Study of genocide wins book award
Surprise choice by critics beats out best-seller on World Trade Center

Heidi Benson, Chronicle Staff Writer

Thursday, February 27, 2003

 

In an upset, the 2003 National Book Critics Circle award for general nonfiction went to Samantha Power for "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," a chronicle of American government response to genocide in the 20th century. It was among the awards given in a ceremony Wednesday night at the New School in New York City.

The book that had been widely expected to win for nonfiction was William Langewiesche's best-seller, "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center."

Among the other award-winners were Ian McEwan, who won in fiction for his novel "Atonement"; Janet Browne, who won the biography award for "Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, Volume II"; B.H. Fairchild, who won the poetry award for "Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest"; and William H. Gass, who won in criticism for "Tests of Time."

But it was the award for nonfiction to Power that most surprised observers. In a review, "A Problem From Hell" was called "masterful" by San Francisco Chronicle critic Steve Kettmann, who noted that Power "follows two major narrative strategies: She keeps it simple and straightforward, and she uses a string of memorable characters to tell the story." Power is executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a former Balkan war correspondent and a graduate of Harvard Law School.

The other nonfiction nominees were "Brown: The Last Discovery of America" by San Francisco author Richard Rodriguez, "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" by Chris Hedges and "Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life" by Gaby Wood.

In criticism, the other nominees were Philip Ball for "Bright Earth: Arts and the Invention of Color," Julia Blackburn for "Old Man Goya," Christopher Ricks for "Reviewery" and Charles Rosen for "Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist."

Of Gass, the winner for criticism, San Francisco Chronicle book critic and NBCCA judge David Kipen said: "It's a tribute to a guy who has written wonderfully in both fiction and nonfiction. To see Gass honored by his fellow critics is the capstone of a sophisticated career."

The other nominees for fiction were William Kennedy for "Roscoe," Jeffrey Eugenides for "Middlesex," Alexander Hemon for "Nowhere Man" and Edith Templeton for "The Darts of Cupid and Other Stories."

For biography/autobiography, the other nominees were: Robert A. Caro for "Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson," Elizabeth Gilbert for "The Last American Man," Edmund S. Morgan for "Benjamin Franklin" and Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg for "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family and their Legacy in American Music."

Other poetry nominees: Major Jackson for "Leaving Saturn," Harryette Mullen for "Sleeping with the Dictionary," Sharon Olds for "The Unswept Room" and Adam Zagajewski for "Without End: New and Selected Poems."

Also recognized: Richard Howard received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, and Maureen N. McLane was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

The awards are given annually by the National Book Critics Circle Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1974 made up of nearly 800 book editors and critics.

E-mail Heidi Benson at hbenson@sfchronicle.com.

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