PositiveThe New YorkerA Song Everlasting...is ultimately a more balanced and accomplished novel than [Jin\'s] A Free Life, in part because there are many escape valves that allow bitterness to flow away from the main line of the narrative ... when, in describing Tian’s circumstances, Jin falls back on a cliché—for example, having characters discuss freedom against a backdrop of birds in flight, like Tony Soprano gazing at the ducks in his swimming pool—he does not recoil from the sentimental formula ... Sorrows, too, are softened ... The note of mild contentment, of making do with second best—we find Tian, on the book’s last page, drinking a non-alcoholic beer—may seem disappointingly emollient to fans of Waiting and War Trash, but the acid bath couldn’t go on forever, and in the lives of most immigrants it probably doesn’t.
Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
PositiveThe New YorkerIt is enormously detailed; we get the details, and the details’ details ... Such exhaustiveness can be deadening, but here, for the most part, it isn’t. Swan and Stevens are very good storytellers. Also, the book is warmed by the writers’ clear affection for Bacon. They enjoy his boozy nights with him, they laugh at his jokes, and they admire his bloody-mindedness. They do not believe everything he said, and they let us know this, but they are always in his corner, and they stress virtues of his that we wouldn’t have known to look for: his gregariousness, his love of fun, his erudition, his extreme generosity. However many people were at the table, he always picked up the tab.
MixedThe New YorkerThe Unquiet Englishman is what might be called a Monday-Tuesday biography. On one page, it tells you what Greene did on a certain day in, say, June of 1942. On the next page, it tells you what he did the following day, or three days later. This method surely owes something to the fact that Richard Greene, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, edited a collection of Graham Greene’s letters. In other words, he knew what Greene did every day, and thought that this was interesting material—as it could have been, had it contributed to a unified analysis of the man. Mostly, however, the book is just a collection of facts ... Neither are we given much in the way of literary commentary. That is not a capital offense. Many good literary biographers have excused themselves from the task of criticism ... Richard Greene does make a contribution to our understanding of his subject. In place of earlier biographers’ interest in Graham’s sex life, he set out to cover the writer’s life as a world traveller—specifically, a traveller in what was then known as the Third World, and therefore an observer of international politics.
Gianni Rodari, Trans. by Antony Shugaar
RaveNew YorkerThe 67 tales in the collection show us where Rodari came from, and where he was going. A few are frank agitprop ... As the book’s translator, Antony Shugaar, has pointed out, the subject of a number of the stories is simply how not to be a Fascist ... Rodari learned critical thinking from Marxist doctrine. Whatever he writes about, he subjects to questioning, scrutiny, a mild irradiation of irony, or just wit ... Some stories in Telephone Tales...journey into distant realms of strangeness ... In keeping with his leftist sympathies, there is a rich vein of utopianism in Rodari’s work ... Some people have asked whether Rodari’s writing, so witty and strange, is not better suited to adults than to children, but children apparently love it ... It would be hard for anyone, of any age, not to love the illustrations ... The pages are sewn with stitches worthy of a Balenciaga gown. It is astonishing that the book costs only $27.95. Go buy one, right now ... Rodari fans, however, should thank the U.S.S.R. By inspiring him and then disappointing him, it set him free, to work in a genre, the so-called children’s tale, where he would not have to confront his bitterness. And, in the end, it drove him beyond bitterness, into a wonderful wildness.
MixedThe New YorkerDunn has no scoops, and she knows it. Furthermore, she is trying to be faithful to Pliny’s account, but, as she notes, he made a point, when he published his correspondence, of excising all the dates and arranging the letters, as he put it, \'however they came to hand\' ... The letters have a weirdly drifting quality, as if these people woke up, went to the law courts, sentenced some people to death, burned a few Christians, and then went home to dinner. With such a source, it is no surprise that Dunn’s book contains a number of challenges to our understanding ... No matter how distant you feel from the morals of imperial Rome, you can’t quite figure this out, and Dunn doesn’t help us much ... she does succeed in making Pliny, whom she clearly considers a sort of dry stick, a poignant character, the kind of person who has to do the dirty jobs of an empire and, having done them, gets no compliments.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksThe structure of the book is like that of shattered glass ... The characters are joined not by chronology, by begats, but by their fate—abandonment—which Scibona announces in the opening pages, in a scene of great cruelty ... Rarely do we understand why these people can’t stay with those who care for them and whom they seem to care for. But actually, the book asks, why should they? What do we owe one another, after all?... if we aren’t somebody’s mother or son or whatever—do we have any identity, any \'self\'? ... Having placed most of his characters in the same emotional landscape, how does Scibona manage to give them different lives? Sometimes he just insists, by the sheer force of the imagery he attaches to them ... Sometimes, however, Scibona pointedly does not insist on his characters’ distinctiveness. Indeed, he undermines it, most notably by the theme of abandonment and the unity that it makes among them. That, I think, is the book’s greatest quality: the spectral manner in which characters keep melting into and out of one another. Of course, this makes their story seem universal; we are all abandoned, the book is saying. ... The whole novel gradually acquires a kind of overhang, compact of heat and car exhaust, enigma and cruelty. It is the atmosphere, the air, of the book.
RaveThe New YorkerWhatever Sontag’s new embrace of reality, the person who wrote the essays is still in attendance, with the result that the realism of In America is overlaid with plenty of formalism. The narrative technique changes from chapter to chapter … In America is endlessly self-aware. It is Sontag speaking, as she spoke to us all those years in the essays. Hence the book’s tone, bright, silvery, bracing—tinkling at times. We do not lose ourselves in Maryna; we hover a little above her … What is wonderful about the book is exactly this counterpoint of novelist and essayist, of innocence and knowingness. From the knowingness comes another excellence of In America, its cat’s cradle of meanings.
PositiveThe New YorkerFew people who have read Gilead will forget Ames’s description of his and Lila’s decision, among the roses, to get married—the speed, the wildness of it—but I hope nobody ever asks me to choose between that and the version that Lila, in Lila, gives of the same event. In her version, she is not in a nice, symbolic garden … Lila is less concerned with race than just with poverty—indeed, starvation—among the migrant workers of the Midwest … Most of the time Robinson’s people aren’t actually starving; they’re just alone. That is the final meaning of her insistence on her characters’ own point of view: because they don’t see the same reality, they are consigned to solitude.
MixedThe New Yorker...this is not a tale that can be told by Anjum. Although she’s a perfect emblem of India’s predicament, she is too vulnerable, too marginal, to take Roy’s story where it needs to go. I think Roy may have been reluctant to see that. She stays with Anjum too long, and allows the hijra’s story to devolve into anecdotes. Some are wonderful, but they pile up, and they all carry much the same package of emotions: sweetness and recoil, irony and pathos. Finally, however, Roy takes a deep breath and changes her main character ... In the long second section of the novel, once Roy leaves Anjum and goes out into the great world you see what she learned in her twenty years of activism. And above all in Kashmir, where most of the latter part of the book takes place, we are shown horror after horror ... Roy’s scenes of violence are hallucinatory, like the chapters on the Bangladeshi independence movement in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, or the union-busting at the banana plantation in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude ... At times, between the things flying this way and that—who is this new narrator who is talking to us, telling us that he needs to go to a rehab center?—you lose your bearings.
PositiveThe New Yorker[Mantel’s] interest is in the question of good and evil as it applies to people who wield great power. That means anguish, exultation, deals, spies, decapitations, and fabulous clothes … Mantel’s characters do not speak sixteenth-century English. She has created for them an idiom that combines a certain archaism with vigorous modern English. It works perfectly. And how urbane her people are! … Mantel doesn’t stint. She always goes for color, richness, music. She has read Shakespeare closely. One also hears the accents of the young James Joyce. As for the portentousness, the book is full of such effects, and they are entirely appropriate to the magnificent and dangerous world that is being described.
PositiveThe New YorkerIt shows the faults endemic to that genre: too much detail, together with a suspicious vagueness about family members who are still alive. But it reclaims Carter from the fairy kingdom and places her within what sounds like a real life ... A recurrent theme of Gordon’s book is Carter’s position as a woman in her profession. This is tiresome but unavoidable: in the nineteen-eighties, there was a much-trumpeted spurt of energy in English fiction, with the rise of a number of talented young men, notably Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, and Julian Barnes.
RaveThe New YorkerPeople will connect his book with Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, and I’m sure Hens had that volume in mind, but if Nicotine has a literary progenitor I would say that it is In Search of Lost Time, in which Proust made the material of seven volumes bloom out of one French cookie dunked in a cup of tea. Nicotine is much shorter, only a hundred and fifty-seven pages, but Hens uses a similar alchemy to transform the things of his world—the family in which he grew up, in Cologne; his former home in Columbus, where he taught German literature at Ohio State; his apartment in Berlin, where he lives with his wife, and produces novels and translations—into whole relay stations of poetic force, humming and sparking and chugging ... From page to page, this beloved woman [Hens' mother] is glimpsed only partially. All around her there are silences, empty places, held breaths—an extraordinary act of literary finesse ... [a] dark, lovely, funny book.
MixedThe New Yorker[Schor] is faithful to Zamenhof, to the idea that Esperanto is not so much a language as the bearer of an idea. To absorb the idea, she says, one must subscribe to the journals and go to the conferences...But it’s not easy to figure out how she feels, or to what extent she is actually affiliating ... [Schor] starts unloading personal matters: how her interest in Esperanto coincided with a life crisis...Like the conference diaries, this material feels like something she decided to give us when she suspected that we’d be missing Zamenhof. But she pulls herself together and ends on a strong, high note, taking on a number of what she calls myths about Esperanto.
PositiveThe New YorkerBoth Ritwik’s and Miss Gilby’s stories are told from the point of view called third-person limited. They are not 'I,' but he and she; nevertheless, we usually see only what they see. As a result, the simultaneous unrolling of the two tales—Ritwik in the lavatory, Miss Gilby in the parlor—becomes a harvest of complication, irony, and texture. At the same time, the juxtaposition has a moral aspect, telling us that grief is widely apportioned among us. When, maybe halfway through the book, we realize that Miss Gilby’s story is Ritwik’s creation—it is a novel that he is writing—the act of empathy becomes breathtaking.
PositiveThe New YorkerOther genres that were once central to Western art have dropped off the shelf...The same could happen to tap. In that case, it will go down in the history books as a marvellous thing that grew and died under certain historical conditions, mostly in the twentieth century. And Seibert’s book will serve as a noble testimonial.
Elena Ferrante, Trans. by Ann Goldstein
RaveThe New YorkerThis is the most thoroughgoing feminist novel I have ever read.