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'Americanah,' 'Five Days at Memorial' take top book critics prizes

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieChimamanda Ngozi Adichie

As author after author insisted they had not prepared advance remarks because they didn't think they would win, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and journalist Sheri Fink accepted two of the National Book Critics Circle prizes for 2013 books before a packed auditorium at the New School in Manhattan last night.

Adichie, saying she was "ridiculously happy," accepted the fiction award for Americanah, her funny and readable story of a young Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. and grapples with issues of race and identity.

Fink, a reporter for The New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina, accepted the nonfiction award for Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. The book is based on her "deep dive" into the events at that hospital as Katrina forced doctors and nurses to make devastating decisions.

The announcement for both women were clearly popular choices with the audience of book publishing leaders and readers, who cheered and whistled for both.

Other recipients of the NBCC awards were: Amy Wilentz for Farewell, Fred Voodoo: a Letter from Haiti (autobiography), Leo Damrosch for Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (biography), Franco Moretti for Distant Reading (criticism), and Frank Bidart for Metaphysical Dog (poetry.)

The organization's first John Leonard Prize for a first book was given to Anthony Marra's novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Leonard,was a hugely respected reviewer and cultural critic who died in 2008. His widow, Sue Leonard, was at the New School last night to personal present the award."Because of this prize, John Leonard belongs to the ages and Anthony Marra is well and truly launched," Sue Leonard said.

Rolando Hinojosa was honored with the NBCC's Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Katherine A. Powers received the NBC Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in reviewing, the only award that comes with a monetary prize. In accepting, she said the $1,000 would be her biggest payday in a long time.