Of the five categories considered for the National Book Critics Circle awards, criticism is far and away the most intimidating. But don't be put off. As these five finalists demonstrate, criticism can still have broad popular appeal. Two of these books were even bestsellers last year (Ross King's "Michelangelo & The Pope's Ceiling" and Nick Hornby's "Songbook"), and two others shed light on that most ubiquitous image of modern life: the photograph.
The finalists in all five categories have been invited to read from their work on March 3 at the New School in New York City. In addition to the presentation of prizes at the ceremony on March 4, Pulitzer winner Studs Terkel will receive a lifetime achievement award. His most recent book, "Hope Dies Last," published in November by New Press, includes interviews with 56 famous and unknown people who have survived difficult times but retain their hope for the future. Both events are open to the public. For details go to www.bookcritics.org.
Gritos, by Dagoberto Gilb, Grove/Atlantic, 247 pp., $23
Award-winning short-story writer Dagoberto Gilb's first book of essays reads like told stories, as choppy, authentic, and captivating as his much-loved fiction and National Public Radio commentaries. Gritos literally are the cries in Mexican songs, but Gilb's are even more: calls of "defiance and freedom, an animal's wail of need, the calls of joy and support and the extemporaneous howl of triumph or the loud sad lament of lost love and the orgasmic agony of love found." Gilb writes provocatively about growing up pocho, or Americanized, in L.A. as the mixed-race son of a divorced and much-adored Mexican mother; working as a carpenter and watching INS officers round up fellow crew members; contemplating writing for a "Hispanic" cop show; and watering the lawn of his rented El Paso home to sustain his landlady's fantasy of lush grass in the desert. His essays tackle the fantastic, the ridiculous, and the racially charged with a conversational style that, smiling, holds all accountable for these absurdities and wrongs. A few read so much like spoken riffs that they seem to have found an uneasy home in print, but the majority are stronger for Gilb's sly chastening. By Mary Wiltenburg
Songbook, by Nick Hornby, McSweeney's, 147 pp., $26
"All I have to say about these songs is that I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when these other people don't like them as much as I do," Nick Hornby writes. In this attractive volume of short essays, the British author of a witty novel about categorizing one's record collection ("High Fidelity") now takes us on a tour of his ultimate list of 31 all-time favorite songs. One need not be a fan of these particular choices to enjoy his light and witty take on loving music. A pop-music critic for The New Yorker magazine, Hornby reflects on the connections between certain songs and certain points in his life, and he'll inspire you to start making a list of your own. There's a cheaper paperback edition from Riverhead ($13), but the original hardback version from McSweeney's includes a fairly melancholy companion CD that includes 11 of the songs Hornby discusses. If you're one of those people who can remember where you were when you first heard a great song, this book is for you. By Sasha Brown
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, by Ross King, Walker & Co., 373 pp., $28
The story of Michelangelo's struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of legendary proportions. The incredible difficulties of painting a huge vaulted ceiling in the demanding medium of fresco provide drama enough. Add to this the …