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Book News: First-Ever Kirkus Prize Picks 18 Finalists


The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

Clear some space at this season's awards festivities: It's time to make room for 18 more writers. This morning, Kirkus Reviews shared with NPR the finalists for its first annual writing award, the Kirkus Prize — six writers each in fiction, nonfiction and young readers' literature.

Among the finalists in fiction, Ethiopian-American writer — and former MacArthur fellow — Dinaw Mengestu'sAll Our Names joins Welsh author Sarah Waters, whose novel The Paying Guests is "one of the most sensual you will ever read," according to NPR reviewer Julia Keller. Meanwhile, on the nonfiction side, finalists include Thomas Piketty, whose debate-stirring Capital in the Twenty-First Century has long stayed on the best-seller charts, and Roz Chast's illustrated memoir, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

The books recognized for achievement in young readers' literature range from picture books such as Kate Samworth's gorgeous and sardonic Aviary Wonders to Don Mitchell's civil rights history The Freedom Summer Murders.

Into a crowded awards season, Kirkus Reviews has tossed the heft of its 81-year history — and perhaps more notably, the weight of its wallet. With a purse of $50,000 for the winner of each category, the award joins the ranks of the Man Booker Prize and the Folio Fiction Prize — itself a recent arrival on the awards scene — as one of the richest literary prizes available to English-language writers.

To be considered, shortlisters first had to receive a starred review from one of Kirkus' reviewers, at which point the books were automatically brought before three separate groups of judges — judges such as author Sloane Crosley, who served on the nonfiction panel.

In an email exchange with NPR, Crosley explained that in the award's inaugural year, it was the judges' responsibility to "set the tenor" of what the annual prize would become.

"We looked for topical variety and stellar writing, books that were wall-to-wall with research, often groundbreaking research, that told their stories in a fascinating way," she said. "Or books that were heartfelt and human but also filled with all the information needed to make us feel like we got the fullest story and the best possible delivery of that story."

In addition to Mengestu and Waters, the full list of fiction finalists includes Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World, Lily King's Euphoria, Brian Morton's Florence Gordon and Bill Roorbach's The Remedy for Love.

Beyond Piketty and Chast, the nonfiction list also recognizes Leo Damrosch's biography Jonathan Swift, Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy and Amanda Marie Leroi's The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science.

And joining Samworth and Mitchell are young readers' literature finalists Cece Bell's El Deafo, Jack Gantos' The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza, Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet's The Right Word and E.K. Johnston's The Story of Owen, Dragon Slayer of Trondheim.

Winners will be announced at a ceremony on Oct. 23, just before the start of the Texas Book Festival in Austin.

Remember These Folks? Well, we have a winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize: Shawn Vestal's collection Godforsaken Idaho, which you can hear him reading here.

A Farewell In Wales: Welsh poet and novelist Dannie Abse died Sunday at the age of 91. In a remembrance in The Guardian, Vernon Scannell writes of Abse's poetry: "It offers entertainment, deep feeling and thought, and its own quirky and memorable music." And in The Telegraph, Charlotte Runcie reminds us of some of Abse's best-known lines. This, from "Anniversary," appears particularly fitting:

"What happens to a flame blown out?

What perishes? Only the view,

never my magnified hand in yours"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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