March, 2015

Critical Notes: AWP15 in Minneapolis, Awards Recap, Latest Member Reviews, and More

by Carmela Ciuraru | Mar-23-2015

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.

* * * * * * * * * *

Join the NBCC at AWP15's featured reading (April 9th, 4:30 pm) with Jayne Anne Phillips, Lily King and Anthony Marra:

Revisiting the 2015 NBCC awards:

Toni Morrison on the power of book critics.

Video of the NBCC finalists' reading.

Video of the NBCC awards ceremony.

Rita Dove's homage to Toni Morrison.

Announcement of NBCC awards recipients.

Alexandra Schwartz on winning the Balakian award.

Phil Klay on winning the John Leonard Prize.

*Member reviews:

NBCC President Tom Beer on the latest memoirs in Newsday. 

NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari on NPR's Weekend Edition talking about poet Jill Alexander Essbaum's first novel, Hausfrau. Julia M. Klein's review of Hausfrau for the Chicago Tribune. Klein also reviews Barney Frank's political memoir for the Boston Globe.

Joan Gelfand on Carol Smallwood's poetry collection.

Chuck Twardy reviews Kazuo Ishiguro. So does Angie Jabine.

Grace Schulman on Marilyn Hacker in Kenyon Review.

Terry Hong reviews The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot in the Christian Science Monitor. 

NBCC board member David Biespiel in The Rumpus.

Jim Ruland reviews Barry Gifford in the Los Angeles Times.

Dan Cryer on The Last Word, by Hanif Kureishi.

NBCC board member Joanna Scutts reviews Jacob Silverman's "Terms of Service" and 'The Battle of Versailles,' by Robin Givhan.

NBCC board member Carmela Ciuraru on Find Me, by Laura van den Berg, in the New York Times.

Michael Magras on The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips.

David Duhr on Keija Parssinen's The Unraveling of Mercy Louis for the Dallas Morning News.

Michelle Newby reviews Crepuscule W/ Nellie by Joe Milazzo for The Collagist and Elizabeth Harris's Mayhem for Lone Star Literary Life.

2013 Balakian winner and new NBCC board member Katherine A. Powers reviews Elliott Ackerman's Green on Blue and John Boyne's A History of Loneliness.

Andrew Cleary on Jacob Silverman's Terms of Service in the Christian Science Monitor.

Robert Birnbaum interviews Anthony Doerr. 

Chris Barsanti on Richard Price's "The Whites" for PopMatters.

Larry Smith on Jane Hirshfield.

James Gibbons on Fred Moten.

Gerald Bartell on Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

‘A Wild Faculty of Sorts’: Toni Morrison on the Power of Book Critics

by Toni Morrison | Mar-19-2015

On Thursday, March 12, Toni Morrison accepted the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof award for lifetime achievement. She mesmerized the packed house with her presence. Here is the text of her remarks; video is here. And Rita Dove's introduction is here.

The founding of NBCC in the early seventies was a singular idea.  The collective intelligence of John Leonard, Ivan Sandrof and Nona Balakian was not merely unique, it was welcome and it was needed.  A wild faculty, of sorts, dedicated to books and their scrutiny. Passionate, eager to laud and reward the best.

As the years passed this organization became more than unique; it became necessary. Publishing and writers were expanding, facing new challenges of distribution and finance. And in the mix of those challenges more astute and wide-ranging criticism fortunately surfaced.

Finally, now the National Book Critics Circle is far more than unique or necessary.  It is urgent.  The publishing world is in even more flux, facing new modes of distribution; bookstores disappear; companies merge to avoid collapse.

I am delighted and honored to join the long and distinguished list of authors and accept this Lifetime Award.  It means a lot to me.  When I published my first novel, the reception was slight, indifferent, even hostile.  I remember being chided for writing "just to avoid cliché."  I thought that was a compliment, but apparently not.  Whatever the point, the novel was not taken seriously—until, that is, John Leonard read it and took it very seriously indeed.  It wasn't about whether he liked "The Bluest Eye"; it was that he gave it his best judgment on the book's literary merit.  I will always be grateful to him for that.

I'm unclear what the category was, in 1972—Afro American, Black, African American—but I do remember books written by black writers were given their own shelves in bookstores, just like women's books and detective stories.  It was unlikely for my book to be shelved alphabetically.  Which is not to say authors objected to that convenience or that customers did not appreciate it; it is to say the same separation existed in the criticism.  Those were the days when a book of poetry by a Black writer; a novel by a black writer and a collection of essays by another black writer were reviewed together in one article, and the reviewer (white) could and did decide which among those three separate genres was the best.  I recall during my days at Random House choosing to schedule books by black writers in separate seasons, simply to avoid the cluster.  All or almost all of that has changed now.  Angela Davis' autobiography is no longer compared to Gayl Jones' novel "Corregidora."  Toni Cade Bambara's collection of short stories is not paired with Huey Newton's essays "To Die For the People." And, happily, Muhammed Ali's autobiography is not evaluated or measured against "Soledad Brother," or George Jackson's "Blood in My Eye."  James Baldwin is not paired with August Wilson.

Much of that conflation and the mixing of genres according to race has disappeared, a disappearance primarily due to the labors of literary critics in this organization.  

The National Book Critics Circle has grown and eagerly faces the challenges and opportunities of contemporary publishing.  Online books, blogs, self-publishing, e-books, new and small presses, shuttered bookstores and a general move of the newspaper industries preference to light entertainment and gossip.  Yet these changes do not deter the National Book Critics Circle's agenda—in fact, it works to confront, alter and expand the possibilities of publishing, the training of young writers and working with other literary communities.

The list of authors who have been awarded the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Award is judicious and enviable—I am delighted to be among them.

The recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, Toni Morrison has been a powerful catalyst in reshaping literary culture over the past half century. Her lifetime of achievement includes much more than her canonical novels, honored with the 1977 NBCC fiction award for "Song of Solomon," the 1988 Pulitzer for "Beloved," and the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. During two decades as a book editor, Morrison brought into print the landmark narrative "The Black Book" (1974) and the work of Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones, among others. From her post-graduate days in the late 1950s, when she taught at her alma mater, Howard University, until 2006, when she retired from Princeton, Morrison has influenced generations of students. Her work as a cultural critic includes" Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination" and "What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction" (2008); she edited "Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word" and serves on the editorial board of The Nation. As a frequent public spokesperson for freedom of expression, the power of the written word, and the role of the artist, Toni Morrison has articulated a vision of the role of the writer that is both courageous and inspiring.

NBCC at AWP15 in Minneapolis: Celebrate Jayne Anne Phillips, Lily King & Anthony Marra

by Admin | Mar-17-2015

Join us at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis next month!

A Reading and Conversation with Jayne Anne Phillips, Lily King and Anthony Marra, Hosted by National Book Critics Circle Vice President/Online Jane Ciabattari, Sponsored by National Book Critics Circle
April 9, 2015
4:30:PM - 5:45:PM
Main Auditorium, Level 1, Minneapolis Convention Center (1301 Second Avenue South, Minneapollis, MN)

We'll celebrate Jayne Anne Phillips, a two-time NBCC fiction finalist for her 1984 novel Machine Dreams and her 2009 novel Lark and Termite; Lily King, a fiction finalist for her 2014 novel Euphoria, and Anthony Marra, the inaugural winner of the new NBCC John Leonard Prize for best first book, for his 2013 novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomona. All three will be reading from their work, and talking about the challenges of writing novels, including first novels.

Come visit the NBCC table, Booth 1201, at the Book Fair to meet NBCC members, board members and awardees, including David Biespiel, Jane Ciabattari, Grant Faulkner, Michele Filgate,  Rigoberto Gonzalez,  Laurie Hertzel, Karen Long, Anthony Marra, Monica McFawn, Joanna Scutts, Larry Smith, Tess Taylor and David Varno.

Video: NBCC 2014 Finalists’ Reading

by admin | Mar-17-2015

The National Book Critics Circle Finalists' Reading for publishing year 2014 was held at The New School in New York, NY on March 11, 2015.


Video by Kevin Kino

In Order of Appearance

Welcome: Luis Jaramillo, Director, The New School Writing Program

Opening Remarks: Laurie Muchnick, President, National Book Critics Circle


Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press)

Willie Perdomo, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon (Penguin Books)

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press)

Christian Wiman, Once in the West (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Jake Adam York, Abide (Southern Illinois University Press) (Reading by Sarah Skeen)


Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf Press)

Vikram Chandra, Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty (Graywolf Press)

Lynne Tillman, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (Red Lemonade)

Ellen Willis, The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (University of Minnesota Press) (Reading by Nona Willis Aronowitz)


Ezra Greenspan, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton & Co.)

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Ian S. MacNiven, “Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography (Bloomsbury)


Blake Bailey, The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Lacy M. Johnson, The Other Side (Tin House)

Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure (Random House)
Meline Toumani, There Was and There Was Not (Metropolitan Books)


Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book (Pantheon)

Héctor Tobar, Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine,
and the Miracle that Set Them Free (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)


Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press)

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Books)

Lily King, Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead Books)

Roundup: Hanya Yanagihara, Caryl Phillips, Kevin Sessums, Roz Chast, and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Mar-16-2015

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


The 2014 NBCC Awards were given out last Thursday night. Read our reviews of each finalist.


Marion Winik reviews "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara.

"Should an Author’s Intentions Matter?" Zoë Heller and Adam Kirsch debate whether an author’s intended meanings matter more than a reader’s interpretations.

Linda Simon reviews "The Lost Child" by Caryl Phillips.

"1965: 12 Months That Shook the World," reviewed by George de Stefano.

Julia M. Klein reviews Kevin Sessums' memoir, "I Left It on the Mountain" for Columbia Journalism Review.

In the Washington Post, Michael Lindgren looks at the NBCC award winners.

Daniel Mendelsohn asks, "Who was Sappho?"

Heller McAlpin reviews JC Hallman’s "B&Me." She also reviews George Hodgman’s "Bettyville."

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews Daphne Merkin's essay collection "The Fame Lunches." He also reviews "The Tusk that Did the Damage," by Tania James.

Morris Dickstein's new book, "Why Not Say What Happened?" reviewed in the New Yorker. Dickstein also received a review in the New York Times.

For her BBC Culture Between the Lines column, NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari picks the greatest year for literature ever.

Kerri Arsenault interviews 2014 NBCC Autobiography Award winner Roz Chast.

David Ulin examines what "City of Quartz" means for Los Angeles 25 years later.

Randon Billings Noble reviews "Ongoingness: The End of a Diary" for the A.V. Club.

Video: NBCC 2014 Awards Ceremony

by admin | Mar-15-2015

The National Book Critics Circle Awards Ceremony for publishing year 2014 was held at The New School in New York, NY on March 12, 2015.


Video by Kevin Kino

In Order of Appearance

Welcome: Luis Jaramillo, Director, The New School Writing Program

Opening Remarks: Laurie Muchnick, President, National Book Critics Circle

John Leonard Prize: Phil Klay, Redeployment (Penguin Press), introduced by Carolyn Kellogg

Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing: Alexandra Schwartz, introduced by Gregg Barrios

Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award: Toni Morrison, introduced by Steven G. Kellman and Rita Dove 

Poetry: Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press)

Criticism: Ellen Willis, The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (University of Minnesota Press)

Autobiography: Roz Chast, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury)

Biography: John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Nonfiction: David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (Alfred A. Knopf)

Fiction: Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Sandrof Award: Rita Dove’s Homage to Toni Morrison

by Rita Dove | Mar-15-2015

Homage to Toni Morrison on the occasion of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Book Critics Circle Awards Ceremony on Thursday, March 12, 2015 at The New School in New York City.

Good evening. Thank you, Steven Kellman and the Board of the National Book Critics Circle, for inviting me to introduce Toni Morrison as the recipient of this year's Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Although Toni Morrison certainly doesn't need an introduction per se, there can scarcely be too many celebratory tributes to one of the greatest novelists of our time and the only living American Nobel laureate in literature. I don’t have to rattle off Toni Morrison's many accomplishments and honors to those present here tonight. As book critics you are, by and large, deeply familiar with her works, and your organization was among the very first to publicly recognize the rising star when, in 1977, she received the National Book Critics Circle Award for "Song of Solomon."

In our age of factual information cascading from smart phones at the tap of a few buttons, you don't need me to refresh your memory with all the titles of our honoree's eleven luminous – and illuminating – novels and her numerous other works – the plays and essays and children’s books. I also assume you wouldn’t want me to whittle away minutes at this podium with a recitation of previous awards... although, I admit, it is tempting to mention at least a few – such as the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for "Beloved," the 1996 Jefferson Lecture, the National Humanities Medal in 2000, the honorary doctorate from Oxford and the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Although my personal panoply of greats – that literary Valhalla I call upon for inspiration— is heavily weighted in favor of the craft of poetry, Toni Morrison has always commanded a prime seat front and center, for she is not only a prose virtuoso but also a master of poetic sensibilities and lyrical language: Her influence on discourse, idiom and the vernacular has transformed our perception of the intricate paths to the interior consciousness – be it the thoughts of an illiterate slave or the harrowing logic fabricated by a father guilty of incest; of children whose souls have been damaged beyond the reach of pity and women ravaged by a longing so desperate that nothing short of annihilation will satisfy; of a ghost starved for love, of a town bent on its own brand of self-preservation. With an extraordinary poet's economy of idiom and her signature elliptical elegance, Toni Morrison has probed the crannies and tunnels of mental illness and the torment of war veterans shattered by the myriad possibilities for sabotage in the world; she has recreated the improvisational call-and-response of jazz, the see-saw proclivities of obsessive attraction and violence freighted with fear. And while birthing upon the literary stage a host of characters we, the readers, recognize as familiar and accept in the way of Family, from the praiseworthy to the quirky to the closeted, she has also been – subtly, cannily – at work on fashioning a new graph of American history whose many intersecting trajectories take us from the Anglo-Dutch slave trade through the ante-bellum insanities of Southern racial terror, from the Great Migration and 1920’s Harlem to the labor pains of the Automobile Age whose factories disgorged a glittering stream of chrome-trimmed fantasies from what are now the rust belt cities of the Midwest; from the L.A. cosmetics industry to a trailer parked outside of Whiskey, California.

A few days after I received Steven Kellman's call asking me if I'd like to pay homage to Toni Morrison tonight – an undertaking somewhat tantamount to introducing Athena, while she looks on with her gray eyes – my husband and I went to a dance – a milonga – at our local Argentine tango club. In an attempt to boost everyone's mood in the middle of a drear, chilly winter and as a nod to the Carneval season, everyone was asked to come masked. But when we arrived with our Venetian facial wear and harlequin confections, we quickly discovered that the masks got in the way of dancing – ribbons tangled, feathers snagged on gold braid trim, and with obstructed peripheral vision, balance was impaired so we teetered and wobbled. After a quick confab with the young man who had asked me for the second set of tangos – a newcomer to our town – we decided to ditch the masks; and as the bandoneon throbbed to Carlos Gardel singing about the kind of woman who can ignite an "instant violent love", my dance partner remarked, out of the blue: "Now that's some Toni Morrison love."  I was struck with speechless. But by the next day my curiosity had overwhelmed my hesitancy, so I asked this young man, via a Facebook message, what his first encounter with the books of Toni Morrison had been. His response was effusive and – there's no other way to describe it – grateful. He wrote:

I think I was 22 or 23—after college but before grad school. I went into a bookstore and had a sort of literary crisis. I felt that so many of the authors on the shelves were creating entire worlds and entire castes of characters that merely served as backdrops for the breakdown of yet another petty "I." Like all those books could be retitled "The Day *I* Was Sad." Then I picked up "Beloved." Faith in literature restored. What a genius Morrison is! I think so many novelists are like peacocks with their language, flourishing feathers and letting the reader know how smart and lyrical they are. But I think Morrison is able to do extreme lyric and yet be conversational at the same time. I wish I had found her work earlier. I want to know why she isn't required reading in school. Morrison has wisdom in abundance, along with lyrical and storytelling brilliance. I wonder how she does it.

And my tango-dancing friend ended with a postscriptum prompted by his wife of just a few months:

Now my wife wants to tell you about how she battled the Dominican obsession with Aryan features as a teenager but then encountered "The Bluest Eye" in high school. She says Morrison gave voice to all of her dissent and made her comfortable with it.

Four decades earlier I had fought a similar battle with myself and the strange environment I had chosen to immerse myself in when I attended the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop as its only African-American graduate student. As a young poet still trying to locate myself in the thicket of literary traditions, I often wandered the stacks, willing myself into unknown territory. I had yet to find myself, or at least an image I could identify with, in the pages of European and American literature; while most of the books concerned with Black America took place, by and large, either in the Deep South or in urban ghettos. What about the experiences and dreams of a black girl growing up middle class in middle America? I wondered. Was there no room, no mirror, for me? Then one day, deep in the bowels of the library, I stopped dead in my tracks. Something had caught my eye; I wasn’t sure what. There, just behind my left shoulder . . . I couldn't shake the feeling that a book was looking for me. Since it was spring, when such things happen, I didn't question the feeling; I simply turned around. And there it was, at eye-level, bound in black linen with peacock-blue lettering: THE BLUEST EYE, by Toni Morrison.

The library had removed all book jackets, so there was no biographical note, no blurb to give me a hint of the contents. The title intrigued me; I didn't know the author, but as soon as I opened the book and began to read, I was convinced that Toni Morrison, whoever she was, knew me, my people and where I came from – Akron, Ohio, one of the industrial towns sprinkled along the smudged neckline of the Great Lakes. By the time I finished the opening section – those three amazing paragraphs mimicking the eerie deadpan of primary school primers, variations on an American Dream gone horribly wrong – I was certain that this writer had also experienced, as I had, the "double-consciousness" which W.E.B. Du Bois defines as that "peculiar sensation ... of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." When I reached the sentence, "Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year", a wild hope began to stir that maybe, just maybe, she was from the Midwest. Fifteen pages later came the confirmation I craved: "There is an abandoned store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio." I began to shiver. My gut response had been right: Toni Morrison was a home girl.

No words can fully express what Toni Morrison has meant to me ever since – as a writer, a woman, a black woman, and, yes, a fellow Ohioan. She gave me literary shelter and pointed me toward the poetry in my geographical space. She taught me to pay attention to everything without prejudice, for beauty can be found in the “ginger sugar” smell rising from a polluted lake, and the fate of an empire can rest on the curve of an eyebrow. Her work has accompanied me through my years of honing myself as a writer and a woman. How desolate that journey would have been without Milkman and First Corinthians, or Flores or the intrepid Sula; without Toni’s wry humor and chastening gaze, her laughter that seems to come straight up from the middle of the earth!

Over the years Toni and I have met a number of times – official events as well as more private gatherings; even once by chance, late one evening in a hotel lobby in Cleveland where we convinced the bartender to serve one more round of drinks before closing shop. But two scenes with Toni stand out vividly – a 1994 tribute in her honor at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and a gala seven years later at the New York Public Library in celebration of her 70th birthday. In both places Toni was surrounded by orchids. Orchids – those gorgeous, engorged blooms that come in every color you can think up (and beyond), their petals veined like human hands held to the light, with a smell as intimate and ravishing as an indelicate thought crossing your mind in the middle of the 23rd psalm. As symbols of love and desire (both the light and the dark sides), they can make young girls blush and coax a Mona Lisa smile from a grown woman; these curiously mammalian creatures that seem to live on nothing but mist and air, yet can inspire in their breeders a devotion teetering on madness. Orchids are the queen bees of the flower world, and you better not mess with them.

Like the orchids surrounding her then, Toni Morrison has always seemed both rooted in the earth and poised for flight, resplendent and serene. Most importantly, she has woven tales that beguile, even as they lead us deeper into the carefully shielded psyche of homo sapiens than we knew to go. She has given us stories where survival may not mean victory and cruelty may reveal itself as the ultimate tenderness; stories where home is not a country, especially when the country has never learned to be at home with its past – and from the midst of those magnificent specimens of art, Toni Morrison – woman, mother, editor, writer, critic, Nobel laureate, professor, mentor, friend – shines all the more fiercely. I thank you, Toni, for your life's work past, present and future, and for your resplendent example. May you keep on shining.


© 2015 by Rita Dove. All rights reserved. Publication and distribution by the National Book Critics Circle permitted. Please send two copies of every reprint to: Rita Dove, Dept. of English, University of Virginia, 219 Bryan Hall, PO Box 400121, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4121. Please email links of web publications to:

Rita Dove was U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-1995 and Special Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress bicentennial in 1999/2000 and served as the Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2004-2006. She won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her book "Thomas and Beulah." Her many other collections of poetry include "Sonata Mulattica," "American Smooth," "On the Bus with Rosa Parks," "Mother Love," "Grace Notes," "Museum," "The Yellow House on the Corner" and Selected Poems;" she has also published a collection of stories, "Fifth Sunday," a novel, "Through the Ivory Gate," a collection of her Poet Laureate lectures, "The Poet's World," and a verse drama, "The Darker Face of the Earth."

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