Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Awards Season: NBCC Announces Its Finalists

The National Book Critics Circle (of which I am a voting member) announced the finalists for its 2010 book awards last weekend.  The NBCC awards are a little like the Golden Globes (except, as far as I know, without the graft and corruption).  As the name says, the group is a diverse membership of book critics, dedicated to fostering "a national conversation about reading, criticism and literature."  Over the next six weeks, the NBCC judging committees will read the books in their categories then come together as a group in March where they'll debate and discuss the finalists until they agree on a clear winner in each category.  Sometimes arm-wrestling is involved, and perhaps even arm-twisting.  The winners will be announced in a ceremony on March 10.  You can find more about the NBCC at its blog, Critical Mass, where, in the month preceding the awards ceremony, each of the finalists will be highlighted in the "30 Books in 30 Days" feature.  Galley Cat has also prepared a "literary mixtape" where you can sample excerpts from the books on the list.

This year, while the usual suspects showed up on the lists, there were also some surprises (and yes, disappointments).

Freedom was practically a given, despite the backlash of negative sniping that seems to dog Jonathan Franzen (mention his name and it's practically Pavlovian the way some folks turn to haters even though they've never read the book).  Flaws and all, Freedom turns narrative cartwheels while other novels are still struggling to do a basic somersault.

I also expected to see Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad and David Grossman's To the End of the Land--both novels which, as the year went on, gathered praise like downhill snowballs.  Skippy Dies was a happy addition and of all the books on all the lists which I haven't read (i.e. all of them except for Freedom), it's the one closest to the top of my To-Be-Read pile.

But Comedy in a Minor Key?  I've never heard of it.  I'm a little surprised that slot wasn't filled by the likes of The Lonely Polygamist, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Room, Great House, or Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.

It's tough to pick a winner in the fiction category, but I'm gonna toss the dice and say it'll be To the End of the Land.  For some reason, it just smells like an NBCC winner.

In non-fiction, the big surprise in the Department of Omissions is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  I thought Rebecca Skloot's book was leading a charmed life since its publication.  I haven't read it, but from all I've heard, I thought it was a shoo-in for at least the finalist short list.  I predict The Warmth of Other Suns will take that prize.

In autobiography, it seems pretty obvious that Patti Smith should clear her schedule for March 10 and plan to be at the awards ceremony.  If Smith's not the winner, then I think the sentimental vote will go to Christopher Hitchens.

I'm disappointed to see that neither of my two favorite poetry collections--Here by Wislawa Szymborska and Master of Disguises by Charles Simic--made the cut.  On the other hand, I've been hearing very good things about Nox, and I predict that will be the winner in the poetry category.

What does that leave?  Ah, criticism and biography.  In the former category, I think The Possessed will win; and in the latter, I'm guessing How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne will wear the crown.

What about you?  Who do you think will win?  Have you even read any of these?  Debate, discuss, deliberate in the comments section.

Here are the complete lists:

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From The Goon Squad
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
David Grossman, To The End Of The Land (translated by Jessica Cohen)
Hans Keilson, Comedy In A Minor Key (translated by Damion Searls)
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

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 (translated by Ronnie Hope)

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

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

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 American
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

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]

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