Friday, March 09, 2007

NBCC Award Winners

The National Book Critics Circle announced their awards yesterday and Kiran Desai won for The Inheritance of Loss. I haven’t read the books in the fiction category so I don’t have any opinion on who should have won.

I have read a number of the books in the biography category, however, and I am surprised that Julie Phillip’s biography, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, won. I am near the end of this book, and while it is interesting, I don’t think it resonates as deeply as Debby Applegate’s, The Most Famous Man in the World: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, or even Jason Roberts’ A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler.

Tiptree was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, who became a popular science fiction writer in the 1970s. What I liked about Applegate’s book, as well as Roberts’, is the sense of the times in which their subjects lived. Applegate did a fantastic job of talking about the political and moral issues of Beecher’s times, which included the Civil War, the rise of a more liberal Christian theology, and the fight for women’s equality. Of course, Beecher was embroiled in many of those pressing issues, so perhaps it was easier to draw that larger portrait. Roberts also did a fine job of explaining the world from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries.

Phillips does not create as vivid portrait of Tiptree’s times, although she focuses some of the book on the question of the emancipation of women in the 20th century. Sheldon was born into a world where women were expected to be mothers and wives, although Sheldon’s own mother was a famous African explorer and writer. Sheldon tries on different personas throughout her life, as a painter, a WAC during World War II, an analyst in the precursor organization of the CIA , a chicken farmer, a wife, a doctoral candidate in psychology, before finally finding her voice as a “male” science fiction author. The critics were impressed by Phillips’ ability to vividly draw the various portraits of Sheldon, and Phillips effectively lifts the veil on this enigmatic author. I kept looking, however, for that deeper peek into the outside world. I am a journalist and in my brain I keep hearing my Columbia journalism professor say, “Context, context, context.”

I was pleased to see that Daniel Mendelsohn won for “The Lost,” his book about trying to understand what happened to his great uncle’s family during the Holocaust. Although I loved Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, The Lost is ultimately a much more ambitious book that looks at people’s reactions during war. Bechdel’s book is an intimate look at her repressed gay father and their relationship.

Simon Schama’s book Rough Crossings beat out Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree. I haven’t read it yet but can testify that the other nominees wrote really good books, so I think I will give Rough Crossings a try.

Of course, the value of awards is the attention they bring to books. All the nominees probably got a boost, if only to be able to put a shiny sticker announcing their nomination on the paperback editions of their books.

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