Annalisa QuinnAnnalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR. Quinn studied English and Classics at Georgetown University and holds an M.Phil in Classical Greek from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Cambridge Trust scholar. She can be found on Twitter @Annalisa_Quinn
PositiveNPR... full-hearted essays ... Some of the essays are weaker than others: An essay on Snoopy has some self-conscious charms but feels essentially irresolute. Some parts of the book feel like excuses to brag about her friends (though of all the forms of writerly self-indulgence, that might be among the easiest to forgive). But at their best, they are a catalogue of all the unexpected ways love can look, if you\'re imaginative and brave enough to try it — even while knowing that love and grief are two sides of the same coin.
PositiveNPR... elastic, imaginative ... allusive, blunt, funny essays ... Nelson is clearly aware of the pitfalls of this approach, and the danger of deemphasizing the violent misogyny that saturates our culture. But for Nelson, talking about trauma and fear without also talking about pleasure and choice impoverishes women\'s sexual lives ... is by turns taut and discursive, precise and atmospheric, combining fierce intellectual kick with an openness to nuance. Nelson has a perpetual orientation towards not either/or but both/and. I am sure this book will offend some readers ... There is a lot of vulnerability in Nelson\'s writing, and I don\'t mean in the way she shares intimate and painful details of her life, though that is there as well. After nearly every point, she will complicate it — probe its weak spots and limits, ask what she\'s not seeing, contradict herself. While she is sharp, she is rarely certain. She doesn\'t write, as so many people on the internet are conditioned to do, from a position of defensiveness, an assumption of bad faith readings, a desire to make her words sleek and unassailable. The result is not fuzziness but precision, a hyper-awareness of moral shading. In On Freedom, Nelson is doing what feels like intellectual echolocation: putting out calls and seeing what answers.
Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley
PositiveNPR... there is something counterintuitively comforting in a deeply-considered book that contextualizes and justifies the seclusion and uncertainty of the past 18 months ... Manaugh and Twilley visit an impressively broad array of quarantine projects.
MixedNPRPackard\'s writing, quoted generously, is the best part of the book — resolute, warm, both soulful and practical. But because it is quoted often without chronology or context, it is hard to see her intellectual development, the beginnings of her feminist stirrings, and the evolution of her relationship with her husband. Moore, the author of The Radium Girls, is a clear writer but prone to overreliance on metaphor, and painfully eager to make sure we never miss the point ... A particular oversight is Packard\'s religious views, which are never fully explained or explored, despite being the primary justification for her incarceration ... But the book\'s strangest and biggest omission is the subject of slavery...Moore never quotes these lines, or explores Packard\'s belief that she was more spiritually elevated than the enslaved people she relied on so often as metaphors for her own condition ... The book illustrates the particularly skewed incentives of inspirational biographies — to flatter, flatten, and portray someone in line with the presumed values of its values ... we meet Elizabeth Packard the inspiration — and she is an inspiration — but we don\'t quite see the radical, the believer, the racist, or the thinker.
RaveNPRKlara and the Sun is set in a near-future, someplace in America. As in other Ishiguro novels, the horror of this world dawns gradually, through a bland vocabulary of menace ... One of the joys of Ishiguro\'s novels is the way they recall and reframe each other, almost like the same stories told in different formats. Klara\'s voice, gently puzzled, resembles the butler\'s in The Remains of the Day as he tries to determine how to relate to his new American employer, who seems to expect him to make jokes ... Again and again, Ishiguro asks: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a self? And how much of that self can and should we give to others? ... gentle, lovely, and mournful.
PositiveNPR... to identify the book\'s themes as domestic or interpersonal would be to miss what makes Moss\'s work so distinctive: the lovely countermelodies of earth, animal, and sky that contextualize human dramas, the way her work has that special \'seriousness accorded to the ground under our feet only by toddlers and botanists,\' as one character thinks while watching her young daughter study rocks ... This correspondence is most apparent in the pattering, sensual way she writes about water, as something in us and outside of us, flowing through us, and making us up, a reminder that we are not as separate from the natural world as we sometimes think ... These little correspondences between human and animal are often funny ... Moss builds elliptical, mounting dread throughout the novel to prepare us for the catastrophe that comes at the end. But in the way she swoops and zooms through time and space, Moss also teaches us to ask, as she puts it in one of her interludes: In the midst of uncertainty and frailty, should the history of the ground under our feet \'comfort us, in geological time?\'
MixedNPRDownie is extremely well-placed to offer a history of the last 50 years in news, from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., to Watergate, the Jonestown Massacre, Bill Clinton\'s impeachment, the Unabomber, the Sept. 11 attacks, and the invasion of Iraq. But All About the Story also functions as a primer on journalistic ethics ... Downie\'s style occasionally tilts toward the stilted and self-congratulatory ... I also felt pricks of irritation at the way he writes about his wives, who appear largely like graceful editorial assistants ... Nor are Downie\'s views on journalistic neutrality wholly convincing or coherent, resting as they seem to do on the assumption that objectivity means the same thing to everyone. Downie is comfortable, for instance, vociferously criticizing Donald Trump\'s treatment of the press. But he is critical of women reporters who advocate for abortion rights ... All About the Story has obvious value for anyone looking to understand the ways news has changed in the past five decades. Some of those lessons are not intentional.
MixedNPR... becomes a reasonably convincing, if personally unreflective, battle plan for getting more women elected ... [Hill\'s] book, despite many references to \'imperfections,\' also makes it clear she thinks her conduct was not especially serious ... Hill\'s tone, light and Twitter-inflected, often jars ... Attempts to correct sexism by claiming women are in fact better than men are also neither flattering nor convincing. Nor do we need inane encouragement along the lines of \'women are awesome at being in charge, just like we are at everything else,\' as Hill puts it ... But Hill\'s aim is to encourage more women to run for office, and the book does a fair job of laying out some of the barriers and obligations this involves. There is also a satisfyingly concrete list of legislative measures to address problems stemming from sexism, along with their status in Congress. These are nested, though, in confused platitudes about female empowerment ... Maybe this isn\'t surprising: Jessica Bennett, in a sympathetic New York Times profile of Hill, notes that the book was written in three weeks.
PositiveNPR... slinky and scowling as a Neapolitan cat ... When awkwardness intrudes on Ferrante\'s smooth sentences, it is always meaningful ... Goldstein\'s expert translation allows the perfect amount of awkwardness ... There is some good, uncomplicated sex in this novel.
PositiveNPRJuly\'s sentences are either elliptical or dart off unexpectedly, like a lizard from a predator. In contrast, chapters narrated by her mother Sheela have a pungent despair, heavy with fear and anger about children ... although Sisters has an animal suspense missing from Everything Under, it feels slighter, less nuanced and less able to commit to those big questions of speech and agency ... But when it comes, the revelation is genuinely surprising, illuminating the web of possession, ventriloquism, and love that hangs through the novel.
PositiveNPRFrom the outside, Melania Trump looks like a woman in over her tastefully balayaged head ... A new, scrupulously reported biography by Washington Post reporter Mary Jordan counters this perception, arguing that the first lady is not a pawn but a player, an accessory in the second as much as the first sense, and a woman able to get what she wants from one of the most powerful and transparently vain men in the world ... The result is a convincing case that those \'who dismiss her as nothing more than an accessory do not understand her or her influence\' ... its major contribution is merely the insistence that Melania is a real person with complicated motivations. This point should be obvious: Isn\'t everybody, in and out of the White House, complex, striving, conflicted, out for something?
PanNPR... baggy, meandering ... The question of how much of character is innate, how much formed, becomes a more explicit — OK, painfully obvious — theme ... Readers who loved the moral ambiguity, crisp writing and ruthless pacing of the first three books might be less interested in an overworked parable about the value of Enlightenment thinking. That\'s not to say Collins can\'t or shouldn\'t work serious moral and political questions into her novels: It\'s the sheer obviousness that drags, the way that we know what the right answer is supposed to be ... Coriolanus is just a flat, wily sociopath. In contrast, Katniss was allowed contradictions: She was a wounded, vicious, plotting, independent, ferocious rebel — willing, at various points, to murder, steal and betray her loved ones for a larger goal. As a protagonist, there was something gloriously undidactic about her. She was a monster, she was a killer, and she was also a principled and intractable author of herself ... The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes tells us what we should think. But The Hunger Games allowed for both.
RaveNPRRodham is a nauseating, moving, morally suggestive, technically brilliant book that made me think more than any other in recent memory about the aims and limits of fiction ... Rodham feels more invasive than even the most intricate Reddit fantasies about Clinton — she runs a child sex ring; she is a literal witch — because of its plausibility: the attentive, almost obsessive way it catches her voice and her fears ... If this impersonation feels uncanny, even parasitic, it is ... At the same time, it feels less exploitative than some of the ostensible nonfiction written about Clinton. She has been so fictionalized, warped and weaponized by pundits and journalists to fit their chosen narratives that straightforward fiction is almost reassuring in its aims ... There\'s a seaminess in reading it, too, in satisfying some impulse of prurience or fantasy or grief ... Since 2016, a lot of people have taken a grim pleasure in announcing they always knew Clinton would lose. That America is too sexist, too racist, too rotten at the core for it to have gone any other way. There\'s relief in thinking like that, in shutting the door, in closing the case. By fanning out alternate narratives, this novel strips readers of the comfortable and cynical knowingness of it had to be like this — you would have had to be stupid to think it wouldn\'t be like this. Instead, it asks us to imagine a different world. She could have been different; we could have been different; everything could have been different. And from there, what a short — excruciating, hopeful — leap it is to: Everything could be different.
PositiveNPRThese essays showcase Laing as an imaginative and empathetic critic of the arts. She gets at texture, technique, feeling, and politics all at once. Her question is never \'Is this good?\' but rather \'What might this do for someone?\' Laing is always interested in a work\'s liberatory potential ... Not all of these essays are quite tall enough to ride. Many were previously published, often as columns in the art magazine Frieze, and don\'t fit naturally into the remit. The scattershot quality is often exciting — we jump from Freddie Mercury to gardening to migration to Ali Smith. But eventually the book feels like a labored attempt to impose retrospective order on work she had already done ... Funny Weather does not approach the beauty of, or the depth of feeling in, The Lonely City. But it does have its own more modest power. It\'s a pleasure to follow Laing as she pokes around companionably, examining the things that interest her and discarding the things that don\'t. Sometimes this feels irresolute. Laing is rarely if ever negative, nor is she the kind of critic who hands down judgments as if from on high. But having the last word, after all, means ending the conversation ... At her best, [Laing] turns criticism into an elevated form of hospitality: Like the host of a good party, Laing introduces you to someone, tells you what she likes about them, and then leaves you to make your own way in.
MixedNPRAttention: A Love Story is Schwartz\'s quest for the point. It is an often lucid, sometimes hazy memoir-cum-meditation on the idea of attention. The sections on Adderall are undeniably the best ... Several chapters have the feel of half-finished thoughts, two in particular: a cautious, even prim, section on mind-altering drugs and a chapter on Schwartz\'s father, the longtime broadcaster Jonathan Schwartz, who was fired by NPR member station WNYC in 2017 due to allegations of inappropriate behavior ... I couldn\'t help but feel that what fails Schwartz is, in fact, her sustained attention. On a sentence level, Schwartz is brilliant, funny and clear, but she lacks the larger thematic clarity of, for instance, Jenny Odell\'s recent book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy...
MixedNPR... Karl follows Trump in his first years as president, reporting with accuracy and clarity but little new insight. To be fair, it\'s not Karl\'s fault that we\'ve visited these spots again and again like weary pilgrims traversing the Via Dolorosa ... Karl\'s book happily does not, as many other accounts do, over-rely on former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who, because of his willingness to give interviews, has managed to enshrine his version of events as public record. We also get mercifully little palace intrigue — Karl knows better than to let White House insiders use his book to sound off anonymously about their enemies ... Karl\'s book is irritatingly unspecific ... Karl\'s exclusive coverage of a conversation about Charlottesville in which Trump praised Confederate generals would feel more urgent if Trump had not said more or less the same thing a few days later, in front of cameras ... Karl\'s purportedly hard-won insights, too, are discernible by anyone with the slightest interest in politics ... in the sheer obviousness of his account, Karl inadvertently points to a larger and more alarming truth: We are all of us, always, in the front row at the Trump show now.
MixedNPRBarry, who has published four collections of poetry, definitely did the English homework ... she also is gloriously literate in the advertising lingo of the late eighties—hence losing one\'s virginity is \'taking the Nestea plunge\' ... Barry is the queen of the register shift ... the pleasure of the book is all texture, at the expense of tension. It is too whimsical to maintain suspense, and the team members\' personal histories are too long, despite winning interludes like a series of mock college admissions essays ... But Barry is careful not to let nostalgia paper over the real ways in which things were worse in the 1980s, particularly for queer people and people of color. At times, this point feels labored, particularly in the case of a trans character, but it is still welcome.
RaveNPR... [Ward] combines grace, authority, and a humor so dry it evaporates on contact. Whether Ward is fending off the dissolute, lecherous Saif Gadhafi, son of the brutal former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, in a Moscow Mercedes, or confronting a jihadist leader with video evidence of an execution carried out by his men, she gives off the impression that the story is, above all personal considerations, sacrosanct. At the same time, she allows us to see the costs of this kind of reporting ... In news reporting, these personal relationships are supposed to stay invisible. You can care about your sources and colleagues, but you can\'t let it affect or enter the narrative. This memoir is an acknowledgment of how real those relationships can be, and what a toll it takes to pretend otherwise.
MixedNPR... inventive but muddled ... Gwen\'s ethical deliberations are obscured by the fact that Jen tells the story from the point of view of her lackluster father, Grant. Half of the book\'s action takes place out of his sight, and is laboriously constructed in letters home, speculation, and, finally, a bug he plants on Gwen when she goes away to university. As a result, Gwen has little interiority ... There is a better model in Gwen\'s lawyer mother Eleanor, who sues the government for human rights violations. But Gwen\'s own actions never attain the same moral stakes, and the novel\'s ethics ultimately feel confused ... baseball is also a real sport, and The Resisters finds no tactile joy in it, nothing that would call up glove snaps, bat cracks, or the smell of grass. The games themselves feel interminable, metaphorically weighted but bloodless ... Jen will occasionally write a perfect sentence...But more often, the internet language feels artificial ... Jen\'s most perceptive points come out in worldbuilding.
C Pam Zhang
MixedNPRZhang\'s style can be densely, airlessly lovely. Self-conscious lyricism fills the page like all that California dust, sometimes making it hard to breathe ... The novel also depends so heavily on foreshadowing that it feels like we might be in a de Chirico painting. For Zhang\'s characters, any good thing—a baby, a new friend, sudden money—spells disaster, a feature which drains suspense and makes it impossible to sustain any hope for them. To read this novel the way it wants to be read—earnestly, wholeheartedly—would be to be in a perpetual state of longing and disappointment ... it\'s hard not to resent that emotional manipulation. But Zhang also unspools sophisticated ideas about land, ownership, rootedness, and history.
MixedNPRMany of the arguments in Recollections of My Nonexistence might feel familiar or even obvious, which is due in part to Solnit\'s own influence in the last few years ... Here, Solnit describes the threat of sexual violence as a kind of atmospheric phenomenon, an accumulated weight of episodes and images rather than a particular threat. This gives the book a kind of mistiness, although you can see why Solnit might tire of litigating particular misogynistic incidents, even when they reveal a broader pattern. After all, if a listener is unconvinced, any example can be argued away as an aberration, an exception, and not indicative of a wider culture ... In Recollections of My Nonexistence, Solnit implies that just as the illness can be both dramatic and also cumulative, gradual, and imperceptible, so might be the cure.
PositiveNPR... charming, anxious, and tender essays ... O\'Connell is interested in the feeling of apocalypse, not its precise mechanics. He rarely bothers with perfunctory explanatory glosses, the whowhatwhenwhere writers usually have to do before the more interesting why. His chapter on visiting Chernobyl, hilariously, never stops to explain what exactly happened there (nuclear catastrophe, Soviet Ukraine, 1986). He also does not attempt to explain the science behind climate change ... O\'Connell takes for granted that we feel as he does, that apocalypse is just in the air ... O\'Connell is frantic with meaning-making, like one of those medieval Christian mystics who saw the rapture portended in every pebble, every bird ... a reminder to ask what else we can be — and for whom — in the meantime.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... cheerfully grotesque ... simultaneously impatient with pieties and deeply, even ecstatically, religious ... The stories are uneven, wavering like one of his tipsy priests between transcendence and incoherence. In particular, the women in these stories can feel artificial ... But it’s hard to hold a grudge in the face of L’Heureux’s charming perversity ... Even in his weaker stories, he lands, with gleeful precision, on death, sex, regret and then death again. But God’s wry grace always comes through at the last.
PositiveNPRThe people Yaffa describes exist in strange moral tidal zones, both subject to influences and capable, to some extent, of resisting them ... Yaffa implicitly defends those who compromise their morals for a cause, but has little sympathy for those who compromise their morals for personal benefit ... Ultimately, Between Two Fires is a good book about Russia, but a great book about ethics, choice, and coercion — and to read it is to be reminded that one of democracy\'s most important freedoms is the freedom to be good.
PositiveNPR... a measured but damning portrait of that failure at NBC, which [Farrow] ties to a pattern of harassment and abuse within the network ... creates a stark contrast with She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. They should be read together in college journalism courses, not only as stunning accounts of what good investigative journalism does but also as how institutions can find strength in legacy, reputation and numbers or use their substantial power to diffuse guilt and protect the powerful ... Farrow is cutting about the avoidant and cryptic language NBC executives used to dodge responsibility ... For all its horrors, Catch and Kill is often sweetly funny.
RaveNPR... slow rambles, long loiterings that fray the edges of certainty. For D\'Ambrosio, doubt is a posture, an ideology, and a choice as much as an actual state. Whenever he gets too polished, he roughs it up a bit ... This careful dance of high and low, of timing, circumspection, and room for nuance — and the disarming honesty — make it clear that D\'Ambrosio knows how to write a good essay, but what makes the collection great is his vast, almost painfully acute sense of compassion. The strength of his empathetic imagination, which he extends to the world around him — and, by extension (it feels like) you, is staggering ... Maybe it\'s odd to call a book kind, but kindness seems to be Loitering\'s animating principle ... it delivers that most primal pleasure of reading — the feeling of being understood, of not being alone.
MixedNPRIn short, accessible chapters, Maddow covers apparently distinct topics ... Maddow\'s tone will be familiar to viewers of her show: It\'s knowing, cynical, and snide. The jokes and insults are presumably meant to leaven a difficult subject; I found them irritating, an exercise in letting readers feel morally and intellectually superior. The easy contempt is most grating when it seeps outside of the circle of her legitimate targets ... But Blowout nonetheless feels like a public service. Though its value is not in original reporting. it usefully compiles the most convincing research and journalism on the harm oil and gas have done to global democracy, and then weaves together a narrative of greed, power, and corruption ... It would have been valuable, instead of making this weirdly exculpating argument, for Maddow to spend some pages on the places that have already implemented some of her environmental suggestions: countries in Western Europe.
RaveNPR... a devastating, immersive memoir of [Miller\'s] sexual assault and its aftermath. We live with Miller minute by minute, thinking and feeling with her. At points, particularly during the account of her testimony, it is hard to read it and breathe at the same time ... Miller is an extraordinary writer: plain, precise and moving. The memoir\'s sharpest moments focus on her family and their grief over her attack.
RaveNPRLike most really good books, The First Bad Man is summary-averse: It defies the demands of jacket copy, and the joy of reading it comes from seeing the odd, musty, intimate corners of a person\'s inner life treated with immense gravity and care. Few novels I can think of have such perfect descriptions of self-observation ... July is a master of the intimate weirdnesses of human thought that are both deeply specific and yet totally recognizable ... To see these everyday — yet deeply private — moments given serious artistic treatment is elating, like looking at a painting in a museum and recognizing your own toes in it. This cataloging of unglamorous inner life could be grotesque (and sometimes is) but there is something hugely generous about it. Writing about sex is a particular skill of July\'s — it is beautiful but real, not rapturous or misty or scene-lit. Her humor comes from a careful literalness: a dragging out of the truth, and placing it in startling juxtaposition with the surface of things. Again, she does this both with the big and the small ... Reading The First Bad Man, you are reminded that the minute and the magnificent are both real life, that the daily texture of things is as varied, intricate and fascinating as the great ruptures of human life, as tidal waves and revolutions and thwarted love.
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
RaveNPRShe Said is first and foremost an account of incredible reporting, the kind that takes time, diligence and the kind of institutional support many newspapers can no longer afford. For journalist readers, it is a chance to watch experts at work. And this book is a rare view for nonjournalists into the exacting and rigorous process of quality reporting, and it acts as an implicit counterargument to rising, ambient skepticism of the press ... She Said is...a story of both tremendous cowardice and tremendous bravery ...But the book has a quiet countermelody: the way woman after woman sacrificed her privacy and safety to make the world better for each other. Kantor and Twohey are not excepted; their extraordinary care for their sources stands in contrast to the way other people treated these women, as disposable or unreliable ... We know how the story ends, but She Said is nonetheless deeply suspenseful, a kind of less swaggering All the President\'s Men. But the writing slows and becomes more contemplative toward the end of the book, where the writers explore the aftermath of their story and the beginning of the #MeToo movement.
MixedNPRPoniewozik is a witty, acrobatic guide through recent decades of TV ... Reading Poniewozik is like watching a motorcyclist zip around traffic. (Traffic being the wider history of populism, values voters, demography, etc.). He is abundantly smart, and you get the sense that he\'s just tossing out connections and theories the way you might scatter bread crumbs to pigeons ... But the book\'s largest omission is a serious consideration of Trump\'s supporters. You can easily see how Trump\'s belligerent, spiteful performances would get him attention. But what happens in that small, crucial distance between attention and support? ... when [Poniewozik] imagines himself into the minds of Trump voters, the result feels artificial ... both brilliant and daring, particularly when it comes to Trump\'s image making. It is a tactile pleasure to read. Poniewozik\'s sentences zip! His jokes land! His interpretations shimmy! ... But I couldn\'t get past that gap, the one between image and audience, the place where the thinking, digesting, and responding happens. In Poniewozik\'s reading, Trump\'s supporters must be stupid, dazzled creatures, absorbing the darkest messages of television and regurgitating them uncritically on the ballot. But people are not mere receptacles of culture. And treating Trump voters as yous rather than its — in other words, as though they have interiority, beliefs, and the ability to weigh options — does not exonerate them. If anything, it acknowledges that they are fully responsible for the choice they made.
PanNPRThe Enemy of the People would have been a good place to ask why Trump has succeeded ... But Acosta used it as an opportunity to relitigate his spats with the White House rather than to meaningfully interrogate the cultural shift that left huge numbers of people despising and fearing the press ... Acosta sounds less like a reporter than a rival athlete ... Acosta has become a commentator, not a reporter ... Acosta has allowed Trump to set the terms of engagement. Trump paints the media as the opposition, and Acosta has accepted the mantle without wondering what he might be giving up in return.
PositiveNPR...perceptive (if overlong) ... Overthrow is a carefully unsentimental book, or at least an ambivalent one. Happiness and sadness are both always partial ... though the book is long and sometimes lagging, it is full of sentences of great sensitivity and precision ... Overthrow finds redemption at the place where \'telepathy\' shades into empathy:
PositiveNPRAt its best, The Water Dancer is a melancholic and suspenseful novel that merges the slavery narrative with the genres of fantasy or quest novels. But moments of great lyricism are matched with clichés and odd narrative gaps, and the mechanics of plot sometimes seem to grind and stall ... For Coates, remembering is not only a personal process — it involves tapping into the collective culture, memory and pain of generations ... The most moving part of The Water Dancer was not Hiram\'s escape or the escape of the people he loves, but the possibility it offers of an alternate history.
PanNPRRow\'s book is an ambitious attempt to investigate what is latent in those silences, and to create a theory of what Row, borrowing from the critic Eve Sedgwick, calls \'reparative writing\' ... White Flights is both astute and painfully self-regarding, showcasing a fierce intelligence trained, too often, on its own belly button ... despite his great care and acute self-awareness, Row shows how very hard it can be for white writers not to make it about themselves ... Row likes ambiguity, and is fond of phrases like \'Which is to say, but also not to say...\' ... But one of the requirements of nonfiction is that it needs to, at some level, mean what it says.
RaveNPR... a clever and elegant update to James\'s story, one with less ambiguity but its own eerie potency ... contains all the most pleasurable hallmarks of the genre ... Rereading Ware, you admire her cleverness, the way she hid her tracks and left bright threads winding in different directions, but the charge is gone. But though mystery is solved, she offers the possibility of another kind of horror, one that is ongoing and very real.
RaveNPRI Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution is a collection of 32 brilliant, generous essays, most of which have been previously published by The New Yorker, where Nussbaum is a TV critic ... Nussbaum\'s essays aren\'t merely moralizing, though they can fit into the genre of \'The Thing You Thought Was Bad Is Actually Good\' essays, or the slightly rarer converse, \'The Thing You Thought Was Good Is Actually Bad\' essays, which lose value quickly unless the writer is able to significantly engage with the artwork in its own right, outside of its role as a David or a Goliath. Nussbaum\'s do. They are marbled with her thinking about prestige and power and gender and taste, but they are also funny ... It\'s thrilling to watch Nussbaum stake the slick misogyny of True Detective, or the cloying phoniness of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as she insists implicitly and explicitly that TV should be mind-expanding, complex, generous, and, above all, have things to say about who we are and what we want ... But what about the people who make TV? Here, she is not so certain. The collection\'s one new piece of writing...is a queasy, poignant 50-page consideration of the question: \'What should we do with the art of terrible men?\' ... Here, her ambivalence is more affecting than the gleaming certainty of prior chapters. The essay functions as a kind of eulogy: not for the men, but for the things we had the privilege of loving uncomplicatedly, before we were forced to know better.
MixedNPRAt its worst, Collins\' style is hampered by repetition, excess, and meaningless aphorism. At its best, it is full-hearted and visceral ... The question of who killed the Benhams provides the ostensible narrative tension of the book, and the love story its heart. Neither is wholly convincing: Marguerite is hazy and bloodless, and the mystery is obscured as incest, prostitution, addiction, secret pregnancy, and other twists are added to the narrative tangle. The true, vital energy of this book comes from its preoccupation with knowledge, science, and writing, both for their inherent values and because they are proxies for power ... The book\'s most deeply felt battle is over that magic. Who has knowledge, who keeps it, who spreads it, and who gets the credit. In its best moments, The Confessions of Frannie Langton is less a romance or a mystery than a counter-curse.
Bret Easton Ellis
PanNPR\"[Some of Elliss\'s criticisms seem] seem fair enough — but does he think his constant invocations of fascists and fascism are somehow different? These moments of hypocrisy occur so frequently that the reader begins to suspect Ellis simply has a different set of standards for himself than for anyone else. He has thoughts and opinions; everyone else has biases and agendas. His trolling is fun; anyone else\'s is a sign of cultural decline. When he is criticized it represents the degenerative power of social media. When opponents don\'t like his criticism, it is because they are crybabies ... Ellis\'s work is rooted in personal grievance: He can\'t escape the backlash cycle long enough to figure out what he actually believes or cares about. All he knows is that you care far too much ... In the end, for a chance of winning an argument against imaginary foes, Ellis is willing to concede that he is no longer capable of thinking for himself.\
PanNPR\"A burn book with page numbers ... Ward seems to forget the original tenet of White House reporting: Everyone has an agenda. She has said she interviewed 220 people for the book but is vague on who they are. Some claims seem to originate with the pair\'s rivals, including Bannon. Kushner, Inc. is populated by \'close associates,\' \'family friends\' and, occasionally, a \'person.\' Sometimes no one is cited at all. At one point, the anonymous person who gave Ivanka a tour of her high school pops up to say she seemed like a lonely teenager ... There is a form of fact laundering that takes place through books like these. Imagine a sketchy claim with a single, biased source. Good news outlets wouldn\'t run it. But since publishing houses lack the editorial standards (fact checking, requiring multiple sources, etc.) that those outlets have, the claim can appear in a news book. And from there, through outlets covering the book like news, the claim gets into the news outlets that would never have printed it in the first place ... Ward\'s own yields generally feel meager, and she wraps even the smallest scoops in a fog of insinuation and menace ... feels a little like an assassination attempt with Nerf pellets ... A further wrong note is Ward\'s treatment of Judaism. The way Judaism frequently crops up in the context of power brokering, greedy cabals and string-pulling feels, at very best, tone-deaf ... Ward seems to lack curiosity about her subjects\' inner lives in general ... Ward still hasn\'t found the real story.\
RaveThe GuardianWest’s range is wide. Shrill’s early chapters flash with wild, exuberant profanity ... Later, she becomes more sober and personal, writing about her father’s death and her love for her husband. Shrill mixes humour with pathos so effectively that those qualities magnify each other rather than cancelling each other out ... [West is] a warm, capacious and funny writer.
PositiveNPR\"Serpell\'s style is florid, but the excess often comes with a point ... Serpell also performs exquisite acts of literary ventriloquism (in addition to scattered allusions from Shakespeare to Milton to Lucretius to Virgil) ... The Old Drift offers a view of human history characterized by generative mistakes, from Dr Livingstone\'s fatal calculation about the source of the Nile to evolution itself.\
PanThe Washington Post\"Thomson’s book is unlikely to strike the death blow to male supremacy. To the contrary, Sleeping With Strangers is steeped in the sexism of Hollywood. The author rarely considers women’s views, and the index offers this sad little entry: \'women’s films, 116, 120\' ... The oddest thing about Sleeping With Strangers is that Thomson sees himself as an enlightened critic of male sexual behavior. His book is littered simultaneously with feminist truisms and overt sexism ... Sleeping With Strangers is an odd, confused cultural artifact. It presumes to explore how our desires are fired as we watch movies in the dark. But it seems rather to be a product of a dim awareness that certain behaviors and attitudes are no longer acceptable, along with an inability to imagine a world without them.\
MixedNPR\"[Abramson] uses her book to mount an expert and passionate defense of old-school journalism. But she overlooks some of its core tenets to do it ... The gossip is great, but Abramson also conducts deeply sourced and sensitive analysis of everything from the way that BuzzFeed exploits psychology to get clicks to the Times\' ongoing struggle to maintain integrity and solvency at the same time ... Abramson is deeply concerned about journalistic integrity, especially the thinning line between business and editorial sides of news outlets. But, even so, she makes a surprising number of errors in her own work here. Many of these are quiet but revealing omissions of context ... These aren\'t howlers, but quiet compromises with the truth ... In Merchants of Truth, Abramson seems to see the world in black and white: new versus old, mercenary versus honorable, clickbait versus reporting, advertising versus editorial, and so on. People are either allies or enemies. But as Abramson — good Jill and bad Jill — should know, it is rarely that simple.\
PositiveNPR\"... a tart, uncanny debut novel ... Mackintosh excels at creating a sense of ambient, originless dread, of pending apocalypse ... The Water Cure is not a simple book ... The Water Cure doesn\'t, of course, offer a solution to [toxic masculinity]. But it does show us, in the bond between Lia, Grace, and Sky, that we have at least one tool not available to Eve back at the beginning of the world: sisterhood.\
RaveThe Atlantic\"... [a] tiny, sharp knife of a novel ... acutely lovely ... In [Silvie], Moss, whose work has long plumbed the psychological roots of timely issues, offers a beautiful corrective to the rugged, wild-man archetype, and emphasizes the human cost of nostalgic nativism ... The novel probes the tension between cherishing something by letting it grow and change, and leaving it unchanging in the mud forever ... the whole book feel[s] like a web of shimmering connections, unshowy but endlessly complex.\
Wendy Guerra Trans. by Achy Obejas
PanThe Boston Globe\"What could be a restive, paranoid novel about the effects of Cuban state surveillanceis marred by a need for exaggerated poeticism at all costs, including coherence. Revolution Sunday should be exciting: There are gunshots and glamorous parties, spies and traitors, kidnappings and affairs. At one point, Sting appears at the narrator’s door, clutching an in-flight magazine. But instead the novel feels muted and muddled ... Occasional passages... hint at what this novel would look like if bits of pretty incoherence weren’t clogging the drains. Guerra sometimes succeeds in creating a mood ... Difficult prose has to be earned: There has to be something worthwhile behind it.\
PositiveThe AtlanticPolitics in Rooney’s novel are often ambient rather than explicit, submerged under the surface of a love story ... She’s embedding politics closely and rigorously in the love story, showing how relationships can function like miniature states, and how political principles can work on an intimate scale, in the interactions of two, three, or four people ... The novel suggests the possibility of a setup in which these advantages are shared and redistributed according to need. Call it a Marxism of the heart ... what Rooney has is something different—a seismographer’s attention to the dips and tremors of social value ... In some ways, Normal People feels like an extension of Rooney’s flashier first novel ... Normal People answers the question posed in Conversations With Friends ... Normal People proposes that a merciful and just country can still exist, even if only in the space between friends.
MixedNPR\"... Where We Go From Here is unmistakably a campaign book, which means that, like almost all campaign books, it is boring ... Where We Go From Here is slightly more interesting than most campaign books because Bernie Sanders is slightly more interesting than most candidates for president ... Otherwise, Where We Go From Here is just what you might expect. His platforms are presented but not interrogated. There are stances, but few real questions and little self-reflection. But light deception, overblown rhetoric, and the urge to find blame everywhere but in your own campaign are not unique to Sanders: they are hallmarks of this genre.\
MixedNPR\"... wry, sharp ... Harman fails to connect the public furor around the Courvoisier case to the recurring question of whether violence in literature or onscreen poses a threat — and what our persistent worries that it does mean for how we understand influence, morality and fiction ... Harman doesn\'t bother connecting the Courvoisier case with the larger history of [the question, can art change behavior in dangerous ways?]. Her touch is so light and her voice is so wry you almost feel she is too tasteful to try for anything as crass or explicit as relevance. But Murder By The Book would be more interesting if she looked at how that question has recurred with amazing regularity throughout history, and how it so often suggests a belief in the essential malleability of some group of people...\
PositiveNPR\"At one point in these essays, he concedes that he sometimes comes across as \'an angry bird-loving misfit who thinks he\'s smarter than the crowd...\' This is correct. But the other piece of that description, the part about love, is also present, and it\'s what makes this collection worth reading ... [In one essay, Franzen\'s] vulnerability makes it suddenly easy to read him less like a prestigious author being arbitrarily cruel about strangers — and more like he sees himself, someone disappointed and hopeful and heartbroken about all of the ways that we treat the earth and each other ... This collection becomes beautiful when he finally gives us permission to care about him.\
RaveNPR\"... brutally intelligent ... Middle sister\'s voice is wonderful: knowing, sideways, deeply interior, ungrammatical, full of lists and wanderings, by turns demotic and mock-grand ... At its core, Milkman is a wildly good and true novel of how living in fear limits people.\
PositiveNational Public RadioFull Disclosure is a canny Trojan horse of a book. She knows exactly why you are reading it and — a career entertainer — gives the people what they want: that is, \'two to three minutes\' and \'smaller than average\' ... She baits readers with the salacious details of her alleged time with Trump, but instead offers a jaunty, foul-mouthed treatment of her life, from a childhood growing up in poverty in Louisiana to the world of clubs and porn sets ... Daniels\' voice is warm, expletive-laden and boastful ... Full Disclosure is more flashy than thoughtful, and Daniels rarely interrogates herself or her industry ... Full Disclosure, with its carefully spaced revelations and its emphasis on the larger context of Daniels\' life and work, is the product of someone fighting to stay in control of a story.
MixedNPR\"Melmoth is not subtle... It is overwrought, in a lavish, Gothic kind of way, that should sometimes have been restrained. This novel is also sloppier than her last, the wonderful Essex Serpent, and less rooted in place... But there is something satisfying in Melmoth\'s flamboyant emotions. The last few years have brought a glut of fashionably affectless and amoral fiction, the kind that induces a kind of weary glaze, almost like endless scrolling online. Sarah Perry\'s fierce, full-hearted books about love and ethics feel like an antidote to that elegant apathy.\
PositiveNPR\"My Sister, the Serial Killer uses a familiar but irresistible formula: Give us a killer chasing a sympathetic character, make the writing plain so style doesn\'t get in the way, add some beauty and the threat of blood, and most of us are snared ... There is plenty of Lady Macbeth-style scrubbing and a heavy-handed game of Clue with the presumptive next victim. But Braithwaite is at her best when she restrains these flamboyant impulses, and hews to vicious, delicious deadpan.\
Michael D'Antonio and Peter Eisner
MixedNPRThe word \'nice\' is a persistent problem for journalists Michael D\'Antonio and Peter Eisner in their new, hostile biography of Mike Pence, The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence. The truth about Pence, according to them, is that he is a sinister zealot, an opportunist, and a \'Christian supremacist\' biding his time until he can take over the presidency from Donald Trump. But here\'s the problem: Sources keep calling Pence things like \'nice.\' Luckily, D\'Antonio and Eisner have a strategy — they just pretend that \'nice\' means its opposite ... The Shadow President looks like a book, but belongs firmly in the world of partisan TV. It induces the same kind of inert, glazed irritation as cable, that feeling of wanting to leave but being caught by the graphics and hyperbole, the perpetual promise that the next segment will be more horrible, more outrageous, more shocking than the last — after this short break. Nuance is flattened, everyone has a camp, and words seem to unmoor from their meanings and drift away.
PositiveNPRFirst, Nell Stevens wrote Bleaker House, a memoir about failing to write a novel. Now, in The Victorian and the Romantic, she has written a memoir about struggling to write her doctoral dissertation. Writing about how writing is hard tends to be solipsistic and dreary, but these procrastination-born books have, instead, a kind of truant charm—like they know they should really be the other, more serious thing, the great work, but we\'re all here now so we may as well go get a drink.
RaveNPRTeo expertly evokes the kind of primal adolescent shame and horror at a body out of your control ... Everything in Ponti seems to shimmer: the thick Singaporean air, the shiny complexions of teenagers, the mirages of family members past and present. It casts a miasma over the whole book, creating a claustrophobic horror that will put you off your lunch, and then your dinner, and then physical contact with other people. It\'s as if Teo sets out to make the world grotesque ... Plot is not this novel\'s strong point ... That\'s really it: the relationships in Ponti are so stunted and painful that the novel evokes love mostly through negative space.
PositiveNPR...[a] tart retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of Achilles\' concubine, Briseis ... In a world of men obsessed with their own pre-eminence, how much more powerful is Briseis\'s claim that she is just one of many ... The Silence of the Girls is cleanly, even beautifully done, but it also feels familiar. \'Reclaiming\' women of classics is now a genre, one that no longer feel inherently rebellious ... Barker\'s retelling feels thinner than some. Perhaps that comes down to the sense that Barker is simply writing against Homer ... It\'s tempting to consider these feminist retellings mere reactions against the same old story about shields and armor, heroes and battles. But there\'s never been just one story.
PositiveNPR\"...the novel doesn\'t rest with a predictable message of sugary self-acceptance: Dietland swerves suddenly and powerfully from chick lit to revenge fantasy ... Dietland resonated with the part of me that wants, just once, to deck a street harasser. At the very least, I wish an incurable itch upon everyone who has catcalled me on the street. I wish food poisoning and public embarrassment on everyone I\'ve heard make a rape joke. I wish toothache and head lice and too-small shoes upon every stranger who has told me to smile. Which is to say, sometimes I forget I\'m angry, but I am. Dietland is a complicated, thoughtful and powerful expression of that same anger.
MixedNPR\"At first, the tone of The Briefing is jocular and daddish, like an annual Christmas letter (\'Despite being five foot six (and a half, but who\'s counting), I became the starting goalie on Portsmouth Abbey\'s soccer team.\') But the tone curdles about a third of the way in, when he begins his familiar attacks on the media, which he considers overwhelmingly biased ... Spicer gives a valuable sketch of what it looks like to move up through conservative Washington politics. And he also works hard to own up to some of his own mistakes, including his most notorious blunder: his claim during a press briefing on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that not even Hitler sunk to using chemical weapons on his own people ... But Spicer leaves out important context and doubles down on some of the lies he became famous for as press secretary ... The Briefing has little in the way of explosives, but it does have a punny plainness that makes me think Spicer may not have used a ghostwriter or committee ... Spicer has already made his bed—it\'s a shame he continues to lie in it.\
PositiveNPR\"...a dirty, jolly, book-length defense of teenage enthusiasm ... It\'s a book for someone who has yet to find out that taste is relative, cynicism is cheap, and you should only date people who are kind to you. Despite its treatment of sexual exploitation, How To Be Famous is not dark—it is a joyous, yelping novel about learning to love things without apology or irony. In service to this, metaphors careen all over the book like untrained animals, shedding and slobbering on the carpets. Nuance is lost, repetition is constant, and Moran must always have the last word, even when she\'s the only one talking. But in a contest between craft and feeling, if I can\'t have both, I\'d take feeling every time. Moran reminds us that playing it cool is a waste of living.\
RaveNPRHelen DeWitt\'s Some Trick seems less like a story collection and more like a series of notes from some vast, alien intelligence, not quite human itself, but capable of picking apart human habits with startling precision. DeWitt\'s characters are savants, weirdos, and artists, often trying to achieve their ends against the best efforts of the well-meaning and conventional people around them ... DeWitt\'s fiction is preoccupied with maneuvering around — or preferrably hijacking for one\'s own use — all that paraphernalia superfluous, not to say impedimental, to ratiocination. That can include people, ideas, bureaucracies, or businesses (especially book publishers). One of the collection\'s prevailing themes is that inefficiency is not just inconvenient, but contemptible. It details social and sexual codes as scrupulously as mathematical functions. Emotions, when they appear, are described both carefully and distantly ... In her fiction, she uses Greek if Greek is called for, or graphs if graphs are called for. Ideals such as likeability and accessibility seem irrelevant, if not quaint, in the face of her wonderfully irritable intelligence.
RaveNPR\"You Think It, I\'ll Say It gives sustained, compassionate attention to the middle-aged women of middle America ... Her imagination is not fantastical; it is empathetic. She has a vision that ensures an inner life and a backstory that\'s equally convincing for Laura Bush (whose life she borrowed for American Wife) or the parents in the carpool ... That empathetic imagination is one of the defining features of Sittenfeld\'s fiction, along with the unfashionable valuing of workaday family relationships over glamor or romance, and unpretentious, deprecating wit that\'s never cruel — or at least never for long.\
RaveNPR\"I didn\'t realize how little I knew about it [childbirth] until I read Meaghan O\'Connell\'s wry, brutal And Now We Have Everything ... The memoir industry runs increasingly on the unique, the superhuman, and the grotesque. People climb mountains, escape kidnappers, visit heaven and report back. But And Now We Have Everything shows how the most normal thing in the world — having an ordinary, healthy baby after an ordinary, healthy pregnancy — means being visited with all possible extremes of pain, fear, and love. O\'Connell renders this normal and horrific experience real, in both emotional sweep and brutal particulars.\
RaveNPR\"Miller is clearly on intimate terms with the Greek poem. The character of Circe only occupies a few dozen lines of it, but Miller extracts worlds of meaning from Homer\'s short phrases ... Miller makes Circe\'s human voice the beginning of a (fraught, because inherently temporary) kinship with mortals that is one of the novel\'s loveliest strains ... Circe insists that labor, as much as love, makes a life.\
PositiveNPR\"When Jamison writes about drinking and drugs, and later about sobriety, it is the kind of gorgeous and exact writing that only comes from extreme attention, that greater part of love ... When I reread The Recovering, I skipped the parts about other people and found a shorter and truer book waiting inside. Her journalism is less natural than her essays, so, for instance, the reported story of a rehab house and its inhabitants feels perfunctory, a way of warding off the appearance of self-involvement ... But for the most part, Jamison\'s story was the only one I cared about, not because her drunkalog, as she calls it, is different from or better than anyone else\'s, but because she was so fully there, in her own thronged and fraught mind, illuminating it from the inside. She worries that that kind of interiority suggests a fatal selfishness. But the promise of books is that we are bound up and implicated in other people\'s lives, even if they have nothing to do with us. Her story is ours now — what a gift.\
PositiveNPR\"The Female Persuasion is a wonderfully solid book, luxuriously long and varied in an almost 19th century kind of way ... The Female Persuasion unpicks these tensions but doesn\'t indulge them, preferring to show feminism as an ecosystem rather than an arrow ... who cares whether she nails the exact cadences of teenage speech if she can evoke so achingly that mixture of certainty and cluelessness, desire and ineptitude, that comes with being a young person?\
PositiveNPROrtberg has none of the gory lushness of Angela Cartner, but something more evil, antic, and modern, not to mention hyperliterate ... 'The Rabbit' is a dark, delicious joy: a funny and genuinely eerie adaptation that quickly spirals into a parable about possession and what happens to love in a power asymmetry. Not every story has that wonderful, wicked pull, but the two or three that do manage to articulate some very real aspect of human relationships and dependency ... One of The Merry Spinster's sharpest delights is the way fairy tale roles — wife, princess, youngest daughter, husband, king — are all detached from gender, so we are able to see them more clearly as distinct tropes.
PositiveNPR\"For the first few chapters, it seemed too tired and too insular a story to hear again all for the meagre reward of watching a lightly disguised Philip Roth ejaculate ‘like a weak water bubbler.’ But as Asymmetry progresses, its quietly subversive undercurrents grow stronger and the story resolves into an interesting meditation on creativity, empathy, and the anxiety of influence … Years pass, measured in Nobel prize announcements (Ezra, like Roth, always misses out), and then Asymmetry suddenly molts its feathers, as if a pigeon you had been idly watching from a park bench turned into a beautiful, startling flamingo in the middle of Central Park. A new book begins … Asymmetry is a guidebook to being bigger than ourselves.\
MixedNPRMarrying the slimy and carnivalesque, Fire and Fury occasionally reads like a parody of New Journalism with its elaborate scene-setting; omniscient narrator; some grand, misquoted Shakespeare; and a colorful vocabulary that swings from SAT words (apogee, persiflage) to bro slang (man crush, douchebag) ... Wolff prevents anyone from evaluating his reporting (as well as the motives of those giving him information), forcing us to trust him completely. But why should we be confident in Wolff's unsourced assertions when he makes so many small factual errors with information that is publicly available (even in spite of the fact-checkers he thanks in the acknowledgments)? ... So read it, sure — but as the commercials say, only 'as part of a balanced diet.' Much of the narrative is not substantively different from information found in other reporting on the president. But many other reporters have been restrained and careful where Wolff is shameless. Facts, Wolff appears to think, have done nothing to hurt Trump — so he is fighting spectacle with spectacle.
Homer, Trans. by Emily Wilson
RaveNPR\"Classicist Emily Wilson\'s brisk and understated new version sweeps away much of the nostalgic detritus from the story of Odysseus\'s wandering way home after the Trojan war. The original poem was not written, but oral, probably composed by many different poets, who passed it down performance by performance. Wilson\'s metre — friendly iambic pentameter — helps retain that storytelling feel … Wilson\'s project is basically a progressive one: to scrape away all the centuries of verbal and ideological buildup — the Christianizing (Homer predates Christianity), the nostalgia, the added sexism (the epics are sexist enough as they are), and the Victorian euphemisms — to reveal something fresh and clean.\
MixedNPRThough she says in the afterword that writing this book made her angry, it rarely shows. Women & Power has the same cavalier, jolly tone as Beard's TV programs … It would be unreasonable to ask Beard to solve the problem for us, but a longer consideration of it would be welcome. Because Women & Power is both brief and made up of recycled work, it would be easy to dismiss it as a throwaway … In this pleasantly accessible form, they could be something important for a young person who feels the currents of culture around her but can't name them yet.
MixedNPR...an encyclopedic, fascinating and frustrating new book ... This pairing of race and bunk is immediately and instinctively convincing. But Young has a knotted, clotted style, as if making notes for himself rather than others, testing out phrases, not quite bothering to write clearly or cleanly. He loves academic punning and jargon, and will often choose alliteration or puns over sense. And he can be aphoristic to the point of meaninglessness ... Young, surely unintentionally, has a habit of saying things that sound great but mean little. These erode trust, build frustration, and ultimately feel like gentle cons or hoaxes of their own; phrases onto which we can project whatever meaning we like ... In reviewing books, we measure them against what they try to do — which means criticizing an impressive accomplishment like Bunk because it doesn't live up to its extraordinary ambitions.
RaveNPRThe work is pointedly not called a gospel — good news — but a testament — a giving witness to, an attestation. ‘I was there,’ she says. And, having seen the Crucifixion, the Mother of God tells the apostles: ‘I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it’ … Much of the elegance of this novella comes from its language, which is poetic but spare, much like cryptic music of the Gospels. And, as in the Gospels, understatement and implication are used to great effect … Lovely, understated and powerfully sad, The Testament of Mary finally gives the mother of Jesus a chance to speak. And, given that chance, she throws aside the blue veil of the Madonna to become wholly, gloriously human.
Edward St. Aubyn
RaveNPRAn author whose books are brutal and exquisite novels of inheritance, wealth, families, and cruelty, he has never hesitated to inflict pain on his audiences, and the result here is a moving, brutal and apt adaptation of the play for the Hogarth Shakespeare series ... One thread of Lear that St. Aubyn picks up beautifully is the play's awful and intimate relationship to nature. Like Lear, Dunbar projects his inner confusion on outside objects ... Aubyn is one of the few authors I can think of whose novels are magnificent in spite of not having something I always assumed was necessary in great novels: generosity and empathy for people outside the protagonist. In fact, perhaps one reason King Lear suits him so beautifully is because no one in the play has anything like the pull of Lear himself, just as no one stands up to Patrick Melrose in St. Aubyn's autobiographical novel ... Aubyn has built a career out of family pain, and his language has a wonderful poetic density, dry, expansive, self-conscious, and savage, all at once.
PanNPRAfter the gruesome opening, the narrative energy dissipates. Eleanor Henderson's The Twelve-Mile Straight can feel like a slog, nearly 600 pages of human suffering told in the third person, through the lenses of various members of the community. It is clotted with too many similar stories and indistinguishable voices: Done with more care, this labyrinthine quality could drive home the point that discrete groups work interdependently to maintain the status quo and protect the powerful, that each member of a community plays a role in perpetuating racism. But as it is, The Twelve-Mile Straight reads like a cavalcade of indistinguishable brutality without sufficient nuance.
Carmen Maria Machado
RaveNPR\"Her Body and Other Parties — just announced as a finalist for the National Book Award — is an abrupt, original, and wild collection of stories, full of outlandish myths that somehow catch at familiar, unspoken truths about being women in the world that more straightforward or realist writing wouldn\'t … Though Machado has obviously been influenced by the reworked fairy tales of Angela Carter, she seems to draw on a different canon, namely that mix of urban legend and erotica that flourished in women\'s online writing (LiveJournal, Tumblr) a decade ago and rarely gets fancy literary attention … Lydia\'s implicit question in the title story is, doesn\'t writing about women\'s preoccupation with their bodies somehow devalue them? Machado seems to answer: The world makes madwomen, and the least you can do is make sure the attic is your own.\
MixedThe Washington PostGreenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar of vast, ranging intelligence, likes his superlatives. His treatment of thousands of years of thought on the first parents in Genesis, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, supports many of them. He is ambitious. He begins with the Babylonians and ends with Darwin, with stops for Augustine, Dürer, Milton and others, looking at how each changed the way we understand Adam and Eve. But Greenblatt isn’t just eager to convince you that his topic is a worthy choice. Each subsequent point of consideration must also be hyped like an act at the circus. The effect is a nagging feeling that you’re being sold something ... About 1 in 4 Americans consider the Bible to be the literal word of God, according to a recent Gallup poll, but Greenblatt doesn’t speak to any of them, or wonder who they might be, and how they feel about Adam and Eve. A certain condescension, too, is apparent in the over-lavish way he tries to write for a general audience ... In many of his other works, Greenblatt’s scholarly voice is precise and distinctive, and he has a rare interdisciplinary instinct. He can be warm, intimate and learned; his writing on Shakespeare in particular manages to be both emotionally astute and encyclopedic. But in this work, perhaps some of his biases have intervened. He also tries too hard to be what he is already — very naturally — in his scholarship: accessible.
RaveNPRLike Ward's previous novel, Salvage the Bones, her new novel is set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage (wild or savage woods). This town is a rich swamp of overlapping family ties, violent history, and ever-present racism, thrumming like a sick heartbeat through the lives of everyone in it ... Ward exposes the chilling artifice of so many official explanations for why black men are killed and incarcerated at such high rates... Ward's lyricism tips occasionally into floweriness. Lush phrases smother each other, certain metaphors begin to drag after enough uses, and the novel lacks the variation in voice that helps As I Lay Dying stay interesting ... In this lush and lonely novel, Ward lets the dead sing. It's a kind of burial.
PositiveNPRBruce Handy's generous, warm voice is just the kind you would want reading you bedtime stories. His style is emotional and intuitive, with pleasant jolts of irreverence ... Where he lacks, he is sensible and generous enough to point elsewhere, citing Alison Lurie, Joan Acocella, and others, lavishly. Indeed, the bibliography is a mine of such good essays that it threatens to overtake his own book – and his chapter on fairy tales often feels like a rehash of Acocella's essay on the same subject. But nevertheless, Wild Things has a consistent sweetness and spontaneity that make it satisfying even when the ideas are familiar.
MixedNPR\"...the setup, for all its toomuchness, is seeded with promising ideas about intimacy, need, projection, and surveillance. But these ideas are never more interesting than in their first iterations. The novel\'s opening is satisfying: Hazel and Byron\'s courtship plays out as a perfect parody of Fifty Shades of Grey, and Nutting mocks wealthy tech culture with scorching glee. But after this sketch of lurid alienation, the rest of the novel relies on the outrage of the premise when it should tease out these conceptual underpinnings. Good satire locates some bone-deep but unarticulated aspect of our human experience and whips the veil off of it when we least expect it. It\'s like charisma — some inexplicable combination of timing and electricity. Whereas Nutting introduces an ostensibly crazy concept (sex with dolphins!) very plainly at the outset, and then simply shades in the details. Her humor is not antic, mischievous, fleet, or unexpected — just shocking ... Made for Love has a deviant instinct that make it initially captivating — but it doesn\'t do the necessary other work of a good novel.\
Anne Helen Petersen
PositiveNPRPetersen herself can't be called an unruly writer per se. In its cautious accessibility, this collection is less exuberant, less spiky and less strange — less unruly, in short — than it could be. She leaves much of the boundary pushing to her subjects. Petersen's cutting, still-by-still analysis of TV shows and music videos is wrapped in glosses, potted histories and pleasantly readable, if not radical, prose. But if Petersen is dancing on the same line of accessibility and acceptability as her subjects, can we blame her — if she'll reach more people, change more minds? ... Petersen is responsible in the best sense: She doesn't just cite her sources but elevates them. She is deeply but quietly unelitist, incorporating academic theory when necessary but with lucidity and care. She acknowledges her debts and her advantages. And once Petersen has introduced her subjects, her analysis is deeply thoughtful. Sections on Minaj (too slutty) and her unrelenting experimentation with norms are particularly brilliant.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewMaum’s writing is easy, eager and colloquial, as oxygenated as ad copy. People 'quip' or 'croon' rather than speak, metaphors mix promiscuously, points are made twice, italics tilt madly from every page. Less finished but more lively than Maum’s last novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, Touch sometimes reads like an email from a hallucinating brand strategist trapped on a silent retreat ... Maum shines when she writes about creativity, the slow burn and then sudden rush of ideas that lead Sloane to change her life. Having new ideas feels like love. We use the same liquid, luminous metaphors for both: lightning, fire, magma, light bulbs. But while love stories are almost mandatory parts of novels (including this one), good writing about creativity is rare. Maum captures that fragile, gratifying, urgent process.
RaveNPRThe best kind of nature writing celebrates not the placidly, distantly picturesque — mountaintops and sunsets — but the near, dank, and teeming. The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry's gloriously alive historical novel, squirms with bugs, moss and marsh ... Perry is good at catching the special collective dread that enflames communities — the fear that something sinister is stirring, waiting just out of sight. That gives a special magnetism to a story that needed none ... At its very best moments, when it shows how love, death, and regeneration all go hand-in-hand, The Essex Serpent is so painfully lovely that it removes a bit of that padding, only just as much as we can bear.
RaveNPR\"David Sedaris\' diaries are not especially introspective. They offer different kinds of pleasures: those of the cultural historian, rather than those of the snoop … It\'s relentlessly interesting to read about daily life in a time that\'s within memory but somehow also impossibly far away — not only the wildly different attitudes towards homosexuality, but all the weird stuff they (we) ate, the fact that people were named things like ‘Ronnie,’ that typing was considered a skill, that people were always just calling each other up and stopping by, without texting first.\
PanNPRWomen Who Work is a sea of blandities, an extension of that 2014 commercial seeded with ideas lifted from various well-known self-help authors. Reading it feels like eating scented cotton balls ... a long simper of a book, full of advice so anodyne, you could almost scramble the sentences and come out with something just as coherent ... Over and over again, Trump's message is: Take whatever you can get, and then print your name on it.
PositiveNPRIn Priestdaddy, portraits like this abound — in which each sentence shimmies with wonderful, obscene life, but the person behind it isn't quite visible through the dance ... Lockwood's descriptions of trauma, a rape and a suicide attempt, for instance, are mere paragraphs, and then we return once more to the wheeling, dancing circus. She doesn't owe us these revelations, of course, but Lockwood is best when she is concrete. The force of her sentences, though stunning, is not enough to carry the family portrait past the first 150 pages. Her writing about the Catholic Church, however, is scorching ... At her very best, Lockwood is antic, deadpan, heartbreaking — and so, so gross.
Jean Hanff Korelitz
PanNPRThe Devil and Webster, while intelligent, is an underwhelming contribution to the genre ... it lacks the intellectualism of the best campus novels ... Naomi's inner world — her story and friendships — could make up for some of this lack of theoretical heft, but as a character she's flat, blindsided by easily predictable events, and the relationships that take up much of her attention aren't well-developed ... The Devil and Webster is a suggestive exploration of what tolerance, inclusion, and identity mean, but the nuance stays submerged in that ideological swamp.
Deb Olin Unferth
RaveNPRUnferth knows how to change direction. Her absurd and tender story collection is full of sentences like clear glass doors, and you, reader, are the bird ... The way she writes these people is reminiscent of the unsentimental, often absurd, compassion of George Saunders, for whom there are no heroes and villains, just various kinds of achingly familiar weirdos trying to inhabit the same planet without more humiliation than is necessary ... The temptation to write neat and linear cause-and-effect is overwhelming. But Unferth resists, because the truth is that we contain queasy, flickering, tender multitudes.
PositiveNPRThe Idiot is full of that wonderful, embarrassing kind of early pretention that consists of trying on roles like coats ... I loved these moments, when Batuman lays bare the script we follow without thinking about it ... The Idiot encapsulates those years of humiliating, but vibrant, confusion the come in your late teens, a confusion that's not even sexual, but existential and practical ... The Idiot replicates the feeling of those years when stories don't seem to match up with lived experience and it's not clear if it's your fault or the world's. Like that time, The Idiot is both boring and strangely intense, fraught and apparently meaningless, confusing and inevitable, endless — and over in a moment.
MixedNPRSometimes I feel like we've all made some blood pact to call this voice original and brave 20 years since it's been either. In fact, All Grown Up is a book so of the zeitgeist that if you took it onto the G train it would just dissolve and merge with the air ... [The] opening is meant to signal a right-thinking book. This performative privilege check on page one — like it is a coat you must store before the show — tells us a lot about this character, whose empathy is so meager that it appears in feeble gestures, in acknowledgments of other people's hardships but no stake in them ... This book is attractive in several ways: the reading is so easy you slide through it like a knife through butter. It's occasionally witty. The structure is surprising and original ... All Grown Up purports to defend something legitimate and defensible – i.e., not having a spouse or children — but actually seems to promote something indefensible — not being at all responsible for other people.
RaveNPRThere is one decisive moment that strikes like a sudden blow to the head — the moment when we discover where Christopher is. Not much else happens in A Separation, but the rest of the novel is taut with quiet suspense. Like the burnt landscape, it is barren, always a 'whiff of char in the air.' It is wonderful to read a book that respects its readers in this way; Kitamura allows our imaginations to do much of the work ... The narrator, it seems, would be almost embarrassed writing lush or gorgeous prose — instead, her sentences are awkward and anemic, with the unlikely beauty of a lunar landscape. A Separation does not leave us with any of those satisfying nuggets of wisdom or emotional climax we sometimes pan books for. Instead, it left me with an indistinct but unshakeable mood, a sense of being at sea with the knowledge that the shoreline isn't quite where I thought it was, and the currents are strong.
PanNPRAs it happens, Rowe's book is not a piece of reporting, but an amalgamation of clichés: intrepid lady reporter becomes obsessed with rapist/serial killer who murders women who resemble her, and begins sending him emotional letters. She isn't interested in facts unless they illuminate some aspect of her own life. Rowe knows it isn't true journalism, and says so: 'The first rule of reporting is that the writer is never the story.' But even if she abandons the guise of journalist, it just isn't appropriate for her to be the center of Kendall Francois' story, particularly in the callous way she goes about writing it ... The ethics of writing a book that sexes up a serial killer while mostly ignoring his victims is queasy at best. There are two axes of weakness: aesthetic and ethical. And the horrible truth is that I'd be much more willing to put up with the way Rowe more or less sells out these women if she did it with subtlety and élan. That's not fair, of course: It's like being easier on bank robbers who burgle with brio. But her writing, if competent, is purple, and her reporting patchy.
PositiveNPR\"Mercy is a human impulse, but so is murder. In Human Acts, Han Kang\'s novel of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and its aftermath, people spill blood, and people brave death to donate it. With a sensitivity so sharp that it\'s painful, Human Acts sets out to reconcile these paradoxical and coexisting humanities ... Each word of Human Acts seems hypersensitive, like Kang has given her sentences extra nerve endings, like the whole world is alive and feels pain, not just human flesh — even a slab of meat on a grill thrills with horror. She finds violence at the heart of things ... Human Acts has style problems. Long sections are written in the second person, a strategy designed to collapse the distance between character and reader but which actually enhances it...And then, Deborah Smith\'s translation feels undeniably like a translation: It is stilted, with odd register switches ... Nonetheless, Human Acts is stunning.\
RaveNPRThis collection is many things, but one of them is a study of people (especially women) who cut through language ... Throughout Float are these gestures of power and of rage: taking back the story, or, failing that, ruining it. Biting the apple, lighting the fire, marking the letter, blowing the kazoo. 'If you are not the free person you want to be, you must find a place to tell the truth about that,' Carson writes at one point. She herself has written something wild and weird and luminous. She writes how you might write if you were not constrained, not afraid of being misunderstood. We can't be free all the time, but Carson provides the hint of a door — or, failing that, a match.
RaveNPR...the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity ... The women of Swing Time are case studies in the different ways people hunt for an identity ... Some writers name, organize, and contain; Smith lets contradictions bloom, in all their frightening, uneasy splendor.
MixedNPRThe Mothers illustrates how rare major books that treat black families and friendships are, where racism and suffering are present in the story but not the entire story. Brit Bennett should not be exceptional, but she is; The Mothers has many strengths, but it is extraordinary for that one miserable fact. Here, at last, is a novel about ordinary black lives ... The Mothers is good, moving and astute, but it could be much better. It's a book that makes much of other people's unknowability, but doesn't demonstrate it ... Here, everyone fulfills the précis of their characters exactly. Each character has one — but no more than one — distinguishing trait.
PositiveNPRI like these early parts best, before the love story begins, when we get our moonish unpunctuated lady with an 'unflat stomach and vociferous wants' to ourselves. Her inner self, here inviolable and quiet and whole as a pebble, somehow loses its contours when she falls in love ... I'm being horrible and unfair — Stephen grows into a compelling character — probably for the same reasons I'm mean to my friends' new boyfriends: They take something private and whole away. In this case, I miss Eily's solitary eye, her solid self ... The Lesser Bohemians is a love story, yes, but it is really an electric and beautiful account of how the walls of self shift and buckle and are rebuilt.
RaveNPR[Commonwealth] is the kind of book that makes you think not of great adventures or faraway places but your own modest choices, and crooked shots at forming a life that suits you. How to make a life? How to make a family? These are, after all, the real questions, the momentous choices ... In Commonwealth, Patchett shows that great drama isn't necessary. Guns and floods and fire and terrorists needn't kill us. Ordinary life will suffice.
MixedNPRA Gentleman in Moscow is a novel that aims to charm, not be the axe for the frozen sea within us. And the result is a winning, stylish novel that keeps things easy ... All of the verbal excess, the gently funny mock-epic digressions, the small capers and cast of colorful characters, add up to something undeniably mannered but also undeniably pleasant. A Gentleman in Moscow is like a quipping, suavely charming dinner companion that you are also a little relieved to escape at the end of the meal.
PositiveNPR...wit and self-awareness will go far in making improbable adaptations work. In Nutshell, we see a bookish mind at play. And it turns out that a fetal Hamlet — bound, watching the inevitable event grow nearer, an extravagant and erring sprit confined in doubts and impotence — is actually just about right ... Nutshell fails when McEwan turns earnest. I initially took the fetus's long monologues on world events as part of the larger joke, but it's clear after a while that some of them are sincere ... Nonetheless, Nutshell is a joy: unexpected, self-aware, and pleasantly dense with plays on Shakespeare.
MixedNPRPatient H.M. is part pop science book, part family history, and part worrying essay about the ethics of medical research ... Most readers won't be in a position to judge the science (I'm not), but the writing is satisfying and graceful, with a flair for dramatic emphasis that only occasionally veers into showiness ... The person of H.M. remains necessarily hazy, but Dittrich writes a vivid and painful story of the dark tension between desire for knowledge and that most basic tenet: First, do no harm.
PositiveNPRThe House at the Edge of Night is a family saga that demonstrates that ideas don't have to be new to be good ... The novel does not suffer from the fact that it uses familiar building blocks, or the fact that the inner lives of characters mostly stay there. Instead, it has the gnomic and suggestive simplicity of a folktale, koanic rhythms that let you fill in whatever complexity you can into the elisions ... this book is sweet and heady with nostalgia; not radical, maybe, but comforting as a quilt.
MixedNPRSpiegelman is insightful about the malleability and power of memory and eloquent about the hidden currents in her family's mythology. But I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This suffers from aggressive, artificial poignancy: Laden ashtrays and meaningful silences and figures forever disappearing portentously into the night. Just a little bit of humor or self-awareness would dispel the lingering and sticky too-muchness of these moments, the heaviness of lyricism for its own sake.
RaveNPRMegan Abbott has written a book with the taut and muscular ruthlessness of a gymnast, a book that disorients with eerie countermelodies, constant reminders of the vulnerability of bodies, even in its festive moments ... You Will Know Me takes swift, unsettling, apparently effortless flight.
PanNPRThat lack of consent is the book's original, irreducible sin. Out of it stem other, lesser faults — faults of fact, taste, and ethics — but it is this violation that makes the whole book basically untenable ... if Talese has consulted victims, lawyers, or the vast academic literature on voyeurism, there is no hint of that research in this book. He never even performs the basic exercise of imagining what it would feel like to be the victim of voyeurism.
RaveNPRThis is undeniably a novel with a point to make, one about privacy in this 'new regime of data collection [that] does not see innocence first but assumes guilt by algorithmic association.' But Flanery resists the obvious at every turn. This is not a polemic — instead, emotional and psychological precision are the order of the day ... This question — what would be worse outcome, insanity or appalling government overreach? — gives the novel its taut and eager force. The nuance, on the other hand, comes from a quiet and subtle counter-melody of anxiety about the opposite of surveillance ... [a] seductive and frightening novel.
PositiveNPRSex Object offers little redemption, and none of the familiar bubblegummy positive-thinking strategies that place the onus on women to magically think their way out of being told, on a daily basis, that public spaces are not for them. It is a relief to read a book on harassment and violence that simply acknowledges, rather than exhorts: 'Buck up!' 'Lean in!' 'Girl power!'...Maybe instead of solutions and angles and strategies, there is power in saying, simply, 'This is how bad it is.'
PanNPRI don't think [Lerner] wanted to write a comprehensive treatment of our collective hatred of poetry. I think he wanted to write a personal account of his relationship to poetry, and he fell into the same mistake he accuses bad poets of: confusing the personal and the universal ... In The Hatred of Poetry, a personal feeling has been dressed up, given a few distracting academic tassels and a vague, impersonal 'we.' But maybe I just resent being spoken for. I, for one, like poetry.
RaveNPRAlthough Barkskins is full of strange and vibrant humanity, that 'vast invisible web' is its central character. The woods are alive...The long and slow sickness — humanity — that ravages this gasping, living place is the book's theme. The humans that pass over the earth flame brightly and then disappear. A book with this many people flitting through it could be hard to keep track of, but Proulx sketches each person with vigorous, unforgettable strokes ... It is that wonder at monumental nature, and simultaneous grief at its diminishment, that animates Barkskins. So, read it, absorb its urgent message — and try not to think about all the trees that probably went into those 713 pages.
PositiveNPRSweetbitter is a young person's novel, full of the joyful pain that comes from almost-having, a feeling like happiness that would disperse if the object were actually caught...When people mention purple writing, they mean something saturated and embarrassing: something that tries too hard, wants too much, doesn't play it cool. This is a book that tries hard, really hard in a way that is tempting to dismiss; it is voluptuous writing, ripe approaching 'the precipice of rot.' It balances on the edge of too much, too strong, too sentimental, too dramatic, too overdrawn or overwritten. But it works, because that is what it feels like to be young and in a big city: like it's too much, and at the same time not nearly enough.
PositiveNPRThe book is cyclical and sideways, structured in the loosely associative manner of actual thoughts rather than in logic or argument. I get the sense that it does not aim to please or appease — not because it is brash or defiant in any way but because it is quiet, queer, on the sidelines examining the grooved soles of its sneakers rather than running the race ... Galchen's implicit proposition — that babies can be the subject of serious art, that we may coo and think simultaneously — feels surprising, even radical, in a world where motherhood and intellectualism are still placed instinctively at odds. It may be a little book, but it is not a small one.
RaveNPRNelson's resistance to the easy answer, her willingness to reach a kind of conclusion and then to break it, to probe further and further, to ask about her own complex and not entirely noble intentions instead of facilely condemning others, make The Red Parts an uneasy masterpiece. It is a sounding, a wondering, not an autopsy (It was murder, I say!) or a condemnation. Nelson allows space for the truth: Maybe grief is a repeating cycle, not a hurdle to be passed, maybe there is no immunization, maybe we'll never feel entirely safe. Maybe women will always have to negotiate between freedom and safety, on and on in endless compromise.
RaveNPRIt is remarkable that O'Brien captures an extraordinary and almost holy innerness in each of her characters, however minor, and then plants those characters amidst the terrible velocity, the terrible pull of world events. O'Brien is truly at her best when she describes the private corners of minds, those quiet and wild corners, our meditative and our inspired selves.
PanNPRBecause of the author's skill, Canin's women look almost like real ones, but closer examination reveals that they are just furniture: soft, accommodating, stable, and ancillary. Like a certain topologist who can map the world but not the heart, Canin renders half the world with precision and beauty — but, as for the other half, like Milo, he does not even know what he can't see.
RaveNPRThe Lost Time Accidents is a feast, but not a glut, in part because its author leaves so much to the reader's deduction, both in terms of the book's central mystery and in the dense web of allusion and in-joke that decorates each page ... The book may involve 'the Gestapo, and the war, and the speed of light, and a card game no one plays anymore,' but it is really interested in simple emotional truths rather than complex scientific ones.
PositiveNPRIn Good on Paper, translation serves as a continual metaphor for relationships: Translation is a kind of betrayal because pure fidelity to a text is impossible ... Cantor creates a compelling vision of what love is. It's not a feeling but — like translation — an act: a willful opening of one self to another.
MixedNPRAt its best, The Road to Little Dribbling is a funny and pleasant travelogue ... At its worst, it's a long and grumpy Yelp review.
RaveNPRIn My Name is Lucy Barton, there are no plot twists to distract or verbal acrobatics to charm: the story must rest instead on its bare emotional truth. The result is a novel of gorgeous simplicity and restraint.
MixedNPRSearcy hunts for odd resonances and likes to get caught on the familiar corners of the world, turning them suddenly strange so you step back and see the ordinary world for the odd and lonely and magnificent thing it is ... But for every thought that emerges slow and lovely like a sunrise from an ordinary view, there's a clunker. The issue, I think, is that Searcy's writing, though searching and gorgeous and meditative and all that, lacks a sense of play and self-awareness.
RaveNPRThe nearness of death could make this a grim book, but instead it is a joyous and vivid one...there is plenty of unhappiness that could be brooded over, made large and obscuring, but she chooses instead to savor the beautiful.
PanNPRReaders unfamiliar with the play will gain little from Winterson's retelling: her characters are incorporeal without Shakespeare's characters standing behind them.