Hooked on Books: Unsung awards can yield great reads

National Outdoor Book Awards this year went to “Battle of Ink and Ice” by Darrell Hartman and “What an Owl Knows” by Jennifer Ackerman. (Covers courtesy Viking and Penguin)

It may not be as reliable as a word-of-mouth suggestion from your trusted best friend, but one common method readers rely on for choosing a good book is by paying attention to which authors are snagging the top awards handed out annually by various respected literary organizations. And while we’re all pretty aware of the Pulitzers, the National Book Awards, the super-lucrative Booker Prize and the bests-of-the-year from the New York Times, there are many less high-profile groups that scrupulously scour through the latest published works to make their recommendations. 

Some focus exclusively on a particular genre, as the National Outdoor Book Awards did this year to give “Battle of Ink and Ice” by Darrell Hartman and “What an Owl Knows” by Jennifer Ackerman top honors in their Outdoor Literature category, one of the 16 awards in 10 fields the organization, which is housed at Idaho State University, handed out for 2023.

With the hefty subtitle “A Sensational Story of News Barons, North Pole Explorers, and the Making of Modern Media,” Hartman’s book honed in on the early 20th-century exploits of Arctic explorers Robert Peary and Frederick Cook and the media wars set off between their respective backers, the New York Times and the New York Herald (with each paper telling their reporters to make sure their side triumphs!) Ackerman’s winner, subtitled “The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds,” garnered praise for being “delightfully informative …passionate, entertaining and full of surprises.” Read more about the 27-year-old NOBAs at noba-web.org.

Hilarious writing is the exclusive focus of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, administered by The Thurber House, a museum and literary arts hub in Columbus, Ohio, in recognition of the achievements of the late hometown writer, cartoonist and playwright James Thurber. The 23rd recipient will be introduced at a red-carpet event labeled “the funniest award show, ever” in May 2024, along with two other finalists. None of the authors in contention has been announced, but past winners include James McBride in 2021 for his novel “Deacon King Kong” and Trevor Noah in 2017 for his memoir “Born a Crime.”

A few other prizes are dedicated to the memory of famed authors. The John Steinbeck Awards, administered by the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, were launched in 1996 to recognize, not just authors (although many of them are), but artists whose works in any field reflected that Nobel Prize winner’s “empathy, commitment to democratic values and belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes.”

Bruce Springsteen was the first recipient, and subsequent awardees included “Working” author Studs Terkel, Jackson Browne, “Kite Runner” author Khaled Hosseini and Joan Baez. The 2023 winner, Jane Fonda, accepted her prize for her own campaigns for social justice at a ceremony at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco in September, at which she spoke movingly about memories of her father and his starring role as Tom Joad in the 1942 film adaptation of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Novelist Edan Lepucki is in the running for a Joyce Carol Oates Prize. (Photo courtesy Adam Karsten)

The incredibly prolific author Joyce Carol Oates also has a prize named in her honor, and it is administered locally by the New Literary Project, a nonprofit based in Oakland that has cooperative ventures with University of California, Berkeley and St. Mary’s College.

The purpose of the award, which carries a $50,000 stipend, is to encourage the continuing emergence of midcareer writers who have had at least two praiseworthy books published but who have not yet been recipients of honors such as a Pulitzer or a National Book Award.

The first Joyce Carol Oates Prize went to T. Geronimo Johnson in 2017. The subsequent winners were Anthony Marra, Laila Lalami, Daniel Mason, Danielle Evans, Lauren Groff and last year’s awardee, Manuel Muñoz.

The long list of 31 for the 2024 award, which will be narrowed in March, with the winner announced in April, include Emma Cline, Teju Cole, Bryan Washington, Téa Obreht, Kevin Powers, Kathryn Ma, and Edan Lepucki. 

The Northern California Book Awards and the Commonwealth Club’s California Book Awards are long-established prizes that honor this state’s literary talent, now entering their 43rd and 93rd years respectively. I have only recently become aware, however, of another set of such awards, administered collectively by the people who make their living selling books.

Ballots for the Golden Poppy Awards, handed out by the California Independent Booksellers Alliance, are prepped by committees for each of 14 competitive categories and then voted on by all the bookstore owners and their employees. The voting period for the 2023 Golden Poppies runs Jan. 1 to Jan. 15 of 2024, with winners announced at a virtual ceremony on Jan. 25.

In the running this year in the fiction category are Byron Lane’s “Big Gay Wedding,” Steven Rowley’s “The Celebrants,” Abraham Verghese’s “The Covenant of Water,” Melissa Broder’s “Death Valley” and Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s “What We Kept to Ourselves.” 

In the (loaded) pipeline: Over the course of the next few months, we can anticipate the arrival of quite a few new books from authors we have read and appreciated before. Coming up in February, on the 27th, is “Wandering Stars” (Knopf, $29, 336 pages) from “There There” author and Oakland native Tommy Orange, who is continuing to explore the complexities of Native heritage. Set both in 1864 Colorado and Oakland in 2018, the novel follows a young survivor of the Sand Creek Massacre who is forced into a Christian school and a modern Cheyenne woman who is struggling to hold her fractured family together.

April will bring us two works that seem promising: A New York City-based collection from “A Gentleman in Moscow” author Amor Towles, publishing on April 2, “Table for Two” (Viking, $28.80, 464 pages) contains six short stories and a novella that resurrects Evelyn Ross, a main character from my favorite novel of his, 2011’s “Rules of Civility.” On the 23rd, from Carmel Valley resident Jane Smiley, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Thousand Acres,” we’ll have “Lucky” (Knopf, $29, 384 pages), the first of this prolific writer’s novels to be set in her St. Louis hometown. It revolves around young Jodie Rattler, who wins a roll of $2 bills when her uncle takes her to a racetrack in 1955, tracing her development as she grows up to become a well-known folk music artist.

Irish author Colm Toibin also returns to a character he focused on in his 2015 best-seller “Brooklyn,” the enigmatic Eilis Lacey, so rivetingly brought to life by Saoirse Ronan in the Oscar-nominated film of the same name. “Long Island” (Scribner, $28, 304 pages), coming out on May 7, catches up with the Irish immigrant who married the Italian-American plumber 20 years later, as she is visited on her doorstep by a mysterious Irishman who announces he will bring her the baby her husband fathered with his wife. 

Hooked on Books is a monthly column by Sue Gilmore on current literary buzz and can’t-miss upcoming book events. Look for it here every last Thursday of the month.       

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