50 hours with the National Book Critics Circle in New York

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This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

4 p.m. Wednesday: My plane lands. The National Book Critics Circle finalists reading begins at 6 p.m.; can I make it? Traffic on the way to the hotel says no. Then I get mixed up trying to find the subway, winds of the financial district pushing me off course. There’s an upside: I have to get lost at least once each time I visit New York, and this time, I’ve gotten it out of the way. I’m late and catch only the second half of the reading, but the whole thing is now online -- and, as you can see, above.


9 p.m. or so Wednesday: I find some other members of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors and we head off to a nearby restaurant. There are writers and editors from Cleveland, Chicago, Florida, Oregon, and, of course, New York, at the table. We see each other about three times a year when we all meet in New York; we were last together in January, when we selected our finalists. I haven’t eaten since I left Los Angeles and find the restaurant’s food delicious; another of our party gets food poisoning.

11 p.m. Wednesday: Stop by another restaurant where some current and former board members and other writers and editors are having drinks. All these writers and editors in one place! It is very exciting. I am easily excited.

4 a.m. Thursday: Cannot figure out why my hotel room is a sweatbox, even though the thermostat is set at 65. I heard New York was having a mild winter, but this is ridiculous.

5:30 a.m. Thursday: Figure out that the thermostat is on Auto Heat, not Auto Cool. It is in fact around 87 degrees in my room. Turn to Auto Cool and get a couple hours of sleep, the churning ancient A/C unit giving me dreams of trains.

8:30 a.m. Thursday: There is a membership meeting of the National Book Critics Circle this morning, but I also have a deadline. I have to pass on the discussion of e-galleys and young adult literature to stay in my now temperature-corrected room and write. I make hotel room coffee for the first time in my life. It’s not good, but it gives a decent illusion of coffeeness.

10:45 a.m. Thursday: Discover I forgot to bring the belt I need for my dress.

11:05 a.m. Thursday: Walk beltless to the discount clothing store Century 21 on my way to the subway. Find a belt, pay, and ask the nice lady to cut off the tags and belt up in the middle of the store, feeling a little like a homeless person, rather than the sophisticated literary critic I’m supposed to be. Find the subway stop easily -- it’s across from where the World Trade Center used to be.

11:40 a.m. Thursday: Arrive at the New School’s Lang Center before the membership meeting concludes. Peter Miller from Liveright catches me up on some of the e-galley discussion I missed; Art Winslow, a former board member, looks shockingly well-rested. Is that what happens when you leave the board?

12:15 p.m. Thursday: At the National Book Critics Circle luncheon, I’m sitting next to critic Heller McAlpin. She’s been writing a lot for the NPR website, and has recently recorded her first on-air review for ‘All Things Considered’; it’s on ‘Watergate: A Novel.’

1 p.m. Thursday: No time for dessert: The two dozen of us who are on the board head back to the Lang Center. I’m the only one who notices Parker Posey walking by with a yoga mat on her shoulder. No time to ask about that time she played a librarian; we’re off to choose our 2011 award winners from the 30 finalists.

6 p.m. Thursday: Our decisions made, the members of the board disperse before the awards ceremony, which begins at 7 p.m. a block away. A handful of us who have work to do stay put, typing as fast as we can, but soon some workers from the New School show up and begin packing up the tables where we’re sitting. There’s no sense arguing -- they’re going to transform this room into the post-awards reception hall, with tables of canapes and a bar. I wind up in an out-of-the-way corner of the floor, typing. Then I change into another dress. Then, on the street, I call my editor for notes on the piece. 6:50 p.m. Thursday: In the same New School auditorium where the readings took place, we’re all bustling to our seats. I see Dana Spiotta, whom I interviewed for The Times. Then I meet Dubravka Ugresic, whose ‘Karaoke Culture’ I reviewed for The Times, sitting with Chad Post of her publisher, Open Letter. She’s traveled from Europe for the ceremony. It’s always a little nerve-racking to meet an author whose book you’ve reviewed, but apparently Ugresic and I are good. I hear David Bellos is looking for me, too. Oh, wait, and here’s Richard Mason, author of ‘History of a Pleasure Seeker.’ This place is a danger zone!

7 p.m. Thursday: The National Book Critics Circle Awards ceremony begins.

7:15 p.m. Thursday: After the New School’s Robert Polito welcomes us, and National Book Critics Circle President Eric Banks opens the evening, I present the first award, the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. I’m nervous and keep it short, and thankfully the recipient, Kathryn Schulz, has given a TED talk and she’s totally comfortable speaking without notes. That’s followed by a second already-announced award, the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement, which Daniel Mendelsohn presents to the New York Review of Books’ Robert Silvers. This is followed by the awards for the books we’ve just that day selected, and you’ve already heard about. The entire awards ceremony is also on video.

8:30 p.m. Thursday: My phone doesn’t work in the auditorium. With the event over, I run to the lobby, then sidewalk, to get a signal so I can send final notes to my editor.

8:45 p.m. Thursday: I find Jonathan Lethem, whose book ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ was a finalist, to say hello. He’s in New York for even less time than I am. Then it’s back to Claremont. I also meet John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose essay collection ‘Pulphead’ was a finalist in the nonfiction category.

9:10 p.m. Thursday: Everyone crowds into the Lang Center for the reception, which is also a fundraiser for the National Book Critics Circle. There are no speeches, just lots of milling around and trying to get to the bar and the meatballs on the food tables. I suppose New Yorkers are used to this, but for me it’s great to see people in person whom I know only by their writing. I meet two debut writers who were finalists: Teju Cole, author of the novel ‘Open City,’ and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, whose ‘Harlem Is Nowhere’ was a finalist in autobiography. I talk to Deb Olin Unferth, whose memoir ‘Revolution’ was a finalist, and Geoff Dyer, who won in the criticism category for ‘Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.’

The party is full of editors, writers and publicists. Some are less happy than others. One author jokingly says, ‘I thought you liked my book!’ And I did! There are far more books that I like than can possibly win. But it doesn’t mean I like them any less.

11 p.m. Thursday: A critical mass of us has decamped to the same restaurant we’ve been at for the last two days -- the one that doesn’t give us food poisoning. That’s a little joke; the National Book Critics Circle blog is called Critical Mass. Haha.

9:30 a.m. Friday: I check out of my hotel, dragging my suitcase behind me. I realize that other than electronics, I don’t have a thing to read. At least I still have one ride left on my Metrocard.

9:55 a.m. Friday: I’m in line with another National Book Critics Circle board member at Dunkin’ Donuts across the street from Library Journal, where we’re meeting. See, the awards are the end of 2011 for us, and the next morning, 2012 begins. Three new members have been elected to the board of directors, and this will be their first meeting.

10 a.m. Friday: Our meeting begins: introductions, administrative decisions. We’re a nonprofit, so everything is official: Each decision must be moved, seconded and voted on. It’s very collegial. When we finish with the meeting, our tasks for 2012 are set. I’m newly elected as the vice president of technology, because I’m the kind of book critic who knows the difference between html and FTP.

1 p.m. Friday: The meeting is over, but our agenda is not. There’s a luncheon sponsored by Grove Press, which features a guest independent press this year -- Archipelago, which publishes beautiful books, emphasis on literature in translation and poetry. It’s a chance to see Grove’s Morgan Entrekin, who didn’t make the ceremony last night, and meet the editor of ‘Salvage the Bones,’ who tells me that its author, Jesmyn Ward, is at work on her next book. There are galleys for us of some of these new books: Phew! Not a minute too soon.

3:30 p.m. Friday: With my suitcase trundling behind me, I go with board member Stephen Burt and his wife, Jessie Bennet, from Beacon Press to the cafe at Housing Works Bookstore. OK, first we go to Uniqlo, which I should admit in case you see me in my cute Uniqlo T-shirt. They leave -- they’re seeing a play that night -- and author Elissa Shappell meets me for a coffee. She confirms that the person at the next table who looks familiar is the author of a book I reviewed negatively. Goodness, all of New York is a danger zone.

5:15 p.m. Friday: I find a cab and head back to JFK, and the safety of Los Angeles.

[For the Record, 9:20 p.m. March 12: This post originally said was Daniel Menaker who introduced Robert Silvers; it was Daniel Mendelsohn. And the spelling of Morgan Entrekin’s has been corrected.]

-- Carolyn Kellogg