Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

President’s Message to Membership: Choosing the #NBCCLeonard Awards

by Tom Beer | Jul-24-2016

Dear NBCC members:

With summer well under way, we're once again launching discussions for the John Leonard Prize.
The prize, named for the longtime critic and NBCC co-founder, is awarded every year for the best first book in any genre. Unlike the NBCC's other awards, it is not chosen by the board but by the membership at large. Previous winners - Anthony Marra's "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" (2013), Phil Klay's "Redeployment" (2014), and Kristin Valdez Quade's "Night at the Fiestas" (2015) - have all been fiction. But works of nonfiction and poetry are also eligible. All nominated titles must be an author's first-ever book in any genre, published in the United States in calendar year 2016.
To generate more discussion this year, members can write a short blog post about a favorite 2016 debut for the NBCC blog, Critical Mass. If you're interested in contributing, please contact Online VP Jane Ciabattari ( We hope this will be a lively forum for getting the word out about John Leonard Prize contenders. And, as always, please share your suggestions on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #NBCCLeonard.
In November, you'll receive an email via SurveyMonkey asking you to nominate your top 5 books for the prize. We'll compile those nominations to come up with a slate of the most nominated books.
This year, for the first time, we're inviting members to join an all-volunteer committee of Leonard readers who commit to read the entire slate of Leonard finalists (probably 5-7 books) and vote for the winner, to be announced in January. The Leonard committee is open to any NBCC member, and there is no cap on the number of members who may join it - all are welcome. We encourage you to participate actively in this important prize, which in a few short years has achieved serious recognition in the literary world.
If you're interested in joining the Leonard committee, please email board member Dan Akst (, who is chairing the committee. And as always, you're welcome to email me with questions and comments (
Happy reading, and we hope you'll be actively involved in the John Leonard Prize this year.
Tom Beer
NBCC Board President

National Book Critics Circle's Brooklyn Bookend Event
September 15, 2016, 7 pm at the Center for Fiction, 17 E. 47th St. New York City
The Ever Expanding World of Literary Criticism 
Writing about books-- starting conversations about a novel, a poem, a literary career-- combines passion with dedication. Five active literary and cultural critics, all members of the National Book Critics Circle board, discuss the art of writing about books. These panelists differ in background and experience; some write for legacy newspapers, others for online venues. All represent criticism as an engaging activity that challenges each to be perpetually in search of the new. 
Moderator: NBCC president Tom Beer, books editor, Newsday
Jane Ciabattari (columnist, BBC Culture, The Literary Hub; contributor, NPR)
Michele Filgate (contributor to the Los Angeles Times;  B&N Review; the  Literary Hub; and O, the Oprah magazine)
Michael Miller, editor at Bookforum
Walton Muyumba (contributor to The Atlantic, Dallas Morning News)
Kate Tuttle (contributor to The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, Salon)

“What Are You Reading This Summer?” [Part I]

by Carmela Ciuraru | Jul-18-2016

"I make it a summer tradition to re-read some Ashbery, who seems to suit the weather and my attendant mood; this year it's Rivers and Mountains and Houseboat Days. I just devoured Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat, a novella which completely subverts all ideas about the anguished female. Next, I'm reading Junichiro Tanizaki's Seven Japanese Tales, which, like his novels, rocked postwar Japan." --Kathleen Alcott, Infinite Home (Riverhead)

*"As always, the stack is taller than the months in summer, but here are a few at the top:  Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter. My little readerly heart rejoices in anything with sentences this carefully made.  She by Michelle Latiolias, who is my teacher from graduate school, and is much less known than she deserves to be and whose writing always snaps me back to what matters.  And The Door by Magda Szabo.  Everyone I trust says this is a glorious book."  – Ramona AusubelSons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (Riverhead) 

*"I'm teaching a new course on True Crime the fall, so I have a lovely pile of summer nasties. I'm a connoisseur, and it's very hard to find really well-written true crime - 90% of it is pulp journalism - but when it's well done, it can be mesmerizing. Some books in my pile are re-reads like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and Beyond Belief by Emlyn Williams, but some are new to me, like Resentment and Depraved Indifference, the second two books in Gary Indiana's true crime trilogy. (The first, Three Month Fever, about Andrew Cunanan, I could not put down.) There's nothing like lying in the sunshine reading about violent crime." --Mikita BrottmanThe Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison (Harper)

*"I am reading Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, by Jan Morris, as I just went there recently. I love it. When I'm done, I'm looking forward to reading Violation, by Sallie Tisdale; Reasons of State, by Alejo Carpentier; and lastly My Garden (Book), by Jamaica Kincaid." --Alexander Chee, The Queen of the Night (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

*"I just finished reading Chris Abani's The Face, which is a brief but profound, poetic memoir that I couldn't put down. I was taken by the equal measure of compassion, candor, vulnerability, and insight weaved into Abani’s story about race, culture, and family history, and even more so by the innovative metaphor used to frame the narrative--the face as the focal point of autobiography."--Nicole Dennis-Benn, Here Comes the Sun (Liveright)

*"This summer I plan to read Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend  (I haven't read her before and feel it will be a growth experience); Louise Erdrich's La Rose (I've read most of her books & loved them; she's a major influence on my writing); and Justin Cronin's The City of Mirrors (a highbrow vampire western--now what could be better for a beach read!)"--Chitra DivakaruniBefore We Visit the Goddess (Simon & Schuster)

"I recently read Saleem Haddad’s debut novel, Guapa, about a young gay Muslim man in an unnamed Arab city. The title is the name of the queer bar where the characters go to dance and hang out and be themselves. It’s a smart, thrilling book about the fault line between the personal and the political. It’s also an example of how fiction can tell stories that illuminate current events and the larger world. I’m now reading Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (which has the best the subtitle of the year). Franklin is as smart as her subject and writes with a similar glint in her eye. This is the biography Jackson deserves. And then two books I want to read again: Known and Strange Things, the first book of non-fiction by the one and only Teju Cole; and Behold the Dreamers, a debut novel by the Cameroonian-American writer, Imbolo Mbue. I edited both before I left my job at Random House last year. I’ve been thinking about both writers this summer and look forward to holding their finished books and returning to their minds and words."--David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl (Penguin)

"I just finished reading a galley of Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, which was wonderful—warm and tender and necessary. I also recently read Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong’s stunning collection of poetry."--Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (Knopf)

"I’m reading, yet again, Goncharov’s great Oblomov  (“I am in rapture over Oblomov and keep reading it.” – Tolstoy); reading through the 20 novels by Wilkie Collins for a piece I’m writing; starting The Day of Judgment by Salvatore Satta (“That now improbable gift, for which one cannot be too thankful: a great European novel” – Susan Sontag); inching toward the bound galleys of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, Here I Am; and inclining toward Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash." --Robert Gottlieb, Avid Reader: A Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

"I'm looking forward to reading Drinking Mare's Milk On The Roof Of The World, a collection of travel essays by my peripatetic friend and Los Angeles Review of Books founder, Tom Lutz. My crime eyes are on Ghettoside by L.A. Times reporter Jill Leovy. I'll be reading The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams, because I have waited too long to dig into her work (and I hear it's funny). And since I like to read a classic over the summer, this is the place to announce the following: the time during which I have not read The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox
Ford is drawing to a close." --Seth Greenland, I Regret Everything: A Love Story (Europa Editions)

"I started off my summer reading with the perfect summer book Ann Leary's un-put-downable new novel The Children. For the remainder of June I am reading June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. On deck for July is Siracusa by Delia Ephron, and Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. And coming in August, a new memoir from Nadja Spiegelman called I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This, which I am dying for (Nadja is the daughter of Art Speigelman and Francoise Mouly)!" --Julie Klam, Friendkeeping (Riverhead; her next book, on the nature of celebrity, will be out in 2017, also from Riverhead)

"So far this summer I've enjoyed re-reading Patrick Flanery's powerful first novel, Absolution, and a galley of Javier Marías's forthcoming novel, Thus Bad Begins. I think Marías is probably my favourite living novelist, and in this new book he captures something that I think Rachel Cusk managed to offer so wonderfully in Outline — an insight into the art of listening.  Next up I'm reading Jana Prikryl's debut poetry collection, The After Party, and I'm also excited about two graphic narratives — Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner, and an early copy of Kristen Radtke's Imagine Wanting Only This." --Jonathan Lee, High Dive (Knopf) 

"Since the novel I am currently writing is set in the mid-20th century, I’ve put myself on a strict diet of literature written from the 1930s to the 1960s. The 1950s pile, which I’ll be tackling over the summer, includes Irish Murdoch's Under the Net (1954), Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins (1954) and Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956) and Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959)." --Gavin McCrea, Mrs. Engels (Catapult)

"So far this summer I've read some wonderful books: Little Labors, a clutch of brilliant vignettes about motherhood and writing by Rivka Galchen; Grief Is A Thing With Feathers by Max Porter, which is so exciting in its form and so heartbreaking in its moments, and Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack, the best new Irish novel I've read in some years. In new novels, I've just started My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. I'm looking forward to Annie Proulx's Barkskins (how would anyone not look forward to a new sentence by Annie Proulx, let alone a new novel?!), to Sabina Murray's Valiant Gentlemen, and to Every Kind of Wanting by Gina Frangello. I'm also planning to catch up on Mira Ptacin's memoir, Poor Your Soul, from which people keep tweeting photographs of pages with almost every word underlined." --Belinda McKeon, Tender (Lee Boudreaux Books)

"I really want to read End of Watch, by Stephen King. I've read the other two novels of the Bill Hodges triology, and I'm curious to see how it ends. And The Fireman by Joe Hill. I read one of his other novels (Horns) and loved it. Also, Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith. As soon as I heard about this book, I wanted to take a look. Right now, I'm reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Great novel!" --Raphael Montes, Perfect Days (Penguin Press)

"I'm definitely going to read Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others; Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts; Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, volume three; Elias Khoury, Gate of the Sun; and some of Being and Time by Heidegger. And whatever else calls to me!" --Rick Moody, Hotels of North America (Little, Brown)

"I'm intrigued to see how Lindsay Hatton's debut novel Monterey Bay combines the origin of an aquarium with John Steinbeck. Also I'm excited to pick up Emma Straub's Modern Lovers, covering among other things adulthood, which I'll have to figure out at some point; and Cahterine Banner's The House at the Edge of Night, dramatizing generations on a tiny island in Italy." --Matthew Pearl, The Last Bookaneer (Penguin)

"The book I’m most excited about this summer is coming out at the very end of the season: Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue. It's a novel about the 2008 financial crisis and collapse of Lehman Brothers from the differing perspectives of a banking exec and his Cameroonian immigrant chauffeur. I'm dying to get my hands on an advance copy!" --Camille Perri, The Assistants (Putnam)

"I want to pack a bag full of poetry. I want to spend a lot of time with The Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich (Norton) and Eileen Myles’ I Must be Living Twice (Ecco Press). I want to read Alice Oswald’s new collection, Falling Awake (Cape) and Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet). I’ll also pack some novels. I’m excited to read Eimear McBride’s Lesser Bohemians. And there are one or two of the Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlö Martin Beck crime novels that I haven’t read, and every summer I promise myself I’ll finish the series. I hope my vacation is like a long poetry party with the occasional Swedish policeman wandering in for a stiff drink." --Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (Graywolf)

"This summer I’m planning to read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer,  which people can’t stop raving about.  I’m also going to devour Free for All  by Kenneth Turan.  It’s a juicy oral history of the Public Theater in New York.  Meanwhile, I’ll continue with my self-improvement project of reading and highlighting twenty pages a day of Bryan Garner’s Modern English Usage.  Garner is a highly opinionated prescriptive grammarian, and his book is endlessly fascinating and addictive." --Maria Semple, Today Will Be Different (Little, Brown; forthcoming in October '16)

"My nightstand and every corner of my office is teetering with books I’m hoping to read this summer. I’ve just finished Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, which is a perfect summer literary escapist read, sexy and fun. I’m looking forward to Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. And I intend to finally read Montauk by Max Frisch, Still Life With Oysters and Lemons by Mark Doty, and reread Mrs. Dalloway." --Dani Shapiro (her fourth memoir, Hourglass, will be published next year)

"I am reading Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, a kaleidoscopic, vivid, highly detailed rendering of the confusion and disaffection that characterized American culture in the post-Watergate/post-Vietnam era.  It tracks the political mood of the country as it goes through its various reckonings, while it also tracks the stealth rise of Reagan through the 1976 Republican convention. The book is particularly good at showing how a moment of cultural soul searching can be suppressed by a demented dream of American innocence." --Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others (Scribner)

"I just turned the final page of Jennifer Haigh's Heat and Light. I feel bereft, the way you do when a book astounds you and you're not sure how the next one can possibly compare. The novel explores fracking through the eyes of everyone from the CEO of an energy company to a small-town farmer who sells the rights to his land without reading the fine print. Haigh is a master of multiple points of view. She manages to take on the themes of addiction, gender, faith, activism, greed and social class, exploring them all with complexity and offering no easy answers. I've been telling everyone, even strangers on the F train, to read this book immediately." --J. Courtney Sullivan, The Engagements (Vintage)

"This summer I’m superdoop excited to read Michelle Latiolais. Her last book, Widow, slayed me. She breaks my dumb heart every time, and I’m looking forward to her breaking it again with her latest, She. And I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Ramona Ausubel’s new novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. Her stories and sentences surprise me in the best ways—imaginative, fun, insightful and sad all at once." --Matt Sumell, Making Nice (Henry Holt)

"Just started Garrard Conley's memoir, Boy Erased. And I'm planning to read Lori Ostlund's After the Parade; Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries; Susan Barker's The Incarnations, and a poetry collection, Robin Coste Lewis's Voyage of the Sable Venus." --Naomi Williams, Landfalls (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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