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National Book Critics Speak: Best Books Of The Year

On Thursday evening in New York, the National Book Critics Circle will host its annual award ceremony to announce their picks for the best books of 2011 in six categories: fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, biography, criticism and poetry. Robert Silvers, longtime editor of the New York Review of Books, will be presented with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, and critic Kathryn Schulz will receive the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

All month, members of the NBCC board have been publishing essays on the nominees, who represent a breadth of sensibility, taste and style. The five fiction finalists below provide a fine example. For more information on the finalists and to read the NBCC essays, visit their blog, Critical Mass.

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(Shell) NBCC nominees

Open City

by Teju Cole

The recipient of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and one of NPR's Best Books of 2011, Open City is a flaneur's love letter to city life and the peregrinations of one's own mind.

Cole's protagonist, Julius, a Nigerian immigrant and psychiatry resident, ambles around Manhattan, chatting with fellow immigrants, thinking about women, art, decay. With the perceptive intelligence of W.G. Sebald and a Joycean attention to interiority, Open City mines the past and announces a form for the future.

The Marriage Plot

by Jeffrey Eugenides

Strip away the semiotics and intertextuality, and The Marriage Plot is a simple, old-fashioned story, almost a curio: a book that hinges on whom a woman decides to marry. With Brown University as a backdrop and graduation looming, the bright, rather jumpy Madeleine is torn between the charismatic Leonard and earnest, lovelorn Mitchell.

"I didn't think it was possible to write a Jane Austen novel now, and in fact, it isn't. But I did want to traffic in the same ideas," Jeffrey Eugenides told Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

The Stranger's Child

by Alan Hollinghurst

The Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Line of Beauty and The Swimming Pool Library returns with this astonishing novel that traces the evolution of English society through the life and (ever fluctuating) legacy of a poet modeled after Rupert Brooke. It's a high-wire act — we jump perspectives (even generations), watch minor characters catapulted into prominence, receive a rich education in literary and queer history — but it feels effortless.

In his essay, National Book Critics Circle President Eric Banks praises the book, calling it a "masterpiece of exacting irony and sinuous prose."

Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories

by Edith Pearlman

The only book nominated for both this year's National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, Edith Pearlman's collection brings together stories from her celebrated career. Pearlman's themes are timeless — love, betrayal, belonging, nationhood — and her scope is global.

NBCC board member Colette Bancroft writes, "Pearlman's stories can capture the quotidian in sparkling prose, then suddenly submerge us in the irresistible dark force of dreams or fairy tales."

Stone Arabia

by Dana Spiotta

Like last year's fiction winner, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Dana Spiotta's clever, spiky novel has its roots in the L.A. 1980s punk scene. Nik Worth, a failed rock 'n' roller, begins keeping a fake autobiography of the success he never had. He methodically records gigs, awards and the long, happy trajectory of his fictional career — oblivious to the toll his obsession is taking on his sister.

Fresh Air critic Maureen Corrigan called it "a powerful novel about responsibility: the responsibility artists have to their art; the responsibility family members have to take care of each other."

Parul Sehgal