Anthony Domestico is a writer and an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, State University of New York. His book, Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period, is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. His book reviews and essays have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and Commonweal, among other places. Anthony can be found on Twitter @tony_domestico
MixedThe Boston Globe... an interesting, if not entirely successful, departure from form ... uninterested in psychology and so consumed with whodunit ... As the plot unfolds, Banville delights in reminding us that this is genre fiction, that he knows his tropes and that his characters do, too ... Not so satisfying is the plot resolution: The priest was killed and castrated for exactly the reason you think a priest would be killed and castrated. Odd for a writer of Banville’s formal accomplishment, there are also real structural issues ... You see the denouement coming from a mile away; it also seems weirdly rushed.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThere is no such thing as a typical Percival Everett novel; he’s too varied in his styles, too eclectic in his interests ... But there is a typical Everett narrator: gruff, a little depressed, good at his job, not that good at life. Wells fits this type perfectly ... though the laughs are quieter here than in Everett’s previous novels, there are still some good bits. This is not insignificant: a joke laughs back at the void, puts something where there was naught ... At a certain level, Telephone tells a very simple story driven by a very simple question: How does a man who is not particularly happy, but not particularly unhappy, respond to unthinkable grief? But it weaves a number of subplots around this tragic center.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeGaige here fractures a single, suspenseful plot into multiple parts. In Sea Wife, she cuts between two first-person narratives, each amplifying and complicating the other ... Cutting between storylines generates narrative suspense ... It also allows for the interplay of two distinct voices and sensibilities ... The novel deftly grafts narrative mystery—what happened on that boat? What painful childhood memory is Juliet avoiding?—onto a sharp examination of domesticity ... Michael feels a victim, aggrieved against liberal culture ... This is all a bit heavy-handed. Trump has drawn latent white-male bitterness into the open, but not so suddenly or unexpectedly as Gaige suggests. Indeed, the novel thinks about politics most interestingly within Juliet’s section, where it’s largely subtext ... Gaige is a superb maritime writer. She writes beautifully about water and sky ... she makes sailing seem both an existential drama (when a storm hits, it’s like Lear on the heath) and a complex technical enterprise ... Americans dream of endless reinvention. Sea Wife shows the impossibility of such a dream[.]
PositiveThe Boston GlobePopkey writes in a certain kind of style—masterfully controlled, delightfully chilly—and she writes about a certain kind of thing: erotic desire and its relation to power ... Desire always exceeds our ability to articulate or define it, but Popkey’s sentences, in their relentless drive to clarify and elucidate, try the impossible task anyway ... Sometimes, the language can sound overly fussy ... But then you realize that the fussiness—or, really, the drive for precision—is motivated by need. It’s the fussy precision that keeps anarchic desire at bay, or at least momentarily tamed ... Stories shape desire, Popkey suggests, and desire shapes stories. Both shape, even determine, the self.
PositiveThe Boston Globe... darkly comic and emotionally intelligent ... Part of the historical novel’s task is to look at the past not with nostalgia but with precision, and Apartment does this exactly ... Beyond period details, though, the historical novel needs to give a sense for the talk and feel of the time — what could and couldn’t be spoken of, what could and couldn’t be imagined. And it’s in this deeper re-creation that Wayne elevates Apartment from a convincing historical facsimile to a work of art ... the narrator experiences an intimacy that is inarticulable, and it’s the tension between this edgy experience and this edgeless era that gives the novel its torque ... quieter in style but equally unsettling. It looks at it all — masculinity, literary ambition, our decade of free trade and liberalism triumphant — and finds the rot underneath.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThere’s a boldness of diction and imagery, a stateliness of voice and rhythm, that resembles less the product of an MFA workshop than the cadences of the King James Bible. Pufahl has a story to tell, but she’s less a storyteller than a stylist. That can be a risky thing to be. Style draws attention to itself, and what is attended to can be mocked: for its pretension, for its peacockery ... Pufahl’s sentences, though, unashamedly soar ... Pufahl does what great stylists do: she snatches back experience from the general world, making it sing in all its particularity.
RaveThe Boston GlobeIt’s hard to describe how strange and powerful Matt Bell’s first novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, is. It is a boldly experimental work, opening up previously untapped territory for contemporary fiction ... It centers on recognizable characters: a young married couple, struggling to make a new life together. Yet it also features a talking bear and a mythical squid, a quest through an underground labyrinth and songs that can call the stars out of the sky ... The book, filled with internal rhymes and heavy alliteration, begs to be read aloud. It’s a driving, oral epic that reads like poetry ... Bell has set himself a difficult task, and not everything works. Sometimes what he wants to be bizarrely powerful is just bizarre. At other times, the novel’s hypermasculine tone grates. But these flaws are the necessary price of Bell’s ambitions. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is an extraordinary achievement, telling a most ancient story in a way that feels uncannily new.
RaveThe Boston GlobeIt’s a book that both demands the reader put its pieces together and makes sure that any perfect fit can never be found. It asks us to see everything in full: 1988 and 2016, London and East Berlin, a sense of history’s fundamental openness as well as its absolute determinism. And yet it makes sure that any such synoptic vision always slips and slides away ... Levy...is a master of the seemingly loose yet actually taut story. Here, beautiful, careless Saul drifts dream-like from one situation to another in a way that seems both accidental and inevitable ... Levy’s prose in The Man Who Saw Everything is controlled, refractive, sharply intelligent. There’s no wasted motion. Single sentences render character with the clarity, and cruelty, of a snapshot[.]
RaveThe Boston Globe... playfully fantastical — Crain frequently invokes Shakespearean romance — and, if not plot-driven, at least plot-friendly. Henry James is still the tutelary spirit; but it’s the James of The Princess Casamassima (alluded to on several occasions) and The Sacred Fount — the James interested in radical politics and unashamed of messing around with the supernatural. Overthrow, in other words, does what a second novel should do: It risks something ... good speculative fiction. The overarching conceit works well, even if the legal discussions of mind-reading slow things down. (Too much spitballing of legal defenses; too many peacocking press conferences) ... legitimately great psychological fiction. Crain excels at describing, with precision and economy, intimacy’s dance of knowledge, ignorance, and pretense ... It’s also a great gay novel, effortlessly moving between the arch and the serious ... Crain realistically and romantically does justice to our most real and romantic of powers.
RaveThe Boston Globe... idiosyncratic and brilliant ... To live in time is to live in a realm of forgetfulness — and that, Hyde argues, is a good thing. If we remembered all of the thoughts we think and the experiences we have, we’d live in chaos ... It’s an experiment in thought because it subverts our tendency to associate memory with discipline and intelligence, forgetfulness with distraction and infirmity ... Over the years, Hyde has collected samples — from poems and philosophical treatises and psychological studies and art exhibits — that speak to forgetting, and he shapes his intentionally scattershot book around these selections and his brief responses to them ... Does he contradict himself? Very well then he contradicts himself. After all, contradicting oneself comes from forgetting oneself, and forgetting oneself can lead to new life ... Hyde makes us forget what we thought we knew about forgetfulness — and, in doing so, he makes us know forgetfulness for the first time.
RaveThe Boston GlobeMaum’s slender, intelligent Costalegre is about many things: art as spectacle and art as discipline; life as joke and life as tragedy; the role of unreason in paintings and politics ... Maum wonderfully inhabits Lara’s in-progress sensibility ... But what happens is less important here than how it feels ... Costalegre though often funny, is warmly earnest — a sentimental novel in the best sense of the word ... Youth is a time of excitement and giant grayness, when everything seems amplified. Costalegre makes us feel this time, and these feelings, again.
RaveThe Boston GlobeIn the collage-like chapters that break up the novel’s overarching plot, Smith offers us the frenzied cacophony of the right-here, right-now, giving voice to social media companies...and internet trolls ... This all makes Spring sound deadly serious—and, in its moral and political vision, it can be. But such seriousness rubs against something lighter, brighter ... Spring...is also structurally playful and stylistically frisky ... Spring moves easily between the political and the aesthetic, the timely and the timeless ... [a] splendid new novel.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeTime has a wonderfully strange quality in The Parisian ... Plotlines slowly unfold....and then unexpectedly, irrevocably shift ... Hammad tells her tragic stories slowly, over more than 500 pages, making us feel what it’s like to live not outside or above but within history. Time drifts; life drifts. So too does The Parisian ... Hammad exhibits less intelligent starvation than skillful inclusion. If anything her novel can at times seem overstuffed with secondary characters, especially in its second half. Yet her sentences are elegantly controlled ... [Hammad\'s characters] live in the world of history, and The Parisian makes this history, and its actors, live once again.
RaveThe Boston Globe...outstanding, expansive ... Like King Lear that great exploration of \'unaccommodated man,\' The Volunteer dramatizes the beauty and terror of self-undoing — and the role love might play in reconstituting a life ... The Volunteer is epic every way ... The prose in The Volunteer is less obviously brilliant than it was in The End; the style is quieter, almost restrained for stretches. But the lyrical heights of this second novel are, if anything, even higher ... The Volunteer will be described as a great historical novel, and it is.
RaveThe Boston Globe\"... gorgeous and confounding ... The Silk Road reads like a mystery novel at a slant ... [Reading the book feels like being] stretched and suspended over the abyss, jumping from one place (the labyrinth) to another (the Aubrac region of France), having the past folded into the present until you can’t tell them apart, seeing characters blend and blur ... Davis’s descriptive gifts are abundant ... Radiant and endlessly shifting, sensitive to outer form and inner reality, wildly and beautifully impenetrable: that’s as good a paraphrase of this splendid, poetic novel of ideas as you’ll get.\
RaveThe Boston Globe\"... the novel is twisty, spinning things out and then drawing them back in — a ceaseless narrative engine in a constant state of revving ... What I’m saying is, James continually surprises — not least in his cashing in of his literary cred for the chance to write straight fantasy ... What I’m saying is, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the real deal ... During the novel’s many battle scenes, the writing can become plodding, like the script notes for a blockbuster action movie... But then James will shift from these ho-hum physical clashes to more exciting bouts of verbal sparring, both in the form of dialogue (Tracker’s bitchy banter is perfect throughout) and in the form of storytelling ... Like the best fantasy, like the best literary fiction, like the best art period, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is uncanny: familiar and strange, a book that dramatizes the search for meaning ... what makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf so singular is how traditional and novel, how ancient and radical — that is to say, how good — it is.\
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleNaima Coster’s Halsey Street is a consistently surprising first novel — surprising in its stylistic assuredness, in its moral complexity and in its emotional power ... In a work of literary realism like Halsey Street, it’s not so much novelty of conception as skill of execution that matters, and throughout Coster’s elegant writing lends even the expected elements interest and significance ... But where Halsey Street most impresses is in its sharp and sophisticated moral sense. Take the issue of gentrification. In lesser hands, this could become — in many works of contemporary literary fiction, does become — ham-fisted or preachy. Coster’s treatment, though, is always gracefully done.
PositiveThe Boston Globe\"Insurrecto is a truly stereoscopic work, giving a rich, textured sense of history through the proliferation and integration of its many fragments. The novel cuts between plots (there are many) and histories (they are all contested), between genres and styles, moving with great velocity despite the book’s great variety ... Insurrecto is all of these things — a polyphonic work that challenges the reader to keep up with its plotting and to think with or against or through its complex moral reckonings ... In Insurrecto, fragmentation isn’t a road block. It’s a route.\
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
PositiveThe Boston Globe\"Adjei-Brenyah possesses a dark wit, the ability to take a fanciful notion and make it comically, nightmarishly literal ... The stories generally succeed in their fantastical set-ups. They sometimes fail in their details ... Despite the occasional stylistic hiccup, this high-concept and morally rich collection is discomfiting and moving, savage in its social critique yet generous towards its characters. It ends with a lovely, tempered note of hope... The stories that Adjei-Brenyah tells are terrifying. But, in our reading them, at least we’re not alone.
PositiveThe Boston Globe\"And Atkinson’s style is singular and delightful. No matter the genre, Atkinson displays more wit and word play, more delight in the fecundity of the English language, than just about any contemporary novelist ... There are plot twists and character turns throughout, all leading to a final — and, to me, less successful — revelation at the end. There’s also playful self-awareness about these twists and turns and revelations ... In Transcription, Atkinson has her genre cake and eats it, too. But it’s the icing, that verbal wit and life without which the cake wouldn’t be a cake, that most sustains and delights.\
Edouard Louis, Trans. Lorin Stein
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"The consuming nature of suffering sets the stage for The End of Eddy and closes the curtains on History of Violence. Taken together, the two form a diptych on suffering—exploring how suffering writes our lives and how, through writing, we might reimagine suffering ... In Lorin Stein’s brutal and precise translation, Louis recounts the unmooring brought about by this violent experience ... In this harrowing work, we don’t just tell ourselves stories in order to live. We tell ourselves stories in order to survive.\
RaveThe Boston Globe\"How good is How to Write an Autobiographical Novel? It’s so good that I could fill my word count just with quotations ... Edinburgh was a masterpiece; so too is How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. One of its beauties is how simultaneously shaped and flexible it is, both thematically coherent and varied in subject matter ... Chee’s particular style of mind and habits of moral engagement hold the collection together; every essay, no matter the subject, exhibits warmth, rigor, tact ... The mask conceals and it reveals; writing transfigures and it uncovers. That’s the gift that writing has given Chee, and it’s the gift that his wonderful new collection gives its readers.\
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleDanielle Lazarin’s first story collection, Back Talk, is a marvel of its kind, and it’s marvelous precisely in its Munrovian shiftiness, its ability to bend form and turn the story into something that is temporally and emotionally elastic ... That’s the territory that Back Talk most regularly and brilliantly charts: the subjunctive, the conditional, the future, the world of desire and its many complications.
RaveThe Boston GlobeWhat a delightful writer Peter Carey is, and how varied are the delights he offers. A Long Way From Home,’’ the 14th novel by the two-time Booker winner, displays many of the typically polychromatic Carey pleasures ... Any novelist can write about anything, as long as he or she does it in an aesthetically convincing and morally attuned way, and Carey does both splendidly here. A Long Way From Home charts old territory and strikes out in new directions. It’s one of Carey’s best, and boldest, efforts yet.
RaveThe Boston Globe\"The stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden are pleasantly baggy. We still get Johnson’s signature compressed poetry in spots, but long stretches intentionally meander. The blitzkrieg stories of Jesus’s Son averaged about 15 pages; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’ spreads its five tales over more than 200 pages. There’s a new metafictional undertone to much of the book, too: novelists and poets pop up again and again. Johnson’s own life, transformed into art, haunts the book’s margins. But the main thing linking The Largesse of the Sea Maiden to Jesus’s Son is the sentences. Oh, the sentences! ... Johnson offers visions and sadness and laughter. But it’s the sentences — those adamantine, poetic sentences — that made him one of America’s great and lasting writers. It’s the sentences that live on.\
László Krasznahorkai, Trans. by George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet & John Batki
PositiveThe Boston Globe\"Insofar as a chapter-long sentence can be easy to follow, Krasznahorkai’s are. They offer us the sense of a mind in the ongoing rush of things, \'quibbling, twisting and turning, pushing and pulling it to move ahead,\' constantly thinking and hoping and waiting but never coming to much of a resolution. The World Goes On serves as a wonderful primer to the \'invisible gigasystem\' that is the Krasznahorkai universe. Though it’s not as consistently excellent as some of Krasznahorkai’s novels — Seiobo There Below remains his best — the shorter, discrete offerings, many seeming less stories than fevered mini-essays and thought experiments, give readers the chance to take a sip of this weird brew before deciding to drain an entire novel.\
Edward St. Aubyn
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleWhat we're left with is an absurdist, satirical lark. In the earlier books, Melrose could act cartoonishly, but he was never a cartoon. In Lost for Words, ‘character’ is really ‘caricature.’ There's a French intellectual who talks about ‘a shift in the signifier of the desert of the Real,’ an editor who sleeps with his sexy young writer, a Beckettian novelist who longs ‘to release his writing from the wretched positivity of affirming anything at all’ … The light plot — a panel sifting through a bunch of submissions — enables St. Aubyn to train his satirical eye on two primary targets. First, there are the judges. Though we pretend that literary awards are doled out solely based on merit, we know that this isn't so, and Lost for Words shows just how much this isn't so...The second source of satire: the submissions themselves.
RaveThe Boston GlobeMrs. Osmond shares more than characters with its predecessor. It also shares a style: symphonic, wildly metaphorical, with nightmarish images of dead-end alleys and predatory beasts used to describe the smallest shifts of consciousness and social interaction. Like its source text, Mrs. Osmond investigates what happens when liberty runs up against those forces that would constrain it: personal history, secret plots, money, evil itself ... Mrs. Osmond is as impressive an act of stylistic channeling as anything I’ve read. Indeed, the best way to appreciate the novel is simply to list some of its many Jamesian moments — little turns of phrase that demand savoring on their own merits and send us scurrying back to the original for similar gems.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleHere in Berlin is less a novel than an exhilarating orchestration of competing voices and temporalities ...
Here in Berlin is a marvelous palimpsest. Voices refract back on one another, each moment containing other, earlier moments within it ... From the wrestling with German memory to the strangely passive narrator, there’s an obvious literary ghost haunting Here in Berlin as well: W.G. Sebald. García happily admits the influence in her acknowledgments, and, in a tip of the cap, makes the Sebaldian decision to intersperse her text with ghostly photographs. But García’s prose is less melancholic than Sebald’s, her stance more optimistic.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleAs the novella opens, Jesus is dead and Mary is living in hiding in Ephesus. Two unnamed men, most likely St. John and St. Paul, visit her, asking for details of Jesus' life: They are busy writing the Gospel, building a religion. Mary, however, is busy mourning, and she refuses to satisfy the men's ‘earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all’ … Mary relates all of this — the life-giving miracles and the life-canceling suffering — in a voice that is so restrained, so understated and clear, that it renders the pain that much more painful … The Testament of Mary is a very simple — one might say classical — tale, showing how violence, even redemptive violence, frustrates our attempts to make sense of it.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...to be fair, Eleanor Henderson’s excellent second novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight, possesses many Faulknerian elements ... In its early sections, the novel jumps between times and characters ...centers on a mystery — who are the twins’ actual parents? — that isn’t a mystery for very long. Early on, we know that Juke is at the center of it all. More specifically, we know that Juke’s sexual relationships with both Nan and her deceased mother will untie the knot of parentage. The characters in the novel know this, too ...a grander, meatier novel, as befits its subject matter. The tangled plot might be the stuff of melodrama, but so is American racial history. Besides, the writing is precise, not purplish ...such happenings aren’t just the stuff of the imagination, they’re the stuff of American history, and Henderson’s book gives this history, with all its ghosts and secrets and desires, powerful voice.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThe Magician King is a more assured creation. In this sequel, there are still allusions to other works of fantasy, from Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Doctor Who to Highlander, but these seem to be less satirical jabs than a fanboy’s acknowledgment of his precursors ... This novel is largely about learning limits ... This is an idea familiar to anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, and it is a sign of Grossman’s growing strength as a novelist that he is willing to invoke in his revisionary work this most traditional lesson. The Magician King is a rare achievement, a book that simultaneously criticizes and celebrates our deep desire for fantasy.
RaveThe Boston GlobeThe best works of cultural history aren’t those that provoke a mere nod of assent, the sense that history was just so. Rather, they’re books that adrenalize and agitate, provoke a response, cause you to underline, argue, and curse. By this standard, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve is a good book indeed ... This book is frequently very good, as when Greenblatt examines Renaissance depictions of Eden ... Yet there are also stretches that had me sometimes literally shaking my fist — the long section on Augustine, in particular. All Christian theology is a footnote to Augustine, and Greenblatt rightly emphasizes the theologian’s centrality to later Christian thought on will and desire, human fallenness and divine mercy. Less convincingly, Greenblatt interprets Augustine’s theology as a working out of the guilt he felt over sexual desire ... All critics have biases. Greenblatt’s is a tendency to see all of history pointing toward, and finding its ultimate fulfillment in, Renaissance humanism ... Arguing with Greenblatt about these ideas is a pleasure, though, as is his clear prose and the fluidity with which he moves between paintings and poems and polemics. This is the kind of book — lucid and delightfully infuriating — that I wish more academic superstars would write.
RaveThe Boston Globe...[a] wild and spectacular new novel. It’s a book that strips away civilization’s fripperies in an attempt to discover the savagery beneath and beyond. Kingsnorth wants us to see the world not as we’ve been habituated to see it, through the lenses of technology and capital, but as it is in its primal form ... Beast reads like Samuel Beckett. It’s hard and lean: lean in plot, lean in character (the narrator, Edward Buckmaster, is the only human we encounter), and lean in style. All the fat has been stripped away; only the bones and sinews of language remain ... Walter Pater famously declared that all art aspires to the condition of music. This book suggests that all great art aspires to the condition of theology: It longs to speak of that which exceeds human speech. 'It is so hard to put into words into these clumsy words that say nothing,' Buckmaster laments. But words are all we have, and Kingsnorth’s Beast uses them, clumsy as they are, to get at the nothing and the everything that lurks beneath.
Laurent Binet, Trans. by Sam Taylor
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleEven as the pages rip by and the melodrama piles up — more murders, a suicide, some ritualized disfigurements — Binet acknowledges and delights in the silliness of it all ... So does it all work? Not as much as one would hope. Partly it’s a problem of what Jakobson calls the 'conative' function of language. Who, exactly, is the imagined audience for this book? To be sure, readers of theory will chuckle over the novel’s many cameos — there’s John Searle! there’s Jonathan Culler! — and happily identify its Easter eggs. But the Wikipedia-level engagement with ideas — a page on signification here, a paragraph on rhetoric and semiology there — will leave such readers unmoved. The theory isn’t made new, and the theorists are delightfully absurd but also terribly one-note ... Binet has written a perfect beach read about semiotics — no small feat. Yet he doesn’t show why we, professors and common readers alike, should care about theory once we’ve closed the book. By making the stakes of its ideas so cheekily high, The Seventh Function of Language drains them of their actual excitement. Binet gives us theory as melodrama, but he doesn’t give us theory as drama — that is, as a source and subject of real significance.
RaveThe Boston GlobeAll We Shall Know is a dwarf star of a novel: small, dark, impressively dense. This isn’t to say that it’s difficult. This is the Irish writer Donal Ryan’s third novel, each a work of literary fiction — structurally intricate but not experimental; linguistically alive but not distractingly so — that goes down easy...Rather, All We Shall Know is dense in that its few pages (under 200) contain great richness. The novel displays a narrative and thematic compression that is even more impressive given the novel’s disorderly melodramatic content ... Ryan examines the deadening compulsion and sick pleasure to be found in intimate sniping, where hatred of self is projected outward only to boomerang back, creating a Möbius strip of cruelty. Terribly bleak yet terrifically done ... Remarkably, All We Shall Know makes a novel about the heaviness of existence into something that is even, and easy — and, at times, perfect, and right.
Emily St. John Mandel
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleStation Eleven is terrifying, reminding us of how paper-thin the achievements of civilization are. But it’s also surprisingly — and quietly — beautiful … Mandel’s decision to open with ‘King Lear’ is appropriate, since much of the rest of the novel explores what the raging king describes as ‘unaccommodated man’ — humanity stripped of luxury and easefulness. Mandel moves back and forth between the pre- and postapocalyptic worlds, but the most effective parts are those that are set after the flu has hit … Station Eleven is a superb novel. Unlike most postapocalyptic works, it leaves us not fearful for the end of the world but appreciative of the grace of everyday existence.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...a dazzling and intellectually nimble work of Gothic fiction ... It’s a sign of Perry’s narrative elegance that she’s able to weave into her story’s Gothic frame two very different aspects of 19th century cultural life: the burgeoning field of natural science, with Darwin’s evolutionary theory spurring interest in paleontology and geology; and the fraught arena of Christian belief, which seemed challenged by such scientific developments. The Essex Serpent is a remarkably good novel of ideas. It’s also remarkably well written, with fine descriptions of both the natural world and the human body, as in this crystallization of stunted marital intimacy.
RaveThe Boston GlobeSuch an inventive setup isn’t merely an excuse for Lacey to show off her considerable inventiveness. It also allows her to dig into some fertile philosophical ground, raising questions to which the novel, against its title and like all good art, offers no final answers: Is love merely a script, provided to us by biology and culture, that we follow unthinkingly? Or is it the most singular experience we ever have? Or is it somehow both? All too often books with a killer premise languish at the level of the sentence, where great fiction really lives. The Answers succeeds at this level, too ... Love is a strange, strange thing, and so is the self. No one in contemporary fiction does a better job of showing us these facts than Catherine Lacey.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeIn Augustown, characters look at place, and they see time. They look at their scarred hills and see 'the dark shadow of history': colonialism, slavery, structural racism. Yet they also look at their land and see the future, a time when justice will reign and tears will be wiped away ... Miller’s poetry provides memorable line after line: 'every language, even yours, / is a partial map of this world.' In Augustown, Miller is more interested in a good story than in obvious lyrical brilliance ... If anything maps the way to Zion, Miller suggests, it’s this continued witness to untold history, this attention to how the glimmer of the future might be seen in the past.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThis exquisite novelistic control shouldn’t surprise. As readers of Brooklyn and Nora Webster can attest, Tóibín has done this before. But it’s striking given the new work’s decidedly messy, violent plot ... despite the obvious craft, House of Names drains the original tragedy of much that makes it so strangely powerful. Rereading Aeschylus’ Oresteia, I was struck anew by just how unlike us the Greeks were. Their thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are their ways our ways. In Tóibín’s version, we lose the chorus, which means we lose the Greek sense that the self might be as much communal as it is singular. We also lose the sense of tragic inevitably, of a largely deterministic cosmos in which, when one domino goes down, the others must as well. For Tóibín, it’s individual subjectivity and agency all the way down.
Tóibín is of course free to re-create ancient figures in our own image. Who would want to say such an artistic appropriation, especially one done so well, is off limits? So let’s instead acknowledge Tóibín’s brilliant version of this story — and then go back to the weird brilliance of the original.
RaveThe Boston Globe...to see Strout as simply interested in regret is to ignore the simultaneous presence in her fiction of something very different: unbidden, shattering grace. Strout frequently shows us what Flannery O’Connor called 'the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace' into human lives. In these moments, a deeper knowledge of self becomes possible; radical change — from selfishness to selflessness; from bitterness to love — becomes imaginable...Anything Is Possible confirms Strout as one of our most grace-filled, and graceful, writers ... There’s a gift to be found in this simple sharing of pain. It’s the gift of grace, the place where this book finds possibility in a vale of tears.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleJulie Buntin’s excellent first novel, Marlena, emerges from two very different novelistic traditions. On the one hand, Buntin’s careful attention to place (wild, beautiful, meth-riven northern Michigan) and class (the working vs. the non-working poor) marks her as a realist in the David Means or Stuart Dybek mode ... Balanced against this class-attentive realism, though, is something very different: a wild, gorgeous evocation of the wildness gorgeousness of youth ... longing makes itself felt in the novel’s many lyrical passages, an intense shimmering that recalls Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. If Marlena has one foot in the world of Midwestern realism, then it has another in the world of visionary fiction.
RaveThe Boston Globe...what is most impressive about this truly impressive novel is how integrated these apparently disparate parts are, how White Tears reads less like a grab bag of Kunzru’s obsessions (a crucial word in this text) than a coherent, if disturbing, vision of what America has meant and continues to mean ... In leading us surrealistically toward the heart of the blues, White Tears offers a realistic, far-ranging analysis of how capitalistic accumulation depends upon exploitation and how frequently this exploitation has depended upon racial violence. This balancing of the nightmarish and the clear-eyed is superb, and White Tears is Kunzru’s best book yet.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleKatie Kitamura’s A Separation should be added to the list of superb novels of romantic endings ... Kitamura, like Ferrante and Cusk, is interested in writerly passivity, in how the self-effacement called forth by the writer’s craft might complicate the writer’s life, especially the female writer’s life ... A Separation displays Kitamura’s stylistic control once again. The writing is lucid, cool, often muted, less prone to sentence fragments than Gone to the Forest was, more likely to bring simple clauses together into longer, rhythmic sentences. And Kitamura again creates an atmosphere of dreadful expectation ... Violence of all kinds, not just against other bodies but against other minds, remains Kitamura’s quarry. A Separation proves that few stalk such game more patiently or more powerfully.
RaveThe Boston GlobeIt’s only January, but I doubt that I’ll read a better novel this year than Rachel Cusk’s Transit. Cusk writes in a cut-glass style that is elegant, austere, and disciplined — an important word in a novel about gaining control over the self and fate. Yet this cool, balanced style is used to describe the hottest of feelings and the most destabilizing of experiences ... Faye is more of a presence in this novel than in the last. She’s still an outline, but she’s a clearer one ... At this midpoint in Cusk’s series, Faye remains in transit. But under the beautifully composed surface, the plates of Faye’s self are shifting.
RaveThe Boston GlobeSmith has written Swing Time in the first person, and this choice allows for an easy confidence and grace that hasn’t quite been present in her fiction before ... As always, Smith writes sharply about race and class ... The Aimee chapters, with their occasional bits on celebrity or Western do-gooderism, are interesting but a little less deeply felt, a little less original. Those sections where Smith carefully, almost phenomenologically portrays what it’s like to be poor, brown, female, and ambitious are among the most brilliant she has written in her already brilliant career.
MixedThe Boston GlobeIf you love Pynchon, then you’ll find all of this amusing. If you don’t, you won’t. A Gambler’s Anatomy is at its best not when presenting us with a tiring and tiresome Pynchonesque performance but when thinking about the nature of performance itself — the points at which performance and container, mask and face, meet and merge.
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"...[an] excellent, lissome new novel ... While I’ve been describing the novel as a relatively straightforward narrative about poetry and loss, it also contains a fanciful (and not entirely successful) structural frame ... Alameddine intersperses Jacob’s narration with an ongoing conversation between Satan and Death...Lest this sound overly academic, let me say that Alameddine is able to make this intertextuality sexy ... The Angel of History suggests that to be alienated — from past love and from the past itself — is to open the door to memory and creation. To dwell within Jacob’s mind and to read Alameddine’s prose is to see loss, if not mastered, then at least made into lively and living art.\
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThe novel has real strengths, especially Hill’s ability to integrate historical detail smoothly into a well-orchestrated plot. But The Nix isn’t a complete success. It’s a cliché to say that a first novel could use a good pruning, but this one really could ... The prose also is uneven. When Hill strains after metaphor, he often fails ... The Nix is a good but not great novel.
MixedThe Christian Science MonitorAll of this is well done, though the story – a writer leaving home and finding herself as a writer – is also well worn. What differentiates Riverine, though, is two-fold. First, Palm is a particularly good observer of class...The second distinctive quality is Palm’s description of her relationship with Corey ... Unfortunately, Palm’s relationship with Corey drops away for long stretches, and the pages devoted to Palm’s struggles as a 20-something in Indianapolis and her decision to become a writer in Vermont drag considerably.
RaveThe Boston Globe...Whitehead gives us a grave and fully realized masterpiece, a weird blend of history and fantasy that will have critics rightfully making comparisons to Toni Morrison and Gabriel García-Márquez... Lovely and rare, dark and imaginative, The Underground Railroad’ is Whitehead’s best work and an important American novel.
RaveThe Boston Globe...the most remarkable achievement of this novel, is its narrative voice. It belongs to Lucia Stanton, the novel’s disaffected, Holden Caulfield-style young narrator and heroine. Lucia is a marvelous creation and the richness of her voice — its intelligence, its casual precision — is felt on the very first page ... What makes How to Set a Fire and Why so radical, though, isn’t its politics. At least within Ball’s career, the novel is radical because of how traditional — how voice- and character-driven — it all feels. (I mean that as a compliment.) To deeply inhabit a character’s perspective and voice, Ball suggests, can be its own form of rigorous experimentation.
RaveThe Christian Science Monitor...[a] sharp, learned, and thrilling new book ... Lerner convincingly argues that the failures of individual poems – of all individual poems – also serve as the grounds for celebration. We only come to sense poetic perfection, Lerner argues, by measuring how far actual poems fall short ... Lerner is a fine critic, with a lucid style and quicksilver mind ... But perhaps most remarkable is just how entertaining, how witty and passionate and funny, The Hatred of Poetry is. The book is polemical, no doubt, but reading it is less like overhearing a professor’s lecture than like listening to a professor entertain a crowd of students over pints after class.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleThe Sport of Kings marshals linguistic profligacy in order to approach reality’s extravagance. Morgan’s sentences often use a paratactic structure, linking clauses with a simple comma; long stretches read like litanies. This deeply cadenced structure, typical of the King James Bible, holds out the promise that if only one more item could be added to the list, the world might be captured in language. It is a sign of Morgan’s mastery that she almost convinces us that she can accomplish this impossible task...The Sport of Kings roils with anger and shimmers with beauty. It is a contemporary masterpiece.
PositiveThe Boston Globe...supremely gonzo and supremely good...Hystopia often reads, strange as it sounds, like a Jamesian investigation of knowledge, albeit one fueled by amphetamines. To live in American history, Means suggests, is to negotiate continuously between knowing and not knowing, unfolding and enfolding.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorWhat a gift Annie Dillard’s The Abundance is. Over her 40-year career, Dillard has proven herself one of America’s most accomplished stylists and one of its most mesmerizing sensibilities. Her natural descriptions equal those of Thoreau, and her soul is as theological as Marilynne Robinson’s.
MixedThe Boston GlobeThis is a flawed book. The novel’s structure, in moving from one moment and room to another without connective tissue, makes several decisions seem unmotivated. Grushin’s dialogue also often falls flat ... But this novel isn’t after perfection, either of life or work. Rather, it shows how life is built out of adjustment — dreams tempered and poetry transformed into prose.
MixedThe Boston Globe...messily plotted yet historically textured, sometimes flatly written yet always sympathetically imagined — a patchy, vibrant mass.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThe collection raises serious philosophical questions, but it also exhibits, in every story, Dovey’s delight in meeting the imaginative challenge she has set herself.