Now that I am tracking more book awards than I did a couple years ago, I feel like there are so many that I can barely keep up with them all. Below are some debuts that have won prizes, or been shortlisted, in the US this spring. Next month, I will write about notable books from the UK and Australia. What I think is interesting about book prizes is that they often choose books that have been less commercially successful or take on unique topics.
Have you read any of the debuts below? Or read about them? I’d be curious to know what you think or know about the books.
The PEN/Robert W. Bingham shortlist is out and the winner will be announced on June 8th. This prize “honors an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work—a novel or collection of short stories—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.” Two of the books on the shortlist, Ruby, by Cynthia Bond and Redeployment, by Phil Klay have gotten a lot of attention this year. The other books on the shortlist take us into different worlds and countries:
The Dog, by Jack Livings, a collection of short stories set in contemporary China.
The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol, another collection of short stories set in the US, the former Soviet Union and Israel.
Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce, is a novel about a young woman who is a single mom and a waitress in a steakhouse. The book explores her self-destructive lifestyle. This book has been noted by reviewers for Tierce’s open and honest writing.
The LA Times Book Awards has the The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. The 2014 award went to Valeria Luiselli for Faces in the Crowd, a novel translated from Spanish and set in Mexico City, Harlem and Philadelphia. It tells the story of a writer/translator looking back on her life and an obscure Mexican poet. The book “plays with the idea of time and identity.” Seems like a unique and literary read.
The Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction is one of the Publishing Triangle Awards. It recognizes “outstanding first novels or story collections by LGBT authors.” This year’s award goes to For Today I am a Boy, by Kim Fu. This book, a coming of age story about a transgender boy, set in Canada, was also a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.
You Are One of Them
By Elliott Holt
I love to travel and am drawn to books about expats and people who explore the world. You Are One of Them is partially set in Moscow, in the early 1990s, and appeals to my wanderer side. I spent time in the 90s in what was then Czechoslovakia, and the lives of the American expats living in Moscow in this book remind me of my experiences in Eastern Europe at that time.
You Are One of Them tells the story of Sarah Zuckerman, an American woman whose best friend from childhood, Jennifer Jones, became famous after writing a letter to Yuri Andropov at age 10 asking him for peace. Not only does the letter get published in a Russian paper, Andropov replies and invites Jenny to the Soviet Union for a visit. Jenny writes a book about her trip, but her life ends tragically when she and her parents die in a plane crash a few years later.
After graduating from college, Sarah receives a letter from Svetlana, a young woman Jenny met on her trip to the Soviet Union. Svetlana lures Sarah to Moscow with the possibility that Jenny might not actually be dead. The book narrates the years Sarah and Jenny were friends growing up and then captures Sarah’s time in Moscow—where she spends three months. She lives with an American journalist who is the friend of a college friend and meets Svetlana.
Holt has an amazingly strong narrative voice. The book is told from Sarah’s perspective, and she is whip smart, a bit awkward, the only child of divorced parents, raised by an agoraphobic mother. The book deftly captures life in the US during the Cold War in the 80s and the early post-Cold War years in Moscow in the 90s. Ultimately this is a book about female friendship and how girlhood friendships stay with us as we become adults. There is also an abandonment theme to the story. Sarah not only lost Jenny, she also had an older sister who died, and after Sarah’s parents split up, her father moves back to the UK, and she barely sees him. Sarah is a young woman coming to terms with childhood loss as she figures out where she fits in the adult world.
If you are looking for a good summer read, or something to read while you travel, I recommend this book. I read most of it on a train ride to and from DC a short while ago. It is engrossing and satisfying, with a subtle sense of mystery.
Holt lives on the east coast. She won a Pushcart Award for her story “Fem Care.”