SoCal finds a place among National Book Critics finalists
When the National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its 2009 awards Saturday in New York, two Southern California books made the list. William T. Vollmann's "Imperial," a 1,306-page tome delving into the border county, is a finalist for the nonfiction award; the novel "Blame" by Altadena-based author Michelle Huneven is up for the award in fiction.
David L. Ulin wrote about Vollmann, a singularly dedicated and exhaustive author, and the story behind "Imperial."
To write it, he spent 10 years visiting Imperial County, interviewing hundreds of people, reading history and public records, soaking up folklore. The result is a hybrid -- curious only if you're unfamiliar with Vollmann's work -- a massive, multilayered look at the border region of southeastern California, from the Colorado River to the Coachella Valley, Mexicali to the Salton Sea. Merging journalism and narrative, sociology and myth, the book is less about Imperial County than the place Vollmann calls Imperial, which exists most firmly in his mind.
In Huneven's "Blame," a promising, drinking Berkeley professor gets into a car accident that changes her life. Our reviewer Brigitte Frase wrote:
The satisfactions "Blame" offers readers are elegant prose and, deeper than that aesthetic pleasure, the intelligence and compassion Huneven brings to her characters. She holds them all with the utmost tenderness.
Another finalist that deals with drinking is Mary Karr's memoir "Lit," nominated for autobiography. Reviewer Samantha Dunn wrote:
The boozy, lunatic behavior of her mother so darkened Karr's childhood, yet her later sobriety serves as a kind of beacon of possibility. Her sister, Lecia, becomes her biggest fan and supporter. And finally, it is her son, Dev, who shows her the way to faith and who inspires her to share her story. "Maybe by telling you my story, you can better tell yours, which is the only way to get home, by which I mean to get free of us," she writes.
If the fluidity of memory is acknowledged by Karr in her book, it presented an entirely different kind of challenge for Tracy Kidder in writing "Strength in What Remains," a nonfiction finalist. The book tells the story of Deogratias from Burundi, a refugee who was homeless in America before attending Columbia, Harvard and Dartmouth and returning to Burundi, where he founded a healthcare organization. Susan Salter Reynolds talked to Kidder in 2009:
While we in the West have come to believe in the importance of memory, of telling your story, Burundians do not talk about the dead. This made Kidder's job even more difficult. Deo had told his story to his co-workers, but it took extraordinary tact and persistence for Kidder to re-create it. ... "You set someone in motion, try to hear them thinking," Kidder says. ... "It must be terribly lonely," he says, "to have a story you keep to yourself."
In addition to these four NBCC finalists, there are 26 other books in the running, sharing many other stories.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: William T. Vollmann. Credit: Robert Durell / For The Times