Every category challenges literary judges with quandaries: How can collections of short stories compete with novels for the Fiction prize? Why pit a study of molecular biology against a history of jazz for the General Nonfiction award? And what on earth should be considered for the criticism award? But nothing is more confounding than the "Biography & Memoir" category. The board members of the National Book Critics Circle perennially consider decoupling that awkward union, but the category lives on, and its strange bedfellows are on display again this year: The quirky reflections of Bob Dylan sit among exhaustively researched biographies of Alexander Hamilton, William Shakespeare, Willem de Kooning, and Mary Queen of Scots. What criteria will the judges use on March 18 to compare these books and determine which is the best? "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind."
We reviewed the Fiction finalists last week, and we'll look at the finalists in General Nonfiction on Feb. 15.
- Ron Charles, book editor
Alexander Hamilton is remembered today mostly for his death in an 1804 duel with Aaron Burr. But Hamilton's impact was equal to, if not greater than, that of any of the other Founding Fathers. His life story is compelling, and Chernow makes the best of it. Hamilton was born in the West Indies; his parents never married. He joined the Revolutionary Army, and his prowess as an artillery captain soon caught Washington's eye. After the revolution, he married Elizabeth "Eliza" Schuyler, a member of one of New York's wealthiest families, and he began to shape the nation's future. He was a driving force behind the Constitutional Convention and was an author of the Federalist Papers. Washington appointed Hamilton the nation's first Treasury secretary, and it is here that the young immigrant's genius flourished. After his death, Hamilton's legacy was tarnished by his political foes - especially Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. In their writings, they portrayed him as a closet aristocrat who would have preferred a monarchy allied with England. But in Chernow's hands, Hamilton emerges as a strong advocate of American independence, constitutional government, and individual freedom. (Full review June 15)
Fans of the enigmatic Mr. Dylan (and legions of the merely curious) have clamored for decades to know what makes the man tick. Where in the world did those odd and impenetrable lyrics come from? Who is Mr. Jones, the tambourine man, and the sad-eyed lady of the lowlands? Why was Einstein sniffing drainpipes, for heaven's sake? Well, folks, you're just going to have to wait for those answers (at least until "Chronicles II," if it ever shows up.) What you do get from Dylan is a highly entertaining, quirky, and vivid memoir of assorted adventures, epiphanies, idols, and muses. He lets us accompany Robert Zimmerman, the greenhorn folkie, freshly arrived from Hibbing, Minn., as he dives headfirst into the simmering cultural caldron of New York's Greenwich Village, in 1960. He emerged less than a year later as the Bob Dylan of legend. "I'd come from a long ways off and had started a long ways down. But now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt it was looking at me and nobody else." This carnivore of books and language, this collector of characters and stories, had found his Mecca, and his delight in recalling the people and places that fostered the artist as a young man is what truly lights up this volume. By John Kehe
One of the enduring mysteries in literary history is how a bright but unsophisticated Stratford lad became the supreme writer in the English language. Greenblatt explains this extraordinary phenomenon with skillful argument and gracefully supple style. Each chapter pursues myriad paper trails - historical accounts by many hands; religious, legal, and literary documents; and official pronouncements. Perhaps Greenblatt's most cogent explanation for how Shakespeare became Shakespeare is his examination of what the dramatist learned from writing "Hamlet," "Othello," "King Lear," and "Macbeth" between 1600 and 1606. Shakespeare was always leery of easy explanations for human behavior. By a device of opacity that Greenblatt calls "the radical excision of motivation," Will learned to represent inwardness, the inner life of his heroes. What is endearing about Greenblatt's examination is his obvious affection for his subject. And a study as fine as this one can only encourage more devotion. (Full review Oct. 19)
Though she lived just 40 years - 19 of them in prison - Mary Queen of Scots is one of the most studied figures in the pantheon of royals. Until now, Antonia Fraser's celebrated 1969 biography has been the standard text. But in his fabulously readable account, Cambridge historian John Guy returns to Mary's letters and crafts a biography wiped free of mythologizing and shot through with new interpretations. Here, Mary Queen of Scots rises up as a woman of conflicting impulses. She was a Scottish patriot, yet she grew up in France. She reportedly led with her heart but conducted her affairs with the calculation of a master chess player. Born six days before the death of her father, James V of Scotland, she was already a hot potato in power plays involving France, England, and Scotland in the mid-1500s. From day one, Mary had her hands full with plotters determined to orchestrate her downfall. Guy has dredged up scores of letters, essentially giving readers a paper trail of the machinations that surrounded Mary, who was eventually beheaded on Elizabeth's orders in 1587. Guy never lets us doubt where his sympathies lie: Mary is alternately "masterful" and "beguiling," while her nemesis is "a spider." By John Freeman
The first thing said about the 20th-century painter Willem de Kooning at the start of this massive biography is that he was "stubborn." No one - except himself - was allowed to interfere with his concentration. He endured years of "painter's block" and actual poverty, but he never gave up. His hard-won success - well after World War II - was the fruit of a national change of attitude that his art had helped foster. Movement, tension, doubt, and a reckless, daring belief in the need to disrupt good taste or fashion were integral to the vitality of the very paint he applied. He found ways of keeping paintings wet and fluid because, he felt, once a painting dried, it would be dead. That attitude made it extraordinary difficult for him to determine when a painting was finished. The authors of this compellingly written biography characterize his late paintings as "airborne," differentiated from earlier phases when his elements were earth or water. Did these final works signify a loss of vitality or a new, lighthearted tranquility? De Kooning's relish of ambiguity lives on. He was never an artist who could be pinned down. (Full review Dec. 7)