October, 2015

Critical Notes: Hallberg, Rainbow Rowell and Bonnie Jo Campbell

by Elizabeth Taylor | Oct-12-2015

Marion Winik reviews Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire for Newsday. 

Pamela Erens defends Karl Ove Knausgaard and “autofiction” in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Julia Klein reviews Hitler’s Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis, and the Looting of Europe’s Treasures by Susan Ronald for The Forward.

For the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Julie Hakim Azzam interviews Rainbow Rowell about her upcoming young adult novel, Carry On

Michelle Newby Lancaster reviews Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 for The Rumpus.

Fred Volkmer reviews The Whites by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt for Southampton Press and 27east.

Terry Hong reviews Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe in Christian Science Monitor and interviews P.S. Duffy about her debut novel The Cartographer of No Man’s Land and also profiles her for Bloom.  

For his Rumpus series, Board member David Biespiel writes “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” recalling Howard Zinn, Paolo Freire and Walt Whitman.

Lori Feathers reviews Cesar Aira’s Dinner for Three Percent and also The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig for Full Stop.

For WBUR's, The ARTery, Carol Iaciofano reviews Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

For Open Letters Monthly, Rebecca Hussey reviews Vivian Gornick's The Odd Woman and the City

Anne Payne reviews Susan Barker’s The Incarnations for the Florida Times Union’s Jacksonville.com.

For the San Francisco Chronicle, Elizabeth Rosner reviews The Prize by Jill Bialosky.

Board member Kate Tuttle reviews four books of non-fiction for The Boston Globe and also reviews Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noe for the Globe.

Board member and VP/online Jane Ciabattari reviews past NBCC fiction finalist Bonnie Jo Campbell's new story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, for NPR, and for the Literary Hub, she wraps up five books making news this week, including NBCC finalist Patti Smith's M Train.

For The Driftless Area Review Karl Wolff reviews Liberation, edited by Mark Ludwig.

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items to NBCCCritics@gmail.com.

Second Thoughts: Marion Winik on To the Lighthouse

by Marion Winik | Oct-07-2015

This is the fourth in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here. 

Though most of these Second Thoughts pieces are about books read twice, my story is about a book I pontificated on at great length and under great duress in 1983 but did not actually read until 2015.

In May of 1983 I flew from New Orleans to New York to take the final exam of “Twentieth Century British Novel,” the last literature course in my graduate program in creative writing at Brooklyn College. I was also hand-delivering my thesis manuscript, a 200-page collection of short fiction and poetry bound in scarlet and titled BoyCrazy.

If I had been in class all semester like I was supposed to be, if my brain and then my body had not been hijacked to Louisiana by the force majeure that is love at first sight, a conscientious student like me would have been prepared. But the derailment of business as usual had begun that February when I drove with a bunch of friends down to Mardi Gras. Within the first half hour, I was sitting in the lap of a guy I had just met who would later become my first husband. I only lived in New York for another month or so after that, long enough to give notice at work and find someone to take my place in the apartment I shared. My professor, the experimental fiction writer Jonathan Baumbach, said that as long as I returned from New Orleans in May to take the exam, I could finish school by mail.

"Welcome back!" said Baumbach. "You ready for this?"

He ushered me into his windowless office in the English department, where a blue book, a sheet of questions and a couple of Bic pens were laid out on a table. Couldn't he see how ready I was? Black leather jacket, blue hair, smeared mascara; little Cupids flying around my head.

The question, as best I can reconstruct it, went something like this.

The fundamental question about Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse is, of course, why a lighthouse? And why go to it? What is role of the much-discussed, long-awaited journey to the lighthouse in the Ramsay family dynamic, in the tension between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay? Do not merely summarize the plot.

There was no danger of my summarizing the plot as I had no idea what it was. I had not read this book, and everything I knew about it was what I had just learned from reading the question -- like, the people were named Ramsay. I couldn't tell from the wording whether they ever actually got to the lighthouse or not. I was screwed.

Or maybe I wasn't. Maybe there was some way to fake the answer. Why a lighthouse, indeed. Phallic symbol, maybe? Totem of male authority? And the ocean it overlooks — a symbol of fertility, or femininity? Hence, the tension in the Ramsay marriage? Can one ever say that one has truly "reached the lighthouse?" I just kept my right hand moving across the paper as best I could. After several epochs, Baumbach returned to tell me time was up.

"How'd it go?" he said.

I should have confessed, but in the delusion of the moment I thought there was a possibility he wouldn't be able to tell I was a fraud.


Working on my thesis in a tiny second-floor studio on the corner of Royal and Ursulines had been a writer's fantasy. The red brick walls, the ironwork balcony overlooking the courtyard, a pile of bond paper on my desk curling, then beginning to deliquesce, in the humid, oyster-scented air. . . Tennessee Williams' French Quarter apartment was just a few blocks away and his juju swirled around me. In fact, my life, now thoroughly entangled with that of a bartender on Bourbon Street, featured all the histrionics and sexual confusion of a Williams play. The bartender, you see, was a former professional figure skater who had exclusively dated men until I came along, and his many ex-boyfriends seemed to lurk around every corner.

This was so long ago that I composed and retyped my stories and poems on a blue-and-white electric Smith-Corona typewriter. After correcting the pages by hand, I paid a professional typist to produce a clean copy for submission.

Out of the kindness of their hearts, my professors awarded me the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. As a condition, they made me swear to read To the Lighthouse. I promised, sure. But I wouldn't even own a copy for 34 years.

First I went back to New Orleans, to my Tennessee Williams life. It didn't last long, as we moved to Austin that fall. There I was visited by a long, lingering writer's block, possibly the result of bad karma, which finally ended when I became pregnant with my first child in 1987. Woolfian? I wouldn't know, because I continued not to read To The Lighthouse for decades. I was busy raising children, entertaining guests, tending to various houses and husbands. The only thing I ever read by Virginia Woolf was A Room of One’s Own, (which I don't remember very well anymore) and an essay called “The Death of the Moth” that is in one of the anthologies I use for the college classes I now teach, thanks to that MFA degree of mine.

To The Lighthouse would not let me go. It was referred to constantly in other books, books like Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel, in which it is analyzed at length and in Lily King's Father of the Rain, in which it is mentioned in passing. From time to time, someone would suggest that I was a sort of Mrs. Ramsay. This fascinated me but, instead of asking what they meant and thus revealing that I had not read the book, I would smile enigmatically.

A Mrs. Ramsay smile, perhaps.

Last month, a friend of mine started talking about having to bluff his way through an oral exam in art history during his studies in Paris, Max Ernst being his Virginia Woolf. Another person confessed to faking Ulysses, a third Middlemarch. Since everybody was doing it, I told of my own flimflam, now more than three decades old. And suddenly decided the time had come to read the damn book. I ordered it from Amazon and read it on the beach during a vacation in Florida, surrounded by my children and their friends.

The timing was right. Though Mrs. Ramsay is a stunningly beautiful woman whose sheer physical attractiveness is part of her power over others (I fear this was not the aspect that inspired comparisons), by now there was so much else that felt familiar. Her raft of children, her troop of houseguests, her overstuffed dinner parties, and her funky house all rang a bell. But perhaps my greatest fascination with the book arose from the fact that she dies half-way through, in a devastating parenthesis, and the narrative goes on to imagine what happens after that, how the people, locations, and objects in her life go on after her absence.

This is an issue I am morbidly obsessed with, as a 57-year-old mother of three, one of them a young teenager, as a woman with her hand in many pots, as a busybody who can't resist the attempt to stage-manage the lives of those around her. And because these things happen. The man I was in love with when I took my test in 1983, the father of two of my children, has been dead since 1994.  Even if you don't commit suicide, as Virginia Woolf did 14 years after she published To The Lighthouse, the possibility of being whisked offstage in the midst of things is implacable. 

And your world, so full of life and feeling, no longer yours, goes on. Your children have children, your children die, other people are in your house, you are remembered for better and worse and not at all. What I would have made of this in 1983, I can't imagine. But what I would say now, if I had to answer that exam question about the importance of the lighthouse, is that the lighthouse shows how things outlast us, how they stand apart from the shifting context of human lives and the spectrum of meanings ascribed to them. The lighthouse, once a magical destination we can never reach, becomes just another a dull place where we are dragged against our will.

I would say, though it begins so buoyantly, that in the end it's a very sad book. And after all these years of so pointedly ignoring it, I find I can't stop thinking about it.

Marion Winik reviews books for Newsday and Kirkus, though she would be happy to branch out if anyone's interested. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore and is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and other books. Info at marionwinik.com.

Critical Notes: Nabokov, Modiano and Levi

by Elizabeth Taylor | Oct-04-2015

“It is a fact universally acknowledged that Vladimir Nabokov is a genius. His stylistic brilliance, the intricacy of his post-modern narratives, his glittering mastery of two great languages, the brooding depth of his intellect and his prolific output all elevate him above most other contemporary writers. So, if he’s a genius, what is his masterpiece?

Probably not Lolita.”

That's Roxanna Robinson and her reconsideration of Lolita for LitHub

Robinson reviews William Boyd’s novel Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay for The New York Times.

Former Board member and Balakian winner Steve Kellman writes and essay titled "Primo Levi's Invaluable Voice, in Full" about The Complete Works of Primo Levi in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Alexandra Schwartz, another Balakian winner, takes on another legendary writer. In her essay for The New Yorker, titled “The Forgotten,” Alexandra Schwartz reviews several novels by last year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature Patrick Modiano.

Clifford Garstang reviews Lori Ostlund's novel After the Parade for Best New Fiction.

Lori Feathers suggests international titles for Brazos Bookstore’s Banned Books Week Manifesto.

For the Jewish Daily Forward, Julia M. Klein reviews Timothy Snyder's Black Earth.  

For Fourth and Sycamore, David Nilsen reviews Val Brelinski's The Girl Who Slept with God and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes

This week Karl Wolff continues his essay series, "American Odd," by examining the underground classic, "The Book of the SubGenius," by J.R. "Bob" Dobbs for the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.

Vogue book critic Megan O'Grady profiles Garth Risk Hallberg, author of City on Fire.  

John Strawn reviews Deep South by Paul Theroux for The Oregonian.

George de Stefano reviews The Mafia: A Cultural History for PopMatters.

C.M Mayo reviews Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy by Edward H. Miller for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Michael Magras reviews four short story collections (Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey, The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes and I Was a Revolutionary by Andrew Malan Milward for Bookpage.


Your reviews and recommendations help seed these roundups: If you’re an NBCC member with a review you would like considered for inclusion, please it to email nbcccritics@gmail.com.

September, 2015

Second Thoughts: Louis Bayard on Breakfast at Tiffany’s

by Louis Bayard | Sep-30-2015

This is the third in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here. 

“Here,” said my 12th-grade creative-writing teacher. “You might like this.”

When I think back on that proffered copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I puzzle over my teacher’s intentions. Did she think I would be more attuned to slender comic novellas than, say, East of Eden? Did she guess at some secret kinship with Truman Capote? Did she figure that, like Capote, I would eventually hotfoot it to New York for protective cover? (I never did.)

Whatever her motivation, the fictional world into which she plunged me had something of the same effect that Oz had on Dorothy. Never in my waking or dreaming states had I encountered anyone like Holly Golightly or, for that matter, Holly’s New York. All those Mafia kingpins and Hollywood agents and Brazilian diplomats and roller-skating sopranos and Japanese photographers, carbonating together in this brittle Bromo-Seltzer farce. Why had no one told me the world was such a kick in the head?

It was my good fortune, I now realize, to have read the book before seeing the movie. Once you’ve heard Audrey Hepburn crooning “Moon River” or seen her clutching her soggy cat to her bosom, it becomes a labor of Augean proportions to find your way back to the ur-Holly.

Indeed, to get there, you must carry some germ of innocence, hermetically sealed from Henry Mancini and George Peppard and (God help us) Mickey Rooney. Even then, you may find yourself shocked by the greenness of that ancient realm. Holly is the greenest of all—not even 19 when we first meet her. Oklahoma! is the hot new show, and New York is in the shank of World War II, peppered with Joseph Mitchell-ish characters like Joe Bell, a bachelor bartender with a “sour stomach” and a fixation on ice hockey, Weimaraners and Gilbert and Sullivan.

But maybe the most eccentric figure of all is that young, tiny, nameless narrator, an aspiring writer who has somehow avoided war service (though his draft board is “displaying an uncomfortable interest”). He has no erotic life to speak of, at least none he volunteers. He is enamored of Holly but only in the way he’d “once been in love with my mother’s elderly colored cook and a postman who let me follow him on his rounds and a whole family named McKendrick.” He knows gay people but prefers to abide in sexual indeterminacy.

Thirty-plus years ago, I wrote that off as authorial neutrality; today, it strikes me as the most fraught of evasions—though perfectly in keeping with Truman Capote’s time and careerism. He had watched Gore Vidal make a subject of his sexuality in The City and the Pillar. He had seen (and almost certainly relished) Vidal’s resulting martyrdom. He was in no hurry to reenact it.

And so this gelded narrator. Yet, in rereading Tiffany’s, the character I want most to drag out of the closet is Holly herself, who seems a few decades short of embracing her true transgender identity.

All the clues that flew past my blinkered teenaged eyes coalesce before me now. Boyish build, manufactured persona, sexual-outlaw status, thirst for reinvention, armature of makeup and sunglasses. (Even her infertility: for a stretch, Holly claims to be carrying the child of her Brazilian lover, but the fetus conveniently disappears after a spirited horse ride.) If Capote were writing today, I suspect he would have followed and even topped Vidal—Myra Breckenridge be damned—and I have no doubt that Holly would have been the most compliant of muses.

As it stands, we have only glimpses of the pansexual utopia that Capote himself would never experience. One passage, in particular, rises from the ferment of Holly’s still-delightful monologues: “I had a roommate in Hollywood, she played in Westerns, they called her the Lone Ranger; but I’ll say this for her, she was better than a man around the house. Of course people couldn’t help but think I must be a bit of a dyke myself. And of course I am. Everyone is: a bit. So what?”

From our loft of modernity, of course, it’s easy to wonder what Tiffany’s might have been, but the higher wisdom is to honor what’s there—a structure both lacy and wrought-iron tough, and a prose that never overreaches or missteps. Norman Mailer once said he "would not have changed two words” in the book. Laying aside the thoughtless racial epithets that were endemic to Capote’s era, I’m not sure I can find even two.

Why not end, then, as Capote did? Our narrator is searching for the nameless cat that Holly (the book’s Holly, anyway) has never reclaimed. “It took weeks of after-work roaming through those Spanish Harlem streets, and there were many false alarms—flashes of tiger-striped fur that, upon inspection, were not him. But one day, one cold sunshiny Sunday winter afternoon, it was. Flanked by potted plants and framed by clean lace curtains, he was seated in the window of a warm-looking room: I wondered what his name was, for I was certain he had one now, certain he’d arrived somewhere he belonged. African hut or whatever, I hope Holly has, too.”

Louis Bayard is a novelist and critic whose reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Salon. His most recent book is Roosevelt's Beast.

Critical Notes: C.K. Williams, Chinelo Okparanta, Joyce Carol Oates, Ron Rash, and more

by Michele Filgate | Sep-28-2015

C.K. Williams, winner of a National Book Critics Circle prize for Flesh and Blood, as well as a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for other poetry collections, passed away at the age of 78.

NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari's weekly Literary Hub column focuses on award season, and nominees including NBCC fiction finalist Marlon James, newly shortlisted for the Man Booker.

NBCC board member Joanna Scutts questions the limits of philanthropy in Larissa MacFarquhar’s account of extreme do-gooders, Strangers Drowning. Scutts also reviews Jill Bialosky’s “The Prize,” for the Washington Post and interviews Lauren Groff, author of “Fates and Furies,” for the Guardian US.

NBCC board member David Biespiel writes the first in a new sequence of essays about his “early education as a poet” over at The Rumpus.

NBCC board member Michele Filgate interviewed Eve Bridburg, Executive Director of Grub Street, for a new Literary Hub series on writing centers across the country.

Rigoberto González writes about Juan Felipe Herrera, the Poet Laureate of the United States, for the Los Angeles Review of Books

“But after over thirty years in the collective consciousness, it’s worth looking at how video games have served as a deeper literary influence above and beyond material for plots and settings.” Tobias Carroll explores the connection between literature and video games in his latest essay for Hazlitt.

Anjali Enjeti reviews Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees for The Guardian.

Joan Silverman reviews Kate Christensen’s How to Cook A Moose for the Portland Press Herald.

Jim Carmin reviews Ron Rash’s new novel, Above the Waterfall, for the Star Tribune.

Dan Cryer reviews Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie for Newsday, and The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age by Joyce Carol Oates for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ellen Akins reviews The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood for the Star Tribune.

Laurie Hertzel reviews This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison and writes about diversity among black women writers for the Star Tribune.

Marnie Mueller reviews Ellen Urbani’s Landfall for Peace Corps Worldwide.

Michael Magras reviews John Banville’s The Blue Guitar for Bookreporter.com.

Matthew C. Simpson reviews Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality by Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen for the Des Moines Register.

Victoria Zhuang reviews The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia for The Harvard Crimson.

NBCC board member Colette Bancroft reviews Margo Jefferson’s Negroland for the Tampa Bay Times

Lori Feathers reviews A Woman Loved by Andreï Makine (translated by Geoffrey Strachan) for Words without Borders and The Vienna Melody by Ernst Lothar (translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood) for The Mookse and the Gripes.  

Your reviews and recommendations help seed these roundups: If you’re an NBCC member with a review you’d like considered for inclusion, please email nbcccritics@gmail.com

Second Thoughts: Celia Bland on Look Homeward, Angel

by Celia Bland | Sep-23-2015

This is the second in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here. 

Asheville, North Carolina. By the time my family arrived there in the winter of 1975, the once-grand place was on the skids, a tarnished reflection of Thomas Wolfe’s city of the early 1900s with no hint of the hipster haven it would become in the 21st century. The French Broad River flowed mud-brown under the dirty ice of November. The stores along Haywood Street were husks, only Woolworth’s remaining open to sell the cheap notions the down and out depend upon.

In the 1920s, we might have booked a stay in a boarding house like “Dixieland,” the one Mrs. Gant runs in Look Homeward, Angel, where a demimonde of “kept” women, traveling salesmen (“drummers”), and tuberculars live out their days in rented rooms. Wolfe perfectly describes the down at the heels boarders, along with their hosts: the Falstaffian Mr. Gant, who roars poetic complaints during the day and staggers home, stupefied with drink, at night, stinking of the brothels of “Darkey Town.” Purse-lipped, land-rich Mrs. Gant, meanwhile, forces their shame-faced son Eugene, a prodigy in too-tight shoes, to meet arriving trains with a signboard advertising Dixieland. “That boy’s big enough to do a little work,” she says, even though he’s already busy standing in for Wolfe himself.

Re-reading Look Homeward, Angel at 50, I vividly remember encountering it for the first time in my icy bedroom – the furnace was broken – in the former Asheville Art Museum, a 1920s mansion in a “nice” neighborhood (O dreams of respectability!) where my family lived in the interminable winter of my twelfth year. Our sojourn there was brief – just a few short months – but it nearly ruined us. After Asheville, we were a mere assemblage – my mother, her boyfriend, and myself – locked together by the gravitational pull of my mother’s fickle attentions. The city still lives in my imagination – the city of my childhood and of this childhood book – as a place of thwarted dreams.

It’s as if a scrim were lowering over the page as I experience the novel as a youth and as a matron at one and the same time.  The humiliations and conceits of the self-destructive Gants – creative in chaos – abound in sentences rife with recrimination and regret. Wolfe, I now realize, was weaned on the Song of Solomon and Proust and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and, like Eugene, he was sent (at the reduced rate negotiated by his penny-pinching mother) to learn Latin and Greek at a small private school run by a woman who fed not only his hungry brain but his ambitions. 

At its best, Look Homeward, Angel possesses an authoritative command of high and low, joining the “poetic” flights of Shelley to down-home Appalachian seductions and murders. Eugene, like Wolfe, possesses “a savage honesty, which exercised domination over him when his heart or head were deeply involved.” The novel is partner (in shame, in nostalgia) to Roth’s Call it Sleep and, in sheer physical weight and sensate self-consciousness, to Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle.

Imagine opening a library book at the age of 12 and discovering the story of your own life. Open-mouthed I found the “crude, kindly, ignorant, and murderous people” I sprang from, loving, fighting, buying, dying.  I drank it in like cool water.  Here were the flowering dogwoods, “the air...filled with warm-throated plum-dropping bird-notes,” the mountains purple at sunset.  Here were the humiliations of poverty: Levi’s gone at the knees, grocery clerks who wouldn’t take food stamps from my mother’s hand, screaming fights in kitchens and bedrooms and rattletrap VW’s.  I recognized, in wincing detail, Eugene’s mother as she dotes and denies, keeping Eugene close – “Why, say – you can’t grow up yet. You’re my baby” – as she neglects his meals, his health. I dropped one shoulder as Eugene paced “restlessly up and down the hall or prowled through the house a-search for some entrance he had never found, a bright and stricken thing kept twisting about like a trapped bird.”

For me, the novel was an entrance into artifice, an unfound door into the hyper-real.  I lingered in its language, fingers tapping gold stars embedded in the Formica counter, transported from the breakfast rush at the Shake Shop to a raucous breakfast at the Uneeda Lunch -- a short ride, admittedly, from the 1970s to the 1920s, but one that jogged my imagination, demanding: Pay attention! You can use this.

Anchoring the action is Altamont, as Wolfe calls Asheville, which was his birthplace. In Look Homeward, Angel, Altamont is a mountain village that, gradually, over the course of Eugene’s childhood, becomes a city.  Mud paths are paved, fields plowed for streets, and shops and houses erected.  Asheville becomes a summer destination; refreshingly cool in a South that sweltered before air-conditioning, and with its fresh mountain air an ideal place for tuberculosis sufferers.  A little Switzerland. 

Looking back, I can’t make much sense of why my family moved to Asheville.  My mother, a college professor who’d taken up with one of her students, lost her teaching job and took a post as assistant curator at the Asheville Art Museum.  The museum’s collection was temporarily in storage as it transitioned from its digs in an old mansion in the tony Montford section to a new building as yet unbuilt -- but the construction money, my mother told her boyfriend and me, had been embezzled, and now everything was up in the air.  We were sitting at the kitchen table in the big room that had once been a beauty parlor, replete with the rickety second-hand furniture that I now see, sturdily reproduced, in my middle-class friends’ kitchens: a “Hoosier” cabinet with perforated tin doors, a long walnut table, a hollowed bread board. She was looking at us with excitement.  She might have been Mrs. Gant, jonesing for another acre of downtown property.

My mother, it should be noted, was hired to fill a position ditched by a criminal on the run from the FBI, and her job was to curate art crated in a warehouse.  “We won’t be able to pay you right away,” the director of the museum had warned her. But, my mother told us, her voice warm with hope, they would pay her eventually, they would build a museum, eventually, and we would find a new and better life in Asheville. Eventually.

Did I mention that, when we got to Asheville, we had no place to live? My mother talked us into a church-run house for homeless families alongside a highway that roared by its front door and disappeared into the Beaucatcher Mountain tunnel. The priest who met us with the key greeted us dubiously; we didn’t look respectable (my mother’s boyfriend’s hair was long and unkempt) but we didn’t seem homeless either (my mother’s accent and diction were educated, irritable). Still, they let us stay until my mother secured another squat: in the old art museum. 

In my struggle to ignore my family’s struggle, I hunkered down with Look Homeward, Angel for weeks. O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, Lost!  As I read, my dog Beau paced from couch to door, desperate for a walk, but I was paralyzed by this written world of raucous patter, long-winded diatribes, and frustrating sexual encounters.  I had just read Catcher in the Rye and loved its rage and humor. But while the emotional landscape of New York hotels and Connecticut boarding schools was exotic, the shapeless narrative of Look Homeward, Angel provided a blueprint of a world I knew: fecund, futile, and violent.

Nosing frantically, Beau jumped his paws on to the windowsill and, straining for the outdoors, peed against the wall.   

O lost! and by the wind grieved!

Wolfe’s linguistic gestures are addictive.  Even as characters labor in obscurity and despair, lyrical descriptions bring to life, for instance, brother Luke, the salesman of the family, who possesses “superlatively that quality that American actors and men of business call ‘personality’ – a wild energy, a Rabelaisian vulgarity, a sensory instinct for rapid and swinging repartee, a hypnotic power of speech, torrential, meaningless, mad and evangelical.” Brother Ben, Eugene’s champion, “is like a piece of slightly yellow ivory; his high white head is knotted fiercely by his old man’s scowl; his mouth is like a knife, his smile the flicker of light across a blade.  His face is like a blade, and a knife, and a flicker of light; it is delicate and fierce, and scowls beautifully forever.” Luke’s “whah-whah” of “idiotic laughter” becomes a signature motif, Dickensian in effect, as does the doomed Ben’s face “like a blade and a knife and a flicker of light.”

I can’t say I would recommend Look Homeward, Angel to today’s reading public.  Do people still care about the exhaustive inner workings of a white man’s coming of age (Knausgård aside)? Could they find the patience for 660 pages of anecdote and observation? An abridged version, shorn of repetition and casual racism, focused on the machinations of the Gant family versus Eugene’s slow self-awakening, might sell.  Success might be likelier if it contained scenes such as the one in which Mr. Gant, fire and rage almost extinguished, sells the mysterious stone angel – that symbol of longing from the book’s title -- which prompted his odyssey southward to his former love, the local brothel keeper. Or Ben’s heartbreakingly tragi-comic death (which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?), an event that fortifies Eugene’s desire to flee his family, Altamont, the South. The novel’s last 200 pages detail his slow migration north prompted by the Stranger writhing within—that is, Eugene’s inheritance from his stonemason father, an undisciplined clown with secret depths:

This bright thing, the core of him, his Stranger, kept twisting its head about unable to look at horror, until at length it gazed steadfastly, as if under a dreadful hypnosis, into the eyes of death and darkness.

As with Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s rediscovered novel, Look Homeward, Angel may be most valuable as an historical record of enduring cultural assumptions and prejudices. Wolfe assumes the reader’s culpability and approval as he outlines with surprising sympathy the paranoia of lower middle class whites. Mrs. Gant treats the “help” like shiftless thieves. Young Gene feels sympathy for these maids and cooks, and yet they remain interchangeable, unindividuated. Jews, targeted for offhand jabs, are implicated in some nameless Semitic threat. Even the construction of Biltmore House, a mansion built in Asheville by a young Vanderbilt, is mistaken as the folly of a “rich Jew.” 

Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? 

Ultimately, I recognize in Look Homeward, Angel my own shame at exposing my seedy past to a world that values success in all its forms.  I know, too, Wolfe’s stealthy pride in the failures of “little” people. That life may have been rough – O lost! – but it was mine, intangible as that unfound door we – miraculously – discover in our dreams.

My mother finally packed it in and we “up and moved back to Whitney,” as my Depression-weathered grandmother would say. We retreated down the mountain to a tiny village where we could survive in poverty, our Asheville adventure, our foray into modern America and its possibilities for success and respectability, dashed. It was months before we paid off our Asheville debts, and the resentments forged in those frigid rooms never thawed into forgiveness or acceptance. My own trek to New York was still years away, and when I did make my way north to college, it was with the same dragging of feet Wolfe describes, the same ambivalent longing for escape and longing for Dixieland.

It’s been decades since the poem that begins Look Homeward, Angel propelled me over sidewalk cracks and subway tracks, past smelly bundles sleeping in foyers, and up 22 flights to the trading floor in the World Trade Center where I temped, entering data above the Atlantic tip of Manhattan long before the dark day when the buildings crumpled. Naked and alone, we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face. Can you hear in those words the longing for home, the blue air of evening, the clay and wet stone? Can you sense the bitter disgust prompted by such absurd words as mother? That poem still echoes in my ears, years after I have made a family of my own. A stone, a leaf, an unfound door. And all the forgotten faces.

Celia Bland, the international coordinator of the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking, won the 2015 Raynes Poetry Prize. Madonna Comix, her book-length collaboration with visual artist Dianne Kornberg, was recently reviewed in Drunken Boat (http://www.drunkenboat.com/db21/reviews/collaboration-translation)

Roundup: Lauren Groff, Mary Karr, Salman Rushdie, Margo Jefferson, and more

by Carmela Ciuraru | Sep-20-2015

Your reviews and recommendations help seed these roundups: If you’re an NBCC member with a review you’d like considered for inclusion, please email nbcccritics@gmail.com.

Marion Winik reviews Lauren Groff's "Fates and Furies" for Newsday.

Julia M. Klein reviews Erica Jong's "Fear of Dying" for the Chicago Tribune, John Norris for Columbia Journalism Review, and offers recommended fall reading in the Forward.

For the Boston Globe's "Fall Book Preview," NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari on fiction, and NBCC board member Kate Tuttle on nonfiction.

Abby Nolan reviews "Most Dangerous" by Steve Sheinkin in the Washington Post.

Ellen Akins reviews Salman Rushdie for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

John Domini reviews Matt Bell for Bookforum.

Geoff Bendeck reviews Valeria Luiselli for Electric Literature, and Charles Bukowski for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Diane Scharper reviews Jon Krakauer in the National Catholic Reporter.

Angie Jabine reviews Amy Stewart in the Oregonian.

Rebecca Hussey reviews Margo Jefferson and Mat Johnson.

Hope Reese reviews "In the Mind Fields" by Casey Schwartz, for the Chicago Tribune.

Lisa Russ Spaar's latest poetry review for her Second Acts column in the Los Angeles Review of Books. 

Laurie Hertzel reviews Mary Karr for the Star Tribune.

Anjali Enjeti reviews Salman Rushdie for ArtsATL.

Paul Wilner reviews "Fat City" by Leonard Gardner in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Gerald Bartell reviews Stephen Amidon in the Washington Post.

Joe Peschel reviews Lauren Groff's "Fates and Furies" in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Former NBCC president Art Winslow on Thomas Pynchon in Harper's.

Meredith Maran reviews Lauren Groff for the Chicago Tribune.

Diane Scarper reviews Mia Alvar's debut story collection in "America" magazine.

Elfrieda Abbe profiles Julianna Baggott (Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders) for Kirkus.

Laurie Hertzel profiles Faith Sullivan for the Star Tribune and rounds up the big books of the fall season.

Scott Porch interviews Tracy Daugherty (The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion) and Deborah Davis (The Trip: Andy Warhol's Plastic Fantastic Cross-Country Adventure) for Biographile.

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