I groaned inwardly (OK, outwardly too) at the thought of sitting through TWENTY-SEVEN (!!!) readings, remembering with a shudder the year that the first of 14 readers went on for 25 minutes without interruption (I was ready to yank him off the stage myself). I'd had a yogurt before I came downtown, so I knew my stomach could make it through. But I wasn't so sure if my tush would, especially after having been on a plane for 4+ hours. Happily, the pace quickened throughout the evening, so that Fiction, Poetry and General Nonfiction, which came after an intermission, only took one hour--versus 90+ minutes for Autobiography, Criticism and Biography.
With a few notable exceptions--Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for one--overall the NBCC finalists lived up to the stereotype of the pale, bespectacled, slightly rumpled author. Another stereotype some lived up to was the author as lousy performer: Few of them set up what their books were about, perhaps assuming (wrongly) that everyone in the audience knew already. Several read passages that gave no clue as to the book's overarching theme--or even its subject (I was as ignorant of Frederick Crews's FOLLIES OF THE WISE: Dissenting Essays after his reading as I was before). Some also had a sleep-inducing drone: Karen Emmerich, translator of the late Miltos Sachtouris' POEMS (1945-1971), did the classic poetry singsong voice in English and Greek. Snore.
Poet Daisy Fried (MY BROTHER IS GETTING ARRESTED AGAIN) gets the prize for worst career move/fashion accessory: She read with her two-month-old daughter strapped to her chest. Some in the crowd said "Awww!" when Fried went to the podium, but my reaction was "UGH!" The kid was sound asleep, but, as babies often do, emitted little squeaks and sighs, which were duly picked up by the microphone. The great thing about giving birth is that you no longer have to carry a big, heavy lump on your abdomen all the time. (The Boy Wonder was 9 lbs, 12 oz, so I know whereof I speak.) Surely Fried could have handed the baby off to its father, or a friend--or even her editor or publicist--for the 3 minutes she was onstage. During the awards ceremony the next night, Fried had to make a hasty exit from the packed auditorium when Baby Dumpling started squalling (as expected by me, if not by her doting mama). I was fresh out of sympathy.
- Alison Bechdel showed slides from her graphic-book memoir, FUN HOME: A Family Tragicomic, to accompany her reading. It barely mattered that she left off the last sentence of her text, which was eaten by her laptop.
- Alexander Masters gave the first emotional reading of the evening, from STUART: A Life Backwards. He was also the first of several authors from the UK Commonwealth, who were by far the best performers. In fact, thinking back on all the readings and panel discussions I've attended, I'd say that Commonwealth natives (except Canadians--sorry!) are overwhelmingly better public speakers than Americans. And it's not just because I'm a sucker for an accent.
- Daniel Mendelsohn, who had the loudest and most resonant voice of the autobiographical authors, gave a very expressive and funny reading from THE LOST: A Search for One of Six Million, complete with gestures, facial expressions and a Yiddish accent.
- Terri Jentz read an intense, horrifying account of her near murder from STRANGE PIECE OF PARADISE, which had the audience enthralled. I had a very hard time with it, though, as I'm still suffering from PTSD. If the reading had gone on any longer I would have stopped my ears and/or left the hall. Afterward, an NBCC member said that Jentz should have gotten an award just for surviving. Very true.
- After two deadly dull readers, Lawrence Weschler (EVERYTHING THAT RISES: A Book of Convergences) woke us back up by engaging the audience (what a concept!) with wit, humor and that old standy, an expressive voice.
- Debby Applegate (THE MOST FAMOUS MAN IN AMERICA: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher) and Jason Roberts (A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler), besides giving lively readings, were among the few who gave a full sense of the book's subject. Coming away, I actually wanted to, y'know, read the book.
- I could have listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's (HALF OF A YELLOW SUN) rich and plummy voice all night. Sure hope she does the audio book herself.
- Kiran Desai, whose THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS was the only one of the 30 I'd read, gave an electric reading, which made me even happier because I LOVED that book.
- Troy Jollimore (TOM THOMSON IN PURGATORY) and Mark Doty, who stood in for W.D. Snodgrass (NOT FOR SPECIALISTS: New & Selected Poems), more than made up for Fried & Emmerich with wit and (once again) expression.
- Simon Schama (ROUGH CROSSINGS: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution) and Sandy Tolan (THE LEMON TREE: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East) brought the evening to a close with stirring readings that exemplified their work.