The National Book Critics Circle awards season begins Monday morning with #NBCCAwards trending on Twitter. The fiction finalists had just been announced by Isaac Fitzgerald and Saeed Jones on Buzzfeed Books’ AM2DM. (Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour, Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Joan Silber’s Improvement and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.)
Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is sixth winner of the NBCC’s John Leonard award for best first book in any genre. Charles Finch wins the Balakian award for excellence in criticism, joining previous Balkians Michelle Dean, Carlos Lozada, Alexandra Schwartz, Kathryn Schulz, Ron Charles, Joan Acocella, and David Orr. John McPhee is honored with the Sandrof award for lifetime achievement. NBCC autobiography finalist Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of My Body joins Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma as one of the few books in the history of the NBCC awards to be selected by the NBCC Members’ choice poll (the other finalists were selected by board members in a day-long meeting Saturday). NBCC finalists read March 14; the awards ceremony is March 15, both at The New School, free and open to the public. Tickets required for the benefit reception.
Up this week: Mira T. Lee’s “incredibly moving and thoughtful exploration of mental illness,” Leni Zumas’s misogynist dystopia, Stefan Merrill Block’s Oliver Loving, a “miracle of a book,” a living, breathing New Orleans in Nathaniel Rich’s King Zeno, and Dara Horn’s Eternal Life, which, one critics writes, will “put you off immortality for good.”
Mira T. Lee, Everything Here Is Beautiful
“Mental illness is always messy,” Lee tells the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Eleanor J. Bader. “A crisis will happen just as mom gets sick, there’s a new baby on the scene, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement has shown up to deport an undocumented family member. Mental illness can’t be compartmentalized. It happens while everyone is simply trying to live their lives and is unpredictable. A psychotic episode will happen out of nowhere, and it’s very rare that a person will just have one episode and be done with it. These illnesses typically don’t resolve, they’re lifelong. They’re scary. They’re bizarre. And they often make people—including friends, relatives, and community members—really uncomfortable.”
Jarry Lee (Buzzfeed) calls Everything Is Beautiful “an incredibly moving and thoughtful exploration of mental illness and its toll on family and loved ones.”
Steph Cha (USA Today) writes, “The novel covers decades at a swift clip, but it never feels rushed or lightly explored. There’s a lifelike texture to the fast passage of time, each relationship painted with deep, efficient strokes. Lee is a cogent, controlled writer, hitting big themes—immigration, mental illness, romance, family—while avoiding the usual traps of mawkishness and emotional manipulation. (The one misstep being the neat little epilogue.)”
Katharine Coldiron (The Masters Review) notes, “Immigration to the United States, and the many forms this can take—from fully legal business owners to those living cash-only in constant fear of discovery—is a strong undercurrent of Everything Here is Beautiful. It’s a quiet callout to our difficult political moment. These are immigrants living their lives, not objects of speechifying, and Lee draws them as human, struggling, unlike one another but invisibly bound. Integrating into American society proves difficult for some and impossible for others, but the tension of one culture pulling against another is ever-present.”
Leni Zumas, Red Clocks
In Zumas’s new misogynist dystopian novel, abortion is banned in all states, fertilized eggs have rights, and the Every Child Needs Two Act denies adoption to single parents.
“Red Clocks might sound like a dystopian novel, but plenty of conservative politicians are plotting to make it a work of nonfiction,” writes Ron Charles (Washington Post).
Red Clocks, writes Joy Press (Los Angeles Times), “unfurls in a parallel America just a wrinkle in time away from our own. This fictional tapestry weaves together five female characters scrabbling with the expectations and constrictions of a country where reproductive rights are severely curtailed. What could’ve been didactic instead becomes an enchanting ramble through the myths and mundanities of womanhood.”
Fiona Maazel (Bookforum) notes:
In Red Clocks we’ve got a misogynist dystopia that’s about one vote away from becoming our day-to-day. Here, Roe v. Wade has been overturned. In its moral stead: the Personhood Amendment, which grants rights to a fertilized egg. Thus IVF is outlawed, abortion is criminalized, and anyone attempting either can be charged with manslaughter, murder, or, who knows, abduction of a minor. In an extra affront to progress, the Every Child Needs Two Law has also been passed, which mandates that only two-parent families can adopt. Play all this out for a single woman in her forties and you’ve got the first of the four women who dominate the novel. Zumas showcases their experience of femaleness and, in so doing, asks us to rethink what it really means to be female in a world that’s written almost exclusively by men and, in particular, by men who know nothing—and care nothing—for women’s rights. If this sounds all too familiar, your dread reading this novel will be palpable.
Stefan Merrill Block, Oliver Loving
Block takes his title from a legendary Texan named Oliver Loving, a cattle driver wounded in a Comanche attack who survived, only to die of gangrene. It’s the name of his main character, a teenage boy left in a coma after an attack on his school.
Holly Silva (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) notes, ”Block’s pacing and tone are remarkably even-handed through 395 pages, which softens the sometimes grisly material. It is another way he joins and connects: showing readers that the daily and the dramatic are not necessarily two different entities”.
Kamila Shamsie (The Guardian) says Oliver Loving is the last book that made her cry: “Its subject matter—a young man in a coma after a school shooting, and the repercussions for his family—lends itself to tears, but the novel’s real accomplishment is to avoid pulling heartstrings.”
Michael Schaub (Newsday) concludes:
Block is an immensely talented writer, and Oliver Loving is a miracle of a book, a deeply generous and compassionate novel about a “lost boy, the most inexplicable victim of an inexplicable catastrophe in a vanished town, a nearly forgotten tragedy’s only living memorial.” It’s a book that asks us to think, to care, to question what it means to be alive, or dead, or something in between.
Nathaniel Rich, King Zeno
Set in the years the led up to the Roaring Twenties, Rich’s novel gives a portrait of New Orleans that draws comparisons to E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Chris Bachelder (New York Times Book Review) calls Rich’s third novel “ambitious and metaphorically dense.” He continues:
Jazz is but one of numerous intricate subjects that Rich admits into the novel. Others include World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic, serial murder, police procedures, race relations, the New Orleans Mafia, and the construction of the Industrial Canal, which links Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River (and whose catastrophic breach during Hurricane Katrina looms meaningfully over the book: PROGRESS KILLS). Rich, a resident of New Orleans, throws his arms wide open to history and to the city, and King Zeno, particularly in its first half, is as unruly and laterally active as a big urban novel ought to be.
“Like a meal at one of New Orleans’s famed eateries, Nathaniel Rich’s new novel, offers a groaning board of tasty literary treats,“ writes Jon Michaud (Washington Post).
Mark Athitakis (Los Angeles Times) compares King Zeno to E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime, which “manage[s] to capture a multiplicity of virtues—stylistic daring, historical detail, rich characters. Doctorow made the nation itself feel like a character, and Nathaniel Rich, in his third novel, King Zeno, aspires to do much the same.”
Dara Horn, Eternal Life
Horn, who has won the National Jewish Book Award three times, spins a tale about Rachel, who has lived for 2,000 years. Critics have quibbles, but find the novel entertaining, provocative, and deeply moving in spots.
Julia M. Klein (The Forward) points out a few flaws: Eternal Life, she writes, is “a supernatural fantasy, a work of historical fiction and, above all, a philosophical novel. Provocative and deeply moving in spots, it is never entirely convincing, even on its own fantastical terms.”
Frances Brent (Moment) writes, “The book is a hybrid of sorts, including elements of parable, dystopia, science fiction, Jewish feminism (‘Never before in her life had a man done a household chore for her; nor would it happen again for another two thousand years’), and policy tract, arguing against the Silicon Valley immortalists who have invested small fortunes seeking a God pill to deliver them from death. Horn clearly enjoys the activity of spinning a tale, drawing out drama with exigent circumstances that require action and decision-making on the part of her characters. The result is an entertaining but farfetched potboiler.”
Marion Winik (Newsday) concludes:
Her latest family includes a gene researcher, an internet prospector and a granddaughter who tweets this: “My grandmother just told us she can’t sign off on her will because she CAN’T DIE. #crazyoldlady.” Horn does not hedge her bets, whipping up a Jewish telenovela of ancient-world drama and present-day complications. It’ll put you off immortality for good.