National Book Critics Circle Awards 'De Kooning' biography bests Dylan's look back

Posted: March 19, 2005

NEW YORK — Like an AWOL-ing stone, singer Bob Dylan didn't make it to the National Book Critics Circle awards here last night to see if his Chronicles, Vol. I had won the organization's prize for biography/autobiography.

No matter. It didn't.

"De Kooning liked to say that nothing is certain about art except that it is a word," said Mark Stevens, coauthor with Annalyn Swann of the book that did win, De Kooning: An American Master (Knopf).

In the end, the modernist master known for his "thick, succulent swirls of paint," in the phrase of one NBCC critic, had bested the troubadour of the '60s and three other finalists.

Marilynne Robinson won the fiction prize for Gilead (Farrar Straus & Giroux), which takes the form of a dying third-generation preacher's letter to his 7-year-old son.

"I wrote a quiet book," said Robinson in accepting, thanking her publisher for being "patient with my long delay between novels." (Her previous novel, Housekeeping, was published in 1981.)

The Reformation: A History (Viking) by Diarmaid MacCulloch, an Oxford professor of church history, won the nonfiction prize. The author, who did not attend, thanked the judges in a statement for recognizing the Reformation was a "profoundly important event for American as well European history."

The prize for criticism went to Patrick Neate's Where You're At: Notes From the Frontline of Hip-Hop Planet (Riverhead). "My mother is going to be deeply ashamed," commented the charming, self-described "middle-class British white bloke," in his acceptance remarks.

Adrienne Rich won the poetry prize for The School Among the Ruins, which critic Donna Seaman introduced as "ravishingly lyrical." Rich thanked her publisher of almost 40 years, W.W. Norton. "I believe in long-term relationships," she quipped.

The other fiction nominees were Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin); Edwidge Danticat's The Dew Breaker (Knopf); Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (Bloomsbury); and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (Random House).

Besides Dylan's work, Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton (Penguin); Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Norton); and John Guy's Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart (Houghton Mifflin) were nominated for biography/autobiography.

The nominees in the NBCC's other categories were:

General nonfiction: Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age (Holt); Edward Conlon, Blue Blood (Riverhead); David Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible in America (Knopf); Timothy B. Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story (Crown).

Poetry: Brigit Pegeen Kelly, The Orchard (BOA Editions); D.A. Powell, Cocktails (Graywolf); James Richardson, Interglacial (Ausable Press); Gary Snyder, Danger on Peaks (Shoemaker & Hoard).

Criticism: Richard Howard, Paper Trail: Selected Prose 1965-2003 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); Graham Robb, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century (Norton); Craig Seligman, Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint); James Wood, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

The National Book Critics Circle is a nonprofit national organization of some 600 book reviewers, critics and literary scholars.

Also awarded last night was the organization's Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award to author Louis D. Rubin Jr., founder of Algonquin Press in North Carolina. The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing went to David Orr, a freelance contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Poetry magazine.

Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/carlinromano.

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