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Thursday, October 11, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sherman Alexie among National Book Award finalists

Seattle Times book editor

Seattle author, film director and essayist Sherman Alexie's young-adult novel based on his life, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," is a finalist for the National Book Award.

Alexie, 41, is one of five finalists in the young people's category. Reached Wednesday in Miami, where he's on a book tour, Alexie said, "I'm ecstatic. My editor woke me up with the news. I thought I was dreaming."

Alexie said the book, about a young Native American who survives a harrowing upbringing on his reservation and leaves to pursue his dreams, has touched a chord like none other of his works.

"The response from the road is larger than anything in my career," he said. "My wife and I are calling it the hug-and-run tour. People are coming up in tears, and hugging me and running. There is no jaded literary response among the audience. It's so validating."

Alexie said the "very, very autobiographical" nature of the book makes the attention even more gratifying. "It's scary to put a very close version of my story out in the world — there's a lot of emotional capital at stake. I keep thinking of my mom and dad years ago, who somehow had the bravery to let me go."

Alexie's competition for the prize in the young people's category includes "Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic, Book One" by Kathleen Duey, "Touching Snow" by M. Sindy Felin, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick and "Story of a Girl" by Sara Zarr.

Nominees in other categories include Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great," novelist Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke" and "Time and Materials" by former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, as well as debut novels by Joshua Ferris and Mischa Berlinski and Arnold Rampersad's "Ralph Ellison: A Biography."

Winners in the four competitive categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature — will each receive $10,000. Other finalists get $1,000. The results will be announced at a Nov. 14 ceremony in Manhattan hosted by author-humorist Fran Lebowitz and featuring honorary medals for author Joan Didion and National Public Radio host Terry Gross.

Johnson's "Tree of Smoke," published to near-universal acclaim after taking nine years to write, is a Vietnam War novel that has been compared to classics such as Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" and Graham Greene's "The Quiet American."

The other fiction finalist was Jim Shepard's book of short stories, "Like You'd Understand, Anyway." No story collection has won since Andrea Barrett's "Ship Fever" in 1996.

Hitchens, who has been equally provocative and prolific in recent years, had a best-seller this summer with "God Is Not Great," part of a wave of anti-religious works that have come out recently. He is a featured columnist for Slate and Vanity Fair who has angered the right with his attacks against religion and the left with his defense of the Iraq war.

Fellow nonfiction nominees include "Brother, I'm Dying," a memoir by Edwidge Dandicat, Woody Holton's "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution" and Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA."

Hass, poet laureate from 1995-97, received his nomination from a committee presided over by the current poet laureate, Charles Simic. Other poetry finalists are Linda Gregerson's "Magnetic North," David Kirby's "The House on Boulevard St.," Stanley Plumly's "Old Heart" and Ellen Bryant Voigt's "Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006."

The book awards, founded in 1950, are among the most prestigious in American literature. They are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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