September, 2014

NBCC Reads: What’s Your Favorite First Book Ever? Philip Roth’s ‘Goodbye, Columbus’

by David Varno | Sep-10-2014

"What's your favorite first book by an author ever?" That's the question that launches the seventh year of the NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of our members and honorees. Here's the eighth in this new series. It's not too late to send your critical essay on your own favorite to

In Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, Roth acknowledges and explains some of the missteps in his early books—the presence of Jews in Goodbye Columbus’s Short Hills, NJ, the excessive length of Letting Go, the flawed final chapter of Portnoy’s Complaint—but unlike some authors, he doesn’t disown the first one. And why should he? Fifty-five years after publication, it remains a vital collection of short fiction.

Lots of my favorite first books tend to be collections. The stories in Raymond Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? are unforgettable because of  their protagonists’ inability to hold back what shouldn’t be said. This problem could be said to inflict the characters in Mary Gaitskill’s nitro-packed Bad Behavior and Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive. Then there are the short, energetic first novels by Jay McInerney, Donald Antrim, and Nicholson Baker. Bright Lights Big City, Please Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Mezzanine…all of these are favorites, too. And finally, the barely sane outpouring of Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, the wild ambition of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the deadpan assuredness of Thomas Pynchon’s V., each of which disprove the notion that a writer’s ambitious first novel will tend to be more flawed than brilliantly imperfect (David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System and Don DeLillo’s Americana, on the other hand, suffer from this syndrome). 

Goodbye Columbus is not quite my favorite Roth—The Counterlife and The Ghost Writer are far more wild and masterful—but the collection’s eponymous novella crackles with a youthful enthusiasm for life and literature  (“I read Mary McCarthy,” the protagonist declares to his partially attainable sweetheart) that instantly drew me into its world and called on a string of bittersweet fictional summers, from The Great Gatsby to last year’s A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal.

Neil Krugman, a 23-year-old philosophy major, spends half his week employed at the Newark public library and the rest crashing the pool at the country club. Soon after a pretty girl asks him to hold her glasses, the two are playing at being in love, even after she presses the hard questions about what he's doing with his life. "I'm not a planner," he says to her, but it's not the whole truth. 

Neil is ambivalent with Brenda, repulsed by the privilege and self-denial of her nose job even as he is allured by its effect. The revelation that Brenda goes to college not only in Boston but at Radcliffe crystalizes the class-consciousness that had already stirred in him by the contrast of cool summer nights in Short Hills with his own family's heritage of dense, sweltering Newark. He wants to escape, but it's not just the fate of his family that he's fleeing. He's trying to break loose from fate itself, and what better way than to spend week-long sleepovers with his new girlfriend and her gluttonous family in their huge house? But the illusion is broken by the news that Brenda's older brother is engaged to be married. The fiancee's arrival "dramatize[s] the passing of time," and reminds Neil that young people can and do get married. Two pages later he speaks out, refusing to keep quiet on something that Brenda does not want to hear about. "I want you to buy a diaphragm," he says, "for...for the sake of pleasure." "Pleasure?" she responds. "Whose? The doctor's?" "Mine," he replies flatly, and here we have the first emergence of a voice that is uncompromising and undeniably Rothian. "That's right. My pleasure. Why not!" That exclamation point!

When the conflict is re-ignited at the end of the novella, with Brenda back at school and Neil visiting on a holiday weekend, he is even more forceful, and says things that leave him no way to turn back. Does he do it because he fears rejection and figures it best to strike preemptively, or is he simply ready to move on? He doesn't seem to know for sure, but the uncertainty sets him up for a beautiful final scene, where his ugly anger and bitterness dissolve into earnest contemplation. While sulking through Harvard Yard in the middle of the night, on the verge of throwing a rock through the front of the Lamont Library, he catches his reflection in the glass and wonders, "What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again?...I looked hard at the image of me, at that darkening of the glass, and then my gaze pushed through it, over the cool floor, to a broken wall of books, imperfectly shelved."

The five stories that follow, most specifically "The Conversion of the Jews," "Epstein," and "Eli, the Fanatic," scratch furiously at the cracks in an imperfect facade. A Jewish boy named named Ozzie, who won’t shut up about Jesus Christ, forces his rabbi to declare belief in immaculate conception; a philandering family man is caught with syphilis; and a suburban lawyer, charged by his community with shutting down an illegal yeshiva, boldly wears the "strange" black clothes that belonged to the same Hasidic man whose presence in town had ignited the fervor. Despite being told in the third person, these three stories feature powerful voices, characters who threaten to push through the walls that are meant to contain them. In this regard, they anticipate many of Roth’s first-person protagonists. If developed into novels, they might even hold their own among the best (and worst) of them.

David Varno is the web manager for the NBCC and a web editor for Publishers Weekly. His essays and reviews have appeared in BOMBLog, the Brooklyn Rail, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tin House, and Words Without Borders, where he also served as Dispatches Editor.

Roundup: Maureen Corrigan, Jorge Luis Borges, Will Self, James Ellroy, and Richard Bausch

by Eric Liebetrau | Sep-08-2014

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Mike Lindgren reviews "Football: American Writing About the National Sport," edited by John Schulian.

NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari's latest Between the Lines column for is devoted to Jorge Luis Borges, with comments from critic Marcela Valdes, winner of the Center for Fiction's Roger Shattuck Award and former NBCC board member, and eminent translator Suzanne Jill Levine, head of translation program at UC Santa Barbara.

Laurie Hertzel interviews the authors of "GI Brides."

Diane Scharper reviews Gwendolyn M. Plano's "Letting Go into Perfect Love."

NBCC board member Colette Bancroft reviews James Ellroy's "Perfidia."

Julia M. Klein reviews Matt Bai's "All the Truth is Out" for Columbia Journalism Review.

In the New Orleans Review, Randon Billings Noble examines "a world of objects."

Karl Wolff reviews "In the American Night" by Christopher Bernard.

For the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Harvey Freedenberg reviews Richard Bausch's new novel "Before, During, After."

Benjamin Woodard reviews Leesa Cross-Smith's "Every Kiss a War."

In the Charleston Post and Courier, Bill Thompson reviews Matthew Stewart's "Nature's God."

"The Big Picture x 4," from Robert Birnbaum. He also talks to Will Self, in addition to Nicholas Dawidoff.

David Cooper reviews Ben Lerner's novel "10:04."

From Daniel Dyer in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Maureen Corrigan's 'So We Read On' is a delightful guide to the rise and fall and rise again of 'The Great Gatsby.'"

Roundup: Tana French, Roxane Gay, Vikram Chandra, and Garret Keizer

by Eric Liebetrau | Sep-02-2014

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Sebastian Stockman reviews Elizabeth Green's "Building a Better Teacher" and Garret Keizer's "Getting Schooled."

Katherine A. Powers reviews John Williams's "Augustus" for the Barnes and Noble Review. She also reviews Rene Steinke' "Friendswood" for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

"Eyeless in Gaza," from Robert Birnbaum. He also examines the "vital strain of satire and good-natured social commentary that Kurt Vonnegut wielded."

Meredith Maran reviews Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist." She also reviews Joshua Wolf Shenk’s “The Power of Two.”

Alexandra Schwartz takes a look at protean writer/trumpeter/troublemaker Boris Vian. She also interviews poet Claudia Rankine, as she was visiting Ferguson.

Julia M. Klein reviews Susan Vreeland's "Lisette's List" for the Boston Globe. She also reviews "Feminism Unfinished."

NBCC board member David Ulin on the power of a bookstore.

Jim Ruland reviews Lee Klein's "The Shimmering Go-Between" and Erika T. Wulf's "Crazy Horse's Girlfriend."

"What does it mean to triumph as a poet?" NBCC board member David Biespiel's latest Poetry Wire.

Michael Puican reviews "Lullaby (with Exit Sign)" by Hadara Bar-Nadav.

NBCC board member Rigoberto González wins the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his poetry collection, "Unpeopled Eden."

"Three Books to Get Over an Affair," from Randon Billings Noble.

Lisa Levy reviews Tana French's new novel.

NBCC board member Colette Bancroft also reviews French's novel.

Former NBCC board member Laura Miller on how David Mitchell gets fantasy wrong.

For the Daily Beast, NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari talks to novelist Vikram Chandra about his obsession with computer coding.

Alex Burling reviews the new Murakami novel.

Lisa R. Spaar on "My Funeral Gondola" and "Praise."

Ryan Teitman reviews Victoria Chang's "The Boss."

Happy Labor Day! Roundup will be posted on Tuesday at 4:00.

by Eric Liebetrau | Sep-01-2014

August, 2014

Roundup: William Kent Krueger, Haruki Murakami, top fall books and an interview with Elena Ferrante

by Eric Liebetrau | Aug-25-2014

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NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari's top 10 fall books, in her latest BBC column.

Tobias Carroll reviews "Mr. Gwyn," by Alessandro Baricco.

Elizabeth Rosner reviews James Carroll's "Warburg in Rome."

At the Christian Science Monitor, Andrew Cleary reviews Michael Harris' "The End of Absence."

Christie Aschwanden reviews J.C. Herz's "Learning to Breathe Fire."

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews Michael Crummey's novel "Sweetland." He also reviews Juan Cole's "The New Arabs."

"'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage': A lean Murakami (with the usual love, music, dreams, sex)," from Eileen Weiner.

Laurie Hertzel profiles bestselling author William Kent Krueger.

"You Would Think 'Adultery' Would Be A Little More Tantalizing." Heller McAlpin on Paulo Coelho's latest novel.

Joe Peschel also reviews Coelho's novel.

Anjali Enjeti reviews Roxane Gay's "Bad Feminist."

Megan O'Grady interviews the elusive Elena Ferrante for Vogue.

Julia M. Klein reviews Dianne Hales' "Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered" for the Chicago Tribune.

Book-reviewing gets a shoutout in Erika Dreifus "After the MFA: Fantasy, Reality, and Lessons Learned" on the Poets & Writers website.

NBCC Reads: What’s Your Favorite First Book Ever? Paley, Johnson, Jackson

by Edie Meidav | Aug-20-2014

"What's your favorite first book by an author ever?" That's the question that launches the seventh year of the NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of our members and honorees. Here's the eighth in this new series. It's not too late to send your critical essay on your own favorite to

If considering American books since 1955 (a year when, pace Woolf, we could say the world changed again), I vote for Grace Paley's THE LITTLE DISTURBANCES OF MAN or Denis Johnson's ANGELS. Why Paley's story collection? Because hers was the unholy lovechild of two lines of American writing, one shaggy-dog Melvillean, gifted with an ear bent toward humor, her other parent a more sober Puritan interested in form. In one short, rhythmic, irreproachable book, Paley created an immigrant gothic that spawned heirs both open and more oblique, such as Carolyn Cooke's first collection THE BOSTONS.

And why Johnson's novel? Because he wrote with such moral urgency, a lapsed Catholic speaking the tongue of lyrical violence.  

That said, to linger on 2014, in a few years I will still be touting this year's THE RESIDUE YEARS to the masses. Why? Mitchell S. Jackson stuns the reader from the start: his wordplay dances against great empathy, wit, visceral engagement. No one has told the story he tells with such heart and mind. Aware of the pitfalls of writing as a cultural ambassador -- and preemptively deflecting such critique -- Jackson imbues his work with the ethical purpose of our most beloved canonical works, such that the catharsis near novel's end remains as unforgettable as it is damning. 


Edie Meidav is a recipient of a Lannan Fellowship and author of the critically acclaimed The Far Field, recipient of the Kafka award for best novel by an American woman; Crawl Space, winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, and Lola, California. She lived in Northern California, where she directed the MFA writing program at the New College of California on Valencia Street in San Francisco. She teaches in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. More at

Roundup: Haruki Murakami, Amy Bloom, Edan Lepucki and Roxana Robinson on the Amazon/Hachette dispute

by Eric Liebetrau | Aug-18-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items to Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


WATCH: Authors Guild President Roxana Robinson discusses Amazon's dispute with Hachette and authors.

Woody Brown reviews Haruki Murakami's new novel.

Kit Reed also reviews Murakami's book.

"Never Complain and Never Explain." Robert Birnbaum on plagiarism, remorse and more. Birnbaum also talks to Amy Bloom about her new book.

New Books for Younger Readers, from Celia McGee.

John Domini reviews Alan Michael Parker's latest novel. He also reviews "In the Wolf's Mouth" by Adam Foulds.

In the Wall Street Journal, Nancy Rommelmann reviews Lacy Johnson's "The Other Side."

Ryan Teitman on Matthew Gavin Frank's "Preparing the Ghost."

Meganne Fabrega reviews Sallie Bingham's "The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters" for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

NBCC board member David Biespiel's latest Poetry Wire.

Natalie Bakopoulos reviews "Life Drawing" by Robin Black.

"In A Funny New Novel, A Weary Professor Writes To "Dear Committee Members." Maureen Corrigan on Julie Schumacher's novel.

Katherine A. Powers reviews Rachel Seiffert's "The Walk Home" for the Barnes and Noble Review.

"Lauren Bacall on writing: The most complete experience I've ever had," from NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg.

NBCC fiction award winner Chimamanda Adichie on Wole Soyinka.

Elaine F. Tankard reviews Edan Lepucki’s "California."

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