RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksThrough Maggie’s thought processes, Masad successfully subverts readers’ expectations of her novel’s classic premise too. Yes, All My Mother’s Lovers has an air of mystery to it, there are textbook elements of road trip and discovery narratives; but, it is ultimately a story about self-acceptance, one with some fresh and much-needed updates to boot. Masad—who is an excellent book critic—recognizes the predictable and formulaic movements of literary archetypes and manages to complicate many of them during Maggie’s journey while still holding onto engaging forward movement, and the pacing particularly picks up once Maggie hits the road ... This sequence leading up to Maggie’s departure is, perhaps, drawn out a stretch too long; but, it is filled with deft scaffolding and subtle clues to the novel’s ultimate trajectory ... These vignettes from the distant past also help to accomplish what is arguably Masad’s largest triumph: superb and cohesive character development. The novel is nearly free of \'extras\' and bit characters; each person Maggie knows or encounters is fully rounded and given an identity full of complexity. This is particularly important considering Masad presents an inclusive and intersectional cast across race, class, age, gender identity, and sexual orientation. The novel’s plot presents many opportunities for flat and convenient character work, but, here again, the author navigates around easy traps and pitfalls ... The novel’s most notable issue, on the other hand (and forgive the cliche), is that Masad has held onto a few extra darlings. The occasional overwritten or superfluous explanation demonstrate this tendency ... The well-versed reader in the genres Maggie imagines her search for answers taking will likely anticipate the general direction of the novel’s conclusion, but the endpoint is nonetheless inventive and rewarding, because Masad never allows her characters to be either strictly good or bad, honest or deceitful, compartmentalized or united. With this novel, Masad joins an all-star lineup of 2020 debuts ... explores the distance we feel between ourselves and others, even those we love most, and how the gap in those perspectives can be an entry point for grief, empathy, and forgiveness.
C Pam Zhang
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksZhang brings to life the vast, often-omitted cruelties of westward expansion ... Zhang’s choices in language show how white settlers attempt to demean and erase Lucy and Sam’s existence in real time ... Zhang’s lyricism and eye for narrative structure are superb in equal measure. The storytelling is coiled and confident, it excels in its mixed chronology and echoes to the past. Throughout, the prose has a prospector’s aesthetic. The sentences have been sifted through so that only the necessary elements remain, the glimmering bits that sparkle in the sun. Clouds, hills, gold, salt, blood, wind, home, these words are turned over and examined with such care that they increase in value over time ... The syntax too varies as much as gold formations, parceled out in terse flakes and flowing veins, a larger abundance of dazzling nuggets than any landscape could ever be expected to provide ... The landscape is described in broad features so that the West feels expansive and endless, but Zhang writes with a level of specificity that gives the elements a distinct geography ... a gorgeous novel that gives its characters room to learn, mourn, fight, and reinvent themselves. But it also reveals the flaws and false revisions in the American mythos, the ways we have never fully overcome the brutalities on which this country was built, and how much was lost, destroyed, and stolen in the pursuit of profit along the way.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksThere are more than enough biographical parallels between the author and her protagonist to wonder whether Days of Distraction falls under the umbrella of autofiction, but it is the essayistic prose and the well-spaced block paragraph signature of online content that gives the novel its contemporary, memoir-like sensibility. Chang’s prose, using first-person point of view, reveals Alexandra’s sharp and critical interiority, but maintains a reporter’s sense of distance, an obligation to factual representation ... If there are any hiccups, it’s that the novel is slightly weighed down by a lengthy and sluggish middle section ... masterfully complicates the many harmful ways in which societal rage is placated daily, no differently in 2013 than in our past or current moment ... It’s no easy feat to present these issues using bountiful evidence within an expansive work of fiction. Chang does this expertly. Her debut is a reminder that the novel can show and tell, convey story and social message, and dare the reader to participate in their own upheaval.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksDon’t let these predictable settings fool you: these narratives are vibrant and shirk platitudes. Perry seamlessly weaves throughout his personal stories lush culture criticism and commentary ... Perry also displays a knack for setting ... The title essay is superb ... The collection’s one potential inconsistency is the three brief letters addressed to Emma that conclude the book. It’s not that the writing suffers; it’s as clear and lively here as all that comes before it. However, the switch to an epistle feels a bit forced, even though Perry implements other distinct structures in the earlier selections. Their brevity is also notable given the dense nature of the central essays ... Perry is a master in thinking through the significant minutiae of our interactions. He reminds us how fast we can feel distant from our past and current selves. It’s a remarkable, endless journey toward personal accountability. There’s so much more we can be.
MixedThe Chicago Review of BooksThere’s no right way to write short fiction, but Smith does take a few superfluous risks — hefty exposition dumps, unusually brief point of view shifts, overbearingly colloquial dialogue, and meta-commentary on the craft of fiction writing — that are either the calculated moves of an iconoclast or the unchecked flourishes of a literary celebrity. The trickiest part for the reader is deciding whether such instances are tedious or lovely. Standardization, after all, can diminish creativity and experimentation, but a proclivity for breaking the rules without reason can be just as wearisome ... Like the parents toiling over their kid’s homework, some of these stories may have also gone over my head ... Smith has a knack for ending stories on unexpected, pleasing notes, even if things occasionally get muddled en route. Smith’s short fiction aims at everyone, but its undercurrents often require the fleeting type of literary elitism that makes one wonder is this confusing or am I reading it wrong?
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksIf the personal essay is dead, Leslie Jamison offers a map for moving forward using an old technique — New Journalism. Her latest, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, provides a stunning example of how to interrogate our collective consciousness without losing — but not relying on, either — the author’s role in the whole affair. In fourteen essays, Jamison reveals her knack for hypnotizing, in-depth reporting, while holding the reality of her subjectivity and imperfections at arm’s length. She neither aims for hard news nor hot takes. Instead, Jamison’s essays reveal the fruits of patient research and measured prose ... what Jamison can do with a month is more than most writers could do given six. The facts would be the same, but few can make the words sing like this, and even fewer can take subjects like the world’s loneliest whale or a slapdash travel magazine assignment to Sri Lanka and gently nestle them within today’s volatile emotional, social, and political core. It’s new journalism for a new era ... Jamison can do it all.
PositiveChicago Review of BooksTold in first-person, Denny’s stream of consciousness is contrastingly critical and vaudevillian. Goldblatt’s prose thrives on pithy one-liners and lucid moments of defamiliarization. The humorous voice does wonders for the pacing, but at times Denny’s in-the-moment gags feel a bit too on the nose. It’s difficult to imagine anyone, even if creative enough to bring to life a Hollywood legend hallucination, being so sharp at every possible moment. Although, this consistent clarity is useful in terms of character development ... Hard Mouth manages an offbeat expedition while also bringing a one-of-a-kind dark humor to the page. Evading the predictable, Goldblatt wanders through the momentary and unanticipated emotions of knowing the worst is coming, and suggests that even if bad decisions are made along the way, there might be self awareness waiting on the other side.
Samanta Schweblin, Trans. by Megan McDowell
PositiveChicago Review of Books\"To call these stories weird or experimental isn’t exactly on the mark. Schweblin is a masterful technician and builds elegant character arcs and narratives that accelerate in esoteric ways. While the content may be peculiar, the form is meticulous. The collection is chock-full of masterful reversals, last-minute turns that showcase Schweblin’s ability to carry a story to a satisfying close. However, in succession, these surprises come to be somewhat expected. The stories that lean heavily on this structure are frontloaded in the first half of the collection, so that the latter works bring a renewed sense of energy, but by that point it’s difficult to shake the anticipation of the coming magic trick ... Mouthful of Birds presents a medley of fantastic and absurd situations, but with a heaping spoonful of self-awareness, so that the curtain is partially pulled back on its own wonder, making the sleight of hand known, but no less understood, and all the more thrilling.\
RaveChicago Review of Books\"Evening in Paradise is all the evidence anyone should need that Lucia Berlin is one of the best short story writers of her time. Across the board, Berlin’s short fiction holds an emotional timbre that is difficult to match. Her writing renders the exhaustive efforts of a day’s work commonplace and extraordinary, vibrant and unexpurgated, elated and forlorn. It’s the genuine paradise and tragedies of the everyday, unfiltered and wonderful.\
RaveChicago Review of BooksEven though an individual may perish, there is consistency in the life cycles of bumblebees, dandelions, and race horses—all of which are examined with gorgeous language and imagery that makes Limón’s collection hard to put down, even in the moments that cause a deep, sorrowful ache. The tone is conversational yet eloquent, as if the speaker is retelling the most whimsical or challenging moments of their day after mentally working out the details of the story all afternoon. At times, these dialogues become brutally honest and confessional. In other instances, they’re more convivial ... The Carrying perhaps doesn’t only refer to the burdens we carry, but also the small joys that carry us through the incessant turmoil of existence. It’s difficult to balance such polarized emotions, but Limón deftly navigates these extremes.
Cesar Aira, Trans. by Chris Andrews
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksIn his slim, newly translated fictional memoir, The Linden Tree, Aira is at his best—full of conversational energy and nonstop whimsy ... the narrator’s youthful fascination reads spot-on, and creates a sense of exuberance that surges throughout the whole story ... The writing seems intentionally fast and ungrounded, a boat careening down white water rapids. It is a quick glimpse of the past rather than a reconstruction ... The vivacity of Aira’s language is more than enough to stay engaged in this sketch of his stand-in at a young age ... the emotions ring true, the writing is fun, and the ride is well worth the price of admission.
RaveChicago Review of Books...the language is Nabokovian to say the least. Right when you think Celt has hit some undefined apogee of prose, she proves time and time again there’s still more fun to be had, and her lyricism and wit are a real treat ... Celt’s prose also excels at distinguishing the varying writing styles of her characters ... Invitation to a Bonfire challenges the notion that an artist is inexorably responsible for their work or their legacy.
PositiveChicago Review of BooksThe Carpenter’s contributions to the overall arc of the novel, while full of rich descriptions of setting, are sluggish and expositional. The majority of his life story weighs down the middle third of the novel, which significantly slows the pacing and leaves the main plotline floating in the doldrums. There is much to enjoy in his biography, but at times it is exhaustive and overindulgent.
RaveChicago Review of BooksThe Largesse of the Sea Maiden, the late Denis Johnson’s final collection of short stories, is in many ways the opposite of The Bachelor. Rather than morph normal people into piles of clichés, Johnson gives tired characters a new life ...brimming with death — a looming sense of mortality that propels each story forward ... Much of Johnson’s legend seems to rest in his imperfections, and in many ways a blemish or two is more fitting, proof that writing is often more impressive when it acknowledges the limitations of artistry and language itself ... For a slim collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’s accomplishment is profound.
PanThe Chicago Review of BooksThe stories are sound from a craft perspective, and most were previously published in prestigious literary magazines. However, many of these stories have not aged particularly well, begging the question, why put them out into the world now? … The stories that make up Fresh Complaint resemble a row of uniform houses lining a suburban cul-de-sac — they have individual merits upon close inspection, but are unmemorable when piled together … On paper, Fresh Complaint is a solid collection of short stories written over the successful career of a prominent American writer. But right now, it feels out of place and time.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksRushdie’s prose is beyond much reprieve—there are few contemporary artists who come to mind that possess his ability to craft sentences. In this regard, The Golden House, his latest novel, is no exception ... Rushdie forcefully brings today’s politics into play, a theme that complicates where The Golden House lands in our current cultural landscape of gifs and op-eds ... Trump, the man himself, creates the majority of the novel’s shortcomings. Rene summarizes the Donald’s meteoric rise in politics using an extended metaphor in which Hillary Clinton is Batwoman and Trump is the Joker, the punch line of DC in D.C., but the result feels reductive and cartoonish. It’s a flat jab that comes across as marshmallow satire ... Despite the softball cultural critiques, The Golden House is a joy to read when taken at face value. It’s hard to not have fun reading writing at Rushdie’s level of craftsmanship. It’s clever, intimidating, jocund, and electrifying, but seems a little too polite in a time of need.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksKamila Shamsie’s contemporary take on Sophocles’ work, Home Fire, a novel that follows its characters from the United States to London to Raqqa to Pakistan, is remarkable in several ways. Besides its timely subject matter, Shamsie is brings new life to ancient characters, developing a handful of distinct perspectives with modern prose...The narratives of these characters soon become inexorably interconnected and reveal the complex intersections of religion, politics, love, and personal identity … Shamsie’s patience in plot allows the novel to accelerate like a runaway toboggan, gaining speed with every page, the ultimate destination as unavoidable as a gargantuan tree near the base of the hill. The ride is exhilarating, and even as the shadow of tragedy nears, it’s impossible to look away.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksNotably, Attenberg shirks chronology and instead creates a scatter plot of timelines, a structural move that benefits Andrea’s warm gossipy tone and hazy city lifestyle. Each chapter feels like a short story ... In their consistent execution, these artistic decisions are made with confidence and intention, defying several stuffy literary conventions ... All Grown Up plays by its own set of aesthetic rules, resulting in a fast read and a witty, unabashed take on one of American literature’s most enduring archetypes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksIn the wake of the immigration ban, The Refugees provides an imperative perspective on how refugees bear the onuses of war time and time again. We see this throughout Nguyen’s stories – that American fear, whether anti-communist or Islamophobic, is taken out on the innocent. We see the guise of protection being used to propagate racism and xenophobia ... Thematically, The Refugees is interested in the trauma and transgenerational grief of people forced out of their homes, as well as what it means to feel trapped in the nowhere space between cultures ... The Refugees are neither prolix and maximalist, nor terse and pared down—they are simply good stories imagined with keen attention to detail ... There’s no denying he is a deft wordsmith and purveyor of lovely diction. But he’s also just so damn readable. His most violent and scathing prose is lightened by nuanced humor ... The Refugees serves up elegant, hearty stories full of vibrant language and memorable characters. There’s plenty of time to invest in each one, and they’re worth coming back to time and time again.
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books\"Kang provides an intimate examination of humanity at its worst breaking point and considers both the immediate and long-term repercussions. The prose is pristine, expertly paced, and gut-wrenching. However, what most distinguishes the writing is Kang’s ability to switch between first, second, and third person point of view. Each chapter brings to life a new perspective, some that are jarringly personal and others that necessitate more distance to bring broader context to the catastrophe. Yet, Kang’s use of second person narrative is what truly sets Human Acts apart. With Kang’s deft language and attention to detail, this point of view essentially places readers into the emotional and psychological terror of Gwangju. This also allows Kang to enter a haunting stream of consciousness, one that unfurls trauma in real time ... a must-read for 2017.\