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Doctorow, Didion Are Book Award Finalists

E.L. Doctorow's (search) "The March," (search) his novelization of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's bloody Civil War campaign, and Joan Didion's (search) "The Year of Magical Thinking," (search) her memoir of grieving her late husband, were among the nominees announced Wednesday for the National Book Awards (search).

Two of the country's most revered poets, John Ashbery (search) and W.S. Merwin (search), were also finalists. The 78-year-old Ashbery was chosen for his collection "Where Shall I Wander" and Merwin, also 78, for "Migration." Between them, they have received 12 nominations for the NBA and one award, for Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror."

Walter Dean Myers, whose blunt descriptions of street life have led to frequent efforts to remove his books from libraries, was a nominee in the young people's category for "Autobiography of My Dead Brother." He was a finalist in 1999 for "Monster."

Winners, each of whom receive $10,000, will be announced at a Nov. 16 ceremony in New York, with Garrison Keillor hosting and honorary medals going to Norman Mailer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The list of finalists was read Wednesday by John Grisham, at the former home of fellow Oxford, Miss., author William Faulkner, a two-time NBA winner.

"It may seem odd that I'm here today — the unapologetic writer of popular fiction — on Faulkner's front porch about to announce the finalists for the National Book Award, which are our most prestigious literary awards," said Grisham, known for such courtroom thrillers as "The Firm" and "The Client."

Doctorow's novel, a best seller almost universally praised by critics, stood out in a year of disappointments in fiction, with Michael Cunningham's "Specimen Days" and Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" among those failing to meet expectations.

Doctorow, author of "Ragtime," "Billy Bathgate" and other acclaimed historical novels, won the National Book Award in 1986 for "World's Fair." This was his fifth nomination, but first since 1989.

Other fiction finalists this year were Mary Gaitskill's "Veronica," Christopher Sorrentino's "Trance," Rene Steinke's "Holy Skirts" and William T. Vollmann's "Europe Central," an 800-page novel, including footnotes, about Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

Didion was nominated in nonfiction for her book about the loss of her husband and fellow author John Gregory Dunne, who died two years ago of a heart attack. Like "The March," Didion's memoir has been celebrated by reviewers and sought after by readers, with more than 150,000 copies now in print, according to publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

Also cited for nonfiction: Alan Burdick's "Out of Eden," Leo Damrosch's "Jean-Jacques Rousseau," Jim Dwyer's and Kevin Flynn's "102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers" and Adam Hochschild's "Bury the Chains."

At least two notable releases were bypassed: David McCullough's "1776" and J.R. Moehringer's "The Tender Bar."

In poetry, finalists besides Merwin and Ashbery were Frank Bidart's "Star Dust," Brendan Galvin's "Habitat" and Vern Rutsala's "The Moment's Equation."

Young people's nominees included Jeanne Birdsall's "The Penderwicks," Adele Griffin's "Where I Want to Be," Chris Lynch's "Inexcusable" and Deborah Wiles' "Each Little Bird That Sings."

The awards, now in their 56th year, are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses money raised by the ceremony to fund its educational programs, such as a summer writing camp at Bennington College in Vermont.