Dwight GarnerDwight Garner is a book critic for the New York Times. A former senior editor of the New York Times Book Review, he was the founding books editor of Salon.com. His writing has appeared in Harper's Magazine, The Oxford American, The Nation, Slate, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere. Garner lives in Garrison, New York, with his wife and two children. He can be found on Twitter @DwightGarner
PositiveThe New York TimesA beautiful book. It has gravity and grace; it’s as inexorable as a fable; it drills down into the things that make a life; it works to make sense of existence on both its coded and transparent levels; it feels like an instant classic of the genre ... Her memoir is intellectually ambitious. She evokes the hothouse atmosphere at Radcliffe and Harvard in the late 1960s, when she was an undergraduate. She sketches fine, small profiles of the professors who influenced her ... The reason the reader cares about these intellectual adventures is that Turkle has already established a warm, intimate voice. We hear in her always the sensitive, curious, slightly baffled girl she was ... Turkle’s food writing, invested with emotion, is as fine ... The Empathy Diaries, I am devastated to report, slides to an uncertain and unpersuasive ending. Turkle attempts to bring the reader up to date with her life, but in a manner that seems evasive. She does not offer what one might call artistic resolution ... After so many felicities, an opacity. Come for this reverberant play anyway.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
PositiveThe New York TimesThe first 100 pages of The Committed are, to my mind, better than anything in the first novel. The narrator’s voice snaps you up. It’s direct, vain, cranky and slashing — a voice of outraged intelligence. It’s among the more memorable in recent American literature ... subtly draws upon the mythic power France once held for Black Americans ... [Nguyen\'s] sentences, as they heat, expand. He lets them run riot. Some cover multiple pages, building to towering peaks. When these arias work, they’re ecstatic. When they don’t, one recalls Capote on Kerouac: \'That’s not writing, that’s typing\' ... The overwriting in this novel only rarely bothered me. More often I was reminded of George Balanchine’s comment that if his dancers didn’t occasionally fall onstage, they weren’t really going for it ... The second half of this book is shaggy, shaggy, shaggy. If it’s not a total breakdown, it’s something close ... This is a bookish novel. It’s the kind in which a bouncer at a brothel reads Voltaire ... Tragedy and comedy blend awkwardly in this novel’s second half. Nguyen can be very funny ... Nguyen consigns his characters to a series of frazzled, far-fetched scenarios. Mayhem feeds mayhem. There are several extended torture scenes in the back half of this book that don’t work at all ... Nguyen doesn’t find a tone for these scenes. They’re awful in their way — there are rubber hoses and electrodes clamped onto nipples — but they’re hard to take seriously. There’s a daft James Bond quality to them. The torturers fritter their time away, long enough for the tortured to be rescued. Doors are kicked open with a bang; guns blaze. You sense the author trying to keep the plot frantically spinning, rather than elegantly extending his themes ... Nguyen’s cynical humor just saves him ... This novel doesn’t hold together, but it’s more serious and more entertaining than nine-tenths of the novels that do. Its narrator wants redress for the wrongs of history, but he also wants to live in the imperative tense ... As you can tell, I’m of two minds about The Committed. I’ll put my feelings this way, borrowing something the English writer Jonathan Coe said about Fedora, Billy Wilder’s penultimate film: \'Flawed and bonkers, but I like it.\'
PositiveThe New York TimesOne way to read Mark Harris’s crisp new biography, Mike Nichols: A Life, is as a tender comedy about a man and his wigs ... Nichols was a hard man to get to know, and I’m not sure we understand him much better at the end of Mike Nichols: A Life. He was a man in perpetual motion, and Harris chases him with patience, clarity and care.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewIn the astute and authoritative new biography, Tom Stoppard: A Life, Hermione Lee wrestles it all onto the page. At times you sense she is chasing a fox through a forest. Stoppard is constantly in motion — jetting back and forth across the Atlantic, looking after the many revivals of his plays, keeping the plates spinning, agitating on behalf of dissidents, artists and political prisoners in Eastern Europe, delivering lectures, accepting awards, touching up scripts, giving lavish parties, maintaining friendships with Pinter, Vaclav Havel, Steven Spielberg, Mick Jagger and others. It’s been a charmed life, lived by a charming man. Tall, dashing, large-eyed, shaggy-haired; to women Stoppard’s been a walking stimulus package ... Her Stoppard book is estimable but wincingly long; it sometimes rides low in the water. The sections that detail Stoppard’s research for his plays can seem endless, as if Lee has dragged us into the library with him and given us a stubby pencil. Like a lot of us during the pandemic, Tom Stoppard: A Life” could stand to lose 15 percent of its body weight.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe critic Kenneth Tynan divided playwrights into two categories, \'smooth\' and \'hairy,\' and one could probably make a similar distinction among biographers. Smooth biographers offer clean narrative lines, well-underscored themes, and carrots, in the form of cliffhangers, to lure the reader onward. Their books are on best-seller lists. They’re good gifts for Dad. William Feaver, the author of The Lives of Lucian Freud — the second volume, Fame, 1968-2011, is out now — exists on the opposite extreme. There’s little smoothness in him at all. His biography is hairier than a bonobo. Feaver, a longtime art critic for The Observer in London, doesn’t provide a fixed portrait of Freud, the great realist painter, so much as he leads us into a studio filled with crusty brushes, scrapers, half-completed canvases, easels, dirty floorboards, mahlsticks and distilled turpentine, and lets us poke through the detritus as if to assemble a likeness for ourselves ... Can one pick up Volume Two of this biography if one hasn’t read Volume One? Feaver seems to suggest the answer is no. He doesn’t always bother to reintroduce people or topics ... Perhaps it doesn’t matter. There’s a sense one could skip three or four pages almost anywhere in these books and not miss anything crucial.
MixedThe New York TimesChang-rae Lee’s new novel, My Year Abroad, is, like everything he writes, considered and elegant, formal and philosophical. He’s firmly in command. He remains in command while this novel runs straight off the road and into a deep ravine. To borrow a euphemism from the world of aeronautics, this long and draggy book is a \'controlled flight into terrain\' ... Reading My Year Abroad, one starts to feel, as Pete Townshend wrote in a recent Who song, \'over-full, always sated, puffed up, elated\' ... Lee isn’t a humorless writer, and he surely sees some mischief here too. But he plays this all with a straight face, and the scars Tiller comes away with are real.There are good things in My Year Abroad. Pong is an appealing and original creation. The fact that Tiller, Val and Victor must mostly remain housebound for their protection gives this novel Covid-19-era resonance. Lee has earned the right to write a fluky novel without shaking our respect. Sometimes, with fiction, it’s sic biscuitus disintegratum — that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
RaveThe New York TimesAs titles go, it’s mildly pretentious...Yet Moss, except in flashes, is anything but a pretentious writer. She writes beautifully about English middle-class life, about souls in tumult, about people whose lives have not turned out the way they’d hoped ... She catches the details of ordinary existence in a manner that’s reminiscent of the director Mike Leigh: the peeling roof tiles, the cheap plastic teakettles, the beans on toast. She never condescends, and her fluid prose is suggestive of larger and darker human themes ... Reading her, one recalls John Barth’s comment that the best literature is \'both of stunning literary quality and democratic of access\' ... a bit less tightly wound than Ghost Wall, and it has an expedient ending. But there’s little doubt, reading Moss, that you’re in the hands of a sophisticated and gifted writer ... As always in Moss’s work, there is a strong sense of the natural world. There are riddles of existence she’s shaking down. As a character puts it in Ghost Wall, \'ancient knowledge runs somehow in our blood\' ... As always in Moss’s work, too, there is an ominous quality, slow uncanny beats from an extra subwoofer or two, mighty but muffled ... One senses Moss stumbling toward an ending rather than running confidently downhill toward one. This is comment more than complaint. Endings don’t matter to me quite as much as they do to many ... Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head is a great fog novel. Summerwater is pretty close to a great rain novel.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, tr. Martin Aitken
MixedThe New York TimesIn the Land of the Cyclops finds him in, at best, a holding pattern. These are minor essays, earnest and sawdust-filled ... Knausgaard’s plodding essays read more like lectures than like criticism. They’re more oil than vinegar ... One thing to like about this book — its primary translator from the Norwegian is Martin Aitken — is how Knausgaard reorients the world of culture and allows us to view it through his own Nordic lens ... He’s right to notice that we’re living in an era when fiction, because it’s a refuge for unpoliced thought and feeling of every stripe, matters more than ever. Elsewhere in this collection, you get the sense of a writer laboriously working out things that have been better worked out by others.
RaveThe New York TimesIf you read Finnegans Wake for the off-color puns; if you take to Flann O’Brien’s satirical novels as happily as a pup going for a morning walk; if, like Aunt Ada Doom in Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, you suspect you saw something nasty in the woodshed; if, like J.P. Donleavy, you’d like to decompose when you die in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs of Dublin; if you sometimes wish you were an extra in John Gay’s raucous The Beggar’s Opera, then Guillermo Stitch’s new novel, Lake of Urine, is for you ... Admittedly, that’s a lot of ifs. Can’t I also have, one might ask, characters I can identify with, a tendon of plot and the consoling sense that I’m a moral and high-minded person? Not here, no. Lake of Urine offers instead strange harbingers, offbeat mental exfoliations, subterranean impulses, verbal ambuscades and warty, warty manifestations of joy, wit and lust ... Stitch has more fun than a writer should be allowed to have ... Nothing about Lake of Urine seems forced ... Stitch flicks his blade around all the important things in life, isolating absurdities, nicking arteries. He deflates pretension at every turn. He throws images like tarot cards. He’s a caustic humorist with serious intent. His novel invites you to view the world as fundamentally absurd and usually awful, but also to recognize that laughter is a mighty, and cleansing, recompense ... As if made for our moment, Lake of Urine imparts a sense of old ways collapsing, and of men and women adjusting to brute new realities.
John Thompson and Jesse Washington
PositiveThe New York Times... an unusually good sports memoir ... a consequential book with a plainspoken tone. Even after his success, Thompson preferred McDonald’s to restaurants with white tablecloths, and his voice makes an authentic sound ... This book has its lacunae. His wife and children are rarely mentioned. He wished he’d spent more time with them. He gives little evidence of his life outside of basketball, but perhaps he didn’t have much of one ... You sense there are stories that await a biographer.
PanNew York TimesThe editor Alice Quinn’s Covid-era anthology, Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, falters on every front. This lukewarm book, largely uncompromised by alert feelings, political insight, wit, striking intellect or lightning of any variety, is — to borrow a slab of Orwell’s Newspeak — doubleplus ungood ... Quinn has good feelers, except when they fail her, as they do here ... A few of these poems evoke the realities of blue-collar life, but mostly they’ve been written as if by comfortable indoor cats ... A few strong poems and some bright moments aside, Together in a Sudden Strangeness leaves little mark on the mind. It makes American poetry seem as if it is dazed and sated, in critical care and intubated.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... spirited ... Dictionaries are plump and (mostly) written in earnest. This novel more resembles a bonsai tree — compact, wizened and funny ... Plot is not why a reader should come to The Liar’s Dictionary. One approaches it instead for highly charged neurotic situations and for Williams’s adept word-geekery. Her esotericism is always on cheerful display ... The author has a knack for summoning the peculiarities of her word people ... You have to like a novel in which the put-downs are mellifluous and on point ... If The Liar’s Dictionary sounds like it’s for you, it probably is. It’s for those who’d trade an entire NCAA football division for Mary Norris, Benjamin Dreyer, Lynne Truss, Jesse Sheidlower, Bryan Garner (no relation) and a dazzling first-round copy editor to be named later ... I enjoyed The Liar’s Dictionary without quite being able to let down my guard ... There’s a thin line, in books like this, between being playfully literate and being self-delighted, in trying too hard to charm. It’s the difference between a real bookstore and one that smells like potpourri, and between wit and whimsicality. Williams can strand herself on the wrong side of this line.
PositiveThe New York Times... allows us to meet this prickly poet fresh and entire. It’s the first proper biography of her, and there’s a lot to unpack. This is a good story well-told ... If Holladay’s solid biography has a weak spot, it’s that she makes it difficult for anyone to criticize Rich’s work, for any reason whatsoever, and not be thought complicit in the grinding machinery of misogyny ... Holladay is a sensitive reader of Rich’s poetry. She also explicates Rich’s windswept moods.
MixedThe New York TimesIt’s not so commanding. There’s something warmed-over about it. Reading it is like watching Merle Haggard perform in an uptight club with a quiet policy and a two-drink minimum ... None of these profiles are bad; none are particularly striking. They’re heavy on quotation and filler ... But there’s a fuzziness to Guralnick’s old stuff, at least when he isn’t writing to the beat of a good anecdote. Part of the fuzziness the reader feels in Looking to Get Lost is because these pieces aren’t dated, and we’re not told where they originally appeared. We’re not looking to get lost; we are lost ... It’s a cliché to remark that a book sent you running back to its subjects’ work with fresh eyes. But Guralnick’s book contains good endnotes.
PositiveThe New York Times... wise and ebullient ... Gefter takes the reader inside so many of Avedon’s photo shoots, and so deftly explicates his work, that you’re thirsty to sate your eyes with Avedon’s actual images ... One of the achievements of Gefter’s biography is to argue persuasively for Avedon’s place, as a maker of portraits, as one of the 20th century’s most consequential artists ... Gefter selects the right photo sessions to linger over ... Gefter’s prose is unshowy but supple.
MixedThe New York Times\"DeLillo’s new one is a pristine disaster novel with apocalyptic overtones. It’s a Stephen King novel scored by Philip Glass instead of Chuck Berry ... The good news about The Silence is that it’s engrossing and that, at 83, DeLillo’s syntax is as prickly as ever. I’m as attracted as anyone else to stories of doomed airplane flights and intimations of the end of the world, and DeLillo mostly held me rapt. I was never sorry to be holding this novel. The bad news, in addition to a certain amount of black-box, black turtleneck pretentiousness that is a hallmark of late-career DeLillo, is that The Silence reads like the first two chapters of a disaster novel. At 117 pages, it’s over before it gets started. It’s as if a filmmaker put two couples inside a remote old farmhouse for the weekend, cut the power, cued the dogs of hell and then rolled the credits ... a minor, oddly frictionless DeLillo novel. In terms of his career, it is not waterfall but spray. Posterity will be kind to him, but it will take relatively little note of this production.\
MixedThe New York Times... many slowly grinding parts. It gets the job done, just about, but it’s a ponderous journey ... It’s got a lot of primary characters. It’s got a story that skips around in time, so there’s a moral Doppler effect to factor in. The reader needs to leave a trail of stones so as not to get lost ... One needs a sharp pencil, a deep intake of breath and a willingness to follow the author closely. On occasion I lacked at least two of the three ... The author has done his homework and sticks pushpins into a large map. Yet this novel works, when it does, when it flies lower to the ground. Its flashes of genius and beauty are entirely in its details, not in foreign policy punditry ... Klay is brilliant on things like what it’s like to walk through a city after a recent bombing. He is very fine on what he calls the soundtrack of war ... He understands both the technology of war and the wet stuff of brutality and torture. He’s dryly funny about the new realities of American journalism and foreign reporting ... Klay’s writing about tending to the wounded is electric in its exactness ... These excellencies are small moments tucked into a baggy novel that struggles to find its focus. It’s not the author’s fault that the culture is saturated with prestige dramas about the drug wars, and that Don Winslow recently wrapped up his masterly Cartel trilogy. But there’s a sense, while reading Missionaries, of moving over instead of transcending familiar ground.
RaveThe New York TimesHazzard’s stories are shrewd, formal and epigrammatic. One feels smarter and more pulled together after reading them. You drop into one as if you were a wet cell phone and it were a jar of uncooked rice ... a single important and elegant volume ... These are about condescending, pitilessly detached men and the trapped women who love them — and they’re simply brutal ... Hazzard’s stories feel timeless because she understands, as she writes in one of them: \'We are human beings, not rational ones.\'
PositiveNew York TimesDavid Mikics’s Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker is a cool, cerebral book about a cool, cerebral talent. This is not a full-dress biography — there have been several of Kubrick — but a brisk study of his films, with enough of the life tucked in to add context as well as brightness and bite ... Mikics is an adept student of Kubrick’s uncanny art ... This book’s subtitle notwithstanding, Kubrick was in many ways the least American of American directors ... This book captures his control-freak side. It also captures why people wanted to work with him. He had a feel for every aspect of what made a film work.
MixedThe New York TimesThis is the era of Jim Crow and strictly enforced miscegenation laws, a milieu Robinson evokes with small, deft strokes ... When Jack opens his mouth, he tends to say the same six or seven things, as if Robinson were pulling a string in his back ... This is probably the place to say that, like a lot of readers I know, I’m divided about Robinson’s novels. On the one hand, there’s Gilead, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 and which patiently accrues grace and power. On the other hand, to open her other novels, including this one, is largely to enter a remote, airless, life-denying, vaguely pretentious and mostly humorless universe, where it is always Sunday morning and never Saturday night, where the same bespoke arguments about religious feeling are rehashed, where a lonely reader enters, sniffs the penitential air and asks: Who died? ... Jack is a charmer who is seldom allowed to charm. We’re told he plays barrelhouse piano in bars, that he cuts loose on payday, that he’s a gifted and inveterate criminal. His motto might be carpe noctem. Yet we’re not allowed to see whatever jubilation he finds on the night side of life. He’s a moth, ostensibly drawn to flame, yet rigid because there’s a pin through his thorax. We witness only the hangover, moral and otherwise, the downcast eyes on the morning after. In this novel, he’s the dullest bad boy in the history of bad boys. He’s made to sit perpetually in the corner, facing the wall ... You rarely sense base emotion of any variety in Jack. Jack and Della, unlike Stanley and Stella, are not allowed, for example, to revel in anything as simple as lust. They shyly titillate only each other’s souls ... Della, in her deep need to shake off the expectations of family and society, is a fascinating character, and should resonate far more than she does. Neither she nor Jack seems to have independent life. You sense them placing their heads directly into the halters the author has made for them.
RaveThe New York Times... a beautiful novel about an American son and his immigrant father that has echoes of The Great Gatsby and that circles, with pointed intellect, the possibilities and limitations of American life ... This novel gets off to a slow start ... One wonders when Akhtar’s book will settle, and when he will find a direction in which to aim his stories. One wonders for about 85 perceptive but drifting pages. He’s been tuning up ... Many of the most powerful moments in Homeland Elegies deal with the narrator’s life in the years after 9/11. There are powerfully written scenes of confrontation (you can see the film in this novel) between Akhtar and cops, strangers and others who are suspicious of him ... electric footnotes ... There is good writing about Salman Rushdie and Edward Said and syphilis and hoof stew and Scranton, Pa., and screenwriting, among many other things ... a very American novel. It’s a lover’s quarrel with this country, and at its best it has candor and seriousness to burn.
RaveThe New York TimesIt takes something more than intelligence to be able to write intelligently ... Whatever it is, Sigrid Nunez has it. When I open one of her novels, I almost always know immediately: This is where I want to be ... It’s as good as The Friend, if not better ... This novel has sorrow in it. It’s also quite funny. We bumble our way toward death as we bumble toward everything ... [a] wise novel.
PositiveThe New York TimesAli Smith’s new novel, Summer, is the concluding volume in her immersive, prickly and politically ardent seasonal quartet ... Each has been on the beat of the world’s news, from Brexit to Trump to wildfires in Australia to immigrant detainees to, now, the arrival of Covid-19. (You imagine her at the printing plant, dictating final touches as the presses churn.) Each has been like a push notice that clicks open in your mind ... When we get momentarily baffled in a Smith novel, we don’t, like Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, sit and scratch our hindquarters. We’re with the author, banging down bosky mental paths. She trusts that we’ll eventually notice the trail blazes on the rocks. She’s writing about the state of her own soul at the moment, and meaning can be up for grabs ... This novel has a lot to say about political prisoners and immigrant detainees of all stripes, from World War I up to the present day. Efforts are made to help some of them ... Along the way there is a good deal of talk about evanescence — of summertime and everything else ... This novel made me laugh, quite a lot, as the generations wage war ... Smith’s seasonal novels can be pretty on-the-nose, politically. Sometimes they veer into the saccharine. The water, here and there, turns brackish. But as with a strong river, their motion is fundamentally self-purifying ... Summer is a prose poem in praise of memory, forgiveness, getting the joke and seizing the moment. \'Whatever age you are,\' one character comments, \'you still die too young.\'
RaveThe New York TimesIt’s an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far. It made the back of my neck prickle from its first pages, and that feeling never went away ... Caste lands so firmly because the historian, the sociologist and the reporter are not at war with the essayist and the critic inside her. This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing ... Wilkerson’s usages neatly lift the mind out of old ruts. They enable her to make unsettling comparisons between India’s treatment of its untouchables, or Dalits, Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews and America’s treatment of African-Americans ... Wilkerson does not shy from the brutality that has gone hand in hand with this kind of dehumanization. As if pulling from a deep reservoir, she always has a prime example at hand ... Wilkerson has written a closely argued book that largely avoids the word \'racism,\' yet stares it down with more humanity and rigor than nearly all but a few books in our literature.
RaveThe New York TimesNothing she has written drills down into her past, and her family’s, as powerfully as Memorial Drive. It is a controlled burn of chaos and intellection; it is a memoir that will really lay you out ... This is a book with a slow, steady build. This is restraint in service to release ... This memoir has eddies of joy and celebration. Trethewey writes memorably about the music Gwendolyn loved ... The second half, unexpectedly, dumps a bag of harrowing receipts on the table. Thanks to a police officer who had been the first on the scene, Trethewey has access to...her mother\'s police statements...transcripts of telephone calls ... Trethewey dispenses this material to powerful effect ... Memorial Drive closes like a door sucked shut by the wind ... Even though you intuit what is coming, the moment you learn of Gwendolyn’s death is...stunning.
Kelli Jo Ford
RaveThe New York Times... more than promising ... Kelli Jo Ford summons the details of minimum-wage life in the last quarter of the 20th century. She does this without cluttering her spare sentences, which is why her details resonate ... This is a novel in stories, a dread form in the wrong hands. The point of view shifts, vertiginously, from one chapter to the next, as if you are watching a heist from multiple security cameras. But Crooked Hallelujah has a supple cohesiveness ... As a writer, Ford is quietist. Her book reads like a series of acoustic songs recorded on a single microphone in a bare room with a carpet. There are times when you might wish for more boldness, but she never puts a wrong foot. This is a writer who carefully husbands her resources. Small scenes begin to glitter ... has an elegiac rather than a comic tone. Yet when I combed back through my notes, I realized that so many moments had made me smile ... Ford’s novel finds its center of gravity at the intimate human level.
MixedThe New York Times...The Art of Her Deal, a well-reported book, can’t help but seem lopsided. Trump-world stalwarts such as Corey Lewandowski...Chris Christie...and Sean Spicer...are quoted fulsomely. The less obsequious comments mostly come from unnamed sources ... Jordan has drilled down, though, and brings new information about this unconventional first lady to the surface ... Jordan pays attention to the many interviews Melania gave as a model and afterward, and catches her in many exaggerations, including the fact that she speaks many languages. She appears to speak only two ... Jordan never quite finds a voice with which to tell this story. She doesn’t have a strong point of view, and shies away from acute analysis. The Art of Her Deal reads like a very long newspaper article rather than a tightly wound book. The author bends so far backward to be fair to her subject that, at times, you fear she may need chiropractic help ... Donald Trump appears to dwell in the White House, for the most part, like a sultan among his pillows. Melania is self-exiled with her parents and son. On many days, Jordan writes, her press office doesn’t answer questions about where she is ... Melania played a kind of satirical James Bond girl in a famous photo shoot for British GQ. I thought of her situation recently while watching the Bond film Live and Let Die. That’s the one in which Roger Moore, stranded in the middle of a pond filled with crocodiles, manages to get to the safety of shore by using their heads as steppingstones.
PositiveThe New York TimesThere has been a good deal of excellent writing, in the last few years, about jail and African-American men ... Atkins’s book....is a different, less harrowing sort of volume. But it’s a good one. He’s a sensitive observer, sober but alert to wincing varieties of humor. He’s not one of those people who, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, \'had the experience but missed the meaning.\' ... Atkins’s best writing is about what imprisonment does to one’s body and mind: the adrenaline surge of arrival in prison, the taste of shock in one’s mouth. He writes about the exhaustion prisoners feel, a vastly more extreme version of what many have felt during quarantine ... He spends nine months at Wandsworth before he is transferred to a minimum-security prison to serve the remainder of this time. His diary ends with his transfer. He writes that prison made him a better person; he’s less of a judgmental soul. A Bit of a Stretch may not be a major book, but it’s soulful indeed.
Fang Fang, Trans. By Michael Berry
PositiveThe New York TimesFang Fang captures the shock and panic at the start of the quarantine ... Because she is plugged into the cultural and academic worlds in Wuhan, there is a roll call of the deaths of many well-known artists, journalists and professors. There is an interesting sense, in this diary, of an intellectual proletariat ... This is an important and dignified book that nonetheless, in this adept translation by Michael Barry, has its share of dead space and repetition ... would have been twice as good at half the length. It’s a bit easier to praise, as Tom Wolfe said of the William Shawn-era New Yorker, than it is to read. Still, the urgency of this account is impossible to deny ... This book is most scorching in Fang Fang’s calls to hold to account the leaders who downgraded and minimized the virus, wasting nearly three weeks and allowing it to seep into the world at large. She rallies around this topic like Henry V pacing the floorboards before the Battle of Agincourt. She may live meekly during the lockdown, but she writes bold sentences.
MixedThe New York Times... intelligent and respectful and well made but bland; it is warm bread instead of toast ... The Clinton-Rodham love affair is a highlight of this book ... Bill Clinton is close to demonic ... One of the impressive and moving things in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s own memoir is the sheer number of good friends she made, and kept, over the years. This novel boils those many friends down to a very few ... has its intimacies, even if it’s not an especially interior novel...Yet she remains essentially distant. If she’s not as creaky as an animatronic president at Walt Disney World, she is somewhere between that and a truly inhabited human being ... This is skillful ventriloquism, yet Sittenfeld never occupies her subject at an animal level. Rodham never has a thought, in this novel, that stabs you or comes from anywhere close to left field. As if it were the Great Salt Lake, you won’t sink in this book — but it won’t quench your thirst, either ... The best thing about reading Rodham, while living through our government’s response to the coronavirus, is that it allows us to do something some of us were doing already, which is to recall her competence and empathy and to miss her enormously.
PositiveThe New York TimesThis is a more sober book than Heat. It’s as if Johnny Cash followed up \'Get Rhythm,\' as a jukebox single, with \'Hurt.\' ... As with good cookery, no shortcuts are taken in Dirt. When Buford picks up a subject — be it bread or language or culinary history or Italian versus French food or the nature of Lyon — that subject is simmered until every tendon has softened ... This is a big book that, like an army, moves entire divisions independent of one another. Watching Buford choose a topic for scrutiny is like watching an enormous bodybuilder single out one muscle, on the mountain range of his or her arms, for a laser-focused burn ... this book has a blind spot as regards money. Buford and Green abandon their jobs and apparently their incomes and rent an apartment in Lyon that has six marble fireplaces. They order dear bottles of wine in restaurants and consume extortionate menus and take high-priced classes and send their children, when they finally return to New York, to an elite private school ... I don’t demand that a writer tell me where his or her seemingly endless supply of scratch comes from. But the lack of even vague disclosure, in a book that takes an interest in social class in Lyon, leaves an odd crater. Buford’s story may have some readers skating along the line that separates envy from something else ... At a time when writers really, really want us to like them, and it’s all a bit gross, Buford doesn’t try very hard. He has a smart, literate, sly voice on the page. But he doesn’t go overboard, for example, when it comes to calling attention to himself as a good father. He’s away from home a great deal, leaving a lot of the messy work to his wife ... I admire this book enormously; it’s a profound and intuitive work of immersive journalism. If I didn’t turn every page with equal enthusiasm, well, it’s a long trip. There will be gray days and sunny ones. Walter Bagehot said some writers are incisors, while others are grinders. Buford is a grinder of a high order.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe sweeping, authoritative and genuinely intelligent thriller—the sort of novel in which the author employs a bulldozer and a scalpel at the same time—is a rare specimen. Lawrence Wright’s second novel, The End of October, is one of these. The fact that it’s about the world in shock and ruin because of a virus similar to Covid-19 makes it read as if it’s been shot out of a cannon ... As a fiction writer, Wright will not make you forget that Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Don DeLillo and Margaret Atwood still stride the planet. His dialogue can be a bit wooden. There is some overbearing psychological development. A major character dies without the impact the moment might have had...What he offers in compensation is a great deal of learning about viruses and their attendant political and social horrors; learning that he injects into a maniacal page-turner. He offers the joy of competence — his own as a writer, and the scientific and moral competence of many of the characters he’s invented. At a moment when competence and verity are in short supply at the top, and when our best scientists cannot share their nomenclature and expertise, this is no small consolation, even while reading about humanity coming to a boil ... While we long for that frabjous day when we can put Covid-19 behind us and once again grip the communal pen at the coffee shop counter, Wright’s novel is here as a real if solemn entertainment, a stay against boredom and a kind of offered prayer for the best in us to rise to the surface.
MixedThe New York Times...Kate Lister’s first book...is not about libido in times of plague and anxiety. But it’s impossible not to read it now through that lens ... Lister, an Englishwoman, is a strong writer, and her book comes with a story attached ... This might be a good time to get a bicycle. Among the best chapters is one subtitled \'Sex and Cycling\', Lister explores the history of bicycles as agents in the emancipation of women ... Lister writes about aphrodisiacs such as oystes. I did not know, until reading her, that oysters have eyes. I would like to unlearn this fact ... Lister is aware that her book, dark passages aside, is a romp rather than an especially serious or comprehensive work of history or criticism. She has the double entendres to prove it ... This is a book of varying merit. At moments, when Lister is piling one fact atop another, A Curious History of Sex has a Wikipedia-page vibe. But she manages to pull out of these midair stalls. She’s mostly quite good company on the page ... Wherever we are heading, whatever your proclivities, Lister has this comment: \'I promise, it’s all been done before.\'
RaveThe New York TimesIt’s great cocktail-bar (and dive-bar) verse ... pellucid and startlingly intelligent poetry ... Sullivan catches the \'slam-hold of horns\' in taxicabs and how, when you are young in New York, you can pile into a cab with too many others ... You follow this writer where she wishes to take you. She is a poet of steel shavings, of semidetached feeling, of unexpected links and impieties and unpropitious implications. She’s writing criticism of daily life—criticism of the state of her own soul.
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewVolunteering to review [Apropos of Nothing], in our moral climate, is akin to volunteering for the 2021 Olympic javelin-catching team. I told my wife and daughter my plan, and they stared at me as if I’d announced my intention to find the nearest functioning salad bar and lick the sneeze guard ... I believe Allen’s sexual relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his longtime partner Mia Farrow, which began when Previn was 21, was obviously the perverse act of a man whose brain salts are dangerously out of balance ... The accusation that in 1992 he molested his adopted daughter, the 7-year-old Dylan Farrow, is a charge of another magnitude. I believe that the less you’ve read about this case, the easier it is to render judgment on it ... I believe that Hachette, the publishing house that acquired and then canceled Apropos of Nothing, behaved cravenly ... So kill me now or come along, there’s a book to talk about ... Anyone who’s read Allen’s previous books...knows he has an authentic and easygoing voice on the page. That’s true in Apropos of Nothing, too, at least for a while. Later on this book begins to make the clicking sound cars do when the battery has expired ... Like many of our fathers and grandfathers, Allen is a 20th-century man in a 21st-century world. His friends should have warned him that Apropos of Nothing is incredibly, unbelievably tone deaf on the subject of women ... Nearly every time a woman is mentioned, there’s a gratuitous pronouncement on her looks ... The heavy breathing gets more intense as the book moves on ... \'When you meet her you have to fight your way through the pheromones,\' he writes about Scarlett Johansson, 19 when he first worked with her. \'Not only was she gifted and beautiful, but sexually she was radioactive\' ... The final third of this book falls apart dreadfully. It’s a rolling of credits, a handing out of goody bags ... He can live with being reviled by many, he says, because he doesn’t read the articles. He lives in a bubble. He’s making a new movie.
RaveThe New York TimesThis is an encyclopedic book, history as told through old newspapers and telephone books and scraps of detail found in letters and memoirs ... This dense cultural and culinary history is reason enough to come to The Dairy Restaurant. But Katchor...has a sharp mind and a sly sense of humor. His words and his charcoal-palette drawings have a combinatory intelligence ... Many of the best moments in this book are stray gleanings ...This is a forlorn book, somehow. You wish it came with a good mixed bread basket, for mopping up the lonely broth.
Madison Smartt Bell
PositiveThe New York Times... revealing ... a sensitive and thorough biography. Bell knew Stone well toward the end of his life; the two traveled together in Haiti. The author explicates Stone’s fiction and expands its context. If this quite conventional biography never entirely takes off, it is rarely uninteresting ... Bell writes with special alertness about Stone’s marriage ... This is one of those rare biographies in which you don’t feel like skimming the first 35 pages.
MixedThe New York Times... strange, estranging and heavy-handed ... This is a novel that takes itself very seriously. The reader who has kept pace with Lacey’s fiction will be willing, mostly, to take it seriously, too ... What works in this novel is its Kafkaesque sense, through Pew, of free-floating anxiety and mortification of a sort that is impossible to define and thus impossible to soothe. Pew will not be characterized, interpreted, diagnosed or annotated. She seems to drift, like the planchette on a Ouija board ... Pew’s muteness draws out other people’s stories, in the manner of the fiction of Rachel Cusk, among others. Some of these are confessional and quite dark, yet few resonate ... Lacey has a mastery of the lives and lingo of the Have a Nice Day crowd, the kind of people whose defensive optimism keeps them from learning about anyone. She stacks the deck so heavily against these hair-sprayed grotesques that they’re brittle, however; they crack like dry spaghetti ... This novel walks a high wire between pretentiousness and a kind of cool, disembodied unease. For me, it fell too often into the goo pit ... Pew feels as if Pew is lying perpetually in a canoe, able only to see the sky above. The reader may feel stuck looking in the other direction, as if his or her face has been inserted into the equivalent of one of those holes at the ends of massage tables, where all one can see is floor tile and dust mites ... Lacey is such a talented writer that she casts a certain spell, even when that spell is distant and difficult to tune in.
Juli Delgado Lopera
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... the prose is as ebullient and assertive as Rosie Perez’s shadowboxing in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing ... Lopera pushes this novel’s idiomatic language into English and then Spanish, to bold and farcical effect ... The way to write a novel, Jim Harrison once said in The Paris Review, is to \'just start at Page 1 and write like a son of a bitch.\' That’s what Lopera has seemingly done in Fiebre Tropical. You can open this novel anywhere and find sunbeams, the signs of a writer who is grinding their own colors ... There are moments in Fiebre Tropicalwhen one begins to wish for more structure, for a stronger sense of narrative inevitability. A nimble voice can only take you so far. Then, around this novel’s midpoint, something valuable happens. We pivot backward in time to observe Francisca’s mother and grandmother when each was 15, and more than a little bit wild ... There is a feeling of coming full circle.
PositiveThe New York TimesOccasionally it verges on the poky ... Like a so-so vacation that ripens in your mind and begins to look quite rosy in retrospect, I liked Death in Her Hands more after it was over and I’d let it sit a few days. It has an afterlife in your mind. From a distance, you can savor its trap doors. If I sometimes wished I were sneak-reading one of the author’s other books under the table, well, I am a fool for that high Moshfegh style. Vesta has a vast interior life, but life has reduced her. She’s like an ornamental shrub that’s been ruthlessly espaliered. She put me in mind of the critic Seymour Krim’s comment that so very many people never find \'the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls.\'
RaveThe New York TImesEyre finds a tone for his story. He writes with candor and gravity; a tensile rod of human decency braces every paragraph. He attached himself to this story the way a human fly attaches to a skyscraper, and he refused to let go ... meat and potatoes journalism in a light, sensible broth. There are lawsuits and court fights and public records requests; there is also skulduggery and a mysterious manila envelope dropped into a mailbox. There is unexpungeable grief. It’s the work of an author who understands that objectivity is not the same as bland neutrality. I expect it will be taught to aspiring reporters for many years to come ... demonstrates why local journalism matters, more than ever.
PositiveThe New York TimesVolume two strews a lot of carnage ...The score-settling is sometimes personal — although, with Kramer, everything is personal ... Lemish, like Kramer, is a diva, always ready to pull the bung from his emotions. He devours his enemies so ravenously that, when he speaks, their tails are still hanging from his mouth ... A river of blood courses through Kramer’s epic. That blood is bought and sold and swapped and spilled. If both volumes of The American People were the only books left behind by our species, an alien people who discovered them would, at the very least, really know that we had been here ... This novel, like its predecessor, is overstuffed, packed with incident and narrators and digressions within digressions. Unlike an iceberg, it hides nothing under the surface. It’s a mess, a folly covered in mirrored tiles, but somehow it’s a beautiful and humane one. It’s the journal of a plague century. I can’t say I liked it. Yet, on a certain level, I loved it.
MixedThe New York Times...[a] densely imagined if static new novel ... Much of the futuristic language Jen deploys, her portmanteaus, reflects the banality of both corporate uplift ... and state-sponsored evil ... Into this totalitarian landscape, like a flower slipped into the barrel of a rifle, Jen inserts an almost old-fashioned baseball novel ... Jen...is a wonderfully gifted writer. But The Resisters is not among her best novels; it never sinks its hooks into the reader ... In part, this is because we have dystopian novel overload, a condition Jill Lepore diagnosed in The New Yorker a few years ago. In part, too, it’s because Jen exerts so much effort constructing her world, this book’s hardware, that the human software is underdeveloped. There’s not a lot of human juice here, those micro-pleasures of perception that fill much of her earlier fiction; there’s merely a rolling scenario ... Once in a while, this novel opens a small box of dread. But there’s a tameness here, too. You know there’s going to be a big game at the end. You sense that, within certain limits, everything is going to be okay. To borrow imagery from a less literary sport, you feel that this novel’s bowling lane has bumper rails.
PositiveThe New York Times[Rucker and Leonnig] are meticulous journalists, and this taut and terrifying book is among the most closely observed accounts of Donald J. Trump’s shambolic tenure in office to date ... reads like a horror story, an almost comic immorality tale. It’s as if the president, as patient zero, had bitten an aide and slowly, bite by bite, an entire nation had lost its wits and its compass ... The result of Rucker and Leonnig’s hard work is a book that runs low to the ground; it only rarely pauses for sweeping, drone-level vistas and injections of historical perspective. This is not Garry Wills or Joan Didion. They do break news, some large and some small ... Rucker and Leonnig are adept at scene-setting, at subtly thickening the historical record.
PositiveThe New York TimesWeather is written not so much in consecutive paragraphs of narration but in often square blocks of text, each set off by white space, as if they were stanzas. They’re the work of a curator who likes a spare hang. Each paragraph is a little lonely, like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting. These parcels of feeling and intellect drop out one at a time, like packs from a cigarette machine. All the others descend down a slot, awaiting their turn. The effect of this style is to put a pause after every paragraph, to hold it up for a little extra light and a little extra examination, to allow it to linger in the mind. There’s a bit of the brilliant Lydia Davis in Offill ... Offill’s writing is often brisk and comic, and her book’s format underlines her gifts ... There’s a drawback to this format, too. Not every paragraph in a standard novel needs to shine ... when each paragraph in a short novel is cocooned in consecrating white space, as they are in Weather, the weaker ones can read like off notes rather than merely the veins or arteries that carry a story along ... Offill has genuine gifts as a comic novelist. Weather is her most soulful book, as well.
RaveThe New York Times... incandescent ... Anyone who read Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs to You (2016), knows that his writing about sex is altogether scorching. You pick his novels up with asbestos mitts, and set them down upon trivets to protect your table from heat damage ... There’s a moral quality to these extended sessions. In bed is where Greenwell’s men work out and reveal the essences of their personalities ... Carnal moments are accelerants; they’re where Greenwell’s existential and political themes are underlined, then set ablaze ... a better, richer, more confident novel. You intuit its seriousness and grace from its first pages. It’s a novel in search of ravishment ... Greenwell is a sensitive writer about the student-teacher relationship ... Greenwell has an uncanny gift, one that comes along rarely. Every detail in every scene glows with meaning. It’s as if, while other writers offer data, he is providing metadata ... This novel’s second half is not quite the equal of its first. Some scenes end rather than resolve. Greenwell is a brooder. You begin to wonder how his humorlessness will wear over time ... Yet there are no failures of equilibrium. This writer’s sentences are so dazzlingly fresh that it as if he has thrown his cape in the street in front of each one. Greenwell offers restraint in service of release. He catches you up so effortlessly that you feel you are in the hands of one of those animals that anesthetizes you before devouring you.
PanThe New York TimesMcCann takes their story and drops it to the ground, where it shatters. To read Apeirogon is to watch him pick up the shards ... The Time magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek, writing on Twitter, recently called \'storytelling\' a \'jazz-hands word.\' Apeirogon is a jazz-hands novel ... You sense you would like Rami and Bassam if you got to know them. But we are not allowed to settle into the texture and nuance of their experience. We’re evicted from the narrative on almost every page so that McCann can tweezer in arty and only vaguely relevant facts about birds, or about John Cage’s music, or about the Dead Sea Scrolls or the derivation of the word \'dextrose\' ... is so solemn, so certain of its own goodness and moral value, that it tips almost instantly over into camp, into corn. It’s as if the author were gunning for the Paulo Coelho Chair in Maudlin Schlock ... not a meal but a table littered with ingredients ... When you insist on a lot of white space between paragraphs and sometimes between single sentences, and if your work is humid, the effect can unintentionally verge on the amusing. Each sentence has an apricot-colored scarf tied around its neck. And it’s as if the reader has been given 10 seconds and a bong hit between each one; time to squint and nod and say, \'So true\' ... [McCann\'s] analysis of the predicaments that face the Middle East is not raw or original or sophisticated. His message is optimistic and banal. Apeirogon is like a political memoir that bangs on about the importance of bipartisanship as if the senator had, just this morning, arrived at the idea.
RaveThe New York Times... bracing ... I like to read Adiga’s novels almost as much as the poet James Dickey liked to drink. He has more to say than most novelists, and about 50 more ways to say it ... Adiga is a startlingly fine observer, and a complicator, in the manner of V.S. Naipaul ... Adiga is valuable because he attends to how people think, rather than how they should think. No one in his novels is simple to understand. Adiga may not agree with everything that gets said or thought, but there is no gauze on his mental windshield. Nice people are often skewered, as if on kabobs. Reading him you get a sense of having your finger on the planet’s pulse ... has a simmering plot ... Adiga’s plot clicks the novel forward along its tracks, but it’s packed with small implausibilities. You come to this novel for other reasons, notably for its author’s authority, wit and feeling on the subject of immigrants’ lives ... You can scoop Adiga’s smaller observations up like shrimp in a net.
Ed. by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner
RaveThe New York TimesAn essential new book, The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, presents this writer in all his candor, seriousness, outrage and wit. Nearly all of these letters are previously unpublished. What brings them alive is that while they brood on the largest of issues — identity, alienation, the political responsibilities of the artist — they’re earthy and squirming with all the vital things of everyday experience ... You move from the cascade of Ellison’s thinking about art and ideas, for example, to one of the funniest and warmest letters I’ve ever read ... This collection has so many incidental pleasures that I nearly always felt lucky to be reading it while the rest of the world had to make do with Twitter ... His writing about music is nearly always sublime ... There’s too much of John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor and co-editor of these letters, in this collection. His introductions to each decade of letters are overly long, not especially perceptive and spill too many details ... Collections of letters, like biographies, build narrative momentum — how will Ellison get out of this jam? — momentum that Callahan dashes by too often emerging in the narrative to tell you what is going to happen and to pre-empt the best lines ... contains so much fine human stuff, however, that the indelible line from Invisible Man reverberates over it: \'Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?\'
D.H. Lawrence, Ed. by Geoff Dyer
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewMost of this material was new to me, and I enjoyed this book enormously ... Reading Lawrence’s writing about sex, in general, leaves you suspecting that he walked around with perpetual rugburn ... ends with Rebecca West’s remembrance of Lawrence, published shortly after his death in 1930. Lawrence would have admired her refusal to lapse into panegyric ... Lawrence’s deadline excursions nearly always hit their mark.
Vladimir Nabokov, Ed. by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy
PanThe New York Times... is mostly for completists ... Nabokov disliked the Q. and A. \'I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child,\' he wrote. Yet two-thirds of Think, Write, Speak is made up of interviews, more than 80 of them, most conducted after the publication of Lolita. One suspects that Nabokov, spying this talky book from the Great Beyond, must feel as if someone has dug up his bones, hanged him, and buried him again ... Nabokov is Nabokov. He dispenses gleaming shards...But the same topics keep coming around, as if on a sushi belt.
Bob Kaufman, Ed. by Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye, and Tate Swindell
RaveThe New York Times... the most comprehensive selection of his verse to date, a volume that contains a lot of previously uncollected work. It reminds us that Kaufman had his weaknesses; his poems could tip over into splintered whimsy. Yet this book makes a case for him as a perceptive and eccentric American original, a man who seems to have fallen out of the sky like a meteor ... What sticks with you about Kaufman’s work is its celestial wit.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe best thing about Platt’s new memoir is the way he dispenses with pretense in general. He does not pretend, even though he knows a great deal, to be a super-foodie. He’s maniacally self-deprecating. He serves good stories because he doesn’t over-batter them ... Platt surfs these waves without being crushed or much bothered by them ... One way to judge a memoir is by how well the author writes about people other than him or herself. There’s a lovely and extended homage here to the Falstaffian food writer and historian Josh Ozersky, a friend of Platt’s who died in 2015 ... The reason to come to The Book of Eating is Platt’s eloquence and wit about what being a professional glutton does to his body and to his family ... Sometimes this book is too casual for its own good. Platt includes sections of essays he’s published previously, not all of which fit. Once in a while, the writing goes on autopilot. Nothing is really at stake. But his charm lashes this succession of small plates together.
PositiveThe New York TimesA new biography, Janis, by the music writer Holly George-Warren, performs a service by stripping away a lot of the noise around Joplin — cackling and bawdy, she was America’s first female rock star and Haight-Ashbury’s self-destructive pinup girl — and telling her story simply and well, with some of the tone and flavor of a good novel. This is fundamentally an Eisenhower-era misfit story, and there are a lot of those. But Joplin’s story has a special freight of pain in it.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewAtticus Lish’s first novel, Preparation for the Next Life, is unlike any American fiction I’ve read recently in its intricate comprehension of, and deep feeling for, life at the margins. This is an intense book with a low, flyspecked center of gravity. It’s about blinkered lives, scummy apartments, dismal food, bad options. At its knotty core, amazingly, is perhaps the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade. It’s one that builds slowly in intensity, like a shaft of sunlight into an anthracite mine ... Mr. Lish’s sentences...are confident, loose jointed, strewn with essential detail ... There’s been a surfeit of wounded warriors in recent American fiction...these men can, in lesser hands, be stock characters. Not here. The encrusted detail in Mr. Lish’s prose flicks the switch on in every sentence ... This is a love story with a lot of ache in it ... This book is thick with the kind of sub-countertop-level detail that can’t be faked ... Atticus Lish has written a necessary novel, one with echoes of early Ken Kesey, of William T. Vollmann’s best writing and of Thom Jones’s pulverizing short stories ... The final chapters of this indelible book pulled my heart up under my ears.
Reginald Dwayne Betts
PositiveThe New York Times... pushes Betts’s story forward, in verse that is nimble in its diction, tone and focus. The poems are about returning to everyday American life, but in an estranged and often painful way, as if blood were rushing into a long-pinned limb ... In prison, Betts wrote in his memoir, letters were known as \'kites,\' because they flew up and out. The poems in Felon are kites of a different sort — bruised, sensitive, wounded missives, sent into hard wind, from a man in transition.
John Jeremiah Sullivan
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewIt’s a big and sustaining pile of — as I’ve heard it put about certain people’s fried chicken — crunchy goodness ... The essays in Pulphead bounce around, like hail ... What’s impressive about Pulphead is the way these disparate essays cohere into a memoirlike whole. The putty that binds them together is Mr. Sullivan’s steady and unhurried voice ... Like well-made songs, his essays don’t just have strong verses and choruses but bridges, too, unexpected bits that make subtle harmonic connections ... All of this is a way of saying that these essays have split ends and burnt edges. This fact makes you vaguely dread Mr. Sullivan’s inevitable hiring by The New Yorker as a staff writer. You don’t want to see any of the edges buffed away ... There are moments in this book when Mr. Sullivan is a bit pulp-headed, glibly mythopoetical, straining for effect ... Those moments are rare. Most of the essays in Pulphead are haunted, in a far more persuasive way, by what Mr. Sullivan refers to with only slight self-mockery as \'the tragic spell of the South.\'
PositiveThe New York Times... a big, busy novel with a large root system ... Lorrie Moore has written that Ann Beattie’s fiction is a valentine to friendships. The same is true of Evaristo’s. This novel is a densely populated village where everyone leans on one another in order to scrape by ... presents a landscape of abiding multicultural sensitivity ... Evaristo has a gift for appraising the lives of her characters with sympathy and grace while gently skewering some of their pretensions. When you are feeling your way into new ways of living, she understands, there must be room for error ... written in a hybrid form that falls somewhere between prose and poetry. Evaristo’s lines are long, like Walt Whitman’s or Allen Ginsberg’s, and there are no periods at the ends of them ... There’s a looseness to her tone that gives this novel its buoyancy. Evaristo’s wit helps, too ... This looseness can detract as well. There is sometimes the sense that Evaristo loves all of her sentences a little bit but few of them quite enough. This essentially plotless novel grows longer, but it does not always appear to grow richer ... There comes a point in this narrative where you’d rather settle into the characters you’ve met than be introduced to still more new ones. You begin to feel you are always between terminals at a very large airport, your clothes and toiletries in a little wheelie suitcase behind you. It’s possible to admire this deeply humane novel while permitting your enthusiasm to remain under control.
Michel Houellebecq, Trans. by Shaun Whiteside
MixedThe New York TimesThe new Michel Houellebecq novel, Serotonin, is an exhausted and exhausting book. It makes you wonder if he has played out his string as a fiction writer ... Like nearly every Houellebecq novel, Serotonin should be stamped on its spine with a tiny skull and crossbones, like you used to see on bottles of poison, to keep away the devout, the unsuspecting and the pure of heart. His fiction picks up topics like prostitution, sexism, pedophilia, pornography, racism, torture and sex tourism as if they were cans of diet soda. He turns them over to observe them coolly, neutrally and often comically from all sides. He triggers intense responses ... Submission, in terms of its plot, felt like a vise slowly tightening. Serotonin is comparatively quite slack. Like bleach-burned sheets, it seems thin and worn. Someone has been in this motel room all night, strewing scurrilities ... Houellebecq arrives in your life \'waving genitals and manuscripts,\' to borrow a phrase from Howl. Don’t feed his characters. They will keep coming around. Houellebecq’s great trick is managing to smuggle so much life into his novels, even into minor ones like Serotonin, while his characters’ hearts can seem, like Damien Hirst’s shark in its formaldehyde, to marinate in brine.
Svetlana Alexievich, Trans. by Bela Shayevich
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewYou can open this document anywhere; it’s a kind of enormous radio. It offers a flood of voices: doctors and writers, deli workers and former Kremlin apparatchiks, soldiers and waitresses. Ms. Alexievich gives these people space. There are few interpolations from the author. When she does insert a comment, it’s in brackets and often unbearably moving, like \'She no longer wipes her tears\' or \'She’s practically screaming\' or \'And both of us cry.\' A freight of catharsis is on display ... This book is thick with longing for old times, terrible though they might have been ... In this lucid translation by Bela Shayevich, she gets these details onto the page. But the stories...can also be baggy and repetitive ... This book can leave you lost in time, as well. The interviews were collected over many years, but dates are rarely supplied. This book is dense on a macro level, but one sometimes misses the sentence-by-sentence density of the best fiction. These are quibbles. Secondhand Time is an avalanche of engrossing talk. The most ancient grievances are churned up...So are the freshest longings.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...funny and elegiac and truth-dealing ... It’s a book in part about that feeling of futility that can sneak up on anyone late on a certain afternoon. But it’s also about a dozen other things: New York City, friendship, sex, intellection, class, the feminist movement of the 1970s, living alone. It’s a slim book with big echoes ... Ms. Gornick’s inability to make peace with the world — her high-strung air of discontent — is the condiment that spices so much of her work. She is a cheerful destroyer of certainties ... What puts The Odd Woman and the City across, however, is how deeply Ms. Gornick gets into the fat of feeling. She is as good a writer about friendship as we have. She is especially fine on the unraveling of old friendships, which can be more painful than breaks between lovers because less expected ... She has spent a good deal of her life, she writes, daydreaming about \'the tomorrow in which I would write a book of enduring value, meet the companion of my life, become the woman of character I had yet to become.\' This lack of certitude is what puts a propeller on this memoir.
PanThe New York TimesIt’s been difficult to miss Ian McEwan. The Cockroach, his satirical new Brexit novella, is his second book this year and his third in three years. The Cockroach is so toothless and wan that it may drive his readers away in long apocalyptic caravans. The young McEwan, the author of blacker-than-black little novels, the man who acquired the nickname \'Ian Macabre,\' would rather have gnawed off his own fingers than written it. At dark political and social moments, we need better, rougher magic than this ... McEwan is hardly a dummy; he derives more than a few witty-ish moments from his premise. The best arrive early ... Once McEwan has established his premise, however, The Cockroach stalls. It devolves into self-satisfied, fish-in-barrel commentary about topics like Twitter and the tabloid press. The literary references...are plummy and tortured ... The idea of writing The Cockroach probably seemed, in the shower one morning, like a good one. Later, after coffee, it might have occurred to McEwan that suggesting your opponents are cockroaches might be to drop down to their carpet level.
PositiveThe New York TimesIt sometimes put me in mind of Allegra Goodman’s work; both writers are adept at auditing the emotional lives of frazzled Jewish intellectuals. At other times, the Old World lefty politics in Ms. Antopol’s stories summoned the memory of Grace Paley, for whom every joke came wrapped around a bony fist of meaning ... Political awareness is a birthright for Mr. Antopol’s characters. So is latent paranoia ... It’s one of the achievements of Ms. Antopol’s stories, though, that her men and women seem to be questioning everything, all the time ... The details in these stories are consistently fresh and offbeat without being showy ... By the final third of The UnAmericans, I began to feel that I was returning to places I’d been ... If this impressive book sometimes makes the sound of a writer still figuring it all out, Ms. Antopol’s soulfulness and wit make even holding actions memorable and promising.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewCheryl Strayed’s new memoir...pretty much obliterated me. I was reduced, during her book’s final third, to puddle-eyed cretinism. I like to read in coffee shops, and I began to receive concerned glances from matronly women, the kind of looks that said, \'Oh, honey.\' It was a humiliation. To mention all this does Ms. Strayed a bit of a disservice, because there’s nothing cloying about Wild It’s uplifting, but not in the way of many memoirs, where the uplift makes you feel that you’re committing mental suicide. This book is as loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song. It’s got a punk spirit and makes an earthy and American sound ... The clarity of Ms. Strayed’s prose, and thus of her person, makes her story, in its quiet way, nearly as riveting an adventure narrative as Jon Krakauer’s...Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. ... Parts of this frank and witty book belong in Best American Sex Writing 2013. ... The lack of ease in [Strayed\'s] life made her fierce and funny; she hammers home her hard-won sentences like a box of nails. The cumulative welling up I experienced during Wild was partly a response to that too infrequent sight: that of a writer finding her voice, and sustaining it, right in front of your eyes.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
PositiveThe New York TimesHis account of his life up to the age of 13 or so (soccer, candy craving, playing with matches, grades, swimming, skiing, girl craving) is accomplished and often intense, but you miss the adult complexity and the toggling back and forth in time of the first two books ... For all this Oedipal drama, Book Three of My Struggle isn’t grueling. There are expert, almost Mark Twain-like observations about being a boy, and for every scene in which he cowers from his father, there’s one in which he does something like stick his erect little penis into a discarded Heineken bottle, only to have it stung by an angry beetle ... If this volume lacks some of the heat and intellectual force of the first two books, it feels like an essential building block. This writer is constructing a towering edifice, in what feels like real time. Few artistic projects of our era feel more worth attending to.
RaveThe New York TimesAmong the charms of Ms. Batuman’s prose is her fond, funny way of describing the people around her. One professor’s mustache and mobile eyebrows give him \'the air of a 19th-century philanderer.\' A boyfriend steps off an airplane looking \'as philosophical and good-humored as Snoopy\' ... Perhaps Ms. Batuman’s best quality as a writer, though — beyond her calm, lapidary prose — is the winsome and infectious delight she feels in the presence of literary genius and beauty. She’s the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head. You want to feel what she’s feeling ... There are moments in The Possessed where Ms. Batuman loses the threads of the stories she’s trying to tell, moments where plot summary or historical précis drag on too long. But these data-dump moments are rare ... It’s a deep pleasure to read over her shoulder.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewCatherine Lacey’s searching, emotionally resonant first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, is about a young woman who pulls the pin on her own life ... Elyria is disengaged and depleted in a manner that put me in mind of the characters in the novels of Tao Lin, that Zen summoner of millennial ennui. Yet there’s nothing depleted about Ms. Lacey’s prose, which manages to be dreamy and fierce at the same time ... Nobody Is Ever Missing is composed mostly of long, languid sentences that push into the night like headlights. They’re the sign of a writer settling in for a long backcourt game, one who is going to wear you down rather than go in for the kill. Sometimes these sentences lose their way, stall out or end up doubling back on themselves. Just as often, they are improbably beautiful, or simply cool and knowing ... Ms. Lacey’s slim novel impressed me, and held me to my chair. There’s significant talent at work here ... Nobody Is Ever Missing gets so much right that you easily push past its small flaws. It’s an aching portrait of a young woman doing the hard thing, \'trying to think clearly about mixed feelings.\'
RaveThe New York Times...sure-footed ... Wilmers is a summa cum laude graduate of the Joan Didion-Elizabeth Hardwick-Janet Malcolm school of dispassionate restraint and psychological acuity. She can do more damage with a raised eyebrow than most critics can do with a mace. Her wit steals in like a cat through an unlatched window.
MixedThe New York Times...a big shank of a book that reminded me instantly of many of the reasons I loved (love?) [King]. His characters are the kind of people who hear the trains in the night. The music is always good. He swings low to the ground. He gets closer to the realities and attitudes of working-class life in America than any living writer I can think of ... I read The Institute quickly and painlessly and I tried to enjoy myself. That I didn’t is partly a matter of temperament. I generally want to smack a (fictional) kid with special powers. I don’t care about quests or magic or Vulcan mind-melding. Yet I can suspend my predispositions. The right writer can convince me to stick around. King kept me marginally on the hook ... buries itself under a self-generating avalanche of clichés ... The right words are all we have in this world, and King too rarely pauses to search for them. He can access a good deal of genuine chrome-wheeled magic as a writer, but he reaches too often for the canned and frozen stuff, for the dried spices, for word-clusters that fell off the back of a Sysco truck ... feels antiquated and a bit gamey in other ways. The novel is set in the present day, but potatoes are \'spuds,\' coffee is \'joe\'...You may start to feel you’re in a ’50s-era cartoon strip ... This novel is less a motorcycle than a double-decker bus, but it does handle gracefully. The plot never stalls. There’s a fervent anti-Trump streak. And King still really knows what to do when he gets his characters out on the road.
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Albertine’s book is wiry and cogent and fearless. It contains story after story about men who told her she couldn’t do things that she did anyway ... Her book has an honest, lo-fi grace. If it were better written, it would be worse ... She’s quite honest in this memoir about whom she slept with, and the attendant miseries. On her first page, she says, \'Here we go then, (genital) warts an’ all\' ... Ms. Albertine’s life up to the breakup of the Slits occupies only half of Clothes Clothes Clothes. There’s a lot of pain in the second section, which she calls Side 2: loneliness, doubt, a bad marriage, cancer, depression.
RaveThe New York TimesHold Still is a cerebral and discursive book about the South and about family and about making art that has some of the probity of Flannery O’Connor’s nonfiction collection Mystery and Manners yet is spiked with the wildness and plain talk of Mary Karr’s best work ... She whips these stories to life, with a novelist’s relish and skill, shaking every bit of dust from them ... The best quality of Hold Still — a book that strikes me as an instant classic among Southern memoirs of the last 50 years — is its ambient sense of an original, come-as-you-are life that has been well lived and well observed ... Like the photographs she most admires, it is rooted in particulars yet has \'some rudiment of the eternal in it.\'
RaveThe New York TimesDoxology isn’t fundamentally a music novel. It has many other things on its mind, including a subversive history of American politics from Operation Desert Shield through the start of the Trump presidency, and it’s superb. In terms of its author’s ability to throw dart after dart after dart into the center of your media-warped mind and soul, it’s the novel of the summer and possibly the year. It’s a ragged chunk of ecstatic cerebral-satirical intellection. It’s bliss ... Zink writes about music as if she were a cluster of the best American rock critics...crushed together under a single byline. This novel is replete with erudite signifiers that drop all over the place, like a toddler eating a pint of blueberries ... Doxology puts [Zink] on a new level as a novelist ... This book is more ambitious and expansive and sensitive than her earlier work. She lays her heart on the line in a way she hasn’t before ... Doxology loses a bit of its sweep, if none of its intelligence, in its final half. Yet it has taken a running leap, regardless, at greatness. Zink writes as if the political madness of the last four decades had been laid on for her benefit as a novelist ... Like a mosquito, Zink vectors in on the neck of our contemporary paranoia. She has got a feral appetite for news of our species, good and ill. As dark as Doxology can be, it’s no wonder that its title means a hymn of praise.
RaveThe New York TimesSo much happens in this relatively short book, there are so many shrewd details, that it could have simply been a straightforward memoir of Ms. Ward’s life ... This at times somber book is also shot through with life, with a sense of rural community and what it felt like to be adolescent and footloose on hot Mississippi nights, all the beer cans and weed and loud music and easy sex and rolled-down car windows ... Ms. Ward occasionally presses her thumb down too hard on this material, forcing meanings that were plain already, but these lapses are rare ... Men We Reaped reaffirms Ms. Ward’s substantial talent. It’s an elegiac book that’s rangy at the same time.
RaveThe New York TImesHitch-22 is among the loveliest paeans to the dearness of one’s friends — Mr. Hitchens’s close ones include Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and the poet James Fenton — I’ve ever read. The business and pleasure sides of Mr. Hitchens’s personality can make him seem, whether you agree with him or not, among the most purely alive people on the planet.
RaveThe New York Times... a stirring, provocative and well-made new anthology ... a book that banishes all manner of silences ... rewrites the hoary rules of the foreign correspondent playbook, deactivating the old clichés. Each of these women has a story to tell. Each has seen plenty ... has many aspects to it, but at bottom it imparts a pervasive sense of fear and loss.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe most surprising thing about The Water Dancer may be its unambiguous narrative ambition. This isn’t a typical first novel, if by \'typical first novel\' we mean a minor-chord and semi-autobiographical nibbling expedition around the margins of a life. The Water Dancer is a jeroboam of a book, a crowd-pleasing exercise in breakneck and often occult storytelling that tonally resembles the work of Stephen King as much as it does the work of Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead and the touchstone African-American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler ... Coates writes as if he’s thrown his readers into a carriage and is hurtling them through the woods. The ride is bracing, even if one sometimes misses the grainy and intense intellection of his nonfiction writing. In his earlier books each paragraph felt like a bouillon cube that could be used to brew six other essays. Here the effect is more diffuse, and something intangible goes missing ... One of [Coates\'s] achievements in this novel is to closely underscore the human particularity of a range of enslaved men and women ... The most urgent sections of this ambitious novel are, for this reader, its more grounded ones ... Coates’s novel sometimes feels as if it were written quickly, and it has the virtues and defects of that apparent spontaneity. Where his nonfiction runs narrow and quite deep, The Water Dancer mostly runs wide and fairly shallow. It’s more interested in movement than in the intensities of sustained perception.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"In a new book titled Faber & Faber: The Untold Story, Toby Faber, the grandson of the company’s founder, relates this house’s story as it celebrates its 90th anniversary. He does so ingeniously, compiling it from original documents — letters, memos, catalog copy, diary entries. It’s a jigsaw puzzle that slowly comes together ... This is, in many regards, a business book. You may learn more than you wanted to know about things like laminates and cartridge paper requirements ... Geoffrey Faber was a rock, and clearly a great-souled man. He’s a bit of a rock in print as well — his letters and diary entries evidence nobility but rarely shine. The details here do consistently shine, however ... The snippets of Larkin’s letters are excellent...
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...a sharp new miscellany ... Cusk’s first collection of essays. It also contains some book reviews and introductions, but her heart does not seem in them. She mediates between her mind and the external world with a precision and agility that mostly goes missing when she mediates between texts ... [the essays] are first-rate, marked by candor and seriousness, and they’re familiar ... Her writing about parenting is discerning and granular ... Cusk’s essays are subtle; they do not announce their intentions through a megaphone. She feels her way into her topics and she will not be hurried. You read her for her riddling questions, not whatever answers might pop out at the end. She is often ambivalent, but never neutral in the self-protective modern manner. She is a poet of split feelings. Her inquisitive intelligence is the rebar that, inside the concrete, holds the edifice upright.
PositiveThe New York TimesOne way to get a handle on Orner is to observe that he writes short. His stories tend to be three or four pages, gone in the blink of an eye, though some are longer. In his novels, he keeps the chapters clipped tight, too. Rarely are these chapters more than a few hundred words. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry? Reading him I recalled Clive James’s crack that some literary magazines fetishize brief stories, \'as if written specifically for people who are bright but tired.\' The stories in Maggie Brown & Others, too, are mostly just a few pages long. They’re piers rather than bridges ... An upside to this brevity: Your mind is given a lot of pit stops, so you can recharge and load up on snacks for the next stretch of asphalt. A downside: Orner’s stories flick by awfully quickly. You can feel you’re flipping through boxes of vintage postcards. Your eyes can glaze ... Orner can do anything, so he tries to do everything. There’s never a sense that he is flailing. His sentences run clear and true. He’s not the sort of writer who, in a gun battle, would be saved by the bullet that strikes his thesaurus.
PositiveThe New York Times... buoyant ... like Beckett’s Godot, is about the wait. It’s about hunkering down and admitting the presence of old ghosts. The reason Night Boat to Tangier works is that Maurice and Charlie are vivid company on the page, a couple of battered and slightly sinister vaudevillians on a late-career mental walkabout. They might have fallen out of an early Tom Waits ballad, a chest fever splashing over minor seventh chords ... This novel is hard to quote. Nearly every other sentence contains pungent Anglo-Saxon nouns and gerunds. If you stripped them all out, this novel would lose eight percent of its body weight ... There’s an overemotional side to Night Boat to Tangier, and Barry sometimes lays it on fairly thick ... But Barry is such a deft and generous writer that he gets the honey-to-acid blend almost exactly right. He also spackles his novel with poetic utterances that tend to land neatly ... We’ve met guys like Maurice and Charlie before, of course...But Barry manages to make this territory his own, and to make it fresh.
Sarah M. Broom
RaveThe New York Times Book Review... forceful, rolling and many-chambered ... [Broom\'s] memoir isn’t just a Katrina story — it has a lot more on its mind. But the storm and the way it scattered her large family across America give this book both its grease and its gravitas ... This book is dense with characters and stories. It’s a big, simmering pot that comes to a boil at the right times ... This book is a mood. It starts slow, with layers of family history. The opening sections impart a sense of someone swinging the prop of an airplane, hoping the engine will fire. The author doesn’t make her first appearance, as a 5-year-old, until we are more than 100 pages in. But trust her. This book more than takes flight ... Broom does a masterly job of situating each of her family members as Katrina looms on the horizon ... There is some mildly portentous writing in The Yellow House, but for the most part Broom’s prose is alert and inquisitive. If the author remains at a certain distance at the end of this book, if she is somewhat unknowable, well, she’s had many other stories to tell, and to tell well ... This is a major book that I suspect will come to be considered among the essential memoirs of this vexing decade. There are a lot of complicated emotions coursing through its veins. It throws the image of an exceptional American city into dark relief.
MixedThe New York TimesTogether the books weigh in at a forest-pulping 1,674 pages. It’s a lot of Wendell Berry. It’s vastly too much Wendell Berry, a determined reader soon discovers ... The numbing length of these two new collections do Berry no favors. From the start, he bangs the same themes so relentlessly...that one’s eyes begin to cross. It’s not that Berry isn’t correct to be desperately concerned about these issues, and about the loss of old ways and fine workmanship in general. You can be right there alongside him, at least on the big points, while still being driven to madness by repetition ... Berry’s single-note essays make you recall Carlyle’s comment about Macaulay, that listening to him was okay for a while but \'one wouldn’t live under Niagara.\'
PanThe New York Times\"...sentimental and meandering ... there’s little well-directed commentary about life, nature, art, ideas or anything much at all in Inland ... Let me pause to say: Obreht has real gifts as a storyteller...[but] Inland floats up and away, like a magic carpet bound for anywhere and nowhere ... All the drama feels fake, as if someone is backstage shaking a thunder sheet ...
Like Annie Proulx, Obreht is fond of offbeat nouns and verbs, especially when describing the natural world ... More common are observations and dialogue that are as softly didactic as refrigerator magnet slogans ... I realize I am being terribly hard on Obreht’s novel, but I felt lashed to its mast very early on and That Sinking Feeling never entirely went away. The many readers who will enjoy Inland and put it on best-seller lists can send an old curse in my direction. \
Robert Menasse, Trans. by Jamie Bulloch
RaveThe New York TimesIf you tasked an excellent writer with turning a tall stack of recent issues of The Economist into a novel, you might get The Capital. Somehow I mean this as high praise ... Perhaps what we have in The Capital is a great murder mystery ... It’s an unusual murder story, though, because the suspense lies not in discovering the identity of the assassin (we follow him as he goes on the lam) but the identity of the dead man. You come to suspect that the murder is a kind of MacGuffin, that maybe it doesn’t matter at all. I enjoyed The Capital so much that I could keep going like this. It’s possible this is a great Holocaust-minded novel for a new millennium ... The translation, by Jamie Bulloch, is adroit. Yet The Capital made me want to learn to read in German, where it is surely even better. This is a baggy book, with room for everything Menasse wants to put into it. It has its share of longueurs. But there is also pointed writing not just about politics but about subways and orgasms and woolly underwear and air conditioning and retirement homes ... this novel evidences a sharp awareness of the forces remaking European life, with Brexit as only one example.
PositiveThe New York TimesThis is not a typical novel ... The sole epigraph in Frankissstein is from the Eagles. No one quotes the Eagles ... So far so weird ... In this novel, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize, [Winterson] walks her wits on a very long leash ... Frankissstein is not a particularly good novel, if we limit our definition of a good novel to one that, at minimum, has characters and/or a plot in which one feels invested. Winterson seems to know she’s boxed herself into a facile and jokey situation, and she’s decided to shoot herself out of the corner. This novel is talky, smart, anarchic and quite sexy ... Frankissstein also has, if you squint just slightly, an intelligent soul. Winterson has always been interested in gender fluidity and there is room, in our glimpses of Ry, for real feeling between the satire and bickering ... Winterson is playing a game that’s entirely her own. The fourth wall is broken frequently, as if this were an episode of Fleabag. ... the book is anchored in soliloquies that wear their intent and erudition lightly.
PositiveThe New York Times... pushes Ms. Marshall into the front rank of American biographers ... She is comfortable with subtle intellection as well as the sweep of history. She captures the intricacies of Fuller’s editorship and her stints as a front-page columnist and foreign correspondent ... Ms. Marshall is terrific on Fuller’s composition of the feminist manifesto Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which made her a celebrity ... as seductive as it is impressive. It has the grain and emotional amplitude of a serious novel, especially in its first half. It delivers a lovely and bumpy coming-of-age story, one of the best such stories 19th-century America has to offer ... slackens in its final third, when Fuller is living in Italy. Too much is made of her lack of sexual experience; the author lingers too long over suggestive phrases from Fuller’s writing ... Ms. Marshall’s prose, usually so crisp, edges toward the overripe ... These are rare slips in an alert and elegant narrative. Ms. Marshall’s rigorous book stands on the shoulders of earlier scholarship and many previous biographies of Fuller. It doesn’t contain a vast amount of new material. But in Ms. Marshall, Fuller has found what feels like her ideal biographer.
T. J. Stiles
RaveThe New York TimesStiles demonstrates a brute eloquence of his own. This is a mighty — and mighty confident — work, one that moves with force and conviction and imperious wit through Vanderbilt’s noisy life and time ... full of sharp, unexpected turns ... The most flat-out enjoyable sections are those that deal with New York’s great steamship wars of the first half of the 19th century ... Mr. Stiles is clear-eyed about his subject’s nearly amoral rapacity ... Mr. Stiles gets Vanderbilt the man onto paper. He is eloquent on Vanderbilt’s love of horses and horse racing, his tangled relationships with his 13 children and his dabbling in the occult ... There are moments in any biography of this size when your eyes are going to glaze over; I certainly did not wish The First Tycoon were longer. But I read eagerly and avidly. This is state-of-the-art biography, crisper and more piquant than a 600-page book has any right to be.
PositiveThe New York TimesThere’s a bit of John Muir and John McPhee, patient writers and naturalists both, in Macfarlane’s work. Is he a young fogey? Sometimes. He can ladle on that BBC/PBS gently-eat-your-peas earth-show narration ... Yet there’s a bit of Geoff Dyer, of the critical wildcat, in him. There’s the prickling sense, reading Macfarlane like Dyer, that a library door or a manhole cover or a bosky path might lead you not just to the end of a chapter but to a drugs party or a rave ... Macfarlane’s writing can be humid ... More often it is superb. He is so good at what he does, and has won so many awards for his books, that there has begun to be pushback in England, just to keep his career in perspective ... this is an excellent book — fearless and subtle, empathic and strange. It is the product of real attention and tongue-and-groove workmanship.
Gabriel García Márquez
RaveThe New York TimesA resonant new collection of García Márquez’s journalism, \'The Scandal of the Century,\' demonstrates how seriously he took reportage ... These are articles that, in their confidence and grace, put the reader in mind of \'The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor\' ... So many of the best pieces in \'The Scandal of the Century,\' however, are essays, unpretentious and witty meditations on topics like barbers and air travel and literary translation and movies ... The articles and columns in \'The Scandal of the Century\' demonstrate that his forthright, lightly ironical voice just seemed to be there, right from the start ... He’s among those rare great fiction writers whose ancillary work is almost always worth finding; he didn’t know how to phone anything in. He was a world-class observer ... The humble García Márquez put it this way: \'I am basically a journalist. All my life I have been a journalist. My books are the books of a journalist, even if it’s not so noticeable.\' He had a way of connecting the souls in all his writing, fiction and nonfiction, to the melancholy static of the universe.
MixedThe New York TimesVuong is a mightily gifted observer ... Some lines have the almost hallucinatory exactness of his best poems ... Vuong’s writing about nail salons, and the way mothers raised their children in them, is moving and rarely less than excellent. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is, at the same time, filled with showy, affected writing, with forced catharses and swollen quasi-profundities. There are enough of these that this novel’s keel can lodge in the mud ... \'Deep Purple Feeling\' could be an alternative title for certain swaths of this novel ... The strongest parts of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, where this novel picks up genuine force and has some of the mournful resonance of the Bruce Springsteen song \'The River,\' arrive in its second half. This is where the narrator details his doomed love affair with Trevor, a boy he meets while both work in the tobacco fields ... Vuong’s novel is a mixed success, a book of highs and lows. At its best, it’s unleashed in every regard.
MixedThe New York TimesEach [story] is like a haunted Charles Addams house that pops up in a sleek, modern subdivision ... Russell creates fully realized worlds. Her writing is particular and alive. Her imagination spills over the sink and hits the backsplash ... Orange World also demonstrates Russell’s limitations. Read in bulk, outside of magazines, some of her stories shrink in stature ... One reason for this is that we are only rarely invested in her characters. Her people find themselves in intense situations, but it seldom feels like anything is at stake. They live, they die; no matter, turn the page and bring on the next outré scenario, the next rabbit from the hat ... While her stories examine the human condition writ large, they sometimes lack in the sort of crucial details about the human condition writ small — those blazing, passing insights and uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our species ... undamentally tame ... The glow Russell’s stories cast is not a cheap one, like the flickering of battery operated candles on a restaurant table. I’m simply not certain their power is, except rarely, strong enough to be wicked.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... the most political book thus far in this earthy and humane series. Its heart is worn far out on its sleeve. It beats arrhythmically somewhere down near the knuckles ... Smith is not going to ride out this tumultuous political moment artistically, as if she were a car parked under an overpass during a storm. She’s delivered a bracing if uneven novel, one that, like jazz, feels improvised ... tendentious at times, but it taps deeply into our contemporary unease. It’s always alive ... Smith embeds her politics in interlocking plotlines that flow like waking dreams, in melodies and countermelodies. Her gifts are such that she nearly pulls this awkward bird aloft ... Her novels are like Mike Leigh’s films or The Mekons’ albums. Some are better than others, but all are the product of a unique and hard-won vision; a vision that’s homely in the best sense of that word. You never doubt you’re in the presence of a serious artist, even when things are going pear-shaped ... mith’s vision isn’t fundamentally pessimistic...There’s too much squirming life in her fiction, slashes of cleansing light for those who seek it.
Robert S. Mueller
PanThe New York TimesIt perhaps necessarily lacks both the novelistic sweep of the 9/11 Commission Report and the intimate — \'prurient\' would be a more exact word — scene-setting of the Starr report on President Bill Clinton ... The Mueller report is a dense slab of verbiage. It is not written in bureaucratese, but it is not far from it either ... This is not a narrative that warms in the hands. There is no sweeping language. It appears to have been designed to make minimum political impact ... A plausible title for the paperback editions that will soon be in bookstores might be, We Didn’t Not Find Anything ... The Mueller report is a thorny, patriotic addition to this curious American shelf ... With its blacked-out redacted passages, the report more closely resembles a reverse crossword puzzle. We will collectively be solving for its inky elisions for some time, perhaps the rest of our lives ... reading it is like consuming a short story collection that’s already been excerpted in every magazine you subscribe to ... Volume Two of the Mueller report, like the second volume of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits, is the more stereophonic and satisfying ... It is hardly pleasurable to read, on textual as well as emotional grounds.
PositiveThe New York Times\"... pretty good ... Because it’s a McEwan novel, however, and because it falls somewhere toward the middle of his oeuvre in terms of quality, it’s tempting to say about it: Meh. He has set expectations high, this man ... a sharply intelligent novel of ideas. McEwan’s writing about the creation of a robot’s personality allows him to speculate on the nature of personality, and thus humanity, in general ... There are some pokey moments in this novel, some dead nodes. But McEwan has an interesting mind and he is nearly always good company on the page ... McEwan is good on coziness between humans and machines.\
David E Hoffman
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"... authoritative and chilling ... a readable, many-tentacled account of the decades-long military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union ... What’s particularly valuable about Mr. Hoffman’s book, however, is the skill with which he narrows his focus (and his indefatigable reporting) down to a few essential areas. Thanks to interviews and new documents, he provides the fullest — and quite frankly the most terrifying — account to date of the enormous and covert Soviet biological weapons program, developed in defiance of international treaties at the same time that the Soviets appeared to be earnestly interested in reducing their weapons stockpile ... Mr. Hoffman has an eye for bleak, jagged details ... Mr. Hoffman is so careful not to bore his readers that he sometimes underestimates them, verging closer to Tom Clancy than to John Lewis Gaddis. More synthesis and cerebration would have made this good book better.\
Ed. by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll
MixedThe New York TimesFor every essay in Appalachian Reckoning that’s provocative, another is unreadable. The academic language in some of these pieces...makes it seem as if their authors were walking around on stilts ... not everything here is a polemic. The volume includes poems, photographs, memoirs and a comic piece or two. I’m not entirely sure why it’s in this book, but Jeremy B. Jones’s love song to Ernest T. Bass, the fictional character on \'The Andy Griffith Show\' who was addicted to throwing rocks, is a pleasure. A few of these writers try to one-up [J.D.] Vance on the atrocity meter ... The book to read, if you’re interested in the history of the exploitation of Appalachia, is Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (2017).
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Swerve...brings us Mr. Greenblatt in his more cordial mode. He wears his enormous erudition lightly, so lightly that most readers will forgive him for talking, at times, a bit down to them. This book is well-brewed coffee with plenty of milk and sugar stirred in ... Approaching Lucretius through Bracciolini was an ingenious idea. It allows Mr. Greenblatt to take some worthwhile detours ... The details that Mr. Greenblatt supplies throughout The Swerve are tangy and exact ... This book’s pumping heart is Mr. Greenblatt’s complicated reckoning with Lucretius’ masterpiece ... It’s possible to admire Mr. Greenblatt’s book while wishing it contained more of the boldness and weirdness he admires in Lucretius. Mr. Greenblatt’s prose, charted on a Geiger counter, would register mostly a state-of-the-art air-conditioner’s steady hum. I found myself longing for a few more unsettling spikes of intellect and feeling. You won’t be bored by The Swerve; neither will you be on the edge of your seat.
RaveThe New York Times\"Choi’s new novel, her fifth, is titled Trust Exercise, and it burns more brightly than anything she’s yet written. This psychologically acute novel enlists your heart as well as your mind. Zing will go certain taut strings in your chest ... Choi gets the details right: the mix tapes, the perms, the smokers’ courtyards, the \'Cats\' sweatshirts, the clove cigarettes, the ballet flats worn with jeans, the screenings of \'Rocky Horror,\' the clinking bottles of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers ... Choi builds her novel carefully, but it is packed with wild moments of grace and fear and abandon. She catches the way certain nights, when you are in high school, seem to last for a month — long enough to sustain entire arcs of one’s life ... The plot fast-forwards about 15 years. Minor characters become major, damaged ones. I do not want to give too much of this transformation away, because I found the temporary estrangement that resulted to be delicious and, in its way, rather delicate.\
RaveThe New York Times...[an] uncommonly powerful memoir ... His memoir is strewn with words from others he read while in prison — Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Frederick Douglass ... Solitary is a profound book about friendship ... This story, which Woodfox has written with Leslie George, is told simply but not tersely. If it sometimes induces claustrophobia, well, it’s meant to. Very often the painful details, and the author’s own humanity in the face of them, start to make your chest feel too small ... If the ending of this book does not leave you with tears pooling down in your clavicles, you are a stronger person than I am. More lasting is Woodfox’s conviction that the American justice system is in dire need of reform.
RaveThe New York Times\"... audacious ... an intimate, brainy, gleaming epic, set mostly in what is now Zambia ... The plot pivots gracefully — this is a supremely confident literary performance — from accounts of the region’s early white colonizers and despoilers through the worst years of the AIDS crisis ... The reader who picks up The Old Drift is likely to be more than simply impressed. This is a dazzling book, as ambitious as any first novel published this decade. It made the skin on the back of my neck prickle. Serpell seems to want to stuff the entire world into her novel — biology, race, subjugation, revolutionary politics, technology — but it retains a human scale ... Serpell carefully husbands her resources. She unspools her intricate and overlapping stories calmly. Small narrative hunches pay off big later, like cherries coming up on a slot machine. Yet she’s such a generous writer. The people and the ideas in The Old Drift, like dervishes, are set whirling. When that whirling stops, you can hear the mosquitoes again. They’re still out there. They sound like tiny drones. They sound like dread.\
PositiveThe New York Times\"Washington’s subtle, dynamic and flexible stories play out across [Houston\'s] sprawling and multiethnic neighborhoods. His characters move through streets named so often — Richmond and Waugh, Rusk and Fairview — that they come to have talismanic power, like the street names in Springsteen songs ... Washington cracks open a vibrant, polyglot side of Houston about which few outsiders are aware. On one level, this landscape is bleak ... But there is a fair amount of joy in Washington’s stories, too ... A few of these stories are barely more than vignettes. One or two don’t quite coalesce. This is on a certain level a modest book, one that isn’t going to drive other young short story writers into the shadows. But the promise Washington displays is real and large.\
Andrew G McCabe
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewBetter than any book typed this quickly has a right to be ... a concise yet substantive account of how the F.B.I. works, at a moment when its procedures and impartiality are under attack. It’s an unambiguous indictment of Trump’s moral behavior ... a rapid-fire G-man memoir ... patriotic and oddly stirring. It has moments of opacity, where you feel he is holding back at crucial moments, but it is filled with disturbingly piquant details ... if McCabe has made mistakes, his basic decency shines through in this memoir.
RaveThe New York TimesIn The Empathy Exams...[Jamison] calls to mind writers as disparate as Joan Didion and John Jeremiah Sullivan as she interrogates the palpitations of not just her own trippy heart but of all of ours ... her cerebral, witty, multichambered essays tend to swing around to one topic in particular: what we mean when we say that we feel someone else’s pain. I’m not sure I’m capable of recommending a book because it might make you a better person. But watching the philosopher in Ms. Jamison grapple with empathy is a heart-expanding exercise ... Ms. Jamison is painfully well read and well informed. She is capable of quoting James Wood, Axl Rose and the philosopher Mark Jefferson in the space of four or five sentences without sounding deranged. At the same time, one or two of her lesser essays find her swinging too frequently from quotation to quotation, as if from vine to vine. Her sentences have an ideal speed-to-power ratio ... I’ll read whatever she writes, as long as I’m around.
PanThe New York TimesLet Me Finish is a superficial and ungainly book that tries to cover so many bases at once — it’s a series of attacks and justifications, it’s a master class in sucking up and kicking down, it’s a potted memoir, it’s a stab at political rehabilitation — that reading it is like watching an octopus try to play the bagpipes ... An alternative title for this unintentionally poignant book might have been, You Used to Really Like Me, Remember? ... Christie saves his real fire in this book — which was written by a ghostwriter named Ellis Henican — for Bannon, the one-time chief executive of Trump’s campaign ... If you skim through Let Me Finish riffling the book like a deck of cards, nearly all you will see is Christie saying, in so many words, I told you so ... Christie’s sense of being right at every moment is wearying. Like a fan that blows for too long, his grille fills with dust ... As a literary performance, this book is nylon, not wool or silk ... Trump himself comes off rather well in this book ... Is Let Me Finish a plea to be let back in, at a high level, to Trump’s administration? ... Do voters want him back? This self-serving book doesn’t make the most appealing case.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe problem with Tommy Tomlinson’s inspirational new book is that reading it will make you hungry ... His clean and witty and punchy sentences, his smarts and his middle-class sensibility made me yearn for the kind of down-to-earth columnist I often read in the 1980s and 1990s but barely seems to exist any longer ... Tomlinson may not be for everyone. Like Rick Bragg, he can sometimes seem like a Southern boy with just a bit too much syrup in him. If tears and frequent use of the word \'mama\' set your teeth on edge, he may start to resemble, in your mind, a pre-moistened towelette ... As for me, I loved this book. I found myself sneak-reading it from the moment it came in the door. As with a sack of White Castle burgers, I hated to reach the end.
Elsa Morante, Trans. by Ann Goldstein
PositiveThe New York Times\"Morante’s vision is so baroque, and her prose so operatic, that after reading her I needed some alone time, with cucumber slices over my eyelids ... Morante delivers epic emotions ... Morante’s themes are not subtle. Arturo’s Island, even in Goldstein’s adroit translation, is a sledgehammer performance. But her writing, once you acclimate to its gargoyle extravagance, has the power of malediction.\
PositiveThe New York TimesTurbulence is a sleek machine with a cool tone. Each chapter picks up from the last, but presents a new protagonist, as if a moral baton were being passed. The chapters come full circle. In the end, the book resembles a snake that’s begun to consume its own tail ... Szalay...is a gifted writer ... Turbulence...[is] a consistently interesting novel, but its 12 chapters...race past so quickly (each is around 10 pages) that you’re back on the ground, your ears fizzing, before you’ve had a chance to finish your little bag of pretzels ... There are enough plot fragments in Turbulence to suggest many novels. Szalay could set up shop on eBay. I wish he’d carried some of them a bit further. These melancholy flights have a lot to say about human impermanence.
Doug Bock Clark
RaveThe New York Times\"... immersive, densely reported and altogether remarkable ... Like a first-rate novel, too, The Last Whalers has an abiding but unforced theme. It’s about the flood of modernity, in the form of outboard motors and cellphones and televised soap operas, as seen from the perspective of a curious but wary society that fears losing itself in the deluge. There’s a lot going on in this feat of journalism, but at heart it’s about a whaling community. Clark does not stint on beautiful, terrible, blood-streaked accounts of hunting sperm whales ... Clark’s writing is supple but unshowy ... Accumulated tensions are only slowly released. Scenes are delivered, not summaries. This book earns its emotions ... You finish The Last Whalers with hope for [the tribe described], and hope that Clark writes many more books.\
RaveThe New York Times\"... blazing ... Writing fiction is to no small degree a confidence game, and Leading Men casts a spell right from the start ... What you’ve yet to learn is how reliably tender and evocative Castellani’s onrushing prose can be. His first achievement in Leading Men is to create a world, one inhabited largely by young, charming gay men, that seems to be comprised almost entirely of late nights and last cigarettes and picnics on good blankets and linen suits with the trousers rolled to the knees. This writer’s scenes glitter, and they have a strong sexual pulse ... [Castellani’s] second achievement is to pry this milieu open and pour a series of intricate themes into it ... This book is a kind of poem in praise of pleasure, and those pleasures are sometimes stern. Its author knows a great deal about life; better, he knows how to express what he knows ... Leading Men has a few dead nodes in it and the subplot, involving the reclusive actress and a production of Williams’s final play, generates fewer sparks than does the account of Williams and Merlo’s dazzled propinquity. But this is an alert, serious, sweeping novel. To hold it in your hands is like holding, to crib a line from Castellani, a front-row opera ticket.\
MixedThe New York TimesWhen did \'logic\' and \'facts\' and \'firsthand accounts\' get such a bad rap? (Did I miss a memo?) Anolik makes a show of tossing her car’s steering wheel out the window at the first turn. The resulting book is good and bad in almost equal measure. It’s good because Anolik has an instinctive grasp of why Babitz mattered as a writer and because, despite her apparent protestations to the contrary, she’s done her homework. Hollywood’s Eve fills in many of the gaps in our knowledge of Babitz’s life and work. It’s bad because it’s so breezily written, as if willing itself to become a work of what used to be called the New Journalism ... Reading it, you feel you’re taking part in three conversations, two on call-waiting ... Anolik sometimes verges on condescending to Babitz ... But she’s a sensitive reader of her work and owns a sly wit ... Anolik’s book succeeds in its primary mission: It sends you racing to read the work of Eve Babitz.
MixedThe New York Times\"Bowlaway is a large and caterwauling sort of opera buffa, packed with outsize characters—some with recherché talents—and wild, often dreamlike events. If this novel were a bar, it would be the kind of joint where the Christmas lights are left on all year long ... More than one woman in this novel has lost a child. The writing on this topic makes for close to unbearable reading ... This is the sort of novel in which nearly every character has an offbeat name (Leviticus Sprague, Cracker Graham, LuEtta Mood) and can seem more like a collection of quirks than a human being ... McCracken in Bowlaway comes close to writing caricatures instead of characters. That this ambitious novel nearly works is a testament to her considerable gifts as a novelist, her instinctive access to the most intricate threads of human thought and feeling ... The plot has many resonances but never fully sets its hooks in us ... This novel’s cast grows epic, but McCracken is always most impressive when she works small, when she is describing movie kisses or corsets or simply loneliness and longing.\
PositiveThe New York Times\"Sally Rooney’s sentences are droll, nimble and matter-of-fact. There’s nothing particularly special about them, except for the way she throws them. She’s like one of those elite magicians who can make a playing card pierce the rind of a watermelon ... In the new novel, there [are fewer throwaway lines] but perhaps something better. There is, in the pointed dialogue, a reminder of why we call it a punch line ... Rooney is almost comically talented at keeping the lovers in her novels frustrated and apart. When you are deep into Normal People, you may start to feel that she has gone to this particular well one too many times ... [Rooney is] an original writer who, you sense, is just getting started.\
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewAn ebullient and often moving way to organize history ... consuming [Dear Los Angeles is a bit like watching an orange-scented, palm tree-lined, gin-soaked version of Christian Marclay’s 24-hour film montage, The Clock ... Kipen doesn’t have the historical richness to work with that Carpenter did in New York Diaries. Among this collection’s more obvious blind spots is pop music. This book’s joys are pomegranate joys, feeling for seeds among the pith.
PositiveThe New York Times\"[The Incomplete Book of Running is] funny, well written (mostly), filled with humility and perpetually on the scan for moments of stray grace ... Sagal’s book is not the one to read if you crave advice about the best cushion-heeled socks to buy, the correct earbuds (he advises against listening to music while running) or the finest anti-chafing creams. If you want that sort of information, you can turn to a magazine like Runner’s World, where Sagal has a column. He’s funny and perceptive about running magazines, by the way.\
Karen Thompson Walker
PanThe New York Times\"Walker has a gift for spooling out [the novel\'s] details, as if we are kittens and she is trailing string ... Walker needs to keep the plots of her novels spinning, like plates on sticks. When the action slows, you realize what a limited and sentimental novelist she too often is ... None of these characters says or does an interesting thing. Anarchic instincts and impure thoughts are kept to the barest minimum. Minds race in neutral. Reading this book’s bland dialogue is like watching players on center court use dead tennis balls ... Walker knows what to do when she’s sinking her initial hooks into her readers. But she’s such a mild writer here that a true sense of menace is never allowed to bloom.\
PositiveThe New York Times\"There are other soft spots in Monument, moments when Trethewey’s metrical dexterity slackens or her political points are too on the nose. These moments are swamped, however, by the author’s insistent intellect and her gift for turning over rich soil. The human details in Trethewey’s work — those crabs, that music, those cracked palms — are like the small feathers that give contour to a bird’s wing. Monument is a major book, and in her best poems this poet soars.\
MixedThe New York TimesBerlin (1936-2004) was a writer of tender, chaotic and careworn short stories ... she’s a writer you want in your back pocket ... This memoir, which lacks the richness of Berlin’s fiction, had been left uncompleted ... it’s a stand-in until the inevitable biography of Berlin is written.
PositiveThe New York TimesI will read anything George writes ... Nine Pints is her fourth book...and her most personal ... As if George were pinching and expanding an image on a screen, Nine Pints expands to open up a world ... This book was clearly a trial for the author to write; she was frequently ill with dire symptoms caused by hormonal fluctuations during its composition. These facts add a bass note of mortality to the discussion ... at one or two moments, George’s prose is not as utterly sharp as we’ve come to expect from her ... her English phlegm never falters.
PositiveThe New York Times... sensitive and sharply written ... Without fawning, [Spurling] warms Powell up. She places his work in social and intellectual perspective, and briskly lays bare a life rich with friendship and incident ... Spurling, writing with style and spark, pulls Powell down from his chilly pinnacle. It’s a pleasure to meet him all over again.
PanThe New York Times\"Burns expands this material into a willfully demanding and opaque stream-of-consciousness novel, one that circles and circles its subject matter, like a dog about to sit, while rarely seizing upon any sort of clarity or emotional resonance. I found Milkman to be interminable, and would not recommend it to anyone I liked ... the repetitions, the piling up of extraneous detail, the dashes within dashes, the sense she instills in her readers of craving verbs the way an animal craves salt [is representative of Burns\' style in Milkman] ... The best thing in Milkman is Burns’s occasionally sensitive portrait of this young woman’s flickering consciousness ... Sometimes her pile-on sentences achieve a prickly, shambolic sort of grace ... Milkman requires so much effort for so modest a result.\
RaveNew York Times BooksSerious, sober and frequently mesmerizing ... spare yet supple prose ... contains some very adept writing about theology and religious feeling ... manages to nearly always hold a skeptical reader rapt...a significant literary performance. This novel’s contents are under enormous pressure ... There are no blood clots of showily displayed research to block this novel’s arteries.
Lionel Trilling and Adam Kirsch
PositiveThe New York Times\"Lionel Trilling, the regal American literary and social critic, was an ardent letter writer — he composed as many as 600 a year — but a slow-moving one. Corresponding with him was like playing squash with an opponent who pockets your serve, walks off the court and returns four months later to fire it back...and nearly all the letters in Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling, edited by Adam Kirsch, begin with apologies and small arias of explanation for delay. The younger, slicker Ovitz would never have done such a thing. He explains in his back-patting new memoir that he specialized in keeping clients happy by identifying and then fulfilling their wildest dreams. As he says here: \'It’s only blarney if you can’t make it happen. If you can, then it’s the truth — and the truth is the supreme sales tool.\'
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"[Minnis\'s] verse arrives well chilled. It is served with misanthropic aplomb ... Minnis is endlessly quotable, so one has to work hard not to quote her endlessly ... In Baby, I Don’t Care, one of the most unusual and persuasive books of poems I’ve read in some time, Minnis is not merely conducting a droll séance with the help of Turner Classic Movies ... [Minnis\'s] poems marinate in the sort of feelings you don’t like to admit you have. There’s a tang of Nietzsche in her antisocial desires, her amorality. Minnis is a bored, fierce, literate attendee at what the poet Frederick Seidel has referred to as \'life’s cotillion\' ... Let’s say you haven’t bought a book of poetry in some time. Baby, I Don’t Care and the reissues from Fence Books could make you come back. You could start here.\
RaveThe New York Times\"[In Evening in Paradise, there] is little if any diminishment in quality or intensity [of Berlin\'s work] ... One thing that makes Berlin so valuable is her gift for evoking the sweetness and earnestness of young women who fall in love ... Berlin is so stealthily funny ... Berlin probably deserved a Pulitzer Prize; she definitely deserved, to borrow the name of a Waylon Jennings song, a Wurlitzer Prize, for all the coins she drops into our mental jukeboxes. She has an instinctive access to the ways music can both provoke and fortify ... During her lifetime she was not published by that major house, or any other. She is now.\
PanThe New York TimesThere’s a good book lurking in this material ... The Feral Detective is not it. This one begins losing parts out on the interstate almost immediately. The plot is shaggy and complicated; so much so that even the author loses interest in it ... This novel’s tone is closer to that of Elmore Leonard. It’s got a bit of boogie in its bones. Yet it utterly lacks the density and sure-footedness of Motherless Brooklyn. A central problem is that Phoebe is a ditz ... Lethem never gives her anything impudent, urgent or surprising to say or think or feel ... Lethem is such a generous and ingenious writer that it’s painful to watch him flounder. Is it time to worry that literary novels will be among the next casualties of Trump Derangement Syndrome?
MixedThe New York Times\"Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book is especially surprising. This is a White House that has leaked from Day 1. We knew things were bad. Woodward is here, like a state trooper knocking on the door at 3 a.m., to update the sorry details ... Fear is a typical Woodward book in that named sources for scenes, thoughts and quotations appear only sometimes. Woodward has never been a graceful writer, but the prose here is unusually wooden. It’s as if he wants to make a statement that, at this historical juncture, simple factual pine-board competence should suffice ... If this book has a single point to drive home, it is that the president of the United States is a congenital liar. I wish Fear had other points to make. I wanted more context, more passion, a bit of irony and certainly more simple history. Surely Woodward, of all people, has worthwhile comparisons to make between Trump and Richard Nixon. But this is not Woodward’s way. Fear picks up little narrative momentum. It’s a slow tropical storm of a book, not a hurricane. You turn the pages because Woodward, as he accumulates the queasy-making details, delivers on the promise of his title.\
MixedThe New York TimesRemember boredom, sweet boredom? John Kerry’s new memoir, like its author, is reserved and idealistic and reassuringly dull, for long stretches, in its statesmanlike carriage ... Every Day Is Extra is a booster shot of old school, small-l liberal values. It is bland the way upper-class food used to be bland. It reminds you why Kerry would probably have made a very good president. It also reminds you why he lost.
PositiveThe New York TimesLike a pair of pearl earrings from Tiffany’s, Bill Cunningham’s posthumous memoir arrives as if in a small blue box. It’s an unexpected gift ... Fashion Climbing is reminiscent of Archie comic books and moony teenagers sharing a malted milkshake in 1957 ... At times Fashion Climbing can seem like the most guileless thing ever written and its author slightly touched in the head, in a kind and upbeat \'Forrest Gump\' sort of way ... Fashion Climbing is poorly served by Hilton Als’s introduction, which is emotive... while not telling you any of the things you want to know.
PositiveThe New York TimesA Life of My Own, is on one level a phlegmatic tour of a fruitful life ... On another level, the book is one shock after another ... A Life of My Own has a formal quality. Occasionally there is the unhappy sense that Tomalin is viewing her own life from too great a distance, as if she were a biographer working through a stranger’s life from file cards. She is a fluid writer but not the sort to go in search of le mot juste. Original ideas and memorable turns of phrase are rare ... Yet there is genuine appeal in watching this indomitable woman continue to chase the next draft of herself. After a while, the pages turn themselves. Tomalin has a biographer’s gift for carefully husbanding her resources, of consistently playing out just enough string. When she needs to, she pulls that string tight.
MixedThe New York TimesChinen’s book opens big enough, with a volley of plunger-muted trumpets ... One can learn a good deal about a critic by noting his or her favorite words of approbation and disapprobation ... Things not to be, in Playing Changes, are \'formal,\' \'insular,\' \'boosterish,\' \'historicist,\' \'buttoned-up\' or \'dutifully self-conscious\' ... Most of these latter terms are pointed in the direction of the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis ... Marsalis’s brand of uptown jazz has long been at war with the downtown version, at least in the music press. Chinen revisits these battles. To a nonparticipant, from a distance, they seem faintly ridiculous ... The best way to read Playing Changes is with YouTube and Spotify fired up on your laptop. Chinen has excellent taste in unruly new sounds and big, bent ears, and you’ll want to make a playlist ... it’s hard not to get lost in the descriptive terminology in Playing Changes. You often feel you are floating free of context ... This book is at its best when grounded; when it mixes fact with more florid expression.
MixedThe New York TimesIt’s got a ripe theme for Kingsolver, an unabashedly political writer, to pluck — that is, how poverty looms today for so many middle-class families ... This book also offers, at times, the easygoing pleasures of Kingsolver’s voice. When she’s on, reading her sentences is like walking on crunchy leaves; her writing can be acute and funny ... Yet Unsheltered is dead on arrival. The historical sections are delivered in starchily ornate prose ... In the present-day sections, every other conversation threatens to become an op-ed piece or a humanistic monologue out of lesser John Steinbeck or Arthur Miller ... Kingsolver’s politics, in this case, sit on the chest of her fiction and asphyxiate it ... This novel reads as if its author has been sent here, like Spock aboard the Starship Social Progress, to affirm our principles. Kingsolver wants to feed us improving ideas, as if we were moral nestlings ... She has a good feel for human stuff, for the messes we make and how we clean them up.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Don Bartlett & Martin Aitken
PanNew York Times\"...a gift to his detractors, those who have found the books to be solipsistic and overwrought. At nearly 1,200 earnest pages, Book Six is a life-drainer, so dense and so dull that time and light seem to bend around it. I had to flog myself through it. I carried it under my arm like a football, giving the Heisman Trophy push-off to friends, family, basic hygiene, Netflix and the pets. When I finished, I felt there were fang marks in my neck; I wanted a blood transfusion. There are few books I will more avidly not read again ... Especially trying is Book Six’s 400-plus page excursus into Hitler and the etiology of the Third Reich. It is a grindingly sophomoric exercise that sits undigested under this novel’s skin, like an armchair inside a snake ... This book is the largest in the absorbing My Struggle series, but curiously it’s the runt of the litter.\
MixedThe New York Times\"This book, like a radio station whose frequency you can’t quite catch, keeps losing you. It keeps tipping over and then righting itself again, like a bottom-weighted inflatable unicorn. Lake Success keeps righting itself for many reasons. First among them is that Shteyngart, perhaps more than any American writer of his generation (he’s 46), is a natural. He is light, stinging, insolent and melancholy ... The wit and the immigrant’s sense of heartbreak—he was born in Russia—just seem to pour from him. The idea of riding along behind Shteyngart as he glides across America in the early age of Trump is a propitious one. He doesn’t disappoint ... This busy, squirming, roomy novel has a tidy ending, one that too neatly dispenses prizes and gives Barry a stab at redemption ... Is Barry hollow or is he holy? Shteyngart’s prose holds you in a way that Barry himself never does.\
MixedThe New York TimesCrudo is Laing’s slim first novel, and it’s less persuasive than her earlier work. Fiction, it seems, is a genre she’s still feeling her way into. This is a hard book to get a handle on ... In Acker fashion, Laing smuggles bits of text from other sources into Crudo, sometimes identifying these snippets as such but often not. (All citations are provided in an index.) ... Laing strikes some terrific chords in this novel ... Laing evokes the shattered, dreamlike quality of much of Acker’s work. Yet at moments the prose can be pretentious, verging on parody ... There’s a did-this, did-that quality to Crudo, a sense that everything matters yet nothing does, that can make one feel a bit ill, as if you’ve caught an intellectual and emotional flu, the way that being online too long can do. I suspect this was partly Laing’s intention.
PositiveThe New York TimesThey’re up there with the best things he did ... These books have flat-footed gravitas, a vestigial sort of swat that calls to mind Johnny Cash’s stark final records with the producer Rick Rubin ... Which isn’t to say they are not also full of guff. About a third of A Carnival of Losses is threadbare and meandering, memories of dead relatives and journeys abroad and anthologies past. But the other two-thirds are good enough to make clear that Hall did not live past his sell-by date as a writer ... Hall does not, in A Carnival of Losses, wield much of a cleaver. He does not clamor for the last word in old disputes.
RaveThe New York Times...so many minor moments of quotidian grace and wit...filter through The Cost of Living...that it is always a pleasure to consume ... [Levy] isn’t collecting her thoughts here so much as she is purposefully discollecting them. Calm and order, she suggests, are vastly overrated.
PositiveThe New York TimesKeith Gessen’s A Terrible Country feels small and tentative in its opening pages ... Gessen is a writer of spare sentences; he’s more of a Chekhov than a Nabokov. There’s little thunder, no off-piste mental excursions, no sense of a writer stropping his razor. His sort of plain writing is difficult to pull off. There is a fine line between elegant simplicity and mere meagerness. As this novel pushes forward, however, Gessen’s patience, his ability to husband his resources, begins to pay off. He introduces character after character—goalies and oilmen and comely academics, the heartbroken, the disinherited and the excluded—each of whom blooms in the mind. Which is another way of saying that this earnest and wistful but serious book gets good, and then it gets very good. Gessen finds an emotional tone for his material. He writes incisively about many things here but especially about, as the old saw has it, how it is easier to fight for your principles than live up to them ... This artful and autumnal novel, published in high summer, is a gift for those who wish to receive it.
PositiveThe New York TimesBecause this is a novel by the superabundantly talented Moshfegh—she’s an American writer of Croatian and Iranian descent—we know in advance that it will be cool, strange, aloof and disciplined. The sentences will be snipped as if the writer has an extra row of teeth ... Moshfegh is an inspired literary witch doctor ... This is a strong book but one that doesn’t advance our sense of Moshfegh as a writer. Her sensibility, you feel, is like a jewel that has yet to find its most advantageous setting. One never quite feels anything is at stake ... Moshfegh writes with so much misanthropic aplomb, however, that she is always a deep pleasure to read. She has a sleepless eye and dispenses observations as if from a toxic eyedropper ... Though this novel is set nearly 20 years ago, it feels current. The thought of sleeping through this particular moment in the world’s history has appeal.
Joe Mungo Reed
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s one of the indices of Reed’s talent that you hotly flip this book’s pages even when there’s not a lot going on, when it’s just another hilly day on the tour ... Without pressing too hard, this novel proposes the peloton as a metaphor for marriage ... This novel derives its power from its limited focus and direct language. There are no adipose, word-glutted sentences. Reed is mostly content to give us strong silk thread, absent pearls ... Like a racer, Reed carefully husbands his resources in this ruthless little sports novel ... Reed cuts out distractions as if they were cancer.
Sayaka Murata, Trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori
PositiveThe New York TimesIn Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, a small, elegant and deadpan novel ... [a]n issue Murata leaves hanging, tantalizingly, is how deranged Keiko might or might not be. Clearly she longs for an authoritarian hand on her shoulder; she wants to know, at all times, what to do. (\'Hai!\') But in delineating her, Murata flirts with genuine darkness ... Convenience Store Woman is short, and it casts a fluorescent spell. Like a convenience store, it is chilly; it makes you wish you had brought a sweater. At the same time, it’s the kind of performance that leaves you considering the difference between exploring interesting topics and actually being interesting ... I have mixed feelings about Convenience Store Woman, but there is no doubt that it is a thrifty and offbeat exploration of what we must each leave behind to participate in the world.
Seymour M. Hersh
MixedThe New York Times Book Review\"The qualities that make Seymour Hersh a first-rate reporter—his hustle, his wonkiness, his nighthawk drive to unearth a radioactive fact and then top that fact—make him a second-rate memoirist. Like a greyhound or a kamikaze pilot or an insurance man peddling a policy, he’s not built for reflection ... If Hersh rarely seems quite human, neither does Reporter. He piles on the policy and deadline details while leaving people and their beating hearts mostly behind ... To be fair, Hersh does get his share of stories told. Battles with his journalistic ally and nemesis Abe Rosenthal, a legendary editor of The Times, are delightfully recounted ... So many of journalism’s old war dogs have left or are leaving us, and there’s a sense that we won’t get many more memoirs like this one. If this book’s pilot light isn’t fully lit, it still puts a big career across.\
RaveThe New York Times\"There There has so much jangling energy and brings so much news from a distinct corner of American life that it’s a revelation in a way that’s reminiscent of the best of Alexie’s early work. In terms of sheer brio and promise, its appearance marks the passing of a generational baton ... The story Orange tells moves cinematically in its second half, sweeping up all that came before. To film it properly would require a Robert Altman, a director with an unorthodox sense of spectacle. It might also require a director willing to tinker with Orange’s expedient Grand Guignol ending, one less willing to simply burn the set down ... It’s the close-up work that puts this novel across, however, the quotidian details of blasted lives. That Orange manages to link these details to a historical sense of outrage at how America has treated its native people, in a manner that approaches scarifying essay without dropping over the fence into lecture or sociology, adds to this novel’s smoke ... Orange is especially interested in what cultural inheritance means, in how to carry your roots like a conscience, in what one needs to leave behind and what one needs to take ... There There has its soft spots. At times it veers toward the sentimental; it can lean too heavily on its themes. There are perhaps too many resonant generalities about the importance of storytelling. But the real stuff is here, a sense of life as it is lived, an awareness of the worm inside each bottle of mezcal.\
Julia Van Haaften
MixedThe New York TimesThe last quarter of this book is primarily made up of the honors Abbott received, and is a slog that even Jackie Onassis flying up to see her on a private plane cannot redeem. Van Haaften can’t help but type up every detail...so much so that you lose a bit of your goodwill toward the earlier portions of the book. This is a less than perfect biography in other ways. The author is better on the trees than the forest, and as a writer she is sometimes flat-footed. The narrative has a tendency to skip around in time. But Van Haaften has done her research, the real work, and the pages turn themselves.
RaveThe New York Times\"She has that ability, unique to the great performers in every art form, to hold one rapt from the moment she appears ... As trilogies of recent vintage go, these books strike me as a stark, modern, adamantine new skyscraper on the literary horizon. One can recognize Cusk’s achievement, and admire the crisp workings of her mind, while still deploring the slight increase, as this trilogy has gone on, in oracular and overblown statements ... Cusk provides sly commentary on the notion that she’s writing anything that resembles a diary. She puts the words, of course, in anyone’s mouth but Faye’s, reminding us once again that it’s not what people say but what one hears that matters.\
MixedThe New York Times\"Warlight reads, at its not-infrequent best, like a late-career John le Carré novel. It hooks you in ways that make its quiet storm of bombast almost possible to bear ... Warlight moves at a clip that, in Ondaatje terms, can be said to be breakneck. He writes well about all sorts of things, from British private schools to river navigation to how large restaurants operate. He’s a devotee of curious detail. This story is, however, told at a distance ... There’s an unpleasant sense that Ondaatje is regaling us rather than simply putting across a story. In his overweening interest in secrets and tall tales, in his relish for how stories are told, he’s taken the Salman Rushdie exit off the Paul Auster turnpike ... his burnished, lukewarm sentences don’t snap to life like the people he enjoys. Reading him on these scruffy men and women is like listening to someone try to play \'Long Tall Sally\' on solo cello. It’s not awful, but it’s weird.\
PositiveThe New York Times\"Young is a maximalist, a putter-inner, an evoker of roiling appetites. As a poet of music and food, his only rival is Charles Simic. His love poems are beautiful and sexy and ecstatic ... Young’s new book, Brown, is vital and sophisticated without surpassing anything he’s done before. It’s a solid midcareer statement ... Young has long been investigating the lives, art and lingering meanings of black cultural figures. He seems to know everything and everyone.\
RaveThe New York Times\"...[an] earthy and philosophical and essential new novel ... [Motherhood] floats somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. It reads like an inspired monologue, delivered over a kitchen table, or the one Spalding Gray sat behind in Swimming to Cambodia. Not a lot happens, yet everything does ... This book is endlessly quotable, and a perfect review would be nothing but quotations. She makes a banquet of her objections to parenthood. If you are an underliner, as I am, your pen may go dry.\
PositiveThe New York Times\"Kushner’s portrait of life inside the women’s prison is grainy and persuasive. It’s all here: the lice treatments, the smuggling of contraband in rectums and vaginas, the knifings, the cliques, the boredom, the heinous food ... Kushner smuggles her share of humor into these scenes. Like Denis Johnson in Jesus’ Son, a book this novel references, she is on the lookout for bent moments of comic grace ... If these prison scenes have a flaw, it’s that Kushner has clearly done so much research that it weighs her down a bit. It’s as if she feels compelled to report everything she’s learned. The Mars Room is a major novel, a sustained performance, one that broods on several exigent ideas ... The Mars Room moves cautiously and slowly. It prowls rather than races. It is like a muscle car oozing down the side roads of your mind. There are times when you might wish it had more velocity, more torque, yet there are reasons it corners cautiously.\
Tracy K Smith
RaveThe New York Times\"Smith’s new book is scorching in both its steady cognizance of America’s original racial sins — open wounds that have had insectlike eggs repeatedly laid in them — and apprehension about history’s direction ... Wade in the Water is pinned together by a suite of found poems that employ near-verbatim the letters and statements of African-American Civil War veterans and their families. These historical poems have a homely, unvarnished sort of grace ... If this new book lacks some of the range and depth and allusiveness of that earlier book, well, she has battened down certain hatches.\
Jeff Benedict & Armen Keteyian
RaveThe New York Times\"...a confident and substantial book that’s nearly as sleek as a Christopher Nolan movie. It makes a sweet sound, like a well-struck golf ball. I found it exhilarating, depressing, tawdry and moving in almost equal measure ... This book is littered with the bodies of those Woods cut out of his life without a thank you or goodbye — girlfriends, coaches, agents, caddies. If you stripped most of the golf out of this book, you might sometimes think you are reading the biography of a sociopath, a nonmurderous Tom Ripley or Patrick Bateman or Svidrigailov from Crime and Punishment ... This intense book gives us Woods’s almost mythical rise and fall. It has torque and velocity, even when all of Woods’s shots, on the course and off it, begin heading for the weeds.\
PositiveThe New York TimesThere’s some scrapbook-like bloat. The world would have continued, for example, without the review, written for Moore’s college literary magazine, of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn ... More significantly, although Moore is hardly a pushover, there’s less crack in her whip than some readers (well, me) might like ... In her reviews of fiction (by Margaret Atwood, Joan Silber, Bobbie Ann Mason, Philip Roth, Stanley Elkin and Richard Ford, among many others), she has great feelers ... Had she wanted, Moore could have had an important career as a theater or television critic ... When writing teachers pass this book to their students, the title See What Can Be Done will be read as a simple command.
MixedThe New York Time\"This material has been hashed over many times in previous books, and in the first half of The Recovering Jamison brings little that’s new to this discussion. You frequently feel you’re reading filler; mental sawdust. The first half is off-putting in other ways. Jamison is close to humorless as a writer, and she rubs and rubs our noses in her bad-girl bona fides ... The great surprise of The Recovering is that the second half is close to magnificent, and genuinely moving. This is that rare addiction memoir that gets better after sobriety takes hold ... Inside the 500-plus pages of The Recovery is a shorter, finer book and maybe even a screenplay awaiting someone. In this case I am not entirely unhappy to have taken the long way home.\
Mario Vargas Llosa, Trans. by Edith Grossman
MixedThe New York TimesNo deep soil is overturned in The Neighborhood, but two things keep one turning the pages. For one, it’s a confident book and confidence is contagious. It’s filled with cliffhangers...and over-the-top incident. For another, it is warm to the touch, particularly as regards sex ... In The Neighborhood, the sex is hot and the beer is cold ...They eat at a seafood place called Seven Deadly Fins. In a novel as contrived and uneven as this one, the human touches go a long way.
PositiveThe New York TimesBuruma casts an emollient eye over the multiple and overlapping ways that he felt like an outsider in Japan. He often received special treatment as a gaijin, but just as often it was made clear to him that he would never get as close to this culture as he wanted ... Buruma is a keen observer and the owner of a well-provisioned mind. There are smart little junkets in this book into everything from Japanese movies...to the country’s tattooing culture ... His prose is unflaggingly good ... For a book that is largely about extreme experience, in terms of art and life, he is perhaps overly discreet about his own emotions and behavior. Whenever you sense he is about to open a door, he instead drops you at the curb.
MixedThe New York TimesThe best of [Coover's] stories are now collected in Going for a Beer ... When Coover’s stories don’t work, which is about half the time even here, they’re dreadful ... But when they work, oh my ... The sensation is that of being in an astounding if disturbing movie, in which you are the only human with a ticket ... A handful of Coover stories is probably enough for me. A slimmer volume than this one might be a portable classic.
MixedThe New York TimesHollinghurst writes long, absorbing, much-peopled novels that display a masterly grasp of psychological processes and a prickling awareness of minute betrayals and inarticulate desires. His sensibilities are so fine you sense he can detect a pea beneath 20 mattresses when it comes to failures of tact, poise and discernment ... Of course the sex writing is good. Sometimes it’s brutal, other times fond and funny ... The truth about The Sparsholt Affair is that it is not among this writer’s more successful novels. It is intricately patterned on the sentence level yet moves tentatively, at the rate of afternoon sunlight creeping across a floor ... You feel you are watching impeccable B-roll or a John le Carré novel without bad guys or an important work of theater as seen from 300 yards away. Your mind rates this book rather highly; your heart gives it only two stars. You come to regard it with respect but not ecstasy.
PanThe New York TimesSpeak No Evil is a muted, minor-chord novel. The trip to Nigeria and a startling moment of racial violence late in the book aside, it is a fairly mild and conventional gay coming-of-age novel ... It’s a book about race and gender and identity but not an especially telling book about those things ... There are moments in this novel that hint at Iweala’s freer, more essayistic voice. He is probing on how, back home in Nigeria, Niru’s father is a different man — larger and louder, he seems to take up more space ... Not enough scenes are this alive. Like so many second novels, this one feels like a book Iweala had to get out of the way in order to arrive at what he really wants to write next.
RaveThe New York Times\"...[a] dry, allusive and charming new novel ... The writing profession, in The Friend, is viewed as a series of little murders of the soul. Writers are weird, jealous, greedy, backbiting, warped from the undersea compression of competition in Manhattan ... The Friend is thick with quotations and anecdotes from the lives and work of many writers, in a way that can recall the bird’s-nest-made-of-citations novels of David Markson. Nunez deals these out deftly; they do not jam her flow. The snap of her sentences sometimes put me in mind of Rachel Cusk.\
PositiveThe New York Times\"...like a brisk day on the cross-country trails. She writes a good deal about art and gardens and travel, and about non-controversial — at least for her New York Review of Books readers — topics like libraries (good) and global warming (bad). In the best of these pieces, however, Smith presses down hard as a cultural critic, and the rewards are outsize ... For six months, Smith was a book critic for Harper’s Magazine, and the results are printed here. These reviews are a mixed bag, mostly because the titles seem random and often infra dig. She’s penetrative, however, on the Mitfords and Edward St. Aubyn and Paula Fox and the essayist Geoff Dyer.\
PositiveThe New York Times\"Amis’s new book, like the collections that preceded it, is the product of a ferocious yet sensitive mind. Even when he is considering writers he’s assessed many times before (Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, John Updike, Christopher Hitchens), his aim is so unerring that he resembles a figure out of Greek myth, firing arrows through ax-heads lined up in a row.\
Ahmed Saadawi, Trans. by Jonathan Wright
RaveThe New York Times\"What follows, in this assured and hallucinatory story, is funny and horrifying in a near-perfect admixture. Funny because Saadawi wrings a good deal of black humor out of the way the monster’s pieces fall off at inopportune moments ... Saadawi’s tone can be sly, but his intentions are deadly serious. He’s written a complex allegory for the tribal cruelties in Iraq in the wake of the American invasion. His book is especially moving about women who have lost their sons and husbands, and who wonder if they are alive and will ever return ... Saadawi blends the unearthly, the horrific and the mundane to terrific effect ... You get the sense, throughout Frankenstein in Baghdad, that Saadawi’s creature, alive with malevolent intelligence, is feeding off its own destructive energy. The reader feeds off it as well. What happened in Iraq was a spiritual disaster, and this brave and ingenious novel takes that idea and uncorks all its possible meanings.\
RaveThe New York Times\"The Largesse of the Sea Maiden picks up, to a large extent, where Jesus’ Son left off. Only a few characters recur, but these are essentially the same unlucky bipeds, sometimes glimpsed a few decades later. Their friends are dying and their own bodies have begun to betray them ... The stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden are not as cohesive or as plangent as those in Jesus’ Son. This is a lesser book, but only in the sense that the best later Sinatra records were lesser than In the Wee Small Hours, or that Neil Young could not in later decades recapture the mood of After the Gold Rush or Tonight’s the Night. These stories drift, but Johnson finesses his way through them, his prose vernacular and elevated at the same time. One can say about this book what one narrator says about the poems of a writer he loves: \'They were the real thing, line after line of the real thing.\'”
PanThe New York TimesFire Sermon is, in other words, one of Quatro’s short stories extended to novel length. Yet somehow this saga lacks a novel’s amplitude. The narrator, Maggie, is a writer. Even she seems aware that this thin if fervid book brings little that’s fresh to the theme of illicit sexual desire ... Maggie conflates sexual and religious desire, sometimes to memorable effect. More often, these meditations set off the pretentiousness alarm that rests, like a smoke detector, at the top of one’s mind. You may finally have to cover the thing with plastic wrap and a rubber band ... There’s real humanity in this novel, and there are insights about love and longing. Quatro is a gifted writer. But Fire Sermon ultimately reminds the reader of Emma Bovary’s observation that there is 'in adultery all the banality of marriage.'”
RaveThe New York Times\"Winter is an insubordinate folk tale, with echoes of the fiction of Iris Murdoch and Angela Carter, that plays out against a world gone wrong ... If I’d rank Winter a notch below Autumn in terms of its cohesion and pure witchy cerebral power, there are few writers on the world stage who are producing fiction this offbeat and alluring...Finally, each of these books has an elastic structure, one that allows Smith the freedom to write as if improvising a bedtime story. The combination of dreaminess and acuity is what gives these books their tang ... Smith does not wear her politics as lightly in Winter as she did in Autumn. There is perhaps one speech too many about how we are all in this world together. This novel takes more patience than did Autumn; it’s slower to rake its themes into a coherent pile. My advice: Read it anyway.\
A.R. Ammons & Robert M. West
PositiveThe New York TimesHere now is The Complete Poems of A. R. Ammons in two slab-like volumes. It’s a rocking double-wide mobile home of electric American verse. The cube-like density of these books is imposing until you open the screen door … On the most bedrock level, Ammons was a nature poet. Daily he was out amid the moss and grackles and the zucchini vines and the roadkill. He didn’t issue ‘cry of the loon’ writing, however, to borrow an old New Yorker magazine put-down of overwrought nature prose … Ammons carries you along because as he vamps, like a musician, there’s a sense of drama, of his mind expanding and contracting. He will hit his groove and deliver a string of intensities. Then he will pull back because the beauty is too much; he’ll wait for the next moment to strike.
PositiveThe New York TimesThis novel’s themes are echt Shepard: fathers and sons; shifting identities and competing versions of reality; a sense that there are watchers and there are watchees in this world of dusty gravitas. The setting is the American West. The prose is taciturn. The pronouns have vague antecedents. The book is cryptic and pretentious. It is also sly and revealing ... But this novel is not simply a burnt offering, a Baedeker of dread and decay. There is a kind of parched humor as well ... Spy of the First Person did not begin to fully hold my attention until its midpoint. Several things start to happen. The novel begins to overspill its tight borders. There is an increasing, slashing awareness of not merely one human but a world in distress ... There are echoes of Beckett in this novel’s abstemious style and existential echoes. Our little bands will come apart.
PositiveThe New York Times...a powerful and outrage-making if somewhat academic analysis of the forces that have made West Virginia one of the sorriest places — statistically, at any rate — to live in America ... Ramp Hollow is not Hillbilly Elegy redux. Stoll does not relate his own story, and his book is not especially warm to the touch. But as economic history it is gravid and well made ... Stoll clings to a different vision of what the United States could be. His book becomes a withering indictment of rapacious capitalism.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewLouise Erdrich’s quietly apocalyptic new novel, Future Home of the Living God, isn’t about a plague, exactly. But something sinister is happening to our blue planet ...a feverish and somewhat feeble novel. Erdrich’s heart isn’t really in her dystopian visions, and this novel’s scenes of chases and escapes are hokey and feel derived from films ... To read this novel is to wade through a great many solemnities...funny thing about this not-very-good novel is that there are so many good small things in it ...her sentences can flash with wit and feeling, sunbursts of her imagination ... Signs and portents, auguries and premonitions. Erdrich’s novel is packed with them, push notices from an onrushing nightmare.
Cristina De Stefano, Trans. by Marina Harss
MixedThe New York TimesIt’s the first authorized biography we have of Fallaci, with access to new personal records, and welcome for that reason. It is not particularly well-written or thoughtful but it gets her story onto the page and, thanks to its subject, is never dull.
RaveThe New York Times\"Hagan has delivered a supple, confident, dispassionately reported and deeply well-written biography. It’s a big book, one that no one will wish longer, but its chapters move past like a crunching collection of singles and not a thumb-sucking double album. It’s a joy to read and feels built to last. Hagan is among those relatively rare biographers who keeps macro and micro in yin-yang balance ... Sticky Fingers is about promises and promises betrayed, and about how Wenner’s life — his increasing obsession with fame and a plutocratic lifestyle — reflected both ... Come for the essayist in Hagan, stay for the eye-popping details and artful gossip ... After Wenner himself, Annie Leibovitz is the most fully realized character in this biography. She comes across as an endearing wild child, sleeping with some of her subjects, abandoning rental cars in haste at airports and becoming, Hagan writes, a \'full-blown drug addict whose body was, more than once, unceremoniously dumped in front of a hospital by her dealer\' ... In scorning Hagan’s work, Wenner’s editorial antennae have failed him. He had the nerve to select a writer and not a hagiographer, and the decision, at the end of his long career, looks good on him.\
Elizabeth Hardwick, selected by Darryl Pinckney
RaveThe New York TimesAs this new anthology of her work demonstrates, she had fresh eyes, quick wits, good feelers and was murderously well-read ... To move one’s way through Hardwick’s essays is to bump into brightness on nearly every page ... This collection is a miscellany, but potent themes emerge. Hardwick took a special interest in the literature of New York City. She was incisive on Wharton and Henry James in New York, and also on the see-saw lives of the novelists and critics of her own generation ... I undervalued her. This book put me straight. Hardwick was a landmark American critic, with a George Orwell-like gift for candor. Like Orwell, her cardinal humors were essentially tolerant. Her dudgeon rose only when something vital was at stake. Her essays have novelistic density; they are a thoroughgoing pleasure.
PositiveThe New York TimesThere is bad and good news about Fresh Complaint. The bad news is that there’s nothing especially intense or inventive here, no sign that short fiction is the fertile row Eugenides should have been hoeing all along. The good news is how solid these stories are anyway. Two or three are excellent; none are total misses. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, Eugenides writes like a man who is enjoying himself. The feeling is contagious ... Many of Eugenides’s short stories are about mental self-mutilation. He writes with elegiac wit about middle-class, mostly educated men and women whose lives have begun to grind them down ... This book delivers many small corkscrews of feeling. For all of its interest in failure and misbehavior, it is threaded with a strong moral sensibility. Eugenides’s miserable bipeds want to behave well but there are so many obstacles in their way ... Eugenides has written life-altering books of that sort, and Fresh Complaint isn’t one of them. But its charm and insight are real, and formidable.
PositiveThe New York Times...a dreadnought of a World War II-era historical novel, bristling with armaments yet intimate in tone. It’s an old-fashioned page-turner, tweaked by this witty and sophisticated writer so that you sometimes feel she has retrofitted sleek new engines inside a craft owned for too long by James Jones and Herman Wouk ... How to search for a body underwater, how to facilitate your rescue if lost and drifting at sea, how to run a nightclub, how to bribe a cop, how to care for an invalid — you learn things while reading this novel. Egan’s fiction buzzes with factual crosscurrents, casually deployed ... Egan is a generous writer. She doesn’t write dialogue, for example, so much as she writes repartee. Many writers’ books go slack when their characters open their mouths, as if dullness equals verisimilitude. Egan’s minty dialogue snaps you to attention ... If I have a complaint about Manhattan Beach, it’s that while Egan is in full command of her gifts, there’s only rarely a sense that she’s pushing herself, or us. This novel is never estranging. It never threatens to overspill its levees, or to rip us far from shore and leave us there for a while. Egan works a formidable kind of magic, however. This is a big novel that moves with agility. It’s blissfully free of rust and sepia tint. It introduces us to a memorable young woman who is, as Cathy longed to be again in Wuthering Heights, 'half savage and hardy, and free.'”
RaveThe New York Times\"While little happens in Outline, everything seems to happen. You find yourself pulling the novel closer to your face, as if it were a thriller and the hero were dangling over a snake pit. This is largely because the small conversations and monologues in Outline are, at their best, as condensed and vivid as theater … The narrator is mostly a listener, an asker of questions, an intellectual filter. Posing meaningful questions to others, or even unmeaningful ones, she correctly observes, is a skill that ‘many people never learn’ … Ms. Cusk marshals a lot of gifts in this novel, and they are unconventional ones. With no straightforward narrative to hang onto, no moving in and out of rooms, she’s left with the sound of her own mind, and it’s a mind that is subtle, precise, melancholy. This is a novel with no wasted motion.\
Loudon Wainwright III
RaveThe New York TimesInstead of inventing a mythos, Wainwright simply wrote some excellent songs — rich, complicated, sometimes dorky, marked by unexpected wordplay and often surprisingly dark. His new memoir is all of these things, too. It’s a funny, rueful thing to consume. Wainwright has hurt most of the people he’s loved, and he’s loved some remarkable people. He’s written fond and sometimes acid songs about them; they’ve returned serve ... Wainwright does not go easy on himself in this book. In typically memorable prose, he describes how he got into 'the nasty and destructive habit of picking up women after shows, bringing a sort of love hostage back to the hotel room, a raunchy token of esteem.' He’s jealous of the success of others in his family. He likes reading his own good reviews and other people’s bad ones. He describes ogling women while doing laps at his local pool. He’s a stinking, traitorous cretin. And yet, as he woos his memories back, there’s a great deal of fondness in this book, too. Like the best songs of the Wainwright-McGarrigle-Roche clan (Rufus has a child with Leonard Cohen’s daughter, Lorca, so this dynasty may still be in its infancy), this straightforward book makes your heart wobble on its axis. And it sends you back to the songs.
MixedThe New York TimesMr. Vásquez’s novel is a kind of languid existential noir, one that may put you in mind of Paul Auster. Hot things are evoked in cool prose. Everything is, in Miles Davis’s terms, kind of blue … Mr. Vásquez is an estimable writer. His prose, in this translation by Anne McLean, is literate and dignified. Fetching images float past. We read that ‘a friend’s house smelled of headache.’ And that Elaine has never slept with anyone who ‘didn’t have orgasms in English’ … The plot can seem overdetermined. I turned the pages with interest — Mr. Vásquez is a gifted writer — but without special eagerness. He sometimes seems more interested in poetic generalities than in squirming people.
RaveThe New York TimesThese sentences — well made, revealing and funny — are typical of Mendelsohn’s book. What catches you off guard about this memoir is how moving it is. It has many complicated things to say not only about Homer’s epic poem but about fathers and sons. If you have not read the Odyssey, or have not read it since you were 30 pounds lighter and regularly wore sandals, this is a rich introduction or reintroduction. Mendelsohn makes Homer’s epic shine in your mind ... Homer composed the Odyssey in dactylic hexameter, the six-beat meter that gives the poem its elevated oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah cadence. Mendelsohn’s cadences in An Odyssey are softer and fonder, but there’s a brisk undercurrent. You feel you’re reading the literary equivalent of a Rodgers and Hart song ... he’s written a book that’s accessible to nearly any curious reader. In her memoir Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz remarks that 'early in life I discovered that the way to approach anything was to be introduced by the right person.' For Homer, that person is Daniel Mendelsohn, and this blood-warm book.
MixedThe New York TimesEach sentence in it is a Cirque du Soleil leap into a net that only he can see. Each sentence seems to be composed of stardust, pixie dust, fairy dust, angel dust, fennel pollen and gris-gris powder, poached in single-udder butter, fried and refried, encrusted with gold as if it were a Gustav Klimt painting, and then dotted with rhinestones ... The effect is exhausting — and deadening. Anything can happen, so nothing matters. Rushdie is obsessed with 'characters,' as Alfred Kazin once said of John Irving, yet somehow does not evoke the more difficult thing: character. There is a reason to consider sticking with all 380 pages of The Golden House, however. It has little to do with the novel’s plot ... In Trump, Rushdie finds such a perfect villain that he finds it hard to let him go. The Trump character is named Gary 'Green' Gwynplaine, a wealthy vulgarian, born with green hair, who likes to refer to himself as the Joker. About this Joker, and about the threat he poses to an America this writer loves, it’s a treat to watch Rushdie let fly ... The Golden House has been billed by its publisher as Rushdie’s return to realism. Yet the New York City on offer is so gilded and remote that the novel reads like what one’s impressions would be if all one knew of it came from back issues of Vanity Fair magazine ... The Golden House is a big novel, wide but shallow, so wide it has its own meteorology. The forecast: heavy wind.
John Le Carré
PositiveThe New York TimesThe good news about A Legacy of Spies is that it delivers a writer in full. Le Carré’s prose remains brisk and lapidary. His wit is intact and rolls as if on casters. He is as profitably interested as ever in values, especially the places where loyalty, patriotism and affection rub together and fray. He wears his gravitas lightly ... There’s a distant oink of male chauvinism in this tweedy novel, one that goes beyond establishing the sexual atmosphere of swinging ’60s-era Britain ... Le Carré is not of my generation but I have read him for long enough to understand how, for many readers, his characters are old friends — part of their mental furniture. There’s something moving about seeing him revive them so effortlessly, to see that the old magic still holds. He thinks internationally but feels domestically. In an upside-down time, he appeals to comprehension rather than instinct. I might as well say it: to read this simmering novel is to come in from the cold.
MixedThe New York TimesA Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set against the tangle of wars, occupations and insurgencies that have racked Chechnya since the early 1990s. It hews to the historical record...As such, Mr. Marra’s novel can be sickening reading … In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena Mr. Marra introduces us to exuberant characters, only to shuffle them into the wings for chapters at a time. Tension is rarely allowed to build. The grease of human existence is kept from plausibly accumulating. I disliked the sensation that I was reading a feat of editing as much as a feat of writing. I admired this novel more than I warmed to it.
MixedThe New York Times...there’s a void in The Burning Girl. That void is the absent sound of Messud’s sophisticated and unfettered voice. This novel is small and soft, pensive and diffident. It sneaks in, and out again, as if on cat’s paws. In composing it from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl, the author underwrites so thoroughly that she mostly blots out her own sun. Her virtuosity is in retreat. We burn our retinas on a self-eclipse ... Messud writes with insight about how female friendships dissolve, and about things like how terrifying certain stray glimpses of adult life can be. But The Burning Girl is an oddly distant novel. Its tone is formal and ultimately unconvincing ... This is the first of Messud’s novels that didn’t, on a regular basis, flood my veins with pleasure. It’s the first Messud novel I might have, if I could have, put down before the end. It’s a common book by an uncommon writer.
RaveThe New York Times...[an] ingenious and love-struck novel ... This novel may seem to wobble in the minutes after its landing gear retracts. There are lurching shifts of tone as it moves between matters of the heart and of state. Do not panic. Order something from the drinks cart. Shamsie drives this gleaming machine home in a manner that, if I weren’t handling airplane metaphors, I would call smashing ... Home Fire builds to one of the most memorable final scenes I’ve read in a novel this century.
PanThe New York TimesThis novel is a big machine, and Dee drives it calmly, like a farmer inside the air-conditioned cockpit of a jumbo tractor pulling an 80-foot cultivator. He drives it perhaps too calmly. He has the intelligence to pull off a novel of this size but lacks, somehow, the killer instinct — the ability to move in for intensities of feeling and thought and action. He’s written a lukewarm book that seems far longer than its 383 pages. Consuming it is like being in one of those frustrating dreams in which you run and run but don’t go anywhere ... there are too many lumpy homilies in The Locals, sections that read like monologues from lesser Arthur Miller plays.
MixedThe New York TimesThe author sugarcoats nothing about her ordeal and the damage done. But her memoir seeks to evoke, in a way few before it have, the transgressive rush some might find in taboo sexual behavior ... This is a book about heat rather than coolness. It is about incandescent libido and the charring that is a result. Among the many disturbing things about The Incest Diary is a sense that the author is working to turn the reader on, too ... The prose in The Incest Diary is clear and urgent. This is not a major book but it has genuine intensities of thought and feeling. I was never happy to be reading it. You may feel that your face is being rubbed too repeatedly in a certain kind of mud ... This book offers more sensation than perspective. The author’s scalded and mixed emotions are best summarized by these two sentences: 'I want him to think that I’m sexy. And I want to savagely mutilate his body and feed his corpse to dogs.'”
Svetlana Alexievich, Trans. by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky
MixedThe New York TimesThe author unearths a mostly buried aspect of Russian history. There’s a great deal that’s moving and memorable about the hardships described. But it’s possible to read this book and have reservations about it ... Many of the author’s interviews, in this book and others, are repetitive in their facts and their tone. An original voice is rare. Is Alexievich a gifted, probing interviewer? It’s hard to say. Her own questions are rarely included ... It’s possible to hold these reservations in mind and still recognize a kind of greatness in the amplitude of Alexievich’s project ... The shock and sadness in The Unwomanly Face of War are, at times, crushing. You may wind up feeling like the young female soldier Alexievich interviews who says, 'We no longer wept, because in order to weep you also need strength.'”
RaveThe New York Times...[a] concise and thoughtful new biography ... It’s among the satisfactions of Begley’s The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera that he delivers a subtle accounting of Nadar’s career as a photographer while reminding us of his subject’s many other talents and exploits ... It’s remarkable that Begley’s is the first [biography] in English. He’s found a great life to delineate — this book, like that life, roars past with a whooshing sound ... This story, in other words, would be hard to mangle, and Begley most assuredly does not.
PanThe New York TimesMadeleine Blais has written a strange book. In part it’s a tour of the island’s faux-casual charms, and as such it’s threaded with mindless chitchat of the sort you find in the TripAdvisor comments section ... Most notably, perhaps, as its title hints, To the New Owners is a steaming load dropped on the author’s former doorstep, a book-length act of revenge, a cleat-hitch slap that will reverberate up and down the Eastern coastline ... Everyone feels possessive and sentimental about the houses they occupy, even summer rentals. But Blais squanders what sympathy we might have, the way those noisy spinning extractors force the water out of swimsuits.
PositiveThe New York Times...an ebullient, freewheeling historical fiction ... Its action is so vivid that you seem to be consuming (imagine Wolf Blitzer’s voice here) breaking news. Delirious storytelling backfilled with this much intelligence is a rare and happy sight ... he’s written a high-level entertainment, filled with so much brio that it’s as if each sentence had been dusted with Bolivian marching powder and cornstarch and gently fried. Some of this swashbuckling action goes over the top, but you will probably be turning the pages too quickly to register a complaint.
MixedThe New York Times...an earnest and surprisingly generic children-in-jeopardy novel, one that makes few demands on us and doesn’t deliver much, either ... These women and their husbands aren’t distinct characters; they’re upper-middle-class types. The crunchy details, the chili-rub and panko crust that would bring them to life, are absent ... Meloy’s portrait of well-meaning but still ugly Americans resonates. So does her depiction of a certain kind of mental state.
MixedThe New York TimesAs a writer, Alexie wears his heart on his sleeve, his spleen in a go-cup and his cranium in a sleek postmodern headdress. He can be powerfully direct and plain-spoken. He speaks, for example, of hatred that 'felt as ancient as a cave painting.' He picks up many darkly interesting topics, such as anti-Indian racism delivered by Native Americans themselves. He can also be vivid and very funny ... His sentences often seem composed for the ear rather than the mind. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me has a talky, baggy quality, especially in its second half. What begins as speech ends in filibuster ... Like so many writers, and humans of all stripes, however, Alexie is a Möbius strip of self-loathing as well as egomania. As if to pre-empt criticism of his memoir, Alexie also speaks more than once about how he is famous, in his family, as a serial stretcher of the truth. Yet it’s a genuine drawback of this memoir that so little feels reported out and pinned down. The reader vaguely trusts Alexie emotionally. Factually? Hardly at all.
RaveThe New York TimesLacey’s sentences are long and clean and unstanchable. They glow like the artist Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light tubes. In her new novel, The Answers, she sweeps you up in the formidable current of her thought, and then she drops you down the rabbit hole. She’s the real thing, and in The Answers she takes full command of her powers ... This is a novel of intellect and amplitude that deepens as it moves forward, until you feel prickling awe at how much mental territory unfolds ... it’s a neuronovel that floods with tangled human feeling. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s also a novel about a subjugated woman, in this case not to a totalitarian theocracy but to subtler forces its heroine is only beginning to understand and fears she is complicit with ... It comes to be a meditation on fame and art as well as love. A suspension of disbelief will sometimes be required. Lacey makes you happy to submit. She casts a spell.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Descent of Man is a short book that remixes a good deal of academic feminist thinking about braying masculinity. Little in it is truly original. But Perry has a quick mind and a charming style of thrust and parry. He’s a popularizer, an explainer, a stand-up theorist. His book is as crisp and tart as a good Granny Smith apple ... Even at fewer than 150 pages, The Descent of Man is too long. In the last third Perry is reduced to stating poorly what he said well earlier in the book. He’s begun to twist a dry sponge. But when he’s on, which is frequently enough, Perry is an eloquent and witty tour guide through the fun house that is modern masculinity. He wants us guys to be weirder, freer, less predictable. He’s just the man for the job.
RaveThe New York TimesThe Flamethrowers unfolds on a bigger, brighter screen than nearly any recent American novel I can remember … The Flamethrowers is a coming-of-age novel of a sort, one that has dozens of topics on its mind: speed and sex, reality and counterreality, art and intellect, politics and fear and perhaps, above all, ‘the fine lubricated violence of an internal combustion engine’ … Reno is a persuasive and moving narrator because Ms. Kushner allows her the vulnerability and fuzzy-mindedness of youth while rarely allowing her to think or say a commonplace thing … Ms. Kushner has long since burned down whatever resistance you might have toward her talent or her narrative.
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Lerner is among the most interesting young American novelists … In 10:04, he’s written a striking and important novel of New York City, partly because he’s so cognizant of both past and present. He’s a walker in the city in conscious league with Walt Whitman, but also with writers up through Teju Cole, whose protagonists are wide-awake flâneurs … At one point in 10:04, the narrator is having dinner with his agent...He tells her he hopes his novel will be, on some level, ‘a long list of things that quicken the heart.’ At this he has succeeded perfectly.
RaveThe New York Times… one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time … Ms. Skloot, a young science journalist and an indefatigable researcher, writes about Henrietta Lacks and her impact on modern medicine from almost every conceivable angle and manages to make all of them fascinating … Ms. Skloot writes with particular sensitivity and grace about the history of race and medicine in America…[and] makes it abundantly clear why, when Henrietta Lacks’s family learned that her cells were still living, the images that ran through their minds were straight out of science-fiction horror movies … The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is also, from first page to last, a meditation on medical ethics — on the notion of informed consent, and on the issue of who owns human cells. When they’re in your body, it’s obvious — they’re yours. But once they’ve been removed? All bets are clearly off.
PositiveThe New York TimesShe injects whimsical imagery into weightier reveries in a manner that can make your head, like the unlucky little girl’s in The Exorcist, perform what in ice skating they call a double axel. Lockwood’s prose is cute and dirty and innocent and experienced, Betty Boop in a pas de deux with David Sedaris. When her stuff is good, it is very good...When her attention drifts, as it sometimes does in her memoir, the kookiness wears. Each sentence is its own quirky cameo appearance ... Lockwood manages to make her father not only more complicated than he seems, but also oddly lovable in his lurching way ... Priestdaddy is consistently alive with feeling, however, and I suspect it may mean a lot to many people, especially the lapsed Catholics among us. It is, for sure, like no book I have read.
PositiveThe New York TimesGrann’s new book, about how dozens of members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s were shot, poisoned or blown to bits by rapacious whites who coveted the oil under their land, is close to impeccable. It’s confident, fluid in its dynamics, light on its feet. What it lacks is the soulful, trippy, questing and offhandedly cerebral quality of his last and best-known book, The Lost City of Z ... Killers of the Flower Moon has cleaner lines, and it didn’t set its hooks in me in the same way. But the crime story it tells is appalling, and stocked with authentic heroes and villains. It will make you cringe at man’s inhumanity to man ... Reading his book reminded me that the magazine’s founding editor, Harold Ross, once dreamed of starting a serious true-crime magazine he planned to call Guilty? This never came to pass. Grann’s book investigates one painful splinter of America’s treatment of its native people, and it snips the question mark off Ross’s title.
PanThe New York TimesAnother sort of writer might send Frankie up, might make of her an object of aspirational satire. (Samuel Beckett described tears as 'liquefied brain.') But Baume takes her seriously indeed, and we follow her down a rabbit hole of elegiac quarter-life distress ... A Line Made by Walking becomes a wallow, a trunk of oozing funk, a narrative in which very little happens. I’m a fan of a good wallow, in fiction. But by its midpoint, Baume’s novel begins to stall. Rot and claustrophobia set in. It’s a major event in this novel when the doorbell rings ... It’s the work of an intelligent writer who strands her character in the intellectual and moral horse latitudes.
PositiveThe New York TimesThanks to books by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead) and Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams) and a handful of other young writers, the essay collection has new impetus and drama in American letters. The essay has gained ground on the short story. Sunshine State deserves to be talked about in this company, even if its essays are hit-and-miss. When Gerard is on, she is really on ... The first essay ['BFF'] is a knockout, a lurid red heart wrapped in barbed wire ... Two of the longer pieces, about work to care for the homeless in Florida and about a troubled bird sanctuary, are serious and impeccably reported. But the author’s voice is lost in the telling. She’s best when her evocations of the frenzy that is Florida are personal.
PositiveThe New York Times...a cool and formidable collection of essays, reviews and other matter ... Gaitskill is the second writer I’ve read in the past year (the other was Jenny Diski, in her memoir In Gratitude) to say about rape something I hadn’t before heard and would not have expected: that it was not a defining event in her life ... There’s an appealing sense that she composed these essays because she wanted to, not because a payday was on offer ... She continues to wield a remorseless little hammer.
Jack E. Davis
PositiveThe New York TimesThe author has a well-stocked mind, and frequently views the history of the Gulf through the prism of artists and writers including Winslow Homer, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway and John D. MacDonald. His prose is supple and clear ... Davis’s book functions, as well, as a cri de coeur about the Gulf’s environmental ruin. His book runs up through the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That event aside, he writes, 'Every day in the Gulf is an environmental disaster, originating from sources near and far, that eclipses the spill.'
PositiveThe New York TimesHer biography is not the first we have of Kahn, but it is notable for its warm, engaged, literate tone and its psychological acuity. Lesser’s prologue is almost too tasty, an intellectual fanfare ... Lesser enjoys unspooling the threads of Kahn’s unconventional personality ... Lesser has done a great deal of traveling for this book, and she has an innate feel for Kahn’s architecture ... Lesser’s biography has a flaw, and it’s not insignificant. She races through the eight years Kahn spent in high school and college in eight pages. There’s little exact detail. These are the years most biographers linger on, extracting all the juices, because they’re when an unusual life begins to diverge from the mundane ones that surround it. They’re when a personality is forged.
RaveThe New York TimesEdmund Gordon has written a terrific book — judicious, warm, confident and casually witty. The ratio of insight to literary-world gossip, of white swan to black swan, is as well calibrated as one of Sara Mearns’s impossible balletic leaps ... This bio unfolds a bit like one of the fairy tales Carter shook to release its meaning. The pages turn themselves ...After her death, Rushdie wrote that 'English literature has lost its high sorceress, its benevolent white witch.' This biography is witchy, in the best sense, as well.
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s memorable to witness Selin, via Batuman, absorb the world around her. Each paragraph is a small anthology of well-made observations ... Small pleasures will have to sustain you over the long haul of this novel. The Idiot builds little narrative or emotional force. It is like a beautiful neon sign made without a plug. No glow is cast ... Sexual heat is at a minimum. This is too bad, because Batuman has a rich sense of the details of human attachment and lust ... There are two things I admire about this novel. One is the touching sense, here as in everything Batuman writes, that books are life. Selin is, convincingly and only slightly pretentiously, the sort of person who buys an overcoat because it reminds her of Gogol’s...I also liked Selin’s determination to be 'someone trying to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity.' She’s an interesting human who, very much like this wry but distant novel, never becomes an enveloping one.
PositiveThe New York TimesHis book does several things at once. On one level, it’s a biography of Mr. Hampton, who grew up in an upper-middle-class black family in St. Louis. On another, it’s a lucid recap of many of the signal events of the civil rights movement. It’s also a book about how a long and complicated documentary is made ... Mr. Else, who has a clear and easygoing prose style, has things to say about many topics: the bravery of the network cameramen who filmed in Selma and elsewhere; the roadblocks to documentary work set up by misguided intellectual-property laws; and the difficulty of getting old segregationists to talk on camera. I wish this book were 75 pages shorter. I wish it had gotten a bit closer to Mr. Hampton ... [a] warm and intelligent book.
PanThe New York TimesMarshall’s biography is dull and dispiriting. The author, who studied briefly with Bishop at Harvard in the mid- to late-1970s, has made the awkward decision to interlard the text at regular intervals with detailed stories from her own life: her youth, her depression, her attempts to study music and poetry ... Marshall’s attempts at memoir are painfully earnest ... This book does not contain strong or especially perceptive readings of Bishop’s poems. Marshall fails to fully set the milieu of midcentury American poetry. She lacks seizing talons for detail ... As Bishop aged, she increasingly took on younger lovers, sometimes women less than half her age. After decades of reading about the late-life sexual exploits of male poets, this is tonic.
RaveThe New York TimesThere’s a bit of a Harold and Maude thing going on here. Daniel is a Manic Pixie Dream Oldie, to twist a phrase, as was Harold’s much older friend, played by Ruth Gordon in Hal Ashby’s indelible 1971 movie ... As Elisabeth and Daniel talk, and as Elisabeth processes the events of her life, a world opens. Autumn begins to be about 100 things in addition to friendship. It’s about poverty and bureaucracy and sex and morality and music...All along, in the background, like the lounge music of the damned, there is a sense that a certain kind of world is coming to an end, post-Brexit ... Ali Smith has a beautiful mind. I found this book to be unbearably moving in its playful, strange, soulful assessment of what it means to be alive at a somber time ... Autumn has a loose structure, almost like that of a prose poem. This form is perfect for Smith, because her mind will go where it wants to go. And where her mind goes, you want to follow.
MixedThe New York TimesThe material she has to work with is, once again, ridiculously good ... Ms. Bosworth does not recount these stories as a striding march through Manhattan and Hollywood. The Men in My Life attends just as fully to loneliness and darkness, to the slivers of dread that prickled her psyche. There is a good deal of talk in this book about what she calls 'the bereaved creature inside me' ... She writes deliciously, in this memoir, about her sexual awakening, her pursuit of ravishment ... This book’s anecdotes are struck like matches, and there are small glowing moments, but no warming narrative fire results. The tone is detached, and the many cameos by the talented and famous are not sharply drawn ... There is something impacted at this book’s core. It’s a survivor’s memoir, a book by an adult child of alcoholics, and Ms. Bosworth evokes her suffering with patience and care. But the psychological knots this book presents are not profitably untangled.
MixedThe New York TimesIt doesn’t always click. There are passages that, in this translation by Jen Calleja, veer close to psychobabble. But when Nicotine stays dry, earthy and combustible, like a Virginia tobacco blend, it has a lot to say and says it well ... He is especially good on how those who quit become vicarious smokers ... Like any author worth reading, Mr. Hens is sometimes best when he goes off-topic, dispatching obiter dicta. He is brutal about the Midwest. ('The most insignificant city in the United States is Columbus, Ohio.') ... This edition of Nicotine includes an introduction by the English writer Will Self that belongs in the hall of fame of bad introductions. Mr. Self (never has his name seemed so apt) tries to one-up Mr. Hens by bragging at length about his own peerless nicotine addiction. This introduction is profitably torn out, the way smokers of unfiltered cigarettes tear the filters from Marlboros.
PositiveThe New York Times...[a] transfixing new novel ... These two short books are part of a projected trilogy, and together they’re already a serious achievement: dense, aphoristic, philosophically acute novels that read like Iris Murdoch thrice distilled. Increasingly, I’m more interested in getting my hands on the final installment in Ms. Cusk’s series than I am the last of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle books. Ms. Cusk is perhaps more profitably compared to writers like J. M. Coetzee and Mr. Roth himself. Her writing offers the iron-rich pleasures of voice instead of style. Each sentence is drilled down, as with an auger ... Transit is fat with substance, as August Wilson once said he wanted his plays to be. There’s a lot of humor in its talk ... Faye occasionally makes the kind of oracular pronouncements that make you want to ask the waiter for the check, please. Such moments are few, but there are more than in the last book, and it’s a worrisome trend.
PositiveThe New York TimesShakespeare told us, in Sonnet 118: 'We sicken to shun sickness when we purge.' Moshfegh’s men and women cannot quite cope with this world. They are desperate and lonely and estranged. They want to tear the pain from their hearts, and it is less complicated to void their stomachs. Our empathy for them blends with disgust, which is nearly the definition of the grotesque in literature ... Moshfegh uses ugliness as if it were an intellectual and moral Swiss Army knife. The transgressive sex in her stories can put you in mind of Mary Gaitskill. Her stories veer close to myth in a manner that can resemble fiction by the English writer Angela Carter ... If her work has echoes of other writers, her tone is her own. At her best, she has a wicked sort of command. Sampling her sentences is like touching a mildly electrified fence. There is a good deal of humor in Homesick for Another World, and the chipper tone can be unnerving. It’s like watching someone grin with a mouthful of blood ... A few of these stories are dead ends or semi-stunts, vignettes that strain for eccentricity. More often, one by one, they click and spin like bullets in a revolver.
MixedThe New York Times...from the moment you crack it open, you’re in the presence of an original voice ... These essays and stories move high and low at once. Some read a bit like the earthy and doomed short stories of the West Virginia writer Breece D’J Pancake, as tweaked by an ironic miniaturist like Lydia Davis. It’s an intoxicating combination ... The problem that confronts the reader of The Correspondence is that, after the near-brilliant first three essays, the pieces begin to display glitches. The second half of the book (two stories and another essay) is lesser work, uneven in tone. Given that the first three essays fill only 76 pages, this entire book begins to seem like a premature birth. The second half can’t come close to cashing the check the first half has written. This is a book proposal as much as a book. The short stories are of a piece with the essays; they’re essentially written in the same voice and fit inside the same loose narrative arc. But they lack the gravitas of the earlier letters, and the wit fizzles ... The Correspondence doesn’t have a proper ending. But its beginning is packed with so much promise that 2017 looks better already.
RaveThe New York TimesSelection Day, Mr. Adiga’s third novel, supplies further proof that his Booker Prize, won for The White Tiger in 2008, was no fluke. He is not merely a confident storyteller but also a thinker, a skeptic, a wily entertainer, a thorn in the side of orthodoxy and cant ... Mr. Adiga’s take on the world often makes you consider what the apocalypse might sound like as reported by the BBC’s Hindi service ... Mr. Adiga, who was born in India and attended Columbia and Oxford, again displays what might be his greatest gifts as a postcolonial novelist: His strong sense of how the world actually works, and his ability to climb inside the minds of characters from vastly different social strata ... Selection Day is not perfect. Its plot loses altitude on occasion...But I don’t come to novels for plot — or I rarely do, at any rate. What this novel offers is the sound of a serious and nervy writer working at near the top of his form.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe best of these stories are a revelation. Ms. Collins had a gift for illuminating what the critic Albert Murray called the 'black intramural class struggle,' and two or three of her stories are so sensitive and sharp and political and sexy I suspect they will be widely anthologized. If the bulk of the 16 stories in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? are less fully realized, they point in directions she might have taken had she lived. They have a talky, crackling quality that keeps them afloat even when they veer toward the pretentious ... This foreword is titled 'In Search of Kathleen Collins,' yet Ms. Alexander writes almost entirely about herself. On the back flap, Ms. Alexander’s paragraph of biographical details is longer than the author’s. Ms. Collins deserves a proper introduction to American readers, one she does not receive here.
PositiveThe New York Times...[a] crisp and authoritative new biography ... He tells Clark’s story with dispassionate grace and wit. His prose is unobtrusive but well tailored. He delivers any number of well-observed set pieces, such as the time Clark visited Andy Warhol’s Manhattan studio and found the art so bogus he had a sneezing fit.
PositiveThe New York TimesTestimony ends when its author was still relatively young, but it is packed with incident ... His memoir is confident and well oiled. At times it has the mythic sweep of an early Terrence Malick movie ... Mr. Robertson, in Testimony, occasionally leans too heavily on mythopoeticism. But just as often his writing is wonderfully perceptive.
RaveThe New York TimesHis book is electric, because it is so well reported, so plainly told and so evidently the work of a man who has not grown a callus on his heart ... Mr. Lowery’s book is valuable for many reasons. He circles slowly and warily around the question of why, during Barack Obama’s presidency, so little has seemed to improve on the racial front ... Mr. Lowery collected hundreds of interviews for this book, and he recounts his visits to many cities to cover shootings. But his book never reads like a data dump. It has a warm, human tone.
PanThe New York TimesA tolerance for a certain amount of pomposity is a prerequisite for keeping up with serious art...Ms. Abramovic pushes this tolerance to its limits ... There’s a self-help aspect to this memoir that blends poorly with the implicit injunctions to warm one’s hands on the blaze of her greatness ... [a] shallow and misconceived memoir.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe first 100 pages The Sellout are the most caustic and the most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read in at least a decade...like the most concussive monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility ... Broad satirical vistas are not so hard for a novelist to sketch. What’s hard is the close-up work, the bolt-by-bolt driving home of your thoughts and your sensibility. This is where Mr. Beatty shines ... The Sellout I am sad to say, falls into a holding pattern in its final two-thirds. Mr. Beatty still writes vividly, and you’re already up there at 30,000 feet. But the sense of upward thrust is mostly absent.
PositiveThe New York TimesOdes picks up where Stag’s Leap left off, which is to say that it contains some of the best and most ingenious poems of her career ... Ms. Olds renders the personal universal ... There is a good deal of lesser work in Odes. When Ms. Olds’s poems miss, they really miss, more so than most poets at her level ... The book’s warmth comes from the intensities of its language and the intensities that emerge from a life that seems well lived.
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Lethem’s backgammon writing has a satisfying crunch. It’s witty and sexy, too. ... It’s when the novel returns to the Bay Area that it fully becomes a Jonathan Lethem production. That is, the author begins to pour many of his abiding concerns into it: radical politics, underground art, an interest in literary genre (here a loose-leaf tea blend of detective fiction and science fiction), misplaced memories, a missing mother ... A Gambler’s Anatomy is a fluky novel, not among Mr. Lethem’s very best. Its themes are underdeveloped, and it moves in zigs and zags, like a squirrel in headlights ... This novel is a tragicomedy; it plays at its best like a Twilight Zone episode filmed by the Coen brothers. At its worst, nothing is at stake — the characters are breezy ciphers.
RaveThe New York TimesDavid Szalay writes with voluptuous authority. He possesses voice rather than merely style ... This cosmopolitan author is not overtly funny; his humor seeps organically to the surface, like a rising water table ... Mr. Szalay’s own stream of perception never falters in its sensitivity and probity. This book is a demonstration of uncommon power. It is a bummer, and it is beautiful.
PositiveThe New York Times...like her previous books, it’s a mess: anarchic in its plot machinations, scrambled in its themes, mostly shallow in its emotions ... The strange thing is that you’re never tempted to put Ms. Zink’s novels aside. They contain so much backspin and topspin that you’re kept alert by the leaping motion ... Ms. Zink has a confident feel for the dynamics of a group house, and for the lives of young, earnest, befuddled, middle-class kids who will sacrifice a good deal in order to believe in something ... I could listen to Ms. Zink’s dialogue all day; she may be, at heart, a playwright.
RaveThe New York Times...[a] big, loose, rangy and intensely satisfying memoir ... The book is like one of Mr. Springsteen’s shows — long, ecstatic, exhausting, filled with peaks and valleys ... Born to Run is, like his finest songs, closely observed from end to end. His story is intimate and personal, but he has an interest in other people and a gift for sizing them up.
PanThe New York TimesAlas, the book is a word-heap. Eyes on the Street is graceless, infantilizing of its subject and strangely unbuttoned in tone. It often seems to be muttered as much as written, like one of those garbled subway announcements you cannot understand but suspect might matter ... Mr. Kanigel quotes his interview subjects haplessly. His analogies are inane ... His book somewhat finds its feet in its second half, as Mr. Kanigel increasingly gets out of the way and lets Jacobs’s story tell itself. Many readers will have already returned to their apartments, run their fingers through some gin and ice, and slammed the door.
PositiveThe New York TimesAvid Reader manages to cover all this territory, as well as Mr. Gottlieb’s decades-long association with New York City Ballet, with grace and guile and a sometimes-barbed wit ... And at times this book has, perhaps justifiably, a self-congratulatory ring. But this is an indispensable work of American publishing history, thick with instruction and soul and gossip of the higher sort.
PositiveThe New York Times...a whooping, joy-filled and hyperbolic raid on, of all things, the theory of evolution ... Because this is a Tom Wolfe production, there is a great deal of funny and acid commentary on social class ... Mr. Wolfe’s prose here is mostly sure-footed, but there are moments when he seems on the verge of losing it, of falling into fragments of Morse-code nonsense ... The Kingdom of Speech is meant to be a provocation rather than a dissertation. The sound it makes is that of a lively mind having a very good time, and enjoying the scent of its own cold-brewed napalm in the morning.
Stefan Hertmans, Trans. by David Mckay
RaveThe New York Times\"... an uncanny work of historical reconstruction ... The result is a gritty yet melancholy account of war and memory and art that may remind some readers of the work of the German writer W. G. Sebald ... Urbain Martien was a man of another time. This serious and dignified book is old-fashioned, too, in the pleasant sense that it seems built to last.\
Jonathan Safran Foer
PositiveThe New York TimesThis is a big spread, in other words, an ambitious platter of intellection and emotion. Its observations are crisp; its intimations of doom resonate; its jokes are funny. Here I Am consistently lit up my pleasure centers. Like Kedem kosher grape juice, it is also very sweet, in ways that later made me a bit ill ... Mr. Foer’s dialogue is so crisp you can imagine him writing for the stage ... This book offers intensities on every page. Once put down it begs, like a puppy, to be picked back up. But its insistent winsomeness cloys.
ed. Jesmyn Ward
PositiveThe New York TimesA few essays scratch at the surface only to find more surface. They’re the mussels, in this fragrant bowl, that fail to open ... There are five excellent reasons to buy this book: The essays by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Carol Anderson, Kevin Young, Garnette Cadogan and Ms. Ward. Each is so alive with purpose, conviction and intellect that, upon finishing their contributions, you feel you must put this volume down and go walk around for a while.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Accidental Life is by and large a fond book. It’s a fan’s notes from a man who, before the apocalypse, edited and often befriended many of his literary heroes ... Don’t come to The Accidental Life looking for score-settling or acid gossip. Mr. McDonell is writing about his friends. He isn’t opening his vault or baring his soul ... Mr. McDonell is proud of each of his teams at the magazines he’s edited, but this memoir is far from self-congratulatory. He writes winningly about his regrets ... intelligent, entertaining and chivalrous. It’s a savvy fax from a dean of the old school.
MixedThe New York TimesThe conceit of Wear and Tear is that Ms. Tynan, who was born in 1952, recounts her life through the clothes she wore in each era: private-school uniforms and bikinis and apple-green shoes and plaid pinafores and Ossie Clark dresses. This works except when it feels forced, which is about half the time ... Wear and Tear is written cleanly and well, even if it deflates a bit each time Tynan and Dundy aren’t around. 'Watching them was like watching a horror movie,' Ms. Tynan writes. When the monsters slink off, our pulse rate declines.
RaveThe New York Times...[an] intensely strange and terrifically vivid new book ... reads like what you might get if you took a writer like Julian Barnes or Anthony Lane and dropped him into the woods with only a granola bar and a pointy stick ... His awareness of his failures makes him all the more winning ... an eccentric modern classic of nature writing.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
MixedThe New York TimesThese sorts of arguments — that we are living in the world that X made — have become coma-inducing. X can be solved for anyone and anything: Betty Boop, Betty Crocker, Henry Ford, Hedda Hopper, Bo Diddley, Twiggy, Daniel Ellsberg, Boris Johnson. The reasons to come to Seinfeldia are its carefully marshaled history lesson, and Ms. Armstrong’s way of laying out her produce as if she were operating a particularly good stall at a farmer’s market...I haven’t watched Seinfeld reruns for a while. I overdosed years ago and went cold turkey. Perhaps the highest praise I can give Seinfeldia is that it made me want to buy a loaf of marbled rye and start watching again, from the beginning.
RaveThe New York Times\"There’s little in the way of conventional plot. But Ms. Bennett has a voice that leans over the bar and plucks a button off your shirt. It delivers the sensations of Edna O’Brien’s rural Irish world by way of Harold Pinter’s clipped dictums ... You swim through this novel as you do through a lake in midsummer, pushing through both warm eddies and the occasional surprisingly chilly draft from below ... Sometimes first novels like Pond are one-offs. They deliver a voice the author can’t tap again. Ms. Bennett’s sensibility here feels like the tip of a deep iceberg, and I’ll be in line to read whatever she publishes next.\
PositiveThe New York TimesHe is right to stand by his book. Mr. Talese makes it abundantly clear in The Voyeur’s Motel that Mr. Foos is not an entirely reliable narrator ... I’m not altogether certain I can make an airtight ethical case for Mr. Talese’s journalism in The Voyeur’s Motel, at least not in the space remaining in this column, but I can make a literary one. This book flipped nearly all of my switches as a reader. It’s a strange, melancholy, morally complex, grainy, often appalling and sometimes bleakly funny book ... one reason The Voyeur’s Motel is gripping is that Mr. Talese doesn’t fletcherize his material. He lays out what he knows and does not know in sentences that are as crisp as good Windsor knots. He expresses his qualms, but trusts the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. Nor does he demonize Mr. Foos ... You will often feel shabby while reading The Voyeur’s Motel. You are meant to. It’s an intense book that reminds us that a problem of being alive is seeing things you hate but are attracted to anyway. It’s possible to admire it while wanting to pluck out your own prying eyes.
PositiveThe New York TimesNot everything in it is top shelf. Some of the early articles are tentative and straightforwardly reportorial; Mr. Trillin was still finding his voice. But everything in Jackson, 1964 resonates. The book builds, and the payoffs in some of its later pieces (the most recent is from 2008) are generous. The volume is more than a history lesson. The issues it considers — police shootings, voter suppression tactics, race-based acts of terrorism — seem taken from today’s headlines. We’ve come so far, yet we haven’t come very far at all ... Jackson, 1964 is a memorial of sorts. It contains the names of many forgotten figures in the civil rights struggle. The biggest honor Mr. Trillin paid these men and women was to write about them so honestly and so well. These pieces have literary as well as historical merit, and they will continue to be read for the pleasure they deliver as well as for the pain they describe.
RaveThe New York Times[Isenberg] has written an eloquent volume that is more discomforting and more necessary than a semitrailer filled with new biographies of the founding fathers and the most beloved presidents. Viewed from below, a good angle for no one, America’s history is usefully disorienting and nearly always appalling. White Trash will have you squirming in your chair ... From this beginning, Ms. Isenberg moves confidently forward, through, for example, the class issues that undergirded the Civil War and the popular eugenics movement, favored by Theodore Roosevelt, that marked many as targets for sterilization. Slavery and racism are hardly discounted in this book, but she maintains her focus on poor whites ... This estimable book rides into the summer doldrums like rural electrification ... White Trash is indeed a bummer, and a thoroughly patriotic one. It deals in the truths that matter, which is to say, the uncomfortable ones.
PositiveThe New York Times[Geltner has] written a lean and pleasingly consumable book by sticking to essentials. He’s delivered what Vladimir Nabokov said a biographer should: 'plain facts, no symbol-searching, no jumping at attractive but preposterous conclusions, no Marxist bunkum, no Freudian rot' ... This biography comes to weird, florid life in its middle sections. As Crews’s star rose in American fiction, he reveled in his outsider status ... Harry Crews led a big, strange, sad and somehow very American life. It is well told here.
PanThe New York TimesSlaughter of every variety is on Ms. Proulx’s mind. Barkskins — the title refers to woodcutters — is a Baedeker of doom. Characters die from cholera and measles and smallpox, from shipwrecks and scalpings and botched amputations and occult tortures. More often, they perish in grisly logging mishaps. Ms. Proulx is adept at this culling. She has a lesser knack for first bringing her men and women to life. Barkskins rarely warms in your hands. Its ideas are more finely beveled than its people, never a good sign. Ms. Proulx favors 'characters' rather than character, as Alfred Kazin complained about John Irving. (Among the names here: Blade Scugog, Dud McBogle and Hudson Van Dipp.) Watching its action is like strolling around the world’s largest ant farm. There’s more wriggling than drama ... At its best, it is vivid, mean and wordy, as if the film The Revenant had been annotated by Bob Dylan ... Op-ed sound bites light the way toward this novel’s truly abysmal ending, in which a modern scientist solemnly warns about global warming that 'a great crisis is just ahead' and a woman wants to cry out 'The forests, the trees, they can change everything!' You feel your synapses, as did the forests, turn to pulp.
MixedThe New York Times...written a tepid and bloodless book, one that demonstrates the defects and virtues of consummate professionalism. It’s all here, but the details remain flat on the page, as if pressed on with Fun-Tak ... Mr. Lubow does get Arbus’s life onto paper, however, and there is no denying that her story is a whirlpool, sucking you in ... One of his book’s achievements is to take us inside the making of famous image after famous image.
RaveThe New York TimesWith In Gratitude, she has written a different kind of cancer memoir, and an almost entirely platitude-free one, simply by writing a typically sui-generis Jenny Diski book. Which is to say, a book that pushes in five or six directions at once...There’s a raw, almost feral quality to Ms. Diski’s writing about cowering in Lessing’s long shadow. It’s a trait she brought to so much of her writing. It’s just like her to leave us a title, In Gratitude, that slowly sheds its softness and sends up a mischievous flare.
PositiveThe New York TimesThere are so many casual pleasures in Ms. Dove’s poetry that the precision and dexterity in her work — the darkness, too — can catch you unawares ... Ms. Dove’s poems have earthiness, originality, power and range. Despair and loss are among her central themes, but so is the hunt for bedrock human pleasures.
PanThe New York TimesMs. Cline can’t come close to sustaining her novel’s early momentum. After 30 or 40 pages, my enthusiasm for The Girls began to wane. After 60 pages, I was scanning for the exit signs. The storytelling becomes vague and inchoate, as if you are reading a poem — a windy poem of the Jorie Graham variety — about the novel you’d rather be consuming. This humorless book whispers when you wish it would scream. Its sentences go soft, like noodles in a pot ... It’s not that Ms. Cline doesn’t possess obvious talent. She has an intuitive feel for the interiors of a 14-year-old’s mind, especially the way that Evie, with her fragile sense of self, becomes party to her own abasement at the hands of Russell, the charismatic cult leader ... Everything in The Girls is pre-elegized. Thesis statements jam this novel’s circuitry, as well. Ms. Cline has a good deal to say about how young women move through the world, except when she tells instead of shows. Then her book simply collapses.
PositiveThe New York Timest’s an unpretentious, truth-dealing, summer-weight novel — bought by Knopf in an attention-grabbing six-figure deal — that reads like a letter home from a self-deprecating friend...At the beginning there are gimmicky interpolated sections about things like the nature of sweet versus sour. You fear you may be headed into a genre fiction tunnel of love. Those fears are quickly dispelled. Ms. Danler is a gifted commenter (chilly autumn air in Manhattan 'tasted of steel knives and filtered water') on many things, class especially. An awareness of privilege runs through this novel like a tendon.
RaveThe New York TimesThe essays in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics arrive like shots of espresso, which you can consume the way the Italians do, quickly and while standing up. As slim as a volume of poetry, Mr. Rovelli’s book also has that tantalizing quality that good books of poems have; it artfully hints at meanings beyond its immediate scope ... Mr. Rovelli imparts a sense that we may have begun to wave farewell, and his book is a roll call of the scientists who have taken us so far, from Einstein and Niels Bohr through Werner Heisenberg and Stephen Hawking. Like us and everything else in our universe, they emerged from one small, dense hot cloud. These men’s intellects simply burned a bit brighter. The lessons in Mr. Rovelli’s book, as elegiac as they are incisive, do them justice.
PositiveThe New York TimesThere’s a radical kind of transparency to her work. Ms. Berlin has a gift for describing the intimate lives of her characters, many of them harried and divorced single mothers who have been, or are, addicted to strong drink or far worse ... She was unusually perceptive about working life, a subject that still gets short shrift in American letters. The title story, a near masterpiece, is told from the perspective of a woman who cleans houses, including those of her friends, to survive after her husband has died ... This book should have been better. The foreword by Lydia Davis and the introduction by its editor, Stephen Emerson, maddeningly overlap. Each says the same thing many times (basically, 'Look how talented my friend Lucia Berlin was') while skimping on what you really want, which is context and biographical detail ... This book would have been twice as good at a bit more than half the length. Ms. Berlin is a writer you want in your back pocket; this volume’s tombstone heft turns her into homework. Stories could have been omitted. In some she went in for twist endings you see coming a block away. She could veer toward melodrama.
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Morgan’s literary sins, if sins they are, derive from her muse, which appears to be almost too big to carry. Because she can do anything, she tries to do everything. In The Sport of Kings she has clearly written a serious and important novel if not a great one. She has constructed an enormous bonfire that never fully lights. What’s interesting about it is her almost blinding promise.
MixedThe New York TimesIf there aren’t many grace notes in his prose, neither is there much perceptive musical criticism. When Prince Charles presents Mr. McCartney with an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Music, for example, Mr. Norman writes, 'Never again would the classical music world be able to condescend to him.' Does Mr. Norman understand how condescension works? I don’t wish to be too hard on Paul McCartney: The Life. The story of its subject’s life from his childhood in Liverpool through the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 has lost none of its ability to charm. The first 400 pages relate, once more, one of the best stories the past century has to tell.
PositiveThe New York TimesYou can open to nearly anywhere in the first third of S O S: Poems 1961-2013, a career-spanning new collection of his work, and find fresh evidence of his capacities ... What’s best about Baraka’s verse is that this historical sensibility and sense of historical dread bump elbows with anarchic comedy ... S O S is the best overall selection we have thus far of Baraka’s work, but he is served poorly by it. The introduction by Paul Vangelisti, the volume’s editor, is an anthology of unforced errors. Mr. Vangelisti neglects to provide the most basic details of Baraka’s life, so these poems are shorn of context. He also writes academic jargon of the sort Baraka despised ... Baraka’s poems are filled with tantrums and sophistries, stances and dances. There are many, many deficiencies of coherence. Some make only the dead, clicking sound cars make in the frost. But others plant a hatchet in your skull that you won’t be able to pull out for weeks.
RaveThe New York Times[Graham's] new book, From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, is an important consolidation of her work. It reshuffles but does not essentially alter our sense of her verse, which has grown somewhat more political and environmentally minded over time. We watch the length of her lines expand and contract. But her voice has barely changed. This is a poet who, for better and sometimes worse, arrived almost fully formed ... Her poems tend to be difficult, but not in an academic sense. She leads you to the door of comprehension, often enough, only to close it on your ankle. To remain with her, you must be willing to suspend reason and allow her language to flow over you like a syntactic spa treatment.
Robin Coste Lewis
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Lewis arranges this material with genuine technical ingenuity, until its incremental emotional force begins to make you feel you have an elephant lowering itself onto your chest ... In the lesser poems in this volume, Ms. Lewis’s language can turn gauzy. In one poem we read, for example: 'Pray/the stars/are all the feelings.' This kind of thing is rare in Voyage of the Sable Venus, however. More often, her poems land with defoliating force.
RaveThe New York TimesThe first two-thirds of Blackout are simply extraordinary. Ms. Hepola’s electric prose marks her as a flamingo among this genre’s geese. She has direct access to the midnight gods of torch songs, neon signs, tap beer at a reasonable price, cigarettes and untrammeled longing.
RaveThe New York TimesHelen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative ... H Is for Hawk is good about death, about parents, about depression, about solitude and about keeping small cute, dead animals in your freezer to toss to your hawk. But it is especially good about class and gender.
RaveThe New York TimesGhettoside is old-school narrative journalism, told strictly in the third person. It’s as square as a card table. Yet the book is a serious and kaleidoscopic achievement ... Ms. Leovy’s greatest gift as a journalist [is] her ability to remain hard-headed while displaying an almost Tolstoyan level of human sympathy. Nearly every person in her story — killers and victims, hookers and soccer moms, good cops and bad — exists within a rich social context ... Ms. Leovy’s narrative has its share of clichés and mildly soggy moments, yet on the whole she’s a crisp writer with a crisp mind and the ability to boil entire skies of information into hard journalistic rain.
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Seierstad has read everything about Mr. Breivik and the case, interviewed everyone. (Her epilogue, about her methods, should be required reading in journalism schools.) She is determined to see Mr. Breivik, so much so that her steely approach put me in mind of something Roy Blount Jr. once said: 'If you won’t talk to me I’ll write about your face. If you won’t look at me I’ll write about the back of your head' ... The roughly 70 pages Ms. Seierstad devotes to it are harrowing in their forensic exactitude. She seems to note the trajectory and impact of every bullet Mr. Breivik fired ... It’s said that exact detail is uniquely helpful when it comes to mending after terrible events. If it is true, as Stephen Jay Gould contended, that 'nothing matches the holiness and fascination of accurate and intricate detail,' then Ms. Seierstad has delivered a holy volume indeed.
PositiveThe New York TimesNo pretension or flab here. Just sturdy verbs, a casual flowing power, tantric masculine reticence, a melancholy sense of a sidewise-drifting life, little humor. There isn’t a line the most mischievous critic could single out for ridicule. Barbarian Days reminds you, though, that not being able to find fault with something isn’t the same as loving it. This is a very long book with excellent things in it, but it can be like watching a brooding film that’s mostly fine cinematography. The characters (including Mr. Finnegan) only rarely squeak to life ... As both travel writing and memoir, Barbarian Days often slips into the horse latitudes between the ode to joy that is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the misanthropic wit that fills Paul Theroux’s accounts of his adventures. There’s little sting in its tail.
RaveThe New York TImesMr. Kinsley is now 65, with body more or less intact, and wits entirely so, if his superb new book is any indication. Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide isn’t really about Parkinson’s. It’s about aging in general. More specifically, it’s about how the baby boomer generation, which is now rounding third base like a herd of buffalo and stampeding for home plate (which is a hole in the ground, as the novelist Jim Harrison liked to say), will choose to think and act in the face of it.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
RaveThe New York TimesThere are moments in My Struggle: Book Five that drag. Once or twice, I wrote 'Help Me' in the margins and doubled down on the double espressos. These were small eddies in an onrushing river. The critic James Wood has captured my sense of Knausgaard: 'Even when I was bored, I was interested.' My Struggle is fundamentally a confessional work, and Karl Ove has admitted, in Book Three, that he is writing in part to exact revenge on those who pitied, dismissed or bullied him. He wants to return home a literary champion, someone who is impossible to ignore. As we await the concluding volume in this series, it’s a reminder, for those who still need it, that great impulses are not required to make great art.
PositiveThe New York Times[Schiff's] dark wit gives her stories genuine tensile strength, even when they misfire. She dips into her own braininess as if it were a bottomless trust fund...If these stories are not the real thing, they’re such a good imitation of it that the distinction is meaningless. Ms. Schiff has an almost Nabokovian boldness and crispness of phrase.
PositiveThe New York Times[T]his book’s depths reside in Mr. Berlinski’s rich portrait of a society, and his cool, probing writing about topics like sex, politics, journalism, race, class, agriculture, language and fear.
PositiveThe New York Times...a cooly observant book ... you couldn't have written a tastier ending, even for HBO.
PositiveThe New York TimesIn Arlene Heyman’s first book, the short-story collection Scary Old Sex, she pays such sustained and stylish attention to late-life lovemaking, however, that you may feel you are reading about it for the first time...A few of these seven stories don’t entirely work. Some sag somewhat toward the middle, like the insides of some of the thighs she describes. But Ms. Heyman is never an uninteresting writer.
RaveThe New York TimesWhat makes his book so intimate and moving is its human scale. Mr. Hochschild follows the paths of a handful or two of American (and occasionally English) volunteers, as well as journalists, and tells the larger story of the war through their tribulations ... [Hochschild is] a generally sympathetic observer of this conflict’s journalists, but he can also be stern. He criticizes the herd mentality that led journalists to miss one of the war’s biggest stories — how Franco’s side was propped up with oil delivered by Texaco, at the behest of an executive with Nazi sympathies.
PanThe New York Times...I’d be lying if I didn’t say that reading For a Little While mostly made me wish I’d left my fond memories of Mr. Bass’s work alone. Read in bulk, his stories begin to seem soft and similar and frequently shapeless. They drain the life from each other rather than striking sparks....Stories like 'Wild Horses,' 'In Ruth’s Country,' 'Pagans' and 'Elk' more than hold up. They display clarity and heart and moral vision, and glow like a well-stoked wood stove. Still, their heat can’t warm the entire structure of this long book.
RaveThe New York TimesThe writing in Greg Jackson’s first book of stories, Prodigals, is so bold and perceptive that it delivers a contact high. You know from the first pages that, intellectually, you’ve climbed into a high-performance sports car. Only one question remains: Will the author smash it into a tree?...Best of all there’s that sense — only the excellent ones give it to you — that whatever topic the author turns his mental LED lights toward will be powerfully illuminated.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe sorts of loneliness that can envelope you in a big city have been much explored in music and art and literature, where a plump blue moon is always shining down on someone. The British writer Olivia Laing, in her new book, The Lonely City, picks up the topic of painful urban isolation and sets it down in many smart and oddly consoling places. She makes the topic her own.
PanThe New York Times“In Other Words is, sadly, a less ecstatic experience for you and me. It’s a soft, repetitive, self-dramatic and self-hobbled book, packed with watercolor observations like: 'There is pain in every joy. In every violent passion a dark side.' That someone gets a lot out of writing something does not necessarily mean anyone else will get a similar amount from reading that thing.
RaveThe New York TimesWhat’s extraordinary about The Blue Touch Paper is how much intellection and drama and sensibility and wit Mr. Hare squeezes into the telling of his first three decades or so. This is no butterfly-watching stroll through a life. Mr. Hare is a man who seizes on details and ideas, and who writes as if words matter.
PanThe New York TimesChristopher Sorrentino grafts a halfhearted, Elmore Leonard-style casino heist plot onto what is fundamentally the mournful story of one man’s failures as a writer, a husband and a father. The result is something close to a disaster. The elements don’t mesh, and what we’re left with is what’s called, in the video game world, at least, a mutual kill: Each side is fatally damaged.
PanThe New York TimesThis is the sort of novel you find yourself reading aloud to those within earshot, because you can’t quite believe how often the autumnal-intellectual tone Mr. Pinckney searches for veers instead toward ripe nonsense ... Black Deutschland works best, and loses its hydroponic quality, when it is grounded in the soil of close observation. Mr. Pinckney is very good, for example, on the intricacies of race and class.
PositiveThe New York Times...a very good new collection of Mr. Hitchens’s work previously unpublished in book form.
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Greenwell writes long sentences, pinned at the joints by semicolons, that push forward like confidently searching vines. There’s suppleness and mastery in his voice. He seems to have an inborn ability to cast a spell.
PanThe New York TimesThis large volume, welcome though it is, is unwieldy. The excerpts from some of Mr. Hughes’s other books — The Fatal Shore, about Australian history, Goya, Barcelona, Rome — rest uneasily next to his criticism and more personal writing. Out of context, these lumps feel undigested.
Ed. Nile Southern and Brooke Allen
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewSouthern’s letters were antic, but they were also surprisingly unlettered and juvenile in an ur-Judd Apatow sort of way. (A lot of penis jokes.) He was not a close observer of people, in these letters, nor of his environments. He didn’t reveal much about his own life. There aren’t many facts to hang onto.
Iris Murdoch (Edited by Avril Horner & Anne Rowe)
PositiveThe New York Times...anyone who misses the regular appearance of new Murdoch novels will find plenty to enjoy and admire in these letters. They pitch us back into her cerebral yet vaguely surreal and magical intellectual world. Her mind, here as in everything she wrote, is formidable.
PositiveThe New York TimesThis is Mr. Moody’s best novel in many years. It’s a little book, a bagatelle, but it’s a little book of irony and wit and heartbreak.
RaveThe New York Times...beautiful and meticulous...Mr. Guralnick is the perfect man to tell this story.
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s a weakness of SPQR that Ms. Beard seems more eager to tell us what historians don’t know than what they do...You push past this book’s occasional unventilated corner, however, because Ms. Beard is competent and charming company. In SPQR she pulls off the difficult feat of deliberating at length on the largest intellectual and moral issues her subject presents (liberty, beauty, citizenship, power) while maintaining an intimate tone.
MixedThe New York TimesMs. Gaitskill is such a preternaturally gifted writer that nearly every page of The Mare shimmers with exacting and sometimes hallucinatory observation...As this novel moves forward, however, we begin to feel we’ve been here many times before. The Mare trots, in fairly docile fashion, along the path of nearly every sports-underdog story ever written.
PanThe New York TimesAvenue of Mysteries is to fiction, it can seem, as the Cirque du Soleil is to gymnastics. There’s athleticism and a degree of difficulty, for sure, in Mr. Irving’s storytelling. There are also a lot of sequins and canned melodrama and hammy showmanship.
Juan F. Thompson
MixedThe New York Timesa careful yet harrowing account of an offbeat childhood, and of a father-and-son relationship that grew very dark before it began to admit hints of light.
PanThe New York TimesEarly on, you notice a certain defanged quality. More alarming are the slack passages, the repetitions, the lack of anything truly fresh to say.
MixedThe New York TimesA few crucial topics feel underexplored. At various points in this memoir the author is at work on poems, or a novel. Yet he never says if one reason he wanted that remote house was simply to clear space to write. (He supported himself on meager savings.) The literary motive, if there is one, is left to the side.
MixedThe New York TimesSlade House is Mr. Mitchell’s shortest and most accessible novel to date, and you don’t have to have read The Bone Clocks to comprehend it. Readers who come to this book first, however, will get only a slivery glimpse of this writer’s talent. Our seats are the intellectual version of 'obstructed view,' as cheap theater tickets sometimes say.
PanThe New York Times“This is one of those novels in which digression piles upon digression until the digressions become the thing itself. You float on a raft of misdirection ... We get the author’s point. Life is easy for none of us and, as he might put it, funny how time slips away. But these events don’t resonate as they scroll past. It’s like watching someone stir plastic toads in an unlit caldron.”