December, 2017

Short stories and letters headline this week for the short on time reader

by Anjali Enjeti | Dec-11-2017


Former NBCC board president, and current board member Tom Beer wrote about new books this week for Newsday. 

Star Tribune senior editor for books and NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel wrote her weekly Bookmark column about falling into—and getting out of –a book slump. She also wrote about the Minneapolis book launch of Jonathan Blunk’s new biography of James Wright—a poet who hated Minneapolis and was fired by the University. The irony was not lost on the audience.

Bécquer Seguín reviewed Federico García Lorca’s "Poet in Spain" for Slate. 

Xujun Eberlein's review of Q.M. Zhang's "Accomplice to Memory" appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel. 

Kai Maristed reviewed by "Old Rendering Plant" Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from German by Isabel Fargo Cole, for The Arts Fuse.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviewed Michael Hardimon's "Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism for the National Book Review."

William Gass, who won three NBCC awards in criticism, died this week.

Joan Frank reviewed "Stories" by Emily Fridlund, "The Relive Box and Other Stories" by T.C. Boyle, "Five-Carat Soul" by James McBride, and "Fresh Complaint" by Jeffrey Eugenides for the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Julie Phillips reviewed Mary Beard's "Women & Power" for 4Columns. 

Erika Dreifus's latest "A View from the USA" column for the UK's Jewish Chronicle anticipates some striking Jewish books that are coming in 2018.

Julie Hakim Azzam published a review of Chris Raschka's illustrated short story collection for children, "The Doorman's Repose," in the December 8th Times Literary Supplement (published by the Times of London). There's a snippet of the review here.

Hamilton Cain reviewed of "The Collected Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. 1," in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Dana Wilde reviewed “The Unfastening: Poems” by Wesley McNair and “Elegies and Valedictions” by Burton Hatlen in Central Maine, as well as Caught: time. place. fish. by Glen Libby and Antonia Small for The Working Waterfront. 

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

NBCC board member Anjali Enjeti reviews for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Rewire News, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere.

Announcing the finalists for the #NBCCLeonard award

by Daniel Akst | Dec-07-2017

Big news: the NBCC membership has spoken, and the 2017 John Leonard Prize finalists have been chosen. Here’s this year’s superb list:


What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Riverhead)

Marlena by Julie Buntin (Holt)

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons (Viking)

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf)

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf)

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (Riverhead)


Nominations for the Leonard prize, for a first book in any genre, are open to any regular voting NBCC member; the six finalists are those titles with the most nominations. A panel of member-volunteers will read the finalists and select the winner, to be announced in January. The John Leonard Prize will be presented at the NBCC Awards Ceremony at The New School in New York on March 15, 2018.

Sam Shepard’s Swan Song, and more: Critical Notes for the week of December 4

by Daisy Fried | Dec-04-2017

photo by Chad Batka/NYT

NBCC Balakian winning critic Parul Sehgal is interviewed by Durga Chew-Bose in SSENSE. 

NBCC VP and Online Chair Jane Ciabattari's BBC Culture column--a global books column with 50 percent American readers--includes Laura Lee Smith's ​The Ice House, a chilling memoir from Maude Julien, journalist and human rights activist Aslı Erdoga's story collection, The Stone House and ​Cuba on the Verge

NBCC member V. Joshua Adams reviews Toril Moi's Revolution of the Ordinary ​for the Los Angeles Review of Books. 

​​NBCC member Julia M. Klein​'s Q&A with Linda Greenhouse, in connection with her new book, Just a Journalist, appears in Columbia Journalism Review. Klein also reviews Joanna Scutts' The Extra Woman for the Chicago Tribune.

​​NBCC member Rayyan Al-Shawaf's review of Mark Mazower's What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home appears in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. His review of I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, by Matt Taibbi, is in the Christian Science Monitor.

NBCC member Frank Freeman reviewed three books on Henry David Thoreau for America Magazine: Robert M. Thorson's The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years, ​Richard Higgins' Thoreau and the Language of Trees, and Laura Dassow Walls' Henry David Thoreau: A Life

Jennifer Kaplan, a student member of the NBCC, interviewed Laleh Khadivi about her new novel A Good Country for the Los Angeles Review of Books. 

NBCC member Hamilton Cain reviews Daniel Alarcón's The King is Always Above the People for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. 

NBCC member Colette Bancroft ​reviews Sam Shepard's swan song, Spy of the First Person, for the Tampa Bay Times.

NBCC member David Cooper’s review of Ruby Namdar’s The Ruined House appears in New York Journal of Books.

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





Reminder: Time to Run for the NBCC Board

by Jane Ciabattari | Dec-01-2017


The NBCC is holding elections to fill 8 open seats on the board, for the term beginning March 2018. Board members serve three-year terms and participate in the judging of our annual book awards. We're extending the deadline for candidate statements; please send a statement no longer than 300 words to board member Tom Beer ( outlining your qualifications and motivation for running.
The deadline for candidate statements has been extended to Friday, Dec. 15 at 5 p.m. EST. 
Election ballots will be sent to members via Survey Monkey on Dec. 20, and voting will remain open until Jan. 3. If you have any questions, please contact president Kate Tuttle ( or board member Tom Beer (

November, 2017

Coming up: Diana Trilling at the National Arts Club

by Jane Ciabattari | Nov-30-2017

National Book Critics Circle members are invited to this upcoming event on the life of Diana Trilling.

Tuesday, December 19   8:00pm   

Biographer Natalie Robins on The Life of Diana Trilling

Diana Trilling (1905-1996) was a member of a remarkable group that came to be called “The New York Intellectuals.”  The biography “The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling” (Columbia University Press) tells the life of Trilling, an imperious former Trotskyist and witty anti-communist liberal who interacted with figures from Lillian Hellman to Norman Mailer. She was a feminist but thought that women’s liberation created unnecessary friction with men.

Diana Trilling wrote a column “Fiction in Review” for The Nation. She penned articles for McCall’s and Vogue as well as highbrow journals such as The Partisan Review.

Diana and her husband Lionel Trilling were among the most famous intellectual couples in America.  Her life with him was filled with secrets, struggles and betrayals; she endured what she called her “own private hell.”  Biographer Natalie Robins is author of four books of poetry and five non-fiction books. She will read from and discuss her book and will be interviewed by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writer and former daily book critic of The New York Times.

Columbia faculty member, Edward Mendelson, who is Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities, will introduce the program. Cookies and punch to follow the program. 

Free event   

The National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South, New York, New York

Business casual attire


No RSVP necessary.

If you have questions, you may contact or call 917 499 7010.

Critical Notes:Joan Silber, Kevin Young, Joan Didion, Hanif Abdurraqu & More

by Jane Ciabattari | Nov-27-2017

Reminder: NBCC Balakian award submissions from members are due December 17. The award for excellence in book criticism includes a $1,000 cash prize funded by former NBCC board member Gregg Barrios.

NBCC members: Check your in-boxes for ballots for this year's John Leonard award for best first book in any genre. For a look at some of the books under consideration, check out our blog series curated by VP/Newswire Kerri Arsenault

Former NBCC president and current board member Tom Beer writes about Joan Silber's Improvement for Newsday.

NBCC board member Anjali Enjeti reviews Kevin Young's Bunk for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Poet, memoirist, and former NBCC board member David Biespiel (left, photographed by Marion Ettlinger) speaks in Lit Hub's "Secrets of the Book Critics" column."

NBCC board member Walton Muyumba reviews Hanif Abdurraqui's So They Can't Kill Us All  for the Chicago Tribune

Former NBCC president and current VP/Online Jane Ciabattari's Lit Hub column includes books by Susan Sontag, Helen Benedict, and Julie Lythcott-Haims.

NBCC emerging critic Paul Gleason publishes a long Joan Didion essay in The Point.

Alexander Chee's remembrance and eulogy for his mentor, former NBCC board member Kit Reed, in the Los Angeles Times.

Hamilton Cain reviews Richard Lloyd Parry's Ghosts of the Tsunami for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Reza Aslan's God: A Human History for the Barnes & Noble Review.

Joan Frank reviews Louise Marburg's The Truth About Me for the San Francisco Chronicle.

For the Washington Post, Mike Lindgren takes on "the somewhat whimsical assignment of reviewing an amusing, if essentially slight, book about umbrellas. That’s right, umbrellas."

For The Adroit Journal, David Nilsen reviews Rosalie Moffett's poetry collection June in Eden.

David Cooper reviews North Station by Bae Shuah for the New York Journal of Books.

Michael Magras reviews multiple NBCC fiction finalist Jeffrey Eugenides' first story collection, Fresh Complaint, for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to 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.

Leonard Prize Reviews:  ‘The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead’ by Chanelle Benz

by Laura Spence-Ash | Nov-22-2017

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the John Leonard award for the first book in any genre that has been published in the US in 2017. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard reviews on promising first books. 

The John Leonard Prize is our annual award based on member nominations and chosen by a panel of member volunteers. Named for the longtime critic and NBCC co-founder, John Leonard, the prize is awarded for the best first book in any genre. Previous winners include: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013), Phil Klay's Redeployment (2014), Kristin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas (2015), and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016).

This impressive debut short story collection by Chanelle Benz consists of ten stories that move fluidly through time and place. We begin with “West of the Known,” a 19th century western tale about a woman and her half-brother, and we end with “That We May Be All One Sheepefolde,” a story about a 16th century monk. In between we visit, among other locations, contemporary Philadelphia, the Kalahari Desert in 2001, and Arkansas in the 1930’s. Each story is deeply rooted in its setting, and there are moments when it seems unlikely that the same writer penned such different narratives. And yet the themes of rage, violence, and loss as well as the always strong and often moving prose show us that these stories are, in fact, tightly linked.

At times, the collection is reminiscent of John Keene’s wonderful collection Counternarratives. Both Keene and Benz are interested in examining the lives of those whose stories have not been told and in doing so across time. But while Counternarratives is primarily concerned with retelling stories of race and slavery, Benz’s collection is equally interested in gender and class. Its movement through time is also more jarring. Once we get used to the rhythm of the book, though, it’s part of its great appeal: Where will the next story take us? What can we learn from the sequencing of the stories? How does the present reflect the past?

In lesser-skilled hands, this collection might feel gimmicky: here’s a story about the Wild West! A spy story! The handwritten confession of a murder! But it is precisely the examination and the rewriting of these traditional narratives that gives them their power. Benz knows how to get at the heart of her characters, how to explore the human condition no matter the time or the setting. In each story, I found myself initially aware of and in awe of the prose, but as the stories progressed, I got so drawn into them that I became part of their world.

“The Mourners,” which takes place in 1889, follows Emmeline, a black woman who has recently lost her white husband as well as two of her three sons. In the early days following her husband’s death, we feel Emmeline’s deep grief and pain as well as the love for her remaining son: “Only Judah, squirming on her lap, could slip under and touch, his fingers reminding her with their hot wet that though no longer a wife, she must be a mother.” In “James III,” the ninth-grade protagonist is running away from an abusive step-father and goes to visit his father in jail: “But when I opened my mouth there was a God-robbing crack in my chest and I knew that my life was not ever gonna come correct.” And in “Snake Doctors,” two twins, Robert and Izabel, tell the story of the days after their mother’s death, Izabel recounting “So I breathed in Robert and the horses and a world that didn’t have my mother in it.” Again and again, loss lies at the center, and Benz finds new and moving ways to describe it.

Violence and rage, too, are found throughout. In “West of the Known,” a woman is being abused by her cousin:

Always I heard his step before the door and I knew when it was not the walking by kind. I would not move from the moment my cousin came in, till the moment he went out, from when he took down my nightdress, till I returned to myself to find how poorly the cream bow at my neck had been tied.

There is something intentionally disquieting about the fact that violence is often portrayed here in stunning prose. Benz seems to be saying that not only is violence a necessary part of life but that part of being human is to understand our attraction to it. This collection shows us, again and again, that loss, death, and violence are at the heart of the human experience, shared by us all.

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