February, 2018

30 Books in 30 Days: Michael Schaub on Jack E. Davis’ ‘The Gulf’

by Michael Schaub | Feb-23-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15, 2018 announcement  of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Michael Schaub offers an appreciation of nonfiction finalist Jack E. Davis's 'The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea' (Liveright).


The oceans that border the United States on its east and west coasts have always been an integral part of the American imagination — it’s no accident that one of the country’s most popular patriotic songs ends with the line “from sea to shining sea.” But often overlooked by those who don’t live on the nation’s “Third Coast” is the Gulf of Mexico, the subject of Jack E. Davis’ engrossing The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.

Davis, an environmental history professor, bemoans that the Gulf has too long been “lost in the pages of American history”; his book is an attempt to bring “America’s sea” the recognition it’s lacked for so long. To say he has done so successfully is an understatement — 'The Gulf' is exhaustively researched and beautifully written, and bound to change the way readers think about the 600,000-square-mile body of water that borders the southeastern United States.

Davis follows the Gulf from its origins 150 million years ago to the present day, covering the early Native Americans who made their homes on the Florida coast as well as those who lost theirs in Hurricane Katrina. He leaves essentially no discipline unaccounted for — the book deals with geology, history, biology, big business, popular culture and more. Juan Ponce de León and Thomas Jefferson make their appearances, as do Walt Whitman, Jimmy Stewart, and the inventor of Tabasco hot sauce.

The result is a wide-ranging biography of the Gulf of Mexico that reflects how it has influenced all Americans, and not just those who live on its shores. The final chapters serve as a rallying cry to preserve the Gulf, which has been harmed by centuries of pollution, oil spills, overfishing and climate change.

Davis writes with sparkling, clever prose — even readers who shy away from science will find themselves drawn in instantly by his insight, humor, and obvious love for his subject matter. 'The Gulf 'is a book as majestic as its namesake, and a fitting tribute to the body of water that Davis calls an “embodiment of the American spirit.”



Colette Bancroft in the Tampa Bay Times.

Philip Connors in the New York Times Book Review.

William J. Cobb in the Dallas Morning News.

Michael Schaub is a regular contributor to NPR and the Los Angeles Times. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Guardian, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.

30 Books in 30 Days: Daisy Fried on Ana Ristovic’s ‘Directions for Use’

by Daisy Fried | Feb-22-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Daisy Fried offers an appreciation of Ana Ristovic’s 'Directions for Use' (Zephyr Press)     


Serbian poet Ana Ristovic is author of nine books of poetry. Not much known in our sometimes self-absorbed American poetry circles, she has been awarded Germany’s Hubert Burda Preis for younger European poets, and the Disova Nagrada, one of the most prestigious Serbian poetry prizes.

In Steven and Maja Teref’s translation, Ristovic’s poems are wryly feminist, darkly exuberant, fascinated by commodities and focused on the body. In “Barcode Girl” a friend has a barcode tattooed on her back. “…every other word from her/ is my worth, I value, and at the cost of…” The store alarms her tattoo sets off are “Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’to her ears/or the cry of a gull swooping/on a landfill.” Into a comic situation comes great music, and the elsewhere of gull and landfill—becoming huge, concerning human plight.

Ristovic’s tonal shifts are immense. “Circling Zero,” begins in declaration (“We are independent women”), and ends intimately, elegantly describing masturbation (“And we smile with sadness in dreamless dreams./And the safe hand, circling/the soft zero.”) Talking about God in “Black Radish,” she’s casual, and not merely irreverent: “I grate a black radish/as God grates snow…//He and I/grate one another,/until exhausted/by the same/hunger.”

Imagining poets on World Poetry Day, in “Beware, Poet!” “flooding the streets like Hitchcock’s birds,” she imagines bumping into them at the supermarket. “Salt will turn Biblical./At the butcher counter, every slab of meat my body./And every bone, a quotation about Adam’s Rib.” Later she subsides, sort of:

After such an ordeal,
I’ll stand before my oven
like Sylvia Plath.
But, I’ll rethink
what to stick in it.

Many American poets wouldn’t say something like that, more’s the pity. Which means they couldn’t lead us to the particular places of hilarity and epiphany that are all Ristovic’s own.

Daisy Fried is the author of three books of poetry, Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again and She Didn’t Mean to Do It. The recipient of Guggenheim, Hodder and Pew Fellowships for her poetry, she contributes book reviews to the New York Times, Poetry, Threepenny Review and elsewhere, and is a member of the faculty of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.

30 Books in 30 Days: Daisy Fried on James Longenbach’s ‘Earthling’

by Daisy Fried | Feb-22-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Daisy Fried offers an appreciation of James Longenbach’s 'Earthling '(W.W. Norton).



The clarity and intelligence of James Longenbach’s 'Earthling' (his fifth book of poetry) exist in tandem with a strangeness that disturbs and disarms. These poems frequently begin with the quotidian—dogs are walked, money is saved, refrigerators scrubbed—then wheel into the irrational: a flash of the surreal, a deliberate anachronism or perspectival shift. What’s familiar suddenly isn’t.

“My wife went running with the dog,” writes Longenbach in “One Last Thing.” “She tied her sneakers, secured the collar around his neck.” Woman and dog disappear into the woods—can this end well? The dog pees; abruptly yet gracefully we switch from the poet’s perspective to the wife’s. She “looked off into the branches, which were laced with snow.” But the dog has “…vanished,/ No shadow, no narrative,/A smudge of white against white snow…” Wheeling back to his own perspective, the poet tells us, with fable-like simplicity and intensity, that “when she returned,/The dog was trotting beside her./ No conclusions; observations.” No more vanishing. Coffee is brewed, the newspaper retrieved and, with a flash of color in a whited-out poem, “A cardinal settled on a branch.”

That’s the magic of Longenbach—the way his poems reveal simultaneous normalcy and shocking vertigo. The titular “earthling” calls to mind sci-fi: humans seen from an alien’s perspective. But Longenbach, also one of our finest literary critics, tells us that the word referred, in Old English, to a “ploughman, a cultivator of the soil.” 

'Earthling' goes deep into what we are, what we have always been and always will be: creatures bound by mortality and preoccupied by what’s just in front of us, as we careen on our planet through emptiness.


Publishers Weekly.

Elizabeth Lund in the Washington Post.

An interview.

Daisy Fried is the author of three books of poetry, Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again and She Didn’t Mean to Do It. The recipient of Guggenheim, Hodder and Pew Fellowships for her poetry, she contributes book reviews to the New York Times, Poetry, Threepenny Review and elsewhere, and is a member of the faculty of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.

30 Books in 30 Days: Mary Ann Gwinn on Kenneth Whyte’s ‘Herbert Hoover’

by Mary Ann Gwinn | Feb-21-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Mary Ann Gwinn offers an appreciation of Kenneth Whyte’s 'Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times' (Knopf). 



If Herbert Hoover had capped his career with his star turn as U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the 1920s, he would be remembered as an organizational genius and a world-famous humanitarian. Called to action in World War I by the British government, Hoover almost singlehandedly saved Belgium from starving through a massive and unprecedented relief effort. As commerce secretary, he used his genius for massive relief mobilization to aid victims of the catastrophic Mississippi River flood of 1927. But Hoover, a congenital overachiever, could not rest. Buoyed by a wave of American prosperity, he sought and easily claimed the Republican nomination for president in 1928, then won the presidency in a landslide.

Then came the stock market crash of 1929 and a worldwide depression that brought the American economy to its knees.  Hoover spent most of his single term as president trying, and failing, to rescue the country from economic disaster.

In his new biography, Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times Kenneth Whyte describes what happened next. After Hoover’s thrashing at the hands of Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Roosevelt, a ruthless politician, continued to use Hoover as his “all-purpose scapegoat” as he overrode Republican objections to his New Deal suite of programs.  Roosevelt eventually achieved political immortality for his leadership during both the Depression and World War II.  Today people think of Hoover, if they think of him at all, as the man who failed to help the American people at an hour of dire need. Whyte, a Canadian author and journalist, aims to correct that, and he largely succeeds, resurrecting Hoover in all his flawed complexity. 

The son of Iowa Quakers, Hoover was orphaned at age 9 and spent the rest of his youth moving from one temporary home to another. He evolved from his devout Quaker upbringing to become a taciturn, ruthless businessman who accumulated his fortune through some very sketchy maneuvers in international mining. A gifted writer and astute judge of character, Whyte sums up the young Hoover: “He was determined to succeed by any means necessary, subordinating questions of right or wrong to the good of his career and driving himself crazy with his hunger for power and control, his hypersensitivity to perceived threats to his independence and stature, and his overarching need to measure up.” 

Then something changed. Hoover, a wealthy man living the genteel life in London with this family, retained the Quaker commitment to public service. When he was called to action by the Brits to help Americans stranded in Europe after the outbreak of World War I, he took charge. Then he was tasked with keeping occupied Belgium from starving. Hoover set a massive humanitarian effort in motion, negotiating with bitter enemies Britain and Germany and pulling off an enormous feat of logistics  in feeding the 7.5 million Belgians living under the German occupation.  When he returned to America his glowing reputation earned him another mammoth job – managing America’s food supplies once it entered the war.  From that point on political success seemed inevitable, but history had other plans.

Whyte’s narrative never flags, whether it’s chronicling Hoover’s hardscrabble upbringing, his hardball business tactics, his political success--then his massive public humiliation and his self-imposed exile. Embittered by his treatment at the hands of Roosevelt, Hoover refused all attempts to return to government service. He  hated the New Deal, equating it with “Bolshevism, Hitlerism, Fascism.”   He became, as Whyte puts it, “prophet and philosopher” of a new strain of conservatism in American politics.  His organizational gifts were sidelined until Harry Truman coaxed him back into the public arena to chair a series of committees tasked with reorganizing the American government.

Throughout these ups and downs, Hoover remains a satisfying, even compelling read. Readers may not agree with Herbert Hoover’s worldview, but after reading this book, they will never forget him.



Washington Post review by Michael Taube.

The New Yorker: “Hating on Herbert Hoover” by Nicholas Lemann.

David Frum in the Atlantic.

Mary Ann Gwinn writes about books and authors for the Seattle Times, Booklist, Newsday and other publications. She was a juror for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and is chair of the NBCC nonfiction prize committee.


by Jane Ciabattari | Feb-20-2018

The National Book Critics Circle is seeking applications for the 2017-2018 Emerging Critics Fellowship. The fellowship seeks to identify, nurture, and support the development of the next generation of book critics.

ELIGIBILITY Critics of all ages who seek to review and write about books for print and digital outlets are eligible for the fellowship. Applicants may or may not have previously published book reviews.

THE FELLOWSHIP Over the course of the one-year fellowship, emerging critics will receive:

—An opportunity to partake in the ongoing conversation about the craft of reviewing, and ethical questions and concerns emerging as the publishing landscape changes.

—Active mentorship from members of NBCC board. This includes Skype sessions on topics including the craft of writing reviews, ethics and professionalism, the business of freelancing, and more. Board members are also individually available for advice on drafts as well as counsel regarding career development.

—Access to NBCC blog Critical Mass, as contributors of both original work and previously published work in weekly-roundup.

—Dues-free membership to the NBCC, admission to NBCC events, and annual reception for one year.

APPLICATION Each writer must submit a resume, three writing examples, a 300-500-word statement of purpose, and names/contact information for two references. Apply at https://nbcc.submittable.com/submit

DEADLINE Applications are due by April 3, 2018. Fellows will be announced on May 15, 2018.

CONTACT Elizabeth Taylor, etaylornbcc@gmail.com, or Tom Beer, tomnbeer@aol.com

The National Book Critics Circle seeks a broad range of applicants, especially those who have demonstrated a genuine interest and commitment to engaging in critical conversation about books.

The NBCC serves more than 700 member critics, authors, literary bloggers, book publishing personnel, and student members. The National Book Critics Circle awards are given each March and honor the best literature published in the United States. 

30 books in 30 Days: Laurie Hertzel on Roxane Gay’s ‘Hunger’

by Laurie Hertzel | Feb-20-2018

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 15 announcement of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member and autobiography committee chairman Laurie Hertzel offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper).



Hunger comes in many forms. We hunger for food, for love, for romance, for safety. In her fierce and devastating memoir, 'Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body,' essayist Roxane Gay explores all of these desires, desires that have seized control of her body and deeply affected her life.

“What you need to know is that my life is split in two,” she writes, “cleaved not so neatly. There is the before and the after. Before I gained weight. After I gained weight. Before I was raped. After I was raped.”

Gay was still a child when this terrible crime took place, just 12 years old. “He was a good boy from a good family living in a good neighborhood, but he hurt me in the worst ways.” He lured her to an old hunting cabin in the woods where several of his friends waited, and “where no one but those boys could hear me scream.”

Just before the gang rape, as the boys mocked her and laughed, she felt “smaller and smaller,” she writes. It is no surprise that after the rape she grew as big as she could possibly grow.

She ate her body into a fortress—at its largest, well over 500 pounds.

"Hunger" is about both the profound effects of this childhood violence, and about the profound effects of growing to such a size. Gay writes about what it physically feels like to be large, and she writes about the way the world views her. She examines diets and clothes and furniture and sex and popular culture and the looks that people give her. “This is an unspoken humiliation, a lot of the time,” she writes. “People have eyes. They can plainly see that a given chair might be too small, but they say nothing as they watch me try to squeeze myself into a seat.”

This book is a startling, humbling read. The lives people have led: We have no idea. She knows that we judge. She knows that we have no right to judge.

Gay cuts herself no slack. She is as hard on herself as she is on society, on the rapist. “I reserve my most elaborate delusions and disappointments for myself,” she says, and sometimes you want to tell her, forgive yourself. You did nothing wrong.

Gay writes in measured, sometimes terse, tones. Her sentences are short, as are her chapters—some are just one paragraph, or just one page. But oh, how powerful those paragraphs are. They course with deep anger and palpable pain. That terseness holds back a mountain of feelings. 

And everything circles back, again and again, to that hunting cabin in the woods.

Toward the end of the book, in a breathtaking chapter, Gay writes of tracking the boy down online, years later.  Finding him “became a minor obsession,” she says. And when she did find him, she had no doubt (“There are some faces you don’t forget”) but sat for hours staring at his face on her computer screen. “It nauseates me. I can smell him.” She imagines staking him out but instead she calls him. She does not speak. She waits.  She listens.  She remembers, and she imagines.

“Writing this book is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” she says in the very last chapter, one last bit of brutal honesty in a book filled with honesty on every page.



Rosalind Bentley for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Former NBCC board member Karen R. Long for Newsday.

Former NBCC board member Colette Bancroft for the Tampa Bay Times.

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a board member of the NBCC. Her memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, won Minnesota Book Award’s readers’ choice award. She teaches memoir writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

Asylum seekers, writers of color and books about dogs

by Laurie Hertzel | Feb-19-2018










***  The NBCC awards finalists will read on Wednesday, March 14, at 6 pm at The New School, 66 West 12th Street, New York City, and the awards ceremony will be at the same location on  Thursday, March 15, at 6 pm. Both are free and open to the public. Tickets to the benefit after-party are $75, and may be purchased here. (NBCC members may purchase tickets in advance for $50.)  ***


NBCC board member Anjali Enjeti reviewed Anthony Grooms' "The Vain Conversation" for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and wrote about eight books about refugees and asylum-seekers for The Georgia Review.

NBCC board member Marion Winik  interviews poet Naomi Shihab Nye for NextTribe.com and writes about Sigrid Nunez's "The Friend," and other dog books, for Newsday.

NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel wrote her weekly Bookmark column about the Youth Media Awards recognizing great books by writers of color. She also reviewed "Hotel Silence," by the Icelandic writer Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Diane Scharper reviewed three books for the "National Catholic Reporter": "Barking to the Choir" by Gregory Boyle S.J.;  "St. Clare of Assisi" by Bret Thomas; and "When the Past Begins" by Amy Tan. 

Bob Hoover reviewed "Smoketown," Mark Whitaker's take on Pittsburgh's Hill District, in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Lanie Tankard reviewed "A Surgeon in the Village" by Tony Bartelme, out in paperback from Beacon Press in March, for Woven Tale Press.

Ilana Masad reviewed "This Will Be My Undoing" by Morgan Jerkins and "Winter Kept Us Warm" by Anne Raeff for the Los Angeles Times. 

Chelsea Leu reviewed "Eternal Life" by Dara Horn and "How to Stop Time" by Matt Haig in the LA Review of Books, and "Daphne," by Will Boast, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

NBCC Emerging Critic and incoming board member Ismail Muhammad turns to Charles Chesnutt's 1901 novel, "The Marrrow of Tradition," to demonstrate how “the genteel language of tolerance obscures and enables antiblack violence," in the Paris Review.

 Julia M. Klein reviews Catherine Kerrison's "Jefferson's Daughters" for the Barnes & Noble Review

Hamilton Cain reviews "A False Report," by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

For Newsday, Michael Lindgren meditated on the enduring appeal of the femme fatale in his review of Laura Lippman's "Sunburn."

NBCC Emerging Critic Paul Gleason reviewed Bart Ehrman's "The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World" for Newsday.


NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. With reviews, please include title of book and author, as well as name of publication. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.​ We love dedicated URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the chairman of the NBCC board's autobiography committee.

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