MixedThe New York Times... hurtles through the past two years of dizzying news ... The note about this book’s sources is nearly identical to the notes in the previous two books. The authors interviewed more than 200 firsthand participants and witnesses, though none are named. Quotation marks are apparently used around words they’re more sure of, but there’s a seemingly arbitrary pattern to the way those marks are used and not used even within the same brief conversations...And as usual, though the sources aren’t named, some people get the type of soft-glow light that suggests they were especially useful to the authors ... The unfortunate truth is that disorder is dramatic. In the wake of the riot, Peril loses force. A protracted recounting of security efforts leading up to Biden’s inauguration feels considerably less urgent after the fact. Even more fatally for the book’s momentum, Woodward and Costa devote 20 pages — a lifetime by their pacing standards — to behind-the-scenes negotiations for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package...Sources may have given Woodward and Costa every detail of these negotiations, but the authors weren’t obligated to use every last one ... The book mounts a final rally, helped by circumstance. In light of recent events, a late section closely recounting Biden’s decision to end the American war in Afghanistan is plenty absorbing ... Like an installment of a deathless Marvel franchise, for all its spectacle Peril ends with a dismaying sense of prologue.
Robert Olen Butler
PanThe New York Times[Butler] is, in short, the type of writer one not only hopes to celebrate but wishes to protect...So there is no joy in reporting that his new novel is an outrageously sentimental misfire ... The ride is wobbly almost as soon as we start pedaling ... Giving God a speaking role in a novel is really leaning into the first part of high-risk, high-yield. And unfortunately, Butler’s God is out of central casting, if the casting director were in grade school ... It’s plain to see that this is dreadful, and one spends the opening scenes praying it will fall away, that God will exit and Butler will simply settle into his character’s reminiscence ... a sad patina covering the heartwarming elements ... more of a Hallmark production. It shows very brief flashes of Butler’s humor and irony, which are in his tool kit, but it’s almost entirely, tragically guileless. There are moments treacly enough to make your knees buckle. The final scene will surely bring some readers to tears, but those it leaves dry-eyed might also be slack-jawed at the mawkish payoff to an already mushy setup earlier in the novel ... One small mercy is that despite appearances by Al Capone and Huey Long, the novel never blooms into a We Didn’t Start the Fire litany or Forrest Gump cameo-fest. Butler is genuinely interested in Sam, Colleen and Ryan — in a human-scale story rather than a full-dress historical stage production. And though a century-plus life could have lent itself to bloat, the book is a speedy 290 pages, and more or less wraps up its timeline with World War II ... The presence of Long, Capone, Trump and Sam’s abusive father implies bigger thoughts about American masculinity, but the book’s political and psychological ideas are not much more sophisticated than its vision of God ... If there’s a silver lining, at least Butler is still taking audacious chances at this stage of his career. And Lord knows there’s an audience for historical tear-jerkers.
Brenda Lozano, trans. by Annie McDermott
PositiveThe New York TimesTrue to its title, Lozano’s book does go round and round in circles. And though it doesn’t feel intended to alienate, it does reside comfortably on the more experimental end of the spectrum ... The novel’s real action is the narrator’s stream of thought as she ponders subjects from the very small to the very large ... Pulsing beneath the diaristic rhythm of the novel, sometimes erupting to its surface, are the troubles of the narrator’s country.
PositiveNew York Times Book Review[A] new work of almost meta self-help ... In the end, some of Burkeman’s advice...seems disappointingly traditional, given how good he is at puncturing his genre’s pieties ... But part of the pleasure of reading Burkeman is that you assume he would happily point out these same reversals and contradictions. His tone is not confident or hectoring; he’s in the same leaky boat we’re in, just trying to stop things up where he can ... Four Thousand Weeks is also just good company; it addresses large, even existential, issues with a sense of humor and an even-keeled perspective. I found that reading it — Burkeman might balk at this particular way of describing it — was a good use of my time.
PositiveThe New York Times... despite spirited inquiries into these subjects, Rooney’s fiction to this point remains philosophically anchored in the realms of friendship and romance ... Alice is a more obvious avatar for Rooney than Eileen, but it can feel as if the author, a former debate champion, is having Socratic conversations with herself through the correspondence between the two ... Though people might crave to parse or market the voice of a generation, Rooney is up to very old-fashioned things. Alice and Eileen’s emails are digital, but as the equivalent of 15-page handwritten letters they feel downright anachronistic ... When Rooney does write about social media and texting, their presence is perfectly organic, and she’s smart about their texture and effects ... In a novelist’s hands, as in real life, technology is what one makes of it. It’s difficult to sell \'actual lol\' as a brutally emotional and telling line, but Rooney does ... Rooney’s people are reflective of their time and milieu — like most convincing characters — and it’s true that some of their qualities will be perplexing to those north of 40 ... Rooney is by all accounts plenty earnest herself, but she has the necessary gift of complicating that — even poking fun at it — in her work ... Rooney writes directly, convincingly, hotly about sex. These scenes arrive with such well-timed frequency that \'erotica\' doesn’t seem an unfair subcategory for the books ... Impassioned, intellectual 20-somethings discussing their vexed feelings for one another is a road made mostly of potholes. Rooney avoids almost all of them. The fact that her characters speak and feel the way they do while rarely making the reader feel embarrassed for them is an achievement. It’s an uncomfortable line to toe, but Rooney succeeds by standing so close to it ... The novel’s thoughts on fame are among its least inspired ... Rooney might refine her inquiries into her own popularity over time, or she might just go on profitably writing about the questions that have paved the way to that popularity: \'Have I hurt you, do you love me, will you always.\'
PositiveThe New York TimesMcHugh’s chapters, winningly, are not close readings of each book but mini-histories of the texts’ creation and reception, the authors’ biographies, the public’s moods, the contexts of various eras. She’s on her firmest footing from the country’s founding up until the Great Depression ... McHugh has a knack for squeezing a lot of research into smallish spaces, and she sweetens the pot with throwaway but vivid details ... On the flip side, McHugh tends to belabor some of the obvious but necessary context, including how exclusionary this canon has been. And she sometimes relies on blandly broad historical statements for use as spackle ... The book’s subtitle advertises an \'unexpected\' history, and one can quibble with that. Some of the conclusions about the composite American character — especially in its early years — won’t shock too many citizens ... But the book resoundingly and memorably establishes these qualities through reading habits, and it highlights two qualities that perhaps haven’t been as well covered: We are prescriptive and hypocritical. Without overdoing it, McHugh clearly delineates how good Americans are — or at least American authors are — at giving advice they don’t follow.
MixedThe New York TimesThere are readers one can imagine somewhat disappointed by The Great Mistake, but that’s not at all to say that the novel is disappointing; it’s just a way of delineating what this very subtle book is and isn’t. From a thumbnail sketch, it might sound built to appeal to fans of sweeping historical fiction set in New York City. But while there are plenty of detailed treats for those types, this is far from Gotham porn ... It isn’t exactly a police procedural either, though one strand of the story follows an Inspector McClusky’s attempt to solve the riddle of why Williams shot Green. That pot doesn’t boil, it simmers. The solution, when it comes, is clever enough but not a profound satisfaction. The mystery is mostly an excuse for Lee to widen his lens, bringing in not only the ambitious McClusky but Bessie Davis, a woman who might somehow be involved ... Nor, finally, is this novel’s chief aim the grand re-creation of a historical figure, a life bursting at the seams. There are almost no scenes that involve Green directly planning and executing his most lasting monuments. And he doesn’t exactly warm in Lee’s hands; the book’s accomplishment is less in making us \'see\' him, like some kind of historical hologram, than in making us inhabit him...One comes away with a textured sense of this lack of texture; a vision of someone who never comes to confidently act how you might expect someone with his eventual résumé to act. Green remains throughout, to this reader, reminiscent of a nostalgic character in a William Maxwell novel.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewHoare writes with the license of the nonexpert; you can feel the delight he takes in being unbound by anything but his enthusiasms. He is alternately precise and concealing. His biographical sections are both elliptical and redolent of entire lives. His art criticism is often stirring ... Another of the author’s pivots might predict whether you find his approach enchanting or somewhat dizzying: For about 60 pages near its middle, the book becomes a group literary biography, primarily of the novelist Thomas Mann and the poet Marianne Moore...This extended section is certainly connected to Dürer: Moore and Mann both referenced him in their own work; Auden considered him in the lectures. But it requires you to stretch along with Hoare ... Somehow, Hoare’s frequent cuts between the present, the recent(ish) past and more distant history end up feeling like no cuts at all; instead of whiplash or disorientation, what results is an almost calm feeling of all these times existing simultaneously, in the moment of reading ... If Hoare’s overall tone is self-serious, he allows glimpses of the ridiculousness that can come with fixation ... This book requires patience, and a mild tolerance for passing clouds of pretension or obscurity; but these hazards are just residual effects from the forceful weather system that is Hoare’s imagination. He almost inevitably begins writing at one point about W.G. Sebald, a kindred spirit whom he came to know. Hoare’s recap of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is the summary of one digressive book nested inside another. Hoare says that book \'pulls you in like the tide.\' And if you just get in far enough, so does this one.
RaveThe New York TimesSmallwood is a shrewd cultural critic ... and her writing about the academic world during the \'decadent twilight of the profession\' has the ring of truth. Smallwood’s references to Kafka and Kant and Thomas Mann never feel like intellectual preening ... there isn’t a moment when Smallwood feels bogged down, by grad-school cogitation or anything else ... Smallwood’s novel is a good argument for judging a book by the sole (but high) standard of the liveliness and incisiveness of its prose. The book’s premise is not ingenious. The mechanics of its plot are not particularly important. (Things even sag a bit when Dorothy lands at an academic conference in Las Vegas and moves through the city and her human interactions there in a more conventional storylike way.) Its treatment of reproductive desires, ambivalences and disappointments is bold but hardly revolutionary in 2021. But Smallwood, on the evidence of this one book—and one can only eagerly await more—is a delightfully stylish rambler; a conjurer of a heightened, carefully choreographed version of consciousness. Reading her is like watching an accomplished figure skater doing a freestyle routine. You’re never less than confident in the performance, and often dazzled.
Maria Stepanova tr. Sasha Dugdale
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewStepanova’s own occasional descriptions of her project in this book give an accurate sense of both her methods and her style, so she might be the best guide as to whether this daring combination of family history and roving cultural analysis is your kind of thing ... Stepanova reprints correspondence between relatives from throughout the century, which provides some of the most charming and poignant moments. If you appreciate sifting through boxes of anonymous photos at an antiques store — that spur to emotional imagination — then at least some of In Memory of Memory will scratch an itch ... Stepanova is a wonderful describer of photographs, which makes it even more frustrating that only one is included in the book ... Some of these chapters are quite good and feel on point...Others read as if lifted from germane exhibition catalogs. Still others — most notably a chapter about Rembrandt’s self-portraits and modern selfies — feel unnecessary ... Stepanova is a highly acclaimed poet in her home country. Books of prose by poets can sometimes be notably pared down and crystalline. Not this one. There are certainly efficient, lovely phrases throughout, elegantly translated by Sasha Dugdale ... But in all there is a kind of manic inclusion at play. Stepanova declines to leave any possible follow-up thought unfollowed ... One’s tolerance for discursion will be tested here. Over the course of a few pages, Stepanova alludes to Odysseus, Orpheus, Medusa, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag and Nabokov ... There is a lot to admire in this book; and there is a lot of this padded quest-reflection as well ... This book’s stubborn capaciousness ensures that it is not a ride for everyone. Yet any readers with a deep yearning to know more about the family who came before them will appreciate its fundamental curiosity and empathy. At its core, there is a powerful note, struck time and again, about the fleeting, mysterious nature of all lives.
PositiveThe Mail OnlineVidich’s excellent series of espionage novels are taking the form back to its cold war roots – all shadows and moral ambiguity. The Mercenary is set in the last years before the fall of the Soviet Union, as freelance operative Alek Garin is employed to bring a double agent out of Moscow.
PositiveThe New York Times... more traditionally contained. What connects the novels and the stories is Barry’s style, a nervy mix of high poetry and low comedy that he applies with unceasing vigor ... If you’re fond of sentences like \'The sun was setting,\' you’re free to leave now. Barry won’t watch evening fall with so little effort ... This is a short book, and even still there are two or three stories that don’t quite swing. And there are inevitably moments when Barry is too lyrical by half, though it’s easy enough to write off such moments as the cost of his gift.
RaveThe New York Times...remarkable ... I’d like to start by saying that it’s funny ... Much of this humor comes at the expense of psychoanalysis. It’s possible there is more talk of analysis in Divorcing than in the entire filmography of Woody Allen ... One short section near the middle of the novel, formatted like a play, presents a kind of afterlife tribunal in which Ezra and Sophie’s father argue with orthodox Hungarian rabbis for possession of her soul. Meta moments like these in Divorcing more frequently feel like feints toward experimentation than an impediment to understanding ... Sophie’s relationships with her parents are beautifully drawn, most impressively in a pair of consecutive scenes recalling her childhood ... Aptly, given all the psychoanalysis, Divorcing is also rife with thoughts about dreams: recounted dreams, dreamlike imagery, the uncertain blurring of dream and reality.
RaveThe New York Times... wondrous and disturbing ... There are quite a number of plot points in this book, and a great deal of structural ingenuity ... beautiful prose—observant, melodic, imaginative ... The book’s spirit feels most anchored in Ruth’s section, though Viviane’s is vital and provides most of the book’s oxygenating levity ... The message it leaves you with—down to its expertly chilling final line—is certainly dark. But in delivering it, Wyld consistently entertains, juggling the pleasures of several different genres. There’s something alchemical in the way that, with hardly a clumsy step, she draws on elements of eerie natural horror...and the supernatural...alongside any number of other motifs ... if, toward the end, I felt that the novel’s spectral elements simmered on a heat that could be lowered by 20 percent or so, that’s simply personal taste. Wyld essentially pulls it off, the way she pulls off nearly everything.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review... ultra-timely essays (several written in the past few momentous months), showcases her trademark levelheadedness ... This cast of mind doesn’t mean that Smith avoids moral stances. In Intimations, she speaks clearly and forcefully about the murder of George Floyd and the legacy of slavery and the systemic sins revealed by Covid-19 ... most withering, on the subject of race ... But despite these jabs, Smith remains unmistakably noncombative. This spirit appears born not of a fear of confrontation but a genuine perplexity (of a searching, brilliant kind) at the nature of experience and people, including herself ... Smith’s gifts as a novelist animate her essays ... In Zadie Smith’s universe—meaning, for my money, the one we’re all living in—complexity is king.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewJames stared down \'the prospect of persistent existential disillusionment,\' though the warm tone of his work belies this description, and often framed experience in a Buddhist-like perspective ... Sick Souls, Healthy Minds is a new house, a more modest and specific structure than his earlier works ... I’d advise you to read Kaag’s primer ... But if you haven’t read James himself, do that first. It’s wonderful that he inspires intermediaries to bring his thought to modern-day readers, but his cogent and humane work doesn’t strictly need intermediaries.
MixedThe New York TimesKing’s novel is help of a sort, an unmistakable broadside against fiction’s love affair with macho strivers, even — or especially — when layers of lyricism and tenderness coat their machismo ... The emotional force of Writers & Lovers is considerable, but it takes some time to land. As sometimes counterintuitively happens in autobiographical fiction, there’s a strange unconvincingness that hovers over stretches of this book. One wonders if not having to strenuously imagine this time and these circumstances means that some of the supporting characters and scenery feel more stock than a writer of King’s talent intends. She spends a bit too much time early on establishing the scene of the restaurant, with characters who feel like supporting players in a TV show. A reader could be forgiven for feeling a bit unchallenged and uninvested after 50 pages. But sticking with this novel offers rewards, and by the time Casey is shuttling between her romantic experiences with two very different men, King’s straightforward prose and deep feeling have hit their stride ... Things really fall into place for Casey as the novel draws to a close — in a pretty heavy-handed avalanche, actually. But King is too smart to send a character riding off into the sunset. She simply leaves Casey in a very promising place, no more or less precarious than she had been when things were bad and could turn good.
PositiveThe New York TimesChris McCormick’s new novel...contains what might seem like a few gimmicks of its own, including forays into the worlds of competitive backgammon and professional wrestling. But those subcultures, emphasized in the book’s eye-catching cover design and promotional copy, are not what fuel it. It’s really about history — personal and collective — and it’s rooted in horrors from more than a century ago that are still making news today ... McCormick keeps things admirably nimble, moving the stories forward while shuttling back and forth through time and across perspectives ...
At a time when plot and contrivance in literary fiction are not the most fashionable things, McCormick...proves adept at old-fashioned skills that one hopes will never go entirely unpracticed. With a minimum amount of soapiness, he keeps the pages turning on his love triangles and nostalgic wrestlers and brothers at peace and war. And he allows his larger themes to resonate without pushing them on us too hard.
Ed. by Andrew Blauner
RaveThe New York TimesThis collection of deeply personal essays will help you see it clear, if you don’t already, as a psychologically complex epic about stoicism, faith and other approaches to existential struggles ... The book’s most inspired match of writer to subject is Peter D. Kramer’s entry on Lucy’s work as a psychoanalyst, which to my mind is like having Clayton Kershaw write about Charlie Brown’s pitching career ... The roster of writers skews quite noticeably to the older and whiter side, and the book doesn’t reproduce any of Schulz’s strips, but there are original illustrations (though not of Schulz’s beloved but copyrighted kids) by some of the cartoonist contributors ... This is a collection full of Peanuts adorers, which is how it should be, but it might have been entertaining to see some dissent ... There is nothing overthought about these pieces, even when they reach toward what Joe Queenan calls a tendency to “find more in ‘Peanuts’ than was really there.” Deep warmth courses through even the most eggheaded appraisal. And the eggheadedness that is present always feels fully backed up by the source material ... one of the more spiritual books I’ve read in years ... I should note at this late point that I’m not a Peanuts enthusiast. I have a deep well of affection for it, especially the TV shows that flickered against my youth, but I’ve certainly never considered myself a fanatic. But this charming, searching book made me wonder if I’m right about that after all.
Veronica Raimo Trans. by Stash Luczkiw
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewDystopian fatigue is real. It seems that every other novel today is set in some undetermined yet overdetermined future. The Girl at the Door, the first work by the Italian writer Raimo to be translated into English, freshens the genre a bit by setting it in a utopia ... The book makes vague mention of an international language, and as in many dystopian stories there are plenty of portentous, underexplained words in capital letters ... Readers have reason to believe that the professor is at the very least morally cloudy, but Raimo is clearly most interested in complicating our ideas about what it might mean to expunge, or even attempt to expunge, the worst impulses and elements from society.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewCountry, by the Irish actor and author Michael Hughes, is a propulsive, blood-flecked homage to the Iliad told against the backdrop of a fragile truce in 1996 ... Occasionally over the top — but let’s face it, so was Homer — Hughes’s story proceeds at a breakneck cinematic pace, full of booby traps, double agents and arias promising gruesome revenge. And a bit of black humor along the way ... [Hughes\'] His novel sings of the stubborn, fundamental foibles that have kept people entangled — and at one another’s throats — for thousands of years.
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Barrett’s style, both exact and poetic, is reminiscent of any number of Irish writers who keep language on a string. His stories are crowded with young men and women making a racket while going nowhere, with ambitions that don’t really stretch past scoring the next high or kissing the next girl ... One sign of his striking maturity as a writer is that his characters stay in character ... Mr. Barrett keeps their dialogue tight and leaves any attempts at lyricism to himself, when he describes their surroundings or adopts their perspectives ... What separates his tough characters from those written by others is how carefully he applies the details that soften their edges ... Mr. Barrett does foundational things exceedingly well — structure, choices of (and switches in) perspective — without drawing attention to them. These are stories that are likely to be taught for their form.
RaveThe New York TimesThough the book leans on autobiography...it has been transformed into the kind of fiction that is richer than real life. Whatever personal details she has marshaled have been charged with consistently imaginative language and great verve ... The book wears its deeper insights about belonging lightly. We’re told that Esther’s \'allegiance was foremost to humor,\' and the same could be said of Ms. Akhtiorskaya. Comparisons to Gary Shteyngart are inevitable, but Ms. Akhtiorskaya is less antic, her satirical vision of domestic life gentle at its core ... Panic in a Suitcase is composed of leisurely episodes, but Ms. Akhtiorskaya’s prose keeps the pace moving as quickly as any suspenseful plot could. On every page, she writes about people and things with close attention.
PositiveThe New York TimesMishima may have held Life for Sale in contempt, and it doesn’t rise to the level of those novels by Graham Greene that Greene once called his own \'entertainments,\' but it’s a propulsive, madcap story with echoes of the deeper concerns that interested and plagued its author ... has a serial’s episodic rhythms, a string of scenes in which Hanio encounters and manages to survive new misadventures ... Mishima brings to these set pieces a colorful imagination ... It’s the book’s looseness and weirdness that provide its appeal ... It would have been helpful for this book to include an introduction or some other explanatory material. Those who don’t know Mishima, and even those who do, could use some context.
PositiveThe New York Times...\'grim\' is, somehow, the last word one might use to describe this book. Set in 1978, in the early years of the Lebanese Civil War, it draws on Hage’s antic, many-voiced gifts to make a chronicle of war and unrelenting death into a provocative entertainment ... It might be more accurate to call this author irreverent rather than funny, but the qualities obviously overlap ... Hage doesn’t shy from descriptions like that of bombs turning humans into \'butcher’s meat — chuck steak, rib, lower sirloin, flank, shoulder.\' There is more than a dash of magic in his approach as well ... His style is loose and extravagant enough — a bit looser here than in some of his previous work — that when he does deliver a hard epigrammatic truth, it hits with special force.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewPolitics are thorny in the novel, but Coe still makes space for playful humor ... Sometimes Coe is a bit more wacky than he’s been in the past...But on the whole, his touch retains its delicacy. Creating this of-the-moment milieu requires some believable set pieces, and Coe is good at them ... Middle England, which hews most closely to the perspectives of Benjamin and Doug, two men more or less at Coe’s stage of life, can certainly be read with pleasure as a novel about middle age...But its ambitions to encapsulate the political moment are obvious, and central to any assessment of it ... novels about the Way We Live Now aspire to recreate the feeling of their times, the vibe, as well as the details. And Coe — to his credit, in many ways — doesn’t feel like our particular Now. If his novels are anything to go by, he is wry, compassionate, curious and forgiving. Middle England contains great charms, but its very construction and tradition can also make it feel discordant for the moment it hopes to capture; at times it seems like a wrought-iron street lamp trying to represent a bonfire.
Ingeborg Bachmann, Trans. by Philip Boehm
PositiveThe New York TimesThere are brief flashes of the narrator’s wartime trauma in this first section...but this trauma fully lights up the book’s blazing second section. It’s a stunning stretch, filled with the recounting of vivid nightmares, which include gas chambers and incest and being slowly poisoned ... Nothing is nailed down in this book, not even at the very end. Its terse and chilling final line lands with enduring ambiguity ... Taken in bites, Bachmann’s prose is often lucid and powerful, enlivened by her poetic gifts. At length, she can be tough chewing ... For every aphoristic dart she throws at the human condition (\'the world is sick and doesn’t want a healthy force to prevail\'), there is a sentence or meaning that remains tightly knotted, and a general lack of clear orientation prevails ... The churn of the narrator’s mind and the absurdist exchanges between characters earned the novel comparisons to Virginia Woolf and Beckett. This revised translation appears at a time when the book feels quite contemporary ... Like a lot of existential literature, Malina has digressive depths and charms impossible to summarize in such a small space.
Maria Gainza, trans. by Thomas Bunstead
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"... appealing and digressive ... The [unspoken tension in the narrator\'s life] isn’t always crystal clear in the book, which nonetheless consistently charms with its tight swirl of art history, personal reminiscence and aesthetic theories. In a series of chapters that read like discrete essays, the narrator ruminates on the desire (and the stymied desire) to travel; the expectations established within families; the lures of melancholy and nostalgia ... Parts of Optic Nerve read as straight-up art criticism, strongly voiced ... This is the first of Gainza’s books to be translated into English, and these moments make one hope that her criticism will be next to arrive.\
MixedThe New York Times Book Review\"If this review is beginning to seem encyclopedic in nature, it is simply mirroring the book. Big Bang resembles a baby boomer clearing house. Set between 1950 and 1963, there are moments when it seems intended to be a real-time account of the entire period. This creates a paradoxical sensation in the reading experience. Individual pages and the brief scenes zoom by; but somewhere around halfway through, this nearly 600-page book begins to feel endless. Bowman gets approximately 250 plates spinning in the air, and they mostly just keep spinning ... In all of [Bowman\'s] novels, there’s vitality, humor and imagination that deserve to be remembered.\
RaveThe New York TimesMuch of this material is winningly geeky and enthusiastic ... More than once while reading The Word Pretty, I fondly remembered Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, published 20 years ago ... There aren’t enough books like these. They offer the pleasure of personal essays that are more inquisitive and obsessive than self-centered, and they are pitched squarely at readers. They are almost, in the way they spring from and itemize the act of reading, meta-books. Like any good magpie, Gabbert keeps the delightful facts coming, and often leads into them the way she might at a dinner party ... one way to describe this collection is as a series of tangents ... Which is not to say that Gabbert never builds a sustained argument or alights on a sturdy point ... In just three or four paragraphs, she brilliantly parses something you might have felt about dozens of memoirs without ever putting it quite this way. The book’s modesty can occasionally feel like the result of rough cutting rather than design, surely due in part to the fact that these pieces have been gathered from their original sources ... It’s a short book, and ideas and images recur—sometimes in a way that feels intentional and rewarding, but just as often in a way that feels unplanned and unnecessary ... But then the casualness of this collection is one of its attractions. It doesn’t strain after anything. It doesn’t have airs; and if it could speak, it would likely charmingly admit to its own imperfections. A mixture of depth and diversion, it makes you wish that, like a reliable band, Gabbert might publish a similar slender volume every year or two.
RaveThe New York TimesLingan’s book is not a polemic and it’s not a gimmick ... He often conjures the place and its people with novelistic detail, saying a lot with a lyrical little ... You end Homeplace thinking that every American town could use a book like this one written about it; every town could afford to be this lovingly but critically seen. Like many of the best country songs, the book is sentimental in a way that makes you wonder why sentiment is such a dirty word.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Boatbuilder offers a decidedly gentle, sometimes quietly rewarding window onto the attempted recovery of an American opioid addict. It’s a fictional companion piece of sorts to nonfiction books about self-reliance like Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft or Alexander Langlands’s Craeft, which argue for the emotional benefits of unplugging and working with your hands. Capturing those interior benefits in fiction is a delicate act, and Gumbiner, the managing editor of The Believer magazine, pins a sense of well-being to the page while other times approaching his themes too explicitly ... the book’s tensions simmer far more than they boil. Gumbiner is after wisdom, not thrills ... The cast of small-town characters he imagines is like that of a 1990s indie movie; a compliment, in this case. The place and its people are convincingly alive ... Ultimately, Gumbiner succeeds and stumbles relative to how much he trusts the reader to understand what he’s after without diagramming it ... some ideas in this novel would resonate more loudly if they had gone without saying.
PositiveThe New York TimesPollan’s initial skepticism and general lack of hipness work wonders for the material. The problem with more enthusiastic or even hallucinatory writers on the subject is that they just compound the zaniness at the heart of the thing; it’s all too much of the same tone, like having George Will walk you through the tax code. Like another best-selling Michael (Lewis), Pollan keeps you turning the pages even through his wonkiest stretches ... If Pollan’s wide-ranging account has a central thesis, it’s that we’re still doing the hard work of rescuing the science of psychedelics from the \'countercultural baggage\' of the 1960s ... Pollan doesn’t give a lot of prime real estate to psychedelics’ naysayers. But given that those on LSD can appear to be losing their minds, and that the drug leaves one feeling emotionally undefended (a potential benefit as well as a profound risk), he does strongly recommend having an experienced guide in a proper setting when you trip. With those safeguards in place, he believes usage could be on the verge of more widespread acceptance, pointing out that plenty of other once widely derided practices redolent of the ’60s, like yoga and natural birth, are now common.
Ryan H. Walsh
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewAstral Weeks was recorded in New York City, but it was \'planned, shaped and rehearsed in Boston and Cambridge ... This fact has been a secret kept in plain view.\' What exactly this secret yields is a question that the book never quite answers ... the book reads...as the record of an obsession, with the surfeit of granular detail, the loose anecdotal structure and the numerous cul-de-sacs that implies. This is not to say that Walsh’s book lacks charm. It opens with a fresh angle on one of the stalest scenes in music history ... The mini-histories embedded throughout are often entertaining ... Given that it was 1968, it’s a yearbook with some momentous pages. But there’s a reason people don’t read yearbooks start to finish.
Bill Minutaglio and Steve L. Davis
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...a fun and exhausting recap of the LSD proselytizer Timothy Leary’s efforts to outrun Richard Nixon and the American law ...this one is told in a present-tense style that privileges roller-coaster participation over dispassionate context. You know early on that there will be entertainment in the details ... The Most Dangerous Man in America, rigorously researched and shot through with some necessary conjecture, offers the pleasures of the ticktock genre. But the book doesn’t really have registers beyond tick and tock ...fine for many of the more well-known historical events here to serve as understated commentary on today’s world, but the present-tense immersion in the proceedings means that complex social and political issues mostly pass by as background blur ... Much like Leary himself, the book is plenty of zany fun right until it’s not.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewIn The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone recounts the stranger-than-fiction story of how the 23-year-old Smith was hired in 1916, along with other scholars, by an eccentric tycoon who wanted to find secret messages in the work of Shakespeare ... She was a poet who taught herself to break codes; she caught gangsters during Prohibition; and, oh yeah, she was married to a godfather of the N.S.A. ...read her letters from a hundred years ago, her college diary, her original poems, her original code work, letters that she wrote to her kids in code ...a broader book that included other codebreakers as major characters ...about a code-breaking Quaker poet who caught gangsters, hunted Nazis and helped win the world wars, only to be left out of the history books by men.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewMozley’s language is often subtle, but her protagonist is not. Physically, John might as well be Jack Reacher ... Debut novels especially can sometimes too clearly betray their debts, but Elmet is a beguiling patchwork of influences held together by Mozley’s distinct voice ... In its signposting and pacing, Elmet promises a reckoning, and we get one. The climactic scene is full of bedlam. It is also cartoonish. One might balk at its outlandishness, or squirm at its vivid, protracted violence, but it keeps your attention and doesn’t leave any fireworks unpopped. Mozley’s characters sometimes say things they would never say; Price’s villainy is too pure; the story’s political complexities about property ownership and labor are too efficiently reduced. But despite the book’s frequent attention to realistic details, it is securely situated in fable territory, and Mozley’s sheer storytelling confidence sends the reader sailing past almost every speed bump.
Emma Reyes, trans. Daniel Alarcón
PositiveThe New York Times...[a] startling and astringently poetic epistolary memoir ... In addition to recording the experience of poverty and emotional abandonment, the book captures how a certain kind of religious education combined with neglect can deform young people ... As moving as this book can be, there is something inherently incomplete and unpolished about it. It is not a conventional memoir and doesn’t offer all the satisfactions of one. But the fragments here are potent and, against all odds, even lovely.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewHunt’s stories are peopled with women who don’t fully trust or understand their bodies or their minds, or the places where their bodies and minds overlap ... Hunt is a deceptively experimental writer. Her sentences flow, her people seem real, her plots more or less cohere. But she is nearly always playing with form on a cellular level ... Like any daring writer worth her salt, Hunt now and then launches a dud firecracker. 'Love Machine,' about a hyper-realistic robot sent in to flirt with, and apprehend or kill, the Unabomber, feels both goofier and more portentous than it is probably meant to, and it resists the emotional investment Hunt’s other stories easily invite ... Hunt at her best is a lot like the uncle of one character, who is described as 'so good at imagining things” that “he makes the imagined things real.' Hunt’s dreamlike images operate in service to earthbound ideas. These stories are deeply imbued with feminist themes. Without being oppressively explicit about it (mostly), Hunt gets at the myriad ways women work to keep their self-possession in the face of social and interpersonal expectations.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewGreenman looks at those flaws with clear eyes, but he’s such an admirer that he can be touchingly over-praiseful as well, particularly when it comes to lyrics. He can make all the comparisons to William Blake he wants (and he does), but many of the lyrics he approvingly quotes just don’t scan ... Greenman, on Twitter and elsewhere, can be very funny. He can also be punny. His penchant for wordplay sometimes gets the best of him in this book. But he’s focused and convincing where it counts, on the music ... Greenman’s book is not a straight path, but it doesn’t aspire to be. It mostly succeeds on its own terms, as an overview of the talent, the excesses, the adoration.
Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe two range far enough from the sport to make Knausgaard’s quotidian, ruminative half of the correspondence feel like a tangential volume of his six-part autobiographical novel, My Struggle ... One of the book’s most entertaining elements is the contrast between Ekelund’s lust for life and Knausgaard’s deep crabbiness.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewReynolds admits in the book’s introduction that glam is a 'fuzzy' category, overlapping with prog rock, hard rock and other subspecies. That fuzziness plays to one of Reynolds’s great strengths: his capaciousness as a critic and listener, his ability to write about all of those categories (and more) with authority and genuine interest. But that fuzziness is also inevitably a weakness; the book is littered with insights and treats, but it rarely coalesces in a fully satisfying way ... But if you’re going to have a baggy book, you want it to be written by Reynolds, a tireless researcher with an eye for entertaining diversions.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewStories as well executed as these are their own reward, but it’s also clear from the capaciousness on display here that Ms. Beams has novels’ worth of worlds inside her.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...[a] deeply satisfying second novel ... Ms. Finn is a remarkably confident and supple storyteller. She hops through time and between Switzerland and Africa in brief chapters, never losing the reader or her own footing along the way ... Her portrait of Africa feels subtle and lived-in, never false or hokey ... deserves major attention.
PositiveThe New York TimesTo this new project, [Kaplan] brings equally honed skills as a historian, literary critic and biographer ... What she learns about him is fascinating, and how she writes about parallels between him and Camus is a lovely example of her own imaginative powers and stylish prose. Not all of the details in this book about a book are equally gripping, but Ms. Kaplan mostly keeps momentum by adhering to her plan to write about Camus 'as though I were looking over his shoulder.' Reading The Stranger is a bracing but somewhat bloodless experience. Ms. Kaplan has hung warm flesh on its steely bones.
PositiveThe New York TimesDonald’s signposting of the story’s events and emotional undercurrents can occasionally grow tiresome, but Ms. Livesey knows her way around human desire and disappointment. Like the recent blockbusters Gone Girl and Fates and Furies, Mercury gives us a marriage from alternating perspectives. Unlike those books, there is no looming gimmick or twist.
PositiveThe New York Times...[an] uneven but often impressive collection ... Ms. Kleeman’s stories often feel as though they’re being told by someone who has suddenly become aware of being in a dream ... The stories in the book are divided into three sections. Those in the middle are more conventionally structured — and brilliantly executed, proving that Ms. Kleeman is adept at more than oddity. Reading her, you are left feeling dislocated by the world’s strangeness, and wondering if she and her discombobulated characters are really the sane ones.
RaveThe New York TimesIt does a disservice to Mr. Smee’s complex analysis to reductively seek a common denominator in these four cases. But it’s still striking that in all of them, one artist envied another’s boldness and almost animal impulsiveness, his quickness to act ... It’s the Matisse-Picasso chapter that fully delivers the adrenaline expected from rivalries. The rest of this engrossing book reads like high-end art history; this section also reads like sports ... Mr. Smee’s skills as a critic are evident throughout. He is persuasive and vivid about the art itself.
MixedThe New York TimesThe fun in Greenwood’s book — much of it admittedly grim fun — is in learning the details ... The book’s weakness is in its frame. Ms. Greenwood sells us the project as an investigation and survey spurred by her own desire to fake her death. That desire may have been real, but these pages don’t convince us of it...the book’s tone would be better served if she more often admitted, as she does in one quick sentence, that her intentions were not particularly earnest. She comes across as simply a writer interested in a fascinating subject, which is enough.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...[a] dark, elliptical fairy tale of a novel ... More for fans of atmosphere than fans of plot, Ms. Ducornet’s novel about a man who 'cannot fathom the bottomless secret of his own existence' casts a lingering spell.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...despite the title, Ms. Williams is her usual funny, irreverent self in this collection of very brief sketches sometimes only loosely connected to the theme of the divine ... Ms. Williams’s brain is always good company, though some of the shortest entries here are unnecessary. The story 'Museum' simply reads: 'We were not interested the way we thought we would be interested.' It’s a sentiment that occasionally applies to this collection, which sparkles darkly but more intermittently than Ms. Williams’s previous work.
Alain De Botton
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...love is the subject best suited to his obsessive aphorizing, and in this novel he again shows off his ability to pin our hopes, methods and insecurities to the page ... Kirsten and Rabih feel real enough, but they’re primarily inventions that allow for Mr. de Botton’s discourse on what it means to stay together over time. He pithily covers our continual need to re-establish that we’re wanted, the dangers of sharing the contents of our sexual imagination and dozens of other subcategories.
RaveThe New York TimesStrengths and weaknesses pale next to Mr. Haddon’s sheer confidence as a storyteller. His voice can convey the authority of ancient fairy tales. 'Wodwo' is the book’s centerpiece by all measures: length, ambition and effect. In it, a family gathers for Christmas in a snowy English town. Mr. Haddon sets up the relations as if the story’s tension is going to be traditional and domestic. Then a stranger with a gun appears outside the family’s house. What follows is suspenseful, then fantastical, then man versus nature, then almost science fiction. The very end is head-scratching, but the impressive whole packs the action and themes that might power a very full novel into less than 70 pages.
PanThe New York TimesThe scholar in Ms. Weigel didn’t set a fine-grain filter on the research for this book. She always returns to the 'landscape of dating' as her intended theme, but the landscape appears horizonless and the detours can be maddeningly circuitous. Just a small sample of subjects that catch her eye include prostitution; historical parenting trends; the American military’s treatment of homosexuals; the aesthetic theories of Kant; and anticolonial revolutions in Latin America. These frequent changes in direction require Ms. Weigel to make some textbooklike transitions: 'The rise of college and the spread of coeducation in the 20th century also shaped the history of dating.' The book is hung on many statements like that one, true but awfully broad...Labor of Love skims over an enormous number of topics, many of which could prop up entire books of their own. It’s hard to tell whether Ms. Weigel’s aim is far too ambitious or not nearly ambitious enough.
PositiveThe New York Times\"This frequently impressive debut has some of George Saunders’s loony satire and some of Don DeLillo’s bone-deep paranoia ... but Ms. Kleeman has a singular, off-kilter style, and a distinct vision of the absurd horrors that can come with being trapped in a body. Only in its last third, when consumer society’s subtexts become too literal, does the book lose some of its mysterious potency.\
RaveThe New York TimesFans of Erik Larson’s 2003 hit, The Devil in the White City, about a serial killer who operated against the backdrop of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, will find similar pleasures here. Mr. Hollandsworth doesn’t have the amount of raw material Mr. Larson did, and he doesn’t have a known villain. But if you don’t mind turning the last page without knowing who done it, this is true crime of high quality.
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Barker set the bar so high with her profoundly imagined Regeneration trilogy that the more recent novels can feel a bit slick by comparison. That still leaves them room to be historical fiction of a high order.
PositiveThe New York Times\"This slender but dense imagining of the life of Margaret Cavendish, a pioneering 17th-century writer and wife of the aristocrat William Cavendish, could be classified as a more elliptical cousin of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels.\
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...when Bachelder steps right up to the edge of the sentimental while remaining in full control of his tone, The Throwback Special conjures the rewarding melancholy of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels. But whereas Ford’s books are deep dives into a single consciousness, The Throwback Special is about how groups of men interact with one another in a way that nearly subsumes their individuality. What Bachelder is after, and often captures, is akin to the noise he describes at one point emanating from the hotel lobby: 'waves of masculine sound, the toneless song of regret and exclamation.”'
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Oyeyemi writes about ghosts and tyrants in faraway lands with a straight-faced confidence. And she imbues her more realistic stories with an off-kilter tone that makes them feel slightly, sometimes indescribably magical. This book is united, in a way that sometimes feels strained, by literal and metaphorical keys, which appear in some form or other in every story.
Lynn Steger Strong
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Strong has a highly sensitive awareness of the special kind of disappointment — and the painfully undying connection — that comes with family. There’s mercifully little armchair psychology about Ellie and no blatantly obvious reason that she should be so damaged or careless. She just is, and in that way feels authentic.
PositiveThe New York Times[These stories are] anchored in keenly observed specific details and pivot around deceptively imaginative plots. These are modest-seeming stories that hold deep truths, by a writer of great promise.
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Cantor is unafraid of asking big questions explicitly, like whether fidelity — to texts or to people — is possible. The complicated details of Romei’s schemes and Shira’s past start to pile up and will satisfy lovers of plot, but the novel is at its strongest when Shira’s voice is loosely playful and ruminative.
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewJohn Updike wisely counseled reviewers to avoid chiding an author 'for not achieving what he did not attempt.' But even the most generous listener might finish Costello’s baggy tale with a hunger for two or three shorter ones he could have told, each with a considerably sharper focus.
PositiveThe New York TimesFairly or not, it’s easiest to describe Patrick deWitt, so far, as a novelist who riffs on things. Thrillingly so. His previous novel, The Sisters Brothers, bent the western into new shapes. His new one is a meandering but often entertaining fairy tale, in which a hapless man called Lucy Minor goes to work for the major-domo of a castle. Geography and era are purposely abstracted. Where we are, when we are, or why we’re there are all afterthoughts. What matters is Mr. deWitt’s imagination, which is a forceful train that ignores the usual tracks.