Founded in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle Awards are given annually to honor outstanding writing and to foster a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature. The awards are open to any book published in the United States in English. The National Book Critics Circle comprises more than 700 critics and editors from leading newspapers, magazines and online publications.
The Love Songs of W.E.B DuBois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
The 2020 NAACP Image Award-winning poet makes her fiction debut with this National Book Award-longlisted, magisterial epic–an intimate yet sweeping novel with all the luminescence and force of Homegoing; Sing, Unburied, Sing; and The Water Dancer–that chronicles the journey of one American family, from the centuries of the colonial slave trade through the Civil War to our own tumultuous era.
The great scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois, once wrote about the Problem of race in America, and what he called “Double Consciousness,” a sensitivity that every African American possesses in order to survive. Since childhood, Ailey Pearl Garfield has understood Du Bois”s words all too well. Bearing the names of two formidable Black Americans–the revered choreographer Alvin Ailey and her great grandmother Pearl, the descendant of enslaved Georgians and tenant farmers–Ailey carries Du Bois”s Problem on her shoulders.
Ailey is reared in the north in the City but spends summers in the small Georgia town of Chicasetta, where her mother”s family has lived since their ancestors arrived from Africa in bondage. From an early age, Ailey fights a battle for belonging that”s made all the more difficult by a hovering trauma, as well as the whispers of women–her mother, Belle, her sister, Lydia, and a maternal line reaching back two centuries–that urge Ailey to succeed in their stead.
How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith
Beginning in his own hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader through an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks-those that are honest about the past and those that are not-that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation’s collective history, and ourselves.
It is the story of the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, the estate where Thomas Jefferson wrote letters espousing the urgent need for liberty while enslaving over 400 people on the premises. It is the story of the Whitney Plantation, one of the only former plantations devoted to preserving the experience of the enslaved people whose lives and work sustained it. It is the story of Angola Prison in Louisiana, a former plantation named for the country from which most of its enslaved people arrived and which has since become one of the most gruesome maximum-security prisons in the world. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.
In a deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history.
All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days by Rebecca Donner
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Mildred Harnack was twenty-six when she enrolled in a PhD program in Germany and witnessed the meteoric rise of the Nazi party. In 1932, she began holding secret meetings in her apartment — a small band of political activists that by 1940 had grown into the largest underground resistance group in Berlin. She recruited working-class Germans into the resistance, helped Jews escape, plotted acts of sabotage, and collaborated in writing leaflets that denounced Hitler and called for revolution. Her co-conspirators circulated through Berlin under the cover of night, slipping the leaflets into mailboxes, public restrooms, phone booths.
When the first shots of the Second World War were fired, she became a spy, couriering top-secret intelligence to the Allies. On the eve of her escape to Sweden, she was ambushed by the Gestapo. At a Nazi military court, a panel of five judges sentenced her to six years at a prison camp, but Hitler overruled the decision and ordered her execution. On February 16, 1943, she was strapped to a guillotine and beheaded.
Historians identify Mildred Harnack as the only American in the leadership of the German resistance, yet her remarkable story has remained almost unknown until now.
Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin
Strobing lights and dark rooms; throbbing house and drag queens on counters; first kisses, last call: the gay bar has long been a place of solidarity and sexual expression–whatever your scene, whoever you’re seeking. But in urban centers around the world, they are closing, a cultural demolition that has Jeremy Atherton Lin wondering: What was the gay bar? How have they shaped him? And could this spell the end of gay identity as we know it? In Gay Bar, the author embarks upon a transatlantic tour of the hangouts that marked his life, with each club, pub, and dive revealing itself to be a palimpsest of queer history. In prose as exuberant as a hit of poppers and dazzling as a disco ball, he time-travels from Hollywood nights in the 1970s to a warren of cruising tunnels built beneath London in the 1770s; from chichi bars in the aftermath of AIDS to today’s fluid queer spaces; through glory holes, into Crisco-slicked dungeons and down San Francisco alleys. He charts police raids and riots, posing and passing out–and a chance encounter one restless night that would change his life forever. The journey that emerges is a stylish and nuanced inquiry into the connection between place and identity–a tale of liberation, but one that invites us to go beyond the simplified Stonewall mythology and enter lesser-known battlefields in the struggle to carve out a territory.
frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss
Diane Seuss writes in this brilliant, candid work, her most personal collection to date. These poems tell the story of a life at risk of spilling over the edge of the page, from Seuss’s working-class childhood in rural Michigan to the dangerous allures of New York City and back again. With sheer virtuosity, Seuss moves nimbly across thought and time, poetry and punk, AIDS and addiction, Christ and motherhood, showing us what we can do, what we can do without, and what we offer to one another when we have nothing left to spare. Like a series of cels on a filmstrip, frank: sonnets captures the magnitude of a life lived honestly, a restless search for some kind of “beauty or relief.” Seuss is at the height of her powers, devastatingly astute, austere, and–in a word–frank.
Girlhood by Melissa Febos
In her powerful new book, critically acclaimed author Melissa Febos examines the narratives women are told about what it means to be female and what it takes to free oneself from them. When her body began to change at eleven years old, Febos understood immediately that her meaning to other people had changed with it. By her teens, she defined herself based on these perceptions and by the romantic relationships she threw herself into headlong. Over time, Febos increasingly questioned the stories she’d been told about herself and the habits and defenses she’d developed over years of trying to meet others’ expectations. The values she and so many other women had learned in girlhood did not prioritize their personal safety, happiness, or freedom, and she set out to reframe those values and beliefs. Blending investigative reporting, memoir, and scholarship, Febos charts how she and others like her have reimagined relationships and made room for the anger, grief, power, and pleasure women have long been taught to deny. Written with Febos’ characteristic precision, lyricism, and insight, Girlhood is a philosophical treatise, an anthem for women, and a searing study of the transitions into and away from girlhood, toward a chosen self.
John Leonard Prize
Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So
Seamlessly transitioning between the absurd and the tenderhearted, balancing acerbic humor with sharp emotional depth, Afterparties offers an expansive portrait of the lives of Cambodian-Americans. As the children of refugees carve out radical new paths for themselves in California, they shoulder the inherited weight of the Khmer Rouge genocide and grapple with the complexities of race, sexuality, friendship, and family.
A high school badminton coach and failing grocery store owner tries to relive his glory days by beating a rising star teenage player. Two drunken brothers attend a wedding afterparty and hatch a plan to expose their shady uncle’s snubbing of the bride and groom. A queer love affair sparks between an older tech entrepreneur trying to launch a “safe space” app and a disillusioned young teacher obsessed with Moby-Dick. And in the sweeping final story, a nine-year-old child learns that his mother survived a racist school shooter.