Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

Critical Notes: David Sedaris, Julie Orringer, and Two Upcoming NBCC Events!

by Mark Athitakis | May-13-2019

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If you or someone you know wants to support the NBCC’s efforts but isn't a member, we’ve recently launched the Sustainer category. Sustainers are nonmembers who support the next generation of literary writers through our Emerging Critics program and keep our awards, events, and this website humming. More information about becoming a Sustainer is at our membership page.

On to the Links...

So, how’s the book review going? We don’t mean the one you’re working on---we’re sure that one is going just great. We mean the book review as a general endeavor. In response to a recent Harper’s cover story on the alleged death of the book review, Lit Hub invited 14 book critics to weigh in. Among the respondents are NBCC President Laurie Hertzel, VP of Communications Kerri Arsenault, and Emerging Critic Leena Soman.

Speaking of LitHub, we neglected to include a link to board member Lori Feathers’ review of Ali Smith’s Spring---an essay that launches her new column for the site, “In Context.” Ellen Akins also reviewed Spring for the Washington Post.

“When Notre Dame burned, I felt nothing. There’s no shortage of 12th century churches around Europe.” At the Tampa Bay Times, Collette Bancroft interviewed David Sedaris about his latest book, Calypso.

Ru Freeman reviewed Laila Lalami’s novel The Other Americans for the Boston Globe.

Robert Allen Papinchak reviewed Ian McEwan’s speculative tale of sex and robots, Machines Like Me, for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Alexander Kafka reviewed Lynne Olson's Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler. “Olson’s research is comprehensive, her writing crackling, and her story astonishing,” he writes. Kafka also reviewed Bee Wilson’s The Way We Eat Now for the Washington Post.

Tara Cheesman reviewed Virginie Despentes’ novel Pretty Things for Barrelhouse.

Former NBCC president Jane Ciabattari's May BBC Culture column includes new novels from Julie Orringer, Sarah Blake, an exhilarating debut memoir about a horse race across Mongolia. and a new story collection from Karen Russell, who " spins intricate sentences and pulls off head-spinning shifts, pushing language to its limits." Her recent Lit Hub/Book Marks columns feature exchanges with Leah Hager Cohen about novels with sprawling families and with Binnie Kirshenbaum about unforgettable novels about mental distress, including Rebecca West's Return of the Soldier, which explores post-World War I PTSD.

At the New York Journal of Books, Karl Wolff reviews Deborah Sengl’s visual adaptation of Karl Kraus’ play The Last Days of Mankind.

Balakian finalist Julia M. Klein reviewed two books on Emmett Till, Dave Tell’s Remembering Emmett Till and Elliott J. Gorn’s Let the People See, for the Chicago Tribune. She also interviewed Emily Jungmin Yoon about her poetry collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, for the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Eric Nguyen reviewed Richard Chiem's novel of “troubled, lonely humanity in the internet age,” King of Joy, for LARB’s diaCRITICS channel.

Michelle Newby Lancaster reviewed Oscar Cásares’ novel Where We Come From for Lone Star Literary Life.

Wayne Catan reviewed three new books about Ernest Hemingway in the Idaho Statesman.

Speaking of Papa: The busy Steve Paul reviewed Andrew Feldman’s Ernesto: The Untold Story of Hemingway in Revolutionary Cuba for Booklist. Paul also interviewed Tommy Orange (There There), winner of the NBCC's John Leonard Prize and the PEN/Hemingway Award, for a forthcoming issue of the Ernest Hemingway Society newsletter. And he writes about his current book project, a projected biography of Evan S. Connell, in a "Work in Progress" essay for New Letters magazine.

Paul Wilner reviewed Christian Kiefer’s novel Phantoms for Alta, calling Kiefer “an important literary voice coming into his own,” and reviewed Joshua Furst’s novel Revolutionaries, about the 60s US counterculture, for the website Splice Today.

Back in the present and one continent over, Brian Haman reviewed Charmaine Leung’s memoir of her roots in Singapore, 17A Keong Saik Road, for Singapore Unbound. He also reviewed Jun Yang’s exhibition The Artist, the Work and the Exhibition at Kunsthaus Graz for ArtAsiaPacific, and reviewed Chia-Chia Lin’s debut novel, The Unpassing, for the New York Times.

And speaking of international literature, Tobias Carroll contributed a few recommendations to Vulture’s list of 15 must-read translated books from the past five years. He also reviewed Paul Kerschen’s novel The Warm South for

Laverne Frith reviewed Ann Townsend’s “deeply engrossing” poetry collection Dear Delinquent at the New York Journal of Books.

The National Book Review ran a humorous piece by Rayyan Al-Shawaf about his novel's bumpy path to publication.

John Glassie reviewed Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee for the Washington Post, calling it a “rich, ambitious, beautifully written book.” In the Star Tribune, Claude Peck concurs, calling it “carefully researched and lyrically composed.”

Lastly, at On the Seawall, this week’s Critical Notes correspondent, board member Mark Athitakis, reviewed NBCC finalist Lia Purpura’s All the Fierce Tethers, a collection of essays that “circle around themes of death, fear, and loss, and how we use words to elide or erase our anxiety and mortality.”

NBCC Events

Please mark your calendars: On May 30 at Book Expo America at New York’s Javits Center, NBCC VP of events Carlin Romano will moderate “If Everyone’s a Critic, Is Anyone a Critic?” with the Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada, NBCC Emerging Critic Jennie Hann, and Alfred A. Knopf publicity director Nicholas Latimer. Don’t have a BEA pass? All NBCC members who would like to attend NBCC’s BEA panel on May 30th  can receive a free credential to attend BEA that day. Please RSVP by May 23rd to Carlin Romano, VP for Events, at

And on June 8 at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago, Lozada will appear in conversation with two NBCC and Pulitzer Prize board members who awarded him this year’s Pulitzer in criticism, Walton Muyumba and past President Elizabeth Taylor. They will discuss book criticism in the age of Goodreads and Amazon, and why it matters.

Member News

Grace Talusan’s debut memoir, The Body Papers, is out now and has been well-received by the New York Times, Nylon, Booklist, and Arkansas International.

Helene Cardona’s Birnam Wood, a translation of poetry by her father, Jose Manuel Cardona, was recently reviewed at Readers’ Favorite; two poems from the book are published and recorded at

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

Photo of David Sedaris by WBUR, used via Creative Commons license.

Revolution, Ali Smith and Reviews and Conversations From the NBCC

by Carolyn Kellogg | May-06-2019

Why do we delight in fictions created from the French Revolution? Tobias Carroll explores the frisson of fervor or schadenfreude (is there a French word for that?), paying particular attention to Edward Carey's novel Little, at Lithub. Also at Lithub: Fran Bigman talks to poet Deborah Landau about her new collection, Soft Targets, and in her column In Context NBCC board member Lori Feathers writes about Ali Smith and her latest novel, Spring.

Meanwhile, Spring is reviewed at NPR by Heller McAlpin, who reviews Anna Quindlen's Nanaville and Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me for them as well. She's often one of the busiest reviewers in the NBCC.

But this week even Heller can't compete with NBCC board president Laurie Hertzel, who in addition to all she does for us and running the books pages for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, reviewed John Connell's memoir The Farmer's Son; interviewed a high school poetry champion; wrote her weekly column about lending and borrowing books; and previewed Word Play, the new literary festival which will debut in Minneapolis next weekend.

Geez, all I'm doing is writing this before watching Game of Thrones.

Former NBCC board president Tom Beer reviews Sally Rooney's buzzy new novel Normal People alongside her debut, Conversations with Friends, at Newsday, where he's Books editor.

Jeffrey Ann Goudie reviews What My Mother and I Don't Talk About, a new and sometimes difficult essay collection edited by former NBCC board member Michele Filgate, at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where Claude Peck reviews screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's memoir Mama's Boy and current NBCC board member David Varno reviews Another Kind of Madness, the debut novel by Ed Pavlić.

Tess Taylor, also on the NBCC board, writes about four poetry collections at the NY Times: Doomstead Days by Brian Teare; Sight Lines by Arthur Sze; Brute by Emily Skaja; and Hold Sway by Sally Ball. Also a the NY Times, Brian Blanchfield reviews artist Chris Rush's Light Years, noting that the memoir "is less a queering of the wilderness than a wilding of queerness."

For the Wall Street Journal, Gregory Crouch reviewed The Impossible Climb by Mark Synnott. Hamilton Cain talked to David Brooks about his memoir The Second Mountain for Oprah Magazine. At The Rumpus, Martha Anne Toll talked to Kendra Allen about her essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet; Toll also reviewed Anna Merlan's book Republic of Lies for NPR.

In April, Robert BIrnbaum wrote about the baseball books of 2019 for the Washington Post. Also at the Washington Post, Daniel Asa Rose talks to former talk show host Craig Ferguson about his new memoir, Riding the Elephant

Local outlets are also covering books: At the Working Waterfront in Maine, Dana Wilde writes about author Agnes Bushell; Harvey Freedenberg writes about debut novelist Joel Burcat for The Burg, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Hélène Cardona reviews the poetry collection Howling Enigma by Rustin Larson for North of Oxford, a Philadelphia-based literary journal; and Paul Wilner writes about two biographies of journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht for the Jewish News of Northern California.

Wilner also reviewed A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie for ZYZZYVA. Wayne Catan talked to Chang-Rae Lee for The Hemingway Review blog. Julia M. Klein reviewed Defying Hitler by Gordon Thomas and Greg Lewis for The Forward and talked to Nicholas A. Cristakis about his book Blueprint for the alumni magazine Pennsylvania Gazette. NBCC board member David Varno wrote about Enrique Vila-Matas' Mac's Problem, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes, for On the Seawall. 

Lisa Peet wrote an essay about literary discovery for Bloom. Theodore Kinni reviewed Steven Rogelberg's The Surprising Science of Meetings for Strategy + Business. Patti Jazanosik reviewed the graphic adaptation of Anne Frank's diary by Ari Folman and David Polosnky for Consequence Magazine. Ellen Prentiss Campbell reviews debut novelist David Hallock Sanders' Busara Road at the Fiction Writers Review. At the New York Journal of Books, Michael J. McCann reviews Gray Day by Eric O'Neil and Emily Eternal by M.G. Wheaton.

Congratulations to Joan Frank, who will be heading to a residency at the Vermont Studio Center this summer, and to Rayyan Al-Shawaf, whose debut novel When All Else Fails is excerpted at Truthdig

And back to Tobias Carroll, who started us off; he also reviewed Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me and The Amateurs by Lisa Harman for 

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 

Image: The Toilette of Venus, 1751, by François Boucher, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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