RaveThe Washington Independent Review of Books... a quiet, beautifully rendered mystery peopled with kind, decent characters who are sincerely doing their best for those around them. The warmth it offers is reinforced by its pastoral English sensibilities — shown here as continuing in the modern day — which immediately make Americans nostalgic ... I was thoroughly captivated, and the story pulled me in and drew me effortlessly along, starting from the very beginning ... With economy built of intriguing details, Livesey uses chapter one to set up the action, introduce many of the characters, and give us a solid sense of who these three closely knit siblings are ... Friends who are adopted have heightened my sensitivity to the use of adoption as a plot device or character definition, since it is so often gratuitous. Here, though, I feel that Livesey does right by her characters ... There are a few jarring spots of tone-deafness here, none more so than a passing observation of a character’s suicide, along with the assessment that the character was \'no longer afraid.\' The reductionism of those few sentences is breathtaking in an otherwise sensitive story ... Certainly, some readers will find their patience tried by a novel in which virtually all the characters are open-hearted and generous, even as they keep secrets and do some perilously hurtful things ... I realize that the daily pummeling of events over the last eight months softened me up for a book like this, which invites the reader in and envelops her in a warm glow. Thanks, Margot Livesey. It was just what I needed.
PositiveWashington Independent Review of BooksThroughout his engaging discussion of Galileo and the forces arrayed against him, Livio highlights the similarities to current political and religious arguments against such science-based positions as the veracity of evolution and human-induced climate change. One striking element of contrast that the author touches on somewhat obliquely is perhaps the most crucial: The church’s stranglehold on scientific inquiry had a chilling effect on free thought and the exchange of ideas, and pointedly hurt certain individuals—such as Bruno—but nothing the church believed, mandated, or proclaimed had any power to change the stasis of the sun or motion of the Earth.
PositiveWashington Independent Review of BooksThe thing about satire...is that it typically works best in small doses, which is why Petri’s column is the perfect medium for her message. Creating a collection served up in book form risks reader exhaustion from an overdose of snark. I found I could only appreciate her oeuvre—and keep my blood pressure at safe levels—by taking in a few essays at a time ... Mercifully, not every essay focuses on the national nightmare of the current presidency. After all, there’s always the evergreen outrages of racism, misogyny, gun violence, and anti-vaxxers to vie for our attention. Some of Petri’s best work in this collection focuses on gender, sexism, and #MeToo, and has a subtler, sharper edge. The reader senses that this subtlety is her tell that she’s seething, as in the devastating essay \'Some Interpersonal Verbs, Conjugated by Gender,\' which quietly lays bare society’s enduring concern for a boy’s future over a girl’s psyche[.]
RaveWashington Independent Review of BooksAckerman...is a master of painfully intimate portraits of despair, and his words have the authority, and often the weariness, of lived experience ... Ackerman weaves his tale together gradually, layering in the revealing details, tightening the screws to press against the fragility of each character’s tenuous circumstance. One of those characters turns out to be the city itself. Ackerman has lived in Istanbul, and his intimate knowledge shines through, making that schizophrenic city—with one foot in Europe, the other in Asia—one of the most compelling portraits the author paints, a character that draws the reader in.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksNot incidentally, Why Fish Don’t Exist is beautiful. Beyond its blue and gold cover, the original, intricate illustrations — created on scratchboard by artist Kate Samworth — that accompany each chapter are captivating, with an otherworldly, even nightmarish quality. They lend the book an air of antiquity, as though the reader is holding a 19th-century science text or a Bible ... Though sometimes a bit breathless in her re-imagining of scenes or pondering of psychological motivations, Miller succeeds in pulling the many threads of her story together to intriguing and illuminating effect ... To name something is, in many ways, to stop seeing it: Once something is known, ordered, there is no need to look further. Miller’s assertion is that we need to keep looking and to see with better eyes.
Rachel Vorona Cote
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of Books... as much a memoir as a work of impressive scholarship; it is as comfortable parsing the cultural meaning surrounding Britney Spears’ public disintegration as it is analyzing the feminine mores conveyed in obscure 18th-century texts aimed at improving girls and women ... A scholar of Victorian literature, Cote uses this solid foundation to build her insightful observations on the Victorian age, as well as on modern culture ... As insightful as her scholarship is, it is the element of memoir that forms the compelling through-line.
MixedWashington Independent Review of BooksEveryone—truly everyone—in this story is traumatized to a lesser or greater degree through long-term abuse, sudden violence, the chronic threat of violence, or all three. Burns employs her distinctive wit to make it somehow bearable, to make the reader go along for the ride and possibly laugh rather than shrink back, but it’s a tough go. The story is desperately in want of the humane voice that made Milkman such a delight ... The problem at its core is that the author gives readers no one to hold onto; there is almost nobody for us to know. Who is our protagonist? Where do our sympathies lie? Readers are held at arm’s length, left to wander in this den of dysfunction for the longest time with no clear place to hang our heart ... Perhaps chalk this up as the most oblique love story ever, one that takes a pointedly brighter turn in the closing pages. Yet I can’t help but feel the journey would have been more successful, and certainly more satisfying, if Burns had invited us in, drawn us closer, and shown us a little more heart.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksPerhaps it’s because I’m a direct contemporary of hers, but so much of what Solnit describes here resonates with me for its pitch-perfect description of what I believe so many of us experienced as young women ... What is perhaps most revelatory in Solnit’s observations — briefly considered in the 2008 essay, more widely explored here in Recollections — is her insight that the treatment of women is on a continuum that moves easily from silencing to battering to raping to murdering. Society treats them all as unrelated phenomena, one-off incidents indicative of nothing in particular...Solnit makes a powerful argument to the contrary.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksFar more than a simple recounting of Trumpian outrages, however, the authors present a sobering case for how the current president is altering the fabric of the office itself, possibly for keeps ... The authors deliberate this question in engrossing detail, with each chapter illuminating the historical, legal, political, and cultural aspects of a presidential norm into which this commander-in-chief has thrown a hand grenade.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksGiven the episodes Díaz recounts, it feels as though her entire life is something she could never come back from, and yet here she is to shepherd us through her story, somehow having made it safely to the other side — though she did, in fact, throw herself off a ledge in one of her harrowing suicide attempts ... Elements of this memoir have been published previously as standalone stories. Weaving them together here eliminates much of the chronology while establishing a sense of blurred disorientation. Years bleed and blend into each other. Episodes start and stop, or fade in and out. For the reader attempting to follow Díaz’s tumultuous teens and early adulthood, it’s hard to track when any of these events occurred in relation to any others. That feeling of dislocation is fully appropriate to the story.
RaveWashington Independent Review of BooksZadie Smith contains multitudes — fully formed, distinct, unique — and she shares them to devastating effect in the 19 short stories that make up Grand Union, her first collection. These stories are all over the map, but in the very best sense: in geography and time, in form and voice, in tone and approach. They demand that you pay attention, and it’s best to meet each one on its own terms, without preconceived notions of what may be lurking there. And though all our contemporary anxieties and dread skulk inside or punch through these stories...they hold a timeless quality since, of course, people are people, and the range of human emotion remains steady no matter where, when, or in whom it exhibits itself. Such is Smith’s wizardry, to give those emotions such range of voice ... This whipsawing of the stories through time, place, people, and points of view leaves the reader with a buzz of disorientation, which does nothing to dampen the desire to find out what comes next.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksThe organization of the collection — the three sections, the order of the essays, the way each essay subtly or overtly connects to others — contributes to a satisfying unity that feels organic, no matter how fully intended ... [Jamison\'s] empathy is not something she puts on in order to wheedle her way into people’s confidence, and it is precisely the insights that she brings from her own experience that make her writing so thoroughly humane. Certainly, it is what draws me to her work ... This essay collection neither screams nor burns. I’ve already read it twice, and I know that I will read it again when I need an infusion of that signature Jamison observant, open-minded, empathetic humanity.
Edoardo Albinati, Trans. by Antony Shugaar
PanThe Washington Independent Review of BooksThe Catholic School is a 250-page book. Unfortunately, finding that book inside the 1,200+ pages here, much like extracting a sculpture from a block of marble, demands extensive excavation. And, unlike the marble, those pages are not contiguous, so there’ll be some assembly required ... Honestly, I’d be interested to know about the editing involved here. Did the manuscript start out at 2,500 pages, and this is a vast improvement? ... No matter what the cover says, this is not a novel. It reads like pieces of a memoir buried under 10 years’ worth of notes for a graduate seminar the author never actually taught, the title of which — I’m guessing — was, \'Rape: The Inevitable Consequence of the Existence of Women. (Oh, and the Middle Class Sucks.)\' ... Perhaps we’re to believe that the Edoardo Albinati who is writing all this down is the alter ego of Edoardo Albinati the actual author, and so we should forgive the latter for the self-indulgent, misogynistic claptrap that this fictional former is spewing ... That this book won Italy’s highest honor for fiction, the Strega Prize, makes me wonder: Do they go by poundage? Did each judge figure the other guy had read it? How exactly does this qualify as fiction? Weren’t there other submissions? Is this some sort of an inside joke? ... It’s a wonder that the author was able to make it through these endless discussions of violent sexual acts without becoming a desiccated husk drained of all bodily fluids ... If, as James Joyce said, \'Life is too short to read a bad book,\' then it’s for darn sure too short to spend any time with a self-indulgent author’s 1,200-page vanity project.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of Books... sprawling, multi-layered ... As we already know, the author is a gifted storyteller, an accessible, easygoing travel guide. But he offers up much to unpack here: His journey is split into five parts, each one taking us deeper into Mexico, and, it often feels, deeper into the past ... Theroux is keenly aware of his privileged status.
PositiveWashington Independent Review of BooksNow, 57 years into her publishing career, Lurie brings us this eclectic collection of essays that runs the gamut of subjects, as the book’s subtitle suggests. (And, just as an aside, the preface is as much an essay as any of the other pieces in the book; don’t skip it.) ... [The] first two were among my favorite in the collection. Perhaps because I’m a novelist, Nobody Asked You to Write a Novel had significant appeal, but primarily for her story of growing up feeling like an outcast, \'a skinny, plain, odd-looking girl\' who appeared to have no particular skill or talent beyond her creativity — which, as we’ve all been told in our own childhoods, is not what’s going to pay the bills ... So, what about zippers? The author, who wrote The Language of Clothes, has spent a lot of time considering what our clothes say about us before we ever get a word in. She notes that zippers changed forever what it took to get dressed, and, more importantly, undressed. As Lurie quotes a movie expert, \'When you’re talking about zippers, you’re already talking about sex.\' Now we’re talking.
PositiveWashington Independent Review of BooksI have often wondered at the ethics involved when a talented author sharpens her words to engage in a one-sided battle of wits with a real person. Knowing her silent opponents have no equipment with which to defend themselves, let alone fight back, where do her readers’ sympathies land? This is the question I wrestled with in the deliciously engaging, often exasperating first section of Rachel Cusk’s collected essays ... Cusk’s work is erudite and authoritative, filled with incisive commentary and description ... But the reason to pick up this collection is for the first section, Coventry, in which Cusk is at her autobiographical finest ... As she describes her mother and their relationship, it’s clear that the woman claims an outsized piece of real estate in Cusk’s psyche, even as she denigrates her mother for being shallow and vain. It’s almost painful to see Cusk — a successful, witty, engaging adult — still locked in this battle, as angry as her adolescent self, unable to let it go.
Jennifer L. Eberhardt
PositiveWashington Independent Review of BooksThe author draws from wide-ranging studies and experiments, a number conducted by herself and her colleagues, to illustrate the many forms that bias takes, as well as the relative efficacy of attempts to overcome it ... Beyond the many experiments...it’s the human stories the author tells to underline the science that are inevitably more immediate, gripping, and heart-wrenching.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of Books... a history lesson, a personal travelogue, a journalist’s notebook, and a disquisition on the nature of violence and the meaning of community ... the author proves an engaging, earthy tour guide whose seeming digressions into both past and present serve to underpin our understanding and illuminate his analysis of events ... For U.S. readers not steeped in history lessons of the Mexican Revolution, Herbert offers multiple guideposts...The chronology in the back of the book is both helpful and revealing.
PositiveWashington Independent Review of Books\"If you didn’t know Gay as a poet before coming to Delights, his prose would tip you off, with its repetition and precision, its river of ideas and images flowing without pause from one into another ... There is a similar sort of physicality to most of these essays that embodies delight rather than merely observing it. These essays get their hands dirty.\
PanWashington Independent Review of Books\"Perhaps surprisingly, Mallon treats George W. Bush largely with respect here, painting him with a level of depth and insight that eluded his popular image. But, true or not, there is a serious ick factor in putting Condi Rice in bed with Canadian foreign minister Peter MacKay, and it’s actually painful to read ... It’s obvious that Mallon put in significant time in newspaper morgues and other archives, and one can imagine the day-by-day timeline that probably papered the walls of his writing space. But it gets old, the constant nudge-in-the-ribcage \'remember this?\' quality...\
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksWhen it comes to throwing off journalistic objectivity for the first time in a 60-year career, Kalb has decided to go all in ... The parallels [between Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Trump] are useful, but they only go so far ... McCarthy hitched his fortunes to the hottest topic of the time to ride to prominence, he was in the end a one-trick pony ... In contrast, the current president has journalists playing daily—even hourly—Whack-a-Mole, where the shifting, unending outrages lead to a sort of numb exhaustion ... Kalb has written this book as something of a journalists’ call to arms, reminding them that determined reporters can and do make a difference in rooting out and spotlighting corruption, and in holding our leaders accountable to the people they represent ... So it’s not a big stretch for me to agree with Kalb’s final sentence: \'And, so, with all due respect to the office you hold, Mr. President, the ‘enemy of the people’ is not the press. It is you.\'
PositiveWashington Independent Review of Books\"... enlightening ... The author lays out a highly readable discussion using real-world examples that illustrate the value of polling, not the least of which is tracking changes in attitudes, beliefs, and feelings over time.\
PositiveWashington Independent Review of Books\"Quammen is the master of deconstructing complex, obscure scientific concepts and reconstituting them into coherent, understandable, and illuminating narratives. In The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, he does this primarily by focusing on the people behind the science who, in a very short period of time — whether working with or against each other — have changed much of what we thought we knew about evolution, heredity, and, yes, the origin (and definition) of species ... Quammen delivers a compelling story of these sometimes brilliant, often prickly individuals who never stop wondering, thinking, asking questions, and then applying themselves to search for an answer.\
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksAgain, this book feels completely different than the other two and yet—now that we know his writing—is fully identifiable as belonging to this author ... Stretches of the novel are infused with a sense of light, air, and hopefulness that are entirely missing from the first two. It’s a setup, certainly, to provide a contrast between the surface beauty and the ugliness that lurks just out of sight ... as well as a contrast between the time before, in happiness, and the time after, in misery. Still, we, like the characters, can bask in the golden light while it shines ... If there is a weakness to The New Inheritors, it’s an unevenness in pacing that makes it feel at times that Wascom is in a hurry to move on. I, for one, did not want him to hurry; the beauty and richness of his observation and detail when he dives deep made me long for more.
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksTo summarize his side of the spat [with Vikings scholars], Shippey believes that modern academia finds its delicate sensibilities affronted by the less culturally refined aspects of the marauding Vikings, and has worked to ignore, bowdlerize, explain away, and generally discount what it sees as a cartoon version of the Viking ethos. These academics compare Viking legend with the overblown mythology of America’s Wild West. Shippey works to dismantle that view. To do so, he draws heavily upon the great sagas, from which we derive much of our knowledge of the ancient Norse traditions, culture, and religion ... And therein lies the larger problem: This material begs for a narrative-nonfiction approach, to get blood pumping through the descriptions and perhaps engage the readers’ imaginations more successfully. Though Shippey tries to keep things jaunty with some of his descriptions, many details are too pedantically academic; it feels as though he’s still playing to his old tutor.
Joyce Carol Oates
MixedWashington Independent Review of BooksEach of the stories in this most recent collection from Joyce Carol Oates originally appeared in other publications. It may be that reading them separate from each other would have allowed each one to stand on its own, thereby heightening the reader’s appreciation. In putting them together, neither the whole nor the parts benefit. How so? The author’s repetitive narrative tics — such as her intentional overuse of parenthetical phrases — nag to the point of intrusiveness. She also uses the avoidance of names to make a point: the cruel Sunday school teacher in ‘Sign of the Beast’ is too evil to be named; the obedient Asian lab technician in ‘The Experimental Subject’ is a useful but obscure functionary. Unfortunately, the constant use of ‘Mrs. S___’ for the one and ‘N___’ for the other is simply aggravating … A little disconcerting, though, is the amount of attentive detail given to cataloging the physical defects of characters like Elinor and Mary Frances to the point that it feels like the author’s personal disdain speaking. And yet, I might not have noted that if I hadn’t read these stories in collection.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksEach chapter is an enthralling read on its own. Throughout, Pinker presents quantifiable specifics — with tables and graphs — to underpin his arguments on the substantive, measurable, global progress we’ve made in all these areas, many of which presented problems once thought to be intractable ... Yet when discussing existential threats, the author reaches a bit, and his willingness to let technology solve our problems tends to skip past the Law of Unintended Consequences ... Enlightenment Now might generally be preaching to the converted, but its thought-provoking and wide-ranging analysis of the state of Enlightenment-era ideas and values might spur some of the converted to greater engagement in problem-solving.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksTur takes an inspired approach to telling a story that we just finished living through — at least from our view in front of the stage. She slingshots back and forth between accounts from the long campaign to the minute-by-minute ticking clock of Election Day itself. The stomach-clenching suspense is unexpected ... The author’s storytelling is earthy and accessible, and helps us to laugh through some of the otherwise truly chilling episodes she recounts of Trump’s whipping up his crowds against the 'lying, disgusting' media ... Tur proved her mettle during a long and painful campaign, surviving that and much more — not the least of which was Trump’s grabbing her by the shoulders and kissing her, apparently because he liked her relatively softball coverage of him moments before on Morning Joe. Unbelievable.
Carmen Maria Machado
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksHer [Machado\'s] work is brazenly unapologetic, or perhaps unapologetically brazen. Her fearlessness, combined with some spellbinding writing, delivers stories that are at once discomfiting and revelatory ... There is something fantastic in each of these stories, less magical realism than the physical embodiment of an otherworldly dread ... Except for \'Heinous,\' all the stories are in first-person, and Machado never puts names to her narrators. The closest she comes is in \'The Resident,\' which feels the most autobiographical of the stories ...tightly wrapped fiction. Plus, it offers her readers time to come up for air before plunging into the next intense tale.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksFor Alice McDermott, that place is among the working-class Catholics of 1950s-era Brooklyn and Long Island. Her work consistently involves the quietest stories focused on lives of little note ...story unspools gradually, alluding to certain incidents and episodes, returning to them, adding flavor and depth at each pass ... Many of the stories involve the residents of the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor — primarily Sisters Lucy, Illuminata, and Jeanne — women who understand what needs to be done and simply do it ...the story is an object lesson in being sure the thing you think you want is worth the price you have to pay to get it ... McDermott, the master of understated storytelling, leaves us to ponder the answer.
José Eduardo Agualusa, Trans. by Daniel Hahn
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksAt the center of Theory is Ludovica Fernandes Mano — Ludo — a native of Portugal with longstanding agoraphobia...an incident she thinks of simply as ‘The Accident’ cements her unwillingness to venture outdoors … Interspersed with what sometimes feels like a fever dream of Ludo’s survival inside her castle walls are the swirling stories of the people and events in the streets and halls just outside. The tales may seem random and disconnected, but Agualusa is a master storyteller who doesn’t bother to introduce a character or mention an incident unless it has a larger role to play … It’s a tribute to Agualusa’s storytelling that the bittersweet redemption found by his characters feels authentic; he and they have earned it.
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksAt 1,076 pages of narrative and 270 more of notes, this firehose of primary research will be foundational to future Obama biographers, but it is hardly the book for casual readers. Like many painstakingly thorough biographers, Garrow appears to have included any fact he uncovered, however tangential it might be. Nonetheless, it is a surprisingly compelling read and should appeal to political junkies and insiders ... There is much to parse through, but it does sometimes seem that Garrow’s analysis strains in a molehill-to-mountain attempt to illustrate what he sees as Obama’s central lack of character or moral compass.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksWhile his acclaimed first novel, Green on Blue, focused on Afghanistan, Dark at the Crossing moves into Syria by way of Iraq. But it moves at first at a leisurely pace...Crossing simply follows Haris in his dogged attempts to get into Syria. His determination holds in the face of repeated reminders that the Free Army is almost defeated, though not by Assad ... For his American readers who tend to think in the stark terms of good guys and bad guys, Ackerman makes clear the tangled, shifting lines in the war ... This is a tightly packed, nuanced narrative in which virtually every character introduced plays a pivotal role. The story is told with economy and a sense of urgency even when the characters seem to be stuck in a holding pattern.
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksThough each girl eventually shares her backstory with us, it seems clear that they don’t share those stories with each other. More problematic is that rather than breathing real life and depth into her characters, Domet often treats them as caricatures, painting the girls, Sister Fran, and others with a broad and heavy-handed narrative brush ... There are elements of lovely writing throughout that measure up to the promise of that first page. Domet sprinkles in descriptions of the lives of saints, all women, each of whom represents an eye-popping object lesson in sacrifice that, undoubtedly, Sister Fran wishes to impart to her always possibly wayward girls. But where it really counts, the novel is missing the depth and nuance that would have transformed an interesting story into a deeply felt story.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksShroder weaves together a fascinating portrait through the use of family lore, boots-on-the-ground investigative journalism, dusty research, and a solid dose of flesh-and-blood familial feeling for his subject and those closest to him ... If part of Shroder’s aim in writing this memoir is to resurrect his grandfather’s literary legacy, I’ll gladly report that it worked for me. I’ve now read Andersonville, and plan to go back for more. Thanks to Tom Shroder for re-introducing the world to MacKinlay Kantor.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksThis book is grounded in autobiography. Not knowing that will in no way diminish its joys, but understanding the parallels to Patchett’s own story lends an additional dimension, a layering of real and imagined that adds weight and depth to an already strong and lovely story ... the first chapter of Commonwealth should be required reading for writers who want to understand how to set up an entire novel in just a few pages ... Her sharply observed narrative makes the novel laugh-out-loud funny at the same time that it is heartbreaking, maddening, and irresistible.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksMuch of Palm’s memoir reads like a novel. Her writing is strong, quiet, and richly observed, and it’s easy to imagine that we’re reading a first-person fictional narrative ... Palm is expert at making us feel the claustrophobia of her childhood, the desperate sense of being trapped in an existence that could not possibly be her own, with people who seemed wholly foreign to her ... Riverine is an effort for Palm to make sense of her past, to find answers to questions that have haunted her, like why her mother understands so little about her life, and why she could not douse the torch she carried for a boy she’d known forever ...an impressive debut — intelligent, tender, forthright, insightful.