Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

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. 

 

REVIEWS:

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.

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.

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From the Critical Mass blog

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

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

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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

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