I am still reading, kind of frantically, but I think by the time I head out to New York I will be ready. I am in the throes of reading all 30 finalists for this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards — five finalists each in the six categories of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography and criticism.
Other awards have already been decided: Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” won the John Leonard first book award, and Margaret Atwood will be honored with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. (And I am so looking forward to hearing her speech.)
But the genre awards are still to be decided. So this week, on Thursday morning, the 24 members of the NBCC board (myself included) will meet to hash out, argue, persuade and ponder, and by the end of the meeting we will have six winners. The awards ceremony follows, just a few hours later.
This will be the culmination of a long year of reading. It was last March when I attended my first NBCC board meeting, where each of us signed up for two genre committees. Over the year, we read every new book we could in those genres so that we could choose first a long list, then a shortlist. And then the board as a whole read all of the finalists and will pick the winners.
I signed up for the autobiography committee, because I am deeply interested in memoir, and for the biography committee because I am nuts. No, no, no, not nuts — I have read many excellent biographies this year, and of such unexpected people: Charlotte Brontë and Thomas de Quincey and Black Elk and Bram Stoker and Patty Hearst and Ernest Hemingway and the cartoonist who created Krazy Kat. Also, Roosevelt (Franklin), and Roosevelt (Eleanor). But yes, I’m also a little nuts, because biographies are almost without exception gigantic books. Five hundred, 600, 700 pages. The Rasputin bio that I plowed through early in the summer was more than 900 pages long.
I joke that for my second year on the board I will choose poetry, because collections of poetry are short. But I am only kidding; poems require so much thought that I can only read one poem a day.
In any case, I am looking forward to seeing how Thursday morning’s meeting will go: When you have 24 smart people, book critics all, trying to persuade and understand and, ultimately, agree, it’s bound to be ... passionate.
The board meetings are private, and I am sworn to secrecy. But I can tell you that the January meeting, where we winnowed the long lists down to shortlists, was fascinating. People had fierce opinions, fervent reactions, yet no one was obstinate.
It was, as Tom Beer, the president of the NBCC had told me it would be, “the best book club you’ll ever belong to.”
This year’s NBCC finalists include some Minnesota books: “LaRose,” by Louise Erdrich, in fiction; “The Song Poet,” by Kao Kalia Yang in autobiography; and “Blackacre,” a poetry collection published by Graywolf Press. Also, “Lab Girl,” another finalist in autobiography, is by a writer born and educated in Minnesota, Hope Jahren. The Krazy Kat biography (“Krazy”) is by Michael Tisserand, who grew up in Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota. And one of the finalists in criticism, “Looking for the Stranger,” is by another Minnesota native, Alice Kaplan.
You just know that where there books involved, there are Minnesotans not far away.
You can find the whole list here: http://strib.mn/2kmWLSk
Check your Friday Star Tribune for a story on the winners, or check online late Thursday night at startribune.com/books.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.