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.
I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in May.
Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr
Scorched, palpable, sometimes pungent, sometimes brutal: Karr’s new collection is a mixture of tight narratives that end without resolution, hymns of unsettled suffering, and confused prayers. Writing years earlier about becoming a Catholic, Karr said “like poetry, prayer often begins in torment”—her own brand of poetic faith does not end in sweet redemption. Her poetry suggests that Catholics often live in extremes of devotion or doubt, swelled with something like poetic fervor, or sunk down to melancholy. In “The Age of Criticism,” the narrator shares a moment with what seems to be Franz Wright, “his face swollen from drink, his glasses / broken so a Band-Aid taped one wing on.” They smoked and “wondered who might be dumb enough / to print our books or read them or / give us jobs.” Downturned, they are “unable to guess we’d ever be anywhere / else, thick snow coming down and piling up, // sawhorses blocking all the small roads.” Karr’s all-but-accepted that life is full of wayward roads, but she’s dogged in following the routes that remain. In “Illiterate Progenitor,” the narrator thinks about her father, who, in a “house of bookish females, his glasses slid on / for fishing lures and carburetor work, / the obits, my report cards, the scores. / He was otherwise undiluted by the written word.” Yet she finds poetry in his pleasures, his moments, his sense of self. Tropic of Squalor is a catalogue of broken graces. How love can find us in the “predawn murk” of suburbia. How God’s speech is not “lightning bolt or thunderclap,” but rather “sights and inclinations leanings / The way a baby suckles breath.” Maybe we are sustained by what ails us, as the “jackhammer the man in the crosswalk wrestles with / He also leans on.”
Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller
“I’ve always been the girl in the wrong // clothes for spring, yet I understand my body / is a gift.” Miller’s book is a strange testament, teeming with some of the most original poems you’ll encounter this year. “When my mother slaps / my thighs to circulate the water in the blood, / the bruises still purple. I let blood work / itself small again.” Her work lives in the same world as Sarah Goldstein’s Fables: “Last week I hunted the blond boys / who hunted a doe in mist. We all saw the mother / gnawed to bone in upturned soil. I let out a dry cry. / Only the worms could hear me. / I’ve been that low.” Metamorphoses saturate this book, suggest our bodies and souls are in flux. There’s a lot of wonder to get lost within here; this is a book to awaken the imagination. “When my grandmother fell through / the floorboards, she cupped her hands // to create an echo that crosses / five acres of cows, and they don’t know how // to listen.” When I hear ceremonial, I think ritual, significant, surreal, and Miller encapsulates all of those traits, writing of bodies made of flesh and fog. Bodies wedded to the earth: “What keeps you / tacked to me, my lone // saint of weeds? Maggot — / I mean, may we get // comfortable as suspects / or each other. May we slink // and croon across shrines with our soft bodies.”
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Mark Doty has said “the best ekphrastic writing makes use of a work of art as a kind of field of operation, something to keep bouncing off of, thinking through. It becomes a touchstone for meditation.” Diane Seuss’s new book fits that description. In “Still Life with Self-Portrait,” she uses Cornelius Gijsbrechts’s as a fount, the genesis of wonder. She wants “to touch him,” though thinks he might have been “a bad man. / Weren’t all men bad back then? Weren’t women / bad as well?” The narrator has lived within the space of bad men, and admits that she’s brought men into her own “badness” as well. Her recursive first stanza leans back into the painting, how Gijsbrechts created optical illusions. “He has offered you his backside and called it / his frontside, has offered you nothing / and called it something. You’ve known men / like Cornelius Gijsbrechts.” We can almost feel Seuss painting her way through this book, playing the page (and us) with her clever lines. But then she stops us and takes our breath, as in “Still Life with Turkey”: “The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot, / the cord binding it just below the stiff trinity / of toes, each with its cold bent claw. My eyes // are in love with it as they are in love with all / dead things that cannot escape being looked at.” Or the elegiac “Silence Again”: “Now, when I embrace it, silence, / especially at night, in the dark, I see my father’s // name, as if silence were a canvas he painted, / and his signature there in the corner.” A skilled, inventive collection.
Junk by Tommy Pico
Frenetic, furious, exhausted, and exhausting: Pico’s poetry is like a syntactic tidal wave. His books are experiences, and Junk is a trip. There are no breaks here, but his stanzas are paced and one of his skills is how he manipulates our idea of lines: “The air is heavy feathers in mid- // summer, literally and metaphorically in my foul apt above the / chicken slaughterhouse where we wheeze awake.” In this stream, consciousness is a dizzy show, and among the refrains are the many permutations of the word junk, and what we look for in love: “Is it wrong 2 call yr partner a // mirror in the sense that when we’re together I’m with myself / in a way I can’t escape.” There’s more than one wink here: “Convention says a book shd be // this long but I’m only interested in writing as long as you want / to read in one sitting” and “Ppl are // too busy callin themselves ‘poets’ to notice the canary died.” Taken as a whole, “I suppose Junk is also a way of not letting go—containing the / stasis.” Junk is fast and loud, but Pico is really a poet “looking to // connect & inhibit more than I want 2 slip away.”
Fludde by Peter Mishler
“I’m embarrassed,” Mishler begins a poem titled “Mild Invective.” “Four deer step / onto the embankment / beside the Sunoco / at dawn, champing / and misting their breath.” The narrator’s “shaving in my car.” Those unusual but precise moments appear throughout Fludde, a debut expansive in subject and skilled in practice. In “To A Feverish Child,” the narrator imagines a child “with the chime of fever in your eyes.” A boy, sick, gifted with a nighttime word from his mother—“delirious”—and the fever dreams that follow. How the narrator dreams (or becomes? poetry has a way with magic) he feels that way, swelled with sickness: “You can’t conceive that at dusk I drove my car / alongside the water to get my thoughts right, / and leaned my body over the reservoir’s lip / to watch my face among the neighborhood lights, / swallowed and renewed. I felt for one moment / insane and holy.” There’s an inevitability to these types of glimpses, how they return at just the right moments, as in “From the Overflow Motel”: “At quitting time, / I press my forehead / to the hallway’s ice machine, / and see a blood-red curtain / draped across a field.”
Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems by Ted Kooser
Poet of place, generations, elegies, spirit, and love, Kooser’s poetry deserves continual praise. He’s often noted as a poet for a broad audience, and certainly his two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate and continued cheerleading for poetry attest to his appeal, but let’s not forget that he is also incredibly skilled. His poems are generous; their profluence nearly effortless. The gorgeous, stilled-heart lines of “A Letter”: “I have tried a dozen ways / to say these things / and have failed.” The feel of the moonlight and the cool November dusk, “and what these things / have come to mean to me / without you.” Kooser captures how we wear pain like clothing, how our everyday actions carry a silent song of grief: “I raked the yard / this morning, and it rained / this afternoon. Tonight, / along the shiny street, / the bags of leaves — / wet-shouldered / but warm in their skins — / are huddled together, close, / so close to life.” His lines make me believe in language again, as in “Applesauce”: “the way / her kitchen filled with the warm, / wet breath of apples, as if all / the apples were talking at once, / as if they’d come cold and sour / from chores in the orchard / and were trying to shoulder in / close to the fire.” A recurring theme in Kooser’s work is how all of us—the living and the dead—seek comfort in each other. This collection is a gift.