NorCal Book Awards: no love for Sac

Unless you count Robert Hass smooching on Sandy McPherson

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At the annual Northern California Book Awards ceremony in the belly of the San Francisco Public Library last Sunday, research librarian and event emcee Mark Andre Singer first got the crowd’s attention by calling the library “a dangerous place.” It hardly seemed that way when stuffed with a couple hundred bookish individuals, many of them mild mannered and gray-haired. But Singer refined his definition: “The last secular noncommercial gathering space in America.” OK, well, not entirely noncommercial, either: All the award-nominated books were for sale in the adjacent room.

Anyway, Singer did score one unimpeachable point: “Northern California is the home of so much literary wealth,” he said. That, of course, was the reason for this shindig in the first place. That, and to be reminded that “Knopf” still sounds silly when pronounced aloud. (Indeed, the “K” is not silent.)

Of the 500-plus books published last year by Northern California authors, more than a third were nonfiction—enough that the nominating reviewers decided to divide that vast category into subsections: “general” and “creative.” Of the latter, “There was a lot of discussion about whether to call this belles-lettres,” Singer said. “I guess it came down to whether or not we could pronounce belles-lettres.”

The reclusive, prolific and highly decorated Sacramento writer William T. Vollmann, who’d been nominated last year in fiction for his novel Europe Central, made the creative nonfiction short list with Poor People. True to form, Vollmann did not attend the ceremony. “At this very moment, he is indubitably writing next year’s nominee,” Singer quipped. Local luminary Gary Snyder, most recognizably a poet, also was among the creative nonfiction nominees for his excellent essay collection Back on the Fire. But he didn’t show either, on account of being in Portland to celebrate his son’s 40th birthday.

No matter, though: Neither of them won. Nor, alas, did Sacramento native Shawna Yang Ryan, a fiction nominee for her novel Locke 1928. Suffice to say, competition was stiff.

Here’s what did win.

In children’s literature: The Apple Doll, by Elisa Kleven. In fiction: A Handbook to Luck, by Cristina Garcia. In general nonfiction: Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline, by Lisa Margonelli, who earned a hearty gasp from the crowd by reminiscing that gas in San Francisco cost $1.61 per gallon when she began the book. In creative nonfiction: The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific, by Julia Whitty, who read a marvelous passage about the perils and privileges of underwater note-taking.

In poetry: Time and Materials, by Robert Hass, who just won a Pulitzer Prize for the same collection and wisely established his graciousness with hugs and kisses for fellow nominee (and UC Davis English professor) Sandra McPherson before launching into a strong, surprising poem called “Envy of Other People’s Poems.”

In translation: Robert Alter, who translated The Book of Psalms from Hebrew with commentary. River of Words, a nonprofit annual environmental art and poetry contest for kids, won a special recognition award, and the Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement (named for the late founder and proprietor of the famous Berkeley bookstore) went to California poet laureate Al Young.

Young closed the ceremony with two of his own poems, one of which he said he’d still been tinkering with on his way over to the city. But first, as befit a state poet laureate addressing avid readers in the middle of National Poetry Month, he delivered an affirming proclamation: “Poetry is the great repository of all of our wisdom. If all of the other arts were to disappear,” he said, “we would still have it all intact in the form of poetry.”