Fran Liebowitz once famously called the National Book Awards “the Oscars without money.” While that’s quippy, and kind of accurate, the truth is that the parties hosted by the National Book Awards are still some of the fancier book-related affairs of the year. They culminate, of course, in the Book Awards proper, a formal affair at Cipriani’s hosted this year by Daniel Handler, a.k.a Lemony Snicket, or “the book world’s answer to Neil Patrick Harris.” But before that sit-down dinner, there are a couple peripheral events for the New York literati, including last night’s “5 Under 35” event at PowerHouse Arena in DUMBO.
PowerHouse is a regular spot for readings in Brooklyn; it hosts upwards of a couple events a week. But the 5 UNder 35 parties, this year and last year, are the most packed that I’ve ever seen it. The regular concrete bleachers and pews towards the back were augmented by dozens of white folding chairs, quickly taken by coats and umbrellas. At the bar, in addition to the usual nondescript white and red wine offerings, New York Times Magazine bar columnist (and Brooklyn Magazine favorite) Rosie Schaap set up a serve-your-own-martini bar, allowing partygoers to choose their own mixers. (My plus one tried a martini with mint, which was not at all bad.) Outside, a pizza truck had been commissioned to feed the ravenous book-loving audience. The pizza truck left before the actual reading had begun, an event that didn’t fail to amuse host Ben Greenman.
Questlove Thompson was the DJ and host of the event, though I didn’t spot him until after about two hours of mingling and running into various book-centric social acquaintances. He was, as ever, flawless.
Questlove is hosting the 5 under 35 reading and he is standing near me and HE SMELLS SO GOOD. Boys, buy whatever he has on.
— Ami Greko (@ami_with_an_i) November 18, 2014
Someone must have told the party planners that the actual reading portion of the evening should be snappier than in the bast, because everyone kept their remarks fairly shot. Questlove spoke about writing his book, which he found to be an intimidating process despite, you know, turning out to be really good at it. Last Night’s Reading’s Kate Gavino, who was tucked somewhere into the crowd, made an illustration of his most quotable moment from the speech.
Ben Greenman, fresh off his turn co-writing George Clinton’s memoir (working title he apparently used: “Lets Take It To the Page,”) served as the emcee of the evening, introducing each of the 5. The “Under 35″ thing is mostly a meaningless distinction, as Greenman pointed out:”If there were musicians being featured here, it would have to be people under 20” But because writers usually get started a little later, it served to highlight a group of folks that you should watch, rather than celebrate literary figures who are already firmly established.
The writers, Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Alex Gilvarry, Phil Klay, Valeria Luiselli, and Kirstin Valdez Quade, were each chosen by previous National Book Award finalists, so there was a nice passing the torch feeling about the whole thing. Each of the writers seemed a little flustered by the praise heaped upon them by their introductions. “You’re my favorite writer who’s not dead,” Akhtiorskaya told Aleksander Hemon. All read about a page from their books, again, part of the sped up program. After the reading, Greenman led the pool in a hyper-speed Q&A, which resulted in another Gavino gem.
But it was enough to get a taste of the writers, some whose work had managed to slip past me this year. (Akhtiorskaya’s novel about a Brighton Beach immigrant family, Panic in a Suitcase, is worth your while; after hearing Phil Klay read, I made plans to pick up Redeployment. [Update: Klay actually won the National Book Award for fiction for this one a few days later]) And it was, you know, a good party, even if it wasn’t the Oscars.