James Merrill, Ed. by Stephen Yenser and Langdon Hammer
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksWhat emerges most strongly from the letters collected in A Whole World is their lightness of touch, lightness of spirit, and the quality of affection on display ... Merrill often made sure his letters were amusing ... He could also adopt a lovely world-weary tone ... Sometimes the poor little rich boy emerges, wanting service ... He veered from being funny and light to being almost serious.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewAs Pip moves in and out of the book...it appears at first that she does not have sufficient substance to hold the narrative. She can feel bad about herself and the world, she can be feisty, but her sensibility is not rich enough and she is too passive to make her the main character in a novel of this length. Or so it seems for the first half, before the very weaknesses in her personality become essential to the novel’s progress and the reader’s interest ... a novel of plenitude and panorama. Sometimes, there is too much sprawl, but it can suggest a sort of openness and can have a strange, insistent way of pulling us in, holding our attention ... this novel views its world and its characters as too interesting and too filled with varying motives and fascinating intent not to want to describe them with surges of energy and enthusiasm ... Franzen has toned down the all-knowingness and the irony that he used to full effect in Freedom, at the cost of making the sentences here less elegant and sharp, more relaxed and anodyne. The book is written in a sort of deliberate non-style that is chatty, colloquial, informative, unshowy. Readers are unlikely to purr with pleasure ... Purity, in other words, depends more on story than on style. It can seem, in fact, as though there is a battle going on in the novel between the slackness of its style and the amount of sharp detail and careful noticing ... This colorful use of plot, along with the loose, inelegant style and the introduction of multiple subplots and side characters, take their bearings less from Dickens than from Anthony Trollope, and give Purity, as it captures a society in a state of flux, a leisurely 19th-century appeal ... It is, in its way, an ambitious novel, in that it deals with the way we live now, but there is also a sense of modesty at its heart as Franzen seems determined not to write chiseled sentences that draw attention to themselves.
Clarice Lispector, Trans. by Benjamin Moser
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... The Hour of the Star [contains] all her talents and eccentricities merged and folded in a densely self-conscious narrative ... The Hour of the Star is like being brought backstage during the performance of a play and allowed odd glimpses of the actors and the audience, and further and more intense glimpses of the mechanics of the theatre—the scene and costume changes, the creation of artifice—with many interruptions by the backstage staff. It is to be told in ironic, maybe mocking, whispers by the box office on the way out that those glimpses were in fact the whole performance, plotted out with care and attention by a writer who is still nervously watching from somewhere close, or somewhere in the distance, who may or may not even exist. Nothing is stable in the text ... a Brazil that is almost too real in the limits it sets on the characters\' lives and a Brazil of the mind and the imagination, made vast by the way in which words and images, and shifts of tone and texture, are deployed by Lispector in her mysterious swan song. As the French critic Hélène Cixous has written, The Hour of the Star \'is a text on poverty that is not poor.\' It has a way of being knowing and mysterious, garrulous and oddly refined. It withholds and it tells too much. It makes sweeping judgments and tiny observations. It is a meditation on two types of powerlessness, each one stark and distinct.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)His book is rare as an Irish memoir for the lack of rancour about his upbringing. Byrne’s parents emerge as loving, decent people. He doesn’t dwell on this, which makes it all the more convincing. His description of the decline and death of a loved sister is one of the most moving parts of the book. He takes religion seriously and writes vividly about being an altar boy – including his interest in altar wine – and memorably, about deciding, aged 11, that he had a vocation for the priesthood ... But his book has none of the breathlessness of showbusiness autobiography. It is sometimes a dreamy book, lyrical, filled with images of things that slipped by and have faded. He writes passionately about his first love and hilariously about his early fame as an actor ... At the core of the book, however, is not his fame but something much darker and more elusive. Walking with Ghosts is an attempt to come to terms with the very elements that have created some of Byrne’s best performances, elements that come from pain and have caused pain. Byrne is unsparing of himself in the telling of this story ... It is not just unusual for an actor to write about himself in the way Byrne does, but for anyone at all. Thus, it is hard to place Walking with Ghosts in the tradition of Irish memoir. What is striking is the intensity of the introspection. Byrne works with the idea that if you want to know where the damage lies, look inwards, describe the intimate, hidden spaces within the self. There is something fresh and liberating about this, a feeling also that it must have been a challenging book to write.
Rave4 ColumnsThe writing is starkly memorable and chilling because of Robinson’s magisterial approach to character and destiny, to sinfulness and the possibility of redemption, but also because of her skill at delineating minute feelings and ordinary, small gestures ... What emerges at the end of Jack is the extent of Marilynne Robinson’s command. She shares with George Eliot an interest in large questions and also a fascination with a wildness in the soul, with a sensuality and a spiritual striving that cannot be easily calmed, and can be captured only by the rarest talent.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)This is a valuable book not only for the quality of Gevisser’s analysis and the scope of his research, but because he spends a good deal of time with the people on whose lives he focuses. He does not just sail into such cities as Cairo, Nairobi, Kampala, Ramallah and Istanbul, interview a few gay locals, deplore their plight and depart. He sticks around; he finds people whose lives he can follow over a couple of years. He hangs out with them, enjoys their company; he renders them in all their complexity. Gevisser is also alert to the connection between gay freedom and other forms of liberty. His account of the reasons for the increasingly intense repression of gay people in some countries is astute and nuanced. His book is, at times, a history of the recent darkening of the human spirit itself, as much as it is a book about gay politics. It also shows how stirring up hatred against gay people is part of an agenda to win power ... When the author places them in the context not only of gay politics but of national politics, his human stories become fascinating ... The Pink Line can see light and hope...but Gevisser is clear-eyed and wise enough to have a sharp sense of how tough the struggle has been, and how hard it will be now for those who have not succeeded in finding shelter from prejudice.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksBarnes is fascinated by facts that turn out to be untrue and by unlikely but provable connections between people and things ... While Barnes is concerned in this book to find things that don’t add up, he also relishes the moments when a clear, connecting line can be drawn ... Wilde and Pozzi, and perhaps even Montesquiou, admired Bernhardt; Pozzi and James were both painted by Sargent; Wilde and Montesquiou had the same response to the interior décor at the Prousts. Barnes enjoys these connections. But in ways that are subtle and sharp, he seeks to puncture easy associations, doubtful assertions, lazy assumptions. He is interested in the space between what can be presumed and what can be checked.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewGreenwell displays an extraordinary skill at handling time ... part of Sofia’s allure is that it is disintegrating, as Bulgaria itself is failing ... Greenwell’s version of Sofia sometimes allows him to isolate his characters in a densely made monochrome. He can remove them from any natural hinterland, cover them in mystery and then allow them to emerge into a scrupulously modulated clarity ... Greenwell’s book is a sort of wistful paean to the place where his protagonist lived in uneasy exile, or learned to grow up, or both ... bravura writing ... While he writes about sex graphically, Greenwell uses a crisp style to disguise the fact that he is really attempting to chart the characters’ complicated emotional needs ... The reader begins each new story with concern for the main character; he is like one of those young men in 19th-century French fiction setting out to receive his sentimental education.
Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell, Ed. by Saskia Hamilton
PositiveLondon Review of Books (UK)The letters are worth reading not merely for what they tell us about Hardwick and Lowell but also because they are the direct source of many of the poems in Lowell’s book The Dolphin ... Lowell emerges from his poems and letters as both thoughtless and tortured, entitled and damaged. Hardwick’s letters are more direct, her rage—and her interest in protecting her daughter—coming to the fore. But she is also formidable and smart, and there are moments when her daunting presence makes itself impressively felt ... When you reread Sleepless Nights straight after The Dolphin Letters you see how artful Hardwick’s novel is.
RaveBookforumThe Scottish novelists have it in for clear plotlines, for gentle or melancholy stories, for bourgeois destinies, for old-fashioned or boring narrative systems. They write spectacularly well about drunkenness, drug-induced antics, long nights wandering in the lower depths, states of alienation, bad sex. This is the tradition out of which Douglas Stuart writes ... In a Scottish novel, if there is a dream of better public housing, it will end in a high-rise slowly falling apart, just like the buildings that house the Bain family, which are desolate and badly constructed. And, in Scottish fiction, if there is a line of dialogue, it will be filled with the flavor of demotic Scottish speech. Stuart, in Shuggie Bain , is particularly skilled at creating a credible, energetic, living speech for his Scottish characters ... Shuggie Bain is peppered with Scottish usage (\'gallus\'; \'foustie\'; \'smirring\'; \'huckled\'). This adds to the sense of gritty truth in the book and to the feeling that the novel is not being written to explain Scotland to outsiders ... On the surface, the novel is unremittingly bleak ... Against this, however, there is an undercurrent that becomes more and more powerful, as Stuart, with great subtlety, builds up an aura of tenderness in the relationship between the helpless Shuggie and his even more helpless mother.
PositiveLondon Review of BooksFreud died in 2011 and the amount of first-hand information available about his antics means that Feaver could easily have written a book filled to the brim with gambling sprees and babies, as well as egocentricity, carelessness, fecklessness and an interest in danger. And while he has indeed filled his book to the brim with the excitement and strangeness of Freud’s life, he sees him as painter rather than playboy ... Feaver has a vivid sense of the sheer amount of time Freud spent in the studio and the determination and independence of mind that kept him charged. He is alert to the idea that the energy Freud spent on his work spilled over into the night, into sexual adventures, gambling binges, social climbing (up and down) ... does the fact that Freud was a genius excuse his behaviour? Feaver sidesteps this question, letting us know what happened without becoming a moralist. He remains sober, balanced. He uses his extensive interviews with Freud subtly and judiciously ... Feaver’s book shows how easily Freud could have become someone else: a painter of society portraits, for example, if he had been willing to soften his style ... It is fascinating, having read his book, to open a catalogue of Freud’s work and to see portraits of Kitty Garman, Caroline Blackwood, Charlie Lumley, Jane Willoughby, the artist’s mother – the whole cast of characters. Knowing how Freud met these people and when he painted them and who they were adds enormously to the interest in looking at the work. But no matter what we know or don’t know, the paintings hold their strength, their mystery, their distance. Freud, too, in Feaver’s version, maintains his own strength, his mystery, his distance. His biographer makes no effort to delve into his inner being and explain his work accordingly. Freud’s outer being gives him more than enough to go on.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksThe question of why the murdered man died now and not hereafter haunts the book; the plot is animated by the idea that Díaz-Varela, who loves the wife of the murdered man and seems made for her, might have a good deal to gain from his friend’s death. Marías is more concerned, at least on the surface, with the resonance of the murder, with the shape and texture of its aftermath, than he is interested in anything as banal as solving a crime ... Marías’s great skill is to make this natural and to implicate the reader in its moral maze. He manages to match his complex diction with a complex vision about what is right or wrong ... The Infatuations has a strange, insinuating afterglow that forces the reader to rethink the entire book, or at least wonder, and wonder seriously, about the narrator herself, what she does and what she does not do.
Clarice Lispector, Trans. by Katrina Dodson
RaveThe New York Review of BooksIn her mixture of nonchalance, inscrutability, wit, and knowing simplicity, in her use of tones that are whimsical and subtle, in the stories that are filled with abstractions, she has perhaps more in common with some Brazilian visual artists of her generation than she does with any writers ... Lispector had no interest in blessing, or happiness for that matter. Rather, she entertained happiness so she could play with it, leave scratch marks on it, wound it as best she could. Thus \'Happy Birthday,\' one of her finest stories, will deal with a birthday that is considerably less than happy ... While some stories appear whimsical and read like exercises, and others muse at length and almost absent-mindedly, almost abstractly, on habit and motive, or something that happened, others have an exquisite sharpness, the fruit of a most original and daring mind. In the best stories, something deeply strange is fully visualized by Lispector, as though it had come in a waking dream and it needed to be given urgent substance ... Lispector’s command of tone allows her to be amused gently and with subtlety at times, at other times savagely, and then at other times, in the weakest stories, she creates a story with a throwaway tone, as though she could not really be bothered ... She was, all the time, ruefully aware of the limitations that writing imposed on her. Part of her dark vision included a sad knowledge of the frailty of the very words and phrases she used, the necessary thinness of her own observations and her games with form.
Edoardo Albinati, Trans. by Antony Shugaar
PanThe New York Review of BooksThe Catholic School, all 1,268 pages of it, is an effort to explore why boys from such a privileged and settled background would commit such a crime. It pays little attention to the crime itself; we learn hardly anything about the victims other than that they are from a lower class than the perpetrators. Instead, most of the book muses on the meaning of masculinity, on the family and the middle class, on rape, violence, the penis, sadism and masochism, not to speak of morals and manners among Italians of a certain income bracket ... Albinati’s book, made up of many short sections, is long and long-winded. It lacks what we might call the literary tone, showing no signs of irony, inwardness, self-consciousness, or ambiguity. Most of the time it is simply garrulous. Reading it is like being buttonholed by a man in a bar who wishes to speak at length about sex and men and rape. Some of the comments in the book are startlingly crass ... One small reason not to skip any part of this book may arise from a note at the end telling us that it was begun in 1975 and finished forty years later. These are years in which so much changed in the conversations about the relationship between men and women. What is fascinating about The Catholic School is that it enacts, in the most extreme way, the very sounds some men might have made before they were invited to become more mannerly, more intelligent, more alert, more sensitive, and less stupid. The book was finished in a time when men were often asked to shut up completely and let someone else talk. The Catholic School is, sometimes, a good example of what it was like before this had any real effect ... At other times, however, it is a good example of nothing at all, other than the author’s boorishness ... It would be too cruel to suggest that this book is necessary reading for anyone, but it may be useful for those who wish to see an example of how little progress we have made over the past forty years, or for those who wish to experience an interminable display of loquaciousness and idiocy masquerading as a novel.
PositiveThe GuardianWith intelligence and flair, Wolf uses the various responses to Whitman to show the levels of intense need in the decades after the publication of Leaves of Grass for images and books that would rescue homosexuality from increasing public disapproval ... The value of Outrages comes from Wolf’s constant placing of the brutal response to homosexuality in context.
Thom Gunn, Ed. Clive Wilmer
PositiveThe London Review of BooksThere are some poems I miss in Wilmer’s selection ... [but] what is remarkable about his book are the often detailed notes on each poem, using letters and diaries and notebooks from Gunn’s archive that Wilmer, who first read his work in Alvarez’s anthology and was a friend for forty years, has carefully gone through. Wilmer includes a not very good poem called ‘Expression’, which Gunn might have been wiser not to have published at all. But it remains interesting because it throws light on his reticence and impersonal tone.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe reader can almost see what is coming ... The Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan has other ideas, however. She is determined that the fate of Washington Black will not be dictated by history, that the novel instead will give him permission to soar above his circumstances ... In this portrait of the artist as a young man, Edugyan demands that the reader take the mixtures in Washington seriously ... Edugyan is willing to take great risks to release the reader from any easy or predictable interpretations of Washington. She is not afraid to allow him to have thoughts and knowledge that seem oddly beyond his command. That is part of his ambiguous power in the book ... There are moments when the writing soars, when Washington’s experience of the natural world is rendered in a prose that openly, almost exultantly, strives to evoke beauty ... Edugyan is careful, nonetheless, that her flying machine of a novel not fly too freely into the upper air ... His prose can be vivid, sometimes fervid, but it can also be measured ... What Edugyan has done in Washington Black is to complicate the historical narrative by focusing on one unique and self-led figure.
RaveThe New York Review of Books\"Caroline Weber’s Proust’s Duchess is an exhaustive, engaging, brilliantly researched account of who these three women were and how they each, in different ways, created an allure that so fascinated Proust. It is also a portrait of Paris in a time when it was still unclear to a select group that the French monarchy might not somehow return, when privilege and an elaborate set of manners and systems of social behavior were still fully in place so that a small breach in them could mean either social doom or a reputation for brilliance and originality. It is also a book that throws considerable light on Proust’s method as a novelist by letting us see the sheer amount of information available on these women: where they came from, where they went each season, what their husbands were like, what lovers they had, what their disappointments and hopes were. It allows us to see more starkly how Proust’s method works, how little he was concerned with the actual minutiae of infidelities and love affairs and secret trysts, how he allowed the reader to take these for granted, and how much, on the other hand, he was intrigued by what was visible in a single moment in a room, at a gathering, how many generalizations he could make from a single glimpse or glance or change in the social air ... Proust then made music from this, being more interested in music than gossip, and only tangentially inspired and nourished by actual tittle-tattle about rich women in a confined quarter of a changing city.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"In Tommy Orange’s There There, an ambitious meditation on identity and its broken alternatives, on myth filtered through the lens of time and poverty and urban life, on tradition all the more pressing because of its fragility, it is as if he seeks to reconfigure Oakland as a locus of desire and dreams, to remake the city in the likeness of his large and fascinating set of characters ... Orange makes Oakland into a \'there\' that becomes all the more concretely, emphatically and fully so in a novel that deals, in tones that are sweeping and subtle, large-gestured and nuanced, with what the notion of belonging means for Native Americans ... The novel, then, is their picaresque journey, allowing for moments of pure soaring beauty to hit against the most mundane, for a sense of timelessness to be placed right beside a cleareyed version of the here and now, for a sense of vast dispossession to live beside day-to-day misery and poverty. Nothing in Orange’s world is simple, least of all his characters and his sense of the relationship between history and the present. Instead, a great deal is subtle and uncertain in this original and complex novel.\
RaveThe New York Review of BooksThus Conrad, for Jasanoff, is her contemporary, as someone interested in current affairs as much as he is for a generation of novelists who have been fascinated by the style and the form of his books and his ability to work intensely with a single consciousness.
RaveThe London Review of BooksThis short novel takes place on the first night of their honeymoon, with many flashbacks, and at the end a great flash forward, and at the core an enormous misunderstanding … It is difficult to judge whether to give away the plot of this book...is to lessen its impact on the reader. McEwan writes prose judiciously; his books seem to depend on plain writing and story and careful plotting, with much detail added to make the reader believe that these words on the page must be followed and believed as the reader would follow and believe a well-written piece of journalism. On Chesil Beach, however, is full of odd echoes and has elements of folk tale, which make the pleasures of reading it rather greater than the joys of knowing what happened in the end.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksHollinghurst...cleverly and subtly plays the English novelist of whom he most disapproves off against the one he most favors without losing anything. His own natural tendency to create an apolitical society, where aesthetic arguments are punctuated by sexual athletics, now allows an opposing force deeply inimical to his imagination, which insists on public life, the trappings of power, as the natural subject of the novel … The novel moves forward in a series of brilliant set scenes, pieces of atmosphere, moods sharply described and delineated. The plot, such as it is, deals with the enrichment of Nick’s experience, his moving from snobbish provincial to uneasy cosmopolitan, his close observing of the rich and the ruling class, his experiences with drugs, sex, and high art.
Édouard Louis, Trans. by Michael Lucey
RaveThe New York Review of Books\"Although it explores a childhood in a northern France blighted by poverty, misery, and prejudice...it is not a return home during a middle age tempered by literary success; it is not replete with emotion recollected in tranquility. It is written in the white heat of recent experience … Louis paints his narrator not only as a fearful victim of violence and poverty, but also, in his dreams, as a ‘class renegade,’ as he set about adopting values ‘precisely in order to construct a self in opposition to my parents, in opposition to my family.’ His parents thus were raising not only a homosexual, but also a class traitor … But his own homosexuality and his own class origins belong to him as a gift that he can bestow with a mixture of relish and cold rage on his fellow citizens … Louis enacts a sort of homecoming as he offers his compatriots a new version of their country.\
RaveBookforumThe novel is written with subtlety and delicacy: Each thought or action, each sight or sound is rendered with exquisite care and judgment. The prose is clear and calm, but there is a tense undercurrent, conveying that, as the shelling and killing go on and the mass displacement of people continues, Dinesh can take nothing for granted … Although it has the aura of a small, timeless masterpiece, and despite its lushness and its hypnotic textures, The Story of a Brief Marriage is not an apolitical book or a novel that sanitizes savagery. Arudpragasam shows us how, under the pressure of war, minute and ambiguous sensations within the mind rise and fall or merge with one another, making their way into more elaborate thoughts or more exquisite feeling, including love and longing, including desperation.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition ... McGuire has an extraordinary talent for picturing a moment, offering precise, sharp, cinematic details. When he has to describe complex action, he manages the physicality with immense clarity. He writes about violence with unsparing color and, at times, a sort of relish. The writing moves sometimes from the poetic to the purple, but McGuire is careful not to use too many metaphors or similes or too much fancy writing when he needs to make clear what cold feels like, or hunger or fear.