PositiveThe RumpusWhether the memory that centers each story occupies a firm place in reality or evades verification, it represents a psychological apex or nadir for the narrator; whatever path his life takes afterwards, the feeling that comes through in the telling of it is regret, a sense of failure, as if some vital signpost were ignored, or not even noticed, or the sign was too cryptic to be followed ... it’s as if he took the horror genre, carefully extracted the horror, and left us with what makes the best of the genre engrossing and disquieting. We go along with what is unbelievable, drawn into unplaceable moods ... The real story is in what really happened to the narrator—what he tries to explain but cannot quite put into words.
Lea Singer, Trans. by Elisabeth Lauffer
PositiveHistorical Novel SocietyLovers of classical music, especially piano repertoire, will find much to mine in Horowitz’s and Kaufmann’s comments on various compositions. While that may sound a bit dry, the story also packs in plenty of Sturm und Drang ... The shifts in time and lack of quotation marks in the prose reward reading, even while they sometimes confuse. As memory blurs into the present moment, Singer masterfully erodes Kaufmann’s somewhat detached air to reveal a grand passion that never died, or even approached resolution, a passion he’s still trying to work out. Kaufmann’s confession/auto narrative reflects the inevitable sordidness of a concealed love affair. Yet throughout its telling, Singer maintains an elegance and depth that will leave the reader pondering the nature of personal courage and how—or whether—life and maturity can ever bring into harmony art, ambition, and love.
David Diop, tr. Anna Moschovakis
RaveThe Historical Novel SocietyAlfa’s rhythmic, repetitive oaths and laments; his pleas for understanding and forgiveness; his description of the trench as \'open like the sex of an enormous woman, a woman the size of the earth,\' out of which men leap screaming to kill: all give the narrative both a suffocating intimacy and a sense of a nightmare too vast to escape ... While the physical setting is circumscribed—trenches bracketing no man’s land, with flashbacks to a village life that seems infinitely far away and long ago—the moral scope is immense ... I want to say it’s our human duty to read this book, which students across France chose to win a scholastic version of the Prix Goncourt. Listen to this voice that takes us into the madness of massive violence—with the warning that its vision of human duty offers no closure and much soul-searching.
RaveHistorical Novel SocietyYuletide gives the story a traditional season for European fairytales, while its snow-dusted 1960s Manhattan setting brings childhood magic to a modern (but smartphone-free) venue familiar from Hollywood movies ... Is Laura a pitiful orphan or a self-centered brat—or is she a woman-child struggling to emerge from isolation and grief? In A Wild Winter Swan, Maguire gives us all three, and in doing so achieves something rare: a book that puts a clever adolescent girl into a quasi-fairytale without being twee or didactic. Another rarity: Laura’s acute observations of her world, the tumult of her emotions, and her sexual unfolding never stray into rote sentimentality, yet a refreshing gentleness pervades the story ... In a masterful meld of fantasy, longing, and troublesome relationships, Maguire’s A Wild Winter Swan shows us, and its young protagonist, that heartfelt connections with other people—and with animals—can lay for us a bridge between life’s sorrows and its wonder.
PositiveOn the SeawallThe typographical form of her account suggests that of a poem, or maybe a spreadsheet with intersecting rows and columns. It takes a while to get acclimated to the pattern, but once you get it, you’ll find yourself flowing right into the narrator’s troubled skin, living her simultaneity of sense experience and discursive thought ... her investigation into her own situation is rigorous. But her wry introspection keeps us wondering: will she circle her experience without reaching its center, or is she zeroing in on it? ... The beauty of Little Scratch lies not only in its fresh prose and innovative form. Rebecca Watson leads us to trust or to doubt—depending on the reader, I suppose—that her narrator will get to where she needs to be. Resisting moralizing as well as the closure of redemption or despair, Ms. Watson leaves this a hard-won place too personal, too individual to be prescribed. She achieves this with a richly articulated point of view.
RaveOn the SeawallA book set during a war that ended over 25 years ago could be called an historical novel. But Beirut Hellfire Society expresses an immediacy that pushes it out of the genre; it feels like it’s happening now, and in a way it is, as violence shatters cultures and pushes people around the globe ... a book about life and death, and humanity, including dogs, whom Pavlov considers more ideally human than humans ... Despite the meanness that Hage’s living characters suffer at the hands of each other, and although the tone of the prose bends toward the sardonic, his story never descends to mean-spiritedness, for Pavlov’s generosity to the dead touches the living ... Hage conveys tenderly the loneliness of the human body when stripped of its doings: its physical occupations, its fleshly contacts.
PositiveOn the SeawallTipping between speculations on Ms. Scanlan’s process (including building our trust that her work is not a literary hoax, but really is based on a found diary) and immersion in Mrs. Lacy’s life makes reading Fog fascinating and pleasurable ... At times I resented reading Mrs. Lacy’s diary through Ms. Scanlan’s deceptively simple, actually intricate, moucharabieh screen. I had a naive urge to get to the \'real\' Mrs. Lacy ... Some entries puzzled me, maybe due to regional quirks and, again, the generational difference ... They suffice, Ms. Scanlan’s selections, to build a world ... Whatever images a reader creates from details implied but never stated in Aug 9—Fog, the feeling of the woman’s life touches its pages. Not a generic \'old woman\' life, yet somehow universal ... However artfully chosen and ordered its pieces are, Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9—Fog is no more a revelation of a specific private life than a handful of pottery shards is a revelation of a lost village. It comprises fragments of a woman’s life that another woman constructed into a literary work. Its contrivance makes it no less \'authentic.\'
RaveOn the SeawallHistorically, the novel is well-founded, with real-life figures ... While true to facts, Obreht is equally loyal to her imagination, the cinematic dream of the West. Inland’s places grip their inhabitants in the dislocations and mergings of history and myth ... Obreht’s West is as harsh as that of contemporary mythmakers Cormac McCarthy and Robert Olmstead. But unlike those writers, Obreht doesn’t employ extreme violence just to stir up the reader. Also, she has no interest in the accoutrements of vintage and not-so-vintage Western films...The violence here is more personal ... Obreht doesn’t build her scenes on action. Even in violent moments, the violence is muted. Rather than blood and gore, the innards she shows us are those of the human spirit. Her intention is to take us inland ... demands the reader’s close attention, not only because its texture is intricate, and even a small detail may reveal an important plot point. Simply put, Obreht’s prose is beautiful ... a work of great power and accomplishment, proof that Obreht has the talent and discipline to produce literary work ever more profound and artful as the years go by.
PositiveThe Kenyon ReviewThe most effective stories in Song are those that lead us to trust the narrator ... Song’s careful prose gives his work a dry, somewhat academic tone, possibly the toll of Evenson’s years at teaching university-level creative writing. The flattened, emotionally blunted voice is effective, though. A bland acceptance of all the wrong things, married with Evenson’s mastery of detail, lulls you into the protagonist’s skewed world. Then, before you know it, the back of your neck is prickling.
Fernando A. Flores
PositivePloughsharesThough Bellacosa’s longing for his deceased wife and daughter lures him toward death and to the trufflepig’s promise of sweet dreams, he doesn’t enter this underworld so much as drop into it. He follows one eccentric story after another, landing in situations that, in Flores’ vivid settings, blend noir with magical realism ... Holding on to the many, many threads Flores winds around Bellacosa can, however, be a big job for the reader. Intricacy runs close alongside chaos ... His quest may be meandering and bizarre, nightmarish and heart-rending, but the journey is well worth taking.
MixedThe MillionsAutumn and Winter worked: the pieces fit. Spring’s pieces, however, feel like bits and bobs pulled out of Smith’s trunk of favorite props ... As bits and bobs go, they’re not bad. They’re Ali Smith bits and bobs. But they don’t come together to form an innovative novel, and Smith’s care in constructing them precludes the graceful chaos of an assemblage ... Had the Richard book been given more room to stretch its wings it might have worked. Sturdier threads connecting it to the Brit book would have helped, too ... the real problem with the Richard book is that its characters are a bit shopworn. Richard plays Smith’s Eternally Young but Thirsty for Enlightenment Male. Paddy and, later, Alda—and Florence, for that matter—play the Nurturing and Sage Females ... too prescriptive to be illuminating. Richard’s story has brilliant moments, but its somewhat patronizing, at times waggish tone eclipses Richard’s voice and diminishes the poignancy of his situation. Bound together with Brit’s book, his book is simply outdone, outshone.
PositiveThe Millions\"The novella’s plot moves in a straight line, event after event rolling along day by day. But The Parade can’t be reduced to its plot any more than life (individual or collective) can be reduced to bare events ... The inconsistencies in terrain distract, but overall Eggers succeeds in evoking a fractured Anyland, through which two men of opposing temperaments and views (mash them together and it’s Everyman) are tasked to pave a perfectly straight and level road ... Allegories don’t generally supply juicy psychological backstory, a complex plot, lush language. Even lacking such beloved elements of literary fiction, The Parade bestows in straightforward prose what only literary fiction can offer: a handful of time in which the reader can be embedded in another person, not to escape but to understand a part of our world that our own lives cannot reveal.\
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
MixedThe MillionsSummer falls more or less back in step with essays followed by diary entries, per month ... Summer I put down and picked up at leisure. This is the way to do it. A forced march through the essays is not recommended. Even avoiding surfeit by taking them three or four texts at a time, I pondered if these books [Summer and the others in the Seasons Quartet] would have been better, more honest, with the dreck trimmed out, published as a single, longish book ... In Summer, Knausgaard’s diary segues in and out of a fiction whose narrator is an old woman looking back on a disastrous love affair ... The old woman’s story never goes far; it’s like an abandoned novel whose ending I didn’t particularly regret missing, though I enjoyed reading what there was of it. The problem was, after the first entry, the transition began to seem gimmicky, a clever device—should the old woman story have been deleted? ... No. Leave them in, just as they are. The story and the way it’s told share the writer’s process ... The spirit of Knausgaard’s seasons quartet lies in its process and its flaws, its moments of physical loveliness, the hapless insights, emotions joyful and big-hearted, petty and bitter.
RaveThe MillionsAutumn and Winter are no more neatly plotted than life itself; like human life, they are constructed of stories. Ali Smith’s seasons are chockfull of other bookish treats and tricks: wordplay in a myriad of forms; luscious, textured prose; allusions galore; shifting points of view; characters who seem to jump right out of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare and our own circles of friends and family ... For in Winter, in winter, under the force of family dead, living or absent, masks slip on and masks slip off. Memory reveals and conceals the past ... Smith’s skill is to make us realize how much we miss the seasonal treasures cherished by the children of autumn and winter: the ponds and canals that used to freeze over and we’d get out our skates, the balmy gift of an Indian summer interrupting late fall’s death-grip chill.
RaveThe Millions\"Ali Smith’s seasons are chockfull of other bookish treats and tricks: wordplay in a myriad of forms; luscious, textured prose; allusions galore; shifting points of view; characters who seem to jump right out of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare and our own circles of friends and family. At times, all these goodies threaten to tumble us into a literary junk shop, but Smith exerts a literary master’s superb confidence in her readers; she trusts us to make of her glorious mess the novels she wants us to read.\