Josephine Livingstone is a staff writer at The New Republic, covering culture. She holds a PhD in English from New York University. Josephine can be found on Twitter @Jo_Livingstone
PositiveThe New RepublicAfternoon of a Faun succeeds because its villain is our narrator. He is not a villain the way Lasdun’s other men are—he is neither mad nor oblivious. He does nothing illegal, nor even anything obviously wrong. He is a kind, contemplative, loyal man, the sort who hates the idea of harming anybody ... The Afternoon of a Faun is a highly conscientious novel, elegant in its execution and almost humble in its refusal to grandstand, or to turn a story about rape allegations into some didactic allegory.
MixedThe New Republic\"Abramson’s experience at the pinnacle of American journalism could make her the best person to tell this story, since she had such a good view. It could also make her the worst, since she has a personal stake in trashing certain people and organizations. In Merchants of Truth, she ends up being a little of both ... The chapters on the Times and the Post are excellent. The other chapters are not ... [Abramson’s] account of being fired in 2014 makes Merchants of Truth essential reading ... But there are errors in Merchants of Truth and, as the Twitter firestorms pre-publication indicated, they are chiefly mischaracterizations of young media professionals ... The other mistakes fall into two overlapping categories: denigrating the credentials of young journalists working for BuzzFeed and Vice and poorly researching their biographies ... If Merchants of Truth had focused on the Times and the Post alone, it would have been an excellent contribution to the history of journalism. So why did Abramson step out of her zone of expertise to profile digital media? ... What we’re left with is half of a great book, and half of a book that recommends to other late-career journalists that they take their inheritors seriously.\
PositiveThe New RepublicIt’s written in a slightly hyperventilating style, full of all-caps emphasis and exclamation marks. In that sense it’s a contribution to the genre of satirical feminist prose ... Roberson writes with scathing self-deprecation and ambitious analytical flair ... The book proposes to advise a young reader how to navigate the political and practical problems of female heterosexuality, but ends up eviscerating Roberson’s own difficult romantic experiences and celebrating the sense of self she has won while on that journey ... How to Date Men When You Hate Men is extremely funny but also a document of timeless agony ... it’s akin to watching a young woman coming to political consciousness in her personal relationships ... Roberson’s achievement in remaining funny while excavating her pain is just straightforwardly heroic ... In the end, Roberson’s insistence on feeling her pain and keeping it makes How to Date Men When You Hate Men a more radical text than it claims to be.
Heike Geissler, Trans. by Katy Derbyshire
RaveThe New RepublicAlienation is the chief theme in Heike Geissler’s 2014 book Seasonal Associate, published in the U.S. for the first time this December ... Embedded into the very narrative structure of Seasonal Associate is Geissler’s awareness that the laborer under capitalism, bereft of control, splits into multiple selves who are alienated from each other. Who is the \'I\' who works for Amazon, and why is she so quiet? Geissler presses down hard on the identity changes that take place inside the worker who does not see herself in her work, then sublimates that analysis into the texture of her account. This literary-political hyperawareness might sound intrusive or unhelpfully cerebral, but it actually reads as consolation ... In Seasonal Associate, Geissler finds the absolute limit of writing about labor, at the very moment that history seems to have hit the same point. The \'you\' of Seasonal Associate is also, of course, the reader: This book is required reading for any consumer with a conscience. You won’t leave it without taking action.
RaveThe New RepublicReading Late in the Day feels both prurient—we are so deeply inside the emotional rhythms of this home—and marvelous, in its elevation of a boring middle-class marriage into a fable of warring identities ... Late in the Day joins a tradition of literature about women who, later in life, realize that they have trapped themselves in bourgeois prisons of their own making, and break free ... no style of living is compulsory, Tessa Hadley teaches. There is always a choice, even when somebody else chooses for you. For any reader interested in the relationship between romantic love and the creative life, Late in the Day unfurls into a tale both cautionary and motivating. The novel’s end is its heroine’s beginning; the sequel is there to be lived.
PositiveThe New RepublicClare Asquith’s Shakespeare and the Resistance has the hashtaggier title, but the bolder scholarly content ... she plows ahead, tackling not our own political moment, as Greenblatt does in code, but specifically the Essex Rebellion of 1601 ... On the face of it, Shakespeare and the Resistance is a book about history, not the present ... If Asquith is arguing that a writer is always responding to his or her historical milieu, then the implication follows that she is doing exactly that, too ... it’s hard to see these books as anything but miniature acts of heroism. Tyrant and Shakespeare and the Resistance are trying, at least.
PositiveThe New RepublicMilkman is a novel about The Troubles, but from the inside. There’s plenty of loathing for those \'over the water,\' and boys who dig up other people’s gardens to hide their guns, but there are no names. Instead, we experience sectarian strife through the life of middle sister, who feels social politics much more intensely than the governmental kind. It manifests in the rigid gender norms of her community, and those norms’ aggressive—at times murderous—policing ... the plot is confusing, and middle sister’s language more confusing still...the lack of proper names in Milkman are a chief agent of its confusion ... Milkman is an explosive novel, very much of history but not limited by the names, dates, and places of the official record. It’s a more intimate work than that, and an outstanding contribution to the growing canon of nameless girl heroes.
RaveThe New Republic\"Stephen King’s newest novel, Elevation, is perhaps the most uplifting of his career ... What follows is a wonderful collision of two very different plots, culminating in a third narrative strand that takes us to the end of the novel ... Elevation is the kind of story you could inhale in a leisurely hour. But for all its slightness, it is a rewarding and philosophically complex piece of work, offering both social critique and a meditation on how our different experiences shape our minds. It’s an encouraging direction for a writer whose themes seem to be maturing as he does.\
PositiveThe New Republic\"Far richer than a romance, Melmoth uses the Gothic mode to sketch a psychological model of guilt that scales up and down ... Half spooky story, half meditation on history, Melmoth revives the Gothic form and drags it through time, into our present.\
PositiveThe New Republic\"You could read My Sister, The Serial Killer in an afternoon. Braithwaite’s writing pulses with the fast, slick heartbeat of a YA thriller, cut through by a dry noir wit ... Braithwaite’s portrait of Lagos, with its seedy corruption and choking traffic and rigid family norms, makes that search for identity feel even more stifled, more predetermined. It is a portrait in pain, but also in a dark kind of humor.\
PositiveThe New RepublicAuerbach is on solid ground in his analysis, but his logic can sometimes be crude and impersonal. In one chapter he presents a critique of Facebook’s many options for a user’s gender identity ... \'People may not be using terms like ‘pangender’ or ‘biracial’ in fifty years, much less two thousand,\' he writes, either unaware or indifferent to the fact that this terminology was hard-won ... Whatever the case, Bitwise bears out the impression of Auerbach as an intelligent translator of the digital world with an insensitive streak ... The memoir form makes the book work, however, because it focuses a very broad subject through the microhistorical lens of a single person. In Auerbach’s case, the first-person voice allows him to sidestep the problem of technological determinism, a grand theory of the effect technology has on our minds. It doesn’t make this INTJ likable, necessarily. But Bitwise is a valuable resource for readers seeking to understand themselves in this new universe of algorithms, as data points and as human beings.
Thomas Page McBee
PositiveThe New RepublicBecause it works within its own rhetorical tradition, Amateur is marked by a heavy flavor of conclusion. It’s not that McBee delivers a highhanded lecture on the nature of contemporary masculinity—far from it. Instead, he writes with a tone that I suspect has been shaped by his career in journalism, which loves to match a high-flying concept with a lot of reportorial legwork ... McBee structures his inquiry like a series of questions to be \'reported out\' into essays. (He initially attacked the challenge of boxing in an article for Quartz.) So even though this book relays a subtle, profound personal investigation into masculinity and personhood, the author emits the vibe of someone who takes very detailed notes ... McBee’s great twist is to treat masculinity itself as an anthropological phenomenon, represented by this bloody, extreme sport. Inside the fight, McBee finds reconciliation.
RaveThe New RepublicWhose skull is it? Why is it in the tree? Who has had access to the garden, and why can’t Toby remember what he needs to remember? ... The Witch Elm is a profound reconsideration of power dynamics between the privileged and the less so, drawing the reader into an uneasy alliance with the former. It’s also a thrilling, absorbing mystery, sprinkled liberally with red herrings and culminating in a profoundly satisfying, if totally unforeseeable, ending.
PositiveThe New RepublicFortunately, Julie Schumacher’s new novel The Shakespeare Requirement takes the collapse of American humanities as its premise ... Schumacher makes the protagonist of both books deeply unlikeable and somehow, in his shabby way, the hero. But this new novel does some slightly different things than the last ... It’s an update to the campus novel genre, therefore, reflecting the peril the humanities find themselves in. The Shakespeare Requirement is also extremely funny. There is not enough quality satire in this world, and nothing has done more to deserve it than the American university system.
A. M. Homes
PositiveThe New RepublicDays of Awe is different from most of her other books, because it is not, for want of a better phrase, as horrifying ... There is so much to say that her characters seem to burst out of the narratives that hold them. The most explicit expression of this principle comes in the many conversations in Days of Awe that play out through ventriloquy ... she has returned to the same territory, the American family, but has turned inward rather than outward ... In its hard-earned ease among the perils of the American home, Days of Awe feels like an authentic step forward in a career that is continuing to mature.
Seymour M. Hersh
PositiveThe New Republic\"The experience of reading Hersh’s memoir is like visiting a lost world ... It’s all reporting—dense and detailed reporting on reporting. That iterative and pointillist style of telling a story does fall into a genre: noir...To put it in a callow way, this stuff is cool. It’s also very masculine. Almost every person in Hersh’s memoir is a man—a sign of the time and the industry ... Dwight Garner of The New York Times faults Reporter for lacking detail and color about human beings who are not Sy Hersh. It’s true: This is not a psychological or social portrait of any of the major players who ran newspapers during the decades covered in the book. And the Nixon anecdote reveals that what is left out of Reporter, namely women and a political consciousness that includes women, speaks a little loudly for comfort. Hersh is not a political theorist, nor a literary memoirist, nor a paragon of journalistic behavior. He’s a reporter. Looking back over his career from today’s vantage point, he is something of an incomplete hero. It’s easy to mourn the loss of this industry’s old form, and to lionize Hersh as its most ferocious remnant. The past is a foreign country, and, for better or worse, they did journalism differently there.\
PositiveThe New RepublicA lesser work would have undermined this genre-bridging nomination, making it look like a stunt. But Sabrina—short on words, big on humanity, succinct of plot—is not a lesser work ... The plot stakes of Sabrina are almost lurid: abduction, murder, conspiracy. But it is a gentle book. A great deal plays out inside cars, living rooms, bedrooms. The quietest and saddest panels in this quiet and sad book are the drawings that contain no people at all, like the Skype window after Calvin’s daughter has run out of frame, or a park with nobody in it. These scenes make the difference between absence and presence very clear. A person is there, or a person is not. It’s not complicated. Death is so basic and so powerful that we think up conspiracies to impose sense on it. Sabrina is a political book, in many ways, because it looks at the madness we provoke in each other on the internet. But it is also about walking through a room and then leaving it.
Bill Clinton & James Patterson
MixedThe New RepublicThe President Is Missing is not a good book, but it is a fun one. There’s no reason for it to be 500 pages long. Finishing it, you have that feeling of opening a bag of potato chips that is only a quarter of the way full. Why put so little into something so big? The plot arc is simple, the details are fun, the solution to the mystery is really obvious, and it’s way too long. That doesn’t mean I don’t like potato chips. But there’s an ickiness to this book, and it lies in gender politics. It’s just not possible to engage with Bill Clinton as a public figure without thinking about his relationship with the 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky ... To boot, the book ends with the revelation that the villain all along was feminism. Having nurtured a grudge against the sexist media for years, one of Duncan’s closest advisers loses her entire moral compass ... It’s a weird old clang, and it’s even weirder that nobody in Clinton’s camp—for I can’t believe this book didn’t receive the eyeballs of many a sycophantic aide, prior to publication—thought it was weird. Women’s resentment does have an extraordinarily long shelf-life, as Clinton himself is finding out. But that doesn’t mean he should have written a novel about it.
PositiveThe New RepublicThat maxim—a sound mind in a sound body—is the sort of bourgeois faux-wisdom that fails to equip Aickman’s civil servants to deal with the supernatural. He ropes English fairy story into the mix, a rural chill reminiscent of The Wicker Man. But each protagonist fails to meet the spiritual demands of those myths ... Aickman is not Gothic because his stories contain no romance and no serious interest in the past. The stuff of the past rears up—devils, bodies from the grave—but the setting is almost rigorously boring. His ambitions are smaller, less philosophical, and more amusing
PositiveThe New RepublicFaye’s absence reads like the self-abnegation of a soul trying to atone for something. On the other hand, it also reads like the primness of a control freak who owns the narrative voice completely by putting it into an eerie vacuum of her own making. Whatever the case, something has been removed, either through the stylings of a novelist or the dysfunction of a character’s mind. It’s either emotional or artistic erasure. The speakers form concentric circles around Faye, each leading closer to the core, like the canals of Amsterdam or the circles of hell ... How these different viewpoints get translated into law, how they become codified in the world, is a story, Cusk suggests, of elevating masculine myths over the truth—over a genuine justice ... It is better, Paola concludes, to be invisible or to be an outlaw. If Faye is invisible, the subversive Cusk is the outlaw.
RaveThe New Republic\"...the best essay collection I’ve read in years ... Tea’s reporting from Camp Trans is the opposite of the broad and ignorant way that gender nonconformity is written about in mainstream news outlets. It is done from a position of deep understanding, of detail ... Tea honors the HAGS gang because it’s personal, because it’s important, and because the bad, hard, beautiful life of poor queers doesn’t make it into history. Her writing about butch-femme romance extends one hand back to the history of punk lesbian publishing and another forward, into the future. She writes the lives of the SM dykes, the trans women excluded by normative lesbians, the poor butches who are for some reason never, ever on television. Swagger is a way of walking away from, or through, the tough conditions of a heteronormative world. If Tea over-romanticizes that walk for a moment, it’s a small price for so much truth.\
PositiveThe New RepublicWithout a mention of the American government, Greenblatt puts together a scathing portrait of Trump through the words of a different writer. And most of Greenblatt’s historical arguments read less like scholarship and more like excuses to cite great lines that fit our times ... in their [Tyrant and Clare Asquith\'s Shakespeare and the Resistance] insistence on the written word’s ability to act as a counterweight to power, it’s hard to see these books as anything but miniature acts of heroism.
PositiveThe New Republic\"Bullwinkel writes very intimate and small lives filled with the details that make daily existence absurd, which are then shot through with thought experiment ... When an author paints bourgeois life with such attention and care only to rip it open with the supernatural, they do something different than the Gothic thrill-peddlers of old ... We can see Bullwinkel as an inheritor to [Robert] Aickman’s particular strain of weird fiction...Ordinary life is boring, all these writers show, and that is precisely where the horror lies ... Both Aickman and Bullwinkel perform autopsies on hidden entities that lie just under the surface of daily existence. Is that hungry spirit god, the devil, some mythical creature, or simply our own hideous human nature? By refusing grand stakes and instead conducting funny fictional experiments, Aickman and Bullwinkel get closer to the truth; closer to describing whatever lives under the floorboards.\
PositiveThe New Republic\"This is not the glamorous world of ’70s New York City, but it is just as sharply rendered ... Kushner has set up a character inside a closed system, hemmed in by systems all her life, almost in order to show with clarity that touch, love, mothering, memory can never be fully constrained.\
MixedThe New RepublicIn every one of Hollinghurst’s major novels, he begins with this romantic vision of a gay, aristo-ish Englishman. Some readers might like this sort of tweedy fantasy, but to me it smacks of Downton Abbey and its peddler of nostalgia, Julian Fellowes ... Hollinghurst affirms his place as a stylist who breaks out, every time, from the prison of his book’s openings. The joy he takes in life’s small shards of beauty don’t feel like a wordsmith’s performance but instead like the joy of life itself ... Hollinghurst’s oeuvre acts like a bridge for culture, as well. He takes up the gayness of England past and connects it to the gayness of life now. For anyone whose relationship to that past is fraught, or even tortured, Hollinghurst’s books can initially feel stifling. But as the realization dawns a third of the way through that Hollinghurst is on the side of life, not an airless past, the walls start to come down. Time passes and people die. The instants of pure splendor are what make life livable, make it writable. The Sparsholt Affair affirms them, again.
PositiveThe New RepublicAllen marries several distinct genres to produce an insight into what it means to be a person with a psychiatric diagnosis—as opposed to a novelist toying with the boundaries of thought ... It’s a gorgeous piece of writing. But it’s such an ambiguous project—a creative adaptation of an unconventional memoir—that it cries out for explication of some kind. Because both sections of the book are interpretations of this project by Allen—one written in accessible nonfiction style, the other avant-garde and strange—the reader ends up with two types of mediation. Hovering over the book like a ghost is the 'original' Bob-story. I lusted after the original, to compare Allen’s work to the thing she kept in a drawer ... But those very flaws ask broader questions of the meta-biography genre: what it is, where it’s going, the conventions which govern its editing. In that respect, the 'book about Bob' that forms the core of A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise is a watershed in empathetic adaptation of 'outsider' autobiography.
PositiveThe New Republic\"It’s a brilliant beginning, in the tradition of the classical bildungsroman but extending the form into something more capacious, as if Emezi were pushing with all her might against the walls of a small room and succeeding in making it larger ... Freshwater reimagines the genre of psychological self-portrait. Ada suffers the slings and arrows of mental torture more than the average protagonist ... The execution and style of the book are so very accomplished that one cannot help but wish for a more ambitious ending, a foray into the fantastical. Instead, the book stays strictly with Ada, never leaving the confines of her life.\
PositiveThe New RepublicTrying to create one is the prerogative of a person hampered by an extremely partial vision of a rural sublime. That vision is not inclusive of the people—namely women and the rural poor—for whom manufacturing used to be physical servitude. It’s also oblivious to the hundreds of migrant laborers who are the remaining workforce using their hands in British agriculture today. I’m scolding Langlands here, perhaps unfairly ... Perhaps we would be happier if we could choose to weave baskets all day. But this is not the structure of the world we live in, and it ignores the reality of manufacturing.
Ismail Kadare, Trans. by John Hodgson
RaveThe New Republic\"A Girl in Exile is the work of a historic talent who is still at the peak of his power. It confirms Kadare to be the best writer at work today who remembers—almost aggressively so, refusing to forget—European totalitarianism. Kadare tackles Albania’s specific strangeness with a ferocious rigor that would feel scientific if it were not for the haunted, haunting humans he writes into being. Albania is a different country now, but the way it exists for Kadare will continue to exist as long as he writes. Ghosts do not die.\
Leila Slimani, Trans. by Sam Taylor
PanThe New RepublicThe book’s identity is a muddled affair, poised between a big literary prize and a publicity campaign that’s yanking its brow down … The murdering-nanny plot feels totally disjointed from the rest of the novel, not least because we never really get a sense of Louise’s motives. And no wonder, since it was lifted wholesale from the headlines … It doesn’t help that the social themes outside the apartment are much better realized that those inside it, which makes one suspect that Slimani is trying to hang prestige material on what is essentially a grubby voyeuristic exercise. Like Gone Girl, the novel deserves praise for pulling off a tricky plot with nuance. But in the future, Slimani might want to come up with her own stories.
RaveThe New Republic...takes up one aspect of feminine experience and inflates it into a beautiful and monstrous parable ... In retelling folk stories with new female perspectives, The Vanishing Princess’s closest ally is Angela Carter. Like Carter, Diski presents women who are living inside roles. She gives us the internal monologue of the gazed-upon woman ... If many stories in The Vanishing Princess are about tapping into the hidden desire at the heart of the self, others are about its destruction by an outrageous world ... For all the affirmation of female interiority in these stories, therefore, Diski also gives us a low hum of dread and perturbation. There’s a distant wryness to the narrative voice of The Vanishing Princess, one which uses fairytale cutouts to make everyday life seem both ridiculous and frightening. Madness and evil are as omnipresent as they are in fairytales, and they hide just out of our sight—only one thwarted desire, one misunderstanding away—in our own heads.
PanNew Republic...a one-stop-shop of an argument and, indeed, it has its roots in a couple of lectures Beard gave in 2016. In it, Beard presents a partial and anachronistic account of the way that misogyny operates in the world ... In its very spareness Women and Power gains some wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am appeal. It is not, however, a book ... Most of her analysis is on the arts, rather than on rhetoric ... Beard’s lack of experience writing about contemporary gender politics is fairly clear at points ... The point is not that she ought to write a book about the history of the world, nor that she ought to become Judith Butler when really she is Mary Beard.
Susan Sontag, Ed. by Benjamin Taylor
PositiveThe New RepublicSontag the personality has grown so large in death that it threatens to eclipse her work: She is remembered as a narcissist, a pugilist, the enemy of Camille Paglia, and a genius. This new collection may not offer anything strictly new, but it does allow us examine a side of Sontag that is often obscured by those two pillars of her legacy ... Not all of it [her fiction] is excellent, but it is all stylish ... The writing in Debriefing is never less than viciously good. But the quality of the stories’ ideas varies wildly. The care with which Sontag interrogates the desires and fears animating these stories distinguishes the good ones from the bad. 'The Way We Live Now' tests the story form in a way that leads into the emotional heart of living in a plagued community ... What do we learn about great intellectual Susan Sontag from reading these stories? In Debriefing we see a writer who was confident enough, and knew herself well enough, to try and try again, and develop when she failed. There are stories in this book that aren’t worth reading at all, but they have been gathered together because 'Susan Sontag'—the posthumous cartoon version of the person—is big enough to demand it. But in this book there are also are moments of real certainty, even truth. As with every type of Sontag’s writing, you should expect value rather than consistency.
PositiveThe New Republic...a vivid and dramatic book … Yaffe dedicates substantial space to what we could call the second Joni Mitchell. This artist is the one who comes after the waifish early years of her creative apex, an ex-folksinger trying to make her way through the ‘80s, getting narcissistic and angry and broke … Young Mitchell, the one who spat out ‘The Circle Game’ at 23, is such an icon to music fans that she seems to lie beyond the grasp of acceptable criticism. This Joni Mitchell, not the person but the icon, is a fantasy of the bohemian woman, a goddess, a person no more human or connected to the rest of culture than the Virgin Mary … Idealizing women into smaller versions of themselves is destructive, even, or especially, when the full picture contains details we’d rather ignore.
PanThe New Republic...a techno-thriller in the tradition of Brown’s standalone book Digital Fortress … Does it matter that Brown makes mistakes? Probably not, if the reader is in it for the thrill and the twist, which most are. And there are other things to love about Dan Brown’s prose … But the techno-dystopian core of Origin’s plot, which focuses on the biological origins of mankind and its evolutionary future, is a little thin, not really credible. It reads like a book by a slightly tired writer.
MixedThe New RepublicShe analyzes 'millennial culture' according to the way that she sees young people’s clothes, their music, and their language. It was this element of the book that blurred my judgment with respect to the rest of Grigoriadis’s analysis. Or, rather, it didn’t blur my vision so much as it colored it: it made me stop trusting her...there are some descriptions of millennial culture that just felt, well, weird ... Blurred Lines is a meticulously researched book. Ultimately, she treats her subjects who have experienced sexual assault with the respect that real journalistic standards confer: the stories come in their own words. Blurred Lines is probably intended as a book for worried parents and others—like administrative professionals—who are worried by the changing stakes of in loco parentis caretaking of young people today. For this purpose, the book is certainly fit. But for Grigoriadis seems faintly suspicious of anti-rape efforts throughout Blurred Lines—suspicious of the young radicals at Wesleyan, suspicious of some of the cases brought against campus abusers. For this reason, I remained faintly suspicious of her throughout.
MixedThe New RepublicThis book feels like a collection of more minor works—ones that relate to the central oeuvre, but are more of a testing-ground than a completed edifice ... These stories are certainly less satisfying than the novels. But they are unsatisfactory for the reason that they are appealing. They gesture to tapestries of narrative that exist 'off-screen,' so to speak; they unsettle and gesture to bigger worlds without cohering. That lack of coherence makes the characters of Fresh Complaint resemble the book which they live inside. Nothing falls together the way that we expect from an ambitious novelist. Instead, like people whose lives have not gone the way that they had hoped, these stories hang in an uneasy tension. But for that reason they offer quite a new Eugenides to his readers. This version of him is a little less masterful and a little more inventive, but very welcome nonetheless.
John Le Carré
PositiveThe New RepublicStructured by the present-day interrogation, A Legacy of Spies substantially plays out in memory. The fascinating crystal-radios of the Cold War novels are mostly gone, here. Instead, the technology is human memory alone ... Like all le Carré novels, A Legacy of Spies is a confusing tangle until about three quarters of the way through, when the materials he has thrown into the air settle down into a shape it turns out you were half-suspecting all along without realizing it. In the absence of Cold War technologies, since those spying days are over, le Carré has turned a single elderly man’s memory into a machine so highly elaborated, so poetically structured, and so very sad that it seems to hold all the world inside it.
MixedThe New RepublicThe book’s overall sensibility is that of a tense friendship, even a resentful one. Kraus does not clarify her personal relationship to her subject, and so the question of their relation becomes a void into which her tone rushes. Acker certainly doesn’t come off as an easy person to like. Kraus elevates this unlikeability to be the defining feature of her person ... To evoke a life you have to fill bits in with the flavor of the person, how it felt to be with her in a room. But over the course of this densely researched and detailed book, Kraus fills the spaces between these details with inferences which border on cruel ... we have literary appreciation and a sort of character condemnation working against each other in the same analytical moment ... Biography-writing is a very tricky form, and no reader could fault the dedication with which Kraus has chased down the archival and human remains of Kathy Acker on earth. As an Acker fan, I inhaled this book. But as the last pages turned, the biography’s lingering flavor was one of bitterness. Whether that was done in the name of the truth or in the name of dislike, we can’t know.
PositiveThe New RepublicThe relationship between art, the Diarist’s vagina, and the sky is a subtle but extraordinary motif in The Incest Diary ... it belongs to the tradition of intensely autobiographical women’s literature, or women’s life-writing, of the kind brought into the mainstream this century by Maggie Nelson ... This book is no more than a broken thing, a gap in the covering of nakedness. And so the degradation of the Diarist’s language, which has so appalled her newspaper critics, comes to represent a kind of nakedness in communication. When a person tries to use language to describe the experience of being fucked by her father who stinks of white wine under a blanket that does not even cover her, what parts of herself and what parts of speech can be adequate to the task?
RaveThe New RepublicBrownrigg so accurately depicts the experience of women who love both men and women that it is downright uncanny ... In conveying the experience of bisexuality, as well as the emotional reflection on that experience, Brownrigg is humane and smart enough to be funny even where the subject is, underneath the surface, painful ... There is nothing of the parable in these two books. They are not allegories or lessons about how to be a queer woman in the world. It is not wrong to have babies, and it isn’t wrong to marry men or not marry men. It is not wrong to be too young or too old, to be more or less into girls at whatever particular age or stage one happens to be. For this simple reason, reading Brownrigg’s novels feels like entering a fictional world that is less fussy, more real. Mainstream fiction could do with substantially more fiction about romance between teenagers and between middle-aged women. For now, we have these pages.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Ed. by Christopher Tolkien
PositiveThe New RepublicThe Tale of Beren and Lúthien is more like a scholarly volume than a storybook. There are versions of the tale in verse, and versions in prose. There are versions where the villain is an enormous, evil cat, and versions where the villain is a wolf. Names change frequently. But instead of taking the 'best text' route, where the editor chooses a single manuscript to bear witness to the lost story, Christopher Tolkien has offered up what remains and allowed the reader to choose. It’s a generous editorial act, and a fitting tribute in memoriam to his parents’ romance.
Grace Paley, Ed. by Kevin Bowen
PositiveThe New RepublicThe essays about her time in women’s collectives and protesting the American government’s warmongering are important artifacts and teach us much about a movement whose ideas and activism are resurging among young people now. The poems are nice but a bit sentimental. The stories are just themselves, which is a hard thing to describe ...There are many fictions of motherhood, and many leftist essays about socialism and the need to end war. There are also many women who deserve to be reclaimed from the obscurity in which so many great American post-war writers languish. There are many generous writers, and many who cared more for living and writing and their families than they cared for fame. But of all these Grace Paley is one of the very best, which A Grace Paley Reader knows.
Leonardo Padura, Trans. by Anna Kushner
PositiveThe New RepublicEach layer to this large and dense sponge-cake of a novel has a historicity that defines its voice, ethics, and subject matter ... Heretics recalls Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which also uses a painting as its central organizing motif. Both Tartt and Padura employ the ekphrastic mode, using the paintings’ subjects—the delicate bird, the glowing Jewish young man—as stable weights at the heart of their stories. They are the central node in a constellation of ideas that are continually rearranging themselves ... Heretics asks us what we remember, and why; do we know anything about our own grandparents’ traumas, and, if so, why is that generational memory easier to lose in time than a painting?
RaveThe New RepublicIn contrast to Hamid’s earlier work, Exit West is a novel of restraint and only subtle humor and romance. Hamid refrains from naming the city where the lovers begin. But the book rapidly becomes an ambitious and far-roaming tale of migration and adventure. This gesture arguably places Exit West in the tradition of postmodern magical realism inhabited by the likes of Italo Calvino and Angela Carter, where little doses of fantasy (raining flowers, or telekinesis) break the ordinary world’s laws. But the magic is limited to this single phenomenon, which feels like something quite new ... The creative gesture is subtle and extreme at the same time, and the result is a novel of exceptional focus. Hamid stays with his protagonists like a spirit looking over their shoulders: The voice is sensitive, tender, as if these characters really are beloved ... Hamid’s care for his protagonists, the sheer insistence in the novel of human beings’ importance to one another, is an artistic and a political statement.
PositiveThe New Republic...her stories exploit the fun, singsong qualities of storytelling while peddling a manic savagery that doesn’t fit the medium ... Like her peers—Tao Lin, Nell Zink, Alexandra Kleeman—Moshfegh writes characters who shrink big feelings into flat utterances, the kind of disaffected tone that feels born of the internet and its mechanisms for emotional distance. The overall effect is of an ancient fairytale performed by bad television actors, the kind who seem to be makeup all the way through ... Moshfegh repeatedly subjects the human body to extreme experiences: miscarried pregnancies, intellectual disability, eating disorders. This is not a very modern thing to do, because it is cheap and sadistic. But it is a very postmodern thing to do, because no body is blank and healthy and symbolically normal in real life ... Moshfegh’s stories end with heavy clangs, which makes them feel like fables. But they’re knitted so airily throughout that they also feel like advertisements ... Nell Zink writes like this, and so do Helen DeWitt and Alexandra Kleeman and Tony Tulathimutte. Such books refract ordinary life into the grotesque surreal through their insistent lack of engagement. Although they would find it unpleasant to be grouped by name, I’d call them surreal minimalists. These novelists are the grandchildren of Camus, writers who estrange and estrange until some new world comes glowing through the old, empty one. The emotions are minimal, but the worlds of these novels are colorful and weird. These writers represent the first wave of novelists who truly respond to and incorporate the syntactic and emotional influence of the internet, and our embrace of them, as readers, represents the same. Homesick for Another World abuses its chosen genre, just as Moshfegh intended, but in the way that Dr. Frankenstein abused his raw materials. Raw and red and sutured, his monster was tortured into consciousness, to live.
PositiveThe New RepublicPrivate Novelist consists of two bonkers stories of differing length and quality hammered together into one book for no good reason at all ... The repeated reminders that these works were never really intended for publication excuse their flaws while making them feel uniquely intimate ... Hubristic statements force us to reckon with the precious, deliberately off-putting quality of Private Novelist ... a brain-dislodgingly imaginative book that, nevertheless, seems to conjure our hatred on purpose ... Private Novelist, like its predecessor, The Wallcreeper, is a commentary on history, not on people ... Zink holds fiction at arm’s length—affectionately, but with suspicion.
PositiveThe New RepublicNicotine’s satire of bourgeois morality bites at hypocrisy with Zinkian snappishness, but retains a conventional level of sympathy for its attractive female protagonist when she gets into hot water...The pretty heroine generally does the right thing. It’s a little bit boring, in that respect ... This is Zink at her most heartfelt ... [Nicotine] display[s] Zink’s flair for crafting absorbing narrative out of unpredictable subject matter.
RaveThe GuardianOn the face of it, Break in Case of Emergency is Bridget Jones-adjacent. You could call it 'Girls, for women' if you were being unkind ... Against all statistical odds, however, Winter’s novel is extremely good, because it is so well written ... Winter lampoons the bourgeois Manhattanites who spend entire careers appropriating social justice movements for branding purposes and nothing else. There are a lot of them out there, and Winter captures their self-regarding bullshit with remarkable precision ... Break in Case of Emergency is a high-quality tribute to ordinary experience, which makes it an extraordinary debut.
MixedThe New Republic[Heroes of the Frontier] is pretty absorbing, but has some strange genre issues. Eggers’s chief tools for inserting symbolic meaning into Josie’s chaos are children and pathetic fallacy. With this formal one-two punch, Eggers has somehow managed to mash the Victorian novel into the contemporary American family epic. Imagine Maggie Tulliver as the protagonist of The Corrections ... Sentimentality feels okay when a book is about motherhood, and Heroes reads like a writer finding his subject at last ... The ending is corny, and it ties the book up with a bow it doesn’t deserve. But if you can forgive slightly stereotyped woman protagonists, Eggers’s novel repackages frontiersmanship into a diverting new form.
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
MixedThe New Republic...fine and erudite...[but] in arguing for the literary history of the word processor, Kirschenbaum overstates the ease with which humanities scholars can interpret the political and artistic lives of objects. The invention of the word processor may have changed literary composition for the Updikes of the world, but it also facilitated the destruction of an essential genre of work usually done by women: secretarial labor.
PositiveThe GuardianRegional Office certainly has more than a hint of the Marvel universe in it. Some characters get altered by strange irradiation events, others are partially bionic. There is love and death and punching. The plot is as explosively paced as a comic book’s, but juggles some dextrous genre shifts ... Gonzales’s book engages with the clichés laid down by the 70s political thriller, but it does so creatively. It gathers up conventions of all genres – hot killer assassin teens, hostage-scenario nailbiter, supernatural mystery – without sinking into any of them, or letting them get stale ... The novel is not the subtlest or most literary ever written, but the emotional currents flowing beneath and through Gonzales’s blockbuster action scenes are remarkably well rendered.