November, 2017

Critical Notes: Book launches, reviews and profiles

by Laurie Hertzel | Nov-20-2017

Louise Erdrich reads from her new novel in Minneapolis.

Louise Erdrich reads from "Future Home of the Living God" in Minneapolis on pub day.

Reviews and profiles

For the Seattle Times, board member Mary Ann Gwinn interviewed David Buerge about his new biography of Chief Seattle, the Native American chief who gave Seattle its name.

Board member Kerri Arsenault profiles the great John McPhee for LitHub.

Board member Laurie Hertzel wrote her weekly column for the Star Tribune about which books readers might save in case of a disaster. She also wrote about Louise Erdrich's launch of her new dystopian novel, "Future Home of the Living God."

Hamilton Cain reviews "Prairie Fires," the biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews "How to Behave in a Crowd" by Camille Bordas for the National Book Review.

Erika Dreifus profiles Rachela Krinsky,  one of the "dramatis personae" featured in David E. Fishman's "The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis."

Linda Simon reviews "The Extra Woman" by Joanna Scutts for Newsday.

Diane Scharper reviewed "At Play in the Lion's Den: A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan," by Jim Forest, for America Magazine.

Ilana Masad reviews "The Boat Runner" by Devin Murphy for The New York Times Book Review, and writes about "I, Eliza Hamilton," by Susan Holloway Scott, for Broadly.

Lanie Tankard reviews Spomenka Štimec's fictional memoir "Croatian War Nocturnal" for The Woven Tale Press.

Joan Silverman reviews Anne Fadiman's memoir, "The Wine Lover's Daughter," for the Press Herald.

Yvonne Garrett reviewed "Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout" by Laura Jane Grace with Dan Ozzi for The Brooklyn Rail, and "After Kathy Acker" by Chris Kraus for The Brooklyn Rail. 

Robert Birnbaum (Our Man in Boston) considers Three Women—Joan Didion, Oriana Fallaci and Elizabeth Hardwick, plus the cast of the film made from Kent Haruf's novel Our Souls at Night, and photographer Lee Friedlander.

And other honors and work

Hélène Cardona's "Life in Suspension," published by Salmon Poetry, is the winner of the 2017 Best Book Award in Poetry, sponsored by the American Book Fest. She was featured in AWP's "In the Spotlight," and interviewed by Alison Williams in "World Literature Today."

Ilana Masad is featured in the ongoing series, "Secrets of the Book Critics," on Lit Hub.

 

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 a board member of NBCC.

Reminder: Balakian Award Submissions Due December 17

by Jane Ciabattari | Nov-19-2017

The NBCC awards the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing each year to recognize outstanding work by a member of the NBCC. Since 2012, the Balakian carries with it a $1,000 cash prize, thanks to a generous donation by former NBCC board member Gregg Barrios. Past winners include last year's winner, Michelle Dean (at left), Ron Charles, Parul Sehgal, Carlos Lozada, Kathryn Schulz, Katherine A. Powers and William Deresiewicz.

The NBCC awards the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing each year to recognize outstanding work by a member of the NBCC. The citation is awarded in honor of Nona Balakian, a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle, where she served as the board’s first secretary. The eminent critic and longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review also served on the Pulitzer Prize committee, the Board of Directors of PEN, and the Authors Guild board, was the author of Critical Encounters: Essays (1978), and co-author (with Charles Simmons) of The Creative Present (1969).

2017 Submission Guidelines

You must be a member of the NBCC to be considered. If you are not a member, you can join online before December 17, 2017 in order to be eligible for the award. All submitted reviews must have been published in 2017.

2017 Submission Procedures

Submissions must be made by email. Emails must be time stamped no later than midnight (PST) Sunday, December 17, 2017. All submissions must be transmitted electronically by email.

What to submit via email: Send up to five book reviews (all published in 2017) of no more than 5,000 words collectively. The total word count for the submissions must not exceed 5,000, or the entire submission is disqualified from consideration for the award. In your email, include a note listing the venue; title and word count of each piece submitted.

Please attach PDFs or screenshots of your book reviews as they appeared online or in print. Also, provide a link if available online. A link alone is not sufficient as some venues have paywalls. Please make a print backup of your submission. In other words, make sure you have one print copy of each book review, preferably the published version. If there is a problem with your electronic online submission, you may be asked to submit a print version.

For questions about the award and submission process, e-mail the Balakian Committee chair, Katherine A. Powers. Email: kapow3@gmail.com

Further guidelines and procedures for submissions, plus a list of committee members' emails for submissions and all previous winners are here.


 

Coming up in Chicago: NBCC Critics Talk about Favorite Books of the Year

by Jane Ciabattari | Nov-17-2017

Join us at The Book Cellar--a great Chicago bookstore which also has a wine bar--for a special NBCC event for members and booklovers.

NBCC Critics Talk About Favorite Books of the Year

with Elizabeth Taylor and Charles Finch

Where: The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N Lincoln Ave Chicago, IL 60625 
When:Friday, November 24, 2017 - 6:00pm

Elizabeth Taylor is Co-Editor of The National Book Review, and a past President of the National Book Critics Circle who continues to serve on its Board of Directors. She has chaired four Pulitzer Prize Juries, and served as chair of the  Harold Washington Literary Prize committee, including three stints as chair. Last year she delivered an address at the Library of Congress on the State of American Fiction. Long time editor of both the Books and Sunday Magazine sections of the Chicago Tribune, she is now Literary Editor at Large, handing the literary awards and Printers Row Lit Fest.

Charles Finch is the author of the bestselling Charles Lenox mysteries, including most recently The Inheritance. His first contemporary novel, The Last Enchantments, is also available from St. Martin's Press. He writes about books frequently for The New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. He is a graduate of Yale and Oxford, and lives in Chicago.


 

Leonard Prize Reviews: ‘My Absolute Darling’ by Gabriel Tallent

by Brendan Driscoll | Nov-16-2017

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).

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (Riverhead, 2017). Review by Brendan Driscoll

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent is a strange and intense novel that explores the potency of language, and by extension, the power of literature. 

Fourteen-year-old Turtle Alveston loves her guns. On pegs on her bedroom wall rest her AR-10 and AR-15 assault rifles, powerful but heavy, and her reliable Remington twelve-gauge. On her body, more often than not, her Sig Sauer hides in its concealment holster. A significant portion of My Absolute Darling is devoted to describing Turtle’s firearms in various states of assembly and disassembly, readiness and action. Tallent revels in the poetry of firearms, describing their components in fine-milled detail: the slides and rails and takedown levers and polymer grips and hammer struts and recoil springs; the sidesaddle of the shotgun holding its line of extra ammunition; and the brass firing pin, removed and held between Turtle’s teeth. Each of her weapons, we are reminded, curiously, “answers a different philosophy of use,” as if each was an adjective laden with connotations.    

Turtle is an excellent shot, trained by her father Martin, a rotted-out philosopher turned apocalyptic survivalist, who first put a bolt-action .22 in her hands at age six. Their decrepit house near Mendocino, California, is covered with shot-up targets and littered with shell casings. She’s always armed, except when she goes to the trailer out back to visit her alcoholic grandfather, “because Grandpa says that when a man plays cribbage with his granddaughter, the two of them should be unarmed.” But Turtle’s guns do not stop Martin from raping Turtle, or reminding her that he’d sooner see her dead than love anyone else.  

Tallent’s descriptions of the lush, forbidding NorCal wilds Turtle roams, shoeless and armed, like all his descriptions, are strange, intense, and language-obsessed. Vegetation is described with abandon—bishop pine and huckleberry and Oregon grape and Douglas fir; stunted cypresses, sedges, pygmy manzanita and Bolander’s pines; rattlesnake grass and poison oak; watercress scavenged from ditches and thistles, ripped up and gnawed for their flavor—showing us the poetry of the woods while reminding us of Turtle’s skill as a master forager, “deciphering” plants in the darkness. The poetry, and the danger on the Pacific coast, “shining blue mussels [are] knurled to the rock like so many porcelain razors,” and the tide drains backward, “so the entire cove is filled with muddled, complicated currents” that suck Turtle underwater and beat her body against rocks “among lofted chandeliers of water and great, hanging tresses of blooming nasturtium.”  

Miles into the forest, Turtle stumbles upon Jacob and his sidekick Brett, helpless intellectual adventurers bearing focaccia, Easy Cheese and weed, and saves them from hypothermia, if not worse. They tease Turtle about being a ninja, or perhaps a living Zen koan, talking “in a way that is alarming and exciting to her—fantastical, gently celebratory, silly.”  Tallent elaborates, capturing the flare of a liberating (and, in this instance, potentially lethal) teenage crush in lexical terms: “To Turtle, slow of speech, with her inward and circular mind, their facility for language is dizzying. She feels brilliantly included within that province of things she wants, lit up from within by possibility….A new world is opening up for her.” Or, more darkly, consider all of the complexity contained within the single word “Kibble,” the pet name Martin gives his daughter: “kiddo” grafted onto “nibble,” cute, perhaps, connoting something tiny and edible, but, in context, horrific, a wounded predator likening his prey to dog food. Is it a coincidence that later, locked in combat with her father, Turtle’s throat is crushed in a way that renders her unable to speak?  

Where Turtle has her guns, Gabriel Tallent has his words. Respectful of their power, Tallent deploys them with rifled precision, or in beautiful and bracing sprays of buckshot, but never carelessly and never without aiming. And nearly all the time, he hits his mark.    

Brendan Driscoll's work has appeared in BooklistThe Millions, and other periodicals. He lives in Colorado.


Leonard Prize Reviews: ‘Ordinary Beast’ by Nicole Sealey

by Hamilton Cain | Nov-15-2017

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).

Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey. (Ecco). Reviewed by Hamilton Cain.

Late in Nicole Sealey’s exhilarating hardcover debut, Ordinary Beast, she writes, with delicious, shrug-of-the-shoulder irony, a two-line ars poetica:

. . . Yeats said a poem should click shut

like a well-made box. I don’t disagree.

Her poems shut and open and shut and open, click upon click, a feedback loop of grace and revelation.

Born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Sealey grew up in Apopka, Florida, and earned an MLA in Africana Studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA from New York University. The winner of a slew of prizes, with work published in American Poetry Review and The New Yorker (among others), she is now the executive director at New York’s Cave Canem Foundation.

Early in her career, Sealey says, she’d “attempted form, but gave up easily.” An eight-week workshop at Cave Canem with the formalist Marilyn Nelson challenged her: “You had no choice but to bring it . . . restrictions allowed me to do things I wouldn’t do.” Ordinary Beast showcases a versatile artist as she plumbs an array of themes -- racial injustice and gender marginalization -- by appropriating forms popularized by dead white guys: Plutarch, Shakespeare, Donne.

Her variations are vigorous, beguiling. There’s a marvelous double-sestina based on the board game “clue” – the six end words are the last names of the six suspects, Professor Plum, Miss Scarlet, Mrs. Peacock, Colonel Mustard, Mrs. White, and Mr. Green – followed by an “erased” version, “c ue,” which reduces seventy-eight lines to thirty words. There’s an elaborate and gorgeous cento, a form that borrows single lines from other poems and plaits them together, a kind of found art; as Sealey notes, “I mined several hundred books in order to find some lines that sounded like me.” And in a sly vein there’s “underperforming sonnet overperforming,” which follows a Shakespearean scheme (ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG) but mimics Donald Trump’s vulgar braggadocio: “This time, this poem, is the best idea/I’ve ever had – the best in history/even, the best any has had , , , “ The concluding couplet provides the kicker, with the final line straight-up iambic pentameter: “this poem is, with enormous success/the only poem entirely imageless.” Here past is married to present: what better way to speak to our backward-looking times?

It’s crazy fun to read Ordinary Beast as Sealey fires on all cylinders: the playful “unframed,” framed inside a typographical box; the rhetorical twists in “a violence” and “virginia is for lovers;” the haunting trope of the hanging man, featured in the gorgeously associative “candelabra with heads” and its companion piece, “in defense of ‘candelabra with heads,” both poems evoking the rancid history of racial lynching in the South as well as the mysticism of the Tarot: “It is rumored gods grow where the blood of a hanged man drips.”

But the collection’s crown jewels are a trio of sonnets, dramatic monologues offered by three real-life characters from Jennie Livingston’s outrageous, heart-piercing 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning: Venus Xtravaganza, Pepper Labeija, and Octavia Saint Laurent. All three sonnets are titled “legendary,” alluding to the speakers’ description of themselves as “legendary children” (or “up-and-coming legendary children”), despite the fact they are racial and sexual minorities on the far frontier of society, many molded by their families’ disgust into families of their own. In Harlem’s drag balls of the late 1980s they lived out fantasies as supermodels, wealthy television divas such as Alexis and Krystle Carrington from Dynasty; or even soldiers or sports heroes, reflecting (and satirizing) the hyper-masculine roles foisted on them. Realness.

As in the documentary, Venus here confesses a yearning for a suburban Leave It to Beaver future with the man of her dreams; Sealey pounds home the harrowing tragedy of Venus’s life by casting “white” as the final incantatory word of each line, with the exception of the final one, which hints darkly at her fate:

. . . .I want a white

house in Peekskill, far from the city-white

picket fence fencing in my lily-white

lilies. O, were I whiter than white.

. . . .Whatever else white

affords, I want. In multiples of white.

. . . .What I’d like is to be white

as the unsparing light at tunnel’s end.

Sealey captures the flamboyant humor and subtle authority of Pepper, in many ways the documentary’s narrative center: 

I hate to brag, but I’m a one-man parade

Jehovah in drag, the church in a dress.

Or the lissome, defiant Octavia:

Only amateurs imagine Harlem

leads to Hollywood.

For all their outsider mystique, these poems affirm our humanity from the outside in, as Sealey allows form to levitate her, like a tangle of balloons toward re-invention, realness: “believing a thing as sacred as the sun rises/and falls like an ordinary beast.” Ordinary Beast is a triumph, and we can look forward to future spectacular work from this extravagantly gifted poet.

A former book editor, Hamilton Cain is the author of This Boy's Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing. (Crown, 2011). 


Leonard Prize Reviews: ‘Whereas’ by Layli Long Soldier

by Daisy Fried | Nov-14-2017

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).

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier. (Graywolf Press). Review by Daisy Fried.

The Oglala Lakota poet and artist Layli Long Soldier writes, she says in her stunning poetry debut Whereas, in “dual citizenship”—tribal and U.S. “In this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” At the book’s heart are centuries of broken treaties, genocide, non-apologies and non-reparations for crimes by our government against the indigenous tribes. Whereas is also intimately domestic and more than willing to appear autobiographical. Diverse in format—narrative lyrics, legalistic prose, prose poems, concrete poems, lineated confession—the book’s many themes include landscape, identity, grief, loss, birth, death, motherhood, history and oppression. It is also a very good read.

Some particularly scenic moments come early on in “These Being the Concerns,” a sequence that operates partly as Lakota lexicon. The prose poem “Ȟe Sápa” (Lakota for Black Hills, homeland and heartland of broken promises) showcases one of Long Soldier’s dominant sounds: controlled surge, its beauty grounded in fact and description and interrupted by etymology: “Ĥe is a mountain as hé is a horn that comes from a shift in the river, throat to mouth. Followed by sápa, a kind of black sleek in the rise of both.”  

Making a different sort of noise, the book’s title sequence takes up its second half. “Whereas” riffs on, interrogates and perhaps attempts to redress the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, signed in 2009 by President Barack Obama, read five months later to five tribal leaders (of over 560 federally recognized tribes in the US) then folded into an unrelated piece of defense appropriations legislation. Each of Long Soldier’s own 20+ statements begins with the word “WHEREAS,” as if announcing conditions for a legal resolution, then moves into stories concerning identity, feeling and feeling’s failure, speaking and failing to speak:

“WHEREAS a string-bean blue-eyed man leans back into a swig of beer work-weary lips at the dark bottle keeping cool in short sleeves and khakis he enters the discussion…“Well, at least there was an Apology, that’s all I can say”…Whereas under starlight the fireflies wink across east coast grass I sit there painful in my silence glued to a bench in the midst of the American casual…

 Long Soldier’s movement between collective and personal experience makes this book intimate and urgent. “Left” is a standalone lyric about a miscarrying mother. “I self-soothed   then/curled to the mattress my eyes splintered tree limbs red tips night window…//at the sign-in window the procedural lady with a computer queried/what’s my home phone cell phone where did I work what’s my address/I’m bleeding I need help now I said then...” After what might be an evocation of the moment of the miscarriage’s completion—"quiet as snow           at the mercy         us avalanched empty”—the poem cuts to a dream in which the poet finds herself “in a train station bathroom of all places filthy/more stained and stinking wretched by the second,” where she finds a baby she assumes is dead—“but my conscience said hold him.” The dream baby turns out to be alive, covered in sores, horribly deformed. He’s joined by two older brothers. The poem ends

in a train station bathroom I held a forgotten baby              left

in a bathroom where no one possibly feels washed

surrounded by three boys

needing a mother I was

their mother in a dream wherein they visited

me in a stanza where we could be nearest each other                    breathing

the filth they found me in       or I would rescue them from—

which in this world is it.

Cleansing here isn’t just a matter of soap and water. A womb “cleanses” itself of a baby. Elsewhere the US has “cleansed” the Lakota and other tribes from their native lands. “How do I wash clean one year later from a dream,” writes Long Soldier. She can hold the dream-baby, will fix it, care for it. But no one in the bathroom is clean, including the mother who has lost a baby and found three sons, all breathing filth and in need of rescue, as the poet-speaker is in need of rescue into fresh motherhood.  But if cleansing isn’t necessarily good, then filth isn’t necessarily bad. Is the poet dreaming she would rescue them from filth? Or from cleansing? Can she rescue herself by rescuing them? Is rescue possible? Is remedy impossible?

In the context of Whereas and its histories, this scenario can’t be only personal. When we descend, in this poem, into a dream about miscarriage from which we don’t emerge within the poem, a connection is made—emotionally, symbolically—between individual and collective trauma. That might be this excellent book’s best achievement.

An NBCC Board Member, Daisy Fried is the author of three books of poems, most recently Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice, poetry editor of the political/literary journal Scoundrel Time, and teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.


Critical Notes: This is the month for the #NBCCLeonard Awards, Louise Erdrich, Jennifer Egan & more

by Jane Ciabattari | Nov-13-2017

NBCC members are in the thick of the #NBCCLeonard awards process, nominating books and writing blog posts about their favorites. The awards, for a first book in any genre published in the U.S. during the calendar year, are named after founding NBCC member John Leonard, (above), a legendary book critic and winner of our Sandrof award for lifetime achievement. Read blog posts in the series here

Former NBCC president John Freeman is the latest critic to be featured in Lit Hub's new series, Secrets of the Book Critics.

Heller McAlpin reviews Alan Bennett's Keeping on Keeping On for NPR. NBCC board member and Balakian winner Katherine A. Powers reviews the Bennett book for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

NBCC board member Daisy Fried's review of the new anthology, Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees (ed. Laren McClung), appears as part of On the Seawall's semi-annual "Poets Recommend" feature.

NBCC board member Bethanne Patrick talks to last year's NBCC fiction awardee (for La Rose) Louise Erdrich about her new book, Future Home of the Living God, for the Los Angeles Times.

Poet Kevin Young, whose The Grey Album was a finalist for the NBCC award in Criticism, and who recently became director of the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library, begins his role as poetry editor of The New Yorker this month. He's profiled in Esquire

Edwidge Danticat, an NBCC awardee in autobiography for Brother, I’m Dying, is honored with the $50,000 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Michael Berry does a Q&A with environmentalist Bill McKibben about his first novel, Radio Free Vermont. for the Portland Press Herald.

NBCC board member Kerri Arsenault interviews Barry Blitt, New Yorker political cartoonist, for Lit Hub.

Anita Felicelli reviews Isabel Allende's In the Midst of Winter for the San Francisco Chronicle

Laverne Frith reviews Charles Bukowski's Storm for the Living and the Dead for New York Journal of Books.

Ron Slate reviews Jonathan Blunt's new biography of Charles Wright for his On the Seawall.

Daniel Nester has a new essay just out in American Poetry Review's November/December issue, "The Greed for Pure Poetry."

NBCC poetry award finalist (for Prelude to Bruise) Saeed Jones is interviewed in Out magazine about his role at Buzzfeed's AM to DM.

David Nilsen interviews poet Amie Whittemore about her collection, Glass Harvest, for  The Hopper.

Michael Magras reviewed The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón for Newsday.

Former NBCC board member Colette Bancroft interviews NBCC fiction awardee (for A Visit from the Goon Squad) Jennifer Egan about her new book, Manhattan Beach, for the Tampa Bay Times.

David Cooper reviews Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali in New York Journal of Books.

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.

 




 

 


 

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