Our reviews of four of this year's five winners of the National Book Awards. (With apologies to Craig Santos Perez, winner of the poetry award for from unincorporated territory [åmot]. Check out his work here.)


Justin Torres. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-29357-4
Torres’s ambitious sophomore outing (following We the Animals) intersperses a fictional biography of early 20th-century sex researcher Jan Gay with an enticing if murky present-day narrative. The unnamed 20-something narrator visits a dying man named Juan, whom he first met at 17, when they were patients at a psychiatric hospital. Now, after having accidentally flooded his apartment, the narrator moves into Juan’s rundown building (inhabited, in Juan’s words, by a “badling of queer ducks”) and promises to carry out Juan’s unfinished project involving a research study published in 1941—Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns by George W. Henry—that draws on Gay’s research. Juan’s copy of the book is heavily redacted, leaving “little poems of illumination... a counternarrative to whatever might have been Dr. Henry’s agenda,” to de-pathologize Henry’s case studies and restore the egalitarian spirit of Gay’s groundwork. Juan and the narrator’s dialogues can feel contrived, but just as the Sex Variants erasure poems sparkle with possibility, so too does Torres make fruitful use of references to literature and art, including a Carl Van Vechten photo of a famous gay male ballet dancer and a children’s book by Gay’s partner Zhenya, the latter of which proves to contain deliciously queer subtext. At its best, this captures the spirit of Torres’s pangs of inspiration. Agent: Jin Auh, Wylie Agency. (Oct.)

The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History

Ned Blackhawk. Yale Univ, $35 (616p) ISBN 978-0-300-24405-2
“American Indians were central to every century of U.S. historical development,” argues Yale historian Blackhawk (Violence over the Land) in this sweeping study. He begins with the arrival of Spanish explorers in Mexico and Florida in the 16th century, before shifting to French and British colonization efforts in the Northeast and the Ohio River Valley. In both instances, Native communities endured extreme violence and devastating epidemics, while employing fluid survival strategies (fighting, relocating, converting to Christianity, trading, intermarrying) that influenced imperial ambitions and behavior. Blackhawk also makes a persuasive case that in the wake of the Seven Years’ War and the expulsion of French forces from the interior of North America, “the growing allegiances between British and Indian leaders became valuable fodder in colonists’ critiques of their monarch,” helping to lead to the Revolutionary War. In Blackhawk’s telling, “Indian affairs” remained a potent political and social issue through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the New Deal and Cold War eras, as the removal of more than 75,000 Native children to federally funded boarding schools between the 1870s and 1920s and the dispossession of nearly a hundred million acres of reservation land during the same time period gave rise to a new generation of activists whose efforts to regain Native autonomy reshaped U.S. law and culture. Striking a masterful balance between the big picture and crystal-clear snapshots of key people and events, this is a vital new understanding of American history. (Apr.)

The Words That Remain

Stênio Gardel, trans. from the Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato. New Vessel, $16.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-954404-12-0
Brazilian writer Gardel’s auspicious debut finds a 71-year-old illiterate man holding onto an old, unread letter from his childhood friend and first love. Raimundo won’t let anyone else see the letter, which was sent to him by his lover, Cicero, after Cicero’s father discovered them having sex at 17. Raimundo wanted to live with Cicero, but never had the chance. In flashbacks, Gardel delves into Raimundo’s early shame over his sexuality and illiteracy, and chronicles how Raimundo was beaten by his father and kicked out of the house after he and Cicero were caught. He finds work with truckers, including Alex, whom he dances with and who takes him to a porn theater. Raimundo’s story is contrasted with that of his courageous uncle Dalberto, who was killed by Raimundo’s grandfather after Dalberto told him he was gay. When Raimundo attacks his trans friend Suzzanný, he knows that his actions stem from fear: “Fear is in my spine, it is what holds me up, and I am using it to hurt others,” he narrates. Raimundo’s feelings of shame, anger, and self-loathing are palpable as he examines his troubled past. This wistful novel introduces a worthy new voice. (Jan.)

A First Time for Everything

Dan Santat. First Second, $22.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-62672-415-0
Conveying milestones that include first Fanta, first kiss, and first disco, this emotionally perceptive graphic novel memoir from Caldecott Medalist Santat follows a teen’s arc from invisible to invincible. “Life was good” throughout Santat’s childhood in small-town Camarillo, Calif., where the only child helped his mom with errands, hung out with friends, and “did normal kid stuff.” Middle school, however, is one mortification after another, and Santat feels trapped by his self-imposed isolation—a protective measure against bullying. But in the summer of 1989, just before he starts high school, Santat’s parents nudge him into a three-week European tour, and life is never the same. Interstitials in a simplified color palette flash back to prior school humiliations, while exuberant full-color panels in Santat’s signature style convey the trip, including the dreamy reality of early freedoms, the nervous comedy of teen antics, and the wonder of viewing “things I’d only seen on postcards, in textbooks, and in movies.” As Santat finds friends and a way of being himself, what slowly emerges is one person’s hope in and relief at experiencing the world as a bigger place, finding a space in it, and realizing that both adults and peers are rooting for him. Ages 10–14. Agent: Jodi Reamer, Writers House. (Feb.)