PositiveNew York Review of BooksFrom the beginning, The Shards is playing a long game with truth and fiction ... He has always tended to “lean toward” (his words) long run-on sentences, but The Shards indulges them to excess, one flowing to the next, to hypnotic effect ... There is a compulsiveness to the narration of The Shards, an exhaustive level of information ... The book’s violent deaths may be nothing more than the fantasies of a middle-aged writer searching for an image that can express the shock and horror of his own mortality.
PositiveBookforumThe Hazzard that emerges in Olubas’s exhaustive biography is rather like one of Hazzard’s characters: brilliant and cosmopolitan; living through historical events but strangely untouched by generational mores; at once supremely composed and eager to demonstrate her worth.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewStylistically, the book is artful, even radical ... Despite, or perhaps because of, its virtues, the novel doesn’t hold the reader in its thrall. It meanders, linking scenes of low-key bickering in a gentle ebb and flow of harmony and disharmony. It doesn’t seem to mind if you put it down ... But the novel has a vision, however cracked, an idea connected to its form, which is more than I can say for most books.
PositiveHarpersNemerov, the chair of the art and art history department at Stanford University, confines himself to the period of Frankenthaler’s youth. His book opens in 1950 with a costume party where Frankenthaler, then unknown in the art world, is dressed as Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, and ends with her 1960 retrospective at the Jewish Museum, when she was thirty-one years old. This was a dazzlingly productive era with obvious appeal for the scholar and reader. It was the decade in which Frankenthaler pioneered a daring and influential process of \'soaking\' canvases with diluted paint poured directly from a can, combining these pools of color with loose drawings that remained tethered to reality even as they eschewed representation ... His book is informative and erudite, but his goal is not so much to communicate the facts of Frankenthaler’s life as to persuade the reader of her spiritual greatness ... As in his recent book on the poet Howard Nemerov (his father) and the photographer Diane Arbus (his aunt), his point of view is personal ... He describes her work as intimate and eternal, offering no term that might mediate between the poles of inscrutable interiority and mystical cosmos. He treats the encounter between painting and viewer as something sacred, and the plane on which so much of mundane human life actually transpires doesn’t hold his interest—the plane of the prosaic, the plane of compromise and commerce, the plane of the perpetual datejust ... In the end, Fierce Poise is less a biography than a work of ekphrasis that relies on an idealized vessel. It is criticism as communion.
PositiveBookforumWhat Are You Going Through gets at its central action—itself deferred—slowly, circling it by way of these other encounters. One might want to compare the book’s conversation-heavy structure to Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. But the Outline books are cold and austere, organized around a reticent observer whose judgments are nonetheless palpable. Love doesn’t come into them. Nunez’s narrator is more present—we sometimes get her own memories spliced in with someone else’s account—and conflicted, at times anguished ... Where suicide usually divides a person from others, in What Are You Going Through it brings the friend and narrator together, allowing them to repair and deepen their relationship ... Nunez’s...style, which has always been unflashy and matter of fact...has become even more compressed, with more of the architecture of plot and character stripped away. There is something ghostly and a little disembodied in the scene-setting and character description; what the reader remembers is what people say and think—their ideas—rather than how they move or what they look like ... It feels aged—wise, even, like her narrators have acquired knowledge at some personal cost. Nunez uses quotation to illuminate situation, and her choices can be devastating.
Heinrich Von Kleist, trans. by Michael Hoffman
PositiveHarpersKleist’s prose is nested with clauses that move swiftly from action to action, simultaneously suggesting logic and a lack of reason; time and situations are condensed; coincidences proliferate, and events pile up like accidents. He almost never wastes time with description of a landscape or a face. There are no metaphors in the first paragraph of Michael Kohlhaas, no figures of speech—just the dispassionate accounting of existential suspense ... I have heard the good advice that if you dress in boring clothes, you can get away with bad behavior. But it is not correct to say that Kleist’s prose style is merely plain or reportorial, that it measures the distance between wild interior life and repressive social forms; rather, it takes the reportorial to the extreme, showing it as a form of grotesquerie ... No translation could ruin Michael Kohlhaas, whose interest is so much in the dramatic piling on of ever more outrageous events. But Hofmann makes many choices that, in the aggregate, give us a sharper and more stylish book. His improvements begin with the first sentence.
PositiveBookforum... captures something essential about a contemporary mood, a kind of pre-traumatic stress caused by the threat of what we know and don’t do anything about ... It is worth noting that this is Offill’s first novel that does not use outer space as a motif. What good is outer space to us now? ... occasionally overrelies on zingers, and there’s a silly running gag about an unreliable car service run by someone named Mr. Jimmy. But Lizzie’s ongoing drama with other parents and the neighbors, especially the unpleasant Mrs. Kovinski, is apt. We think of climate dystopia as being the province of science fiction, but it can and should be rendered in a recognizable milieu. Living through ecological meltdown will also be just living—hating the neighbors, having awkward interactions with the other parents at school ... There is something unsatisfying about Weather. It looks at the scariest things, but as if with one eye only. Offill’s mordancy is a kind of shield, as is the truncated form of the narrative fragments, which sometimes tie up feelings rather than allowing them to accumulate or overwhelm. It’s like the book itself can only barely bear its subject. Yet why should we ask one book to do what none of us can? It’s a novel for today, as novels today must be.
D.H. Lawrence, Ed. by Geoff Dyer
PositiveBookforumThe jacket copy makes the strange and symptomatic claim that this edition of marginal writing is a good introduction to Lawrence, but anyone making first acquaintance with the author via these writings is likely to find him something of a raving maniac—not an altogether incorrect impression, though perhaps not a full one. I would instead recommend The Bad Side of Books either for those readers who already have a context for Lawrence, be it a bad affair or something else, or who are serious students of the essay form ... Re: the essay, there is much to learn here, though nothing, I am sure, that could be imitated with any success. As an essayist, Lawrence is blazingly opinionated, confidently erudite, incapable of staying on subject, tediously philosophical and abstract, marvelously precise in his descriptions, almost disturbingly sensual in his evocation of place, and breathtakingly, thrillingly prone to sweeping generalizations. His beginnings are very strong ... We shouldn’t read Lawrence in spite of his ideas, but because they can teach us how such ideas come to be.
RaveHarper\'s...thoroughly, intimidatingly brilliant and absolutely contemporary ... funny, and at times, painfully acute. A bildungsroman in lyric chorus, it looks back on the past with affection but without nostalgia, and lands in the frighteningly unsure coda of the present day ... manages, in its particularity, to tell a story that is emblematic of American life ... Lerner seems to reinvent the novel as a happy side effect of some other project ... He is a supremely gifted prose stylist, at once theoretical and conversational; he never bores or blathers, and is always limpid. Rather than inviting the reader to look at him or his life, he invites the reader to look through him ... It is a testament to Lerner’s immense skill as a storyteller that his novels that double as essays and flicker like poems are also as frictionless as any classic work of nineteenth-century realism, easily reeling the reader in to their worlds, which display, in modernist style, all the seams ... Lerner is a genius of self-consciousness in all its senses—the thinking mind, the ambivalent attachment, the awkward social performance
PositiveThe New Republic\"[Rooney] has a knack for dialogue, a faultless grasp of pacing, and the ability to situate the reader instantly in a place and a feeling. But what makes her a great novelist is her freakish psychological acuity. She has a keen eye for the desires and anxieties expressed in everyday behavior ... Normal People has the feeling of having been either rushed into publication following the success of Conversations With Friends or a draft for Conversations With Friends. It’s most useful to read them together, as one book or project ... The power of Normal People is that, without the presence of a compromised thirtysomething character like Nick, the book speaks entirely without regard for middle age, insisting, rightfully, on the truth of its own time ...How elegantly Rooney interweaves consciousness and place; suddenly the reader is seated in a sunlit café, beverage in hand, feeling the condensation running down the side ... Rooney narrates very plainly, allowing the rhythm of what looks like ordinary speech to build, until she introduces a startling fact or perfect image. Her language is effortless, never overwrought.\
PositiveHarper\'s...she laments the undue symbolic burdens we place on mothers ... Rose cites startling statistics ... Rose, however, thinks that motherhood can be a model for a broad and inclusive politics. \'To be a mother . . . is to welcome a foreigner,\' she writes ... Rose is not naïvely suggesting that holding someone else’s baby makes you feel the same as holding your own. She’s asking us to see \'a mother’s body and the public world all around her\' as \'indissolubly linked\' ... Mothers, for Rose, are the \'original subversives\'; they give the lie to the clichés and myths that would suffocate them. One myth: that they exist only for their children. Another: that they neither hate nor desire. (Rose is very good on the romance of breastfeeding.)
MixedHarper\'sHeti’s Motherhood is interested only in abstraction ... Her business is a solipsistic existentialism, straight up ... The book is composed mostly of journally passages, divided into short chapters and stand-alone paragraphs, which vary considerably in sagacity and interest. There are also trips to literary festivals, a meeting with a fortune-teller, some family history, and summaries of conversations with friends, many of whom have betrayed the author by having children ... Motherhood is claustrophobic, like a diary, or a day with a newborn, and shapeless, even inchoate. It exists only to keep existing. Resolution is deferred while the author examines the problem from every side and then one more ... For a while I thought that the book was a pointed social critique, meant to demonstrate the difficulty of living outside convention even for a person who very much wants to. But Heti is not a social critic. Near the end of the book, she is prescribed an antidepressant to treat the debilitating PMS that leaves her \'half the month crumpled in tears\' ... If you have at all invested in the dilemma of Motherhood, this denouement is a disappointment. But it’s true to the times, and in that respect tells us something about what it means to be human. If you think social problems shouldn’t have pharmacological solutions, take it up with the twenty-first century.
RaveHarper'sThe Juniper Tree, a treasure from the 1980s reissued with an introduction by Sadie Stein, picks up the Grimm notion that an excess of maternal happiness can prove fatal. Then it goes a step further, suggesting that a mother’s happiness could very well depend on other people dying … Comyns’s prose is vivid and charmingly hurried … The Grimm story is about evil, revenge, and justice — an eye for an eye — but The Juniper Tree is about accidents, damage, and repair. Comyns gives her heroine and her daughter something shocking in the annals of fairy tales — a happy ending.
MixedHarper'sLucy was a fierce orator and writer who rejected reform and charity (‘hush money to hide the blushes of the labor robbers’) and roused large crowds with revolutionary talk (‘Learn the use of explosives!’) … Goddess of Anarchy is meticulously researched. Yet Parsons, as a character, remains inscrutable. Questions linger. Why did she say so much on behalf of exploited whites and almost nothing about black workers? Why did she tell reporters that she was Mexican and Indian? Why did she have her son, whom she had once paraded before the press, draping him in a red scarf and calling him ‘my brave little anarchist,’ committed to a mental hospital?
RaveHarper's[The Doll’s House] has already garnered comparisons to Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Leonora Carrington, Ben Marcus, and Franz Kafka. To this list let me add another name: George Orwell. Not the dystopian Orwell of 1984 or the allegorical Orwell of Animal Farm but the down-and-out, grubby-oilcloth Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Grudova does mermaids and magic, but she also does moldy, dingy, scratch-and-sniff interiors that reek of cabbage and old shoes … Grudova’s descriptions are crooked and revelatory.
Gerrick D. Kennedy
MixedHarper'sGetting the band together is usually the fun part of the story, and Parental Discretion is no exception. By the time Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella have gone their separate ways, the plot has devolved into standard pop tragedy ... Kennedy leans on interviews with Ice Cube and the D.O.C., but Eazy is the most colorful character.
RaveHarper's MagazinePlante’s novels are anguished, cerebral affairs about the spiritual lives of working-class Catholics; Difficult Women will outlast them. It shows a remarkable gift for portraying talk, dress, and self-presentation, and for pacing a scene. The women never stop talking, perhaps because they never feel heard; occasionally they are reduced to shouting … It is obvious enough that the book is a self-portrait of the artist as a young gay man drawn to outrageous female companionship. But all works of art are self-portraits of one kind or another. I suspect that Plante loved these women in his own way, and that his act of betrayal felt to him like tribute. He has the cold, killing passion of a lepidopterist, but in the end the book succeeds because the women are so horribly alive.
RaveHarper\'s\"Every one of its 128 pages is perfect, original, and arresting. Clear a Saturday, please, and read it in a single sitting ... Ingalls’s narrative is a miracle of economy and grace. (Most of her books are novellas, which might explain her obscurity.) She writes straightforwardly, without winking, dropping only occasional hints that Dorothy’s tether on reality might be frayed ... Larry’s connection to Caliban is clear enough—he is a frightening other to be feared, enslaved, and, when that fails, exterminated. As a romance, the book is tender; as a portrait of depression, exquisite and tragic. Dorothy can’t swim against the tides of grief and melancholia. Does Larry really exist? \'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine\' is not a statement that Mrs. Caliban ever utters.\
Peter Stamm, Trans. by Michael Hoffman
MixedHarper's MagazineStamm isn’t interested in the why of Thomas’s walkabout, which he takes for granted as being, if not inevitable, then at least as possible as the alternative. Thomas opens the gate; he walks down the road; he keeps going … One month after Thomas disappears, there is a twist in the plot. It is masterfully timed, arriving exactly when the narrative has become arid. It didn’t make me care about Thomas — nothing could — but it complicates matters, and makes us see Astrid differently. Both of them, it is clear, are in thrall to fantasies — one dreams about slipping the ties of responsibility, the other about seamlessly restoring what has been broken. That Stamm treats these as distinctly male and female is predictable, and, frankly, annoying.
Marcel Proust, Trans. by Lydia Davis
PositiveHarper's MagazineAs long as there are apartments, there will be walls to paper with cork; neighbor will be set against neighbor. But Proust — who visited Mrs. Williams upstairs at least once — was always charming and gracious, his humor seasoned with just a dash of passive aggression ... Letters to His Neighbor, which contains notes written between 1908 and 1918, is a trifle overpriced — twenty-three dollars for two dozen of the briefest missives! A certain kind of person will purchase it for her bathroom. But it is, in at least one instance, enlightening ... Life goes on, even in wartime, but that the 'little tiny raps' of the valet de chambre did not prevent Proust from writing is extraordinary.
PositiveHarper'sThe Apparitionists is breezy, clever, and exuberant ... As Manseau shows, Mumler’s more reputable contemporaries were also in the business of necromancy. Jeremiah Gurney took a picture of Lincoln’s corpse lying in state. (The corpse then popped up and placed a loving hand on Mary Todd’s shoulders, in a photo that Mumler took in 1872.) Brady displayed photographs of fallen Confederate soldiers in his gallery on Broadway. Brady’s associate, Alexander Gardner, trawled Southern battlefields in a rolling darkroom known as a 'whatsit wagon.' Mumler’s enemies were never able to say exactly how he achieved his supernatural effects, but we know Gardner’s tricks. If gunfire didn’t do its worst artfully enough, he dragged the bodies to more scenic locations, or carefully inserted a prop rifle into the frame.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
MixedHarper\'s\"Autumn is what [My Struggle] has often been mischaracterized as: an assortment of random observations and noodlings. There are exegeses on apples, loneliness, flies, and ambulances; infants, van Gogh, and oil tankers; silence, drums, and eyes. Though Knausgaard is a significant and provocative novelist, his unmoored philosophizing is by turns charming, irrelevant, and patently false ... Autumn is the work of a man at ease. The author is as famous as he ever will be, and his major accomplishment is behind him. Knausgaard is no longer lashed by demons or alienated from his quotidian existence. His days are filled by rambles in the woods, dropping the kids at school, and the odd, leisurely chore.\
PositiveHarper\'s\"...[a] tough and tender novel ... Everett has a reputation as an experimentalist and a trickster, but if So Much Blue is subverting genres, that’s another one of its secrets. It’s as if Everett had set himself the task of writing a plain old novel with all the plain old novel-y stuff. The ingredients are the same as in Kehlmann: an artist-narrator, an extramarital affair, a haunted house. But Kehlmann gave me the heebie-jeebies, and Everett broke my heart.\
RaveHarper'sThis excellent book begins as a biography and becomes, when the doctor suddenly dies of a ruptured appendix at the age of thirty-seven, a cultural history of his creation ... Why does something as abstract as a landscape have the power to make us feel so much? Because we have entered the world and allowed it to enter us. 'Our selves, refound in the world, are what we respond to,' Searls explains, 'feeling outward things as parts of us.' If that isn’t transhuman, I don’t know what is.
PositiveHarper'sSomebody With a Little Hammer, a collection of twenty years of Gaitskill’s reviews and essays, is strewn with pearls ... Readers of Gaitskill’s novels and short stories will recognize the shrewdness, and the themes. She gives depth to marginal female characters, the kind of women who are so thin or hunched over that you look right through them, if you see them at all. She is impatient with moral piety and despises the contempt that wears a mask of sympathy.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
PositiveHarper'sUlrich stitches together diaries, poems, meeting minutes, and quilt designs into a fascinating history of women’s lives. Tough doesn’t begin to describe it — they drove wagons across the frozen Midwest, bore and buried children, spoke in tongues, farmed, and organized relief societies while the men traveled on missions ... Anyone else in need of reassurance that family, faith, and intellect can live together need only consult her biography.
RaveHarper's...a satisfying wisp of an essay about tobacco, addiction, first cigarettes, last cigarettes, breathing, kissing, hypnosis, literature, memory, and marking time ... Nicotine is a smoke ring, blown perfectly in a single puff, or — better? — a wafting trail of vapor. Will Self contributes a foreword, a rapid monologue punctuated with vigorous little twists, as though he were grinding out a stub with yellow-stained fingers.
PositiveHarper'sSentences looped and pulled into perfect slipknots: Moshfegh’s ear is original, and her command of form, expert. I would read anything she writes. But while the individual stories sting, in the aggregate they buckle a little under the senselessness of her vision ... Moshfegh’s best characters are those who are frantically burrowing toward some crumb of self-knowledge ... What Moshfegh’s characters are dreaming of, as they lie there smelling like toilets, is freedom — a negative freedom, a horrible freedom, but the only one their view affords.
PanHarper's'Empathy' is a capacious term, but Bloom limits his inquiry to the sense of 'coming to experience the world as you think someone else does'...But if you’re looking, as Bloom is, for a fair and objective basis for an ethical life, you’d better look elsewhere ... Some of Bloom’s examples miss the point of moral action, or might better go by other names ... Bloom is so keen to reason empathy away, to prove that it doesn’t work, that he misses what is most interesting: the desires it expresses.
MixedHarper'sWhether one skims or dives, there are treasures to be found ... Still, the question arises: twenty-three chapbooks? Perhaps Carson and her publishers simply felt it was time for another book, and this was the material they had on hand. It’s doubtful anyone would cry foul if one of the sheaves went missing and another appeared in its place, but the whole coheres ... Float sinks when it becomes overly insistent on associations that rub out meaningful distinctions ... A little mundanity can be a tonic, and sometimes the view is clearer if one steps aside and peers over Carson’s shoulder, rather than through her periscope.
PositiveHarper'sThe stories are fresh, energetic, and free of the teachable moments that punctuate the empathy plot ... A typical Collins situation shows intellectual passion in conflict with the appetites of the body. Her characters — musicians, artists, and professionals — endure divorce and death, relish solitude, fail to connect. They are lifelike even when sketchy or one-dimensional.
MixedHarper'sTestimony is a book for the fans. Robertson is a fun raconteur, with a good memory for a compliment ... The grossest moment in Testimony comes when Robertson answers the charge that has dogged him for years — that he stole publishing rights from his former bandmates ... Robertson has the good sense to leave off testifying just when most people would stop caring, but I wish he had spared a few pages for his solo albums, or for the months in the late Seventies when he shacked up with Marty Scorsese.
Yoko Tawada, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky
PositiveHarper\'s\"Memoirs of a Polar Bear is smart and weird, if a little muted ... the animal characters of Memoirs pursue a hybrid existence, refusing to romanticize the state of nature.\
Mauro Javier Cardenas
PositiveHarper's...a high-octane, high-modernist debut novel from the gifted, fleet Mauro Javier Cardenas ... one of those books in which what happens is less important than how it happens: in streams of consciousness laced with bilingual profanity, and pages of braggadocious dialogue unsoiled by a single quotation mark.
PositiveHarper'sThe stories begin in medias res, often with an unidentified 'he' who slowly comes into focus, and break off without resolution. Short sentences and one-line paragraphs create an effect that is collaged, not choppy ... The Brexit moment gives passage[s] extra pathos, but it hardly needs history to have an impact. What captivates Szalay is a hopeless attitude unmoored from any circumstance.
MixedHarper'sI am grateful to James, without whom I would never have learned the story of Raden Saleh’s life — a life that also has the contours of a fantasy … The Glamour of Strangeness contains wonderful episodes and a memorable cast, and James’s reminder that colonial encounters sometimes involved amicable and eager exchange, and not merely force and exploitation, is well taken. But the book is marred by needless, showy digressions and unwelcome authorial intrusions.
PanHarper's MagazineMorgan foregrounds the mighty gears of her machinery, proudly drawing attention to the book as a Novel with a capital N; she has no compunction about killing off a woman in childbirth or conjuring up a deus ex machina. The plot ultimately buckles under the weight, like Henry’s prized filly — bighearted, fat-assed Hellsmouth, who fractures her leg in the Laurel Futurity Stakes. A moral tale becomes a sentimental one. Did Morgan have to gild Henry’s lily-white villainy by making her inbreeding zealot commit actual incest? She can’t stick the landing, either. What might have been a delirious and haunting Pyrrhic victory, a spectacular scorched-earth finish, is undone with a lame epilogue.
Claire Vaye Watkins
PositiveHarper's“Watkin’s narrative is mythic and speculative, its sediment forming and re-forming in lists, treatises, and reports. The writing, with its tough sentimentality, is reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s, but Watkins has a style of mordant observation all her own.”
PanBookforumThere are clever moments and flashes of humor and a few high points, but nothing in it feels especially urgent or revelatory ... It’s not that Dyer isn’t capable of marvels. But here, at the height of his career he’s not writing at the height of his powers. The laziest moments tend to appear as conclusions, when he’s feeling the pressure of finding the plot ... Dyer seems to have swallowed the myth that surrounds certain very exceptional prose stylists, which is that it doesn’t matter whatthey write about or what they say, so long as they say it well ... At his best, Dyer is humorous and erudite, a rare combination. He uses his novelistic gifts—documenting social behaviors, seamlessly following streams of thought, juxtaposing observation and dialogue—to capture ephemera, fleetingness, beauty ... If White Sands were by anyone else, I would probably think it was pretty good. But it’s by Geoff Dyer.
PositiveHarper's Magazine[T]he fallout from Vietnam is imagined in terms lifted from a captivity narrative. One wishes Meg had a little more to do. Otherwise, for all its revisionist history, the spirit of Hystopia is familiar, with paranoia, heavy drug use, and the seduction of conspiracy pulling against a centrifugal incoherence. Still, the writing is beautiful and exuberant, moving and funny, and always one step ahead. The descriptions of getting stoned are as vivid as the landscapes. Means’s characters live in a state of constant sensory attention that keeps them always attuned to the texture of tar, the smell of lakes and trees, the taste of carbon.
RaveHarper's MagazineAs Elaine Showalter’s excellent new biography, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe makes plain, the 'apparent autobiographical nature and intellectual range' of Julia’s poetry was unusual for a time.