Annal: 1997 National Book Award for Nonfiction

Results of the National Book Award in the year 1997.

Book:American Sphinx

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

Joseph J. Ellis

For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight—and not only during his active political career. After 1809, his longed-for retirement was compromised by a steady stream of guests and tourists who made of his estate at Monticello a virtual hotel, as well as by more than one thousand letters per year, most from strangers, which he insisted on answering personally. In his twilight years Jefferson was already taking on the luster of a national icon, which was polished off by his auspicious death (on July 4, 1896); and in the subsequent seventeen decades of his celebrity—now verging, thanks to virulent revisionists and television documentaries, on notoriety—has been inflated beyond recognition of the original person.

For the historian Joseph J. Ellis, the experience of writing about Jefferson was “as if a pathologist, just about to…[more]

Book:The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara

David I. Kertzer

Bologna, 1858: A police posse, acting on the orders of a Catholic inquisitor, invades the home of a Jewish merchant, Momolo Mortara, wrenches his crying six-year-old son from his arms, and rushes him off in a carriage bound for Rome. His mother is so distraught that she collapses and has to be taken to a neighbor’s house, but her weeping can be heard across the city. With this terrifying scene—one that would haunt this family forever—David I. Kertzer begins his fascinating investigation of the dramatic kidnapping, and shows how the deep-rooted antisemitism of the Catholic Church would eventually contribute to the collapse of its temporal power in Italy. As Edgardo’s parents desperately search for a way to get their son back, they learn why he—out of all their eight children—was taken. Years earlier, the family’s Catholic serving girl, fearful that the infant might die of an illness, had secretly baptized him (or so she claimed). Edgardo recovered, but when the story reached the Bologna Inquisitor,…[more]

Book:My Brother

My Brother

Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid’s incantatory, poetic, and often shockingly frank recounting of her brother Devon Drew’s life is also the story of her family on the island of Antigua, a constellation centered on the powerful, sometimes threatening figure of the writer’s mother. Kincaid’s unblinking record of a life that ed too early speaks volumes about the difficult truths at the heart of all families.

Book:The Undertaking

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

Thomas Lynch

The Undertaking was a winner of an American Book Award and finalist for the National Book Award. A chronicle of small-town life and death told through the eyes of a poet who is also an undertaker. “Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople.” So opens this singular and wise testimony. Like all poets, inspired by death, Thomas Lynch is, unlike others, also hired to bury the dead or to cremate them and to tend to their families in a small Michigan town where he serves as the funeral director. In the conduct of these duties he has kept his eyes open, his ear tuned to the indispensable vernaculars of love and grief. In these twelve pieces his is the voice of both witness and functionary. Here, Lynch, poet to the dying, names the hurts and whispers the condolences and shapes the questions posed by this familiar mystery. So here is homage to parents who have died and to children who shouldn’t have. Here are golfers tripping over grave markers, gourmands and hypochondriacs, lovers and suicides. These are the lessons for life our mortality teaches us.

Book:Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers: A Biography

Sam Tanenhaus

Whittaker Chambers is the first biography of this complex and enigmatic figure. Drawing on dozens of interviews and on materials from forty archives in the United States and abroad—including still-classified KGB dossiers—Tanenhaus traces the remarkable journey that led Chambers from a sleepy Long Island village to center stage in America’s greatest political trial and then, in his last years, to a unique role as the godfather of post-war conservatism. This biography is rich in startling new information about Chambers’s days as New York’s “hottest literary Bolshevik”; his years as a Communist agent and then defector, hunted by the KGB; his conversion to Quakerism; his secret sexual turmoil; his turbulent decade at Time magazine, where he rose from the obscurity of the book-review page to transform the magazine into an oracle of apocalyptic anti-Communism. But all this was a prelude to the memorable events that began in August 1948, when Chambers testified against Alger Hiss in the spy case that…[more]

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