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Choosing winners for National Book Critics Circle an award in itself

Fiction: Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad; Jonathan Franzen, Freedom; David Grossman, To the End of the Land; Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key; Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

Biography: Sarah Bakewell, How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne; Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography; Yunte Huang, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History; Thomas Powers, The Killing of Crazy Horse; Tom Segev, Simon Wiesenthal: The Lives and Legends

Autobiography: Kai Bird, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978; David Dow, The Autobiography of an Execution; Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir; Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Hiroshima in the Morning; Patti Smith, Just Kids; Darin Strauss, Half a Life

Criticism: Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them; Terry Castle, The Professor and Other Writings; Clare Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West; Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance; Ander Monson, Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir

Nonfiction: Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea; S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in America; Jennifer Homans, Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet; Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer; Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Poetry: Anne Carson, Nox; Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City; Terrance Hayes, Lighthead; Kay Ryan, The Best of It; C.D. Wright, One With Others: A Little Book of Her Days

One of the joys of awards ceremonies is griping about the judges' choices.

When the winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards are announced on Thursday night, I won't be able to complain. I was elected to a three-year term on the NBCC's board of directors last year, and one of the main duties of that position is helping to select the winners of the organization's annual book awards.

I've judged other competitions, from college fiction contests to, back in the days when I was a food writer in Arizona, more chili cookoffs than I care to think about.

But this is my first experience judging a major book award, and it's been an education.

The NBCC gives book awards in six categories — fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography, criticism and poetry — as well the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award and the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Each of the 24 board members serves on several of the committees that select finalists for the awards, which means reading widely among books in your committee's category throughout the year.

In January, the board met to select five finalists in each book category, a daylong process of lively (sometimes very lively) debate and voting. You can read the results below — and yes, there are six finalists in the autobiography category. That one resisted being narrowed down. To read reviews of all these books by NBCC board members, go to "31 Books in 30 Days" on the NBCC's blog, Critical Mass (bookcritics.org).

We also chose the Sandrof and Balakian winners in January. Sometimes those awards go to major, well-known people or organizations in the literary world — last year's Sandrof went to the prolific novelist, critic, memoirist and professor Joyce Carol Oates, while the Balakian was awarded to New Yorker cultural critic Joan Acocella.

This year, the choices were a little edgier. The Sandrof winner is Dalkey Archive Press, a small nonprofit press with offices in Champaign, Ill., that specializes in publishing contemporary literature and books from other cultures and countries in translation — and keeping them in print. Winning the Balakian for criticism is Parul Sehgal, a 29-year-old editor at Publishers Weekly. She is in the early stages of a promising career, reviewing books for such publications as BookForum, O magazine and Time Out New York.

Since the finalists were chosen in January, board members have been busy reading the books selected by other committees. For example, I am on the fiction and nonfiction committees and had read all of those finalists. But I've been catching up in categories like criticism and biography (and realizing there seems to be no such thing as a short biography).

It's work, but it's wonderfully stimulating work. The goal of the NBCC awards is to recognize the best books in these categories, and I can say that every one of the 31 books that made the finalists list this year belongs there.

Alike in their high quality, the books range widely in their subject matter. The novels include one set in the world of rock music, one set in an Irish boys school, one about a Midwestern family, one about an Israeli mother waiting for her son to return from war, and one about a Dutch couple hiding a Jewish man from Nazis during World War II.

Nonfiction books cover the last days of the Comanche tribe, the great wave of black migration in the mid 20th century, life in contemporary North Korea and the histories of ballet and of cancer. Biography subjects range from Michel de Montaigne to Charlie Chan, from Simon Weisenthal to Somerset Maugham to Crazy Horse. Memoirists include celebrities — Patti Smith, Christopher Hitchens — as well as one man who has been a witness to much recent turmoil in the Middle East and another man whose life was shaped by having accidentally killed a girl when he was 18.

In short, if you're looking for something interesting to read, this list has plenty to offer.

Wednesday night, the NBCC will host readings by many of the finalists at the New School in New York City. I've attended these readings before as an NBCC member and look forward to this one.

On Thursday afternoon, the board will meet to vote on the winners (with, no doubt, more of those lively debates), and the awards will be given at a ceremony at the New School that evening. It's not as glamorous as the Oscars, but it doesn't last nearly as long, either. And the winners, being writers, tend to be much more articulate.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Choosing winners for National Book Critics Circle an award in itself 03/05/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2011 1:28pm]

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