“Cost of Living,” by Martyna Majok
Ms. Majok, 33, a Polish immigrant who saw her first theater show at 17 after winning $45 from playing pool, initially wrote this as a short work called “John, Who’s Here From Cambridge.” It evolved to its finished form and opened Off Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club last June. The play received plaudits for its striking portrait of the obstacles that come with having a physical disability in various forms and privilege that exists in unexpected places.
Finalists “Everybody,” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins | “The Minutes,” by Tracy Letts
“The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea,” by Jack E. Davis
The Gulf of Mexico is the world’s tenth-largest body of water. But until Mr. Davis’s book, which traces its history from the Pleistocene to the present, it had never gotten a comprehensive history, the committee noted in its citation. Mr. Davis, 61, a professor at the University of Florida (and a near-lifelong Gulfsider), said that the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010 had helped shape his mission: to restore “the true identity of the gulf.”
“I wanted to show that it was more than an oil spill, or a sunning beach,” he said. “It has a really wonderful, complex history that has been left out of the broader American narrative.”
Finalists “Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics,” by Kim Phillips-Fein (Metropolitan Books) | “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America,” by Steven J. Ross (Bloomsbury)
“Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” by Caroline Fraser
The committee cited Ms. Fraser, 57, for “a deeply researched and elegantly written portrait” showing how Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie books, “transformed her family’s story of poverty, failure and struggle into an uplifting tale of self-reliance, familial love and perseverance.” Ms. Fraser, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., said that she — “like everyone else” — had adored the books as a child, but came to appreciate the sweeping and much darker history behind them. “Wilder was an amazing figure who tells us so much about the way Americans want to think about westward expansion,” she said. “She exposes all our fantasies.”
Finalists “Richard Nixon: The Life,” by John A. Farrell (Doubleday) | “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character,” by Kay Redfield Jamison (Alfred A. Knopf)
“Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016,” by Frank Bidart
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
After the publication of Mr. Bidart’s previous book, “Metaphysical Dog” (2013), the agent Andrew Wylie told him he should publish a career-spanning collection. “That idea pleased me,” Mr. Bidart, 78, said, “but I don’t know that I would have had the guts to do it without his suggestion.”
“Half-Light” also won a National Book Award and Mr. Bidart can’t help but see the recognition as an endorsement of his long career. “Both my parents died at 60,” he said. “Two of my closest poet friends — Robert Lowell died at 60 and Elizabeth Bishop died at 68. None of this would have happened if I had died at their age. I’m just damn lucky.”
Finalists “Incendiary Art,” by Patricia Smith (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) | “semiautomatic,” by Evie Shockley (Wesleyan University Press)
“Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” by James Forman Jr.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Mr. Forman’s book looks at the ways in which real-time responses to crises in black communities beginning in the late 1960s helped unintentionally lead to mass incarceration. Mr. Forman, 50, took about four years to research the book, but felt the first stirrings of it while working as a public defender in Washington, D.C. “When you’re working as a public defender, you don’t have time to brush your teeth sometimes, let alone write a book,” Mr. Forman, now a professor at Yale Law School, said.
Finalists “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-America World,” by Suzy Hansen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) | “The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us,” by Richard O. Prum (Doubleday)