Dark horses and doorstops

Some very heavy reading awaits those who will pick the winners of this year's National Book Critics' Circle Awards.

By Maria Russo
January 30, 2001 4:35AM (UTC)
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Monday the National Book Critics' Circle announced the nominees for its 2000 awards:

Fiction
Amy Bloom, "A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You"
Michael Chabon, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay"
Jim Crace, "Being Dead"
David Means, "Assorted Fire Events"
Zadie Smith, "White Teeth"

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General Nonfiction
Fred Anderson, "Crucible of War"
Ted Conover, "Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing"
Frances FitzGerald, "Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War"
Laurie Garrett, "Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health"
Alice Kaplan, "The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach"

Biography/Autobiography
Herbert P. Bix, "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan"
Robin Marantz Henig, "The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel"
Victor Klemperer, "I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1942-1945"
David Nasaw, "The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst"
Jean-Yves Tadii, "Marcel Proust: A Life"

Poetry
Anne Carson, "Men in the Off Hours"
Michael Collier, "The Ledge"
Judy Jordan, "Carolina Ghost Woods"
Yusef Komunyakaa, "Talking Dirty to the Gods"
Davis McCombs, "Ultima Thule"

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Criticism
Jacques Barzun, "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to Present"
Cynthia Ozick, "Quarrel & Quandary"
Claudia Roth Pierpont, "Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World"
Charles Rosen, "Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New"
Sherod Santos, "A Poetry of Two Minds"

The National Book Critics' Circle's annual awards -- selected by the board of the professional organization -- for the best fiction, nonfiction, biography, criticism and poetry have a reputation for being offbeat. This year both is and isn't an exception; the fiction short list is an intriguing mix of dark horses and insider favorites. The two British nominees, Jim Crace's "Being Dead" and Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" (both Salon Book Awards winners), have been making the rounds of best-of-the-year lists. "White Teeth," the story of an immigrant Bengali Muslim, his working-class white war buddy and their families in contemporary London, was nominated for Britain's Booker Prize and won the Whitbread First Novel Award. "Being Dead" delves into the aftermath of the murder of a married couple on a deserted beach. Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," set in New York in the 1940s, follows two fictional pioneers of the comic book industry. Chabon's novel has also gotten its share of positive critical attention, though this is its first award nomination.

The two short-story collections on the fiction list came as a surprise. The stories in Amy Bloom's "A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You" offer first-person glimpses of ordinary people grappling with terminal illness, transgenderism and other socially difficult situations. David Means' "Assorted Fire Events" assembles cerebral yet playful stories about the down-and-out and the affluent confronting loss, grief and despair. Means' nomination represents a coup for the tiny independent publisher Context Books, which was founded in 1996 as a book packager but began publishing its first books in 2000.

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No one is envying those NBCC judges who have a mere six weeks to catch up on this year's nonfiction nominees, several of which are of gargantuan proportions. The biography/autobiography category features monumental lives of Marcel Proust (nearly 1,000 pages), Emperor Hirohito (800 pages) and William Randolph Hearst (687 pages), as well as the 550-page second volume of Victor Klemperer's secret diaries, kept during 12 years he spent hiding from the Nazis. The category also includes Robin Marantz Henig's biography of Gregor Mendel, a svelte 224 pages long. It's a list notably lacking in popular memoirs, with Mary Karr's "Cherry," the sequel to her bestseller "The Liar's Club," one of the more pointed omissions.

In the general nonfiction category, the judges chose books with serious, even grave subject matter, and page counts were equally imposing. "Way Out There in the Blue," a history of the Star Wars missile defense system, is 592 pages long; Laurie Garrett's massive inquiry into globalization and public health issues, "Betrayal of Trust," weighs in at 754 pages; and Fred Anderson's "Crucible of War," about the Seven Years' War and the end of British empire in North America, is 862 pages long. The other two general nonfiction nominees are much shorter but will hardly offer the judges light reading: Ted Conover's "Newjack" is an account of his stint as a prison guard at a maximum security prison in New York State, while Alice Kaplan's "The Collaborator" explores the culpability of a French poet with Nazi ties who was executed for collaboration after World War II.


Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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