Heller McAlpinHeller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
RaveThe Washington PostA Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety...it’s a freewheeling essay collection that’s a fitting coda to a distinguished career ... Much in this collection is familiar, including stories about his grandparents’ 1803 New Hampshire house at Eagle Pond Farm, owned by his family since 1865 ... Hall, who spent decades exploring the poetry of death, was sanguine about mortality. In A Carnival of Losses, he considered life’s roller coaster between desolation and joy ... Hall may have reached his roundhouse but not before bequeathing readers with this moving valedictory gift.
PositiveNewsdayClock Dance runs with well-calibrated efficiency; it pulls you right in and keeps on ticking. Like many Tyler novels, including her most recent...it spans decades in the life of its sympathetic main character. It is also filled with Tyler’s wry perspective on appealingly quirky, so-called ordinary people ... The setup is ripe for sly commentary on human behavior, as willing Willa and petulant Peter move into Denise’s shabby house. No surprise: Willa connects easily with preternaturally capable little Cheryl, who has learned to compensate for her mother’s shortcomings, just as Willa did with hers. Tyler tries to keep their relationship crisp, but she doesn’t always win the struggle over mawkishness ... Once again, she throws light on the human condition by zeroing in on the quotidian concerns of people living quiet, unassuming lives in small, tightknit communities and makeshift, unconventional families.
RaveLos Angeles TimesThe Cost of Living, the second volume of her \'working autobiography,\' confirms that this is a writer who has found her voice and her subject, and both speak directly to our times ... The Cost of Living is concerned with not just how to write, but how to live. Levy asks questions that evoke Sheila Heti’s semi-fictional novel, How Should a Person Be?: \'What is a woman for? What should a woman be?\' And more pointedly, what does it take for a woman to be the main character in her life? ... Levy’s radar for sexism is acute. She chides close male friends who fail to refer to their wives by name, and flags the self-absorbed men she encounters at parties and on trains. Her deconstruction of a conversation overheard in a bar between a man and the young woman he’s trying to pick up is rich ... She begins and ends her story at just the right points, with plenty of astute observations in between.
PositiveNPRMy Year of Rest and Relaxation is her hyper-articulate account of this disturbing, ultimately moving \'self-preservational\' project ... Much of the novel\'s action consists of popping pills — a buffet of more than two dozen name brand meds. This quickly gets tiresome, and more soporific to the reader than the narrator, but Moshfegh raises the stakes ... Moshfegh\'s sharp prose provides a strong contrast to her character\'s murky \'brain mist\' ... Moshfegh knows how to spin perversity and provocation into fascination, and bleakness into surprising tenderness.
PositiveNPRPhillips\' new novel is a mesmerizing, atmospheric story ... questionable is his choice, in this consummately literary novel, to write about Rhys\' literary career only glancingly. He altogether elides her life-changing relationship with the writer Ford Madox Ford ... This omission is particularly puzzling given that writing saved Jean Rhys, who remains of interest precisely because she was able to channel her uneasy childhood, repeated disappointments in love, and miserable self-abasement and alcoholism into her fiction ... Phillips\' view of the empire at sunset is not a pretty one. Social and racial stratifications and resentments cloud the atmosphere ... Yet there\'s beauty aplenty in Phillips\' supple, often sensuous prose. Views from train windows of mist-shrouded farmland provide a pronounced contrast with the humid, blazing heat of Dominica, yet both express far more than climate.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble Review\"Tommy Orange’s There There is one of those remarkable debuts that doesn’t come around too often: a groundbreaker. It’s a furious, eloquent, propulsive, multi-voiced portrait ... among Orange’s achievements in this powerful, polyphonic, \'hella sad\' novel is to locate the missing \'there\' — by painting a disturbing but compassionate picture of how historical displacement has reverberated in the lives of a group of descendents of indigenous Americans in contemporary Oakland ... With There There, Tommy Orange has certainly done his bit, not only keeping history alive but adding a significant new chapter to Native American literature.\
RaveNPR\"Cusk ends her unusual project brilliantly — after hundreds of pages of talk — with a powerful, vaguely threatening encounter that unfolds in silence yet speaks volumes ... In a world where most conversation is banal and repetitive and most people talk past each other, Cusk has created the ultimate, consummate listener. She has filled three books with the confidences her deliberately self-effacing narrator elicits from the people she meets while going about her daily business ... Cusk\'s narrator is less needy of life lessons, and even less of a presence. Her marked silence, and the convoluted confessions she provokes, frequently strain our patience or credulity. Where Transit left us looking forward to more, Kudos leaves us grateful that Cusk planned this as a trilogy and not a quartet ... a surprising, provocative finale — more exclamation point than full stop — which captures the wary standoff between the sexes that runs through these three novels. It also aptly underscores just how daring and remarkable a literary feat Cusk\'s trilogy is.\
RaveNPR\"The 21 entries in Sedaris\' winning new collection — not quite half of which are previously unpublished — are now called stories as opposed to personal essays ... Sedaris demonstrates yet again what makes him the best American humorist writing today: A remarkable ability to combine the personal with the political, the mundane with the profane, slime with the sublime, and hilarity with heart.Reading Sedaris\' family stories is like tuning into a spectacularly well-written sit-com.\
PositiveThe Washington PostDeath casts its shadow in much of Trevor’s work, including these final tales — several of which involve characters who have lost spouses or parents. Yet aging and mortality are still not the central focus. What stands out is the acceptance of loss, reduced circumstances, constraints and even pervasive loneliness. Not just resignation but peaceful acceptance, which is more positive ... Partway through this sobering valedictory collection filled with lonely people, the lyrics to the Beatles’ \'Eleanor Rigby\' started playing in my head ... Loneliness, even more than mortality, may well be the aspect of the human condition that struck Trevor most forcefully in the end.
RaveNPRMcCauley is a master of the charm offensive — social criticism (from a decidedly liberal point of view) sweetened with wit. Some one-liners, like Julie\'s attitude toward extortionate divorce settlements, are positively Wildean, although underneath there\'s a serious message about scruples ... In the vein of inveterate beguilers like Laurie Colwin, Elinor Lipman, and Maria Semple, McCauley is warm but snappy, light but smart — and just plain enjoyable. His purview is not the big issues like race, intolerance, and poverty, but life\'s hiccups and fumbles. He understands the lure of cozy domesticity — and the absurdity of too many throw pillows. And once again, in My Ex-Life, McCauley never lets you forget that love truly is a many-splendored, not easily categorizable thing.
MixedNPR\"Like The English Patient, Warlight\'s concern is with the wages and repercussions of war, again addressed in a narrative that involves morally ambiguous espionage, pieced together and revealed gradually, bit by tantalizing bit ... The murkiness, camouflage, and subterfuge add intrigue and atmosphere to Warlight, but many of the characters remain hazy, sometimes frustratingly so, as if you were trying to make out their features through sunglasses at night. The thwarted love story Nathaniel imagines for his self-contained, forever strategizing mother falls far short of the intense, aching passion and loss at the heart of The English Patient ... With Warlight, Ondaatje gives us another reminder of the long dark shadow cast by war.\
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"Curtis Sittenfeld has a keen ear for insidiously withering remarks and an abiding empathy for their vulnerable targets. Her first collection of stories may not be groundbreaking but the 10 tales in You Think It, I’ll Say It are impressive nonetheless, at once psychologically acute, deftly crafted and deeply pleasurable ... Sittenfeld has a bead on the insecurities and bruised feelings that linger decades after high school. She’s particularly attuned to women who still feel the residue of pain from not having been pretty or cool enough to have landed on the popular kids’ mattering map ... You Think It, I’ll Say It is filled with tales that take us in surprising directions, causing characters — and readers — to re-examine their assumptions, pieties, elitism and bad behavior.\
PositiveNPRIn a year that hasn\'t exactly been full of joyful tidings, Julian Barnes\' latest novel struck me as one of the saddest books I\'ve read in some time. Beautifully done, but heartrending ... The Only Story is about looking back on a life and trying to make sense of what happened. It\'s a heavier, less suspenseful read [than The Sense of an Ending], with a focus on love rather than death. It\'s also a far more interior and tormented tale ... The Only Story is about losing control, but also, losing the ability to lose control.
RaveNPR\"Dean\'s literary bash is as stimulating and insightful as its roster of guests. She not only encapsulates their biographies and achievements with remarkable concision, but also connects the dots between them ... Like Elif Batuman\'s The Possessed, Sharp makes literary criticism accessible and lively. The book\'s topicality, combined with Dean\'s astute analyses of her subjects\' lives and vinegar-sharp wit, should appeal to more than literary wonks ... Sharp is a wonderful celebration of some truly gutsy, brilliant women.\
PositiveNPRBy pursuing her tales of woe beyond riffs and rants, Crosley elevates these foibles above the anecdotal ... Sanctimony is toxic to personal essays, and Crosley wields its antidote, self-deprecation, with the skill of a practiced EMT ... Crosley's best essays combine her sparkling verbal facility with a willingness to expose and explore more personal issues ... There are several negligible pieces whose inclusion hints at a desperation for material, but her two ventures into personal medical history are keepers ... She has that rare ability to treat scrapes with sardonic humor and inject serious subjects with levity and hijinks with real feeling — a sort of unlicensed nurse to our souls.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble Review\"...there’s more to Wolitzer’s fiction than timeliness. Much like her last book, The Interestings, her latest is an absorbing read that follows a handful of uncommonly sympathetic characters as they charge and muddle through decades of their lives, exploring their changing relationships with each other and their evolving attitudes towards what constitutes a successful, fulfilling life ... The Female Persuasion is a big book with room for multiple dualities in its pages: disillusionment along with inspiration, compromises along with dreams, vulnerability along with strength, betrayal along with loyalty, and heartache as well as joy. It is an earnest, heartening reminder of the importance of learning to navigate all these states and never give up — even when the situation seems particularly bleak and demoralizing.\
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewThe Italian Teacher is about more than art and commerce. At its core beats one of literature’s perennial themes: the paternal ties that bind, sometimes to the point of choking ... The Italian Teacher trots along at an engrossing clip, occasionally devolving into the ridiculous ... A more bothersome misstep is Rachman’s habit of baldly spelling out his characters’ thoughts in italics, not trusting us to glean them if stated less directly. Fortunately, he handles questions about art, craft, authenticity, identity, aesthetics, meaning, and value judgments with more subtlety ... Should exceptionally gifted people 'get to live by different rules?' Rachman’s response is exceptionally clever.
PositiveNPR\"Voice is key in a monologue, and Sarvas\' narrator does raise doubts. His long, self-lacerating monologue is filled with portentous hints about what\'s to come, including in his relationships with his stunning blonde fiancée, a swimsuit model, and his devout lawyer. The tone feels fusty for a thirty-something, and overly erudite for a mediocre student who quit college his freshman year, even taking into account his efforts to \'plug up the potholes\' of his \'scattershot education.\'\
RaveNPRHollinghurst's sixth novel is epic, elegant, and intricately constructed ... As we've come to expect from the Booker-winning author of The Line of Beauty, Hollinghurst builds an intricate web of relationships with stately Jamesian precision and nuance. The Sparsholt Affair is filled with what Johnny, describing some Whistler paintings, calls 'small miracles of observation' ... Hollinghurst, who has tread the line between satire and sentiment in all his novels, understands that the truth lies somewhere in between, and knows how tricky it can be to find the right balance. In The Sparsholt Affair, he has tilted toward the heartfelt, to moving effect.
PositiveNPR...a lovely quasi-memoir and multi-leveled portrait of Dublin ... Time Pieces has much more to it than nostalgia and regrets. It's an inquiry into memory, shifting attention, and, above all, inexorable time, that ultimate unfathomable ... [a] shimmering, meandering, frequently beautiful but somewhat elusive book.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"If you like to make a meal out of ungarnished facts, stick to the history books. But White Houses serves up a plate piled with delectable trimmings ... Rather than channel Eleanor’s well-known voice, Bloom makes the fortuitous decision to have Lorena Hickok tell her story. She’s a terrific narrator, brash, funny and opinionated as all get-out ... White Houses occasionally slides off-piste, with overly long digressions about a traveling freak show and a desperate face-saving scheme by a gay Roosevelt cousin. Although she’s a generally reliable narrator, Hick’s report of her last conversation with FDR doesn’t ring true. Yet her overall assessment certainly reverberates ... with its adoring portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, White Houses reminds us what true greatness looks like. It also demonstrates that the god of love has yet again found a welcoming hangout in Bloom’s bighearted fiction.\
MixedNPRMacy throws her characters together in the crucible of a small, tony Upper East Side preschool. The novel opens brilliantly, with the makings of a terrific screenplay … Mrs. is fueled in part by scorn and Schadenfreude, but it might appeal most to the self-absorbed strata Macy mocks – or those who found Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue fascinating. The plot relies on too many small world coincidences, some of which are easier to buy than others, but it'll keep you turning pages anyway … I have mixed feelings about the ending — I'm being careful not to say too much — which plays with readers' expectations and hopes.
RaveNPRAs its title suggests, its pounding pulse is ultimately life-affirming. It's an extraordinary book, a reminder that while life has its limits and can be unpredictable, we should push against limitations and not give in to fear ... I Am, I Am, I Am is filled with lessons the rest of us would be wise to heed. Mortal threats are more common than we think, her book demonstrates, but you can't let them stop you from experiencing life to the fullest.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewLisa Halliday’s cunning tri-part novel is one of the most exciting debuts I’ve read in a long time. Asymmetry works on several levels, beguiling readers with two absorbing, seemingly unconnected narratives while exploring questions about what literature can do to transcend our personal experience and 'reduce the blind spots' in our lives ... we come to realize that Halliday’s book, like so many first novels, is about searching for one’s place in the world. What isn’t like so many first novels is the assurance and brilliance with which she manages this.
RaveNPRI was drawn to her [Sigrid Nunez\'s] sixth novel as a fresh addition to the literature of grief, but within pages realized The Friend has as much to say about literature as about grief, and was wondering how she\'d slipped below my radar ... Nunez deftly turns this potentially mawkish story into a penetrating, moving meditation on loss, comfort, memory, what it means to be a writer today, and various forms of love and friendship — including between people and their pets. All in a taut 200 pages ...a mini-Nunez festival for me, which offered ample evidence that it\'s no fluke. In fact, this nuanced, exceptionally literary novel about devotion is a natural outgrowth of Sempre Susan...\'The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living?\' As her narrator confronts multiple losses, Nunez\'s affecting novel probes the issue closely.
PositiveNPRProctor probes their parallels and differences in spare, careful prose, while also examining the very act of telling stories ... Proctor's essays fold time in on itself in order to explore the ways in which past and present overlap and merge. The non-linear form is particularly well-suited to her explorations of sensitive subjects like broken bonds and self-sabotage, which are more comfortably approached gingerly, from multiple angles. But her heavily redacted narrative, however artful, sometimes feels evasive. While expressive of her self-declared commitment issues in a way that a tightly straitjacketed chronological memoir would not be, readers may wonder about what's been elided ... Her remarks about the ending of Godot offer a wry commentary on the state of Minna Proctor in her darker moments: 'The characters are left staggering off the stage, alive to wait another day. It's a sad journey without a grail.'
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleAdultery may be a tale as old as time, but Quatro’s take is freshly urgent, as she grapples with themes of desire, sin, commitment, guilt and renunciation while writing frankly about both marital and extramarital sex. Thorny theological issues and literary allusions to writers ranging from John Updike and Lydia Davis to Sharon Olds and Linda Gregg underpin the novel … Quatro’s fiery metaphors rage through the pages, as hard to contain as the recent California conflagrations, beginning with epigrams from Buddha’s Fire Sermon and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land … The result is an impassioned, deeply moral exploration of devotion and ‘what’s waiting on the far side of fidelity.’
RaveNPRAli Smith is flat-out brilliant, and she's on fire these days ... Winter follows on the heels of Autumn — naturally. But aside from an exquisitely subtle link, the two books share concerns rather than characters or storylines and can be read separately. Their point of connection, so understated it's easy to miss, demonstrates yet again Smith's skill at revealing surprising relationships between seemingly disparate narrative threads ... You can trust Smith to snow us once again with her uncanny ability to combine brainy playfulness with depth, topicality with timelessness, and complexity with accessibility while delivering an impassioned defense of human decency and art.
PositiveNPRAt the heart of This Could Hurt is Rosalita Guerrero, a character Medoff clearly loves. A demanding but galvanizing torchbearer, her work is her life. Among the tradeoffs she's made for her brilliant career: A family … The narrative bounces along briskly between Medoff's cast of challenged corporate deputies, though it's occasionally slowed by redundancies when we get the same story from slightly different perspectives … Yes, it's a bit sappy, but let's not knock compassion. Ultimately, Medoff's book is about finding oneself — and satisfaction — in a combination of absorbing work and personal relationships.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble Review...[a] remarkable, quietly devastating last book ... Spy of the First Person is, among other things, a paean to family ... This slim posthumous volume is a more coherent, urgent, and moving work of autobiographical fiction [than The One Inside]. It packs a punch, and not just because we know the circumstances under which it was written, or that it’s his last. There are things Shepard wants to say, and he knows it’s now or never ... Shepard’s ability to dramatize a scene with minimal words remains intact, resulting in powerful mini-plays ... [an] extraordinary valedictory work.
RaveNPRYou, too, can have too much of Alan Bennett if you attempt to plow through this catchall of diaries, introductions to his plays, diatribes, and unpublished scripts straight through; it's meant to be imbibed in small, random sips ...clobbered by repetitive rants bemoaning the Tories and their mad march toward privatizing everything from National Health and schools to public libraries — however sympathetic I am to Bennett's views ... Keeping On Keeping On says it all ...offers his perspectives on all of it — and on his lovely little satirical novel, The Uncommon Reader — in these diary excerpts, written between 2005 and 2015 ... Along with his healthy sense of outrage, Bennett's cheeky sense of humor is on full display here ...a relentless, repetitive hodgepodge of prefaces, commentary, and tributes topped off by two fun, previously rejected scripts ...overall effect is like an oversized suitcase into which a traveller keeps piling additional clothes just because there's room.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorSuperficially, it may seem that Updike has covered this terrain before – unfulfilled parents, aging grandparents, high school reunions, wives, lovers, and children forsaken in the suburban game of musical beds, disoriented American tourists. But Updike keeps it fresh, periodically checking in on the condition not just of the self he values but on racially mixed grandchildren and post-9/11 religious beliefs … The overarching theme of Updike’s last stories is the family diaspora that is a natural but painful passage of man – a dispersal whose final stage is death but whose most effective antidote is memory.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble Review...a deliciously rich, well-balanced portrait ... But Fadiman’s memoir uncorks much more than a remembrance of drinks past or a daughter’s filial intoxication. By allowing her memories to ripen over the many years since her father’s death in 1999, the result is a superbly evolved, less tannic pour ... like her father, Fadiman has that rare ability to wear her erudition lightly. And what he said about wine also applies to The Wine Lover’s Daughter: it is a delectable ode to cultivation and civilization.
MixedThe Los Angeles Times...has dared with his 18th novel, Mrs. Osmond, a risky homage and sequel to The Portrait of a Lady, to pry open additional windows in the magnificent edifice that many consider the Master’s masterpiece. His goal is not to air out the musty rooms or freshen the place with a contemporary update but to climb in...is on a different sort of marital machination: Not who will marry whom, but the many ways in which women in bad unions — including Isabel — can extricate themselves and regain their freedom ... While Banville’s many plot recaps assure that readers who haven’t read Portrait won’t be utterly lost, Mrs. Osmond feels more repetitive than fresh, particularly for those familiar with the original ... Yes, there are fewer complicated sentences to slow you down, but also fewer astonishing insights to arrest your attention ...Banville, too, has left plenty of windows open to this vivid, strong-willed heroine’s next chapters.
MixedNPRWhile all of the 17 stories in Uncommon Type feature a different antique manual typewriter (Hanks is an avid collector), they are linked by something greater than typewriter ribbons: a decidedly benign, humane view of people and their foibles ... Some of the stories are whimsical, some funny, some downright sentimental. Even when Hanks writes about somber subjects like the durable distress of combat or the high stakes for immigrants fleeing persecution, he finds a sweet spot ... Is this great literature? No — it's too generic and mawkish. But Uncommon Type offers heartfelt charm along with nostalgia for sweeter, simpler times — even if they never really were quite so sweet or simple.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorCompared to his novels, Nocturnes is light – but by no means lightweight. It is a cycle of five not-quite-novella-length stories linked by a shared concern with striving musicians and the challenges of art and love ... Although these stories, too, involve people absorbed in their narrowly focused interests, the confusing, surreal atmosphere that blankets The Unconsoled... Written in the first person, with a strong sense of voice, these stories – like his novels – also end largely on a note of resignation. But they are filled with dialogue, conversations between aspirants and has-beens that capture the eagerness for praise that drives these insecure performers ... Like the Chopin pieces their title evokes, Ishiguro’s Nocturnes are deceptively simple, expressive and harmonic, delicate yet substantive.
PositiveNPRThese ten stories, written over nearly 30 years, showcase his ability to write convincing female characters, his sensitivity to spouses and artists under duress, and his compassion for people who disappoint themselves as much as each other ... While not all the stories are memorable, there isn't a dud in this generally solid collection ... Although Eugenides' stories are more traditional than edgy, the absorbing fiction in Fresh Complaint renders us — like the 88-year-old dementia sufferer comforted by the vaguely familiar Inuit tale in the opening story — freshly grateful for what literature can do: 'the self-forgetfulness, the diving and plunging into other lives.'
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle...while her new novel may be less technically innovative, it is an unusually well written, well researched, emotionally satisfying page-turner — which demonstrates that the power of her work lies beyond virtuosic literary stunts ... this action-packed novel is driven as much by plot as by character, feminist undercurrents, careful details and lush prose. As the thrills zip by in rapid succession — a send-up of a mob boss’ doublespeak, risky sex and riskier dives, gangster rub-outs, German U-boats, torpedo strikes, shark attacks and a shipwreck that leaves squabbling merchant mariners adrift on a raft in the Indian Ocean 1,000 miles off the African coast — some of them strain credulity. But Egan certainly knows how to build tension, and her novel has the makings of a terrific action adventure movie. Manhattan Beach is the kind of book you can immerse yourself in happily, with no special equipment to encumber you.
MixedNPRThe tricky synthesis Barnes is after doesn't quite come off. We read the opening nonfiction section, ‘The Sin of Height,’ and the quasi-fictional ‘On the Level,’ intrigued but somewhat baffled by his fascination with 19th century aeronautics and weighted down by his belabored extended metaphors of soaring and crashing … Yet Levels of Life takes flight with its third, autobiographical section, ‘The Loss of Depth.’ After a vigil that lasted just ‘thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death,’ Barnes crash-landed into widowerhood. Normally so crisp and circumspect, Barnes writes movingly.
RaveNPRIn ten closely observed chapters, Faye relays the surprisingly confiding — and engrossing — stories people tell her about their lives during her short Greek odyssey … Cusk anchors her novel with a recurring character, an older Greek man Faye meets on the flight to Athens, who engages her with the saga of his three failed marriages. His omissions — which she points out as if criticizing a student's work — are as telling as what he chooses to include, highlighting the one-sided nature of stories, and especially divorce stories … Outline explores both the way people present themselves and the act of storytelling. On one level an absorbing series of confessional tales, it is also a deft, multi-layered commentary on the nature of narrative and the effects of a listener's bias and filter.
RaveNPRGod is definitely in the details in this book, named for the hour of afternoon prayer. McDermott vividly describes the ministrations involved in 'an invalid's cosseted routine' — including blood-stained bedclothes and eruptive bowels. In her hands, the unending round of the convent laundry becomes a riveting read ... By immersing readers in such homely details, The Ninth Hour, like Colm Toíbín's Brooklyn, evokes a narrowly confined, simpler, largely bygone world. But McDermott also addresses big, universal questions — about what constitutes a good life, and about how to live with the knowledge of 'that stillness, that inconsequence, that feral smell of death.' Her novel encompasses base hungers, sin, guilt, reparations, secrets, and depression — so little understood at the time. And more: The Ninth Hour is also about love, both forbidden and sanctioned, albeit with the caveat that 'Love's a tonic ... not a cure.' This enveloping novel, too, is a tonic, if not a cure.
MixedNPRMcEwan guns his narrative engine in the first section, set in 2000. But there are curious detours throughout Solar. There's a riotous story about an expedition to the North Pole with artists, performers and scientists concerned with climate change. It's a trip Beard takes to escape his woes at home … McEwan has employed sudden narrative shifts before...but the middle of Solar feels in parts like he's either lost his way or run out of gas … As a narrative vehicle Solar suffers from some of the problems with braking and acceleration that have been plaguing Toyota hybrids. But even though not McEwan's best, it still outperforms many competitors in both moral reach and linguistic flair.
RaveNPRAmor Towles' stylish, elegant and deliberately anachronistic debut novel transports readers back to Manhattan in 1938, just before the sharp lines between social stratifications were smudged by the leveling influences of World War II and the G.I. Bill … Towles' engaging, plucky narrator, Brooklyn-born Katey Kontent, nee Katya, of Russian immigrant parents, is 25 in 1938. Recently orphaned, she's a bookworm who diligently does her daily laps in the secretarial pool at a downtown law firm, although she's clearly smart enough to make a splash as a lawyer herself … Rules of Civility takes us to Gatsbyesque parties on Long Island estates, jazz dives, lushly appointed Conde Nast offices, luxe suites at The Plaza, posh restaurants with menus ‘like giant playing cards’ and flophouses.
MixedNPRNicole Krauss' fourth novel, a cerebral, dual-stranded tale of disillusionment and spiritual quest, proves heavy going for its characters — and its readers ... Epstein's third-person tale, which opens with news of his disappearance after three months in Tel Aviv, follows more traditional narrative conventions and proves the far more engaging strand. Nicole's first-person confessional, dense with metaphysical reflections, is more problematic ... Fortunately, interspersed with numbing meditations on the multiverse (don't ask), Forest Dark has its bright spots, including its portrait of a scrappy but enticing Israel, and the bizarre Kafkaesque turn that Nicole's spiritual odyssey takes ... With Forest Dark, Krauss gives us a pretty good sense of where she is, trying to write her way out of the woods of midlife disillusionment by exploring trails leading to glades of deeper meaning and satisfaction. It's a worthy pursuit, but let's hope she finds a compass to navigate her way back to the warmth and heart of her more compelling work.
MixedThe Washington PostGopnik knows how to turn on the charm, as he does in a well-practiced yarn about losing the bottom half of his one fine suit. Also endearing is his paean to his wife: champion sleeper to his insomniac, meticulous fashionista to his haphazard dresser — although his attempt to write about happily married sex is flat-out awkward ... Gopnik doesn’t always show himself in the most flattering light. He acknowledges his driving ambition even as he describes relationships with 'Dick' Avedon, Robert Hughes and other steppingstone mentors that carry whiffs of sycophancy. In his determination to capture the zeitgeist of the 1980s in art, food, publishing and fashion, his smart observations are sometimes undercut by pontifications: 'Art traps time. It just does.' But more baffling is his repeated insistence that writers must find the 'one right order' in which to arrange their words. Really? Aren’t there as many ways to tell a story as there are to paint a picture?
PositiveNPRThe word ‘rapture’ appears on the very first page of Flight Behavior. This is appropriate, for the novel extols the ecstasy of passionate engagement — with people, ideas and the environment … Kingsolver takes us deep inside her smart, appealing protagonist's underprivileged world of free school lunches and soul-sapping secondhand stores. Despite her lack of worldly experience, Dellarobia is acutely aware of her family's Appalachian hillbilly status. Kingsolver highlights social stratifications in often comic scenes … Earnest conversations between Dellarobia and Ovid about the direness of environmental conditions sometimes make us feel as if we've wandered into a sophomore seminar, but it's impressive that Kingsolver doesn't sugarcoat the sobering facts of climate change or the heartbreak of a marriage between two good people who are wrong for each other.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
MixedNPR...with this project, he's clearly made an effort to reign in his preoccupation with himself: He turns his gaze mainly outward, and limits his reflections on each item to two pages, be it little stuff like bottles and badgers or immense topics like war and pain. The entries also follow a set pattern, often beginning with a banal definition of the subject at hand before moving on to more free-form musings. This exercise, repeated 60 times, does not encourage binge-reading ... Writing about My Struggle, critic James Wood commented memorably that Knausgaard is interesting even when he's boring. Not so here. Stretches of tedium may be part of the deal in an exhaustive literary stunt, but in a slim volume, every word needs to sing for its supper. Despite its restricted word count, Autumn is filled with freeloaders ... Sweet, but not enough to incline me toward the next three seasons of this quartet.
RaveNPR...[a] seriously funny book ... Most of the 35 very short essays in Would Everybody Please Stop? are either hilarious, heartfelt, or both. Many, including 'I'm Awake,' first appeared in The New Yorker. Some are over-the-top silly, others read like material for her performances as a monologist and may be even better live. Yet her wry voice — sometimes confiding, sometimes overbearing — comes through loud and clear in print ... As delightful as her humor is, her serious essays hit deeper — especially reflections on being single and re-entering the social fray alone after a long marriage.
RaveNPRCan a book be both linguistically playful and dead serious? Structurally innovative and reader-friendly? Mournful and joyful? Brainy and moving? Ali Smith's How To Be Both, which recently won the prestigious, all-Brit two-year-old Goldsmiths prize for being a truly novel novel, is all of the above — and then some … Like the frescoes it describes, How To Be Both can be approached from both sides; the order in which you read the sections subtly changes the emphasis. In truth, you can't fully have it both ways because, after reading the contemporary story first (as I did) there's no way to unread it so you experience the historical half with a blank narrative canvas (and vice versa). Still, there's pleasure aplenty in starting over once you've read to an end, guaranteed you'll notice different things.
Laurent Binet, Trans. by Sam Taylor
RaveNPR...a cunning, often hilarious mystery for the Mensa set and fans of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia ... In addition to some challenging thickets of language theory, the novel is packed with drama — car chases, mutilations, suicide, graphic sex, and multiple murders. There are Russian spies, Bulgarian assassins, Venetian thugs, Japanese saviors, a wily North African gigolo — Foucault's pendant! — and a secret debating society in which the stakes range from digital amputation to castration. Sam Taylor's deft translation encompasses heavy linguistic exegeses, political discussions, oratory duels, and even some puns, including echo and Eco ... Like Nabokov's Lolita, this wonderfully clever novel can be enjoyed on multiple levels. But to fully appreciate its ingenious metafictional complexities, be prepared to do some Googling.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Great Fire, Hazzard's fourth novel, is her first since her masterpiece, The Transit of Venus, appeared more than 20 years ago. Her new book is a worthy successor, if not quite as expansive or technically astonishing. In it, Hazzard returns to the broken postwar world, in which victors and defeated are equally devastated and demoralized … Hazzard's prose is crisp and whittled, sometimes even cryptic. We never get a fully fleshed story of Leith's heroics, nor of the mysterious mentor, a former Japanese prisoner who, on his deathbed, presciently foretells Leith's passage back to a personal life. Horrors are hinted at but never dwelt upon. Hazzard revels in oblique distillation, but she is by no means a minimalist. Her sentences are rich in clauses, and her observations run deep, as do her characters' self-awareness and interior lives.
RaveNPRArbitrary Stupid Goal is an ode to unconventionality and an elegy to Greenwich Village in the 1970s and '80s, which was crime-riddled but also 'a very tolerant place' ... Shopsin's portraits of her inimitable, larger-than-life father, Ken, and his dear friend, Willy, form the heart of this book. Willy was a fixture at The Store, an honorary granddad, mixed-race womanizer, con artist, and nightclub singer with 'a deep voice made for singing "Old Man River"... like Paul Robeson's, only softer. But just as powerful and sad' ... Shopsin has written a loose narrative whose half-blank pages meander through some of the things that have given her life joy and meaning...Rest assured that Arbitrary Stupid Goal is actually neither arbitrary nor stupid.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesBuilding on what Brooks calls the ‘scaffolding’ of Little Women, March considers the costs – physical, personal, moral, economic – of war in general and the Civil War in particular … From the opening, Brooks sets up a contrast between the sanitized picture March paints in letters home and the brutality of the battlefront. This is his first deception. More serious is his attachment to an elegant slave named Grace, whom he encounters at three turning points in his life. Brooks heightens the moral stakes by creating this love triangle among characters for whom even entertaining adulterous longings is ‘a grave transgression.’ … March is a beautifully wrought story about how war dashes ideals, unhinges moral certainties and drives a wedge of bitter experience and unspeakable memories between husband and wife. March must find a way to reconcile his comfort with others' suffering and live with his guilt and shame.
RaveNPR...[an] extraordinary blend of personal memoir, biography, and World War II military history ... Dadland brings to mind Helen MacDonald's H is for Hawk in the way it soars off in surprising directions, teaches you things you didn't know, and ambushes your emotions. It's a similarly fierce and unconventional book that defies categorization to explore mortality, loss, life decisions and influences through a daughter's intense bond with her father ... Carew puts her father's larger-than-life heroism in perspective by interspersing vividly intense war scenes with glimpses of his increasingly disoriented later years and frequently hilarious flashbacks to her childhood ... beguiling, de-mythologizing homage as an irrepressible firebrand.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewAmong the targets most squarely in her sights are the over-groomed, over-educated, under-occupied women who have outsourced the care of their children and obscenely opulent gated estates to hired help ... Madison, at once unbelievably savvy and credibly vulnerable, takes her father’s 'implosion' the hardest, and her story dominates the book. It is the most fully realized — in fact, her perspective alone could easily have carried this novel — but also, in the early chapters, the most tiresome ... Our Little Racket, while it takes too long to get there, ends in just the right place and on just the right note. The bottom line: Angelica Baker is a writer to watch out for.
PositiveNPRIf you like literature that transports you to exotic locales beyond the reach of commercial airlines and enables you to view hot topics from cool new angles, South Pole Station is just the ticket. It's a novel about esoteric research that clearly required a ton of research to write, yet doesn't smell of it ... Shelby's writing is pithy and funny, and her band of eccentrics are scrappy loners who are best suited to the company of other loners ... In this unusual, entertaining first novel, Ashley Shelby combines science with literature to make a clever case for scientists' and artists' shared conviction that 'the world could become known if only you looked hard enough.'
PositiveThe Washington PostBlue Nights is a devastating companion volume to Magical Thinking, a beautiful condolence note to humanity about some of the painful realities of the human condition that deserves to be printed on traditional black-bordered mourning stationery ...she summons her signature spare, plainspoken prose and assertive two- or three-word paragraphs to powerful effect ...also relies, sometimes to a fault, on an almost incantatory use of structural repetition... As if shuffling the clues for a fresh take on the insoluble riddle of how Quintana’s story might have had a different ending, she returns repeatedly to the same few scenes from her daughter’s unusual childhood ... Didion’s main subject, however, is not the tragedy of Quintana’s curtailed life, but of Didion’s current sorry state. Her self-portrait is unsparing ... The marvel of Blue Nights is that its 76-year-old, matchstick-frail author has found the strength to articulate her deepest fears.
RaveNPR...this is a writer who clearly knows how to squeeze the sweetness out of the tart fruit life throws at you ... Khong's endearingly quirky novel, which takes the form of Ruth's diary of her transitional year, is filled with whimsical observations, oddball facts, and yes, even some romanc ... Sweet? Yes. Sugarcoated? Perhaps. Saccharine or cloying? Not to me. Hello, Rachel Khong. Kudos for this delectable take on familial devotion and dementia.
PositiveThe Washington PostBlais makes no bones about how unhappy she is about her expulsion from the family’s summer Eden, but she is well aware of the dangers of writing what could come across as a 'Lament of the One Percent' ... The book’s snappy tone is exemplified by Blais’s wry comparison of her husband’s old WASP family with her own Irish American background ... A self-declared archivist, Blais relies heavily — sometimes too heavily — on external documents for her portrait of the Vineyard ... To the New Owners sparkles when Blais focuses on her family’s frequently funny experiences instead of trying to capture Martha’s Vineyard with an island tour and a rundown of its offseason activities.
MixedNPRThis book is about a marriage under stress — though Heiny keeps it bubbly, evoking the smart, stylish wit of Laurie Colwin, Nora Ephron, and Maria Semple ... Heiny's novel dishes up amusing riffs on marriage, misfits, and finicky eaters, plus some wonderfully on-target descriptions ... Standard Deviation is fun, but like Audra, it goes on too long and starts to wear you down. By piling on too many episodes, it loses its delightful breeziness. Which is a shame, because Heiny clearly has what it takes to join the elite coterie of witty social satirists who turn out smart, lively charmers. Stay tuned.
PositiveNPRGoodman, whose fiction often channels Jane Austen's smart, socially astute sense and sensibility, goes a bit mushy over this couple's initial attraction ... As always, Goodman has done her homework and gets a lot right, including enjoyably sharp dialogue and convincing portraits of multiple mindsets and terrains ... Readers who share this view will wish that fewer mind-numbing pages were devoted to gaming — though one can't help but marvel at how Goodman has captured the atmosphere of this virtual fantasy land so effectively in words. To her credit, although her bias clearly lies with literature and real relationships over virtual ones, she conveys some of the technical brilliance, creativity, and, yes, fun of video gaming ... Although the love story driving its plot feels formulaic and the portrait of Arcadia Corporation as Evil Empire is rather black and white, Goodman happily makes room on her novel's pedagogic blackboard for imagination, fantasy, and self-expression — whether visual or verbal — and the importance of forging meaningful relationships that are far more substantial than aeroflakes or chalk dust.
RaveNPR...an elegantly composed, quietly devastating tale about memory, aging, time and remorse … Tony's deceptively simple tale — about his first girlfriend, a scaldingly difficult woman named Veronica Ford, who, to his dismay, ‘traded up’ after their breakup to his brilliant boyhood friend, Adrian Finn, with dire results — unfolds in surprising ways … Tony, in struggling to determine the extent of his responsibility for the aftermath of his first romance, wonders whether history consists of the lies of the victors, the self-delusions of the defeated, or, as he comes to believe, ‘the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated’ and who no longer have witnesses to corroborate their recollections.
PositiveNPRWhat happens when a talented, Type A, hyperachieving woman married to an even more successful man quits working? ... Not so Semple's delightfully sharp-clawed second novel, a comic caper called Where'd You Go, Bernadette, about a wonderfully eccentric, vitriolic, MacArthur-winning former architect and the plucky teenage daughter determined to find her when she goes missing ... Semple has constructed an energetic screwball comedy, interweaving a lively mix of police and FBI reports, school documents and catty, indiscreet emails written by her various characters ... There's a lot to like in Semple's charming novel, including the vivacious humor and the lesson that when creative forces like Bernadette stop creating, they become 'a menace to society.' Even more appealing is the mutually adoring mother-daughter relationship at its warm heart.
MixedThe Los Angeles TimesWhereas Lahiri's short stories are filled with myriad miraculous, understated epiphanies, her novel strains for continuity by returning repeatedly to the themes of names and trains...Lahiri's insistence on making a connection with Nikolai Gogol, whose writing exemplifies a satirical taste for the absurd outlandishness of life, seems even more forced. It is particularly baffling in a writer whose tone is utterly suffused with sober realism … As in her short stories, these relationships give Lahiri a chance to do what she does best: sympathetic character portrayals and evenhanded, subtly nuanced explorations of the ebb and flow of a couple's dynamics. There's a heart-rending, almost elegiac tone and a constant mourning for the past that pervades The Namesake.
RaveNPRMcBride takes on classic Irish literary themes — a harsh, unforgiving religion, damaged families, the dying and the dead, transgressive sex — and gives them a gritty new spin, in language that manages to convey pre-verbal experience. While McBride's girl may be a half-formed thing, there's nothing half-formed about even her most fragmented sentences … McBride's writing is so alive with internal rhymes, snippets of overheard conversation, prayers and unfiltered emotion, and her narrator so feisty, that readers can't help but be pulled into the vortex of this devastating, ferociously original debut.
RaveNPRThe Marriage Plot involves what may strike some readers as a rather ordinary love triangle between three freshly minted Brown University graduates striving to find their footing in the world...But rest assured: There's a sly meta-fictional level to this apparently conventional coming-of-age novel about the romantic and occupational dilemmas of three recent Ivy League graduates … The Marriage Plot benefits from totally convincing descriptions of living with manic-depression, as well as a fluency with — and gently derisive attitude toward — the abstruse Derrida and Barthes texts that Madeleine and Leonard wade through in the semiotics seminar in which they meet.
PositiveNPRStevens retreats to the wilderness and writes about it. But she is no naturalist, and her focus is primarily on herself and her determination to be a published writer ... Stevens' descriptions show that she can indeed write. After a slow start — including a month of acclimatization and research in Stanley, the Falklands' capital, which boasts seven pubs but spotty Internet and no cinema – the book takes off when she flies to Bleaker ... One wishes she'd turned her attention outward more, providing additional information about the island's history — and all those penguins and sheep, for starters. Hunger, boredom and disappointment with her novel turn out to be bigger problems than the depression and loneliness she'd feared. Of course, readers of this oddly winning book know that her time wasn't wasted.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not an easy read, but it’s an abundantly worthwhile one. Filled with accounts of brutal torture and the vicious, never-ending, sometimes confusing conflicts between India’s many warring factions — including Kashmir’s long, violent fight for self-rule — it makes her instantly immersive Dickensian first novel seem like a seductive fairy tale by comparison ... Roy’s exquisite, furiously passionate prose is that rare instrument up to the task of telling this shattered story. She captures both the horrors of headline atrocities quickly overshadowed in the 'international supermarkets of grief' by the latest horror-du-jour, and the quiet moments when lovers share poems and dreams ... Like its transsexual heroine and coterie of sympathetic protagonists, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is augmented by its ambiguity, its heart, its complexity, its ambition and its willingness to respond to a brutal world with hope and humanity. Roy’s second novel reminds us what fiction can do.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleDonoghue's utterly gripping plot may sound as if it has been ripped from headlines, but there's real art here. What elevates Room from a prurient horror story to an exploration of parental love and childhood development and a fresh look at our culture of glut is Donoghue's decision to have 5-year-old Jack narrate … With each new thing Jack needs to sort out – stairs, shoes, money, fire, rain, vaccines, paparazzi hungry for glimpses of ‘Bonsai Boy’ – Donoghue makes us see our exhausting, overstuffed world in a glaring new light. But it's Jack's baffled, moving response to his mother's difficulties as she struggles to re-establish her independence, separate even from him, that packs the final punch.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble Review...In pulling back the curtain on some of the source material for his work, he provides an invaluable peek into what struck him as worthy of note over the years ... what we’re reading has been filtered many times over through the fine strainer of David Sedaris’s exacting literary standards. We’ve been spared the dreck. What’s left may have been enhanced for maximum effect. It is never boring ... Sedaris has essentially raided his own deep freezer for this book — and serves up a surprisingly satisfying meal from the choicest items.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorThe Help is about crossing lines – racial, societal, emotional – in Jackson, Miss., in 1962. It crosses your brain barrier, too, with its compulsively absorbing symphony of voices … Stockett makes the risks of this enterprise palpable by vividly evoking a time and place in which whites are persecuted for ‘integration violation’ and blacks are fired or jailed for even unsubstantiated accusations of impropriety or theft, beaten and blinded for using white-only bathrooms, and murdered by the KKK for being ‘uppity.’ The first two women who are brave and fed-up enough to sign onto Skeeter’s project share the novel’s narration … Stockett’s ear for both outrage and humor and her earnest efforts to correct stereotypes pay off.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleIt is an enormously absorbing, nuanced read that steeps us in its character's world - and gradually surprises us with its moral resonance … Tóibín vividly describes Eilis' miserable third-class Atlantic crossing, the wonders and adjustments of her new life at Mrs. Kehoe's all-female boardinghouse in Brooklyn, and her job as a salesgirl at Bartocci & Co. department store on Fulton Street … Eilis is so naive she doesn't know about the Holocaust, and when homesickness hits, she doesn't understand what ails her … [Brooklyn] soars in its deeply effective final section...Tóibín captures the immigrant's pull between two worlds.
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleWhen Lee submitted the manuscript of Watchman to publisher J.B. Lippincott in 1957, her editor, Tay Hohoff, astutely saw the germ of a better book in the childhood passages and suggested Lee rewrite the novel from young Scout’s point of view, set 20 years earlier, during the Depression. Comparing “Mockingbird” — the result of two years of arduous revisions — with “Watchman” demonstrates clearly just how important a good editor can be. Put simply, where “Mockingbird” beguiles, dazzles and moves to tears as it conveys core values of empathy and human decency, “Watchman” horrifies with its ugly racism, even as it emotes and moralizes didactically, clunkily and shrilly.
RaveNPRHer meticulously observed, extraordinarily perceptive stories are as satisfying as Alice Munro's. Yes, Hadley is that good ... the ten tales in Hadley's book – seven of which were first published in The New Yorker — are instantly immersive ... Unlike many short story writers, who serve up slices of life cut so thin you're left craving more, Hadley offers both rich complexity and satisfying closure — so you never feel as if you've been precipitously evicted.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ed. Anne Margaret Daniel
PositiveNPRThe value of this book, nimbly edited by Anne Margaret Daniel, lies not so much in its assembled stories, fragments, and movie scenarios as in her fascinating literary sleuthing and fine scholarship. Augmented by typescript pages, snapshots of Fitzgerald (including one of him mugging in a photo booth), and multiple stabs at the same story, I'd Die For You is a treasure trove for Fitzgerald enthusiasts, scholars, and aspiring writers ... Many of these stories are marred by painfully cloying endings. In his eagerness for movie deals, Fitzgerald cranked out action-packed scenarios that awkwardly channel elements of 1930s screwball comedies and corny Charlie Chaplinesque love stories about tramps and waifs. But while none emit the sparkle of classics like 'The Cut-Glass Bowl,' even the least successful of these tales provide an invaluable glimpse into a brilliant but struggling writer's process.
Haruki Murakami, Trans. by Philip Gabriel & Ted Goossen
PositiveThe Washington PostDetached from their feelings and missing pieces of themselves, Murakami’s lonely souls struggle to understand what’s hit them. Unexpected connections with strangers shed light, though the illumination is often indirect or partial ... The thematically connected tales in Men Without Women are generally more developed, more realistic and more sentimental than the surreal stories in Murakami’s 2006 collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman ... As the members of Murakami’s lonely hearts club band discover in these affecting stories, life, however baffling, is better shared.
RaveNPR...House of Names is a surprising turn for Tóibín, a violent page-turner about the mother of all dysfunctional families and the insidious ravages of revenge and distrust ... In visceral, accessible language, Tóibín brings us close to the members of the house of Atreus — who, in the absence of gods, bear responsibility for their actions ... Tóibín plays all this with sinister mastery. He channels the female characters directly, while Orestes' point of view is delivered in a tight third person narrative ... House of Names works because of the empathy and depth Tóibín brings to these suffering, tragically fallible characters, all destined to pass on "into the abiding shadows" — yet vividly alive in this gripping novel.
PositiveNPRThe Dinner Party is filled with men who become so unhinged you're tempted to call a carpenter ... Ferris' narratives usually proceed from the ordinary to an uncomfortable and sometimes bizarre escalation of strangeness or disaster. The overarching message is that stability is elusive and certainly not a given ... Ferris finesses the line between tragedy and comedy, and his sly wit often surfaces in sarcastic, offbeat ways ... As e.e. cummings so succinctly put it, 'Unbeing dead isn't being alive.' Ferris' unmoored souls struggle with living death — along with pathological insecurity and fear of abandonment. While the stories in this book don't particularly advance this talented writer's career, The Dinner Party provides a fine showcase for his work.
RaveNPR...[a] elcome literary salve for these alarmingly acrimonious, anxiety-inducing times ... Strout is a master of the story cycle form most closely associated with Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Like Anderson, she paints cumulative portraits of the heartache and soul of small town America by giving each of her characters a turn under her sympathetic spotlight ... Yes, her fiction can tend toward the sentimental, but here's the thing about Strout: She never tries to sugarcoat the fact that it is indeed a sad, hard world ... In showing such compassion for her characters, Strout makes us care about them and share her belief in the possibility of finding forgiveness and love, however imperfect.
RaveNPRExes, among other things, is an amazing feat of plotting and engineering, an elaborate puzzle of a book that brings to mind Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests for the intricacy of its carefully calibrated interlocking connections ... Exes, while studded with moments of levity, including a burlesque dance performance involving seven-foot tampons and the lyrics 'I've got the world on a string,' isn't the place to turn if you're looking for cheer. The novel's overall mood is more akin to that of Kenneth Lonergan's recent movie, Manchester By The Sea. In fact, one could easily see the Affleck brothers starring in a film adaptation of this often heartbreaking novel about the devastations of severed attachments.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewWhatever you choose to call it, Imagine Wanting Only This effectively meshes a distilled, starkly confessional, probing text with an equally eloquent visual element ... Radtke’s artwork evokes movie stills more than comic strips, panning cinematographically from full-page landscapes to tightly framed close-ups and intense conversations ... This restless ambition to find answers 'or at least information' about the transitory nature of existence defines Radtke’s profoundly contemplative book.
PositiveNPRA Really Big Lunch, whose publication marks the first anniversary of Harrison's death, brings him roaring to the page again in all his unapologetic immoderacy, with spicy bon mots and salty language augmented by family photographs ... Harrison's writing is pungent. He's often a hoot, though frequently exhausting, too. Writers, he says, 'are isolated stockbrokers of life's essences, and it is always 1929.' Preferring to mince garlic rather than words, he's scathing on American politics ('fraught with acute mental dysentery'), publishing ('that Walmart of words'), and the 'bliss ninnies' or 'body-Nazis' who cotton to what he calls the 'Gandhi diet' ... Reading this book straight through is not advised, unless you have the stamina of those gourmands at the really big lunch. But snacking on classic Harrisonisms like 'I've never been the man I used to be' is deliciously filling.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleLike her essays, Batuman’s bildungsroman is a succession of droll misadventures built around chance encounters, peculiar conversations and sharp-eyed observations. Both on campus and abroad, she brings the ever-fresh perspective of a perpetual stranger in a strange land. Her deceptively simple declarative sentences are underpinned by a poker-faced sense of absurdity and humor so dry it calls for olives ... Batuman captures the way college freshmen lurch between arrogance and insecurity, shortchange themselves on sleep, and obsess over relationships, budding or otherwise ... The Idiot is not just a campus novel but also a vibrant novel of ideas.
RaveThe Washington Post...a triumph on many levels ... as insightful and beautifully written as it is brave. Merkin clearly understands the risks of going public with such intimate, dark material and refuses the unrealistic comfort of an unequivocally redemptive ending ... Less sympathetic readers may carp at Merkin’s ability to afford the luxuries of expensive, seemingly unlimited treatment options, cosmetic surgeries and summer rentals in the Hamptons. (Merkin readily acknowledges that her hardships pale in comparison with what people go through in Syria or Haiti.) But anyone who has experienced or witnessed the pain of clinical depression up close can’t help but be moved by her struggle. This Close to Happy earns a place among the canon of books on depression.
MixedThe Los Angeles TimesAlthough Elkin’s book went to press before the massive, global women’s rights marches that followed President Trump’s inauguration, she couldn’t have invoked a more apt postscript ... But by focusing on six writers and artists — George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Agnes Varda, Sophie Calle and Martha Gellhorn — whose life trajectories were deeply influenced by their soles-to-the-pavement, eyes-on-the-street engagement with cities, her book makes a forceful case for the genderless joy and vital importance of striking out for the territory — on foot ... Elkin’s book occasionally suffers from tonal inconsistencies between research-heavy passages that read almost as if they were repurposed academic papers or lectures, and doleful accounts of the author’s 'soul-scarring' love affairs ... Back in New York, she sees only 'two speeds of life…married or very, very young,' which makes me want to urge her to look harder, and not just through the lens of her own preoccupations. But Flâneuse is a stimulating read whose itinerary ranges from wanderlust and space as 'a feminist issue' to self-definition in connection with a specific place.
PositiveNPRAlthough Hayes and Sacks never married, the charming, intimate portrait that emerges earns a place on the shelf of moving spousal tributes ... Hayes wisely jotted down snippets of their conversations, which reveal the probing and often unexpected trajectory of Sacks' thoughts ... Insomniac City teems with sweet, unguarded moments ... Hayes' touching portrait of Sacks' last years is the main attraction here. His offbeat urban cameos reveal a remarkable openness, but can come across as subtly condescending, precious, or even grating, however well-intended ... Nonetheless, Hayes emerges as an unusually kind, caring man.
PositiveNPRWhile less structurally complex than How to be both and less playfully pun-filled than There but for the, Autumn again knits together an astonishing array of seemingly disparate subjects, including mortality, unconventional love, Shakespeare's Tempest, a rhyming advertisement jingle, and the xenophobia underlying both Nazism and current populist neo-nationalism. Some components, like Christine Keeler and the Profumo affair, fail to resonate, particularly for American readers. But generally, Smith is better at making tight connections than most airlines ... Free spirits and the lifeforce of art — along with kindness, hope, and a readiness 'to be above and beyond the foul even when we're up to our eyes in it' — are, when you get down to it, what Smith champions in this stirring novel.
RaveNPRLara is both a tragic love story and a dramatic account of the sheer determination it took to write and publish an uncompromising literary masterpiece under dismal circumstances. The book, enhanced by family photographs, vividly captures Olga's risky loyalty to the defiant, desperate, and strikingly handsome author during increasingly hostile persecution in the late 1950s, when Doctor Zhivago was first published in Italy and Pasternak was forced to renounce the 1958 Nobel Prize in literature ... With its overview of Russian history in the mid-20th century, including the privations of World War II, the abominations of Stalin's Great Terror, and Khruschev's insufficient thaw, Lara is a chilling, upsetting reminder of what can happen when free speech is curtailed.
RaveNPRCusk gives us engrossing, probing conversations between her narrator — a writer named Faye unmoored by the breakup of her marriage — and various people she encounters as she goes about her business in her bewildered, post-parted state ... Because the books are more episodic than plotted, they're fine when read individually. But even though they feel unstructured, they're carefully choreographed — and taken together, they trace Faye's subtle, gradual passage from shaky bewilderment to more solid ground ... While Cusk's unorthodox narrative is slyly indirect, her prose is exquisitely precise.
RaveNPRBy translating complex information into manageable bites sweetened with human interest stories, Sobel makes hard science palatable for the general audience. Even more than her 1999 book Galileo's Daughter, this new work highlights women's often under-appreciated role in the history of science ... Sobel lucidly captures the intricate, interdependent constellation of people it took to unlock mysteries of the stars ... Of necessity, Sobel strives to convey the nature of the astronomers' discoveries and achievements. And by and large she does, with admirable clarity. The fact that I found my eyes glazing over whenever she gets into the nitty-gritty of the women's classification systems heightened my respect for their ability to focus painstakingly on such details for decades on end. When it comes to these women The Glass Universe positively glows.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble Review...a deliciously smart read ... The Feud is also a spellbinding — and sobering — cautionary tale about how ego and envy can destroy even the most brilliant friendship ... Beam deftly rounds up all the ammunition for their eventual shootout. Nabokov, firing with anything but neutrality from Switzerland, where he retreated after the success of Lolita, does not come off well ... Beam, a witty, concise writer with a nose for sharp zingers and an ability to extract highlights without compromising substance, addresses his reader genially.
PositiveNPR... a playful twist on the family memoir ... The first half of Moonglow is propulsive; crazily vivid characters lurch into one gutsy, reckless venture after another. Scenes set in Germany during the chaotic last days of the war are especially powerful ... Chabon's novel doesn't so much run out of fuel as lose velocity. Sometimes, the problem is an overload of sidebar ballast — about model rocket construction, or theatrical performances at a psychiatric hospital. But a bigger problem is the taming of grandpa, whose understandable resolve to avoid trouble after his prison sentence defuses this wonderful firecracker long before he lands on his deathbed. Yet despite its occasional misfires, Moonglow is an often rollicking, ultimately moving read.
April Ayers Lawson
PositiveNPR...[an] impressively polished debut collection of stories ... Despite her limpid, supple prose, there's a creepy cast to Lawson's vision, with shades of Flannery O'Connor's dark humor and Southern Gothic sensibility ... Lawson depicts adolescent desire with humor and warmth ... Against a background of suppressed passions and sublimation, Virgin and Other Stories zeroes in on the hard-won, highly charged moments of awakening in these conflicted lives.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleAs in Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn — another moving tale of tough inner-city girlhood friendship and betrayal — time and memories are fluid, leaving those who move on haunted by those who don’t ... The story Smith’s narrator tells about her long journey toward finding her own light zips along at a compelling clip. But readers may lose patience with Tracey and Aimee — colossally self-absorbed, hard-to-like people who overshadow her for most of her formative years — and question their pull on her long before she does ... Yet through it all, Swing Time is remarkably light on its feet, more entertaining than didactic.
PositiveNPRWhat's remarkable is how much wit and pathos Prose manages to wring from this wildly unpromising jumping-off point ... Prose's novel could be a lesson in point: Handled with imagination and élan, almost anything can be turned into compelling literature ... The novel unfolds like a well-timed relay race, passing the narrative baton from one character to the next. But despite several unpredictable turns, it feels somewhat formulaic after a few chapters; we sense the chugging effort to keep it rolling.
RaveNPRJohn Kaag hits the sweet spot between intellectual history and personal memoir in this transcendently wonderful love song to philosophy and its ability 'to help individuals work through the trials of experience' ... With [Carol Hay's] appearance, American Philosophy, subtitled 'a love story,' becomes a charming, enormously satisfying tale of twofold love — both intellectual and emotional ... With its lucid, winning blend of autobiography, biography, and serious philosophical reflection, American Philosophy provides a magnificently accessible introduction to fundamental ideas about freedom and what makes life significant. It's an exhilarating read.
PositiveNPR...[an] engaging and surprisingly meaty memoir ... Readers looking for the romantic spark of classic cross-cultural love stories featuring an effusive American and a restrained Frenchman will find flashes of it here...But there's far more to Collins' book than screwball comedy, and those who have weathered linguistic crossings themselves are apt to find particular resonance in its substantive inquiry into language, identity, and transcultural translation.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewThere is no shortage of great literature about the fallout from divorce and the reconfigured families that children are left to cope with. Commonwealth stands out on many levels, from its assured handling of complex time shifts to Patchett’s extraordinary compassion even for seriously flawed characters like Bert ... she has incorporated into her art her compunctions about telling a story that isn’t entirely hers to tell. In an age where so little is sacrosanct, this is remarkable.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleIan McEwan has done it again. While not as substantial as his very best, Nutshell offers a delightful twist on Hamlet ... Thanks to its unusual narrator, Nutshell is fantastically entertaining and frequently hilarious ... His prose trills with riffs on the relationship between sex and crime, guilt, grief, remorse and art, repeatedly reaching Bard-inspired heights of eloquence.
Jonathan Safran Foer
MixedNPRFoer's novel doesn't fall apart — it ultimately comes together in moving ways. But his prose, hailed as energetic when he bounced onto the literary scene at age 24 with Everything Is Illuminated, is by turns clever and indulgently verbose...You don't need to climb a mount to see that sacrificing 200 or more pages would have made it a better book.
RaveNPR...[a] clever, Kafkaesque parable ... Karlsson expertly wrings humor from the contrast between the bizarre, increasingly alarming circumstances in which his narrators find themselves and their low-key, matter-of-fact responses ... One of the many trenchant questions The Invoice asks is, What price happiness? But even better, this droll satire reminds us that sometimes there's just no accounting for joy.
PositiveNPR...an intensely absorbing saga about two flawed yet deeply sympathetic people haunted by past missteps, which eventually threaten to destroy their present ... even when O'Farrell flexes her authorial omniscience to tip us off about what will happen, we read avidly to discover the how and why — which she tends to reveal obliquely, always showing and rarely telling ... O'Farrell does not coddle her readers; she's not afraid to baffle us with the introduction of new characters late in her novel. Nor is she afraid to flirt with sentimentality by featuring some of the best parents and closest, most supportive siblings in recent literature.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesIf your idea of a great read requires a rousing plot line, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond probably isn’t going to float your boat. But if you’re excited by the kind of writing that can transport you deep into the oddly beguiling, meditative reflections of a woman living alone in a thatched-roof, stone cottage on Ireland’s Atlantic coast, then this uncategorizable book will leave you positively buoyant ... Voice is key in an introspective, meandering narrative such as this, and Bennett’s is wryly intelligent ... Disappointment is a recurrent theme in these 20 stories. Some are themselves disappointing — slight or overly abstruse — but many are as resonant as poetry ... Beneath its shimmery surface, Pond/em> repeatedly plumbs the myriad setbacks and frustrations of adult life ... [a] brightly original book.
PositiveNPR[Tyler] has tamed the Bard's shrewish battle of the sexes into a far more politically correct screwball comedy of manners that actually channels Jane Austen more than Shakespeare. It's clear that she had fun with Vinegar Girl, and readers will too ... The verbal sparring between Kate and everyone else is charming, though sometimes surprisingly quaint ... Vinegar Girl is a fizzy cocktail of a romantic comedy, far more sweet than acidic, about finding a mate who appreciates you for your idiosyncratic, principled self — no taming necessary.
Alain De Botton
MixedNPRHalf his lifetime and more than a dozen nonfiction titles later, this followup [to On Love about the 14-year rocky road to romantic reality of a couple living in Edinburgh reveals the constancy of de Botton's concern with the arc of relationships. But it also exposes the direction his work has taken — toward the ever more didactic. More of a case study than a novel, this is a course devised to teach readers how to navigate the pitfalls of romantic attachments ... He analyzes Rabih's feelings, especially, with the finesse of a therapist — and in fact there is more than a whiff of the couch in this exemplary tale. Breaking up his already distant third person narrative — often frustratingly — is a running, italicized commentary about love, which veers between the pointed and the pedantic ... Overall, The Course of Love lacks the playful charm and wit of On Love, but it isn't a total downer, nor as off-the-wall as de Botton's last book, Religion for Atheists. Readers looking for insights and guidance will find plenty in his espousal of attachment theory therapy.
PositiveNPR...[a] charming new novel, which takes a warm, humorous look at a potentially unfunny subject: the upset that occurs on both sides of the generational divide when the seesaw of care tilts from elderly parents down to their grown offspring ... The novel plays all this for a combination of mirth and pathos, down to its wry, open-ended conclusion. Admirably, Schine has sympathy to spare for both the reluctantly dependent elderly and their worried offspring. But what makes They May Not Mean To, But They Do stand out is its warm-hearted sensitivity to the losses, indignities, fears — and plucky determination — of old age.
MixedThe Barnes & Noble ReviewParker’s decision to tell his war story through various cogs in the military apparatus that touch Captain Tom Barnes, a.k.a. BA5799 O-POS, has both advantages and disadvantages. With its intentionally disorienting, shifting points of view and flashbacks to the war zone, his approach fractures experience and captures the sense of detachment in the often bewildering, alien culture of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. It also captures his hero’s loss of bearings ... But such detachment has its costs. Inanimate objects do not make for the most animated narrators. There’s a flatness to Parker’s stark prose that, while avoiding melodrama, fails to capture the tight bonds that develop between men thrown together by war. Dialogue is often painfully unconvincing ... But Parker’s narrative device, however gimmicky, does ratchet up the intrigue.
RaveNPRAs resonant, elliptical and distilled as a poem, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is one of the most moving, wildly inventive first novels you're likely to encounter this year. It's funny — in a jet-black way — yet also fiercely emotional, capturing the painful sucker-punch of loss with a fresh immediacy that rivals Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking ... Porter's unusual novel puts grief in its place not by dismissing it, but by confronting it dead-on as a painful but inescapable part of life. Grief is the Thing With Feathers is a wondrous, supremely literary, ultimately hopeful little book.
RaveNPRJoe Gould's Teeth is more than just a fascinating footnote to a beloved literary landmark. Using the tools of her trade, Lepore ended up broadening her search for his lost notebooks to encompass trenchant questions about journalism, race, and mental illness. The result has bite.
RaveNPRHis narrative, as elegantly structured as a concerto in three movements bookended by a resonant overture and coda, captures the strain of an innately Russian pessimist forced to toe the Soviet optimistic line in both his music and in public pronouncements he was compelled to sign as his own... Barnes' stirring novel about what is lost when tyrants try to control artistic expression leaves us wondering what, besides more operas, this tormented, compromised musical prodigy might have composed had he been free.
RaveNPRIn Imagine Me Gone, Haslett focuses tightly on a family tormented by father-and-son battles with chronic depression and anxiety and their attempt, through it all, to answer the question of what constitutes a good, meaningful life. Although by no means a light or easy read, Haslett's new novel forcefully demonstrates that he is unrivaled at capturing the lasting reverberations of suicide and the draining tedium and despair — along with the occasionally fabulous flights of fancy — that accompany intransigent mental illness. And he achieves this with an extraordinary blend of precision, beauty, and tenderness.
RaveNPRWhile more streamlined and elliptical than Swift's earlier novels, Mothering Sunday builds in complexity with its layering of revelations and memories over time. More than just a story about crossing 'impossible barriers' like class and education, it is a love song to books, and to finding words, language, and a voice. It is about this remarkably self-possessed woman's ability to regard the "clean sheet" she was given at birth, free from pedigree or history, as an 'innate license to invent' — and a dead-end affair as a gateway to 'untethered' possibility.
MixedThe Los Angeles TimesReaders are apt to find more emotional sustenance in searing first-person accounts of impending death like Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air. Although The Violet Hour is unlikely to move you to tears, it sure offers plenty of thought-provoking psycho-literary analysis and intimate biographical details to satisfy your morbid curiosity.
PositiveThe Washington PostFor the most part, Bakewell deftly juggles multiple, often conflicting philosophies and personalities over a span of more than seven decades, even if at times she tries to squeeze too many people around a jam-packed table...[A] rousing call to robust intellectual engagement.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesA Doubter's Almanac is an emotionally explosive exploration of success and failure in a family roiled by genius ... it movingly confronts the challenges of outsized ability, overwhelming ambition and 'calamitous inheritance' with brio and feeling.
PositiveNPRThe plains may be flat and barren, but Fishman's narrative swerves repeatedly in refreshingly unexpected directions. After a bumpy start, Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo grows on you as it stretches beyond themes of adaptation to champion the importance of getting in touch with the great wilderness — both in nature and oneself.
RaveNPRNovey's novel delivers on its promises in so many ways. Yes, there's carnage, but there's also exuberant love, revelations of long-buried, unhappy secrets, ruminations about what makes a satisfying life, a publisher's regrets about moral compromises in both his work and his use of his family wealth and connections, and an alternately heartfelt and wry portrait of the satisfactions and anxieties of the generally underappreciated art of translation.
PositiveNPRWell before you reach the well-earned, absolutely perfect ending, McKeon lets you know unequivocally that this is a book about a rare connection ... This sometimes exasperating but ultimately moving novel suggests that while love may not be undying, try as we might, it is uncontrollable.
Paolo Giordano, Trans. by Anne Milano Appel
PositiveNPRStill in his early 30s, Giordano sure seems to be using his time well. With Like Family, he has created another sober book – his third — about the difficulties of bridging our essential solitude. His vision is more melancholy than mirthful and demands a thoughtful, patient read. But Giordano's emphasis on the pressing importance of how we choose to live and love offers subtle hope that our decisions actually matter.
RaveThe Washington PostSacks not only achieved that peace but managed to convey it beautifully in these essays. He found positive ways to think about everything, including his growing frailty: Perhaps, he suggests in the book’s final pages, he was in the Sabbath of his life, 'when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.' His tender book leaves readers with a similar sense of tranquility and, indeed, gratitude.
RaveNPR[The Portable Veblen] inverts the traditional rom-com formula, opening where many end — with the couple's engagement ... McKenzie's delightfully frisky novel touts a simpler, more natural environment — a world in which 'underdogs and outsiders' like Thorstein Veblen, her appealing cast of oddballs and nonconformists, and even bushy-tailed rodents feel 'free to be themselves.'
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleToggling between painful childhood memories, hospital nights, the marital strains her mother foresaw in Lucy’s future, and the altered life Lucy ends up living, Strout captures the pull between the ruthlessness required to write without restraint and the necessity of accepting others’ flaws. It is Lucy’s gentle honesty, complex relationship with her husband, and nuanced response to her mother’s shortcomings that make this novel so subtly powerful.
RaveNPREllis is a master of the unhinged monologue, delivered by narrators whose conventional, seemingly benign, honeyed patter gradually reveals the disturbing demon within.
RaveNPRHadley brings a keen intelligence and emotional acuity to domestic fiction...Flecked with insights into the weight and bonds of shared memories, The Past glitters.
PanNPRSeveral links in the book's narrative chain are so clanky they weigh heavily on our willing suspension of disbelief. On the one hand, things happen incredibly fast...while on the other, with the drag of tedious flashbacks to college and dissolute Los Angeles parties, it takes hundreds of pages to get everyone to France, where we knew they were headed from the get-go.
RaveNPRFiltered through Luiselli's brilliant, polymath imagination, there's nothing icky about all those 'ics' — various modes of storytelling, each showcased in its own chapter.
RaveThe Los Angeles Times“Although its inspiration may be ripped from the headlines, Bill Clegg's beautifully written debut novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, goes way deeper than lurid banner news accounts to illuminate how grief, guilt, regrets and the deep need for human connection are woven into the very flammable fabric of humanity. The most sensational thing about this novel is how it manages to accomplish all this without a whiff of schadenfreude, prurience or mawkishness”