The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes one of the biggest fiction releases of last year and a book in translation. To our eye, the five make up a well-rounded an interesting mix of titles. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books.
Laurent Binet, HHhH (The missing pages of HHhH)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain’s Year in Reading, The Millions interview)
Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son (excerpt)
Lydia Millet, Magnificence (Lydia Millet’s Year in Reading)
Zadie Smith, NW (Zadie Smith’s Year in Reading, our review, the first lines of NW)
Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (The Millions Interview, National Book Award winner)
Steve Coll, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (excerpt)
Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (excerpt)
David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (excerpt)
Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Staff Pick, excerpt [pdf])
For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, visit the NBCC.
For a long time I was put off reading Wolf Hall by the several pages of Tudor family trees and dramatis personae at the beginning; trying to hold this information in my head before even starting the book reminded me unpleasantly of cramming for a history exam. It took a rained-out summer for me to overcome my prejudices and find out just how wrong I was. Hilary Mantel’s multi-layered, multivalent, cracklingly intelligent recreation of Henry VIII’s tortured Britain, told through the rise of political operator Thomas Cromwell, reminds you just how much reach and power the novel as an art form can have.
My two favourite novels this year, though, were debuts. Leaving the Atocha Station is the story of a gifted but disillusioned young poet on a fellowship in Madrid, supposedly researching an epic poem on the Spanish Civil War, but actually smoking weed and entangling himself in various webs of untruth in the course of trying to persuade young Madrileñas to sleep with him. That this monster of overprivilege and overeducation ends up being genuinely sympathetic, and that a book that has serious questions to ask about the place of art in our virtually anesthetized world is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, are testaments to Ben Lerner’s dazzling prose, which switches effortlessly from deadpan to ironic to salty to tragic and back again.
No one could argue that the Nazis are underrepresented in literature, and Laurent Binet spends much of the first part of his novel HHhH agonising about why he’s adding to the pile. Thankfully he gets over this, and the story he tells is totally compelling. Reinhard Heydrich was Himmler’s right-hand man — or as the SS put it, Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich — and a vicious character even by the standards of the Nazis. Binet’s novel recounts the bid by two Czechoslovakian resisters to assassinate him. It’s completely electrifying, and in an age when our concept of courage has been overtaken by cliché, it manages nevertheless to evoke the astonishing selflessness of its heroes.
Right now I’m reading Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, by David Graeber. Graeber was heavily involved in the Occupy movement, and here he uses his background in anthropology to dismantle the foundational myths of classical economics, and illustrate just how weird, anomalous and downright antisocial contemporary capitalist society is in the light of the foregoing 5,000 years. His accounts of money’s ancient association with violence (e.g., the invention of coinage to pay conquering imperial armies) and our morality’s roots in the language of debt are revelatory. It’s brilliantly done and far funnier than any book on economics by rights ought to be.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:
Arcadia by Lauren Groff (a Staff Pick, Paradise Regained: An Interview with Lauren Groff)
At Last by Edward St Aubyn (Most Anticipated, Illicit Pleasures: On Edward St Aubyn’s At Last)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (Everything is Political: An Interview with Ben Fountain, National Book Award Finalist)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Booker Prize Winner)
Building Stories by Chris Ware (Infographics of Despair: Chris Ware’s Building Stories)
By Blood by Ellen Ullman (Who We Are Now: On Ellen Ullman’s By Blood)
Canada by Richard Ford (Across the Border: Richard Ford’s Canada)
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (The Mad Music of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane)
Fobbit by David Abrams (Post-40 Bloomer: David Abrams Taking As Long As It Takes)
The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli (Going Back to the Page: An Interview with Tatjana Soli, A Millions contributor)
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (Plot, Rhyme, and Conspiracy: Hari Kunzru Colludes with His Readers, Fractured World: Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men)
HHhH by Laurent Binet (Exclusive: The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’s HHhH)
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (National Book Award Finalist)
Home by Toni Morrison (Where the Heart Is: Toni Morrison’s Home)
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (So, Nu?: Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy)
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (How Should a Writer Be? An Interview with Sheila Heti)
NW by Zadie Smith (Lamenting the Modern: On Zadie Smith’s NW, Exclusive: The First Lines of Zadie Smith’s NW)
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (National Book Award Winner)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (National Book Award Winner)
Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (Mothers and Daughters: On Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name)
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (The Lies We Tell: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth)
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (Booker Shortlisted)
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Golden Oldie: Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Exclusive: The First Lines of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue)
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (The ‘You’ In Yunior: Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, A Brief Wondrous Interview with Junot Díaz)
Watergate by Thomas Mallon (I Am Not A Character: On Thomas Mallon’s Watergate)
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (Speaking of Anne Frank…)
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (National Book Award Finalist)
A new collection of non-fiction by Jonathan Franzen, Farther Away: Essays, is out today. Also out is Laurent Binet’s HHhH, from which we recently published some redacted scenes. Other new releases this week include Rosecrans Baldwin’s memoir Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down and Nobel laureate Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel.