The thrill of writing as clear as water ran through this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, bookended by the valedictory appearance of nonfiction master John McPhee and the bracing arrival of poet Layli Long Soldier.
McPhee, who has sharpened the reading lives of generations and taught hundreds of journalists at Princeton University, was gracious and brief in accepting the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement at the New School in Manhattan. He paid homage to former New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn, whose careful edit of McPhee’s first piece in 1963 was marked by Shawn’s deliberate words: “It takes as long as it takes.”
“A lifetime of writing. How did that happen?” asked McPhee, 87, as he accepted the prize. National Public Radio host Stacey Vanek Smith praised her mentor’s prose as “writing in the absence of intruding artifice.” She said she had thought at least 1,000 times of certain passages in “Coming into the Country,” McPhee’s classic work about the Alaskan backcountry.
Layli Long Soldier won in poetry for “Whereas,” mesmerizing the audience at the New School in Manhattan with a reading of a poem in which a grown daughter mistakes her father’s cry for a sneeze – having never heard him cry. She is a member of the Oglala Lakota nation and lives in Santa Fe.
Another first-time author, Carina Chocano, won in criticism for her 21 essays called “You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks and Other Mixed Messages.”
The funny, incisive Los Angeles writer said she formed the idea for this book in 2008 when, as a movie critic, she was imbibing a steady diet of pop images of women in film. “Still, I was afraid to write this book, a woman speaking against the official line.”
NBCC board member Walton Muyumba observed, “We seem to tell ourselves movie and TV stories, Chocano suggests, in order to perpetuate old lies about gender, generally, and women, specifically. In fact, we seem to find deep pleasure in their continuous repetition. . . Chocano doesn’t send the readers down the rabbit hole (we’re living in Wonderland already) so much as she uses these pieces like smelling salts to awaken us to our collective gas-lighting.”
Biography honored another kind of cultural exemplar: Laura Ingalls Wilder, captured in the marvelous book “Prairie Fires” by Caroline Fraser. Wilder transformed her family’s struggle with poverty, disappointment and loss into fiction that has never gone out of print, has been translated into 45 languages, and sold more than 60 million books, Fraser said. The “Little House” titles cemented American pioneer mythology with a darkly libertarian streak.
“Laura Ingalls Wilder endures,” notes NBCC board member Elizabeth Taylor, ”and now future generations can read Fraser’s marvelous biography and understand her vision of how Ingalls dreams of the frontier. Caroline Fraser has brilliantly recast our understanding of Laura Ingalls Wilders’ life and times, and affirmed her influence in shaping the myth of the iconic West.”
A dissemination of a different set of ideas is characterized in Frances FitzGerald’s “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.” It won in nonfiction. FitzGerald quoted Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s admonition as a potent form of prosperity theology: “If you pray for a camper, tell Him what color; you don’t make God do your shopping.”
Taylor writes, “In convincing detail, FitzGerald charts the evolution of evangelism from a religious to a political movement.” The author thanked Jerry Falwell and his church in Lynchburg, Va., for their welcome and patience with her journalism.
In autobiography, the London-based filmmaker Xiaolu Gau won for “Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China.” Critic Marion Winik describes it as “a thrilling, fist-pumping kind of story” about the author’s escape from cruelty and poverty in Communist China, salted with “a funny and entertaining disquisition” on why it is so hard for Chinese people to learn the English language.
Two Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards writers were among the 30 finalists: Edwidge Danticat for her exquisite book about mortality and her mother’s cancer, “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story;” and Mohsin Hamid for his evocative and genre-bending novel “Exit West.”
Joan Silber won the fiction prize for “Improvement,” her seventh novel. It follows a single mother in New York, her four-year-old son, her free-spirited aunt and a boyfriend with plans to smuggle cigarettes across state lines. “There is not a wasted word in the novel’s 227 pages, which nevertheless contain multitudes,” writes NBCC board member Tom Beer.
“I’m always happy when someone describes my fiction as generous,” Silber said as she accepted the prize. “If nothing else, fiction reminds us that others have interior lives.”
For the first time in NBCC history, the winners across all six book categories were women.