MixedChicago Review of BooksBewilderment in many ways seems to pick up the thread of environmental fiction that The Overstory explored, though this time dealing more with the personal and emotional toll we as a society face during the rampant climate catastrophe rather than the disaster itself ... I’ve long admired Powers’ ability to weave a compelling narrative, while posing deep questions about the nature of life around us as it is and as it may be. He manages to convey the enthusiasm he so clearly possesses for his topics in a way that becomes infectious for the reader, though at times, I’ve felt like the themes in his books eclipse the stories and characters within, in a way that can leave them feeling somewhat cold ... It’s a setting that feels tailor-made for a certain type of liberal, but Powers doesn’t really reckon with it fully. He is able to see the problems presented by American conservatism, but lacks vision into the larger issues at play ... Despite the novel feeling trite at times, I found this loss to be deeply moving, and Powers commands this trauma well. Robin becomes inscrutable in the middle of the novel, a mystery even to his dad, but this spiral and the vulnerability it evokes is poignant ... Despite clumsy writing, some unconvincing leaps of logic, and improbable choices, there is a raw, resonant core here; it’s just spread too thin, and buried too deep to be worthwhile.
MixedChicago Review of Books... while Kitamura’s use of tone, temporality, and narrative can be striking, the novel itself is uneven, as often landing flat-footed as finding an interesting place to stand ... Kitamura’s descriptions of interpretation are among the most compelling points of the novel, as the protagonist details how language seems to flow through her ... Intimacies is a very literary novel, which Kitamura seems to lean into, though this comes across too heavy-handed at times, bordering on affected ... Kitamura seems to set up an interesting examination on the distance between the protagonist’s perception of characters and their actuality or intent, but only in a few instances is this the case. Her judgements on the characters are correct for the most part, and more often than not presented at face value. Much of the novel follows course. Kitamura establishes many interesting ideas, but all too often fails to best leverage them ... Of course, the protagonist’s failings are interesting in their own right, but the novel all too often fails to capitalize on these moral moments, instead opting to simply note these moments, rather than placing the blow directly. There’s a lot to like here, from satisfying digressions, interesting questions, and Kitamura’s skillful use of time in the novel, but Intimacies is more slight than lasting.
MixedThe Chicago Review of BooksUnfortunately, despite offering a handful of scenes that sing, much of the collection languishes, too often missing the mark on the balance between subtlety and earnestness ... Occasionally, Taylor seems to seek an impact with this abruptness, only to shy away from it in other stories ... Taylor is a writer that wears his heart on his sleeve—for better or for worse—but at times seems to get lost between genuine vulnerability and nuance. Exposition is heavily featured, as characters are as likely to relay their trauma than detail the ways it affects them. In other instances, he seems to pull his punches rather than lay them bare. Multiple stories hinge on moments of intimacy or violence, but these are as likely to take place off the page as they are to take place on it ... When Taylor’s at his best, the work soars. Several stories contain a beautiful aside or two that deepens the narrative. And when everything comes together, the result is remarkable ... There’s a few groan-inducing lines, and all too often the narrative is wielded more like a hammer than a scalpel. But when everything falls in order, the effect is breathtaking. There is a distinct talent on display in Filthy Animals; I only wish Taylor trusted himself and his readers more to know the delicateness of the dance is what keeps us coming back for more.
MixedThe Chicago Review of BooksThe questions are as compelling as they have always been, but occasionally this fabulistic framing becomes a crutch, as Ishiguro’s hand at times weighs a bit too heavy on the scale ... Klara’s perspective is critical for the novel, but this lens often feels like a weakness. Many scenes in the book involve Klara describing something she’s seen or heard, and then immediately musing about the events to other characters. While this is standard-fare for the modern novel, Klara often goes even further, detecting and relaying the emotions of the characters as they happen ... often I found the effect to be a bit heavy-handed, as Klara’s narration inherently leans heavily to the \'tell\' side of show and tell ... I wonder what the novel would be like if Rosa were to narrate it, perhaps allowing just a little more space for a reader to bring their own ideas into it ... While Ishiguro has no qualms about being extremely forthcoming about the emotions characters are experiencing, he has managed to build a sense of intrigue under the surface ... . These mysteries are deeply compelling, and they keep the pages turning. It’s unfortunate Ishiguro doesn’t keep the rest of his cards as close to his vest here, as the effect is powerful ... There’s a lot at play in Klara and the Sun, and like many of Ishiguro’s novels, I find it’s taken up an outsized position in my mind in the days since I’ve finished it. When the book manages to get out of it’s own way, the effect is stark, like layers of papers with patterns cut into them, forming a collage. The book opens up when given the space to breathe. But this makes it all the more frustrating in the doors Ishiguro closes, in the stilted dialogue between characters, in the unsurprising plot. Here, Ishiguro seems to be acting on his theory of storytelling more than ever before, which he described in his Nobel Lecture, saying, \'This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?\' I just wish at times the question wasn’t so direct.
Roberto Bolaño, tr. Natasha Wimmer
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... contains writing completed over a period of 10 years, and features many of the touchstones Bolaño was known for: semi-autobiographical narration; a humorous, fragmentary style; and the sort of intrigue that grabs hold of you and never lets go, despite offering no easy answers ... Bolaño’s powers are on full display in French Comedy of Horrors ... French Comedy of Horrors reads like the first 40 pages of a full novel, and I’m saddened it won’t eventually be fleshed out. Across its scant pages, Bolaño builds a whole world, only cracking the lid on a Pandora’s Box, the effects of which can only be inferred ... As enticing as French Comedy of Horrors is, the real stars of the show are the two other novellas ... These two sections, Cowboy Graves and Fatherland, resonate so closely together, that French Comedy of Horrors feels a bit out of place sandwiched between them; almost acting as an intermission. Cowboy Graves leads up to the coup, and Fatherland follows it. The overall effect is a deepening of the work, as each section becomes a lens through which to view the other ... What this collection offers is something so rare; not only new work from a beloved and still-resonant deceased writer, but a look at writing itself, as afforded through these incomplete and transfixing works. We see Bolaño’s pen, tracing the same lines, diverging slightly, drawing again. Even beyond the larger context of Bolaño’s work, these three pieces in concert have their own vocabulary, their own rules. As Bolaño explored similar spaces across these sketches, we are given a much more complete view of the picture he may have come to paint, as much through what he didn’t write as what he did.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of Books... may explore similar ground to its predecessors in the genre, but it inventively limits the mechanics of its time travel to the confines of a small cafe, and is all the more resonant for it. At times, Kawaguchi’s hand is a bit too prominent, but despite the occasional clumsiness, the narrative is deeply moving ... Kawaguchi’s greatest contribution to the genre, and perhaps his highest accomplishment in the novel, is the strictness of the rules he imposes on time travel ... Kawaguchi’s more prolific medium should come as no surprise to readers of Before the Coffee Gets Cold, and his growing pains in adapting to the novel form is the great shortcoming of the book. Beyond the in-depth description of the cafe itself and of the customers and staff, the action of the book is written in a way deeply reminiscent of stage direction. Exposition seems to be a particular struggle for Kawaguchi, and he often resorts to authorial asides, in which he lays bare the weight of his situations and the depth of his characters ... And yet, this is only a minor blemish on the book. Kawaguchi’s characters are the real stars here, and their empathy for one another is powerful. The first story of four in the novel, about a woman who didn’t discourage her boyfriend from moving to America, is perhaps the weakest of the book, but only for the heights of what’s yet to come ... This willingness to play with the form shows how deeply Kawaguchi has explored his own conventions, and the nuance he is capable of bringing to the table. Before the Coffee Gets Cold is mostly conventional, and a little rough around the edges. But it’s also sweet, warm, and moving. Kawaguchi’s characters all have a role to play, and the way they interact with each other, between the staff and the patrons, creates an environment where the reader, too, can feel welcomed and optimistic.
Sayaka Murata, tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori
MixedThe Chicago Review of BooksMurata revels in the otherness itself rather than the implications, losing some of the bite of her previous work ... In Convience Store Woman, Murata shows a deft hand, expertly assessing and critiquing society on both sides of the coin; both the bought-in and the othered. However, in Earthlings, Murata doesn’t allow herself the same nuance, and instead seems to feel the need to up the ante at each turn ... I’m rare to give a warning, but this isn’t a book for the faint of heart ... That’s not to say her criticisms or assessments aren’t just as clear-eyed as before; they are. Her writing remains compelling down to the sentence level, though at times the words feel more like Murata’s than Natsuki’s. Murata’s focus seems to be simply on highlighting the depravity we as Earthlings can engage in. She calls attention to some aspects of the Factory we take for granted; but her drive to continually escalate the scenario and push the line undermines this aim. Convenience Store Woman left me eager to read another book of Murata’s — after Earthlings, I’m once again left waiting.
Yu Miri, Trans. by Morgan Giles
PositiveThe Chicago Review of Books... lays bare the depth of sorrow for those society deems too pitiable to even see. While the poignancy of the novel is palpable, its refusal to look away actually softens the blow, as there is little joy to weigh it against. Still, Tokyo Ueno Station is a beautiful look at life too often unobserved, and one whose resonance only seems to grow by the day ... The greatest strength of the novel is how well it leverages its construction to convey empathy. Reading Miri’s book almost feels like being taught a memory. She delicately weaves between Kazu’s observations in the present, the memories of his difficult life, and his musings about others and the world around him. Even though Kazu is somewhat detached towards others, he is a thoughtful and caring person, and the glimpses into his mind go a long way towards illuminating that. Miri has an innate ability to convey the experience of memory, in a way that reminds me of Ishiguro’s somber novels. The translation by Giles sings as well, even faced with difficult passages such as the teachings of a Buddhist priest and Shige’s historical monologues ... the novel’s prime weakness is that in its tenacity towards showing the pain Kazu has experienced, there’s little room left for joy ... It’s difficult to point to any singular moments of happiness in the novel; instead, readers are left to weigh their own experiences against Kazu’s to feel the depth of his sorrow. No life is without some happiness, but even Kazu’s brief retirement with his granddaughter is downplayed. This shrinks the range of emotions on display. The effect is still powerful, but perhaps no one has shown how breathtaking a contrary moment can be than Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day ... an evocative and moving book. Miri’s skills are on full display, as emotionally resonant in moments as intimate as a conversation and as large as a lifetime. Over only a few lines, Miri is able to make you feel the full loss of a life unknown not only to us, but to his absent father in Kazu. In the time since reading it, I’ve felt its resonance grow in my mind. As people worldwide are listening to the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged in a new way, Miri has shown us that we all have a lot to learn, and a long way to go.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of Books...Spanish-Argentine writer Andrés Neuman manages to merge disaster, memory, and distance into a single cohesive map ... Like the functional and decorative art of kintsugi—mending a shattered piece of pottery with gold or silver, highlighting the cracks—that fascinates his protagonist Yoshie, Neuman knows that the ways in which we’re broken not only form an essential fabric of our being, but often remake us in entirely new ways ... The translation from Nick Caistor and Lorenza García is to be applauded. It’s hard to imagine a more daunting task as a translator: Fracture combines not only a globe-trotting vocabulary, but also examines the differences between grammar structures across Japanese, French, English and Spanish. Often, Yoshie’s zeal for learning languages plays center stage ... The true difficulty with the novel comes with the manner of the construction. By relying heavily on the direct accounts of those who knew Yoshie most intimately rather than on his own perspective, much of the action is deflated. Even as the novel works to show the true human cost of the disasters that are often condensed to statistics, it’s a point illustrated from a cautious distance ... In Fracture, Neuman sets out to show the loss of global disasters through the frame of the individual. I can’t help but consider the novel in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that is affecting millions around the globe. That’s the thing about disasters, about tragedy: it feels impossible until it’s happening to you. Now, the disaster is everywhere; though not everyone is affected equally. Living through this disaster as it unfolds only proves how accurate Fracture is.
MixedThe Chicago Review of Books... while Waclawiak’s penchant toward deep interiority leads to some sharp and illuminating insights, Evelyn’s indecision undermines a more profound understanding, leaving her just barely beyond where she started ... The novel is dotted with scenes showcasing Evelyn’s rich inner life, both through a close reading of her memories, as well as a running commentary of her recent freedom. These sequences are almost Cuskian in the way Waclawiak manages to examine Evelyn’s intent, along with her feelings on womanhood and divorce, and the unique challenges those come with. It’s these moments when Life Events is at its best. Evelyn is among the richest and more realized characters I’ve seen in fiction recently, which makes it all the more disappointing that there’s so little in the way of action or causality to propel the novel from scene to scene. Transitions between the multitude of chapters often feel haphazard, and the pieces work about as well individually as part of a more cohesive whole ... not to say no progress is made; the Evelyn at the end is a far-cry from her at the beginning, at her most apathetic. It’s clear that for Waclawiak, the journey is more important than some perfectly satisfying end. For the most part, she’s right.
MixedChicago Review of Books... despite that interesting premise, too often it gets lost in Vesta’s monologues, and the novel’s slow pace only furthers that distance ... Throughout the course of the novel, Moshfegh toes the line between text and subtext, with Vesta imagining the narrative before it presents itself in front of her just as she envisioned ... while Vesta’s digressions are at times moving, and Moshfegh’s meta-commentary on the writer and reader is interesting, the novel struggles to move beyond that. It’s clear early on that no answers will be found, but Moshfegh seems to lean too heavily on Vesta’s internal narration to keep the pages turning, and there’s little in the way of action to back it up. The result is muddled; tentative ... There are gems in here; which make it all the more disappointing that the book lacks the precision and refinement to truly pull it off.
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books...meta from the start ... Instead of rendering a place in its entirety, Prescott’s The Town is an evocation of an atmosphere, of a barely perceptible dread that hangs over his characters, suffuses out of the pages and into the reader, and suggests some things may lie forever beyond grasp ... Prescott isn’t able to rely on a driving sense of narrative to propel the stories we hear from the residents forward ... The Town is deeply affecting, and haunting in a way that few books can achieve. Stylistically and thematically, the novel works in a way similar to our own memory, blurring the lines between exposition and implication ... The Town is a somber prose poem of a novel. While it lacks a guiding narrative through line...it makes up for it with a powerful and haunting mood.
PanThe Chicago Review of Books... struggles with awkward writing, unflattering structure, and strange tonal decisions, that even the more interesting characters from the cast can’t bring to a more coherent whole ... Goenawan moves fast, building suspense and laying the foundation for intrigue while adeptly intermixing different voices. So it’s a shame to see that dropped as the novel moves into the different sections ... While each section intermixed the character’s memories and current thoughts, I longed for the skill shown weaving Ryusei and Miwako’s voices in the opening. Instead, the novel’s construction feels like an inflated form of the outline, rather than the most elegant communication of the story ... Goenawan is not shy about dropping what doesn’t contribute, but the result feels less like cutting the fat so much as letting the plot drive ... The writing is awkward across the board. I kept re-reading descriptions, trying to understand the blocking. Even the dialogue between characters is tense, often trading subtext for text. At its best, it slips beneath the surface, nuanced enough to go unnoticed. At worst, it’s jarring enough to pull me away from the page. Beyond the writing, I found myself thinking the characters were acting, well, out of character ... There’s a few strange ideas about serious topics like suicide, rape, which could be cultural differences, but felt a little antiquated in 2020 ... Let’s call it a sophomore slump.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksGreenwell, whose beautiful writing is matched by his self-awareness, and has now written his second book novelizing his time spent in Bulgaria as a teacher. Yet, while the two novels share a setting, a protagonist, and overlapping history, Cleanness is a blossoming for Greenwell, who exhibits peaks here only hinted at in the preceding What Belongs To You. Cleanness is far and away one of the most evocative and sobering novels I’ve read in a long time, in which Greenwell manages to write about sex and violence, love and distance, and the feeling of home and language itself, in a way that feels immediately intimate and insightful ... In a climate of literary fiction that seems inundated with autofiction, Greenwell manages to stand out. His writing in Cleanness is more Cusk than Knausgaard, in more ways than one ... the distance Greenwell creates by cleverly calling into question his own memories of an event versus what he assumes transpired \'in actuality,\' down to the word choices used—especially in translation from Bulgarian to English—reveals a complexity only enhancing the nuance of his narrator ... It’s difficult to find another writer, within autofiction or outside of it, that shows as much courage and understanding as Greenwell. His strength is in laying himself bare, and writing in a way that few dare to do ... a sublime book, transcending not only autofiction or LGBTQ writing, but the very barrier between stories and novel, fiction and non-fiction.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksVanderMeer is unparalleled in his ability to bring to our ears the songs of such strange worlds, from the animals that inhabit them to the soil itself ... At its best, Dead Astronauts is an avant-garde and gorgeously textured story that demands to be proselytized ... VanderMeer’s unique characters and perspectives are a huge part of his draw, and in Dead Astronauts he asserts his place at the top of the food chain. While other attempts have been made in ecological fiction to give voices to more non-human roles, no one does it better than VanderMeer ... one of the most innovative novels I’ve read all year, playing with form, layout, and type ... VanderMeer plays with words and repetition in a way few other prose stylists dare attempt. The novel is sort of a plea to slow down and notice what you might regularly gloss over. It forces this sort of care on the part of the reader. The overall effect is delightful ... Because VanderMeer is such a good writer, it’s fun to watch him play. Not every section worked for me, but like the \'digressive\' sections of Moby-Dick, they all contribute to the ambiance of the work. Yet there are some halting moments. While not a direct sequel to either Borne or The Strange Bird, Dead Astronauts relies heavily on the concert between these works, and even as a reader of the preceding work, I found myself forgetting relevant information until I referred back to the earlier pieces. I’m sure a reader unfamiliar with either of the previous stories will see the brilliance showcased here, but it’s through the harmony of these works that the full resonance is revealed ... I found myself nearly moved to tears by more than one section of the novel ... beautiful.
MixedThe Chicago Review of BooksIn Erin Morgenstern’s new novel... stories are everything ... Unfortunately, Morgenstern’s focus on form over function saps The Starless Sea from ever finding any of the weight behind its words it so desperately craves, leaving little more than a pretty facade ... Zachary Ezra Rawlins doesn’t so much go on an adventure as have an adventure affected onto him ... Worse still, the novel flits from this main yarn to a multitude of interlocking stories, either from Zachary’s book or elsewhere, sometimes never to return. This leaves little time for us to settle in with any of the characters, who come across more as a collection of tropes rather than fully formed realizations ... The Starless Sea attempts to lean into...fabulistic nature in place of nuance, hoping the reader will bridge the gap it creates, while not providing anything more of substance. This flaw affects The Starless Sea from the big-picture concerns of plot and character down to the minutiae of sentences. It’s a slog to read ... As a young writer, I once wondered if beauty and aesthetic were enough to make a compelling work; in The Starless Sea, I have found my answer. The Starless Sea is sort of a novelization of a Tumblr aesthetic board, and if descriptions of fancy cocktails, the coziest reading nooks imaginable, and fables are your thing, you’ll find plenty on offer here to keep you satisfied. It’s just when you go looking for something of more substance that the facade crumbles.
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... Lerner’s finest work yet, most strikingly in terms of style and form. His experience as a poet has always shined in the writing, but The Topeka School is more unified in its design and execution than any of his past novels ... well-read, erudite perspectives, ekphrastic writing, and smart characters with deep interiority ... He’s able to render scenes from his life with perfect emotional or artistic reality, instead of the one we inhabit daily. What I admire in Lerner’s work — and autofiction in general — is the authenticity and frankness of emotional experience and perception. Like a meditation, I found this effect carried beyond even the confines of the covers. After finishing the book, the walk through my neighborhood felt like a glimpse into a brighter and more clear world ... Lerner knows the line between sincerity and cliché. That said, he will directly refer to the callback he’s attempting to make, which at times comes across a bit too heavy handed, in stark relief to the nuance of the novel otherwise ... In trying to diagnose the culture of masculinity that both Adam and Darren exist in, the closeness to it might be off-putting to some readers ... Yet, the entire novel feels like a carefully reasoned rebuttal even to it’s own central project ... some of the strongest work being done in the medium. The Topeka School represents a sort of stylistic peak for Lerner — I only hope he can keep it up.
Sara Stridsberg, Trans. by Deborah Bragan-Turner
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... a shimmering and nuanced portrait of the ideals Solanas might have held, and a life that could have brought her to that understanding. The gentleness and strength of Stridsberg’s writing lends itself perfectly to this deeply empathetic novel. Most of all, in the story’s refusal to seek easy answers, its dedication to acknowledge and address the difficulties of its own construction, and its belief in the power of writing all make Valerie a book and a portrayal that I think Solanas herself would be proud of ... rejects the traditional in favor of the new ... The writing is bold, with sparse and resonant exposition ... The writing is beautiful, with evocative, quotable lines...These lines often walk a balancing act, toeing the line between aphorism or camp, and yet always come out on the right side of that tug of war ... Normally, I find many novels written with such a distinct voice to be taxing to read, their gimmicks in prose or presentation to be an impediment to the story being told. Here, nothing could be more natural. Perhaps it is the story of Solanas that lends itself well to experimentation, but I think it might just be the earnestness of Stridsberg’s passion for the subject that ties this all together. You truly get the sense that she loves Valerie, for her unknowableness as much as for what we do know ... Perhaps most fascinating about the novel is the metafiction aspect ... In immediately abandoning the attempt to paint a true picture of the woman that was Valerie Solanas, Stridsberg has allowed herself to find the Valerie that evaded all except the woman herself.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksScanlan has created something truly unique ... stands as a radical celebration of the moment, the most intimate and personal, made universal. The opacity of its entries helps to convey unique meanings to each reader. For those that find the sentences resonant, the book serves as an artifact to return to over time, feel inspired by, or simply re-frame a way of thinking ... The writing style is sparse, more often than not grammatically incorrect, but deeply evocative in its minimalism ... The writing is poetic, so sparse to be abstract ... Scanlan’s work in curation, arrangement, and construction of the entries is marvelous. She’s managed to find the perfect balance between maintaining enough of a through-line to suggest continuity, while removing enough to give space for the reader’s imagination. It’s at once a work of addition and subtraction, a masterclass in composition ... nuance just below the surface only leads each page to stand stronger by itself, and as a whole. I suspect not everyone will fall in love with Aug 9 – Fog, but those that do will be discovering a book that lingers long after reading.