National Book Critics Circle Awards Finalists - Criticism

Article excerpt

The criticism category is one of the unique features of the National Book Critics Circle Awards. The 24 board members who choose these five finalists are, after all, professional critics themselves, so the reflective, analytical enterprise is of special interest. Some of the books included here are just what you would expect, such as James Wood's collected book reviews or Richard Howard's collected essays on art and literature. Others stretch the boundary of this category in surprising ways, such as Graham Robb's analysis of homosexuality in the 19th century or Patrick Neate's globe-trotting discussion of hip-hop. And the inclusion of "Sontag & Keal" confronts the mind like a metaphysical paradox: What happens when 24 critics honor a book by a critic who honors the work of two critics?

All the finalists are invited to read from their nominated books at a gathering open to the public on March 17 at the New School in New York. The awards will be conferred the next day in the same auditorium.

In addition to the prizes, Louis Rubin, the founder of Algonquin Press and the author and editor of more than 50 books, will be given a lifetime achievement award by the NBCC. And David Orr, a contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Poetry magazine will receive the organization's annual award for best reviewer.

You can find our reviews of the NBCC finalists in fiction, biography, and nonfiction on our website. We'll review the final category, poetry, next week. - Ron Charles, book editor

Paper Trail, by Richard Howard, FSG, 448 pp., $35

Two years ago, the National Book Critics Circle presented a lifetime achievement award to poet, scholar, teacher, critic, and translator Richard Howard. When he accepted, Howard joked that he hoped the award didn't mean his life's work was done. This collection of essays, "Paper Trail: Selected Prose, 1965-2003," published in tandem with "Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003," is testimony that Howard's life's work is far from finished. He touches on poetry, French literature, the visual arts, prose, and new poets. Many of Howard's subjects may seem obscure, but the obscurity will be fleeting, as Howard's goal in these essays is to teach, to elucidate, and to make our experience of the arts larger. From the opening essay on Emily Dickinson to essays on Rodin and Marguerite Yourcenar to the closing section on emerging poets, Howard shows that the production and study of art, in the final analysis, transcends our baser occupations, and it just may be that art is what defines us, what makes us human. By Eric Miles Williamson

Where You're At, by Patrick Neate, Riverhead, 274 pp., $14

Several years ago, British novelist Patrick Neate found himself in a Tokyo hip-hop club called Harlem. African men pretending to be black Americans danced with Japanese girls who'd tanned their skin almost charcoal. As Neate discovers in his lively travelogue, hip- hop tends to lead to this kind of cultural cross-dressing wherever it spreads. And he should know. A white Londoner who studied at Cambridge and learned to be a DJ in Zimbabwe, Neate is a walking example of why authenticity is a slippery term. He finds all kinds of definitions for it during his travels in Rio, New York, and Cape Town, talking to emcees named Herb and bopping his head to South African bubblegum. Like any expert in a marginalized genre that's gone mainstream, Neate can be tedious. He's forever clocking how five minutes ago a scene is, or measuring its purity with a gemologist's precision. …