The National Book Critics Circle announced their 2018 Award Finalists, and the winners of three awards: the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
The finalists include 31 writers across six different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Fiction, Poetry, and Criticism. Here are the finalists separated by genre:
Milkman by Anna Burns (winner of the Man Booker Prize)
Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau (translated by Linda Coverdale)
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (part of our 2018 Great Book Preview)
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler
God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright
Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous by Christopher Bonanos
Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown
Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang
The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy
The Day That Went Missing: A Family’s Story by Richard Beard
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung
What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood by Rigoberto Gonzalez
Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home by Nora Krug
Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (read our review)
The Carrying by Ada Limón (found in our August 2018 Must-Read Poetry list)
Holy Moly Carry Me by Erika Meitner
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Asymmetry by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Clare Cavanagh)
Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 by Robert Christgau
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt
To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight by Terrance Hayes
The Reckonings: Essays by Lacy M. Johnson
Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith (found in our February 2018 Monthly Book Preview)
Here are the winners of the three stand-alone awards: Arte Público Press won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for their contributions to book culture. Maureen Corrigan won the Nona Balakin Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Tommy Orange’s There There won the John Leonard Prize for a first book in any genre. (Read Orange’s 2018 Year in Reading entry).
The winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on March 14, 2019.
Sometime early in 2018, one morning of the long “bomb cyclone” in New York City—the kind of day where the dawn doesn’t break, but mizzles down through the wind and fog, pearling the air to a flat winter white for a few short hours until Night tips her inkwell and dark bleeds out again—I finally opened Félix Guattari’s The Anti-Oedipus Papers, a book that had sat undisturbed on my shelf for three years.
I was finishing a novel at the time, so I wasn’t reading other novels. Anti-Oedipus Papers are Guattari’s notes to his collaborator, Gilles Deleuze, in preparation for their opus, Anti-Oedipus. But what madness these notes are: raw philosophy as dream diary, griping and sniping about the Parisian intelligentsia, particularly Jacques Lacan, Guattari’s mentor (but not for long), and quite a bit of agonizing about various love affairs. Out of this chaotic stew, they created Anti-Oedipus. I’d like to say that you cannot read these papers and not conclude that Deleuze and Guattari were very much in love, but that would not be simple enough of a claim. Rather, you cannot read these papers and not conclude that Deleuze and Guattari were the very kind of desiring-machine of which they once wrote. Guattari excreted, Deleuze plugged into the orifice, metabolized the ooze, and a book was born.
Or perhaps Guattari mizzled his light into the undifferentiated night, created an enveloping blankness, and it was into this air that Deleuze tipped his inkwell.
In any case, I needed language that would scramble the omnipresent crush of narrative logic that had subsumed my writing life. And I needed, too, a book that would unsettle my too-closely held presumptions about sex, desire, and the psyche. If I couldn’t have my own presumptions unsettled, then neither could my characters. And consequently, neither could my (projected) reader. I needed to read a book out of order. And so I opened The Anti-Oedipus Papers to page 343 to find: “Something about love makes me not be this thing that is at an impasse. Two monads produce a third. A new taste for the world. . .Analysis is about making the impossible out of the déjà vu.” The point of analysis (and, I thought to myself then, of writing?) was not to affirm the return of the repressed, but to make the old narratives illegible—and thus to create an opening where there had not been one before.
Speaking of machines, Kay Gabriel’s poetry is something else I read in 2018 when I was studiously avoiding novels. I feel quite sure that her chapbook, Elegy Department Spring: Candy Sonnets, and her poems in Salvage Quarterly (which, in full disclosure, I was lucky to conduct an interview with her about) are poem-machines, nano-surgeons of the synapses. My brain was altered in the reading of them, and my understanding of transsexuality will never be the same. These are the poems I need—not so much to understand my condition as a trans person, but to un-understand the too-easy narratives about it. It’s not pretty. I don’t want it to be. Why should we/why should poetry always have to be pretty? Gabriel’s poetry gives us the body and desire plowed through with the particulars of late-capitalist logistics and the omnipresence of Amazon-driven transport systems.
When I returned to novels, I did so by way of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man–a novel that tells in inexorable, prismatic, impossible prose the pursuit of an enslaved man–a “mineral of motionless patiences…[h]is eyes are neither shining nor dull but dense, like certain backwaters struck by lightning”–by a slaveholder and his mastiff, “black, gleaming into a lunar blue…its muscles bulged like lava bubbles; the pitiless face, unbaptized.” Never have I read a book that so miraculously combines propulsive forward motion with such crystalline, heart-stopping language at the level of the sentence. Usually the latter–if overfull–overwhelms the former. Not so here. Not even close to so. That Chamoiseau manages to combine these two, moreover, with a metafictive aspect is to my mind nothing short of total alchemy and brilliance. The reading of this book is an event, and it deserves to be ritualized. This ritual does not have to be luxurious or expensive, but it should be undertaken with seriousness. You do not need to go far. You do not need to go to Europe or even to a cabin in the woods. Go into a closet with some pillows and read.
Actually, on this question of metafiction: I believe it is a mistake to detail the rise of contemporary metafiction (if you prefer, “literary postmodernity”) like settling a bank account, and yet we have so many scholarly books dedicated to just this approach. Perhaps an actuarial account of literature is all our hellish world deserves, but we could also read–or reread–the section on “The Solar System” in Eileen Myles’s Cool for You, as I did in 2018, for a more organic view. For some of us, the love of science fiction means we cannot bear to conduct a forensics on the genre; we do not want to know its molecular secrets, and for this reason we do not write in that genre. This diversion from the forensic results, instead, is a particular kind of metafiction that has not yet been properly analyzed in academic accounts. Metafiction as a form of desire. A paean. Is there such a thing as celestial ekphrastics? Yes there is: “Pluto is holding a bowl of ideas that were formerly tropical, like ice cream and fruit.”
We cannot talk about science fiction without discussing the long history of racism in science fiction. In 2018, the great author Samuel Delany republished his 1998 essay, “Racism and Science Fiction”–which conducts a number of crucial arguments (which have only become both more salient and more complex) regarding the perceived split in the field between Afro-Futurism and subgenres such as cyberpunk–alongside a new novella, The Atheist in the Attic. I had been eagerly awaiting this novella since Delany had made reference to it on a panel at NYU in 2017. The novella would concern cannibals and Spinoza, he said. Cannibals and Spinoza?? I could hardly wait.
The Atheist is wonderful. It, like all of Delany’s work, is dense with significance and extraordinary in its prose. It, like all of Delany’s work, constellates questions of embodiment (indeed, excrement) and high philosophy. In my opinion it returns Spinoza and those figures of what has been termed the “radical Enlightenment” to their rightful context: the odiferous living world of the pulse, the body, and the socius.
In 2018 I finally read N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. I had been putting this off. I believe now that this resistance had to do with a fear of falling in love. But now I have fallen in love and I am a lunatic proselytizer for this book which does not need another proselytizer, least of all me. Still, I will say that this book is joy, absorption and technical mastery incarnate. It gave me one of the very best weekends I had in 2018, just me and it. And without producing any spoilers I will say that once I arrived at the last third of the book, I found myself inhabiting the single best rendition of utopian longing and the fleshly, compromised, and deeply joyful flashes of affect associated with it that I have ever read. I did weep.
The book that I adorned with the greatest number of bookmarks and post-it notes in 2018 is Dionne Brand’s Theory. In structure, a tripartite story of three love affairs conducted by a PhD student trying to finish her dissertation. The book is an exacting, detail-obsessed limning of the contours of these lovers, and of the interior textures of relationships from the perspective of someone who (sound familiar?) is hamstrung by a preponderance of abstract thought. The book is a non-dialectical progression through the three sections, a series of repetitions-with-a-difference of the Oedipal and supra-Oedipal arcs of love. It maintains an unflinching gaze on the limitations of its narrator, who withholds beloved bedtime poetry readings from a girlfriend simply due to the ordinary, relatable experience of forgetfulness, postponement, and indeed the creeping pettiness of love. “We are all,” proclaims the narrator, following a citational litany of the very poems she could not read to her lover (which, in litanizing, she in fact “reads” to us, her anonymous audience) “small people in relationships.”
Theory, it turns out, is not only the title of the book, but the pet name of the narrator given to her by an ex-lover: “’Theoria. . .’ that is what Odalys called me. ‘Teoria, you are too much in your head. Before you can do something you think it out of existence. . .You lack an anchor; you lack a thing that you love.’” And this is because theorizing something is not the same as loving it. Just as writing about a lover is not the same thing as loving her.
One could say that Teoria is stuck; even she believes this: “My lovers never change. It is as if I’ve loved the same person all these years.” But then there is a secret, fourth love story sequestered in Theory. A love story that isn’t written as a narrative arc, as are the first three, but as citations interspersed throughout the text. “It has become necessary to locate social memory outside the body,” muses a pair of what might be characters/editors/authors, cited in a footnote as “C. Sharpe/Teoria.” Why is relocating social memory necessary? To unfreight the body of the histories it bears. This, too–to recall the weep-worthy moments in Jemisin–is a utopian horizon: “[b]y relocating memory outside the body rather than insistently stigmatizing the body through the reproduction of particular historical moments,” we open out to something else. This relocation is the site of the sequestered fourth love story: non-narrative, metafictional, citational, collective. Love, after all, is not writing the lover, but thinking together with her.
I read many books in 2018, and especially after having been freed of writing my own novel, I experienced an intense appreciation for and awe of the sweat and labor of other writers. I returned renewed to reading this year, and I loved all these books deeply. But of all the books I read in 2018, Dionne Brand’s Theory is the book that read me.
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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month — for more May titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
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Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: From internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient and Divisidero among his other works, this new novel from Ondaatje is set in the decade after World War II. When their parents move to Singapore, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are left in London under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure called The Moth. As they become immersed in his eccentric circle of friends, they are both protected and educated in confusing ways. The mystery deepens when their mother returns months later without their father, but gives them no explanation. Years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover the story through a journey of facts, recollection, and imagination. If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie. (Claire)
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In her third novel, two-time National Book Award-finalist Kushner writes about a woman named Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a prison in California’s Central Valley. The year is 2003, and the Mars Room in the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where Romy used to dance; according to the jacket copy, Kushner details “the deadpan absurdities of institutional living…with humor and precision.” George Saunders calls Kushner “a young master” and Robert Stone wrote that she is “a novelist of the very first order.” Check out this short excerpt published by Entertainment Weekly. (Edan)
Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: If you periodically spend afternoons sitting around wondering when you will get to read something new by DeWitt, this is your season. In May we get 13 stories from the brilliant writer who brought us The Last Samurai—one of the best books of this or any millennium—and the evilly good Lightning Rods. In this collection DeWitt will evidently apply her mordant virtuosity to territory ranging from statistics to publishing. (Lydia)
Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay: In this age when (some) sexual assault survivors are finally being listened to and (some) sexual predators are being held accountable, there couldn’t be a better time for an essay collection examining just how pervasive and pernicious rape culture is. Gay has become a champion for survivors of sexual assault since the beginning of her writing career, so she is the ideal editor of this book that attacks rape culture from all angles. From essays by well-known figures such as Gabrielle Union to emerging writers, this book explores all elements of this ill from child molestation to the rape epidemic in the refugee world. (Tess)
Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Heti’s previous two books have created and followed lines of inquiry—with Misha Glouberman she wrote a book of conversational philosophy, The Chairs Are Where People Go. Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an early work of autofiction that delves deep into art-making and friendship. Some called it a literary form of reality TV, making James Wood’s backhanded assessment of the book as both “unpretentious” and “narcissistic” quite the unintentional compliment. Heti’s new novel Motherhood follows in a similar line of existential questioning—the narrator approaches the topic of motherhood, asking not when but if she should endeavor to become a mother at all. (Anne)
That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Priscilla Johnson says those words to Rebecca Stone early in Alam’s novel. Rebecca’s just given birth to her son Jacob, and the novel’s first scene feels both dizzying and precise—a visceral reminder of life’s complex surprises. Priscilla is the hospital staffer who most calms Rebecca’s anxieties, so much that she asks Priscilla to be Jacob’s nanny. A few years later, Priscilla’s own pregnancy ends in heartbreak. Rebecca’s decision to adopt Andrew is complex: she loves and misses Priscilla, and dearly loves this boy, but is she ready for the reality of raising a black son as a white mother? Alam’s sharp narrative asides—lines like “Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her”—carry such weight and truth that we trust his route toward the bigger question of the book: are we ever ready for the pain and joy that life delivers us? (Nick R.)
Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo: Five characters arrive in the megacity seeking to make a new start, leaving behind traumatic situations born of Nigeria’s sociopolitical complexities and mingling their fortunes in what Booklist calls, in a starred review, “a tangy Ocean’s Eleven–esque escapade that exposes class and ethnic divides in the country even as it manages to mock the West for its colonial gaze toward the African continent as a whole.” (Lydia)
Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey: This is the third book in the master’s Seasons Quartet, a novel rather than the essays that characterized the previous volume. With Spring, Knausgaard explores a family disaster, explaining to his daughter (the intended audience of the Quartet) why it is that they receive visits from Child Services, and what it was that caused her mother to leave. (Lydia)
Last Stories by William Trevor: Prior to his death in November 2016, Trevor told a friend that the book he was working on would be called Last Stories. That is this book—the last we will ever have from the Irish author. Six of the 10 stories included here have never been published before, and what preview would be sufficient? Perhaps just this: if the engine of accomplished fiction truly is empathy, then you will be hard pressed to uncover a finer practitioner of the core humanity that inspired and inspires this deliberate, and personal, epitaph. (Il’ja)
Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale: A newly translated novel from a Prix Goncourt winner who Milan Kundera called the “heir of Joyce and Kafka,” Slave Old Man is the hallucinatory journey of an old man who has escaped enslavement on a plantation in the forest of Martinique, pursued by his former captor and a fierce dog. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly writes, “Chamoiseau’s prose is astounding in its beauty.” (Lydia)
Like a Mother by Angela Garbes: Several years ago Garbes, a food writer, wrote a viral and absolutely bananas piece about the mysteries and miracles of breastfeeding. Now she brings the same spirit of inquiry and amazement to a related and equally bananas process, filling a lacuna she faced when she was pregnant with her first child. The result is a deeply reported, deeply felt book on everything surrounding reproduction and its effects on the body and the mind. (Lydia)
Calypso by David Sedaris: In this, his first essay collection in five years, Sedaris uses a family beach house as a starting point to explore mortality and age with his characteristic humor and aplomb. (Read Sedaris’s latest essay, on his mother’s alcoholism, here at The New Yorker.) (Lydia)
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel: A novel about art and friendship and the fraught world of accomplished musicians—four young friends who comprise a string quartet. Mat Johnson said Gabel’s novel “deserves a standing ovation.” For a taste of Gabel’s prose, read her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France. (Lydia)
The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava: De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was the rare self-published novel to receive critical acclaim, including the PEN/Bingham Prize. The Lost Empress is as ambitious as his first, a 672-page doorstopper that takes on both football and the criminal justice system. The novel has a large cast, but centers on two characters: Nina Gill, the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and presumed heir to the franchise; and Nuno DeAngeles, “a brilliant criminal mastermind,” who gets himself thrown into prison in order to commit a crime. (Hannah)
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: New York-bred writer Brinkley (and Year in Reading alum) delivers this anticipated debut story collection. Ranging from encounters on the New York subway to a young boy’s first encounter with the reality of racial hierarchy, these sensitive and probing stories promise to captivate. If you’ve read Brinkley’s title story “A Lucky Man” in A Public Space, then you know that he’s a talent to watch. (Ismail)
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel: Abel’s debut centers around a group of young people who converge in a utopian summer camp in a small town in the Colorado mountains, exploring American obsessions of freedom, ownership, property, and class against the vagaries of the Reagan and Bush years. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly calls this novel “politically and psychologically acute.” (Lydia)
Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel: Bullwinkel’s stories are fantastic and fabulist feats that (often) address our messy, cumbersome bodies in thrilling and imaginative ways. For example: in lieu of a bra, a man is hired to support a daughter’s breasts; a woman whose plastic surgeon, when fixing her eyes, leaves her with a turkey neck (not literally but); twin brothers Gleb and Oleg, surgeon and sculptor, live in a prison infirmary and perform a thumb transplant. A compelling new voice, Bullwinkel has had stories in Tin House, Guernica, and Noon. Her first book, the story collection Belly Up, will be published by A Strange Object. (Anne)
Meet behind Mars by Renee Simms: In stories taking place across the United States and ranging in style from fabulist to realist to satyrical, Simms, a professor at University of Puget Sound, writes scenes from the American experience, focusing on the connections and inner spaces of a large cast of African-American characters. Tayari Jones calls this “an exciting debut of a vibrant new voice in American literature.” (Lydia)
Kickflip Boys by Neal Thompson: We all turn out like our parents to some degree — an unsettling revelation when we remember our own missteps growing up. In Neal Thompson’s new memoir Kickflip Boys, he recalls his rough-edged upbringing as he raises his skateboard-obsessed boys and wonders about their own emerging rough edges. Thompson is a magazine writer and the author of four prior books, most notably his biography of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley. (Max)
The Pisces by Melissa Broder: You may know Broder because of her incredible So Sad Today tweets. If you do, you won’t be surprised to hear about her novel, The Pisces, which follows a Ph.D student in love with a Californian merman. The student, Lucy, has a breakdown after nine years of grad school, which compels her Angeleno sister to invite her to dogsit at her place. On the beach, a merman appears, and Lucy embarks on a romance that seems impossible. (Thom)
The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar: A novel about the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, juxtaposing the life of a modern girl fleeing Homs across land and sea and her medieval counterpart, a girl who traversed the same territory while apprenticed to a renowned mapmaker. Simultaneously an homage to Arab intellectual history and a lament of modern chaos. (Lydia)