The National Book Critics Circle Announces Award Winners

By Barbara Hoffert

At the New School On Thursday, March 10, 2011, the National Book Critics Circle announced the following winners of its of its book awards for publishing year 2010.


The winner in biography is Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Other Press) for a fresh and original treatment from British author Bakewell, a former curator, of the great French essayist in a book that remakes the concept of literary biography.

Finalists include

Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (Random House), a masterly biography of a complicated man by a skilled author who has also assayed Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford.

Yunte Huang, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (W.W. Norton), not so much a biography of the fictional Charlie Chan as a study of both author Earl Derr Biggers and the real-life Hawaiian detective, Chang Apana, on whom Chan was based—and, ultimately, a multilayered study of ethnic history in America. Huange grew up in southeastern China and immigrated to America in 1991; he presently teaches the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Thomas Powers, The Killing of Crazy Horse (Knopf), a dramatic and skillfully detailed book showing that the death of Crazy Horse was a traumatic event in American history; from the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, also winner of the Berlin Prize.

Tom Segev’s Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends (Doubleday), a study of the famed Nazi hunter by a Ha’aretz journalist who describes his subject as both “a quixotic romantic with a James Bond” and “central figure in the struggle for human rights.”


C. D. Wright’s One with Others: [a little book of her days] (Copper Canyon), from the MacArthur Fellowship winner, a book that affectingly blends poetry and journalism to detail a significant moment in the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas.

Finalists include

Anne Carson, Nox (New Directions), a book in a box that blends photographs, ephemera, dictionary definitions, lyric shards, fragments, cutouts, clippings, handwritten jottings, and corrupted incomplete narratives to profile the death of the Canadian poet’s brother.

Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City (Princeton University Press), her second book, wise and fresh, blending lyricism and vernacular in equal measure.

Terrance Hayes, Lighthead (Penguin Poets), also winner of the National Book Award, a serious and beautiful book graced by serious and beautiful language play.  

Kay Ryan, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems(Grove Press), a collection of beautifully precise and crafted poems from the former poet laureate.


Clare Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West(Yale University Press), a deeply scholarly yet lucid study hundred years of poems in three languages from the Northwestern University professor.

Finalists include

Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them(Farrar, Straus & Giroux), whose essays about the great books and authors of Russian literature and her own off-kilter experiences as a Ph.D. student first appeared in the New Yorker andN+1and have come to define a whole new way of doing criticism.

Terry Castle, The Professor and Other Writings (Harper), a mix of essays at once autobiographical and deeply informative that captures the spirit of the new criticism from the Stanford University professor.

Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (University of Chicago Press), which argues persuasively, despite prevailing sentiments first voiced by Susan Sontag, that photojournalism can indeed inform our moral sense and can in fact have lasting moral power. From the director of cultural reporting and criticism program at NYU.

Ander Monson, Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir(Graywolf), a second collection of essays from talented author of poetry, fiction, and criticism that is indeed not a memoir yet is concerned deeply with that form, giving us a new way to look at evaluating text.


Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (Random House), a magisterial work, taking its title from a poem by Richard Wright, that chronicles the movement of the six million African Americans who left the Jim Crow South starting in the early 20th century and spread throughout the country.

Finalists include

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau
), from formerly the Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Seoul, now posted in Beijing which goes behind the headlines to tell us what it’s like to live in deeply repressive North Korea, which is now nearly depleted of both food and electricity.

S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner), a panoramic and vividly detailed look at the true-life tale of the rise and fall of the now nearly forgotten Comanche Nation, once the most powerful tribe in the Great Plains. From an award-winning journalist and former senior editor at Time.

Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (Random House), a definitive history of an extraordinary art form by a former dancer, now currently dance critic at the New Republic.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner), by an oncologist, researcher, and professor at Columbia University, which in elegant prose, informed by the author’s broad knowledge and compassion, details our understanding since ancient times, of a dread disease.


Darin Strauss, Half a Life (McSweeney’s), a brave and heartbreaking account by the novelist of the half a life he’s spent coming to terms with an accident he was in that caused a classmate’s death.

Finalists include

Kai Bird, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978 (Scribner), whose author, the son of an American Foreign Service officer, lived in the Middle East through adolescence and witnessed key events in its crucial history perceptively recorded here.

David Dow, The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve), whose author is a defender of death-row inmates in Texas, a state that, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, has alone accounted for more than a third of the nation’s 1,242 executions since 1976. The lean, tough prose shows how he manages it. Also a winner of this year’s Discover Award in nonfiction.

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir (Twelve), a witty, wild, and profoundly insightful memoir from the noted critic.

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Hiroshima in the Morning(Feminist Press), a study of the soon-to-be-lost voices of the hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bomb, juxtaposed with the 9/11 attacks and the author’s determined quest to reconcile it all.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco), also the National Book Award winner, an account by the high priestess of punk rock that re-created the time when she and artist Robert Mapplethorpe were “just kids” in the Village, offering insight into not one but two key artists of the last half of the 20th century.


Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (Knopf), a novel at once experimental in form and crystal clear in the overlapping stories it delivers, offering us a sense of youth and what gets lost along the way.

Finalists include

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), an ambitious novel rendered in perceptive, hyperreal language that offers profound social commentary and deep family drama that we live, minute by minute, with the author.

David Grossman, To the End of the Land, tr. by Jessica Cohen (Knopf), also awarded the JJ Greenberg Memorial Award at the National Jewish Book Awards on March 9, which is set at the beginning of the second intifada  yet encompasses the tragedy of decades of war in the Middle East and indeed war generally.

Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key, tr. by Damion Searls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), whose German-born Dutch Jewish author, now 101, was born near Berlin and escaped to the Netherlands in 1936 to join the Dutch Resistance. His spare book draws achingly on his own experience of being hidden by a Dutch couple in 1941.

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies (Faber & Faber), by Irish author Murray, which details the crazed and sometimes dangerous energy of adolescence in a novel set in a second-rate Dublin boarding school.

Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing: Parul Sehgal, introduced by Scott McLemee

Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award: Dalkey Archive Press, introduced by Steve Kellman and William H. Gass

The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, honors outstanding writing and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism and literature. It was founded in 1974 to encourage and raise the quality of book criticism in all media and to create a way for critics to communicate with one another about their professional concerns. It consists of about 600 active book reviewers.