While I'm an avid reader and a reasonably good bookseller, I've never claimed to have my finger on the pulse of the book award circuit. So I was as surprised as anybody when I discovered that for the first time since I've started paying attention to these things, I have read, or at least read in, all five of the finalists for the fiction award.
Of them, I only have completed two: Emily St John Mandel's excellent break-out novel, Station Eleven and the Marilynne Robinson's literary masterpiece, Lila. But just because I didn't finish reading the other three doesn't mean that I didn't like them. On the contrary, I very much liked what I read of them. One of the things about being a bookseller that might seem strange to a civilian, is that in addition to reading the things I like, I also have an obligation to read widely, beyond my personal preferences, so that I can better serve my customers.
I also am one of the four readers for my bookstore's signed First Editions Club, where we select one work of literary fiction each month and send signed copies to our club members. For this part of my job, I have to read the first 50-75 pages of an additional 6-8 books each month (on average), all on my own time outside of work. For obvious reasons, I cannot finish them all, so even when I like a book, if I have a coworker who has finished it, I'm less inclined to spend more of my time to complete it. Why? Because now I have a secondary repository of book knowledge to rely on: I can recommend a book to a customer when I know that Nancy (or Hannah or whomever) has loved it and why she has loved it.
(On a slightly braggadocian note, of the five NBA books on the short lit, our First Editions Club committee picked three of them. And if we'd had our way with getting signed copies of another one, there would have been a fourth, but the author either wasn't touring or wasn't in the US when we wanted to pick the book. Go, us!)
So, with all of that being said, here are my thoughts on the National Book Award finalists for fiction in 2014:
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is wonderful, telling a very quiet story of older woman living in Beirut who has translated one book per year from the world literary canon into Arabic. I read about half of this book and very reluctantly put it down. Not only does the author paint a vivid portrait of the cultural importance of Beirut, along with its devastations during the wars, but we get the importance of translation itself, along with its intricate give and take.
I read the first 100 pages or so of Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is set during World War II. I've noticed tons of reviews of this book popping up since it was published in April of this year, and two of my coworkers read it and loved it, so I felt less guilty putting this one down than I otherwise would have.
Short story collections don't often go head to head with novels for the major literary awards, but Phil Klay's debut collection, Redeployment, is handily able to take on the powerhouses. As the title suggests, these are soldiers' stories, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. I read the first two of them and they were extremely well done, and though ultimately this was not the book for me, I'm happy I bought a signed, first edition of it when I visited Nashville earlier this year.
I've been reading Emily St John Mandel's books since she first published Last Night in Montreal in 2009. I'm thrilled for her that her hopeful post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, is getting the critical acclaim that indie booksellers have been giving her for years. I think this book ties with the Anthony Doerr for having the most widespread appeal to general readers. I would put either book into the hands of almost any fiction reader.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson concludes her trilogy set in the small town Gilead, Iowa, of yesteryear. Like the Alameddine, it's a quiet story, largely the imagined inner life of the title character. I also happen to think that Lila ties with An Unnecessary Woman for being the most literary of the finalists, and thus if I had to make a prediction for the winner, it would be one of these two.
NB: Edited to add this -- It doesn't hurt that Marilynne Robinson is basically the winningest American novelist, ever. For her last four books published (3 novels, one nonfiction), she has won six major literary awards: PEN/Hemingway, the Pulitzer (2x), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Orange Prize. That's not counting the lesser-known awards, or the major awards she was a finalist for but for which she didn't win. Dayum.