RaveThe Christian Science MonitorAkhtar’s skill at dialogue is on full display here ... Akhtar circles seamlessly from his individual experiences, such as when he is racially profiled by police, to the larger social and economic landscape, tracing the corrosive effects of scorched-earth political rhetoric and late capitalism. Along the way, he tackles subjects as wide-ranging as the leveraging of debt, the corporatization of healthcare, the exorbitant cost of college, and a fascinating account of Robert Bork’s role in deregulating the U.S. financial system (and by fascinating, I mean appalling). Yet Homeland Elegies is less polemical than all this may sound, due to the richness of Akhtar’s characters and their varied journeys and fierce debates ... An incisive critique of American culture.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorGyasi excels at showing the interwoven nature of these evils [racism and prescription drug culture] and the stress they place on Black lives ... While these themes may not make for the lightest read, there is hope in Gifty’s journey and a call for empathy ... Gyasi’s portrayal of Gifty\'s spiritual journey is refreshing in that a negative experience with her church does not cause her to reject Christianity altogether, though she wrestles mightily with her faith ... Just as Gyasi unflinchingly spotlights the failures of evangelicalism, she casts an equally critical eye on the knee-jerk scorn with which atheists can sometimes treat religion ... Gifty’s relationship with her mother is also unusual and deeply affecting ... The only weakness of Transcendent Kingdom comes at its rather too-tidy conclusion, but this is a slight quibble in a novel that insightfully explores many pressing issues of our time, and in marrying science with faith, explores the limits and possibilities of both.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorBy turns historical fiction, fan fiction, and a novel of manners ... It’s a peculiar fantasy, but one that will resonate with readers who think Hillary got a raw deal, both in her marriage and in the coverage of her 2016 presidential bid ... The novel’s first section is uneven. Young Hillary’s narration can feel too self-aware ... hits its stride when it peels away from Hillary’s youth to envision what her life might have been as a law professor ... Sittenfeld shines at depicting these social interactions, with their inevitable moments of awkwardness, and how nuances of race, class, and gender come into play in relationships as well as in politics ... Hillary runs for president in this alternative universe, too, and once the race for the Democratic nomination started, I couldn’t put the book down. Part of the fun, despite some cringe-worthy moments, is in seeing what problems surface ... Sittenfeld gets at the heart of how media coverage of Hillary, tinged by everything from subtle sexism to outright misogyny, made the road to the presidency not just rocky, but riddled with land mines. Those obstacles would have been there no matter who her husband was, or which political rivals she faced ... There’s no possibility Rodham can give readers the satisfaction of a happy ending because whatever fate Hillary-without-Bill finds can only stand in contrast to our current reality.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorIn her latest novel, The Night Watchman, Erdrich’s blend of spirituality, gallows humor, and political resistance is at play ... Pixie’s forays into the woods, and her visions while exploring them, form the most evocative parts of the novel ... the novel feel[s] almost gothic in places ... We need more of these stories that recount collective resistance and the small victories that can accompany it, while also recognizing the toll they take (economically, physically, emotionally) on individuals and communities.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorMcCann’s fiction is wide-ranging and international in scope. Here his style takes on a modernist ethos in the vastness of his canvas and its multiplicity of angles ... The fragmented telling of Apeirogon is driven by McCann’s desire to foster understanding and ultimately, that elusive ideal: peace ... Readers are offered respite from the depictions of daily perils and struggles in the luminous descriptions of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ visit to Jerusalem or Bassam’s trip to England where he feels the pull of exile ... Apeirogon is a weighty read, yet it’s suffused with hope. Beyond the seemingly intractable problem of the Middle East, it speaks to the universal need to recognize the humanity of those who politicians would render merely the enemy.
MixedThe Christian Science MonitorSalman Rushdie’s Quichotte is a behemoth of a novel, and with reason. A postmodern dystopian tale, it tackles everything from global warming to the rise of white supremacism to the opioid crisis – which is to say, most of the ills of contemporary society ... Odd to say, though, Quichotte, despite how well it captured the opioid crisis, felt at times a bit … well, dated. I couldn’t help but think, hasn’t social media supplanted daytime TV as smartphones have overtaken televisions? Or, if TV is the drug of choice, isn’t binging by streaming more addictive and of the moment? Even stylistically, Rushdie’s writing can seem to me a bit tired (Quichotte was shortlisted for England’s coveted Booker Prize for Fiction, so my opinion appears to be in the minority). But the conflation of a fictional author and character, which hints at the slipperiness of the relationship between the real author and the characters he invents … wasn’t this postmodern territory sufficiently mined in the 1980s? ... That said, there’s much that feels absorbing and true in Rushdie’s latest work ...The way Rushdie handles racial animus, too, is as incisive and complex as in his earlier fiction ... As is too often the case, what’s most disturbing is the way the craziness and violence of the actual world today can threaten to outpace even fiction like Rushdie’s.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorWaldman does an admirable job of keeping multiple balls in the air. Her characters are fully realized individuals, as morally complex as the choices facing them ... The author is as deft at painting the physical landscape of this mountainous region as she is in drawing the interior landscape of her characters—and at showing where these collide with international and local politics ... A Door in the Earth is especially pointed in exposing the dangers of a \'white savior\' mentality ... One of the pleasures of the novel is discovering Muslim women characters whose voices are varied and witty, and who are, in the best sense, ordinary ... Waldman is that rare novelist who writes from both the head and heart, combining high moral seriousness with moments of irony and humor. In A Door in the Earth, she has created a novel as moving as it is provocative.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorDoes the world need Pride and Prejudice and Muslims? Indeed, it does – at least, it needs Jalaluddin’s version, which is full of wit and verve and humor ... packaged as chick lit, with a silhouetted face with a dash of lipstick, around which swirls a purple hijab on its golden cover, but that’s just the book’s mask – and this is a book that’s all about the masks we wear to protect ourselves or please others. Where the novel shines is as \'immigrant lit,\' painting a nuanced portrait of an immigrant community and exploring themes like the intergenerational conflicts that can arise around tradition and assimilation ... light and incandescent and deeply pleasurable from start to finish. You know it’s a good book when it’s obvious from the start who is going to get married, and yet you still can’t stop reading.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorGilbert, through the now-mature Vivian’s narration, takes pains to delineate the difference between the legitimate shame and remorse Vivian feels for the way she has hurt others, while condemning the humiliating double standard to which women are subjected ... It’s interesting to consider the theme of spiritual growth as an individual path of self-reflection and accountability, rather than following socially sanctioned rules. It’s a thread that runs through Gilbert’s writing and is part of what made Eat, Pray, Love so wildly popular. While I am all for this message, fiction generally works best when it isn’t overly message-driven, as Gilbert’s novel is at times ... The occasional sense of being lectured to was off-putting at times, and isn’t helped by the conceit that mature Vivian is recounting her story to a reader to whom she wishes to impart wisdom, a person whose relationship to Vivian is revealed late in the book ... captures a world and will keep readers turning pages to see what’s in store for young Vivian, not to mention exploring the importance both of owning our mistakes and forgiving ourselves as well as others.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorSzalay, who lives in Budapest, Hungary, but was raised in England, has captured this paradox of the post-postmodern era through a novel that circumnavigates the globe with lightning speed ... Turbulence is somehow light yet also quite moving, offering readers deep, empathetic connections with men and women whose lives differ dramatically from those of one another. Szalay’s range is impressive, given the tendency of many novelists to circumscribe their stories within a particular culture or social circle, usually the one most familiar to them. By contrast, Szalay draws his characters from a variety of nationalities, economic circumstances, religious identities, and stages of life, yet all are distinct individuals who are entirely believable and captivating ... That he does so with such economy is what makes Turbulence masterful.
MixedThe Christian Science MonitorIf Fly Girls has a weakness, it’s in its delivery. O’Brien’s intent is clearly to give context, but it needed paring down. New characters, disorientingly, appear throughout. I regularly found myself scrolling back, looking for something that would tip me off as to why I was immersed in pages of long descriptive passages about someone or something…a male pilot, a plane manufacturer, a men’s race…as crashes, competitions, and mechanical failures began to merge together. And, call me squeamish, but I didn’t need to know all the particulars about how the bodies of downed pilots were crushed in the cockpits ... Even so, much of O’Brien’s reportage is valuable, as is his analysis of the bias the pilots faced ... The slice of history Fly Girls covers, even as it could seem like ancient history, is apt to reflect on now, given its relevance to the pattern of how American women’s bodies have historically been \'grounded\'—as a way to understand the moment we are in, and, one hopes, find a way out of it.
Dunya Mikhail, Trans. by Max Weiss
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorMikhail’s book serves as testimony for the victims of ISIS (known in the region as Daesh) who have been brutalized physically and psychologically. Giving voice to the voiceless, she devotes much of The Beekeeper to transcribing the stories of the Yazidi women of northern Iraq who have been driven from their homes, sold into sexual slavery, and yet, remarkably, survived ... Everyday heroes populate this landscape, many of them Muslim – that is, regular observant Muslims, not the twisted fundamentalist version that Daesh promulgates ... Mikhail draws out historical parallels as well in displacement resulting from ethnic cleansing, whether in the persecution of Jews, Christians, or Muslims (see Myanmar). Hauntingly, she recalls her grandmother’s best friend, driven out of Baghdad after the Farhud, a pogrom in 1941 when Jews from communities established since the sixth century were murdered during two days of riots ... When Mikhail pauses to reflect on her own experience, she captures the idiosyncratic grace of the world around her, showing herself an acute observer of its oddities and beauty ... Her book compels us to listen to these voices and not change the channel. It compels us to open our doors wider to refugees.
RaveThe Christian Science Monitor\"Sittenfeld is at her best where gender meets class, trafficking in the minor humiliations of fictional women who often self-sabotage, or at least overthink. Yet her stories are not polemical ... Sittenfeld’s characters are grown-ups, neither saints nor sinners. Instead, she shows how privilege can lead to \'likability,\' whereas facing diffuse unverifiable biases can lead to a kind of petty insecurity ... These insights may seem dark, but Sittenfeld’s writing is also terribly funny.\
PanThe Christian Science MonitorThe signatures of Rushdie’s fiction all appear – motifs of migration and reinvention, tortured father-son relationships, mythology, an intrusive, philosophizing narrator – yet tend to fall flat because while times have changed, Rushdie’s writing has not, making The Golden House feel like a rehash of old themes with a 21st-century gloss. When Rushdie’s groundbreaking novels Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses appeared in the 1980s, his playful skepticism towards universal 'Truth' felt edgy and postmodern, especially coming from an Indian writer grappling with the legacy of British colonialism. These days, however, suggesting truth is malleable, as Rushdie-via-René does, raises the specter of Holocaust deniers, climate change skeptics, and 'alternative facts.' It feels less playfully irreverent than irresponsible ... The true moral of The Golden House is that there’s a price to pay for fame. It was once a literal price on Rushdie’s life, intended to curtail the power and freedom of his writing. His tragedy now is no longer the threat of a career cut short, but the more banal one of a creative vision narrowed by the blinders of his own success.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorWorsley covers familiar ground but also offers some distinct angles, emphasizing how middle-class women’s obligatory roles as household managers limited Austen in contrast to the broader possibilities of professions pursued by men of her class, highlighted through the lives of Austen’s brothers ... This is a Jane Austen with agency, embodying contemporary values of choice, intimacy through friendship, and fulfillment through creativity ... Biographies say as much about the culture in which they’re written as about their subject, and Worsley’s is no exception. In telling a compelling story of Jane Austen’s life, she also sheds a bracing light on contemporary debates about women’s public voices, domestic lives, and the importance of home.
MixedThe Christian Science MonitorMiss Burma is an ambitious novel, and perhaps for that reason, it falters at points. It’s generally hard to marry a novel to a strong political agenda and have it come out unscathed ... In fairness, Craig is drawing from her family’s history. On the other hand, her choice to fictionalize this history gives her license to do a little editing, from which the book might have benefitted. Yet, overall, Miss Burma is powerful in showing the relentless effect of the political on the personal while covering an important swath of history – and all the while telling an awfully good story.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorMbue’s novel is also a distinctly New York story, and in her descriptions of the life of the city, the prose grows luminous ... Mbue handles American’s racial landscape deftly ... That aspects of the Edwards family feel a bit stock is a slight weakness...But the Jonga family is rich and engaging in the complexity of the characters.
MixedThe Christian Science MonitorWhat Nicolson suggests, without dwelling on it, is the difficulty of forging strong, healthy mother/daughter bonds in cultures so twisted by patriarchal law ... Nicolson can seem oddly removed, even from herself, so readers may be left feeling something was missing. Perhaps it’s hard not to self-censor when your children and ex-husband are still around. But in the end, what Juliet Nicolson has found is clarity and compassion for her own mother, and all her female forebearers, as well as a note of hope in the lives of her daughters and granddaughter.
MixedThe Christian Science MonitorAs a reader, it’s sometimes hard to root for Streep, who seems always to be the most beautiful, talented young woman in the room. Yet Schulman provides such vivid examples of the relentless sexism she faced, that Streep emerges as a hero both for speaking her mind and fleshing out two-dimensional female characters...The one oddity of Her Again is what it emphasizes and omits. Streep’s high school years drag out unnecessarily, and Schulman slows the action down when describing the Oscars where Streep won for The Iron Lady and for Kramer vs. Kramer, presumably for dramatic effect. It feels a bit artificial to dwell on these sections, only to cut the book short before Streep’s casting in pivotal films like Silkwood or Sophie’s Choice. And after his in-depth look at her relationship with Cazale, Schulman’s treatment of her marriage to the sculptor Don Gummer and her experience as a mother of four feels slight.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorBrontë’s life bore little resemblance to Jane’s, but was in its own way as gothic, providing fuel for her novels. Literary biographer Claire Harman’s retelling of those events in Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, published to coincide with the bicentennial of Brontë’s birth, is an irresistible read even for those familiar with her story.
Joyce Carol Oates
MixedThe Christian Science MonitorA storyteller first and foremost, Oates’s entre into memoirs seems at times less comfortable than her fictional inventions.