First Novel Prize Winners

2016

 

The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

 by Kia Corthron 

(Seven Stories Press)

 

Castle Cross was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; reviewer Leonard Fitts, Jr. said, “[it] succeeds admirably in a novel's first and most difficult task: It makes you give a damn. It also does well by a novel's second task: It sends you away pondering what it has to say.” Famed political activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis called it “a stunning achievement by any measure… The untidiness of history is conveyed through experiences, dreams, and inevitable eruptions of violence, yet also unexpected patterns of escape and possible orbits of justice.”


On the eve of America's entry into World War II, in a tiny Alabama town, two brothers come of age in the shadow of the local chapter of the Klan, where Randall―a brilliant eighth-grader and the son of a sawmill worker―begins teaching sign language to his eighteen-year-old deaf and uneducated brother B.J. Simultaneously, in small-town Maryland, the sons of a Pullman Porter―gifted six-year-old Eliot and his artistic twelve-year-old brother Dwight―grow up navigating a world expanded both by a visit from civil and labor rights activist A. Philip Randolph and by the legacy of a lynched great-aunt. The four mature into men, directly confronting the fierce resistance to the early civil rights movement, and are all ultimately uprooted.

 

WATCH kia corthron's ACCEPTANCE SPEECH

(Her speech starts at 27:47)

 


 

2015

 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

(Grove Press)


A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. In dialogue with but diametrically opposed to the narratives of the Vietnam War that have preceded it, this novel offers an important and unfamiliar new perspective on the war: that of a conflicted communist sympathizer. 

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s astonishing novel takes us inside the mind of this double agent, a man whose lofty ideals necessitate his betrayal of the people closest to him. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

 

WATCH Viet Thanh nguyen's ACCEPTANCE SPEECH

(His speech starts at 50:29)

 


 

Tiphanie Yanique

2014

 

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

(Riverhead Books)

 

Chronicling three generations of an island family from 1916 to the 1970s, Land of Love and Drowning is a novel of love and magic, set against the political emergence of St. Thomas into an American territory. Wholly unique, with echoes of Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the author’s own Caribbean family history, the story is told in a language and rhythm that evokes an entire world and way of life and love.


WATCH TIPHANIE YANIQUE'S ACCEPTANCE SPEECH

 


 

John Pipkin

2013

 

Wash by Margaret Wrinkle

(Atlantic Monthly Press)

 

In early 1800s Tennessee, two men find themselves locked in an intimate power struggle. Richardson, a troubled Revolutionary War veteran, has spent his life fighting not only for his country but also for wealth and status. When the pressures of westward expansion and debt threaten to destroy everything he’s built, he sets Washington, a young man he owns, to work as his breeding sire. Wash, the first member of his family to be born into slavery, struggles to hold onto his only solace: the spirituality inherited from his shamanic mother. As he navigates the treacherous currents of his position, despair and disease lead him to a potent healer named Pallas. Their tender love unfolds against this turbulent backdrop while she inspires him to forge a new understanding of his heritage and his place in it. Once Richardson and Wash find themselves at a crossroads, all three lives are pushed to the brink. 

 

WATCH Margaret Wrinkle'S acceptance SPEECH

(Her speech starts at 14:20)

 


 

John Pipkin

2012

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

(Ecco/HarperCollins)

 

Set during a single day—in fact, the action unfolds during the course of one Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys football game at Texas Stadium—it is a novel about the American war in Iraq, football, cheerleaders, the movie business, capitalism, love, sex, the transmigration of souls, and the general insanity of everyday life in America. The eight surviving members of Bravo Squad have been touring the U.S. on a media-intensive “Victory Tour” initiated by the Bush administration. Four months into their combat tour in Iraq, Bravo defeated an elite force of enemy insurgents. The most critical minutes of the battle were captured on film by a Fox News crew and the video has gone viral, turning the men of Bravo into celebrity heroes. But the victory had a cost, most notably the death of Sergeant Breem, aka “Shroom,” and the loss of both legs by Specialist Lake. At the tail-end of their media blitz, the eight survivors of Bravo Squad are guests of honor at the nationally-broadcast game, where all sorts of wild adventures will unfold—not least of all for Billy Lynn, Bravo’s Silver Star-winning, nineteen-year-old virginal hero.

 

WATCH ben fountain'S acceptance SPEECH

(His speech begins at 10:22)

 


 

John Pipkin

2011

 

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

(Other Press)

 

Lamb traces the journey of David Lamb in the weeks following the disintegration of his marriage and the death of his father. Hoping to regain some faith in his own goodness, he turns his attention to Tommie, an awkward and unpopular eleven-year-old girl. Lamb is convinced that he can help her avoid a destiny of apathy and emptiness, and even comes to believe that his devotion to Tommie is in her best interest. But when Lamb decides to abduct a willing Tommie for a road trip from Chicago to the Rockies, planning to initiate her into the beauty of the mountain wilderness, they are both shaken in ways neither of them expects.

 


 

2010

 

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

(Atlantic Monthly Press with El León Literary Arts)

 

Intense, powerful, and compelling, Matterhorn is an epic war novel in the tradition of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’s The Thin Red Line. It is the timeless story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood. Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese but also monsoon rain and mud, leeches and tigers, disease and malnutrition. Almost as daunting, it turns out, are the obstacles they discover between each other: racial tension, competing ambitions, and duplicitous superior officers. But when the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. The experience will change them forever.

 


 

John Pipkin

2009

 

Woodsburner by John Pipkin
(Doubleday/Nan A. Talese)

 

The early American tree-hugger and pioneering thinker Henry David Thoreau did a bad, bad thing back on April 30, 1844. A year before he settled into the "simple life" at Walden Pond, he struck a match to start a cooking fire in the dry woods around Concord, Massachusetts and accidentally ignited a forest fire that consumed 300 acres. The events of that chaotic day appear to have altered the course of Thoreau's life and American history. More recently, this historical footnote sparked the creation of Woodsburner. Woodsburner offers a beautifully nuanced portrait of a young and less recognizable Thoreau, whose philosophy begins to materialize as the flames lay waste.

 


 

2008

 

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
(The Dial Press) 

 

Twelve year-old Ren is missing his left hand. How it was lost is a mystery that Ren has been trying to solve for his entire life, as well as who his parents are, and why he was abandoned as an infant at Saint Anthony’s Orphanage for boys.  But then a young man named Benjamin Nab appears, claiming to be Ren’s long-lost brother, and his convincing tale of how Ren lost his hand and his parents persuades the monks at the orphanage to release the boy and to give Ren some hope. But is Benjamin really who he says he is? Journeying through a New England of whaling towns and meadowed farmlands, Ren is introduced to a vibrant world of hardscrabble adventure filled with outrageous scam artists, grave robbers, and petty thieves. As Ren begins to find clues to his hidden parentage he comes to suspect that Benjamin not only holds the key to his future, but to his past as well.  

 


 

2007

 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
(Riverhead/Penguin) 


Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fukœ-the curse that has haunted the Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim.

 


 

2006

 

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
(Viking)


A darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel and suspense tale told through the voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer. Blue is clever, deadpan, and possesses a vast lexicon of literary, political, philosophical, and scientific knowledge. In her final year of high school at an elite North Carolina school, Blue falls in with a charismatic group of friends and their teacher, Hannah Schneider. Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class and containing ironic visual aids (drawn by the author), the novel combines suspense, self-parody, and storytelling.

 


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