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Hitchens, Alexie Vie for National Book Award

"God Is Not Great" author Christopher Hitchens, "Tree of Smoke" novelist Denis Johnson and four debut writers were among the finalists Wednesday night for the National Book Awards.

Winners in the four competitive categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature — each will receive $10,000. Other finalists get $1,000. Author-humorist Fran Lebowitz was to host Wednesday night's ceremony, which also features honorary medals for author Joan Didion and National Public Radio host Terry Gross.

The favorite to win the fiction prize, at least among the media, was Johnson's "Tree of Smoke," the acclaimed 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."

Johnson and fellow fiction nominees Mischa Berlinski and Lydia Davis were published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has made a tradition out of winning National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes with such works as Richard Powers' "The Echo Maker" and Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead."

The other fiction finalists were Joshua Ferris, who, like Berlinski, was nominated for his debut novel, and Jim Shepard, for his book of short stories, "Like You'd Understand, Anyway." No story collection has won since Andrea Barrett's "Ship Fever," in 1996.

Hitchens, the British author, pundit and columnist, had a best seller this summer with his "God Is Not Great," part of a wave of anti-religious works that have come out recently. Fellow nonfiction nominees include Arnold Rampersad's biography of writer Ralph Ellison; Edwidge Danticat's memoir, "Brother, I'm Dying"; Woody Holton's "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution"; and Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA."

Robert Hass, poet laureate from 1995-97, received his nomination for "Time and Materials" from a committee presided over by the current poet laureate, Charles Simic. Other poetry finalists were 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."

Scholastic, Inc., known to many as the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter books, has a National Book Award nomination in young people's literature, for Brian Selznick's "The Invention of Hugo Cabret."

The other finalists were Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"; Kathleen Duey's "Skin Hunger" and two first-time novels: M. Sindy Felin's "Touching Snow" and Sara Zarr's "Story of a Girl."

The book awards, founded in 1950, are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization.