My favorite thing about this year's National Book Critics Circle awards was how wide-ranging the books honored were.
As a member of the NBCC's 24-member board, I've participated in the awards process for several years, reading dozens of books and spending hours in online and in-person conversation as we winnow the possibilities down to 30 books, five in each of six categories.
On Feb. 27, at the Tishman Auditorium of the New School in New York City, 20 of the 30 finalists appeared to read from their books (along with the editor of the late Anthony Shadid, reading from Shadid's memoir, House of Stone, nominated after the author's death in Syria last year).
Not every great writer is a great reader, but happily this year's reading was lively and affecting throughout. Among the standouts were Daniel Mendelsohn's witty delivery of a critique of the movie Avatar from his book Waiting for the Barbarians, novelist Lydia Millet's drily hilarious reading of a passage about the emotional effects of testosterone from Magnificence, and novelist Adam Johnson's compelling performance of a spy-thriller scene from The Orphan Master's Son. (Local alert: Johnson will appear in Tampa on March 18; see Book Talk for details).
The awards ceremony took place the following night in the same location. Before the book awards were handed out, two achievement awards were presented. Critic William Deresiewicz accepted the Nona Balakian award for excellence in reviewing, and the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement award was presented to feminist critics, scholars and teachers Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The two, who have collaborated since meeting at Indiana University in the 1970s, co-authored such widely influential books as The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. They appeared via video — Gilbert from a teaching gig in Italy, Gubar from her home in Indiana — to accept. (Those videos, as well as video of the awards ceremony, can be viewed at bookcritics.org.)
Some of the six book award winners were well-known, much-honored volumes, notably Robert Caro's terrific biography The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. It's the fourth in his five-book series on Johnson's life, and the third to win an NBCC award.
The fiction winner, Ben Fountain's heartbreakingly funny satirical novel Billy Lynn's Long Half-time Walk, was, like Caro's book, also a finalist for the National Book Award.
Fresh, unusual subject matter marked several of the winners. Leanne Shapton's moving and mysterious memoir, Swimming Studies, incorporated her athletic life as a competitive swimmer and her artistic life as a graphic designer and painter to tell its story. Poetry winner D.A. Powell's Useless Landscape, or: A Guide for Boys combines elegant poetic technique with an engaging investigation of desire and sexual identity.
Criticism winner Marina Warner's fascinating Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights is a work of literary and cultural criticism that's impressive in its scope and depth, and as much fun to read as the stories of Scheherazade it focuses on.
The nonfiction award was presented to Andrew Solomon. His book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, is a unique look at how families cope with all sorts of "differentness," raising children who are dwarfs or prodigies or criminals, have Down syndrome or schizophrenia. It's an engrossing, astonishing work that is encyclopedic and intimate at the same time.
Solomon, who writes eloquently about growing up gay, noted in his speech that on that day the Obama administration had announced its support of a California effort on behalf of gay marriage rights. "I really wanted to write a book about love," he said, "and I really hoped that it was a book that would be published to a world changing so fast that it would soon become irrelevant. I have some hope of that tonight."
Which one of these prize books do I recommend? Every one.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.