Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

The Latest From Our Critics: Ian McEwan, Zelda Fitzgerald and Good News for Bookstores

by Carolyn Kellogg | Apr-22-2019

NBCC members: Send us your stuff! Your work can be highlighted in this roundup; please send links to new reviews, features and other literary pieces, or tell us about awards, honors or new and forthcoming books, by dropping a line to 

Man Booker-prizewinning novelist Ian McEwan may be unaware of decades of science fiction stories, books, television and film, as he told the Guardian that “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you." Indeed, he tackles the idea of robots and sentience in his new novel Machines Like Me. NBCC member Julian Lucas reviews it for the New Yorker, noting McEwan's "penchant for moral geometry," while former board member Ron Charles goes to the Borg in his Totally Hip Video Book Review of it at the Washington Post. 

NBCC member Kathleen Rooney reviews Make Me a City, a "whopper of a debut novel" by Jonathan Carr set in nineteenth century Chicago, for the NY Times. 

New homeowner and NBCC member Ryan Chapman writes about two slightly terrifying books about home being breached by strangers: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (2018) and W. F. Hermans's An Untouched House (originally published in 1952, in a new translation from the Dutch published in 2018). 

Artist Chris Rush recounts a singular, sometimes dangerous youth in his "stunningly beautiful, original memoir" -- The Light Years -- which is "driven by a search for the divine," writes Kate Tuttle, former NBCC president and current board member, at the L.A. Times. 

NBCC board member Madeleine Schwartz revisits Zelda Fitzgerald for the London Review of Books, writing that in considering her sole, uneven novel Save Me the Waltz against husband F. Scott Fitzgerald's counterpart, Tender Is the Night, she found she missed Zelda's "energy and fizz." 

In the May issue of the Atlantic, NBCC board member John McWhorter writes about the joy of (often childish) neologisms and playful evolutions of language (because kids). 

The spring issue of Ploughshares, out now, was guest edited by former NBCC board member Rigoberto González

The Akron Poetry Prize, open now for submissions, is being judged by NBCC board member Victoria Chang

At the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, current NBCC president Laurie Hertzel writes that while three local bookstores have recently closed, another three are opening or coming soon to the Twin Cities. "The three new bookstores will not take their places," she writes, "but are carving out new niches." Including candy! And beer! 

ICYMI: the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas went viral with a Twitter thread about why readers should buy books from their local indie, not massive online retailers. Convinced? Visit an old favorite or new on Independent Bookstore Day, Sat. April 27. 

Photo credit: Ian McEwan speaking in Paris in 2011 by Thesupermat via Wikimedia Commons.

Critical Notes: The Sandrof Award, Susan Choi, Miram Toews, and More

by admin | Apr-15-2019

We Need Your Help Selecting the Next Sandrof Award Honoree

Each year, the NBCC board selects a person or institution to win the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, and we’d love to have your help choosing the next winner.

The Sandrof Award, named after the first president of the NBCC, is given annually to a person or institution — a writer, publisher, critic, or editor, among others — who has, over time, made significant contributions to book culture.

Past winners of the award have included Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, PEN American Center, Studs Terkel and Wendell Berry. The most recent honoree, Arte Público Press, received significant national media attention for their win, including articles in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the San Antonio Express-News, Texas Monthly and NBC. They even received a special citation from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in honor of their victory.

Any institution or living person can be nominated for the award, and a list of previous winners is available on the NBCC website. If you know of a person or group who you think is deserving of the award, please send their name and a 1-3 paragraph nominating statement to Sandrof Award Committee Chair Michael Schaub at Nominations are open until Dec. 1, 2019. We’d love to hear from you!

And Now for Some Member Reviews…

Heller McAlpin says that your book club’s next selection should be Susan Choi’s buzzy Trust Exercise in a review for NPR. Over at USA Today, NBCC board member Mark Athitakis concurs.

Speaking of Mark, our man in Arizona puts on his Gen-X flannel shirt and Doc Martens and asks where the great millennial novel is in an essay for the Washington Post.

Also at the Post, NBCC board member Charles Finch considers Isabella Hammad’s debut novel, The Parisian.

Post fever: catch it! The paper’s poetry columnist, Elizabeth Lund, writes about new books by Jericho Brown, Yanyi, Emily Skaja, and Naomi Shihab Nye. And John Domini reviewed Now, Now, Louison” a fictional biography of Louise Bourgeois, for the D.C. newspaper.

Newsday books editor and past NBCC president Tom Beer was astonished by Miriam Toews’ Women Talking.

The always busy David Canfield loved Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise and was conflicted about Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted. He also profiled Normal People author Sally Rooney for Entertainment Weekly.

Zach Graham also weighs in on Lost and Wanted for Epiphany, as does Michael Lindgren at On the Seawall.

Lanie Tankard reviewed Lia Purpura’s All the Fierce Tethers for the Woven Tale Press.

At the National Book Review, Michael Bobelian reviews Robert A. Caro’s Working.

Hamilton Cain took a look at Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth for Chapter 16.

Heather Scott Partington has been making the rest of us look like slackers. She reviewed David Means’ Instructions for a Funeral at On the Seawall, Jennifer duBois’ The Spectators at USA Today, Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted at Newsday, and Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End at the National Book Review. She also interviewed JoAnn Chaney at Charge Magazine.

Also keeping busy this week was Katharine Coldiron, with reviews of Mieke Eerkens’ All Ships Follow Me at NPR (her first for the radio network), Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator at the Carolina Quarterly, and Molly Dektar’s The Ash Family at the Arts Fuse. She also wrote a recap of this year’s AWP conference for Book & Film Globe.

Rebecca Foster has reviews of Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You for BookBrowse and Amy Hempel’s Sing to It for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

NBCC board member Ismail Muhammad thinks Bryan Washington’s short story collection Lot is “a debut that announces a writer of uncommon talent and insight.” Read his review at Bookforum.

NBCC board member Michael Schaub reviewed Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans for the Los Angeles Times.

In the mood for a memoir? Jenny Shank has your back. She wrote about five spring memoirs for the Barnes & Noble blog.

Bridget Quinn reviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard’s So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch for Hyperallergic.

Michael Adam Carroll wrote about Hernán Díaz’s In the Distance for Ploughshares and Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

NBCC Emerging Critic J. Howard Rosier reviewed the reissue of Raymond Queneau's The Blue Flowers for Kenyon Review.

Olga Zilberbourg writes about four recent books in translation from Russian in World Literature Today.

Christoph Irmscher just published an essay on Audubon and Haiti in the Public Domain Review.

And Here’s Some Member Interviews and News...

Ryan Chapman interviewed The Old Drift author Namwali Serpell for Bomb.

Celia Bland was interviewed about her new book, Cherokee Road Kill, by David Salvage at the Southern Literary Review.

Harvey Freedenberg interviewed Jennifer L. Eberhardt about her new book, Biased, for BookPage.

Meg Waite Clayton’s forthcoming novel, The Last Train to London, received a prepublication notice in Library Journal. It will be published in 12 countries.

Randall Mann has a new book: The Illusion of Intimacy: On Poetry is being published by Diode Editions.

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. We do love coffee, but that’s neither here nor there.

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