The National Book Critics Circle Awards for 2014 were announced Thursday, with top honors going to Marilynne Robinson’s quietly searing novel Lila for Fiction and Claudia Rankine’s politically charged collection Citizen for Poetry, and more. Robinson and Rankine were both finalists for the National Book Awards in their categories, though they lost out to Phil Klay’s Redeployment and Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, respectively.
The National Book Critics Circle Awards don’t have quite the same public cachet as the National Book Awards, but they often give exemplary books a shot at recognition they didn’t receive from the National Book Awards. In fiction, for example, there’s little overlap between past winners of the two awards.
The NBCC Awards do, nonetheless, sometimes pick duds -- the past winners include some books that quickly faded to relative obscurity, while some defeated finalists have become modern classics. Don DeLillo’s masterful White Noise is frequently read, taught, and discussed today, but it lost out to Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist in 1985. Controversial cases aside, the NBCC Awards have highlighted many exquisitely crafted, profoundly insightful books worth reading again and again.
Along with Marilynne Robinson’s gorgeous Lila, Claudia Rankine’s stirring Citizen, and the rest of this year’s awardees, here are 15 incredible novels and short story collections that won a National Book Critics Circle Award that you should add to your reading list immediately:
A Visit From the Goon Squad Jennifer Egan (2010, Fiction)
A hauntingly beautiful novel that reads like a set of short stories, Egan’s 2010 book follows a crew of loosely linked individuals as they negotiate the treacherous realms of the music industry, fame, and the uncertain future. Both thought-provoking and stylistically stunning.
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009, Fiction)
For fans of historical fiction, Wolf Hall is the ultimate -- political intrigue, period detail, and outstanding writing. In fact, even those averse to historical fiction may find themselves seduced by Mantel’s approach.
2666, Roberto Bolaño (2008, Fiction)
Bolaño’s last book examines a series of unsolved murders of women in Santa Teresa, Mexico, though in his typical fashion he does so in five sprawling sections, through a huge cast of characters and in an array of narrative styles. It’s considered the masterpiece of a truly great writer, though at over 900 pages it’s no easy lift.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz (2007, Fiction)
Diaz’s only completed novel -- he’s written two short story collections as well -- brims with personality and cultural insight. It’s the story of a nerdy outsider caught between American culture and his Dominican family, interwoven with his ancestors’ struggles under the dictator Rafael Trujillo. Diaz brings it all to life with cutting humor and vivid, energetic prose.
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004, Fiction)
Set among the same characters as this year’s Lila, Robinson’s first Iowa-based novel takes the form of an elderly preacher writing the story of his life for his young son, in case he’s not around to tell him when he’s old enough. Robinson’s meditations on faith and family, and the possibility of finding comfort and redemption, are delivered in golden, leisurely prose.
The Known World, Edward P. Jones (2003, Fiction)
Jones’ novel, which takes place in antebellum Virginia, powerfully explores American slaveholding from a nuanced, multi-layered perspective.
Atonement, Ian McEwan (2002, Fiction)
A heart-wrenching story of childish errors and the tragic consequences, this novel is guaranteed to make you cry. Even if you’ve already seen the weep-fest of a movie.
Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem (1999, Fiction)
Lethem’s bizarre and brilliant take on the detective novel genre features a gumshoe named Lionel Essrog, who must overcome his Tourettic difficulties with language to solve a heinous crime.
The Love of a Good Woman, Alice Munro (1998, Fiction)
Munro’s short stories, usually about the lives of women and the many small and large troubles and passions that pass through, stand among the greatest -- she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 for her short fiction. Read all of her collections, including this one, which focuses on the changing lives of women in the second half of the 20th century, from Munro’s usual quiet, domestic point of view.
The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald (1997, Fiction)
Writing about genius is always an incredible challenge for a novelist, but few have executed it as well as Fitzgerald. This psychologically acute and thematically ambitious book brings to life the German Romantic poet, Novalis, and his romance with a 12-year-old girl named Sophie.
All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy (1992, Fiction)
Like many Westerns, this novel lingers over the rugged landscape and traffics in the adventures of cowboys, but McCarthy’s work possesses a poeticism and complexity that’s entirely his own. All the Pretty Horses contains all the blood, guts, and action needed to keep you turning the pages of his dense prose.
Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich (1984, Fiction)
Erdrich’s fiction, which deals in issues and experiences of American Indians, spotlights a highly underrepresented culture in American literature. Love Medicine, her lyrical debut, which it follows a small group of Ojibwe over several decades, unsurprisingly marked her as a talent to watch.
Rabbit Is Rich, John Updike (1981, Fiction)
John Updike’s Rabbit series follows Rabbit Angstrom, a former high school basketball star trapped in a miserable job and joyless marriage, as he struggles with each stage of life’s challenges. In this third novel, he’s settled down in middle age but still dissatisfied. Updike’s bold, flavorful prose is the perfect conduit for Rabbit’s man-in-crisis story.
The Stories of John Cheever, John Cheever (1978, Fiction)
Few short story writers have achieved acclaim in that form, but Cheever is among them. His short fiction, usually set in his familiar WASPy milieu, never fails to be brutally profound, acutely written and truly revelatory.
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison (1977, Fiction)
Morrison’s powerful, evocative writing about black life in America takes shape in this novel as the saga of a troubled black family, and the coming-of-age story of its central character, Macon “Milkman” Dead. Its touches of magical realism only enhance the deeper truth her poetic novel uncovers.