RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewSometimes Vargas Llosa resorts to what has become a signature technique, interleaving conversations that take place at different times, so that we see Trujillo, for example, simultaneously receiving Castillo Armas in his office and complaining about the Guatemalan’s ingratitude to Abbes Garcia. The effect is prismatic; the reader is caught up in the swirl of history, privy to secrets but also unbalanced, buffeted around ... The gravitational pull of Trujillo and his gang of monsters on the narrative is so great that the Guatemalan presidents, the well-meaning Árbenz and preening Castillo Armas, often recede into the distance as the author becomes consumed once again with the grotesque Dominicans ... a book with few heroes and many villains, pulled on by a pervasive undercurrent of despair ... Vargas Llosa has constructed a compelling and propulsive literary thriller, deeply informed by his experience as a public intellectual and a practicing politician. The Latin American novelist and the caudillo will always be mortal enemies, each one attempting to invent or dream into being a future that excludes or suppresses the other. In Harsh Times, Vargas Llosa has pulled back the curtain on a terrifying world of cynical realpolitik, and in a certain sense, has had the last word, demonstrating that no matter how powerful a dictator may be, ultimately his legacy will be shaped by writers.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)... ambitious and entertaining ... Taylor’s style is gentler, and he’s not concerned with capturing the truth of a particular historical moment ... Taylor leans in to the cliches, and usually manages to get beyond them, extracting some unexpected nugget of information, some gem of city wisdom ... Much of the pleasure of New Yorkers comes from a kind of sly parataxis, the rhetorical trope in which elements are placed side by side, without being overtly connected together ... a narrative montage of faces and perspectives that is pressed into the service of – what, though? There’s an implicit idea of the cosmopolis, the city that contains the whole world ... Taylor is a humanist – both in the sense of wishing to be of service to others, and in the sense of seeing a city as fundamentally about people. In one sense, the point is inarguable. What else would a city be \'about\' but the people who live there? But cities also have a non-human life as well, a life that demands to be thought of in terms of systems – of sewers and power lines, transportation, communication. Cities are ecologies. They’re surfaces over which power and control are distributed with varying intensities. People are also members of populations, through which viruses are transmitted...It’s not Taylor’s project to describe New York in this way, and the absence of this perspective isn’t necessarily a shortcoming of a book that admirably succeeds in what it sets out to do. It does, however, limit what can be said. Inevitably, in a book about New York, stories about development and gentrification loom in the background ... He does a fine job of telling the New York story, but the place doesn’t get into his blood. He doesn’t dream the dream.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... moving and confrontational ... a cascade of scenes and stories that vibrate with the stressful contradictions of an American Muslim life ... The many unacknowledged failures of American policy and the coarsening of popular attitudes form the matrix in which Akhtar’s stories grow. He has an unerring sense for the sore spots, the bitter truths that have emerged from this history ... Homeland Elegies is presented as a novel, Akhtar’s second, but often reads like a series of personal essays, each one illustrating yet another intriguing facet of the narrator’s prismatic identity. Like all autofiction, it induces the slightly prurient frisson of \'truthiness,\' the genre’s signature affect ... The reader’s experience of the book is one of fragmentation. Akhtar tells stories that fracture and ramify and negate. Sometimes they’re comic, like the visit to an absurd Sufi ceremony led by an Austrian heiress. Sometimes they’re wrenchingly tragic ... Akhtar arranges people and situations with a dramatist’s care to expose the fault lines where community or communication cracks. Sometimes, the pieces seem almost too carefully arranged ... The unease reaches a high pitch with the narrator’s trip to Los Angeles ... The narrator splutters that \'my favorite writers are all Jewish.\' The absurdity of this, essentially a version of \'Some of my best friends are Black,\' is like that of a punchline in a brilliant but queasy racial farce, one written to make the audience look away, and wonder when they’ll be able to leave the theater.
PositiveNew York Review of BooksGessen’s credentials as an observer of autocracy are impeccable ... Surviving Autocracy contains much that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the news over the last few years, but there is something about seeing all this in the aggregate that sharpens an edge of disgust lately blunted by relentless use. The book is a snapshot of how far American public life has been degraded ... Gessen also warns against conspiratorial thinking, including an overreliance on the narrative of a corrupting Russian influence on an otherwise untainted American political scene ... As a journalist, Gessen is inevitably preoccupied with the corruption of public discourse and particularly the rapid deterioration of the media’s ability to hold American power to account.
Johannes Anyuru, Trans by. Saskia Vogel
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewAs speculative fiction, They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears is only intermittently compelling. Anyuru’s rationale for the captured woman’s time travel is vague, and relies on a dimly realized subplot about neurological experimentation and torture in a Jordanian \'black site.\' The notion that the political destiny of Sweden is changed by the bookstore attack is never convincingly sold ... However, the novel has a powerful emotional core...The feeling of loss and betrayal is palpable ... Anyuru’s ability to imagine a thread connecting present-day exclusion to future atrocities makes this more than a genre entertainment. He has written a \'state of the nation\' novel for a country that seems to be losing faith in the civic values for which it is internationally admired.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewIt reads as a manifesto of sorts, a way for the author to assert his right to roam outside his ethnicity, and to justify the rest of his collection, which neurotically avoids the \'Vietnamese thing,\' taking the reader around the world in 80 days, with narrators of all ages and genders, before coming full circle in the title story — 40 pages of entirely unpostmodern realism about boat people suffering as they try to escape the new Communist state ... The Boat is transparently a product of the increasingly formalized milieu in which American writers train — a well-wrought collection that, in its acute self-consciousness, trails a telltale whiff of \'the industry\' that is its initial concern, of the \'heap of fellowship and job applications\' the fictional Le needs \'to draft and submit\' when he’s interrupted by his father ... Le is starting to grapple with the subtleties of authenticity, but one comes away feeling that it’s not really his subject, that he has a future as a very different kind of writer.
Positive4ColumnsThe Topeka School is preoccupied with the role of language in what we have come to call \'toxic masculinity,\' presenting various situations in which men refuse communication, or retreat to corrupt pseudo-communication (\'masculine gibberish\') instead of making an authentic attempt to bridge the gap with others ... in its focus on the corruption of public speech, The Topeka School is a timely book, very occasionally marred by the author’s wish to underline this timeliness ... It’s perhaps forgivable (what writer hasn’t got the smug tones of the current president stuck in their mind?), but it smacks of anxiety, the worry that perhaps the overloaded contemporary reader will need direction ... Lerner’s audacious ventriloquizing of his own parents extends autofictional invention in ways it would be tempting to describe as oedipal, were it not done with such evident sympathy and affection.
Haruki Murakami, Trans. by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
PanThe New York Times Book Review\"The novel offers some promising mysteries ... As historical secrets and hauntings begin to pile on top of one another, one has the sense of a writer throwing a lot of ideas against a wall in the hope that something will stick. The plot is full of melodramatic bustle, but its wheels spin without gaining much traction ... In Killing Commendatore, the narrator’s dreaminess mainly feels unfocused, and a story that might have been engaging at 300 or 400 pages is drawn out to almost 700 ... Killing Commendatore is a baggy monster, a disappointment from a writer who has made much better work.\
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Don Bartlett & Martin Aitken
Positive4ColumnsAt 1,156 pages, this final volume is sprawling and episodic. It is also a public performance, in that it was written as the drama around the publication of the earlier volumes was unfolding. There is a sense of the worm eating its tail or tale ... There are moving passages in the new book, notably a painful discussion of his wife’s bipolar disorder ... Book Six should finally put to rest the interpretation of the early volumes of My Struggle as the work of a \'noble savage,\' a deliberately artless or unmediated outpouring. Knausgaard is frank here about his artifice and more than happy in the realms of intellectual abstraction ... his explorations seem urgent, part of an attempt to present \'a man in full,\' to give weight to every part of his life, connecting his intellectual preoccupations to his domestic ones ... It is instructive to watch an attentive novelist sifting through what is known about Hitler’s hungry early years ... Knausgaard’s intention is not to recuperate or exonerate Hitler, but to suggest that presenting him as an immutable figure of evil, as Kershaw feels duty bound to do, is a sort of fictionalization ... By its nature, My Struggle—a vast text produced at a breakneck pace—is a patchy, imperfect book, but reading it is an unforgettable experience. Knausgaard’s presentation of self is not only a democratic assertion of the importance of an ordinary life, but also a major contribution to the scant literature of fatherhood.
Jordan B. Peterson
PanThe GuardianOnce the cloud of testosterone has cleared, the reader discovers that each of Peterson’s 12 rules is explained in an essay delivered in a baroque style that combines pull-your-socks-up scolding with footnoted references to academic papers and Blavatskyesque metaphysical flights...The effect is bizarre, like being shouted at by a rugby coach in a sarong ... Unfortunately, he is not a man who will be content with a heuristic when he thinks there’s a fundamental truth to be had. As a good student of Jung, he likes an archetype, ideally one he can ground in biology ... What makes this book so irritating is Peterson’s failure to follow many of the rules he sets out with such sententiousness...He is happy to dish out a stern injunction against straw-manning, but his 'Postmodernists' and Marxists are the flimsiest of scarecrows, so his chest-thumping intellectual victories seem hollow. He appears sincere, and in some ways admirable in his fierce desire for truth, but he is much less far along his journey than he thinks, and one ends his oppressive, hectoring book relieved to be free of him.
PositiveThe GuardianIf you spend your days glued to your phone and have 30 political tabs open on your browser, much of the material in No Is Not Enough will be familiar. The book’s chief value lies in synthesis. Klein’s particular background and expertise allow her to pull together the disparate threads of what it would be misleading to call 'Trumpism,' if only because of the unwarranted suggestion of system and control. How you view her political proposals will depend on your politics, particularly on the value one ascribes to what used to be called 'the extraparliamentary left' ... Klein’s book is ultimately optimistic, because she believes the power to make change lies in the popular will. She calls on us to recognise that this will has enemies, and they are making havoc.
RaveThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewThis is a book about self-consciousness … 10:04 feels like a significant book because it is so thoroughly inhabited by this yearning, and so abjectly conscious of the ways in which it falls short … Formally 10:04 belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer … At worst, this kind of writing can degenerate into something like an artfully curated social media feed, but Lerner writes with a poet’s attention to language, and manages to make his preoccupation with identity more than solipsistic…10:04 connects this anxiety about identity with metaphysical questions concerning time and repetition.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...the space mission, the alien and all the rest of the book’s extravagant conceptual furniture are merely metaphors for the human-scale issues that are its real concerns, in particular the collapse of Jakub’s marriage to Lenka. That’s not to say Kalfar hasn’t done his research. There are lovingly detailed passages on the mechanics of going to the toilet and cleaning your teeth in orbit, the dangers of muscle wastage and other minutiae of life in zero gravity, but all the whizzy space business is harnessed to the basic question of what it means to leave and whether it’s possible to come back ... Kalfar’s satire of Czech Communism treads familiar territory, which, being retrospective, lacks the urgency that this kind of writing used to have before the Velvet Revolution. But for all the strangeness of outer space, it is the writing about his home village, the place to which he longs to return and perhaps never can, that beats strongest in this wry, melancholy book.
PositiveThe GuardianThis cacophony, and the grotesquerie of the deformed spirits, lends the novel a texture that is superficially unlike the work that has made Saunders popular, stories that often play off the tension between a casual vernacular voice and a surreal situation. Lincoln in the Bardo feels like a blend of Victorian gothic with one of the more sfx-heavy horror franchises ... In Lincoln in the Bardo, the immense pathos of the father mourning his son, all the while burdened with affairs of state, gives these sections of the book a depth that isn’t always there when Lincoln is off stage. The busy doings of the spirits are entertaining, and Saunders voices them with great virtuosity, but the tug of Lincoln’s grief is sometimes too strong for them not to feel like a distraction ... Lincoln in the Bardo is a performance of great formal daring. It perhaps won’t be to everyone’s taste, but minor missteps aside it stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction, showing a writer who is expanding his universe outwards, and who clearly has many more pleasures to offer his readers.
Javier Marias, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa
RaveThe Guardian\"...Marías’s narration has a deceptively aimless quality, circling round apparently minor or inconsequential details that are gradually revealed to be integral to an extremely taut structure. As ever, Margaret Jull Costa translates his long, winding sentences into beautiful English prose, both erudite and conversational – a considerable stylistic feat ... a fusion of a coming-of-age story with something like a conspiracy thriller. As ever, with Marías, it is an arch and sophisticated entertainment animated by a probing moral intelligence, a demonstration of what fiction at its best can achieve.\
RaveThe Guardian...[a] fine, sad, angry book ... The stories he uncovers have a dreadful ordinariness. They don’t speak particularly to the larger political narratives around gun violence, and Younge doesn’t twist anything to make them so ... [an] important, timely book.
MixedThe GuardianAs more than one reviewer has pointed out, Vance’s stories of hillbilly pathology are peculiarly reminiscent of the 'welfare queen' stories deployed against black people during the Reagan years to justify his assault on the social safety net ... Readers looking to understand the class fault lines within white America will be enlightened by Vance’s narrative of class mobility, but as a guide to the new political terrain Hillbilly Elegy is uneven, and frustratingly silent about the writer’s real commitments.
PositiveThe GuardianLeovy touches briefly on the social forces that created LA’s ghettos – restrictive covenants on housing in more desirable areas, preventing sale to blacks, mass migration from Louisiana and Mississippi – but never deals with this history in depth. This is not a 'big picture' book about Los Angeles in the mode of Mike Davis’s magisterial City of Quartz. Instead, she adopts the familiar format of the police procedural, introducing us to a team of heroic hard-bitten detectives and narrowing her story down to one particular murder ... Leovy has sympathy for the dangers and difficulties faced by police, and while she acknowledges the LAPD’s brutal history, she sometimes soft-pedals the frank hostility of many officers to the people they are pledged to protect and serve ... what sets Ghettoside apart from the slew of factual police procedurals published every year, is a compelling analysis of the factors behind the epidemic of black-on-black homicide, and the beginnings of a policy prescription for tackling it. This makes Ghettoside an important book, which deserves a wide audience.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewBook 5 seems both more controlled and traditional in form than much of what’s gone before, following the conventions of the bildungsroman to tell the story of an unhappy young man who becomes a writer. Frequently bleak, it is also knowing and often extremely funny ... For those of us who have found My Struggle addictive, and want to claim it as a serious work, its shameful nakedness feels important, a kind of writing that asserts the raw value of the 'thoughts no one else has and which no one must ever know.' As Knausgaard puts it here, 'What emerged from this was myself, this was what was me.'
MixedThe GuardianIn many ways an accomplished novelist, Mahajan occasionally drives his penchant for arresting imagery off a cliff ... The author only intermittently brings his intelligence and considerable nuance to bear on the social and political currents in which the characters are trapped. Instead, he retreats into the default register of contemporary Indian literary fiction, a discreetly elevated realism devoted to the vicissitudes of life in the middle-class extended family. Mahajan is at his best when he heads out of this comfort zone to explore the ramifications of his assertion that 'a good bombing takes place everywhere at once.' The bomb’s impact is absorbed by the Khuranas, the Ahmeds and the quasi-familial terrorist cell, and too often the impact of the book is absorbed by its focus on family stories, dulled where it ought to be amplified.