Bradley Babendir is a writer currently living in Boston. His work can be found The Nation, The New Republic, The New Inquiry, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He is working on a novel.
Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell
PositiveThe A.V. Club... the real meat of The Cult Of We, and what sets it apart from previous recitations of this story, is the skill and clarity with which Brown and Farrell describe the economic and financial environment that made WeWork’s absurd peak valuation of $47 billion possible in the first place ... Brown and Farrell’s big-picture view charting the arc of the company serves them well but lost is any real impression of what it might have been like to work there, especially at a level lower than an executive. Some examples, like a lament that high-ranking officials sometimes had to fly coach, elicit scoffs. The glimpses one gets of those below the C-suite, including a manager who was fired because they left one of WeWork’s mandatory hard-charging festivals early, suggest a disturbing situation, but The Cult Of We only scratches the surface ... Still, Brown and Farrell’s book provides essential insight into the opaque mechanics of how a private company builds astronomical valuation, and the twisted feedback loop that motivates people not to solve obvious problems. There is little indication that any powerful players have actually learned their lesson here, but at least we’re now better equipped to understand their mistakes.
PositiveLos Angeles TimesThough Phase Six was almost entirely completed before the current pandemic became a full-fledged disaster, the novel pushes on a number of sharp wounds created by extremely recent history, including the sensation that death lurks everywhere, merciless ... We are mostly locked tightly into the personal experiences of key players but occasionally offered a wide-angle view, usually as a way of twisting the knife. This technique works better in some moments than others. Passing mentions of news coverage and political squabbles feel somewhat toothless and tame. Descriptions of Fox News’ paranoid rumor-mongering re neither surprising nor particularly insightful. But more basic dispatches arrive as painful shocks ... Yet the most powerful moments come at close range ... Shepard toys with thriller conventions by offering full names and backstories, laying down the expectation that they’re in it for the long haul — only to have them fall ill and die pages later. Nobody is safe ... Shepard imbues such passages with procedural intrigue, then often closes them with the discovery that things might be even worse than imagined ... Retroactively added references to the ongoing pandemic land with an ugly thud ... This hiccup, however, does not dim the insight and power of Shepard’s moving portraits of characters who live through, die from or work to stop the pandemic. Phase Six cultivates an agonizing sense of dread — the same sense of dread millions of people have been trying to escape for a year. It’s an impressive work of literature, if you can find a way to bear it.
Mael Renouard tr. Peter Behrman de Sinety
PositiveThe AV ClubThe delay in publication situates the book oddly. Not new enough, with the speed at which the internet changes, to feel quite like it represents now and not old enough to seem prescient ... [Renouard] understands both the unprecedented nature of the internet and that history is nonetheless full of useful and clarifying frameworks for what’s happening. Some of the joy in reading the book is not that Renouard is unique in what he notices, but in seeing the connections he makes and the details he holds onto ... There are other such occurrences where Renouard details in a fleeting moment the type of phenomenon that has come to define life for many people in this homebound, extremely online time of the pandemic ... experientially driven, which leads Renouard to mostly ignore the mechanisms that have created the obliterative and shallow environment he finds himself navigating, the companies that have profited off making their products less functional and more addicting. A lot has been written about this, how the algorithms that control what one sees on Facebook and YouTube and everywhere else pave an insidious path, and that work is vital. Renouard demonstrates that the documentary work of keeping track of how those tools and platforms were and are used, and what people feel, and what they see is vital, too.
MixedMel Magazinehe sensation of reading it is like tumbling head over heels down a hill, feeling as your feet scrape the ground that you will maybe regain control, and then stumbling and continuing your perilous descent. Divergences that include a stint at Zappos and a world war between an army of Donald Trump robots and the fast-food chain Slammy’s only accelerate the pace. Rosenberg’s single-minded focus on reconstructing the film distorts what happens around him, making even world historical events seem incidental ... In Rosenberg, Kaufman created an avatar of the cynical white ally, in it more for their perception of what it can do for their status in circles than they are for building a better world. Though Kaufman makes good sport of himself, Rosenberg lobs criticism that are often made of Kaufman by critics and could be made of this book — namely, that his work is too male and too white. Making a character who, despite himself, makes legitimate criticisms of your work seem unprincipled is perhaps self-serving, but it’s definitely an interesting, complicated feature of the book.
MixedThe A.V. ClubLevin writes in swirls, circling around an idea for paragraphs at time. This can be a recipe for profound insight, or it can feel like stalling for time, and too often in Bubblegum it’s the latter, undercutting the external tension of the novel with a half-baked internal one. Levin loves a long sentence with repeated verbs, but he rarely gets the rhythm quite right, and leading the reader to stumble instead of being in the flow. Levin is a writer of demonstrated skill and ambition who has earned the benefit of the doubt, but I’m a smidge past halfway through, and Bubblegum so far lacks the focus and verve that gave his past work its spark.
PositiveThe BafflerThough occasionally too close to her own readings in a way that risks alienating readers, at her best, Gornick gets the balance right, drawing on her own life without reducing literature to a therapeutic tool ... Gornick is never so reductive as to suggest that you need to have a particular emotional experience before you can understand its depiction in a book—only that such moments of recognition can heighten the experience of reading. It is in passages like these, where she more artfully connects her lived experience not only to the content but the style of the book at hand, that Unfinished Business is at its most appealing ... That a reader as observant as Gornick continues to find she was wrong in her assumptions about particular books, or that they contain a previously unnoticed negative capability, reveals the narrowness of literary essays that consider their subject primarily through a pragmatic lens ... Unfinished Business...show[s] the value of literary writing that places curiosity and questioning over definitive claims and myopia.
PositiveNPRThe Mysterious Affair at Olivetti...tells a circuitous, bizarre story ... It\'s a useful reminder to be skeptical of the stories companies tell about themselves. Still, the book is a little in the weeds. The first two-thirds or so of The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti, despite their spanning two world wars and an unending series of complicated and fascinating interpersonal dynamics, can at times feel tedious and confusing. Secrest moves between time periods in a way that can be difficult to track—and the relationship each of the long list of characters who appear has to the Olivetti family is often hard to ascertain. Working through the wave of information, however, is worth it for the absolutely thrilling—if not entirely believable—theorizing and deducing that takes place over the last third of the book. The mostly straitlaced history turns conspiratorial ... The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti is a rigorous history of a powerful Italian family and their company with an absolutely gripping but specious and perhaps reckless section of conspiracizing at the end. One must read it skeptically, but it\'s exciting to watch someone try to put the pieces together, even if a large percentage are missing.
PositiveThe BafflerLydia Davis’s Essays One provides a wide-ranging look at how Davis both makes and interacts with art ... Davis does not divulge...much about the process by which she reaches the detailed, unsentimental readings of her subjects in Essays One, but their clarity and depth reflect...careful reading and rereading ... Davis’s essays, spread out over the course of a mammoth volume, have a...studied feel to them ... clearly the product of sustained engagement ... Davis demonstrates the fruits that extreme and repeated attention can yield ... She pays evocative attention to the experience of reading...alongside a convincing description of how that experience is constructed. Crucially, she uncovers how the trick is accomplished without ruining its effect—something Davis attempts with less success when writing about her own work throughout the book ... At their best, Davis’s insightful essays also demonstrate how fruitful writing with time and care outside the publishing industry’s relevance cycle can be.
MixedJewish CurrentsA Massena native, Berenson’s writing about the town is often characterized by a palpable sense of disappointment over both how the town handled the situation at the time and what the town has become in the present day (epitomized, for him, by Massena’s St. Lawrence County going for Trump in 2016). This mode stands in marked contrast with the way he writes about the details of the incident itself, which unfolds with the sizzle of a zeitgeisty true crime book. But both of these elements are something of a Trojan horse for a digressive historical survey of blood libel around the world, and a briefer consideration of the political climate for Jews in early 20th-century America ... At times this litany of cases can feel like a lengthy distraction from the American incident that is his stated subject, but Berenson’s goals are worthwhile: to demonstrate the way that antisemitism developed throughout European history ... In Berenson’s view, the story of The Accusation is worth telling and engaging with because the Massena incident is the only documented blood libel case in American history. But what does this singularity really mean? Ultimately, Berenson treats it as little more than an anomaly ... What is American antisemitism? That The Accusation brings the urgency of this question to the fore is the book’s defining strength; that it doesn’t attempt an answer, its defining weakness.
PositivePacific Standard...a collection of essays that seek to demonstrate and enact a means of non-fascist thinking ... The title of the book itself is a reference to mass political action, and Being Numerous demonstrates Lennard\'s thoughtful clarity through an impressive range of subjects and styles. Watching Lennard apply a clean analytic framework that uses narrative evidence to describe systemic problems is both satisfying and instructive. Approaching all these social problems is a tricky task for Lennard and readers alike, but Being Numerous suggests a persuasive scheme for how to process the world as it grows ever more fascist, and how to conceive of a better future—even or especially when something better might seem inconceivable.
Rion Amilcar Scott
RaveThe A.V ClubThe World Doesn’t Require You feels like a collection about people to whom God said no ... Scott makes his stories feel singular. He bends expectations throughout the book, frequently demonstrating this idea... \'Everything horrible is just a little bit ridiculous, and vice versa\'. And despite how clear Scott is about this modus operandi, he constantly surprises, pushing things just a little further in either direction. Just as readers have a chance to get their footing, a bird screeches at such a loud volume that eardrums are shattered, and then things get worse from there ... This high level of energy and humor, which Scott maintains throughout, makes the novella a standout ... Scott presents Chambers and his project as absurd, while also making the project itself compelling to read. This is exemplary of the balancing act the author pulls off through much of the collection, as his troubled characters try their best to make do with the weight of difficult histories strapped to their backs. Though God may have forsaken them, Scott does not. The World Doesn’t Require You is full of horrible, ridiculous people, but it’s full of grace, too.
Sarah Rose Etter
RaveThe Star TribuneEtter writes her weird world with elastic prose, as stripped-down at certain points as it is lyrical in others. The book is composed of short narrative sections, often multiple to a page, broken up with \'visions,\' italicized sections of situations Cassie wishes were reality but alas are not. These are perhaps the most compelling features of The Book of X, as Etter finds a way to make them feel truly aspirational and revealing ... such a powerful novel.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune... explores art and relationships with a perceptive eye and beautiful prose ... Fleischmann’s friendships and romantic relationships — often intertwined — are the book’s emotional center. They approach their desires in a way that is alternately moving and self-deprecating ... Fleischmann undercuts the sadness before describing it, which softens the blow and produces a sense of longing instead. Fleischmann’s polymathic book exerts this type of control the whole way through, and to great effect.
PositiveNPR[Epstein\'s] claim extends from individuals to systems, and he includes some striking anecdotes and evidence in the introductory chapter of the book ... These are compelling points, but they have that slippery feel that can appear in social science books. In this case, their perfect fit and a lack of cited counterargument signals that things may be falling together too easily. Throughout Range, however, Epstein is meticulous and spends a great deal of time giving credit to dissenters where credit is due ... Where Epstein\'s argument stumbles is in more artistic fields. The objective measures that he had been relying on to make his points are no longer as relevant, and they\'re less convincing as a result ... On top of this, Range makes the same compromises that many books of social science make. Many studies are cited, but the size or repeatability of them is not mentioned. There are notes in the back for the more studious readers, but more rigorous in-text citations should be encouraged. Despite these flaws, Range is a convincing, engaging survey of research and anecdotes that confirm a thoughtful, collaborative world is also a better and more innovative one.
Kristin L. Hoganson
RaveNPRThe Heartland is a deeply-researched and engaging history of what a place formerly was in a corrective\'s clothing. One of the many great choices Hoganson made was including archival clippings from newspapers in between chapters. These are tangentially related to the subjects that surround their placement and they range from whimsical to serious ... Alongside these small glimpses into what an Urbana resident might have been reading on a day-to-day basis is Hoganson\'s writing style itself. She\'s clear and entertaining ... Those who come to The Heartland seeking an answer for how to understand the Midwest and its immediate political future will not find it. They will find, instead, a much richer, deeply researched book that will remain useful and readable long after the election cycle during which it\'s being published.
James Carl Nelson
PositiveThe Star TribuneNelson does not shield readers from disturbing details. The specifics of who was shot where—limbs, head, heart—and the immediate physical consequences of it are abundant and difficult to forget. Although this means that The Polar Bear Expedition is not for the faint of heart, it serves as a stark reminder of the routine horror of war ... careful to give full lives to its American subjects, referencing by name the family members and opportunities they left behind. The book’s largest flaw is its failure to do this for the Russian counterparts, referred to throughout as \'Bolos\' or \'the enemy.\' One does not have to be sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause to recognize that the men who made up the Red Army were fighting back against an invasion of their own country, and may have been as ambivalent as some in the 339th Regiment were ... a fascinating, vivid exploration of an erased moment of U.S. military history. Nelson tackles the material with expertise and clarity.
PositiveNPRUnderground is especially dynamic and engaging when Hunt is telling other people\'s stories or describing his research ... In the liveliest chapter, Hunt shares a handful of stories about what it means to be lost ... His clear excitement about this information is contagious ... Hunt\'s approach is an open one and he doesn\'t try to fit all of the disparate narratives into the same box. This survey-quality is one of the book\'s biggest strengths ... When he visits the oldest mine in the world, on Aborignal land on the western coast of Australia, he makes an effort to explain to his readers why the Wajarri family he\'s meeting with are right to be skeptical of him — and he writes about the experience of earning their trust and visiting the mine with gratitude ... The issues with Underground come when Hunt leans too heavily on his own experiences ... Underground is a thoughtful, inquisitive book. Hunt approaches the subject with an unusual dedication and open-mindedness that is difficult to resist once Underground get its sea legs.
PositiveNPR\"During these sections, Anolik writes with great insight and restraint. At times, it reads like an annotated oral history ... At other times, Anolik\'s interventions are vital and clarifying ... Much of what makes the book wonderful in its first half, unfortunately, falls away when the focus is on the more recent years of Babitz\'s life — she\'s now 75 — especially in the period where Anolik knows her personally ... Anolik\'s biography, as a whole, is much more its successes than it is its failures. Down the road, Babitz\'s readers will surely be treated to a biography of her from a more disinterested party. Until then, they — and anyone interested in Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s — will be more than nourished by Hollywood\'s Eve.\
PositiveThe AV ClubWhat makes Normal People a more impressive and layered novel than Conversations With Friends is that Rooney is constantly flexing the power dynamics as the contexts around her characters change ... How Rooney navigates the difficult politics of this is impressive. She is clear that Marianne’s desires are legitimate while also exploring what the basis of those desires could be ... This complexity is one of Normal People’s greatest strengths and is a reflection of Rooney expanding her vision of what a novel can do. In keeping with this, the book is structurally ambitious...This is simultaneously frustrating and an important part of what makes the book so compulsively readable ... Normal People lacks the sheer force of will that Frances, as a narrator, brought to Conversations With Friends, and the lack of a grounded perspective somewhat diminishes Rooney’s ability to explore some of the political and social avenues that gave her debut its irresistible quality. Despite this, Normal People is a strong book in its own right. Conversations with Friends is a difficult book to follow-up, and Rooney admirably takes risks with structure and point of view. Though these don’t payoff as well as one might hope, it is evidence of a writer thinking seriously about how to approach her craft. Coverage of Rooney has often descended into caricature—claims that she is the “great millennial novelist” are as common as they are misguided—but Normal People reaffirms that her work speaks for itself.
RaveA.V. Club\"... James’ new book, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is a clear-cut success ... The characters that populate Black Leopard, Red Wolf have origin stories rooted in trauma and violence, and James captures it all masterfully ... A trilogy-opener has the difficult job of being a compelling novel in its own right while preparing for what will follow. Black Leopard, Red Wolf clears both bars with ease.\
Yukiko Motoya, trans. by Asa Yoneda
PositiveBookforum\"Motoya’s interest in what motivates her characters to keep secrets or share them is the foundation of this story as well as the book as a whole ... The crown jewel of The Lonesome Bodybuilder is \'An Exotic Marriage,\' a novella-length story that was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for Japanese literature in 2016 ... The success of the story, and the collection, is built on passages that recognize the outlandish nature of what is happening without writing about them in an outlandish way. That level of control is perhaps Motoya’s crowning achievement in The Lonesome Bodybuilder. Even the stories that don’t ascend to this level of elegance and precision are steered with confidence and ease.\
MixedThe Washington Post\"The book abruptly shifts gears at the midway point, and starts to slip out of Lipsyte’s hands ... the factionalism [in Hark\'s group] feels poorly sketched, taking oxygen from the day-to-day details that make the first half of the book so rich. It’s a shame that Hark comes to this. It begins as an energetic and compassionate satire of what we choose to pay attention to and why. Lipsyte’s vision of the political nature of having no politics feels spot-on, and his sentences are as sharp as ever. That the novel has so many good things going for it makes the back half’s hard landing hurt all the more.\
PanThe Baffler\"How the Internet Happened, a new book from Brian McCullough... could have been a good venue for a necessary round of mythbusting. Unfortunately, most of the time, it is not ... McCullough imagines himself as a neutral filter of information, the type of reporter people are supposed to venerate. He has the facts about how the internet as we know it came to be, and he is now turning them over to his readers. These endeavors, however, are always much better at masking bias than they are at eliminating it ... Anecdotes of all-night coding sessions appear in nearly every chapter of How the Internet Happened... What is missing from the book is an idea of what any of these people are actually doing ... What is most frustrating about all of this is that How the Internet Happened is a good straight-laced history when McCullough can stay out of his own way ... McCullough’s book would have been greatly improved if it had [posed the question \'But are we better off?\'] at the start.\
Haruki Murakami, Trans. by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
PanA.V. ClubMurakami’s attempt to explore the artistic process, unfortunately, lacks insight. Sometimes the narrator can produce; other times he cannot. That’s all there really is in Killing Commendatore ... If the point of Killing Commendatore is that artists and their processes are often utterly boring, then it is indeed a success, though it’d have been more effective and interesting to come out and say that ... Murakami does reach for the magical or otherwise unreal ... These sections are undercut, however, by the awful writing that populates them ... Despite these lows, Murakami is at his worst when he is trying to write about women ... This limited ability to write about women as though they are also people is a black spot on this book and Murakami’s career writ large.
Dag Solstad, Trans. by Steven T. Murray
RaveBOMBRegardless of the swirl, it’s a delight to read. Solstad’s searching, analytic prose is enthralling ... Armand V is a piece of criticism alongside being a work of fiction. In a sense, Solstad’s narrator has created a sort of anti-novel that achieves all the goals of a traditional novel while simultaneously ignoring all of the things, like the important events in a character’s life, that usually make them tick. What Solstad demonstrates most forcefully in this book is the value of the unseen, unknown, and unwritten. It is important to ask such questions, but it’s much less important to answer them.
RaveThe Star TribuneA Terrible Country is set during the financial crisis of 2008, but Gessen\'s writing of Russia\'s political situation is no less vital than if it were set today. The authoritarian character of Vladimir Putin and his regime is always on Andrei\'s mind. In the beginning of the book, he knows it is there but struggles to see it ... a contemplative and compassionate novel about what it means to return to a place that is no longer home, and a fiercely political book about what oppressive regimes do to societies. There are few writers that do either as well as Gessen does both.
PositiveLos Angeles Review of BooksWithin Still Lives, the new novel by Maria Hummel (Motherland, Wilderness Run), is a taut thriller with enough compelling elements for a propulsive book. But Hummel’s ambitions are somewhat higher, and it is here where Still Lives experiences turbulence ... Hummel’s prose descriptions of the paintings are somewhat at odds with the moral position that the characters — if not the writer herself — have taken toward these works ... One of the book’s major flaws comes from Hummel’s attempt to heighten the distress its protagonist suffers ... the backstory rings hollow. It feels contrived and mechanical ... Despite this, Still Lives is an effective thriller with a delectable final 100 pages. It reaches an addictive pitch that all books of this ilk aspire to ... Still Lives is an uneven book, but its highs are more than worth the lows along the way.
RavePacific StandardElizabeth Rush\'s Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore is a revelation ... Their stories, told through a combination of lyrical reportage and first-person accounts from her subjects, coalesce into a moving and urgent portrait ... Rising is a clarion call.
RaveThe Washington PostNo genre endures more disparagement than reality television. Detractors claim it’s empty, stupid, even corrosive to society. This point of view is so pervasive that Lucas Mann begins Captive Audience, his new book about reality television, with a confession: 'The genre means a lot to us, to me. I’ve never expressed that sentiment with even a gesture toward sincerity, because it’s embarrassing. But I think I mean it. Sincerely. At least for now I do' ... Whether you adore or abhor reality television, you’ll come away from Captive Audience with a rich sense of what it is, how it is made and what it means.
PositiveThe Star TribuneSteavenson is at her best when she lets her characters go after one another like they do in a Beirut bar after worldwide protests over a Mohammed cartoon turned violent. Kit sits with a group of men, and their conversation slides from issue to issue ... In many ways, Paris Metro is a catalog of the ways the continuing War on Terror affects the lives of those close to it. It gives more space to characters from the affected countries than most books, though even more would have served the book better. Steveanson’s firsthand knowledge of what it was like to cover these subjects gives Paris Metro necessary authority, and in the novel it is wielded well.
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of Books\"This type of thing would be unbelievable in the hands of a writer with less wit and linguistic power, but Hoby’s descriptive language is spectacular, like that of Elif Batuman with a freer spirit or Eve Babitz if she were writing about the opposite coast. It’s colloquial and verbose, clear and bizarre ... The force of her sentences is seismic, and they exude a massive confidence. The specificity of the writing creates clarity of character, which creates trust, and that trust is rewarded. Hoby’s control is never in doubt, and it makes the book irresistible ... Hoby is not interested in the mechanics required to make life in New York City possible for most people, and criticizing her on that front is akin to complaining that she didn’t write a different book ... Despite this, Neon in Daylight is luminous and wonderful. Hoby spins an intricate narrative that careens toward myriad social and emotional collisions. Her style has a delicious, raucous quality, and the way she weaves together her rotating perspectives keeps the book chugging along nicely. Her talent is clear, and her debut is a very good one.\
Carmen Maria Machado
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of Books Blog...the reader is instructed to use a voice \'interchangeable\' with the one they use for the narrator. This dynamic largely shapes the book, as Machado and her narrators recognize and battle against the heteropatriarchal structures that have tried to shape their lives ... In Her Body and Other Parties, Machado draws the reader in with her formal experimentation and fantastical premise. While these methods are imaginative and surprising and effective, the weight of the book comes from her evocative portrayal of the banal atrocities that women (and queer women in particular) face every day ... Machado also successfully reinterprets existing narratives, storylines and characters into something much more haunting... Few writers are as evocative and effective as Machado is...an artful powerhouse and a writing textbook rolled into one. It is fearsome and fearless. It is a book that won’t be forgotten.
Eka Kurniawan, Trans. by Annie Tucker
MixedThe Los Angeles Review of BooksKurniawan’s novels demonstrate a similar ideology to The Handmaid’s Tale; while Margaret Atwood excavates a dystopic future, Kurniawan does the same to Indonesia’s past and present. The misogynistic structures and worldviews that pervade society inevitably manifest in destructive ways, and when they can, the women persevere, though it couldn’t and shouldn’t be expected of them ... Advancing the idea that the crimes and violence of the powerful is difficult to fight against because of its invisibility is, in itself, a political argument, though it’s not particularly well fleshed out in the book. Without a clear group or institution against which she’s fighting, it becomes violence for violence’s sake alone ... Witnessing and recognizing extreme violence has value, but Vengeance Is Mine struggles with countenancing some violent acts while condemning others ... Despite Vengeance Is Mine’s consistent bloodshed, it’s a very funny book. The humor is dry; Kurniawan is a master at twisting a sentence just right ...Perhaps to its detriment, it is often fun to read, and despite its relative brevity, it is a deeply ambitious book, which makes it equally thrilling and unsatisfying. Vengeance Is Mine has many brilliant moments. But up against the achievements of his first two translated novels, this one feels a little, well, flaccid.
RaveThe RumpusDraw Your Weapons is a broad work of creative nonfiction in the tradition of Maggie Nelson or Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being that melts memoir, cultural criticism, and research-based reportage together ... Sentilles frequently looks back at the work of past writers who themselves are looking back at the work of past writers, and one of her great gifts is summarizing and contextualizing those books and essays concisely ... Draw Your Weapons’s successes are so massive and have so much gravity that some of its other elements—mostly the ones relating to the visual or conceptual art of others—often feel subjugated to the people and ideas that are being discussed around them. This is both unfortunate and inevitable ... It is an impossibly heavy book to read, as even the beautiful in it is tainted by its root cause, but it is heavy because it is challenging and brilliant and fierce. Readers will carry that weight and be better for it.
RavePasteAll of this—the deception, the sickness, the loss—can get heavy. Though the book is remarkably funny, Khong’s always willing to head into the storm. Her moral radar is excellent, and instead of drawing humor from her characters’ pain, she mines it from the richness of their relationships. Khong also displays an exceptional talent for evoking a lifetime of ups and downs between two people in meaningful ways ... Khong attempts to capture Ruth’s mother’s anxiety over her husband’s infidelity and her children’s confusion as to why she didn’t leave him. It’s fascinating drama for the reader, but it whittles Ruth’s mother down in the process ... Goodbye, Vitamin is an excellent summer read, delivering both humor and emotional weight. Khong will deservedly be the summer’s breakout literary star.
Osama Alomar, Trans. by C. J. Collins
RaveThe New RepublicThe stories in The Teeth of the Comb vary in length from single sentences to a few pages, and over the course of the book Alomar covers a great deal of subjects with graceful precision ... In Alomar’s world, human behavior seems destructive, even to people, as long as they’re not the ones they’re observing. The change in perspective is what reveals human beings as ridiculous: If it is ridiculous for a comb to be vain, how ridiculous is it for a person? ... The effect is that Alomar’s stories give brief flashes of insight into the magnitude of human evil, like staring directly into the sun for a moment before having to look away ... the hope that exists in these stories exists alongside the cruelty, despair, and foolishness. Their uneasy balance is what gives Alomar’s work its disquieting power.
J. Robert Lennon
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksWhat Lennon does here, and throughout the book with The Observer, is tighten the reader’s focus. It’s an elegant and, in some sense, passive way of going about directing and redirecting attention, but most of all it’s incredibly effective. On top of that, The Observer is a compelling character in their own right, growing and changing as any other character might ... Lennon wraps all of these characters up with one another, and for the most part it’s successful, but at times it can feel thin. The book is technically a psychological thriller, but to call it that seems reductive. If there was no murder or mystery, the intricacies of the family drama could sustain a novel on their own, and if the family dynamic were simpler, the force of the plot, as intricate and well-crafted as any book this year, would keep readers humming along ... The last 50 pages of Broken River are an absolute marvel. It’s a genuine thriller that’s genuinely literary. And, most importantly, genuinely good.
MixedThe Chicago Review of BooksThough far from a polemic, Startup carefully constructs a portrait of tech industry sexism. On occasion, Shafrir turns toward issues of ageism and racism, but they’re given proportionally less space … Shafrir’s writing is propulsive, and the book is well-paced. The constantly rotating perspectives effectively build tension, and each one is compelling, empathetic and frustrating in different ways. At times a point-of-view switch requires a chronological move backwards, and that can be a little disorienting.
PositiveElectric Literature...a dense, complicated, and funny novel ... We all have our limits, but A Little More Human explores the possibility that we don’t know them like we think we do ... the question that A Little More Human is essentially always asking is: are people more themselves when in a crisis or less? In other words: are we most ourselves when pushed to the brink? Or is our true self the person we are most of the time? Maazel, like any good novelist, refrains from offering a clear answer.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksIn Temporary People’s best moments, Unnikrishnan is able to juggle the supernatural elements of his worlds with the terrible truth. His oddity is always geared towards exposing, and his imagination is finely tuned to see the right devices. The primary challenge the book faces is achieving balance ... It is a book with explicit social and political aims. Reading through Temporary People, any unaware reader will begin the journey towards greater awareness. It is also absolutely relevant; it’s an important lens, but a narrow one. Relevance is temporary, and this book is much more than that.
Some stories are otherworldly and other are not. Some are less than a page, others a more conventional length. His flexibility is impressive in itself, and Temporary People’s ideological center allows for it without sacrificing cohesion ... A heavy brake-foot is, however, this collection’s biggest issue. Perhaps it is a matter of prizing the political over the narrative—not, by any means, inherently bad—but some of the longer stories feel like they take too long. As a book, the inclusion of stories of many different lengths creates a nice flow, but the stories are stronger when they are rapid and efficient.
PositiveElectric LiteratureIn some ways, this novels feels like evidence for those who might argue that writing cannot be taught. Batuman’s eye is good, her descriptions so emphatically her own, it seems unbelievable that anyone could match it ... The prose is simple and to the point and the manner in which Batuman deconstructs the familiar is impressive and makes reading, on a sentence-to-sentence level, a joy ... At times, the novel can seem too stuffed full with characters and ideas that it can’t follow all of its relevant threads...it can be exhausting and disappointing to lose grip of people so quickly ... Still, Batuman’s brilliance is always shining through.
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books[Saunders] hadn’t written a work of sustained length. So readers were left to wonder: Could he write a novel? And would it be any good? The answer to both questions is yes ... it swings from hilarious to crushing and back again with astonishing dexterity ... This is not to say that the brilliance of the book rests merely in its allegorical relevance. If the story existed in a vacuum—that is, if it knew a world where an authoritarian oaf were not leading the most powerful country in the world—it would still brim with surprising and affecting prose and ultimately be worthy of veneration. In past work, Saunders’s biggest problem has been the tendency to turn his stories into complicated games that prize intellectual over emotional engagement. He’s at his best when the two collide, and throughout Lincoln in the Bardo, he’s at his best.
RaveElectric LiteratureThe Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead is an invigorating debut story collection. Chanelle Benz writes with beauty and formal invention about an ever-expanding set of time periods and subjects, taking innumerable risks along the way. What makes it stand out, however, is the way Benz always keeps one eye looking towards whatever hurts the most ... All good story collections coalesce into something greater than the sum of their parts, but The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead does so more than most. Benz has a deep understanding of the way people are marginalized by their gender, race, class, and other identities, and she finds a way to evoke that in every story. This creates a great deal of tension throughout the entire length of the book ... The Man Who Shout Out My Eye is Dead is a wonderful achievement of a book. To speak of her potential?—?which seems limitless?—?seems to do a disservice to the great work she has already done. She is going to be a writer to watch for years. The stories in this collection are vital, and it’s only the beginning.
PositiveThe RumpusThe structure of the book is both effective and frustrating, drawing out tension and constructing Pilgrim’s headspace as frantic and scattered ... It’s a bit of a drag when a tense moment is undercut by the end of a chapter and a 5,000-mile geographical shift, and it is hard to see the bigger picture while navigating the early sections ... What makes The Gloaming such a wonderful book is the way Finn plays with these elements ... Finn is prying at what it means to be guilty or innocent, not in a court but in the world and in one’s own head.
Jonathan Safran Foer
MixedThe MillionsFoer’s dialogue is also strong, crackling with energy reminiscent of gatherings with my own Jewish family. He proves especially proficient in busy scenes with more than two speaking characters. However, there are long stretches of time when nobody is speaking, and interiority is not his strong suit by any means. Julia’s inner life is constructed particularly poorly. The writing is overwrought and leans on lists of superficial opinions to create the illusion of character depth, and sometimes it borders on unreadable. When he is willing to allow actions to characterize her, they are bizarre and unbelievable ... The point of this, of almost starting World War III, is not to highlight the instability in the Middle East or the danger citizens of the region face or to even add to the conversation about Israel and its relationship with those around it. Instead, the point of this is to highlight the dissonance involved in being an American Jew, and specifically being Jacob, an American Jew who feels like a feckless wimp because he is a feckless wimp and struggling to bear the weight of how 'manlier' men see him. And all of that is very bad. It feels wrong in the moment, and the more one thinks about it, the worse it gets...The tragedy that is supposed to give the book its power is a shortcut, a way of giving the book emotional muscle without doing any weightlifting ... In spite of Foer’s issues, in spite of the flaws wounding Here I Am, in spite of the fact that it’s at least 100 pages longer than it needs to be, when I closed the book for the last time, I was genuinely moved. It ends quietly with a scene that is inevitable, but no less excruciating for it.