National Book Award Nominees

Article excerpt

Nominations for the National Book Award were greeted by shouts of joy and gasps of outrage last week.

In the nonfiction category, the judges nominated "Darkness in El Dorado," even though W.W. Norton has delayed publication till November so the text can be re-edited in response to criticism about its controversial claims.

Meanwhile, the fiction list includes a novel by Susan Sontag that contains a number of unattributed quotations from other sources.

Including books that aren't entirely finished or original must have complicated the selection process enormously.

The black-tie awards dinner will again be hosted by Steve Martin, the author/comedian who last year accidentally omitted one of the fiction nominees from the drum-roll line-up.

Science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury will receive a special medal for "distinguished contribution to America letters" at the ceremony Nov. 15.

NONFICTION

FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE, by Jacques Barzun, HarperCollins, $36

What do Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, Johannes Kepler, Pablo Picasso, and a host of disparate giants have in common? Drawing on almost three-quarters of a century of historical scholarship, teaching, and writing, Barzun tells us they have shaped what's commonly called the Modern Era. Not content with a ticker-tape transmission of dates, he goes deeper into the whys and wherefores. Written with compassion, respect, dignity, and wit, Barzun's latest is probably the best single-volume account of the evolution of modern Western culture to date. Sure to be the standard for years to come, it should be required reading for every college freshman. (877 pp.) By Alan Messmer

THE COLLABORATOR, by Alice Kaplan, University of Chicago, $25

During the "purge" of Nazi collaborators in post-World War II France, Robert Brasillach, a right-wing writer and news editor, was convicted and executed for treason. In this thorough treatment of Brasillach's work, trial, and growth into an almost mythical figure, Kaplan gives detailed documentation of events and raises intriguing ethical questions. She examines the responsibility a writer has for his words and the dangers of historical revisionism, while painting a portrait of both occupied and liberated France and the moral ambiguity they fostered. The writing is compelling, though at times academic. For anyone interested in this period of France's history, the book has useful insights. (308 pp.) By Amanda Paulson

W.E.B DU BOIS: THE FIGHT FOR EQUALITY AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY, by David Levering Lewis, Holt, $29.95

In this second volume, Lewis completes a 15-year odyssey to define the life of W.E.B. Du Bois: NAACP founder, widely published novelist, and one of the most important African-American leaders, who was denounced by contemporaries after espousing communism later in life. Lewis begins with Du Bois's position as editor and activist and ends with his death in Ghana on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963. Dense but compelling, the biography emphasizes Du Bois's determination to depict what it was like to be "black in a white world." Lewis also handles with sensitivity some of the sensational aspects of Du Bois's personal life and reveals surprising sides of his personality. (715 pp.) By Leigh Montgomery

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, by Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking, $24.95

Philbrick recounts the tragedy of the whale ship Essex, which sank after being rammed by a sperm whale west of South America. Melville modeled the end of "Moby Dick" on the 1820 incident. The author uses the recently discovered journal of the ship's cabin boy to create a vivid narrative of this entire voyage, including the survivors' concessions to cannibalism. He includes fascinating historical information without slowing the narrative's pace or neglecting the personal stories of the ship's crew. …