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We read all 20 National Book Award nominees for 2017. Here's what we thought.

Every year, the National Book Foundation nominates 20 books — five fiction, five nonfiction, five poetry, five young adult — for the National Book Award, which celebrates the best of American literature. And every year (okay, every year since 2014), we here at Vox read all 20 finalists to help smart, busy people like you figure out which ones you’re interested in. Here are our thoughts on the nominees for 2017; the winners, just announced, are noted below.


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee Grand Central Publishing

Pachinko, the Japanese game that’s part pinball and part slot machine, is one of the organizing ideas for Min Jin Lee’s sprawling novel of immigration, national identity, and family cycles. For Lee’s main characters — a family of poor Koreans who immigrate to Japan just before World War II — pachinko offers a means of survival: Pachinko parlors are one of the few places they can find employment as foreigners, and where they eventually manage to eke out a comfortable existence. And pachinko’s logic, which is part strategy, part luck, and always rigged in favor of the house, provides a metaphor for life itself. Lee’s characters are buffeted this way and that through life like pachinko balls against the game’s wooden pegs, and only occasionally are the very lucky and the very skilled able to make their way to glory.

Pachinko is Dickensian in its structure, heavily referencing both Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, but its scope is broader. It tracks its central family through five generations and seven decades, watching as they struggle to find comfort in a world that seems to be deliberately stacked against them. “Pachinko was a foolish game," Lee concludes ultimately, "but life was not."

—Constance Grady

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman Knopf

Haris Abadi began his career translating Arabic for the US military in Iraq — not out of any kind of ideological commitment to the war, but because he could see that working for the Americans was the best way to keep himself and his little sister alive. And he both survived and flourished: He became a US citizen, and moved his sister to Michigan. But as Dark at the Crossing begins, Haris is leaving America behind and making his way to Turkey. From there, he hopes to continue to Syria, where he can fight for the Syrian Free Army, in whose cause he deeply believes — or, failing that, for ISIS, so that at least he would still be fighting.

Dark at the Crossing is a compelling if uneven novel. Elliot Ackerman, a Purple Heart Marine veteran, writes in prose that veers from clumsy to elegant with no discernible pattern, and he has a tendency to conflate the humanity of his female characters with their beauty and sex appeal. (The woman with whom the reader is asked to empathize most is so beautiful that, dressed in a hijab, she looks “like Audrey Al-Hepburn,” and an ISIS operator remarks that she looks like the Virgin Mary; women with whom we are not asked to empathize are accordingly less lovely.) But the story of how Haris feels his way around the idea that he needs war to give him purpose, and that his only home exists in a war, is deeply felt — and the novel’s not-quite-redemptive final image will stay with you for a long time.

—Constance Grady

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward — WINNER

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a breathtaking look at the struggles of family and race in modern Mississippi. It revolves around 13-year-old JoJo, who is mature beyond his years yet still figuring out what it means to be a man. He was raised by his grandparents, while his black mother Leonie got high and his white father Michael served time in prison.

We embed with the family just before Michael’s release; most of the book takes place on a road trip that Leonie, her children, and her friend take to upstate Mississippi to pick him up. Its story is told through the alternating eyes of Leonie and JoJo, painting a clear picture of complex family dynamics that makes a character you should despise — a drug addict mother who neglects her children — at least relatable, if not likable.

At the prison, the ghost of a boy who was lynched after escaping years ago joins the family and becomes our third narrator. He launches the book into a lyrical, dark work of magical realism that grapples with being black in the American South, and it’s well worth your time.

—Blair Hickman

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Peilan, born in a poor village in the Fujian province of China, buys a plane ticket to New York City while pregnant with a baby she doesn’t really want. Then after 11 years of living and working in the bowels of the city while raising her son, Peilan vanishes, leaving the American-born boy to fend for himself. The unknown reason for her sudden disappearance drives the plot of Lisa Ko’s debut novel The Leavers, which intertwines Peilan’s journey as an undocumented immigrant with the story of her son Deming, who is eventually adopted by well-meaning, if condescending, white parents in the suburbs.

The exploration of the mix of circumstances and choices that drive the decision to migrate lies at the heart of The Leavers. Peilan and the book’s other Chinese migrants go to unfathomable lengths for a chance to make it in the United States, only to find themselves caught in New York’s grinding hustle, working in factories, slaughterhouses, and nail salons for measly wages. But their decision to immigrate to the States is not just a gamble to escape poverty in their home country. It stems from a sense of adventure and a thirst to fulfill the potential of their lives. Peilan struggles to balance her loyalty to her son and a desire to bail on her life and start fresh somewhere new. Whether her ultimate choice to abandon her son is driven by the harsh conditions of the American immigration system or her personal desire to start over remains a mystery.

—Karen Turner

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body and Other Parties Graywolf Press

Carmen Maria Machado writes what could be dubbed weird fiction but should probably be called genre-ish fiction. The eight stories in Her Body and Other Parties, the author’s first collection, drip with desire and resentment and unexpressed thoughts.

Machado’s narrators — who are almost always first-person narrators — are all women, sometimes struggling to exist in a world built by (and for) men, and sometimes just struggling to survive at all.

The opening story, “The Husband Stitch,” reimagines the classic spooky story of the woman with a ribbon around her neck from that woman’s point of view; she gives and gives and gives everything to her husband, willingly, but all he wants is to untie that mysterious ribbon. The second story, “Inventory,” chronicles one woman’s sexual encounters, while an apocalypse unfolds in the extreme background of her tales.

So it goes throughout Her Body and Other Parties, which puts the thoughts and fears and desires of Machado’s protagonists front and center, but allows those thoughts and fears and desires to enact themselves on the landscape in the form of ghosts or global peril or slow-building madness. Her success comes not just from the strength of her voice, but from the idea that by recentering classic genre stories on the women who haunt their edges, and diving deep into their subconscious, territory still ripe for exploration will open up.

Todd VanDerWerff


The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen — WINNER


The Future Is History functions best as a tragedy. The broad strokes of the plot are familiar: the collapse of the Soviet Union’s monstrous totalitarianism, the chaos and hope of the 1990s, and the descent into a new nightmare under Vladimir Putin. But the way in which Masha Gessen fills out the details, especially the subtle damage the Soviet system had done to Russian society that paved the way for Putin’s rise, elevates the book well beyond a standard account.

The book’s narrative style — following a cast of characters, and using their lives as a way of reflecting and filling out Gessen’s characterization of the changes in overall Russian society — makes the book exceptionally engaging on a literary level. It also, however, makes following some of the more sophisticated intellectual arguments more difficult. The direct support for the controversial claim in the book’s subtitle, that Putin’s system can fairly be described as “totalitarian,” is scattered and spread out.

But most people aren’t looking for a sustained and fully fleshed-out philosophical study of the concept of totalitarianism — nor, really, is that what The Future Is History is trying to achieve. As a book that will help you understand how today’s Russia came to be, one filled with vivid characters and penetrating insight into Russian society, it more than succeeds.

Zack Beauchamp

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald

Simon & Schuster

Self-identified white evangelicals’ resounding support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election both challenged and rocked many Americans’ assumptions about what matters to that powerful bloc of voters, whose beliefs seem to have broadly shifted since they opposed Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The truth, of course, is that there are really two senses in which the word “evangelical” operates in America: One has to do with a set of theological tenets, while the other — and probably the more widely used — has to do with people connected to the concerns of the Republican Party.

How did we get here? In her long, deeply sourced biography of the American evangelicalism that got Trump elected, FitzGerald draws an ambitious, fascinating throughline from early American religious movements and preachers through both Great Awakenings and into the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly the link-up between the Moral Majority and the Republican Party.

FitzGerald’s book is not without limitations; the biggest may be that it mostly narrowly examines conservative, white evangelicals, an approach that tends to sidestep the many contributions made by nonwhite and non-conservative evangelicals to the movement — a picture that would add many shades of meaning to the political and religious landscape of America today. And as history, it’s written dryly, which renders it a little exhausting at times. Nonetheless, it’s a formidable achievement that could become one of the definitive works on the subject.

—Alissa Wilkinson

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean Viking

Duke historian Nancy MacLean’s controversial history explores the intellectual roots of the modern American right through an unlikely lens: the life and work of Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan.

Far less well-known than his similarly minded contemporary Milton Friedman, Buchanan founded an influential research center that promoted libertarian thought at the University of Virginia (in the ’50s), and later moved to George Mason University (in the 1980s; he won the Nobel in ’86). Among his benefactors was the conservative billionaire Charles Koch.

Buchanan applied economic logic to government. To him, politicians were far from noble, disinterested stewards of the public weal; they were self-interested actors who traded public services and projects in exchange for votes. The result was too often inefficient big government and rampant profiteering via a Leviathan state.

MacLean argues that Buchanan’s entire worldview was driven by the belief that democracy could not be trusted to safeguard the rights of property owners. Thus, she finds echoes of his views in John Calhoun’s 19th-century defenses of slavery, and she puts Buchanan in the same moral camp as those who denied votes to black Americans in the mid-20th-century South, and who today work to place barriers in the way of minority voters. The book is elegantly written but has been (fairly) criticized for its conspiratorial tone: Buchanan and others in his circle sought nothing less, MacLean writes, than “a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance.”

—Christopher Shea

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar Atria

In a year that saw America once again wrangle with a landscape dotted with statues of those who fought to preserve slavery, Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s immersive history Never Caught: The Washingtons Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge feels particularly relevant.

Dunbar, a professor of black studies and history at the University of Delaware, centers on Judge, an enslaved woman in George Washington’s household who escaped as a young woman and evaded capture. Crucially, Never Caught isn’t Washington’s story. It’s Judge’s, and even though the title gives away the outcome, it’s a page turner.

Dunbar’s prose is vivid, conjuring not just 18th-century America but the interior life of her subject. Much of this is supposition, but Dunbar’s deft enumeration of the possibilities doesn’t just serve a literary end. The details we do know about Judge’s life make clear that she was an extraordinary woman, and one of the tragedies of American racism is that stories like hers weren’t prized and recorded in greater detail.

Washington was the hero of the American Revolution. But Judge — who faced down multiple slave catchers with nothing but a relentless conviction that she should remain free — is a powerful avatar for the revolutionary mythos of liberty and self-determination. It’s a life that’s worthy, at the very least, of a statue.

—Libby Nelson

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann Doubleday

The ostensible mystery of Killers of the Flower Moon is the one alluded to in the book’s title. In the 1920s, some of the wealthiest people in America were members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma, thanks to the sales of mineral rights on their oil-rich reservation. But instead of buying respect from white America, the money brought envy — and a series of violent and mysterious deaths that no law enforcement agency seemed able to solve.

As a reader, though, what I marveled at most was how author David Grann put the book together. Grann is a longform-journalism legend; his ability to spin a yarn is unparalleled. The moments in Killers of the Flower Moon that made me gasp weren’t breakthroughs in the case, but rather details like “his flesh unfolding from his voluminous neck and chest.”

Grann’s ability to make any story seem zippy and compact is a mixed blessing, because many stories just aren’t that simple. Consequently, the coda of Killers of the Flower Moon is as frustrating as what comes before it is compelling.

As America begins to recognize that its history of racial inequality isn’t just about opportunities denied, but about nonwhite wealth and power actively destroyed, the story of the Osage is exactly the sort of story that needs to be told. But Grann waffles between presenting it as the tale of a unified conspiracy or simply the inevitable consequences of a situation in which nonwhite Americans have the money but those who think they’re subhuman have the power.

—Dara Lind


In the Language of My Captor by Shane McCrae

In the Language of My Captor by Shane McCrae Wesleyan

In the Language of My Captor is about linguistic imperialism, about being forced to talk about racism and white supremacy in a language built by white supremacists. Racism is inherent to the structures of our language, this book suggests; it is inescapable, no matter how good our intentions might be. So one of the recurring poetic speakers, a man locked in a zoo cage full of monkeys, remarks, “Most of the papers say the monkeys / must // Remind me of my family,” while “The liberal papers say the monkeys must / Remind me of my home,” but “The papers don’t ask me.” (McCrae uses the double virgule, “//” for its musicality; I’m using the singular virgule, “/” in these quotes to signify a line break.)

Over the course of the collection, McCrae goes on to channel a black actor he calls Bingo Yes (“back when I was starting out / the only talking I could do on screen was talking / chains around myself”); Jim Limber, the mixed-race ward of Confederate President Jefferson Davis (“My daddy’s white so I don’t get his face”); Davis himself (“we love our Negroes and with a great / love Yankees cannot know and would not want / to know if they could”); and a child who seems to stand for McCrae himself, exploring a ruined village (“I call it a village because it was abandoned — the words seem to go together”). The result is polyphonic and elegant, a careful examination of how trauma can be both masked and enacted by language.

—Constance Grady

Don't Call Us Dead: Poems by Danez Smith

i got this problem: i was born

black & faggoty

they sent a boy

when the bullet missed.

These two lines, toting a world of pain and defiance and pride, encapsulate the heart-stopping succinctness of Danez Smith’s voice as a queer black poet. In Don’t Call Us Dead (“don’t call us dead / call us alive someplace better”), Smith articulates the experience of being part of two intersecting communities that perpetually grapple with the deaths of young black men. Whether from the threat of police brutality, the threat of HIV, or simply the threat of loss, acts of sex and death are tied together for Smith as surely as blood and bullets.

In between rich odes to sexual awakening and love, Smith’s poetry reverberates with an ever-present awareness of the endless fear and latent hurt that accompanies the daily existence of black men in the United States. (“look closely / & you’ll find a funeral / frothing in the corners / of my mouth ... listen to my laugh / & if you pay attention / you’ll hear a wake.”) Joy and pain intermingle, love and attempts at intimacy are forever entangled with the fear of death and the swell of grief for those already gone: “if you were here, we could play / Eden all day, but fruit here / grows strange.”

Smith fixates on fear of intimacy in a world full of death, on memorializing the lost, on rivers and remembrance, on summers whose innocence and energy were too often destroyed by violence and funerals. Even Smith admits these are tired themes that they are tired of returning to: “i am sick of writing this poem / but bring the boy.” But what gives this outpouring of grief its deep, ebullient spark and its pull-you-up-short truth is Smith’s ability to balance grace and bluntness:

they’ve made you a boy
i don’t know

replaced my friend
with a hashtag.

These are poems you want to wrap your arms around and keep safe.

Aja Romano

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier

WHEREAS book cover

“ … I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation — and in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live,” states the introduction of Whereas’s second half, a collection of poems responding to the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans signed by President Obama in 2009.

Throughout the book, Layli Long Soldier uses an astonishing variety of forms (even fill-in-the-blanks) to dissect the US government’s bureaucratic writing and explore languages and identity.

Speaking of her daughter, she says, “what did I know about being Lakota? Signaled panic, blood rush my embarrassment. What did I know of our language but pieces? Would I teach her to be pieces. … Today she stood sunlight on her shoulders lean and straight to share a song in Diné, her father’s language.”

Elsewhere, she cuts the lines from a history of the Battle of Little Bighorn, to brutal and jarring effect:

their increasingly rare
ians would vent their sor-
which would give them a
bodies of the men who had

Poems that begin like a formal exercise spin off into a gut punch. No matter where one starts, there is an undercurrent of loss.

Susannah Locke

The Book of Endings by Leslie Harrison

The Book of Endings by Leslie Harrison

The first series of images in this slim volume present scenes of ice and crows, of dead plants and empty holes and a single broken heart. But the poems themselves bubble hot and messy.

“Winter means preservation,” Harrison writes early on; “dead is only one definition.”

There is a raw ache coursing from one page to the next, a white-hot fury lighting up the dark sky, a bone-deep existential gloom that comes from surviving a loss. Things scab and sink and decay. These poems are not about endings so much as what comes next: the agony of moving forward through time after the clock has stopped on someone or something else.

Harrison captures experiencing a trauma so severe that one can’t believe the impact doesn’t infect everything in close proximity (“When she left she left so many ghosts the whole place is / poisoned with them” she writes in “Things the realtor will not tell the new owner,” continuing, “… go about your days / in phantom pain as if your own life had been badly amputated / then badly sewn back …”)

Harrison uses words to try to process the losses she’s experienced, while understanding that they are both the best tool she has at her disposal and a tool that’s deeply lacking. (The book is prefaced with a poem titled, “I keep throwing words at the problem because words.”)

There is frost in The Book of Endings, but not coldness. There is rage and grief and, at the book’s heart, an ember of defiance and slow survival — pressing on the bruise to take small solace in pain, and the knowledge that accompanies such pain. The blood is still flowing; nerves are still firing.

—Kate Dailey

Half-light: Collected Poems 1965–2016 by Frank Bidart — WINNER

Half-light book cover

“We are creatures who need to make. … Without clarity about what we make, and the choices that underlie it, the need to make is a curse, a misfortune.”

Frank Bidart’s 718-page tome collects more than 50 years of his poetry and also includes a new volume.

It is an unvarnished look at human nature. Whether confessionals from the voice of a poet (many about making art, or about family) or long accounts about others (the incestuous Myrrha of Greek myth, or ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky of actual history), Bidart’s poems are as compassionate as they are dark. He even manages to consider the humanity of a necrophiliac child-murderer (“Herbert White”).

And throughout, there is a sense of unfulfilled want:

Understand that there is a beast within you

that can drink till it is

sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied ...

Susannah Locke

Young People’s Literature

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

American Street cover image Balzer + Bray

Ibi Zoboi’s debut novel is a refreshing take on a common literary preoccupation, the American dream: It not only explores the cost of said dream, but questions its ultimate value to those who chase it. American Street takes the shape of a coming-of-age story following Fabiola Toussaint, who leaves Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with her mother to immigrate to the US. But only Fabiola winds up making it to their final destination; her mom is detained, leaving Fabiola (who was born in the States) to establish a new life in Detroit. There, she lives with her aunt and three cousins — a tight, rough-and-tumble trio known as “the Three Bees.”

Fabiola navigates the emotional and cultural complexities of her new situation while remaining fixated on rescuing her mom from a detention center in New Jersey, a mission that leads her and her extended family into dangerous territory. Through it all, Zoboi weaves a fascinating and beautiful thread of spiritual mysticism, centered on Fabiola’s commitment to the Haitian Voudu tradition (which Zoboi, in an author’s note, likens to the complex pantheon of Greek and Roman mythologies). That element makes for both some beautiful prose and an underlying sub-narrative that eventually merges with the book’s street-level story in a heartbreakingly effective conclusion.

Genevieve Koski

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

No stranger to the National Book Awards finalist list, the acclaimed YA and middle-grade author Rita Williams-Garcia (who happens to be the mother of Vox race and identities editor Michelle Garcia) has written a book about the blues that curls around its subject like a blue note itself. The story of a young boy and his struggle to hold on to the memory of his late blues-loving grandfather is a sweet, compelling tale of grief and healing across generations.

When Clayton, feuding with a bitter, grieving mother who’d like nothing more than to drive the blues out of her house and her father out her son’s memory, storms off into the New York streets on his own, he embarks on a quest of self-discovery that’s told with vibrancy and warmth. Instead of finding the hoped-for connection with his grandfather, Cool Papa, Clayton winds up connecting with a band of hip-hop-fueled subway artists, who welcome him into an unexpected adventure.

Williams-Garcia’s prose is lush and lulling; she’s gentle with her characters but captures the fullness of their conflicting emotions with the lightest of strokes. Clayton Byrd Goes Underground isn’t so much about learning to play the blues as it is about learning to live the blues; it doesn’t stint on musical references, but its richest notes are between the lines.

Aja Romano

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway — WINNER


Robin Benway’s story of a literal found family — three siblings separated at birth who reunite in their teens — is by turns moving and melodramatic. Grace, the adopted only child of two loving and supportive parents, is inspired after her own painful decision to give her daughter up for adoption to try to find her biological mother. Instead, she finds her two biological siblings, Maya and Joaquin, who are both dealing with their own complicated family issues.

Benway’s prose is light and deft as she moves between the lives of the three siblings to explore their various family situations and their gradual understanding of how their newfound family members fit into their lives. Far From the Tree is filled with trenchant moments in which the weight of societal expectations, and the pressure it puts on our protagonists, comes to the forefront in ways minor and major. (“She had gotten good at being able to tell the difference in people’s voices, the ones who had said, ‘Oh, you’re pregnant!’ versus ‘Oh. You’re pregnant.’”)

Though at times Benway’s plot feels like a Lifetime movie, her characters and their developing relationships feel real, and their stories offer a compelling glimpse into the struggles of adopted children and foster children as they try to fit into a world that doesn’t always know what to do with them.

Aja Romano

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter cover Knopf Books for Young Readers

Erika L. Sánchez’s debut novel crosses family drama with coming-of-age comedy, a tonal blend that fits its wry but troubled narrator. Julia is a Mexican-American Chicago teen suffocating under the expectations of her undocumented parents — particularly her mother, who has little regard or understanding for Julia’s dreams of leaving home and becoming a writer. That familial disconnect is heightened by the unexpected death of Julia’s older sister Olga (the “perfect Mexican daughter” of the book’s title), a tragedy that exposes a mystery Julia feels compelled to solve, and threatens to deepen her family’s emotional wounds in the process.

Julia is a prickly protagonist, myopic and judgmental in a manner befitting an intelligent but self-absorbed teenager. But that feels like an intentional choice, particularly once Sánchez’s story starts engaging directly with Julia’s mental health issues. And as the mysteries surrounding both Olga’s death and the family’s emigration from Mexico deepen, so does Julia’s characterization, leading to a conclusion that eschews neat and tidy answers while embracing a deeper understanding of one’s self and others.

Genevieve Koski

What Girls Are Made of by Elana K. Arnold

Nina Faye is struggling. She’s struggling to understand her boyfriend, her sex life, her body, her friends, her place in the world. Nina knows you may not love her, and she knows this because her own mother told her there’s no such thing as unconditional love. Nina was 14 then; she’s older now, but that sentence has stayed with her, haunted her, guided her, ever since.

This knowledge has made Nina feel deeply lonely, even more alone than all the lost pregnancies her mother endured, silently, the only acknowledgement of a miscarriage being her mother’s daily glass of vodka and diet tonic. None of those phantom siblings ever appeared, and Nina lives in a home that has long since lost its way in love. Lacking that essential navigation tool, she has no idea how to love herself.

Elana K. Arnold’s book is a full submersion into Nina’s mind — the mind of a teenage girl who doesn’t yet trust herself, who teeters on the precipice of adulthood, and who is sometimes forced to encounter adult concerns far before she’s ready.

Nina’s choices (her submission to a boy who doesn’t love her back, her casual eschewing of friendships) and a single, modern, act of cruelty that altered how the world sees Nina, and how Nina sees herself, can feel maddening at times. The book grows stronger — like Nina herself — as it builds. It’s worth staying with. Arnold’s genius is to allow us to come to care deeply for a girl as flawed as the very readers who judge her.

Sarah Wildman


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