Monday, May 16, 2011

Washington Irving Book Awards

Last Friday I attended part of the Westchester Library Association conference and its Washington Irving Book Award event.

The Washington Irving Book Award (given biennially) honors books by Westchester authors for books published in the past two years. Books are vetted by a committee of librarians based on readability, literary quality, and wide general appeal.

The event included Jonathan Kruk as Washington Irving, short speeches by the award-winning authors, Q&A, and book-signing.

Seth Godin (Linchpin) was persona non grata after his lunchtime presentation on the future of libraries so he didn't stick around for the award event (I guess librarians are as resistant to change as everyone else).1 There were a few other winners that weren't at the award ceremony.2 I hope they had good excuses because each of them now has a black mark in my book.

Quite a few of the authors in attendance adapted their speeches because they felt the need to respond to Godin and nearly all of them shared their feelings about libraries and librarians. I left the room wanting to read all the books (even those I wouldn't normally consider) because the authors were charming and appreciative.

I do have to say that my favorite part of the event was during the question-and-answer period when someone asked about where the authors worked. Each author answered in turn and their responses were diverse (though apparently Jonathan Tropper and Jeff Pearlman fight over a table at the Cosi in New Rochelle). Right after the last award-winning author responded, Kruk/Irving popped up and explained his writing habits. It was a lovely surprise and made everyone grin.

Now without further ado, here are the award-winners (minus the absentees):

  • Diamond Ruby by Joseph Wallace
    At the research library at the Baseball Hall of Fame Wallace came across a photograph of a teenage girl in uniform shaking hands with Babe Ruth (Lou Gehrig standing by). That girl was baseball phenom Jackie Mitchell, who it seems is the reason that women were banned from professional baseball in the 1930s and she was in the inspiration for Diamond Ruby, the author's first novel (he's written nonfiction in the past).
  • In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff
    Another debut novel. Pintoff's protagonist, detective Simon Ziele, leaves Little Germany in the wake of the General Slocum disaster to settle in Dobson (a fictional town that's a bit of Dobbs Ferry, Hastings, and Irvington) only to have his peace shattered by a brutal murder nearby. Apparently In the Shadow of Gotham is full of period detail and highlights early criminology.
  • The Man Who Never Returned by Peter Quinn
    The sequel to The Hour of the Cat, The Man Who Never Returned follows the investigation into inexplicable 1930 disappearance of NYC judge Joe Crater.
  • Scared to Death by Wendy Corsi Staub
    The sequel to Live to Tell; a thriller. Don't read the Publishers Weekly review as it seems to give away far too much about the plot.
  • This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
    Judd's perfect life comes crashing down when he loses his job and wife in the same day (yep, his wife's sleeping with his boss). To make matters worse his father dies the same day and he's stuck sitting shiva with his unbearable family. It's going to be a long seven days.
  • American Passage: The History of Ellis Island by Vincent Cannato
    An engaging history of Ellis Island from a University of Massachusetts at Boston professor (does he live in Westchester when school's not in session?).
    It seems like Cannato tries to bridge the gap between popular history and the academy.
  • Closing Time: A Memoir by Joe Queenan
    One of the things Queenan said in response to Godin's talk was "the Visigoths and Huns will always be at the gates, but I don't see why we should invite them in" (that quote's from memory so it may not be 100% accurate).
    In Closing Time he writes about growing up in a Philadelphia housing project.
  • Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan
    A biography of Frank Sinatra
  • Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley
    Bradley's father was one of the guys immortalized in the Iwo Jima Memorial, but he never talked about what happened in Iwo Jima. Bradley's desire to research and share that story is what started his writing career.
    This book looks a bit further in the past to Theodore Roosevelt and the US's early involvement in Asia.
  • The Rocket that Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball by Jeff Pearlman
    I wouldn't normally think of picking up a book like this, but Pearlman won me over when he spoke about a disastrous book-signing he had at Fort Hood.
  • This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson
    This is exactly the kind of book that goes over well with librarians.
  • Walking Papers: The Accident that Changes My Life and the Business that Got Me Back on My Feet by Francesco Clark
    After hearing Clark speak I have no doubt that this is an inspirational book. I am particularly impressed with the fact that he didn't use his speech as an opportunity to talk about his company.3 He spoke exclusively about his injury, his path to recovery, and how he came to write the book and he's the only one of the author's who got cut off by the moderator.
I haven't spent any time looking into the past winners of the award so I don't know whether the book's chosen this cycle are typical or not, but I have to say that I was struck by a lack of diversity in the fiction winners. We have non-genre fiction, historical fiction, and mystery/thrillers. I can see sticking to more serious fiction for awards, but if you are going to include allow truly popular fiction then I think you need to be open to all genres. I can't believe that there no Westchester authors who write romance or science fiction, horror or fantasy.

ETA: I didn't pick up a copies of any of the books since I'm currently on book acquisition ban (see post) and, believe me, there were quite a few that I was dying to bring home with me.
  1. While I didn't agree with everything that Godin said (I just can't go all the way and say Wikipedia is a-ok for school kids; I still think everyone needs to learn about the importance of evaluating sources), I do agree that the library as we know it is on its way out and that we need to adapt in order to survive.
  2. Don Delillo (Point Omega), Andrew Gross (Reckless), Scott L. Malcomson (Generation's End), and Cynthia Ozick (Foreign Bodies).
  3. He mentioned it (I think he had to say something about it because it's in the title of his book), but I didn't know why he started a skincare line until I looked up a detailed synopsis of his book.


  1. I'm the author of Diamond Ruby (the bearded guy who had to wait till last to answer each question ...well, next-to-last when Washington Irving answered!) Glad you enjoyed it, including the fireworks by Seth Godin.

  2. Hi, Joe. Diamond Ruby sounds fantastic. I didn't pick up a copy (and have it signed) then and there because I am on a personal book acquisition ban. My husband and I are trying to weed our book collection (so hard!) since it's gotten out of control.