RaveStar TribuneThis charming book explores how Denk became a master poet of music. At its heart, the memoir is about not the growth of the pianist but growth of the person ... When the author recounts powerful moments...he writes with both great emotion and restraint ... Sometimes the author tells personal stories from his youth in order to explain musical ideas. At other times, he uses musical conceits to animate larger human experiences ... This memoir is structured as carefully as a sonata. Following the harmony section comes a melody section ... The book\'s final section about rhythm explores the paradoxical nature of strict form in music.
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksUnfortunately, Nafisi’s decision to structure each chapter as a letter to her father is unsuccessful. She repeatedly addresses her beloved Baba, dead for more than a decade, in ways that are distracting and feel false...The device becomes more and more annoying as the book goes along ... She also tells us every time she refills her coffee cup, perhaps to lend her prose the chatty feel of a casual letter about books rather than a formal literary analysis. But the effort falls short; her repetition steals the reader’s attention from the actual ideas about which she writes ... would have been far more successful if Nafisi talked not to but about her father, a choice that would’ve allowed her to reflect more comfortably on his commitment to justice and resistance, as well as his love of literature and learning, both of which inspired her so deeply. In this sense, at least, the book is indeed a beautiful love letter to her father, the man who taught the author to read dangerously and to respond to the troubled world with an abiding sense of connection and hope.
RaveOn the SeawallA rigorous historical investigation and a thoughtful consideration of cultural context. Nevertheless, it is a novel ... Casey thinks about trauma in ways not dissimilar to how an academic historian might: as moments of pain and suffering to which human beings respond in unpredictable and sometimes creative ways. How Casey uses this information, however, differs from what historians would do: she uses the asylum records not as evidence but as an ignition for her prodigious imagination. In her novel, these women transcend the limits of the historical record — where they are all but silent and frozen — and become main characters fully alive in their complexity ... Casey’s subtle braiding of suffering and strength is the beating heart of this extraordinary work of imagination. The trauma her characters experience never becomes a pat explanation for personal difficulties or failures. Instead, these \'incurable women\' create complex selves always in motion — full of pain but also power, pleasure, and above all mystery.
Charles J Shields
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... sparkling ... Shields has carefully sifted through not only Hansberry’s play scripts but a wide array of her personal correspondence, allowing him to focus attention on aspects of the playwright’s life analyzed less rigorously in previous scholarship. The biographer’s framing of Hansberry’s life history within its historical context is one of the strongest features of the book ... One of the most brilliant aspects of Shields’s study is its nuance, a tone that is possible primarily because of the author’s willingness to grapple with the inconsistencies and even contradictions he finds threaded through his subject’s life.
MixedWashington Independent Review of Books... the most fascinating feature of The Latinist: the author’s creative construction of classical scholarship. Although most of Prins’ academic references are fictional, they are inserted into the real academic discourse about the Roman world ... Even more fascinating is that Prins invents his own supposedly 2nd-century poetry in not only English translation, but also in the \'original\' Latin ... Prins’ literalizing of what Tessa finds in her research (here and elsewhere) is clever and thought-provoking, although not fully convincing. The greatest weakness in the book is the inconsistent portrayals of the main characters. Tessa and Chris are given backstories designed to help readers understand them and sympathize with some of their behavior. Still, their motivations often remain unclear. Tessa is an especially confusing mix of extreme timidity and extreme aggression ... Prins’ novel is cleverly structured ... Prins’ analysis of the toxic relationship between advisor and student is nuanced and thoughtful. These links between the two main plotlines also unite what could easily seem like conflicting genres. Most of the time, The Latinist succeeds as both literary fiction and thriller; it is every bit as suspenseful as it is intellectually intriguing ... Disappointingly, the last few pages veer sharply away from that subtle brilliance. These scenes are boldly dramatic but unbelievable and simplistic, leaving readers unsatisfied.
PositiveLos Angeles Review of Books... [a] lyrical and deeply thoughtful memoir ... As Schulz begins her intensely logical analysis...the reader might be tempted to wonder if the author’s riff into these abstractions is simply its own kind of evasiveness—another way of looking away rather than reading the words in the pocket filled with grief. But Schulz’s intellectual meditation on the language of loss is not an effort to pivot away from pain. Instead, it is an effort to open grief up to a larger and deeper kind of engagement ... Schulz finds a series of deeply touching ways to honor and celebrate both the conjunction and continuity that her entwined experiences of losing and finding love have shown her ... This gorgeous memoir is heartbreaking and restorative all at once.
MixedThe Star TribuneThese four characters narrate the book in individual sections full of extremely personal perspectives. They rarely appear in the same scenes, narrating only through their internal monologues. The intense separation between the characters reinforces the novel\'s major theme of isolation. Perhaps the most significant dialogue in the book is when Kate, lying injured along the path through the moors, hallucinates a judgmental raven who voices both Kate\'s suffering and her yearning for freedom ... Moss\' short novel crystalizes our shared moment of global danger and allows us to observe its different facets. The book\'s ending, sadly, is not completely satisfying: After their traumatic experiences on the moors, the main characters don\'t experience personal transformations or have new insights. Perhaps, though, this limitation is exactly what Moss is trying to say: that the continuing pandemic, combined with the climate crisis, has stripped us of any hope for resolution.
RaveOn the Seawall[Merve Emre\'s] annotations illuminate how profoundly Woolf was responding to the experiences of illness and war in a novel full of both interiority and community, both suffering and life ... Emre’s annotations in this new edition of Mrs. Dalloway are both broad and deep ... many of Emre’s annotations are thoughtful explanations of how various critics and scholars have interpreted the novel ... These notes and insights alone would make The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway an exemplary edition, but Emre also includes crystalline moments of her own literary analysis. Sometimes she flags what she calls echoes — particular words or images that Woolf has used earlier in the book. These notes subtly point to the novelist’s careful structuring of the narrative ... The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway, with Merve Emre’s introduction and annotations, is its own kind of offering: an illumination of Woolf’s words that will bring the text to glorious life for today’s common readers.
RaveOn the SeawallOne of the most moving descriptions is of the town of Puerto Berrío where \'people go to the cemetery to visit the tombs of people they have never met\' ... What Salama has produced is not only a moving book about social and cultural survival in the shadow of environmental and political chaos but also a deeply lyrical and astonishingly mature piece of writing that will move its readers. This stunning volume heralds an exciting new voice in narrative nonfiction.
PanWashington Independent Review of BooksIn her subtitle, she implies that she’ll be explaining how the Victorian author was Changing the World. Unfortunately, her narrative does not address this feat. Instead, Tomalin sticks to a careful recitation of facts, often information Wells himself laid out in autobiographical writings and other publications. Some of these \'facts\' were merely Wells’ memories or interpretations made years later in public venues, but the biographer uses them uncritically to build her narrative ... In a strange editorial choice, she sometimes crafts elaborate defenses of Wells and overly aggressive criticisms of those around him ... Tomalin writes so uncritically of her subject that she seems almost blindly sympathetic to the self-absorbed young man ... what she doesn’t supply is any significant interpretation of Wells as a writer. Rather, she summarizes the main points of some of his work ... ... she refrains from presenting any discussion of how Wells’ writing might illuminate his interior life and thought process—an essential part of a literary biography.
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
PositiveThe Harvard ReviewThe title novella is by far the most compelling piece in Johnson’s collection. Although the accompanying short stories—also set in Virginia—explore stimulating questions about Black identity, several of them feel like assignments for a creative writing class on experimental styles of narration ... Although the short stories in Johnson’s debut are generally formulaic and underdrawn, the title novella’s resonant themes and smooth prose are powerful enough to make My Monticello a stunner. When Johnson turns her skill to longer-form and more developed work, she will be poised to make a major contribution to contemporary American literature.
PositiveOpen Letters ReviewMcCrum attempts to weave together themes from Shakespeare’s personal biography (although he acknowledges how insufficient our knowledge is on this topic) with a deep and personal engagement with many of the plays and poems. Occasionally the order of discussions is confusing ... The author assumes that readers will understand references from a wide variety of time periods and plays, embedded in a narrative that follows not chronology but instead a thematic structure. Despite that limitation, McCrum’s discussions of both Shakespeare’s biography and his plays are smart and full of not only thoughtful insight but great wit ... McCrum is at his absolute best as he describes the pleasure and excitement of watching various actors and theatres across the globe interpret these timeless plays and allow them to speak anew ... Readers who are searching for a strong analysis of Shakespeare’s plays might be better served by Emma Smith’s recent This is Shakespeare ... But Shakespearean shines because it provides an intensely personal and engaging account of life lived with Shakespeare at its core.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksIn Burning Man, Wilson seeks neither to condemn nor vindicate the author. Instead, she tries to understand D. H. Lawrence as a human being ... At first, readers may perceive her Lawrentian Divine Comedy as overly contrived. As the pages of the biography continue, though, the path mapped out by Dante often seems to be not only an insightful analogy but sometimes even a story that Lawrence himself might have constructed ... Wilson has shown in her previous biographies of Dorothy Wordsworth and Thomas De Quincey that she is both an innovative and a careful scholar. Burning Man proves her talents once again ... The book might not be easily understood or appreciated by readers unfamiliar with the life and work (both novels and nonfiction) of D. H. Lawrence. Nevertheless, it is certainly a book worth approaching after a bit of preliminary study ... Wilson (alongside other recent biographers such as Geoff Dyer and John Worthen) clears away the smoldering ashes and allows Lawrence, like a phoenix, to rise again for our time.
PositiveThe Star TribuneEvans\' book is strongest when she discusses the women hired to work aboard the ocean liners ... engaging and accessible. The author\'s \'celebration of the diverse journeys made by a number of intrepid heroines\' is put within the historical context of shifts in gender roles during the first half of the 20th century. Evans\' decision to investigate stories of enormous personal transformation is a fruitful way to explore the impact of broader social changes. Her claim that transatlantic travel was life-altering does seem overdrawn when applied to wealthy women taking lavish vacations—but for non-elite women, travel was much more likely to be that \'step into the unknown\' that Evans celebrates.
MixedThe Women\'s Review of BooksMidorikawa gives readers a simplified and overly romantic portrayal of heroic young women bravely fighting the patriarchy during an era of intense gender-based restrictions. At no point does she consider the idea that the women’s performances could have cast them—and potentially all women—as irresponsible and untrustworthy, or that their scams might have suggested that women in general were undeserving of financial independence and social power. Instead, Midorikawa states that our modern perspective might \'mean few readers today will trust in the feats supposedly performed by the famed mediums of the Victorian era\'. She argues that our contemporary view \'has led to [spiritualism’s] devaluing as a historical movement of significance\'...This argument needn’t be true. A thoughtful analysis of how spiritualism allowed women to present themselves in public (and sometimes even in political roles) does not require us to believe that they might have had supernatural talents or to accept that those women were heroes. In an era when our society has to fight every day against fake news and the rejection of the scientific method, authors who turn their complicated historical subjects into supposedly inspirational role models and heroines are doing both them and us a disservice.
RaveDeep South Magazine... a significant contribution to literary studies. In addition, this thoughtful book situates the novelist’s thinking about race and other issues within the historical context, providing a masterful analysis that will allow contemporary readers to approach Rawlings’ novels with increased understanding. Despite Rawlings’ initial acceptance of the prejudices of her day, she was at her best, as McCutchan shows, when she was writing about the beauty of her local environment and the deep humanity of all of its people.
RaveOpen Letters ReviewGreene combines this focus on context with a thoughtful and respectful discussion of the novelist’s emotional life ... not only tracks Greene’s travels but also provides detailed context for the political situations and atrocities in all the countries he visited. Because the novelist traveled so widely, much of the biography is taken up with contextual information almost unrelated to Greene’s interior life or his books. Richard Greene does point out when specific events from Graham Greene’s travels are reflected in his novels, but he is very careful not to overdraw links he sees between contexts and texts. Rather than simply discussing these travels as the novelist’s attempt to escape from his personal demons, Richard Greene shows subtly but repeatedly that the author was deeply committed to his work in support of dissidents, of oppressed people, and of people living in horrific conditions ... Greene’s sparkling biography will allow readers to appreciate the novels of Graham Greene in a fresh way.
RaveOpen Letters ReviewThe characters grow up in a world shaped by America’s long history of racism and sexism, but many are also living with personal grief ... Despite the seriousness of these themes, Danielle Evans writes with a great deal of stylishness and wit. Her short stories feel expansive despite their few pages, often taking readers through a series of surprising revelations and major plot twists inserted in unexpected places. These shifts can leave readers gasping as they race to keep up with the prose. The volume’s concluding novella has a more thoughtful pace and a more conventional in its narrative structure, but it is equally stunning ... Danelle Evan’s book will leave readers with their hearts exposed, eager to see what she produces next.
A. N. Wilson
MixedOpen Letters ReviewOften, Wilson uses well-known facts about Dickens’s life to help illuminate particular storylines from the novels. At other times, his speculations about the connections between life and art seem farfetched. Occasionally, Wilson uses particular characters or plotlines from the novels as evidence for what must have happened in Dickens’s life. For example, the biographer reads the frequent presence of inadequate mothers in the novels as evidence that Charles despised his mother Elizabeth Dickens, blaming her entirely for his difficult childhood. Perhaps Wilson is correct, but this kind of argumentation based upon instinct is neither elegant nor persuasive ... The Mystery of A. N. Wilson is why the author seems obsessed with ideas about Charles Dickens’ sex life ... the reader is left thinking that this biography has more to say about what Wilson took from Dickens’s novels than it does about whatever biographical reflections Dickens put in them.
PositiveThe Open Letters Review... the tone of Becoming Duchess Goldblatt feels quite honest ... There are times in the book when [the author\'s] portrayal of her situation borders on the self-indulgent. But then she begins to tell us more about her family of origin: a gentle father who died too young, her addicted brother with suicidal mental illness, her own selective mutism during her childhood years. Rather than merely overwrought self-pity, readers recognize that the author is suffering through intense despair ... a light and comforting read, perfectly pitched for these chaotic times. Although Duchess Goldblatt uses her quirky lovingkindness to bring people together, the memoir’s author feels that the character’s greatest gift has been to the author herself. Over time, Duchess Goldblatt has helped the author find her own voice, not just the spirit of her father. She speaks with a voice full of both wit and generosity. Although there are moments when this final claim sounds a bit maudlin, the book nevertheless reminds us that reaching out with open hearts, perhaps with the \'evergreen love of all humanity\' that Duchess Goldblatt has, brings deep meaning to our own lives as well as the lives of others.
RaveThe Open Letters Review\'Criticism and memoir have always been near neighbors,\' the author points out. Austen Years straddles the property line between the two neighbors brilliantly ... The chapters discussing Sense and Sensibility are especially powerful ... Cohen is not the only person to write about the personal experience of reading Jane Austen. She is attentive to the work of other literary discussions of Austen’s novels ... will appeal to lovers of Jane Austen, to those interested in memoirs about grief and mourning, and to all who recognize the companionship of literature. Readers who have especially enjoyed memoirs in the developing subgenre of personal literary criticism will be entranced by this graceful and deeply introspective book.
PositiveOpen Letters Review... lyrical ... [Doty\'s] literary relationship with Whitman is that of reader—but also that of student, lover, and finally mirror ... Doty recognizes—and helps us see—how much the poet is still part of the world of the living.
PositiveThe Open Letters ReviewAlthough the author suggests that Rebel Cinderella is fundamentally the story of a marriage, Hochschild paints a vivid portrait of the rise (and ultimate demise) of radical reform movements during the earliest decades of the twentieth century in the United States ... The title of this volume does a disservice to Hochschild’s thoughtful biography of Rose Pastor Stokes and her involvement in the American left. Her life was much more than a \'rags to riches to radical\' story. Even before she met Graham, she was an independent woman fighting for the lives of immigrant workers. In later years, she was willing to sacrifice not only her reputation but her financial standing and even her marriage in order to speak out against injustice. Rather than embracing a Cinderella change in her own fortune, Rose Pastor Stokes sought to overturn the whole system of inequality. Even if we might disagree with some of her tactics, this fine study offers us an inspiring example of passion and hope for the future.
PositiveOpen Letters Review... at once journalistic, philosophical, and personal ... Some of Kisner’s essays are stronger than others. One of the most powerful is \'Habitus\' ... ideas are integrated into a wildly layered essay ... \'Backward Miracle,\' is just as thoughtful and lyrical as \'Habitus,\' but is not nearly as unified or well argued ... Kisner’s essays illustrate that binary oppositions can often turn into meaningful unity. Wherever we see two completely separate worlds, we create true wholeness by breaching the gap.
PositiveThe Open Letters ReviewThe title of Jenn Shapland’s first book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, cleverly shows her goal of creating a genre-bending book, a combination of memoir and biography ... Shapland’s analysis of McCullers’s experience is well researched and gently persuasive. Her contemplation of her own life is both charming and meaningful. The most powerful aspect of this lovely book, though, is Shapland’s highlighting of the often-invisible link between biography and memoir. Although she does not argue that all biographers should include their own story as extensively as she does, Shapland shows that the assumptions and questions that writers (and readers) bring from their own lives to another person’s life history can dramatically change what we see.
MixedThe Open Letters ReviewThe greatest strength of These Fevered Days is Ackmann’s ability to convey with tangible immediacy the physical world of Amherst. Readers are drawn into the book partly because of its strong sense of place ... This immediacy is also the source of the book’s major flaw. Frequently, Ackmann’s interpretations are based less on written source material than on her belief that she can channel Emily’s spirit through her immersion in Dickinson’s world. She often writes as if she knows what the poet was thinking, based not on her academic research but on of her own knowledge of physical layout and a historical day’s weather ... Even when the biographer does provide citations, it is impossible for readers to evaluate the evidence since the letters are cited only by number, with no reference to their writers or recipients ... In addition to the author’s tendency to state her imaginings as if they were truth, Ackmann chooses not to engage with debates in the Dickinson scholarship ... Despite the intensely-readable prose, serious readers of Dickinson will be disappointed by Ackmann’s reticence to acknowledge both the complexity of scholarship and the limitations of extant evidence.