PositiveBookforumChristine Smallwood’s debut novel, begins with an ending. We meet Dorothy, a contingent faculty member in the English department where she used to be a doctoral student, as she negotiates the miscarriage of an accidental pregnancy. The pregnancy, at once unexpected and welcome, is a blighted ovum, “just tissue” according to her ob-gyn. The metaphor is clear: Dorothy’s academic career and the pregnancy are both projects of development and growth that never had a chance to thrive ... But the central relationship in the novel is between Dorothy and herself. Smallwood’s narration, its closeness verging on disgust, gives us access to indignities—major and minor, of body and mind—in gross, realistic detail. ... How can one live the life of the mind? To do that, perhaps, one must live in a world that protects some kinds of work as true vocations—a world where people believe that working in some environments lifts one out of one’s body and its detritus, towards an ethereal zone of pure thought.
RaveBookforumThere is a way to use a novel to preach to a choir, to those who denounce the wrongdoing of others while ignoring their own culpability. Brandon Taylor’s Real Life refuses this kind of solace. It is a political novel, but it is quiet, careful, and fully attuned to the ways people—nice, normal people—are utter and irredeemable assholes ... If most campus novels insulate their characters from political life, Taylor’s gives unnerving insights into the challenges of an anguished job market and bitter competition for funds. It also reveals the university to be a place that denies racism’s reach while outwardly lamenting its effects on American life ... The details here have the savor of the real.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThe aim seems to be to investigate various women’s impact on Woolf’s life from broad quarters, but the effect is to disrupt the chronological logic of biographical coherence ... Despite this, Gill’s chatty, often conspiratorial tone helps mitigate some of the anguished hand-wringing that often accompanies discussions of Woolf’s life ... Gill brings to this potentially grim picture an ear for the playful undercurrent — a sense of the world’s splendid possibility — that also ran through Woolf’s life, countering much of the darkness. While she does not downplay the writer’s difficulties, Gill’s portrait shows Woolf’s character to have been complicated not just by difficulty but by pleasure, too ... Gill’s biography is especially good in delineating Vanessa’s charismatic appeal for her sister, whose adoration was never quite reciprocated ... There is an unsettling stance toward so-called healthy sexuality at the core of Gill’s book that limits its usefulness as a biography. The patterns of intellectual striving are plain throughout the first half, but when Gill turns to Vanessa’s and Virginia’s sexual and emotional exploits, the combination of speculation and prurience becomes difficult to manage ... Vanessa’s sexual boldness and Virginia’s sexual angst are well documented; it seems unnecessary to consider the frequency or fact of orgasms, as though these are the only arbiters of pleasure or satisfaction in a relationship ... by shoehorning them into versions of sexuality that make sense to a contemporary reader, Gill misses the ways both women were deeply interested in the work that pleasure does in a life.
MixedBookforumAs in her novels, Cusk’s prose in these essays is a tight guitar string or a wire from an espalier. Her descriptions are delicate, sharp, and constraining. They have a bewildering precision, a feeling of painful truthfulness, especially when it comes to the work of getting pen to paper... Cusk is so unsparing that it’s hard to imagine she doesn’t see the limitation in her perception; it’s hard to imagine she doesn’t register the one-sidedness of this gaze. Perhaps this is why so many of these essays are committed to justifying the view from Coventry ... But the cold doesn’t always grant you clearer sight and sharper judgment. Sometimes it’s just cold, and you’re stuck there, trying to keep the blood flowing as long as possible.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewPart of the aim of Miller’s biography is reclaiming Landon’s writing as worthy of critical prestige, and it’s a risky move. Although her work is extensive and absorbing, it is uneven. A central problem, then, for Miller is providing a persuasive explanation for why Landon has largely been forgotten. Is it because she was a woman? Or because her style fell out of favor? Should we revisit her poetry now because its qualities have been misjudged, or, rather, because her extraordinary life gives fresh charge to what might, in fact, be a prosaic body of work? ... By insisting on Landon’s skill as a poet, Miller ends up leaning heavily on the unusual scansion of single stanzas of verse as evidence of her innovative brilliance ... By arguing for her ingenuity as a poet, Miller works herself into a corner wherein irregular metrics are a sign of talent, not something else — incompetence, say. Is the ingénue a good writer, or is she just a good character?
RaveSlate\"The thing that feels most modern in Rooney’s writing is the way her characters’ minds adhere to their bodies ... Rooney pays a different kind of attention to her characters’ edges and limits than the 19th-century novelists to whom she is compared. If Henry James and the Brontës used the charged edges of the body to portray desire and need, Rooney presses through those edges into the soft meat inside ... Sally Rooney is doing something new. And, I find her uncomfortably familiar. She writes with a matter-of-factness that feels at once arch and without artifice ... And, as I do when I read Lawrence, I find myself reading paragraph after paragraph and feeling like I wrote them myself, though I’m also certain I could never write anything so precise, so perfectly, transparently true. Rooney’s is an exacting balance between extraordinary familiarity (not just of character and plot but of sentence rhythm and diction) and maddening precision ... it’s also soothing that if we’re in the hands of an author like Sally Rooney, we can just keep turning pages, and the plot comes out right.\
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by by Ingvild Burkey
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewKnausgaard circles around a mind and a life that, while intelligent, impassioned and perceptive, are ordinary. That ordinariness continues in Spring ... The book oscillates between a suspenseful, hour-by-hour account of the day of this event and a lighter, almost parodic, account of the father’s car journey — with his infant daughter ... But at the core of the book is a quandary about the ways we can best care for an ill person ... Spring, written after its author attained vast international celebrity, feels like a new expression of the power of detail to order a story.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewGather the Daughters, Jennie Melamed’s debut novel, presents a world in which child abuse has been normalized, even sanctified, and in which the salutary pleasures available to girls and women are few and far between — a world in which girls make a harrowingly quick journey from childhood to motherhood to death ...shares a genetic code with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It imagines a world in which reproduction is heavily controlled, and where women and girls must submit — totally — to male authority ... These sons end up as ghostly narrative curiosities in Melamed’s novel, bearing no resemblance to the cruel men who lord over the island’s women.
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of Books...a quiet but nevertheless vicious catalog of the misery dealt to women who care — for themselves, for other people, or for abstract principles like love or justice … The impossibility of forgetting something bad once you have known it runs like a current through these peculiar stories. Each one has a perplexing, but compelling, blend of familiarity and idiosyncrasy. The settings, the plots, even the characters giving off a low, comfortable hum of literary Englishness … The quotations or references are not used, as they so often are, to confer a sense of literary high seriousness, or even to punctuate that sort of high seriousness. Instead, Hadley’s references draw attention to both the way her characters are products of literary and historical pressures and also to the way literature may not be as powerful as its adherents often assume it to be.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksHadley is especially talented at registering the misery that even tiny moments of personal insecurity can bring to well-adjusted people...Hadley’s novels remind us of the strength of the minute, of the intensity that tight focus can bring. They are a sign that the domestic novel still has a prominent and critical place in contemporary fiction...