PositiveThe Washington Post... an insightful and broad-reaching new biography by the late Alex Danchev that nonetheless may leave some important clues underexplored ... The polymath Danchev is well-equipped to investigate Magritte’s singular mind. The author brings to his mission an impressive array of aesthetic, political and philosophical tools ... Danchev is intimately familiar with the French surrealist circle that Magritte and his Brussels cadre tensely orbited. But he is equally adept at contextualizing Magritte’s life and work ... But in seeking clues to the mystery of Magritte, how should one weigh his dysfunctional childhood? Danchev vividly describes it but eschews the role of amateur Freudian. He trusts himself to intuit Magritte’s mind but shies from guessing what lay within the painter’s heart. That reluctance is understandable, but it leaves crucial puzzle pieces missing ... Some scholars have approached Magritte’s doors to nowhere, his draped heads and exposed bodies, his blurring of the animate and inanimate, live and dead, from a psychoanalytic standpoint. That mode was one with which Danchev may have been uncomfortable, but it feels important to the mystery of Magritte, which is far from solved.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeIn his vast Pulitzer-winning The Overstory (2018), Powers explored climate activists’ desperate attempts to save a last tiny fraction of the world’s ravaged ancient forests. That opus might be compared to a Mahler-esque symphony. Bewilderment, in contrast, is more-traditionally scaled—a short-chaptered chamber work, but no less searing for that ... elegiac, with a mature confidence that allows for passages of sustained, quiet intensity ... Whether concerning family or nature, this heart-rending tale warns us to take nothing for granted.
PositiveThe Washington PostWhile not essential to casual filmgoers, the study helpfully dissects, for Hitchcock obsessives, this most calculatingly self-conscious director’s methods and compulsions ... White’s shrewd, interlocking essays yield no new juicy gossip about the occasionally wayward and chronically manipulative director, but they draw from the huge trove of revelations by Donald Spoto, Patrick McGilligan and other biographers ... the great strength of The Twelve Lives is that a reader comes away from it with a vivid sense of how Hitchcock ignited screen masterpieces with the fires of his inner discord and contradictions ... The Twelve Lives also explores a central paradox of Hitchcock’s work: how a director who infamously referred to actors as cattle drew from them some of their best work ... If that kind of appreciation seems, to some, dated and unwelcome, it’s still a staple of our entertainment universe.
RaveThe Washington PostNo pushover, this Bailey guy, and his near decade of toil has resulted in a colorful, confident and uncompromising biographical triumph that, at more than 800 pages, also manages to be conversationally readable ... Bailey conveys Roth’s wit and charisma as a handsome, vivacious, all-American baseball-loving kid in Weequahic, N.J., a sly undergrad on the make at Bucknell, and a grad student at the University of Chicago discovering both his literary superpowers and his impatience with the posturing, pedantry and theory-mongering of academe ... But this book is decidedly warts and all. No egotistical rant, petty grievance, control-freak overreach or sexual adventure (often with much younger women) goes unnoted. Nor do neurotic reveries ... And by the end of the book, such is the accrual of medical details, you’ll feel like Roth’s internist. Then again, you wouldn’t want someone vague and squeamish writing about the creator of Portnoy’s Complaint and The Anatomy Lesson. Moreover, this unsparing treatment seems perfectly apt considering that Roth portrayed himself or his counterselves with even more unsparing, unflattering precision ... Bailey doesn’t bow and quake before each of Roth’s dozens of works ... no one writing about Roth will be able to sidestep this foundational biography. If nothing else, Bailey’s book is a crucial decoder ring for deciphering the byzantine layers of who became what in Roth’s romans-à-clef.
RaveThe Washington Post... painstakingly researched, psychologically nuanced, unshowy, lucid ... Souder, in his own humble style, has brought a deeply human Steinbeck forth in all his flawed, melancholy, brilliant complication.
RaveThe Washington PostIt takes a big-hearted, ambitious biographer to take on the life of a big-hearted, ambitious artist. Alexander Calder has found a perfect match in Jed Perl ... stout and smart ... Casual art fans in a hurry will find more detail here than they want from this exceptionally informed art commentator ... Perl similarly gives vivid life to his subject, discerningly and lovingly bringing to the stage of his page Calder’s colossal daring.
RaveThe Washington Post... hugely enlightening and entertaining ... Having described the physical nature of our world and beyond, from the atomic to the intergalactic, in The Body [Bryson] now turns inward to explain — in his lucid, amusing style — what we’re made of. Along the way, as he has before, he weaves in stories of the astonishing characters who have been figuring humans out ... draws on dozens of experts and a couple hundred books to carry the reader from outside to inside, from up to down and from miraculous operational efficiencies to malignant mayhem when things go awry ... Despite the body’s harrowing malfunctions, you will marvel at the brilliance and vast weirdness of your design.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe book is at its best when tracing the lyric and sonic collages of art rock and its offshoots to Burroughs’s groundbreaking use of literary cut-ups—the snipping and reassembling of texts to form new texts. Rae goes further, in fact, arguing provocatively that although Burroughs died in 1997 at age 83, he freakishly presaged the fractured, distracting memes and bytes of today’s Web mind ... There is a structural repetitiveness, perhaps an unavoidable one, as Rae toggles back and forth between Burroughs’s bio and those of the musicians. Still, it is fun being a fly on the wall during meetings of these colossal hipsters.
RaveThe Washington PostSmith has the historical grounding of E.L. Doctorow, the character discernment of Alice McDermott and the bold whimsy of Mark Helprin. He is a writer of elegance, rich imagination and propulsive plotting ... themes are spooled through an irresistible and dizzying international tale of early cinema ... Smith manages to pack so much story and layer such rich characters into this generous but disciplined narrative because of his rare gift for poetic concision ... Let others bake in the sun with their thrillers. Hide in the shade with Smith, instead, and emerge at dusk with a quickened literary metabolism and an enigmatic smile.
PositiveThe Washington Post...astute, wide-ranging ... What Wilson brings to the table is a big-picture global synthesis ... Wilson brings bountiful sources to her economic, sociological and medical brain food. And she makes it surprisingly palatable through her self-deprecating humor, relatable recollections of her own binge-eating and colorful globe-trotting examples ... She writes like the busy mom that she is, caught up as we all are in the whirlwind schedules and demands of modern life.
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksLynne Olson, who has written widely about Allied efforts during the war, turns a long-overdue spotlight on Fourcade in a tense new page-turner...Olson’s research is comprehensive, her writing crackling, and her story astonishing. She is wise enough to get out of the way of her compelling material, but also to shape it so that the Alliance’s complicated exploits are clear and the dozens of players in the story, many with one or more code names, can be kept straight. The book is war history, to be sure, but also an astute character portrait and a study in management and persistence under harrowing circumstances ...
RaveThe Washington PostJames, a journalist, critic and novelist, applies his cultural erudition to Capri’s history, particularly events of the 19th and 20th centuries, in a leisurely, sometimes even meandering, but always colorful way ... It’s as if the island’s hot breezes influenced the pace and whimsy of James’s elegant prose. If you’re what media savants call an \'efferent reader,\' looking for the efficient take-away, his approach will drive you bonkers. But if you treat the book like a languorous, tipsy walking tour of a locale laden with history, he proves a most entertaining guide ... A motif is hedonism ... If we can’t experience that in person, doing so in these languid pages is itself a pleasure.
MixedLos Angeles Review of Books\"Scapellato provides richly detailed accounts of Lech’s projects ... Scapellato’s minimalist prose unspools in a hypnotic staccato that carries an impressive freight of mood and information ... Scapellato can also strike a refreshingly earnest, romantic tone, as he does when Stanley recalls his time with T ... Early in the novel, Stanley’s identity is ever so proximate: T, and love, are the keys he fumbles in trying to unlock it. The Made-Up Man fumbles its identity in a similar way, by looking too far outside what feels like its true self. A bittersweet novel about a beer-swigging, volatile, heartsick late-twentysomething in limbo among workaday, academic, and bohemian worlds — would that be too cliché? Too pedestrian? Too similar to a hundred other lad-lit novels? Not in hands as capable and original as Scapellato’s. Not with his feel for the tense moment and the quirky detail. It needed no postmodern razzmatazz.\
Joyce Carol Oates
PositiveLos Angeles Review of Books\"... engrossing ... The story’s ominous sense of puppet masters pulling strings is heightened by frequent references to the behaviorism that Adriane and Wolfman study ... The time travel allows Oates to chalk up her one officially dystopian novel while spending more than three quarters of it in naturalistic settings with more than a few passing parallels to Oates’s life ... [a] strange, piercing novel...\
PositiveThe Washington PostMinstrelsy? Really? What could be further from Wilde’s highbrow high jinks than that racist, degrading American and English entertainment for the masses? It’s a hard contrast to process, but Mendelssohn’s detailed examination—geared more to the devout Wildephile than to the casual fan—is compelling ... Mendelssohn’s scrupulous account humanizes Wilde, often unflatteringly. He was an unrepentant racist who alternately dismissed or fetishized blacks, bragged about his white-supremacist uncle and toadied up to Jefferson Davis and other Confederate stalwarts, drawing parallels between Southern secessionism and Irish republicanism ... Wilde the wit, the aesthete and the social commentator, partly fashioned in the furnace of an unruly America, continues to be relevant.
Philippe Costamagna, Trans. by Frank Wynne
MixedThe Washington PostAs translated by Frank Wynne, The Eye opens promisingly ... the other two-thirds of the book: a fairly dry history of art expertise blended with score-settling, snobbery and self-regard. The title trope of \'the Eye\'—a semi-mystical visual brilliance shared by a handful of freakishly talented art historians (including the author, of course)—is seductive at first but soon becomes irritating and then laughable. By book’s end, Costamagna sounds like a deranged cult leader ... What’s frustrating is that there is the start of a richer coming-of-age story that remains unwritten ... Costamagna seems willing to reveal only so much of himself, though. Post-adolescence, the curtain closes ... Despite the book’s rigidity, one comes away feeling somewhat re-sensitized to beauty and somewhat nostalgic for an era when museums weren’t the selfie-stick madhouses they are today.
RaveLos Angeles Review of BooksPersuasive, bracing, and depressing, Tailspin is an essential read if you want to understand the pressures that have brought a sclerotic Uncle Sam to his knees, clutching at his chest. Brill’s prose is generally crisp, his examples well chosen, and his policy explanations dotted with colorful character sketches ... Brill takes an unflinching look at the new American exceptionalism as citizens reach ever-greater heights of selfishness, shortsightedness, irresponsibility, and political paralysis. There are real twists to this tale ... Maybe strong doses of unvarnished bad news like Tailspin itself are the medicine we need most right now. Gulp it down.
Miles J. Unger
RaveThe Washington PostIf you’re an art lover, this is an engrossing read. Unger draws not just from his own wide knowledge and considered taste but from an imposing array of journals, memoirs, biographies and periodicals. From these he offers a historically and psychologically rich account of the young Picasso and his coteries in Barcelona and Paris ... Readers enamored of this crucial moment in art history might complement Unger’s detailed telling with the more panoramic and accessible In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art, by Sue Roe. The two books together — Unger’s in close-up, Roe’s in the broad view — wonderfully capture how Picasso’s personal history, temperament and aesthetic development combined with the revolutionary currents in turn-of-the-century Parisian culture to bring about this unforgettable depiction of five primordial she-devils, a painting that Picasso’s writer friend André Salmon called 'the incandescent crater from which emerged the fire of present art.'
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksWood will...remain renowned for his criticism and not for his fiction because his criticism, honed over three decades, is superb, while his novels...are \'merely\' very good. True to their author’s voice, these are careful works that resist controversy beyond the fact that they exist, show a calm, colorful command of language, and are absorbing to read ... Wood lives in his head and so do his characters, and that will never be everyone’s cup of tea ... But is it paranoid to theorize that in a few cases resentments are at play, scores being settled? ... Might these rare Wood novel releases occasion payback from protective critics avenging the big-game novelists Wood has hunted ... Or might some critics be envious of Wood’s talents ... Upstate displays a master unobtrusively practicing what he preaches. If Wood is guilty of anything, it is a formal conservatism ... His cherished free-indirect narrative approach allows for naturalistic flows of memory ... The prose is easy and confident ... Those seeking heart-stopping plot turns should walk away. That’s not what Wood does ... An unassuming, carefully crafted story about devotion and quiet commitment? In 2018, that is subversive.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe laconic Calder downplayed theory, but Perl treasures it. And that works out strangely well, for who but a bold, incredibly knowledgeable critic such as Perl would have the guts to, in essence, read the mind of a sculptor who preferred bending wire to batting around high-minded jargon? … Perl does persuade us that Calder, although inspired by isms — modernism, cubism, abstractionism, surrealism — somehow evaded their constricting clutches and pioneered new forms that evolved from playful to beautiful to monumental. Like Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp and Mondrian, Calder widened the vocabulary of perception … Those looking for a sleek life story will sometimes be maddened by Perl’s digressions...My recommendation? Relax. Bathe in Perl’s erudition. Enjoy his enthusiastic cat-chasing-butterflies side excursions.
RaveThe Washington PostHe comes to life in all his remarkable brilliance and oddity in Walter Isaacson’s ambitious new biography ... Isaacson’s approach, true to his background, is fundamentally journalistic. No intellectual peacocking for him, and though his writing is certainly graceful, it is never needlessly ornate. But make no mistake: He knows his stuff, crowdsourcing, with extreme diligence, an array of art, historical, medical and other experts to arrive at a vigorous, insightful portrait of the world’s most famous portraitist. Da Vinci groupies won’t find startling revelations here. Isaacson’s purpose is a thorough synthesis, which he achieves with flair.
Donna M. Lucey
PositiveThe Washington PostWe learn something of Sargent’s personality, his technique and his circumstances, but Lucey primarily uses him as a portal through which to glimpse these assertive spirits of the Gilded Age ... Lucey’s prose is invitingly conversational and quick-flowing. Her character sketches are colorful and she is not, thank goodness, above conveying some wonderfully catty gossip.
MixedThe Washington PostNow, to rescue Rumi from this inane Orientalizing comes the poet, novelist and biographer Brad Gooch with Rumi’s Secret. A dazzling feat of scholarship, but a pedestrian read, the book restores Rumi to the glories and hardships of his momentous age ... Gooch manages to paint an accessible, tangible portrait of the ancient poet ... Rumi’s Secret is a strangely dry read considering it has a literally whirling mystic as its subject. As if fearing that too lyrical an approach to such an orphic figure would result in incoherence, Gooch describes this poet’s life in a decidedly unpoetic way ... this book won’t get anyone excited about Rumi. Instead, it will give those already excited about Rumi help in contextualizing his work.
PositiveLos Angeles Review of BooksIn the celebrity and showbiz minutiae that understandably populate full-length Streisand bios, what may get lost is how Streisand turned her liabilities as a woman at the time — her middle-class, Brooklyn-Jewish mannerisms, speech, and looks; her kooky and sometimes volatile temperament; her brazen cultural and business ambitions — into assets through sheer talent and force of will. That and a sense of how Streisand’s career trajectory was foreshadowed even in her earliest Village gigs are the value added in Gabler’s clever decoding...In this Streisand study, Gabler as biographer and as cultural analyst complement each other in describing how a life and a society catalyzed each other in astonishing ways.