National Book Awards: Jesmyn Ward's Hurricane Katrina-Themed 'Salvage the Bones' Takes Top Fiction Honors

Salvage the Bones book cover - P 2011

Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve," which centers on the Renaissance-era rediscovery of the Latin poet Lucretius, won for nonfiction at the John Lithgow-hosted ceremony.

Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, a bleak but determined novel about a community devastated by Hurricane Katrina, has won the National Book Award for fiction.

Ward's acceptance, the culmination of a night of emotional speeches and tributes to those who had been silenced, noted that the death of her younger brother had inspired her to become a writer. She realized that life was a "feeble, unpredictable thing," but that books were a testament of strength before a punishing world.

"I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor and the black and the rural people of the South," said Ward, whose brother was hit by a drunk driver the year she graduated from college. Earlier in the week, she told the Associated Press that writing was a way to "ease the looming fact of death."

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Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, a dramatic account of the Renaissance era rediscovery of the Latin poet Lucretius, won for nonfiction Wednesday night. The poetry prize went to Nikki Finney's Head Off & Split, an impassioned summation of African-American history, while Thanhhai Lai's Inside Out & Back Again, the story of a Vietnamese family in Alabama, won for young people's literature.

Winners each receive $10,000.

Actor-author John Lithgow hosted the ceremony, declaring himself humbled before the "great thoughts," ''quicksilver wit" and "eloquent locution" among the writers, editors, publishers and others gathered. After Finney's remarks, a mini-review of the injustices and triumphs set to verse in her book, he expressed pity for the winners who had to follow. Greenblatt, tearful in victory, noted the miracle of words, how an ancient poet such as Lucretius could matter so greatly centuries later.

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"My book is about the power of books to cross boundaries, to speak to you impossibly across space and time and distance, to have someone long dead in the room with you, speaking in your ear," said Greenblatt, a Harvard professor also known for his Shakespeare biography "Will in the World."

Honorary prizes were given to Florida-based bookseller Mitch Kaplan, who looked back warmly on a 30-year career/calling in a business he found more fulfilling than law school, and poet John Ashbery, who called writing a "pleasure I can almost taste." In a self-deprecating speech, he acknowledged that even intelligent people find what he writes "makes no sense" and "near root canal" as an experience to read.

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"I never meant for it to be (difficult)," he said. "I wanted the difficulty to reflect the difficulty of reading, any kind of reading, which is both a pleasant and painful experience since we are temporarily giving ourselves over to something that may change us."

The 62nd annual National Book Awards were held in the gilded, columned confines of Cipriani Wall Street, not far from the economic protests of the past two months.

"I thought I should point out, since nobody else has," said poet Ann Lauterbach, who introduced Ashbery, "that we are occupying Wall Street."

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The biggest controversy happened weeks ago, after the nominees were first announced. The list for young people's literature initially included Shine, by the popular author Lauren Myracle. But the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the awards, quickly acknowledged that Shine had been inadvertently chosen over Franny Billingsley's Chime. Nominees are read over the phone by the judging committee to the foundation, and one title was mistaken for the other. In an embarrassing see-saw of decisions, Myracle was removed, reinstated, then pushed into withdrawing.