To celebrate the new partnership between Rollins and the National Book Award on Campus program, English professor and Winter With the Writers director Carol Frost explores her five favorite National Book Award finalists.
A Little Life tells the story of four brilliant men, deeply bound to each other since college. Jude, who becomes a lawyer, William (an actor), JB (an artist), and Malcolm (an architect), trade pretensions, bristle, laugh, go to parties, and look for apartments. Mid-novel, as Jude’s horrific childhood abuses return to memory with particularity and force, the narrative darkens. The author asks her readers to consider what the body can endure that the mind cannot. In sentences of lingering, unnerving beauty, the tragic is realized and love remains. That love—seen in the moments of tenderness and support that Jude’s friends offer him—is elemental, the heartbreak irreducible.
Sy Montgomery’s memoir starts with her interactions with the giant Pacific octopus—wild-caught and shipped to the Boston New England Aquarium—and ends with her time free diving with the same species of octopus in Polynesian waters. Author and invertebrate often seem absorbed in each other’s presence, arms and tentacles stroking, horizontal pupils started into and staring back. Without the clarity and discretion of Montgomery’s scientifically imbued prose, the author’s conclusions—which imply that there is much, much more going on than instinct and reaction in an octopus’ behavior—could not have become so compelling.
Ross Gay tells readers that death comes after the fruit of our gardens—painted in soil and in the imaginations—gives us sustenance. The poems are nuanced but not whispered. Voice rises in exultation, simmers with pleasure, lament, and laughs. The poems are an urgent reminder of a larger reality that styling or sentient or truth-telling. A mother and father’s love and estrangement at death aren’t simplified. Mixed emotions are the author’s givens. But despite life’s “wreckage,” the poet says natural song may arise, with a giggle instead of irony and woe.
Fortune Smiles offers perspectives on contemporary life that we haven’t heard. The six stories are darkly comic, edgy, and strange. Mr. Roses, plagued by memories of being abused as a young Sea Scout, is trying to control his sexual impulses toward children. A former warden of a Stasi prison wants to disregard the pieces of the past that turn up, wrapped in paper and twine, in his front yard. A man in his mid-20s, who lives out of the UPS truck he drives, is looking for the mother of his son in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A cancer survivor falls in and out of surreal dreaming as she makes her arduous way back to her family. The writing is brave, tuned to the new century.
Robin Coste Lewis
A book about bodies, art, and race, Robin Coste Lewis’ collection of poems is personal and historical. The title is taken from an etching by Thomas Stothard showing an African woman on a plush shell, surrounded by cherubs, being towed by dolphins to the Americas. The voyage in the etching starkly contrasts the horrific crossing depicted in Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage.” But in the book’s titular poem, the middle section of three, Lewis makes a brilliant and troubling series of revelations about degradation and beauty from the Stothard etching and hundreds of other art works depicting slaves and bodies of women.