A Wealth of Truth: The National Book Awards 2012 Nonfiction Finalists

2012 National Book Award Nonfiction Finalists
2012 National Book Award Nonfiction Finalists

The winners of the 2012 National Book Awards will be announced Wednesday at a gala dinner in New York City, and biography and memoir are well represented in the nonfiction category. Here is our roundup of the finalists, selected from 479 books submitted for consideration by the judges, Brad Gooch, Linda Gordon, Woody Holton, Susan Orlean, and Judith Shulevitz. Who has your vote?

In February, Signature gathered the glowing reviews of Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” Boo’s book is biography as epic, both wide and deep in its exploration of the lives, beliefs, superstitions, and fears of the inhabitants of Annawadi, a Mumbai shantytown. This city-behind-a-city, in which families make a living off the trash of the wealthy, is inequality made concrete. In the wake of the economic crash of 2008, a place that once looked like a stepping-stone to prosperity has become a treacherous swamp. The family at the center of Boo’s narrative upsets their neighbor by installing a tile floor in their shack (“Beautiful Forevers” is a widely advertised tile brand), and is plunged – by the neighbor’s attempted self-immolation – into a Dickensian legal abyss of corruption and bribery. The book is rooted in four years’ worth of searching and self-effacing reporting; the result brings to life people and an environment that seldom capture the attention of a Western readership, and almost never with such intimacy, humanity, and power.

We called Robert A. Caro “the J. R. R. Tolkien of historical biographies” when the fourth volume of his life of Lyndon Johnson, “The Passage of Power,” was released in May. The book’s epic sweep and intricate plotting was hailed by reviewers including Bill Clinton (for The New York Times) as a crowning achievement, even as readers began to doubt whether Caro’s thirty-year (so far) biographical project could ever be completed. “The Passage of Power” covers the years from 1958 to 1964, during which Johnson experienced two wrenching changes in power and status. First, he left his influential role of Senate majority leader for what turned out to be a weak, sideshow position as vice president; then, after Kennedy’s assassination, he was suddenly propelled to the presidency – the office he had dreamed and boasted of holding since he was a seventeen-year-old laborer in the Texas hill country. Caro’s previous installment, 2002’s “Master of the Senate,” won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, so this book has a lot to live up to.

In February this year, Antony Shadid was on assignment in Syria for The New York Times when he died suddenly of a suspected asthma attack. In the book that unexpectedly became his memorial, “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East," he tells the story of the year he spent restoring his great-grandfather’s crumbling estate in Lebanon. In a tense, unfriendly environment, Shadid – who had been beaten and imprisoned during the revolutionary uprisings in Libya in April 2011 – commits himself to a restoration that is both physical and personal. He is exhausted by years of reporting on violence and struggle in the Middle East, and in the wake of his divorce, driven forward by his “desire to resurrect what once stood for something.” His personal story, and those of his neighbors, hired workers, and tentative new friends, are interleaved with tales of his ancestors in the region, and with the ancient and modern history of the Middle East, to offer a sympathetic insight into this endlessly misunderstood region.

The least-known book on the finalist list, Domingo Martinez’s memoir “The Boy Kings of Texas,” richly deserves this boost to its profile. The author grew up in the Texas border town of Brownsville in the 1980s, and as soon as he graduated high school, moved to Seattle – about as far away as he could get – and set about unraveling, with a therapist, the impact of his upbringing in a culture of machismo, racism, and casual violence. Martinez ruthlessly and riotously exposes the insecurities behind the posturing of crude, tough men like his drunken father. In a world where language and ethnicity are tangled up with destiny – “English was power” – there are plenty of unpredictable pitfalls: “I was, as Domingo Martinez Jr., called ‘Yuñior,’ eventually to be called ‘June’ when we made the switch to English. I was a boy named ‘June.’” He is also a confident, playful, and sharp-eyed guide.

Anne Applebaum’s previous books include a Pulitzer-winning history of the Russian Gulags and an anthology of memoirs from the camps, “Gulag Voices.” Her skill at bringing out the human cost of vast historical upheaval is evident throughout “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956.” The march of Communism throughout Eastern Europe is meticulously researched with the help of newly opened archives, and brought to life in the book by interviews and first-person accounts recording the lived experience of a world suddenly and utterly transformed. In Applebaum’s view, Stalin’s totalitarian Eastern Bloc is now “a lost civilization,” still imperfectly understood as it fades into memory. By vividly re-creating its political and cultural impact on a dozen diverse and distinct societies, her history offers an essential corrective to this amnesia.

So … who has your vote?