Now part of the L.A. Times Foundation, the L.A. Times Book Prizes are dedicated to championing new voices and celebrating the highest quality of writing from authors at all stages of their careers. The prizes are committed to literary excellence, to intelligence and engagement, and to the support of working writers.
Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
A fresh new voice emerges with the arrival of Sour Heart, establishing Jenny Zhang as a frank and subversive interpreter of the immigrant experience in America. Her stories cut across generations and continents, moving from the fraught halls of a public school in Flushing, Queens, to the tumultuous streets of Shanghai, China, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. In the absence of grown-ups, latchkey kids experiment on each other until one day the experiments turn violent; an overbearing mother abandons her artistic aspirations to come to America but relives her glory days through karaoke; and a shy loner struggles to master English so she can speak to God.
Narrated by the daughters of Chinese immigrants who fled imperiled lives as artists back home only to struggle to stay afloat—dumpster diving for food and scamming Atlantic City casino buses to make a buck—these seven stories showcase Zhang’s compassion, moral courage, and a perverse sense of humor reminiscent of Portnoy’s Complaint. A darkly funny and intimate rendering of girlhood, Sour Heart examines what it means to belong to a family, to find your home, leave it, reject it, and return again.
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Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls
“Walden. Yesterday I came here to live.” That entry from the journal of Henry David Thoreau, and the intellectual journey it began, would by themselves be enough to place Thoreau in the American pantheon. His attempt to “live deliberately” in a small woods at the edge of his hometown of Concord has been a touchstone for individualists and seekers since the publication of Walden in 1854.
But there was much more to Thoreau than his brief experiment in living at Walden Pond. A member of the vibrant intellectual circle centered on his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was also an ardent naturalist, a manual laborer and inventor, a radical political activist, and more. Many books have taken up various aspects of Thoreau’s character and achievements, but, as Laura Dassow Walls writes, “Thoreau has never been captured between covers; he was too quixotic, mischievous, many-sided.” Two hundred years after his birth, and two generations after the last full-scale biography, Walls restores Henry David Thoreau to us in all his profound, inspiring complexity.
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The Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose Winner
The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered by Benjamin Taylor
After John F. Kennedy’s speech in front of the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth on November 22, 1963, he was greeted by, among others, an 11-year-old Benjamin Taylor and his mother waiting to shake his hand. Only a few hours later, Taylor’s teacher called the class in from recess and, through tears, told them of the president’s assassination. From there Taylor traces a path through the next twelve months, recalling the tumult as he saw everything he had once considered stable begin to grow more complex. Looking back on the love and tension within his family, the childhood friendships that lasted and those that didn’t, his memories of summer camp and family trips, he reflects upon the outsized impact our larger American story had on his own.
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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through. . . .
Exit West follows these remarkable characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.
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Graphic Novel & Comics
Present by Leslie Stein
Leslie Stein takes us on a sinuous urban stroll divorced from destination, glimpsing New York City through her open eyes. While she is closing up a bar late at night, she is also an adolescent at a rave in the mountains, an adult grappling with her grandfather’s fading memory or at one of her first waitressing jobs. Stein is a master storyteller, an urban explorer, and a loyal guide through dark days and simple, blissful encounters. Stein’s curiosity about and generosity toward the world around her come through powerfully: each colorful story flows with vivid watercolors and delicate ink lines. Here, an autobiography is built through memories and moments tied together by loose lines, evoking a beautiful dreamlike yet endlessly relatable glimpse into the world of a thirty-something woman carving out a life for herself, one step at a time.
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan
The Great Lakes—Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior—hold 20 percent of the world’s supply of surface fresh water and provide sustenance, work and recreation for tens of millions of Americans. But they are under threat as never before, and their problems are spreading across the continent. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is prize-winning reporter Dan Egan’s compulsively readable portrait of an ecological catastrophe happening right before our eyes, blending the epic story of the lakes with an examination of the perils they face and the ways we can restore and preserve them for generations to come.
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Mystery & Thriller
A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates
In this striking, enormously affecting novel, Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of two very different and yet intimately linked American families. Luther Dunphy is an ardent Evangelical who envisions himself as acting out God’s will when he assassinates an abortion provider in his small Ohio town while Augustus Voorhees, the idealistic but self-regarding doctor who is killed, leaves behind a wife and children scarred and embittered by grief.
In her moving, insightful portrait, Joyce Carol Oates fully inhabits the perspectives of two interwoven families whose destinies are defined by their warring convictions and squarely-but with great empathy-confronts an intractable, abiding rift in American society.
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Incendiary Art: Poems by Patricia Smith
One of the most magnetic and esteemed poets in today’s literary landscape, Patricia Smith fearlessly confronts the tyranny against the black male body and the tenacious grief of mothers in her compelling new collection, Incendiary Art. She writes an exhaustive lament for mothers of the “dark magicians,” and revisits the devastating murder of Emmett Till. These dynamic sequences serve as a backdrop for present-day racial calamities and calls for resistance. Smith embraces elaborate and eloquent language– ” her gorgeous fallen son a horrid hidden / rot. Her tiny hand starts crushing roses–one by one / by one she wrecks the casket’s spray. It’s how she / mourns–a mother, still, despite the roar of thorns” — as she sharpens her unerring focus on incidents of national mayhem and mourning. Smith envisions, reenvisions, and ultimately reinvents the role of witness with an incendiary fusion of forms, including prose poems, ghazals, sestinas, and sonnets. With poems impossible to turn away from, one of America’s most electrifying writers reveals what is frightening, and what is revelatory, about history.
Science & Technology
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky
Why do we do the things we do? Over a decade in the making, this game-changing book is Robert Sapolsky’s genre-shattering attempt to answer that question as fully as perhaps only he could, looking at it from every angle. Sapolsky’s storytelling concept is delightful but it also has a powerful intrinsic logic: he starts by looking at the factors that bear on a person’s reaction in the precise moment a behavior occurs, and then hops back in time from there, in stages, ultimately ending up at the deep history of our species and its genetic inheritance.
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Young Adult Literature
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
You can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually USED his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator? Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.
And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.
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Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean
Behind today’s headlines of billionaires taking over our government is a secretive political establishment with long, deep, and troubling roots. The capitalist radical right has been working not simply to change who rules, but to fundamentally alter the rules of democratic governance. But billionaires did not launch this movement; a white intellectual in the embattled Jim Crow South did. Democracy in Chains names its true architect—the Nobel Prize-winning political economist James McGill Buchanan—and dissects the operation he and his colleagues designed over six decades to alter every branch of government to disempower the majority.
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