March, 2015

30 Books in 30 Days: Colette Bancroft on Hector Tobar’s ‘Deep Down Dark’

by Colette Bancroft | Mar-04-2015

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 Colette Bancroft offers an appreciation of nonfiction finalist Hector Tobar's  "Deep Down Dark" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

In 2010, 33 men were trapped thousands of feet underground by a massive rock fall in a mine in Chile. The news went global, and it stayed that way for 69 days, until their astonishing rescue.

One of the countless remarkable things about their story was a pact the miners made while still trapped: "They will not reveal, individually, what they suffered as a group. That story is their most precious possession, and it belongs to all of them."

 Journalist Hector Tobar tells that story, and tells it extraordinarily well, in "Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free."

Tobar, a novelist ("The Barbarian Nurseries") and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, based the book on hundreds of hours of interviews that allow him to flesh out fully the men we glimpsed in news coverage, in flawed moments as well as heroic ones. The result reads like a thriller, even though we know the outcome.

Tobar begins before the disaster, in order to put the men in the context of their country and its economy. The San Jose copper mine, set in a remote, surreal desert landscape, has a long history of "cutting corners" and shoddy conditions.

Some of the miners travel as much as a thousand miles for a difficult, perilous seven-day shift. But their jobs pay well in a shaky economy, enough for many of them to own homes and send their kids to college, and they are proud, skilled workers.

Tobar's description of the mine's collapse and the men's dawning realization of their dire situation is breathtakingly, horrifyingly vivid. "A single block of diorite, as tall as a forty-five story building, has broken off from the rest of the mountain and is falling through the layers of the mine, knocking out entire sections of the Ramp and causing a chain reaction as the mountain above it collapses, too."

What follows underground is 17 days when the men have no contact with the outside world and no idea whether they will ever be freed. When a drill bit crunches through the ceiling of the room called the Refuge where many of them are gathered, they bang madly on it with wrenches to signal their presence to the searchers on the surface. It's an exhilarating scene — but there are 52 days to go before they will see daylight.

Tobar skillfully tells the stories above ground as well, of the camp of families and other supporters at the mine, the corporate dodging and political wrangling, the intense efforts of the rescue team, which included advisers from NASA.

And he follows the men after their rescue, as they go to Disney World and the Holy Land, quarrel with and support each other. Some take money they receive and start their own businesses; others struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. And some are back underground — not in the San Jose, which is shut down, but at other mines. One of them tells Tobar, "The first day, I felt a little strange." But, he says, "The fourth day, I was starting to like it."

"Deep Down Dark" turns an extraordinary story into an extraordinary book.

30 Books in 30 Days: Michael Miller on ‘The Zhivago Affair’’

by Michael Miller | Mar-03-2015

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 Michael Miller offers an appreciation of nonfiction finalist Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s "The Zhivago Affair" (Pantheon).

Shortly after its first printing in Italy in 1957, Boris Pasternak’s "Doctor Zhivago" became an international sensation, celebrated by readers and critics alike. In theUnited States, where the novel was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for six months, Edmund Wilson wrote, “Doctor Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history.” And in 1958, Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in literature. By themselves, these facts lend "Doctor Zhivago"’s success the appearance of inevitability. But as Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s excellent new study "The Zhivago Affair" reminds us, this enthusiastic reception was only half the story: If Pasternak had not blatantly disregarded Soviet dictates, putting himself and his family in great danger in the process, his novel, at least as he wrote it, might never have made it to a printing press. In fact, as Finn and Couvée make chillingly clear, it’s surprising that Pasternak—who frequently nettled authorities at a time when many writers accused of dissidence were jailed or shot—survived to write the book at all.

A brisk narrative enriched with historical detail, Finn and Couvée’s book presents Pasternak (1890–1960) as an artist who navigated his Soviet milieu with charm and insouciance, a poet who early in his career celebrated Lenin and Stalin in his verse but later grew increasingly ambivalent about the Communist government. An ominous cloud hung over Doctor Zhivago from the very start: “Pasternak began to write Doctor Zhivago on a block of watermarked paper from the desk of a dead man,” Finn and Couvée write. “The paper was a gift from the widow of Titsian Tabidze, the Georgian poet who was arrested, tortured, and executed in 1937.” By 1945, Pasternak had come to see his work-in-progress as his greatest achievement. He organized gatherings at which he read sections of the book. The readings proved to be popular but hazardous: In 1947, the literary journal Novy Mir called them “counter-revolutionary,” and claimed that Pasternak’s unpublished novel was marred by a “reactionary and backward looking ideology.” Authorities believed that the book was critical of the 1917 Revolution—grounds, in many cases, for execution. Pasternak avoided this fate (Finn and Couvée write that he “could not explain his survival”), but some of those close to him were severely punished: In 1949 his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, was arrested, interrogated about her relationship with the author, and sentenced to five years in a hard-labor camp for “contact with persons suspected of espionage.”

Finn and Couvée’s description of how Pasternak got "Doctor Zhivago" into the hands of a European publisher has the menace and momentum of a political thriller: In 1956, Pasternak gave a manuscript of "Doctor Zhivago," which clearly was not going to be published in Soviet Russia, to Sergio D’Angelo, an Italian Communist visiting Moscow, urging him to deliver the pages to a Milan publishing house run by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. When Soviet authorities learned this, they forced Pasternak to send telegrams begging Feltrinelli to stop publication. But Pasternak had asked Feltrinelli to heed only telegrams in French, and the note he sent asking to halt publication was written in Italian. “Oh, how happy I am,” Pasternak later wrote to the Italian publisher, “that neither you, nor Gallimard, nor Collins have been fooled by these idiotic and brutal appeals accompanied by my signature (!), a signature all but false and counterfeit, insofar as it was extorted from me by a blend of fraud and violence.” "Doctor Zhivago" was released in Italy in September 1957, and soon afterward editions of the novel appeared France, England, and the U.S.

"The Zhivago Affair" makes compelling use of new research to illustrate Cold War techniques on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The CIA, having obtained a copy of Pasternak’s book from British intelligence, saw "Doctor Zhivago," which remained banned in Communist countries, as a “weapon.” Secretly, the CIA organized the printing of a Russian-language of the book, and distributed copies to Soviet and Eastern European citizens at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958 and again at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Vienna in 1959. “Books differ from all other propaganda media,” wrote the CIA’s chief of covert action, “primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium.”

There are glimpses of humor in "The Zhivago Affair," such as when Pasternak rejects the suggestion that Nabokov translate his novel into English (“That won’t work; he’s too jealous of my position in this country to do it properly”). But nothing can soften Finn and Couvée’s description of the attacks on Pasternak after "Zhivago"’s publication in the West. During this “near-frenzy of condemnation,” the author was attacked extensively in Soviet periodicals, publicly denounced by former friends, followed by the KGB, expelled from the writers union, and denied medical care. He was forced to turn down the Nobel Prize, and told that he could not accept royalties from foreign sales. (Accused of smuggling royalties to the author, Ivinskaya was once again sentenced to a forced-labor camp.) Pasternak considered emigration, even suicide. His ordeals came to seem particularly unfair in 1964, four years after his death, when Khrushchev, having obtained a samizdat copy of "Doctor Zhivago," concluded: “We shouldn’t have banned it. I should have read it myself. There’s nothing anti-Soviet in it.”

Finn and Couvée document Pasternak’s tribulations with an elegant straightforwardness. There’s something invigorating in their portrait of a novelist so deeply devoted to his art. But "The Zhivago Affair" is too complex to settle into simple idealism. It powerfully evokes a time and place in which aesthetic integrity yielded dire consequences, and in which acts of heroism might also be acts of madness. As Pasternak himself put it: “In every generation there has to be some fool who will speak the truth as he sees it.”


The New York Review of Books.


The Guardian.

The Washington Post.

Financial Times.

Roundup: Tom McCarthy, Elif Shafak, Richard Price, Alan Cheuse, Kim Gordon, and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Mar-02-2015

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


Countdown to March 12 announcement of NBCC winners, our 30 Books in 30 Days series of reviews of all the finalists continues.


Jeff Turrentine reviews Tom McCarthy's "Satin Island."

Laura Collins-Hughes also reviews McCarthy's new novel.

NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari's top 10 books for March for her BBC Culture book column include new novels from T.C. Boyle, Mario Vargas Llosa, Kazuo Ishiguru, David Vann and Cara Black.

Leora Skolkin-Smith reviews Beverly Gologorsky’s "Stop Here."

Philip Belcher reviews Steve Scafidi's "The Cabinetmaker's Window" and "To the Bramble and the Briar" in Southern Humanities Review.

NBCC board member Steven Kellman reviews Mohsin Hamid's "Discontent and Its Civilizations."

Michael Lindgren reviews Kim Gordon's "Girl in a Band."

Kai Maristed reviews "Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry" by Paul Celan.

Michelle Schingler reviews "Prayers for the Living" by Alan Cheuse.

Lori Feathers reviews "The Architect’s Apprentice" by Elif Shafak. Feathers also reviews "When the Doves Disappeared" by Sofi Oksanen.

"The Whites" by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt, reviewed by Paul Wilner.

Michelle Lancaster reviews "The Shipwrecked: Contemporary Stories by Women from Iran." She also reviews Rashid al-Daif's "Who's Afraid of Meryl Streep?"

Sebastian Stockman reviews David Graeber's "Utopia of Rules."

Ellen Akins reviews "She Weeps Each Time You're Born," by Quan Barry.

Martin Riker examines some experimental fiction.

Janette Currie reviews "The Lovers of Amherst" by William Nicholson.

30 Books in 30 Days: Walton Muyumba on David Brion Davis’ ‘The Problem of Slavery’

by Walton Muyumba | Mar-02-2015

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 Walton Muyumba offers an appreciation of nonfiction finalist David Brion Davis' "The Problem of Slavery" (Knopf).

Among the finalists in the nonfiction category, there’s a fascinating exchange about political economies, social revolutions, and the truths of contemporary human experience.  Though the authors’ concentrations range from animal extinction and climate change to the literary artist as pawn in Cold War machinations; from the stagnation and decline of middle class wealth to the tragicomic labor drama and human calamity of miners trapped in the earth, David Brion Davis’s historical narrative of slavery in Western culture overlaps and links all aspects of that conversation. In "The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation," Davis suggests that slavery is both the cornerstone of and the fundamental challenge to the basics principles of New World nation-building -- labor and production, citizenship and human rights.

In its variations, “The Problem of Slavery” has been Davis’s specific topic for the last fifty years.  His award-winning studies, "The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture" (1966) and "The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution" (1975), set the standard for thinking about slavery as a central conundrum in the development of Western philosophy and in conceiving theories of political freedom.  Davis’s oeuvre suggests he is our foremost philosopher-historian on violence, morality, murder, slavery, democracy, human nature and citizenship.

Culminating his study with "The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation," Davis opens this work with an analysis of Enlightenment thought and the practice of animalizing Africans as justification for enslaving them.  As usual, Davis writes with a comprehensive knowledge of the American historical tradition, citing everyone from C. L. R. James and John Hope Franklin to Drew Faust Gilpin and Walter Johnson.  In forceful, elegant prose, Davis details how Africans, reduced to chattel status, rejected animalization through escape to maroon communities and revolt.  And once free, those former slaves fought alongside free blacks petitioning for the abolition of slavery, enforcing black humanity, and staking claims to freedom, independence, and citizenship from Haiti to Maryland to Brazil.

“In dealing with slavery and its subsequent antiblack racism, there has always been a danger of exaggerating a kind of passive victimhood that elicits white pity as well as contempt for a ‘damaged black psyche.’ The image of blacks as psychologically damaged victims can reinforce the belief in white superiority and has in fact been used to oppose racial integration and civil rights . . . [T]he central pathology is a white pathology intent on animalization as a form of projection for the benefit of whites of all social classes. If this psychological exploitation resulted in some black internalization and even pathology, it also evoked black resistance, from the time of slavery to the thousands of ex-slaves in the South who were routinely arrested for ‘crimes’ like vagabondage and were then leased out by states to work in mines, plantations, and factories, to say nothing of the later blacks who refused to sit in the back of a bus or to step off a sidewalk to make way for white superiority.”

Undermining mythologies of white superiority, black savagery, and passive black victimhood with powerful stories of black nationalist ideologies and black resistance movements, Davis explains that “moral progress seems to be historical, cultural, and institutional, not the result of a genetic improvement in individual human nature.”  "The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation" asks us to realize that the abolition of chattel slavery in the New World “represents a crucial landmark of moral progress that we should never forget.”  Davis’s excellent study compels us to draw concentric links from Toussaint Louverture and Frederick Douglass to the burgeoning human rights movements awakening in America today. 


Drew Gilpin Faust in The New York Review of Books.

Eric Foner in The Nation.

Steven Hahn in The New Republic.

Brenda Wineapple in The New York Times.

James Oakes in The Washington Post.

Simon Lewis in the Post and Courier.

Walter Johnson in Dissent.

Eric Hershthal in The Daily Beast.

February, 2015

30 Books in 30 Days: Eric Liebetrau on Roz Chast’s ‘Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant’

by Eric Liebetrau | Feb-26-2015

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 Eric Liebetrau offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist Roz Chast's "Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant" (Bloomsbury).

Caring for aging parents is a difficult, frustrating, messy, expensive, and time-consuming proposition, utterly exhausting on every level. While a parent’s physical decline is tough to handle—the aches, pains, declining hearing and vision—the mental erosion is often the most heartbreaking aspect of the endeavor. To watch someone you love slowly fade out of their essential character is one of life’s cruelest struggles.

In the early 2000s, beloved New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast began to experience all of these feelings and more. In her revelatory, pitch-perfect and—yes—often-hilarious graphic memoir of that time, she masterfully captures the kaleidoscopic array of emotions involved in the caregiving for her 90-something parents. The author’s trademark style—a distinct blend of wry gallows humor and heightened awareness of her own, and others’, idiosyncrasies—is on full display, but this book is much more than just a collection of cartoons. At time where graphic novels and memoirs are finally receiving the acclaim they deserve, Chast sharply demonstrates the potency of expression that the format allows.

Humor and pathos intermingle freely—and in just the right proportions—but Chast is never mawkish or overly sentimental. She is honest and understandably distraught, and she is not afraid of airing her own shortcomings.

“Meanwhile, my father lived with us,” she writes after chronicling her mother’s transfer to an assisted living facility. “Any Florence Nightingale–type visions I ever had of myself—an unselfish, patient, sweet, caring child who happily tended to her parents in their old age—were destroyed within an hour or so.”

When it became apparent that both parents required assistance beyond her abilities and had to leave their apartment in “DEEP Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of people who have left behind everything and everyone,” Chast “began the massive, deeply weird, and heartbreaking job of going through my parents’ possessions: almost 50 years’ worth, crammed into four rooms.”

Here, the author briefly shifts formats, delivering pages of actual photos of the accumulation of stuff over those years in their cramped, grimy apartment, including “random arts supplies,” hundreds of pencils, a drawer of jar lids, and decades-old first aid supplies—not to mention whatever is molding in the fridge. It’s the perfect complement to the text-and-cartoon portrait of her parents she paints throughout the narrative, a portrait she echoes later when her mother is near the end, “existing in a state of suspended animation. She was not living and not dying.”

In the last few pages of the book, Chast includes a showcase of her pencil drawings of her mother as she took her last breaths in 2009. These pages sit in stark contrast to the dynamic emotional roller coaster that has unfolded over the previous 200 pages, a fitting, understated closing frame to a story that, though universally relatable, has rarely been as powerfully rendered. For anyone going through a similar situation, skip the end-of-life self-help shelf and pick up this book instead.


Kirkus review of the book, which won the 2014 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.

New York Times review

Guardian review.

San Francisco Chronicle review.

NPR interview.

Chast’s appearance at Politics & Prose.

30 Books in 30 Days: Colette Bancroft on Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’

by Colette Bancroft | Feb-24-2015

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 Colette Bancroft offers an appreciation of fiction finalist Lily King's "Euphoria" (Atlantic Monthly Press).

Lily King's "Euphoria" is inspired by cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead's books about her groundbreaking field work in the South Pacific in the early 20th century. Mead, an accomplished, influential academic and an adept popularizer of science, had a gift for portraying anthropology as both intellectual pursuit and human drama.

King's book, though, is not a biography. It's a novel, and a splendid one. She bases her three central characters on Mead and two other notable anthropologists, Reo Fortune (Mead's second husband) and Gregory Bateson (her third), all of whom did field work among tribal cultures in New Guinea in the 1930s. The plot of "Euphoria" plays out very differently from the arc of Mead's real life, but the novel embodies many of the challenges and issues she faced in its compelling, intelligent story.

"Euphoria" opens in New Guinea in the early 1930s with husband-and-wife anthropologists Nell Stone and Schuyler Fenwick, called Fen, fleeing their five months' stay with the Mumbanyo, a warrior tribe only lately persuaded to (mostly) give up their traditional practice of cannibalism. "Sometimes you just find a culture that breaks your heart," Nell says.

Nell and Fen had chosen to study the Mumbanyo because they were trying to avoid invading the turf of another anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, whom Fen resents for his large reputation. As soon as they reach the town of Angoram, though, they find themselves at the same party as Bankson, and to their surprise he offers to take them to the Tam, a tribe he believes will be a rich subject.

Bankson narrates many of the chapters in "Euphoria" (others are Nell's notes or third-person accounts). "I was raised on Science as other people are raised on God, or gods, or the crocodile," he tells us, and he is not only passionate but thoughtful about his work. "Anthropology at that time was in transition, moving from the study of men dead and gone to the study of living people, and slowly letting go of the rigid belief that the natural and inevitable culmination of every society is the Western model."

Bankson is also terribly lonely, haunted by memories of his two brothers, one dead in World War I, the other a suicide. Just days before running into Nell and Fen, he had been rescued by tribesmen from his own suicide attempt. So he quickly forms an attachment to the couple that is based at first on shared professional interests but soon turns into an intense attraction to Nell.

Bankson is insinuating himself into a marriage that already has fault lines. Nell has recently published her first book, "The Children of KiraKira," and it has been a success and a scandal — recalling Mead's best-known book, "Coming of Age in Samoa" (1928), which shocked Western readers with its account of the acceptance of casual sex among adolescents in a Samoan village. Fen, on the other hand, has published a single monograph, and his resentment of Nell is even stronger than his envy of Bankson.

King takes an unusual tack in portraying this romantic triangle — it's very much about not just libidos but minds, and the author merges that with smart observations about the nature and methods of anthropology. Nell and Fen have very different approaches to their work. She makes herself a part of the daily life of those she studies: "I am learning the chopped rhythm of their talk, the sound of their laughter, the cant of their heads." Yet while she plays with kids and chats with women, she is always filling notebooks, sometimes ten a day. Fen, however, "didn't want to study the natives; he wanted to be a native. His attraction to anthropology was not to puzzle out the story of humanity. ... It was to live without shoes and eat from his hands and fart in public." Bankson, it turns out, is the kind of guy who gets turned on by watching Nell take notes.

What might back in Sydney or New York or London have been a private entanglement proves, in the remote jungles of New Guinea, to have much larger reverberations. Just as the anthropologists are studying the Tam, the Tam are studying them, and the collision of cultures turns tragic.

The last dozen pages of "Euphoria" are filled with searing shocks, and the book's final image is an anthropologist's acute observation of a tiny scrap of material culture that breaks the heart.


Emily Eakin's New York Times review.

Ron Charles' Washington Post review.

Laura Miller's Salon review.

Roundup: Ander Monson, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Lynda Barry, and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Feb-23-2015

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


Elaine F. Tankard reviews Ander Monson's recent book, "Letter to a Future Lover."

NBCC board member Steven Kellman reviews "The Train to Crystal City."

Megan O'Grady interviews five-tour veteran Elliot Ackerman, author of a debut novel about the Afghan War, "Green on Blue."

NBCC board member David Biespiel's latest Poetry Wire.

Randon Billings Noble reviews Lynda Barry's new book, "Syllabus."

Lori Feathers reviews "The Tower" by Uwe Tellkamp.

Mike Berry digs into the archives to review Mike Smith's 1975 book, "The Death of the Detective." He also reviews Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, and Karen Lord, and interviews Jonathan Lethem.

Julie R. Enszer reviews Helen’s Humphrey’s "The Evening Chorus."

Joe Peschel reviews Quan Barry’s first novel “She Weeps Each Time You’re Born."

War Crimes 101/Tortured Reports, from Robert Birnbaum.

Jim Ruland reviews Tom McCarthy's new novel "Satin Island" for the Los Angeles Times.

At, Alexia Nader explores Rachel Holmes' biography of Eleanor Marx.

Clifford Garstang's review of "Truth Poker" by Mark Brazaitis appeared at Peace Corps Worldwide.

Carol Iaciofano reviews the noir novel "Serpents in the Cold" for WBUR's The ARTery.'

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