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Mustering dark magic I predict the winners of the NBCC awards.

January 24, 2011

Jennifer Egan: Consulting the Necronomicon, I prophesy her winner of the fiction prize.

I’ll get to something more fun in a moment — gambling!– but first let’s acknowledge the National Book Critics’ Circle, which announced the finalists for its 2010 literary prize over the weekend. Among the contenders: Jonathan Franzen, ignored last fall by the snobs at the National Book Award.

The NBCC, composed of 700 or so book reviewers from around the country, presents the third most significant literary honor in America, after the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It’s frequently quirky, with titles no one else thought to consider sometimes taking the prize.

That makes it more interesting than the NBA, a stolid institution, or the Pulitzer, a hit-or-miss deal that too often rewards mediocrity — though not always, let me add for those thin-skinned past winners who may accidentally be reading this. No doubt you and your excellent book are the exception.

That quirkiness is reflected in this year’s fiction nominees — not one of which is shared by the NBA short list, including the winner of that award, Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (which, let’s be fair, with its hard-luck characters and West Virginia horse track setting, was a bit of a surprise itself).

Most of the titles on the NBCC short list are well known: Franzen’s Freedom; A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan; David Grossman’s To the End of the Land; Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies .

Not so the fifth nominee, Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, a novel by a German doctor who fought in the Dutch resistance and recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Comedy in a Minor Key was published in 1947, but FSG brought out the first American edition last year.

The NBCC honors books in a slew of categories, so here are the remaining nominees as cribbed from the Los Angeles Times:

Nonfiction: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick; Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne; Apollo’s Angels, by Jennifer Homans; The Emperor of All Maladies, by  Siddhartha Mukherjee; The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.

Autobiography: Half a Life, by Darin Strauss; Just Kids,  by Patti Smith; Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, by Kai Bird; The Autobiography of an Execution, by David Dow. Hitch-22, by Christopher Hitchens; Hiroshima in the AM; by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto.

Biography: How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell; The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography, by Selina Hastings; Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History, by Yunte Huang; The Killing of Crazy Horse,  by Thomas Powers; Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends, by Tom Segev.

Poetry: One With Others, by C.D. Wright; Nox, by Anne Carson; The Eternal City, by Kathleen Graber; Lighthead, by Terrance Hayes; The Best of It, by Kay Ryan.

Criticism: The Posessed, by Elif Batuman;  The Professor and Other Writings, by Terry Castle; Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West, by Clare Cavanagh; The Cruel Radience, by Susan Linfield; Vanishing Point, by Ander Monson.

Criticism? They give an award for criticism in this day and age? Isn’t that like Jane’s Defense Weekly giving an award for best broadsword, long bow or trebuchet? Bless their little outdated hearts, the criticism award may seem self serving, but in fact it’s an acknowledment of the central role criticism plays in keeping that essential and timeless cultural conversation going.

Here’s my handicapping of the categories, based (since I haven’t read all the titles) on an arcane formula that I am forbidden to explain on pain of being dragged into a Hell dimension by Cthulu himself.

So: Fiction: A Visit From the Goon Squad; nonfiction: The Warmth of Other Suns; autobiogaphy: Hitch-22; biography: How to Live; poetry: Nox; criticism: The Possssed.

Before you pick up the phone to call your bookie, note that though I have been  an NBCC member off and on for many years, I have seldom been right in my prognostications.

But if you have a certain turn of mind (and I assume you have, or what are you doing here?), this is more fun than the NCAA men’s basketball tournament or the Oscars — combined. Lay your bets! Start on office pool! And most of all, share your favorites!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Alexis Strand permalink
    January 24, 2011 5:59 pm

    I am sad to say I have not read any of these books.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 25, 2011 1:01 am

      Maybe that can be rectified.

  2. January 24, 2011 10:03 pm

    I nominate How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. Absorbing read. I wish Egan luck. She’s a terrific writer and so beautiful it’s hard to keep your mind on her prose when you go to one of her readings. Hope that doesn’t sound sexist – but what the hell. I met her in 1996 in Portland. I was touring as well. We had the same publisher. She filled the room. I didn’t. And so it goes.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 25, 2011 1:03 am

    I’ve learned over the years to put a lot of stock in titles, both Bakewell and Egan have given us great ones. I’m not sure if you’re being sexist or not, but let’s keep our attention on Egan’s book. The jacket photo for example.

  4. Connie permalink
    January 25, 2011 4:23 pm

    I would be thrilled if Egan won; she deserves it. Of course, so does Franzen…am I the only person who tried to get into “Skippy Dies” and just couldn’t make it past 20 or so pages? It wasn’t all that funny, and usually I’m a big fan of that sort of dark humor.

    I concur with your pick of Warmth of Other Suns, about which I have heard nothing but raves. Hitch-22 may be worthy, but don’t count out Patti Smith.

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