MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewAuster’s book is aimed...at civilians, so-called general readers, and he must think they have a lot of stamina. Burning Boy is seldom dull—it’s often thrilling, in fact, to see a contemporary American writer engage so deeply with one of his forebears—but it can be exhausting ... Auster...is an excellent reader, it turns out, alert to all the nuances and surprises of Crane’s style, but these lengthy passages of analysis inevitably slow the book down and can make you forget that Crane’s was a life lived at a hectic, almost frantic pace ... Auster is especially good on Crane’s last couple of years, which began with a sort of crackup ... Auster leaves you in no doubt about Crane’s genius ... I’m not sure, though, that Auster succeeds in expanding the list of essential Crane much beyond Red Badge and the pieces that are already in the anthologies ... the real news here—for me, anyway—is Crane’s newspaper and magazine journalism, which would be worth reading even if Crane had never written a word of fiction.
Jo Nesbø, tr. Robert Ferguson
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThe closest this book comes to Nesbo’s customary darkness and luridness is a brief scene in which a character disguises himself by wearing the scalp of a dead man whose corpse is later dissolved in a bath of a cleaning fluid called Fritz. And although it’s set in a mountain village in rural Norway, The Kingdom in some ways seems more American in tone than Scandinavian ... [The protagonist is] also a much more leisurely storyteller than the one who narrates the Hole books, and in the beginning the book seems less a mystery story than a Faulknerian saga about sibling rivalry and sexual jealousy ... I think Nesbo also means to suggest that this rural Norway is a place of great natural beauty. The trouble is that he’s not very good at describing it—or Roy isn’t ... The Kingdom begins slowly and only gradually picks up speed, until Roy is swept up in the momentum of his own story. The ending is sudden and startling and—to me, anyway—a bit of a psychological stretch. To get your head around it you have to question everything you thought you knew about the two brothers. The ending also puts you in the morally compromised position of hoping that justice won’t be done. In the much more violent Hole books evil is always exorcised, however briefly, and for that reason they’re much more comforting.
Nicholas A Basbanes
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewNicholas A. Basbanes thinks that the tumble in Longfellow’s reputation was not the natural, inevitable result of changing tastes. In his new biography, Cross of Snow, he argues, on not much evidence, that Longfellow was done in by a cabal of modernists and New Critics who conspired to expel him from their snobbish, rarefied canon. So his book, which has at times a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder, is a rehab mission of sorts, and seeks to restore Longfellow in our present eyes mostly just by reminding us how important he was back in his own day ... Basbanes, who began as a newspaper reporter, is a painstaking researcher, the kind who turns every page, as Robert Caro would say, and he has benefited from access to lots of material previously unavailable. He is also the kind of researcher who, having discovered something, can’t bear not to cram it in ... At times it feels overstuffed and disproportionate ... And for all his effort Basbanes hasn’t discovered anything that seems likely to change our current estimation of Longfellow as someone who matters historically but is at best a minor writer.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... less a novel, really, than a series of very cleverly interlinked short stories ... Bad writing is hard to do entertainingly, and while some of this stuff is sort of funny, much of it is just tiresome — Nemens’s one serious misstep ... what really sustains the book is not so much the interweaving as Nemens’s capacious, cleareyed understanding, which goes way beyond that of the casual fan, and her evident sympathy for her characters. Or most of them ... Unlike her sportswriter character, Nemens really does have a long view — or, better, a wide one — and in The Cactus League she provides her readers with what amounts to a miniature, self-enclosed world that is funny and poignant and lovingly observed ... all rings true, in part because it doesn’t try for extra bases, so to speak. Unlike a lot of baseball books, it doesn’t traffic in myth or metaphor or larger meaning. Baseball is never more than just a game here. Or, rather, a business disguised as a game — one that will nevertheless break your heart.
Edward St Aubyn
RaveThe Atlantic...five short, remarkably compressed novels ...that follow their protagonist, Patrick Melrose, from childhood through troubled middle age. The books are both harrowing and...hilarious. St. Aubyn has a cut-glass prose style, a gift for unexpected metaphor, and a skewering eye ... Because he writes so knowingly about the British class system...St. Aubyn has frequently been compared to Evelyn Waugh. The difference is that Waugh yearned to be like the people he made fun of ... St. Aubyn, descended from a family that has been in England since the Norman Conquest, has none of that nose-pressed-against-the-glass wistfulness. His aristos are not cartoonish, like Waugh’s, but funny in their horrificness, like the people Dante encounters in the lower basements of hell ... [St Aubyn] writes about drug-taking like someone who knows what he’s talking about ... Patrick’s other problems—his lusts, his depressions, his temper, his feelings of failure and inadequacy, his suicidal thoughts—seem similarly authentic, and reading the Melrose novels, you sometimes sense that the writing of them may have been a kind of catharsis ... There is about this fifth book, which ends on a partly optimistic note, a feeling not just of finality but of relief, of a story over with at long last.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewIf only Daisy Dunn’s book had been around back when I was an aspiring classicist. There were actually two Roman writers named Pliny — the Elder and the Younger, as they were known; an uncle and his nephew — and I could never keep them straight, let alone understand why they were worth studying. Dunn makes a persuasive case for both. Her ostensible subject is the Younger, about whom more is known, but she toggles back and forth between the two, and, perhaps without her intending it, the uncle even steals the show for a while. How do you compete with someone so intrepid that he dies while trying to inspect an active volcano? ... This occasionally results in awkward transitions of the \'Oh, and that reminds me\' sort, and for some out-of-nowhere digressions of a kind that would have pleased the elder Pliny ... But Dunn is a good writer, with some of the easy erudition of Mary Beard, that great popularizer of Roman history, and her translations from both Plinys are graceful and precise. Ultimately her enthusiasm, together with her eye for the odd, surprising detail, wins you over, and the younger Pliny gradually emerges as a mostly sympathetic character, interesting for his ordinariness and for the ways he resembles us today. He almost seems familiar, in a way the elder Pliny could never be.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewAt the end of Dear Life is a suite of four stories that Munro says are \'autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact\' ... They seem to me as good as anything she has ever done, but also to strike out in the direction of a new, late style — one that is not so much a departure as a compressing or summing up of her whole career ... As is so often the case now in Munro’s fiction, the drama sneaks up and then slips past almost before you’re aware of it. The descriptions are, even by Munro standards, precise and economical, and the mood is less angry or sorrowful than merely accepting ... Many of these stories are told in Munro’s now familiar and much remarked on style, in which chronology is upended and the narrative is apt to begin at the end and end in the middle ... Munro is among the least fanciful of short story writers, seldom resorting to an image or a metaphor. This may reflect a lifelong habit of Canadian understatement — a suspicion of cleverness and a resistance to making too much of things — but it also accords with a sense in her fiction that the world is strange enough, without need of embellishment.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewMiller’s new novel, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free seems bent on defying convention and expectations ... what begins as if it might be a full-immersion historical novel...quickly becomes instead a psychological mystery ... The book’s relation to history is more complicated than in Miller’s other novels. At times he suggests that the past and the present greatly resemble each other ... At other times he’s at pains to point out how backward they were in the early 19th century ... Even more often, Miller emphasizes not so much the pastness of the past as its strangeness, dwelling on details remarkable just for their oddity ... In its formal slipperiness, first one kind of book, then another, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free seems to be making the...point: that things are never quite what you expect, and history is altogether stranger than most accounts suggest. What makes Miller’s own account so riveting is its alertness to wonder and unpredictability.
PositiveThe New YorkerChristopher Benfey, a professor at Mount Holyoke, writes that some of his friends, when they learned what he was working on, asked him what on earth he was thinking, and warned that he’d better be ready to defend himself. Benfey’s best defense turns out to be the book itself, which doesn’t attempt a full-throated rehab job ... Kipling’s American sojourn is hardly an \'untold story\'—it figures in all the biographies—but Benfey tells it well, catching nuances that some biographers have missed.
PositiveThe New YorkerIt’s thorough, judicious (except for her annoying insistence on calling Powell \'Tony\'), and gracefully written, and it renders obsolete an earlier, chattier biography by Michael Barber. Spurling takes the greatness of Music of Time pretty much as a given and doesn’t spend a lot of time on literary appreciation. She is at some pains, though, to dispel the widespread notion that the books can’t be much good because their author was a toff—a snob, a name-dropper, a mossbacked Tory ... Spurling isn’t obsessive about pointing out all the parallels between fiction and reality, but her book quickly makes it apparent that, in one way or another, almost everything that takes place in the novel actually happened to Powell ... Spurling says that he was also genial (at least to people he liked), curious, a wonderful listener, and a tireless, heroic reader, and there’s no reason to doubt her ... as often happens when we get older, he fossilized into someone his younger self would scarcely have recognized.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"The Mars Room is much smaller in scope than either of its predecessors, and seemingly more modest, with less swagger in the writing. It’s a page turner all the same, and in some ways more affecting than the other books ... Part of Kushner’s achievement here is that she makes this character, for all her shortcomings, so appealing. Romy’s narration darts around in a voice that is tough, cynical, a little defensive at times, but ruthlessly honest and without a trace of self-pity ... It’s one of those books that enrage you even as they break your heart, and in its passion for social justice you can finally discern a connection between all three of Kushner’s novels.\
Patrick Leigh Fermor, Sel. and Ed. by Adam Sisman
RaveThe New York TimesSisman has selected fewer than 200, but they do add up to a biography of sorts — or, rather, a scrapbook of a rich, fascinating life lived mostly out of a suitcase and in a race to the post office ... His letters were, among other things, a way of keeping up with his friends and repaying their hospitality. Many of them are not thank-you notes in the traditional sense, but rather performance pieces of a sort, meant to charm and entertain ... spontaneous and effortless-seeming, and sparkle — a little too brightly sometimes — with puns and jokes and with the inexhaustible charm that made Fermor such a welcome guest (and bedmate) ... It goes without saying that nobody writes letters like this anymore, and it’s a loss.
Edward St. Aubyn
RaveThe AtlanticLost for Words is another comedy, a send-up of literary prizegiving in general and of the Man Booker Prize in particular … What makes the book interesting is not so much its obvious message as its verbal dexterity: its mimicry, its stylishness, and an almost hectic inventiveness that has the sneaky effect of casting doubt on the whole novel-writing enterprise. Far from being at a loss for words, most of the book teems with cleverness, with a sense that words can be made to do almost anything—and a suspicion that that may be tantamount to nothing … St. Aubyn himself is a conjurer, able to take that greasy deck of cards and make it perform tricks of a sort rarely seen anymore.
PositiveThe New Yorker...partly a brisk, sensible biography of Housman and partly a study in poetic reputation. It traces the way Housman’s singular vision seized hold of the English imagination ... Parker doesn’t entirely succeed in explaining the great mystery of Housman—why it’s these rueful, corpse-strewn poems and not, say, the heartier ones of John Masefield which continue to resonate within the English soul. But he leaves no doubt about Housman’s lingering attraction. You could conclude from his book that when many people pulled the lever to vote for Brexit they were imagining a return to Shropshire.
RaveThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewBring Up the Bodies takes up exactly where Wolf Hall leaves off: its great magic is in making the worn-out story of Henry and his many wives seem fascinating and suspenseful again … Bring Up the Bodies is in many ways a study of power and influence, how to acquire it and how to use it, and makes you realize that serving at court under a willful monarch is not so very different from negotiating your way through the corporate maze, except that now your master can only sack you, not send you to the Tower … Bring Up the Bodies (the title refers to the four men executed for supposedly sleeping with Anne) isn’t nostalgic, exactly, but it’s astringent and purifying, stripping away the cobwebs and varnish of history, the antique formulations and brocaded sentimentality of costume-drama novels, so that the English past comes to seem like something vivid, strange and brand new.
RaveThe New York TimesThis inventive and surprising novel is set in Paris in 1785, four years before the Revolution, and its protagonist, a young engineer named Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is more like James Dyer [of Ingenious Pain] than like Casanova [of Casanova in Love]. He thinks of himself as a man of the Enlightenment and a student of Voltaire, a rationalist and a freethinker who believes above all in the power of reason … What keeps the novel from flying off into allegory is its extraordinary descriptiveness. Pure is grounded in the physical world, which it records with great particularity … It’s elegantly written and intricately constructed, with an ending that, like those mirrors at Versailles, cleverly reflects the beginning. And yet for all its neatness, Pure is ultimately a book about impurity, what Baratte comes to recognize as ‘the world’s fabulous dirt.’ It’s an artful, carefully wrought novel that ultimately comes down in favor of mess.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...with this welcome new biography Franklin makes a thoughtful and persuasive case for Jackson as a serious and accomplished literary artist ... The value of Franklin’s book is its thoroughness and the way she traces Jackson’s evolution as an artist, sensibly pointing out what’s autobiographical and what isn’t.
PanThe New YorkerThe story is sad and fascinating—so fascinating that one wishes Claridge were a more careful writer. Her prose is clunky and a little tone-deaf, starting with that title, which is both overwrought (isn’t it enough to be a tastemaker, without also being 'extraordinaire'?) and a little misleading. It’s true that using a borzoi as the trademark was Blanche’s idea, but that was before she owned a pair of them. After a brief exposure, she declared that borzois were 'cowardly, stupid, disloyal, and full of self-pity' and switched to Yorkshire terriers. The biography is also incorrect in places (Ford Madox Ford’s 'The Good Soldier' is not, as Claridge writes, a First World War novel) and wadded with information that is either self-evident or irrelevant.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewWhat distinguishes Parini’s account is its readability — though it’s not without a certain amount of professorial throat-clearing and too many clichés Vidal would have winced at — and its sympathy.