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War, and a warning, at L.A. Times book awards

Stories about soldiers on Thanksgiving leave and the environmental threats to the female body are among winners at the Times Book Prizes.

April 19, 2013|By Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times
  • Kevin Starr, the former state librarian and now a USC professor, received the Robert Kirsch Award for his body of work about the American West.
Kevin Starr, the former state librarian and now a USC professor, received… (Lawrence K. H / Los Angeles…)

The darkly comic tale of soldiers spending Thanksgiving leave at a Dallas Cowboys game and a warning of the environmental threats to the female body were among the winners Friday at the annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.

The awards to Ben Fountain in the fiction category for "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" and Florence Williams in the science and technology category for "Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History" were announced along with eight other prizes at a ceremony kicking off The Times' 18th annual Festival of Books.

The two-day event featuring readings, discussions, screenings, musical performances and cooking demonstrations is expected to draw more than 150,000 people to the USC campus this weekend.

Fountain previously won the National Book Critics Circle Award, as did another Times honoree, Robert Caro, who won the biography category for "The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson," his fourth volume on the life of 36th president.

In accepting his award, Fountain criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the conflict occupying the soldier protagonists of his novel.

"Governments do lie — or to put it another way, they abuse the language," he said.

"It's our job ... to preserve and protect the language from the liars, and to howl and as long and as loud as possible when we see our American language being hijacked."

Williams told the audience she had been moved to write her book after learning there were toxic chemicals in the breast milk she fed to her daughter.

"It seemed to me that breasts were living a life that they had never lived before," she said.

She thanked her husband for cheering her on at the ceremony and noted that she had done the same for him Monday at the Boston Marathon.

The award for graphic novel or comic went to local author Sammy Harkham for "Everything Together: Collected Stories."

In it, Harkham, co-owner of the Fairfax District's Family bookstore, touches on subjects as diverse as teenage angst, Napoleon and Jewish mysticism.

Two awards were announced in advance of Friday night's event.

The Robert Kirsch Award, for a body of work about the American West, was given to historian Kevin Starr, the former state librarian and author of the eight-volume "Americans and the California Dream" series.

"I wish to continue this for as long as possible," said Starr, a USC professor.

He thanked Catholic school nuns and priests for teaching him how to write clearly and thoughtfully. He also thanked his wife, Sheila, whom he called "my friend and editor in chief in all my writing projects."

Canadian writer and activist Margaret Atwood won the Innovator's Award, which recognizes cutting-edge work to bring books, publishing and storytelling into the future.

The Times began awarding book prizes in 1980. An internal Times committee awards the Kirsch and Innovator prizes, while panels composed mainly of published authors select the other winners.

The other 2012 Book Prize winners are:

Current Interest: Katherine Boo, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity"

The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction: Maggie Shipstead, "Seating Arrangements"

History: Fergus M. Bordwich, "America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union"

Mystery/Thriller: Tana French, "Broken Harbor"

Poetry: Louise Glück, "Poems 1962-2012"

Young Adult Literature: A.S. King, "Ask the Passengers"

A complete list of 2012 finalists can be found at http://www.events.latimes.com/bookprizes.

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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