August, 2014

Roundup: William Kent Krueger, Haruki Murakami, top fall books and an interview with Elena Ferrante

by Eric Liebetrau | Aug-25-2014

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NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari's top 10 fall books, in her latest BBC column.

Tobias Carroll reviews "Mr. Gwyn," by Alessandro Baricco.

Elizabeth Rosner reviews James Carroll's "Warburg in Rome."

At the Christian Science Monitor, Andrew Cleary reviews Michael Harris' "The End of Absence."

Christie Aschwanden reviews J.C. Herz's "Learning to Breathe Fire."

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews Michael Crummey's novel "Sweetland." He also reviews Juan Cole's "The New Arabs."

"'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage': A lean Murakami (with the usual love, music, dreams, sex)," from Eileen Weiner.

Laurie Hertzel profiles bestselling author William Kent Krueger.

"You Would Think 'Adultery' Would Be A Little More Tantalizing." Heller McAlpin on Paulo Coelho's latest novel.

Joe Peschel also reviews Coelho's novel.

Anjali Enjeti reviews Roxane Gay's "Bad Feminist."

Megan O'Grady interviews the elusive Elena Ferrante for Vogue.

Julia M. Klein reviews Dianne Hales' "Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered" for the Chicago Tribune.

Book-reviewing gets a shoutout in Erika Dreifus "After the MFA: Fantasy, Reality, and Lessons Learned" on the Poets & Writers website.

NBCC Reads: What’s Your Favorite First Book Ever? Paley, Johnson, Jackson

by Edie Meidav | Aug-20-2014

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

If considering American books since 1955 (a year when, pace Woolf, we could say the world changed again), I vote for Grace Paley's THE LITTLE DISTURBANCES OF MAN or Denis Johnson's ANGELS. Why Paley's story collection? Because hers was the unholy lovechild of two lines of American writing, one shaggy-dog Melvillean, gifted with an ear bent toward humor, her other parent a more sober Puritan interested in form. In one short, rhythmic, irreproachable book, Paley created an immigrant gothic that spawned heirs both open and more oblique, such as Carolyn Cooke's first collection THE BOSTONS.

And why Johnson's novel? Because he wrote with such moral urgency, a lapsed Catholic speaking the tongue of lyrical violence.  

That said, to linger on 2014, in a few years I will still be touting this year's THE RESIDUE YEARS to the masses. Why? Mitchell S. Jackson stuns the reader from the start: his wordplay dances against great empathy, wit, visceral engagement. No one has told the story he tells with such heart and mind. Aware of the pitfalls of writing as a cultural ambassador -- and preemptively deflecting such critique -- Jackson imbues his work with the ethical purpose of our most beloved canonical works, such that the catharsis near novel's end remains as unforgettable as it is damning. 


Edie Meidav is a recipient of a Lannan Fellowship and author of the critically acclaimed The Far Field, recipient of the Kafka award for best novel by an American woman; Crawl Space, winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, and Lola, California. She lived in Northern California, where she directed the MFA writing program at the New College of California on Valencia Street in San Francisco. She teaches in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. More at

Roundup: Haruki Murakami, Amy Bloom, Edan Lepucki and Roxana Robinson on the Amazon/Hachette dispute

by Eric Liebetrau | Aug-18-2014

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WATCH: Authors Guild President Roxana Robinson discusses Amazon's dispute with Hachette and authors.

Woody Brown reviews Haruki Murakami's new novel.

Kit Reed also reviews Murakami's book.

"Never Complain and Never Explain." Robert Birnbaum on plagiarism, remorse and more. Birnbaum also talks to Amy Bloom about her new book.

New Books for Younger Readers, from Celia McGee.

John Domini reviews Alan Michael Parker's latest novel. He also reviews "In the Wolf's Mouth" by Adam Foulds.

In the Wall Street Journal, Nancy Rommelmann reviews Lacy Johnson's "The Other Side."

Ryan Teitman on Matthew Gavin Frank's "Preparing the Ghost."

Meganne Fabrega reviews Sallie Bingham's "The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters" for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

NBCC board member David Biespiel's latest Poetry Wire.

Natalie Bakopoulos reviews "Life Drawing" by Robin Black.

"In A Funny New Novel, A Weary Professor Writes To "Dear Committee Members." Maureen Corrigan on Julie Schumacher's novel.

Katherine A. Powers reviews Rachel Seiffert's "The Walk Home" for the Barnes and Noble Review.

"Lauren Bacall on writing: The most complete experience I've ever had," from NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg.

NBCC fiction award winner Chimamanda Adichie on Wole Soyinka.

Elaine F. Tankard reviews Edan Lepucki’s "California."

NBCC Reads: What’s Your Favorite First Book Ever? Henry Roth’s ‘Call It Sleep’

by Steven G. Kellman | Aug-16-2014

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

Astonishment at the quality of notable first books is often based on the dubious premise that first books are mere apprentice work, of interest primarily as the pallid chrysalis from which the neophyte butterfly will later emerge in splendid glory. In fact, however, many of the most accomplished and admired works in literary history were debut books – Lyrical Ballads, Sense and Sensibility, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Buddenbrooks, Sister Carrie, The Enormous Room, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Harmonium, Flowering Judas and Other StoriesThe Postman Always Rings Twice, At Swim-Two-Birds, Nausea, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Stranger, The Naked and the Dead, Invisible Man, The Natural, Wise Blood, Lord of the Flies, Howl, Things Fall Apart, The Leopard, Goodbye, Columbus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, The Bluest Eye, Bless Me, Ultima, V., Love Medicine, Everything Is Illuminated, among others. To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s first book, though it is also her last. First books are often labors of love enriched by long gestations. Written in haste under pressure to sustain a career, second books, by contrast, can seem a letdown. Arthur Rimbaud’s decision to renounce poetry, at age 19, shortly after the publication of his first book, A Season in Hell, forestalled disappointment. Walt Whitman avoided the sophomore jinx by publishing his magnificent first book, Leaves of Grass, again and again, in five different later iterations.

So ashamed was Nathaniel Hawthorne of his publishing debut, Fanshawe, that he attempted to retrieve and burn every copy he could find. The mediocre poetry that constitutes William Faulkner’s The Marble Faun would not be my nominee for favorite first book. Nor would I choose Edith Wharton’s debut volume on interior design, The Decoration of Houses. Instead, I call on Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. Begun while Roth, a working-class immigrant, was still an undergraduate at City College, the novel is the finest evocation of the confrontation between European newcomers and modern urban America. The mature artistry of Roth’s first book is evident in his deft deployment of stream of consciousness; the complex portraits of young David Schearl, his frustrated, abusive father Albert, his long-suffering mother Genya, and his boisterous Aunt Bertha; and his representation of the multilingual Lower East Side in supple prose that simulates Yiddish, Polish, Hebrew, German, Italian, and various registers of English.

But what makes Call It Sleep even more striking as its author’s first book is that Roth in effect produced a second first book 60 years later. Published in 1934, in the depths of the Depression, Call It Sleep soon fell out of print and out of mind. In 1964, an ecstatic review by Irving Howe on the front page of The New York Times Book Review helped catapult Roth’s forgotten novel to the top of the bestseller lists. Meanwhile, the author himself had renounced the literary life and turned to raising and slaughtering ducks and geese in Maine. Nevertheless, in his 80s, ailing, and approaching, even embracing, death, he took up writing again, leaving behind 5,000 manuscript pages before dying, at 89, in 1995.

Roth’s second novel, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, was published in 1994, 60 years after his first. And, as the first installment of a massive tetralogy called Mercy of a Rude Stream, it represented a fresh beginning, as well as its author’s valediction to his art and his life. Mercy is a self-lacerating but also self-redeeming autobiographical fiction whose ambition to render the entirety of its author's life is unparalleled in contemporary fiction except perhaps for the six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle

Premieres are special, hopeful occasions. But to the conscientious artist and the attentive reader, every book is the first book.

Steven G. Kellman was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 2007. His work has appeared in a wide variety of publications including the Texas Observer, Chronicle of Higher Education,, Chicago Tribune, Review of Contemporary Fiction, the Believer, Bookforum, and Georgia Review. His books include Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton, 2005), The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska, 2000), Loving Reading: Erotics of the Text (Archon, 1985), and The Self-Begetting Novel (Columbia, 1980). Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Currently National Book Critics Circle Vice President/Membership, he served three previous terms on the board.

Roundup: Amy Bloom, Susan Sontag, Bond Novels, Sherlock Holmes, and More

by Mark Athitakis | Aug-11-2014

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


As baseball's pennant race begins in earnest, Robert Birnbaum takes a look back at books about umpires; he also interviews Alex Beam about his new book on Joseph Smith, American Crucifixion.

Priscilla Gilman reviews Amy Bloom's novel Lucky Us for the Boston Globe.

Former NBCC president John Freeman discusses his new series of anthologies with Publishers Weekly.

Karl Wolff continues his NSFW Files series at website of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography with a reconsideration of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls.

NBCC finalist Ben Moser checks in with Tablet about his biography-in-progress on Susan Sontag.

Jane Ciabattari ranks the best post-Ian Fielding Bond authors for the BBC, and reviews Richard House's thriller The Kills for NPR.

Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain. The Los Angeles Times' Carolyn Kellogg reports.

Rigoberto Gonzalez reviews Francisco Goldman's memoir The Interior Circuit for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Max Winter reviews Amy Rowland's novel The Transcriptionist and John Skoyles' novel A Moveable Famine for the Boston Globe.

Randy Rosenthal interviews Jack Livings about his new story collection, The Dog, at Tweed's.

Joseph Peschel reviews William T. Vollmann's collection Last Stories and Other Stories for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Daniel Dyer reviews Hampton Sides' In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Micah McCrary reviews Eric LeMay's essay collection In Praise of Nothing for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Jacob Siefring reviews Nelly Arcan's novel Hysteric for the Winnipeg Review.

Ron Slate reviews Michelle Huneven's novel Off Course at On the Seawall.

NBCC Reads: What’s Your Favorite First Book Ever? Elizabeth Rosner on William Styron

by Elizabeth Rosner | Aug-07-2014

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

As I recall, I was rather late in encountering William Styron's LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS, but reading it was nevertheless a kind of awakening.  The fact that the author was 26 years old both inspired and terrified me, in part because I recognized the profound wisdom he had earned by way of a (premature?) fascination with death.  More significant was the way he blurred the line between gorgeousness and suffering, showing me it was possible to write about tragedy and self-destruction in prose that took my breath away.  It may seem obvious now, but that approach seemed newly brave and important to me; one's inner demons could wrestle right alongside one's reach for the sublime.  This urgent discovery helped me find courage to explore my own places of devastation and beauty without feeling that one had to be shoved aside to make room for the other.  A novelist didn't have to apologize for sustaining both a lyrical and relentless concern with despair.  A novel could aim downward and refuse to rise.

When I read the memoir DARKNESS VISIBLE many years later, and learned so much more about Styron's lifelong struggle with debilitating depression, my admiration for his first novel grew even more.  Somehow that gracefully burdened 26 year old wrote the way he did not only because of but also in spite of his agonized fears and sorrows.  That was a lesson I retain to this day.

Elizabeth Rosner's newest novel ELECTRIC CITY is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press in October 2014. Her previous novels THE SPEED OF LIGHT and BLUE NUDE were both national best-sellers. A new poetry collection GRAVITY will be published by Atelier26 Books in Fall 2014. She lives in Berkeley and has been a teacher of writing for 30 years.

Small Press Spotlight: Wendy C. Ortiz

by Rigoberto González | Aug-05-2014

Photo Credit: Meiko Takechi Arquillos

Excavation: A Memoir, Future Tense Books, 2014.

Wendy C. Ortiz is a writer born and raised in Los Angeles. She wrote a year-long, monthly column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vol. I Brooklyn, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and other journals. She co-founded the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series, which she’s been curating and hosting since 2004.

One of the many challenges to writing a memoir is structuring it. Linearity doesn’t always work for the narrative, though it does serve Excavation well, but only because embedded within the story of the 5-year relationship (1986-1991) between an adolescent woman and a teacher 15 years her senior, there are glimpses (called “Notes on an Excavation”) which are flash-forwards to the narrator’s life in college, in a professional career, in the role of a mother, etc. It’s clear why the dominant thread covers the length of the relationship, but how did you decide what material to include in the “Notes,” which span a lengthier timeline in the narrator’s life? And what memoirs did you consult in terms of deciding this was the narrative structure and/or strategy that would work for yours?

The “Notes” came about in the last three years as I edited and played with the book’s structure. All previous drafts used a straight, chronological narrative structure, and it felt too one-dimensional that way. I began thinking of the chapters in my life that were specifically impacted by the relationship with my teacher and how I might encapsulate them into writing that would give the book more dimensionality, and to give the reader a glimpse into the narrator’s arc over time.

One memoir that is like the ultimate touchstone for me is Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water. It’s described as an “anti-memoir” and it does not follow the typical ways memoir is written. My book is by no means unconventional in structure but I wanted to represent the events much in the same way I tell myself the story, which is just not totally linear.

The “Notes” have a number of functions: they help the unsettling story “breathe,” they remind the reader that this young woman survived and thrived, and that there’s insight offered by the voice of experience looking back at her past. One “Note” declares: “My own composition was changed when I met and was taught by this man. He seeped into my existence. I smelled the danger and for many reasons, I wandered in.” It’s a powerful declaration because this memoir complicates the relationship, moves it away from the dynamic of abuse or molestation. It’s not easy to simplify this relationship, nor is it seeking summary or neat conclusion. In fact, it asks more questions than it answers. Did you struggle with how this portrait of a relationship was going to be perceived by readers, particularly by those who have been through a similar experience? Why was it important to trouble the “student/victim--teacher/victimizer” narrative that’s been so widely reported by the media recently?

I have definitely struggled with how this will be perceived by readers. I’ve also struggled with how I’ve perceived it myself. How I wrote the book at age 28—the intent, the understanding, trying to shape that into narrative—is quite different than how I’ve rewritten and edited it at age 40. My greatest fear is being misunderstood about such an important issue. From the beginning drafts, though, I knew I wanted to reveal something about my sexual coming-of-age, which I knew from reading plenty of fiction and memoirs, was not specifically represented anywhere. By virtue of being honest about my experience I’ve had to take the risk and trouble the common narrative.

I admired the way the narrator’s awareness, curiosity, and anxieties about her body shape the story with a series of very physical and visceral scenes. One of the most startling sentences in the book reads: “At thirteen, I harbored strange and beautiful conditions in the landscape of my body.” Indeed, Excavation digs into the narrator’s sexuality and self-perception: the more she knows, the more she grows, the stronger she becomes in defining her relationships on her own terms. Still, it’s a rocky journey and the secrecy of her interior life shuts her parents out. I was wondering about the cultural life of this teenager and of her cultural settings (LA or Southern CA, Latino--maybe Catholic--family). There’s a car culture that’s quite visible, and I believe she attends a Catholic school at one time, but was there room to explore an ethnic identity further? Or is this another project? And how will that future project complement or intersect with this one?

Ethnic identity is definitely another project. I’m one of those children of Mexican-American parents who learned basic Spanish (present & present participle, mostly) in school because my parents only spoke Spanish when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying—and even then, my mother’s Spanish is very much an East L.A. Spanglish. I ended up in Catholic high school only because it was close to the junior high I attended, and it’s where most of my friends went (many of whom were also not Catholic). I’ve had to piece together connections to my ethnicity throughout my life because my parents and grandmother were quite assimilated. Going to private schools definitely made me a minority and it wasn’t until I went to college and took Chicano Studies courses that I began thinking of myself as a Chicana—an identifier my parents could not totally understand. As I got older, and now as I raise a child who is of mixed heritage, I’ve been much more conscious about how we keep ethnic identity a part of our family’s conversation. It was not talked about directly in my house growing up, and definitely not in school settings until college. I imagine a future project taking on the cultural and personal significance, to me, that my father picked grapes and cotton in the San Joaquin Valley as a child, and my grandmother was a seamstress in downtown Los Angeles, for example.

Another one of my favorite sentences in the memoir reads: “Sometimes I still have to find my way out of the smoke, to touch what is real, to confirm what is illusion.” The “smoke” applies to a number of things--the older lover’s intentions, the narrator’s confusion about the situation, and about herself, the difficult admission of her own participation and agency in the relationship. But one “smoke” that doesn’t quite clear the air is her sense of her own queerness. It’s there but not there during that period of the narrator’s young life, though it’s noted in her adult identity. Her role as a writer, however, is consistently present--even when she keeps her journals hidden. How do these two consciousnesses (of queerness, of artistic life) come together for this narrator later in life? And why was it important to establish them as necessary components on her path to self-actualization?

As a teenager I could not wrap my head around the idea of “queerness” or even the notion of bisexuality. I just knew that I had fantasies, and they were 99% about women when they were sexual fantasies, and men and boys my age showed up in fantasies (and reality) when it came to “romantic” relationships. Even as a young adult, once I began calling myself bisexual, there was still plenty of “smoke” around queerness, and how I wanted to claim the identifier for myself even as I consistently had serial monogamous relationships with men. My intention in the book was to represent some of the ways sexuality can get sidetracked, derailed, even numbed in the midst of confusing and traumatic events.

My identity as a writer has been the most solid identity I’ve had since I was six years old and wrote my first ghost story. I will always see this as a necessary component on my path to self-actualization. When I finally get to writing the book about the years in Olympia when I was introduced to queerness, and the years following when marrying a man catalyzed, for me, my queerness, and suddenly forced me into embodying it in a way I hadn’t previously—some of the “smoke” might clear.

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