Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

NBCC Reads: Rebecca Foster on Carsten Jensen’s ‘We, the Drowned’

by Rebecca Foster | Sep-19-2018

What are your favorite works in translation? That's the question that launched this summer's NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees. (Previous NBCC Reads series dating back to 2007 here.) Tell us why you love the book (in 500 words or less) be it a new one, like Sayaka Murata’s quirky little novel, Convenience Store Woman, or something a bit older, such as Stefan Zweig’s evocative memoir, The World of Yesterday.'The deadline is August 3, 2018. Please email your submission to NBCC Board member Lori Feathers: 

From the first line onwards, Carsten Jensen’s seafaring epic, We, the Drowned (tr. Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder), is a magnificent combination of history and legend: “Many years ago there lived a man called Laurids Madsen, who went up to heaven and came down again thanks to his boots.” Jensen traces the history of Marstal, a small island off the coast of Denmark, across nearly two centuries of war, peace and maritime adventure, starting with conflict with the Germans in the 1850s and continuing through to the aftermath of World War II. Over the decades readers meet four generations of fathers and sons, whose journeys reflect the island’s dependence on the sea. The book has many identifiable influences, from Homer to Heart of Darkness via Robinson Crusoe, and, though it is a translation from the Danish, its 700 pages read as fluently as any English-language text.

While the novel also includes first-person and third-person omniscient sections, the predominant use of the first-person plural is particularly clever because the identity of the narrating group shifts as the story progresses: first it is Marstallers generally, then schoolboy peers, and later the widows left behind on the island. Having this mutable body of observers – almost like the chorus in a Greek myth – allows Jensen to show every situation from the inside, but also to introduce occasional doubt about what has happened. An example is the slyly postmodern chapter following a central character’s death: “We don’t know if that’s how it actually happened. We don’t know what [he] thought or did in his final hours. …We don’t really know anything, and we each have our own version of the story.” It’s that blend of ancient epic-style storytelling and fresh perspective that makes this book so enthralling.

Ron Charles, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, and Tsitsi Dangarembga

by Taylor Anhalt | Sep-16-2018

Reviews & Interviews

Fran Bigman interviews former NBCC board member Laura Miller in the latest addition to the NBCC  Craft of Criticism series.

Ian P. Beacock reviewed Holly Case’s “The Age of Questions” in the LA Review of Books.

Kathleen Rooney reviewed Jose Olivarez's “Citizen Illegal” for the Chicago Tribune.

Hamilton Cain reviewed David Quammen's “The Tangled Tree” in the New York Journal of Books.

K. L. Romo reviewed “This Mournable Body”, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s tale of grief and survival, for The Washington Independent Review of Books. She also reviewed “Love Coming Home”, in which interior designer Jennifer Adams links happiness to home, for

Joe Peschel reviewed two re-issued novels by Ursula K. Le Guin: "The Eye of the Heron" and "The Beginning Place" for The Oregonian.

Jennifer Solheim interviewed Camille Bordas, author of the novel “How To Behave in a Crowd” at Third Coast Review, and with Rebecca Makkai, author of “The Great Believers” at Fiction Writers Review, where she is a Contributing Editor.

VP of Membership Anjali Enjeti reviewed Kathryn Schwille's "What Luck This Life" for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

Anita Felicelli reviewed Khaled Hosseini's “Sea Prayer” for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Washington Post’s Fiction Book Critic Ron Charles writesJames Frey has written a memoir disguised as a novel about his first novel that was disguised as a memoir. But the only thing you really need to know about “Katerina” is that it’s ridiculous, a book so heated by narcissism that you have to read it wearing oven mitts. You can watch video book review of “Katerina” here.

Lanie Tankard reviewed “A History of Silence” by Alain Corbin for her September "Eye on the Indies" column in A Woven Tale Press. 

Former NBCC board member Dan Cryer reviewed Gary Shteyngart’s “Lake Success” for the San Francisco Chronicle, as did Jeff Baker for the Seattle Times and Rebecca Foster for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Jeff Baker recently reviewed “Ohio” by Stephen Markley and “Dopesick” by Beth Macy for the Seattle Times. He also interviewed John Larison about “Whiskey When We’re Dry” for The Oregonian.

Tayla Burney reviewed the new Pelecanos from a D.C. resident's perspective and wrote about the real DCPL jail branch he highlights in the novel for DC Line.

Joan Frank reviewed Daniel Mason's “The Winter Soldier” for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Rebecca Foster chose five books on the refugee crisis for an OZY Good Sh*t list.

NBCC board member Tom Beer reviewed “Small Fry” by Lisa Brennan-Jobs for Newsday.

NBCC VP/Secretary Mary Ann Gwinn reviewed “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life” by Diarmaid MacCullough for Booklist.

Elizabeth Block reviewed Maggie Nelson’s “Something Bright, Then Holes” for The Brooklyn Rail.

Jacob Appel reviewed “PTSD: A Short History” by Allan V. Horwitz for the New York Journal of Books.

Gerald Bartell reviewed Peter Blauner’s “Sunrise Highway” for Newsday.

Member News

NBCC member Daniel Nester published "All My Friends”, a memoir piece, at Puerto Del Sol. 

Former NBCC Emerging Critics Fellow Zack Graham’s short story "Version Control" was published in the inaugural issue of the 17th Street Review on Friday.

NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to With reviews, please include title of book and author, as well as name of publication. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.​ We love dedicated URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.

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