NBCC Leonard Award Judging

For the past few years, I’ve been a member of the National Book Critics Circle. There are many great perks with membership. But one of my very favorite things about my involvement with this group is that I get to serve on a smaller committee that determines the Leonard Award. The John Leonard Prize recognizes the best debut of the year.

At the end of each year, those of us on the committee vote to determine the nominees. This year, several of the titles I nominated are nominees, but there are also a couple I haven’t read yet. To be fair in my judging, I’m going back through each of the titles over the next couple of weeks.

I’ll post my thoughts on each of the books below:

Francisco Canto’s The Line Becomes a River: I love stories of immigration, so I was ready to fall for this book big time. I mean, I was REALLY ready. Somehow, though, the writing never really emotionally clicked with me. Although the story is obviously a personal one, it didn’t quite translate that way to me. At least not always. This isn’t to say I disliked the book. I actually enjoyed it quite a lot. The stories about immigration Canto tells are so human—some of beauty and some of horror—that it’s impossible not to respect what’s accomplished in these pages. Canto largely avoids political trappings. This book serves as a reminder that border security is such a complicated issue that politicizing it, which we’ve (sadly) done, really does nothing at all except hurt the innocent.

Tommy Orange’s There There: I think of this book as being a novel in stories although, at least I think, it’s intended to be considered solely a novel. Classification doesn’t really matter—what does matter is if it’s any good. And, yes, it is. This book has stayed with me throughout the year. During my second reading, I found it just a blistering, powerful, violent, and propulsive as I did when I first read it. The 12 native voices who are going to the Big Oakland Powwow are totally unique and wonderful to experience. I do think some sections are better than others. I mean, isn’t that true for any book? But this piece of fiction is important and, by my definition, a masterpiece. It’s not only (possibly) the best debut of the year, but it’s also among the finest books (maybe THE finest book) of 2018.

R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries: I had planned on reading this one pre-pub, but other responsibilities got in the way. I’m so thankful the NBCC nominated this book for the Leonard Prize because I very possibly might’ve moved on to 2019 without experiencing it. And what an experience it is. It’s dark and tragic and beautiful. It reads very lyrically, especially in the shorter chapters. Will and Phoebe have such a complicated and intense relationship. Watching it unfold as Kwon pulls back each layer is such a pleasure. Kwon looks at religion and twisted “love” affairs in a way that is so, so raw. This book is one that will stay with me. 

Nana Kwami Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black: I first read this collection a month or so ago, and I’ve frequently thought of it—especially the title story. I mean, it’s as timely as timely can get. Friday Black works so well because the stories fit together as a cohesive collection. I think it’s stronger, as a whole, than any of its stories are as lone reads. The violence throughout is horrifying, as are the scenes of injustice and racism. This is a spectacularly written debut—one that has me eager for his next work. 

Tara Westover’s Educated: Westover’s memoir is a stirring call to the power and importance of self. As a whole work, Educated is a beautiful story—one full of equal amounts of despair and hope. It’s a little long and repetitive as it gets near its end, but those are minor issues. It’s a book that lots of folks love. I appreciate its appeal and its hearts.

Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man: Brinkley’s collection is one of my favorites of 2018. He looks at masculinity, race, & class issues with grace. Each of these 9 stories is exquisite, bursting with vivid characters and setups. I admire how Brinkley handles the fragility and weight of the past. It’s the past that shapes so much of how the stories evolve. The title story, “No More Than a Bubble,” “Clifton’s Place,” & “Infinite Happiness” are just about perfect, and the others are close. Depending on the day, I’d honestly probably add any of the other stories to that list. I like it even more as I sit and think about it, which has been the case since I first read it upon its release. 

Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry: Not all books are for all readers, and this one just wasn’t for me. I tried, but I’m honestly not even sure what was going on (and I’m generally, at least I like to think, a good reader). I didn’t make the connections. I didn’t get what was happening thematically. I just didn’t get it. There are some beautiful sentences throughout, though, so that was cool.

My decision is down to 2 books. I’m going to think on them some more and see which one lingers the longest. I’ll be excited to see what other committee members think. The winner of the Leonard Prize will be announced on January 21st!

Bradley Sides