Next week, the National Book Critics Circle will announce the winners of awards in six categories. Admittedly, the contenders for the fiction and nonfiction prizes attract the most buzz. But let’s take a moment for the odd duck of the evening: the criticism award. Though it may be the least ballyhooed of the NBCC categories, it is, I would argue, the most closely attuned to the zeitgeist. And it seems both bracing and appropriate that this year’s criticism finalists include no work by a white man.
The contenders do, however, include a remarkable book called Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History , by Camille T. Dungy (Norton, $25,95). The essays in Dungy’s graceful and perceptive collection display the fluidity and finely tuned ear one would expect from a celebrated poet for whom “language is home.” She is a perceptive historian, keenly aware of how history “cross-pollinates all my interactions” and yet is “little more than a record of disputed erasures.” The book revolves around the birth and infancy of Dungy’s daughter, whom we follow from Dungy’s pregnancy all the way up to the age of 3. Dungy navigates the complicated crosscurrents of contemporary parenthood with honesty and insight.
Three sentences into You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, and Other Mixed Messages (Mariner, $16.95) I already felt like cheering. Carina Chocano is a first-rate cultural critic whose specialty is constructing dead-on feminist analyses of such sinister artifacts as the relentless “Frozen” and the various horrifying iterations of Barbie. Chocano is unusually skilled at dismantling the toxic underpinnings of such pop-culture mainstays, motivated in part by her desire to help her young daughter confront “a world that literally never stops yelling at her that her primary value is sexual.” And Chocano demolishes the dismal shibboleth that feminists can’t be funny, wielding abundant wit with a devastating sardonic edge. She refers to Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” as “the Eileen Fisher phase of the fairy tale . . . tasteful, flowing, and calming.” She describes how a Hans Christian Andersen heroine “throws herself” at the hero “and weeps hot tears upon his breast” before adding, “In real life, we know, this tactic usually backfires.”
To move from Chocano’s quick-witted and perceptive essays to Kevin Young’s erudite Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News (Graywolf, $30) is a readerly change of pace. There appears to be no format in which Young does not shine. A fine poet and incisive critic, the director of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the poetry editor of the New Yorker to boot, he has produced in “Bunk” a work of extraordinary gravity and scope. Dissecting scams from P.T. Barnum up to Rachel Dolezal and beyond, Young journeys “back and forth across the history of the hoax in order to trace the hoaxing of history.” In his skillful analysis, hoaxes are themselves revealed as a central strand of America’s toxic racial history — Young calls the hoax “racism’s native tongue” — and thus make up a “potent, American cocktail of doubt and danger, desire and delight.”
Depending on your emotional valence, Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Coffee House, $12.95) will either break your heart or make you very, very angry. The 40 questions of the subtitle are the questions that undocumented and unaccompanied child immigrants (or refugees, as they should rightly be called) are asked upon their arrival in the United States. Their answers determine whether they are admitted into this country or turned away, most likely to face a cruel fate in their homelands. Luiselli, who spent a harrowing year as a volunteer translator in New York City immigration court, paints a grim portrait of a system that abandons children to a legal netherland. She often finds herself “quietly listening, wishing that the story I’m hearing had a better ending.” The restrained eloquence of her testimony is somehow more effective than gales of polemical fury. Most of “Tell Me How It Ends” was written in 2016, before the accession of our current president, which makes the book even more vital and relevant.
We end, as we all must, with death: Edwidge Danticat’s somber and beautiful mediation The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (Graywolf, $14) stands as a stirring addition to Graywolf’s thoughtful “Art of” series. (A word about Graywolf: Has any independent press in recent memory punched so far above its weight with such astonishing consistency?) Danticat’s brief tome is both a touching elegy for her late mother, who comes across as a true force of nature, and a concise survey of how death is treated by writers ranging from Tolstoy to Toni Morrison. All of them, Danticat notes, “write about the dead . . . to become less haunted, to turn ghosts into words, to transform an absence into language.” In doing so, we enact “our most humble, and perhaps most arrogant, wish . . . that our writing might help others feel less alone.”
All of these finalists for the NBCC criticism prize are deeply satisfying fulfillments of this deathless and profoundly human wish. The winner — along with the winners in the fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography and poetry categories, will be announced Thursday at a ceremony open to the public at the New School in New York.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.