September, 2014

NBCC Reads: What’s Your Favorite First Book Ever? Thomas Pynchon, V

by Jeff Esterholm | Sep-19-2014

"What's your favorite first book by an author ever?" That's the question that launches the seventh year of the NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of our members and honorees. Here's the latest in this new series. It's not too late to send your critical essay on your own favorite to [email protected]



What could you expect for a first novel from a toothy twenty-something who graduated from high school at sixteen, followed a course of study at Cornell that could hurt your brain - mine, at any rate – joined the U.S. Navy, returned to Cornell for an English degree, and then signed up with Boeing as a technical writer? Surely no one expected V., a 463-page search across the decades for someone, something called V. The 463-pager? That’s my 1973 paperback edition, its pages now sepia-edged, giving off that particularly wonderful old book funk.

For a first book, V. is amazing. In it, the twenty-six-year-old Thomas Pynchon arrives, fully formed, on the page. It is all here: mind-pounding erudition rubbing up against puerile lyrics, pop culture sidling up, not shy, not shy at all, Dickensian chapter headings leading into the arcana of the world where more than a dose of clear paranoia is revealed. And the names: Benny Profane, Pig Bodine, Herbert Stencil. The Whole Sick Crew.

V. is not only one of the best first books ever, it is, obviously, the gateway drug to the rest of Pynchon’s world.

Jeff Esterholm’s short stories have appeared in such magazines as Midwestern Gothic, Flash Fiction Italia, and Two Hawks Quarterly. Last year, he won the Larry and Eleanor Sternig Short Fiction Award sponsored by the Council for Wisconsin Writers.

Small Press Spotlight: R.A. Villanueva

by Rigoberto González | Sep-15-2014

Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Reliquaria, University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

R.A. Villanueva is the author of Reliquaria, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He is also the winner of the inaugural Ninth Letter Literary Award for poetry and a founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Five Points, The Common, AGNI, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.

There are so many arresting poems in this collection, but one that has stayed with me is “Fish Heads,” in which the speaker remembers his mother’s waste-nothing kitchen--gizzards, gristle, skin, everything is edible. I would argue this poem is like an ars poetica. Similarly, the poet mines the viscera of memory and story--where there’s a body, there’s a narrative, and usually one that’s traced over muscle and bone. The poem speaks to culture, class, and gender, but refuses to divide mother and son because of these differences. Instead it connects them through a like-minded appreciation of ingenuity, beauty, and creativity: “my mother believes I was the only one to share/ of such things.” I was struck how unlike many collections about in-betweenness (two cultures, two nations, two languages, two homelands, etc.), you resist the impulse to situate your work as a tension between past and present. If anything, I read so much reconciliation. Can you speak to that impression?

Consider the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is often simplified to “Confession.” Conceptually, there is so much more to it than an airing of small wrongs and an act of contrition; as its name suggests, the ritual enacts a joining-again, allows for that small miracle of resetting a break.

Because just like with a once-broken bone now healed, that place is different now, it senses and responds to pressures differently. There’s an added sensitivity and tenderness born into the very fiber of the fracture.

What if that's what poems can do? The world takes so much from us and wants so badly to take more. I want to remember and embody how poetry allows us to make something lasting, something human to put back into those spaces.

And speaking of bones, forgive the digression, but this comes to mind: the Archaeopteryx lithographica is one of the most vital, fragile, and important fossils in the evolutionary record. It is a natural example of a literal “in-betweenness.” It exists as an animal alive in stone; it is simultaneously bird and dinosaur and rock. It is a wondrous, compound truth.

A few years ago, I had the Berlin specimen of the Archaeopteryx inked on my right arm—my writing arm. To see it when I type, teach, and/or hold a poem up to the light is to be reminded that at every given instant what is present is latched to the past and what is past complicates the present. Beyond “latched to,” actually. Etched in. Embedded.

The folly of childhood is a dazzling element in Reliquaria--young boys cause mischief at school, at church, on their expansive playground, the outdoors. But like the game of the Kill Sparrow War, these behaviors are far from innocent or innocuous--they cast a long shadow fraught with danger, violence and aggression. I’m reminded of the lines in “Aftermaths” when a voice of experience says “There was no time when home and war/ could be kept apart or held untroubled.” And later he adds, “I’ve learned what we are/ is unwanted, marked by sighs and curses.” These loaded statements speak to the complicated colonial history of the Philippines, its unsettling relationship to the U.S. But from this history also comes a very rich literary legacy. How do you see yourself as part of the ongoing conversation in Filipino and Filipino-American literary landscapes? And why does the young speaker/ character/ protagonist still have an important role in expressing perspective?

This July, a number of Fil-Am poets and writers traveled together to the Philippines for a few weeks, stopping at universities in Manila and Dumaguete. We were blessed with the chance to read poems with brilliant Filipino writers and to talk race and class and poetics and colonialism and all manner of everything else with their equally brilliant students.

And I'm still processing it. After all, during a spirited Q & A at Ateneo de Manila University on the very first night of our visit, the very first question asked was a charged version of your question: “How is this ‘home’?” “How do you (read: can you) write about the Philippines as ‘home?’ (read: especially since you weren’t born here?)

So I’m reckoning with that hyphen between “Filipino” and “American” constantly these days. And I tangle with the nomenclature of identity whether the poems address it expressly or not. How the language of naming ourselves troubles and heartens, reduces and distills all at once. What words do we have but unsettling ones?

You saw “Fish Heads” as an ars poetica and maybe it is. I want to also humbly propose that “Aftermaths” is an ars poetica as well—an ars poetica laboratory-crossed with a crown of sonnets, a statement of values, a declaration of the rules of engagement, and “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.”

I hear the role of the voices in “Aftermaths” (dare I pull back to say, my role? Our role?) as deeply important to me. I’m thinking about when my mouth fails me—how I understand Tagalog wholly, but stagger when I fight to speak it aloud. I’m attempting to figure some surer stance in the fraught talk of “Who are you?” “What are you?” “Why are you here?” “What gives you the right?”

And now more than ever, in “Aftermaths” and across the book, I’m reaching out to José García Villa as patron and to his alter-ego “Doveglion” as familiar spirit. Setting his line as the first epigraph in Reliquaria is an invocation of his vanguard voice, an appeal to be welcomed into the faith.

There is a classical quality to your writing. (The book title sets the tone.) Perhaps the diction--how you savor Latin-root words and terms from Catholicism and science--or the memorable references from the Bible and Greek mythology. In addition, your stanzas and lines are carefully chiseled, the hard consonant sounds prevalent with the use of alliteration: “You/ will hear the cadence// of my voice, the snapping/ oblique of my laugh. Among the votives// and canticles, you will trace,/ with the tips of your thumbs,// lines of demarcation/ between the fallow of my scalp// and the dunes of my forehead.” All of this produces something quite robust and concrete--indeed, befitting the trope that runs throughout the book--bones, not brittle but solid. Who and/or what are some of the literary muses that helped you shape the muscle and music in Reliquaria    

To be raised Catholic is to be flooded with repetition and ritual. Imagine each Sunday surrounded by the phases and movements of a mass. The litany. The Responsorial Psalms. The hymns and refrains. It primes the eye and ear and heart for patterns in language and in imagery, in professions of belief and in the sound of song. All of that is inescapable now. It’s in the bloodstream of the poems.

Another litany, this time an imperfect listing of who I hope you hear singing contrapuntal melodies through the book: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Anne Sexton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lucille Clifton, Herman Melville (whose Moby Dick gave me permission to make an unapologetic thing thick with citation and addendum and reference), Galway Kinnell, Robert Hayden…

and among those muses also this: A Tribe Called Quest’s monumentally significant album, The Low End Theory. Since that CD arrived in a box as part of my first order from the Columbia House’s mail-order music club sometime in 1993, I have transferred those tracks to innumerable cassettes (to steal a line from The Notorious B.I.G.: “I let my tape rock 'til my tape popped”); to this day, I carry The Low End Theory with me on every device and hard drive of mine that can hold and play music.

I listened to that album on the bus nearly every morning. It was on repeat and auto reverse all through high school. It soundtracked my reading of Piers Plowman and Beowulf, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Chaucer and Tennyson. It was background to The Inferno and Leaves of Grass.

I have the whole thing memorized down to the time signatures and bass lines. Which is to say, perhaps everything I know about rhyme and line and arcs of narrative, call and response, allusion and invention I owe to Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

The body dies, emaciates, sickens, weakens, etc. and its various stages of damage and decline are woven into the collection, yet they are seen through the lens of nature, the natural process of aging and succumbing to environmental factors and genetic predispositions--you take to heart the Ted Hughes lines you quote in Part 3: “Now I am ready to tell you how bodies are changed/ Into different bodies.” When I read that I actually reached back to the poem in Part 1, “In Memory of Xiong Huang,” about the man who suspects his brother’s body ended up on display as a plastinated cadaver in that popular, albeit morbid, exhibit in NYC. But there is nothing morbid about the way you consider the body, the cadaver, the tissue and bones. If anything, your approach is respectful, curious, and even appreciative. Life’s lessons are indeed written on the body, on its scars and stretch-marks. Where does this pull toward the physicality of story come from? And where is it taking you next?

Life and death are kith and kin. We know that. It’s all around us and our art so often reminds us of that interplay. And this seems to be a current running through our conversation, but, yes, to grow up going to church means that you spend an hour or more each week staring at the “fact” of a man’s body broken and yet somehow also transcendent. He is there above the altar already gone but ever-present.

To step away from the sacristy for a second, I think the preoccupation with the oftentimes quite poetic (see “Sacrum”) vernacular of anatomy and morphology has to do something with my unrelenting interest in biology, which was my original major at Rutgers. I always wanted to be a scientist—someone who uncovered, theorized, dissected.

And now I’m something else. That fixation on the naming of things, on precision and experimentation, though, is still here. Thrilling and terrifying to say that I don’t know entirely what form that love will take tomorrow.

Roundup: Gail Sheehy, Hillary Clinton, Elena Ferrante, Ian McEwan and Ben Lerner

by Eric Liebetrau | Sep-15-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items to [email protected]. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


Alan Tarica explores the sonnets of William Shakespeare.

Susan Froetschel reviews "Extreme: Why Some People Thrive at the Limits."

Meredith Sue Willis presents her latest "Books for Readers."

Roxana Robinson on Elena Ferrante’s "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay."

Adam Kirsch: "An aging feminist meets a new generation in Brian Morton’s sharp, sympathetic novel ‘Florence Gordon.'"

Julia M. Klein reviews Gail Sheehy's memoir, "Daring," for the Boston Globe.

Larry Smith reviews Edward Hirsch's "Gabriel: A Poem."

NBCC board member David Biespiel delivers his latest Poetry Wire.

Lanie Tankard reviews Hillary Clinton's memoir.

Robert Birnbaum pays tribute to The Baffler. He also takes a look at a selection of "lovely and compelling art books" and talks to Amy Grace Loyd.

Rebecca Ariel Porte reviews "The Albertine Workout" (Anne Carson) in the Philadelphia Review of Books.

Michelle Newby reviews "Spheres of Disturbance" by Amy Schutzer.

"The office: Three new books offer a glimpse at the contemporary workplace," from Michael Lindgren.

Girija Sankar reviews "From a Tilted Pail" by Ajay Vishwanathan.

David Cooper reviews "The Betrayers" by David Bezmozgis.

NBCC board member Steven G. Kellman reviews Ben Lerner's "10:04."

Heller McAlpin reviews Eimear McBride's "A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing." She also reviews Marcos Giralt Torrente's Father and Son," as well as Ian McEwan's "The Children Act."

Anjali Enjeti reviews Karen Abbott's "Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy." She also reviews Laila Lalami's "The Moor's Account."

Harvey Freedenberg reviews Busted, by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker.

NBCC Reads: What’s Your Favorite First Book Ever? Philip Roth’s ‘Goodbye, Columbus’

by David Varno | Sep-10-2014

"What's your favorite first book by an author ever?" That's the question that launches the seventh year of the NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of our members and honorees. Here's the eighth in this new series. It's not too late to send your critical essay on your own favorite to [email protected].

In Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, Roth acknowledges and explains some of the missteps in his early books—the presence of Jews in Goodbye Columbus’s Short Hills, NJ, the excessive length of Letting Go, the flawed final chapter of Portnoy’s Complaint—but unlike some authors, he doesn’t disown the first one. And why should he? Fifty-five years after publication, it remains a vital collection of short fiction.

Lots of my favorite first books tend to be collections. The stories in Raymond Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? are unforgettable because of  their protagonists’ inability to hold back what shouldn’t be said. This problem could be said to inflict the characters in Mary Gaitskill’s nitro-packed Bad Behavior and Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive. Then there are the short, energetic first novels by Jay McInerney, Donald Antrim, and Nicholson Baker. Bright Lights Big City, Please Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Mezzanine…all of these are favorites, too. And finally, the barely sane outpouring of Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, the wild ambition of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the deadpan assuredness of Thomas Pynchon’s V., each of which disprove the notion that a writer’s ambitious first novel will tend to be more flawed than brilliantly imperfect (David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System and Don DeLillo’s Americana, on the other hand, suffer from this syndrome). 

Goodbye Columbus is not quite my favorite Roth—The Counterlife and The Ghost Writer are far more wild and masterful—but the collection’s eponymous novella crackles with a youthful enthusiasm for life and literature  (“I read Mary McCarthy,” the protagonist declares to his partially attainable sweetheart) that instantly drew me into its world and called on a string of bittersweet fictional summers, from The Great Gatsby to last year’s A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal.

Neil Krugman, a 23-year-old philosophy major, spends half his week employed at the Newark public library and the rest crashing the pool at the country club. Soon after a pretty girl asks him to hold her glasses, the two are playing at being in love, even after she presses the hard questions about what he's doing with his life. "I'm not a planner," he says to her, but it's not the whole truth. 

Neil is ambivalent with Brenda, repulsed by the privilege and self-denial of her nose job even as he is allured by its effect. The revelation that Brenda goes to college not only in Boston but at Radcliffe crystalizes the class-consciousness that had already stirred in him by the contrast of cool summer nights in Short Hills with his own family's heritage of dense, sweltering Newark. He wants to escape, but it's not just the fate of his family that he's fleeing. He's trying to break loose from fate itself, and what better way than to spend week-long sleepovers with his new girlfriend and her gluttonous family in their huge house? But the illusion is broken by the news that Brenda's older brother is engaged to be married. The fiancee's arrival "dramatize[s] the passing of time," and reminds Neil that young people can and do get married. Two pages later he speaks out, refusing to keep quiet on something that Brenda does not want to hear about. "I want you to buy a diaphragm," he says, "for...for the sake of pleasure." "Pleasure?" she responds. "Whose? The doctor's?" "Mine," he replies flatly, and here we have the first emergence of a voice that is uncompromising and undeniably Rothian. "That's right. My pleasure. Why not!" That exclamation point!

When the conflict is re-ignited at the end of the novella, with Brenda back at school and Neil visiting on a holiday weekend, he is even more forceful, and says things that leave him no way to turn back. Does he do it because he fears rejection and figures it best to strike preemptively, or is he simply ready to move on? He doesn't seem to know for sure, but the uncertainty sets him up for a beautiful final scene, where his ugly anger and bitterness dissolve into earnest contemplation. While sulking through Harvard Yard in the middle of the night, on the verge of throwing a rock through the front of the Lamont Library, he catches his reflection in the glass and wonders, "What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again?...I looked hard at the image of me, at that darkening of the glass, and then my gaze pushed through it, over the cool floor, to a broken wall of books, imperfectly shelved."

The five stories that follow, most specifically "The Conversion of the Jews," "Epstein," and "Eli, the Fanatic," scratch furiously at the cracks in an imperfect facade. A Jewish boy named named Ozzie, who won’t shut up about Jesus Christ, forces his rabbi to declare belief in immaculate conception; a philandering family man is caught with syphilis; and a suburban lawyer, charged by his community with shutting down an illegal yeshiva, boldly wears the "strange" black clothes that belonged to the same Hasidic man whose presence in town had ignited the fervor. Despite being told in the third person, these three stories feature powerful voices, characters who threaten to push through the walls that are meant to contain them. In this regard, they anticipate many of Roth’s first-person protagonists. If developed into novels, they might even hold their own among the best (and worst) of them.

David Varno is the web manager for the NBCC and a web editor for Publishers Weekly. His essays and reviews have appeared in BOMBLog, the Brooklyn Rail, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tin House, and Words Without Borders, where he also served as Dispatches Editor.

Roundup: Maureen Corrigan, Jorge Luis Borges, Will Self, James Ellroy, and Richard Bausch

by Eric Liebetrau | Sep-08-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items to [email protected]. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


Mike Lindgren reviews "Football: American Writing About the National Sport," edited by John Schulian.

NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari's latest Between the Lines column for is devoted to Jorge Luis Borges, with comments from critic Marcela Valdes, winner of the Center for Fiction's Roger Shattuck Award and former NBCC board member, and eminent translator Suzanne Jill Levine, head of translation program at UC Santa Barbara.

Laurie Hertzel interviews the authors of "GI Brides."

Diane Scharper reviews Gwendolyn M. Plano's "Letting Go into Perfect Love."

NBCC board member Colette Bancroft reviews James Ellroy's "Perfidia."

Julia M. Klein reviews Matt Bai's "All the Truth is Out" for Columbia Journalism Review.

In the New Orleans Review, Randon Billings Noble examines "a world of objects."

Karl Wolff reviews "In the American Night" by Christopher Bernard.

For the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Harvey Freedenberg reviews Richard Bausch's new novel "Before, During, After."

Benjamin Woodard reviews Leesa Cross-Smith's "Every Kiss a War."

In the Charleston Post and Courier, Bill Thompson reviews Matthew Stewart's "Nature's God."

"The Big Picture x 4," from Robert Birnbaum. He also talks to Will Self, in addition to Nicholas Dawidoff.

David Cooper reviews Ben Lerner's novel "10:04."

From Daniel Dyer in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Maureen Corrigan's 'So We Read On' is a delightful guide to the rise and fall and rise again of 'The Great Gatsby.'"

Roundup: Tana French, Roxane Gay, Vikram Chandra, and Garret Keizer

by Eric Liebetrau | Sep-02-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items to [email protected]. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


Sebastian Stockman reviews Elizabeth Green's "Building a Better Teacher" and Garret Keizer's "Getting Schooled."

Katherine A. Powers reviews John Williams's "Augustus" for the Barnes and Noble Review. She also reviews Rene Steinke' "Friendswood" for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

"Eyeless in Gaza," from Robert Birnbaum. He also examines the "vital strain of satire and good-natured social commentary that Kurt Vonnegut wielded."

Meredith Maran reviews Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist." She also reviews Joshua Wolf Shenk’s “The Power of Two.”

Alexandra Schwartz takes a look at protean writer/trumpeter/troublemaker Boris Vian. She also interviews poet Claudia Rankine, as she was visiting Ferguson.

Julia M. Klein reviews Susan Vreeland's "Lisette's List" for the Boston Globe. She also reviews "Feminism Unfinished."

NBCC board member David Ulin on the power of a bookstore.

Jim Ruland reviews Lee Klein's "The Shimmering Go-Between" and Erika T. Wulf's "Crazy Horse's Girlfriend."

"What does it mean to triumph as a poet?" NBCC board member David Biespiel's latest Poetry Wire.

Michael Puican reviews "Lullaby (with Exit Sign)" by Hadara Bar-Nadav.

NBCC board member Rigoberto González wins the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his poetry collection, "Unpeopled Eden."

"Three Books to Get Over an Affair," from Randon Billings Noble.

Lisa Levy reviews Tana French's new novel.

NBCC board member Colette Bancroft also reviews French's novel.

Former NBCC board member Laura Miller on how David Mitchell gets fantasy wrong.

For the Daily Beast, NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari talks to novelist Vikram Chandra about his obsession with computer coding.

Alex Burling reviews the new Murakami novel.

Lisa R. Spaar on "My Funeral Gondola" and "Praise."

Ryan Teitman reviews Victoria Chang's "The Boss."

Happy Labor Day! Roundup will be posted on Tuesday at 4:00.

by Eric Liebetrau | Sep-01-2014

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