October, 2016

NBCCLeonard Picks 12: Susan Comninos on Nadja Spiegelman’s I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This

by Susan Comninos | Oct-20-2016

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The twelfth in our series is NBCC member Susan Comninos on Nadja Spiegelman's I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This (Text Publishing).

In 2009, Nadja Spiegelman, then a 22-year-old intern for the Jewish Forward, interviewed me because the newspaper was publishing my poem “pecan, rodef, clam,” a look at a fetus posing a threat to its mother’s life, which Jewish law says can be aborted till the point of crowning. The poem explores the struggle over whose existential narrative — mother or child’s — will take precedence.  

What I didn’t know then was that Spiegelman — the daughter of Art Spiegelman, whose Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, “Maus,” shows his parents’ survival of Auschwitz-Birkenau — had begun exploring a theme of unwilling parenthood on the maternal side of her family. During her off-hours, she was laying the groundwork for her notable debut memoir, “I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This,” the result of her interviews with her mother, Francoise Mouly, the art editor of The New Yorker, about the latter’s painful upbringing in France, as well as the pair’s fraught mother-daughter relationship.

Born to a cosmetic surgeon and his beautiful wife, Mouly experienced her own parents, who ultimately divorced, as narcissists, who valued their egos and extramarital affairs over their children. (Her mother even began a fling with the father of Mouly’s first fiancé, collapsing her daughter’s engagement). To escape her parents’ orbit, Mouly fled from Paris alone, and at 18 years old, to New York City, where she met her husband. After their first child, Nadja, was born, “I realized that I could reinvent motherhood,” Mouly later said. As with the family’s Soho loft, which she’d single-handedly refurbished, she initially papered over the past so well that her little girl thought that her maman was magic.

“When I was a child, I knew my mother was a fairy,” Spiegelman writes, and her admiration — for the mignon Mouly’s creative mightiness — never flags. “On weekends, she put on safety googles, grabbed a jig saw, and remade the cabinets in her bedroom. She ran a hose from her bathroom to the roof to fill my inflatable pool. She helped me build a diorama of the rain forest, carving perfect cardboard birds of paradise with her X-Acto blade.” 

But their relationship changed. As Spiegelman approached adolescence, Mouly grew increasingly angry, and her daughter felt the target of her rage. Triggers included Nadja’s changing body (where Mouly was oxymoronically thin — “She never ate, then she ate like a wolf” — Spiegelman was overweight). Further, the girl’s sense of reality was straying from her mother’s own. Accusations followed: Nadja had thrown away all the spoons, eaten treats meant only for her brother, moved her mother’s papers. (“‘Stop lying,’ I was told. And yet I was incapable of apologizing for things I had not done.”) The petty nature of the complaints aside, Mouily’s wrath — her daughter suggests — could explode into violence, followed by a disturbing maternal amnesia. 

“‘You’re exaggerating, Nadja,’ she would say, a week later. ‘How could I have kicked you up the stairs?’” Confused, Spiegelman would turn to her diary, inscribing the events with a coded “R,” to verify for herself that the raging — even physical — brawls were real.

To better understand her mother, Spiegelman, in her 20’s, began exploring the dynamics that had driven Mouly from France — even relocating to Paris to hear her grandmother’s side of the stories. There, she made an unexpected discovery: her maternal line had been marked by girls born out-of-wedlock. A resulting shame had trickled down from one generation to the next, staining a series of mothers’ stances toward their daughters. 

As for Spiegelman’s own model: readers familiar with her father's “Maus” will see the parallel between her memoir and his comic-strip masterpiece. Art Spiegelman began their tradition of interviewing family members — in his case, his father, Vladek, who outlasted the Nazis — but about much higher stakes. 

Still, it wouldn’t be fair to say that his daughter considers their two projects to be morally equivalent. She doesn’t — and it’s while hunting down her maternal history that she uncovers a grotesque irony in the family tree. Where her Jewish grandparents were victims of the Nazis, some of her French forbears engaged more-or-less intimately with Fascists.

For better or worse, family history repeats itself, and Spiegelman’s first-hand discovery of this fact gives meaning to her struggles with Mouly. “[N]ow that I knew her past,” she writes, “I saw all the ways in which she worked to be a very different mother from her own. And I also saw how much the past, so long kept secret, pulled us into formations like a deep ocean current, from so far below that we barely knew we were not moving on our own.” 

At times, her memoir strays from its focus, with a segment about 9/11 feeling inserted to give the story more gravitas. But the book doesn’t need it. Like her father’s “Maus,” Spiegelman’s “I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This” goes far beyond its roots as a post-trauma memoir. Marked by curiosity and a gift for storytelling, her work fulfills a literary ambition all its own.

Susan Comninos is both an arts journalist and a poet. She’s covered books for The Atlantic Online, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Haaretz English Edition, among others. Most recently, her poetry’s appeared in Subtropics, Rattle, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and The Tishman Review. She recently completed a debut book of poems, “Out of Nowhere.”

#NBCCLeonard Picks #11: Michael Magras on Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter

by Michael Magras | Oct-18-2016

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The eleventh in our series is NBCC member Michael Magras on Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter (Knopf).

For anyone who has ever suspected that the backroom activities of the staff at a posh restaurant are far juicier than the refinement on display in the dining room, Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler’s delightfully profane debut novel, is your validation. Danler, who worked in the restaurant business, has written a spicy-greens work of fiction: seemingly mild at first, but with a wit that grows more piquant over time.  

It’s June 2006. A 22-year-old English major named Tess arrives in New York City from her home in the Midwest. She’s happy to have exchanged “the claustrophobic noise of the cicadas” and small-town America’s “twin pillars of football and church” for a more exciting life. The first stop in that new life, after renting a $700-a-month bedroom in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment, is an interview at a fancy Union Square café. She can name only one of the “five noble grapes of Bordeaux”—a lucky guess—but the general manager hires her, anyway, after she tells him that, when she worked at a coffee shop back home, a diabetic customer stopped coming to the shop after her foot was amputated, and Tess would deliver scrambled eggs to the woman’s dog.

The restaurant owner tells her that she is a “fifty-one percenter,” that rare employee who has the intelligence, integrity, and self-awareness required for greatness. He’s right: Soon, the novice who had never heard the term cru learns that a Chardonnay is over-oaked if it’s vanilla and buttery, can distinguish a chanterelle from the smell alone, masters the crease-turn-crease-fan technique for folding linen napkins, and knows that, when you open wine at a table, you hold the bottle so that the guest—never refer to them as customers—can see the label.

One of the many pleasures of Sweetbitter is that Danler has written pitch-perfect backstories for each of the many staff members, most of whom snort drugs, smoke joints, gossip, and bandy the most creative of profanities. Will, one of the young “sergeants” who trains her, has created a Claymation version of Godard’s À bout de souffle and is now writing a feature film. Ariel, a dining room back waiter, tells Tess that she stole two Hallmark cards before she turned six, addressing one to John Lennon and one to her missing mother, and praying that they’d come to her party—a moot point, as it turned out, because her father forgot her birthday.

There’s the Chef who demands that no one but the owner speak to him while he prepares his masterworks in the kitchen. Jake, the bartender with whom Tess is smitten, has worked as a musician, a poet, and a carpenter, and is rumored to be a drunk and bisexual. In one of the novel’s many spot-on descriptions, Danler tells us that Jake “knew part of his job was to be looked at” and had “a stillness that made one want to paint him.” Tess isn’t the only one to have noticed him: Simone, a middle-aged woman who is one of the restaurant’s senior servers and can tell a wine’s vintage just by sipping it, has a complicated relationship with him. She and Jake “were not a couple, though their magnetic, unconscious way of tracking one another seemed to indicate otherwise.” What else can Tess conclude after she walks in on them in a back room of the restaurant and sees Jake with his trousers off? The closest this episodic novel comes to a story arc is the competition of sorts that Simone and Tess wage for Jake’s affections.

But plot is not the reason to read Sweetbitter. The joy is in its storytelling audacity, from stream of consciousness passages and long stretches of unattributed dialogue to the bracing juxtaposition of wait staff who do lines of coke in the bathroom of a bar yet treat a 90-year-old customer kindly when she wants to know when she will receive the soup she finished ten minutes earlier.

Any cook will tell you that, to prepare delicious meals, you start by choosing the best ingredients. But you still have to combine them with skill if you don’t want to end up with an unpalatable mess. With Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler demonstrates the same dexterity. One assumes that her time in the restaurant business provided the book’s components. But to whip up a concoction this good, you need to know how to put them together. You need to be a fifty-one percenter.

Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His reviews have appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Review of Books, Iowa Review, and BookPage.

President’s Message to Membership: Coming Up This Fall

by Tom Beer | Oct-16-2016

Dear NBCC members:

The NBCC board met in New York last month, and I wanted to share the minutes from that meeting and to remind you of some upcoming NBCC business.

NBCC Members' Choice

Every year NBCC members are asked to nominate titles to be finalists for the book awards in fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography, poetry and criticism. Any title that receives 20 percent of members' votes automatically becomes a finalist. It's been a decade since a book was honored that way -- Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" and Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" in 2006 -- but we hope you'll take the chance to participate. Look for a SurveyMonkey nomination form in your email in November.

John Leonard Prize

This is the fourth year of the NBCC's John Leonard Prize, awarded to an outstanding first book in any genre and selected by the general membership. Last year, Kirsten Valdez Quade's short story collection, "Night at the Fiestas," received the prize. Next month, NBCC members will be asked to nominate books for the prize. To be eligible, a book must have been published in the United States in 2016, and it must be the author's first book. (A first novel by author who has already published a book of short stories or a memoir, for example, would NOT be eligible.) In November you will receive an e-mail with a link to a SurveyMonkey form on which you can nominate titles. The deadline for nominations is November 30. Next, the board will tabulate the results and compile a shortlist of finalists. This year, for the first time, we're inviting members to join an all-volunteer committee of Leonard readers who commit to read the entire slate of Leonard finalists (probably 5-7 books) and vote for the winner, to be announced in January. The Leonard committee is open to any NBCC member. If you're interested in joining the Leonard committee, please email board member Dan Akst (danielakst@gmail.com), who is chairing the committee.

The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing

The NBCC awards the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing each year to recognize outstanding work by a member of the NBCC. The citation is awarded in honor of Nona Balakian, a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle. Since 2012, the Balakian Citation carries with it a $1,000 cash prize, thanks to a generous donation by NBCC board member Gregg Barrios. Nominees for the Balakian Award must be NBCC members in good standing, and may submit up to 5 book reviews for a total of 5000 words. The deadline is December 1. Compete guidelines are here (http://bookcritics.org/awards/nona-balakian-citation-for-excellence-in-reviewing/).

The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award

The Sandrof Award honors outstanding contribution to American letters. Named after the first president of the NBCC, the award is given annually to a person or institution-a writer, publisher, critic, or editor, among others-who has, over time, made significant contributions to literary culture. Recent recipients include Wendell Berry, Toni Morrison, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The deadline for nominations is December 1. Please submit your ideas, along with a few sentences about why the proposed candidate should be considered, to committee chair David Biespiel at db@atticinstitute.com. There's more information here (http://bookcritics.org/sandrof/).

NBCC Board Elections

We are now accepting nominations for eight open seats on the board of directors. Board members serve three-year terms and participate throughout the year helping to run our all-volunteer organization and discussing books under consideration for awards. If you are interested in running for a board position, please don't hesitate to contact me at tomnbeer@aol.com for more information. To nominate yourself for a board position, e-mail Newswire VP Kate Tuttle at kate.tuttle@gmail.com with a statement outlining the contributions you hope to make to the board as well as your relevant qualifications. We will send out another call for nominations closer to the December 1 deadline. I hope that you all have a good fall, with many good books and book reviews on the agenda. As always, if you have questions, concerns, or suggestions please feel free to email me at tomnbeer@aol.com. Sincerely, Tom Beer NBCC Board President

Minutes of the NBCC Board meeting
Sept. 17, 2016
New York University, 20 Cooper Square, New York.
Present in person: Tom Beer, Colette Bancroft, Tess Taylor, Clay Smith, Katherine A. Powers, Michele Filgate, Laurie Hertzel, Carlin Romano, Marion Winik, Dan Akst, David Biespiel, Kate Tuttle, Jane Ciabattari, Bethanne Patrick, Michael Miller, Walton Muyumba, Elizabeth Taylor, Mark Rotella, Mary Ann Gwinn
Present online:  Gregg Barrios, Michael Schaub
The meeting came to order at 10 a.m. President Tom Beer explained that Carmela Ciuraru was not present because she has not been receiving board e-mails; by the time she realized the meeting was Sept. 17 she had made other plans. This generated a discussion about the organization's e-mail issues that continued later in the meeting.
Treasury report
Treasurer Michael Miller reported that the NBCC has a current balance of about $27,000, an amount he characterized as healthy. He said that his board term extends for one more year, but he would like to begin training his replacement now, because the new treasurer needs experience in calculating taxes, paying for the awards ceremony and other duties. Marion Winik volunteered to become the treasurer-in-training.
Online report
Jane Ciabattari, vice president/online, gave the online report. She said recent highlights of the blog have included roundups of member reviews each Monday and Carmela's "what are you reading?" posts.  Jane said that posts on upcoming meetings, AWP events and so forth get about 4,000 page views. The NBCC Twitter account has 15,000 followers.
A discussion ensued about the need to update the web site. Tech VP Bethanne Patrick volunteered to take a "deep dive" into the issue with an eye to a possible web site redesign.
Vacant seat
Tom reported that Leigh Newman needs to step down because of new job duties -- she has a position with a publisher that could constitute a conflict of interest during the awards process.
A lengthy discussion ensued about how to handle this. According to the bylaws, an empty seat midterm may be filled at the board's discretion. Several options were discussed:

Do nothing, since the position could be filled during the upcoming board election at the end of the year.
Offer the appointment to the person who just missed being elected to the board (the ninth vote-getter, since eight people are typically elected to the board in each cycle). This person was Kerri Arsenault.
Recognizing the need to broaden the diversity of board members, offer the appointment to someone who would fill that requirement.

Gregg Barrios pointed out that at this point in the year, whoever is appointed will be playing major catch-up in terms of getting the reading done, so it may make more sense to leave the position vacant.
Tom Beer made a motion to fill the seat, though the motion did not specify how it would be filled. That motion passed 12 for, 7 against. In the interest of time, further discussion was tabled for later in the meeting.
Freelancer's guide
Strengths and weaknesses of the NBCC's freelancer's guide (a list of editors and publications, both print and online, who run book reviews) were discussed. On the one hand, it is a perk for members; on the other hand, some people think it's of limited use in the online/social media age, and some editors have been uncooperative in providing the required information.
Elizabeth Taylor said that the guide doesn't have to be completely comprehensive to be helpful. Walton Muyumba, vice president for membership, said the guide comes up pretty often in conversations with members; they like the service but they say it is hard to find.
Carlin Romano said he would be willing to work on updating the guide. The site Who Pays Writers? on Tumblr was suggested as a helpful reference.
 Membership report
Walton Muyumba gave the membership report. The voting membership stands at 730; associate memberships are at 220 and student memberships are at 41. He considers these strong numbers and says they have ticked up recently.
AWP Panel
The NBCC will have a literary partnership again at AWP in Washington D.C. in February 2017, a book fair booth and a featured panel on literary criticism with Washington Post book critics Ron Charles and Carlos Lozada,  NBCC winner in autobiography Margo Jefferson, and Maureen Corrigan, book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air."  It's the 50th anniversary of the AWP. Jane , who organized and will moderate the panel, said that a limited number of conference fee waivers are available for board members who volunteer to staff the NBCC booth at the convention.
Emerging Critics Program
Elizabeth Taylor reported on her work on developing an emerging critics program. This would be an initiative in which the NBCC would "identify, nurture and support the development of a new generation of critics."
The fellowships for emerging critics would include these features (from the proposal):
-Dues-free membership to the NBCC.
-Active mentorship from members of the Emerging Critic Initiative committee, as well as other board members. This would include editing advice on drafts as well as counsel regarding career development.
- Publication on the NBCC blog Critical Mass, as contributors of both original work and previously published work in the weekly roundup.
-Admission to NBCC events and the annual reception.
To apply, the proposal suggests that each writer should submit a resume, three writing samples, a 300-500 word statement of purpose and references and contact information.
The proposal was met with sustained enthusiasm. Liz asked for volunteers for a committee to work out issues such as numbers of fellowships, timing, etc. These members signed up: Tess Taylor, Clay Smith, Michele Filgate, Carlin Romano, Kate Tuttle, Walton Muyumba, Bethanne Patrick, Mary Ann Gwinn and Elizabeth Taylor.
Liz made a motion to establish the emerging critics initiative. The motion passed unanimously.
Vote to fill vacancy on board
Following up on the earlier discussion, a motion was made and seconded to offer the position to the next vote-getter in the last election, Kerri Arsenault. The vote was 15 out of 19 members present. The motion passed.
Discussion followed on other ways to get a diverse slate of candidates for the board. Dan Akst suggested that every board member recruit one person who would increase the diversity of the board to run. The generally low vote  "turnout" for the board election was discussed, including the concern that a chunk of the membership may not be getting notifications to vote because of e-mail problems.
 Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award/Balakian awards
David Biespiel, chair of the Sandrof committee, reported on the award process. He said that it's traditional to carry the list of nominees forward from the previous year.
Gregg Barrios, chair of the Balakian committee, reported on the Nona Balakian award for book reviewing process. Gregg said that last year there were 50 entries. He said the Balakian engages the membership (one has to be a member to submit an entry). He said there is a lot of reading required in the run-up to the holidays, but that he hopes to get the process wound up by Dec. 15.
John Leonard Prize
Dan Akst reported on the Leonard Prize for the best first book. He said that this year's awards process has changed. After members nominate titles and the finalists are named, a committee of volunteer NBCC members will read all the finalists and pick a winner. He said 43 people have committed to do this reading.
Tess Taylor made the point that sending books to 43 different people will be a strain on independent publishers.
Dan said he would like to see more nominees in the areas of nonfiction and biography.
Board elections
These occur in December. Candidate statements are solicited in early December; the results are announced in January.
Poetry committee
Tess Taylor said she had received a Guggenheim to live and work in Ireland, and that Walton Muyumba had agreed to facilitate the poetry committee discussion at the January meeting (Tess plans to join the meeting online).
The rest of the meeting was devoted to discussion by the six reading committees about the reading so far, highlighting possible contenders for each award.
Respectfully submitted,
Mary Ann Gwinn

#NBCCLeonard Picks #10: Laurie Hertzel on Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl

by Laurie Hertzel | Oct-14-2016

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The tenth in our series is NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel on Hope Jahren's Lab Girl (Knopf).

Hope Jahren doesn’t mind sleeping in her lab, smashing up cars, getting injured (“I had seen some blood in my urine … but it hadn’t upset me”), scrounging for equipment, living on fast food, blowing things up from time to time. These are just the minor inconveniences of life, mere annoyances on her way to something more important: the pursuit of science.

The heart of her life is her lab, and her research. She is besotted by science. And the further you read in her original, fascinating memoir, “Lab Girl” (April, Alfred A. Knopf), the more besotted you will become, too.

Jahren is a renowned professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, and her book traces her ecstatic journey from misfit child in Minnesota to three-time Fulbright winner.

It is a strange, fascinating journey, and Jahren is an enthusiastic, observant guide.

She grew up in a house of oppressive silence. Her Scandinavian parents seldom spoke—to her, to her siblings, or to each other.  Jahren has memories of her grandfathers, but not of them ever speaking; her mother had “more than ten siblings, some of whom I never met,” even though they lived just a few miles away. And regarding her own two brothers, well, “It was not unusual for us to go days without finding anything to say to each other.”

It was in the science lab that Jahren found herself, her voice, and her passion. “We worked with our hands and there were concrete and almost daily payoffs.”

There are plenty of road blocks on her way to becoming a scientist – sexism, a major theme in the book, is one. Lack of funding is another, a problem that dogs her from university to university. During the course of the book she sets up labs at three universities, and scrounges for, hoards, and appropriates equipment for all of them.

Jahren works all the time. She is more than a workaholic; she is a woman obsessed, single-minded in her pursuit of understanding.

Her mania, as it turns out, stems not entirely from ambition. Halfway through the book, Jahren mentions her growing awareness of her own mental illness; in one powerful chapter, she takes readers into a manic episode, mania “as strong and ever-present as gravity.”

“Full-blown mania lets you see the other side of death,” she writes. But also, “This great cosmic fire hose bathes you in epiphanies.”

The heart of this book is her friendship and professional relationship with her lab partner, Bill, a man as brilliant and as peculiar as she. They watch out for each other, they understand each other, and their deep friendship illuminates, for the reader, the peculiar solitary, passionate life of the researcher.

Jahren’s writing is superb. Her observations are detailed and acute; ever the scientist, she pays attention to even the smallest of details.

“In Minnesota, the spring thaw happens all at once when the frozen ground yields to the sun in one day, wetting the spongy soil from within,” she writes. “On the first day of spring you can reach into the ground and easily pull of great, loose clumps of dirt as if they were handfuls of too-fresh devil’s food cake and watch the fat pink earthworms come writhing out and fling themselves joyfully back into the hole.”

Descriptions like these—precise, enthusiastic, tactile and colorful—lace the book, and Jahren intertwines her own story with short essays on botany that both teach and echo the themes of her life.

“People are like plants,” she writes. “They grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed — a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.”

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the author of a memoir, “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist,” published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2010 and winner of a Minnesota Book Award. Her work has appeared in Tri-Quarterly, the Chicago Tribune, Minnesota Monthly magazine, and many other publications in the United States, Finland, and Australia. She has an MFA from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C. 

#NBCCLeonard Picks #9: Kerri Arsenault on Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither

by Kerri Arsenault | Oct-13-2016

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The ninth in our series is NBCC board member Kerri Arsenault on Sara Baume's Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

A lonely, desolate man (Ray) adopts a lonely, desolate cur with one eye, which he names One Eye, and they live in the lonely, desolate landscape of Ireland’s coast in a murky house owned by Ray’s deceased father. But you shouldn’t feel forsaken by what appears to be a gloomy tale. You will love these broken lives, not just because because they are fallible (like us), or because they eventually become “creatures of possibility”, but because this is a story about what love can do.

Ray thinks: “…with summer comes hope, and with hope comes disappointment.” It is with this credo of paradox Baume approaches her narrative, her characters, the book’s themes, the point-of-view, all of which balance on the thin line between beauty and ugliness, possibility and routine, heartbreak and joy, man and man’s best friend until the seams of those concepts are pressed together like two sides of the same coin. In this constant capsizing of definitions, readers are forced to reinterpret their own boundaries of how to view the world and the people in it. One Eye’s violence toward people and animals feels both repulsive and understandable; shattered bottles become treasures; a happy birthday memory consists of a sad day at the zoo; and an invisible shiny spacesuit makes Ray feel dull. Baume’s language also crosses borders to forge new perceptions of things that can be clichéd: A man’s anger becomes a “cathedral of tea-candles” and “At night, the sheep look like walking headstones” or “the bay is fringed by a phlegm of dirty white weed.” Indeed, I’ll never look at sheep or headstones or tea-candles or the water’s edge in the same way.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is also an adventure wrapped up in a staycation, and those opposing narratives fit snugly into one another like a literary turducken. Ray and One Eye embark on an unplanned trip to escape their pasts and they don’t go terribly far in real distance; but the real journey is where Ray ventures beyond the confines he’s erected in his blinkered mind. “I realise it’s up to me to follow your example and nurture my own wonder, morsel by morsel,” (148) he says to One Eye. And we see those morsels as we listen to him talk to “you,” which at first is One Eye but eventually becomes you, the reader.

Don’t look for a happy ending. But when does that really happen anyway?

Kerri Arsenault serves on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle and is a founder of the Western Maine Water Alliance. She writes a column for Lit Hub, and her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, American Book Review, NBCC’s Critical Mass, and Bookslut. She is currently working on a book about Maine.

#NBCCLeonard Picks #8: Elizabeth Rosner on Natashia Deon’s Grace

by Elizabeth Rosner | Oct-12-2016

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The eighth in our series is NBCC member Elizabeth Rosner on Natashia Deon's Grace (Counterpoint).

This remarkable debut novel examines the complex terrain of slavery and its reverberating damage to body, mind and spirit -- damage that gets passed from generation to generation. In a narrative as excruciating as it is exquisite, Grace takes a magnifying glass to the violence and dehumanization of racism in its extremity, vividly demonstrating how the legacy of torture and terror remains with all of us to this day. 

Author Natashia Deon explains: “As a country, we haven't been out of slavery for as long as we were in it. It was hundreds of years and millions of victims…. So when seemingly ‘awake’ and smart people ask, ‘Do we need to talk about slavery still?’ I think, look around you. Most of us have never appreciated the severity and length of the devastation here.”

While Grace contains unmistakable echoes of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved as well as the true story of Solomon Northup depicted in Twelve Years a Slave, it is fiercely original in its own transcendent voice, structure and temperament. The story of teenage slave Naomi and her daughter Josey oscillates back and forth between time frames (pre- and post-Civil War), and settings (Alabama and Georgia). Within this deftly interwoven structure, Deon exposes the tenacious and even death-defying bonds of mother-daughter love.

In one of many intricate “relationship” scenes, we read this: “Your momma had the strong to give birth to you, to raise you, to put the strength inside you to do something she never could,” Naomi says to the embittered yet heroic Jewish brothel owner named Cynthia. “Maybe she couldn’t be your strong. In the end, you saved yourself.”

Grace covers brutal and yet uplifting territory, hidden corners of the past that demand our conscious attention and illumination. Sometimes only a novelist can provide the key to recognizing that a transition from the crimes of slavery to the redemption of emancipation takes much more than one lifetime. Thanks to Deon’s soul-baring vision, readers are privileged to witness the semi-permeable borderland between life and afterlife, bondage and freedom.

Elizabeth Rosner's most recent novel "Electric City" was named among the best books of 2014 by NPR. Her previous novels "Blue Nude" and "The Speed of Light" were both highly acclaimed national bestsellers. Along with writing poetry and essays, she is a frequent reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Rosner lives in Berkeley, CA, and is working on a book of nonfiction entitled "Survivor Cafe," to be published in 2017.

#NBCCLeonard Picks #7: Edie Meidav on Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness

by Edie Meidav | Oct-11-2016

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard Picks blog essays on promising first books.  The seventh in our series is NBCC member Edie Meidav on Jennifer Tseng's Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (Europa Editions, April 2016).

Can we call this the golden era of bastard offspring? To consider merely two illicit parents: consider the great spate of recent novels singing of the influence of Ellison coupled with Nabokov, both coming out of the polyphony of Notes from the Underground: The Sympathizer, The Sell-Out, White Tiger, The Woman Upstairs, Notes from a Scandal. If in The Sympathizer, Nguyen complicates any easy history of Vietnam, his first-person narrator just as seductive as Humbert Humbert in making us morally complicit, in The Sell-Out, Beatty sings the truth of America both underground and above-ground, and by counting on our sympathy and horror, makes us partners in crime. White Tiger, from a few years back, owes a similar debt to Ellison, as well as Narayan, while giving us a morally suspect yet wholly understandable narrator, while The Woman Upstairs and Notes from a Scandal both bear the despondent, criminal candor of a woman kept underground. And if we look beyond these new granddaddies, Ellison and Nabokov, we find a general glee in heirs of the great transgressives: just consider recent releases of Berlin, Ferrante, Mitchell S. Jackson, Sumell, Yuknavitch, all love-children of those who long ago reconfigured writing as bad behavior.

Among many debut writers who made our recent bastard lovechild sensibility so alive this last year, consider taking a look at Jennifer Tseng's Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, a Nabokovian novel in its premise so long as you might  imagine Nabokov waxing lyrical but streamlined. The female Humbert of Mayumi makes us complicit with a transgressor. As with all the work cited here, we leave questioning our own moral categories, and all the richer in empathy and vision. Reader, is there any greater act that literature can accomplish?

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