October, 2014

Roundup: Oprah, Murakami, Smiley, Palahniuk, and the first annual Kirkus Prize winners

by Eric Liebetrau | Oct-27-2014

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.


The 2014 Kirkus Prize winners were announced on Thursday. This was the inaugural year of the prize, which awards $50,000 to each winning writer.

Elaine F. Tankard reviews Haruki Murakami's latest novel.

Longtime NBCC board member Rigoberto Gonzalez has been awarded a $50,000 United States Artists fellowship in literature. He was honored earlier this month at an Academy of American Poets ceremony for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his book "Unpeopled Eden." And in the summer "Unpeopled Eden" was honored with a Lambda Literary Award. He also explores "what it means to be a gay Chicano immigrant in the United States." Rigo has served the NBCC as treasurer, bringing that role into the digital age, and is currently Vice President/Awards. He writes the "Small Press Spotlight" series for Critical Mass. His latest interview is with Abayomi Animashaun.

Carl Rollyson reviews Daniel Schreiber's Susan Sontag biography. He also reviews Adam Begley's Updike bio.

Meredith Maran reviews Margo Howard's "Eat, Drink, and Remarry." She also reviews Oprah Winfrey's new collection, in addition to Jane Smiley's "Some Luck."

Dan Cryer also reviews the Smiley novel.

Adam Morris reviews Naomi Klein's new book, "This Changes Everything."

Erika Dreifus has a review essay, "Unmothers: Women Writing About Life Without Children," in the Missouri Review's Fall 2014 issue. The piece focuses on books by Melanie Notkin, Jen Kirkman, and Gail Caldwell as well as an anthology edited by Henriette Mantel.

Heller McAlpin reviews Azar Nafisi's "Republic of Imagination."

Julia M. Klein reviews Barbara Leaming's "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis" for the Boston Globe.

Angie Jabine reviews Chuck Palahniuk's "Beautiful You."

"Elegy for Dracula," from Randon Billings Noble.

Brad Tyer reviews the new biography of the Flatlanders.

NBCC board member Steven Kellman reviews Ezra Greenspan's "William Wells Brown."

Karl Wolff reviews "Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution," by Richard Whittle for the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.

Matthew Jakubowski interviews David Winters for the second installment of an ongoing series focused on the question, "What is a critic's role?"

Save the Date: NBCC at AWP15 in Minneapolis featured reading with Alice McDermott and Anthony Marra

by Admin | Oct-24-2014

Join us at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis next April!

A Reading and Conversation with Anthony Marra and Alice McDermott, Hosted by National Book Critics Circle Vice President/Online Jane Ciabattari, Sponsored by National Book Critics Circle
April 9, 2015
4:30:PM - 5:45:PM
Main Auditorium, Level 1, Minneapolis Convention Center (1301 Second Avenue South, Minneapollis, MN)

Roundup: Jess Row, Martin Amis, Katha Pollitt, Daniel Mendelsohn & More

by Jane Ciabattari | Oct-19-2014

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.


2013 Balakian winner Katherine A. Powers reviews Eimear McBride's "A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing" for the Barnes and Noble Review.

NBCC award winner Daniel Mendelsohn ponders the question, "Do we read differently at different ages?" for the New York Times Book Review: "When I reread 'Catcher [in the Rye]' a few years ago, I found myself totally unmoved by the emotional ferocity that had enthralled me in 1974."

Before the announcement of the 2014 winner, Richard Flanagan's "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," Susanna Rustin argued in The Guardian against new rules making Americans eligible for the Man Booker Prize:  "The American century may be over but American music, films, TV, books and games are everywhere. American publishing already has, in the Pulitzers and National Book Critics Circle, internationally prestigious awards."

The National Book Critics Circle makes a cameo appearance in NBCC board member Ron Charles' essay on the proliferation of contests (and announcing a new $25,000 award funded by former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent).

Meanwhile, Matthew Specktor mentions the NBCC's "bolder choices" in his evaluation of the "conservative"  National Book Award finalists.

In her books column on Dylan Thomas for BBC.com, Jane Ciabattari talks to NBCC award winning poet Philip Levine, who saw the Welsh poet read at Wayne State and twice at the 92nd Street Y: "“I had only seen pictures of him, the young Dylan Thomas in a turtleneck sweater with a lot of blond hair blowing in the wind," says Levine. "He comes out and he looks like a miniature WC Fields. Sort of round and very rumpled. He staggers out, gets up there and is in complete command. His voice was melodious and powerful and nothing was slurred.”

In Guernica,Grace Bello talks to Jess Row about coming of age in dichotomous Baltimore and being warned against writing about race in his new novel, "Your Face in Mine."   

Julia M. Klein reviews Bettina Stangneth's "Eichmann Before Jerusalem" for the Jewish Daily Forward. She also reviews Martin Amis's "The Zone of Interest" and Alan Cumming's memoir, "Not My Father's Son," for the Chicago Tribune. And she reviews Jake Halpern's "Bad Paper" for the Boston Globe.

Leanne Shapton, winner of the NBCC autobiography award, has published "Women in Clothes," co authored with Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits.

Princeton has acquired the papers of Toni Morrison, whose Song of Solomon won the NBCC fiction award in 1977, and who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Morrison taught in Princeton's Creative Writing program from 1989 to 2006, when she retired.

Dan Cryer reviews Edward O. Wilson's "The Meaning of Human Existence" for the Boston Globe: "...beneath Wilson’s calm and measured prose lies, in effect, a battle cry. His aim is to win the culture wars that progressive thinkers believed were won long ago."

Lisa Levy offers 7 things she learned talking over coffee with NBCC award winner Katha Pollitt about her new book, "Pro," for Bustle.

Harvey Freedenberg calls David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks" "a frequently entertaining, if flawed, work," in his review for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He also reviews Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See" for Harrisburg Magazine.

Marion Winik reviews Bill Roorbach's 'The Remedy for Love' , Lena Dunham's "growing-up-weird essays" in "Not That Kind of Girl," and talks to Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman about "It Won't Always Be This Great," his novel set on Long Island, all for Newsday.

Sarah Ruhl's play "Dear Elizabeth" is based on the thirty-year correspondence between NBCC poetry award winner Elizabeth Bishop and NBCC poetry award winner Robert Lowell, "who remain influential forces, especially among local poets,"  Jan Gardner notes in the Boston Globe.

Isabel Wilkerson talks to Boise State Public Radio about her 2010 NBCC nonfiction award winning book, "The Warmth of Other Suns" in advance of her Thursday, October 23, speaking engagement at the Idaho Humanities Council’s 18th Annual Distinguished Humanities Lecture and Dinner.

Michele Raffin is "on a mission" in her new book, "Birds of Pandemonium," points out Heller McAlpin in her NPR.org review.

Linda Simon calls out Hilary Mantel's quirkiness in her review of 'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,' the NBCC fiction award winner's short story collection, for the Kansas City Star: "The title story is the best: Margaret Thatcher has had an eye operation in a clinic in a quiet, shady neighborhood in Windsor where the narrator has a third-floor flat."

David Abrams reviews Christian Winans'  debut collection, "Naked Me," at his blog (The Quivering Pen).

Megan Labrise interviews NBCC fiction award winner  Jane Smiley and rogue taxidermist Robert Marbury for Kirkus Reivews.

Julie R. Enszer reviews Erika Meitner’s “Copia" for The Rumpus. 

Robert Birnbaum blogs about Paul Krassner, the "Prince of Gadflies," and his new booka about the Patty Hearst kidnapping and Dan White's Twinkie defense.

Ron Slate reviews Italo Calvino's final book of essays, "Collection of Sand."

David Cooper reviews Assaf Gavron's "The Hilltop" for the New York Journal of Books.

Small Press Spotlight: Abayomi Animashaun

by Rigoberto González | Oct-18-2014

Photo Credit: Heather Jacobs

Sailing for Ithaca, Black Lawrence Press, 2014.

Abayomi Animashaun is also the author of The Giving of Pears. A winner of the Hudson Prize and a recipient of a grant from the International Center for Writing and Translation, Animashaun teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and lives in Green Bay, WI.

The poem “No Traveler Ever Returns Home the Same” opens with the lines “He arrives/ With a different Light// Dimmer in kind/ Than the one he had.” Within its section (themed Greece and Greek mythology) the allusion is clearly Odyssean, but it also speaks to the immigrant experience in general, and to the immigrant’s return to the homeland, which can be strained and conflicted. Poems like “In the Other Nigeria,” “Homecoming” and “4 A.M.” speak to the tension of  a return with a more critical eye, with a wish for something better/ different than was left behind. What is the role of poetry in the examination/ imagination of the immigrant experience? How is learning about the immigrant’s perspective a benefit to the homeland and/ or to the adopted country?

For me, there is a certain overlap between poetry and the immigrant’s imagination. It seems to me that many immigrants often find themselves in a self-defined space that’s inclusive of elements from those countries with which they are affiliated and those with which they share affinities. What’s also true is that this space is almost never closed. It’s subject to scrutiny, (re)examination, and (re)definition, all of which are often self-imposed in the immigrant’s continuous attempts to make sense of herself.

This act and process of (re)examination is, I feel, essential to poetry. I don’t know one poet, who after a while, doesn’t pull down his own structures, in whole or in part, in order to start over.

I think part of the reason for this is because there’s something about poetry that eschews absolutes, that refuses to be completely pinned down. The moment someone says “This is it! That can’t be done!” Someone else comes along and says “This is also it! That can be done!” So, poets often find themselves in this open-ended field that allows a multiplicity of approaches. Because of this, I like to think the immigrant imagination finds ready room in poetry – due to its tendency toward inclusion and (re)definition.

That said, the benefit of the immigrant’s perspective can be manifold.

In the home country, having such a perspective can be instructive, to the immigrant now returning, in how to act and interact with others who didn’t make the same journey with decorum and humility. In the adopted country, the benefit can be as simple as reminding non-immigrants that, even if they come from the same country and house, no two immigrants are exactly alike. Each has her needs and must be met on her terms.

A number of poems (notably “Honesty is the Best Policy,” “In Bed with Cavafy,” and “To My Best Friend with the Blue Hijab”) tackle edgy subjects, placing sexuality at the center of the story, making visible people and situations that are usually marginalized or muted by many cultures and religions. The use of humor as a tone makes the poetry come across even riskier. Can you speak to the daring of these poems within a Nigerian and/ or American context?   

I like to think there’s room in poetry for the purposeful engagement of a variety of themes through a number of means – humor being one.

Humor can also be an effective tool in questioning absolutes (“Honesty is the Best Policy”) and raising concerns about the marginalization of religious minorities or ethnic groups (“To My Friend with the Blue Hijab”). One of my favorite American poets, Ronald Wallace, also uses humor to great effect in For a Limited Time Only – a rich poetry collection that’s also full of melancholy.

I’m also drawn to some poets who overtly take a stand. Like Wole Soyinka, for example – who, even in old age, is still at the fore-front of fighting against injustices in Nigeria.

With the poem “In Bed with Cavafy”, I give a nod to the modern Greek poet, as I do in The Giving of Pears. In this case, he makes a cameo. And, I envision myself seeing him go to lengths to act upon the desires he wrote so much about.

I feel this is a good place to be unequivocal. The situation members of LGBTQ communities face in many parts of the world, is no play thing at all. For the record, I believe my country, Nigeria, has a poor record on LGBTQ rights. And, although strides have been made in this regard in the United States, I think a lot more can be done. For instance, I know lawmakers who are still fighting to prevent gay marriage.

I’ll say one more word about the poem “To My Friend with the Blue Hijab”. Although I don’t practice any religion, I grew up in a Muslim household. My mother has made the pilgrimage to Mecca twice. And, I have no issues fasting during Ramadan, facing East with some family members during early morning prayers, or teasing cousins about their hijab. So, I think it’s okay if I engage a religion I have known my whole life.

An expansive cultural territory shapes Sailing for Ithaca— Nigeria, Greek mythology, fairy tales, to name a few important avenues— which creates an interesting tension (and collaboration) between locations. One poem takes the reader to an African village, another to the Island of Polyphemus, yet another to the children’s story of The Three Little Pigs. Each time a poem redirected me I recalled the lines in the poem “Memoir”: “Enter where you can./ Leave in delight.” It seemed like an appropriate artist statement. As you were conceiving of the reader’s journey, how did you envision the overall structure and how did you decide that these various movements were going to work together? Were there some challenges in collecting these disparate tenors into one book?     

For this book, I knew I wanted to put together a collection drawing from multiple themes and perspectives, and I wanted to bring the poems together in a wide literary tapestry. But, I was concerned that bringing so many seemingly disparate elements together into a particular nexus might prove problematic. Also, I had no clue what each section would be or what shape it might take.

But, as with many things in poetry, I had to have faith. So I welcomed each poem as it came. Overtime, certain poems began speaking to each other. But, I didn’t think I had a viable manuscript until I wrote “Memoir”. After that, I don’t know how, things fell into place. I could feel the manuscript almost in its entirety. Even then, it took years to revise and several poems didn’t make the cut.

The final section in the book, “Dancing to the Wrong Music,” has a contemplative mood. Collectively, the five titles alone make a stunning declaration about solitude, art, and expression: “Memorizing Poems,” “Being Sure,” “Silence,” “Dancing to the Wrong Music,” “Leaving the Festival.” A tinge of sadness comes over me when I exit the book with the final lines of the final poem: “Time for each to leave the grounds,/ Walk with friends as far as he can,/ Before taking the lonely road/ Back to his own town.” It seems to speak to the writer’s awareness of himself in the world he lives in and the world of his imagination—can the writer inhabit both at the same time or is there a necessary movement between the two? Or is the writing of poetry the common ground or shared landscape and is this why you were drawn to poetry in the first place?   

For me, much of poetry happens in the unknown. So much of it is beyond me. Still, I think many good writers inhabit both spaces. Their lives inform their imagination, which in turn informs their lives. I don’t quite know how the former works, but I often feel effects of the latter.

On days I wake up early, sit quietly, and write, three or four hours later, I come out feeling full and at home in the world. I find myself comfortable with uncertainties and contradictions. I can’t explain it. But, when I work the way I like, something within me feels connected to something centuries older than myself.

Also, poetry, can oftentimes affect in ways the poet can’t predict. I chose to pursue poetry after attending a Derek Walcott reading. My majors were Mathematics and Chemistry. And my minors were Physics and English. I was also a lonely college kid, who was homesick and dealing with emotional uncertainties. So, when I came across a flyer about a big poet, I thought in my own uncertain way, okay, why not.

I skipped one of my classes that semester to attend the reading. And, after the first poem, I fell asleep. Because, I was tired within. I woke up after Walcott announced he had two more poems to read. His last poem spoke to me in ways that I can’t quite explain. The speaker of the poem knew who I was, understood my emotions, and addressed what I felt I was looking for. I had this high from the reading that forever changed what I felt I was supposed to do.

Sailing for Ithaca is your second collection of poems. How have you seen yourself grown as a poet since your first collection and where are you headed next? I was particularly interested to know if living in the Midwest has had an influence in your art and imagination. How long have you been in the Midwest and how do you see yourself fitting into the literary culture of Wisconsin?

A lot has changed since The Giving of Pears. Personally, I am now married. I have a daughter. And, I have a son on the way. In terms of poetry, I find myself more inclusive – especially of poetries that before I steered from. I enjoy listening more. And, wherever I can get it, solitude is welcome. I find that I pick up the pen more carefully. And, I now understand what an opportunity (and responsibility) it is to write and be read.

In terms of what’s next, right now I am editing an anthology of essays by immigrant poets in America. And, it’s been a wonderful experience putting together the anthology with the senior editor at Black Lawrence Press, Angela Leroux-Lindsey. I look forward to seeing it in print in 2015.

Yes, I have long ties to the Midwest. There’s no doubt I’m Nigerian. But, I’m from the Midwest too. And, like all good relationships, we have our ups and downs. The Midwest brought me David Shumate, Fran Quinn, Folabo Ajayi, Joseph Harrington, Alex Gubbins, and so many friends and teachers along the way. It even brought me my wife. But, I’m not sure I’ll ever be fully comfortable with winters here. I don’t like shoveling snow. And, after a while, I grow tired of the cold.

Still, I like Wisconsin, where I work and live. There are many fine poets here. Some, I know. Some, I’ve only run into. People like Ahmaud Johnson, Chuck Ryback, Beverly Matherne, and many others with whom I hope to continue literary friendships.  

Roundup: Marlon James, Marilynne Robinson, Eimear McBride, Brian Morton and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Oct-13-2014

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"Why Do I Still Have a Paper Shredder?" asks Robert Birnbaum. He also takes a look at Martin Scorsese’s HBO documentary, "The Fifty Year Argument."

Laurie Hertzel interviews James McBride.

In the Charleston Post and Courier, Bill Thompson reviews Mark Edmundson's "Why Football Matters."

John Domini reviews "A Brief History of Seven Killings," by Marlon James.

Maureen Corrigan reviews Brian Morton's "Florence Gordon."

Lisa R. Spaar on "The Outlaw Stylings of Brock-Broido, Cushman, and Wright."

NBCC board member Mark Athitakis examines the "best of literary magazines in three new collections."

Marthine Satris reviews Eimear McBride's "A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing."

Erika Dreifus interviews Sara Lippmann, author of the new short-story collection "Doll Palace."

NBCC board member Steven G. Kellman reviews "There Must Be Some Mistake," by Frederick Barthelme.

Daniel Dyer reviews Colm Toibin's latest novel.

New member Angie Jabine reviews Marilynne Robinson's "Lila."

NBCC board member Karen R. Long reviews “On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss, recipient of the NBCC Award in Criticism in 2010.

2013 Balakian winner Katherine A. Powers reviews Colm Toibin's "Nora Webster" for the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row. She also reviews Marlon James' "A Brief History of Seven Killings" for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Randy Rosenthal just published the second issue of Tweed's Magazine of Literature & Art, which features interviews with Reza Aslan, Siri Hustvedt, and Amy Grace Loyd, essays by Lydia Davis and Lipika Pelham, and poetry by C.K. Williams. Rosenthal also interviews Argentinian-Spanish author Andrés Neuman about his latest book to be translated into English, Talking to Ourselves, on the Tweed's Book Blog.

Eileen Weiner reviews Maureen Corrigan's "So We Read On."

Small Press Spotlight: Sue William Silverman

by Rigoberto González | Oct-08-2014

The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Sue William Silverman’s memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, is also a Lifetime television movie. Her memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction. She is also the author of Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a professional speaker (http://www.SueWilliamSilverman.com).

This is your third memoir and you’re covering time periods that overlap with your first two books, though the lens of this book is a lifelong admiration of, maybe even obsession with, Pat Boone. Child abuse, which was at the center of your first memoir, casts a long shadow in this one—your reach for Pat Boone was a reach for salvation, an escape, a refuge (“I want to be Christian even though I don't exactly believe in God. Only Pat Boone”). How did you discover and how did you shape an entirely different book, even as you revisited the troubling landscape of your childhood and youth in particular? And how did you negotiate holding on to the Pat Boone attraction without holding on to the trauma that led you to him?

Generally speaking, each memoir is only a slice of a life, not a whole life or story. Thematically, any one book needs a relatively tight focus. In this new book, therefore, I examine my life through different themes from those of my two previous memoirs. Here, the context for the child abuse is depicted through my ambiguous relationship to Judaism and my desire for the overtly Christian Pat Boone to be my father. So even as I, again, write about my life, it’s like switching a camera lens and looking at events from a new angle.

Additionally, unlike my first two memoirs, each of which has a single narrative arc, this new book is a memoir in essay form. This way, I’m able to write about a range of events (such as picking apricots in Israel, a vacation to Yugoslavia with an anti-Semitic boyfriend, etc.), even though Pat Boone is at the heart of the book. My goal was for an overall picture to emerge from out of individual experiences.

My need for Pat Boone – an early 1960s pop-music idol – remained, without holding onto the trauma, because he was a savior figure for me, transcending the trauma. He was like a light in the distance, a song in the darkness. I seek to transform his impossibly wholesome, squeaky-clean, All-American image into an image that is real, one that resonates for readers.

I was particularly intrigued by the chapter “See the Difference,” in which you chronicle your struggle with a bout of C-diff. There is so much that can be read about the literal pain and purging that takes place, the healing and the recovery that precedes the final Pat Boone concert mentioned in the book. But it wasn’t until this chapter that I realized how you didn’t employ dates as much as you do here. Interestingly enough I didn’t miss them because the cultural and historical references situated me within the different time periods. Was this a different approach than in the previous memoirs (and why?) or is this a device in all your works? And how do you advise the writing student about when the inclusion of more exact dates is necessary or unavoidable?

In most of my writing, as in The Pat Boone Fan Club, I try to avoid exact dates as much as possible, because memoir is more about the metaphors of an experience, which both the writer and the reader experience in the present/ presence of the text. It’s only now, in the present, that I’m making sense of the past by writing about it. Since the understanding of events after the fact is such a large part of memoir, this tends to diminish the need for an exact time frame.

To this same end, all three of my memoirs are mostly written in present tense because the past is always with us. As Faulkner so famously wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

The section, “See the Difference,” however, is an exception. Here, I wanted specific dates in order to show the arc of the illness, its mis-diagnosis and mis-treatment. I wanted to be precise in showing how imprecise medicine can be.

What to tell students? Well, it’s a personal choice, just like verb tense. But, to paraphrase John Gardner, memoir should be a “vivid and continuous (non)fictional dream.” The more the narrative flows metaphorically and unobtrusively, the more events become vivid and continuous. To me, bogging down a memoir with lots of dates can cause unnecessary clutter. Most readers forget the dates anyway. So use them sparingly, as needed. More importantly, allow imagistic details to establish time and place. Does the narrator, for example, have a crush on Pat Boone, the Beatles, or Blake Shelton? Even one such detail is revelatory – and not just in terms of a time frame. Such details will always bring the reader more deeply inside the experience than simply a date.

The complexity of faith is perhaps one of the most compelling elements of The Pat Boone Fan Club. The narrator navigates her distancing from the Jewish faith and its associations with her abusive father very much aware of what the Christian (and later, politically conservative) icon represents for her—she’s forgiving of Pat Boone and builds a loyalty from her gratitude. The “encore” at the end of the book is arresting in how it weaves the girlhood daydream/fantasy with an actual dream that took place during sleep. The dream is perfectly situated after the first-term election of Barack Obama. What has been the response from either Jewish and/or politically liberal readers about this narrative that details such a surprising attraction? There’s a level of humor about it, and you bring that up from the beginning, but very quickly it’s established as a constant struggle (a “swimming against the current” she calls it) between what will be gained and what will be lost: “My name is Gefilte and I am not a fish. My name is Gefilte and I am not a Jew. Or am I?"

Yes, the main struggle is that search for spirituality and identity, even as it includes Pat Boone, someone with whom I disagree politically. What supersedes political differences is that he’s been incredibly supportive of me. For example, the second time I saw him, backstage after his Christmas concert, he pointed to an embroidered flower on my jacket and told me (referencing my troubled childhood) that I reminded him of a flower growing up through concrete. Ironically, he sees me more clearly than my own father ever did!

Even though, of course, he didn’t transform me into the WASP-y girl I wanted to be, he did help me understand my own strength – much of which comes from my own culture. I hope that this rather paradoxical relationship gives the book more texture and nuance.

The reaction I’ve received from actual readers – Jewish and gentile – has been very positive. The reaction from Jewish media and organizations, however, is mixed. Some are very supportive and understand my struggle. Others find my journey problematic, or at least the book problematic.

This reaction saddens me. I certainly don’t portray my struggle with Judaism in black and white terms. Far from it. Yes, I associate Judaism with my family of origin, and with the childhood abuse I experienced, but I also come to understand that being a Jew is, fundamentally, a part of who I am culturally. 

The “Gentle Reader” sections were an interesting device. The author S.W.S. addresses the reader directly, intimately, confiding another level of vulnerability in the act of retelling/writing – the narrator pauses and reflects on what has been shared. I appreciated those breaks in the narrative because they sustain another sensibility – the Gefilte trope, certainly, but also the voice that steps out of the memory, the reconstruction of the past, and into the present moment. It’s a comforting space. And kind of soothing, actually, because it’s here more than anywhere else that she’s able to laugh at the ironies of her journey (and the trope). Why is humor as an entry point to the difficult stories of life so essential? Was it a challenge to keep a close watch on the use of humor in a book with a tongue-in-cheek subtitle like “My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew”? Or is humor not a matter of control?

Humor is definitely a matter of control. Trying too hard to be funny pushes readers away, rather than inviting them into the moment. Humor must evolve from the material, rather than be imposed upon it.

This hoped-for humor in these five “Gentle Reader” sections is important because it acknowledges that the “author-me” understands the irony of a Jewish-atheist-liberal-Democrat who, growing up, wanted the conservative Tea Party member Pat Boone to be her/ my father! In short, I wanted to alert the reader that I myself understand the irony, even though parts of my life  were sad and scary.

Actually, this is a very Jewish sensibility! There’s a tradition of Jewish humor born of oppression. This is one way I discovered I’m more Jewish than I thought.

The Gefilte fish is a metaphor because it, like the narrator, lacks a true identity! It’s really a mish-mash of who-knows-what kind of scaly things molded into a fishy meatball.

Yet I wanted that Gefilte fish image to be funny and sad.  So while the image is absurd, I also felt sad for this little lost Gefilte fish, my alter-ego.  By balancing the absurdity with a sense of longing, I wanted these moments to be emotionally authentic.

At the end of "The Fireproof Librarian" chapter there's a wonderfully compelling statement: "No, you can't start a fire without a spark. Sometimes you can't start one anyway. Sometimes you just smolder, waiting for your chance to burst into flame." It sounds as if, applied to the act of writing, there's a story to tell at every point-in the desire, in the attempt, whether or not a fire happens, something happens. What is the process of finding the story for you? What is your next fire?
Generally speaking, there are huge blocks of time in which our desire to break through the everydayness of life is repressed. Creativity, however, allows us to take those long-smoldering periods and transform them into works of art, which is a kind of bursting into flame.

In order for this “bursting forth” to occur, we usually need distance from an event to create the proper context. In “The Fireproof Librarian,” for example, at the time it happened, in the event, I was just this lowly library employee angry about the cover-up of asbestos in the building. Now, many years later, as a writer, I’m finally able to see this idea of smoldering as a metaphor for my life. Over time, memoirists discover the metaphors of a narrative to make the story one that evokes empathy and understanding. Some of the pieces in The Pat Boone Fan Club are more experimental than my previous writing. Without going into too much detail (because writers are notoriously superstitious), I'm working on a new book that continues this experimentation through writing about the final, ultimate topic of death and the (ironic) possibility of escaping it through writing!

This is a great period for memoir, generally, and we writers in this genre should be pushing the boundaries. That's what I'm trying to do!

Roundup: Lena Dunham, Caitlin Moran, Jonathan Eig, Stacey D’Erasmo, and Jane Smiley

by Eric Liebetrau | Oct-04-2014

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.


John Domini reviews Mary Beard's "Laughter in Ancient Rome."

NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari's Between the Lines column for BBC.com focuses on October  books, including new novel from NBCC winner Jane Smiley, NBCC finalist Hector Tobar's electric nonfiction book, a story collection by Canadian author Kathleen Winter, and NBCC award winner Katha Pollitt's latest.

Audra Wolfe reviews Jonathan Eig's new book, "The Birth of the Pill."

2013 Balakian winner Katherine A. Powers reviews the concluding volume of Jens Lapidus' Swedish crime trilogy for the Barnes and Noble Review.

Ron Slate reviews Sandra Lim's "The Wilderness."

Thomas McNeely reviews Stacey D'Erasmo's "Wonderland."

Megan Labrise chats with Caitlin Moran about her hilarious semi-autobiographical novel "How To Build a Girl." She speaks with YA author Jandy Nelson, Stonewall Jackson biographer S.C. Gwynne and author/illustrator duo Mark Bailey and Edward Hemingway, also for Kirkus Reviews; and interviews Alice Waters for Ulster Publishing's Almanac Weekly.

Robert Birnbaum on the annual release of the Oxford University Press "Atlas of the World." He also talks to Billy Giraldi.

Marion Winik on Lena Dunham's "Not That Kind of Girl."

Elizabeth Kiem reviews "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher."

John McIntyre examines the habit of reading writers' work on the strength of their obituaries.

Christi Clancy reviews Jane Smiley's "Some Luck" in the Milwaukee Journal.

NBCC board member Joanna Scutts reviews Caitlin Moran's novel "How to Build a Girl" and Sandra M. Gilbert's "The Culinary Imagination," both in the Washington Post. She also reviews Linda Tirado's "Hand to Mouth."

Grace Lichtenstein reviews Sheila Weller's "The News Sorority."

Laurie Hertzel interviews Maureen Corrigan.

Julie R. Enszer reviews Daisy Hernández’s "A Cup of Water Under My Bed" for Lambda Literary.

George De Stefano reviews Robert Greenfield’s “Ain’t it Time We Said Goodbye: The Rolling Stones on the Road to Exile."

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