March, 2015

30 Books in 30 Days: Jane Ciabattari on Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Lila’

by Jane Ciabattari | Mar-05-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari offers an appreciation of fiction finalist Marilynne Robinson's "Lila" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

In Marilynne Robinson's 2004 novel "Gilead," which won the National Book Critics Circle and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Reverend John Ames tells his young son the story of his own father's abolitionist compatriots who fought against slavery before the American Civil War. "Home" (2008) gives the  parallel tale of Glory Boughton, the daughter of the best friend Ames calls "old Boughton,'" and her prodigal brother Jack. "Lila" completes Robinson's exquisite and grace-filled trilogy of a transcendental Iowa community by describing the struggles and deprivations of Ames’ much younger second wife Lila, and the love that brought these two unlikely parents together.

Robinson achieves the lyrical power of James Agee and Dorothea Lange in passages about of Lila's early life. She opens with an image of the orphan Lila: "The child was just there on the stoop in the dark,hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn't holler anymore and they didn't hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I'll do it! and then a woman grabbed her out from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop..."  Lila's salvation is Doll, a migrant worker who cares for her during the desperate times of the Great Depression. "Their own bad times began when the mule died, two years or so before everyone else started getting poorer and the wind turned dirty."

After Doll dies violently, an adult Lila drifts Gilead and finds shelter in an abandoned cabin. During a rainstorm in town, she ducks into Ames’ church, a fateful meeting that sets the stage for all the rest:

“I just been wondering why things happen the way they do,” Lila says.

“I’ve been wondering about that more or less my whole life,” Ames responds.

They fall in love, and marry, and Lila ponders the question of belief as she gradually trades her old life with its loneliness, the "raggedy meadows and pastures and the cornfields and the orchards," for "geraniums at the windows, and an old man at the kitchen table telling his baby some rhyme he'd known forever." Robinson completes the circle of her trilogy with this prelude to the opening lines of "Gilead," in which Ames speaks to his son: "I told you last night that I might be gone sometime and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old."

Robinson fills this novel with glorious language shot through with light and grace. “Pity us, yes, but we are brave,” Lila realizes, “and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us.”

With "Lila," Robinson offers us yet another miraculous and momentous American portrait. No one writes so simply yet profoundly of our yearnings and struggles, our troubling doubts and grateful affirmations of the good when we encounter it at last.


NBCC Balakian award winner Joan Acocella in The New Yorker.

NBCC Balakian winner and board member Ron Charles in The Washington Post.

Diane Johnson in the New York Times Book Review.

David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times.

Leslie Jamison in The Atlantic.

Michelle Orange in Bookforum.


30 Books in 30 Days: Kate Tuttle on Ian MacNiven’s ‘Literchoor Is My Beat’

by Kate Tuttle | Mar-05-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Kate Tuttle offers an appreciation of biography finalist Ian S. MacNiven's "Literchoor Is My Beat" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

As founder of the publishing house New Directions, James Laughlin wielded enormous influence over midcentury literary culture, bringing out books by everyone from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams to Herman Hesse and Thomas Merton. In addition to his role as an editor, Laughlin was also a poet – albeit one plagued by self-doubt – and an athlete, whose lifelong love of skiing led him to found a ski lodge in Alta, Utah, which he owned and helped run for many years. Although his was never a household name, in Ian S. MacNiven’s biography we can begin to understand what a central, indispensible figure Laughlin was.

Born in 1914 into a wealthy Pittsburgh steel family, Laughlin was a “shy, clinging, and rather delicate” [13] child, MacNiven writes, close to his father and afraid of his strict Presbyterian mother. He fell for modern literature at Choate, prompting a row with his mother, who was so unnerved by a passage from his copy of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” that she “wept and prayed over him.” While a student at Harvard, Laughlin managed to spend summers in Europe, meeting Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, who would become his lifelong friend, teacher, and albatross.

Although Laughlin never lacked for romantic love – starting but not ending with his three marriages – it’s his relationships with his writers that occupy the heart of this biography. Pound was the first and deepest influence; schooling Laughlin in modernism at what he called “the Ezuversity,” one-on-one lectures delivered over food and wine or during long walks near Pound’s Mediterranean villa in Rapallo. If Pounds ideas were at times vexing – Laughlin once called the process “education by provocation” – it was through the elder poet that Laughlin explored and expanded the sensibility that would make him a great publisher.

Laughlin founded New Directions while still an undergraduate, publishing his “New Directions in Poetry and Prose” in 1936. Its contents included work by Stein, Pound, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Jean Cocteau, and E. E. Cummings. Over the next several decades, Laughlin was so successful at spotting and nurturing talent that he saw many of his most successful writers, including Nabokov and Williams, scooped up by bigger presses. Still, he maintained rich friendships with most, loaned money to many of them, and paid for Delmore Schwartz’s psychiatric care. “Once a person had entered J’s good books,” MacNiven writes, “he would put up with almost anything.”

MacNiven’s portrait of Laughlin is equally generous: clear-eyed, yet affectionate. Making great use of the trove of letters posted among the publisher and his writers, his wives, his other family and friends, writing with particular sensitivity about his fears of inheriting his father’s bipolar disorder, his literary insecurity, and his  knack for falling in love with too many women at once. In the end, Laughlin emerges as a man of enormous vitality and vulnerability, brilliance and self-doubt – a fascinating individual, and also, of course, a man of his times.

Other reviews:

The Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Wall Street Journal.

The Dallas Morning News.

30 Books in 30 Days: Colette Bancroft on Hector Tobar’s ‘Deep Down Dark’

by Colette Bancroft | Mar-04-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Colette Bancroft offers an appreciation of nonfiction finalist Hector Tobar's  "Deep Down Dark" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

In 2010, 33 men were trapped thousands of feet underground by a massive rock fall in a mine in Chile. The news went global, and it stayed that way for 69 days, until their astonishing rescue.

One of the countless remarkable things about their story was a pact the miners made while still trapped: "They will not reveal, individually, what they suffered as a group. That story is their most precious possession, and it belongs to all of them."

 Journalist Hector Tobar tells that story, and tells it extraordinarily well, in "Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free."

Tobar, a novelist ("The Barbarian Nurseries") and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, based the book on hundreds of hours of interviews that allow him to flesh out fully the men we glimpsed in news coverage, in flawed moments as well as heroic ones. The result reads like a thriller, even though we know the outcome.

Tobar begins before the disaster, in order to put the men in the context of their country and its economy. The San Jose copper mine, set in a remote, surreal desert landscape, has a long history of "cutting corners" and shoddy conditions.

Some of the miners travel as much as a thousand miles for a difficult, perilous seven-day shift. But their jobs pay well in a shaky economy, enough for many of them to own homes and send their kids to college, and they are proud, skilled workers.

Tobar's description of the mine's collapse and the men's dawning realization of their dire situation is breathtakingly, horrifyingly vivid. "A single block of diorite, as tall as a forty-five story building, has broken off from the rest of the mountain and is falling through the layers of the mine, knocking out entire sections of the Ramp and causing a chain reaction as the mountain above it collapses, too."

What follows underground is 17 days when the men have no contact with the outside world and no idea whether they will ever be freed. When a drill bit crunches through the ceiling of the room called the Refuge where many of them are gathered, they bang madly on it with wrenches to signal their presence to the searchers on the surface. It's an exhilarating scene — but there are 52 days to go before they will see daylight.

Tobar skillfully tells the stories above ground as well, of the camp of families and other supporters at the mine, the corporate dodging and political wrangling, the intense efforts of the rescue team, which included advisers from NASA.

And he follows the men after their rescue, as they go to Disney World and the Holy Land, quarrel with and support each other. Some take money they receive and start their own businesses; others struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. And some are back underground — not in the San Jose, which is shut down, but at other mines. One of them tells Tobar, "The first day, I felt a little strange." But, he says, "The fourth day, I was starting to like it."

"Deep Down Dark" turns an extraordinary story into an extraordinary book.

30 Books in 30 Days: Michael Miller on ‘The Zhivago Affair’’

by Michael Miller | Mar-03-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Michael Miller offers an appreciation of nonfiction finalist Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s "The Zhivago Affair" (Pantheon).

Shortly after its first printing in Italy in 1957, Boris Pasternak’s "Doctor Zhivago" became an international sensation, celebrated by readers and critics alike. In theUnited States, where the novel was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for six months, Edmund Wilson wrote, “Doctor Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history.” And in 1958, Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in literature. By themselves, these facts lend "Doctor Zhivago"’s success the appearance of inevitability. But as Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s excellent new study "The Zhivago Affair" reminds us, this enthusiastic reception was only half the story: If Pasternak had not blatantly disregarded Soviet dictates, putting himself and his family in great danger in the process, his novel, at least as he wrote it, might never have made it to a printing press. In fact, as Finn and Couvée make chillingly clear, it’s surprising that Pasternak—who frequently nettled authorities at a time when many writers accused of dissidence were jailed or shot—survived to write the book at all.

A brisk narrative enriched with historical detail, Finn and Couvée’s book presents Pasternak (1890–1960) as an artist who navigated his Soviet milieu with charm and insouciance, a poet who early in his career celebrated Lenin and Stalin in his verse but later grew increasingly ambivalent about the Communist government. An ominous cloud hung over Doctor Zhivago from the very start: “Pasternak began to write Doctor Zhivago on a block of watermarked paper from the desk of a dead man,” Finn and Couvée write. “The paper was a gift from the widow of Titsian Tabidze, the Georgian poet who was arrested, tortured, and executed in 1937.” By 1945, Pasternak had come to see his work-in-progress as his greatest achievement. He organized gatherings at which he read sections of the book. The readings proved to be popular but hazardous: In 1947, the literary journal Novy Mir called them “counter-revolutionary,” and claimed that Pasternak’s unpublished novel was marred by a “reactionary and backward looking ideology.” Authorities believed that the book was critical of the 1917 Revolution—grounds, in many cases, for execution. Pasternak avoided this fate (Finn and Couvée write that he “could not explain his survival”), but some of those close to him were severely punished: In 1949 his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, was arrested, interrogated about her relationship with the author, and sentenced to five years in a hard-labor camp for “contact with persons suspected of espionage.”

Finn and Couvée’s description of how Pasternak got "Doctor Zhivago" into the hands of a European publisher has the menace and momentum of a political thriller: In 1956, Pasternak gave a manuscript of "Doctor Zhivago," which clearly was not going to be published in Soviet Russia, to Sergio D’Angelo, an Italian Communist visiting Moscow, urging him to deliver the pages to a Milan publishing house run by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. When Soviet authorities learned this, they forced Pasternak to send telegrams begging Feltrinelli to stop publication. But Pasternak had asked Feltrinelli to heed only telegrams in French, and the note he sent asking to halt publication was written in Italian. “Oh, how happy I am,” Pasternak later wrote to the Italian publisher, “that neither you, nor Gallimard, nor Collins have been fooled by these idiotic and brutal appeals accompanied by my signature (!), a signature all but false and counterfeit, insofar as it was extorted from me by a blend of fraud and violence.” "Doctor Zhivago" was released in Italy in September 1957, and soon afterward editions of the novel appeared France, England, and the U.S.

"The Zhivago Affair" makes compelling use of new research to illustrate Cold War techniques on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The CIA, having obtained a copy of Pasternak’s book from British intelligence, saw "Doctor Zhivago," which remained banned in Communist countries, as a “weapon.” Secretly, the CIA organized the printing of a Russian-language of the book, and distributed copies to Soviet and Eastern European citizens at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958 and again at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Vienna in 1959. “Books differ from all other propaganda media,” wrote the CIA’s chief of covert action, “primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium.”

There are glimpses of humor in "The Zhivago Affair," such as when Pasternak rejects the suggestion that Nabokov translate his novel into English (“That won’t work; he’s too jealous of my position in this country to do it properly”). But nothing can soften Finn and Couvée’s description of the attacks on Pasternak after "Zhivago"’s publication in the West. During this “near-frenzy of condemnation,” the author was attacked extensively in Soviet periodicals, publicly denounced by former friends, followed by the KGB, expelled from the writers union, and denied medical care. He was forced to turn down the Nobel Prize, and told that he could not accept royalties from foreign sales. (Accused of smuggling royalties to the author, Ivinskaya was once again sentenced to a forced-labor camp.) Pasternak considered emigration, even suicide. His ordeals came to seem particularly unfair in 1964, four years after his death, when Khrushchev, having obtained a samizdat copy of "Doctor Zhivago," concluded: “We shouldn’t have banned it. I should have read it myself. There’s nothing anti-Soviet in it.”

Finn and Couvée document Pasternak’s tribulations with an elegant straightforwardness. There’s something invigorating in their portrait of a novelist so deeply devoted to his art. But "The Zhivago Affair" is too complex to settle into simple idealism. It powerfully evokes a time and place in which aesthetic integrity yielded dire consequences, and in which acts of heroism might also be acts of madness. As Pasternak himself put it: “In every generation there has to be some fool who will speak the truth as he sees it.”


The New York Review of Books.


The Guardian.

The Washington Post.

Financial Times.

Roundup: Tom McCarthy, Elif Shafak, Richard Price, Alan Cheuse, Kim Gordon, and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Mar-02-2015

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.


Countdown to March 12 announcement of NBCC winners, our 30 Books in 30 Days series of reviews of all the finalists continues.


Jeff Turrentine reviews Tom McCarthy's "Satin Island."

Laura Collins-Hughes also reviews McCarthy's new novel.

NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari's top 10 books for March for her BBC Culture book column include new novels from T.C. Boyle, Mario Vargas Llosa, Kazuo Ishiguru, David Vann and Cara Black.

Leora Skolkin-Smith reviews Beverly Gologorsky’s "Stop Here."

Philip Belcher reviews Steve Scafidi's "The Cabinetmaker's Window" and "To the Bramble and the Briar" in Southern Humanities Review.

NBCC board member Steven Kellman reviews Mohsin Hamid's "Discontent and Its Civilizations."

Michael Lindgren reviews Kim Gordon's "Girl in a Band."

Kai Maristed reviews "Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry" by Paul Celan.

Michelle Schingler reviews "Prayers for the Living" by Alan Cheuse.

Lori Feathers reviews "The Architect’s Apprentice" by Elif Shafak. Feathers also reviews "When the Doves Disappeared" by Sofi Oksanen.

"The Whites" by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt, reviewed by Paul Wilner.

Michelle Lancaster reviews "The Shipwrecked: Contemporary Stories by Women from Iran." She also reviews Rashid al-Daif's "Who's Afraid of Meryl Streep?"

Sebastian Stockman reviews David Graeber's "Utopia of Rules."

Ellen Akins reviews "She Weeps Each Time You're Born," by Quan Barry.

Martin Riker examines some experimental fiction.

Janette Currie reviews "The Lovers of Amherst" by William Nicholson.

30 Books in 30 Days: Walton Muyumba on David Brion Davis’ ‘The Problem of Slavery’

by Walton Muyumba | Mar-02-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Walton Muyumba offers an appreciation of nonfiction finalist David Brion Davis' "The Problem of Slavery" (Knopf).

Among the finalists in the nonfiction category, there’s a fascinating exchange about political economies, social revolutions, and the truths of contemporary human experience.  Though the authors’ concentrations range from animal extinction and climate change to the literary artist as pawn in Cold War machinations; from the stagnation and decline of middle class wealth to the tragicomic labor drama and human calamity of miners trapped in the earth, David Brion Davis’s historical narrative of slavery in Western culture overlaps and links all aspects of that conversation. In "The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation," Davis suggests that slavery is both the cornerstone of and the fundamental challenge to the basics principles of New World nation-building -- labor and production, citizenship and human rights.

In its variations, “The Problem of Slavery” has been Davis’s specific topic for the last fifty years.  His award-winning studies, "The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture" (1966) and "The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution" (1975), set the standard for thinking about slavery as a central conundrum in the development of Western philosophy and in conceiving theories of political freedom.  Davis’s oeuvre suggests he is our foremost philosopher-historian on violence, morality, murder, slavery, democracy, human nature and citizenship.

Culminating his study with "The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation," Davis opens this work with an analysis of Enlightenment thought and the practice of animalizing Africans as justification for enslaving them.  As usual, Davis writes with a comprehensive knowledge of the American historical tradition, citing everyone from C. L. R. James and John Hope Franklin to Drew Faust Gilpin and Walter Johnson.  In forceful, elegant prose, Davis details how Africans, reduced to chattel status, rejected animalization through escape to maroon communities and revolt.  And once free, those former slaves fought alongside free blacks petitioning for the abolition of slavery, enforcing black humanity, and staking claims to freedom, independence, and citizenship from Haiti to Maryland to Brazil.

“In dealing with slavery and its subsequent antiblack racism, there has always been a danger of exaggerating a kind of passive victimhood that elicits white pity as well as contempt for a ‘damaged black psyche.’ The image of blacks as psychologically damaged victims can reinforce the belief in white superiority and has in fact been used to oppose racial integration and civil rights . . . [T]he central pathology is a white pathology intent on animalization as a form of projection for the benefit of whites of all social classes. If this psychological exploitation resulted in some black internalization and even pathology, it also evoked black resistance, from the time of slavery to the thousands of ex-slaves in the South who were routinely arrested for ‘crimes’ like vagabondage and were then leased out by states to work in mines, plantations, and factories, to say nothing of the later blacks who refused to sit in the back of a bus or to step off a sidewalk to make way for white superiority.”

Undermining mythologies of white superiority, black savagery, and passive black victimhood with powerful stories of black nationalist ideologies and black resistance movements, Davis explains that “moral progress seems to be historical, cultural, and institutional, not the result of a genetic improvement in individual human nature.”  "The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation" asks us to realize that the abolition of chattel slavery in the New World “represents a crucial landmark of moral progress that we should never forget.”  Davis’s excellent study compels us to draw concentric links from Toussaint Louverture and Frederick Douglass to the burgeoning human rights movements awakening in America today. 


Drew Gilpin Faust in The New York Review of Books.

Eric Foner in The Nation.

Steven Hahn in The New Republic.

Brenda Wineapple in The New York Times.

James Oakes in The Washington Post.

Simon Lewis in the Post and Courier.

Walter Johnson in Dissent.

Eric Hershthal in The Daily Beast.

February, 2015

30 Books in 30 Days: Eric Liebetrau on Roz Chast’s ‘Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant’

by Eric Liebetrau | Feb-26-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Eric Liebetrau offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist Roz Chast's "Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant" (Bloomsbury).

Caring for aging parents is a difficult, frustrating, messy, expensive, and time-consuming proposition, utterly exhausting on every level. While a parent’s physical decline is tough to handle—the aches, pains, declining hearing and vision—the mental erosion is often the most heartbreaking aspect of the endeavor. To watch someone you love slowly fade out of their essential character is one of life’s cruelest struggles.

In the early 2000s, beloved New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast began to experience all of these feelings and more. In her revelatory, pitch-perfect and—yes—often-hilarious graphic memoir of that time, she masterfully captures the kaleidoscopic array of emotions involved in the caregiving for her 90-something parents. The author’s trademark style—a distinct blend of wry gallows humor and heightened awareness of her own, and others’, idiosyncrasies—is on full display, but this book is much more than just a collection of cartoons. At time where graphic novels and memoirs are finally receiving the acclaim they deserve, Chast sharply demonstrates the potency of expression that the format allows.

Humor and pathos intermingle freely—and in just the right proportions—but Chast is never mawkish or overly sentimental. She is honest and understandably distraught, and she is not afraid of airing her own shortcomings.

“Meanwhile, my father lived with us,” she writes after chronicling her mother’s transfer to an assisted living facility. “Any Florence Nightingale–type visions I ever had of myself—an unselfish, patient, sweet, caring child who happily tended to her parents in their old age—were destroyed within an hour or so.”

When it became apparent that both parents required assistance beyond her abilities and had to leave their apartment in “DEEP Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of people who have left behind everything and everyone,” Chast “began the massive, deeply weird, and heartbreaking job of going through my parents’ possessions: almost 50 years’ worth, crammed into four rooms.”

Here, the author briefly shifts formats, delivering pages of actual photos of the accumulation of stuff over those years in their cramped, grimy apartment, including “random arts supplies,” hundreds of pencils, a drawer of jar lids, and decades-old first aid supplies—not to mention whatever is molding in the fridge. It’s the perfect complement to the text-and-cartoon portrait of her parents she paints throughout the narrative, a portrait she echoes later when her mother is near the end, “existing in a state of suspended animation. She was not living and not dying.”

In the last few pages of the book, Chast includes a showcase of her pencil drawings of her mother as she took her last breaths in 2009. These pages sit in stark contrast to the dynamic emotional roller coaster that has unfolded over the previous 200 pages, a fitting, understated closing frame to a story that, though universally relatable, has rarely been as powerfully rendered. For anyone going through a similar situation, skip the end-of-life self-help shelf and pick up this book instead.


Kirkus review of the book, which won the 2014 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.

New York Times review

Guardian review.

San Francisco Chronicle review.

NPR interview.

Chast’s appearance at Politics & Prose.

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