Of the five categories considered for the National Book Critics Circle awards, criticism is far and away the most intimidating. But don't be put off. As these five finalists demonstrate, criticism can still have broad popular appeal. Two of these books were even bestsellers last year (Ross King's "Michelangelo & The Pope's Ceiling" and Nick Hornby's "Songbook"), and two others shed light on that most ubiquitous image of modern life: the photograph.
The finalists in all five categories have been invited to read from their work on March 3 at the New School in New York City. In addition to the presentation of prizes at the ceremony on March 4, Pulitzer winner Studs Terkel will receive a lifetime achievement award. His most recent book, "Hope Dies Last," published in November by New Press, includes interviews with 56 famous and unknown people who have survived difficult times but retain their hope for the future. Both events are open to the public. For details go to www.bookcritics.org.
Award-winning short-story writer Dagoberto Gilb's first book of essays reads like told stories, as choppy, authentic, and captivating as his much-loved fiction and National Public Radio commentaries. Gritos literally are the cries in Mexican songs, but Gilb's are even more: calls of "defiance and freedom, an animal's wail of need, the calls of joy and support and the extemporaneous howl of triumph or the loud sad lament of lost love and the orgasmic agony of love found." Gilb writes provocatively about growing up pocho, or Americanized, in L.A. as the mixed-race son of a divorced and much-adored Mexican mother; working as a carpenter and watching INS officers round up fellow crew members; contemplating writing for a "Hispanic" cop show; and watering the lawn of his rented El Paso home to sustain his landlady's fantasy of lush grass in the desert. His essays tackle the fantastic, the ridiculous, and the racially charged with a conversational style that, smiling, holds all accountable for these absurdities and wrongs. A few read so much like spoken riffs that they seem to have found an uneasy home in print, but the majority are stronger for Gilb's sly chastening. By Mary Wiltenburg
"All I have to say about these songs is that I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when these other people don't like them as much as I do," Nick Hornby writes. In this attractive volume of short essays, the British author of a witty novel about categorizing one's record collection ("High Fidelity") now takes us on a tour of his ultimate list of 31 all-time favorite songs. One need not be a fan of these particular choices to enjoy his light and witty take on loving music. A pop-music critic for The New Yorker magazine, Hornby reflects on the connections between certain songs and certain points in his life, and he'll inspire you to start making a list of your own. There's a cheaper paperback edition from Riverhead ($13), but the original hardback version from McSweeney's includes a fairly melancholy companion CD that includes 11 of the songs Hornby discusses. If you're one of those people who can remember where you were when you first heard a great song, this book is for you. By Sasha Brown
The story of Michelangelo's struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of legendary proportions. The incredible difficulties of painting a huge vaulted ceiling in the demanding medium of fresco provide drama enough. Add to this the fiery personalities of the artist and his exalted client, Pope Julius II, and you have a story of grand proportions. But, as King hastens to point out, not everything you may have heard about this great achievement is true. Although Michelangelo did paint many parts of the vast fresco himself, he also had assistants who worked on other parts. And, although he did indeed have to paint in a position that was very uncomfortable, the evidence indicates he stood on a platform with his head bent back, facing up at the vault. But with a story as inherently fascinating to recount as this one, such minor demythologizing hardly detracts. Not only does King describe the complicated process of fresco painting, but he also provides details of Michelangelo's family problems and Pope Julius's military campaigns. The result is a lively depiction of a tumultuous era, with cameo portraits of some of its key figures, including Luther, Erasmus, Machiavelli, the epic poet Ariosto, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael Santi. By Merle Rubin
Rebecca Solnit finds an eloquent home in paradox. Her account of the evolution of photography - a mix of social history, natural history, and the biography of 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge - luxuriates in the paradoxes of time, science, and modern technology. Photography, she writes, "was a technological breakthrough for holding onto the past, a technology always rushing forward, always looking backward." In lyrical prose, Solnit offers a wealth of historical detail and an expansive survey of the period. But the marvel of her book is its articulation of a watershed in human thought - how the coming of railroads, the birth of photography, and the subduing of the American West transformed our notions of space and time, and standardized human experience. From an age when trains were likened to dragons and cities 20 miles apart often tracked time in different ways, humans thrust themselves into an era where a second could be split and time rewound, divided, recorded, and controlled. "In some psychological and spiritual way," Solnit writes, "we became a different species operating at a different pace, as though tortoises became mayflies. We see much they did not, and can never see as they did again." By Christina McCarroll
At every level, "Regarding the Pain of Others" is a fiercely challenging book. Sontag's theme is the imagery of atrocity. In the modern world, the most indelible horrific images (principally of war) are likely to be photographs. Photographs shock. They accuse. They assault. They haunt. And they also document. Photographs are, or can be, detachedly objective because they are mechanically instantaneous. But at the same time, Sontag points out, they indicate the presumed authenticity of a personal witness. For those of us who have not experienced the dread and terror of war firsthand, images of war "perform a vital function." "Let the atrocious images haunt us," she cries. "This is what people can do to each other. Don't forget." Unphotographed atrocities seem "more remote." Having said all this, and with masterly articulateness, Sontag then insinuates some of the other sides of the question. Photographs don't "tell us everything we need to know," she points out. They can misrepresent and distort. It's not incidental that, as with her early book "On Photography," there is not a single illustration included. Words, Sontag seems to imply, can say it all. And arguably (in her hands, at least) say it better. By Christopher Andreae