October, 2018

Maggie Nelson, Bernard Hooper, and Kathryn Harrison

by Taylor Anhalt | Oct-15-2018

Reviews & Interviews

The latest in NBCC's Craft of Criticism series is Tara Cheesman's Q and A with Ilana Masad.

NBCC Emerging Critic Natania Holtzman offers this week's NBCC Reads/Translation post, on David Albahari’s "Leeches."

Sarah McCraw Crow reviewed Deborah Blum’s “The Poison Squad” and Bart van Es’ memoir/family story “The Cut Out Girl” for BookPage.

Kathleen Rooney reviewed Samuel Park’s latest novel “The Caregiver.” She also interviewed poet Emily Jungmin Yoon.

Joshua Claybourn reviewed David Blight’s “Prophet of Freedom” for the Compulsive Reader.

Brian Haman reviewed Yan Lianke's "The Day the Sun Died" in Asian Review of Books.

In VP/Online Jane Ciabattari's Lit Hub column, Kathryn Harrison talks about her favorite LA Memoirs...“I think of L.A. as a floating world, less landscape than smoke and mirrors. When I think of L.A., of growing up there, I think of those mirages on the asphalt, heat that looks like water.” Ciabattari also talked with short story writer Simon Van Booy, author of the collection "The Sadness of Beautiful Things," re: five books about the sadness of love.

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

Ellen Akins reviewed Leif Enger's novel “Virgil Wander,” Kate Atkinson's “Transcription,” and Maureen Aitken's “Patron Saint of Lost Girls” for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

NBCC award winner Daniel Mendelsohn reviewed Volume 6 of Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” for the NY Times Book Review. He also wrote about Virgil's "Aeneid" in The New Yorker.

NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel reviewed Kate DiCamillo’s novel “Louisiana’s Way Home” and also interviewed DiCamillo for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She wrote her weekly column on re-reading books.

Jenny Yacovissi reviewed Marvin Kalb’s recent “Enemy of the People: Trump’s War on the Press, The New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy” for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Martha Anne Toll reviewed Esi Edugyan's "Washington Black" for The Millions. She also interviewed for the "Secrets of the Book Critics" series by the Lit Hub/Book Marks.

Balakian award winner Carlos Lozada reviewed Michael Lewis' “The Fifth Risk” for the Washington Post.

Hamilton Cain reviewed “The Shape of the Ruins” by Juan Gabriel Vásquez for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He also reviewed Lou Berney's “November Road,” a literary website curated by New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl

K. L. Romo reviewed “The Boy at the Keyhole,” Stephen Giles’ quiet twisty tale of madness and possible murder, for Washington Independent Review of Books. She also reviewed “Darling Girl,” a heart-moving tale by Terry H. Watkins, which chronicles 13 years in the precarious life of “DG” Pitre through 23 vignettes, for BookTrib.com.

Jennifer Howard reviewed "Reader, Come Home," neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf's new book on reading in the digital era, for The Washington Post.

Yvonne Garrett reviewed Iveliss Rodriguez's "Love War Stories," Shelley Jackson's "Riddance," Roy Scranton's "We're Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change," and Lydia Kiesling's "The Golden State" for The Brooklyn Rail. He also reviewed Judith Chernaik's "Schumann: The Faces and the Masks" for Publisher's Weekly.

Priscilla Gilman reviewed Haruki Murakami's “Killing Commendatore” for the Boston Globe.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviewed “Car Trouble,” a novel by Robert Rorke, for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Jenny Bhatt reviewed Professor Angela Leighton’s nonfiction book "Hearing Things" (Trinity College, Cambridge) for PopMatters.

Wayne Catan interviewed 1991 PEN/Hemingway Award winner Bernard Cooper for The Hemingway Review Blog. 

Robert Allen Papinchak reviewed Kevin Wilson's short story collection, “Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine” for the Washington Independent Review of Books. He also reviewed Rhys Bowen's “Four Funerals and Maybe A Wedding”; Roberto Saviano's “Pirahanas: The Boy Bosses of Naples”; and Louise Candlish's “Our House” all for Mystery Scene Magazine.

Madeleine Schwartz reviewed Caryl Phillips' “A View of the Empire at Sunset” for The New York Review of Books.

Harvey Freedenberg reviewed Stephen Fried and his new book, “Rush,” a biography of Founding Father Benjamin Rush for the October issue of TheBurg. He also interviewed David Kaplan on “The Most Dangerous Branch,” his new book about the Supreme Court.

NBCC board member Tom Beer reviewed “The Winter Soldier” by Daniel Mason for Newsday.

NBCC member Claude Peck reviewed "Oranges" by Gary Eldon Peter for the Star Tribune.

Heller McAlpin reviewed Nora Krug’s graphic memoir, “Belonging,” for NPR and Deborah Eisenberg’s “Your Duck is My Duck” for The Los Angeles Times.

Laverne Frith reviewed "Things as It Is" by Chase Twichell for the New York Journal of Books.

Joan Silverman reviewed Ben Marcus’ “Notes From the Fog” for the Portland Press Herald.

V. Joshua Adams reviewed Mark Polizzotti's “Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto” for The Los Angeles Review of Books. 

Lanie Tankard reviewed Irish author Peter Cunningham's novel “Acts of Allegiance” for her October "Eye on the Indies" column in The Woven Tale Press.

NBCC Balakian winner and former board member Ron Charles reviewed Mitch Albom’s “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven” as a video book review for the Washington Post.

Lydia Pyne reviewed “The Dinosaur Artist” by Paige Williams for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

VP of Membership Anjali Enjeti interviewed American Ferrera about her new book "American Like Me" for Newsday. Enjeti reviewed Nicole Chung's "All You Can Ever Know" for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Barbara Kingsolver's "Unsheltered" for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Heller McAlpin reviewed Kathryn Harrison’s new memoir, “On Sunset,” for the Washington Post.

Katherine Coldiron reviewed Shelley Jackson’s newest novel “Riddance” for Popscure, Tana French’s “The Witch Elm” as an argument about privilege called the Lucky Loop for the Mantle, and “Codex” by Icelandic author Sjón for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

NBCC president Kate Tuttle interviewed Stephen L. Carter about his grandmother's life, which led to his new nonfiction book “Invisible” for the Boston Globe.

Anita Felicelli reviewed Esi Edugyan's "Washington Black" for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Jeffrey Ann Goudie reviewed Susan Orlean's "The Library Book" for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


Other News

Justin Taylor’s longform critical survey of Mary Robison is in the new issue of The Sewanee Review (#504) and is also available for free on the journal's website.

Xujun Eberlein's translation of the renowned Chinese writer Wang Zengqi's short story  "Revenge" was published in New England Review.

Star Tribune books editor and NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel was interviewed for Poets and Writers magazine about life as a book critic. She was also interviewed on WTIP radio in northern Minnesota, explaining (among other things) how she chooses the books to be reviewed.

NBCC Member Anita Felicelli’s book "Love Songs for a Lost Continent" was published on October 1 by Stillhouse Press. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, winner of the NBCC's fiction award for her novel “Americanah”, has been honored with the PEN Pinter prize. Adhichie also opened this year's Frankfurt Book Fair with an impassioned speech calling for "new storytellers.”

NBCC member Fran Bigman wrote about being with the Haruki Murakami Superfans at a Midnight Launch Party for Lit Hub.



NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. 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.

The Craft of Criticism: An Interview with Ilana Masad

by Tara Cheesman | Oct-12-2018

In this Q&A series, The Craft of Criticism, NBCC members Tara Cheesman and Fran Bigman ask book critics and review editors for their thoughts about contemporary criticism. If you’re interested in being interviewed for the series,please get in touch at franbigman@gmail.com and tara.cheesman@gmail.com.

Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-American fiction writer and book critic whose reviews have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the LA Times, the LA Review of Books, the Guardian, and more. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring new, emerging, and established writers. She spends too much time on Twitter, and you can spend that time with her @ilanaslightly.

How did you become a book critic?

I’ve loved reading for a long time, obviously. But it wasn’t until my late teens that I began contemplating how to make a living out of this love. I knew it would be hard, almost impossible, because I was lucky enough to have parents who encouraged my desires while also warning me of the pitfalls and difficulties of any kind of remuneration for creative work. But more to the point: I spent a year abroad at the University of Oxford while I was in college and we were encouraged to take part of the full Oxford experience. So I became a sub-editor (proofreader) at The Oxford Student, one of the two big weekly student newspapers. In my second term, I became the editor of the Arts & Literature section. The same year, I wrote my first book reviews for a small and still active website run by Molly Gaudry, Lit Pub. In my senior year of college I interned at an online publication called Bookish, and when my internship was done, I had made friends with two of the editors, and became a freelancer for them - I wrote lists, mostly, not straight-up book reviews. It wasn’t until I freelanced after college for Bustle that I was invited to write an honest-to-god book review for pay (very, very meager pay, but pay nonetheless), and that was for A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I was hooked. I loved it as much as I knew I would. So I began figuring out how to do more of it, who to pitch, how to get paid, etc.

In a 2017 interview with Lithub you describe your reviews as “forms of book criticism that are hidden in other formats because the publication [Broadly] just doesn’t do straight reviews. With straight reviews becoming rarer, book critics have learned to be more dynamic. We’ve had to.” Can you explain how that perspective affects the way you approach the books you review?

It doesn’t affect my approach to the books I review exactly - it affects my approach to how I pitch book reviews or culture pieces. For example, a few months ago, I pitched Buzzfeed a piece about mental illness as explored in fiction. I was in my first year of grad school and had just read Jean Rhys for the first time and was thinking about mental illness and women’s madness as portrayed in literature (a subject I’ve been interested in since college, really). I was thinking about how mental illness is getting portrayed less metaphorically these days, and found some recent books that were doing what I had intuited was being done - from staying abreast of recent and current publications. In pitching that piece, I was thinking about books as both reflections of culture and as spaces where discussions still slow to occur in broader public spheres were happening. And so I got to read and write about several books in one piece.

Another way I figured out how to write about books was through a publication’s particular interest. For Broadly, for example, I wrote several pieces about books that dealt with historical figures - women, specifically - and these pieces became a mish-mash of historical exploration and review. If I had my druthers, I would be reviewing single books one at a time because I think that single book reviews do plenty to explore culture already. But they don’t get the clicks editors want and need, so they’re becoming less common and harder to come by.

How important do you feel it is for a critic’s voice, opinions and personality to be present in a review?

I find that my style depends a lot on the publication I’m writing for and whether they want my voice in there or not. NPR, for instance, wants me to be voicy. The NYT has a different style - slightly voicy, then down to business, possibly voicy in closing again. Here’s the thing, though - whatever the style of the publication, and whether the critic admits it or not, their voice and opinions and personality are inevitably going to be in there. Because when we read, we’re connecting with something personal, aren’t we? Whether it’s relating to characters’ experiences or simply reading through the lens of empathy, our personalities and personhoods are going to be involved in the process. So I don’t know that it’s important, per se, that a critic’s voice is clear in a review - rather, I think it’s inevitable. There is nothing objective about criticism, despite the certainty imbued in the work of some white, straight, cis male critics. Objectivity seems to be what they believe they’re doing, as if their positionality in the world is neutral. It isn’t - neither is yours, nor mine. No one is neutral. That being said, I do try to approach criticism not as an exercise of “do I like it” but rather by trying to see if a book is succeeding at what it’s trying to do, and what it means for the project of the book when it does or doesn’t succeed.

“Literary Citizenship” is an idea that gets talked about a lot in certain parts of the book world. You’re a contributor at Book Riot -- a site where one of the core tenets is “reading is a political act”. You also frequently grapple with social and political topics in your reviews and on social media. How important do you think it is for a critic to also be an activist?

Gosh. What a fantastic question. And so difficult! I feel like I could talk through this one for hours and still not have a good response. Okay, so I do believe that reading is a political act, yes. And I know that the reviews I pitch are often politically motivated - by which I mean, that I tend to privilege marginalized or underserved voices pretty much by instinct at this point, because I simply find these stories to be more interesting, more reflective of a larger, broader and more complex world.

I know, and I’m not entirely proud of this, that there are books that are probably very good that I’ve simply ignored because I’ve grown tired with the hegemony of the straight white male experience. There are widely beloved and lauded authors that I’m simply exhausted and, honestly, bored by. The fact that I still feel the need to hedge about it or apologize for it in some way is saying something, I suppose, about the training I’ve received in who matters and who doesn’t… So yes, I think about my choices when I read. But I also don’t read just for the politics. I think that it comes down to the feminist slogan of how the personal is political, and in the case of the critic, the personal and political might also become the published, making it a shared personal and political space.

I think literary citizenship goes beyond my reviews though. My podcast is about literary citizenship. Talking to other writers and boosting the work I care about on social media and telling people to buy and read books - this is literary citizenship. Talking about the deep-seated issues in big publishing, the systemic racism and classism that is so deeply rooted in the trade, that’s literary citizenship. Is that activism? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. I sometimes worry that if what I’m doing benefits the world I am a part of, then it’s not activism because it’s not selfless. That’s probably very silly, though. No one said activism couldn’t be something you enjoy, something that comes naturally to you. But in the midst of everything going on right now, it’s hard to see anything I do in the literary world as worth much. It’s hard, often, to remember that art is necessary. But I try to remind myself that no revolution has occurred without art being involved in it - and so perhaps, maybe, I’m doing my part, in a way.

But honestly, when I think of activism, I think of what I do in the classroom as a new teacher, and I think about the volunteer work I do for a queer suicide prevention organization. Those things feel more tangible as activism. Books are still my solace, my escape, my absolute favorite things to engage with, and I am so, so lucky that my hard work to make them my livelihood is paying off.

You mentioned your podcast, The Other Stories. What inspired you to start it, how you choose the people you talk to, and why you think podcasts (which in a way is a pretty old fashioned concept, a long form radio show, dressed up in new packaging) have become so popular?

The Other Stories is a labor of love. I started it when I was freelancing and living in New York after graduating from college. I kept thinking about how writers don’t get to talk about their work much. Not the big, famous writers who are interviewed everywhere, but the rest of us, those of us writing stories and sending them to magazines, trying to find agents, trying to get noticed. Sure, we might get a story published here or there, and we’ll send it to our friends and our moms and they’ll say “Hey, that’s great!” and “I loved your story!” and then… that’s it. They won’t ask about the process of writing it. They won’t ask about why we chose to make the walls maroon in this scene. Writing is lonely in that we don’t know what the people on the other end are getting out of our work unless they tell us. So the podcast was this way of creating a space to give new, struggling, as-yet-not-famous writers a voice.

The Other Stories features these writers, has them read their work aloud (and dresses them up in new packaging, as you so nicely put it, because of the added component of sound design; Mike Cahill writes original scores for each and every story), and then I interview them about their writing process and writing history. I think - I hope - that it gives a space for writers to feel legit, to see that their work is real, their process is real, their creativity and artisanship are real. Not that I make them real, but rather it’s all too easy for us all to succumb to impostor syndrome. An interview, a real conversation about the process, takes us out of that space a little bit, I think.

Why are podcasts working so well these days? I think the form is popular for several reasons - it’s taking the radio, like you said, and putting it in places we access more, like our computers and phones. And it’s ideal for multitasking, which has become the de rigeur way of being in the world in our achievement-and-productivity-obsessed culture. There’s something about audio that lends itself to movement, too, I think, and since the whole “couch potato” narrative is so reviled nowadays (even though we all still watch TV), podcasts seem to be a good in between - you can exercise with it, you can wash dishes while listening, you can fold laundry, you can walk or drive to work with it on. Basically, it is useful for a less stagnant lifestyle.

Tara Cheesman is a blogger turned freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member & 2018 Best Translated Book Award Fiction Judge. Her reviews can read online at The Rumpus, Book Riot, Los Angeles Review of Books, Quarterly Conversation and 3:AM Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @booksexyreview and Instagram @taracheesman

NBCC Reads: Natalia Holtzman on David Albahari’s ‘Leeches’

by Natalia Holtzman | Oct-10-2018

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.'  Please email your submission to NBCC Board member Lori Feathers: lori@interabangbooks.com 

By 1998, Yugoslavia had splintered. Bosnia and Croatia had both made violent declarations of independence, and Kosovo was about as sound and stable as a one-legged dog. David Albahari’s Leeches begins on March 8, 1998, when the unnamed narrator, seated by the shore of the Danube, sees a woman get slapped. When she flees, he follows her, and he spends the rest of the 300-something-page novel—a single, uninterrupted paragraph—connecting clues that may or may not need connecting in order to understand a conspiracy that may or may not, in fact, exist.

To begin with, he starts to find triangles all over Belgrade—actually, a triangle in a circle with another triangle inside it, pointed the other way. “My grasp of mathematics had always been weak,” he confesses, “but perhaps these combinations of geometric shapes, their surfaces or the proportional ratios had some hidden meaning?” Perhaps; perhaps not.

In the meantime, our narrator roams the city in search of more signs. He sips coffee, walks, pauses for a roll with jam, walks, sleeps, smokes a joint with his friend, Marko, walks, falls in with a group of Kabbalists, and cleans up his front-door mat. He periodically finds excrement there—part of a series of anti-Semitic incidents recurring throughout Belgrade and Zemun, a historically Jewish municipality.

Albahari himself is a Serbian Jew of Sephardic extraction. He was born in Peć, a district of Kosovo, and studied at the University of Belgrade. In 1994, he and his family left for Canada; unlike other ex-Yugos, he has continued to write in his original language. His work is reminiscent of Borges, Joyce, Kafka, and Beckett, but he is utterly original: he sounds only like himself. We’re lucky to have him; we’re lucky to have Ellen Elias-Bursać’s gorgeous translations of his fiction.

In Leeches, Albahari confronts violence, nationalism, corruption, and prejudice—in short, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s—obliquely. Marko wants to discuss the “situation” in Kosovo, but this narrator is consumed by his own conspiracy. Like Leopold Bloom, he traverses his city, and his city comes alive: “People were going from kiosk to kiosk, buying newspapers, carrying bread from the bakery, somebody whistled, the buses rumbled, a boy and a girl were kissing, sparrows landed on crumbs, and then,” says our narrator, “I thought that nothing could replace the fine warp and weft of life, that no government or system could completely unravel this fabric”.

Leeches is a strange beast: obsessive, paranoid, bleakly funny, absurd. There is no place to rest; the whole thing unfurls like an endless scroll, or like Borges’ book of sand, which, at one point, our narrator mentions by name. And yet there are clues scattered every so often—remember those triangles?—that indicate how this story might be read, what it might mean. “The times we were living in required a haven from reality,” we are told, “which could be found only by living everyday life in a fantasy or by reading meanings into reality.”

We here in 2018 might read some of that same meaning into our own reality.

Natalia Holtzman's work has appeared in Electric Literature, the Ploughshares blog, and elsewhere. She was named a 2018 Alan Cheuse Emerging Critic by the NBCC

NBCC Reads: Jenny Bhatt on Raymond Queneau’s ‘Exercises in Style’

by Jenny Bhatt | Oct-03-2018

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.'  Please email your submission to NBCC Board member Lori Feathers: lori@interabangbooks.com 

Queneau is a globally-renowned writer and co-founder of the Oulipo movement in literature. In this slim classic (first published in 1981 in English translation by Barbara Wright), he takes a simple story plot — a man getting into an argument with another man on a bus — and writes it in 99 different voice+style combinations. Quite a feat and absolutely wonderful to read.

The idea came to him sometime in the 1930s when he was at a concert listening to Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Given the infinite variations based on a simple, slight musical theme, he wondered if the same would be possible with literature. And, though this English version has his original 99 exercises, there is a larger volume in French with an additional 124 exercises suggested by Queneau to the reader.

The 99 voice+style exercises here vary between different forms of prose and poetry, formal versus casual tones, polite versus abusive language, literary versus pulp, and so on, along with many varying permutations of all of these too. Not only does Queneau show us the infinite possibilities of language, but he also shows us how much fun it can be to play with language.

"In the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long as if someone’s been having a tug of war with it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A sniveling tone, which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat, he throws himself onto it.

"Two hours later, I meet him in the Cour du Rome, in the Gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat. He shows him where (at the lapels) and why."

I should add that the translator, Barbara Wright, is a hero for taking this on because it cannot have been easy to translate all of this from French to English while still maintaining the styles, voice, wordplay, and more. Her introduction is worth a read too.

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and literary critic. She is a Contributing Editor (Books) at PopMatters and has a fiction literary translation coming in 2019. Her short stories have won Pushcart nominations and one story was recently a 2017 Best of the Net Anthology finalist. She splits her time currently between Atlanta, GA and Ahmedabad, India.

September, 2018

Kate Atkinson, John Kaag, and Barbara Kingsolver

by Taylor Anhalt | Sep-30-2018


NBCC VP/Online Jane Ciabattari's October BBC Culture column includes novels by Barbara Kingsolver, Cristina Rivera Garza, Claire Fuller, Alyson Hagy, Haruki Murakami and Kirstin Allio, and a new biography of Frederick Douglass.

Robert Allen Papinchak reviewed Kate Atkinson's “Transcription” for the Washington Independent Review of Books, as did Bob Hoover for the Dallas Morning News, and Katherine A. Powers for the WSJ.

Bob Hoover reviewed Mark Whitaker's "Smoketown" for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Past Balakian Citation recipient and current Board member Katherine A. Powers reviewed Merve Emre's "The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of the Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing" for the Barnes & Noble Review and audio-book versions of novels by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Olen Steinhauer, and Julie Schumacher for the Washington Post.

For The Paris Review, Ilana Masad wrote about Jill Lepore's “These Truths”, and for Prairie Schooner, she interviewed Sarah Fawn and reviewed her book “Quite Mad”.

Martha Anne Toll reviewed Luce D'Eramo's “Deviation” for NPR.

Celia McGee reviewed Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black” for The National Book Review.

Kimberly King Parsons interviewed Leah Dieterich for The Millions.

K. L. Romo reviewed “Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows”, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s textured tale about Punjabi Indian women and sexual taboos (a Reese’s Book Club pic) for BookTrib.com.

Grace Lichenstein reviewed Vivian Schweitzer’s “A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera” for the New York Journal of Books.

For the October issue of O, the Oprah Magazine, Hamilton Cain covered new titles from Kwame Anthony Appiah, Deborah Eisenberg, Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger, Walter Mosley, and Samuel Park.

Heller McAlpin and Paul Gleason reviewed John Kaag’s “Hiking With Nietzsche” for NPR and for Newsday.


Member News

Brandon Hobson was longlisted for the National Book Award in Fiction for his novel, “Where the Dead Sit Talking”.

Jonathan Blunk, author of the new biography of James Wright (FSG 2018), reviewed NBCC member Celia Bland's latest collection of poetry, “Cherokee Road Kill”, within the context of her other two books, “Madonna Comix” and “Soft Box”, in the current issue of The Georgia Review.   The review features an illustration from CRK by Kyoko Miyabe, Bland's collaborator.

Michelle Bailat-Jones’s story “Foreign Bodies” was published in the Fall 2018 issue of storySouth.

The Millions interviewed NBCC award winner Margo Jefferson.

NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. 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.

NBCC Reads: Martha Anne Toll on Noémi Lefebvre’s ‘Blue Self Portrait’

by Martha Anne Toll | Sep-26-2018

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: lori@interabangbooks.com 

Asking me to choose a favorite book in translation is asking me whether I prefer beaches to mountains, whether dahlias are prettier than nasturtiums.   I have my beloved translated classics, and am thoroughly delighted by the widening range of books available to English language readers.  

Blue Self Portrait, by Noémi Lefebvre, recently translated from French by Sophie Lewis, is a slim, provocative novel that asks:  Is there art without obsession?  It is  narrated by a young woman flying between Berlin and Paris.  She sits with her sister, a violinist, and fixates on her love interest, a pianist-composer.  Lefebvre transmits the narrator’s obsessive nature through sentences that are pages long with scant punctuation, and cascades of spiraling, stream-of-consciousness thoughts.  The pianist-love interest spurs a mental whirly gig through German intellectual and cultural history, Nazism; music, art, and language; and sex and relationships, including the narrator’s failed marriage and her overbearing former mother-in-law.  All this, in fewer than one hundred fifty pages. 

Blue Self Portrait is inventive and funny—as well as clever—cycling at breakneck speed through the atrocities of the Twentieth Century while staying connected to the narrator’s primary obsession: the pianist.  It may not be a big leap to go from the Wannsee Conference (synonymous with “Final Solution”) to Reinhard Heydrich, who convened Wannsee and was the only senior Nazi official to be assassinated.  But segueing from there to the narrator’s pianist love requires a creative twist—

…you can’t play any of that romantic, so-called classical music as if the Heydrichs had not existed, he [the pianist] would say giving his angelic smile before launching into Beethoven, without letting up would explain in his polite and respectful manner to the Auditorium audience which was there to listen to classical music and not to hear a pianist saying that to play Beethoven you must know not only Beethoven but also the Heydrichs…

Lefebvre’s novel is layered with music.  It is inspirited with Arnold Schoenberg, the seminal Twentieth Century Viennese composer and sometime painter, whose self-portrait gives the book its title.  With his invention of twelve-tone music, Schoenberg broke out of what he perceived as the shackles of classicism.  He used serial patterns (“rows”) derived from the twelve chromatic notes of the scale—think white and black keys on a piano keyboard.  A victim of Nazism, Schoenberg was forced to emigrate to the United States in the 1930s, where for nearly two decades he trained a generation of prominent composers.  

Blue Self Portrait’s literary rendering of Schoenberg is one of the many pleasures of this book.  The translator notes that Lefebvre probes how we can remember the most shameful ideas of the last century by weaving “her text in approximation of a serialist piece.”  Yet against the Twentieth Century’s sobering background, the narrator affects a seeming detachment.  Translator Sophie Lewis concludes this is the narrator’s means to hide an obsessive personality. 

Funny that one of the keys to this novel should be not caring.  Our heroine is castigated repeatedly, and repeatedly berates herself, for the crime of “désinvolture.”  What is this elegant French notion?  Why, nonchalance, insouciance, of course.  Plain old frivolity, laidbackness, devilmaycareism, happy-go-lucky style; in the plainest English, it’s not caring.  But she does care—hence all the obsessing….  [t]his term so often reiterated it counts more as a musical leitmotif than a point of prose argument.

This “not-caring” musical leitmotif, combined with sentences of prodigious length and a fixation on history’s ills, are Lefebvre’s tools to convey obsession.  Music mirrors and underscores the obsession.  Is it notable that the writer is French?  The cultural references—from sophisticated to obtuse—that saturate Blue Self-Portrait are not generally the stuff of American novels.  Obsession may be universal, but without Sophie Lewis we’d miss out on this French version.

Martha Anne Toll’s nonfiction appears regularly on NPR and in The Millions, and in Heck, [PANK], The Nervous Breakdown, Tin House blog, Bloom, Narrative, Cargo Literary, and Washington Independent Review of Books; her fiction in Catapult, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Yale’s Letters Journal, Slush Pile Magazine, Poetica E Magazine, Referential Magazine, and Inkapture Magazine. Her novel in progress, represented by the Einstein Literary Agency, was short listed for the 2016 Mary Rinehart Roberts fiction prize. She directs a social justice foundation focused on preventing and ending homelessness and abolishing the death penalty. This essay is adapted from "Obsessions Is Universal," in The Millions. Please visit her at marthaannetoll.com; and tweet to her @marthaannetoll

Truths, Proust and other good things

by Laurie Hertzel | Sep-24-2018

Laure de Sade, Comtesse Adhéaume de Chevigné

Reviews, interviews and profiles by our members

This week's Craft of Criticism series interview is with NBCC biography award winner Ruth Franklin.

This week's NBCC Reads/Favorite Work in Translation is Rebecca Foster on Carsten Jensen's "We, the Drowned."

In this week's Lit Hub column, VP/Online Jane Ciabattari talks with NBCC fiction award winner Ben Fountain about five books that explore our democracy, including Toni Morrison's "Beloved" and Mark Danner's "The Massacre at El Mozote."

NBCC board member Mary Ann Gwinn interviewed Porter Fox about his nonfiction book, "Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border," for the Seattle Times.

NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel profiled author Leif Enger for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Helen Mitsios reviewed "Proust's Duchess," by Caroline Weber, for France-Amerique Magazine. 

Jenny Yacovissi reviewed Kent Wascom’s "The New Inheritors" for the Washington Independent Review of Books

Hamilton Cain wrote about Jill Lepore's "These Truths" for the New York Journal of Books.

Anita Felicelli reviewed Sarah Smarsh's "Heartland" and Khaled Hosseini's "Sea Prayer," both for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf's review of "Presidio" by Randy Kennedy was published in the San Antonio Express-News.

Jim Ruland reviews Leonard Gardner's desperate tale of pugilism "Fat City" for his column The Floating Library in San Diego CityBeat. 

Désirée Zamorano reviewed Sarah Weinman's "The Real Lolita" for the LA Review of Books.

Elizabeth Lund reviewed "Perennial" by Kelly Forsythe, "The Carrying" by Ada Limón, and "If You Have to Go" by Katie Ford for The Washington Post.

Kathleen Rooney reviewed Jessica Hopper's "Night Moves" for the Chicago Tribune.

Rochelle Spencer wrote about two story collections--Lesley Nneka Arimah's "What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky," and "Meet Behind Mars" by Renee Simms--for the Los Angeles Review.

Yvonne Garrett reviewed Chibundu Onuzo's "Welcome to Lagos" and Tommy Orange's "There There" for the Brooklyn Rail.

Joshua Claybourn reviewed David Blight's biography of Frederick Douglass, "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom," for the Compulsive Reader.

Pam Munter's review of Jamie Bernstein's memoir, "Famous Father Girl," has been published by Fourth and Sycamore.

Rachael Nevins recently reviewed "New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction," edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro, for Necessary Fiction.

Julia M. Klein reviews Phyllis Chesler's "A Politically Incorrect Feminist" for the Forward and talks to Alex Wagner about her memoir "Futureface" for the Brown Alumni Magazine.

Tobias Carroll reviewed Gary Shteyngart's novel, "Lake Success," for the New Republic; reviewed David Pearce's "Patient X" at Tor.com; and wrote his latest Watchlist column for Words Without Borders.


And in other news

Abby Frucht's short story, "Peeping Tom," has been published in Solstice Literary Magazine.

"Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam," Hélène Cardona's translation of her father José Manuel Cardona’s anthology, has been published by Salmon Poetry.

Tim Riley was profiled in  "Secrets of the Book Critics" for LitHub.

Xujun Eberlein's personal essay, "The Cremation,” was published in Brevity.

Anis Shivani wrote about lessons for writers from cats in Agni.


NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. 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.

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the author of a memoir, “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist,” published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2010 and winner of a Minnesota Book Award. Her work has appeared in Tri-Quarterly, the Chicago Tribune, Minnesota Monthly magazine, and many other publications in the United States, Finland, and Australia. She has an MFA from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C. Hertzel teaches at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

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