by Celia Bland | Feb-10-2016
This is the twenty-second and last essay in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. Thanks to all who contributed.
Jane Eyre was the first “adult” novel I ever read. I was nine.
Of course, it wasn’t the 400-page Victorian original but the Reader’s Digest Condensed, circa 1974. This much-diminished Jane Eyre featured only the highlights, or what you might call Charlotte Brontë’s Twitter feed: child Jane, unjustly thrown into the haunted Red Room, sees the ghost of her uncle; Jane loses her best friend, the preternaturally good Helen Burns, to illness and mistreatment at the pestilential Lowood School for Orphans; Jane, governess to the “natural” daughter of a wealthy man, is romanced by her employer, the Master of Thornfield, and agrees to marry him only to discover that he already has a wife – a murderous lunatic kept locked in the attic!
The seven or so film adaptations of Jane Eyre (and countless silent, foreign, TV, radio, graphic, and erotic mash-ups) pretty much adhere to this heady plot, ignoring the novel’s sober, even feminist, content. And who can blame them? I, too, at nine, was overcome by the flirtation between Jane and Mr. Rochester – their cruel, witty, and very sexy power plays. It was like watching some 19th century Ben Affleck flirt with the nanny!
Fourth grade offered its own struggles for dominance. A new school (the third in three years); the realization that, despite my doting grandmother’s assurances, I was not a pretty girl; new digs in a suburban house rented with one of my mother’s art students and his wife – and hours spent alone, sans siblings, sans TV, and decades pre-VHS.
The house where my mother and I were living sat just past the college’s archery range (I learned not to walk behind the targets) in a development that was typical Florida: a sandy piece of land cleared of saw grass and palmetto and planted with jerry-built ranches. Behind every door, a young family. Needless to say, our little household didn’t fit the neighborhood mold. Our landlord, Mike, a Vietnam vet, wore his beard big and scraggly and worked nights as an orderly at the hospital. His wife went braless under silkscreened shifts and worked days at a surf shop. Evenings, they pruned the marijuana plants that grew along the chain link fence in our backyard.
All the kids in the neighborhood had been warned to stay away from me.
Bored out of my mind, I wandered the bleached streets of the subdivision as the sun beat down on corkboard houses, every one the bookend of its neighbor. I saw the red flag of the school bus – Stop –as a warning. At twilight, mosquitoes arrived in punctual swarms and I was driven to root through the Reader’s Digest Condensed books stacked like cordwood against the living room wall: East of Eden; Alone; St. Augustine’s Confessions. Out my bedroom’s solitary window, I peered into the window of a little girl who was allergic, I’d heard, to everything – strawberries, peanuts, chocolate, even sunlight. Her ghostly face, pressed against the screen, never smiled.
Having whet my appetite, I next read the unabridged Jane Eyre and discovered what Reader’s Digest and Hollywood ignored: the boring parts. Take, for instance, this scene -- cut from every film version – when Rochester devises an elaborate ruse to make Jane jealous. First he imports genteel guests and the local beauty for a house party. Next, he disguises himself as a pipe-smoking Gypsy fortune teller in a poke bonnet, commands a private room, and asks to read the palm of Blanche Ingram, Rochester’s haughty “intended.” She soon stalks out in a huff, insulted by her suitor-in-disguise. And then the fortune teller calls for Jane.
“Why don’t you tremble?” the seer asks her.
“I’m not cold.”
“Why don’t you turn pale?”
“I’m not sick.”
“Why don’t you consult my art?”
“I’m not silly.”
But the old woman contradicts her:
“You are cold; you are sick; and you are silly.”
“Prove it,” I rejoined.
“I will…You are cold, because you are alone; no contact strikes the fire from you that is in you. You are sick; because the best of feelings,…keeps far away from you. You are silly, because, suffer as you may, you will not beckon it to approach…”
Their tête-à-tête ends as Jane notices that the old woman’s hands are supple and white. That ring – it is her Master’s! The parry and thrust of the pair’s intimacy – more verbal than physical – shifts again as Jane realizes that he has been telling her that she must ask for love – that it will not come unbidden. She may be, in her own words, “disconnected, poor, and plain,” and an “indigent and insignificant plebian,” and yet her rich employer needs her, his “little Friend.” My childish self was enraptured: would anyone ever recognize my own heartsickness, my fear?
Later, when Jane learns of Bertha Rochester’s existence, she takes to the roads in her grief and nearly starves. Two young ladies and their brother, the Reverend St. John Rivers, nurse her back to health and give her a job in the village school. The Rev. Rivers is cold as ice, and driven to serve the Lord by converting the heathen “Hindustani.” Will you come with me, Jane? he asks, commending her work ethic, her homeliness. He tells her: you are bred for a life of self-sacrifice and it would be senseless – nay, sinful! -- to ask for more than that. But although St. John offers Jane what Rochester could not –respectability, a vocation -- she begins to tremble.
Reading this again at 50, I wonder: how did I ever find the time to dawdle through scene after scene of this stuff, the heft of the book denting my stomach? I can almost smell the evenings of infinite heat and pressing boredom back in those pre-Title IX days. (Does anyone in this era of smartphones and hive mind experience such evenings anymore?)
Things are different now of course. Rereading Jane Eyre, I relax to the warp and woof of the novel’s tedium and excitement. The very act of reading a Victorian potboiler in this age of character-counting and news feeds seems to transmit some Victorian fiber, a corrective to the sugary buzz-feed of chick lit. Jane practically flaunts discipline, a strong sense of duty and an insistence on rationality in an irrational world. I should embroider this passage in bright silks as a sampler for my daughters:
I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself… Laws and principles are not for the times when there is not temptation: they are for such moments… when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.
Rational, and yet irremediably emotional. If this were Pride & Prejudice, would Jane Eyre have accepted St. John’s offer? We all remember Charlotte, Elizabeth Bennett’s best friend, who marries a foolish blowhard to escape her mother’s house. Austen’s Jane might have packed her mosquito nets and spent the rest of her days avoiding her husband’s company (and bed). Ditto Emily Brontë’s Catherine -- for isn’t this the “rational” decision she makes in marrying limpid Linton rather than hunky Heathcliff? But that’s Wuthering Heights. The wonder of Charlotte Brontë’s novel – and the root of its immortal appeal to readers – is that a loveless transaction is not good enough for unlovely Jane Eyre, for, as she puts it: “I need not sell my soul to buy bliss.” And when she hears, drowning out St. John’s (rhymes with whingin’) proposal, a supernatural cry: “Jane! Where are you, Jane?” It is Mr. Rochester’s voice, and passionately she answers, “I am here!”
Victorian-ridiculous, yes, that’s obvious at my age. But I can also see now that this scene serves as an emotional conversion. Having rejected Mr. Rochester’s offer to live in sin, Jane now realizes that she made the wrong decision when she ran away. Or rather, that in running away and beginning a new life, she has discovered what she values: her independence, the pleasures of the senses, love. The equality of mind and soul (“soul” is used frequently in the novel) that she and Rochester share is precious, not to be forgotten. She determines to return to Thornfield.
Reader, I married him. I realize now that this was my dream: to find someone who loved me despite all impediments. Lying on my mother’s bedroom rug, I gazed upward as she blocked the sunlight, craning for glimpses of her sloppy bottom, heavy breasts, vigorous shoulders, and the arrowhead scar beneath her lips. I was willing myself her opposite: small, awkward, demure – even the sound of these words pleased me. I would resist her irritable desire to dominate. She might wheedle and berate dry cleaners, mechanics, librarians – and later, truant officers, unemployment bureaucrats, credit union flunkies, social services supervisors -- but I planned to slide beneath the hard white surface of respectability. Somehow, I would, like Jane Eyre, defy all expectations.
I read Jane Eyre at least eight more times before I left for college: in a teepee perched on wet grass, in Cherry Bounce (a dead bootlegger’s house named for his most popular concoction), in a former beauty parlor, in a tongue and groove house in Sunshine where we only lasted a week. In every rough room, I willed myself into a future where I would make my own decisions. I would be Jane, gimlet-eyed and “tenacious of life.”
Of course, even then I recognized that the novel is a fairy tale. Brontë practically invented the tropes -- cackling madwoman, gothic pile, Byronic lord –that would later romanticize so many a tale of a young woman’s coming into consciousness (and love). That the woman’s journey is difficult is illustrated by the fates of its casualties: Helen Burns, Bertha Rochester, even my irascible mother. But plain Jane’s conviction is that she can be the mistress of her life. She returns to Thornfield and Mr. Rochester (blinded – some might say castrated -- and widowed after a convenient fire) and claims him. Her triumphant I married him is the equivalent of I won!
Fairy tales can be ugly, too. The neighbors snitched on Mike and his marijuana plants. The red and whites showed up one afternoon when I was walking home from school and carted him away, sirens blaring. Mike’s wife, distraught, screamed at us to get out, and, just like that, my mother and I were on the road again.
But this time, I would bring Jane Eyre with me.
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 reviewed in Drunken Boat (http://www.drunkenboat.com/db21/reviews/collaboration-translation)
by Elizabeth Taylor | Feb-08-2016
For her Lit Hub column, past NBCC President and current VP/Online Jane Ciabattari spotlights winter reading.
For her BBC Culture column “10 February Books to Read,” Jane features Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words.
Michael Magras wrote a review of Lahiri's book for the Minneapolis Star Tribune,
Jim Ruland reviews Christopher Sorrentino's The Fugitives for the Los Angeles Times.
Susan Balée's review essay on eight recent memoirs appears in the Hudson Review. She includes the books by current NBCC Finalists Elizabeth Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Maggie Nelson.
Diane Scharper reviews Augustine, Conversions to Confessions by Robin Lane Fox for the National Catholic Reporter.
Former NBCC board member Dan Cryer reviews Roger Rosenblatt’s Thomas Murphy for Newsday.
Linda White reviews Rebecca Rego Barry’s Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places for Library Journal.
Art Taylor reviews Supernotes by Agent Kasper abd Luigi Carletti, translated from the Italian by John Cullen for the Washington Post. His first book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, was recently named a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel.
For Slate, Marian Ryan interviews Alexander Chee about the fifteen years of writing The Queen of the Night.
Susan Kelly-DeWitt reviews Travelers With No Ticket Home by Mary Mackey for Poetry Now.
Judy Krueger reviews The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun for Litbreak.
John Domini writes about the creative work of Frank Lentricchia for the Brooklyn Rail.
For the Forward, Julia M. Klein reviews Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy by Sergio Luzzatto; translated by Frederika Randall
Elaine Tankard reviews Jonathan Franzen's novel Purity for Draft No. 4.
Mike Lindgren reviews Chris Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer for The Washington Post.
Julie Hakim Azzam interviews Caldecott Award winning author and illustrator Kevin Henkes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century by Daniel Oppenheimer for the Barnes and Noble Review.
Past Balakian winner and current Board member Katherine Powers reviews Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks for the Washington Post.
Dominic Green considers the work of Roberto Calasso in an essay for The New Criterion He also reviews Nile Green’s Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Global Islam for History Today and reviews Lee Siegel’s Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence for The Literary Review.
Fred Volkmer reviews The Spectacle of Skill by Robert Hughes for the Southampton Press and 27East.com.
David Nilsen reviews Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis for Fourth and Sycamore.
In News: BOMB just ran an interview with NBCC Finalist Margo Jefferson on the genesis of Negroland, and talks about James Baldwin, and another NBCC Finalist, Vivian Gornick.
Please remember to send future reviews and essays to NBCCCritics@gmail.com, and please make sure subscriptions, user names or passwords are not required.
by Brendan Driscoll | Feb-03-2016
This is the twenty-first in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. The series ends next week. Thanks to all who contributed.
Up way too late with a review copy of Sergio de la Pava's 2008 novel A Naked Singularity, with a deadline fast approaching, I was stuck.
I knew I should say good things about the novel. I wanted to say good things about the novel. It deserved the saying of good things. But there was something holding me back. Every time I typed a sentence praising some aspect of the book—its courage in taking on a big social theme (the failure of the criminal justice system); its linguistic playfulness; its well-calibrated gallows humor; its moments of crushing sadness—something made me doubt what I’d written. Something irked me about A Naked Singularity, really irritated me on a visceral level that went past casual annoyance.
Yet it was for some reason impossible for me to identify what it was, or to ignore my annoyance and say the good things that the novel deserved so I could file the review and go to bed. In a few hours, morning would arrive, and with it my deadline, and then it would be time to go to work at my day job. Like Casi, the novel’s protagonist, and like de la Pava himself, I’m a lawyer.
It wasn't the novel's sprawl that irritated me, though some reviewers have complained about that. A Naked Singularity is just shy of 700 pages, twice as long as most novels published these days but not an unreasonable length, either by commercial standards (how many copies of Roberto Bolaño's 900-plus-page 2666 were being carried around on the subway a few years back?) or by formal ones. De la Pava works in the “hysterical realism” literary genre, after all, with its glorious run-on sentences, long footnotes and rambling digressions. Besides, I usually dig long books. I like the patience they require; the commitment they demand; their heft in a shoulder bag, bumping against your hip on a walk. I especially like that long books often let the ideas that they wrestle with, and the feelings they explore, emerge nuanced and unrushed. I like that they are the opposite of clickbait.
Nor was it the structure of the novel. Others have complained about this too. Sure, it’s a bit of a hodge-podge, jumbling together gritty day-in-the-life-of-a-public-defender scenes with true-sports commentary on middleweight underdog Wilfred Benitez with sad epistolary narratives from death row with action-movie fight sequences with dorm-room pop culture analysis slash Zen of Physics hyperbabble, among other things. Listed that way, the mélange sounds awkward and show-boaty, but it’s par for the course in the genre, and in practice it wasn’t offensive enough to overshadow the legitimately funny moments, or the heartbreaking ones. And that alone shouldn’t have been enough to irritate me as much as A Naked Singularity was irritating me. Maybe I would have figured it out if I had slept on it, or been less sleep-deprived in the first place, but it was late, and I was on a deadline, and I was staring down a full day of conference calls and redlines and other assorted corporate law detritus and if I didn’t write the review that night, it wasn’t getting written at all.
And so here’s what I did. I described the book as a crime novel of sorts, which it is, although it’s obviously a lot more than that. I said that it was “one of those sprawling hyperverbal stream-of-consciousness epics that sometimes seem infatuated with their own cleverness but in their best moments manage to capture something profound about our sprawling hyperverbal stream-of-consciousness world,” a statement that says more about my thoughts on the genre than it does about the novel. I noted the mélange of different styles, and suggested that the story contained both hilarity and heartbreak, and “an insider’s knowledge of the Manhattan criminal-court system.” I alluded to the influence of David Foster Wallace upon de la Pava, but this again is a statement that could be made about almost any contemporary work within this genre. And I hinted at the buzz surrounding de la Pava’s path to literary accomplishment through the wilderness of self-publishing. All true things.
In other words, I played it safe. Safe, in the sense that I stuck to the facts. I kept my commentary hedged and reasonable. I did not mention that there was also something viscerally bothersome about the novel, a reaction readers might be interested in hearing about, but only if I could tell them why I was having that reaction, which I couldn’t. Looking at the review with today’s eyes, I don’t disagree with what I wrote. It still stands as a fair assessment of the book. But it’s now clear to me that I did A Naked Singularity a disservice in not even attempting to articulate my true response to the novel, however raw or complicated it may have been. Instead of saying the good things that I knew the book deserved, or opening fire with the complaints that it may well also deserve, I chose the path of faint praise. Lame.
Here’s what I would have said, had I the awareness and the courage:
A Naked Singularity is a great and irritating book because it is smart and beautiful and yet so frustratingly needy that you want to throw it across the room. It wrings dark humor and even darker pathos out of the New York City criminal-court underworld, and its prose flashes electric across many pages. It obviously comes from a place of real emotion--loss, frustration, anger--which is a great virtue that many books in this cartoonish genre lack. When Casi struggles under the weight of his perfectionistic-existential anxiety and his inability to change much of anything, the feelings feel real. All good things, things that deserve to be said about the novel. And yet A Naked Singularity suffers from its own existential anxiety--about its value, its profundity, its worthiness as a novel, and that is what is so irritating.
We see this in de la Pava’s stylistic and structural choices, which often ape Infinite Jest so hard that it’s embarrassing; we see this in the forced profundity of some of those dorm-banter scenes, like those in which people wax on about The Honeymooners and quantum physics. And we see this in the third act of sorts, where Casi ends up in a crime caper that achieves some sort of a climax as a technical structural matter but emotionally doesn’t really feel like one. It’s as if the author, having written 600 pages or so, including some gorgeous moments but little discernable plot, decided that he’d better build in some sort of action-filled ending or else the novel wouldn’t end, or wouldn’t be considered a novel, or something like that.
Behind each of these choices, and more, we see a nervous author who, like Casi, knows he has talent but worries that it may not be enough for the situation at hand. Which is unfortunate, because the reality is that de la Pava does have the chops, and he doesn’t have to ape David Foster Wallace to stir his readers’ emotions and justify the time they’ve invested in reading a book this long. It’s a great book, with a lot to say, but it would be even better if it could stop worrying about whether it is a great book or not.
But here’s the kicker. The reason I can now identify and articulate this frustration, and why I’m in a mood to be reflective about A Naked Singularity, is because I’ve recently found myself wrestling with similar anxieties. Besides book reviews, I write fiction, and for the past two years I’ve been working on a novel that deals with, among other things, the sad harsh brokenness of our legal system. My Casi is a guy named Steven, a lawyer dog-paddling his way through a life of corporate law until his friend gets deported and Steven encounters his own helplessness. Like de la Pava, I’m influenced by the great hysterical-realist macro-novels of the late 20th century, and have found myself experimenting with absurd language, fragmented narratives, sweeping themes and high page counts.
In other words, the stuff that annoyed me about A Naked Singularity is stuff I’m trying to avoid now, and let me tell you, it’s hard. Super-hard. So among other things, de la Pava deserves credit for having at least pushed through his anxiety and gotten the novel off the ground, even if its brilliant moments share space with a pervasive and itchy self-doubt.
The novel still irritates me. But so does my novel-in-progress, about which I have the same itchy self-doubt. And so whereas A Naked Singularity was once a book that I sort of liked but also sort of annoyed me, it’s now a book that I appreciate as an inspiration of sorts, a model of perseverance in the face of anxiety.
Brendan Driscoll is a freelance reviewer, mostly for Booklist, as well as a writer of fiction. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
by Elizabeth Taylor | Feb-01-2016
Rachel Cantor's novel Good On Paper has received much critical attention from reviewers, Michael Magras reviews it for BookPage and Jeffrey Ann Goudie reviews for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Julia M. Klein reviews Ian Buruma's Their Promised Land for the Boston Globe.
Past Board member and Balakian winner Steve Kellman reviews David Denby’s Lit Up for the San Francisco Chronicle.
For the Boston Globe, Kellman reviews Yann Martel's The High Mountains of Portugal.
Eileen Weiner reviews When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithii, for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Parul Kapur Hinzen reviews Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland for The Rumpus.
John Domini reviews The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks for Bookforum and Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson and War Is Beautiful, by David Shields for the VQR and The Vegetarian by Han Kang for the Chicago Tribune.
Lori Feathers discusses her favorite “foreign Victorian” novels – translated, Victorian-era novels by non-British writers -- for World Literature Today. Her essay was also included in LitHub Daily's selected links to best of the literary internet.
Karl Wolff reviews The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline Alexander for the New York Journal of Books.
Ron Slate reviews David Thomson's How to Watch a Movie on his site On the Seawall.
Megan Labrise interviews Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time, for Kirkus.
Terry Hong reviews Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates in Christian Science Monitor and Jung Yun’s Shelter in Library Journal.
Last, but not least, past President and currently NBCC VP/Online Jane Ciabattari's weekly Lit Hub column, which includes reviews by Laura Miller, Annalisa Quinn, Meganne Fabrega--and squirrels!
Please remember to send future reviews and essays to NBCCCritics@gmail.com, and please make sure subscriptions, user names or passwordsare not required.
by Lori Feathers | Jan-27-2016
This is the twentieth in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here.
It was love-at-first read for me with Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady nearly 20 years ago. I recall the novel’s grip on my attention, so intense that instead of hitting the bars on Saturday night with my best girlfriend I stayed in, content to spend the evening with Isabel Archer sunk into the cheap, green loveseat of my Washington, D.C. studio apartment. Isabel resonated with me. James’ distinctive style registers the accrual of each new impression upon his heroine along with the corresponding subtle shifts in her thoughts, and because Isabel felt perfectly scrutable to me it seemed apparent that Isabel and I had things in common.
I had despaired the smallness of my upbringing in a tiny farming community, and when I escaped this limited world as a young adult I, like Isabel, felt an urgency to experience life. I was impatient to fully exploit every new opportunity to meet interesting people, travel, and become sophisticated. I also felt an affinity for Isabel’s desire to contradict others’ expectations of her and to distinguish her unconventionality by doing something noble. A similar impulse had drawn me to a career as an international lawyer, a vocation unorthodox to friends and family back home and one in which I believed that I would, in some small way, make the world better. For Isabel her objective finds its target in her selection of a husband. And, although it is soon apparent that her marriage to Gilbert Osmond was a mistake, I believed that this outcome was brought about not by Isabel’s faulty intentions but rather because the recipient of her noblesse turns out to be so very underserving.
Then of course there were all of those things that I did not share with Isabel but that I jealously admired in her – beauty, persistent kindness, and an ability to captivate everyone she encounters, male and female alike. Everyone Isabel meets wants to be near her and longs for her to reciprocate their admiration. How could I, single and unable to find even one suitable guy to date, not feel envious of a woman who leaves a succession of worthy, but disappointed suitors in her wake?
On my second reading of The Portrait of a Lady last month, my view of Isabel changed. My naïve, younger self had romanticized her. Now much of what I considered ideal in her character felt contrived. It seemed that James had overplayed Isabel’s enviable kindness and good graces, making them too absolute to exist outside the pages of a novel. And again I recognized myself in Isabel, but this time it was her insecurities and vanities that felt familiar.
In the two decades between readings I had gained the self-awareness to recognize that certain of my decisions, like my chosen career, were motivated by wanting the admiration of others rather than what would give me personal satisfaction. I had grown disillusioned with my occupation. The temporary gratification of my degrees and title failed to compensate for the reality that my work had no positive impact on anyone outside of my office, and the frustration of feeling that my work did not matter.
Now I could recognize this same mistake in Isabel’s decision to marry Gilbert. She seizes upon Gilbert’s marriage proposal as an opportunity to contradict friends’ and family’s presumption that any match she makes will be brilliant. Instead she delivers her considerable wealth to the much older, fusty Gilbert for the sole purpose of facilitating his dilettantish endeavors. Isabel believes her self-sacrifice is ennobling, but beneath the patina of her beneficence simmers a longing to be thought of as refined and an insecurity that she is not. She is blind to the hypocrisy that her decision to buck convention by marrying Gilbert is actually an attempt to earn the praise of her milieu. Isabel’s regrettable self-deception resulted in a miserable marriage, mine in a disappointing career. Henry James understood that a happy life requires the ability to identify what will bring you contentment and the fortitude to align your life’s decisions accordingly – a skill that should be simple, but for most of us is learned only the hard way.
Lori Feathers (@LoriFeathers) is a freelance book critic. She reviews regularly for Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, Three Percent, Full Stop and Rain Taxi.
by Eric Liebetrau | Jan-25-2016
Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.
After 9 hours of deliberation last week, the NBCC board of directors has named the 30 finalists for this year's awards. Here's a sampling of the news coverage (since most publications used the AP report, we have included only those outlets that provided a different perspective on the list):
Associated Press... Washington Post... Los Angeles Times... New York Times... NBC News... LitHub... Flavorwire... Minneapolis Star Tribune... St. Paul Pioneer Press... Lexington Herald Leader... Belfast Telegraph...
Joe Peschel reviews "100 Years of the Best American Short Stories" edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor. Peschel also reviews Charles Lambert's "Children's Home."
LISTEN: Colin Marshall talks with David L. Ulin, former book critic at the Los Angeles Times and former NBCC board member.
Elaine F. Tankard reviews Patti Smith's "M Train."
At LitHub, Kerri Arsenault begins her new interview series with book editors. First up, Lee Boudreaux.
John Domini reviews "two new selections of stories from two New Yorkers, both on smaller presses, both by men we might still call young."
Judy Krueger reviews Not Dark Yet by Berrit Ellingsen.
Harvey Freedenberg offers appreciation of E.L. Doctorow’s "Ragtime."
by Daniel Nester | Jan-20-2016
This is the nineteenth in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here.
Growing up, I knew three things about my mother’s younger brother, my Uncle Mark:
1. He was a total badass, a New Jersey State Trooper our family nicknamed “Bear”;
2. He was my godfather, and in that capacity was entitled to crush my hand like a soft-shell crab whenever he greeted me at family get-togethers; and
3. He was no longer a Roman Catholic.
Item #3 struck me as the most interesting. Mark Little’s ex-Catholic status was often mentioned, but never explained. Other than my father’s agnosticism, no one in the family led a life outside the Catholic Church. Uncle Mark, defender of the Garden State Parkway, possessor of pistol and shotgun, source of my family’s pride, owner of a house near the Jersey Pines, was kind of a wildman prankster. Whenever someone called him a “dickhead” for issuing a speeding ticket, Uncle Mark would produce a laminated entry from his high school yearbook of a classmate named Richard E. Head.
“I’m not Dick Head,” he’d say. “This is Dick Head. Richard Head. I went to school with him.”
More than once, Mark saw my grandmother driving through my hometown of Maple Shade, N.J., fired up the sirens, and pulled her over. He did this once to one my aunt’s boyfriends, letting him off with a warning. Weeks later, the suitor would see the same trooper sitting in my grandparents’ living room, watching a Phillies game. My uncle was a good bad boy.
* * *
I was 12 years old. My family watched an Eagles game. I snuck upstairs and rummaged through my aunts’ hope chests. Beside a stash of National Geographic back issues and JC Penney catalogues, I’d lean against my aunt’s hope chest and stare at naked bush women and women in bras, and enter a state of erotic wonder that we might call Not Yet Masturbating.
I dug up an old hardbound book with a gold-embossed cover and deckle-edged sides. Inscribed on the inside cover in a boy’s hand: “The book belongs to Mark Little, 1961.” Published by The Neumann Press in 1949, Father Gerald Brennan’s The Good Bad Boy: The Diary of an Eighth-Grade Boy tells the story of Pompey Briggs as he enters eighth grade at Holy Cross School.
“Great men always keep diaries,” Briggs writes. “Perhaps, that’s what makes them great. If I keep a diary, I, too, may become great. Who knows?”
The Good Bad Boy had me at its oxymoronic title. How can a bad boy be good, or a good boy bad? This contradiction blew my mind. I didn’t know which of these boys I wanted to be yet, though I leaned toward the bad one who could be good when he wanted to. That The Good Bad Boy was written by a priest—a pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Rochester, N.Y.—gave the book Catholic street cred.
* * *
To say I related to Pompey Briggs understates things. For the months I read and reread it, I was the very embodiment of the Good Bad Boy, or at least aspired to be. Yankee fan and founding president of his club, the Beaver Chiefs, Pompey was the star scorer of his school’s basketball team (also named the Beaver Chiefs), whereas I claimed membership in no club and warmed the bench for the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Fighting Irish. Pompey’s job at Conlan’s Grocery seems to be that of a floater, whereas my duties helping our parish janitor included mopping up second graders’ puke and sweeping up bingo chips in the church basement. Pompey was a ladies’ man, fielding the affections of girls with names like Jean Wallace and Virginia Drake, whereas I repelled all classmates, female and male alike, with sweat-marked yellow uniform shirts and transition lens glasses that never quite turned clear indoors and made me look like Mark David Chapman with a clip-on plaid tie.
I added The Good Bad Boy to my bookshelf around the same time I was prevented (forbidden?) from ordering The Catcher in the Rye from the Scholastic Books catalog. One of the nuns told me it was “too adult,” that I “wasn’t ready for it yet,” which made me want to read the book more. For a few months, Pompey Briggs did a fine job a Holden Caulfield stand-in.
* * *
I just rattled off all those details, but the truth is I had forgotten just about everything about The Good Bad Boy, other than it was a book that I obsessed over for a short time. I decided to re-read it while doing research for Shader, a coming-of-age memoir.
My uncle's copy was lost in a move, and so I ordered a facsimile edition of The Good Bad Boy from an online Catholic bookseller. It was freaky to hold a brand new copy all these years later and to read Pompey's story not as a 12-year-old altar boy who prayed every night at bedtime, but as a middle-aged godless writer looking for clues into his childhood.
Re-reading Father Brennan’s book some 30 years later, I can’t help but think he might have had some problem with women. “You can certainly enjoy your dinner when you know you don’t have to wash the dishes,” Pompey writes on September 11. “All dishes should be washed by women.” Later, when a writing teacher visits the class and sits next to him as they write exercises, Pompey is aghast. “With thirty-six pupils in the room, why did she have to sit with me? Some women don’t know their place.”
Pomp was a bad boy. He got in trouble for smoking. He and his friends painted a skull and crossbones on a boy’s stomach and fed him castor oil. A mother caught them doing it and the group of good bad boys was punished. If this happened today, the incident might make a local newscast.
* * *
I say that I had forgotten about The Good Bad Boy, but the book did make one more appearance in the intervening years, when I was in college. When I had the job of shelving books at night at Rutgers in Camden, NJ, I would pick up any book that had the words “sex” or “death” in it. That’s how I picked up Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler’s classic 1960 study. I think I was just skimming, looking for the dirty parts, when Fiedler mentions the "Good Bad Boy," which he defines as “America’s vision of itself, crude and unruly in his beginnings, but endowed by his creator with an instinctive sense of what is right. Sexually as pure as any milky maiden, he is a roughneck all the same, at once potent and submissive, made to be reformed by the right woman.” American fiction’s “fear of sex, a strange blindness to the daily manifestations of sex, or the attenuation of sexuality itself," Fiedler wrote, "drove the American novel back over the lintel of puberty in the declining years of the nineteenth century."
The memory of good old Pompey Briggs returned, taking me back to a time when I first envisioned myself as a scamp but not a reprobate, an anti-hero willing to be converted if the cause was just and the time was right. By the time I was a college student, I was no longer Catholic, and no longer revered anything. Nothing could save me, I thought. I re-fashioned myself as a bad boy in the style of the Beats and punk rockers, complete with biker jacket, Doc Marten boots, and those wire-rimmed glasses that curl behind your ears. It never crossed my mind that perhaps Fiedler had read Father Brennan’s book, a short little thing—I think we critics today would call it a “young adult bagatelle”—but it’s possible. Pompey Briggs would have fit right in with Fiedler’s idea of the Beaver Cleavers and Dennis the Menaces, who grew more false in their naiveté—in contrast to the pure skepticism of the Good Bad Boy.
* * *
I always wondered why my Uncle Mark left the church. Was it as simple as marrying someone who was a Protestant? The real reason, he told me at a family party after several Coors Lites, was that he felt guilty all the time.
“I would play with myself and run right to church to go to confession,” he said. He did this every day, he said. “Even the priest told me I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.” When, after Trooper Academy, he met my Aunt Jody, a Protestant of some indeterminate variety, he left the house and the church and never looked back.
His story did not seem strange to me by the time he told it to me. I had felt guilt’s power as long as I could remember. I used to break down the different kinds of guilt I had. Somewhere along the line, I realized that guilt was as mundane and repetitive as it was universal, that it resists real meaning. For a Catholic boy, it’s a bodily reaction, like fight-or-flight or blinking or swallowing. Guilt sank in my chest somewhere when I was around eight years old and has stayed there. There are times it feels as if guilt had left my body, and my mood remained defined by what was not there, like a transposed original, the way I spread Silly Putty on funny pages and pulled up a reverse image. It’s silly to blame a dozen-plus years of Catholic school for all this, but Pompey confirmed to me the cycle of wonder, then sin, then penance, then wonder again.
* * *
Pompey Briggs did inspire me to write every day. I wrote out entries on an Acme paper pad and put the completed sheets back into a cigar box. My journal, as I insisted on calling it—not a “diary,” which I regarded as girly and insubstantial—reflected Pompey’s solemnity.
“You must be prepared for the Test of Life,” I write in my first entry on December 21, 1981. “Are you making Progress? Or are you falling into the bottomless pit of Failure, an infinite void where so many of us have forced us [sic] to fall into?”
Each night I curled my biceps into meatball-shaped bulbs, sat on my knees against the bed, and prayed. I wrote promises to myself: “I shall be a scholar and write a monumental work to be praised hundreds of years to come.”
The man can’t go back and tell the boy to lighten up, to scale down his dreams a bit. Still, I can’t help but root for this potent and submissive kid who yearned to write monumental works. I still like to think of myself as a good bad boy, someone who began wanting to do good, but feels he’s bad, sinful, damaged. A lot of us are like that, and I’m one.
It’s hard to reconcile this version of myself with the one who cupped his hands to make fart noises in class. Even then, it seems, I felt the need to present a different version of myself on the page than in real life.
Daniel Nester is the author of Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press 2015). He teaches writing at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. Follow him on Twitter at @danielnester.