by Jane Ciabattari | Mar-07-2014
In the weeks leading up to the March 13 announcement of the 2013 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari offers an appreciation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's fiction finalist, "Americanah" (Knopf).
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a transnational literary phenomonon, honored with awards in the U.S., the U.K., and Africa. Nigerian-born, the fifth of six children, she was raised in the university town of Nsukka, and came to the US to study at Eastern Connecticut State University, at Johns Hopkins (creative writing), and Yale (M.A. in African Studies). She won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, a coming of age story about a fundamentalist Nigerian family (the pious father beats his wife and children in private). Her elegaic chronicle of the Biafran civil war, Half of a Yellow Sun, was an NBCC finalist and won the 2006 Orange Broadband Prize a PEN Beyond Margins award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Stories from her collection That Thing Around Your Neck have been honored with the O.Henry award. With Americanah, which is at once a love story, an immigrant’s tale, and a socially acute snapshot of this chaotic moment in time, she nails the idiosyncracies of three cultures. We knew Adichie was wicked smart. Now we know she can be wicked funny.
Ifemelu, her primary narrator, moves from Lagos to the U.S., leaving her boyfriend Obinze behind. She moves in briefly with her aunt, a single mother, a doctor who can't find a foothold in New York. (She needs an American license, which takes a long time coming.) Aunty Uju gives Ifemelu an important lesson: "All of us look alike to white people." Ifemelu heads off to college in Philadelphia, where she struggles to navigate unspoken rules.
Adichie ranges from gently mocking to devastating in her call-outs as Ifemelu gradually discovers how shades of blackness are interpreted in the U.S. But Adichie tempers her directness with wry humor. After a string of humiliating jobs (and one disturbing abusive incident), Ifemelu finds an outlet in a satiric blog. "Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black," she writes.
Over time, the preternaturally observant Ifemelu becomes a Princeton fellow. In fact, it is on this Ivy League campus that the framing of the story—Ifemelu’s lengthy visit to a hair braiding salon in Trenton, where she meets among others a Senagalese woman with two Igbo boyfriends—begins. After dating various men, including an African-American Yale professor, Ifemelu’s heart brings her home. But Lagos, after 13 years away, is newly polarized, with a fresh layer of wealth (“thieves or beggars,” a friend explains). She attends “Nigerpolitan” networking meetings of those who have lived abroad, and reconnects with Obinze, who has had a humiliating experience in the U.K., been deported, and married a woman he doesn't love. Back home in Nigeria, Ifemelu is not “black.” She is Igbo. And "Americanah."
Like multiple NBCC award winner Philip Roth, Adichie is audacious when writing about the immigrant experience, about love and sex, about bigotry and hate and invisibility. Americanah questions the boundaries we draw between races and genders and nations. Adichie suggests, obliquely, that we return to the essential human encounter. She holds up a mirror, and invites us to see ourselves.
Balakian winner Kathryn Schulz's review in New York Magazine.
Elizabeth Taylor's Printers Row review when Americanah won the Chicago Tribune's Heartland prize for fiction.
NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg's interview for the Los Angeles Times.
New York Times review.
Washington Post review.
Review in The Guardian.
Symphony Space appearance on YouTube.
by Anne Trubek | Mar-06-2014
In the weeks leading up to the March 13 announcement of the 2013 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Anne Trubek offers an appreciation of Franco Moretti's criticism finalist, "Distant Reading" (Verso).
Most Americans who studied literature in college did so by doing some form of what is called “close reading,” or the detailed analysis of formal elements of poems, prose and plays. Discussing rhyme schemes, allusions, symbols, word choice and of course “meaning” are a pedagogy and method so widespread we forget there are, indeed, other ways to analyze literary texts.
Enter Franco Moretti, whose collection of essays, Distant Reading, makes a bold claim by its title alone. Stop debating the metaphors in T.S. Eliot, Moretti, a professor of literature at Stanford, argues. Forget learning how to read, as he puts it: let’s learn now not to read.
Huh? It is conceptually confusing to be sure: how can we study Dickens or Austen if not by taking our highlighters to key lines or making notes in the margins at some point along the way? Moretti’s answer? Make literature into data. Run books through software. Chart the sonnet.
So, for instance, in the essay “Style, Inc.: Reflections on 7,000 Titles (British Novels, 1740-1850)” Moretti counted the numbers of words in the titles of, well, 7,000 British novels published between 1740-1850. Then he plotted those numbers on an x-y axis. The result? Quantitive evidence that the length of titles dropped precipitously during this period. In the 1740, the median length of a title was 25 words; by 1850 it was 8.
So what? Is that a change that matters? Yes—just as much as a switch from a first to third person might matter--as long as you are able to put the evidence into a context that is meaningful. Which Moretti does. Titles shrunk, he argues, because “between the size of the market, and the length of titles, a strong negative correlation emerged: as the one expanded, the other contracted. Nothing much had changed, in the length of titles, for a century and a half, as long as the production of novels had remained stable around five or ten per year; then, as soon as publishing took off in earnest, titles immediately shrank.” (188). There are other similar provocative analyses of title changes in “Style, Inc.” , how conceptual titles gave way to occupational ones and others. The data, if well analyzed, reframes how we think about 18th century literature.
Moretti has applied his “quantitative stylistics” to the use of definite and indefinite articles in 19th century fiction and the network structure of plots. In Distant Reading, which is comprised of 10 essays written over the past 20 years, Moretti charts a scholarly journey, from the first piece, “Modern European Literature,” which works out what he calls an “evolutionary model,” to the final piece, “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” which goes, in terms of new ways to think about what plots mean in prose, to a planet far, far away. The book itself, structured chronologically, with each essay prefaced by funny, clear introductions written after the fact, tracks Moretti’s evolution over the years as well.
Moretti’s method for gathering evidence may seem counter-intuitive, scientistic and dry, but it is in the meaning and execution that a critic is to be judged. And in those areas Moretti is anything but technical. He ruminates on, and provides compelling cultural and historical analyses for, the data he gathers. His style is as unscientific as it is writerly. He, unlike most of his academic peers, values the rhetorical, readerly purpose of criticism. His essays are fluidand pedagogical—he takes us by the hand and walks us through his ideas and, while still scholarly, his conclusions are light on declamations and heavy on a sort of wide-eyed excitement and curiousity. For example:”for me, formal analysis is the great accomplishment of literary study, and is therefore also what any new approach—quantitative, digital, evolutionary, whatever—must prove itself against: prove that it can do formal analysis, better than we already do. Or at least: equally well, in a different key. Otherwise, what’s the point?” (204).
As a critic, then, Moretti invites us to read closely, dwell on the page, parse his phrasing, annotate his paragraphs, and, by so doing, experiencing the attendant aesthetic pleasures of criticism. He may care less if we have read Bleak House but he respects the critical curiosity of readers.
I am sure a distant reading of Moretti would yield insights. Perhaps it would be something about an overly giddy approach to data circa 2013. But by asking Big Questions and eschewing the overly technical prose of most contemporary scholarly articles, Moretti becomes, ironically, more accessible than his peers. He poses questions like “Why are novels in prose?” Crazy, right? But a question we can all understand, even if the answers take more work to follow.
In his introduction to “The Novel: History and Theory,” Moretti writes about one scholar who is undergoing MRIs to study different types of reading: “though being strapped inside a narrow metal tube bombarded by a hammering noise is hardly the best way to read novel, she has also begun to see some extremely interesting results” (160), he tells us. Reading Moretti is something like the opposite of reading novels inside an MRI machine: although the evidence is not yet there about its influence and relevancy, Distant Reading, which proposes unorthodox methods through almost relatively informal, almost old-school elegance prose, is one of the best ways to read literary criticism.
by admin | Mar-06-2014
Thanks to The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of their students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2013 in our 30 Books 2013 series.
Zachary Brett Reeves, on behalf of the School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Lucie Brock-Broido about her book Stay, Illusion (Knopf), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Poetry, for the 2013 NBCC awards.
Lucie Brock-Broido’s new book of poems, Stay, Illusion, published in October by Alfred A. Knopf, is a Finalist in Poetry for the 2013 National Book Award. Her previous collections from Knopf include Trouble in Mind, The Master Letters, and A Hunger. In 2010, Carcanet brought out her selected poems, Soul Keeping Company in the UK. Her poems have appeared in many magazines and literary journals including The Paris Review, The New York Times, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, Best American Poetry, and The New Yorker. Brock-Broido has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Awards, The Witter-Bynner Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award. She is Director of Poetry in the School of the Arts at Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2013. Brock-Broido lives in New York City, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Zachary Brett Reeves is a first-year MFA candidate in Fiction and Poetry at The New School. All of his publications are forthcoming. He lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
by Karen Long | Mar-06-2014
In the weeks leading up to the March 13 announcement of the 2013 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Karen Long offers an appreciation of Amy Wilentz's autobiography finalist, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo" (Simon & Schuster).
First, that title. Journalist Amy Wilentz explains it as a smirk, a shorthand of international reporters for the voluble Haitian man (or woman) in the street, source of reliably juicy quotes. She suspects some Brits still use it. “There is a reason that awful and potent name has stuck with me: Fred Voodoo,” Wilentz writes. “It sums it all up, in a way. First of all, how Haitians have been reduced to a very few things in the outsider’s mind, and even those things are not understood.”
In her gritty, surprising memoir, Wilentz enlarges her reader’s understanding and discomfort. She insists on sampling the force of Haitian history and its place in global economics, on stopping to smell the predatory journalism and an engorged, counterproductive international aid scene. This is a rare, rigorous memoir with a bibliography and index, and its author’s sharp observational experience from living in Haiti for two years and reporting there for 20, writing for the New Yorker and the Nation magazines.
Wilentz loves Haiti. She admits it on page three. And then she indicts that affection on page 191:
“When I was new in Haiti, I hung out one evening with a bunch of Haitian women in St. Martin, a popular quarter in Port-au-Prince. There had been some political unrest that day, a demonstration, a shooting. We had been in the middle of it all, me, Loune, Beatrice, and Bernadette. It was exhilarating, and now we were sitting on small, straw-seated Haitian chairs and a mattress in a room with a family complex in a warren of cinder-block buildings near a soccer field. We were chatting and relaxing as the sun came down and the city cooled off, I turned to Beatrice and said, thoughtlessly, ‘I love Haiti.’ And she lifted her soda can to me and replied, ‘Well, then, I will give you my Haitian citizenship, and you give me your U.S. passport. You can stay here, but I’m leaving.’ “
That’s a long quote, but a dilly. “Farewell, Fred Voodoo” is packed with them. Wilentz knows the jokes and aphorisms. She speaks Creole, and we attend to her marvelous ear. She begins each chapter with a Haitian saying and its English translation: “The loaded-down donkey cannot stop” and “Don’t curse the crocodile before you cross the river” and “not yet finished, already collapsed.” She strips out cant and cliché – the little boys without pants in the countryside, the journalists peddling “the clichés of mercy.” Indeed, it is hard to conjure a more blistering indictment of American journalism than the chapter called “The Violent-Sex Cure,” an examination of a Mother Jones reporter who appropriated the trauma of a Haitian rape victim to write a risible, titillating account of the reporter’s own sexual quirks. Wilentz makes this worth reading because she puts the transgression within the larger journalistic enterprise, and her own “I love Haiti” impulses. And because so much life is lived outdoors in poor countries, especially poor, hot countries, outsiders with cameras and notebooks can react like wretches at a feast.
The 2010 earthquake rang the dinner bell. “Farewell, Fred Voodoo” examines the humanitarian impulse in Bill Clinton, Sean Penn, and several missionaries struggling with the same incongruities that Graham Greene caught in 1966 on the pages of “The Comedians.” This novel helped kindle Wilentz’ fascination with Haiti, and eventually led to her well-regarded 1989 nonfiction work, “The Rainy Season.” Now we have this poignant sentence in her current book: “What is an American actor doing running a refugee camp, and what is it about Penn, and Haiti, that allowed such a thing happen?”
Wilentz is fair to Penn, even as she allows us to see him as a boy playing king on a tropical island, and she is assiduous about not romanticizing Haiti. Four-fifths of its college-educated live abroad, unemployment is the norm and only about ten percent of the population has intermittent electricity. And yet there is also “humor, hierarchy, respect, deference, generosity . . . cleanliness, hospitality, eloquence, storytelling.”
Ah yes, storytelling. Haiti makes you think, Wilentz writes. And so does this moving lament and love letter.
Review in the New York Times.
Los Angeles Times review.
Farewell, Fred Voodoo
Karen R. Long is the former book editor of the Cleveland The Plain Dealer. In 2002, the Associated Press named her the best feature writer in Ohio, and in 2006 she won the University of Missouri Lifestyle Journalism award for best magazine profile. She is the mother of three children.
by admin | Mar-06-2014
Thanks to The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of their students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2013 in our 30 Books 2013 series.
Ricky Tucker, on behalf of the School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Hilton Als, via phone, about his book White Girls (McSweeney's), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2013 NBCC awards.
Hilton Als became a staff writer at The New Yorker in October, 1994, and a theatre critic in 2002. He began contributing to the magazine in 1989, writing pieces for The Talk of the Town. Before coming to The New Yorker, Als was a staff writer for the Village Voice and an editor-at-large at Vibe. He has also written articles for The Nation and collaborated on film scripts for "Swoon" and "Looking for Langston." Als edited the catalogue for the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition entitled "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art," which ran from November, 1994, to March, 1995. His first book, The Women, a meditation on gender, race, and personal identity, was published in 1996. In 1997, the New York Association of Black Journalists awarded Als first prize in both Magazine Critique/Review and Magazine Arts and Entertainment. He was awarded a Guggenheim for Creative Writing in 2000 and the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for 2002-03. In 2009, Als worked with the performer Justin Bond on "Cold Water," an exhibition of paintings, drawings, and videos by performers, at La MaMa Gallery. In 2010, he co-curated "Self-Consciousness," at the Veneklasen Werner Gallery in Berlin, and published Justin Bond/Jackie Curtis, his second book. Als has taught at Yale University, Wesleyan, and Smith College. He lives in New York City.
Ricky Tucker is a fiction writer, art critic, and North Carolina native. He is a Riggio Scholar, Editor-In-Chief of 12th Street Journal, and a 2013 Public Engagement Fellow. His work often explores the imprints of art on narrative and the subjectivity of memory. He has contributed to the New England art journal, Big Red and Shiny, the fashion and culture site Ironing Board Collective, and most recently The Paris Review Daily. If presented the opportunity, he knows exactly what he’d say to Mary J. Blige.
by Eric Banks | Mar-06-2014
In the weeks leading up to the March 13 announcement of the 2013 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Eric Banks offers an appreciation of Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy's nonfiction finalist, “Whitey Bulger" (Norton).
It’s no surprise that Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy have combined, in Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him To Justice, to produce the most authoritative account of the rise and fall of the legendary kingpin of organized crime in Boston. After all, both journalists had covered Bulger (at considerable risk to their safety) since the 1980s, Cullen for the Globe, and Murphy originally for the Herald. Cullen was in fact the first to question the Faustian bargain that the Boston office of the FBI struck with Bulger, which gave him cover to wipe out his enemies and tipped him off to anyone who would snitch on his crimes.
Yet Cullen and Murphy have produced a book that is more than just the definitive treatment of Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang. They’ve turned out a work that sketches, in silhouette form, a rough-around-the-edges outline of Boston in its post-World War II existence, a book that speaks to one aspect of urban life that arcs up and downward over the course of its more than 450 pages. When Bulger went on trial this past summer after sixteen years on the lam for murder one—a trial that Whitey Bulger only can anticipate—it became a cliché for commentators to say that the murderer and extortionist would barely be able to recognize the yuppified South Boston of today. Cullen and Murphy’s book looks at the truth behind the stereotype and earns the fascinating lesson it offers about how the city and the criminal were intertwined.
Bulger, after all, was practically an icon of Boston. “Boston is the city of John Adams, John Kennedy, and Ted Williams, but there are few names better known or more deeply associated with the city than Bulger's,” Cullen and Murphy write. The story they tell of Bulger’s rise, along with that of his powerful politician brother Bill (president of the Massachusetts State Senate) and FBI chief John Connolly, who grew up in South Boston in the adoring shadow of tough guy Whitey and repaid his affection by long protecting him, is a story of extreme loyalty gone fatally awry in addition to an object lesson of municipal corruption. More than that, it’s the story of how a city like Boston could produce a Whitey Bulger—who cultivated his phony Robin Hood image against the backdrop of the Boston busing crisis of 1974–75, when Bulger firebombed John Kennedy’s boyhood home and even tried to blow up Plymouth Rock. Cullen and Murphy lay out the context of Boston urban politics with patience, clarity, and style; and yet they never neglect giving a human portrait of Whitey and Co.’s nineteen murder victims, from fellow low-level gangsters to a corrupt attorney they feared would sing if he got pinched, to a hapless Jai Alai executive in Tulsa who never knew who he was fronting, to the stepdaughter of one of Whitey’s henchmen.
The Bulger who emerges in Cullen and Murphy’s portrait is himself a complicated figure, “a strange and complex amalgam of the depraved and the blandly conventional.” One of the reasons Whitey Bulger is a finalist for the NBCC award in nonfiction is its success in conveying just how complicated Bulger was, and in seeing him as an exceptional product of his moment. And if that moment seems like a closed book, think again: Just recall the once-bitten, twice-shy distrust and even animosity some Bostonians harbored toward the FBI in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon terrorist attack this past spring. To get a full understanding of why that suspicion toward an agency that coddled Bulger as an ally, Whitey Bulger is an exemplary place to begin.
A Brooklyn-based writer and critic, Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum and senior editor of Artforum. He also is a former NBCC president. He is currently 'director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.
by Michael Miller | Mar-06-2014
In the weeks leading up to the March 13 announcement of the 2013 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Michael Miller offers an appreciation of John Eliot Gardiner's biography finalist, "Bach." (Knopf)
In the opening chapter of this multifaceted biography, John Eliot Gardiner, one of the world’s most renowned conductors, reveals an awareness of challenges that face any biographer of Johann Sebastian Bach. As a musician, Bach is well-established as a genius. Bach the man, on the other hand, remains something of a mystery: Because he left behind no family correspondence and declined to write about his career, records of his life are anecdotal and spotty, suggesting a composer who did little interesting beyond making music. “It is not surprising some have concluded that Bach the man is something of a bore,” Gardiner writes.
As it turns out, Gardiner is merely gearing up for an eloquent and persuasive argument to the contrary. In Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, he sorts through and assembles the shards of Bach’s life story to create a complex portrait of his subject: Here we find an orphan, a proto-rebel, and an uncompromising composer who worked within the constrictions of the Lutheran church while also seeking—by straining “every imaginative muscle to engage with his listeners”—to stake out new musical ground. This alone would be laudable, as would Gardiner’s detailed and metaphorically juiced analysis of Bach’s compositions, particularly his motets and cantatas, the choral church music that is the primary focus here. But to reduce Bach, more than 20 years in the making and Gardiner’s first book, to simple or singular threads would be to miss its impressive and unique approach, which is to treat Bach’s experiences, art, and cultural context not as discrete topics but as narrative elements engaged in lively dialogue. Meanwhile, Gardiner’s spirited interaction with his material allows him to deliver a persuasive message about Bach’s compositions: though weighted with historical significance, they continue to evolve and thrive in the present, particularly in the participatory acts of listening and performance. “In order to grasp and ‘realize’ Bach’s harmonic movement,” he writes, “both player and listener are drawn in and required to complete the creative act.”
Gardiner presents his extensive research in a tone that’s at once authoritative and deeply engaged. He evokes the dark forests surrounding Bach’s childhood home in Eisenach—a town “sealed in a provincial time warp”—where Johann Sebastian lost both of his parents by age nine (death continued to surround him and to influence his work in adulthood, when he and his wife, Maria, lost 12 of their 20 children). We follow the young student to Ohrdruf, where Gardiner presents not the “goody two-shoes of legend” but an often-truant student who flouted authority, a characteristic that emerges throughout his career. The book situates Bach in the era’s trends in secular music, particularly at the Weimar Court, where he was employed from 1708 until his dismissal in 1717 (after he was jailed for a month for lashing out at his employers), and at the fashionable coffee houses of the day. But Gardiner finds his richest subject material in Bach’s church music, which reached its creative zenith in the years following 1723, when, after being named the Thomascantor Leipzig, he began a frenzied weekly output of church cantatas. Gardiner’s fluency with the mores of early-18th-century German churches sheds light on the system that Bach both worked within (he composed music that adhered to the liturgical calendar) and furiously attempted to shake up. As many as 3,000 people attended services; many of them talked or walked out or talked during the musical performance; dogs sometimes roamed the isles. Gardiner’s reading of the music, the lyrics, and how the two played off of one another persuasively argues that Bach sought nothing less than to shock these audiences into attention, with work “geared toward their spiritual edification but unprecedented in its dramatic intensity.” As the author points out—playing up the tension between Bach’s traditionalism and his challenging artistry—church officials probably considered him both an asset and a threat.
Gardiner describes the performance of Bach’s music from the perspective of an insider. Starting on Christmas 1999, he led the Monteverdi Orchestra and the English Baroque Soloists on a yearlong tour, called the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, on which they performed all of Bach’s surviving cantatas in more than 60 churches in Europe, the UK, and the US. This immersive quality is on display in Bach. Gardiner doesn’t, beyond the opening pages of his book, bother to differentiate between “the man” and “the artist”; rather, he combines the two to present a Bach as multilayered as an orchestral work. Gardiner is serious about understanding what the composer intended to achieve while he was alive, but his book is too wise and joyful to argue that the cantatas, once pregnant with religious significance that is somewhat lost on the modern listener, are frozen in the past. In this sense, the book is both a fascinating historical analysis of Bach’s work and an impassioned example of how his music still generates new meaning today.
James R. Oestreich’s review at the New York Times
Michael O’Donnell’s review in the Wall Street Journal
Sudip Bose's review in the Washington Post
ichael Miller has held positions at the Village Voice Literary Supplement, Spin Magazine, and Time Out New York, where he was the literary editor and lead book critic from 2005 until 2010. He is currently an editor at Bookforum, where he commissions essays and reviews about fiction, poetry, and cultural criticism. He also co-edits the magazine’s website. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Bookforum, the Believer, the Texas Observer, and Post Road.