Winner: “The Nickel Boys,” by Colson Whitehead
In his latest novel, the “Underground Railroad” writer fictionalized the story of a Florida school where dozens of black boys were tortured and buried in a secret graveyard. “Were Whitehead’s only aim to shine an unforgiving light on a redacted chapter of racial terrorism in the American chronicle, that would be achievement enough,” wrote our reviewer. But Whitehead “applies a master storyteller’s muscle not just to excavating a grievous past but to examining the process by which Americans undermine, distort, hide or ‘neatly erase’ the stories he is driven to tell.
Finalist: “The Dutch House,” by Ann Patchett
This novel explores the dynamics of a blended family living in a glass house outside Philadelphia in midcentury. “I can’t pluck out one sentence worth quoting, but how effective they are when woven together — these translucent lines that envelop you like a spider’s web,” wrote our reviewer. “It can feel old-fashioned: her style, her attachment to a very traditional kind of storytelling,” but “like the family’s Dutch house, it’s an enduring structure, which gives an added dimension to the references in the text — its way of gesturing toward a lineage.”
Finalist: “The Topeka School,” by Ben Lerner
Lerner’s “exhilarating” novel, also selected by the Book Review as one of the 10 best books of 2019, features a familiar protagonist to his readers, Adam Gordon, this time as a high school student. Lerner’s questions about art and authenticity are carried through to this book, but in “The Topeka School,” “Adam’s faithlessness can no longer be written off as cosmopolitan neurosis. It is instead a symptom of a national crisis of belief, in which structures of understanding crumble and ‘regimes of meaning collapse into the spread.’”
Winner: “Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America,” by W. Caleb McDaniel
This book explores reparations through the story of a 19th-century woman who sued her captor after surviving a kidnapping and re-enslavement. Her story, wrote McDaniel in an Opinion piece for The Times, “offers lessons for today, both about the impact restitution can make and about the limited power of payment alone.”
Finalist: “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Taylor’s book, also longlisted for the National Book Award, “covers the few years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the Fair Housing Act of 1968 nominally ended the government’s longstanding practice of redlining.” Our reviewer wrote that she “meticulously documents what happened next, as the federal government partnered with a real estate industry, enthusiastic about exploiting a new market but refusing to bear most of the risk.”
Finalist: “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America,” by Greg Grandin
In this “measured, careful work,” Grandin explores the recently popularized symbol of the border wall in the context of the United States’s historical Western expansion. “Grandin keeps his cool — he prefers the stiletto to the club — but he grows angrier as his history reaches the present day,” wrote our reviewer.
Winner: “Sontag: Her Life and Work,” by Benjamin Moser
This biography of Susan Sontag “is a skilled, lively, prodigiously researched book that, in the main, neither whitewashes nor rebukes its subject: It works hard to make the reader see Sontag as the severely complex person she was,” wrote our reviewer.
Finalist: “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century,” by George Packer
According to our reviewer, “Our Man” — a biography as “charming, brilliant, cocksure and exasperating” as its subject, the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke — “isn’t a book you’re supposed to dip into piecemeal, searching for information; it’s best appreciated like a novel, consumed whole.”
Finalist: “Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, And Me,” by Deirdre Bair
Bair’s book “reads much like a ‘making of …’ documentary” in which she “gives us her off-camera take on her first two biographies,” wrote our reviewer. Both Beckett and de Beauvoir agreed to the project, with different levels of participation, and the book delves into the sometimes difficult path of writing about the two figures.
Winner: “The Tradition,” by Jericho Brown
In this project, “Brown creates poetry that is a catalog of injuries past and present, personal and national, in a country where blackness, particularly male blackness, is akin to illness,” wrote our reviewer. “Even as he reckons seriously with our state of affairs, Brown brings a sense of semantic play to blackness, bouncing between different connotations of words to create a racial doublespeak.”
Finalist: “Dunce,” by Mary Ruefle
Ruefle “confronts the extraordinary yet banal fact that all of us die,” in this poetry collection. “‘Dunce’ is full of these linguistic reversals — the chiasmus may be the device that best represents life’s reversal of fortune, our built-in obsolescence,” wrote our reviewer.
Finalist: “Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems,” by Dorianne Laux
This collection of poems by a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet includes 20 new pieces that are odes to Laux’s mother. Her work explores sexuality, survival and healing.
Winner: “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America,” by Greg Grandin
Winner: “The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care,” by Anne Boyer
“The End of the Myth” was also a finalist in the history category. In “The Undying,” “the pink ribbon, that ubiquitous emblem of breast cancer awareness, has long been an object of controversy and derision,” wrote our reviewer, but Boyer “doesn’t just pull it loose, unfastening its dainty loop; she feeds it through a shredder and lights it on fire, incinerating its remains.”
Finalist: “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life,” by Louise Aronson
In this book, Aronson, a geriatrician, draws from her 25 years of caring for patients, as well as history, science and popular culture, to paint a humanistic picture of old age.
Finalist: “Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope,” by Albert Woodfox with Leslie George
This “uncommonly powerful” memoir details Woodfox’s young life of crime and his time in various prisons, including four decades in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit. “If the ending of this book does not leave you with tears pooling down in your clavicles, you are a stronger person than I am,” wrote our reviewer. “More lasting is Woodfox’s conviction that the American justice system is in dire need of reform.”