Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: 2019 Fiction finalist

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Knopf)

Lost Children Archive is at once a compelling, beautifully articulated novel and a profound, unsentimental composition on exile. An estranged husband and wife, along with the husband’s ten-year-old son and wife’s five-year old daughter (all unnamed), embark on a road trip from New York City to Arizona. The husband is relocating there for his project to gather the lost sounds of the Apaches. Meanwhile the wife, expecting to return to New York with her daughter, begins work documenting the experiences of “lost children”—kids beyond our southern border who undertake dangerous journeys to be reunited with family in the U.S. but often never make it.

Through their respective projects both husband and wife seek to recapture the essence of these exiled groups by gathering the traceable fragments of their transitory presences. Lost Children Archive incorporates samples from actual literary works, music, photographs, maps, and official records into its narrative. The novel’s intertextuality, the way that these items communicate with and relate to Luiselli’s story, is masterful.

This is a family suspended in liminal states of time, geography and emotional commitment. The vast empty spaces of the American Southwest symbolize this not only for the family but also for the exiled Apaches of the past and immigrant children of the present. All share the experience of traversing this land, so empty and large, yet without room for them. As the novel progresses the private tragedy of the family’s quiet destruction and the public horror of the forced separation of immigrant parents from their children, converge.

While on the road the family makes an intentional detour to a New Mexico air strip where officers are directing immigrant children onto a plane that will remove them from the country.This scene lays bare the cruelty of the U.S. government’s policy and our country’s pernicious legacy of practicing exclusion as a means of asserting superiority over those we deem “other.” Luiselli’s novel is both an eloquent work of art and an indictment of our numbed complacency to injustice.

— Lori Feathers

Reviews from the NBCC. Awards are around the corner!

Zora Neale Hurston. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1938.

NBCC friends and members: Our awards are coming March 12! The awards are free, followed by a post-awards celebratory fundraiser with drinks and snack and literary luminaries. Get tickets  now.


Collette Bancroft reviewed the Zora Neale Hurston story collection Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick for the Tampa Bay Times.

Martha Anne Toll reviewed Philip Kennicott’s Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning for NPR.

Heller McAlpin reviewed Julian Barnes’ The Man in the Red Coat for NPR.

Christoph Irmscher reviewed Nina Amstutz’s Caspar David Friedrich: Nature and the Self  (Yale University Press) for the Wall Street Journal.

Ben Yagoda reviewed Citizen Reporters by Stephanie Gorton for the Wall Street Journal.

Gaiutra Bahadur considered Hazel Carby’s 2019 book Imperial Intimacies in the Nation.

Board member Carolyn Kellogg (that’s me) reviewed Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch for the Los Angeles Times.

Former NBCC Emerging Critic Jennie Hann interviewed Teddy Wayne about his new novel, Apartment, for the Los Angeles Times.

Elias Rodriques reviewed Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s Imperial Liquor and Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ Living Weapon for the Poetry Foundation.

Grace Lichtenstein reviewed Home Making, the debut novel by Lee Matalone, for Bookpage.

Jean Huets reviewed Where You’re All Going: Four Novellas, by Joan Frank, in Ron Slate’s On the Seawall.

Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein reviewed David Enrich’s Dark Towers at the New Republic.

Michelle Newby Lancaster reviewed Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth for Lone Star Literary Life.

David R. Altman published a review of Remember Henry Harris by Sam Heys, in the Braselton (Ga.) News.

Kathleen Rooney reviewed Alison McGhee’s The Opposite of Fate for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Julia M. Klein reviewed Justus Rosenberg’s memoir, The Art of Resistance, for the Forward and Jill Wine-Banks’s memoir, The Watergate Girl, for the Boston Globe.

Hamilton Cain reviewed Amnesty by Aravind Adiga, running this weekend in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Why We’re Polarized  by Ezra Klein for O, the Oprah Magazine.

Tobias Carroll reviewed Marian Womack’s The Golden Key for Tor.com and wrote about the works of Charles Portis, who died Feb. 17, for Inside Hook.

Caroline Tew reviewed Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas for the Harvard Crimson.

John Domini reviewed And I Do Not Forgive You, short stories by Amber Sparks, for the Washington Post.

Rachael Nevins wrote about coming of age, dissent and Abigail by Magda Szabó at Ploughshares.

Eric Nguyen reviewed Real Life by Brandon Taylor for Ploughshares; Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lại for diaCRITICS; andThe Starlet and the Spy by Ji-Min Lee, translated by Chi-Young Kim, for Spectrum Culture.

Alison Buckholtz reviewed Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley: A Memoir for the Florida Times-Union.

K.L. Romo interviewed Tori Eldridge about her novel The Ninja Daughter at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Nina Schuyler interviewed Ann Harleman about her novel Tell Me, Signora at Fiction Advocate.

Heidi Seaborn interviewed Victoria Chang (NBCC Board member) about her new poetry collection Obit in the The Adroit Journal.

James H. Scott reviewed David M. Rubenstein’s The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians for Wellington Square Books.


Board member Tess Taylor has two books of poetry out this spring: Last West, a book length collage poem that is also a part of the Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures Exhibition at MoMA (up through May 9); and Rift Zone from Red Hen Press.

Meg Waite Clayton’s The Last Train to London is a Jewish Book Award finalist.

John Domini was interviewed in Rain Taxi about his novel The Color Inside a Melon and also discussed the book with Lance Olsen in Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

Joan Gelfand had four poems published in Synchronized Chaos this month.

Former board member Linda Wolfe has died, her family has shared on social media. Wolfe published several works of fiction nonfiction, including Wasted: The Preppie Murder, which was a NY Times notable book in 1989. She was an active member of the NBCC, including serving on the board of directors, for more than 40 years.


NBCC members: Send us your stuff! Your work may be highlighted in this roundup; please send links to new reviews, features and other literary pieces, or tell us about awards, honors or new and forthcoming books, by dropping a line to NBCCcritics@gmail.com. Be sure to include the link to your work.

Manual for Survival by Kate Brown: 2019 Nonfiction finalist

Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future by Kate Brown (Norton)

It’s been thirty-three years since the accident at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, and despite millions in relief funding, extensive local research and the collapse of the Soviet Union, details about the scope of the disaster are still largely unknown. Never forthcoming about its failures, Moscow withheld information from the public, and partly as a result, a 2006 UN report put the official fatality count at just fifty-four. Manual for Survival, MIT professor Kate Brown’s powerful investigation into the long-lingering effects of radiation in the region, upends decades of deliberate obfuscation with material based on years of meticulous archival and field research.

Over the course of the book, Brown takes radiation measurements at wool factories and forests (where blueberries picked for export still exceed normal levels) and pores through formerly closed state archives to put together a comprehensive picture of the catastrophe—and of the hundreds of thousands of people who were likely affected. As Brown’s narrative arcs through the marshes of Ukraine and slaughterhouses of Belarus, the scale of the fallout becomes increasingly clear, and even more shocking. Today, the millions of tourists who visit Chernobyl each year are outfitted with Geiger counters and told at the end of their visits that they received a dose of radiation equivalent to an hourlong flight.

So is the site still dangerous or not? Brown’s book uses concrete figures to blow past official excuses—it’s difficult to trace the causes of cancer; shoddy Soviet health care and governance made it impossible to get accurate numbers—and also exposes the American government’s refusal to contribute its scientific expertise on radiation. The field of Chernobyl studies is already full of standout books—Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl and Svetlana Alexeivich’s Voices From Chernobyl come to mind—but in combining scientific rigor with artful, dramatic pacing, Manual for Survival proves itself to be an exceptional addition.

— Jessica Loudis

The Tradition by Jericho Brown: 2019 Poetry finalist

The Tradition by Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press)

Which tradition? Whose? Jericho Brown presses these questions continually in the slender, subtle, wry, and beautiful lyric poems of The Tradition – but almost never in ways a reader might anticipate. The book considers subjects like police violence against black men (“Bullet Points”), the clarifying anger of parenthood in a society of such basic structural injustice as America (“A Young Man”), and of love too (“Of My Fury”). Yet at the same time, Brown tends to dwell on the very oldest subjects of poetry, reaching, with minimalist intensity, back into the parts of the tradition worth holding onto. Physical love. The mystery of our parents. The moon.

The result feels like a new path forward: the politics as identity as absolutely essential, rather than definitive. Brilliant silvery minnows of observation dart through The Tradition – “We few left who listen to the radio leave/Ourselves open to surprise” – and lend the book a strange joyfulness, given the frequent darkness of its topics. “I begin with love, hoping to end there,” Brown writes. It’s a line whose sad uncertainty recalls Larkin (or Villon, or Sappho) but which belongs inextricably in his case to the fundamental disquiet of the time into which he was born as a gay black man. Indeed, it might be his ethic. For all the battered tenderness of The Tradition, hope is its tonic note, flowering against the anger of the days – an instinct as old and as important to revere, Brown suggests, as the instinct to write in the first place. “None of the beaten end up how we began,” he writes. Still, he goes on, “A poem is a gesture toward home.” By fusing his experiences on earth with formal innovations of his own, Brown has created something startling and new. Whose tradition, you ask? His.

— Charles Finch

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman: 2019 Criticism finalist

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval by Saidiya Hartman (W.W. Norton)

Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is about the radical sexualities and the aesthetics of waywardness that young black women introduced into early twentieth-century American life. While key cultural figures such as Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, and fourteen year-old Eleanor Fagan (aka Billie Holiday) appear in these pages, Hartman’s narrative focuses on round-the-way girls, “gender-queer strollers,” lesbian chorines, and working-class intellectuals like Mattie Jackson, Gladys Bentley, Esther Brown, and Mabel Hampton — women overlooked historically and otherwise invisible in official archives.

Hartman opens her experimental book, explaining that she’s written from “the nowhere of the ghetto and the nowhere of utopia.” Hartman takes us “there,” to that elsewhere on the “margin,” that black, blurry nowhere in the wake of American history. There, the author argues, is the culture’s actual core, the very seedbed of American modernism: young black women yielding “a thousand new forms and improvisations” on love and liberation. Paying close attention to the “nowhere” Negro zones in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Philadelphia and New York, Hartman cycles through an array of photographs, police reports, prison case files, diaries, sociological studies, autobiographies, and personal correspondence in order to articulate the voices of radical black womanhood.

When Hartman calls this book an album, she means it doubly: it’s a thing to look at, to examine, and a thing to listen closely to. Note the troubling vision of Thomas Eakins’ African American girl nude, reclining on couch (ca. 1882) early in these pages. Hartman studies the image closely, enhancing and critiquing the cruel radiance it exudes. Employing a mode of close narration, Hartman inseparably relates her voice to the photographed girl’s. Here’s the author listening to this image. Hartman practices close reading, close listening, and close narration throughout in order to improvise what she calls the “fugitive” chorus informing the book. “[Y]ou can hear the whole world in a bent note, a throwaway lyric, a singular thread of the collective utterance. Everything from the first ship to the young woman found hanging in her cell . . . A tome of philosophy in a moan. In the deepest, darkest recesses of an opaque song, it is clear that life is at stake.”

Hartman’s gift for citing and interpolating sounds, notions, concepts, and ideas from poets, philosophers, novelists, art and literary critics, blues, jazz, and funk singers gives the work a rising trajectory, one that helps us imagine Sula Peace’s wayward decade and offers a kind of genealogy for Meshell Ndegeocello’s queer millennial funk. Thus, the book’s choral effect resonates concentrically, both directions at once, not leader and mass, but headless, propelling radical black transformations. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments moans sensually and philosophically, adding bright, round, gorgeous newness to the extended ring shout of the African American critical tradition.

— Walton Muyumba

The Queen by Josh Levin: 2019 Biography finalist

The Queen: The Forgotten Life behind an American Myth by Josh Levin (Little, Brown)

The “welfare queen” meme was built on a myth that Josh Levin takes to its gnarly, contradictory origins in his lucid and engaging The Queen.

The euphemism was often associated with Ronald Reagan in his failed 1976 presidential campaign, though he didn’t use those words. She was Reagan’s Cadillac-driving “woman in Chicago” with an income of $150,000 a year, who had claimed 80 names and 30 addresses to get food stamps, veterans benefits for nonexistent husbands, and other aid. As Levin writes, this was code for the “lazy, black con artist, unashamed about cadging the money that honest folks worked so hard to earn.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago reporter brought Linda Taylor to national prominence in 1974 in stories with headlines that dubbed her the “welfare queen.” That image fueled public hysteria about welfare abuse, and Reagan amplified her as an outrageous example of fraud.

In The Queen, a feat of investigative reporting matched with a deep understanding of history, Levin uncovers this creation myth that hardened into a stereotype and was deployed to chip away at benefits for the poor. But he does more than that;he subverts this image with his far more interesting portrait. While he writes a fascinating tale of how the myth was constructed, he also reveals Taylor to be a grifter, a thief, a kidnapper, and possibly a murderer — a damaged woman who was victimized, but who also victimized those more vulnerable than she.

From her myriad aliases, Levin reconstructs the life of the woman known as Linda Taylor from her 1926 birth in Golddust, Tennessee, and though sources as varied as old property deeds, court transcripts, police records, and the few who met her but didn’t really know her. Levin finds that the woman whose mother was white and her father black was listed as white on a census report, yet claimed to be white, Mexican or even Hawaiian. Victim and victimizer, she demonized black women in particular. Abused as a child, she abandoned her own children and is accused of selling others on the black market.

In his determined quest,Levin untangles the twisted story of a fascinating woman — known to some as Linda Taylor, both a perpetrator of crimes and a victim of them — and shines a klieg light on a moment in history.

– Elizabeth Taylor

Five Days Gone by Laura Cumming: 2019 Autobiography finalist

Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child by Laura Cumming (Scribner)

The central question at the heart of Laura Cumming’s book is what happened when her mother, at age three, was taken away from her parents on an English beach one autumn afternoon in 1929. As the author tries to solve this untangle what happened, another question emerges: Why do we so often see what we want to see, rather than what’s right in front of us? For Cumming the issue of perception, both visual and emotional, is central; in this thrilling, moving book, the author holds up both words and images for our consideration and reflection.

The child was returned to her parents after five days. She didn’t learn about her own kidnapping until decades later. She grew up to become a painter and a mother; her daughter, Cumming, an art critic — perhaps the ideal position from which to unpack a deep family secret, shrouded in silence for years. “We need images quite apart from anything else,” Cumming writes, “when we have no words.” As Cumming dives deeper into her mother’s story, she finds herself “paying more attention to the smallest of visual details — the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in a family album.”

“The lives of our parents before we were born are surely the first great mystery,” Cumming writes. It’s a curiosity that stems in part from egoism — how could the world exist before we do? — but also one that comes from love. The deep devotion of mothers and daughters runs through Five Days Gone like an underground river. Perhaps that love is what makes this book so compelling, bestows on it a kind of grace that allows, in the end, for no villains.

— Kate Tuttle

Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat: 2019 Fiction finalist

Everything Inside: Stories by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf)

Edwidge Danticat has been one of America’s most vital authors of fiction since the publication of her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, in 1994. In her work, she’s explored themes including family, loss and identity with sensitivity and subtlety, crafting characters who always seem real, sometimes painfully so.

She continues that trend in Everything Inside, a gorgeous short story collection that puts on display her keen insight into the needs and desires of people forced to reckon with difficult circumstances.

The eight stories in this book explore lives upended by loss. “In the Old Days” focuses on a teacher, Nadia, who travels to Miami to visit her dying father, whom she’s never actually met. Danticat beautifully examines how it feels to lose something you’ve never really had — she portrays Nadia’s loss in a heartbreakingly realistic way, never resorting to pathos or sentimentality.

In “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special,” Danticat follows Mélisande, a Haitian nanny in her early twenties who learns that she’s dying of AIDS. Her mother reacts to her diagnosis with a cruelty that masks her concern, and a doctor that she sees for treatment turns out to be a quack who prescribes her placebos. The story’s ending is harsh but lifelike; Danticat doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of everyday life.

The book’s standout story, “Sunrise, Sunset,” tells the story of Carole, a woman suffering from dementia, and her daughter, Jeanne, who’s dealing with postpartum depression after the birth of her child. Danticat expertly portrays the fraught relationship between the two, and ends with a powerful, and stunningly sad, moment of reckoning.

Every story in this collection showcases Danticat’s empathy and love for her characters, which never gets in the way of her commitment to realism — there are no forced happy endings, no unearned deliverances. The world, she seems to say, is unrelentingly harsh, which makes the rare moments of joy her characters experience all the more precious. Everything Inside is a stunning book, the best of Danticat’s remarkable career, and one of the best short story collections to be published in America in recent years.

— Michael Schaub

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin: 2019 Criticism finalist

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin (Transit Books)

No matter who you are, or what you have read before, I can guarantee you that you have not read anything like Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic. To say that you “read” it doesn’t even seem accurate to the experience of the book. You encounter her language like you encounter a strange object, the contours of which you aren’t able to trace just yet, not without returning to it again and again, settling into its peculiar curves. Tumarkin’s achievement is that she makes phenomena we have become overly familiar with — not just language, but also gun violence, genocide, persistent structural poverty — wholly unfamiliar, unsettling our assumptions about how trauma and the histories that shape our lives are transmitted.

In a time when our conversation around trauma has stagnated, circling around the notion that to be traumatized is to be stuck in place, or doomed to repeat history’s greatest tragedies, Tumarkin demands that we look closer at the lives of those we call “survivors.” By examining these lives — including her own — Tumarkin transforms the way we talk about history’s role in shaping our present. “How to speak of this beforeness?” she wonders. “How to speak of things passed on if they are not histories and habits so much as structures of feeling, also if its unclear who or what is doing the passing on, plus why? Cycles of abuse. Cycles of poverty. Intergenerational transmission of trauma. Sorry, no can do, I tried and the words stuck in my throat.” She examines current discourse on trauma and violence — and finds it completely lacking. Axiomatic is her astonishing attempt to reinvigorate that discourse, starting with the very language we use to discuss it. It is the most innovative, thrilling, daring work of criticism I read last year.

— Ismail Muhammad

Dozens of new reviews and more from the NBCC

A bookstore in Argentina. Photo by Michael Bamford via Flickr.

Richard Santos, whose term on the board begins next month, wrote about the American Dirt controversy for Texas Monthly.

Barbara J. King reviewed Lydia Denworth’s Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond  at the Washington Post.

Jim Ruland reviewed Little Constructions by Anna Burns for the Los Angeles Times.

Hamilton Cain reviewed the forthcoming novel Apeirogon by Colum McCann in the March issue of O, the Oprah Magazine.

Susan Coll reviewed The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John for the NY Times Book Review.

Andrew Ervin reviewed four books about WWII espionage for the NY Times Book Review and interviewed Amber Sparks about her new book And I Do Not Forgive You for Untoward.

Sarah Neilson reviewed Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers for the Believer; she also interviewed Jenn Shapland about My Autobiography of Carson McCullers for Bookforum and Lidia Yuknavitch about Verge for Cascadia Magazine.

Tobias Carroll wrote about Michael Zapata’s The Lost Book of Adana Moreau at Tor.com and reviewed Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness for Ron Slate’s On the Seawall.

NBCC Board member Victoria Chang reviewed Rick Barot’s book of poems, The Galleons, for On the Seawall.

Tara Cheesman reviewed Lux by Elizabeth Cook for On the Seawall and Seven Samurai Swept Away In A River by Jung Young Moon for Barrelhouse Magazine

Jocelyn McClurg talked to Sophie Hannah about Perfect Little Children for Kirkus.

For the Associated Press, Oline Cogdill reviewed The Burn by Kathleen Kent, Dead to Her by Sarah Pinborough and The Only Child by Mi-ae Seo.

Yvonne C. Garrett reviewed Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime By Women Writers, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, for the Brooklyn Rail.

Christine Brunkhorst reviewed Arthur Phillips’ novel The King at the Edge of the World for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Heller McAlpin reviewed Arthur Phillips’ The King at the Edge of the World for the Wall St. Journal and Jenny Offill’s Weather for NPR.

NBCC Emerging Critic Emma Hager reviewed Jenny Offill’s Weather for The Baffler.

Board member Carolyn Kellogg talked to Jenny Offill about Weather for Shondaland.

Nathan Webster talked to Sam Wasson about The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood for the Daily Beast.

Gerald Bartell reviewed Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock by Christina Lane for Newsday.

Elizabeth Lund wrote about love poetry for the Christian Science Monitor.

Michael J. McCann reviewed Into The Fire by Gregg Hurwitz for the New York Journal of Books.

Judith Reveal reviewed Inside the Critics’ Circle by Phillipa K. Chong for the New York Journal of Books.

Lanie Tankard reviewed Birder on Berry Lane by Robert Tougias for The Woven Tale Press.

Debby Bacharach reviewed Sandra Yannone’s poetry collection Boats for Woman for New Letters.


Member Joan Frank has two books coming out this month: Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place from Univ. of New Mexico Press and Where You’re All Going, a quartet of novellas, from Sarabande.

NBCC member Katherine Hill’s book with Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, and Jill Richards, The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism, was reviewed by Katy Waldman for The New Yorker and Jennifer Wilson for The New Republic. An excerpt of Katherine’s portion of The Ferrante Letters appeared in The Paris Review under the title “The Elena Ferrante in My Head.”

W. Scott Olsen interviewed Manolis Moresopoulos, Director of the Athens Photo Festival, for LensCulture.com.