NBCC does more than hand out book awards: a report from the forefront of book culture at a San Francisco fête

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Jane Ciabattari introduces “Emerging Critics” Jennie Hann, in San Francisco from Baltimore and Bay Area’s Chelsea Leu.

Most people know the National Book Critics Circle from the prestigious annual awards for authors, handed out every year in New York City. For those of us who are members, it offers collegiality, professional resources, and of course opportunities to talk books, books, books.

Not that I would know. I have been the quietest member of the NBCC for the last several years, as I’ve labored away on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. But now that the book is out, I thought I’d poke my head out above the trenches.

Jane Ciabattari at Zyzzyva

So I joined friends earlier at a cocktail party on June 28 in the tony offices of Zyzzyva in the historic Mechanics’ Institute Building in downtown San Francisco. The occasion was simply a get-together, and a rare chance to chat with colleagues. It was my first time in the quarters of the San Francisco journal of arts and letters that, years ago, spirited away my San Francisco Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon. (He had taken over the helm after David Kipen‘s departure.) He’s now Zyzzyva‘s managing editor and a former NBCC board member. I hadn’t seen him face-to-face since, except for one occasion at Litquake, a San Francisco literary institution, and another at Stanford’s Green Library for the Saroyan prizes.

Oscar was a energetic and reliable presence for books at the San Francisco Chronicle, and his legacy continues with John McMurtrie. I’ve never reviewed for John, but I hassle him regularly for publicity on Another Look book events at Stanford.

Another guiding presence at NBCC is smart, kindly, and resourceful Vice President Jane Ciabattari. Jane has been a friendly, constant, and reliable source of information and advice for free-lancers, this one included.

At the gathering Jane spoke about about the “Emerging Critics” program to foster and polish the next generation of those who devote themselves to the written word. That’s a lesser known aspect to the NBCC, apart from the celebrated prizes. See what else NBCC does on the calendar here.

I met so many people at the event I can’t remember them all (my mental attention is greatly diminished nowadays). But I returned to Palo Alto in the evening, thanks to a lift from Susanne Paria fascinating Iranian-American writer who dropped me off in front of my waiting car at Kepler’s, and then disappeared into the night.

Oscar Villalon discusses books with a colleague.


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