Books about artists, killers and war figured prominently in the 25th annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes awarded Friday night at UCLA's Royce Hall, the curtain-raiser on this weekend's Festival of Books on the Westwood campus.
The Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement was presented to Tony Hillerman, whose novels of the American Southwest "reinvented the mystery novel as a venue for the exploration and celebration of Native American history, culture and identity," according to the citation.
Some of the winners, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning "De Kooning: An American Master," by journalists Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, have already scored literary honors. But for others, such as Lorraine Adams' debut novel "Harbor," the $1,000 prize marked the first formal recognition.
Awards in nine categories for books in 2004 were handed out in a ceremony moderated by journalist Harold Evans, an author and former president of Random House.
Evans set the tone for the evening by decrying what he called the "tyranny of numbers" in which success is measured by sales. "One number every year has to be exceeded every year by another," he said.
Evans cited books from the past that have led to technological and social advances once their ideas were seized upon by others.
"Tonight we should celebrate not only the brilliant finalists ... or the worthy winners," he said. "We're celebrating the vessel that brings imagination and thought to us. Indeed, the precious vessel that carries and preserves and enhances our civilization for generations: the book."
The Willem de Kooning biography by Stevens and Swan, a husband-and-wife team, was cited for "rich brushstrokes of prose, lushly layered detail and kinetic pacing." The couple live in New York City, where Stevens is an art critic for New York magazine and Swan is a freelance editor and writer.
Adams, who won a 1992 Pulitzer for investigative reporting, published her first novel by re-imagining events growing from a foiled plan by terrorists for a millennium attack on Los Angeles International Airport. The judges gave her the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction for a novel that "carries the reader into a hidden world of misunderstanding and confusion, a world that has been hinted at in the front pages, but never truly revealed -- as it is here -- with all its bad timing and bad luck, and its profound humanity."
Adams told the audience that she was drawn to the book after getting to know several Algerian Muslim men while she was reporting on the planned attack on LAX.
"My book is about young Muslim Arab men who have come to the United States from a civil war in which Muslims are killing other Muslims over different ideas about what God is or is not," she said. "While it seems like it's a topical book, it's a very old story about trying to come to terms with that which you do not know [and having] to make a decision that is a life-or-death decision."
The award for fiction went to Irish writer Colm Toibin for his novel about Henry James, "The Master," which was also short-listed last year for the Man Booker Prize. The Times citation described the novel as "an illumination of the very process of writing itself -- a compelling, richly rewarding and utterly original work of fiction about family and friendship and art in the Modern Age."
Poet, essayist and editor Richard Howard of Columbia University won the poetry prize for "Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003," a collection the judges said reveal Howard as "a naturalist of the human heart, fascinated by the extremes of its desires, and over time he has created a style that is distinctive and compelling."
The award for current interest went to journalist Evan Wright for "Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War," detailing his experiences embedded with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion as it entered Iraq. The book grew from Wright's articles for Rolling Stone, which won a 2004 National Magazine Award.
"Written in a self-effacing first person, 'Generation Kill' tells the story of men and boys risking their lives every day," according to the judges. "In its relentless honesty, it raises all the hardest and darkest questions."
Reaction to the terror attacks that spawned the Iraq war figured in the history prize, which went to University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R. Stone for his "Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism," which the judges called "a majestic work about democracy under siege" that offers "a valuable reminder of why we should never take this historic freedom for granted."