RaveThe Washington Post... initially resembles Rachel Cusk’s fiction — narrated by a fiercely intelligent teacher and writer, describing encounters with a series of individuals whose difficult stories accrue like mosaic pieces to form a painfully human tableau. Nunez’s prose, too, seems to echo Cusk’s cool, flat distance ... Nunez’s project has grander designs than mere literary satire or clever portraiture (though streaks of these spice the prose). It will meditate — at length, in earnest, often graphically — upon whatever life, death and love can presently mean ... may baffle readers for its impenetrable bleakness — apt as that may be for our present straits. But because it’s Nunez, long admired for her fearless, ruminative, sharply insightful work, we push on ... One’s moved by the scope and pith of this novel’s ambition, as it addresses our biggest questions by naming the particular. But most striking may be how Nunez’s narrator transfigures, through deepening compassion, from a wry, circumspect observer into someone raked raw with hapless love for her vanishing friend ... Still, it’s the here-and-now of What Are You Going Through that spears us, its chorale-like testimonies, their preemptive requiem.
RaveThe Washington Post... delivers on its title, with an outpouring of responses to our shared ordeal by a wonderfully diverse group of (90!) writers ... Thank heaven, these short accounts do comfort. They’re compulsively readable, too, even when painful — first, because they do what good writing always does, giving us the sharp relief of recognition. But they also inform, with dramatic power. Several manage some humor. All help us feel less lonely as we negotiate each new (Groundhog) day ... Intense emotion, unsurprisingly, suffuses these writings, as does longing for our prior, unthinking ease of connection and closeness ... Organized into five sections, these voices feel linked — often by a sudden, refocused perspective on cycles of life and loss ... It’s bracing to see ourselves dig deeper, facing the worst, to devise, invent, reach out ... Hope and determination persist, if erratically ... Something’s here, in short, for each of us. In the raw surge of brave voices, Alone Together will, indeed, give some love, some light, some \'help for pain\' (subverting Matthew Arnold). Who can’t use a little of those right now?
RaveThe Washington Post... Raeff has created another richly memorable world in a complex mode — crisscrossing time and swaths of history, exploring one family’s intertwined impulses to find love, political drama and meaning. Like its predecessor, Only the River draws us in at once with the quiet authority of its voice, promising to guide us with clarity and care ... multiple voices speak here, expertly mobilized ... One of Raeff’s signal strengths is to ground and immerse readers in the sensuous present of any era, in each setting’s vibrant textures and temperatures, however extreme ... One of many reasons Raeff’s work is so deeply pleasurable is the gripping concreteness of her characters’ bodies and natures ... Through intricate interweavings of plot delivered in lean yet powerful, often poetic prose, Only the River ponders what the Germans call “the unanswerable questions . . . about the difference between courage and cowardice, weakness and strength” — the moving riddles of human confrontation with atrocity and possible redemption. It offers, with open hands, a complicated feast: irreconcilable impasses of character and event; what we can and cannot control. Epic and cinematic, wrought and soulful, it is a deeply serious novel, yet full of tenderness...makes its own soft, steady music, and its traces will haunt a reader’s heart and mind.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...a brave, passionate saga of three generations ... A fable\'s tone saturates the narrative ... Narrating in a beguiling, musical patois, Anette\'s is the novel\'s most delicious voice and energy, its spokesperson. It\'s Anette we most care and cheer for ... Told from alternating points of view (including a we who represent an anonymous chorus of \'old wives,\' the narrative takes sassy liberties with time and voice, calmly folding in the occasional riffle of magic ... This sensuous, queasy, dream-sequence uncertainty, the casual allusions to obeah (witchcraft) and to eerie island folktales, sets up a kind of contrapuntal tension against the grimly real history (including the Second World War and Korean War) surging alongside - compounded, too, by the steady, ugly incursions on island life by American culture and tourism ... One wishes, wistfully, that there had been a magic strong enough to ward off colonizers.
PositiveSF GateIt\'s been difficult to ignore the lavish praise doled out to Ten Thousand Saints, the debut novel by Eleanor Henderson ... As best I could, I entered with an open heart ... I experienced a sprawling, noisy, sweaty, multilayered, ambitious, occasionally belabored work. It\'s overlong, dense and bighearted. Read on ... Pay attention to [the] music: It will serve as the book\'s blood supply, relentlessly carrying characters and events, coloring in any unclaimed spaces. In fact, the novel may be read as a documentary and testament - to a way of life, and an all-consuming raison d\'etre ... Against the scorching backdrops of these cultures - a reader smells the sweat, blood, urine, beer; hears the crowds screaming; feels herself at times flung into the mosh pit - Henderson shepherds her characters with blatant affection. All are blinkered: touchingly, maddeningly ... All finally possess a good heart - or at least a well-intentioned one. In result, so does this story: raucous, wounded, sweet, spasmodically desperate, it comes to feel like a modern, drug-and-rock-riddled version of Peter Pan, ... Not exactly a bad thing - but a tiny part of this reader\'s brain wonders how likely such a depiction may be. Would all these characters actually be this endearing, this just-by-a-squeak redeemable, in the context of the worlds we\'ve been shown? Whatever the answer, I\'ll prefer Henderson\'s spin to a grimmer alternative.
RaveThe Washington PostSyllable for syllable, it’s stunning work—arguably better than the original ... these stories create a world almost unbearably addictive for its beautiful, agonized truths ... wave upon wave of unflinching insight, delivered in language so clean it shines. Sentences flow in simplest words and clearest order—yet line after line hammers home some of the most complex human rawness you’ll ever read ... Strout dwells with uncanny immediacy inside the minds and hearts of a dazzling range of ages ... Olive, Again transcends and triumphs. The naked pain, dignity, wit and courage these stories consistently embody fill us with a steady, wrought comfort.
RaveThe Washington PostPrescott’s hard-boiled depiction of D.C.’s intelligence community — its social and sexual hierarchies — gives readers a gritty insider-tour of a Mad Men-redolent world where women had to work doubly hard to be taken as serious players, effectively doing everything backward and in heels ... Such is the thoroughness of Prescott’s research and the crispness of her delivery that the novel reads almost like a documentary, itemizing cultural milestones and emblems alongside women’s courageous contributions to postwar heroism. Her details vibrate with authority ... Sally, Irina and Olga are distinct, dimensional and complex voices; their arcs compelling and sometimes surprising ... Prescott sustains a breathless tension ... Without a speck of sentiment, Prescott has built an impassioned testament to them. Reading Secrets affords a pleasurable, inspiring way to absorb unsung history.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleToni Morrison has made a ferociously beautiful new work ... Readers are plunged into the present-tense blood and sweat of it—slave trade, turf wars, religious sectarianism, sex, childbirth, food, drink, weather, farming, building, pestilence—and in Europe, class struggle and executions as entertainment. Morrison burns these particulars into us, through her astonishing story ... What flood a reader\'s senses are Morrison\'s women and men: black, red and white; slaves, indentured and free—deeply inhabited, complexly human, furiously willful, conveyed through whip-crack language. Morrison may imbue characters with a more modern habit of intellection than her setting warrants, but that\'s quibbling. A Mercy accomplishes art\'s miracle: Swept head-on into the brutal specificity of a place and era, we are forced to own it.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle\"Bowlaway spirits readers into an astonishing world ... McCracken’s prose — canny wisdom laid on in swaths of fearless, quirky, galvanizing language — gives consistent joy. Almost every page glitters with quotable treasure ... This is the risk of Bowlaway: its bighearted, cockamamie tone — playful, bittersweet, fond — takes a number of bewilderingly violent dives. By calmly folding such tragedies into the mix, McCracken seems to be insisting that there’s no banishing them: that straight-up horror must rightfully partner all the fun-house momentum ... With this finely wrought, moving saga, McCracken’s project is surely big as they come: to convey, in a kind of parallel universe, the poignancy and mystery of human effort; how we handle what we’re given.\
Meg Waite Clayton
PositiveSF Gate[Beautiful Exiles] is an immensely ambitious undertaking, given the mountains of material already written by and about authors ... [a] love-sex-booze-intrigue-politics-war-literary culture-travel-packed saga ... Clayton works hard to serve up micro and macro: intimate words and sensuous moments set against the world’s strife and (later) World War II ... Exiles suggests that the years with Hemingway formed a kind of defining backbone of vibrant, if bittersweet, memory.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Great Believers opens aptly, with a funeral, in the Chicago of 1985 — when AIDS was still badly understood, ineffectively treated and raging out of control, terrorizing gay communities. There we meet young art gallery development director Yale Tishman, and his inscrutable lover, Charlie, who runs a feisty alternative newsweekly ... compulsively readable ... her prose a relentless engine mowing back and forth across decades, zooming in on sublest physical and emotional nuances of dozens of characters.
PositiveSan Francisco Chronicle...a vivid travelogue ... Liam Callanan’s spirited Paris by the Book offers a near-irresistible package of twin glories, Paris and books (love of reading), delivering vibrant tours of each.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleWith Kudos, British author Rachel Cusk completes an extraordinary trilogy of novels that may have even forged a modern form (nodding to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio’s Decameron and the fiction of W.G. Sebald) ... Cusk\'s narratives...elude easy description ... They enter a reader’s imagination like a series of half-remembered dreams whose details seem at once to vanish, but whose ambiance continues to haunt with an eerie, desolate beauty ... Much of the trilogy’s genius lies in this structure: a smoothly linked chain of monologues ... Granting that the Outline Trilogy is called fiction, it burrows beneath our skin; we sense that all its conversations, characters and the troubling implications of their strivings, happened.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle\"Her many fans will surely admire Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood: and Other Stories,” but readers new to Schutt might want to brace themselves ... Schutt’s descriptions can startle: “Opalesce is a gauzy word to describe what the sky is doing.” But few proverbial breaks are given.\
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...[a] radiant new novel ... Signaling from the start that it will give nonstop beauty and insight, the novel repays close attention with what the best fiction can bestow: a larger, deeper understanding of the spinning world. Reminiscent at times of the work of poet/novelist Anne Michaels, every word here feels set down with care and fierce conscience. The resulting narrative glows as if distilled ... Winter Kept Us Warm is deeply concerned with what makes a family, with inevitable, unanswerable loss, with the intricacies of language and time; love and war, friendship, the life of art and the imagination, and always (borrowing from Yeats) the quest of the 'pilgrim soul.' In other words, just about everything that ever mattered. The novel’s own quest is one in which we can happily lose — and find — ourselves.
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"What binds the collection is Smith’s voice: frank, urgent, self-ironic. Dipping into these pieces (in any order) is like setting out on a walk with a vibrant, curious, gracefully articulate friend ... Because Smith was reared in England but lives part time in New York, we benefit from her two-way cultural vision; place (ergo, sensibility) is always on her mind, and the results are bracing ... This kind of companionability makes Feel Free’s parts — if occasionally uneven — form a pleasurable whole. Its subtitle could well be \'dispatches from a life in progress.\'”
MixedThe San Francisco Chronicle\"Winter didn’t take my heart in both hands. I wanted it to. It promised to — with its cheeky overture … Winter’s characters verge on becoming mouthpieces … Granted, Smith’s playfulness ranges like a riffing keyboardist’s: word games, quotes and allusions (Dickens, Shakespeare), time travel (the sisters’ childhoods, Sophia’s begetting Arthur, Arthur’s own eventual child), even mockery of literary form … Winter gives the patient reader a colorful, witty — yes, warming — divertissement. But for me the global alarms and laments, while utterly accurate, are so numerous that the whole structure finally seems more a billboard for Smith’s passionate concerns about the fate of us all.\
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleDiski’s writing is never less than arresting. Taken together, these stories form a narrative of the plight of women in a certain age ... In effect, then, men define, imprison, commodify and erase women. Not untrue — especially during the Mad Men years when Diski was coming of age. But in Diski’s telling, no alternating currents of any kind mitigate this airless state ... it’s helpful to rememeber that these stories were first published in 1995. While the writing itself is always clean, supple, and capable, it is often also (to me) overlong and belabored, suggesting either that Diski hadn’t yet grown mindful of the writerly peril of 'much of a muchness,' as the English call it — or that she was consciously bashing the famous English discomfort with demonstrative excess.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleHer accomplishment in these pages is Tolstoy-like: to render human particularity so meticulously and with such fierce passion as to convey the great, glittering movement of time … The 1911 event acts as a guide wire for the stories to come, and also as a carrot: Our need to know compels us forward. As the stories unfold, we learn that three innocent Indians who happen onto the property afterward are immediately blamed for the murders and lynched by a vigilante posse - one of the most excruciating scenes, among many, in the novel … Though the novel's last third feels somewhat sidetracked, as if straining to continually exceed its own five-alarm intensity, the final pages sweep us back, like a song's refrain, into the original spell. The Plague of Doves propels its ripe, round, multigenerational characters to a satisfying if rather chilling finish.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...a kind of tasting menu showcasing Fridlund’s stark, dissonant voice. Her descriptions blindside you with rude audacity … In artfully imagined predicaments, men, women and kids (even babies) try to figure out how and whom to be … Story after story replenishes Fridlund’s flinty, wistful vision.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...[a] deeply thoughtful, absorbing novel ... Readers will be glad to know that it’s not strictly necessary to read Pages for You first, since Brownrigg has efficiently built that novel’s essence into this sequel. In fact, reading You after Her (which I did) provides a fascinating treat, allowing us to travel back in time and eavesdrop on its characters’ younger selves ... Brownrigg has set herself a stiff challenge, which is to fully inhabit the minds, hearts and voices of two seasoned, gifted, but utterly distinct women: one a self-questioning novelist, the other an admired, authoritative-yet-vulnerable, semi-dislocated academic. That mission is accomplished compellingly. We’re glad to come to know these women, and to be taught by what happens between them. Reading (or rereading) Pages for You, as a kind of coda, makes it even better.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleIn Paul Harding's stunning first novel, we find what readers, writers and reviewers live for: a new way of seeing, in a story told as a series of ruminative images, like a fanned card deck … Beneath the men's stories flows a series of heart-wrenching inquiries into the nature of life on earth, its terrible beauty, and the limits of our ability to comprehend and bear it … What's difficult to convey is the reach, and painful beauty, of Harding's language.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleKingsolver's exploration (through all five senses) of Mexican and American geographies, weather, people, food, cultures, politics, languages and era-bound events - Hoover through World War II, Truman, Nagasaki - is masterful, and a reader receives the great gift of entering not one but several worlds. In the bargain, Kingsolver mulls the lonely rhythms of an artist's life … The Lacuna is a supremely ambitious work: a dense picaresque, glitteringly alive (particularly in the Mexico sections). Its lone flaw is the occasional pong of polemic … Kingsolver rescues her epic with an intricate, moving, deeply satisfying close, against the landscape she conveys best. The final pages haunt me still.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleIn both Home and Gilead, Robinson appears to be considering (among myriad themes and issues) the ravaging, irremediable loneliness of the unbeliever. She embeds her inquiry in a lode of theological history, and a nest of comforting physical details. Home's deepest pleasures may come from the exchanges (which form the novel's body) between Glory and Jack – tentative, difficult, sore with love, anguish, insight, told through Glory's exquisitely nuanced perceptions in clean, simple, luminous language (Robinson's prose soothes and calms, itself a balm) … We may hope, Home finally suggests, that things will one day settle, in unanticipated ways. Robinson loves the word ‘settle,’ and by it she does not mean resignation.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleBones begins in disaster, and endures cataclysm. Early scenes – of pups arriving, some of them dying, of the shooting and gutting of a squirrel, of desperate, bloody dog fights and limb-risking efforts to steal supplies, of friends and family striking out in crazed efforts to survive in sweat and dirt and steam-heat, of characters getting bitten and sliced and broken – are full-frontal, graphic. This novel's got no time for comfort … The bitterness of having nothing, prospects of nothing – so inexorable and crushing that a kind of madness descends, causing the principals to turn on each other as well as fight to protect each other - soaks these pages. A reader can taste it. It's astonishingly brave.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleSerious feminist questions spill from every page, not as tidy scholarly inquiries but as body and blood, a true, sustained cri de coeur. Elena can neither shut out men nor deny their cost (Ferrante’s women, often maddened, spend their lives responding to men who, equally maddened, pretty much run things) … Like its two predecessors, this novel’s roller coaster of anguish, advances and setbacks roars on. The miracle is that Ferrante can keep the shocks coming, against a setting whose mildest emotional ambience is already in flames.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...[a] thoughtful, provocative first novel ... The novel’s pleasures arise from the jostling together of elements that vitalize and dimensionalize its story: the beauty and rhythms of the fabled city, its locals and visitors, seasons, festivals, food and drink, surrounding countryside and townships, art and architecture, and, never least, the music of the Italian language (a sprightly character unto itself, easily understood because of the deft way Chaffee sets it in context) ... Never didactic, never an infomercial, Florence brings readers on a gentle tour of the glorious city and adjacent areas, of its habits, history, art and books. At the same time, the novel examines some of the ways an anorexic mind perceives the world and itself.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe through-line in all of Ferrante's investigations, for me, is nothing less than one long, mind-and-heart-shredding howl for the history of women (not only Neapolitan women), and its implicit j'accuse. Ferrante seems to be holding our heads stiffly so that we cannot look away, telling us repeatedly, This is how it is … What's hardest is to watch Lila, Ferrante's frenzied warrior, gamble and lose, time after time, trying and failing to adapt conventional roles in any fresh way that might save her.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleHilary Mantel's magnificent Booker Prize-winning novel reads the way a great film races - a breathtaking, brainy, sexy, political thriller … While Wolf Hall conveys heinous period realities – plague, slaughter, machinations – in Mantel's trademark gelid style, it is also tender. It owns – complicatedly – a moral heart … Dialogue sings and crackles, in language that is at once lyrical, decorous and slangily modern. That modernness may constitute a fudging of sorts, but may as defensibly be a translation across time, waking readers to depths of character in fresh, yet recognizable ways … [Cromwell’s] brilliant company, and the life-size pageant of his world, give such sustained pleasure that we are greedy for particulars of a story whose outcome, in theory, we already know.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead marks the debut of a startling talent; its opening story stops your breath ... I advise building in plenty of time between readings: These ambitious stories, like fever dreams, don’t comfort.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleReading British author Rachel Cusk is like following a trail of tiny diamond chips, then stepping back to discover the trail has expanded into a vast, glittering mosaic ... It’s part of Cusk’s spell. The reader drops instantly, with her first words and sentences, into a strange, cold trance — unable to look away yet uneasy, discomfited, off-balance ... Faye’s role in each discussion resembles a therapist’s: She remains nearly silent, offering only an occasional word or phrase. These silences work like a velvet setting, showcasing details. A reader finds herself sinking gladly into Sebaldian particulars that open out and stand for much more ... Cusk’s writing is always precise, supple, complexly beautiful: Hers is surely one of the most acute minds alive today. My only reservation about these mesmerizing interviews — a brilliant portrait gallery — is that, watching a sensibility teetering at the edge of the world in part horror, part wonder and part paralysis, one longs for Faye to swipe aside the miasma or at least call its bluff; take hard action, re-enter, believe.
Joyce Carol Oates
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleOrganized into four sections, these pieces reward a reader with the rich pleasure of Oates’ critical thinking. Wasting nothing, missing nothing, Oates gets down to it; her relish feels infectious ... Oates has, it seems, read everything, and her deft, considered wisdom is pure treasure ... Arguably a kind of almanac, arranged to comfortably accommodate skipping around and rereading, Soul at the White Heat (its title taken from an Emily Dickinson poem) is a reference to keep near. Renowned as well as under-acknowledged names take their turns beneath the Oatesian gaze ... Though there’s not space here to cite countless remarkable passages, I will settle for praising the consistent enlightenment and generous companionship of Oates’ critical vision: never sacrificing complexity, relentless, acute, compassionate.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe authority of this voice — fable-like yet jaunty, patient, faintly autumnal — suffuses Gentleman. These sentences waft a tone of regal largesse that may not appeal to everyone. But their confidence and straight-up affability assure us they’ll take us where we need to go, in comfort and high style. What’s important is not to be in a hurry. It’s a big, fat, novelly novel.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleReprising an ensemble of characters back and forth in time, these linked stories enter us, dreamlike yet unnervingly real, sometimes close to sublime for their deep, fierce insights. Swallowed by the Cold is dark, seductive and worth finding.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleRamona Ausubel’s sparkling second novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, is packed with wisdoms. The Berkeley author’s prior work has won awards and appeared in the New Yorker; this third, glorious work will surely confirm her as a vibrant, memorable voice in contemporary American letters ... One longs to quote the many 'wisdoms' on almost every page of Sons and Daughters. A terrific exuberance and tenderness drives the telling, as it wings back and forth in time: full-blooded, sorrowing, funny, lush with backstories and images so acute you read them twice, three times.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleWhen the bomb at last does its work, the fireworks are suitably whopping, chased by a suitably dazed, Fellini-ish aura of slowed time. High Dive offers a mongrel blend of political thriller, dark comedy and pathos. My puzzlement with this brave, ambitious novel comes from a feeling, at its end, of mislaid — or stillborn — consequence.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleHadley’s wise, patient attention to recurring cycles of human longing, conveyed in simple yet passionate, shapely prose, makes The Past a splendid work.