The authors of books on Rwanda, jazz history and a mad mathematician, along with a celebrated Canadian short story writer, were among those honored by the National Book Critics Circle at its annual awards ceremony March 8.
The streamlined ceremony featured opportunities for the crowd gathered in NYU's Tischman Hall auditorium to applaud the finalists in each category -- who were asked to stand -- and also projected the winners' covers on a screen. NBCC president Barbara Hoffert of Library Journal, who presided over the ceremonies, noted that C-Span was filming the event for its weekend book show; perhaps these innovations were for the benefit of the cameras; nonetheless, they were certainly welcome.
Philip Gourevitch, who won in General Nonfiction for We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, a study of the recent genocide in Rwanda (Farrar, Straus &Giroux), thanked the Rwandans who had told him their stories. He recalled that one woman he interviewed had asked, "Do Americans really want to know these stories?" "Your award proves that yes, they do," said Gourevitch.
In the Criticism category, the prize went to Gary Giddins for his Visions of Jazz: The First Century (Oxford Univ. Press); according to the judges' citation, the author "has the zeitgeist by the tail." Giddins noted that this was the first time jazz criticism had been so honored and added that the award "means more than it should to a well-adjusted adult." His work, he said, would have been impossible without a list of celebrated predecessors.
Marie Ponsot, who won in P try for The Bird Catcher (Knopf), dedicated her award to the memory of Harry Ford, the celebrated Knopf p try editor who had died a few days before. "He did more than anyone for p try in this country," she said, adding that her fellow nominees were "a remarkable crew, hot new stars burning in the sky."
The citation for the Fiction winner, Alice Munro, celebrated the comparatively new freedom of the NBCC awards to include the work of non-American authors. Her Knopf collection, The Love of a Good Woman, proved once again, the citation noted, that Munro is one of the great short story writers of the century, whose work could justly be compared to Chekhov's. The author herself was in British Columbia; in a message read by her Knopf editor, Ann Close, she said she had "reason to be grateful to American critics for their attention to my work."
Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind (Simon &Schuster) -- a study of John Forbes Nash, the mathematical genius who eventually won a Nobel Prize in economics but who was a paranoid schizophrenic for much of his life, incarcerated in mental homes -- won in the Biography category. The citation praised the skill with which Nasar had shown the links between genius and madness. The author seemed more astonished by her win than any of the other winners; she was "stunned" and paid tribute to her S&S editor, Alice Mayhew, and agent, Kathy Robbins.
Albert Mobilio, who writes for Salon, Lingua Franca, the Village Voice, Newsday and other publications, won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. He gave a witty speech in which he compared his role as a would-be critic to his contemporaries who went out for various sports. At one point, he said, he had been accused of "skimming" and had served his apprenticeship by writing 500-word reviews of the different volumes of his family's encyclopedia.
His delightful turn was a fitting conclusion to an invigorating evening.