On Thursday, February 28, 2013, at a packed ceremony in the New School’s Tishman Auditorium in New York, the National Book Critics Circle announced the recipients of its book awards for publishing year 2012. Winners ranged Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf), a magisterial volume (fourth in an ongoing biography) offering fresh perspective on crucial years for Lyndon Baines Johnson and for the nation, to Ben Fountain’s debut novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco), a wise, sharply insightful examination of war, class, and celebrity in America. Both books were nominated for the 2012 National Book Award but did not win.
The nonfiction winner, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner), was honored as a sweeping yet in-depth synthesizing of key social issues from deafness to homosexuality to create what feels like a whole new area of study. Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies (Blue Rider Press) also broke a mold, rethinking the autobiography category as it presented the life of a body, reflecting on Shapton’s experience as a champion swimmer and subsequent experiences as an artist.
In criticism, Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (Belknap Press: Harvard University Press) exhibited impeccable scholarship as it gave extraordinary background to Shahrazad’s beloved tales, creating its own magic. Finally, D. A. Powell’s Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (Graywolf Press) topped the poetry category with a work at once erotic and wickedly witty, spiritual and profound, that captures growing up and also growing up gay.
The evening opened as the National Book Critics Circle honored one of its own, William Deresiewicz, with the 2012 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar were then honored with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for their trailblazing work in feminist criticism. Though neither woman could attend, they both spoke to the audience in recorded segments.
Recipients of the National Book Critic Circle Awards for 2013
D. A. Powell, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (Graywolf Press)
Marina Warner, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (Belknap Press: Harvard University Press)
Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies (Blue Rider Press)
Robert A. Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf)
Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco)
Biographies of Recipients
Robert Caro, THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON: THE PASSAGE OF POWER (Alfred A. Knopf). Earlier volumes of Caro's legendary biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and his previous biography, The Power Broker, have won nearly every major award in American letters, including two Pulitzer Prizes, two previous National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the National Book Award. This fourth volume recounts Johnson's elevation to the vice-presidency, his humiliation at the hands of the President's brother, and the miraculous rescue of his career by an assassin's bullet in Dallas.
Ben Fountain, BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK (Ecco). Fountain lives in Dallas, where he set Billy Lynn, his first novel. He has also published a book of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevera, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Fountain quit his job as a lawyer and spent 18 years writing fiction before Brief Encounters was published in 2006, an experience Malcolm Gladwell described in a New Yorker story called “Late Bloomers.” Fountain's reporting from Haiti has appeared on “This American Life.” In Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a squad of American soldiers are touted as heroes after a Fox News crew films them during an intense firefight with Iraqi insurgents. The book follows them through one intense, surreal day-which happens to be Thanksgiving and the last day of their U.S. Victory Tour-as they visit Cowboys Stadium in Dallas to take part in the halftime show along with Beyoncé and the Cowboys' cheerleaders.
Leanne Shapton, SWIMMING STUDIES (Blue Rider). In her memoir, Shapton reflects on her youth as a national competitive swimmer who made it as far as the 1988 and 1992 Canadian Olympic trials. In this visually arresting book, Shapton includes photographs and images to tell her story. A Canadian artist as well as graphic novelist, Shapton lives in New York City, and her previous books include Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morri, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry as well as Was She Pretty? An art director for newspapers and magazines, she has also worked at the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, as well as at Maclean's and the National Post.
D.A. Powell, USELESS LANDSCAPE, OR A GUIDE FOR BOYS (Graywolf Press). Powell is the author of five collections of poetry including Tea, Lunch, Cocktails, and Chronic, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. He has twice been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. Useless Landscape, Or A Guide for Boys is a hymn to beauty and fantasy, a song-cycle to the Bay Area's bars and boathouses, and it brings forward a verve and jocularity that is exhilarating, generous, and typical of this deeply sprung lyric poet. Powell lives in San Francisco.
Andrew Solomon, FAR FROM THE TREE: PARENTS, CHILDREN, AND THE SEARCH FOR IDENTITY (Scribner). Solomon was born in New York City and graduated from Yale University and Cambridge University. He is an activist for LGBT causes, mental health, and the arts. His first book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, won the National Book Award for nonfiction and a Lambda Literary Award for memoir and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Based on hundreds of interviews, Far From the Tree is a groundbreaking look at family relationships with children who are radically different from their parents' expectations in physical, mental, and behavioral ways.
Marina Warner, STRANGER MAGIC: CHARMED STATES AND THE ARABIAN NIGHTS (Belknap Press: Harvard University Press). A prolific writer of fiction as well as literary criticism and cultural history, Warner is a professor at the University of Essex and was recently visiting professor at NYU-Abu Dhabi. Her studies of fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, narrative, and visual art include Phantasmagoria (2008), Six Myths of Our Time (1996) and Into the Dangerous World (1988); among her novels is The Leto Bundle (2002). Stranger Magic examines the stories commonly called (in English) the Arabian Nights, from their tangle of Near Eastern origins through their tremendous influence in the West, in popular culture, and on such authors as Voltaire, Goethe, and Freud; these wondrous stories, Warner argues, allowed Western readers to imagine mystery-and to enjoy miraculous narrative-as something that could happen, but only elsewhere.
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.
In addition to the annual book awards, each year the NBCC salutes the most accomplished reviewer from within the membership with the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Members of the organization communicate through the organization’s website (http://www.bookcritics.org) and at an annual membership meeting in New York City.