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National Book Critics Circle 2012 Awards: The Shortlist

By Bluestalking @Bluestalking

The finalists for the NBCC awards were announced yesterday. I haven't been paying it a lot of attention, shame on me, so it came as a total surprise when the list came out. I'm not supposed to admit that, being a member and all. But you know me and book lists, especially prize lists. It's a lot like horse racing: I may be unfamiliar with the horses but I'd have a hard time not trying to pick the winner. Sadly, in this case there's no money riding on it, unless someone out there's willing to pony up the cash. My motto: if you're giving, I'm taking.

It's a great list, as always. I think the NBCC does an especially fantastic job choosing outstanding front runners. I wish I could dive in and read all the books in all the categories but that ain't a-going to happen. But it's not outside the realm of possibility I could take one of them - say, fiction, SHOCK - and read my heart out before the winners are announced at the end of February. Anyone want to talk to my boss about giving me paid time off to read? Okay, thanks. I'll remember that.

What will that mean for my reading list? I'll have to sweep a lot of stuff to the side. Kate Ellis, love, I'm sorry to say you'll have to sit on the sidelines. I'll see you, and your compatriots, in March.

Here's the list:

HHhH by Laurent Binet

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

"A seemingly effortlessly blend of historical truth, personal memory, and Laurent Binet’s remarkable imagination, HHhH—an international bestseller and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman—is a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing, a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history."

This was one of The New York Times' Notable Books 0f 2012 and the single title out of the bunch I hadn't heard of.

I like that there's a foreign author in the mix. It's nice to see the NBCC was thinking outside the conventional, even if the rest of the contenders are pretty familiar.

The subject matter doesn't exactly blow up my skirt - I'm a little burned out on war novels - and the reviews have been somewhat mixed. I'll give it a shot.


Billy lynns
Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain

Ecco, 2012

Huge, huge novel that's appeared on almost everyone's list of the Best of 2012. Critics haven't just been positive about it: they've fallen all over themselves praising it:

"Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not merely good; it’s Pulitzer Prize-quality good . . . A bracing, fearless and uproarious satire of how contemporary war is waged and sold to the American public.”

- San Francisco Chronicle

“A masterful echo of ‘Catch-22,’ with war in Iraq at the center. …a gut-punch of a debut novel…There’s hardly a false note, or even a slightly off-pitch one, in Fountain’s sympathetic, damning and structurally ambitious novel.”

- Washington Post

Yep, looking forward to it.


The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Random House, 2012

Another book that's gotten a lot of raves. Critics love it:

“A great novel can take implausible fact and turn it into entirely believable fiction. That’s the genius of The Orphan Master’s Son.  Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mâché creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable. This is a novel worth getting excited about, one which more than delivers on its pre-publication buzz… I haven’t liked a new novel this much in years, and I want to share the simple pleasure of reading the book. But I also think it’s an instructive lesson in how to paint a fictional world against a background of fact: The secret is research…It’s this process of re-imagination that makes the fictional locale so real and gives the novel an impact you could never achieve with a thousand newspaper stories. Johnson has painted in indelible colors the nightmare of Kim’s North Korea. When English readers want to understand what it was about — how people lived and died inside a cult of personality that committed unspeakable crimes against its citizens — I hope they will turn to this carefully documented story. The happy surprise is that they will find it such a page turner.”

The Washington Post

Again, the subject matter would have turned me off had the book not made the NBCC shortlist. I'm just not interested in North Korea. Maybe I should be but, honestly, I'm not. Critics sure do have a great way of changing the mind, though, don't they? I never thought I'd say this but it has my curiosity piqued.


"Magnificence by Lydia Millet

W.W. Norton, 2012

I've been meaning to read Lydia Millet. Looks like I've found my opportunity. Her reputation is stellar and I've probably read an occasional article by her but never one of her novels.

Once again, she's a darling of the critics. And the book sounds like something I'd love:

"This stunning new novel presents Susan Lindley, a woman adrift after her husband’s death and the dissolution of her family. Embarking on a new phase in her life after inheriting her uncle’s sprawling mansion and its vast collection of taxidermy, Susan decides to restore the neglected, moth-eaten animal mounts, tending to “the fur and feathers, the beaks, the bones and shimmering tails.” Meanwhile an equally derelict human menagerie—including an unfaithful husband and a chorus of eccentric old women—joins her in residence.

In a setting both wondrous and absurd, Susan defends her legacy from freeloading relatives and explores the mansion’s unknown spaces. Funny and heartbreaking, Magnificence explores evolution and extinction, children and parenthood, loss and revelation. The result is the rapturous final act to the critically acclaimed cycle of novels that began with How the Dead Dream."

My problem is, this is the last novel in a series. It goes against everything I believe to read a novel cycle out of order. But am I insane enough to insist on reading the books leading up to this? Well... Debatable. It would be crazy. Nutty. And time really isn't on my side. I may have to forgo my long-held beliefs. Woe.


NW by Zadie Smith

Penguin, 2012

A book with very mixed reviews: loved by critics with a lukewarm reception by readers. I've been hesitant to read it, though I  accidentally ordered a copy via Amazon. So why didn't I return it? That's the question, love.

My favorite critic, Ron Charles, had this to say:

 "Endlessly fascinating... remarkable. ...The impression of Smith's casual brilliance is what constantly surprises, the way she tosses off insights about parenting and work that you've felt in some nebulous way but never been able to articulate."

—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

I trust Ron Charles. We haven't disagreed on a book yet. If he says it's great, well, it must be. Okay, I'll take the plunge.

Them's the pickin's for this year's award. Not too shabby, eh? If you follow my link to see what's on the other lists you'll be just as impressed, no question

I'll post what I can while I read. While I am in between reads for two of my other venues, I just accepted a few Indie books for review, plus one other for a publisher. Don't even talk to me about the rest of life.

It's going to be a tough juggling act, friends. But if I'm not frantic I'm not happy.

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