PositiveThe NationA quietly bracing work of fiction ... If Whereabouts is intended to mark Lahiri’s freedom from her vexed relationship to language and identity, one wonders why it is also such a sad and lonely story ... Though Lahiri’s prose has always been elegantly understated, the language in Whereabouts is pared down further still. Perhaps this is born out of a forced economy of expression, but the result is refreshing—the kind of exactitude that comes when you use only the words you need. The language feels not thin but reserved and mature, like that of someone who has grown tired of small talk ... perhaps this novel is best read as a rumination on the consequences of such a fantasy.
MixedThe New RepublicTillet, who is a professor of African-American studies and creative writing at Rutgers University and a contributing critic at The New York Times, offers up a history of The Color Purple, from novel to film to Broadway musical, with an emphasis on how sexism within the Black community—and the white establishment’s preference to frame racial injustice in terms of concerns facing Black men—stood between The Color Purple and recognition as \'an American masterpiece.\' For Tillet, Walker’s novel strikes a personal chord ... Tillet powerfully puts forward The Color Purple controversy as an example of how Black women have been asked to silence their own pain to supposedly serve the greater cause of racial uplift. Threaded throughout these attacks on The Color Purple is the idea that the danger of reinforcing stereotypes about Black male sexuality is too great to allow room for Black women to have justice ... Unlike Tillet, however, I am not convinced that the alternative would produce a chorus of people claiming The Color Purple a \'masterpiece.\' For my part, I find it aesthetically awkward, and many of the relationships, particularly the friendships between women, still feel to me like they were shoehorned into second-wave feminist narratives about solidarity. That such a conversation—about the art itself—feels marginal to The Color Purple and its place within literary history is just another frustrating example of how little room the world gives Black women not just to succeed but also to fail—artistically and morally.
PanBookforum[A] flat, uncomplicated, and depoliticized background as essential to understanding the fundamentals of the craft of storytelling ... A Swim in a Pond in the Rain might catch readers looking for traditional literary criticism by surprise. As Saunders explains, it is actually more of a \'workbook\' for creative writers, based on a course he’s taught at Syracuse University ... This matter of not passing judgment seems to be the primary life lesson Saunders wants readers to draw from nineteenth-century Russian literature. That these writers held quite passionate and critical views of certain human behavior or social types often gets cast aside, as Saunders tries to squeeze them into what I think of as the Empathy Industrial Complex ... I kept reading to understand why \'the Russians\' are uniquely poised to offer guidance on how to be more empathetic by virtue of being \'the Russians.\' The closest we get to a culturally specific lesson on craft is in Saunders’s fascination with the Russian literary device skaz ... Are we supposed to read Gogol and suddenly realize that the people shouting \'Build That Wall\' are not racists, but just have a \'skaz loop\' playing in their heads? This might be what Saunders is getting at ... We are already bombarded by the narrative that white racists are actually downtrodden victims subject to the whims of uppity people of color; surely there is no need to encourage aspiring creative writers to imagine more of the same. At the very least, it is a cliché. This anecdote confirmed my worst suspicions of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.
PositiveThe New Republic... a study that reveals the quiet subversiveness of Harriet the Spy and adds sharp political potency to the book’s seemingly innocent play with questions of secrecy and surveillance ... Where Sometimes You Have to Lie falls short is that it often presents Harriet the Spy as singular in its radicalism for the time ... It is true that none of these books had the commercial reach of Harriet the Spy. And if the true measure of a spy is how deeply they can infiltrate, then perhaps Harriet the Spy deserves the leftist bona fides that Brody bestows on it.
PositiveThe New RepublicThe work of a Tolstoy superfan rather than a Tolstoy scholar per se, Creating Anna Karenina is an informal and chatty effort to understand what Tolstoy was up to in the four years he spent composing the novel ... his book is more of a playful experiment than a strict study. In its study of the comings and goings of the Tolstoy household at the time of the novel’s composition ... asks if one of the world’s greatest novels was in fact just as much a product of everyday minutia—like who stops by for a visit with what kind of gossip to tell—as it was the culmination of long-simmering ideas about morality and desire. The result is a work in many ways more instructive about the creative process than about Anna Karenina specifically, a consideration of how distractions, familial interference, and side projects resulted in Tolstoy writing one of the world’s greatest novels ... a view of Tolstoy’s life that makes the writing of Anna Karenina feel almost inevitable ... Perhaps Blaisdell has simply fallen for Tolstoy’s tricks, his feats of realism that make you forget you are reading a deeply plotted and contrived work of fiction.
PositiveThe New RepublicThe question here is how we bear witness to shared realities while avoiding the traps of stereotype. Animated by this wariness, Transcendent Kingdom is less a search for origins than it is a study of origin stories and the ways they can be wielded against people, particularly ones who grew up poor and Black ... Transcendent Kingdom exudes a bone-deep exhaustion with having to explain one’s background. Sad origin stories seem to Gifty little more than grist for fitting one’s life into a neat arc for others’ consumption ... Despite a change in scope, in Transcendent Kingdom Gyasi is still plumbing the questions that guided Homegoing. Gyasi has returned to her roots, and they run deeper now.
PositiveThe NationIn Ferrante’s most recent novel, The Lying Life of Adults , we are pulled yet again into the story with the tale of a missing woman, Aunt Vittoria ... Extramarital affairs abound, and it is tempting at first to think that the lies of the novel’s title are those relating to romantic betrayal. But we soon realize that the lies that dominate the story are the ones people tell—often to themselves—about how they relate to class. As the working-class characters toggle back and forth between feeling proud and ashamed of their background, and as the ones with means rush to identify themselves with the working class, Ferrante disentangles class from class identity, showing how the latter is far more subject to lies and self-deception and constitutes a slipperier, more unstable and contradictory form of experience. At a time when class is often framed as a common denominator with the greatest potential to unify people across different identities, The Lying Life of Adults is a bracing reminder of the complexity of class and of the variegated ways in which human beings process what they lack and decide to fill that void.
PositiveThe New RepublicA novel that explores the shaky foundations of public trust—and the sham remedies, conspiracy theories, and noncompliance that flourish in these conditions—The Down Days is a reminder that our current moment has been here all along ... the plot of the novel begins to go a little off the rails, and it starts to feel like two books—one about a laughing pandemic, one about spiritual possession and social panic, with not enough always connecting the two ... does not feel especially tied to questions of race or how South Africa’s unique historical traumas have manifested anew in a laughter-ridden Sick City. Likewise, with the city’s wealthy white population gone or in hiding, so, too, do the kinds of racial inequities accentuated by a pandemic feel largely missing from the novel. It is a disappointing blind spot in an otherwise eerily astute and energetic work of fiction ... It is a strange thing to have a dystopian work of science fiction suddenly read like a realist novel in the vein of Balzac, but that is what makes The Down Days such a bizarre (but wildly addictive) book. It has the telltale formal qualities of genre fiction: rapid but ethically dubious advances in medicine, dystopian limits on freedom of movement, rapid depletion of resources. But its content could hardly be called dystopian—since its publication date has rendered it familiar, mundane ... promises an opportunity to see what our response to this moment might have been like if we had never seen it coming, and yet ultimately refuses to give us that satisfaction. Any fiction that accurately captures our so-called new normal, this novel shows, will have to grapple with the old one.
MixedThe New RepublicThe memoir...feels perhaps too familiar, a book so focused on existing conversations, so tightly structured around relatable insights, that it feels—dare I say it—designed to do little more than resonate online ... One of the strengths of the book is the way Solnit manages to think through nonexistence as both a weapon and a shield ... Recollections of My Nonexistence is often closer to a work of cultural criticism than memoir—though in combining the two, it asks us to think about how much our sense of self-worth and social value is shaped by the cues we get from films, books, and television ... It is hard to disagree with anything Solnit says here, but one wonders if that is a shortcoming ... I kept waiting for this book to spin out more, to think, for instance, about how nonexistence functions under capitalism through the erasure of women’s labor, or what it means when women become not invisible but indeed hypervisible as justifications for military intervention ... There is a distinct lack of politics as policy here, perhaps because a truly feminist political vision might make some of Solnit’s white and upper-middle-class readers uncomfortable.
Vladimir Nabokov, Ed. by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy
PositiveThe New Republic... offers an eclectic mix of Nabokov’s nonfiction ... an expansive record of Nabokov’s worldview and aesthetic philosophy, but one particularly fascinating element of Think, Write, Speak is the insight it gives us into how Nabokov, staunchly opposed to the politicization of literature, navigated being a public explainer of Russian arts and letters in the midst of the Cold War.
Svetlana Alexievich, Trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
PositiveThe New Republic... in its attention to the most unsuspecting of bystanders—children—is arguably a guide to all of Alexievich’s writing ... In Alexievich’s books, people retreat inward to survive and anything outside of the most intimate of spaces distorts into indiscernibility ... a bracing reminder of the enduring power of the written word to testify to pain like no other medium ... is at its most bracing when it captures the minds of children struggling to adjust to their new realities ... revise[s] the idealized vision of a patriotic childhood that permeates post-Soviet nostalgia to this day. The book presents a generation of young people whose experiences of the war were not defined by ideology or national pride, but rather through personal loss and family trauma.
Maxim Osipov, Trans. by Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson
RaveThe New Republic... an ironically glitzy English language debut for an unassuming middle-aged writer who lives outside of Russia’s glamorous capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg ... readers from any part of the world that is facing a healthcare crisis (including the United States) will recognize the dynamics he portrays. As access to care becomes increasingly restricted by rising costs, insurance bureaucracy, and hospital deserts, the stories show what that we lose not just information about our health. We lose someone to talk to ... gestures deeper than simply documenting the struggles people face in finding convenient and reliable healthcare. It explores the narrative function of medicine and the storytelling potential that exists in the doctor-patient relationship ... With this new beautiful and heartbreaking collection of stories, Maxim Osipov, doctor, writer, resident of Tarusa, never lets us forget that our lives are special, and they will never come again.
PositiveThe NationIn a sweeping and action-packed story that stretches from Harlem to Martinique and Ouagadougou, the novel never strays too far from the two opposing forces in Marie’s life: her identity as a black American and her consequently vexed relationship with the history of the institutions she serves ... There are shadows of W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness throughout the novel that suggest provocative parallels between spycraft and black life in America. As such, Wilkinson does not graft the matter of race onto the spy novel but rather asks us to think about how being a minority is, in a sense, an act of espionage, a precarious state marked by shifting identities, competing loyalties, and a constant threat of violence ... The literary references throughout the novel are in many ways reflective of one of Wilkinson’s larger ambitions in American Spy: to redefine the spy fiction canon by thinking more expansively about what counts as an espionage novel. Though the novels of Ian Fleming and John le Carré certainly make their appearance, Wilkinson is writing as much in the tradition of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Nella Larsen’s Passing ... At its heart, American Spy is a refreshing take on identity that utilizes the tool kit of spy fiction to remind us of how wily a thing it is—for spies but for the rest of us, too.
PositiveThe Nation\"The Library Book, like the city in which it is set, does sprawl, but in the best possible way, touching on everything from the politics of book burning to the physics of combustion to the future of brick-and-mortar libraries in a digital world. [Orlean] never fully resolves the mystery behind the arson, or whether Harry Peak did or did not commit it. Yet she does uncover many other stories along the way ... If the The Library Book does not draw conclusions about Peak or the Central Library fire, what makes it compelling is that, while it is ostensibly a book about ambition, desperation, and loss, it is also about a city and a public institution teeming with life, humor, and wild personalities.\
MixedThe Nation... an admirable, if at times unsuccessful, mission. While Weinman’s refusal to read Lolita on Nabokov’s terms is refreshing, her book can also feel hostile to the very nature of literary fiction—which is always attempting to draw both from the world and beyond it—and uninterested in the political capacities of stories that aren’t true ... Weinman crafts The Real Lolita like a detective story, tracking down clues that indicate when Nabokov discovered the Horner case, how much he knew about it, and \'his efforts to disguise that knowledge.\' Whether you find these parts of The Real Lolita convincing or not, the remainder of the book, which focuses on Horner, is compelling and forcefully narrated. Deeply researched and rich in detail, these sections provide a vivid glimpse into the way that crimes against women were reported on and investigated in postwar America. However, when Weinman shifts her attention to Nabokov, The Real Lolita wades into murkier waters, finding true crime in what arguably should be creative license ... the alleged similarities between Lolita and the Horner case are largely unconvincing ... one finds it hard not to feel that Weinman has perhaps overindulged the true-crime framework and found a transgression where most readers would not.
RaveThe New RepublicA Terrible Country is decidedly well-timed, arriving at a moment when complex, critical stories that connect Russia and the United States are in short supply ... Gessen is careful never to reduce any group of people to a caricature ... Despite the seeming intensity and sobriety of the debates that suffuse the novel—neoliberalism, aging relatives, careerist Westerners—A Terrible Country is filled with moments of levity. It never takes its subjects, even the ones it presents as heroes, too seriously ... Gessen’s novel, peppered with references to Russian literature throughout, is both an homage to the great writers of his home country and a sad reflection on how little value they command in a market driven society ... Tolstoy, who by the end of his life opposed private property, renounced the copyright to his literary works, and started a school for peasants, would probably like it.
RaveThe AtlanticThis debate about the value of communist internationalism over black nationalism is at the core of Amiable With Big Teeth. Written at a time when most scholars thought that black cultural production had come to a grinding halt as a result of the Great Depression (and the consequent dip in arts patronage), Amiable With Big Teeth provides unparalleled insight into this relatively understudied moment in black American history ... As a creative work and a historical document, Amiable With Big Teeth is nothing short of a master key into a world where the intersection of race and global revolutionary politics plays out in the lives of characters who are as dynamic and fully realized as the novel itself. The story offers a front-row seat to the polemics that drove (and stymied) black radical organizing in the 1930s ... for today’s audience, McKay’s last novel should make for fascinating and timely reading as Americans enter an era in which solidarity-building across racial identities and national borders feels more necessary, and perhaps more difficult to achieve, than ever.