"The Hairstons," Henry Wiencek's detailed account of the legacy of one of the South's largest slaveholding families, and "Motherless Brooklyn," Jonathan Lethem's fictional tale of a detective with Tourette's syndrome, took two of the top honors last night in the National Book Critics Circle Awards.
Other winners, announced at a reception at New York University Law School, were Jonathan Weiner's "Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origin of Behavior" in the general nonfiction category; Ruth Stone's "Ordinary Words" for poetry; and Jorge Luis Borges' "Selected Non-Fictions" for criticism.
Wiencek, whose book won for autobiography/biography, spent years tracing the branches of the Hairston family tree to gather anecdotes from black and white members. Traveling from the North Carolina plantation of Cooleemee to farms in Virginia and Mississippi, he pieced together the legacy of slavery and the history of the Hairstons from all sides.
One story Wiencek heard, for example, involved a slave who burned a wooden fence to cook a hog for his starving friends. While the slaves viewed the gesture as an act of compassion, white Hairstons at the time saw the incident as an attempt to hinder the next day's labor.
In "Time, Love, Memory," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Weiner takes readers into the world of biologist Seymour Benzer and his fellow scientists as they search for the genes that determine human behavior.
Other nominees by category:
Fiction: A. Manette Ansay, "Midnight Champagne"; Frederick Busch, "The Night Inspector"; J. M. Coetzee, "Disgrace"; and David Gates, "The Wonders of the Invisible World."
General nonfiction: Jane Brox, "Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History"; John W. Dower, "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II"; Patricia Hampl, "I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory"; and Jean-Paul Kauffmann, "The Black Room at Longwood: Napoleon's Exile on Saint Helena."
Biography/autobiography: Richard Holmes, "Coleridge, Vol. II: Darker Reflections"; Jean Strouse, "Morgan: American Financier"; Judith Thurman, "Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette"; and Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones, "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times."
Poetry: Rafael Campo, "Diva"; Tory Dent, "HIV, Mon Amour"; Rita Dove, "On the Bus With Rosa Parks"; and Susan Kinsolving, "Dailies & Rushes."
Criticism: Stuart Klawans, "Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order"; William Logan, "Reputations of the Tongue: On Poets and Poetry"; Michael Schmidt, "Lives of the Poets"; and David Shields, "Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season."
The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, is a not-for-profit organization of book editors and critics with 750 members nationwide.