Last night at a ceremony at the New School in New York City, the National Book Critics Circle announced the winners of its 2019 literary awards. Maureen Corrigan of NPR was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Arte Público Press, the oldest and largest publisher of Hispanic literature in the United States, took home the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.
Below you’ll also find the winners of the seven main book categories, as well as an illuminating review of each title.
Congratulations to all the winners and nominees!
There There, Tommy Orange
“It is as if he seeks to reconfigure Oakland as a locus of desire and dreams, to remake the city in the likeness of his large and fascinating set of characters … Orange makes Oakland into a ‘there’ that becomes all the more concretely, emphatically and fully so in a novel that deals, in tones that are sweeping and subtle, large-gestured and nuanced, with what the notion of belonging means for Native Americans … The novel, then, is their picaresque journey, allowing for moments of pure soaring beauty to hit against the most mundane, for a sense of timelessness to be placed right beside a cleareyed version of the here and now, for a sense of vast dispossession to live beside day-to-day misery and poverty. Nothing in Orange’s world is simple, least of all his characters and his sense of the relationship between history and the present. Instead, a great deal is subtle and uncertain in this original and complex novel.”
–Colm Toibin (The New York Times Book Review)
The Carrying, Ada Limón
“Even though an individual may perish, there is consistency in the life cycles of bumblebees, dandelions, and race horses—all of which are examined with gorgeous language and imagery that makes Limón’s collection hard to put down, even in the moments that cause a deep, sorrowful ache. The tone is conversational yet eloquent, as if the speaker is retelling the most whimsical or challenging moments of their day after mentally working out the details of the story all afternoon. At times, these dialogues become brutally honest and confessional. In other instances, they’re more convivial … The Carrying perhaps doesn’t only refer to the burdens we carry, but also the small joys that carry us through the incessant turmoil of existence. It’s difficult to balance such polarized emotions, but Limón deftly navigates these extremes.”
–Aram Mrjoian (Chicago Review of Books)
Feel Free, Zadie Smith
“For Smith, anything is a potential text that she can subject to her talent for keen observation. She homes in on her subject’s most minute details, unspooling layers of meaning in a way that perhaps only a literary critic can do … Her call to dwell in ambiguity assumes a certain kind of individual: one with the luxury of detaching herself from the world’s flux in order to better observe its dynamics … How do poverty, racism, misogyny, and homophobia structure our thought? How can we work around them, if at all? The point is that not all of us can, from our current vantage point, feel free. But perhaps our limitations are exactly why Feel Free is an important contribution to contemporary conversations around culture and identity … That a black woman is insisting on casting her eye upon whatever she wants in itself represents defiance, a reckless eyeballing that was once unavailable to black people. More importantly, though, Feel Free reminds us that freedom isn’t something to be foisted upon or taken away from us by whoever happens to hold the reins of power; it is something that we can and must take on our own.”
–Ismail Muhammad (The Nation)
“Belonging, Krug’s new visual memoir, is a mazy and ingenious reckoning with the past. Born three decades after the Holocaust, she traces the stubborn silences in German life and investigates her own family’s role in the war. The book takes the form of an overstuffed scrapbook, jammed with letters, photographs, official documents and fragments from her uncle’s childhood journals — doodles of flowers, flags and swastikas … The wisdom of this book is that it does not claim to [wash away stains or mend scars]. The notion of ‘consolation’ is one I suspect Krug would regard with suspicion. What she seems in pursuit of is a better quality of guilt.”
–Parul Sehgal (The New York Times)
Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, Christopher Bonanos
(Henry Holt & Company)
“Now Christopher Bonanos’s Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous has displaced a host of fragmentary recollections and the loudmouthed, unreliable memoir, Weegee by Weegee, published in 1961. Bonanos resurrects the inky roar of this world with a fine, nervy lip … Weegee and his world don’t encourage minimalism, and, fifty years after his death, he has at last acquired a biographer who can keep up with him.”
–Thomas Mallon (The New Yorker)
“In the pages of Directorate S, the story is delivered with a literary prowess that has been absent in previous western accounts of America’s longest running war. The dance of blame, with the US swaying at one moment towards Pakistan and the next towards Afghanistan, is a choreography familiar to CIA chiefs, US presidents and writers who have tackled the subject. Coll refuses to follow this tired tune, and the result is masterful … In the 15-year story that Directorate S tells, Afghanistan has been built a bit and bombed a lot, the Taliban have been fought with and then courted, the Pakistanis embraced then abandoned. What the British tried to document in Curzon’s day the Americans refused to learn; there is indeed trouble on the Frontier again, and in Directorate S we have the definitive account of it.”
–Rafia Zakaria (The Guardian)
Milkman, Anna Burns
“For all the simplicity of its setup, Milkman is a richly complex portrayal of a besieged community and its traumatized citizens, of lives lived within many concentric circles of oppression … Among Burns’ singular strengths as a writer is her ability to address the topics of trauma and tyranny with a playfulness that somehow never diminishes the sense of her absolute seriousness … There is a pulsating menace at the heart of the book, of which the title character is an uncannily indeterminate avatar, but also a deep sadness at the human cost of conflict … For all the darkness of the world it illuminates, Milkman is as strange and variegated and brilliant as a northern sunset. You just have to turn your face toward it, and give it your full attention.”
–Mark O’Connell (Slate)