National Book Critics Circle board member Mary Ann Gwinn shares three of her favorite finalists from 2018.

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Lit Life

This time of year I go into a deep reading zone. I’m on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and in March the board awards six literary prizes in six categories (biography, autobiography, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, criticism). My job as a board member is to read five finalists in each of six categories.   

Finalists were announced in January, so that’s 30 books in two months, more or less (I’ve read some already). A foot of snowfall has helped this along but it’s grueling work, aided by countless cups of coffee and abetted by strategic doses of eyedrops. The payoff is that I get to read some of the year’s best books and recommend them to you, adventurous Seattle reader. Here are three of my favorites of 2018, finalists in criticism, fiction and biography:  

As much as I love Zadie Smith’s novels (“White Teeth,” “On Beauty,” “Swing Time”), it’s her nonfiction — acute, funny and blindingly intelligent — that gets me.

Smith, who will appear at Seattle Arts & Lectures on Wednesday, Feb. 27, grew up in a lower middle-class household in Northwest London, the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant mother and a white middle-class father. This experience gave her wings, and though her smarts and talent have ushered her into the charmed circle of literary awards and prizes, she sustains a generous heart and a human touch.

Her new collection of nonfiction, “Feel Free: Essays” (Penguin Press), is a showstopper. In interviews, personal essays, book reviews and art reviews, Smith addresses an array of topics: high art, pop art, hip-hop, rap, being a parent, being a child, race, class, Facebook, philosopher Martin Buber and pop star Justin Bieber, why writing is like dance, Italian public gardens and the resonance of the sparkling clean bathroom in the modest house she grew up in: “Yvonne [her mother] never tired of talking toilets … it’s a preoccupation that stretches back to her childhood, in Jamaica, where she had to use a hole in the ground,” writes Smith. I have to confess that one of my favorites is a gossipy review of a memoir (one of many, apparently) by the Duchess of Devonshire, of the notorious Mitford sisters. “I can’t resist the Mitford comedy,” writes Smith. “ … Love Nancy disguising herself as a tramp and accosting her terrified sisters in public places, leering ‘Give us a kiss.’ ”

What a pleasure it is to listen to Smith think. Of Facebook, she writes: “If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out.” On the highs and lows of love: “We certainly don’t need to be neuroscientists to know that wild romantic crushes — especially if they are fraught with danger — do something ecstatic to our brains, though like the pills that share the name, horror and disappointment are usually not far behind.” With exuberance, insight and wit, Smith peels the layers off existence, letting in light and even some joy. I hated finishing this book; I just wanted more.

The most unsettling novel I have read this year is the 2018 Man Booker Prize winner, “Milkman,” by Anna Burns, just published in this country by Graywolf Press. Burns’ portrait of a young woman in a country much like Northern Ireland, a teenager trapped in a vise of violence, harassment and repression, creates a creeping dread that requires breaks and long looks at the horizon before diving back in.

The narrator goes back to the year when she was 18 with this opening sentence: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” She tries to escape the horror of her predicament by reading 19th-century literature (while walking the streets — talk about having your nose in a book), taking French lessons and carrying on a sweet affair with her car-mechanic “almost boyfriend.”

But then the milkman, a senior paramilitary figure in the struggle against the country’s occupiers, takes an interest in her. He stalks her. His minions track her every move. He strips her of her defenses and spins a cocoon of inevitability around her; soon, she comes to believe, she will submit. Her neighbors and family aren’t much help: in this paranoid community, down is up. She is not sleeping with the milkman, but the neighborhood gossips pronounce guilt by association, and she is both branded a hussy and admired as the mistress of an agent of an ultraviolent group. “In a district that thrived on suspicion, supposition and imprecision,” Burns writes, “where everything was so back-to-front it was impossible to tell a story properly, or not tell it but just remain quiet, nothing could get said here or not said but it was turned into gospel.” Every family has lost loved ones to the madness. Will she lose her family, her identity and her life?

I had to fight a sense of creeping claustrophobia as I read it, and its Faulknerian sentences, which can run on for half a page or more, sometimes felt like a literary endurance test. Its salvation is the narrator’s sense of humor, which sparks and flares in the grimmest of circumstances. Her family portrait is indelible: the narrator’s indomitable mother, her brother-in-law, who persists in his admiration of women in an era of rampant misogyny, her three “wee sisters,” who leap and sing and try to understand the crackpot world they live in. Today, Northern Ireland is at peace — “Milkman” is a testimony to how far it has come. It is a one-of-a-kind book.

Architect Philip Johnson used his inherited fortune to pursue his passions — fine food, high society, art, architecture, and for a time, radical right-wing politics. A colleague and contemporary of the Rockefeller family, founding curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture department, a devotee of modernist architecture, Johnson was a Nazi sympathizer in the years before World War II.

Just as his political beliefs shifted (he would spend the rest of his life downplaying his right-wing sympathies), so did his architectural leanings. “Johnson was a historicist who championed the new, an elitist who was a populist, a genius without originality, a gossip who was an intellectual, an opportunist who was a utopian, a man of endless generosity who could be casually, crushingly cruel,” writes architecture critic Mark Lamster in his new biography “The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century” (Little, Brown).

Lamster captures a brilliant, restless, conniving, ambitious man. Improbably gifted, richly supported by family money, Johnson mounted architecture and design exhibits at MOMA and donated thousands of artworks to the museum. He mentored young architects and created his own architecture firm. By the second half of the 20th century his influence had turned him into “the godfather of American architecture,” wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in a New York Times review of Lamster’s book. He designed some landmark buildings, including his own residence, the “glass house” in New Canaan, Connecticut, Pennzoil Place in Houston and the original Four Seasons restaurant in New York. 

But many other Johnson designs were pedestrian, jarring or forgettable. His architectural allegiances shifted over time; originally a Mies van der Rohe acolyte, Johnson embraced postmodernism, and by the end of his career many of his buildings, built for corporations in the Reagan years, were mashups of clashing styles and his clients’ practical demands. “I do not believe in principles, in case you haven’t noticed,” Johnson once told fellow architect César Pelli.

It is this shapeshifting quality that makes Johnson hard to grasp, and by the end of his long life he was still, in many ways, unknowable. How could a man who watched from the sidelines as the Germans torched Polish villages later design synagogues and an Israeli nuclear-research reactor? How could a tastemaker who preached the gospel of modernism become a convert to the baubles and trimmings of postmodernism? Lamster does not try to fully explain or damn Johnson, and he presents his career in context. In The Nation, Kate Wagner wrote that Lamster “reveals in great detail how Johnson, in collaboration with a small number of powerful cultural institutions (and the billionaires that funded them), determined who would become the next generation’s architectural stars. Little by little in Lamster’s book, the hoary narrative — still bafflingly predominant in today’s architecture world — of the scrappy young draftsman pulling himself up by his bootstraps to become a great architect through hard work and talent is relentlessly dismantled.”

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Zadie Smith will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $35-$80; 206-621-2230, lectures.org