PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... loving and lively ... In life, such steadfastness is welcome; in fiction, which tends to derive its life from rupture and breakage, less so. While I was carried smoothly through the travails of these women, a line from elsewhere crept up on me. It was the quip attributed to Francis Bacon, remade famous by Kanye, about champagne for real friends, real pain for sham friends, although in this case, \'fictional\' replaces \'sham.\' In other words, I caught myself thinking a sadistic thought. Then again, isn’t the best and truest way for an author to love her characters to drive them into the kind of pain — real pain — that strains and changes their bonds, and with that, their selves? ... Events are relayed in plain, genial prose, unfussed by the occasional cliché. Mystifyingly, some dramatic moments are ushered offstage or skated over ... This can lend much of the novel a feeling of account, rather than selectively crafted story. Nonetheless, Obaro’s unadorned style can come into its own, as it does most arrestingly with a bravura abortion scene. Here, the procedural quality of the writing takes on a political power; it seems entirely appropriate that we learn each step — the dilation, the curettage — all conducted illegally, under cover of darkness, in the Nigeria of 1984 ... The novel’s greatest pleasure, though, is the indelible, show-stealing Funmi.
PositiveBookforum... a jeremiad composed of four essays that leavened critique with anecdote, everything well-peppered with gags...each a shotgun blend of cultural criticism and chatty anecdote ... glibly totalizing rhetoric seems...to elicit a laugh, rather than to be taken seriously. This, however, can feel confusing, because elsewhere we find Kipnis in forensic, dialectic mode. Her swashbuckling style can distract from the serious and well-stocked mind at work beneath ... Love in the Time of Contagion does not refute [Kipnis\'s previous book] Against Love so much as bicker with it, finish its sentences, and, like many a married couple, occasionally pass off the other’s thoughts as its own ... Kipnis is more interesting when engaging with specific, newly established contradictions of American life ... She is, however, realer than she knows—not so much an anti-love warrior as an accidental bard of ambivalence ... Kipnis is right, of course, that couplehood is not always a bower of bliss, but nor is it a prison camp to be tunneled out of with a sharpened spoon. Sometimes a bare and soulful question rings out from Love in the Time of Contagion, made all the more arresting for the prevailing tone of jocularity.
Sean Thor Conroe
MixedBookforumA startling, scabrous, big swaggy flex of a debut ... Sean’s a charmer...and he’s funny with it ... The author demonstrates his fictive priorities. Personality is privileged over facts, voice over content ... Conroe is a protégé of the late and beloved Giancarlo DiTrapano of Tyrant Books, a publisher whose relationship to the mainstream was energetically antagonistic. In Fuccboi, a similar attitude presents in two ways, one more successful than the other. First, and most appealingly, it’s in the book’s magnetic voice, specifically, the total commitment to the distinctive argot by which this type of urban, young-millennial American male is recognizable ... There’s a seductive confidence in his full-blown, take-me-or-leave-me style ... Fuccboi’s style proves to be a more successful vehicle for a fuck-the-mainstream taunt than its substance ... Our man-of-the-people author (alma maters Swarthmore College and Columbia University, annual tuition $54,856 and $66,880) is not The People. As a general principle, the distance between author and autofictive narrator should be respected—this is literature, not life, and this is literature about how a life becomes literature. It is notable, then, that the fictive Sean is not (unlike Conroe, whose biography he apparently shares in all other respects) an MFA candidate at Columbia ... Instead of staying somewhere in the uneasy realm...Conroe’s book takes a strivingly exculpatory swerve, and in the process betrays its project ... Abandoning unanswerable inquiry for an embarrassingly binary alternative, Fuccboi finally asks a very dumb question: Is ya boy A Good Guy or A Bad Guy? ... It’s an ending to comfort the comfortable.
Rave4Columns... wise, romantic, and ultimately consoling ... Once again, Rooney has drawn a circumscribed world—four people, tightly wound in the small universe of one another’s lives—and once again, this is a love story, although the book’s most compelling romance is the platonic one between its two main female protagonists ... it is the epic minutiae of human relations, not the grand structures of economic inequality, that send the blood pumping through the writing. Nonetheless, we know the two can’t be extricated; the latter impinges on the former ... In [some] moments, Rooney deprives herself of access to her character’s interiority—the very medium of most fiction concerned with personal relations. Here’s an alternate way of seeing, one derived from a camera lens rather than the traditionally omniscient novelist’s gaze. The effect—implying the novelist herself might not fully know her characters, or at least withhold some of her knowledge—is one of delightful modesty ... Maybe Rooney knows that it’s the small dimensions of her fiction—the close, funneled, loving attention she pays her characters—that allow her books to trap within their confines anxieties of huge historical breadth.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... sly, intriguing ... Perhaps novelist chauvinism made me read the assignments more as creative writing prompts than credible therapeutic exercises, but then again hasn’t that distinction always been somewhat moot? A glib observation, but also a truism playfully inhabited within these pages as the psychologist laments and celebrates \'this hall of mirrors that we call life\' ... Ostensibly recounted with nothing but clinical curiosity, the transgressive patient’s evasions, provocations and sleights of hand are in this way craftily enacted by the novel itself.
Mixed4ColumnsWe find ourselves in an unnamed city with that fashionable thing, an unnamed narrator. She maintains an elegant distance from us. She can be a little portentous ... Against her novel’s backdrop of patchy realism, Lahiri intends the universal but gets only the generic. A first-generation Indian American woman’s wish to cast off the weight of cultural identity and dodge the politics of representation to simply be \'a\' writer is, however, an understandable and interesting response to pigeonholing. In this light, the choice of a deracinated cipher for narrator is hard to begrudge. Once again, though, the freedom might serve author more than reader. ... I long for Lahiri to break out of disciplined timekeeping and just let it wail for once. Hell, maybe even kick over the drum set. Doesn’t she want this too?
Mieko Kawakami, trans. by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Rave4 Columns...a moving, messy aria of supremely female grief-letting that sees love and rage mingled up like cracked yolks and shell ... These females bleed and breed, they get drunk and bleach their nipples, they seek breast implants and sperm donors, and, most horrifying of all, it’s possible they might find single motherhood a completely satisfying state of affairs ..there is something fundamentally girlish—that is to say ingenuous and hence disarming—about [Kawakami\'s] writing. It makes sense that she was a blogger before she became a famous author; the novel is gratifyingly artless, delivered in a frank and funny prose that shines with unselfconsciousness and a kind of flat-footed grace.
Sylvia Townsend Warner
RaveHarpersSpanning more than two hundred years in the life of the abbey, this strange chronicle is more concerned with the petty travails of a small community than with the great events of the plague, the Peasants’ Revolt, or any other historical convulsion ... the narrative meanders. What lends the novel vitality and inestimable charm is the fullness of Warner’s love for characters as unholy as us all. Her attention alights completely on a single character, granting them a rich interiority usually only reserved for a book’s heroine, then she leaves them, on to the next ... The Corner That Held Them is Warner’s masterpiece and her favorite of her novels, perhaps because it is the work which, in doing away with plot, most blatantly disregards convention. She seems to have become free to experiment, as Harman puts it, \'purely for herself.\'
RaveThe New Yorker... a work of toothsome and fanged intelligence ... Awad has winkingly deployed the great ruse of the supernatural ... Though Awad plays knowingly with the tropes of eighties movies (the book’s hot-pink jacket copy mentions the cult classic Heathers; like Winona Ryder in that movie, Samantha has an air of quiet mutiny), we recognize these Bunnies as the apotheosis of that most contemporary archetype, the basic bitch ... In true Frankensteinien fashion, the proof of the author’s brilliance is her character’s apparent autonomy.
PositiveThe New YorkerLucy Ives’s funny, cerebral Loudermilk, which takes its epigraph (\'Rilke was a jerk\') from Berryman himself, lampoons...masculine swagger ... Ives’s hyperbolic satire—her outsized, loquacious characters, her stylistic brio—lays bare the central fallacy of \'write what you know.\' In one sense, we believe Ives is drawing from her own, all-too-real experience. And yet, with its ludic meta-fictionality and the self-conscious construction of characters, the novel cleverly dodges knowable reality, circumventing the question of authenticity altogether ... Ives has constructed a postmodern playhouse to deflate the notion of authenticity[.]
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"One of the most thrilling things about Salvatore Scibona’s second book, The Volunteer, is a refusal not just of this novelistic trend of smallness, but also of our own craven, personal brand-driven cultural moment ... What follows is a magnificent counterpoint of four generations of fathers and sons who roam geography and experience as Scibona braids the narrative strands of his various men in a way that is both disciplined and symphonic ... Scibona is a savage coiner of similes, one who’ll cut sublimity with bathos to snatch a reader’s breath away ... There are also roving, lyrical long shots of Queens streets that, in their grit and dazzle, recall the boyhood Bronx of Don DeLillo’s Underworld ... By paying grave attention to both worlds, both the self and everything beyond it, Scibona has built a masterpiece.\
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"...a DeWitt short story is a thing crafted with unimpeachable skill, even genius, but as you marvel at the stitching you might also shudder at the sense of a cruel, even brutal, joke ... There is much madness in DeWitt’s method, a madness of pure logic ... These stories eventuate a better kind of amusement — not indulgence, but the sometimes discomfiting pleasure of being dazzled.\
RaveThe New Republic\"Selfhood—other people’s—is what she returns to again and again, through what else but her own shifting and brilliant subjectivity ... The subtlest joy of these essays is sensing Smith’s own personhood, a personhood inseparable from her intellectual life. The self encompasses both. After the bracing dynamics of so much thought, the essays in Feel Free leave the reader not with a succinct theory of metaphysical dialogue between a global pop phenomenon and twentieth-century philosopher, but rather an image: the endearing, enduring image of one of our finest public intellectuals bickering with her husband, in a car, as she hankers for a sausage roll.\
Elizabeth Hardwick, selected by Darryl Pinckney
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewIn good fiction, every sentence and detail is necessary. The same is true of these impeccably economical essays, which, collected here with a wise introduction by Pinckney, offer a rich immersion in both her brilliant mind and the minds of so many others ... As these essays demonstrate, criticism should be commensurate with its subject ... This collection is also, then, an education in 20th-century American literature; a book to send a reader to other books ... A mind delighting in itself on the page is not always palatable, but Hardwick, in doing so with such restraint, is irresistible ... Astringent and unsentimental, these essays span over half a century and, as such, constitute a monumental, if unwitting, autobiography. There is indeed a pathos in that. The literature has primacy over the life, yet the truest and most vital life is not in the facts, but the fictions.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewSome short story writers lay such claim to landscapes that those places become unassailably theirs: Annie Proulx has Wyoming, the South belongs to Eudora Welty, rural Canada will always be Alice Munro’s. With this debut collection, Fen, the young British writer Daisy Johnson stakes her fictive territory on the Fens, the expanses of once flooded, now drained land in the east of England. Johnson has a marshy imagination and wind-whipped prose; the latter is an effective counterweight to the sometimes hyperbolic lore of this shape-shifting world ... characters can be strained thin by their narrator’s wish for them to be more than they are ... crosscurrents of connection add up to a consonance that might almost be mythic.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...the world is parsed with a charming exactitude that magnifies all its latent marvels and especially horrors — the blacker and more peculiar these stories get, the funnier they are ... Kleeman, a highly cerebral writer, is especially fascinated by the oddness of bodies ... Kleeman’s stories [are] brilliantly alive.