February, 2018

30 Books in 30 Days: Tom Beer on Joan Silber’s ‘Improvement’

by Tom Beer | Feb-16-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Tom Beer offers an appreciation of fiction finalist Joan Silber’s 'Improvement' (Counterpoint).


Some writers wow us with verbal pyrotechnics and wildly outrageous scenarios. Others ply their trade more quietly — relying on subtle language and profound insight into human nature, making art of everyday lives. Joan Silber belongs to the latter category, and nowhere are her gifts on better display than in her seventh work of fiction, 'Improvement.'

A novel that might also be classified as a tightly woven collection of linked stories, 'Improvement’s' eight chapters circulate out from Reyna, a tattooed single mom in New York. Reyna has a rambunctious four-year-old, Oliver; a free-spirited aunt Kiki; and a boyfriend, Boyd, spending three months on Rikers Island for selling four ounces of pot. When he gets out of jail, Boyd and some friends devise a plan to smuggle cigarettes from Virginia to New York and make some easy money. It’s a harmless enough scheme, but one that will have serious ramifications for these characters and others.

Chance, accidents, random encounters: The mysterious workings of fate are one of Silber’s great themes here — what else could bind this loose assemblage of characters together? So, too, is ambition, as the title, 'Improvement,' suggests. Reyna, Kiki, Boyd, and the others seek to improve their circumstances, both romantic and monetary. Silber views their strivings with an empathetic tenderness.

That authorial stance is reflected in the prose of 'Improvement,' which is colloquial and knowing and seemingly effortless. There is not a wasted word in all of the novel’s 227 pages, which nevertheless contain multitudes. Comparisons have been made to Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Lucia Berlin, Ali Smith — and this is certainly the company in which Silber belongs. 'Improvement' is the work of a great American literary voice. 



NBCC Balakian winner Charles Finch in The Washington Post.

Kamila Shamsie in The New York Times Book Review.

Tara Ison in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Rabeea Saleem in the Chicago Review of Books.

NBCC board member Tom Beer in Newsday.

Tom Beer is the books editor of Newsday and a past NBCC president

30 Books in 30 Days: Bethanne Patrick on Camille T. Dungy’s ‘Guidebook for Relative Strangers’

by Bethanne Patrick | Feb-15-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15, 2018 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Bethanne Patrick offers an appreciation of criticism finalist Camille T. Dungy’s 'Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History' (W.W. Norton).


What does it mean to be black in America? We’ve had many—but never enough—books written about this in the past few years. We haven’t had one written by a woman, mother, and poet like Camille T. Dungy, whose 'Guidebook to Relative Strangers' takes a lyrical, nonlinear approach to the question of reconciling her race to her place in the world. Most of the pieces that make up this book involve the title’s journeys, trips that she takes with her young daughter Callie Violet as she attempts to speak truth about everything from wild plants and nourishment, to the power and freedom names can hold.

One of the fiercest chapters, “A Shade North of Ordinary,” has to do with a trip Dungy and her daughter make to Maine. “Maine’s history is my history, too” she writes in a deceptively casual tone, sharing milestones like the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 that ended a territory dispute between the US and Great Britain and called for the suppression of the slave trade off the coast of Africa. “Let me repeat that last bit,” Dungy writes. “A bloodless border skirmish between lumberjacks in far northeastern Maine. . .led to a treaty that called for the United States to ‘effectually at once and forever’ commit to curtailing the demand for African slaves.”

In every journey she makes, Camille Dungy is the woman on whom nothing is wasted, a person who inhabits her body, skin, and soul, and also a keen artist whose sorrow at the world as it is never quite kills its beauty. Towards the book’s end, mother and daughter meet an older woman in Ghana. Callie, in this story an active preschooler, has been acting out a bit, and Dungy is embarrassed. The Ghanaian woman says “This one knows how to take care of herself. . .She’ll be okay, no matter what happens.” It is a benediction from one side of the horrific Middle Passage to the other. The water is wide, but Camille Dungy has crossed it with grace and truth.

Bethanne Patrick, one of Flavorwire’s “35 Writers Who Run the Literary Internet,” reviews frequently for The Washington Post and NPR Books. She is working on a memoir for The Counterpoint Press.

30 Books in 30 Days: Carlin Romano on Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s ‘The Girl from the Metropol Hotel’

by Carlin Romano | Feb-14-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15, 2018 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Carlin Romano offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s 'The Girl from the Metropol Hotel' (Penguin Books).


Russian lives remain miserably hard unless you’re a member of Putin’s elite or the coddled, complaisant upper-middle class. But the challenges pale before life in the Soviet Union. Every flower of Russian culture that pushed through the rock-solid cruelty of that regime counts as a miracle.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, now acknowledged at 79 as one of Russia’s pre-eminent writers, suffered enormously as a child. After her family became “enemies of the people,” she ended up abandoned by her father, left behind for four years by her mother. At times starving, shoeless, covered with lice, her belly swollen from lack of food, she rifled through garbage, ate glue and begged on the street, accosting passersby with a signature line: “No mommy, no daddy, please help.”

From the memories of that brutal time, and her slow rise afterwards, she has delivered in 'The Girl from the Metropol Hotel' (a caustic title, noting her birth in better circumstances), a powerful, unsentimental testament to the will of a would-be artist.

“I could tolerate hunger,” Petrushevskaya writes of her girlhood self, “but I couldn’t tolerate lack of freedom.” Her steely, wry personality comes through in the titles of some of her best-known fictions: T'here Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby;' 'There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself,' and 'There Once Lived a Mother who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In.'

In this spare, stern memoir, she brings her finicky free spirit and tough, ironic sensibility to the stark indignities that formed her.

Carlin Romano, Prof. of Philosophy and Humanities at Ursinus College, is a former Fulbright Prof. of Philosophy at St. Petersburg State University in Russia.

30 books in 30 days: Lori Feathers on Alice McDermott’s ‘The Ninth Hour’

by Lori Feathers | Feb-13-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Lori Feathers offers an appreciation of Alice McDermott’s 'The Ninth Hour' (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).


Alice McDermott’s dazzling novel, 'The Ninth Hour,' turns on the moral contradictions that confound our need to become reconciled with mortality. The empathetic characters, at once agents and benefactors of Christian charity, grow to realize not just the grace but also the hubris of their faith. McDermott’s story opens in early twentieth century Brooklyn with the suicide of a young Irish man whose death leaves his pregnant wife Annie alone to raise their first child. Nuns from a neighboring convent quickly sweep into Annie’s life providing spiritual comfort and a steady job for her in the convent’s laundry room. Annie’s daughter, Sally, grows up among the nuns, a favorite target of their affections and favors. Sister Jeanne, who works alongside Annie, develops an especially close bond with the pair. As Sally grows older she believes that it is her calling to become a nun like Sister Jeanne. At the same time Annie becomes emotionally and physically involved with a man whose wife is an invalid. Sally’s and Sister Jeanne’s love for Annie causes the women to examine their uncompromising ideas of sin and morality, culminating in the ultimate act of sacrifice.

'The Ninth Hour' is a stunning work of generational storytelling that is compulsively readable and deeply thought provoking. McDermott is a master artisan of humanity.   

Lori Feathers is a freelance book critic who lives in Dallas, Texas. Her reviews are published in several online and print publications including The Rumpus, Full Stop, World Literature Today, and Words without Borders. She is a fiction judge for the Best Translated Book Award, and the book buyer and co-owner of Interabang Books in Dallas.

Critical Notes: Zadie Smith Gives “Dance Lessons for Writers”

by David Varno | Feb-12-2018

Walton Muyumba reviewed Zadie Smith's latest collection of essays Feel Free for the Los Angeles Times.

Katherine A. Powers' monthly audiobooks reviews for the Washington Post included No Justice, in which a black man shot by a white police officer tells his story, and more.

Mary Ann Gwinn interviewed Steve Coll about Directorate S: The C.I.A. and American Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan for The Seattle Times

Tayari Jones' An American Marriage was reviewed by NBCC board member Anjali Enjeti for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and by Meredith Maran for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Tom Beer introduced new books by Zadie Smith, Francisco Cantú and Elizabeth Crook for Newsday.

Laurie Hertzel reviewed Sandra Allen's A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise and five gardening books. She also wrote about Little Free Libraries and the treasures within, and--non-book-related--wrote chapter two of a puppy column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

For Tablet, Erika Dreifus reported on the inaugural winner and honor titles of the Association of Jewish Libraries Jewish Fiction Award.

Emerging critic Taylor Brorby reviewed Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet in Newsday. 

Heller McAlpin reviewed Lisa Halliday’s Symmetry for The Barnes & Noble Review and Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am for NPR.

Michael Magras reviewed A Girl in Exile by Ismail Kadare for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Feel Free by Zadie Smith for the Houston Chronicle.

George de Stefano reviewed October by China Mieville for PopMatters.

Rebecca Kightlinger reviewed V.S. Alexander's The Taster for Historical Novels Review.

Bob Hoover reviewed Denis Johnson's The Largesse of the Sea Maiden for the Dallas Morning News.

David Cooper reviewed Veronic Gerber Bicecci's Empty SetGrace Lichtenstein reviewed Francisco Cantu’s The Line Becomes a River, and Karl Wolff reviewed The Familiar, Volume 4: Hades and Volume 5: Redwood, by Mark Z. Danielewski for the New York Journal of Books.

Mythili Rao reviewed Elizabeth Flock's The Heart is a Shifting Sea for The New York Times.

Maureen Corrigan explored the themes within Rachel Lyon's Self-Portrait With Boy for KSMU Radio.

Paul Wilner talked with Anne Raeff about her new novel, Winter Kept Us Warm.

Sarah Johnson reviewed Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum for the Historical Novels Review.

Moira Macdonald featured four books with different takes on love, for Valentine’s Day, in the Seattle Times.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson reviewed Thomas Pierce's The Afterlives for Barnes and Noble Review and Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse for the Washington Post. 

Robert Birnbaum spotlights “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” for Our Man In Boston.

Award Winners and Finalists

Autobiography winner Hope Jahren's Lab Girl was chosen for the fifth annual Tosa's All-City Read Program. The book touches on the challenges and joys that women experience working in scientific research.

Yaa Gyasi spoke at the University of Michigan about her book Homegoing, winner of the John Leonard First Book Prize. 

The Mellon Foundation named Elizabeth Alexander, poet and writer, as the foundation's next President.

Nonfiction winner Carol Anderson spoke at OSU about her book, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of America's Racial Divide

Nonfiction finalist Kapka Kassabova talks about the stories of Bulgaria's haunted borderland from her book, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe.

Autobiography winner Ariel Sabar gave a lecture at the University of Colorado on his award-winning book My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq

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.

30 Books in 30 Days: Anjali Enjeti on Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’

by Anjali Enjeti | Feb-12-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Anjali Enjeti offers an appreciation of fiction finalist Arundhati Roy’s 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness' (Knopf).


Fans of Arundhati Roy’s superlative debut novel, 'The God of Small Things,' winner of the 1997 Booker Prize, eagerly waited two decades for the release of her sophomore novel.

It was well worth it.

In 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,' Roy spins another imaginative, and evocative narrative spanning the regions of the Indian subcontinent, one that recounts the ways identity, community and politics both collide and sustain one another.

The “ministry” at the heart of the book resides in a graveyard. The presiding minister is the unflappable hijra or trans woman named Anjam, formerly known as Aftab, who, after a celebrated career in entertainment, decides to leave the home she once shared with other hijras to embark on a different kind of life in the real world.  

Anjam is an inveterate counselor and patient listener who possesses a keen maternal instinct. When she opens the doors to her humble sanctuary, outcasts, loners, and rebels in search of refuge collapse at her feet and begin the process of healing old wounds. Among her quirky and engaging charges are the beguiling S. Tilottamma, a freedom fighter caught in a messy love triangle; Anjam’s loyal assistant Saddam Hussein, who is hell-bent on revenge, and Musa Yeswi, a fickle and impassioned Kashmiri nationalist.

In the graveyard, among the comforting spirits of her own ancestors, Anjam experiences a rebirth, one that allows her to finally come to terms with a brutal act of violence from her past, and contemplate the shape the rest of her life might take.

Roy’s prose is symphonic. Each delicate note evokes a nuanced examination of love, grief, and trauma. With a light touch, she nimbly unpacks the forces of privilege, caste and class, as well as the lingering repercussions of colonialism decades after partition. Her surprising choice of narrators – a landlord bemoaning unrequited love and a self-appointed town crier with a flair for writing – illuminate the ways in which mere bystanders become key actors in the destinies of others. In 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,' Roy has penned an epic tale that braids the themes of memory, history and family, in a novel that confirms her status as a visionary and master storyteller.


NBCC Board member Tom Beer for Newsday.

NBCC Board member Anjali Enjeti for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Bharti Kirchner for the Seattle Times.

Colette Bancroft for The Tampa Bay Times.

Anjali Enjeti reviews books for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Rewire News, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at the Etowah Valley MFA program at Reinhardt University.

30 Books in 30 Days: Tess Taylor on Kevin Young’s ‘Bunk’

by Tess Taylor | Feb-09-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15, 2018 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Tess Taylor offers an appreciation of criticism finalist Kevin Young’s 'Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News' (Graywolf Press).


In this remarkable, rangy book, poet and critic Kevin Young zooms through American culture from the age of P.T. Barnum to  the age of Donald Trump, crafting a timely history of hoax. He examines humbug from a variety of angles, trying to unearth our national fascination with all things fake, and our perverse love of being faked out itself, or “humbugged” as P.T. Barnum would have put it. Leading with a question “Is there something especially American about the hoax?” Young examines how America has been defined by and even addicted to the fakery and sleight of hand associated with certain lies—the lie of race, for instance, which is among the most powerful and defining imaginaries we Americans each now live with every day.

In a Barnum’s era of “swindlers, forgers, imposters…. and cheats”, Young also finds the roots of eugenics, fake science, science fiction, worlds fair side shows, conspiracy theorists and even cultish, disturbing hoaxers like Rachel Dolezal and Jayson Blair.  By giving us a framework to understand the stakes of fakery, Young also offers us a timely codex by which to read the current moment in all its slippery discontents.

Young’s writing is heady, and he leads us into the strange cult of so-called reality television and toward the strange instabilities of the era in which we now live. 

Tess Taylor’s chapbook of poems, The Misremembered World, was selected by Eavan Boland and published by the Poetry Society of America. Her poetry and nonfiction have since appeared in The Atlantic, Boston Review, Harvard Review, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Yorker. The San Francisco Chronicle called her first book, The Forage House, “stunning” and it was a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award. Her second book, Work and Days, was named one of the year’s 10 best books of poetry by the New York Times. Tess is on air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered, and is has just completed a term as the Distinguished Fulbright in residence at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre of Queens University Belfast.

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