The NBAs give you a chance to put your money where your mouth is
The Brits do it better.
Every year, when the Man Booker Prize nominees are announced for the best novel by a British author, limey oddsmakers make a game out of guessing the winner.
With the nominees for theNational Book Awards now set, we'd like to get a taste of that action. We're setting the odds only for fiction and nonfiction, mostly for reasons of space but also because they seem a bit easier to predict. Last year, the NBA judges were hit with more than a few rotten tomatoes for picking five obscure, low-selling novels by women authors who all lived in New York. This year, the list seems a bit broader with much bigger names.
E.L. Doctorow, The March. It's about the Civil War, it's Seriouswith a capital S and its first line includes grandiloquent language like "her mind prepared for the alarm of war, but the heart stricken that it would finally have come..." Plus, Doctorow has the NBA he won for World's Fair hanging above his headboard. Odds: 3 to 1.
Mary Gaitskill, Veronica. Gaitskill's novel hits all the right settings (Paris, California, Manhattan) and recounts a young woman's coming-of-age and her friendship with a kooky older woman. She also has the best mix of inventiveness and accessibility on the list. Odds: 5 to 1.
Christopher Sorrentino, Trance. Probably our favorite book on the list, Sorrentino's novelized version of Patty Hearst's stint with the Symbionese Liberation Army lacks the tin ear affected by most novels that try to capture a "zeitgeist." Odd: 6 to 1.
René Steinke, Holy Skirts. Steinke's reimagining of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a flapper, artist and hip lady of 1920s Greenwich Village, was a vibrant and gorgeous novel, but a bit overstuffed at times. It may be the least-reviewed book on this year's list, which could be a boost. Odds: 12 to 1.
William T. Vollmann, Europe Central. Judges are no different from critics in that they will often reach for the novel before the short-story collection because it's easier to grasp. Since Vollmann's work is the only collection on the list and one with a fair number of dense stories, it's fair to say he doesn't have a shot in hell. Still, we'd love to hear the off-his-rocker Vollmann give an award speech. Odds: 80 gajillion to 1.
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking. We thought Didion's story of her daughter's continued illness and her husband's death sounded on one note for its entire length, but in Didion's hands it's a sad and beautiful note. She has one nomination under her belt, and we can't imagine how this won't get her the gold. Odds: 5 to 4.
Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers. Flynn and Dywer, both New York Times reporters, conducted hundreds of interviews and combed through hours of transcripts to depict the harrowing moments when the World Trade Center's occupants fought to escape on September 11. It's difficult to turn away from this haunting book. Odds: 3 to 1.
Alan Burdick, Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion. As humans globe-trot, so do their native animals and plants. Burdick's book is the first comprehensive look at the science of invasion, and pop-science books are growing increasingly popular. Odds: 7 to 1.
Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. This story of a badass cadre of Londoners who started a grassroots movement to end slavery in the empire in 1787 (using all of the hippie handbook tricks: posters, handbills, buttons) has a shot thanks to Hochschild's serious reporting chops. Odds: 10 to 1.
Leo Damrosch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. Joan Didion on the death of her husband, true tales of death and survival on September 11, and a streetwise slavery revolt all at once? Sorry, looks like 2005 ain't Jean-Jacques's year. Odds: My right arm to 1.
The National Book Foundation doles out the bling on November 16.