MixedVultureMost of the book unfolds with Rooney’s typical effervescent prose, whose extreme readability lies partly in its narrative economy ... As in her past books, the life of the body trumps the life of the mind: I continue to find Rooney to be a remarkably unembarrassing writer of sex scenes and, if anything, wished this novel had more of them. Sounds fun, right? Well, sort of. While Rooney’s newest book luxuriates in the same bourgeois comforts as her first two...it adds yet another, more pedantic layer of realist detail to her characters’ lives ... It’s an epistolary novel meets Ulysses lite. The aesthetic goal is admirable, but the effect is haphazard, as the two parts of the novel never quite cohere ... One might expect these chapters to at least offer deeper insight into their friendship, but they more often read like extended abstract musings ... the stilted and superficial cadence of their letters hints at deeper troubles. This conversation between friends is dominated by thinky tangents, but the unspoken tension driving it is whether, and when, Eileen will finally visit her faraway friend. It’s an interesting conceit—to make theorization the deferral of real talk, real life—but it doesn’t make these sections any more readable ... these long philosophical tangents on the value of fiction, the meaning of art, and the decline of beauty read like overindulgent and anxious attempts to preemptively control the cacophony that surrounds the reception of her work. To read them is to feel the discourse winning.
Anthony Veasna So
MixedBookforumIf So’s Cambodian parents form the historical consciousness of his plots, then canonical American writers like Whitman and Melville and Stein form the literary consciousness of his prose ... So doesn’t try to write refugee history or trauma straight—to represent ethnic American minority experiences \'authentically.\' Instead, his collection takes the difficulty of representing contemporary Cambodian American culture and turns it into its premise ... Afterparties might also be described as a book filled with knockoff memories, many of them lost in the haze of pot smoke. The final story takes place three years before So’s birth and is told from his mother’s perspective. By explicitly framing his parents’ experiences as passed down, shot through with trauma, and twice removed through their fictionalization, So acknowledges that the perversion of history is often what makes it real for its inheritors. Fiction might be the privileged site of historical forgetting, where the descendants of genocide are allowed to make it new. Other people’s fucked-up stories about traumatic loss might be a gateway drug into imagining new worlds. Sometimes, they’re even fodder for punch lines.
PanThe New York Times Book Review... a morally implausible, if not confused, novel ... reveals the difficulty of refracting recent Chinese history through fictions about lone individuals ... Over the course of A Song Everlasting, I kept expecting Tian’s life to finally fall apart, laying bare the impossibility of telling Chinese narratives of progress in an era of historical amnesia. Things go perilously from bad to worse for Tian, each turn prompted by an impulsive decision or event more random than the last. The novel’s genre flickers in and out of focus accordingly. At times, the specificity in which Jin details China’s online surveillance apparatus renders the novel aggressively realist. The bulk of A Song Everlasting, however, might best be read as naturalist fiction, in which characters are reduced to cogs in the machinery of capitalism, moving, as Lily Bart does in The House of Mirth, into smaller and dingier rooms until they die. Such a novel would refuse to indulge in Chinese mass trauma with Chinese individual heroism. Ultimately, though, Jin can’t resist the temptation ... One wonders how a character with as much long-game integrity as Tian ever sang for the Chinese state in the first place, much less take the side gig, only to defect for life. In his latest novel, Jin seems finally to have lost the plot.
RaveBookforumAn old student and friend of Said’s, Brennan is himself a formidable scholar, having authored numerous books and essays on topics from world literature to Hegel to jazz. But despite his personal relationship to his subject, Brennan quickly recedes into the background, following a short preface ... Previous books on Said have been organized around thematic chapters or individual essays. Without neglecting critical analysis, Brennan attempts to tell something more like a story. What emerges is a remarkably careful and considered narrative of Said’s life from cradle to grave—an account that is both synthesis and corrective ... Riffing on the title of Said’s memoir, which renders an image of the exile as always \'out of place,\' Places of Mind turnsinward—to reveal the intellectual center of a seemingly roving career ... Places of Mind takes the task of the intellectual biography to heart: it understands Said’s life by way of his work, and understands his work by way of the thinker at its center. That’s not to say that Said’s thought was uniform. If anything, he recognized and often relished his own contradictions: a critic of Orientalism who was also an Anglophile, a social scientist who was also an aesthete, a radical leftist with expensive tastes. Yet for Brennan, Said was, above all, a literary critic, and the only way to understand him is through reading, well, his literary criticism ... as much an intellectual biography as a kind of literary criticism on literary criticism. In immensely readable prose, Brennan flexes his expertise as one of the world’s leading authorities on Said.
José Esteban Muñoz
RaveBookforumThe Sense of Brown [...] contains thirteen essays written over the course of fifteen years, from 1998 until Muñoz’s death. Like his prior work, this collection ranges across fields—from performance studies and queer theory to Black and Asian American studies—as its individual essays concatenate into something like Muñoz’s theory of brownness. Or, perhaps it would be better to say, Muñoz’s sense of brownness ... Almost all the essays in The Sense of Brown are still in draft form. The editors acknowledge their introduction to be a strange placeholder for the one Muñoz himself would have liked to have written ... If what animated Muñoz’s criticism was his singular ability to combine praxis and theory in examining specific artworks, then a question arises now about how to continue his work. For despite the real gifts that The Sense of Brown gives us—its startling moments of insight and its profound intellectual generosity—what it leaves the reader with is Muñoz’s afterburn.
RaveNew York Times Book ReviewThe author rewrites the official record by way of fiction. Evans is particularly gifted at depicting character, especially female protagonists ... Evans’s Black female characters often start out on the periphery: The worker at the Titanic hotel muses that \'she was backdrop.\' Literature offers a kind of corrective to history by drawing these figures into the foreground ... Evans’s propulsive narratives read as though they’re getting away with something, building what feel like novelistic plots onto the short story’s modest real estate.
Aoko Matsuda, Trans. by Polly Barton
PositiveNew York Times Book ReviewEach story in Where the Wild Ladies Are updates a traditional Japanese folk tale for our contemporary world. The result is delightfully uncanny ... Matsuda’s retellings are feminist with a vengeance ... Yet just as this brave new world allows these women to grow wild, it also castrates out-of-work men. These stories, deftly translated by Barton, touch on a recession specific to Japan, though the language of neoliberal precarity and gig work will be familiar to many.
Scholastique Mukasonga, Trans. by Jordan Stump
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewMukasonga’s language, in Stump’s translation from the French, is at once intimate and impersonal. Her stories are almost all narrated by children, whose early exile from home and family heightens their disorientation in the world while denying them ways to cope ... The devastation in Mukasonga’s stories is only amplified by the short story form. Igifu is notably slim, as though to suggest all that still hasn’t been told.
Cathy Park Hong
PositiveThe Nation... bracing ... Her book is ultimately less a definitive document of the Asian American experience than it is a document of Hong’s attempts (and frequent failures) to articulate its contradictions ... as one moves through Minor Feelings, one begins to see how, beside her rejection of white affirmation, there exists a more affirmative story of Asian American collectivity: A minor plot of the book, scattered across its chapters, is one of racial solidarity ... Rather than advance any theses about contemporary Asian America, [the chapter] \'Bad English\' offers a searching and introspective examination of the very language that makes Minor Feelings possible—the literary forms that enable Hong to speak to and on behalf of the contradictions of being Asian American ... Throughout \'An Education,\' Hong renders...friendship—while often volatile and sometimes even violent—in a way that feels crucially vital ... Minor Feelings begins with intraracial antagonism, but it ends by trying to envision something closer to a form of intraracial solidarity.
RaveSlateAt 472 pages, it’s not quite a tome, perhaps, but it recalls the dreamy pacing of Henry James or Elizabeth Bowen ... Necessary Errors is a bildungsroman, but it’s about the coming of age of these friends as well as Jacob, who needs them badly ... There is, in fact, a general haze that surrounds the novel (and perhaps your early 20s as well). If nothing really happens, it does so deliberately ... Crain’s ability to keep our interest without an obvious narrative arc, to make us care, intensely, about his characters without any cat-saving or cliffhangers, is what makes the novel feel like a new sort of model for contemporary fiction ... Crain has managed to write a moving and involving story about someone trying to find not just his own story, but his own voice as well. There are no dramatic flashes, no so-called twist endings ... Crain does end—no spoilers—on a cliffhanger of sorts. This, another kind of reader might think, is where the real story begins. We, though, for having read Necessary Errors, understand that the realness of a story should not be judged by \'what happened.\' Plot cannot be the most crucial element to storytelling, when the ways of telling a story are infinite.
PositiveBookforumThe narrative of Overthrow might itself be described as a competition of data versus poetry, information versus secrecy, knowing versus not knowing. For while Crain takes up the contemporary subjects of digital surveillance and technological terrorism, the novel itself sides with uncertainty and unknowing ... Crain’s prose sparkles most when it returns to scenes of private interiority, of personal anguish and emotional attunement. Even as the book conjures the dystopian potential of twenty-first-century techno-capitalism, its best scenes remain its more textured intimate moments. If the state seeks to conquer by force, then the kind of revolution Overthrow proposes—however cautiously—is one that rests in forms of unspoken, telepathic consent. It’s the kind of affective connection we might find, for instance, in a novel.
RaveThe New Republic\"Is it possible to imagine a future that isn’t at least somewhat tinged by the feverish traces of our collective past? It certainly becomes difficult to do so while reading Ma’s novel, in which all of life—whether before or after the apocalypse, in America or in China—is rendered through the same devastatingly lyrical prose ... Severance is the most gorgeously written novel I’ve read all year; when I finished it, I immediately picked it up and read it all over again.\
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksMantel condemns her readers to live in the mind (and witness the psychological acrobatics) of Henry VIII’s most notorious hit man. Seeing history through Cromwell’s eyes gives the reader privileged access to certain secrets, to the conflict behind his silence, behind his famously reticent and impassive mien. Like Robert Browning’s dramatic monologists and Joseph Conrad’s anti-heroes, we’re not meant to judge Cromwell, but to empathize with him … Mantel’s use of historical fiction is also a critique of it. Bring Up the Bodies gets at the idea that our faith in a country’s history — in a kingdom’s icons — are ultimately retrospective effects of national feeling. One’s idea of the nation, like one’s portrait of the past, is just a story, and likely punctured with gaps, scattered with half-truths, if not full-out lies.
RaveThe New RepublicFor any fanatic reader of Shirley Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life might give you vertigo. It is a biography in which the writer’s understanding of her subject feels, at times, eerily intuitive ... When reading Franklin’s masterful account of Jackson’s life, one senses how profoundly Jackson’s fiction draws from personal experience ... Franklin’s book reminds us that whether something actually happened or not is not necessarily what differentiates fiction from non-fiction.