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National Book Awards finalists include a surprised Carrie Arcos

Carrie Arcos, an L.A. mom whose first novel, 'Out of Reach,' is a young adult literature finalist, is in the company of Robert A. Caro, Junot Diaz and more.

October 11, 2012|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
  • Author Junot Diaz.
Author Junot Diaz. (Nina Subin / Riverhead Books )

Carrie Arcos was mystified when she received an email from the National Book Foundation instructing her to call its office.

"I thought I was in trouble or something," said the Los Angeles mother of three. It turned out to be just the opposite. "Out of Reach," her young adult novel about siblings and meth addiction, had been chosen as a finalist for the National Book Awards.

"It's so unbelievable to me that this is happening," said Arcos, a first-time novelist.

The finalists for the National Book Awards were announced Wednesday. The 2012 list acknowledges a range of work, from longtime award winners like 76-year-old Robert A. Caro to debut novelists.

There are five finalists in each of four categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young adult literature. The winners will be presented in New York on Nov. 14.

Junot Diaz's new short story collection, "This Is How You Lose Her," is among the fiction finalists. Diaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," is shaping up to be one of the preeminent literary figures of his generation; he was named a MacArthur "genius" fellow on Oct. 1.

"It's been an extraordinary four weeks," said Diaz, whose book was published a month ago. "This is one of those moments that you have a profound sense that this is the peak of your career. It's one of the great prestigious literary awards. In some ways, it's the cornerstone of our literary awards system. It matters to writers, publishers and booksellers."

The fiction category includes other familiar names — Dave Eggers' for "A Hologram for the King" and Louise Erdrich for "The Round House." Two of the fiction finalists — "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain, and Kevin Powers' "The Yellow Birds" — are first novels that deal with America's long military engagement in Iraq.

The Middle East figures poignantly in the nonfiction category, which includes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid's book "House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East." Shadid died in February of an acute asthma attack when trying to leave Syria.

Other nonfiction finalists are Katherine Boo's chronicle of an impoverished community in India, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity," "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956" by another Pulitzer Prize winner, Anne Applebaum, whose publisher Doubleday moved up its release date after the announcement, Domingo Martinez's memoir of coming of age on the U.S.-Mexico border, "The Boy Kings of Texas," and "The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4" by Robert A. Caro. This marks the fourth time Caro has been a National Book Award finalist; he won once before, in 2003.

For writers, being a finalist for the National Book Awards is seen as a major accomplishment.

Diaz points out that the publishing business is at a crossroads. "My sense is this is a very dynamic, very uncertain moment in publishing," he said. "Last time I was on tour [2008], Borders existed. And nobody was buying anything on Kindle."

That uncertainty had something to do with the decision to announce the finalists live on the MSNBC show "Morning Joe."

"As you know, we are always trying to expand the audience for the books the judges select and television seemed like a good step toward that goal," Harold Augenbraum, the National Book Foundation's executive director, explained in an email. Before day's end, the organization's website had seen a significant uptick in traffic.

Other finalists include William Alexander's "Goblin Secrets," Patricia McCormick's "Never Fall Down," Eliot Schrefer's "Endangered" and "Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World's Most Dangerous Weapon" by Steve Sheinkin in young adult literature.

The poetry finalists are "Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations" by David Ferry, "Heavenly Bodies" by Cynthia Huntington, "Fast Animal" by Tim Seibles, "Night of the Republic" by Alan Shapiro and "Meme" by Susan Wheeler.

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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