On January 17, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) announced its 30 finalists in six categories—autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—for the outstanding books of 2016. In addition, Margaret Atwood was named recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, Michelle Dean won the 2016 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing (Knopf), won the John Leonard Prize. This prize, which acknowledges an exceptional first book in any genre, is chosen by a volunteer committee of NBCC members from finalists nominated by more than 700 NBCC members nationwide.
While perhaps unexpectedly the fiction list did not include Colson Whitehead’s much-touted National Book Award winner, The Underground Railroad, it celebrated solid accomplishment—big books that deserved to be big. They include Michael Chabon’s Moonglow (Harper) and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (Penguin Pr.), layered studies of history and friendship, respectively, that are both finalists for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Rounding out the list are two quiet heart breakers, Louise Erdrich’s LaRose (Harper) and Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown), plus Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (Harper), an incisive study of complex family relationships.
The nonfiction list reflects the nation’s current concern with racial, social, and economic justice. The nominees include National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation), National Book Award finalist Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard Univ.), and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown), both a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and an LJ Best Book. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Doubleday) and John Edgar Wideman’s Writing To Save a Life: The Louis Till File (Scribner) complete the list.
The poetry list boasts Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons (Farrar) and Tyehimba Jess’s Olio (Wave), both ambitious books (particularly Jess’s formally inventive study of African American music) that were LJ Best Poetry Books. Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky gets a crack at the award with At the Foundling Hospital (Farrar), as do veteran avant-garde writer Bernadette Mayer (Works and Days, New Directions) and rising star Monica Youn (Blackacre, Graywolf). Youn’s third book uses the titular legal term to examine place, identity, and the inability to have a child.
The biography finalists range widely, though focusing mostly on the arts rather than political or historical figures. Included are Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story (Harper), Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright: Norton), Michael Tisserand’s Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White (Harper), and Frances Wilson’s Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (Farrar). In addition, Joe Jackson’s Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary (Farrar) gives full-scale treatment to the healer and holy man decades after his celebrated 1932 testimonial, Black Elk Speaks. Franklin’s book received nearly a dozen best book citations for 2016.
In autobiography, Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between (Random) and Kao Kalia Yang’s The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father (Metropolitan: Holt) deal achingly with the father figure, while Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg (Black Cat: Grove Atlantic) and Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude (Bloomsbury USA) investigate mortality. In her Costa short-listed book, Coutts recalls the illness and death of her husband from a brain tumor, while English author Diski’s reflection on being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer was published here shortly after her death. The autobiography list is completed by Hope Jahren’s sharply effervescent Lab Girl (Knopf).
Criticism boasts several titles from small or academic presses, including Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury USA), which received multiple best book citations; Alice Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (Univ. of Chicago); and Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living To Read and Reading To Live (Catapult), from a Rome Prize and Bard Fiction Prize–winning author of short stories. In addition, the list includes rising star critic Mark Greif’s Against Everything: Essays (Pantheon) and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Picador), another title that received several best book citations.
Winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on Thursday, March 16, at 6:30 p.m. at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium, 66 W. 12th St, New York. A finalists’ reading will be held on March 15 at 6:30 p.m. in the same location. Both events are free and open to the public.