RaveThe AtlanticClassic McBride: He doesn’t shy away from bold statements about the national catastrophes of race and xenophobia, and he always gives us a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. The sugar is McBride’s spitfire dialogue and murder-mystery-worthy plot machinations; his characters’ big personalities and bigger storylines; his wisecracking, fast-talking humor; and prose so agile and exuberant that reading him is like being at a jazz jam session ... Though the Dodo storyline risks being a bit on the nose, deft characterization and unexpected tonal variations help complicate the reader’s perspective and add nuance and depth. No villain escapes McBride’s humor ... In McBride’s work, digging deep into the tangled roots of complicated communities is the antidote to misplaced blame and false history.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewIn spending relatively little time with the literary aspects of Faulkner’s novels — the astounding characterization, his brilliance with metaphor and his dazzling descriptions of perception and physicality — Gorra misses an opportunity to tell a fuller story of the sublime interplay of aesthetics and theme in Faulkner’s work. This is doubly unfortunate because Gorra writes so beautifully when he turns his attention to Faulkner’s artistry ... But these are relatively small complaints. Gorra’s well-conceived, exhaustively researched book probes history’s refusals ... In his urgency to make the case for Faulkner’s merits, however, Gorra overcorrects with regard to his faults...Gorra isn’t an apologist, but he does go to great lengths to avoid saying the obvious. He mentions Faulkner’s infamous alcoholism as a factor that may have influenced his more incendiary comments ... Gorra mounts a further defense by separating the man from the writing, as though the writing \'made him better than he was; it made the books better than the man.\' But that’s a dodge — and, most significantly, it’s not the point. Of course William Faulkner, Mississippi-born in 1897, great-grandson of a slave-owning Confederate colonel, was a racist. But in Faulkner, as is the case in all of America, racism is not the conclusion to any argument. It does not preclude further discussion; it demands it ... This tangle aside, Gorra’s book is rich in insight ... Gorra’s book, as he writes in his preface, is \'an act of citizenship,\' timely and essential as we confront, once again, the question of who is a citizen and who among us should enjoy its privileges.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewIn Stella, Bennett balances the literary demands of dynamic characterization with the historical and social realities of her subject matter. Stella is hard to like: Her choice to cut herself off from blackness is a psychic suicide that leaves her empty, lacking in empathy and bigoted ... Desiree is a woman with agency and a clear sense of the compromises she’s made to ensure her well-being ... The novel...might well have stayed with these women in whom there is such depth, possibility and dramatic propulsion. Instead, it switches focus to their daughters and in so doing loses vitality ... the novel labors to force the weight of the past onto [Jude] ... as a character Kennedy is a bit flat, the spoiled rich white girl straight out of central casting, self-pitying and little altered by the events of her life ... The novel fails to imagine meaningful story lines or compelling links between the young women and their mothers’ burdens. As a result, their sections struggle to find momentum and weight. Despite these shortcomings, The Vanishing Half is a brave foray into vast and difficult terrain.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewHassman offers us a vision of regular small-town folks enacting the worst aspects of themselves and their religion; a vision all the more salient in the current climate where abolishing people and ideas we don’t like has become the new American dream ... Helen’s mother died of a cancer likely linked to the oil refinery. Though her death doesn’t exert as much pressure on the story as it could, Hassman writes beautifully of Helen’s memories and grief ... engaging reading ... There are a great many happenings in this novel, but they don’t quite build to an arc of Helen’s becoming ... Hassman’s compassion for her characters can come across as wishful thinking ... It’s not that I wish Helen were a more tragic character—that indomitable, often hilarious voice of hers keeps us turning pages. But the novel needed a reckoning.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewHenderson offsets these slightly stock characters by paying truth to the schizophrenia of Jim Crow, an evil complicated by the terrifying proximity of oppressed to oppressor. Her observations of this dynamic are powerful ... Empathy for its troubled cast is one of the novel’s great strengths; at its most insightful and compassionate, the sentences sing ... But Henderson’s empathy isn’t always adequate to the job of parsing her characters’ experience. As we learn, Nan’s mother, Ketty, cut out her child’s tongue with a scalpel when Nan was a baby...In the end I had to wonder why the only living black woman in this novel is rendered doubly powerless by being unable to speak ... Part of the problem here may be the novel’s desire to correct the past, in a sense...Well intentioned though it may be, that sort of corrective gesture makes our long and difficult racial past a lot easier for contemporary readers to digest. It shouldn’t be; white people are still murdering black folks and nobody seems to be running from their crimes ... The Twelve-Mile Straight is well worth reading. It’s a page turner, a novel to settle into. But good intentions can’t replace its responsibility to the complexities of its subject matter. Heart-wrenching though it may be, diving into certain waters requires reckoning with the creatures in those depths.
Joyce Carol Oates
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewAmerica’s abortion war contains treacherous depths, and to Oates’s credit her book seeks to plumb them. How, it asks, might we humanize extreme ideological positions? How might we subvert the divisiveness that so troubles the debate? ... The shifting kaleidoscope of voices is at once illuminating and dizzying. Oates may be betting the multitude of perspectives will help us see around our blinders and prejudices about the Other. The question is, who is the Other, and according to whom? In some respects, Oates’s bet pays off ... Oates’s observations about Dawn’s psychic relationship to other women and her rumination on female masculinity and athleticism are so dazzling they warrant their own novel ... Yet the novel affords such breadth and discernment only to the educated, middle-class Voorhees clan. Despite their suffering, the Voorheeses are intelligent, thoughtful people with some degree of agency. At the opposite end of the class (and ideological) divide, the Dunphys’ grim lives are defined almost exclusively by lack, victimhood and ignorance. The novel seems to dislike these people intensely, and characterizes them accordingly.