National Book Critics Circle finalists - Nonfiction

I've grown wary of attending author readings at bookstores, even though I know our celebrity culture demands it. The writer's appearance clashes with the graven image I've carved while reading the novel. Or he butchers those graceful sentences with the weary voice of someone who's been traveling and greeting strangers too long. Several years ago, I dragged my family into Cambridge to hear the author of a book I thought was brilliant. The store was packed with fans. Our hero stood before us reading page after page of a surprisingly leaden section of his book that sounded - out loud and out of context - excruciatingly boring. After 20 minutes, my daughter whispered loudly to my wife (and everyone else) "How could Dad like this book?!" In some cases, novelists - like children - should be seen and not heard. But the NBCC finalists reading in New York on March 17, the night before the awards ceremony, are sure winners. If you're nearby, come. Almost all the nominated authors participate, the famous and the unknown, by reading for just a few minutes from their nominated books. It's always a great show of intelligence, wit, and grace - the year's most satisfying night of literary entertainment. For more information see - Ron Charles, book editor

Arc of Justice, by Kevin Boyle, Henry Holt, 432 pp., $26

Most white Americans know little about the black American experience between the imposition of Jim Crow laws after the Civil War and the Brown v. Board of Education decision which began to unravel these laws in 1954. In "Arc of Justice," Boyle uses a single 1925 court case in Detroit to help fill in that huge blank. Writing with the immediacy of a journalist and the flair of a novelist, he's produced a history that's at once an intense courtroom drama and an engrossing look at race. When a black physician, Ossian Sweet, moved his wife and child into a white neighborhood of Detroit, he knew there could be trouble. The early 1920s had seen the lynching of dozens of black men around the country. Sweet had prepared by rounding up 10 black men and several guns inside his home. When a crowd gathered the evening of Sept. 9, 1925, and began to pelt the house with rocks, shots were fired from a second-floor window. On the street below, one man lay dead and another wounded. For Boyle, the People v. Sweet trial symbolized an important shift in white attitudes toward blacks. "Not that racial and ethnic hatred disappeared," he says. "But they became disreputable, a sign of crudeness, stupidity, and moral failing, a product of the prejudice that ... made men terribly cruel." By Greg Lamb

Blue Blood, by Edward Conlon, Riverhead Books, 559 pp., $26.95

This is Edward Conlon's story of life on the job in the NYPD. Harvard-educated and descended from a long line of Irish-American public servants, Conlon weaves his family's and New York City's history into his journey from police academy to detective. He vividly depicts the complexity of being an NYPD officer in a time of public distrust and terrorist devastation. When describing a narcotics street bust, he also conveys the unseen intricacies and internal politics of what has largely been a secret society. At times the book labors under a shifting timeline and repetitive detail, but the writing is smart and agile. On cop lingo: "The official terminology has a forced flatness, a clipped neutrality that keeps a lifted-pinky distance from lurid circumstance." On the brotherhood of cops: "If the NYPD is less and less a fraternity, it will remain a kind of ethnicity, because ethnicity is defined by language." The book is wonderfully wry, too. An inane NYPD policy does not allow an officer to call in sick with a head cold but will allow for "flu-like symptoms." This prompts Conlon to call in one day "with Dutch Elm Disease." On the flip side, he pulls no punches when describing the gritty side, such as looking for body parts after 9/11 while F-16s fly overhead. By Tonya Miller

The Reformation, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Viking, 792 pp., $34.95

No upheaval in Western history has had wider-ranging effects than the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. It altered our views of religion, science, literature, art, philosophy, and, ultimately, what it means to be human. Understanding the scope of the events of the Reformation is the labor of a scholarly lifetime. MacCulloch, a history professor in Oxford, performs much of that labor for us. Arranged into 17 chapters, his book is as much a cultural analysis as it is a history. In addition to the major events one would expect to see detailed, MacCulloch humanizes the period by analyzing such subjects as love and sex, death and magic, heaven and hell. As distant as the period may seem, MacCulloch concludes, "The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation are far from dead." During the Reformation, "Europeans were prepared to burn and torture each other because they disagreed on whether, or how, bread and wine were transformed into God." We may no longer burn and torture each other over this matter, but the passions of American evangelical fundamentalism increasingly dictate national and international policy, and the "culture wars" may anticipate events large and profound. "The Reformation" is as entertaining as it is scholarly. By Eric Miles Williamson

The Working Poor: Invisible in America, by David Shipler, Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pp., $25

While the men and women whom Shipler describes work hard, they don't get ahead. They land jobs, but then must buy cars to get to work. When those cars break down, they skip payments on phone bills to pay for repairs. The stress of financial pressure leads to depression, which leads to missed work, to more missed payments. Although this sounds like a worst-case scenario, Shipler heard it over and over again across America as he researched his new book. Take Debra Hall, a former welfare mother who entered the labor market after Congress passed term limits on welfare. Her training course in "shipping and receiving" taught her how to operate a forklift. She was hired right away, except the job she thought would require driving a forklift in fact had her standing on a bread-factory assembly line for $7 an hour. In truth, some people do make bad decisions, such as the New Hampshire couple who spent their tax refund on tattoos. But the majority of Shipler's subjects flounder in a Sisyphean bind, nearly reaching solvency only to have a small event - an unexpected repair, a sick day - roll them back down the hill. If anyone deserves blame, Shipler suggests, it is employers like Wal-Mart, who could pay their workers better, but don't. By John Freeman

Blood Done Sign My Name, by Timothy Tyson, Crown, 355 pp., $24

If the legacy of slavery and race hatred is "the American Heartbreak - the rock on which Freedom stumped its toe," as Langston Hughes put it, there are few better proofs than Timothy Tyson's account of race-based murder in small-town North Carolina. With echoes of the Emmett Till case, Tyson chronicles how a young African-American who may or may not have made a comment to a white woman was brutally beaten and shot to death by a group of three whites, two of whom beat a murder charge before an all-white jury, and one of whom was never charged. The 1970 case incited a riot and widespread arson in the town of Oxford, and the prosecutor told Tyson years later, "They shot him like a hog. They shot him like you or I would kill a snake." Tyson sets his tale against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, ranging forward and back in time to hand-me-down slave stories, accounts of Ku Klux Klan activities, stories of his father's Methodist ministry during the strife, and self-searching over the roots of his own white supremacist feelings. A story of both bravery and knavery among everyday folk, it is honest and stark; and it won't leave you dry-eyed. By Art Winslow

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