National Book Critics Circle nominees / Nonfiction

The nonfiction books favored by the National Book Critics Circle are usually heavy. Last year's winner was "A Problem From Hell," Samantha Power's searching examination of 20th-century genocide. But this year includes a finalist that gives a whole new meaning to the label "heavy." William Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down" weighs in at 3,298 pages in seven volumes. McSweeney's, the small publishing house run by superhip David Eggers in San Francisco, finally agreed to take on the project that New York houses had turned down for four years. Mr. Eggers, who published an excerpt of Vollmann's work in his magazine five years ago, assembled a staff of volunteers to fact check and copy edit the thousands of pages involved. Will the NBCC's imprimatur help sell the 3,500 print run? Possibly. What's clearer, though, is that it will whet readers' appetite for the radically reduced but still enormous 900-page edition coming out later this year from Ecco (a division of HarperCollins).

If you're interested in an even more abbreviated version than that, come to the free NBCC reading on March 3, the night before the 30th-anniversary awards ceremony at the New School in New York City. All 25 finalists in five categories are invited to read from their nominated books for just a few minutes each. Most of them come, the famous and the newbies, and it's far and away the year's most enjoyable night of literary talk.

The Bounty, by Caroline Alexander, Viking, 491 pp., $27.95

Why did Fletcher Christian toss his captain, William Bligh, into a tiny boat and take command of the British ship "Bounty"? The question has launched a thousand novels, poems, plays, and Hollywood movies. The popularity of the tale hangs on contrasting the cruelty of Bligh with the humanity and virtue of the aptly named Mr. Christian. Alexander suggests that, as usual, real history is less crystalline, painted in shades of gray. A combustible mix of Bligh's abuses (probably only verbal and not excessive for the time), a longing for the departed pleasures of Tahiti, strong drink, and a rash decision set in motion momentous events. That Bligh and the loyalists in his crew managed to sail a 23-foot open boat across 3,618 miles of ocean in 1789 remains one of the great seafaring feats of all time. Less known is his later service to the British Navy, in war and peace, in which he seemed able to shrug off his undeserved reputation as a tyrant. Stories brought back from Pitcairn Island by passing ships depicted a pious Christian utopia, a successful miniexperiment in the effects of British civilization. But Alexander suggests that the Tahitian women brought there were more sex slaves than wives. She explodes the mutiny myth and pieces together a picture with many facets, a fine fractured mirror reflecting many points of view. By Gregory M. Lamb

Gulag, by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday, 720 pp., $35

This fast-paced book by a Washington Post columnist helps fill a yawning gap in 20th-century history. It chronicles a massive atrocity that compares to the Jewish Holocaust: the network of prison labor camps across the Soviet Union that led to the deaths of millions of innocent people for simply political reasons, and lasted nearly seven decades. While Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book "The Gulag Archipelago," which was published in the 1970s, gives an insider's view of the camps, Ms. Applebaum was able to take advantage of the post-Soviet opening of the archives in Moscow and of many personal memoirs to compile a sweeping history of a system that was both a tool of state terror and an economic source of slave labor. She tries to draw some similarities between the Soviet gulag and Nazi concentration camps, while graphically telling how the misguided Communists (as in North Korea today) used the labor camps for perverse social engineering and political suppression. The camps varied in their severity, but served to isolate anyone whom Soviet leaders considered to be an "enemy of the state." Death was most often due to neglect or cold, although executions were common. The book is a testament to both the survivors and victims of a totalitarian system, perfected under Josef Stalin, that few Russians today care to learn about. By Clayton Jones

Sons of Mississippi, by Paul Hendrickson, Knopf, 368 pp., $26

To explore the evolution of racial tension in the South, Paul Hendrickson starts with a single photograph of seven Mississippi sheriffs set on keeping a black student from enrolling at the University of Mississippi. The 1962 image, taken just before riots erupted on the campus, centers on sheriff Billy Ferrell: He grins, grips a club, and pretends to strike, a cigarette dangling from his teeth. The photo became a cover of LIFE magazine and an icon of America's civil rights struggle. Hendrickson portrays the men in the photo, and James Meredith, the student who drew them together that day, as multidimensional characters in "the culminating event of civil rights in Mississippi." From exhaustive interviews with the lawmen and their families, neighbors, and peers, Hendrickson pieces together the fear and anger behind the riots at Ole Miss that day and for decades after. And he's open about his own assumptions, calling an Ole Miss sheriff a "bigot" as he talks with an anti-Klan publisher of the '60s. "He was a lot of things," the publisher corrects him, "like any life." "Sons of Mississippi" is part investigative journalism, part philosophy. But its greatest merit is the complexity and nuance of the lives it portrays. By Sara B. Miller

Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Scribner, 409 pp., $25

LeBlanc's writing could lift the paint off walls, but this achievement is matched by the patient and compassionate feat of reporting she's achieved in "Random Family." Like a great novel, the closely observed story plants readers in the midst of three generations of extended family in the South Bronx. For more than a decade, LeBlanc followed three teenagers - sister and brother Jessica and Cesar, and Cesar's girlfriend Coco - in and out of prison, in and out of love, in their struggles to care for their children, and in the sometimes fickle embrace of their biological and chosen families. Their lives are constantly on the verge: One wrong move routinely means a boy in prison, a girl pregnant at 15, babies without diapers for a week, a dealer shot, the fridge bare, the phone shut off, an ex-girlfriend kicked out on the street with her kid on her hip in the middle of the night. But in LeBlanc's deft hands, there's nothing sordid or exotic or cloying about either her characters' troubles or their hard-won triumphs. Devastatingly intimate, the book makes them real to readers in a way that proves what good journalism is capable of. By Mary Wiltenburg

Rising Up and Rising Down, by William Vollmann, McSweeney's, 3,298 pp., $120

Twenty-one years ago, Vollmann traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahideen. While the trip was a bust - he was a burden, not a help - it sparked a long-standing interest in the morality of violence. Now, after two decades in the field, Vollmann has made his thoughts public with this seven-volume study published by McSweeney's, Dave Eggers' publishing company. Using the conflicts of the past decade, during which America shifted from the cold war to the war on terror, the book examines whether violence is ever justifiable. In his research, Vollmann visited hot spots across the globe, from Cambodia to Burma, Iraq to Afghanistan, Somalia to Yemen, Yugoslavia, and Colombia. The list of sources the book draws upon is equally astounding - from Cicero to the King of Sparta. While Vollmann's writing sparkles, it is the voice of survivors that make this such a haunting read. Many are crushed and scoured by the weight of war, such as one Serbian woman whose boyfriend was butchered by Croats: "No one has a chance to open my heart again," she says. By John Freeman

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