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.
RaveNPR... a joyride ... hitch onto this delightful tour de force and you\'ll be pulled straight through to the end, helpless against the inventive exuberance of Towles\' storytelling ... elegantly constructed and compulsively readable ... Towles\' new novel...revisits American myths with a mix of warm-hearted humor and occasional outbursts of physical violence and malevolence that recall E.L. Doctorow\'s work ... There\'s so much to enjoy in this generous novel packed with fantastic characters...and filled with digressions, magic tricks, sorry sagas, retributions, and the messy business of balancing accounts.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... [an] invigorating paean to the liberating power of rural rambles ... readers may rue the book’s lack of illustrations ... an investigative memoir, blending personal narrative with deeply researched cultural history to shed light on both. Unfortunately, while Ms. Abbs’s brief biographies are unfailingly interesting and even revelatory, the personal side of her book is less compelling ... On the cusp of empty-nesthood...Ms. Abbs scrambles in the wake of her subjects and strains to find common ground with them ... Too often, Ms. Abbs creeps into self-help territory ... The landscape, too, frequently disappoints. Majestic riverbanks and rugged mountainsides have devolved into ugly industrialized wastelands and asphalt highways by the time Ms. Abbs gets there ... Bloated by several forewords and afterwords, Windswept comes to feel like an overstuffed backpack ... Clearly, though, Ms. Abbs is passionate about her subject ... Reading about the unfettered freedom to roam enjoyed by these trailblazing women induced considerable vicarious pleasure—and envy.
PositiveNPRFew writers capture nature\'s glories quite so vibrantly ... In novel after novel, Powers has built a case for holding still and really looking at the natural world. He helps us see things differently. The margins of my reviewer\'s copy of Bewilderment look like checklists, with their columns of ticks flagging noteworthy lines. Powers remains a king of the active verb, beginning on the very first page ... Once again, Powers is ineluctably drawn to the pinwheeling petals of science, literature, nature and emotions, though this time, heavy feelings weigh down the whirl ... Unfortunately, rare among Powers\' flights of fancy, these fantasies lost me in the cosmos. Some of Robin\'s winsome observations throughout the novel, presented in italics, also failed to land ... With this novel, Powers continues to raise bold questions about the state of our world and the cumulative effects of our mistakes. In Bewilderment, some of these mistakes lead to an upsetting ending. The result is a sobering elegy sure to spark discussion.
RaveNPRWhat a treat it is to have this baker\'s dozen of stories in one volume ... masterful ... Wolitzer, who, like Paulie, (spoiler alert!) survived COVID-19 but lost her husband to it, has miraculously found notes of grace in a graceless disease — and demonstrated literature\'s power to both move and console ... Like Anne Tyler, Wolitzer clearly believes there are no ordinary people — everyone is extraordinary ... This book is filled with interesting characters. But it\'s the carefully selected details — like the distressed shopper\'s empty pocketbook, devoid of ID, car keys, or wallet, or the hangnail that sends Howard to a podiatrist at the height of the pandemic — that really get you.
RaveThe Christian Science Monitor... powerful ... masterfully weaves together Tóibín’s take on Mann’s personal and interior life with the creation of his major works ... The result is a remarkable dual portrait of Germany’s history in the 20th century and of a great, internationally famous writer who was thrust into a public role with which he was not entirely comfortable ... an be enjoyed even by readers unfamiliar with Mann’s novels, and should appeal not just to fans of Tóibín’s work but to history buffs who are interested in the buildup to World War II and its aftermath ... Among other things, Tóibín’s novel is a stirring paean to literature and music, which his introspective protagonist compares in several of the book’s most soaring passages ... Tóibín imagines far more than the buttons on a coat, taking us deeper into his character’s psyche than a nonfiction biography would allow ... Tóibín does a particularly sensitive job depicting the Manns’ long, successful marriage ... Tóibín, who has joked that he hopes never again to write about a family with six children, does yeoman’s work bringing Mann’s extensive, fractious clan to life and keeping track of them as they move around the world during the war like pins on a map. As a family saga, The Magician encompasses numerous upheavals, including multiple suicides ... This sobering, cautionary reminder about what happens when bad people gain popular support is a magnificent achievement.
RaveNPR... exceptionally deft ... Rooney looks hard for beauty and—reassuringly—manages to find it. That is part of her considerable appeal. But so is the straightforward sincerity with which she writes about class issues, mental health, and see-saw relationships. Her unembellished prose is rich in conversations that are at once plaintive and wry, soul-baring and deflective. In addition, there are Rooney\'s now-famous sex scenes, among the most lushly moving you\'ll find in contemporary literary fiction ... more structurally complex and innovative than Conversations with Friends and Normal People—not always effectively—with shifts between cool, detached perspectives and more intimate views of her four characters\' often heated, emotionally charged interactions ... Whether or not Rooney actually shares her characters\' reservations about writing will-they-or-won\'t-they romantic tragicomedies in a world in which millions are suffering is moot. What elevates her work is not just penetrating discussions like these but her uncanny ability to entrance us by capturing the emotional risks, power plays, miscommunications, ups and downs, hard work, and mixed feelings that accompany so much of our undertakings, including evolving relationships ... Beautiful world, where are you? There\'s plenty of evidence of it in great literature like this, which, among other things, celebrates the considerable consolations of love and friendship.
RaveLos Angeles TimesIt’s Levy’s openness to the quirks and peccadilloes of others that makes Levy’s work so invigorating. She’s a prober, but not a heavy-handed one ... Her prose is at once playful and multilayered. She offers fascinating glimpses into how her experiences sometimes work their way into her novel-in-progress ... Levy reminds us that happiness can’t be measured in holdings, square footage or property values. \'Of all the arts,\' she writes, \'the art of living is probably the most important.\' It’s a skill she’s polished, like her writing, to a fine sheen.
RaveNPR... sharply funny essays ... Ellis has clearly found her stride—or, in her case, her strut ... noticeably unbridled and self-assured ... The spirit of Nora Ephron—who wrote about such intimate topics as vaginal deodorants back in 1973 and her sagging neck 30 years later—hovers over this book ... Ellis\' prose is filled with so many laugh lines, you might want to go ahead and book the Botox...Some of her best lines catch the tone of Ephron\'s bold pronouncements ... Ellis is a hoot. She\'s also a force.
MixedNPREllen Stern\'s biography of theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld reads more like a gossipy 300-page article in New York magazine (where Stern has worked) than the biography of record suggested by the definite article modifying its subtitle ... For those not put off by Stern\'s glib tone, there\'s plenty of what she calls \'rich pickin\'s\' in this portrait of Hirschfeld ... She also provides a lively account of the development of Hirschfeld\'s distinctive style, as well as welcome fact-checks on several of the tales he stretched as tall as his familiar elongated signature. But Stern\'s book is marred by several of her own stylistic choices, including her decision to chase a sense of immediacy by relaying Hirschfeld\'s life story—all 99 years of it—in the present tense. This gets old faster than her subject. Be forewarned, too, that Stern\'s narrative is splattered with enough barely contextualized names to fill a phone book—many of which are unlikely to ring bells ... Harder to ignore is Stern\'s predilection for cutesy puns, with the result that this biography feels like a vintage issue of Time magazine ... Stern does an okay job capturing the impact of Hirschfeld\'s expressive, swooping black lines ... there are fun facts, too, in this evocation of a world in which newspapers and pen-and-ink flourished.
Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
PositiveThe Christian Science Monitor... important, inspirational ... Told from Greene’s perspective, The Personal Librarian deftly conveys her deep knowledge of medieval illuminated manuscripts, her skill in handling her mercurial, overbearing boss, and her prowess in navigating the rarefied circles of art dealers and Gilded Age society. But the book never loses sight of the cost incurred by her family secret through all these professional triumphs ... an engrossing, well-researched read ... Liberties have, of course, been taken, and it’s mostly in these imagined scenes of high drama – such as the physical tension between Greene and her possessive, much older boss – that the writing often feels overheated.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Herrera’s account of her privileged but wanting upbringing by narcissistic parents, who each married five times, is both insightful and forgiving ... Ms. Herrera paints a particularly vivid portrait of her aloof mother, a restless beauty forever seeking excitement ... Upper Bohemia carefully chronicles the tolls of instability on a sensitive child...whose sense of recall borders on the uncanny ... Upper Bohemia captures an enchanted but erratic childhood in a rarefied milieu with the critical but appreciative eye of a seasoned art historian.
PositiveThe Christian Science Monitor... none of these criticisms of American culture are new, but they still land sharply ... Johnson writes with assured brio and wit – although with some repetitiveness. She spins a plot busy with crises...Through it all, Johnson fondly ribs her characters – for their avarice more than anything, as they all angle for a cut of Randall’s rich wife’s pie. There are ridiculous complications, and complications to the complications ... Despite its incisive barbs, Lorna Mott Comes Home is an affectionate romp of a book. Who can resist a character who gallantly proffers her Hermès silk scarf to swaddle a newborn? Johnson’s fans should lap this one up, along with the duck à l’orange served in the French hospital cafeteria.
RaveLos Angeles Times[Radtke] returns this month with Seek You, an exploration of loneliness in America, a subject that has become increasingly germane in the five years since she began her project. The result is another resonant, haunting volume of graphic nonfiction written and drawn in the key of Edward Hopper ... Her subject may be timely, but Radtke, the art director and deputy publisher of the Believer magazine, is never superficial or fleeting ... she does not shy from big, potentially overwhelming questions ... Seek You isn’t the downer one might expect, given its sobering subject matter. If you accept that loneliness — like the impermanence at the heart of Radtke’s first book — is a fact of life, you might take comfort in being reminded that you’re not alone in this widely shared condition. There’s comfort to be found too, in the skillful elegance with which the author conveys her ideas.
PositiveChristian Science MonitorRowley hits the sweet spot between hilarity and heart in this endearing charmer about a famous sitcom star who becomes the reluctant, unconventional guardian of his niece and nephew for a summer ... he doesn’t just flirt with sentimentality, he invites it to move right in ... He also reminds us that love comes – wondrously – in multiple forms. An extravagantly entertaining character who channels actor Nathan Lane, albeit taller and more toned ... as schmaltzy as a Hollywood tearjerker. But it also glistens with those tears. Rowley pulls it off because his protagonist is – as he might put it – such a gay wit. Could a new comedy series be in the offing?
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorI have long rated cookbooks by what I call their IQ—short for irresistibility quotient—based on the number of recipes I can’t wait to try. Mother Grains is at the Mensa level ... Jullapat’s multiple versions of chocolate chip cookies are a good place to start—and worth the price of the book. An enticing two-page photo spread of what might arguably be America’s greatest gift to baking (sorry, apple pie lovers) graphically shows the different depth of color depending on the grain used ... My only complaint is that Jullapat’s 16-cookie yield is not enough. I doubled all recipes, and froze balls of dough to bake fresh as needed.
PositiveThe Christian Science Monitor... homey, adaptable ideas ... easygoing recipes ... It’s a chatty, meandering \'culinary stream of consciousness\' punctuated by recipes, geared as much to armchair reading as to goal-directed kitchen forays...sparking joy in the kitchen, even after a year of seemingly endless home cooking.
PositiveNPRThe Outline trilogy is a hard act to follow, but Second Place is an excellent next step ... We have no idea who Jeffers is, but rather irritatingly, Cusk repeats his name every few pages, lest we suspect that she\'s speaking into a void...The conceit feels forced ... The drama of the ruthless artist is not new, but as plumbed by the ever-probing Cusk, it still feels rich. That said, some readers may lose patience with M\'s ungrateful artist-in-residence ... As always, Cusk doggedly teases out her complex, occasionally mind-numbing concerns. There\'s also some beautiful prose ... Although Cusk doesn\'t explicitly address specific instances of artists who have been called out for their reprehensible behavior, her novel channels a moral reckoning we see taking place more widely in our culture.
PositiveThe Christian Science Monitor... don’t mistake it for a self-help book filled with platitudes and exhortations. Bechdel, neither a cheerleader nor a boot-camp sergeant, is never shallow ... In panels busy with expressive drawings, text, and commentary, Bechdel excavates her deepest thoughts and feelings. This latest memoir is a testimony to her determination to transcend her anxieties and find her way in life by dint of physical exertion and spiritual epiphanies. In the process, she channels her challenges into art ... As in the previous memoirs, Bechdel seeks further illumination in the lives and work of literary touchstones – including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller. These intellectual underpinnings contribute to a stimulating mental and emotional workout that will keep readers on their toes, too ... Among its many attractions, Superhuman Strength provides a fascinating record of passing fitness fads as Bechdel tracks her workouts decade by decade across her 60 years ... filled with amusing self-portraits of torturous exercise classes and contorted postures that gently satirize the ridiculous lengths Bechdel has gone to in pursuit of self-improvement ... while Bechdel is adept at wry humor, lightness isn’t exactly her thing. Nor is simplicity. Like her previous memoirs, Superhuman Strength shifts between seemingly disparate subjects – her dating history, 19th century transcendentalists, the evolution of specialized athletic equipment – with remarkable agility ... a strenuous, dogged, occasionally exhausting but exhilarating marathon of a memoir in which Bechdel comes to grasp that The only thing to transcend is the idea that there’s something to transcend.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... fantastically informative ... [Dunn\'s] excitement is contagious ... braids the cultural history and daunting needs and feats of these wondrous birds with vivid accounts of the author’s sometimes hazardous, far-flung mountain, forest and island expeditions ... Exceedingly well-researched and packed with fascinating lore, it should appeal to avid birders and general readers alike. Two quibbles: More informative captions on the photographs would have been welcome, including where each shot was taken. A more troubling omission is the lack of source citations for the plethora of information gathered in this volume ... Mr. Dunn’s prose has the necessary sparkle to do his subject justice ... Mr. Dunn doesn’t overwhelm us with facts—there is little here about hummingbirds’ evolution or gestation—but those he includes go down as easily as sugar water.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... this slim but by no means slight narrative is as cunning and rich as anything she’s written ... Ms. Ozick has created a character who, unlike herself, is unconscious of the reverberations of the words he chooses ... Petrie’s inbred xenophobia and anti-Semitism snake through Antiquities like a toxic river, presenting a rare view in Ms. Ozick’s work of such bigotry seen from the opposite shore ... she is still compelled by the perplexities of history, and still devoted to literature as a cause. More important, at nearly 93, her lifelong concerns with mortality and loneliness remain central.
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
MixedThe Christian Science Monitor... smoothly constructed ... Where The Nest was feathered with writers and publishing people, Good Company presents a roster of actors – stage, small screen, and voiceover. These are not superstars, and Sweeney deftly captures not just the different kinds of work actors do, but the grind of auditions, variable employment, and hard-earned mid-level success ... She handles the \'financial crevasse\' between Margot and Flora in Good Company with similar aplomb – but also, with a surprising absence of friction ... as carefully constructed as a well-made play, and it runs without hitches ... But with the exception of a malign seductress, the characters are just too nice – which can be a comfort, but also a drama killer. The symbolism of a dying hemlock is ridiculously heavy handed, though not enough to make us laugh. Margot’s husband, a doctor, the fourth member of their quartet, has an interesting backstory, but he’s a cipher in this narrative ... It all adds up to a relaxing read that echoes Flora’s take on Margot’s tastefully remodeled house – beige and bland, \'polished but somehow devoid of personality.\' Even with Flora’s anger and sorrow, there’s little heat. The result is OK but not great company.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWritten in the same lushly descriptive, emotive vein, this sequel conveys how their experience—and her book about it—changed their lives. But where The Salt Path stayed on a relatively narrow but propulsive narrative track, The Wild Silence roams further afield. It’s a more expansive memoir, ranging from backstory to update, with meditations on death, sustainable farming, trust, the meaning of home and the central importance of deep engagement with the great outdoors ... As always, Ms. Winn exquisitely captures the raw intensity of untamed environments ... a full-throated paean to the fundamental importance of nature in all its glory, fury and impermanence ... as Ms. Winn makes clear in this heartfelt and heartening book, such bracing challenges put them in touch with the \'roaring, wild silence\' that sustains them.
RaveNPRElizabeth McCracken\'s The Souvenir Museum begins with one of the funniest short stories I\'ve read in a long time ... I had to stop reading \'The Irish Wedding\' several times to explain to my husband why I was laughing so hard. I kept thinking: I wish I were reading a whole book about these people ... they\'re all beguiling ... This tale, like much of McCracken\'s work, captures the mixed bag that characterizes most people\'s lives ... McCracken\'s writing is never dull. She ends this fantastic collection with a second English wedding and its aftermath, nearly 20 years after the first, delivering happiness tempered by sobering circumstances — and a satisfying symmetry.
PositiveNPRWhereabouts offers a muted portrait of urban solitude marked by an undercurrent of longing ... A recurrent theme is how heavy time can weigh when alone. She feels her isolation more sharply during what was meant to be a restorative break ... As always, Lahiri writes with subtlety and delicacy. There is movement in her prose that reflects the subtle movement in her narrator\'s life. Whereabouts is the literary equivalent of slow cooking; it demands patience. Shifts between shadow and light, emptiness and fulfillment, irritation and enjoyment, and stasis and change carry us along ... she is a writer who obviously relishes pushing past barriers, including those she herself erects.
PositiveNPRThe book, while emblematic of [Murakami\'s] short work in particular, doesn\'t break new ground like his recent novels, 1Q84 and Killing Commendatore, but it\'s an enjoyable read that goes down easily ... Murakami\'s plainspoken short stories, like his more complex novels, raise existential questions about perception, memory, and the meaning of it all — though he\'s the opposite of heavy-handed, and rarely proposes answers ... There are a few missteps in this collection, including a tedious disquisition on ugly versus beautiful women in a story about a friendship with a homely woman based on a shared musical passion. A surprising revelation again highlights how superficial our knowledge of most people is ... But \'Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey\' is a standout that will appeal especially to readers enchanted by Murakami\'s surrealist turns, which blur the line between dreams and reality ... From his fans\' perspective, of course, and on the further evidence of this winning collection, Murakami hasn\'t had to swallow much defeat ...
PositiveThe Christian Science Monitor...offers a fresh take on colonialism, privilege, race, and heritage from the perspective of a Black American scholar married to a rich Italian businessman ... Lee draws a vivid picture of this willful, self-made man, who lifted his family from postwar poverty with a business brokering repair services for agricultural machines across Europe ... Lee sets up these sources of friction in the book’s opening pages, which also pack in a lot of deeply researched information about Madagascar. Against this backdrop, Red Island House charts Shay’s journey of discovery – getting to know both her home away from home (away from home) and herself ... richly evocative ... But while the cumulative effect is mesmerizing, the episodic form, which Lee has long championed, has its drawbacks. Rather than build steadily towards a denouement, the disjointed narrative periodically loses steam. Continuity issues like repetitions should have been caught in editing ... provocative.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalAmong the handful of iconic hotels closely entwined with New York’s cultural history, the Barbizon is perhaps less widely known than the Plaza, Algonquin or Waldorf Astoria. But as Paulina Bren’s beguiling new book makes clear, its place in the city’s storied past is no less deserving ... Ms. Bren’s juicy sociocultural history glitters with the names and stories of talented, beautiful young women who passed through the Barbizon’s Italianate atrium lobby on their way to literary and cinematic stardom ... Two institutions helped shape the Barbizon’s legacy: the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School...and Mademoiselle magazine ... Ms. Bren convincingly argues that the histories of both shed light on the history of women in 20th-century America ... In considering the repercussions of Prohibition, the Depression and McCarthyism on American women, Ms. Bren occasionally wanders too far into tangential material. But one of the book’s more intriguing side stories concerns the hotel’s long-haulers, dubbed \'The Women\' ... And in this captivating portrait, the hotel comes alive again as an enchanted site of a bygone era, \'a place of glamour, desire, and young female ambition.\'
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorLike Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro’s discomfiting 2005 dystopian novel about clones raised to be organ donors, his latest involves science taken to sinister, ethically questionable levels. But it is also a surprisingly warm morality tale about love, heart, hope, empathy, and the idea that \'there are all kinds of ways to lead a successful life\' ... Without giving away too much, I can say that the novel’s principal – and far creepier – ethical issue involves genetic manipulations that confer special social and educational advantages, which leads to an unfair, stratified society. These \'edits\' can also carry grave health risks ... Ishiguro’s intrinsically honest narrator is limited, but she has depth. This is a character whose vision goes wonky and fractures into tiny boxes when she is overwhelmed by what she sees, yet who never stops trying to synthesize the pieces ... a pleasant subversion of what we expect from a dystopian story about the dangers of technology taken too far.
RaveNPRJaouad\'s book stands out not only because she has lived to parse the saga of her medical battle with the benefit of hindsight, but also because it encompasses the less familiar tale of what it\'s like to survive and have to figure out how to live again. It helps that she is a deft researcher, a smart, sometimes painfully honest writer, and an audacious reporter. Between Two Kingdoms is a spectacular debut which leaves us eager to see what this gifted young woman will do next.
RaveNPRNow Lockwood has put that strength into her first novel, No One is Talking About This, which leaves no doubt that she still takes her literary vocation seriously. It\'s another attention-grabbing mind-blower which toggles between irony and sincerity, sweetness and blight ... Lockwood deftly captures a life lived predominantly online ... This portrait of a disturbing world where the center will not hold is a tour de force that recalls Joan Didion\'s portrait of the dissolute 1960s drug culture of Haight-Ashbury in her seminal essay, \'Slouching Towards Bethlehem\' ... Lockwood is a master of sweeping, eminently quotable proclamations that fearlessly aim to encapsulate whole movements and eras ... It\'s a testament to her skills as a rare writer who can navigate both sleaze and cheese, jokey tweets and surprising earnestness, that we not only buy her character\'s emotional epiphany but are moved by it ... Of course, people will be talking about this meaty book, and about the questions Lockwood raises about what a human being is, what a brain is, and most important, what really matters.
Julia Claiborne Johnson
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorThe book channels Frank Capra’s screwball comedies ... Johnson spins a madcap plot with more twists than a Tiffany braided gold choker ... Johnson carefully sets up her punchlines, often with physical comedy, including ridiculous masquerade costumes and mistaken identities ... there is a delightful sense of closure in the way Johnson wraps up this shiny package, which arrives just after New Year’s like a late holiday gift.
RaveNPRThere\'s plenty of journalistic gold in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Didion\'s new book of 12 previously uncollected essays. What\'s particularly salient is her trademark farsightedness, which is especially striking decades later ... Hilton Als\' smart foreword offers a welcome overview, though readers who want to encounter her writing fresh, without an intermediary, might want to read it after the essays ... Readers, and especially aspiring writers, will find the rejection letters garnered by Didion\'s last stab at short fiction fascinating, while college applicants should find consolation in \'On Being Unchosen by the College of One\'s Choice\' ... As these essays demonstrate, Didion, even with her famous detachment, is no slouch at showing us what she means ... there\'s a wistfulness to this book, for it is impossible to read without wishing Didion were weighing in on how the center still cannot hold and things continue to fall apart in the 21st century.
PositiveWall Street JournalDark, Salt, Clear is an extraordinary debut, a deeply researched and deeply felt work of narrative nonfiction. It is the kind of book that ziplines readers to a different world ... Ms. Ash explores questions about work, life and community and in so doing reflects on her own choices. On top of everything else, this book charts the author’s own passage to maturity as she re-evaluates what matters to her ... Dark, Salt, Clear is a deep dive into a distinctive culture rather than a tale of confronting adversity with a literal walk on the wild side.
RaveNPRIt\'s such a joy when an author whose work you\'ve been reading for decades surprises you with something unexpected ... this delightful, heartwarming tale about creatures living in the rough in Paris\'s Champs de Mars is something new for Smiley, and it\'s an appealing balm for harsh times ... Smiley nimbly channels her various critters\' world views as they discuss pithy subjects like ownership and freedom ... an especially welcome reminder of the bright spots even in dark times.
RaveNPRHave you ever caught a Mountweazel? Before reading Eley Williams\'s beguiling first novel, I\'d never heard of them. But Williams is an expert. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on them, and then she put her hard-earned knowledge to further good use in The Liar\'s Dictionary, which is to word lovers what potato chips are to my husband — minus the guilt ... Williams\'s novel raises questions about the instability of language, how words gain currency, and whether fake words are any less real than actual words ... The Liar\'s Dictionary belongs to a subgenre of historical fiction that toggles between two parallel narratives — set in the past and the present — which cleverly play off each other, unraveling mysteries and juxtaposing epiphanies in both strands ... The Liar\'s Dictionary, \'queasy with knowledge,\' is an audacious, idiosyncratic dual love story about how language and people intersect and connect, and about how far we\'ll go to save what we\'re passionate about. It\'s hard not to love ... Read this clever volume for yourself, from A to Z.
André Gregory and Todd London
PositiveNPRShaping This is Not My Memoir, the 86-year-old author\'s first book, into more than just a motley collection of anecdotes was apparently an uphill battle — which explains Todd London\'s co-author byline and the book\'s as-told-to flavor. Fortunately, the result, while not perfect, is well worth the effort. Gregory has led an amazing life in the arts, and his behind-the-scenes accounts of the years-long rehearsal processes leading to productions such as Vanya on 42nd Street will be especially fascinating to theater and film aficionadoes ... Unfortunately, as Gregory notes, \'Happiness never makes as good a story as distress.\' The latter part of this memoir devolves into mawkish declarations of contentment and life philosophy.
RaveNPRMay writes beautifully of her own recent bout with a personal winter ... [May] has found a subject that speaks to our time ... refreshingly free of self-pitying navel-gazing and trite exhortations to buck up ... Also refreshing, May embraces the cold and dark in part by exploring the soothing powers of the natural world and the way other creatures and cultures deal with winter ... a contemplative, hopeful, consoling book.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorOK, so technically, there’s nothing new here. But The Best of Me is an excellent introduction to Sedaris’ work if, somehow, you’re not among the millions who have made him a mainstay on bestseller lists and flocked to his ticketed readings. Even if you’ve read or listened to every word he’s ever written, it’s a terrific highlights reel and a chance to view the arc of Sedaris’ development as a writer over 25 years ... In general, he’s moved from the often outrageous, escalating rants of unhinged characters, in which he takes an off-the-wall idea and runs with it, to more deeply personal material ... a well-earned victory lap.
Zach St. George
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a deeply researched book that is liable to change your perspective on the magnificent, tall, woody creatures that cover one-third of the Earth’s land ... What [St. George] brings to this book, his first, is a flair for gathering and distilling often esoteric scientific findings into lively, accessible explanations ... The Journeys of Trees isn’t always a joyride. Although only 200 pages, it is somewhat repetitious. Occasionally, there is simply more information than a general reader might wish to know ... There are some wonderful stories tucked in among the book’s branches ... you’ll learn a lot from The Journeys of Trees.
MixedNPRI never lost my sense of taste with COVID, but I\'m beginning to think I may have lost my sense of humor — or, perhaps, my patience with the sort of deliberately, mockably tendentious conversations Shelter in Place is filled with ... Leavitt easily nails the trappings of entitlement ... It is hard for a character to be less appealing or interesting than Eva ... These two women are such easy targets, a fingerless chef could skewer them ... At its best, a comedy of manners should sparkle with wit and charm. Leavitt pulls off a surprisingly sweet ending and some clever ripostes ... Certainly, we could all use something to laugh about now, but passing time with these characters felt like lockdown to me.
PositiveThe Christian Science Monitor... [a] juicy new biography ... What comes through in this sometimes sobering portrait is that the impresario was overextended. Beard rarely said no to a project, even when faced with ridiculously tight deadlines. Although he was good at delegating, he often felt burned out, depressed, and lonely. Birdsall’s book is replete with delicious details—like the centerpieces of bread dough slowly rising at Beard’s 80th birthday celebration—but there are some noticeable gaps. Less focus on Beard’s book deals and more of his recipes would have been welcome. So, too, would consideration of his central role in the creation of the remarkable Four Seasons restaurant. Also missing is a nod to the James Beard Foundation, which carries on Beard’s legacy by nurturing chefs and food writers, in part with its annual awards, the Oscars of the gastronomic sphere.
RaveLos Angeles TimesWhat does it mean to say a literary work is \'dated\'? Must fiction be timely or à la mode to resonate? In a harsh pre-publication review, Publisher’s Weekly branded the late Shirley Hazzard’s Collected Stories \'quaint antiques from a bygone time.\' But Hazzard’s stories were out of step with her times even when they were first published in the 1960s, primarily in the New Yorker. To read them now will indeed transport you to a bygone time— when travelers hungry for culture and history hopped on airplanes to Italy without viral anxiety and enjoyed civilized communal dinners in pensiones rather than takeout in Airbnbs ... And what an exquisitely polished writer [Hazzard] was, at once serious and bitingly funny, a master of both the plush, well-rounded sentence and the oblique takedown. Not for Hazzard the stripped-down prose and catchy conversational style that were already coming into vogue when these stories were written ... To dismiss these revelatory, human stories as fusty relics would be merciless — and unaccountable.
MixedThe Christian Science MonitorAmis has packed more than comfortably fits between covers in this often moving, mostly entertaining and stimulating, but sometimes exhausting manifesto on love, sex, literature, politics, parenting, writing, aging, and mortality ... Even when this book doesn’t entirely cohere, Amis’ prose is always coherent, and often dazzling. High points include those portraits of his literary touchstones, even through sobering descriptions of their waning days ... Inside Story is at times overwhelming. Much of the material is not new, and much could have been cut. The irritatingly distracting footnotes are decidedly not reader-friendly. Redundancies from his earlier publications heighten the sense that we’re reading an anthology or a valedictory summing up. Or, perhaps, a greatest hits.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorFans will not be disappointed with Monogamy, an emotionally perceptive book ... There’s a lot of explication in the novel’s early scenes, backstories that are dutifully spelled out. But Monogamy pulls you in ... This is a novel that works not through dazzling images or narrative pyrotechnics but through the steady accretion of clear-eyed observations relayed in limpid prose.
PositiveLos Angeles TimesThere’s plenty of eloquent brooding and lavishly expressed guilt in Payback too. But by setting up a clash of cultures and values between a decorous art teacher and the difficult student whose life she is convinced she ruined with a careless knee-jerk reaction, Gordon has produced her most topical and propulsive novel to date ... Gordon makes it evident early on that her narrative is headed for a showdown. We keep turning pages to find out how this long-awaited clash of the crass and the meek will play out ... Gordon’s target isn’t just the insidious tenor of so much of what counts for entertainment these days. What she has set up in this clash of cultures and values is the \'heroism of good manners\' versus the brutality of a world ... Gordon makes it clear how high the stakes are in this battle for decency.
RaveNPRSigrid Nunez is on a roll. She\'s tapped into a smart, wry voice which feels right for our times, as do her concerns with friendship, empathy, loss, and loneliness ... a worthy followup — a companion piece, if you will — that considers the comforts and emotional risks of a different sort of companionship ... It takes Nunez\'s meandering novel a while to get to this arrangement, whose dramatic potential is of course intense. That\'s in part because she is less interested in drama than in empathy ... less about the nitty-gritty of dying than about the difficulty of accurately capturing the swarm of feelings surrounding death ... The marvel of this novel is that it encompasses so much sadness yet is not grim ... Despite its serpentine path, What Are You Going Through explicitly aims for and pretty much manages to hit all of William Faulkner\'s prescribed goalposts for writers: \'love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.\' Nunez has written another deeply humane reminder of the great solace of both companionship and literature.
RaveNPRIs it a mistake for writers to pursue topicality? Is the necessary perspective possible at such close range? Will such work date as quickly as old news? We know where Smith stands on these questions, and I\'m with her ... [a] remarkable project ... What will keep [this series] fresh long after the news cycle has moved on is their passionate engagement with universal issues such as grief, injustice, human warmth and cruelty, and the life-enhancing powers of love, art, and decency ... Smith reveals subtle but overarching connections between the four volumes\' recurrent characters and themes, bringing this brilliant quartet to a satisfying close. But as befits our dark times, there\'s a somberness to this volume that even Smith\'s characteristic compassion and brainy playfulness can\'t quite mitigate ... I\'ll miss the intricate narrative Smith has spun out of a combination of real and fictional people and events ... Of course Summer, the denouement of Smith\'s truly novel quartet of novels — which ends while the world is still wracked by the novel coronavirus — also faced a risk of being overloaded with our expectations. Not to worry: This final volume bears the weight with aplomb.
Jonathan C. Slaght
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Slaght’s book is a stellar example of the fruitful intersection of scientific inquiry, conservation advocacy and wilderness adventure. It belongs to a rare species of nature writing in which facts are delivered with both exactitude and storytelling panache ... Owls is replete with the narrative excitements of serious stakes, daunting challenges and disappointing setbacks, from blizzards, roadblocks and frigid nocturnal vigils on icy riverbanks to technological failures, dangerously thin spring ice, and an exhausting, overly loquacious field assistant. But it is also leavened by humorous profiles of Mr. Slaght’s changing crew of roving researchers and the eccentric, heavy-drinking fishermen, hunters, loggers, hermits and outlaws they meet ... His enthusiastic reporting encompasses both the local color and the colorful locals.
MixedNPRReading Caldwell is like sitting down over tea and cookies with a close friend, only to realize several hours later that together you\'ve devoured the whole plateful and dinnertime has come and gone. She clearly had a lot on her mind while writing Bright Precious Thing. This fourth memoir, while not as powerful as her paean to her lost soul mate, writer Caroline Knapp, is both timeless and timely ... Unfortunately, Bright Precious Thing loses steam partway through. Some of Caldwell\'s epiphanies feel less than fresh ... But what Caldwell\'s dowsing tool has found is a life filled with intense friendships, pleasurable exercise (swimming, rowing, walking), a succession of Samoyeds, and a fulfilling second career as a memoirist.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe evocative title...reflects something of the nature of Mr. Hohn’s writing, the fertile ground on which his outward explorations meet up with his natural tendency toward intellectual reflection and interiority—his own inner coast ... powerful...reporting ... Some of the essays collected here feel like fillers or ballast ... Mr. Hohn’s best pieces here are deep dives into narrative nonfiction ... In Mr. Hohn’s lively telling [in \'A Romance of Rust\'], all this is plenty riveting, but he takes his essay up a notch by pondering the allure of these outdated but inherently democratic, utilitarian, humble artifacts, which—again invoking Whitman—he dubs \'technological leaves of grass\' ... boundaries—between meaning and sentiment, memory and nostalgia—are among the coastlines Mr. Hohn explores in this polished, limpid collection.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... a richly textured family portrait that feels deeply familiar yet profoundly moving and illuminating. As in the best fiction, you come away from Morningside Heights reluctantly—attached to its characters and with new understanding of what it is to be a feeling person dealing with life’s unpredictability ... just when we think it might settle into an affecting chronicle of degenerative disease, Mr. Henkin surprises us with some smart narrative shifts, which underscore that Morningside Heights is above all the story of a marriage and a family—and its often unexpected challenges ... convincingly captures the “years of diminishment” in Spence’s condition, but it’s the nuanced portrait of its characters’ mixed feelings—and passages like the following—that lift its tender story of a family under duress well above the ordinary.
RaveNPRThe Vanishing Half, more than lives up to her early promise. It\'s an even better book, more expansive yet also deeper, a multi-generational family saga that tackles prickly issues of racial identity and bigotry and conveys the corrosive effects of secrets and dissembling. It\'s also a great read that will transport you out of your current circumstances, whatever they are ... this novel keeps you turning pages not just to find out what happens—or how it happened—but to find out more about who these people are ... It\'s a rare gift to be able to dig beyond the dirt and gossip of lives viewed superficially to get to the inner human story, to delve beyond the sensational into difficult issues, and to view flawed characters with understanding rather than judgment or condemnation. Toni Morrison\'s influence is evident in these pages, from a slur Desiree\'s dark-skinned daughter suffers that echoes the title of Morrison\'s novel Tar Baby, to the ability to convey both the brutal realities of racism and the beautiful wonders of love.
Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
RaveNPRI have been on the lookout for books that will transport readers to another time and place. Icelandic novelist and playwright Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir\'s atmospheric sixth novel, Miss Iceland, is just the ticket ... Hekla\'s visits, bearing library books, boxes of canapés, toys, and adult conversation, are a lifeline for Ísey, just as these mutually supportive friendships are a ray of light in Ólafsdóttir\'s novel. But so, too, is Hekla\'s unusual voice — reticent but firm, straightforward but wry, melancholic with an undercurrent of irony ... quietly mesmerizing.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe Equivalents, Ms. Doherty’s first book, is written with panache. She adroitly weaves vivid, empathetic portraits of these talented women, focusing on their artistic accomplishments, their impact on the women’s movement and its impact on them. Her nuanced depiction of deep, supportive female friendships provides a welcome contrast to the fractious competitiveness and infighting that has so often tarnished the history of feminism ... As in life, Anne Sexton tends to commandeer center stage in this book, sometimes overshadowing its other subjects ... Ms. Doherty barely mentions the academic fellows who made up the majority of the early cohort, but her book’s long tail provides welcome snapshots of the Equivalents’ post-fellowship productiveness as well as a broader view of the program’s evolution over 60 years ... The bottom line? The Equivalents is a resounding endorsement of an initially daring social experiment that quickly demonstrated the sagacity of investing in human potential.
RaveNPRIf restaurants and travel are high on the list of things you miss most during lockdown, I heartily recommend Bill Buford\'s Dirt. This is a writer who gives new meaning to the expression \'glutton for punishment\' ... Buford returns with his reportorial blades freshly sharpened in this blazingly entertaining and frequently scalding account of the five years he planted himself in several exacting kitchens ... Buford again proves himself to be a relentless reporter and a self-deprecating guide ... This deliciously salty chronicle, loamy with culinary history and profiles of the great chefs, is worth digging into.
PositiveNPRIn a series of short, spare, food-centric bulletins written in the present tense, Grant captures the passions of her life, from the rigorous intensity of her early ambitions to her more manageable present ... Grant nimbly pirouettes, pivots, leaps. She becomes a cookbook editor, a yoga instructor, a certified doula, a smitten mom who blogs about cooking with and for her kids, a bold, talented memoirist. Such flexibility is not a bad lesson for right now. Plus there\'s the bonus of 17 tempting, homey recipes.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorMiss Austen, Gill Hornby’s well-researched, slyly barbed historical novel, is a worthy addition, sure to enthrall Janeites ... Like Austen’s cunning social satires, Hornby’s novel works on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s the story of a smart, attractive Regency woman who, after the death of her fiancé, resigns herself to spinsterhood and a financially straitened life whose gratifications rest in being dutifully useful ... On another level, it’s a vivid portrait of Austen and her family...with entertainingly acid commentary ... there’s lots of courtship drama, but Hornby has slyly inverted the marriage plot and the notion that for a story to end happily, it must end in a betrothal ... Miss Austen continues to twist and turn deliciously to expose the dangers of blindly promoting one’s own idea of utopia, whether married or single, \'as the only true happiness.\'
RaveNPR... vividly captures the life-changing intensity of maternity in its myriad stages — from the pain of childbirth to the unassuagable grief of loss. Fierce emotions and lyrical prose are what we\'ve come to expect of O\'Farrell. But with this historical novel she has expanded her repertoire, enriching her narrative with atmospheric details of the sights, smells, and relentless daily toil involved in running a household in Elizabethan England — a domestic arena in which a few missing menstrual rags on washday is enough to alarm a mother of girls ... About halfway through this tour de force, there\'s a remarkable 10-page passage in which O\'Farrell traces how the plague reached Agnes\' children. It\'s a sequence that would stand out even in more salubrious times, but which holds particular resonance in light of the current global Covid-19 pandemic ... Although more than 400 years have unspooled since Hamnet Shakespeare\'s death, the story O\'Farrell weaves in this moving novel is timeless and ever-relevant.
RaveNPRHere We Are is a paragon of the magic of compressed narration. How does Swift pull off this literary sleight of hand? ... Readers who hope for the curtain to be drawn back completely may be as disappointed as audiences looking for the secrets behind conjuring a parrot from thin air and then making it disappear without a trace ... once again, Swift has demonstrated wizardry in his ability to conjure magic out of ordinary lives.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalFrancesca Wade, a London-based writer and literary editor, has pulled off a remarkable feat of intellectual and social history with her erudite yet juicy first book. In a captivating series of minibiographies of five women, all trailblazing writers who lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square at some point between 1916 and 1940, Square Haunting builds a compelling case that each woman’s time there represented a crucial stage in her efforts to forge an independent life when doing so was both uncommon and difficult ... Ms. Wade does a superb job of drawing out commonalities that run far deeper than geographic coincidence ... Ms. Wade’s engaging narrative, movingly bookended by descriptions of the obliteration of a world she so vividly evokes, ends on a sobering note. But this impressive feminist history stands as an elegiac love letter to a bygone time and place that offered brilliant, iconoclastic women a unique opportunity for freedom and self-expression.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalAlthough pithy and exacting, this study of James’s life and work is less enthralling than Mr. Kaag’s previous books ... Sick Souls feels too guarded and circumspect to engage us as personal history. Even so, any excuse to reconsider James’s ideas—which straddled psychology and philosophy and homegrown American religion—is welcome ... John Kaag, who by his own admission is \'not always entirely sold on life’s value,\' writes with the fervor of one determined to hear life’s higher notes. His arguments about the power of philosophy to improve your life may not convince you, but in these anxiety-inducing times, it may be worth testing the buoyancy of James’s existential life preserver.
PositiveNPREmma Straub\'s warm-hearted fourth novel confirms her reign as a patron saint of delayed adolescence ... Her amiably dysfunctional characters make it clear that it\'s possible to grow old without growing up ... All Adults Here is somewhat overstuffed with what at times feels like a checklist of hot topics—teens dealing with online pedophiles, shaming, queerness and transexuality; ticking time clocks and sperm bank babies; sex with exes; checked-out parenting—but you\'ll enjoy the company of this sympathetic clan as Straub works her narrative to a well-earned cheery resolution.
RaveNPR... heartwarming balm for jangled nerves. Once again, she burrows so convincingly into the quotidian details of her main character\'s life, home, and head that you have to wonder if she\'s some sort of Alexa-gone-rogue ... has a lot going for it, beginning with its alluring title. But I\'m not going to give away anything about that roadside presence except to say that the redhead is a lovely metaphor for the protagonist\'s inability to see clearly, which causes him to misread the relationships in his life ... The narrative\'s tone is warm and wry ... The wry touches are plentiful and funny ... Anne Tyler\'s novels are always worth scooping up — but especially this gently amusing soother, right now, when all of our cherished routines have been disrupted.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorIn two dozen short chapters linked like little sausages, he serves up a bounty of fresh, often tart opinions about food and cooking as he takes us on an informative tour through the myriad things that go into an ambitious, multi-course early spring meal. By things, I don’t just mean ingredients or steps. Eagle’s approach to food is more fundamental and wide-ranging than that ... Eagle is a natural teacher; his enthusiasm and broad view of food preparation is both instructive and inspiring ... Eagle\'s prose, while conversational in tone, is as crafted and layered as his cuisine. Never bland, it is also brightly seasoned with strong opinions ... Readers should be warned that while Eagle’s instructions for dicing vegetables are among the clearest I’ve seen, his description of butchering rabbits is not for the squeamish and is unlikely to woo any vegetarians.
PositiveNPR... a series of brief-but-potent meditations on women ... Roiphe opens up, revealing the gentler person behind the polemical writer — and the accomplished literary scholar behind both ... Roiphe\'s personal revelations in The Power Notebooks are part self-defense, part risky exposure to further attacks. Just don\'t call them apologies ... Roiphe has a knack for angering people and leaving a trail of enemies — boyfriends, fellow faculty, enraged feminists. In response, she devotes a lot of thought to the subject of likability and relatability, which she insistently links to a willingness — or worse, an imperative — to show vulnerability. It doesn\'t seem to occur to her that a display of compassion might just as effectively mollify one\'s image ... The Power Notebooks deserves positive attention. Roiphe\'s exploration of women\'s complicated relationship with power — including her own — is sharp, smart, and literate. She clearly has a penchant for the unsettled and the unorthodox, and this book helps clarify not just her fierce and often irritating stands on sexual abuse, but also her attraction to subjects like the unconventional literary marriages she parsed in Uncommon Arrangements ...and the cultural idiosyncracies she celebrated in her essay collection, In Praise of Messy Lives...In fact, The Power Notebooks is, at heart, Roiphe\'s audacious assessment of her own messy life.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a cunning tale of espionage and court intrigue ... evokes flashes of Hilary Mantel, John le Carré and Graham Greene, but the wry, tricky plot that drives it is pure Arthur Phillips ... The novel takes its time building to full intensity ... Mr. Phillips plays this Elizabethan drama relatively straight, resisting his usual verbal pyrotechnics of puns, anagrams and wordplay in favor of a steady undercurrent of irony, cross-cultural barbs and deception ... You don’t have to be a sleuth to find contemporary relevance in Mr. Phillips’s interest in the subterfuge and ambiguity involved in gathering intelligence ... there’s always more than meets the eye in an Arthur Phillips novel. Come for the plot and verbal alacrity, but remember that the play’s the thing.
RaveNPR... oh my, it\'s a good read ... There\'s nothing exotic or startlingly new about this story, but Writers & Lovers is stellar proof that literature doesn\'t have to be groundbreaking to be absolutely compelling ... Not only does Casey\'s story capture how hard it can be to believe in yourself, stay the course, and just finish the damn book when all your friends are getting paychecks and promotions, marrying and having babies — but also, reassurance that you don\'t have to break the mold to write a great book. Of course, writing as beautifully as King does help ... Among the elements that make Writers & Lovers so winning are the perfectly calibrated little details, convincing conversations, and droll wit ... generously infused with heart and soul and wit and wisdom.
PositiveThe Washington PostScratched is a brave and complex memoir — though a sometimes heavy-going read — about a subject that deserves closer scrutiny. Perfectionism is an odd affliction, part spur, part handicap ... But make no mistake: Perfectionism can be crippling. Tallent makes clear that its exacting standards, however lofty, can be devilishly effective at stifling the sort of risk-taking required of literary fiction ... Tallent, a celebrated teacher of creative writing at Stanford University, brings an intellectual rigor to her memoir that recalls Kathryn Harrison and Dani Shapiro. She is capable of beautiful precision ... By design, a portrait of anguish permeates many of these pages. Tallent’s relentless drive to nail a thought or a feeling in transcendent language leads not just to memorable, enviable images...but also to long, dense, numbingly winding sentences and paragraphs that capture all too well her dismay at having repeatedly fallen short of her impossibly high standards ... It’s not all misery, but it’s all intensely felt.
PositiveNPR... a wonderful demonstration of the sort of free-range intellectual curiosity Barnes feels has been stymied by the xenophobia and national chauvinism behind Brexit ... expands into an erudite, entertaining, and beautifully illustrated disquisition on the period between 1870 and 1914, which actually bears some interesting parallels with our own times ... Barnes flits through the sexual gossip, petulant duels, violent outbursts, medical advances, anti-English jibes, and lurid excesses of the Belle Epoque, seasoning it all with wry interjections on art and literature ... Nothing glib about this delightful, consummately open-minded book.
PositiveNPR[A] stirring debut ... riveting and surprising ... part intense adventure story, part morality tale ... Kingdomtide braids two narrative strands that cut like intersecting streams through the valley of this novel ... One of Kingdomtide\'s concerns is with the vagaries of desire, and Curtis doesn\'t stint on sometimes wince-inducing details that are not for the fastidious ... Curtis keeps us turning pages.
PositiveNPRMake sure you have tissues handy when you read Ann Napolitano\'s Dear Edward, a sure-footed tearjerker about the miraculous — but troubled — survival of a 12-year-old boy ... moving ... Dear Edward is in part a tale of survivor guilt, which is fueled by the weight of oppressive, often bizarre expectations on the miracle boy, especially from the families of victims who want him to fulfill their loved ones\' dreams and plans ... transportative.
PositiveNPR... slim but potent ... Like a determined firefighter, Popkey pushes through the dark smoke, but what she exposes are difficult emotions, and what she taps into is an \'erotic current\' that tingles and titillates, sometimes uncomfortably ... In this provocative debut, Popkey has gone deep inside the head of someone who is wired to make things hard for herself. The result is sure to spark conversation.
RaveNPRJenny Offill broke through the funk of a 15-year gap between her first and second novels with Dept. of Speculation (2014), a wonderful series of witty, plangent short dispatches about marriage, motherhood, and thwarted aspirations ... Offill\'s new novel, Weather, takes a similarly clever diary-like tack, but it\'s even better — darkly funny and urgent, yet more outwardly focused, fueled by a growing preoccupation with the scary prospect of a doomed earth ... Offill\'s signature achievement here is to capture the angst specific to our particular moment in time — the rising tide of anxiety, especially in New York City, about a world threatened by climate change and the ascension of right-wing strongmen, which deepens after the 2016 election ... This potent, appealing little book is about how we weather this sense of doom — with humor, incredulity, panic, disaster preparedness, or, best of all, action ... Offill is a master of the glancing blow, and her portrait of life in Brooklyn is the stuff of comedy series ... Wade into Weather. It will only take a few hours of your precious time.
PositiveNPRAfter a slow start, it builds to a carefully seeded climax that will leave readers — and especially writers — queasy ... I would never choose to re-live — right up there with high school — is Columbia\'s MFA program. So it\'s a tribute to Wayne\'s subtly layered prose that I kept reading long enough to understand the stilted, self-consciously writerly tone of the narrator\'s tale about what turns out to be the crucial turning point in his life ... While readers may be happy to move on from this sad story of a man who finds himself shut out from the life he envisioned, its sobering climax is bound to stay with you long after you close the door on Apartment.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis juicy book, which [Bair] dubs a \'bio-memoir,\' is at once a record of triumph over the skepticism and sexism she encountered on her path from journalist to academic and biographer and a valuable lesson in the art of biography ... The focus of Parisian Lives is more often on the scramble for grants and teaching gigs than one might wish, but the predominant impression is of the rampant sexism Ms. Bair had to surmount as a young, female scholar and biographer ... Another guiding principle, she notes, is that good literary biographies should send readers back to their subjects’ writings. By that measure, Parisian Lives is an unqualified success. After finishing it, I jumped into Ms. Bair’s compulsively readable Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett.
Kate Elizabeth Russell
PositiveNPRNot surprisingly, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been a spate of new novels exploring the long term damage of sexual abuse ... Kate Elizabeth Russell\'s explosive debut now joins the line-up ... it is set apart from the pack on several counts: It\'s a page-turner structured to amp up suspense, but it\'s also self-consciously bookish, with frequent references to transgressive relationships in literature, including Vladimir Nabokov\'s Lolita. It features a lot of graphic sex, pretty much all of which is distasteful. And its narrator is not particularly likable ... My Dark Vanessa has clearly been worked and reworked to a fare-thee-well, but sometimes feels crafted to a fault. It\'s too long, and suffers from some serious overwriting, mostly involving Vanessa\'s attempts to describe her out-of-body sense of alienation at each of Shane\'s trespasses ... Even so, this upsetting novel, which powerfully unpacks so much about the trauma of abuse, victimhood, silencing, misplaced guilt, power, consent, and wayward desire, is a significant addition to the necessary reassessments and conversations sparked by the #MeToo movement.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesIt is a fascinating account — a sort of extended case study, really — of Sacks’ remarkably active, iconoclastic adulthood ... On the Move is filled with both wonder and wonderments ... The vivid self-portrait that emerges is of an immoderate risk taker with a brilliant \'wildly associative mind,\' an enthusiast who regards \'all neurology, everything as a sort of adventure\' ... The book is also filled with amusing and sometimes staggering accounts of goofs and gaffes that make one wonder how someone like Sacks would fare in today’s more rigid, competitive, and \'increasingly professionalized\' environment ... On the Move takes a few extraneous detours, including long excerpts from youthful travel journals and too much on biologist Gerald Edelman’s Neural Darwinism, but it leaves us wanting more.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesHer energetic prose is too controlled to be called manic, but it’s got Red Bull-strength hyper-caffeinated intensity ... We learn a lot about this scrappy, clamorous family in the novel’s first few pages, as overstuffed as its members’ perpetually bursting, haphazardly packed suitcases ... This is a book you read for its vivid characters and language more than plot, and it’s hard to resist quoting from it ... Although Akhtiorskaya has a predilection for contractions that seems at odds with the sophistication of her prose, that’s a small quibble about images that expand on contact, like Lycra jeans ... Reading Akhtiorskaya’s tale of two cities is a high-impact verbal workout that may leave you breathless.
PositiveNPR... funny and even eerily beautiful ... Wilson, whose novel is dedicated to fellow Tennesseean writer Ann Patchett, shares her interest in quirky, constructed families and the power of compassion, though his humor and predilection for the bizarre are darker ... In a book about damaged kids who literally burn with anger, it\'s ironic that I had a harder time swallowing Lillian\'s abiding loyalty to conniving, controlling Madison. But swirling around this dubious friendship, there\'s still plenty to entertain ... But it\'s the sweetness of this novel that will melt you, even when it ventures dangerously close to flaming schmaltz, and despite its somewhat predictable (but still satisfying) ending.
PositiveNPRNot surprisingly, there is some overlap between [Collins\'s] books, particularly in her accounts of women\'s rights champions ... Known for the punch of her columns, Collins sprinkles conversational, sardonic asides throughout to try to keep this hike through the decades spry ... She has clearly made a concerted effort not to overlook black women, though other ethnicities — Asian, Muslim, Hispanic — are absent, even in her account of the 21st century ... It\'s easy to play the hole-poking game — Helen Gurley Brown and her 1962 manifesto Sex and the Single Girl get plenty of play, while Anna Wintour doesn\'t cop a mention. But there\'s more than enough to digest as is ... [a] tightly laced historical corset.
MixedNPRThere are several ways of looking at a story collection as wide-ranging and variable as Grand Union, Zadie Smith\'s first book of short fiction. You could say it shows off her range — realist, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, quasi sci-fi, political and social satire, historical — and in doing so, provides something for everyone. You could say it sheds light on her longform work — novels that include White Teeth,NW, and Swing Time — and that it animates ideas she explores in her essays, most recently collected in Feel Free. Or you could say it feels like an uneven grab bag of picked-up pieces and experiments — some of which, from an unknown or less-celebrated writer, might have stayed in a drawer. What you couldn\'t say — what I can\'t say — is that it\'s the sort of carefully curated or tightly integrated sequence of stories that holds you rapt throughout ... Some of the slighter stories in Grand Union...feel not so much like footnotes as literary doodles, possible material for a future novel. But there are also reminders of what Smith is capable of at her best...
RaveNPR... Attenberg secures her place as an oddly sparkling master of warped family sagas ... Why should we be interested in reading about such an unequivocally bad person? For starters, because Attenberg\'s writing is full of brio ... Attenberg\'s prose is never limp or tepid, though she occasionally over-reaches ... Attenberg serves up a brutal portrait of a brutal man ... orchestrated with the precision of an opera on a revolving stage ... Attenberg brings air into this potentially suffocating story with wit, and with occasional digressions into some of the peripheral people the Tuchmans encounter without a thought as they move around post-Katrina New Orleans ... Initially jarring, these reminders that the people who make the city run have their own histories and troubles underscore the fact that life can be challenging. But they also reassure us of the possibility of not just good in this world but decency.
RaveNPR... tackles tight kinship head-on and cleverly demonstrates how Laurel and Daphne embody the conflicting definitions of \'twin\' from Webster\'s cited in the novel\'s epigram: As a noun, it means a couple or a pair, while as a verb, it can mean to part, sever or sunder ... While not as moving as Schine\'s last novel, The Grammarians is filled with delightful zingers ... This tale of twins who \'elbow each other out of the way in the giant womb of the world\' is smart, buoyant and bookish — in the best sense of the word.
RaveNPR... just as wonderful as the original ... You don\'t have to have read Olive Kitteridge to appreciate Olive, Again, but you\'ll probably want to. Like a base coat of paint, it adds depth and helps the finish colors pop ... [Stout] continues to amaze ... A master of the story cycle form which Sherwood Anderson put his stamp on with Winesburg, Ohio, Strout has at this point pretty much out-Winesburged him with her cumulative, time-lapse portrait of the people of Crosby, Maine ... repeatedly probes the limits of tolerance and the range of human behavior, sometimes boldly ... poignantly reminds us that empathy, a requirement for love, helps make life \'not unhappy.\'
PositiveNPR... a sometimes-confusing narrative that involves a man who actually sees nothing clearly ... Levy writes slim books that, per ounce, pack a surprising caloric density — like pine nuts ... I am loath to write about the second half of this novel lest I spoil its carefully calibrated revelations. Suffice it to say that Levy brilliantly clarifies why the book takes us back to East Germany on the cusp of its dissolution. She also satisfyingly reveals what all those earlier confusing inconsistencies were about ... Levy\'s writing is playful, smart, and full of memorable lines ... This is a novel we learn to read as we proceed.
PositiveNPRJamison makes no claims to objectivity in her reporting. Quite the contrary. An overarching concern in Make It Scream, Make It Burn is with \'the fantasy of objectivity.\' Even when reporting on a blue whale whose unusual song becomes a rallying cry for lonely people, or a family invested in the idea that their toddler\'s nightmares channel his previous life as a pilot shot down by the Japanese in 1945, she investigates her own process and feelings with at least as much rigor as her research into the subjects themselves. Yes, this can lead to a self-involved form of meta-journalism. But the overall result is a heady hybrid of journalism, memoir, and criticism ... Jamison has come a long way from the young woman who struggled to stave off loneliness with starvation and inebriation. In these tributes to what she has described as \'the deep realms of enchantment lodged inside ordinary life,\' she shows—as she did in The Empathy Exams—that she\'s not afraid to buck the trend toward ironic detachment, even at the risk of sentimentality. This is a writer who is incapable of being uninteresting.
RaveNPRJacqueline Woodson begins her powerful new novel audaciously, with the word \'But.\' Well, there are no buts about this writer\'s talent ... Woodson continues her sensitive exploration of what it means to be a black girl in America ... an exquisitely wrought tale ... should win Woodson plenty of new fans. It reads like poetry and drama, a cry from the heart that often cuts close to the bone. The narrative nimbly jumps around in time and shifts points of view among five characters who span three generations as it builds toward its moving climax. In less than 200 sparsely filled pages, this book manages to encompass issues of class, education, ambition, racial prejudice, sexual desire and orientation, identity, mother-daughter relationships, parenthood and loss — yet never feels like a checklist of Important Issues ... There isn\'t a character in this book you don\'t come to care about, even when you question their choice ... Woodson\'s language is beautiful throughout Red at the Bone, but it positively soars in the sections written from Iris\' mother\'s point of view. Readers mourning the death of Toni Morrison will find comfort in Sabe\'s magnificent cadences as she rues her daughter\'s teen pregnancy ... With Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson has indeed risen — even further into the ranks of great literature.
RaveNPRCountry Girl offers a far more detailed and intimate picture of O\'Brien\'s life than her elegiac 1976 memoir, Mother Ireland, yet she remains circumspect on her love affairs. For readers of her fiction, scenes from her straitened, rural, County Clare childhood will be familiar ... ...a generous gift to readers, conveying the enormous challenge — and inspiration — of such intense engagement and spirited independence.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a lovely way to ring in the new with contemplation of the old ... A wistful sense of nostalgia and loss permeates this book ... References to the work of various writers, artists, critics and historians—including Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata —enrich her narrative ... Tokyo’s past, although often physically erased by fires or constant demolition and construction in a nation that prizes change and modernization—is movingly excavated and evoked in this unusual book ... Ms. Sherman has a nose for interesting stories, and each district yields its own fascinating slice of Japanese history ... The decision to keep the focus on her lyrical prose is understandable. But although clearly not intended as a guidebook, the book begs for photographs and, at the minimum, endpaper maps.
PositiveNPR... another wonderful read by an author who embodies compassion ... Rare among Patchett\'s fiction, The Dutch House is written in the first person, from Danny\'s adult point-of-view. Because Danny is by design a clueless, tight-lipped character, it isn\'t clear that this was the right choice; an omniscient third person narration might have been a better way to get deeper inside him. Many of the details about his eccentric upbringing come courtesy of his older sister, a much more interesting character ... belongs to a tradition in both fairy tales and American fiction of motherless children ... Patchett\'s concern here, as in much of her fiction, is with the often unconventional families we cobble together with what\'s available to us. Being Patchett, she brings her novel around to themes of gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness. The Dutch House goes unabashedly sentimental, but chances are, you won\'t want to put down this engrossing, warmhearted book even after you\'ve read the last page.
PositiveNPRPatchett\'s eighth novel is a paradise lost tale dusted with a sprinkling of Cinderella, The Little Princess, and Hansel and Gretel ... Rare among Patchett\'s fiction, The Dutch House is written in the first person, from Danny\'s adult point-of-view. Because Danny is by design a clueless, tight-lipped character, it isn\'t clear that this was the right choice; an omniscient third person narration might have been a better way to get deeper inside him ... Patchett\'s concern here, as in much of her fiction, is with the often unconventional families we cobble together with what\'s available to us. Being Patchett, she brings her novel around to themes of gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness. The Dutch House goes unabashedly sentimental, but chances are, you won\'t want to put down this engrossing, warmhearted book even after you\'ve read the last page.
R. L. Maizes
RaveNPRThe attention-grabbing title isn\'t the only winning thing about R.L. Maizes\' debut collection ... [there is a] quirky mix of humor, gravity and warmth that characterizes Maizes\' stories ... Although Maizes\' characters often behave in disturbing ways, she manages to tap into the twisted emotional logic of their conduct with uncommon understanding ... Maizes\' admirable achievement in these charmingly offbeat stories is to balance fascination with sympathy and gravitas with humor. The good news: Her debut novel is due next year. But have fun with these first.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... serves up environmental writing as clear as the world’s most pristine waters, along with stirring accounts of treacherous fly-fishing adventures in the Russian Far East. With the deftness of an angler who fashions flies out of bits of \'fluff and feathers,\' Ms. Malarkey ties her fact-packed narrative together with a biographical portrait of Guido Rahr, an environmentalist crusader who has dedicated his life to protecting wild-salmon habitats on the Pacific Rim, forging a global effort to avoid the mistakes that decimated the Atlantic salmon ... an insider’s view of an intensely focused outlier who often relates better to fish than to people and goes his own way, to the frequent frustration of his wife ... a mostly fascinating book ... Ms. Malarkey, a novelist, knows something about pacing, and her book climaxes with an account of her hair-raising expedition on the Tugur River with Mr. Rahr in 2015. She paints a devastating picture of the disintegration of social order and the rise of crime in the Russian Far East after the collapse of the Soviet Union, including the nasty but lucrative black-market business of poaching salmon for their valuable roe ... Ms. Malarkey has pulled off the rather remarkable feat of capturing her unusual cousin and his mission in words—the journalistic equivalent of snagging an elusive, 80-pound trophy taimen on a fly.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble Review... manages to find the sweet spot in a story about a traumatized kid ... Donoghue is aiming for much more than than just a quirky road trip adventure. It’s an overdue excavation of old wartime traumas by a man suddenly put in charge of a boy whose upsets are far fresher. Although marred by some heavy-handedness, her treatment of their double story grows on you ... turns unabashedly sentimental, but only a stone wouldn’t be moved by its final pages.
PositiveNPRShe writes like someone who has been burned and has reacted not with self-censorship but with a doubling-down on clarity. She is blazingly intelligent, a deep, tough-minded thinker (and sometimes over-thinker) whose essays, like the Outline trilogy, are at once freewheeling and exquisitely precise ... These 17 essays are better appreciated when read piecemeal (which is how they were originally published) rather than straight through, but readers will welcome their many insights into Cusk\'s mindset ... Not all of the essays feel essential; a short piece on artist Louise Bourgeois and another on Edith Wharton add little to the collection ... Reading Coventry, at times I found myself wishing for some charm or humor. Neither are qualities Cusk prizes, as she makes clear in an article on Elizabeth Gilbert\'s Eat, Pray, Love, which she finds distastefully egotistic and attention-grabbing. Cusk is no ingratiator; this uncompromisingly serious writer would rather live in Coventry than win us over by sugarcoating the truth.
William D. Cohan
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Cohan, a Duke alumnus, turns a decidedly less critical eye on his prep-school alma mater, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., from which he graduated in 1977 ... This unusual focus poses challenges. Were these curtailed lives an anomaly or part of a wider pattern that speaks to Andover’s culture? Mr. Cohan doesn’t say ... He struggles in the book’s diffuse introductory chapters to extract meaning from these premature deaths in the context of Andover’s history and his own experiences there and to pick out an overarching theme ... Mr. Cohan is fascinated by \'how the trajectory of one’s life can change in an instant.\' He seems to find it particularly shocking that even the privileged are subject to the terrible vagaries of chance ... The strength of these profiles lies in Mr. Cohan’s lively reporting, which draws on interviews with siblings, family members, friends and former girlfriends to capture the arc of each of these lives ... There are plenty of moving moments in these four absorbing portraits of lives that \'didn’t work out as expected\' despite all the advantages of wealth and education. But lacking a coherent point, Four Friends in the end feels as random as the deaths it depicts.
PositiveNPR... serves up a tart lemonade of a summer read that won\'t demand too much of your time or attention: Short, simple sentences. Strong, outspoken characters. Lots of libidinous activity, much of it unwise, some of it around a swimming pool. A beautiful standard poodle. A posh Connecticut coastal commuter town that brings a decidedly modern update to John Cheever\'s suburbia ... Flat, matter-of-fact prose again captures the way the ordinary can morph into liberating strangeness, but the result this time around is a friskier read. Very Nice zips and twists along episodically, with a tightly spun narrative that alternates between the points of view of a handful of linked characters ... However twisted, it\'s amusing to watch these people repeatedly step in it and act in bad faith. The novel culminates with a cheap but funny twist on a common metaphor, which underscores its satiric intent. But beneath the fun, Very Nice is a scathing portrait of a culture in which self-interest overrides duty and loyalty. Even the dog is unfaithful.
PositiveNPR...the social objective of The Rosie Result is clear from the outset: to dispel all-too-common misconceptions and prejudices about what it means to be \'on the spectrum\' ... Simsion\'s goal is laudable, and this book thoughtfully addresses the advantages and disadvantages of formal diagnosis ... Simsion\'s message of inclusiveness and embracing differences is lovely. But while this final installment may well educate readers outside that circle, it\'s less likely to charm them. It plods along to its heartwarming climax, generally more earnest than amusing.
PositiveNPR... a wonderfully immersive read that packs more heart and heft than most first novels ... notably apolitical, all-white, all-straight ... Lombardo\'s sweeping family drama, fueled by power plays between spouses and between sisters, is operatic in both good ways and bad. It hits plenty of high notes, but like opera, it runs long and tends toward histrionics and repetition. A few themes are replayed so often...that the book would have benefited from judicious trims, particularly in the flashbacks ... But let\'s not lose sight of Lombardo\'s considerable achievement. The Most Fun We Ever Had is a deliciously absorbing novel with — brace yourself — a tender and satisfyingly positive take on family.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWriters often pack a lot into their debuts, tapping into material they’ve been cultivating for years. A case in point is The Farmer’s Son, John Connell’s unusually rich memoir ... His meditation on the importance of home and the solace of a place that roots and defines you should resonate even with far-flung urban readers ... There is a soothing quality to Mr. Connell’s refreshingly direct, declarative sentences ... But The Farmer’s Son struck me more as a Charlotte’s Web for grownups than a Walden—and I mean this as a compliment. It’s a gorgeous evocation of farm life’s recurring cycle of births, deaths, seasons, weather, chores and life lessons, all spun into a lovely web of stories illuminated by crystalline prose ... What comes through on every page is Mr. Connell’s heart and humility—and his profound appreciation for the animals who depend on him for their well-being, and vice versa. He may be raising beef cattle, but his instincts are not cutthroat ... the grind of farm work ... does make for gripping reading ... The short chapters rarely leave time for boredom, though occasionally one wishes for a sustained narrative to burrow into. Even so, The Farmer’s Son is the opposite of a frenetic read.
RaveThe Washington PostNeedless to say, it’s heartbreaking. I read much of it through a blur of tears. But Greene’s book is also heartwarming, a valuable addition to the literature of grief ... Their story is not just of loss, but of their remarkable love, which helps them through this tragedy ... The first section painfully reconstructs the immediate aftermath of the accident, including excruciating hours at their daughter’s hospital bedside ... Aware that his story will reliably elicit shock and tears, Greene at one point bitterly calls himself \'a rock star of grief.\' But he also writes gorgeously of grief ... Greene’s writerly skills are in evidence throughout this book. He opens with a lovely memory of the only time his daughter dipped her feet in ocean water, shortly before her death ... luminous.
RaveNPR... [a[ devastatingly beautiful first novel, as evocative as its title...painful but extraordinary...should seal his literary stature. I had to read this book in small doses, absorbing its blows a little at a time — not because the often elliptical, poetic language is difficult, but because the subject matter is so shattering ... While this coming-out story, which dominates the middle section of the book, is a tale of a desired kind of obliteration, the final section addresses a more total annihilation ... Vuong\'s language soars as he writes of beauty, survival, and freedom ... The title says it: Gorgeous.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times... these carefully composed, often intimate mini-essays have more in common with blogs and Facebook posts than with either Montaigne or private, uncensored inky outpourings ... replaces slavish chronological record-keeping with a playfulness that allows Julavits to thumb her nose at time ... oddly exhilarating. Freed from the day-in-day-out drudgery of linear chronology, we come to recognize the rhythm of Julavits\' overstuffed, fortunate life ... There\'s plenty that\'s baldly confessional and some that\'s cringe-worthy ... This is not an intellectual work; don\'t look for philosophical contemplations or deep analyses of art ... an engaging portrait of a woman\'s sense of identity, which continually shape-shifts with time.
RaveThe B&N Review[Cep] bring[s] clarity and compassion to this double project: an examination of a writer’s lifelong struggle with writing matched with a determined dive into the true-crime story Lee ultimately abandoned ... a terrific read and a superbly researched, deeply sympathetic portrait of the author of one of America’s most beloved novels ... Cep’s compact, 130-page biography of the elusive author is a marvel of concision and clarity and the best part of Furious Hours. It is also one of the most compassionate portraits of writer’s block and what Cep calls \'unfinishedness\' – the inability to complete a work — you’ll ever read.
PositiveNPRQuindlen sets the tone with a winning comment on the general consensus that grandchildren are \'the best\' ... here she is, writing about this situation — with her son and daughter-in-law\'s blessing. While she\'s at it, she heaps effusive praise on them. I\'m sure they\'re terrific, but in this context, her encomiums come across as uncomfortably ingratiating ... Quindlen\'s wonder at seeing her eldest child grow into his new role is lovely and moving ... The best parts of Nanaville are the charming vignettes of Quindlen\'s solo time with her grandson.
RaveNPRI love the brassy blast of [Smith\'s] outrage at the world\'s injustices and the drumbeat of her passion for the arts. This Scottish writer gravitates naturally to outsiders and really understands loss and grief. She takes a genuine interest in old people and what we can learn from them, but also sees hope for the future in smart young people. I love her clever wordplay, her insistence on the life-enhancing possibilities of love and decency, and her ability to compose artful literature that sings of both humanity\'s heart and heartbreaks. All of these qualities are on abundant display in Spring, the third volume of Smith\'s seasonal quartet ... Spring uncoils strikingly, like a vernal fern. It feels fresh even though Smith returns to so many of her familiar themes: the bleak contemporary political landscape, loss of a soul mate, fractured families, nature\'s seasonal clockwork, and references to a real artist (Tacita Dean this time) and a Shakespeare play ... Postcards crop up in this book like signposts, no mere ephemera. The initially puzzling inclusion of off-putting anti-immigrant rants will become clear with time. About such bloviating, Smith reminds us: \'Hot air rises and can not just carry us but help us rise above.\' So can her novels.
PositiveNPRHelen Ellis is a hoot. That\'s Northern Critic Code for \'Don\'t expect serious essays on pressing topics, but prepare yourself for some off-the-wall hilarity\' ... Self-satire is key to her humor ... As with Sedaris, it\'s sometimes hard to tell Ellis\'s fiction from her nonfiction. In both genres, she is better at stringing together choker-length one-liners than going long and deep with full strands ... Ellis occasionally ventures into more weighty territory ... Don\'t knock the wit. Southern Lady Code may not be weighty, but Ellis is fun — like the Nutter Butter snowmen she serves at her retro holiday parties. That\'s Northern Critic Code for \'Give yourself a treat.\'
PositiveNPR\"... a thought-provoking, well-oiled literary machine ... [The book] manages to flesh out — literally and grippingly — questions about what constitutes a person, and the troubling future of humans if the smart machines we create can overtake us.\
PositiveNPR\"Norris is an OK travel writer, but she sparkles more when the subject is language. An unrepentant alphabetophile, she extols the life-changing magic of letters, which she finds far superior to hieroglyphs and emoji in their incomparable ability to communicate in writing ... You\'ll pick up all sorts of wonderful tidbits from this book ... Greek to Me, an ode to the joy of exercising free rein in one\'s life, is not as funny as Between You and Me, and Norris is not quite as convincing about the highs of psi as she is about the allure of Blackwing pencils. But what resonates in both books is the way ardent interests can enrich a life. Norris is an uncommonly engaging, witty enthusiast with a nose for delicious details and funny asides that makes you willing to follow her anywhere.\
PositiveNPR... smart, intentionally comforting ... Balasubramanyam plays all this with a combination of gentle satire and sincerity that sometimes dips more than just a toe into schmaltz ... What makes this mostly okay — even for the spiritually-averse — is the meatiness of the arguments Chandra gets into with his children, his brother, and some of his fellow workshop participants ... Balasubramanyam knows how to flex irony as if it were another bendable body part ... Professor Chandra is a wonderful character — stodgy, flawed, contentious, contemptuous — yet vulnerable, insecure, lonely, repentent, and ridiculous enough to win our sympathy ... In the end, Balasubramanyan\'s novel is a sort of Christmas Carol for a new age — in which uplifting sentiment comes drenched not in treacle but in potfuls of soothing organic herbal tea.
PositiveNPR\"... powerful ... Choi is an extraordinarily patient writer, slowly building her novel sentence by careful sentence, as if layering coats of paint until she achieves the desired intensity of hue. Her descriptions of what it\'s like to be a high-strung, artsy teenager in an environment where you\'re emotionally stripped, exposed and on constant display are uncomfortably astute ... Trust Exercise evokes a complicated, miserable high school experience so vividly and intricately that it\'s liable to try readers\' patience and turn them off early. And that would be a pity ... Trust Exercise is fiction that contains multiple truths and lies. Working with such common material, Choi has produced something uncommonly thought-provoking. Trust me.\
RaveNPR\"Nell Freudenberger excels at one of fiction\'s singular strengths — imaginative empathy without borders ... Freudenberger takes another impressive plunge into a different sort of foreign culture: theoretical physics ... Yes, Freudenberger throws a lot of esoteric, sometimes numbing jargon at us. But rest assured that much of it gets translated into more comprehensible terms — and bears more than just metaphoric relevance to her story ... Impressively, Freudenberger avoids a heavy hand in drawing analogies between emotional states and abstruse scientific concepts, taking care to deploy physics as a catalyst for new perspectives on time and our trajectories through it rather than just metaphorical ballast. Enriched by intelligent, multi-level discussions about the spacetime continuum, determinism, whether Einstein believed in God, and cosmic concepts such as entanglements, collisions, interference patterns, uncertainty, and gravity — including, most notably, the force we exert on each other — Lost and Wanted is an undoubtedly brainy book. But Freudenberger\'s outstanding achievement is that it is also a moving story about down-to-earth issues like grief and loneliness.\
PositiveNPRMax Porter is a writer who gets children, and he also gets the pressures of parenting ... dazzlingly inventive, darkly humorous ... is, among other things, an antidote to fantasies of the charms of small-town life...Forget privacy and warmth; these villagers are of a piece with Roald Dahl\'s nastiest ... Although not as buoyant, humorous, or moving as Porter\'s first novel, Lanny is every bit as original and more heart-racingly propulsive. His title character\'s off-the-charts whimsy might strike some as more twee than beguiling, and Dead Papa Toothwort as more puzzling than compelling. That said, Porter\'s innovative hybrid of fairy tale, fable, and myth cunningly evokes the freewheeling fantasies of children at play — down to the book\'s peculiar final section. The result is a puckish celebration of imagination and free spirits rising above the buzz of societal scolds and the anxieties of parental love.
PositiveNPR\"... a lively, tragicomic debut novel ... Ridker elevates his book with a sharp eye for the absurdities of contemporary American culture and his characters\' irksome pieties, though his ironic sensibility is offset with a good measure of compassion ... Ridker\'s skillful balancing act between sympathy and satire is on full, fabulous display ... The Altruists boasts numerous charms, ranging from worthy ethical issues treated with an effective wryness to its rare, fond celebration of steamy St. Louis. Its ending is well-earned, and so are its life lessons, adding up to an unusually promising debut.\
PositiveNPRDetermined to penetrate wildly divergent venues of extreme emotion, Jamison\'s inquiry is a travelogue of sorts ... Occasionally...her forays fall flat, unable to escape a whiff of poverty tourism despite her awareness of the dangers of voyeurism. But more often, Jamison stitches together the intellectual and the emotional with the finesse of a crackerjack surgeon ... Jamison is a pro at reading deeply, whether into wide-ranging sources such as Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf, Lucy Grealy, Frida Kahlo, James Agee and Caroline Knapp, or into her personal experiences ... Jamison\'s attraction to the offbeat and dangerous keeps us agog ... the result is a soaring performance on the humanizing effects of empathy.
RaveNPRHome is gorgeous and intense, brutal yet heartwarming—and could only have been written by the author of Beloved and Sula. Deceptively slight, it is like a slingshot that wields the impact of a missile ... Home is as accessible, tightly composed and visceral as anything Morrison has written. The lush, biblical cadences for which she is known have partially given way to shorter, more direct sentences—which still have the capacity to leave a reader awestruck ... I felt I needed an inhaler or defibrillator or something to catch my breath while reading this devastating, deeply humane—and ever-relevant—book.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalSmyth pulls off a tricky double homage in her beautifully written first book, a deft blend of memoir, biography and literary criticism that’s a gift to readers drawn to big questions about time, memory, mortality, love and grief ... a strong addition to a growing canon of hyper-literary memoirs.
RaveNPR\"Now her brilliant new novel, Lost Children Archive, takes these issues — and this extraordinary writer — to a new level ... Luiselli, a formally experimental collagist of a writer who conceives of her work as a dialogue with various texts, has filled this novel with imbedded references and quotes from a semester\'s worth of seminal books and documents about road trips, Native American history, and immigration, which the family tote cross-country in seven boxes. Remarkably, these materials add edifying heft without weighing down the novel ... Lost Children Archive is more sobering than playful, but what Luiselli has pulled off here is a twist on the great American road trip novel, a book about alienation as well as aliens that chronicles fractures, divides, and estrangement — of both a family and a country. Like her earlier work, it\'s a remarkable feat of empathy and intellectuality that once again showcases Luiselli\'s ability to braid the political, historical, and personal while explicitly addressing the challenges of figuring out how to tell the very story she\'s telling.\
Tiffany Watt Smith
PositiveLos Angeles TimesWhile a magazine article or TED talk—like Watt Smith’s engaging short lecture on \'The History of Human Emotions\'—could have comfortably covered its essence, this compact volume is fleshed out with amusing examples of schadenfreude. Its triggers are broken down, categorized and analyzed according to type. These examples are further cataloged in the book’s index, an amusing list that becomes a blank verse poetry of poetic justice ... Watt Smith’s categories often overlap and bleed into one another, making it hard to distinguish one form of comeuppance from another ... Watt Smith enriches her inquiry with a wide range of material, from neuroscientists, feminist activists, stern moralists like Kierkegaard and Kant, and even a chapter from Winnie the Pooh—\'In Which Tigger is Unbounced.\'
PositiveNPR\"Inheritance reads like a detective story, albeit an emotional one. It\'s full of twists and turns ... Shapiro is skilled at spinning her personal explorations into narrative gold ... [Shapiro\'s] prose is clear and often lovely, and her searching questions are unfailingly intelligent. She is not afraid to show herself in an unflattering light, which helps secure our trust ... To her credit, Shapiro doesn\'t settle for easy answers. She tenaciously pursues her quest to determine what each of her parents knew about her provenance ... These broader investigations save Inheritance from too much self-absorbed navel-gazing. Still, her chest-beating about who she is and how she could have missed the signs occasionally seems overwrought and melodramatic.\
RaveNPR\"... wildly entertaining ... To read McCracken\'s inimitably clever sentences and follow her quirky narrative twists is to be constantly delighted ... There is so much life in McCracken\'s prose ... Even amidst much woe... it\'s a joy to unravel the mysteries of these eccentric lives ... Bowlaway, too, gives you something to think about besides your regrets. Under the guise of a playful portrait of three generations\' involvement with a nascent sport in small-town New England, McCracken\'s novel encompasses issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in 20th century America. Add to that the many unusual forms love takes — and death, too — and you\'ve got a novel that scores big.\
RaveNPR\"... a compulsive, psychologically astute will-they-or-won\'t-they love story involving two of the most sympathetic people you\'re liable to meet between covers. Although hailed as a voice of millennials, Rooney offers plenty to appeal to readers across genders and generations ... Rooney\'s dialogue, like her descriptive prose, is slyly ironic, alternately evasive and direct, but always articulate. It cuts to the heart. She seems remarkably comfortable writing about sex — even uncomfortable sex — and she seamlessly integrates well-crafted texts, emails, and Facebook posts into her narratives like the digital native she is. Yet while Rooney may write about apparent aimlessness and all the distractions of our age, her novels are laser-focused and word-perfect. They build power by a steady accretion of often simple declarative sentences that track minuscule shifts in feelings ... Although frequently heartbreaking, Normal People isn\'t bleak. The brave determination of Rooney\'s characters to reach out and try to catch each other with no guarantee of success — and to open themselves to \'moments of joy despite everything\' — is ultimately hopeful.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"As in her biographies, Harman here demonstrates a flair for distilling reams of research into a succinct, lively narrative. The book is an exemplar of how to write taut, issue-driven historical nonfiction. With an appreciation for pithy quotations, telling details and amusing gossip, she’s quick to spot a fascinating aside ... Like the murderer, Harman goes for the jugular in her account of the investigation, trial and aftermath. Unfortunately — and somewhat frustratingly — she is unable to stanch the flow of unsolved mysteries surrounding the case ... As riveting as this true-crime story is, what elevates Murder by the Book above sensationalism is its focus on how this case heightened concern over the malevolent influence of violent entertainment.\
RaveNPR\"Even if you\'ve never cottoned to Abramovic\'s transgressive, self-flagellating body of work and regard the lengths she has gone in her explorations of physical endurance and the relationship between the artist and her audience as more stunt than art, Rose\'s passionate take on it opens readers up to a fresh look. That said, the knife slashes, razor blades, and Great Wall of China trek make for sensational reading, but The Museum of Modern Love wouldn\'t work if Rose\'s characters and their stories weren\'t as compelling as her appreciative assessment of this controversial artist whose \'metier [is] to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration\' ... Rose clearly believes in the redemptive, transformative power of art for artist and audience, writer and reader.\
MixedThe Barnes & Noble Review\"... [a] dependably absorbing domestic novel ... Hadley brings her increasingly fine-tuned emotional acuity to Late in the Day ... Unraveling the tangled web of this foursome’s relationships requires a lot of jumping around in time and much – sometimes too much – exposition to fill in background ... The relationship between the surviving trio devolves at times into soapy melodrama, but Hadley is after some weightier issues...\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAlthough sobering in its intimations of mortality, [Gubar\'s] book makes a heartwarming case not just for the sustaining joys and solace of autumnal desire and commitment but for those of literature, too. ... wins our good will from her opening line, with its characteristic blend of frankness and good humor ... doesn’t aim to be exhaustive yet borders on the overstuffed ... impressive, often heartening addition to the literature of aging.
PositiveNPR\"Lacking hard facts, much of Laurens\'s book is conjecture ... Little Dancer takes an interesting personal, meta-turn in the last chapter, in which the author considers her dissatisfaction with the paucity of documentation, and her connection to Marie\'s story. She digs deeper, searching online records to try to find out what became of Marie after her dismissal from the ballet — without much luck ... [Laurens\'s] sympathetic connection becomes so strong that she addresses the Little Dancer directly in Little Dancer\'s final, moving pages ... Laurens\'s artful achievement is to make us see the person behind Degas\'s famous sculpture.\
PositiveNational Public Radio\"Those Who Knew is a fast-paced, hackles-raising story that focuses on silenced victims of assault and the remorse and shame that comes of not speaking up against abuses of power ... [The novel\'s setup is] an explosive moral Molotov cocktail ... More off-putting, there\'s nothing subtle about Novey\'s depiction of Victor, whose every word and action are flat out despicable, despite his purported advocacy for good causes ... Although Novey\'s second novel isn\'t as winning as her first, there\'s certainly plenty to admire in it—beginning with its boldness in tackling big, important issues like silenced victimhood, moral compromise, complicity, and self-recrimination in an engaging, deeply humane work of fiction.\
PositiveNPR\"This would be a terrible thing to say about most books but, in this case, it might actually be a compliment: I kept falling asleep reading Marina Benjamin\'s Insomnia. I wasn\'t so much bored as somehow soothed by her velvety ruminations on night wakefulness, which run on, unbroken by chapters, with lots of airy white space between paragraphs. Awash in the comfort of a kindred soul, I relaxed enough to be lulled into sleep ... Benjamin\'s book is more impressionistic than scientific: Don\'t look here for an explanation of the chemistry or biology of nocturnal wakefulness.\
RaveThe Washington Post...a touching and at times jaw-dropping portrait of the maternal grandparents who raised her ... Harrison has written about her unusual family and Los Angeles childhood before, but never in such specific — and fascinating — detail ... Harrison paints a vivid picture of an anachronistic childhood in which The Brady Bunch, Barbies, peanut butter and sliced bread were out, while curtsies, cod liver oil, Marmite and liverwurst on little rounds of baguettes were in ... What emerges is a poignant portrait of a smart, anxious young girl ... Impressively, On Sunset — richly illustrated with photographs and personal documents — adds up to more than just sepia-tinged nostalgia for a world on which the sun set long ago.
RaveNPRPick up Nora Krug\'s reverberant graphic memoir, Belonging, and be prepared to lose yourself for hours ... In its searching honesty and multi-layered, visual and verbal storytelling, it packs the power of Alison Bechdel\'s Fun Home and David Small\'s Stitches ... Belonging is both emotionally and graphically complex. It is richly illustrated with cartoons, family photographs and letters, handwritten text, and archival German documents annotated in English by Krug. Her uncle\'s school essays, which are filled with ugly anti-Semitic propaganda, are disturbing, as are flea market finds like Hitler Youth toys that include a nasty caricature of a Jew. There\'s a lot to take in, and with its scrapbook abundance, the book can be visually challenging—particularly when Krug deliberately fades her lettering to express hollowed out feelings. But it\'s endlessly absorbing, and you wouldn\'t want to read this book in the dark anyway: Stark reminders of Nazism\'s brutality are haunting ... Krug balances this terrible history with bucolic scenes of the German countryside, and a running feature titled \'From the notebook of a homesick émigré,\' which flags iconic practical and comforting German items that she misses, but can only go so far to salve wounds ... Krug writes about mending and reparations, but she doesn\'t let herself—or readers—lapse into complacence.
PositiveNPR\"As in American Philosophy, Kaag deftly intertwines sympathetic biography, accessible philosophical analysis, and self-critical autobiography ... [Kaag\'s] book takes us on a hike through Nietzsche\'s manically prolific output, which occasionally feels like a forced march but more often feels like an invigorating excursion. Scrambling up treacherous rocky inclines in worn sneakers, Kaag reflects on the peaks and valleys of Nietzsche\'s life and philosophy ... Kaag extracts plenty of relevant ideas from Nietzsche and his followers in this stimulating book about combating despair and complacency with searching reflection. But, interestingly, it\'s while watching his daughter blissfully gather woodland wildflowers or a shepherd contentedly eating a hunk of cheese while checking his flock that he experiences the most resonant moments of grace and insight.\
PositiveBarnes & Noble Review\"... gruesomely entertaining ... This rousing, macabre novel showcases a sensibility that falls somewhere between Les Misérables and the works of Edward Gorey ... The novel proceeds from oddity to oddity, continually scaling new ramparts of strangeness. Sometimes Carey goes too far – the book could have done with less about a haunted former monkey house. But gradually, Little’s peculiar tale morphs from the plaintively personal to the political ... With Little, Carey has created a fantastic world in which wax models do indeed bridge the gap between life and death,the present and the past. But reader beware: While this galloping, determinedly outlandish novel may enhance what you already know about the French Revolution, don’t expect a history lesson.\
RaveBarnes and Noble ReviewSusan Orlean’s seventh book, a passionate paean to libraries, is going to make a lot of librarians and book lovers extremely happy ... Like the best research collections, The Library Book is stuffed with amazing facts ... As always, Orlean’s research is staggering. Her description of the 1986 fire...is nearly as intense as the 2500-degree heat, and surprisingly beautiful ... Sometimes, Orlean takes her research to ridiculous lengths, like forcing herself to burn a book on her hilltop Los Angeles property ... Orlean obviously had some fun with this total immersion project, and curious readers who love following writers down unexpected byways in search of out of the way information will too.
PositiveNPRFashion Climbing, a memoir that was found among his papers after his death in 2016, amplifies the wonderful portrait that emerged from Richard Press\'s 2010 documentary ... The voice is the same — effervescently enthusiastic ... Fashion Climbing\'s most interesting revelations are about Cunningham\'s early years. But don\'t expect a tell-all. Even Hilton Als\'s introduction fails to fill in any blanks about Cunningham\'s personal life ... Written with more enthusiasm (and clichés) than literary panache, Cunningham\'s memoir is a charming ode to being true to oneself.
RaveLos Angeles TimesIt’s a challenge to find your bearings, but her stories’ rewards accumulate faster than frequent-flier miles ... Although somewhat less fractured and abstract than her earlier work, the six acerbically witty tales in Eisenberg’s new book are still hard to summarize, because they’re neither simple nor linear. Most branch off in surprising directions, sprouting sub-plots, flashbacks and fast-forwards, spreading out with the fecundity of wild berry bushes. They encompass many of her recurrent preoccupations, including life’s uncontrollable randomness, the fundamental unknowability of others, the near-ubiquitousness of familial and romantic estrangement, and the recognition that the past is never really \'over and done with\' ... All these stories bear the stamp of Eisenberg’s dramatist’s ear and mordant wit ... Eisenberg...merges multiple ideas to capture complexities—in every story in this remarkable collection.
RaveThe Washington PostTomalin brings to her memoir a pro’s practiced ability at threading the personal, the professional and the contextual with details that sing ... A Life of My Own is among other things a record of Tomalin’s lifelong engagement with books ... It is also a wonderful evocation of London’s vibrant literary culture of the 1960s and ’70s ... Tomalin’s ability to compartmentalize and forge ahead defines her stalwart character ... Among the many pleasures of A Life of My Own is Tomalin’s portrait of her Gloucester Terrace neighborhood in north London ... The result is an elegant profile in courage and fortitude.
RaveNPRKate Walbert\'s most powerful novel yet is a case study in the perversities of power imbalances. This slim but by no means slight novel continues Walbert\'s explorations of how society\'s sexual biases and constraints have hampered women ... Walbert, known for sophisticated, multiply-stranded narratives that span generations, has pared her new novel into a sharp blade ... With Jo Hadley, Walbert has created a consummately credible character, convincing as both a bright, vulnerable, traumatized yet un-self-pitying teenager and a sympathetic, clear-eyed but bruised adult ... Walbert heightens the suspense by cutting back and forth in time, as Jo puts off the most difficult parts of her story ... Jo is a savvy raconteur who recognizes that there are many ways to frame a story, from different perspectives ... Walbert\'s novel is fueled by gorgeous writing as well as moral outrage. It\'s an artful argument for the importance of the long overdue #MeToo movement, but it\'s more than that ... His Favorites is heartbreaking and galvanizing.
PositiveNPR\"...a sparkling dark comedy that channels both Noel Coward\'s wit and Wes Anderson\'s loopy sensibility. DeWitt\'s tone is breezy, droll, and blithely transgressive ... DeWitt ultimately works his spirited narrative around to some sober points about the lasting effects of insufficient love. But French Exit doesn\'t bear too much serious scrutiny. It works better on the comic level than the tragic.\
PositiveNPR\"Her book makes for riveting reading, despite a disconcerting tendency to fill in blanks with conjectures (about young Sally\'s thoughts, for example) and to overplay cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. Weinman is a thorough reporter who is most compelling when she tells it straight ... Loaded words like \'pilfered\' and \'strip-mined\' clearly convey Weinman\'s attitude. In fact, Nabokov comes across in her book as an insufferable—if brilliantly inventive—snob, aesthete and egotist ... The Real Lolita stands out for its captivating mix of tenacious investigative reporting, well-chosen photographs, astute literary analysis and passionate posthumous recognition of a defenseless child who — until now—never received the literary acknowledgment she deserved.\
PositiveNPRHer lovely debut novel recalls heartwarmers like Kent Haruf\'s Our Souls at Night, and two longtime favorite epistolary novels, Helene Hanff\'s 84, Charing Cross Road and Jean Webster\'s 1912 classic, Daddy-Long-Legs. Youngson captures two distinct characters through their thoughtful, empathetic letters ... Meet Me at the Museum is a touching, hopeful story about figuring out what matters and mustering the courage to make necessary changes ... Both the substance and very existence of this impressive late-life debut bring to mind a nugget of advice imparted to a friend by his wise therapist: \'Life\'s open-ended if you can get there.\'
PositiveWall Street JournalWith its alarming title and troubling statistics, The Last Lobster, Christopher White’s deep dive into the $1.7 billion Maine lobster industry, blares foghorn warnings about a business and a culture under threat ... Mr. White’s book is stuffed with facts as Lobster Thermidor is stuffed with claw meat and cream—also addresses climate change, supply and demand, and international trade. Above all, it offers vivid, well-observed portraits of people directly affected by lobster’s recent boom-and-bust cycles.
RaveNPRJessie Greengrass\' Sight is one of those books that critics rave about, yet many readers wonder why. Here\'s why: Shimmering sentences and long paragraphs that unspool like yellow brick roads, winding toward emerald cities of elusive, hard-to-express insights ... Yet as much as I admire Greengrass\' mental and verbal felicity, I also understand that her book is unlikely to appeal to readers looking for entertaining, character-driven plots ... The book, written in a fragmentary style that suggests the recurrence of a jittery mind\'s preoccupations, lurches around in time, though it\'s more tightly constructed than it first appears ... Readers willing to give themselves over to Greengrass\' penetrating vision will surely expand theirs.
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.\
PositiveNPR\"By 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 Review\"The 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 Review\"Lisa 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 Chronicle\"Adultery 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.’\
RaveNPR\"Ali 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.
MixedNPR\"While 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.
RaveNPR\"In 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.
PositiveNPR\"While 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.
RaveNPR\"John 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 Times\"If 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 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”