stasi prison in East Germany who vehemently denies his past, even as pieces of it are delivered in packages to his door. And the title story depicts two defectors from North Korea who are trying to adapt to their new lives in Seoul, while one cannot forget the woman he left behind.

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
Born and raised in the heart of old Dixie, D’aron Davenport finds himself in unfamiliar territory his freshman year at UC Berkeley.  Two thousand miles and a world away from his childhood, he is a small-town fish floundering in the depths of a large, hyper-liberal pond.  Caught between the prosaic values of his rural hometown and the intellectualized multicultural cosmopolitanism of Berkeley, the nineteen-year-old white kid is uncertain about his place until he becomes friends with Louis, a “kung-fu comedian" from California; Candice, an earnest do-gooder claiming Native roots from Iowa; and Charlie, an introspective inner-city black teen from Chicago.  When D’aron lets slip that his hometown hosts an annual Civil War reenactment, the four decide to do a “performative intervention” to protest the reenactment.  Armed with youthful self-importance, makeshift slave costumes, righteous zeal, and their own misguided ideas about the South, the four descend on Braggsville. Their journey through backwoods churches, backroom politics, Waffle Houses, and drunken family barbecues is uproarious to start, but will have devastating consequences.

Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
This is a collection of twenty stories.  The title story involves an affair, an illegitimate pregnancy, anorexia, and adolescent drug use, and the interior life of young Emily Knapp who wishes she were a bug. "The Golden Swan" transports the reader to a cruise ship with lavish buffets-and a surprise stowaway-while the lead story, "Tenderfoot," follows a widowed pedicurist searching for love with a new customer anguishing over his own buried trauma.  Various other characters are encountered:  a special child with pentachromatic vision, a group of displaced Somali women adjusting to life in suburban Boston, and a staid professor of Latin unsettled by a random invitation to lecture on the mystery of life and death.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition.  There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.  Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride.  Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
This book also appears on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist.
Note:  I reviewed this book on August 10.

Mislaid by Nell Zink
In 1960s Virginia, college freshman Peggy falls for professor and poet Lee, and what begins as an ill-advised affair results in an unplanned pregnancy and marriage.  Mismatched from the start—she's a lesbian; he's gay—Peggy eventually finds herself in crisis and runs away with their daughter, leaving their son behind.  Estranged from the rest of the family, Peggy and her daughter adopt African-American identities and live in near poverty to escape detection.  Meanwhile, Lee and his son carry on, enjoying all the social privileges their gender, class, and whiteness afford them.  Eventually the long-lost siblings meet, setting off a series of misunderstandings that culminate in a darkly comedic finale worthy of Shakespeare.

The finalists will be announced on October 14 and the winner, on November 18.