Picking the Favorites in the National Book Award for Nonfiction

When the 2012 National Book Awards nominees were announced last week, I immediately turned to the nonfiction list, which, I think, offers much more variety than the more-talked-about (literary) fiction list. The nonfiction nominees feature everything from the fourth volume of a celebrated biography of an American president to a posthumously published memoir set in the Middle East.

Here are the nominees, and some thoughts on why they could take the prize this year:

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 by Anne Applebaum

What It’s About: At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had control over much of Eastern Europe. Iron Curtain is the story of how Joseph Stalin and his regime systematically converted a dozen countries to communism, chronicling what daily life was like for the people who lived there.

Why It Could Win: Author Anne Applebaum is already a winner in nonfiction prizes, claiming the Pulitzer in 2004 for Gulag, another book of Soviet history. Gulag was also nominated for the National Book Award in 2003, making her a heavy favorite.


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

What It’s About: Set in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement that sits just outside the Mumbai airport, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a narrative account of everyday life in a poverty-stricken slum.

Why It Could Win: Of all the nominees, Behind the Beautiful Forevers probably has the most popular recognition. It got a ton of great reviews, including a comparison to Charles Dickens in a review in The New York Times. This is Boo’s first book, although she did win a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service journalism in 2000.


The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4 by Robert A. Caro

What It’s About: The Passage of Power is the fourth volume of Caro’s sweeping biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson. This volume focuses on the years 1958 to 1964, Johnson’s presidency after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Why It Could Win: The third book in Caro’s masterpiece, Master of the Senate, was recognized with the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2003 and the National Book Award in 2002. Caro is probably the biggest favorite in this race. If the Man Booker Prize taught us anything this year, it’s that you can be recognized a second time for basically the same book.


The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez 

What It’s About: Domingo Martinez grew up in Brownsville, a Texas border town, in the 1980s. In The Boy Kings of Texas, Martinez tells the story of how each member of his family tried to assimilate and become “real” Americans, particularly focusing on the relationship between Martinez and his flawed-but-protective older brother, Daniel.

Why It Could Win: The Boy Kings of Texas is the most obscure finalist on the list, but I don’t think it can be totally discounted. In 2003, Carlos Eire’s memoir about the Cuban Revolution — a book with a similar sensibility — won the award, beating out heavy-hitters Applebaum and Eric Larson (The Devil in the White City). However, Martinez doesn’t have the same clout as some other memoir winners like Patti Smith (Just Kids in 2010) or Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005).


House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid

What It’s About: After being freed from captivity in Libya, New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid fled to his extended family’s ancient estate in Lebanon. Shadid worked to rebuild the crumbling home and his spirit, chronicling his journey and the story of his home in House of Stone.

Why It Could Win: Shortly before House of Stone was set to be released, Shadid died from an acute asthma attack while reporting in Syria. House of Stone is a beautiful and important book, but Shadid’s untimely death gives it extra poignancy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shadid awarded for his work posthumously.


And the Winner?

Applebaum and Caro seem to be the pretty clear favorites. Both are former winners/nominees being recognized for books very similar to their previous nominations. And notably, three of the five nonfiction judges (Brad Gooch, Linda Gordon, and Woody Holton) are college professors who have written histories or biographies. Of the five books, I think Iron Curtain and The Passage of Power seem to fit their wheelhouse best.

However, I’d love to see a new author recognized and I’d love to see some contemporary, narrative nonfiction recognized over history or biography. Two of the judges are journalist/writers (Susan Orlean and Judith Shulevitz), which I hope will make them advocates for the book I’m pulling for, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, although would be more than happy to see House of Stone recognized as well.

Get your chills and thrills for the season with our surprise horror box! Four Riot-approved books plus three awesome items (two of which were created just for this box). Available while supplies last.