The John Leonard Prize: What Critics Think About Recent Books by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
One of my favorite features of being a member of the National Book Critics Circle is the opportunity to participate in the entire process of selecting the recipient of its annual John Leonard Prize, the award named in honor of the legendary critic, for an author’s first book-length project in any genre.
All members are invited to nominate their choices for best book, and the finalists are those that receive the most nominations. Then, a cadre of NBCC members who commit to reading the full slate of books are given about a month to complete their reading and vote for the recipient. That deadline is both a challenge (there were seven 2018 finalists) and a treat; as I’ve said before, participating as a judge for the Leonard Prize offers some of the best reading I experience all year.
The Leonard Prize was first awarded in 2013, to Anthony Marra for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I still consider that book the closest thing I’ve ever read to a perfect novel, and it made Marra one of my permanent favorites. That it was a debut cemented my desire as a critic to seek out first-time authors. I was pleased to have helped select 2017’s Leonard Prize winner, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, and, in 2016, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.
The 2018 finalists included two memoirs, two short-story collections, and three novels. Three of these (starred below) were selected as New York Times 10 Best Books of 2018. I might have been reading under a deadline, but other duties slipped primarily because I couldn’t stop reading.
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (Graywolf Press). As a critic and a reader, I would happily read a book knowing nothing more about it than that it was published by Graywolf, an independent that consistently publishes exceptional work. That proved true again with this collection of nine deceptively quiet stories that explore issues of family, class, age, racism, desires — met, unmet, and lamented — and, most consistently, masculinity in all its forms, from tentative to toxic, as it bleeds out through families and into society. Brinkley masters the art of revealing what simmers in the veins of each of his characters.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (Simon and Schuster). Though this is labeled a novel, it presents itself as a pair of delicately linked novellas bound more firmly in the end by an imagined interview. And it’s tempting to think of the first section, “Folly,” about a young editor’s relationship with a much older literary lion, as thinly veiled memoir given Halliday’s well-known early relationship with Philip Roth. But paired with “Madness,” in which Iraqi-American economist Amar is being held over a weekend in Heathrow Airport, both sections take on nuance and depth that demand close attention. This is a book you may feel the need, and desire, to reread immediately.
Educated - A Memoir by Tara Westover (Random House). As gripping a page-turner as any thriller, Westover recounts her surreal life in a family of survivalists who don’t believe in doctors, schools, or personal accountability, since everything is in God’s hands. The first time that Westover ever sits in a classroom is on her first day as a freshman at Brigham Young University; she has since received a Ph.D. from Cambridge. It’s an astonishing story, made more so by the fact that it continues to unfold for the author.
Friday Black by Nana Kwami Adjei-Brenyah (Mariner). These stories are brutal, unblinking, and revelatory, none more so than the first, “The Finkelstein 5.” In a few sentences, Adjei-Brenyah lays out what it is to be a black man in America. “In public, when people could actually see him, it was impossible to get his Blackness down to anywhere near a 1.5. If he wore a tie, wing-tipped shoes, smiled constantly, used his indoor voice, and kept his hands strapped and calm at his sides, he could get his Blackness as low as 4.0.” Many of these stories press against or go just over the boundary of realism, forcing readers to consider to what degree they are truly unrealistic. Others — like “Lark Street,” in which two aborted fetuses harass their father about his parenting choices — go fully over that boundary. These are stories that make a lasting impression.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon (Riverhead). This novel of faith turned to cult turned to violence takes place on an insular college campus, an island outside the stream of real life. Will Kendall mourns the loss of his fundamentalist faith, Phoebe Lin mourns the loss of her mother, and John Leal uses his odd charisma to draw all the similarly lost into his sphere. Because Phoebe has, in many ways, replaced God as the object of Will’s singular focus, John’s hold on Phoebe seems to him a malign force, but he fails to recognize that Phoebe isn’t his possession, either.
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (Riverhead). In this harrowing and oh-so-timely memoir, the author was a college grad with plenty of available opportunities when he decided to join the U.S. Border Patrol as a way of truly comprehending the issues at the U.S./Mexico border. His mother objected, fearing he would lose part of his humanity. Given some of his descriptions of the officers’ actions, which call to mind the thoughtless pack mentality that leads to abuses of power — I couldn’t help thinking of Abu Ghraib — she may have been right. But his insights make plain the absurdity of a 2,000-mile-long barrier, as well as what can only be described as overkill in current U.S. border enforcement policy.
There There by Tommy Orange (Knopf). The author, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, begins his novel with an essay filled with salient facts about the Native-American experience, thus ensuring his readers start out with a shared historical understanding. In the sprawling novel that follows of the “urban Indian” community in Oakland, California, we meet a widely diverse cast of Natives, each with a unique story but a common search for whatever is critically missing: family, money, belonging, a sense of heritage. Orange uses the drawing power of a powwow to bring his large cast of characters together, as he relentlessly tightens the screws on this story so that you can't look away.