kccu

Colin Dwyer

For a glimpse of Memory Theater in microcosm, it wouldn't hurt to flip first to the book's back pages. There, you'll find "a partial glossary of potential obscurities" — where the names of Italian Renaissance-era philosophers mingle with British post-punk bands, medieval Christian holy women and even a deceased cat called Frances, a moggy lauded for being "elegant, beautiful and fastidiously small."

There's also an entry for a man that reads, simply: "As far as I'm aware, he did not exist."

It was a glitzy night of bow ties and bon mots in New York City. But the real attractions at the 66th annual National Book Awards were the winners themselves: Adam Johnson, in fiction; Ta-Nehisi Coates, in nonfiction; Robin Coste Lewis, in poetry; and Neal Shusterman, in young people's literature.

At times in her new novel, it seems Ludmila Ulitskaya has her sights set on depicting the entire Soviet Union. The battered tramps, the generals and detainees, the dissidents and KGB informers, scholars, bullies, bumblers and nonpersons — all the lives, large and little, that shaped the hulking 20th-century empire like the dots on a pointillist painting. She crafts a cast of dozens in The Big Green Tent, with an eye trained as intensely on high-altitude Soviet policy as it is on the paupers stretching every last ration.

Be careful about calling Sarah Vowell's latest a history book. The term fits in the broadest sense, sure — but for many, that phrase may also drum up visions of appendices and ponderous chapter titles, obscure maps and pop quizzes. Knee-deep as it may be in the history of the American Revolution, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States doesn't look or act much like its textbook brethren.

Gilded with snark, buoyant on charm, Vowell's brand of history categorically refuses to take itself — or any of its subjects — too seriously.

Pages