A late lash of winter in mid March didn't keep book lovers away from the National Book Critics Circle's awards events.
Inside a packed auditorium at the New School on March 12, there were passionate readings by 20 of the 31 authors whose books were finalists and a wave of warm wishes the next night as the recipients of awards were honored.
As a member of the NBCC board, I was part of the selection process. It involves a massive amount of reading, but that's offset by the fact that the 30 books chosen as finalists in six book award categories are among the finest published in the previous year, and a genuine pleasure to read.
Because so many authors appear at the finalists reading, they're limited to about three minutes each — an unusually brisk pace for literary readings. But it works; each of the authors this year chose a passage or poem with a powerful impact, from Florida International University professor Denise Duhamel's exuberantly funny performance of a poem from her collection Blowout to former Tampa Bay Times staffer David Finkel's riveting reading from the opening of Thank You for Your Service, his nonfiction book about soldiers returning from the war in Iraq.
The awards ceremony on March 13 opened with presentations of three previously announced awards. The winner of the NBCC's Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award was flying in from Texas and running late, so novelist Dagoberto Gilb kept his intense introduction rolling for quite a while, until the moment Rolando Hinojosa-Smith stepped through the doors. The courtly Hinojosa-Smith is the dean of Mexican-American literature, a novelist, poet and professor whose 15-volume Klail City Death Trip series has been compared to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County novels.
The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing went to freelance critic Katherine A. Powers, who writes regularly for the Barnes and Noble Review. In her speech, she talked about the importance of the reviewer's voice and quoted H.L. Mencken: "Criticism is prejudice made plausible."
The NBCC inaugurated a new award this year, named, like the Sandrof and Balakian, for one of the organization's founders. The John Leonard Prize is for the best first book by an author, in any category. (Leonard, an influential critic and activist, died in 2008.) Unlike the other prizes, which are selected by the board, the Leonard is open to nominations and voting by all 600-plus members of the NBCC.
Leonard's widow, Sue Leonard, spoke warmly about her late husband's love of books and authors before presenting the prize to Anthony Marra for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a wartime novel set in Chechnya.
When Frank Bidart's book Metaphysical Dog got the nod in the poetry category, he came to the stage with a fistful of notes. "Every time I get nominated for something, I add a paragraph," he said. "I never throw any of them away." Those paragraphs added up to a heartfelt speech.
But Bidart apparently was the only award recipient who was prepared to win. Franco Moretti, founder of the Stanford Literary Lab, seemed genuinely astonished that his book Distant Reading, about understanding literature by aggregating and analyzing data, had been chosen in the criticism category.
Journalist Amy Wilentz accepted her award for autobiography for Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti by saying, "I don't think it's really an autobiography." And even though Harvard professor Leo Damrosch has won other awards for biographies, he expressed shock that he had won in that category for his ground-breaking Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World.
Sheri Fink, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who also has a doctorate in neuroscience and an M.D., said the competition in the nonfiction category was so strong she didn't imagine her gripping book, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, would take the prize.
And the evening's final award recipient, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, also professed her surprise — after letting out a scream of joy that was echoed by friends in the audience — that her novel Americanah had been chosen.
Born in Nigeria but a longtime U.S. resident, Adichie has more media presence than many authors — a sample of her TED talk showed up in Beyoncé's Flawless. She did seem surprised, but also poised enough to give a special nod in her acceptance speech to another fiction finalist: Alice McDermott (Someone), who was one of Adichie's writing teachers at Johns Hopkins University.
Video of the finalists reading and the awards ceremony is posted at bookcritics.org/blog. If you'd like to know more about the books that were finalists, you can find 30 Books in 30 Days, a series of appreciations of each book written by NBCC board members, at the blog also. And, thanks to the efforts of former board member John Reed and his students in the New School Graduate Writing Program, you can read or watch interviews with the finalists there as well.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.