Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Books

National Book Critics Circle awards help bookworms wade through year's new titles

NEW YORK

“We come to this every year," the young man in the row behind me at Tishman Auditorium at the New School said to his friend. "It's almost like reading all the books."

The night before the National Book Critics Circle presents its annual awards, it holds a reading by many of the 30 authors who are finalists in the six award categories: fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography, poetry and criticism.

This year, before a full-house audience on March 7, there were lively readings by 20 people in a little more than an hour, all of them engaging from the first — John Jeremiah Sullivan, a nonfiction finalist for his terrific collection Pulphead — to the last, Dana Spiotta, a fiction finalist for her gemlike novel Stone Arabia.

For a wonder, almost every one kept his or her reading within the 3-minute limit. Poet Forest Gander even boasted, "One poem, 2 1/2 minutes."

It was an entertaining evening. But I have to say, as a member of the NBCC board that chooses the books that receive the awards, going to the reading is not like reading all the books.

I did read them, all 30 of them, and it took me quite a bit more than an hour.

All of it was time well spent. As the only national book awards selected entirely by critics, the NBCC choices represent extraordinary achievement in writing. I had my favorites among the 30, but there wasn't a clunker in the bunch.

Winnowing down our selections from among the many thousands of new titles published each year takes months of work by the organization's two dozen board members. By the time we meet in March, we've chosen five finalists in each category, and all of us who vote have read those books. A marathon board meeting that ended just an hour before the ceremony on March 8 determined who would receive the awards.

Two achievement awards were announced in January and presented at the ceremony. The NBCC's Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award went to Robert Silvers, who was a founding editor of the New York Review of Books in 1963 and is still on the job.

The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing was presented to Kathryn Schulz, who was a freelancer when she entered the competition but, as she said while accepting the award, was named book critic for New York magazine within 72 hours of winning. She thanked her librarian aunt for teaching her the value of that simple question: "Have you read any good books recently?"

I have, and these NBCC award winners are among them.

Poetry: Laura Kasischke, Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon Press)

Criticism: Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews (Graywolf Press)

Autobiography: Mira Bartok, The Memory Palace: A Memoir (Free Press)

Biography: John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin Press)

Nonfiction: Maya Jasanoff, Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War (Knopf)

Fiction: Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories (Lookout Books)

You can find out more about the winners and finalists, and watch video of the finalists reading and the awards ceremony, at the NBCC's Critical Mass blog, bookcritics.org/blog.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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