RaveKenyon ReviewA number of poets over the years have made alcoholism a major subject ... But few have written...with as much beauty or generosity as Kaveh Akbar. His debut collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, out this past fall from Alice James, is about addiction and its particularities but also touches something larger and harder to point to, to talk about—existential emptiness and the ways substances often offer respite from our spiritual hunger ... each [poem] offers a complex picture of addiction, full of acute and often unsparing observations about its psychology ... Akbar is a sumptuous, remarkably painterly poet. But his style is often more expressionist or surrealist than realist or scenic ... Sometimes Calling a Wolf a Wolf is oblique because Akbar is struggling with the problem of performativity, working to invent a more personal language for his experience ... there’s deep sadness and longing but also gentleness in the back-and-forth here, even a sense of play. Akbar’s replies make their own kind of sense. Even if words fail us, even if they can’t alone solve our problems, they can name their own inadequacy, gain new uses, and maybe, when artfully arranged, even offer what Akbar says we \'all want,\' that thing we might name poetry—\'to walk in sincere wonder, / like the first man to hear a parrot speak.\'
PositiveThe Star TribuneHere Lerner uses the trappings of fiction to see his youth as an anthropologist (or ghost) might—from a critical distance, or, as one character puts it, from both \'first person and third.\' This impulse sometimes saps the plot\'s momentum—Lerner can be reflexively reflective, more interested in analyzing motivations than dramatizing them. How many times can a novelist use the phrase \'libidinal economy\' before we lose a feeling for their characters? ... At its best, though, The Topeka School is a kind of 21st-century The Sound and the Fury—a kaleidoscopic portrait that masterfully connects one family and its traumas to wider cultural dysfunction. Toxic masculinity—in the forms of privilege, sexual abuse, infidelity, casual violence—shapes each character, even those who \'process\' feelings for a living ... Lerner\'s novel offers a compelling exploration of how we got here, and where we might go.
Gordon H. Chang
RaveThe Star TribuneAs a writer, Chang faced his own impossible task. To date, historians have not found a single diary or letter written by one of the Railroad Chinese. Despite this dearth, Chang’s account of their experiences is authoritative and engaging ... If Chang’s exhaustive fact-finding sometimes saps his momentum...his methodology just as often lends the book a compelling sense of mystery. Reading Chang’s analysis of period photographs, for instance, is like watching a master detective work a crime scene. His investigations are often surprisingly moving, too ... Chang’s book is a necessary corrective to delusions about our past, and a model for how historians might \'give voice to the voiceless.\'
PositiveKenyon Review\"... enchanting ... [The book] begins by doing something unexpected: immediately fulfilling our expectations ... as in much of the collection, [Barnett] proceeds by an antic, sideways logic of the clown. Her attention continually strays from what you’re “supposed to” focus on in a Serious Poem ... Which is not say that Barnett’s work is somehow silly or unserious, however light its touch ... For all the contemporary poets who rely on wordplay or the associative mode, very few write poems this gratifying, or with such philosophical heft.\