Friday, September 28, 2012

National Book Critics Circle Finalists

Biography and autobiography are two categories in which the National Book Critics Circle gives awards; here are some finalists from recent years.
The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story - by Diane Ackerman
During the 1930s, Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, lived on the grounds with his wife, Antonia, and their son. After the Germans occupied Poland, Jan slipped away to join the resistance while Antonia remained to care for the zoo. The Zookeeper's Wife vividly portrays how Antonia took advantage of Nazi scientific interest in recovering purebred animal species to keep the zoo going. The zoo also provided refuge and rescue for hundreds of Jews -- right under the noses of German officials. For more true stories about Polish Jews surviving under the Nazis, read Hidden, a memoir of the Holocaust by brother and sister Fay Walker and Leo Rosen.
Alexander Hamilton - by Ron Chernow
Many people see Alexander Hamilton's face on a daily basis, since his portrait graces the ten-dollar bill. Some people even remember that there was a scandal involving a duel with Aaron Burr -- which Hamilton lost. Although Hamilton was a key figure during the American Revolution and the founding of the democratic Republic, he "seldom is accorded the affection reserved" for other Founders (Booklist), including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. To remedy this, biographer Ron Chernow demonstrates Hamilton's brilliance and his philosophical opposition to all forms of tyranny -- including slavery -- in this comprehensive, sympathetic, and engaging portrait.
Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II - by Jennet Conant
Technological and scientific developments provided a major component of the war effort during World War II as the United States raced to improve radar and navigation systems and develop advanced weapons. An obscure research unit in New York contributed to several of these innovations, as biographer Jennet Conant recounts in her story of Alfred Loomis, who made the work possible. Loomis, a wealthy financier, established laboratory facilities in his mansion in Tuxedo Park and invited leading scientists to work on such projects as microwave technology for use in radar. The results were essential to the Allied war effort, and this vivid account of "high-spirited, freewheeling methodology" (Library Journal) brings Loomis and the researchers to life.
His Excellency: George Washington - by Joseph J. Ellis
George Washington, first President of the United States, has enough mythology surrounding his historical record to give him a god-like image -- but the mythology isn't really necessary. Washington's actual achievements and his personal qualities justify his shining reputation. Biographer Joseph Ellis' fresh and well documented presentation of Washington's life details his superior achievements and also "leaves readers with a deeper sense of the man's humanity" (Publishers Weekly). For a wider view of significant players in early American history, providing more context for Washington's story, read Ellis' Founding Brothers.
The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology - by Simon Winchester
Biographer Simon Winchester delights in delving into the lives of people who are little known despite having made major contributions to human knowledge. The Map That Changed the World presents a man whose research laid the foundation for the modern science of geology -- William Smith, who in 1815 made the first complete map of the geological strata in England. Winchester enlivens the tale of Smith's achievements with details of his personal struggles and financial failure, painting a sympathetic portrait of the blacksmith's son whose colorful and accurate drawings show how layers of rock reveal the history of the Earth itself.

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