MixedThe New YorkerPyrrhus sometimes appears in Greek literature as a callow but good-hearted youth. Barker has the excellent idea of making him a teen-age bully whose swagger barely conceals an inferiority complex ... There are also some fine and original touches in Barker’s reimagining of the mythic women ... The most fully realized of Barker’s Trojan women—one you wish had a bigger role—is Hecuba. Andromache is too noble to be truly gripping; Cassandra too nutty ... But the fierce Hecuba—a character who in the Iliad declares her wish to eat Achilles’ liver raw—is catnip to Barker, whose portrayal of her has something of the humor and the vividness that distinguish \'Union Street.\' Here, the harrowed widow of myth and drama is profane ...She holds your attention whenever she appears—far more than the bland Briseis ever doe ... Too often, Briseis sounds like the voice-over from a History Channel special ... The Women of Troy” really works only when Barker forgets about the ancient models for her story ... Paradoxically, this departure from tradition happens to be the most authentically \'Greek\' thing about the book ... Barker wants to impose her modern concerns onto this very ancient material. But she’s not nearly comfortable enough in her Greek mode to fashion a work of real authority.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThe joke here—one that will be immediately obvious to Mitchell’s fans—is that a number of these events have already filled a hefty novel: Mitchell’s own The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a work of historical fiction enhanced with supernatural elements, published in 2010. The self-referential winking is not at all atypical ... Utopia Avenue which is about nothing if not performance, looks, at first glance, like a return to Mitchell’s middle period ... With one notable exception, the structure of Utopia Avenue traces a familiar arc ... A lot of Utopia Avenue is so conventional that you suspect Mitchell’s real interest may lie elsewhere ... Far more dramatic is another favorite trick that Mitchell brandishes, this one having to do with Jasper’s narrative, which both provides one of the major climaxes of the novel and exemplifies how badly it goes wrong ... As Utopia Avenue nears its ending, the narrative veers violently and none too persuasively into the supernatural ... No doubt the appearance in Utopia Avenue of vengeful transubstantiating Japanese demons and some conveniently timed Horologist psychosedation will excite some of his fans. Others, who have admired his work in the past but are finding it increasingly unpersuasive, can recognize the sound of a broken record when they hear it.
MixedThe New Yorker...the tightly symmetrical trajectories that organized the first two volumes and generated their morals and meanings have gone. This book has to embrace a concatenation of major events, any one of which could be the matter of an entire novel ... Unfortunately, it’s beyond even her skill to hold these disparate happenings together, and the result is a bloated and only occasionally captivating work ... To be sure, this huge canvas, expertly painted as always, offers many of the pleasures you’ve come to expect of Mantel and her Cromwell books. These include stretches of sumptuous prose; something about the Tudor milieu has brought greater amplitude and gorgeousness to Mantel’s style. Throughout, there are swoony passages that—like certain Dutch paintings of the century after Cromwell’s—exult in cataloguing the material richness of a society newly confident in itself: the food and the fabrics, the jewels and the spices, the meats, the tapestries, the wines ... The hubris theme is too intermittent, too submerged beneath the exhausting accumulation of events and details, to make things cohere. Other tactics fall short, too ... By the time you get to Cromwell’s execution—a brilliantly imagined moment, and perhaps the best single scene here—the incidents and details, all no doubt with some basis in history, have overwhelmed any discernible pattern ... for all the additional events it relates, nothing in The Mirror and the Light is really new—or, I should say, really \'novel.\' The great quantity of matter here will no doubt satisfy fans of both the Tudors and Mantel; but since when was that the point? If an author has told a tale well, given it a firm shape and delineated its themes, brought its hero sufficiently to life to leave an indelible impression, she’s done her job. Everything else is just words, words, words.
PositiveThe New York TimesThere is a great deal to admire in the grand symphonic music that Powers makes of these individual notes. As his vast and complex narrative unfolds, the innumerable humiliations to which the Stroms of all shades are subjected are poignantly evoked; the worst are the most quotidian ... His weakness as a writer is the weakness of all conceptual artists: you may admire his elaborate installations, but you sometimes find yourself missing the simple pleasures of good old-fashioned painting ... More problematic still, he is not a writer whose interest in his characters goes beyond their usefulness as symbolic elements in grand theoretical assemblages ... Powers\'s blending of unlikely tones in order to probe the problems of a society that continues to insist, all grays to the contrary, on seeing everything in terms of black and white is, more often than not, a fascinating, stimulating and moving artistic imagining of a harmony that continues to elude us in life.
PanNew York MagazineThe Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is the clearest demonstration yet that time has run out for the Kashpaws, Morrisseys, Lazarres, and Puyats, whose indifferently linked (and told) stories, stretching over nine decades, are meant to fill us with all the big novelistic emotions; but the only thing that’s likely to make you feel good is the promise implicit in the title ... Agnes/Damien’s secret identity and the ongoing moral crisis it creates is meant to provide The Last Report with a meaningful narrative frame, but it’s really just a gimmick ... I couldn’t help feeling that what really made Father Damien interesting to Erdrich was his/her immense longevity, which allows the author to cram a lot of stories in ... However original Erdrich’s treatment of Native American life may have been at the beginning, the flaccid prose, indifferent construction, and thematic exhaustion you sense in her latest report from the reservation suggest that perhaps it ought to be the last.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Don Bartlett & Martin Aitken
MixedNew York Times Book Review\"Perhaps because they have so much more to compete with, this volume’s evocations of domestic life — fraught spats with Linda about who will mind the children in the apartment in Malmo, grueling family vacations, simmering irritation with the stridently politically correct parents of the kids’ school friends, shopping for dinner parties — are not only exhaustive, but downright exhausting ... All this, finally, brings us to the main event, by far the finest thing in this strange book and, in my experience, the best thing Knausgaard has written, marked by enormous intellectual panache and quite different from anything else in the novel (it’s amazing how lively the writing suddenly is when he’s not writing about himself): a nearly 400-page close reading of \'Mein Kampf,\' complete with detours through related texts, in which the author tries to recover and reproduce the lived experience of the frustrated, depressed and impoverished young man who would become the Nazi tyrant... Yet this intriguing notion forces you into an uncomfortable reconsideration of Knausgaard himself. As I closed the final volume of My Struggle, struck by how little this hugely ambitious artistic undertaking had moved me, I thought about the emotions that course through it and how they are presented.... Knausgaard’s creation, for all its vastness and despite its serious intellectual aims and attainments, reduces the entire world to the size of the author. \
PositiveNew York MagazineBel Canto is an unexpected transformation in Patchett\'s writing ... Patchett takes another, subtler route, weaving her story from the four months of forced cohabitation of the jungle guerillas and their prisoners ... In the new novel, the group of characters whom Patchett has chosen to assemble, which includes diplomats, political ideologues, priests, and artists, elevates the narrative to the level of allegory ... The ascent from chaos to culture that Patchett charts is a gradual, even languid one (at times, rather too languid) ... Patchett takes her time getting there, but by the climax of her story, you find yourself hoping that the idyll will -- somehow, magically -- last. Of course, it can\'t. The fact that it lasts as long as it does, in such improbable circumstances, is a testament to her own magical powers.
PanThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewThe Song of Achilles does not, in fact, belong to Achilles at all. The not uninteresting conceit of Miller’s book is that it’s narrated by a character who is both central to the action of the Iliad and curiously shadowy: Patroclus, Achilles’ highborn companion … The real Achilles’ heel of this book is tone — one made disastrously worse by the author’s decision to metamorphose an ancient story of heroes into a modern tale of hormones...The problem reaches crisis proportions in the handling of the ‘love affair,’ which begins with an embarrassing breathlessness (‘My chest trilled with something I could not quite name’) and climaxes — sorry! — in the long-awaited and, it must be said, cringe-inducing consummation.
Jonathan Safran Foer
RaveNew YorkLike so many young writers, Foer is steeped in the wink-wink orthodoxies of postmodernism; but unlike so many of them he has put his narrative prestidigitation in the service of some very serious themes … As the book proceeds, the two narratives gravitate toward each other, the first moving forward in time, the second moving backward, as Alex's grandfather starts to reveal his own memories of the war. At the quite devastating climax of the book, you realize how the two tales are related, a connection that forever sunders Alex from Jonathan … Foer's interest in doubles, in halves that must become wholes, in intertwining the fictional and the ‘real,’ is more than just a gimmick. It's a remarkably effective way of dwelling on an issue of considerable urgency in Holocaust literature: the seemingly hopeless split between history and narrative, between what happened and what can be told.
RaveNew YorkI'm not sure what the exact definition of a ‘great American novel’ is, but I'm pretty sure that Michael Chabon's sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching new book is one … The story Chabon tells is a quirky and yet quintessentially American rags-to-riches-and-beyond tale that manages to include a boat full of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler, an attempt to spirit the Golem out of Prague, the history of comic books, a visit to Houdini's grave, a screening of Citizen Kane, a party for Salvador Dalí, bar mitzvahs at the Pierre, a lower-middle-class Brooklyn apartment and an 'arty' Greenwich Village townhouse, a straight love affair, a gay love affair, Governor Al Smith, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
PanThe New York Review of BooksEugenides’s novel seems itself to be composed of two distinct and occasionally warring halves. One part has to do with hermaphrodites—with Callie’s condition, and how she comes to discover what she ‘really’ is. The other, far more successful part has to do with Greeks—and, in a way, Greekness. Far more colorful than the story of what Callie is, is the story of how she came to be that way—the story of why this child came to inherit the exceedingly rare and fateful gene that ends up defining her indefinable life … A major problem with Middlesex is that there’s nothing all that interesting or distinctive about either half of the main character: one is a fairly ordinary Midwestern girl (except, perhaps, for her growing tendency to develop crushes on other girls), the other an all-too-typically sardonic, post-everything American male.
RaveNew York MagazineMcEwan shows how accidents of history can elevate private shame and error to the world-historical plane … It isn't, in fact, until you get to the surprising coda of this ravishingly written book that you begin to see the beauty of McEwan's design – and the meaning of his title…Atonement's postmodern surprise ending is the perfect close to a book that explores, with beauty and rigor, the power of art and the limits of forgiveness. Briony Tallis may need to atone, but Ian McEwan has nothing to apologize for.
MixedThe New Yorker...at the beginning of the novel, events hew so closely to the Greek originals that you may wonder why the author has bothered to retell this old tale at all ... But before long a number of additions, omissions, and tweaks to the Greek versions make it clear that Tóibín is just as comfortable playing around with the traditional narrative as Euripides was ... however ambitious its themes and refined its literary allusiveness, House of Names never quite comes to life. Part of the problem is, predictably, technical. The diction, as so often in modern attempts to render ancient voices, wobbles between being strenuously high and, sometimes, jarringly banal. And while Tóibín has evidently immersed himself in the tragic texts, there’s something fuzzy and unpersuasive about the ambience in which his legendary characters operate ... House of Names falls between two horses. On the one hand, the author wants to use myth, with its strong archetypal patterns ('vengeance begets vengeance'), to illustrate his political point; on the other, he wants to demythologize myth, cutting its heroic characters down to modern size, giving them recognizable psychologies and more or less normal motivations. But you can’t have your ambrosia and eat it, too.
PanThe New York Review of Books\"A Little Life never strays from its four principals, and, as other critics have noted, the novel provides so little historical, cultural, or political detail that it’s often difficult to say precisely when the characters’ intense emotional dramas take place. Yet A Little Life, like its predecessor, gets hopelessly sidetracked by a secondary narrative—one in which, strikingly, homosexual pedophilia is once again the salient element ... In the case of Yanagihara’s novel, the \'real\' feeling—not only what the book is about but, I suspect, what its admirers crave—is pain rather than pleasure ... as A Little Life progresses, the author seems to lose interest in everyone but the tragic victim, Jude. Malcolm, in particular, is never more than a cipher, all too obviously present to fill the biracial slot.\