Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

Awards roundup, reviews, and other wonderful things

by Laurie Hertzel | Mar-25-2019

Tommy Orange. Photo by Paper Monday.

John Leonard Prize winner Tommy Orange. Photo credit Paper Monday.


Awards news

The annual NBCC awards ceremony of March 14 was covered broadly and well. So happy to see so many members at our membership meeting that morning.

Zack Graham interviewed Tommy Orange the night he received the John Leonard Prize. The interview ran in Graham's Epiphany Magazine column.

Here are some of the news stories:

Associated Press

Book Marks

The Minneapolis Star Tribune

NBC News

New York Times

Publishers Weekly

Shelf Awareness

Texas Monthly


Washington Post

Washington Post newsletter


Members' reviews and interviews

NBCC Board Member Victoria Chang interviewed poet and editor, David Baker for Tupelo Quarterly.

NNBCC Emerging Critic Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers reviewed "Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy," edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll, and "Anatomy of Silence: Twenty-Six Stories About All the Shit That Gets in the Way of Speaking About Sexual Violence"  edited by Cyra Perry Dougherty, both for Foreword Reviews. 

Michelle Newby Lancaster reviewed Sarah Bird's "Recent Studies Indicate: The Best of Sarah Bird" for Lone Star Literary Life.

The extremely busy Tobias Carroll wrote about Kathryn Davis's "The Silk Road" for the Minneapolis StarTribune; interviewed Mark Alan Stamaty for Bedford + Bowery; talked with Irvine Welsh at Longreads, and has a new column up at Words Without Borders.

For Kirkus, Gerald Bartell interviewed Mallory O’Meara about her book “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick.” 

Mike Lindgren interviews Victoria Riskin (better known as the daughter of Fay Wray, the iconic star of "King Kong") about her new book, which, he notes, is ,less a famous-parent memoir than  a history of Hollywood’s golden age. He notes that the interview (for Newsday) took place in the Empire State Building. Of course.

Barbara J. King (welcome back, Barbara!) reviewed "The Goodness Paradox" by Richard Wrangham for the Times Literary Supplement, and "Mama's Last Hug" by Frans De Waal for NPR.

Elizabeth Rosner reviewed Carolyn Forché's new memoir for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Christoph Irmscher reviews Juergen Goldstein's "Georg Forster: Voyager, Naturalist, Revolutionary" for the Wall Street Journal.

Kathleen Rooney interviewed Lucy Knisley for the Chicago Tribune.

Meredith Maran reviewed "Inheritance" by Dani Shapiro for the L.A. Review of Books.

 Amy Weldon reviewed Adam Nicolson's "The Seabird's Cry" for Orion Magazine.

Joan Silverman reviewed "Elsey Come Home" by Susan Conley for the Press Herald.

Former board member and Balakian recipient Steven G. Kellman reviewed Carolyn Forché's memoir "What You Have Heard Is True" for the Washington Post.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviewed "Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Life in Contemporary Palestine" by Marcello Di Cintio, and "A Rebel in Gaza: Behind the Lines of the Arab Spring, One Woman’s Story" by Asmaa al-Ghoul and Selim Nassib for The Believer.

Meg Waite Clayton's monthly “Listening In” for the San Francisco Chronicle reviews the audiobooks of Yangsze Choo's The Night Tiger, Devi Laskar's debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, and Toni Morrison's The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations.

Over on his blog, Robert Birnbaum, also known as Our Man in Boston, has been busy writing about baseball, Jim Harrison, Charles McCarry, and many other things.

David Nilsen interviewed poet Emily O'Neill about her book "A Falling Knife Has No Handle" for On the Seawall and reviewed Sarah Barber's poetry collection Country House for Southern Indiana Review.

Paul Wilner interviewed Erik Tarloff about his new novel, "The Woman In Black'' for ZYZZYVA magazine.

Yvonne Garrett reviewed Malcolm James's "Black Leopard, Red Wolf" for The Brooklyn Rail.

Julia M. Klein interviews Snowden Wright about his novel, "American Pop," for Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. She also reviews Ayelet Tsabari's "The Art of Leaving" for the Forward, and Cara Robertson's "The Trial of Lizzie Borden" for the Boston Globe.

Chuck Greaves reviewed Peter Heller's "The River" for the Four Corners Free Press.

Lanie Tankard reviewed Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman's memoir "Sounds Like Titanic" for The Woven Tale Press.

Joseph Peschel reviewed  Andrew Ridken’s first novel, "The Altruists," for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He also reports the happy news that he has completed work as the script consultant on the short film, "The Ghost in Her," written, produced, and directed by Michael Gérard White and is working as a script consultant on a second film.

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.

Emerging Critics Series: Leena Soman Navani

by Leena Soman Navani | Mar-22-2019

In this 2018–2019 Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics Q and A series, curated by Jonathan Leal, Emerging Critics offer short takes on big questions: What makes good criticism? How might one arrange one’s life to produce it? How do discrete critical interests relate? And if given the chance, what assignments would one pursue immediately? Applications are now open for the third class of NBCC Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics. Deadline April 3, 2019. Details here

What are your current critical interests? How have these developed or evolved over time? Are there particular genres or themes to which you are committed? What sorts of issues or concerns have animated your work?

I'm focused on literary fiction, especially novels that are written by and/or center folks who are underrepresented in American literature. This focus doesn’t necessarily "animate" my work in particular—I think politics animate all our writings (whether or not we as a larger literary community can admit it). But I do take seriously the idea of critic/reviewer as gatekeeper and am interested in helping correct systemic erasures. What I hope animates my work is a real love for literature and honest engagement with the work at hand.

What do you think makes good criticism? And relatedly: what makes a good critic?

Two delicious, difficult questions. I don't know that I can answer the second at all. Maybe honesty? A certain clarity or distinctive point of view?

As for the first question, the best criticism to my mind is grounded in creative text(s), but also reaches beyond them to wrestle with a greater body of knowledge—with insights and ideas that emerge from the texts but aren't necessarily limited to them.

I applied for the Emerging Critics Fellowship partly because I was inspired by a wide-ranging NBCC panel discussion at AWP; that conversation focused on how criticism is its own art form, on how the best criticism can stand alone as a piece of art whether or not the reader has read the book(s) in question. It was really moving to hear the panelists talk this way. It was a compelling challenge: not only to gesture toward whether someone should read a certain book, but to do so while concerned with an entirely different and more robust endeavor altogether.

How, if at all, does criticism inform your creative work?

Writing criticism has humbled me in my creative work, in a good way, I think. It has made me more conscious of and patient with my own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to craft. Somehow, it has also helped me be more expansive in my work. I'm less likely to get bogged down by perfectionism, and more likely to think about how my work might be in conversation with other work past and present, and how each piece might contribute to a greater whole.

Given the many demands on your time, how do you arrange your schedule so you can produce good work?

I try to balance being disciplined with internal/external deadlines to make sure I'm making progress while cultivating my own energy and momentum any given day/week/month. There are so many different types of tasks/work—creative writing; critical writing, which is also creative in its own way; reading widely and deeply for research, assignment, and/or enrichment; administrative tasks related to pitching, submitting, and applying for opportunities, etc.—and I'm a master of using one type of work to procrastinate on another that I'm not in the mood to approach, let alone complete. I try to work with my motivation rather than fight against it, which ideally leads to small wins and more motivation. I also force myself to start well ahead of each deadline and never with a blank page. (For instance: I try make sure whatever reading I have to do for an assignment gets done as a priority, then jot notes in my phone where the stakes are much lower, and then transfer those notes to a page to get a draft going.) I give myself a long runway and explore different ideas and directions in my head and in notes so I have material to work with as deadlines approach.

For you, right now: what would be your dream assignment?

I might be interested in examining in depth a given theme, issue, or idea across genre or even across media. This is partly because I've been reading and writing more widely in the last year than I had been.

For example, I’m so eager to read Sally Wen Mao’s new collection Oculus, which includes a series of persona poems about film star Anna May Wong and imagines her time travelling. I loved Peter Ho Davies’ novel The Fortunes, which also portrayed Anna May Wong, as well as Ling Ma’s novel Severance and Vanessa Hua’s novel River of Stars, which don’t include Wong, but do have dynamic Chinese women who migrate to the U.S. as protagonists. I lived blocks away from the Four Ladies of Hollywood gazebo (officially, the Hollywood and La Brea Gateway, interestingly commissioned the same year as The Joy Luck Club movie came out), but don’t think I’ve seen more than a few excerpts of Wong’s films. I’d love to spend some time watching them (and The Good Earth, from which she was famously excluded) alongside more contemporary cinematic portrayals of Chinese American women, reading Oculus and some relevant fiction and nonfiction (Yi Yun Li’s debut nonfiction is on my to-read list), digging into the recent history of that strange stainless steel sculpture. It’s certainly not hard to understand why Wong is a touchstone, but I could see investigating what her presence in film and literature, and other writing by and about Chinese American women, might help us understand about this moment as the U.S.-China relationship is changing, as Chinatowns across the U.S. are changing and working to resist gentrification, and other contexts. That’s one idea.

Leena Soman Navani’s writing has been featured in Ploughshares and Kenyon Review, among other publications. She is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She lives in New York, where she reads for New England Review and is at work on some short stories and poetry. Find her on Twitter: lsoman.

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