Congratulations to the finalists of the PEN America Literary awards, announced this week (winners will be revealed on February 26). Recognizing the best in the fields of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography, essay, translation, and more, recipients will share a $370,000 cash prize. Small presses and debuts dominate the shortlist, and we were also excited to see some of our favorite books from 2018 make the cut. See what we had to say about them below, and view all of the finalists here.
Do you love trees? I thought I did, until I read Richard Powers's The Overstory, and I realized that my appreciation of trees was lightweight at best. When one of Powers's characters goes to a small grove outside her office window to determine the tree's species, "She stands with her nose in the bark, perversely intimate. She doses herself for a long time, like a hospice patient self-administering the morphine." Trees are not exactly an addiction to the wide-ranging cast of characters--an engineer, a Vietnam vet, a college student, a videogame designer, and more—but more like a touchstone that offers tradition and destiny at once. Powers, a National Book Award and Pushcart Prize–winning author, is devious in that he first immerses the reader in the lives of his characters before delicately oxygenating his story with the devastation of Dutch elm disease, the enduring strength of the sequoia, and the communication methods trees use to warn of predators and to lure allies. The Overstory might sound a bit woo-woo—and it definitely is that, though in such a way that it inspires passion instead of eye-rolling. This gorgeously written novel will seduce you into looking more closely at not only our fellow human beings but the towering bio-kingdom that is too often merely a backdrop to our days. Perhaps, like me, you will be inspired to walk out into the night to smell the rain sweeping through the nearby evergreen trees. —Adrian Liang
Tara Westover wasn’t your garden variety college student. When the Holocaust was mentioned in a history class, she didn’t know what it was (no, really). That’s because she didn’t see the inside of a classroom until the age of seventeen. Public education was one of the many things her religious fanatic father was dubious of, believing it a means for the government to brainwash its gullible citizens, and her mother wasn’t diligent on the homeschooling front. If it wasn’t for a brother who managed to extricate himself from their isolated—and often dangerous--world, Westover might still be in rural Idaho, trying to survive her survivalist upbringing. It’s a miraculous story she tells in her memoir Educated. For those of us who took our educations for granted, who occasionally fell asleep in large lecture halls (and inconveniently small ones), it’s hard to grasp the level of grit—not to mention intellect—required to pull off what Westover did. But eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge University may have been the easy part, at least compared to what she had to sacrifice to attain it. The courage it took to make that sacrifice was the truest indicator of how far she’d come, and how much she’d learned. Educated is an inspiring reminder that knowledge is, indeed, power. --Erin Kodicek
Freshwater is a mesmerizing and poetic novel that cracks open notions of self-control, mental illness, and love. With every passing page, I felt myself submerge into the complex depths of Ada’s identity letting the waves of Igbo lore infiltrate my understanding of the world and completely change my perception of a person’s agency. The novel is narrated by the ogbange, “godly parasites with many heads,” that reside within “the marble room” of Ada, a Nigerian woman who has moved to North Carolina to attend college. As she enters adulthood, the gods take over and she is powerless to their demands. Though they have protected and comforted her, they also make her rage, inflict violence and destroy relationships with the ones she loves. It’s a devastatingly clear yet spiritual portrait of a life guided by a fractured self and what happens when your body is merely a vessel to the nefarious demons inside. A startling, beautifully written debut. --Al Woodworth
You might read this book for its wickedly serrated, apocalyptic humor: two driven young women continue to show up at their Manhattan publishing jobs even as they’re among the last people left in the city. You might go in for the love story of two twentysomethings who meet over cigarettes on a shared fire escape. Or, you might pick the book up to experience how deftly the author captures the violent ennui of youth in the character of Candace Chen. Candace avoids overthinking how to build a meaningful life – and tries not disappoint her immigrant parents – while working in the production department of a publishing house and, later, photographing the ruins of New York for her anonymous blog. Certainly, fans of dystopian fiction will savor the understated horror of how the world ends. Most everyone contracts a mysterious disease that impels them to continuously reenact a common routine from their life. A particularly gruesome scene involves a family going through the motions of dinner as they physically waste away: the emaciated mom sets the table as the rest of the family sits down in their places to vigorously lick the plates and mouth the cutlery…only to return the plates to the cupboard and repeat the scene again. It’s these zombies that Candace and the small group of survivors she joins encounter on supply raids – and who are ‘mercifully’ shot dead by Bob, the group’s ruthless leader. Severance raises questions about how loneliness shapes identity, the hilarity and horror of the human capacity to normalize, and the stupefying effect of an urge for comfort (while also digging a well of empathy for those drawn to the familiar). Funny and upsetting, with a strange and noble stillness at its core, this deceptively light read will leave readers wanting the story to continue even after learning Candace’s big secret. --Katy Ball
What does it really mean to be an Indian/Native American/American Indian/Native? Orange's vivid debut novel allows a unique cast—ranging from teenagers to elders—to pull this question apart even as they add a modern layer of complexity: They live in the urban landscape of Oakland, California. The thrust of Orange's cross-cut storytelling is not to force his characters onto a strict plot line but to explore the varied ways of being an Indian and, more important, of feeling like an Indian. Fractured families, Oakland itself, and detachment from tradition make an Indian identity seem even more elusive to the younger characters, but it's a feeling that they unknowingly share—and that Orange wants to expose. As an amateur filmmaker says to a teen he's interviewing, "When you hear stories from people like you, you feel less alone." Isolation and longing permeate the page, lifted briefly only as the characters intersect at the Big Oakland Powwow, with chaotic results. If I have any quibble about the book (and it could be a failure of mine, really), it's that there are a few too many characters for me to comfortably hold in my head. But then again, this isn't a comfortable novel, and therein lies its power and purpose. —Adrian Liang
Cherry by Nico Walker is a mesmerizingly dark, comic, often drug-fueled ride through war, romance and bank heists. You’ll laugh out loud, your mind will bend to understand the gritty, ceaseless pressure of being an Army medic in Iraq, and your stomach will hurt with the pain of PTSD and what drugs can do to a body and a mind. Nico Walker is a gifted, unrelenting storyteller and his debut calls to mind the raw and wrecked characters of Denis Johnson and the devastatingly necessary post-war stories of Phil Klay. While at times bleak, this is a novel of our time, a story about a Midwestern boy who falls in love, enlists in the Army (because school is not for him and what else is he going to do), returns from war and falls prey to the escapes of heroin. An explosively cutting and page-turning debut. --Al Woodworth