Honor roll: National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism

Each of these books has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. They are ranked by honors received.

Book:Lincoln at Gettysburg

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

Garry Wills

The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration than in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was asked to memorialize the gruesome battle. Instead, he gave the whole nation “a new birth of freedom” in the space of a mere 272 words. His entire life and previous training, and his deep political experience went into this, his revolutionary masterpiece.

By examining both the address and Lincoln in their historical moment and cultural frame, Wills breathes new life into words we thought we knew, and reveals much about a president so mythologized but often misunderstood. Wills shows how Lincoln came to change the world and to effect an intellectual revolution, how his words had to and did complete the work of the guns, and how Lincoln wove a spell that has not yet been broken.

Book:The Rest Is Noise

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Alex Ross

The scandal over modern music has not died down. While paintings by Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, shocking musical works from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring onward still send ripples of unease through audiences. At the same time, the influence of modern music can be felt everywhere. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalist music has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward. Alex Ross, the brilliant music critic for The New Yorker, shines a bright light on this secret world, and shows how it has pervaded every corner of twentieth century life.

The Rest Is Noise takes the reader inside the labyrinth of modern sound. It tells of maverick personalities who have resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators.…[more]

Book:River of Shadows

River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

Rebecca Solnit

The world as we know it today began in California in the late 1800s, and Eadweard Muybridge had a lot to do with it. This striking assertion is at the heart of Rebecca Solnit’s new book, which weaves together biography, history, and fascinating insights into art and technology to create a boldly original portrait of America on the threshold of modernity. The story of Muybridge—who in 1872 succeeded in capturing high-speed motion photographically—becomes a lens for a larger story about the acceleration and industrialization of everyday life. Solnit shows how the peculiar freedoms and opportunities of post–Civil War California led directly to the two industries—Hollywood and Silicon Valley—that have most powerfully defined contemporary society.

Book:Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything

Alex Bellos

Funny and surprising on every page, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? offers readers new insight into the mystery of how we come to know what someone else means—whether we wish to understand Astérix cartoons or a foreign head of state. Using translation as his lens, David Bellos shows how much we can learn about ourselves by exploring the ways we use translation, from the historical roots of written language to the stylistic choices of Ingmar Bergman, from the United Nations General Assembly to the significance of James Cameron’s Avatar. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? ranges across human experience to describe why translation sits deep within us all, and why we need it in so many situations, from the spread of religion to our appreciation of literature; indeed, Bellos claims that all writers are by definition translators. Written with joie de vivre, reveling both in misunderstanding and communication, littered with wonderful asides, it promises any reader new eyes through which to understand the…[more]

Book:Still Looking

Still Looking: Essays on American Art

John Updike

When, in 1989, a collection of John Updike’s writings on art appeared under the title Just Looking, a reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle commented, “He refreshes for us the sense of prose opportunity that makes art a sustaining subject to people who write about it.” In the sixteen years since Just Looking was published, he has continued to serve as an art critic, mostly for The New York Review of Books, and from fifty or so articles has selected, for this richly illustrated book, eighteen that deal with American art.

After beginning with early American portraits, landscapes, and the transatlantic career of John Singleton Copley, Still Looking then considers the curious case of Martin Johnson Heade and extols two late-nineteenth-century masters, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Next, it discusses the eccentric pre-moderns James McNeill Whistler and Albert Pinkham Ryder, the competing…[more]

Book:From Dawn to Decadence

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present

Jacques Barzun

Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has now set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500.

In this account, Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaisance and Reformation down to the present in the double light of its own time and our pressing concerns. He introduces characters and incidents with his unusual literary style and grace, bringing to the fore those that have “Puritans as Democrats,” “The Monarch’s Revolution,” “The Artist Prophet and Jester”—show the recurrent role of great themes throughout the eras.

The triumphs and defeats of five hundred years form an inspiring saga that modifies the current impression of one long…[more]

Book:Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Harold Bloom

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is the culmination of Harold Bloom’s life’s work in reading, writing about, and teaching Shakespeare. It is his passionate and convincing analysis of the way in which Shakespeare not merely represented human nature as we know it today, but actually created it: before Shakespeare, there was characterization; after Shakespeare, there was character, men and women with highly individual personalities—Hamlet, Falstaff, Iago, Cleopatra, Macbeth, Rosalind, and Lear, among them. In making his argument, Bloom leads us through a brilliant and comprehensive reading of every one of Shakespeare’s plays.

According to a New York Times report on Shakespeare last year, “more people are watching him, reading him, and studying him than ever before.” Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is a landmark contribution, a book that will be…[more]

Book:Fame & Folly

Fame & Folly: Essays

Cynthia Ozick

From one of America’s great literary figures, a new collection of essays on eminent writers and their work, and on the war between life and art. The perilous intersection of writers’ lives with public and private dooms is the fertile subject of many of these remarkable essays. Written with wit and passion, they touch on the inmost identity of literature and the literary artist—with biographical, historical, and psychological overtones. T. S. Eliot sympathizes with fascists, Isaac Babel rides with Red Cossacks—yet both are luminous shapers of modernism. Modernism itself is resisted by the American cultural establishment. Henry James, magisterial psychologist, remains at the mercy of his own mysterious psyche. Anthony Trollope’s masterliness is obscured, first by charges of writing too much and too fast, and then by cultism. Salman Rushdie’s gifts are assailed amid bitter contemporary controversy. And the secret pulse of ambition (and loss) is exposed in the brokenhearted waywardness of the once-celebrated and now nearly forgotten writer Alfred Chester.

Book:Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights

Marina Warner

A dazzling history of magical thinking, exploring the power of The Arabian Nights and its impact in the West, and retelling some of its wondrous tales. Magic is not simply a matter of the occult arts, but a whole way of thinking, of dreaming the impossible. As such it has tremendous force in opening the mind to new realms of achievement: imagination precedes the fact. It used to be associated with wisdom, understanding the powers of nature, and with technical ingenuity that could let men do things they had never dreamed of before. The supreme fiction of this magical thinking is The Arabian Nights, with its flying carpets, hidden treasure and sudden revelations. Translated into French and English in the early days of the Enlightenment, this became a best-seller among intellectuals, when it was still thought of in the Arab world as a mere collection of folk tales. For thinkers of the West the book’s strangeness opened visions of transformation: dreams of flight, speaking objects, virtual money, and…[more]

Book:Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews

Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer has earned the devotion of passionate fans on both sides of the Atlantic through his wildly inventive, romantic novels as well as several brilliant, uncategorizable works of nonfiction. All the while he has been writing some of the wittiest, most incisive criticism we have on an astonishing array of subjects—music, literature, photography, and travel journalism—that, in Dyer’s expert hands, becomes a kind of irresistible self-reportage.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition collects twenty-five years of essays, reviews, and misadventures. Here he is pursuing the shadow of Camus in Algeria and remembering life on the dole in Brixton in the 1980s; reflecting on Richard Avedon and Ruth Orkin, on the status of jazz and the wonderous Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, on the sculptor ZadKine and the saxophonist David Murray (in the same essay), on his heroes Rebecca West and Ryszard Kapus´cin´ski, on haute couture and sex in hotels. Whatever…[more]

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