From rock 'n' roll to Renaissance France, black history to Polish poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Awards recognized outstanding books on a wide range of subjects in New York City on March 10.
This was my first year as a board member of NBCC and thus as a participant in the awards process. In January we winnowed hundreds of books in six categories to five finalists; this month we selected and celebrated the winners.
On March 9, 25 of the finalists participated in a reading at the New School's Tishman Auditorium — an entertaining event that lasted about three hours, despite a three- to five-minute limit per person (which some readers clearly regarded as theoretical).
The next day, after a morning members' meeting and luncheon, the 24 board members gathered in a meeting room at the New School for about four hours of intense debate to pick the winners. Remember, this board consists entirely of professional critics — we write for newspapers, magazines, websites and/or academic journals — whose business is having strong opinions and being able to support them.
Some categories required just a few rounds of voting to determine a winner from among five finalists (six in the autobiography category). Others were so fiercely argued, and went through so many votes that didn't produce a winner, that it looked as if we might not make deadline.
But we did, without bloodshed, and the awards were handed out that night at 6. The winners: Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad, fiction; Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, nonfiction; Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, biography; Darin Strauss, Half a Life, autobiography; Clare Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West, criticism; and C.D. Wright, One With Others: A Little Book of Her Days, poetry.
A few highlights from the events:
• Most energetic approach to reading: Jonathan Franzen (Freedom), who, instead of climbing a few steps onto the stage for his lively reading, sprinted up the aisle and leaped onto the stage — and leaped down afterward.
• Most touching reading: Rocker, poet and memoirist Patti Smith (Just Kids) bringing the whole house to tears with a passage about her reaction to the death of her beloved friend, artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
• Best wardrobe choice: Parul Sehgal, accepting the Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and explaining her sexy black-and-silver sari: "I didn't choose a sari so much for ethnic pride as to disguise the knocking of my knees."
• Most vivid metaphor for how long it can take to write a book: Clare Cavanagh, who said, "My son has a driving permit. When I signed the contract for this book, I was pregnant."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.