February, 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri, Christopher Sorrentino and the journey of Alexander Chee

by Elizabeth Taylor | Feb-08-2016

For her Lit Hub column, past NBCC President and current VP/Online Jane Ciabattari spotlights winter reading.

For her BBC Culture column “10 February Books to Read,” Jane features Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words.

Michael Magras wrote a review of Lahiri's book for the Minneapolis Star Tribune,

Jim Ruland reviews Christopher Sorrentino's The Fugitives for the Los Angeles Times.  

Susan Balée's review essay on eight recent memoirs appears in the Hudson Review. She includes the books by current NBCC Finalists Elizabeth Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates  and Maggie Nelson. 

Diane Scharper reviews Augustine, Conversions to Confessions by Robin Lane Fox for the National Catholic Reporter.

Former NBCC board member Dan Cryer reviews Roger Rosenblatt’s Thomas Murphy for Newsday.

Linda White reviews Rebecca Rego Barry’s Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places for Library Journal.

Art Taylor reviews Supernotes by Agent Kasper abd Luigi Carletti, translated from the Italian by John Cullen for the Washington Post. His first book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, was recently named a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. 

For Slate, Marian Ryan interviews Alexander Chee about the fifteen years of writing The Queen of the Night.

Susan Kelly-DeWitt reviews Travelers With No Ticket Home by Mary Mackey for Poetry Now. 

Judy Krueger reviews The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun for Litbreak.  

John Domini writes about the creative work of Frank Lentricchia for the Brooklyn Rail. 

For the Forward, Julia M. Klein reviews  Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy by Sergio Luzzatto; translated by Frederika Randall

 Elaine Tankard reviews Jonathan Franzen's novel Purity for Draft No. 4.

Mike Lindgren reviews Chris Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer for The Washington Post.

Julie Hakim Azzam interviews Caldecott Award winning author and illustrator Kevin Henkes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century by Daniel Oppenheimer for the Barnes and Noble Review.

Past Balakian winner and current Board member Katherine Powers reviews Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks for the Washington Post.

Dominic Green considers the work of Roberto Calasso in an essay for The New Criterion  He also reviews Nile Green’s Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Global Islam for History Today and reviews Lee Siegel’s Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence for The Literary Review.

Fred Volkmer reviews The Spectacle of Skill by Robert Hughes for the Southampton Press and 27East.com.

David Nilsen reviews Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis for Fourth and Sycamore. 

In News: BOMB just ran an interview with NBCC Finalist Margo Jefferson on the genesis of Negroland, and talks about James Baldwin, and another NBCC Finalist, Vivian Gornick.  

 Please remember to send future reviews and essays to NBCCCritics@gmail.com, and please make sure subscriptions, user names or passwords are not required.

Second Thoughts: Brendan Driscoll on A Naked Singularity

by Brendan Driscoll | Feb-03-2016

This is the twenty-first in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. The series ends next week. Thanks to all who contributed.


Up way too late with a review copy of Sergio de la Pava's 2008 novel A Naked Singularity, with a deadline fast approaching, I was stuck.

I knew I should say good things about the novel. I wanted to say good things about the novel. It deserved the saying of good things. But there was something holding me back. Every time I typed a sentence praising some aspect of the book—its courage in taking on a big social theme (the failure of the criminal justice system); its linguistic playfulness; its well-calibrated gallows humor; its moments of crushing sadness—something made me doubt what I’d written. Something irked me about A Naked Singularity, really irritated me on a visceral level that went past casual annoyance. 

Yet it was for some reason impossible for me to identify what it was, or to ignore my annoyance and say the good things that the novel deserved so I could file the review and go to bed. In a few hours, morning would arrive, and with it my deadline, and then it would be time to go to work at my day job. Like Casi, the novel’s protagonist, and like de la Pava himself, I’m a lawyer.

It wasn't the novel's sprawl that irritated me, though some reviewers have complained about that. A Naked Singularity is just shy of 700 pages, twice as long as most novels published these days but not an unreasonable length, either by commercial standards (how many copies of Roberto Bolaño's 900-plus-page 2666 were being carried around on the subway a few years back?) or by formal ones. De la Pava works in the “hysterical realism” literary genre, after all, with its glorious run-on sentences, long footnotes and rambling digressions. Besides, I usually dig long books. I like the patience they require; the commitment they demand; their heft in a shoulder bag, bumping against your hip on a walk. I especially like that long books often let the ideas that they wrestle with, and the feelings they explore, emerge nuanced and unrushed. I like that they are the opposite of clickbait.

Nor was it the structure of the novel. Others have complained about this too. Sure, it’s a bit of a hodge-podge, jumbling together gritty day-in-the-life-of-a-public-defender scenes with true-sports commentary on middleweight underdog Wilfred Benitez with sad epistolary narratives from death row with action-movie fight sequences with dorm-room pop culture analysis slash Zen of Physics hyperbabble, among other things. Listed that way, the mélange sounds awkward and show-boaty, but it’s par for the course in the genre, and in practice it wasn’t offensive enough to overshadow the legitimately funny moments, or the heartbreaking ones. And that alone shouldn’t have been enough to irritate me as much as A Naked Singularity was irritating me. Maybe I would have figured it out if I had slept on it, or been less sleep-deprived in the first place, but it was late, and I was on a deadline, and I was staring down a full day of conference calls and redlines and other assorted corporate law detritus and if I didn’t write the review that night, it wasn’t getting written at all.

And so here’s what I did. I described the book as a crime novel of sorts, which it is, although it’s obviously a lot more than that. I said that it was “one of those sprawling hyperverbal stream-of-consciousness epics that sometimes seem infatuated with their own cleverness but in their best moments manage to capture something profound about our sprawling hyperverbal stream-of-consciousness world,” a statement that says more about my thoughts on the genre than it does about the novel. I noted the mélange of different styles, and suggested that the story contained both hilarity and heartbreak, and “an insider’s knowledge of the Manhattan criminal-court system.” I alluded to the influence of David Foster Wallace upon de la Pava, but this again is a statement that could be made about almost any contemporary work within this genre. And I hinted at the buzz surrounding de la Pava’s path to literary accomplishment through the wilderness of self-publishing. All true things.

In other words, I played it safe. Safe, in the sense that I stuck to the facts. I kept my commentary hedged and reasonable. I did not mention that there was also something viscerally bothersome about the novel, a reaction readers might be interested in hearing about, but only if I could tell them why I was having that reaction, which I couldn’t. Looking at the review with today’s eyes, I don’t disagree with what I wrote. It still stands as a fair assessment of the book. But it’s now clear to me that I did A Naked Singularity a disservice in not even attempting to articulate my true response to the novel, however raw or complicated it may have been. Instead of saying the good things that I knew the book deserved, or opening fire with the complaints that it may well also deserve, I chose the path of faint praise. Lame.

Here’s what I would have said, had I the awareness and the courage:

A Naked Singularity is a great and irritating book because it is smart and beautiful and yet so frustratingly needy that you want to throw it across the room. It wrings dark humor and even darker pathos out of the New York City criminal-court underworld, and its prose flashes electric across many pages. It obviously comes from a place of real emotion--loss, frustration, anger--which is a great virtue that many books in this cartoonish genre lack. When Casi struggles under the weight of his perfectionistic-existential anxiety and his inability to change much of anything, the feelings feel real. All good things, things that deserve to be said about the novel. And yet A Naked Singularity suffers from its own existential anxiety--about its value, its profundity, its worthiness as a novel, and that is what is so irritating.

We see this in de la Pava’s stylistic and structural choices, which often ape Infinite Jest so hard that it’s embarrassing; we see this in the forced profundity of some of those dorm-banter scenes, like those in which people wax on about The Honeymooners and quantum physics. And we see this in the third act of sorts, where Casi ends up in a crime caper that achieves some sort of a climax as a technical structural matter but emotionally doesn’t really feel like one. It’s as if the author, having written 600 pages or so, including some gorgeous moments but little discernable plot, decided that he’d better build in some sort of action-filled ending or else the novel wouldn’t end, or wouldn’t be considered a novel, or something like that.

Behind each of these choices, and more, we see a nervous author who, like Casi, knows he has talent but worries that it may not be enough for the situation at hand. Which is unfortunate, because the reality is that de la Pava does have the chops, and he doesn’t have to ape David Foster Wallace to stir his readers’ emotions and justify the time they’ve invested in reading a book this long. It’s a great book, with a lot to say, but it would be even better if it could stop worrying about whether it is a great book or not.

But here’s the kicker. The reason I can now identify and articulate this frustration, and why I’m in a mood to be reflective about A Naked Singularity, is because I’ve recently found myself wrestling with similar anxieties. Besides book reviews, I write fiction, and for the past two years I’ve been working on a novel that deals with, among other things, the sad harsh brokenness of our legal system. My Casi is a guy named Steven, a lawyer dog-paddling his way through a life of corporate law until his friend gets deported and Steven encounters his own helplessness. Like de la Pava, I’m influenced by the great hysterical-realist macro-novels of the late 20th century, and have found myself experimenting with absurd language, fragmented narratives, sweeping themes and high page counts.

In other words, the stuff that annoyed me about A Naked Singularity is stuff I’m trying to avoid now, and let me tell you, it’s hard. Super-hard. So among other things, de la Pava deserves credit for having at least pushed through his anxiety and gotten the novel off the ground, even if its brilliant moments share space with a pervasive and itchy self-doubt.   

The novel still irritates me. But so does my novel-in-progress, about which I have the same itchy self-doubt. And so whereas A Naked Singularity was once a book that I sort of liked but also sort of annoyed me, it’s now a book that I appreciate as an inspiration of sorts, a model of perseverance in the face of anxiety.  

Brendan Driscoll is a freelance reviewer, mostly for Booklist, as well as a writer of fiction. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Rachel Cantor, Ian Buruma and Darryl Pinckney, plus Squirrels

by Elizabeth Taylor | Feb-01-2016

Rachel Cantor's novel Good On Paper has received much critical attention from reviewers, Michael Magras reviews it for BookPage  and Jeffrey Ann Goudie reviews for the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Julia M. Klein reviews Ian Buruma's Their Promised Land for the Boston Globe. 

Past Board member and Balakian winner Steve Kellman reviews David Denby’s Lit Up for the San Francisco Chronicle.

For the Boston Globe, Kellman reviews Yann Martel's The High Mountains of Portugal.

Eileen Weiner reviews When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithii, for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Parul Kapur Hinzen reviews Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland for The Rumpus

John Domini reviews The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks for Bookforum  and Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson and War Is Beautiful, by David Shields for the  VQR  and The Vegetarian by Han Kang for the Chicago Tribune.  

Lori Feathers discusses her favorite “foreign Victorian” novels – translated, Victorian-era novels by non-British writers -- for World Literature Today. Her essay was also included in LitHub Daily's  selected links to best of the literary internet. 

Karl Wolff reviews The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline Alexander for the New York Journal of Books

Ron Slate reviews David Thomson's How to Watch a Movie on his site On the Seawall.  

Megan Labrise interviews Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time, for Kirkus.

Terry Hong reviews Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates in Christian Science Monitor and Jung Yun’s Shelter in Library Journal.  

Last, but not least, past President and currently NBCC VP/Online Jane Ciabattari's weekly Lit Hub column, which includes reviews by Laura Miller, Annalisa Quinn, Meganne Fabrega--and squirrels!                                                     


Please remember to send future reviews and essays to NBCCCritics@gmail.com, and please make sure subscriptions, user names or passwordsare not required.



January, 2016

Second Thoughts: Lori Feathers on The Portrait of a Lady

by Lori Feathers | Jan-27-2016

This is the twentieth in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here.

It was love-at-first read for me with Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady nearly 20 years ago.  I recall the novel’s grip on my attention, so intense that instead of hitting the bars on Saturday night with my best girlfriend I stayed in, content to spend the evening with Isabel Archer sunk into the cheap, green loveseat of my Washington, D.C. studio apartment.  Isabel resonated with me.  James’ distinctive style registers the accrual of each new impression upon his heroine along with the corresponding subtle shifts in her thoughts, and because Isabel felt perfectly scrutable to me it seemed apparent that Isabel and I had things in common. 

I had despaired the smallness of my upbringing in a tiny farming community, and when I escaped this limited world as a young adult I, like Isabel, felt an urgency to experience life. I was impatient to fully exploit every new opportunity to meet interesting people, travel, and become sophisticated.  I also felt an affinity for Isabel’s desire to contradict others’ expectations of her and to distinguish her unconventionality by doing something noble.  A similar impulse had drawn me to a career as an international lawyer, a vocation unorthodox to friends and family back home and one in which I believed that I would, in some small way, make the world better.  For Isabel her objective finds its target in her selection of a husband.  And, although it is soon apparent that her marriage to Gilbert Osmond was a mistake, I believed that this outcome was brought about not by Isabel’s faulty intentions but rather because the recipient of her noblesse turns out to be so very underserving.

Then of course there were all of those things that I did not share with Isabel but that I jealously admired in her – beauty, persistent kindness, and an ability to captivate everyone she encounters, male and female alike.  Everyone Isabel meets wants to be near her and longs for her to reciprocate their admiration.  How could I, single and unable to find even one suitable guy to date, not feel envious of a woman who leaves a succession of worthy, but disappointed suitors in her wake?

On my second reading of The Portrait of a Lady last month, my view of Isabel changed. My naïve, younger self had romanticized her. Now much of what I considered ideal in her character felt contrived.  It seemed that James had overplayed Isabel’s enviable kindness and good graces, making them too absolute to exist outside the pages of a novel.  And again I recognized myself in Isabel, but this time it was her insecurities and vanities that felt familiar. 

In the two decades between readings I had gained the self-awareness to recognize that certain of my decisions, like my chosen career, were motivated by wanting the admiration of others rather than what would give me personal satisfaction. I had grown disillusioned with my occupation.  The temporary gratification of my degrees and title failed to compensate for the reality that my work had no positive impact on anyone outside of my office, and the frustration of feeling that my work did not matter.

Now I could recognize this same mistake in Isabel’s decision to marry Gilbert. She seizes upon Gilbert’s marriage proposal as an opportunity to contradict friends’ and family’s presumption that any match she makes will be brilliant. Instead she delivers her considerable wealth to the much older, fusty Gilbert for the sole purpose of facilitating his dilettantish endeavors. Isabel believes her self-sacrifice is ennobling, but beneath the patina of her beneficence simmers a longing to be thought of as refined and an insecurity that she is not.  She is blind to the hypocrisy that her decision to buck convention by marrying Gilbert is actually an attempt to earn the praise of her milieu. Isabel’s regrettable self-deception resulted in a miserable marriage, mine in a disappointing career. Henry James understood that a happy life requires the ability to identify what will bring you contentment and the fortitude to align your life’s decisions accordingly – a skill that should be simple, but for most of us is learned only the hard way.

Lori Feathers (@LoriFeathers) is a freelance book critic. She reviews regularly for Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, Three Percent, Full Stop and Rain Taxi.

Critical Notes: NBCC Awards Finalists announced! ...and, of course, plenty of criticism

by Eric Liebetrau | Jan-25-2016

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


After 9 hours of deliberation last week, the NBCC board of directors has named the 30 finalists for this year's awards. Here's a sampling of the news coverage (since most publications used the AP report, we have included only those outlets that provided a different perspective on the list):

Associated Press... Washington Post... Los Angeles Times... New York Times... NBC News... LitHub...  Flavorwire... Minneapolis Star Tribune... St. Paul Pioneer Press... Lexington Herald Leader... Belfast Telegraph...


Joe Peschel reviews "100 Years of the Best American Short Stories" edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor. Peschel also reviews Charles Lambert's "Children's Home."

LISTEN: Colin Marshall talks with David L. Ulin, former book critic at the Los Angeles Times and former NBCC board member.

Elaine F. Tankard reviews Patti Smith's "M Train."

At LitHub, Kerri Arsenault begins her new interview series with book editors. First up, Lee Boudreaux.

John Domini reviews "two new selections of stories from two New Yorkers, both on smaller presses, both by men we might still call young."

Judy Krueger reviews Not Dark Yet by Berrit Ellingsen.

Harvey Freedenberg offers appreciation of E.L. Doctorow’s "Ragtime."

Second Thoughts: Daniel Nester on The Good Bad Boy

by Daniel Nester | Jan-20-2016

This is the nineteenth in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here.

Growing up, I knew three things about my mother’s younger brother, my Uncle Mark:

1. He was a total badass, a New Jersey State Trooper our family nicknamed “Bear”;

2. He was my godfather, and in that capacity was entitled to crush my hand like a soft-shell crab whenever he greeted me at family get-togethers; and

3. He was no longer a Roman Catholic.

Item #3 struck me as the most interesting. Mark Little’s ex-Catholic status was often mentioned, but never explained. Other than my father’s agnosticism, no one in the family led a life outside the Catholic Church. Uncle Mark, defender of the Garden State Parkway, possessor of pistol and shotgun, source of my family’s pride, owner of a house near the Jersey Pines, was kind of a wildman prankster. Whenever someone called him a “dickhead” for issuing a speeding ticket, Uncle Mark would produce a laminated entry from his high school yearbook of a classmate named Richard E. Head.

“I’m not Dick Head,” he’d say. “This is Dick Head. Richard Head. I went to school with him.”

More than once, Mark saw my grandmother driving through my hometown of Maple Shade, N.J., fired up the sirens, and pulled her over. He did this once to one my aunt’s boyfriends, letting him off with a warning. Weeks later, the suitor would see the same trooper sitting in my grandparents’ living room, watching a Phillies game. My uncle was a good bad boy.

* * *

I was 12 years old. My family watched an Eagles game. I snuck upstairs and rummaged through my aunts’ hope chests. Beside a stash of National Geographic back issues and JC Penney catalogues, I’d lean against my aunt’s hope chest and stare at naked bush women and women in bras, and enter a state of erotic wonder that we might call Not Yet Masturbating.

I dug up an old hardbound book with a gold-embossed cover and deckle-edged sides. Inscribed on the inside cover in a boy’s hand: “The book belongs to Mark Little, 1961.” Published by The Neumann Press in 1949, Father Gerald Brennan’s The Good Bad Boy: The Diary of an Eighth-Grade Boy tells the story of Pompey Briggs as he enters eighth grade at Holy Cross School.

“Great men always keep diaries,” Briggs writes. “Perhaps, that’s what makes them great. If I keep a diary, I, too, may become great. Who knows?”

The Good Bad Boy had me at its oxymoronic title. How can a bad boy be good, or a good boy bad? This contradiction blew my mind. I didn’t know which of these boys I wanted to be yet, though I leaned toward the bad one who could be good when he wanted to. That The Good Bad Boy was written by a priest—a pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Rochester, N.Y.—gave the book Catholic street cred.

* * *

To say I related to Pompey Briggs understates things. For the months I read and reread it, I was the very embodiment of the Good Bad Boy, or at least aspired to be. Yankee fan and founding president of his club, the Beaver Chiefs, Pompey was the star scorer of his school’s basketball team (also named the Beaver Chiefs), whereas I claimed membership in no club and warmed the bench for the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Fighting Irish. Pompey’s job at Conlan’s Grocery seems to be that of a floater, whereas my duties helping our parish janitor included mopping up second graders’ puke and sweeping up bingo chips in the church basement. Pompey was a ladies’ man, fielding the affections of girls with names like Jean Wallace and Virginia Drake, whereas I repelled all classmates, female and male alike, with sweat-marked yellow uniform shirts and transition lens glasses that never quite turned clear indoors and made me look like Mark David Chapman with a clip-on plaid tie.

I added The Good Bad Boy to my bookshelf around the same time I was prevented (forbidden?) from ordering The Catcher in the Rye from the Scholastic Books catalog. One of the nuns told me it was “too adult,” that I “wasn’t ready for it yet,” which made me want to read the book more. For a few months, Pompey Briggs did a fine job a Holden Caulfield stand-in.

* * *

I just rattled off all those details, but the truth is I had forgotten just about everything about The Good Bad Boy, other than it was a book that I obsessed over for a short time. I decided to re-read it while doing research for Shader, a coming-of-age memoir.

My uncle's copy was lost in a move, and so I ordered a facsimile edition of The Good Bad Boy from an online Catholic bookseller. It was freaky to hold a brand new copy all these years later and to read Pompey's story not as a 12-year-old altar boy who prayed every night at bedtime, but as a middle-aged godless writer looking for clues into his childhood.

Re-reading Father Brennan’s book some 30 years later, I can’t help but think he might have had some problem with women. “You can certainly enjoy your dinner when you know you don’t have to wash the dishes,” Pompey writes on September 11. “All dishes should be washed by women.” Later, when a writing teacher visits the class and sits next to him as they write exercises, Pompey is aghast. “With thirty-six pupils in the room, why did she have to sit with me? Some women don’t know their place.”

Pomp was a bad boy. He got in trouble for smoking. He and his friends painted a skull and crossbones on a boy’s stomach and fed him castor oil. A mother caught them doing it and the group of good bad boys was punished. If this happened today, the incident might make a local newscast.

* * *

I say that I had forgotten about The Good Bad Boy, but the book did make one more appearance in the intervening years, when I was in college. When I had the job of shelving books at night at Rutgers in Camden, NJ, I would pick up any book that had the words “sex” or “death” in it. That’s how I picked up Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler’s classic 1960 study. I think I was just skimming, looking for the dirty parts, when Fiedler mentions the "Good Bad Boy," which he defines as “America’s vision of itself, crude and unruly in his beginnings, but endowed by his creator with an instinctive sense of what is right. Sexually as pure as any milky maiden, he is a roughneck all the same, at once potent and submissive, made to be reformed by the right woman.” American fiction’s “fear of sex, a strange blindness to the daily manifestations of sex, or the attenuation of sexuality itself," Fiedler wrote, "drove the American novel back over the lintel of puberty in the declining years of the nineteenth century."

The memory of good old Pompey Briggs returned, taking me back to a time when I first envisioned myself as a scamp but not a reprobate, an anti-hero willing to be converted if the cause was just and the time was right. By the time I was a college student, I was no longer Catholic, and no longer revered anything. Nothing could save me, I thought. I re-fashioned myself as a bad boy in the style of the Beats and punk rockers, complete with biker jacket, Doc Marten boots, and those wire-rimmed glasses that curl behind your ears. It never crossed my mind that perhaps Fiedler had read Father Brennan’s book, a short little thing—I think we critics today would call it a “young adult bagatelle”—but it’s possible. Pompey Briggs would have fit right in with Fiedler’s idea of the Beaver Cleavers and Dennis the Menaces, who grew more false in their naiveté—in contrast to the pure skepticism of the Good Bad Boy.

* * *

I always wondered why my Uncle Mark left the church. Was it as simple as marrying someone who was a Protestant? The real reason, he told me at a family party after several Coors Lites, was that he felt guilty all the time.

“I would play with myself and run right to church to go to confession,” he said. He did this every day, he said. “Even the priest told me I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.” When, after Trooper Academy, he met my Aunt Jody, a Protestant of some indeterminate variety, he left the house and the church and never looked back.

His story did not seem strange to me by the time he told it to me. I had felt guilt’s power as long as I could remember. I used to break down the different kinds of guilt I had. Somewhere along the line, I realized that guilt was as mundane and repetitive as it was universal, that it resists real meaning. For a Catholic boy, it’s a bodily reaction, like fight-or-flight or blinking or swallowing. Guilt sank in my chest somewhere when I was around eight years old and has stayed there. There are times it feels as if guilt had left my body, and my mood remained defined by what was not there, like a transposed original, the way I spread Silly Putty on funny pages and pulled up a reverse image. It’s silly to blame a dozen-plus years of Catholic school for all this, but Pompey confirmed to me the cycle of wonder, then sin, then penance, then wonder again.

* * *

Pompey Briggs did inspire me to write every day. I wrote out entries on an Acme paper pad and put the completed sheets back into a cigar box. My journal, as I insisted on calling it—not a “diary,” which I regarded as girly and insubstantial—reflected Pompey’s solemnity.

“You must be prepared for the Test of Life,” I write in my first entry on December 21, 1981. “Are you making Progress? Or are you falling into the bottomless pit of Failure, an infinite void where so many of us have forced us [sic] to fall into?”

Each night I curled my biceps into meatball-shaped bulbs, sat on my knees against the bed, and prayed. I wrote promises to myself: “I shall be a scholar and write a monumental work to be praised hundreds of years to come.”

The man can’t go back and tell the boy to lighten up, to scale down his dreams a bit. Still, I can’t help but root for this potent and submissive kid who yearned to write monumental works. I still like to think of myself as a good bad boy, someone who began wanting to do good, but feels he’s bad, sinful, damaged. A lot of us are like that, and I’m one.

It’s hard to reconcile this version of myself with the one who cupped his hands to make fart noises in class. Even then, it seems, I felt the need to present a different version of myself on the page than in real life.

Daniel Nester is the author of Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press 2015). He teaches writing at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. Follow him on Twitter at @danielnester.


by Admin | Jan-18-2016

***FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Sarah Russo, SR|PR  (917) 627-5993 sarah@sarahrusso.com


New York, NY (January 18, 2016)—Today the NBCC announced its 30 finalists in six categories––autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry–for the outstanding books of 2015. The winners of three additional prizes were announced as well. The National Book Critics Circle Awards, founded in 1974 at the Algonquin Hotel and considered among the most prestigious in American letters, are the sole prizes bestowed by a jury of working critics and book-review editors. The awards will be presented on March 17, 2016 at the New School, in a ceremony that is free and open to the public.

The recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award is Wendell Berry. Now 81 and still productive, Berry is the author of eight novels, two short story collections, 28 volumes of poetry, and 31 volumes of nonfiction. Set in the imaginary town of Port William, Kentucky, his fiction constitutes a cycle about themes of life in rural America. An outspoken environmentalist, organic farmer, and pacifist, Berry has written about and engaged in civil disobedience against industrial agribusiness, ecological destruction, and militarization. He was the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award and a 2010 recipient of the National Humanities Medal. His most recent books are “Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder” and “Terrapin and Other Poems” (both from Counterpoint, 2014).

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story collection “Night at the Fiestas” (W.W. Norton & Company) is the recipient of the third annual John Leonard Prize, established in 2013 to recognize outstanding first books in any genre. Named to honor the memory of founding NBCC member John Leonard, the prize is decided by a direct vote of the organization’s 700 members nationwide.

The recipient of the 2015 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing is Carlos Lozada. Lozada is associate editor and nonfiction book critic at The Washington Post. A native of Lima, Peru, he is a graduate of Notre Dame and Princeton. Before joining the Post in 2005, he was managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine. The Balakian Citation carries with it a $1,000 cash prize, generously endowed by NBCC board member Gregg Barrios.

Here is the complete list of NBCC Award finalists for the publishing year 2015:


Elizabeth Alexander, “The Light of the World” (Grand Central Publishing)

Vivian Gornick, “The Odd Woman and the City” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

George Hodgman, “Bettyville” (Viking)

Margo Jefferson, “Negroland” (Pantheon)

Helen Macdonald, “H Is for Hawk” (Grove Press)


Terry Alford, “Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth” (Oxford University Press)

Charlotte Gordon, “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley” (Random House)

T.J. Stiles, “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America” (Alfred A. Knopf)

Rosemary Sullivan, “Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva” (Harper)

Karin Wieland, translated by Shelley Frisch, “Dietrich and Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives” (Liveright)


Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me” (Spiegel & Grau)

Leo Damrosch, “Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake” (Yale University Press)

Maggie Nelson, “The Argonauts” (Graywolf)

Colm Tóibín, “On Elizabeth Bishop” (Princeton University Press)

James Wood, “The Nearest Thing to Life” (Brandeis University Press)


Paul Beatty, “The Sellout” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Lauren Groff, “Fates and Furies” (Riverhead)

Valeria Luiselli, “The Story of My Teeth,” translated by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House Press)

Anthony Marra, “The Tsar of Love and Techno” (Hogarth)

Ottessa Moshfegh, “Eileen” (Penguin Press)


Mary Beard, “SPQR: A History of Rome” (Liveright)

Ari Berman, “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jill Leovy, “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America” (Spiegel & Grau)

Sam Quinones, “Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opiate Epidemic” (Bloomsbury)

Brian Seibert, “What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


Ross Gay, “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude” (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Terrance Hayes, “How to Be Drawn” (Penguin)

Ada Limón, “Bright Dead Things” (Milkweed Editions)

Sinéad Morrissey, “Parallax and Selected Poems” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Frank Stanford, “What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford” (Copper Canyon Press)


Kirstin Valdez Quade, “Night at the Fiestas” (W.W. Norton & Company)


Carlos Lozada


Ruth Franklin

James Parker

Roxana Robinson

Leo Robson


Wendell Berry

Winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on Thursday, March 17, 2016 at 6:00 p.m. at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium. A finalists’ reading will be held on March 16, also at 6:00 p.m. at the same location. Both events are free and open to the public.


The National Book Critics Circle was founded in 1974 at New York’s legendary Algonquin Hotel by a group of the most influential critics of the day, and awarded its first set of honors in 1975, 40 years ago. Comprising more than 700 working critics and book-review editors throughout the country, the NBCC annually bestows its awards in six categories, honoring the best books published in the past year in the United States. It is considered one of the most prestigious awards in the publishing industry. The finalists for the NBCC awards are nominated, evaluated, and selected by the 24-member board of directors, which consists of critics and editors from some of the country’s leading print and online publications, as well as critics whose works appear in these publications. For more information about the history and activities of the National Book Critics Circle and to learn how to become a member or supporter, visit http://www.bookcritics.org You can also follow the NBCC on Facebook and on Twitter (@bookcritics).


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