December, 2014

Roundup: Tim O’Brien, Meghan Daum, Jessie Burton, Diane von Furstenberg, and more best-of lists

by Eric Liebetrau | Dec-22-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to [email protected]. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


Adam Kirsch was awarded a $1,000 honorarium for his selection for the Harvard Magazine Honor Roll.

Elaine F. Tankard reviews Elizabeth Enslin's new book, "While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal."

In the Collagist, Christopher Shade reviews "Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet," an anthology edited by Clifford Garstang, from Press 53.

Michelle Newby Lancaster reviews "Where You Can Find Me" by Sheri Joseph.

John Sledge reviews "The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel" by Jerome McGann.

A Year in Reading: Michele Filgate.

A Year in Reading: NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg.

Harvey Freedenberg offers an appreciation of Tim O’Brien’s "The Things They Carried."

Elizabeth Rosner reviews "The Miniaturist," by Jessie Burton.

Reginald Harris reviews "Icon," edited by Amy Scholder.

Joe Peschel reviews Haruki Murakami’s children's story “The Strange Library."

"Looking Forward: Indie Standouts in the First Quarter of 2015," from David Duhr and Drew Smith.

Meredith Maran reviews "The Woman I Wanted to Be" by Diane von Furstenberg.

Robert Birnbaum offers a primer on Cuban culture.

Sometimes You Can't Pick Just 10: Maureen Corrigan's Favorite Books of 2014.

Diane Scharper reviews Robert Blair Kaiser's "Inside the Jesuits."

David L. Ulin's best books of 2014.

Heather Scott Partington reviews Megan Daum's "The Unspeakable," at Electric Literature.

Poet Connie Post's book "Floodwater" wins 2014 Lyrebird Award.

John Domini reviews 'Samuel Taylor’s Last Night,' a novel by Joe Amato.

Andrea Scrima talks to Leora Skolkin-Smith.

Roundup: José Saramago, Richard Ford, Jenny Erpenbeck, Richard Zoglin, and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Dec-15-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to [email protected]. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


Heather Scott Partington reviews "Our Secret Life in the Movies" by Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree.

In the Jewish Daily Forward, Julia M. Klein reviews Jonathan Petropoulos's "Artists Under Hitler."

Gregory J. Wilkin reviews Nicola Griffith's "Hild." He also reviews Atticus Lish's first novel.

Mark Sarvas reviews "Wittgenstein Jr," the fourth novel by Lars Iyer.

"‘Bomb: The Author Interviews’ doesn’t capture magazine’s signature voice," from Michael Lindgren.

Benjamin Woodard reviews Nell Zink's "The Wallcreeper" for Numero Cinq Magazine.

For the LA Review of Books, Jon Wiener interviews Richard Ford about "Decommissioned Words" in "Let Me Be Frank with You."

Julie Hakim Azzam reviews "Skylight," a posthumously novel by Nobel Prize recipient, José Saramago.

Carl Rollyson reviews Richard Zoglin's biography of Bob Hope.

NBCC board members Tom Beer and Karen R. Long, with Marion Winik and Matthew Price, compiled Newsday's Best Books of 2014. Tom Beer also selected his favorite books for holiday gifts.

Marian Ryan reviews the new Jenny Erpenbeck novel, "The End of Days," at the LA Review.

In the Brooklyn Rail, John Domini reviews Blake Butler's "300,000,000."

Ron Slate reviews "Windows on the World: 50 Writers, 50 Views," by Matteo Pericoli.

Matthew Jakubowski conducts a one-question interview with "The Wallcreeper" author Nell Zink for the Paris Review's blog.

Tweed's editor and NBCC member Randy Rosenthal recently reviewed Karen Armstrong's Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of ViolenceThe End of War by John HorganDreamers of the Absolute by Anna Sun, and The Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard, all on the Tweed's Book Blog.

Robert Birnbaum offers his fourth annual Holiday Coffee Table Book Array.

NBCC board member Karen Long reviews Hector Tobar's "Deep Down Dark."

Small Press Spotlight: Eugenia Leigh

by Rigoberto González | Dec-10-2014

Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, Four Way Books, 2014.

Eugenia Leigh is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Poets & Writers Magazine, Kundiman, Rattle, and The Asian American Literary Review. She earned her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and her poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications including the Best New Poets 2010 anthology. Eugenia serves as Poetry Editor of Kartika Review and lives in Chicago.

The lines “If artists were created in his image how often/ does God abandon his mistakes?” is quite a provocative statement, one of many that personify God as flawed and imperfect, gesturing towards the speaker’s spiritual struggle—sometimes even prayer isn’t enough, sometimes belief in a Higher Power isn’t helping. Other instances bring God down to human form and behavior—“a photo snapped by God”; “God handed me a trash bag”; “God’s shoes”; “God’s feet.” Eventually the reader learns the complexity of the speaker’s relationship to a Higher Power, but on the way towards that revelation there are these surprising encounters with God at eye level. How did you as the artist negotiate this construction of God in your own image? What was your own struggle as the artist in shaping that depiction of God?

As an artist, the truth I’m after is emotional truth. When I construct an image of God, I’m less concerned about whether my interpretation of God measures up to the biblical interpretations I was raised with, and more concerned about whether my speaker’s experience of God in the created moment is genuine. While writing these poems, I consciously—and repeatedly—put aside the temptation to do right by God because my mission was to do right by the speaker.

I wanted my poems to capture the honesty of a person in mid-doubt, mid-question. But I did have to pause and give myself the permission to pursue a “construction of God in [my] own image.” Sometimes, in order to trust someone—whether deity or human—we need to voice and confront our prejudices in order to reconcile our warped beliefs with the reality of the person in question. I also ultimately decided that God—should God exist—can withstand, and perhaps even encourage, my interrogations and misinterpretations. After all, John Donne once wrote, “To come to a doubt, and to a debatement of any religious duty, is the voice of God in our conscience: Would you know the truth? Doubt, and then you will inquire.”

Poems like “On the Anniversary of the War on Terror,” “The Untold Version,” and “Aftertaste” read like startling allegories, creating scenarios that are surreal yet come manage to communicate an emotional truth and perhaps the realist moment that inspired the poem. Another, with religious overtones, is “Sustenance.” In other words, these seemingly fantastic tales are stunning extended metaphors. This reach for metaphorical language/ narrative is a gorgeous element in your poetry. What literary company do you keep when writing these poems? And how do you see yourself aiming for something different than those literary companions?

I binge-read Jeffrey McDaniel’s books and listened to hordes of spoken word poets such as Anis Mojgani and Jeanann Verlee while writing the poems in Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows. These master storytellers often weave surreal and metaphorical images into their narratives, and their books are infused with the fantastic. They use surrealism to achieve everything from humor to horror—to give their stories extra subconscious depth.

As I read these poets, the extended metaphor became the strategy I most often used when I couldn’t spell out the stories I needed to write. This tactic quickly devolved into a crutch. I’ve been cursed with a notoriously unreliable memory, which means I have a lot of blanks to fill when I write semi-autobiographical pieces. I do, however, have a sharp emotional memory, and I soon learned that metaphors could help me communicate that emotional memory beyond “and then I felt sad.” I don’t know what happened “the morning I abandoned my father,” for example, but I can conjure the feeling of “angels material[izing] everywhere.”

The metaphors I allowed into the book, therefore, are images that feel remembered as opposed to created. When one of my poems, “Destination: Beautiful,” received an award from Rattle for its use of metaphor, I had to reread the poem several times to parse the metaphors from plain facts. If a metaphor can reach that level of interchangeability with memory, I keep it. If I know I’ve written in a metaphor because I wanted to be clever or creative, I remove it.

Since the dominant characteristic in Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows is the use of symbolism and metaphor, the few poems that appear stripped down to a realist moment like “Mother Asks Whether I Have Ever Wanted to Kill Myself” jump right off the page. These moments reaffirm the book’s portrait of abuse, a shattered family life, and the coming to terms with those experiences. What is it about poetry that attracted you as the most adequate form to examine your subject matter? Was it the subject matter that directed you to the form or vise versa?

The poetic form plus a force of amazing women pushed me to tell this “portrait of abuse,” which I’d never intended to write. My original goal was to write fiction, but Karen Rowe, one of my former professors at UCLA, told me, “You’re a poet,” and refused to provide a letter of recommendation to MFA programs unless I applied in poetry. Then when I found myself studying poetry at Sarah Lawrence College, I wrote a cryptic poem about my father (which evolved into “6,883 Miles from New York, My Father Is Alive”), prompting Laure-Anne Bosselaar to encourage me to follow that narrative thread. I decided I felt safe telling this story as long as my words were couched with line breaks, fragments, and unintelligible metaphors.

My earliest poems chased experimentation with language and shied away from clearer narratives, but one day, Marie Howe instructed a workshop I took to write an anaphoric “origin poem” devoid of all metaphors—what became “Wire Hangers”—and steered us toward books such as Nick Flynn’s Some Ether and Kimiko Hahn’s Narrow Road to the Interior, which helped me write down “what I really mean to say,” as Bosselaar often challenged. I eventually discovered that poetry suited my narrative well partly because the poetic form forgives a faulty memory in ways nonfiction prose cannot as easily. The poetic form also holds truer to the way these stories exist within me: disjointed, non-chronological, sometimes unverified, and often mashed with dreams and the supernatural.

You are part of a talented cohort of young Asian American writers (among them Cathy Linh Che, Ocean Vuong, R.A. Villanueva, Sally Wen Mao) who are energizing the next generation of Asian American poetics. I noticed that ethnic identity and the immigrant narrative are not central threads in your work. I was curious about that in Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows since this is still a book about family but you didn’t subscribe to the notion that there is an obligation to explore certain themes. Or what is your perspective about how ethnic writers situate and position identity and culture in the work? How does that figure into your own vision of your first book?

I’m an unabashed fan of the poets you mention—all friends—and am thrilled to be inducted into this cohort specifically because I admire the care and labor they put into integrating ethnic identities into their poetry. I am mesmerized and haunted by the ways these writers, their predecessors, and our peers code-switch between tongues, invoke ancestral ghosts, and position contemporary narratives within the context of cultural and political pasts. They contribute to a valuable and game-changing discourse among emerging ethnic writers who make up a generation that I hope will push these once-marginalized narratives into mainstream reading lists.

The lack of this sort of cultural exploration and ethnic identity in my poems was less a conscious decision and more the consequence of my pursuing a different heritage: an inheritance of faith and violence. My parents separately immigrated to the United States as children and grew up in the Midwest, so I was not raised with a strong understanding of my Korean background. The work of exploring relevant cultural histories and the ways they may have filtered into my family’s narrative is one I’m only now becoming curious about in my 30s, and that’s thanks in part to the books my peers are writing.

No poet can write poems in a vacuum in which ethnic identities can be ignored entirely, but no poet should be expected to tackle all threads of discourse in one collection. At the juncture of my life and my intellectual pursuits in which I wrote this book, any attempt to include deeper ethnic themes in my poems without extensive research would have been disingenuous. The purpose of the book was to relate the familial narrative as it was true to my experience of it, and for better or for worse, the missing cultural details are part of that experience.

Is it premature to ask what’s next? Where has your most recent work taken you? And what are some titles (not necessarily poetry) that have excited you recently?   

I’m currently fighting the urge to fill in the narrative blanks in Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows. I wrote a personal essay forthcoming in The Rumpus that fails to fight this urge, and it seems nonfiction prose is one of the genres in my blood lately. When my new poems are not sounding like poor parodies of my first book, they find themselves speaking from and into a broken world as opposed to a broken family. They seem to want to tackle larger, more global pains, which I’m not convinced I’m ready for even if my poems are. I’m also finding that while my earlier poems made statements about God, these newer poems seem to speak directly at God instead, which I did only two or three times in the first book. I’m excited and curious to see where these poems take me.

Remarkable recent titles I am currently working through and can’t get enough of: The Dead Wrestler Elegies by W. Todd Kaneko (Poetry), Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Fiction), and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (Nonfiction), which is not new, but a necessary read for our times. Also, not-yet-read but on my queue: Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel I’ll Be Right There, released in English last summer.

Author Photo: An Rong Xu

Roundup: Chuck Todd, A.N. Wilson, Lydia Millet, Norman Lear, Laila Lalami, and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Dec-08-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to [email protected]. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


Scott Porch interviews Chuck Todd, author of "The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House," for Salon and writes in the Daily Beast about the role Mark Whitaker's "Cosby: His Life and Times" played in the Bill Cosby story going viral.

Meganne Fabrega reviews "Birds of Pandemonium" by Michelle Raffin for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Parul Kapur Hinzen interviews poet Kevin Young on matters of race, art and identity in Guernica.

Adam Kirsch reviews "The End of Days" by Jenny Erpenbeck.

Rebecca Foust's book of narratively linked sonnets "Paradise Drive" just won the Press 53 Award for Poetry and will be released in 2015. Foust's essay “Venn Diagram” won the 2014 Constance Rooke Creative nonfiction prize and will appear, along with an author interview, in the next "Malahat Review." The author was the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in residence this year and spent two months living in Robert Frost’s farmhouse in Franconia NH, followed by two weeks at MacDowell.  

Carl Rollyson reviews 'Victoria: A Life,' by A.N. Wilson.

Bradley Sides reviews Lydia Millet's "Mermaids in Paradise."

"Celebrating the season by snuggling between L.A. book covers," from NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg.

Julia M. Klein reviews Philip Ball's "Serving the Reich" for the Jewish Daily Forward.

"A gift guide for adventurous readers," from David Ulin.

Diane Scharper reviews Richard Flanagan's "The Narrow Road to the Deep North."

NBCC board member Rigoberto Gonzalez examines "The Humor and Heart in the Novels of Denise Chávez."

Karl Wolff reviews "Muscle Cars," by Stephen G. Eoannou.

Barbara Spindel reviews Norman Lear's memoir, "Even This I Get to Experience," for the Barnes & Noble Review.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews Laila Lalami's novel "The Moor's Account."

NPR's cool #bookconcierge app offers best 2014 booklists from Maureen Corrigan, Heller McAlpin, Jane Ciabattari and others.

Bill Williams reviews "Being Mortal" by Atul Gawande.

2013 Nona Balakian winner Katherine A. Powers reviews Hermione Lee's "Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life." She also reviews David Peace's "GB84."

Lori Feathers reviews "Limbo" by Melania G. Mazzucco.

Roundup: Wendy Lesser, Otto Penzler, Gary Snyder, Ron Rash, and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Dec-01-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to [email protected]. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


Harvey Freedenberg on Wendy Lesser's "Why I Read."

Robert Birnbaum adds an addendum to his best books list.

"Three contrarians with the courage of their convictions," by Diane Scharper.

Art Taylor interviews Otto Penzler in the LA Review of Books about three new anthologies published in October and November. Taylor recently won the Macavity Award for Best Short Story at Bouchercon, the world mystery convention.

"Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry by Peter Streckfus and Jean Valentine," by Lisa Russ Spaar

Larry Smith reviews Ron Rash's new collection. He also reviews Gary Snyder's "Nobody Home."

"What Makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?" Francine Prose and Benjamin Moser discuss.

Julia M. Klein reviews Anne Lamott's "Small Victories" for the Boston Globe.

In the Charleston Post and Courier, Bill Thompson reviews John Mark Sibley-Jones' "By the Red Glare."

NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari's latest BBC column: Norman Mailer, Raymond Chandler, Vanessa & Virginia, Saramago's long lost early novel, a story collection from Joshua Harmon, Samantha Schnee's translation of Carmen Boullosa's Texas. 10 Books to Read in December.

For the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Julie Hakim Azzam interviews NoViolet Bulawayo about her debut novel, "We Need New Names."

November, 2014

Roundup: Atul Gawande, Laura Kipnis, Glenn Kurtz and how Tolkien affected 1960s counterculture

by Eric Liebetrau | Nov-24-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to [email protected]. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


Don't forget to join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook with your favorite first books of 2014, candidates for the #NBCCLeonard award.


Anjali Enjeti reviews Desiree Zamorano's "The Amado Women" for PANK.

Former NBCC President Carlin Romano reviews Peter K.J. Park's "Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy" in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Also in the Chronicle, he offers an omnibus essay on books about revanchism and irredentism.

Sneak Peak: NBCC board member David Biespiel’s "A Long High Whistle," Poetry Columns from the Portland Oregonian.

Ryan Teitman reviews "Dr. Mutter's Marvels" in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

For Guernica, Grace Bello interviews Dr. Atul Gawande, author of "Being Mortal," on the arc of healthcare reform and improving end-of-life care.

Julia M. Klein reviews Glenn Kurtz's "Three Minutes in Poland" for the Chicago Tribune.

NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari's BBC Between the Lines column flashes back to the 1960s to look at Tolkien's influence on the counterculture.

In Kirkus Reviews, Megan Labrise interviews cultural critic and essayist Laura Kipnis, author of "Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation."

"What You Missed," from Robert Birnbaum. He also offers "The Year that Was: The Best American Annuals," as well as his best books list.

"How Has the Social Role of Poetry Changed Since Shelley?": Adam Kirsch and Leslie Jamison discuss.

Paul Wilner reviews "The Haight: The Photography of Jim Marshall."

2013 Nona Balakian winner Katherine Powers offers her five best audiobooks of 2014.

NBCC board member Ron Charles says 2014 was "a good year for book lovers."

Leonard Lopate interviews Hermione Lee, biographer of Penelope Fitzgerald, first winner from outside the US of the National Book Critics Circle award in fiction.

Longtime NBCC member Daniel Asa Rose delivers "A Parable About a Mouse at the New Yorker magazine."

Laurie Hertzel reviews "A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka," by Lev Golinkin.

Sneak Peak: Linda Simon’s The Greatest Shows on Earth

by Linda Simon | Nov-21-2014

Long-time NBCC member Linda Simon's "The Greatest Shows on Earth" is just out from the University of Chicago Press. Here's a sneak peak.

From the Introduction: 

The nineteenth-century conceit of running away to join the circus retained its vitality as a personal myth of glamour and reinvention well into the twentieth century. In the 1940s, for example, one young girl who had ridden hoses throughout her childhood, and who often wore a crown as part of her riding costume, announced that she was going to run away to become Queen of the Circus. When she was fourteen, she wrote a prediction of her future that reiterated that desire to become a circus queen and, not surprisingly, to marry the man on the flying trapeze. The young girl grew up to be Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.


From Chapter Seven, Clowns

Rarely has a clown begun his career clowning. Emmett Kelly was a cartoonist and later an aerialist; Dan Rice was a jockey and riverboat gambler before he devised his exuberant clown persona; the Swiss-born Grock, who amazed Picasso at the Cirque Médrano, was a contortionist and a tightrope walker; George Footit, a favorite of Toulouse-Lautrec, and Edwin ‘Poodles’ Hannaford were trick riders. . .Becoming a clown, for all of them, was a deliberate choice, rewarded not only by their audience’s acclaim, but by prestige and high pay. . . .The clown, wrote circus historian Antony Coxe, ‘is the soul of the circus.’


From Chapter Ten, Transformations

The circus may respond to changing social pressures, look back nostalgically to real or imagined innocence, incorporate slick technologies and turn the spotlight on performers so agile and daring that they take the breath away—but it has one constant. From the first moment a contortionist bent backward to touch the ground with his head, from the moment a daredevil walked on a rope from one church steeple to another, from the moment a wandering family leapt and cavorted on a Paris street corner, the circus has celebrated the fleeting moment of magical spectacle. There is laughter, awe, desire, envy. And then, it’s gone..

Linda Simon is professor emerita of English at Skidmore College in New York. She is the author of several books, including "Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray."

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