National Book Critics Circle Announces Award Winners

By Barbara Hoffert

For immediate release

On Thursday, March 12, 2009, at a crowded ceremony at the New School in New York, the National Book Critics Circle announced the winners of its book awards, covering books published in 2008.

And something strikingly different happened. For the first time in the organization’s 35-year history, the NBCC chose to give a dual prize in one category, poetry, as best reflecting the sentiment of the board, with discussion and voting showing a strong commitment to two authors. It will never happen again, promised poetry committee chair Rigoberto González, so the evening’s attendees really had something to celebrate. The co-winners were Juan Felipe Herrera’s Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press) and August Kleinzahler’s Sleeping It Off in Rapid City (Farrar, Strauss), who both offered capstone books to important careers—works that were resonant, weighty, and accomplished.

Roberto Bolaño’s monumental 2666 (Farrar, Straus), a tale of love and violence set within the framework of the fictional town of Santa Teresa, Mexico, that’s widely regarded as the late author’s masterpiece, won the fiction award. Fiction committee chair Marcela Valdes called the work “a virtuoso accomplishment that ranks with Moby-Dick and Blood Meridian as one of the trenchant and kaleidoscopic examinations of evil in fiction.”

The general nonfiction award went to Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War (Knopf), a you-are-there account of bravery, suffering, and insanity as the Iraq war grinds on—a book that both exemplifies and transcends war reporting. The biography award went to Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul, a deft and unsparing look at a great but contentious author. Observed biography committee chair Eric Banks, “We must be grateful to V.S. Naipaul for his faith in requesting such an unflinching and deeply probing portrait, and it is our great gain that Patrick French gave him exactly what he asked for.”

The autobiography award went to Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq (Algonquin), the story of Sabar’s journey to rediscover his father and his father’s homeland in Iraq among the last remaining speakers of Aramaic, a language now almost lost. Sabar was strikingly able to blend his personal story with a larger understanding of history. The criticism award went to Seth Lerer’s Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter (University of Chicago Press), an insightful and well-researched work on a subject not often treated.

The NBCC also awarded the Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing to Ron Charles of the Washington Post Book World, who in his acceptance speech celebrated the critic’s job of helping people find good books. The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award was given to the Pen American Center, whose job, insisted introducer Andrew Delbanco, has never been more urgent. The evening ended with a fitting memorial tribute to John Leonard.

The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974 at the Algonquin, is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization consisting of some 600 active book reviewers who are interested in honoring quality writing and communicating with one another about common concerns. It is managed by a 24-member all-volunteer board of directors. For more information, please contact National Book Critics Circle president Jane Ciabattari or go to