Announcing the National Book Critics Circle Award finalists

Erin Kodicek on January 16, 2020
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"Honoring outstanding writing and fostering a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature since 1974," the finalists for the National Book Critics Circle awards were announced this week in six categories: Autobiography, Biography, Criticism, Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry. Place your bets now: The winners will be announced on March 12.

Here's what we had to say about some of books on the shortlist. To see the full list, click right here.


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Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

True story: A poor, young Appalachian woman heads to an Ivy League with ambitions of becoming a concert violinist. When she gets there, she learns that she’s not nearly good enough, and she’s killing herself to make tuition. Still, she answers a job listing on a message board for a seat in some kind of “ensemble,” and she’s hired without an audition. Her first gig is selling CDs by a man only identified as The Composer at a booth in a craft fair while two other musicians (one on violin, the other on penny whistle) play low under loudly broadcast New Age-y music, which sounds vaguely, or maybe a lot, like the Titanic soundtrack. Soon she’s onstage with The Composer himself, touring the country in a derelict RV with a select “ensemble,” miming the music emanating from a hidden CD player for adoring crowds—an act Hindman dubs “Milli Violini.” In our new age of malleable facts and fungible truth, Sounds Like Titanic hits some trenchant notes on the nature of truth and uncomfortable observations on gender. She anguishes over both the deception (and an overwhelming fear of being caught) and what feels like the betrayal of a lifetime of support from family and her small-town community. But it’s also entertaining. Hindman somehow avoids any meanness of spirit, even while having a lot of fun at the Yanni-like Composer’s expense. (We’re never given the his real name, but one will speculate.) “Fake it till you make it”—a phrase Hindman never writes, probably consciously—might not be so bad, after all. Jon Foro


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A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

In this fast-paced biography Sonia Purnell tells the story of Virginia Hall, an American spy who worked undercover in France during World War II for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). Hall’s story is a surprising one: she began her life in the United States with a mother who wished for the perfect debutante. Hall, however, was more comfortable studying languages, and found herself living abroad and working for the State Department when she lost half her leg in a hunting accident. This setback didn’t slow down Hall at all: she named her wooden prosthetic Cuthbert, drove ambulances in France, and was recruited by a recently formed SOE as a spy in occupied France. Hall posed as a newspaper reporter, enlisting civilians for the French Resistance and establishing an underground network of allies and becoming one of the most important spies during World War II. Purnell does an amazing job bringing Hall’s exploits to life and has crafted a gripping and cinematic biography for an unsung hero of wartime espionage. Alison Walker


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The Topeka School: A Novel by Ben Lerner

A high school debate champion growing up in Topeka, Kansas sounds like a fairly conventional character for a novel. But this is not a conventional novel—it builds through shifting points of view, and it is a book concerned with language and cultural expectation, and how one conveys the other. By the end, you begin to realize that it is a story about how we reached the national state of consciousness we inhabit today. The Topeka School is also autofiction: Lerner’s book tells the story of teenager Adam, the debate champion (as Ben Lerner was himself), and Adam’s parents, both psychologists (as were Lerner’s parents) living in Topeka (where Lerner lived). The entire family struggles at one point or another with success and privilege, something that opens up contradictions within each one of them, and the book itself is a bit of a contradiction—mixing the warmth of 90s nostalgia with the existential anxiousness we recognize so well today. There is a lot going on here, but the read is often mysteriously calming—due to Lerner’s deep relationship with language and subject matter—at the same time that he gives us a great deal to think about. Readers looking for a literary romp should probably search elsewhere. But if you’re looking to go deep, this is your guy. Chris Schluep


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The Nickel Boys: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

Based on a real school for boys that closed in Florida in 2011 after more than one hundred years in existence, Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Academy is the kind of institution that purports to rebrand bad boys into good young men. So in theory it should be a good place for Elwood, a young black man who, although he had planned to attend a nearby college, was caught unknowingly riding in a stolen car. But what happens inside Nickel Academy does not match its public image, and Elwood is about to learn that, no matter how idealistic or optimistic he is, his life is taking a very bad turn. He is lucky to meet Turner, who does not share Elwood’s idealism and who helps him to survive Nickel Academy. But what Elwood experiences there will never leave him. Set in the 1960s during Jim Crow, The Nickel Boys is both an enjoyable read and a powerful portrayal of racism and inequality that acts as a lever to pry against our own willingness to ignore it. —Chris Schluep


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Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Many a writer has attempted to parse the 400 years of colonial/sectarian violence that preceded the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But Say Nothing shows young paramilitaries compelled by more recent, deeply personal history: an aunt who lost her eyes and hands while setting a bomb, peaceful marchers ambushed and stoned on a bridge. With no dog in the race, an outsider such as Keefe can recount with stark, rousing clarity the story of an IRA gunman trying not to scream as a doctor sews up his severed artery in the front room of a safe house while a British armored tank rumbles outside. Or describe how Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, came to be suspected of being an informer, a charge which led to her being taken from her home by the IRA one night in 1972, her young ones clinging to her legs. Hastened to her grave by a bullet to the back of her head, her bones lay buried on a remote beach for thirty years, years during which her children were left to live and work alongside neighbors they suspected, yet dared not accuse, of being responsible for her death. With the pacing of a thriller, and an intricate, yet compulsively readable storytelling structure, Keefe’s exhaustive reportage brings home the terror, the waste, and the heartbreaking futility of a guerrilla war fought in peoples’ homes as well as in the streets. And he captures the devastation of veterans on both sides, uneasily enjoying the peace that finally came while wondering if they had fought the good fight or been complicit in murder all along. —Vannessa Cronin

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