Congratulations to the finalists of this year's PEN America Literary Awards (most of the winners will be revealed at a ceremony at the NYU Skirball Center on February 20). Recognizing the best in the fields of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography, essay, translation, and more, recipients will share a $315,000 cash prize. In a year when women's rights are once again at the forefront of the cultural conversation, it is interesting to note that, for the first time, the finalists for the PEN/ Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction are all literary ladies, including Hannah Lillith Assadi for Sonora, Venita Blackburn for Black Jesus and Other Superheroes: Stories, Carmen Maria Machado for Her Body and Other Parties: Stories, Emily Fridlund for History of Wolves, and Jenny Zhang for Sour Heart.
Here is what we had to say about a few of our favorites on the shortlist, including a bittersweet selection from the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin. If you'd like to see see the full list of finalists, click here.
Thrumming with humor and revelation, White Tears by Hari Kunzru (author of the 2012 novel Gods without Men) is a smart, incisive portrait of music, male friendship, and race. At its most basic level, Kunzru weaves a story of two best friends who get caught in the deadly underworld of record collecting. When their new song is mistaken for an authentic and rare 1950s recording, violence ensues and the dangerous quest to discover the true 1950s musician unravels the reality of racism. The novel’s brilliance and beat is derived from the story Kunzru tells about white privilege, the exploitation of black culture and how they reverberate through life and music. Kunzru is a skilled writer – his descriptions of 1950s blues will make any music buff start tapping their toe; and his ability to render America’s relationship with race is as haunting and unforgettable as the song the novel is centered on. --Al Woodworth
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund is exactly the kind of book you want to curl up with in the winter. It’s propulsive, vividly written, laced with a razor’s chill and filled with imagery that’s impossible to forget. There is a constant sense of foreboding, of wondering when the truth will crash through the Minnesota ice. Linda is a loner, a teenage girl who walks to school and lives on a failed commune in the woods. But her life of solitude cracks open when her history teacher—whom she fantasizes about—is charged with child pornography. Outside of school, Linda begins to spend time with a young boy and his mother who moved into a house across the lake, but their family, like her teacher, are not as they appear. Fridlund masterfully ratchets up the tension, exploding this story of secrets and girlhood with crisp, cutting prose that will leave you shocked and in awe. A remarkable novel, that just so happens to be a debut, by a fiercely talented writer. --Al Woodworth
Ursula K. Le Guin is comfortable with her age. Or at least she’s comfortable with the fact that it’s not a completely comfortable arrangement. In the opener to this collection of personal essays, Le Guin notes that, now that she’s in her eighties, all her time is occupied by the activities of life—she has no spare time and no time to spare. Le Guin is a thoughtful and careful writer, and so her opinions are thoughtfully and carefully organized. She knows what she thinks, and she writes so well that you’ll want to return to these candid essays—the product of a blog she started when she was 81 years old—like returning to an older, wiser friend. —Chris Schluep
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