'Americanah,' 'Five Days' lead National Book awards

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The six National Book Critics Circle winners are diverse and wide-ranging in scope and readers looking for recommendations likely will find something of interest.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Americanah" (Knopf) won the fiction prize; Sheri Fink's "Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital" (Crown) won for best nonfiction.

The annual awards ceremony, held Thursday at the New School in Manhattan, was packed with writers, book critics, publishers, agents and students.

Ms. Adichie whooped with joy as she took the stage to receive her award. She expressed her happiness at being a contender for the same prize as Alice McDermott, who was her writing teacher in graduate school. Ms. McDermott was a finalist for her novel "Someone" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

"Americanah" is a story of love and migration that balances race politics with humor. The protagonist is a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to America, where she makes a name for herself blogging about race from the perspective of a "non-American black." It's love that calls her back to Nigeria.

Ms. Fink's nonfiction winner, "Five Days at Memorial," reconstructs five days of power outages, storm surges and chaos at New Orleans' Memorial Hospital following Hurricane Katrina. Ms. Fink, a physician and investigative journalist, explores the decision that exhausted doctors and nurses made to euthanize their sickest patients. Ms. Fink asked: "Do exceptional times call for an exception to our moral rules?"

Anthony Marra's novel "A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon" (Hogarth) won the first John Leonard Prize. Named after a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle and former editor of The New York Times Book Review, the prize honors an author's first book in any genre. Mr. Marra's novel, set in war-torn Chechnya, was chosen in a democratic vote among more than 600 members of the organization.

Sue Leonard spoke of her husband's love of books, his delight at discovering new writers, calling him a "generous critic" who "engaged in an effort to understand an author's intentions." "Because of this prize, John belongs to the ages and Anthony is truly launched," she said.

Amy Wilentz's "Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti" (Simon & Schuster) won the prize for best autobiography. Ms. Wilentz's book is an attempt to understand Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Ms. Wilentz gave thanks to Haiti. "It's my muse," she said.

Harvard professor Leo Damrosch won for best biography for "Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World" (Yale University Press), and literary historian Franco Moretti won for best criticism with "Distant Reading" (Verso). Mr. Moretti, an Italian native, said: "Writing in English has proved a great challenge. Writing in another language deprives you of nuance, which leaves you only with clarity."

David Biespiel introduced poetry prize winner Frank Bidart, who he says has "made a poetry of forensics." Mr. Bidart's "Metaphysical Dog" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) explores the author's sexuality, pitting self awareness against self delusion.

Katherine A. Powers, a longtime critic for The Boston Globe and author of "A Reading Life" column for the Barnes & Noble Review, won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, author of the "Klail City Death Trip" series (Arte Publico), received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. In his introduction, Steven Kellman claimed that Mr. Hinojosa-Smith is the "dean of Chicano letters ... who put Mexican literature on the map."

Learn more about the finalists and winners at bookcritics.org/awards.


Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle (julie.azzam@gmail.com).

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