Saturday night the ALP and I met up with my former boss (and good friend and mentor, affectionately known as T) in the West Village, and we all made our way down to SoHo for the announcement of the finalists for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Awards. [If you want to skip the social review and find out the finalists, scroll to the end for the list.] Comparable to the National Book Award (only with no cash if you win), the award is given, obviously, by the National Book Critics Circle, an organization of about 500 book reviewers and critics -- kind of the equivalent of the Academy for the Oscars, though perhaps a bit less glam. Books published in English from anywhere in the world are eligible. Since the announcement of the shortlisted finalists was being held in the beautiful McNally-Robinson store in SoHo (a relatively new independent in town, now open for a little more than a year), and "light refreshments" were included in the festivities, we all ankled downtown to catch the show.
On the way over we dissected the Frey/LeRoy debacles and caught up on each other's news. The weather turned suddenly from false spring to full-on winter last night, so we scurried inside the well-lit store as quick as we could. T is a friend of the store's owner, so he greeted her and pitched in on putting out napkins and stuff while the ALP and I browsed the store. I didn't stray too far, as I shamelessly hoped T would introduce me to the glittering literary folks bound to attend.
As it turned out, there were one or two folks there I already knew. The event was MC'd (and as far as I can tell, mostly organized) by John Freeman, whom I'd met on several occasions. John is one of those intimidatingly successful people: he can't be much older than I am, but I've heard him authoritatively described as "the top freelance reviewer in America;" he knows or has talked to more authors than I've ever read, and he often has enviable gigs like (most recently) flying off to Ireland to interview David Mitchell about his new book. Nevertheless, he's totally a decent person, and said hello and asked after my bookstore in the midst of running around organizing things. He (or the NBCC, of which he's a member) had lined up a former NBCC winner or nominee to announce the finalists in each category, and was kept busy greeting and keeping these authors happy as the crowd continued to grow. I said hi to a sales rep or two, and later on managed to introduce myself to Richard Nash, the head of Soft Skull Press (who was wearing, may I add, a really smashing pin-striped suit -- and I'm not just saying that because he sends me great galleys).
The ALP returned from his browsing (having succumbed to McN.-R.'s charm and purchased several books) around the time T and I raided the food tables, and the three of us gradually noticed that this event was more in the way of a reception than a ceremony. The refreshments were indeed light, but plentiful, and the small cafe space of the store spilled over with book industry folks drinking, eating and chatting. T commented that there were a high percentage of publicists in the audience, and quite a few agents as well; as a preliminary event, this wasn't one the authorial nominees themselves were likely to attend, but their publishing entourages were all out in force. That sounds a little cynical, but this was both a social and business event, as the various forces that make books and opinions circled around each other, comparing notes and making connections. There are some pretty people in this part of publishing, and it was fun to watch
At last, Freeman opened the announcement portion of the evening, which turned out to be extremely low-key. Standing in an unadorned corner of the café, Colson Whitehead, perhaps the youngest and most currently famous of the bunch, announced the fiction finalists with no preamble (and didn't mention the book's publishers, which John requested the following presenters to do). Edmund White (a kind and friendly man, especially for a giant of gay literature) read the list of Biography finalists. Richard Howard announced the Criticism finalists, with some shout-outs to those he knew (if shout-outs can be used to describe the quiet and civilized acknowledgements Howard expressed). Ted Conover, the author of NEWJACK, announced the general nonfiction books (look at the list and you'll see why someone joked that "we call this the 'feel-good' category"). Sharon Olds made a bit more of a speech, acknowledging the "hope and encouragement" being nominated for an NBCC Award years ago had given her, before reading the poetry finalists. John made a crack about the NBCC's new category, Memoir, being on everyone's minds this week ("although we call it Autobiography, which means it's true") before introducing Joyce Johnson, who read the Autobiography finalists with vim and vigor. A lifetime achievement award was announced for Bill Henderson, founder of the Pushcart Press. Finally, the Nona Balakian citation for Excellence in Reviewing (sort of the critics' prize to one of their own) was awarded to critic Wyatt Mason, by last year's winner David Orr (who promised to say "two words" but went on a bit longer, lamenting the media's tendency to forget to mention the reviewing prize and also to underestimate the importance of reviewers.)
And with that, after applause, the speeches ended and the reception continued. (The winners will be announced and the achievement award winners will give speeches in a ceremony on March 3.) The nominations seemed well thought out and logical; most were books that have received significantcritical acclaim this past year. I was especially glad that Ishiguro's NEVER LET ME GO was nominated in fiction, and that the embattled Orhan Pamuk got another plug for ISTANBUL, though I'm sorry THE TENDER BAR didn't get an Autobiography nod, and there are always other fine books that don't make the cut. Award-giving is a process of elimination, obviously, and there are surely more than five outstanding fiction books a year, but the NBCC shortlist is always a good indicator of (at least some of) the best and the brightest. After loving Jonathan Coe's WINSHAW LEGACY, I'm thinking of picking up his shortlisted biography of B. S. Johnson, and I'd love to dip into some of the poetry nominees too.
The ALP and I had promised to go to a friend's party later on, so we ducked out soon after offering some congratulations. The event was short and sweet (though I imagine the mingling may have gone on much longer after we left), but it was a little thrilling, as always, to be able to be a part of the New York, and thus the national, literary scene. Not as impressive as attending the Oscars, maybe, but it made our weekend.
2006 National Book Critics' Circle Award Nominees:
[Like Mr. Whitehead, I haven't bothered to note the publishers for each book; you can probably find a more thoroughly notated list on the NBCC website, http://www.bookcritics.org/, or in most national newspapers, sometime in the next couple of days.]
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Joan Didion
ISTANBUL, Orhan Pamuk
THEM, Francine du Plessix Gray
FAT GIRL, Judith Moore
TWO LIVES, Vikram Seth
TEAM OF RIVALS, Doris Kearns Goodwin
AMERICAN PROMETHEUS, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
LEE MILLER, Carolyn Burke
LIKE A FIERY ELEPHANT, Johnathan Coe
MARK TWAIN, Ron Powers
STILL LOOKING, John Updike
UNNATURAL WONDERS, Arthur Danto
GATHER AT THE RIVER, Hal Crowther
THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, William Logan
WHAT HAPPENED HERE, Eliot Weinberger
EUROPE CENTRAL, William T. Vollmann
THE MARCH, E.L. Doctorow
VERONICA, Mary Gaitskill
NEVER LET ME GO, Kazuo Ishiguro
SMALL ISLAND, Andrea Levy
VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL: THE ORAL HISTORY OF A NUCLEAR DISASTER, Svetlana Alexievich
THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILISATION: THE CONQUEST OF THE MIDDLE EAST, Robert Fisk
EATING STONE: IMAGINATION AND THE LOSS OF THE WILD, Ellen Meloy
HUMAN CARGO: A JOURNEY AMONG REFUGEES, Caroline Moorehead
NIGHT DRAWS NEAR: IRAQ'S PEOPLE IN THE SHADOW OF AMERICA'S WAR, Anthony Shadid
THE SHOUT, Simon Armitage
BENT TO EARTH, Manuel Blas de Luna
REFUSING HEAVEN, Jack Gilbert
CRUSH, Richard Silken
THE INCENTIVE OF THE MAGGOT, Ron Slate