It was a good night for women at the National Book Awards, which were presented in New York yesterday.
The winner of the nonfiction prize was Katherine Boo for “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” (Random House).
The fiction prize went to Louise Erdrich for “The Round House” (Harper).
This came during a year in which a group called VIDA calculated that a large majority of review space in U.S. media is devoted to books by male authors.
Erdrich’s novel is about a 13-year-old American Indian boy who turns into a detective after his mother is raped. Because she isn’t sure exactly where the attack took place -- it could have been on the edge of the reservation or just off it -- it’s possible that the rapist won’t be prosecuted because of problems with jurisdiction.
Boo’s book explores life in a slum on the outskirts of Mumbai. In a review for Bloomberg, Nina Mehta says the book “presents a tiny sliver of life in a giant city. But it’s an important book that gives permanence to people whose tragedies and deaths are too easily wiped from the public record.”
In accepting the award, Boo said, “If this prize means anything, I think it’s this: Small stories and so-called hidden places matter. Because they implicate and complicate what we believe is the larger story -- the history of people who have political and economic power.”
The winner of the award for Young People’s Literature was William Alexander’s “Goblin Secrets” (Margaret K. McElderry Books).
The poetry winner was David Ferry for “Bewilderment” (University of Chicago Press). He accepted with tears in his eyes, saying that since he was so much older than the other finalists, he thought the judges might have decided to give him a “pre-posthumous award.”
The black-tie ceremony, at Cipriani Wall Street, was a benefit for the National Book Foundation, which promotes writing and literacy.
Winners receive a bronze sculpture and $10,000, while nominees receive a medal and $1,000.
Novelist Elmore Leonard received the 2012 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented by Martin Amis, who said “Elmore Leonard is a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers.”
“My books aren’t plot driven,” Leonard said. “They’re about people with guns, in dire situations.”
He concluded by saying: “The only thing I ever wanted to do in my life was have a good time writing stories. This award tells me I’m still at it.”
The Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community was given to Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., chairman and publisher of the New York Times.
“In the wake of Hurricane Sandy,” Sulzberger said, “many people were faced with days without power. When our e-readers and phones ran out of power, we turned to books, reading them by candlelight. Books will always remain, and they will always be part of the conversation at the New York Times.”
The other finalists were:
Fiction: Junot Diaz, “This Is How Your Lose Her” (Riverhead); Dave Eggers, “A Hologram for the King” (McSweeney’s); Ben Fountain, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (Ecco); and Kevin Powers, “The Yellow Birds” (Little, Brown).
Nonfiction: Anne Applebaum, “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956,” (Doubleday); Robert Caro, “The Passage of Power” (Knopf); Domingo Martinez, “The Boy Kings of Texas” (Lyons Press); and Anthony Shadid, “House of Stone” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Poetry: Cynthia Huntington, “Heavenly Bodies” (Southern Illinois University Press); Tim Seibles, “Fast Animal” (Etruscan Press); Alan Shapiro, “Night of the Republic” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); and Susan Wheeler, “Meme” (University of Iowa Press).
Young People’s Literature: Carrie Arcos, “Out of Reach” (Simon Pulse); Patricia McCormick, “Never Fall Down” (Balzer & Bray); Eliot Schrefer, “Endangered” (Scholastic); and Steve Sheinkin, “Bomb: The Race to Build -- and Steal -- the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon” (Flash Point).