A look at the National Book Critics Circle nominees - Nonfiction

Reflecting our serious times and the publishing industry's unprecedented response, the National Book Critics Circle judges have chosen a decidedly somber list of nominations for nonfiction. Last year, Nicholson Baker's book about the loss of archived material in libraries beat Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit" in the home stretch. (The loss didn't hurt sales. Her story of the famous race horse kept galloping up the bestseller lists in hardback and then paperback.)

But this year, the judges seem more interested in the destruction of humanity than the destruction of old files. Except for Gaby Wood's quirky book about the early history of robots, all the nominees on this year's shortlist focus on concerns highlighted by Sept. 11. Indeed, "American Ground" sprung into being even as the fires were still burning. A quick decision by the editors of The Atlantic Monthly gave William Langewiesche unprecedented access to the disaster site of the World Trade Center. His story, published first in three issues of the magazine, immediately stirred up protests from firemen, whom he described looting during the cleanup operation. His readings in New York have been picketed. One in Boston was canceled because of safety concerns.

Our look at the nominations for biography ran on Jan. 23; fiction on Jan. 30. We'll cover the other two categories - criticism and poetry - over the next two Thursdays. On Feb. 25, all the nominated authors have been invited to read from their work at a public reception at the New School in New York. The winners will be announced the next day.

- Ron Charles

WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING, by Chris Hedges, PublicAffairs, $23

In "War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning," Chris Hedges eviscerates the heroic and nationalist myths peddled during the many wars he's covered over the past quarter-century. Those conflicts, he found, gave people from El Salvador to Sarajevo a sense of purpose - and Hedges admits he, too, got hooked on "the battlefield's ecstasy of destruction." But in this slim volume, he steps back to show how soldiers and civilians alike perish senselessly and anonymously in times of war. The images are searing: a wounded rebel dying as he yells for his mother; innocents forced to dig their own graves; and fathers exhuming their own children's remains. Today's ethnic conflicts and insurgencies, Hedges concludes, are not clashes between cultures or civilizations, nor the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. Rather, they are manufactured, "born out of the collapse of civil societies, perpetrated by fear, greed and paranoia and run by gangsters." His leaps between conflict zones - often midpage - can be jarring, and the violence is gruesome (though never gratuitous). But as America gears up for another conflict with Iraq, he shows how antiseptic the images projected during the last one were and warns against regaining our own "dangerous hubris" toward war. (192 pp.) By Seth Stern

AMERICAN GROUND, by William Langewiesche, North Point Press, $22

In this slim volume, William Langewiesche tells of the "unbuilding" of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attack. He shows us the "strange aerial ballet" executed by the planes that would reduce the towers to an "imprint in the air, a phantom of pulverized concrete marking a place that became a memory." He takes us down into the bowels of the buildings, "a short walk from the city but as far removed from life there as any place could be," and across the surface of smoking remains where diesel excavators "roamed" like "dinosaurs." His guides are the site's engineers, men who unexpectedly emerged as leaders during the crisis. No other writer shared Langewiesche's level of access to the New York ruins immediately after Sept. 11. He treats what he found like an anthropologist, systematically uncovering a previously unknown culture. "American Ground" delves deeply into the taut relations among firefighters, police officers, and construction workers, identifying each as a discrete tribe and exposing moments of rupture between them. To the reader, he reveals everything he found - the creativity that effervesced around "the pile"; the motivations, somewhere between altruistic and mercenary, driving those involved - creating a book that is candid, controversial, and unsettling. (205 pp) By Teresa Méndez

A PROBLEM FROM HELL, by Samantha Power, Basic Books, $30

After Milosevic murdered the Muslims; Hutu Power hacked up the Tutsis; Hussein gassed the Kurds; Pol Pot butchered the Cambodians; Hitler slaughtered the Jews; and Talaat massacred the Armenians, Powers writes, Americans shook their heads and wondered how their country could have failed to intervene to stop such crimes. The devastating conclusion of her masterful book is: America didn't fail; it meant to look the other way. During each genocide (even before international law established that name), the US had sufficient evidence to understand that a people and its culture were being systematically destroyed. In almost every case, a US representative on the ground tried - and was personally devastated by his failure - to draw governmental attention to the impending slaughter. In every instance, the US could have chosen to intervene, diplomatically or militarily, in time to save millions. And in every case, the government ignored, and often even suppressed, the information it received. In all of 20th-century American politics, no unwritten policy was so faithfully adhered to. And why? Because, Power posits, politicians do not believe they will be held to account for the things they fail to do. In this sweeping study, she makes a powerful case that if the world is to survive, they must. (574 pp.) By Mary Wiltenburg

BROWN, by Richard Rodriguez, Viking Press, $24.95

One day, while still a boy, Richard Rodriguez scraped a razor blade across his skin to see if he "could get the brown out." Several decades later, he still considers his color an impurity - only now he perceives it to be, instead of a shade darker than some White Anglo-Saxon ideal, the hue most quintessentially American. In "Brown," Rodriguez expertly extracts, from his own past as well as that of his nation, the lessons we can learn about race in the United States from the growing Hispanic population. "I think brown marks a reunion of peoples, an end of ancient wanderings," he writes with his unsurpassed eloquence. "Even so, the terrorist and the skinhead dream in solitude of purity and of the straight line because they fear a future that does not isolate them." Rodriguez rightly argues that such preoccupation with blood - the myopia of so many Americans who see nothing between the extremes of black and white - has preserved mutual hatred and lately inspired renewed segregation. A mixture of what he calls "the founding palette" (black, white, and red), brown is the color of a homemade remedy that may be the only antidote to our racially fraught history. (232 pp.) By Jonathon Keats

EDISON'S EVE, by Gaby Wood, Alfred A. Knopf, $24

Billed as a "Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life," Wood's debut full-length book takes readers on a meandering tour of man's 18th- and 19th-century fascination with animating the inanimate. Serious readers, beware: This is not a history of robotics research. Instead, in five exhaustively researched chapters, Wood spins a superficial tale of philosophical and theological anxiety while dusting off the stories of a number of quirky automatons and the "magicians" who designed them. We learn of Jacques de Vaucanson's android creations, the defecating duck and mechanized flute player. Then Wood reveals the great hoax behind a mechanical chess player and Thomas Edison's little-known efforts to commercialize a mechanical doll. The last two chapters discuss the early days of cinematography and circus dwarves and constitute Wood's feeble attempt to reverse her theme and comment on the mechanization of man by society. An approachable book for a nontechnical audience, "Edison's Eve" is unfortunately verbose in the wrong spots and offers only brief commentary on the shared concerns of today's robotics researchers and their ancestors. Indeed, Wood seems more interested in dropping nuggets of trivia than in digesting her meaty theme. (269 pp.) By Helana Kadyszewski

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