National Book Critics Circle Announces 2017 Finalists

On Monday, January 22, the National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its book awards for the publishing year 2017. Embracing six categories, the 30 finalists were for the most part both solidly recognizable and satisfyingly broad, demonstrating strong cultural reach. The fiction titles walk the borders of fracturing worlds, with both Mohsin Hamid’s Man Booker short-listed, New York Times best-booked Exit West (Riverhead) and Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award–winning, Carnegie Medal–nominated Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner) using a touch of magic realism to investigate tough issues—the current refugee crisis and race, class, and poverty in the South, respectively.

Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour (Farrar), an LJ best book, expands the author’s range as it questions self-sacrifice in the early 1900s New York Irish community. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Knopf), her first novel in two decades, Arundhati Roy features both activists and India’s famed hijra against the backdrop of Kashmir’s battle for self-rule. Joan Silber’s Improvement (Counterpoint), named a best book by four publications, including the Washington Post, weaves together the stories of a single white woman in Harlem who has an African American boyfriend and the adventures of the woman’s aunt in Turkey decades previously.

Nonfiction goes global, starting with Masha Gessen’s National Book Award–winning The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Riverhead). Other finalists include Jack E. Davis’s Kirkus Prize–winning Gulf: The Making of An American Sea (Liveright: Norton), by a professor of environmental history at the University of Florida; Frances FitzGerald’s National  Book Award finalist The Evangelicals: The Struggle To Shape America (Scribner); Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (Graywolf), an exploration of the area bordering Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece; and Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes (The Experiment), our collective history from a scientific perspective, as told by a British geneticist and author often seen on the BBC.

The biography finalists include Howard Markel’s The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek (Pantheon), William Taubman’s Gorbachev: His Life and Times (Norton), and Kenneth Whyte’s Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (Knopf) but goes beyond historical/political figures. The mix also includes Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Metropolitan: Holt), a New York Times Best Book, and Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (Oxford Univ.).

Autobiography boasts Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper), named a best book by 15 publications, including LJ. Other finalists include Vietnamese American Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir (Abrams), a graphic novel about adapting to America; Henry Marsh’s Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery (St. Martin’s), the high-profile British surgeon’s tale of his world travels to practice medicine and teach; Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s The Girl From the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia (Penguin), a prize-winning Russian writer’s reminiscences, translated by Anna Summers; and Xiaolu Guo’s Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China (Grove), a fierce memoir of growing up in China from one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.

The poetry category brings fresh voices to the conversation, starting with National Book Award finalist Layli Long Soldier’s debut, Whereas (Graywolf), an urgent exploration of language and culture from a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Nuar Alsadir’s second collection, Fourth Person Singular (Oxford Univ.), offers clear, relentless writing about human relationships, while James Longenbach’s Earthling (Norton) is grounded in the natural world and reveals a prolific poet who should be better known. Also included are two award-winning world authors, Irish poet Frank Ormsby (The Darkness of Snow, Wake Forest Univ.) and Serbian poet Ana Ristović (Directions for Use, Zephyr, translated by Steven Teref).

As always, the criticism category blends social and literary commentary, featuring Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (Graywolf), showing how Danticat and other distinguished writers approach death in their work; cutting-edge novelist Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Coffee House), a timely work about undocumented Latin American children in America; and New Yorker poetry editor Kevin Young’s Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News (Graywolf), with race shown to be the greatest hoax of all. Also included: Carina Chocano’s You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages (Mariner: Houghton Harcourt) and Camille Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History (Norton).

In addition, three other prizes were announced. John McPhee, a longtime fixture of The New Yorker and Princeton’s journalism department and the author of 30 books, won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Novelist Charles Finch, whose reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere, won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. The John Leonard Prize, chosen by the membership to honor outstanding first books in any genre, was given to Carmen Maria Machado for Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf), also a National Book Award finalist.

Winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on Thursday, March 15,  at 6:30 p.m. at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium, 66 W. 12th St, New York, NY. A finalists’ reading will be held on March 14 at 6:30 p.m. in the same location. Both events are free and open to the public. The NBCC will also host a fundraising reception following the awards ceremony, with tickets $50 for NBCC members when purchased in advance and $75 to the general public.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.


  1. David Tulanian says:

    Ah, another book awards program. Good. Let’s hope that the National Book Critics Circle proves smarter than their counterparts at the National Book Foundation (National Book Awards). There, the geniuses added insult to injury when they invited President Bill Clinton to the National Book Awards ceremony—AND as an honored awards presenter. What were they thinking? President Clinton’s personal treatment (remember Paula Broaddrick?) of women is abysmal. Shame on them.

  2. David Tulanian says:

    In my last sentence I wrote Paula Broaddrick which is incorrect. Instead, I should have wrote: Juanita Broaddrick. My apology.

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