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'Echo Maker' Wins National Book Award for Fiction


Winners of the National Book Awards were announced last night in New York City. This year there were nominees in each category who reflected on a modern world shaken by war and danger.

As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the winners were those who used history to propel their writing.

NEDA ULABY: They call this the Oscars of book publishing. And here at the National Book Awards ceremony it's glittering intellects rather than faces you'll find on the red carpet.

Unidentified Male #1 (National Book Award Finalist): Yeah, this is the fanciest thing I've been to since my senior prom.

ULABY: That's a National Book Award finalist. The evening's host was downtown essayist Fran Lebowitz - very New York. She looked Oscar Wilde-ian in her tuxedo and she mocked the fashion guidance given to finalists by the National Book Foundation.

Ms. FRAN LEBOWITZ (Author and Essayist): Finalists, please remember to wear your finalist medal to the ceremony.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEBOWITZ: What are the chances that they might forget to do this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I mean surely they realize that if they ever want to wear this medal, this is their shot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Lebowitz also made political jokes. And this year's medal for distinguished contribution to American letters went to a political poet.

Ms. ADRIENNE RICH (Poet): I'm both a poet and one of the everybodys of my country.

ULABY: Adrienne Rich came out to accept her award bent over a red walker. Her gaze was penetrating as she spoke of a world in which, she said, poetry is seen as inadequate or unprofitable and, hence, useless.

Ms. RICH: Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet, in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together.

ULABY: Politics and poetry came together again in the speech of this year's poetry award winner, Nathaniel Mackey. He read a passage from his collection Splay Anthem.

Mr. NATHANIEL MACKEY (Poet): Day late, so all the old attunements gave way. Late, but soon come, even so. A political trek we'd have said it was, albeit politics kept us at bay. Nothing wasn't politics we'd say.

ULABY: The winner in non-fiction was a book called The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Judges found relevance in Timothy Egan's story of an ecological disaster.

In fiction, Richard Powers won for his novel The Echo Maker. It takes as its premise the aftermath of a car crash, and from there explores trauma, brain science and human feeling. In one passage, Powers writes about the odd relationships possible between people and their artificial arms.

Mr. RICHARD POWERS (Author): A male ambulance driver in his 50s called his Mr. Limpchimp(ph). They ascribed personalities to their arms, whole histories. They talked, argued with, even tried to feed them. C'mon, Mr. Limpchimp, you know you're hungry.

ULABY: The young people's category saw the awards' first ever graphic novel nominee. It did not win. Instead, the winner was a historical fantasy set in revolutionary Boston. But in his winning speech, author M.T. Anderson generously made the point he was proud that his category was the one to bring graphic novels to the awards.

Mr. M.T. ANDERSON (Author): Anyone who has read Gene Yang's American Born Chinese can see that it is poignant, it is sophisticated, it is literature for young people.

(Soundbite of applause)

ULABY: Anderson's own book, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, tells the imagined story of an African-American child imprisoned in a grotesque, pseudo-scientific experiment. The judges said it introduces an extraordinary new literary character and a principled story of freedom and patriotism that resonates in our modern world.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News, New York.

MONTAGNE: National Book Award fiction finalists share their writing habits at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.