On Monday, the National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its annual book awards. I was among 24 NBCC board members who met in New York City recently to select 30 finalists in six categories from among the many books published in 2012 — a daunting but fascinating task.
It adds up to quite a reading list of exceptional books on a huge range of subjects: memoirs of youths spent in a Kenyan boarding school or as a competitive swimmer, novels set everywhere from Texas to North Korea to London; biographies of a president, a novelist and the real Count of Monte Cristo; critical writing on classical music, pop culture and The Arabian Nights. There are nonfiction books on a Mumbai slum, a giant corporation, the perils of pandemics passed from animals to humans and the many forms family takes, and poetry that addresses love, sex, faith, parenthood, mortality and more.
The NBCC also selected the winner of its 2012 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, which will go to prolific critic, essayist and author William Deresiewicz; and the recipients of its Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, groundbreaking feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The two, both authors, critics, teachers and scholars, have collaborated over several decades on such landmark critical works as The Madwoman in the Attic.
On Feb. 27, the NBCC will host a reading by many of the finalists in New York. The winners will be named at a ceremony on Feb. 28, so look for my report in March.
Here are the 2012 finalists:
Reyna Grande, The Distance Between Us; Maureen McLane, My Poets; Anthony Shadid, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East; Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies; Ngugi wa Thiong'o, In the House of the Interpreter.
Robert A. Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson; Lisa Cohen, All We Know: Three Lives; Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece; Lisa Jarnot, Robert Duncan, the Ambassador from Venus: A Biography; Tom Reiss, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo.
Paul Elie, Reinventing Bach; Daniel Mendelsohn, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays From the Classics to Pop Culture; Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey; Marina Warner, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights; Kevin Young, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness.
Laurent Binet, HHhH; Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk; Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master's Son; Lydia Millet, Magnificence; Zadie Smith, NW.
Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity; Steve Coll, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power; Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story; David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic; Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.
David Ferry, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations; Lucia Perillo, On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths; Allan Peterson, Fragile Acts; D.A. Powell, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys; A. E. Stallings, Olives.