January, 2015

30 Books in 30 Days 2014: Steven G. Kellman on Ezra Greenspan’s ‘William Wells Brown’

by Steven G. Kellman | Jan-23-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Steven G. Kellman offers an appreciation of Ezra Greenspan's biography finalist, 'William Wells Brown: An American Life' (W.W. Norton).

The laws of cultural ergonomics dictate that the collective consciousness can accommodate only one name at a time. For Portuguese poetry, it is exclusively Fernando Pessoa. For Finnish composers, it is Jan Sibelius. Martin Luther King, Jr. functions as synecdoche for the civil rights movement that also included Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, Stokley Carmichael, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young, Jr. Among African American Abolitionists, the only – illustrious – name with wide currency is Frederick Douglass.

Largely forgotten, except by specialists, is William Wells Brown (ca. 1814-1884), Douglass’s comrade and rival. Like Douglass, Brown wrote a dramatic account of his escape from slavery and used his freedom to campaign for the freedom of others. Both men were charismatic public speakers. Douglass left behind 7,400 items – correspondence, speeches, memoirs, articles, financial documents – that have been assembled for the convenience of researchers at the Library of Congress. But part of the reason for Brown’s neglect is that most of his papers have been lost. Absent an archive, a conscientious biographer needs to be shrewd and resourceful in gleaning clues about a life in an era not nearly as meticulous about keeping records, especially of black people, as our own.

Ezra Greenspan is such a biographer, and he has assembled the portrait of “an endlessly energetic, inquisitive, sociable man” who came into contact with many of the leading figures of his time, from William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips to Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. He makes a compelling case for Brown as “the most pioneering and accomplished African American writer and cultural impresario of the nineteenth century.” Greenspan’s is the first attempt at recounting Brown’s life since Lucille Schulberg Warner published From Slave to Abolitionist, aimed at young readers, in 1976. And it is the first full biography of Brown since William Edward Farrison’s trailblazing study in 1969. It is likely to be definitive for some time.

Brown was born in Kentucky, to a slave named Elizabeth, but his father, whom he never met, was a white planter named George Higgins whose cousin, Thomas Young, owned Elizabeth. Brown was sold several times, but at age 20 he made a daring escape from a steamboat docked in Cincinnati. Brown would travel widely, indefatigably, for the cause of abolition. Deprived of a formal education, he was a voracious autodidact who reconstructed himself as an orator, performer, author, and physician.

In Europe as a delegate to the International Peace Congress, Brown found it prudent to stay there for five years after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Greenspan characterizes Brown’s European interlude – during which he traveled about 25,000 miles, gave more than 1,000 talks, and wrote Three Years in Europe: or Places I Have Seen And People I Have Met (1852), the first travelogue by an African American, and Clotel (1853), considered the first novel by an African American - as “a period of productivity unprecedented in African American literary history.”

Back in the United States, Brown continued to campaign as what he called “a soldier in this moral warfare against the most cruel system of oppression that ever blackened the character or hardened the heart of man.” He was a mesmerizing performance artist who sang to audiences and employed magic lantern slides and painted panoramas to create multi-media events. The Escape, or a Leap for Freedom (1858), the first published play by an African American, became a tour-de-force in which Brown, its author, played all the parts.

Greenspan does a deft job of unraveling the ideological differences and personality conflicts in the movement to end slavery. When emancipation ended abolitionist activism, Brown turned his energies to the temperance movement and even ran, unsuccessfully, as a Prohibition candidate for a seat in the Massachusetts Senate. According to Greenspan, Brown and his fictional characters were “quick-change artists who reinvented themselves whenever circumstances required.” As if to demonstrate that he was not a slave even to conventional expectations, Brown defied the boundaries of the separate roles - lecturer, novelist, playwright, historian, physician – he played. Greenspan’s painstakingly researched biography brings a vibrant figure back to life.

New York Times   review.

Kansas City Star review.

San Francisco Chronicle review.

Washington Post review.

Texas Observer review.

30 Books in 30 Days 2014: Rigoberto González on Saeed Jones’ ‘Prelude to Bruise’

by Rigoberto González | Jan-22-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Rigoberto González offers an appreciation of Saeed Jones' poetry finalist, 'Prelude to Bruise' (Coffee House Press, 2014).

In the poem “Boy in a Stolen Evening Gown,” a young man escapes into the fields to prance in a chiffon dress in the privacy of his fantasy. He projects onto the dress his desire for masculine attention and a hunger for the feminine glamour he doesn’t feel entitled to in his male body, perhaps even his black body—both parts of his identity make him susceptible to different kinds of pains and dangers in the American South, inside and outside his African American community. But in this moment of agency, he becomes consumed by the hopeful knowledge that he will persevere, that there’s a future to behold—a reality beyond the fantasy—in which he will certainly be loved, but most importantly, in which he will continue to define and celebrate his sexuality, his true self:



Call me and I’m at your side,

one wildflower behind my ear. Ask me

and I’ll slip out of this softness, the dress


a black cloud at my feet. I could be the boy

wearing nothing, a negligee of gnats.


But before this youth finds his way to happiness, he must journey through the troubling encounters, heartaches and dilemmas of a gay and black adolescence. He must learn to navigate those sacred spaces—church, neighborhood streets, home—that demand certain expressions of masculinity in order to earn membership but also safety. Any misstep, any wrong turn, can become the prelude to a bruise:


Each time, strangers find me

drawing my own chalk outline on the sidewalk, cursing

with a mouth full of iron,


furious at my own pulse.


Jones’ haunting lyricism creates a portrait of hard-won self-realization, of a young man’s determined struggle, pushing through doubt and distress with the strength of his imagination and verve. The oppressive climate of community and society are likened to the invasive vine kudzu, anthropomorphized in these lines: “How you mistake/ my affection./ If I ever strangled sparrows,/ it was only because I dreamed/ of better songs.” From this the young man understands that his own landscape will overwhelm or even kill him if he doesn’t fight back.

Prelude to Bruise, with its stunning imagery and courage, is one of those rare debut collections of poetry that has earned widespread popularity and critical praise. The book’s poignant exploration of that intersection between sexuality and race, its heartbreaking perspective, have earned Saeed Jones, a first-book author, a place among the more seasoned finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry.   




New York Times Essay.


Flavorwire Interview.


Tin House Interview with Maud Newton.


Time.com Conversation.


PEN America Interview.


NPR Review.


Publishers Weekly Starred Review.


Brooklyn Magazine Review.


Lambda Literary Review.


Post No Ills Review.


by Admin | Jan-19-2015


Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award is given to Toni Morrison

New York, NY (January 20, 2015) Today, the NBCC announced its 30 finalists in six categories––autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, general nonfiction, and poetry–for the best books of 2014. The winners of an additional three 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 12, 2015 at the New School, in a ceremony that is free and open to the public.

For the first time in NBCC history a single book has been nominated in two categories: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric published by Graywolf Press is a nominee in both Poetry and Criticism. “Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a book of prose poetry whose inventive composition and topical content invite readers to consider different avenues toward the urgent conversation about race and politics in America. Rankine’s appearance on two separate categories is a testament to her book’s complexity, narrative reach and artistry,” says Rigoberto Gonzalez, Chair of the Poetry committee.

The recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award is Toni Morrison. Morrison, 83, has been a powerful catalyst in reshaping literary culture over the past half century. Her lifetime of achievement includes much more than her canonical novels, honored with the 1977 NBCC fiction award for Song of Solomon, the 1988 Pulitzer for Beloved, and the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. During two decades as a book editor, Morrison brought into print the landmark narrative The Black Book (1974) and the work of Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones, among others. From her post-graduate days in the late 1950s, when she taught at her alma mater, Howard University, until 2006, when she retired from Princeton, Morrison has influenced generations of students. Her work as a cultural critic includes Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction (2008); she edited Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word and serves on the editorial board of The Nation. As a frequent public spokesperson for freedom of expression, the power of the written word, and the role of the artist, Toni Morrison has articulated a vision of the role of the writer that is both courageous and inspiring.

Phil Klay’s short story collection Redeployment (Penguin Press) is the recipient of the John Leonard Prize, established in 2014 to recognize outstanding first books in any genre. Named to honor the memory of founding NBCC member John Leonard, the prize is uniquely decided by a direct vote of the organization’s 700 members nationwide, whereas the traditional awards are nominated and chosen by the elected 24-member board of directors.

The recipient of the 2014 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing is Alexandra Schwartz. Ms. Schwartz is an assistant editor at the New Yorker and a regular contributor to the magazine’s website. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The New York Times, and The New Republic. She was previously a member of the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books, and, before that, lived and worked in France. She grew up in New York City and lives in Brooklyn. For the third time in its 28-year history, the Balakian Citation carries with it a $1,000 cash prize, generously endowed by NBCC board member Gregg Barrios.


National Book Critics Circle Finalists

Publishing Year 2014



Blake Bailey, The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury)

Lacy M. Johnson, The Other Side (Tin House)

Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure (Random House)

Meline Toumani, There Was and There Was Not (Metropolitan Books)



Ezra Greenspan, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton & Co.)

S.C. Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (Scribner)

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Ian S. MacNiven, “Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography (Bloomsbury)



Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Innoculation (Graywolf Press)

Vikram Chandra, Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty (Graywolf Press)

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press)

Lynne Tillman, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (Red Lemonade)

Ellen Willis, The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (University of Minnesota Press)



Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press)

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Books)

Lily King, Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead Books)

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)



David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (Alfred A. Knopf)

Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book (Pantheon)

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt & Co.)

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press)

Hector Tobar, Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)



Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press)

Willie Perdomo, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon (Penguin Books)

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press)

Christian Wiman, Once in the West (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Jake Adam York, Abide (Southern Illinois University Press)



Alexandra Schwartz



Charles Finch

B. K. Fischer

Benjamin Moser

Lisa Russ Spaar



Toni Morrison



Phil Klay, Redeployment (Penguin Press)


Winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on Thursday, March 12, 2015 at 6:00 p.m. at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium. A finalists’ reading will be held on March 11, 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 supporter, visit http://www.bookcritics.org You c.an join the NBCC on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.


For more information, contact Sarah Russo at [email protected] or (917) 627-5993.

Happy Martin Luther King Day!

by Eric Liebetrau | Jan-19-2015

The roundup will return on Monday, January 26. Stay tuned for the announcement of the 2014 NBCC finalists tomorrow, January 20.

Roundup: René Steinke, DFW and Paul Thomas Anderson, and Virginia Woolf

by Eric Liebetrau | Jan-12-2015

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


Don't forget to vote for the 2014 John Leonard Prize. The deadline is January 15!


Jan Alexander reviews "Friendswood" by René Steinke.

David Haglund: "When a 21-Year-Old Paul Thomas Anderson Discussed Don DeLillo With David Foster Wallace."

NBCC board member Steven Kellman reviews Mary Carolyn Hollers George's "Rosengren's Books."

Heather Scott Partington reviews "No Other" by Mark Gluth. She also reviews Thomas Pierce's "The Hall of Small Mammals."

NBCC board member Tom Beer takes a look at some new books.

Karl Wolff reviews Mike Madrid's "Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics" at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.

Julia M. Klein reviews Scott Timberg's "Culture Crash" for Columbia Journalism Review. She also reviews Roger Cohen's "The Girl from Human Street" for the Barnes & Noble Review.

At Kirkus, Megan Labrise interviews English novelist Harriet Lane, author of domestic chiller "Her."

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews “Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq” by Michael MacDonald.

Bill Williams reviews "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson.

From Linda Simon: "New novels reimagine Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald."

#NBCCLeonard Voting Begins: Deadline January 15, 2015

by Carolyn Kellogg | Jan-08-2015

Almost 100 National Book Critics Circle members nominated books for the 2014 John Leonard Prize; now it's time to vote for the winner. You should receive a ballot with the strong 12-book longlist. This link is uniquely tied to this survey and your email address. Please do not forward the message.

To vote for the book you find to be the most excellent debut of 2014, click on the link in your ballot. Thanks for your participation!

In 2013, Anthony Marra was the recipient of the first John Leonard Prize for his novel "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." The prize is named for book critic John Leonard, who, throughout his career, celebrated innovative new writing. More details on the John Leonard prize here. The second winner of the award will be announced January 19, 2015.

Carolyn Kellogg is an award-winning LA Times staff writer who covers books and authors and publishing; She writes daily at the LA Times book blog, Jacket Copy, and regularly writes book reviews and features that appear in the paper. She is chair of the NBCC's John Leonard awards committee.

Welcome Eight New National Book Critics Circle Board Members

by Laurie Muchnick | Jan-06-2015

Ballots have been counted, and the results of the NBCC board election are in. The winning slate, in alphabetical order:

Michele Filgate

Michael Miller

Leigh Newman

Katherine Powers

Mark Rotella

Clay Smith

Liz Taylor

Kate Tuttle

Laurie Muchnick is fiction editor of Kirkus Reviews and president of the National Book Critics Circle.

Page 1 of 302 pages     1 2 3 >  Last ›

About the Critical Mass Blog

Commentary on literary criticism, publishing, writing, and all things NBCC related. It's written by independent members of the NBCC Board of Directors (see list of bloggers below).



Categories & Archives

Become a Friend of the NBCC

Upcoming Events

NBCC Finalists’ Reading: March 11th, 2015

NBCC Awards Ceremony and Reception: March 12th, 2015

NBCC at AWP with Anthony Marra and Alice McDermott: April 09th, 2015

NBCC Awards

See all award winners

Find out how to submit

Read how we select

Frequently Asked Questions

Awards news

Videos and Podcasts

Ben Fountain and Amy Tan at AWP with Jane Ciabattari

NBCC 2013 Finalists Reading

NBCC 2013 Awards Ceremony

NBCC Finalists Interviewed at The New School

Video: New Literary Journals

Video: The VIDA Count and Gender Bias in Book Reviewing

Podcast: What Is Criticism? NBCC Winners and Finalists at AWP

All videos and podcasts.

The postings on this blog represent the views and opinions of each individual poster and are not representative of views held by the National Book Critics Circle as an organization, or the NBCC board as a whole. Everything on this blog is copyright protected

Online Committee


Real Time Analytics