by Michael Schaub | Feb-24-2017
In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Michael Schaub offers an appreciation of fiction finalist Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone (Liveright).
The title of Adam Haslett’s unforgettable second novel comes from a scene early in the book, when John, a businessman who has struggled most of his life with mental illness, embarks on a boat trip with his two youngest children, Celia and Alec. He decides to give them a test-- he kills the engine of the boat, lies down and closes his eyes. “Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you,” he instructs his children. “What do you do?”
John’s goal, it seems, is to prepare his children for a worst case scenario. And eventually that’s exactly what happens, though it doesn’t involve two kids in a motorless boat at sea. Not long after, he walks into a forest and slits his wrist. He’s gone; there’s no need to imagine it. And he’s left behind his wife, Margaret, and his three children, Michael, Celia and Alec.
The rest of the novel spans decades, and the point of view switches between John’s widow and kids. Margaret tries to occupy herself with her work in a library, but John’s ghost is never far from her mind. Alec, prone to panic as a child, works as a journalist in New York, sometimes indulging in anonymous gay sex. Celia moves to California, finding work as a social worker. And Michael -- brilliant, quicksilver Michael -- finds himself unable to work a steady job; he’s beset by his own mental illness.
Imagine Me Gone succeeds on just about every level that a book can. Haslett has a keen eye when it comes to family dynamics; every conversation in the novel comes across as authentic, filled with the affections and annoyances that are common when children talk to parents or siblings talk to one another.
And though the book takes depression as its chief subject matter, it’s also, at times, extremely funny. Most of the humor comes courtesy Michael, a manic genius with a gift for writing. One of his chapters takes the form of a fake medical questionnaire, where he lists his treatment goals as “ordinary unhappiness” and “racial justice.” Under the field for “Current Symptoms,” he simply writes, “Yes.”
Haslett’s greatest accomplishment, though, is his writing about “the monster,” which John calls his depression. “There is no getting better,” John reflects. “There is love I cannot bear, which has kept me from drifting entirely lose. There are the medicines I can take that flood my mind without discrimination, slowing the monster, moving the struggle underwater, where I then must live in the murk. But there is no killing the beast. Since I was a young man, it has hunted me. And it will hunt me until I am dead. The older I become, the closer it gets.”
It’s a stunning novel, written with compassion, and it ends where it has to -- Haslett is a fearless writer, refreshingly unafraid to confront darkness. That’s not to say there’s no light in Imagine Me Gone; it is, in the end, a book about love and about survival. And it’s unquestionably one of the truest and most beautiful novels of 2016.
Bret Anthony Johnston’s review in The New York Times Book Review.
Heller McAlpin’s review on NPR.
Lara Feigel’s review in The Guardian.
Michael Schaub is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to
NPR and the Los Angeles Times. His work has appeared in The New York
Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle,
The Guardian, and other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas
by Colette Bancroft | Feb-23-2017
In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Colette Bancroft offers an appreciation of biography finalist Michael Tisserand's Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White (Harper Collins).
In a surreal desert landscape, a tiny white mouse throws a brick at the head of a black cat. On impact, the cat lifts lightly off the ground, hearts floating in the air above its lovestruck head.
That image, and the story it suggests, might sound slight. But it was the heart and soul of Krazy Kat, a tremendously influential comic strip that ran for more than 30 years at a time when newspaper comic strips were among the most popular American art forms.
Its creator is the subject of Michael Tisserand's engaging, revealing biography, Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White.
The long list of comics artists who have revered Herriman as an influence includes Walt Disney, Charles Schulz, R. Crumb, Bill Watterson and Stan Lee. Herriman's fan base went way beyond fellow cartoonists, though -- to E.E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot, Jack Kerouac and Michael Chabon, not to mention Herriman's longtime boss, William Randolph Hearst, who kept Krazy Kat running in his newspapers from 1913 to 1944.
Yet today, 72 years after his death, Herriman and Krazy Kat are a footnote in our popular culture. Tisserand's book just might change that by bringing back into the conversation not only Herriman's remarkable artistic creation but his extraordinary, very American life story.
Herriman's adventures in newspapering in the early years of the 20th century are alone worth the price of the book. But Tisserand also gives the reader a critical biography, focusing on every stage of Herriman's brilliant, unique masterwork.
Krazy Kat's main characters were the title feline, a gentle soul whose gender was fluid; Ignatz Mouse, an irascible brick-flinger and all-around rascal with whom Krazy was hopelessly in love; and Offissa Pupp, a stolid bulldog in a police uniform who doted on Krazy and endlessly sought to throw Ignatz in the clink.
Krazy Kat was a marvel of sophisticated art and endlessly inventive use of language; Herriman regularly tossed in references to Shakespeare and Greek myth as well as popular culture.
In exploring the artist's life story, Tisserand reveals something that adds even more depth and complexity to the strip: Herriman came from a mixed-race New Orleans family that moved to California during his childhood and ever after passed as white.
Herriman attended white schools, worked on the white staffs of newspapers owned by Joseph Pulitzer and Hearst, married a white woman. Indeed, Tisserand tells us, his secret was never revealed in his lifetime; only in 1971, 27 years after his death, did his birth certificate with the designation "col." come to light.
All of the Krazy Kat strip's riffs on color and origin change shape, from Ignatz complaining a cup of coffee "isn't black" and Krazy telling him to look "unda the milk," to a strip about Krazy's birth, described as "a tale which must never be told, yet which everyone knows."
In Krazy, Tisserand tells that tale, illuminating one man's life and a corner of America's popular culture that seems as fresh as ever.
Colette Bancroft in the Tampa Bay Times.
Nelson George in the New York Times.
Glen David Gold in the Washington Post.
Colette Bancroft has been the book editor of the Tampa Bay Times, the Southeast’s largest newspaper, since 2007. She has reviewed books for the Times, the Arizona Daily Star and other publications for more than 25 years. Before she became a full-time journalist, Bancroft taught English and American literature at the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and the University of Arizona.
by Kate Tuttle | Feb-22-2017
In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Kate Tuttle offers an appreciation of biography finalist Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright).
Shirley Jackson became famous in midcentury America for her short story “The Lottery,” which unnerved readers from the moment it appeared in the New Yorker in 1948, and for a string of gothic novels, as well as her cheerful yet brutally honest essays about juggling four kids, pets, a house, and a husband. In this biography, Ruth Franklin gets at what makes Jackson both sui generis and familiar. Jackson’s fiction, Franklin argues, deserves to be considered as part of the “vibrant and distinguished tradition that can be traced back to the American Gothic work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James.” Jackson’s particular attention to women’s stories, along with her nonfiction work, mostly for women’s magazines, may have contributed to her unfairly diminished reputation as a serious literary writer. Franklin’s telling of Jackson’s life story is sensitively written and extremely absorbing; it also makes a persuasive case for readers to revisit and reconsider this important American writer.
The difficulty of being a woman and a writer is neatly illustrated in one anecdote Franklin tells in the book’s introduction. Arriving at the hospital to deliver her third child, Jackson is met by a clerk filling out paperwork. Asked for her occupation, she says she’s a writer. “I’ll just put down housewife,” the clerk replies. Born in 1916 to an English immigrant father and a San Francisco socialite mother, Jackson grew up in a family that didn’t encourage her literary pursuits – indeed, her scathingly critical mother didn’t seem to encourage her in much of anything. Jackson’s son recalls his grandmother as “a deeply conventional woman who was horrified by the idea that her daughter was not going to be deeply conventional.”
Jackson began writing as an unhappy high school student in Rochester, New York, where her family had moved from California. It was at Syracuse, where she was midway through her college career, that her future as both a writer and a housewife began. There she met Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would become a literary critic, professor, and her husband. Their life together was complicated; though they “shared an intellectually rich marriage and a warm family life,” Franklin writes, “he could be a domineering and sometimes unfaithful partner.” Her earliest reader and cheerleader, Hyman also resented Jackson’s literary success and undermined her confidence repeatedly. Jackson endured his flirtations and affairs with other women, including students. She felt alienated among the suburban women around her – part of the inspiration for “The Lottery” – and to some extent remained an outsider in the literary world. She suffered crippling anxiety, which morphed into full-blown agoraphobia in the final years of her life. The world Jackson lived in expected very little of her, but she managed to get an extraordinary amount of writing done before dying in 1965, at just 48.
Franklin writes with both authority and compassion about Jackson as both writer and woman. A good biography is always entertaining, and a great one – such as this – helps us understand the subject's era, her passion, her work, and something of her soul.
Kate Tuttle writes on books for the Boston Globe. Her reviews, criticism, and essays have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsday, Salon, and the Rumpus.
by Mary Ann Gwinn | Feb-21-2017
In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Mary Ann Gwinn offers an appreciation of biography finalist Frances Wilson's Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Thomas De Quincey (1785-1759) lived two centuries before his time. He wrote the first confessional addiction memoir. He was a literary groupie of the first stripe; his obsession with William Wordsworth transformed his life. And he may have been the first writer working in English to plumb the mind of a mass murderer.
“It was De Quincey who legitimized the luxurious excitement of murder, just as he legitimized, in his most famous work, ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater,’ the pleasure of opiates,” writes Frances Wilson in her absorbing, entertaining and essential biography “Guilty Thing." De Quincey’s essays on murder, including “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” “are now embedded in our culture; all subsequent literary murders have conformed to De Quincey’s taste,” she writes. “He had no interest in the fate of the victims or the skill of the police. De Quincey’s concern was with the mind of the murderer.”
The personal life of this brilliant, erratic man was a train wreck. Born into privilege, De Quincey squandered his inheritance and spent most of his life running from debtors (at one point De Quincy was in debt to a debtor’s prison). His family, including his wife and eight children, frequently teetered on the edge of starvation. Tiny, (4’11”) disheveled and horribly dressed, De Quincey was a frequent sight in London and Edinburg, wandering the streets, doped up and barely clad - only the support of several exceedingly tolerant friends kept him going.
His literary career was fired by his obsession with William Wordsworth. It took De Quincey four years to work up the courage to meet the poet – he once traveled by horseback 300 miles to Wordsworth’s Lake District cottage to make his introductions, then lost his nerve and turned back to Oxford. He wove in and out of William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s lives, falling out with them, then reconciling, again and again. He and Samuel Taylor Coleridge sustained a similar master-acolyte, love-hate relationship. De Quincey’s personal and literary entanglements didn’t end there - he became embroiled in some of the most heated literary feuds of the 19th century, but when all was said and done, among most of his friends, De Quincey remained an object of exasperated affection.
De Quincey’s mania was fueled by several addictions; the written word, opium, and murder. His family might be starving, but he could not, would not stop buying books. “Books and infinity were bound together for De Quincey, who ‘fell,’ he said, ‘into a downright midsummer madness’ at the thought of there being ‘one hundred thousand books’ that would never be able to read, or pictures that he would never see, or pieces of music that he would never hear.”
As for opium – well, he was in good company. The whole of England was “marinated in opium,” Wilson writes. The ranks of the addicted included a who’s who of 19th century England, from Coleridge to the British saint Wilbur Wilberforce to, towards the end of her life, Dorothy Wordsworth herself. The sheer quantity of opium, ingested through drinking laudanum, that De Quincey could absorb and still function was mind-blowing – but it was essential to his creative process. “Here was the panacea….for all human woes, here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered” De Quincey wrote in “Confessions:” “happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked-up in a pint bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down in gallows to the mail coach.” Despite a lifetime of self-abuse, De Quincey managed to live until age 74.
Finally, De Quincey spent much of his literary career visiting and revisiting a series of gruesome killings in London – the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, in which seven members of two families were slaughtered on one night in 1811. De Quincey’s writings on the subject influenced authors ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Baudelaire to J.G. Ballard, and his obsessions anticipated England’s fanatic following of the Jack the Ripper murders seven decades later. Modern true-crime classics such as “In Cold Blood” have a lineage that goes straight back to De Quincey.
“Guilty Thing” offers many pleasures. It’s a social analysis of the times De Quincey lived in and the recreation of the life of a true original. Wilson seems to have read and absorbed every piece of notable 19th century journalism, essay, or fiction that had anything to do with him, but the weight of this knowledge doesn’t’ sink the narrative - she has an ear for irony and humor, an eye for detail and an acute understanding of her subject. “Guilty Thing” recreates and revives a phenomenal personality whose influence, for good and ill, laps the shores of the 21st century.
Laura Miller in Slate.
John Sutherland in the New York Times.
Daisy Hay in The Guardian.
Mary Ann Gwinn writes about books and authors for The Seattle Times, Booklist and other publications.
by Carmela Ciuraru | Feb-20-2017
Your reviews seed this roundup. Please send items, including news about recent publications and honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. (Current members only.) Please send links that do not require a subscription or a username and password.
Leading up to our announcement of the NBCC award winners on March 16, 2017, you can check out the "30 Books in 30 Days" series here and at Lit Hub.
Minneapolis Star Tribune books editor (and NBCC board member) Laurie Hertzel writes about the dubious art of decorating with books.
Jonathan Clark reviews essay collections by David Orr, Stanley Elkin, and Betty Fussell for the New York Times Book Review.
Ellen Akins reviews "Autumn," by Ali Smith, for the Washington Post, and "Lincoln in the Bardo," by George Saunders, for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
NBCC Board Member Kate Tuttle writes about the NBCC nonfiction finalists for the Los Angeles Times.
Joe Peschel reviews Carlo Rovelli for the News & Observer, and Elan Mastai for the Houston Chronicle.
Heller McAlpin reviews Bill Hayes and Ali Smith for NPR, and Daphne Merkin for the Washington Post.
Chuck Greaves reviews Neil Gaiman's "Norse Mythology" and interviews mystery novelist Anne Hillerman for the Four Corners Free Press.
Dean Rader writes about Robert Motherwell, poetry, and politics for the Los Angeles Review of Books and reviews Dana Levin's "Banana Palace" for the Kenyon Review.
NBCC Board Member Colette Bancroft reviews George Saunders for the Tampa Bay Times.
Jim Ruland reviews Joshua Mohr's memoir, Sirens, and Jade Chang's debut novel, The Wangs vs. the World, for San Diego CityBeat.
NBCC Board Member Jane Ciabattari includes new books by George Saunders, Min Jin Lee, and Daphne Merkin (plus The Handmaid's Tale), in her latest Lithub column.
Alexis Burling reviews "Human Acts" by Han Kang for the San Francisco Chronicle.
NBCC Board Member Kerri Arsenault interviews Jill Schoolman at Archipelago Books for Lithub. Aresenault sold her narrative nonfiction book to Anna DeVries at Picador. USA WHAT REMAINS: A Community, a Paper Mill, An Inheritance, is about a small, working class town in Maine nicknamed "Cancer Valley" that for over 100 years orbited around a paper mill where most townspeople worked, including three generations of her family.
Former NBCC Board Member Rigoberto Gonzalez writes, in the Los Angeles Times, about the value of books in his life after he came to the U.S. with his family from Mexico.
by Laurie Hertzel | Feb-20-2017
In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist Kao Kalia Yang’s The Song Poet (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt).
Kao Kalia Yang’s second memoir, The Song Poet, begins in the mountainous jungles of Laos before the author was born and concludes in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the extended Yang family now lives. It is an intimate, melancholy book--poetic, evocative, and rich with history and sense of place.
“In the dawn, the sun came through the slits in the woven bamboo walls,” Yang writes, recalling her father’s youth in Laos. “I could smell the steam of the rice cooking. … My bare toes curled on the earthen floor, felt in its damp coolness the storm that had passed. … The leaves on the nearby bushes were wet with dew. The chickens were in the yard pecking at the worms that had surfaced in the storm. The air felt clean and crisp and wet. My body ached. I swallowed the air as if it were water.”
War thundered through this quiet place, “metal balls falling from the sky,” making soldiers of the men and widows of the women. The Hmong aided the American soldiers during the Vietnam War, helping them navigate the rugged terrain and fighting a guerrilla war against the Communists. But when the Americans pulled out, the Communists retaliated, slaughtering the Hmong and vowing genocide.
“The Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese soldiers entered the small villages and began transporting truckloads of Hmong men and boys. The soldiers said that they were to be reeducated, but the men and boys never returned. … [Mothers] found the bodies on the damp jungle floor, lying across the fallen leaves like broken logs.”
Yang’s father, Bee Yang, fled to the jungle, where he hid for three years. It was there he met and married his wife, Chue Moua. The couple eventually escaped across the Mekong River with their infant daughter, Dawb, and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for the next eight years. This is where Kao Kalia was born.
The book’s title comes from Bee Yang, who is a song poet, a traditional keeper of Hmong history, ritual and religion. He sings of the harvest, and of family, and “for all to walk together toward the future of a sun on the rise.” But he also sings of war, and of families displaced and fragmented, villages bombed.
Bee Yang made a recording of his song poetry in 1992. He hoped to do a follow-up record, but the expenses of raising a large family ate up the money. Kao Kalia Yang calls The Song Poet her father’s second album. She has structured it as such, with tracks instead of chapters, and album notes instead of an introduction and epilogue. The “A side” is in Bee Yang’s voice, and the “B side” is in Kalia’s. This odd and original structure works well.
The Song Poet is remarkable partly because it is one of the few books about Hmong life, culture and immigration. (Until Yang and her first memoir, The Latehomecomer, the most reliable book about the Hmong was Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.) But The Song Poet is also remarkable for its intimacy. The enormous, daunting task of starting over in mid-life in a new country, with a new language, culture, and expectations is depicted here in vivid detail.
In America, the Yangs’ lives are utterly changed. “We lived in cement housing projects in Minnesota, walked between walls of frozen snow, huddled in jackets that did not fit, shoulders hunched high against the bitter cold.”
Bee Yang finds overnight work as a machinist, where his health suffers greatly and he is paid less than his white counterparts. When he objects, he is fired. His wife tries to navigate the baffling world of American shops where even the simple task of buying a light bulb is made impossible. “My mother pointed to the high ceiling. She said, ‘Where is the thing that makes the world brighter?’ ” But the clerk doesn’t understand her broken English, and Chue Moua leaves empty-handed.
The book also examines the gap that forms between immigrant parents and their American children. Kao Kalia and Dawb assimilate quickly, learning English, coveting Tic-Tacs and fast food and new clothes. They grow embarrassed by their old-world, ground-down parents.
The Song Poet is a vivid examination of a people used, forgotten, and displaced. It is a testament to the strength of families. And it sends a striking and somber message that even after the doors of the United States open to refugees, their struggle is not over. In many ways, it is beginning all over again.
Mary Ann Grossmann in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Kevin Canfield in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
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.
by Tom Beer | Feb-17-2017
In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Tom Beer offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude (Bloomsbury).
Within hours of being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in July of 2014, Jenny Diski announced, almost wearily: “Well, I suppose I’m going to write a cancer diary.” That skeptical note—“I suppose”— is pure Diski. As she observes in the opening pages of In Gratitude, the bracing memoir fashioned from her columns in the London Review of Books, “Isn’t the cliché of writing a cancer diary going to be compounded by the impossibility of writing in it anything other than what has already been written, over and over? Same story, same ending.” Well, in the hands of this sharply intelligent and quick-witted English writer, the author of Stranger on a Train, Skating to Antarctica, and other titles—the cancer diary becomes not just a grim march of treatment successes and failures, but a penetrating examination of the author’s present and past, written over the course of her last two years. (Diski died in April of 2016, at the age of 68.)
She begins by cracking a joke in the office of the oncologist— her “Onc Doc”—after the fateful news is delivered. “So—we’d better get cooking the meth,” Diski says to “the Poet” (husband Ian Patterson), a Breaking Bad reference that leaves the doctor and nurse stone-faced. (Did they simply not get it, Diski worries, or had she already resorted to a platitude, the “Contemporary International Smart Cancer Joke”?) She turns the cancer clichés over and over in her mind, resisting them while acknowledging that they are sometimes inevitable—and yet must be resisted just the same. The notion—dreadful to her— of “being on a journey.” Or that she must start a campaign and “dance the tango for a very long time, in return for money for cancer research.” And: “Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.”
But the experience of cancer is but one part of this cancer diary. The other is Diski’s untangling of her relationship with Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Golden Notebook and many other books, who in the early 1960s invited Diski, then a classmate of Lessing’s son, to live with them. Diski’s own parents had proven woefully unfit, and after being sent to a psychiatric hospital and expelled from school, Diski went to live with Lessing at her house in Kings Cross, London. Lessing is given an almost novelistic depth of character here: imperious, prickly, inclined to grand altruistic gestures but uncertain how to deal with a real teenage girl. (She made Diski a character in two of her novels, Memoirs of a Survivor and Briefing for a Descent Into Hell.) The two inevitably clash and fall apart, but even after Lessing’s death, Diski is still trying to ascertain the exact nature of their relationship and of her debt to this older woman, neither foster mother, savior, nor friend. Which brings us to that sly title, In Gratitude, dangerously close to ingratitude. Again, pure Diski.
Though Diski wrote 17 books, including fiction, nonfiction and memoir, she notes that all her work is, to some degree or another, autobiographical. “I can’t use my eyes to see things,” she writes, “without my eyes knowing that what they see is conditioned by what I’ve known and what I’ve been. Ditto my mind to think things.” The 60-something woman going through chemotherapy is conditioned by the troubled teen who grappled with that famous author. Diski’s eyes and mind are given a full workout here, her searching and unflinchingly honest final book.
Tom Beer is the books editor at Newsday, and a former editor at Out magazine. He can be found on Twitter @TomBeerBooks. He was elected president of the NBCC board in 2015; his term on the board ends in 2019.