Julian Lucas is a writer and critic based in Brooklyn. He is an associate editor at Cabinet and web editor of The Point. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and the New York Times Book Review, where he is a contributing writer. He is working on a book of essays. @jcljules
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewGregarious, learned and engagingly open-minded, the book meets America where it is on the subject — which is to say, all over the place ... [Clint] skillfully braids interviews with scholarship and personal observation, asking, \'How different might our country look if all of us fully understood what had happened here?\' ... The result is a tour of tours and a reckoning with reckonings, which sketches an impressive and deeply affecting human cartography of America’s historical conscience. The book’s standout quality is the range and sincerity of its encounters ... His ease with strangers is charmingly apparent ... Never getting lost in his story’s many thickets, Smith confidently interleaves the history of American slavery with his subjects’ varied relationships to the institution’s evolving legacy ... Smith has a penchant for evoking people and places, and occasionally garlands his text with descriptions of voices, landscapes and curricula vitae that distract from the substance of his research. His generosity of spirit also leads him to affirm some instances of remembrance that might deserve more scrutiny ... But it’s surely a sign of strength when even a book’s shortcomings vindicate its larger project. Smith’s unapologetically subjective map of American memory is an extraordinary contribution to the way we understand ourselves.
RaveHarper\'s Review...a spellbinding time travelogue ... Raffles winds his way from New York to the Arctic Circle, and from the breakup of Laurasia to the World War II internment of his grandmother, who sliced mica for Nazi warplanes at a factory in Theresienstadt ... Raffles’s dense, associative, essayistic style mirrors geological transformation, compressing and folding chronologies like strata in metamorphic rock. The most mesmerizing section is \'Iron,\' which tells the history of Greenland’s far north through one meteorite.
David A. Bell
PositiveHarpersOne of Bell’s insights is to see the man on horseback as a genre. His engaging survey of the four major early-modern revolutions traces the way their messianic leaders learned from and imitated one another, as did the chroniclers who gilded their names ... he advocates for the cultural study of leadership, of the way that shifts in technology, religious belief, and literary taste shape the exercise of personality-driven power.
PositiveThe New Yorker... reveals a writer of courage, beguiling flair, and sometimes maddening nastiness, who made the body his subject long before his own turned against him ... the rare book that truly deserves the epithet \'unflinching.\' Its author may be afraid to die, but on the page his voice doesn’t crack, his hand doesn’t tremble. He suffers throughout—passed between quacks and celebrity homeopaths because of mysterious symptoms; reliving sexual encounters as nightmarish premonitions—but along with this comes an exhilarating lucidity. Guibert feels transparent, as though walking around with “denuded blood,” but the world, too, has been stripped naked, revealing charlatans and saints, startling moments of ugliness and grace ... the novel is both surgical theatre and social tableau ... In Linda Coverdale’s masterly translation, originally published in 1991, To the Friend powerfully evokes the aids epidemic’s uncertain early days. Guibert writes with hindsight but preserves a sense of each moment’s confusion and foreboding ... The best that can be said of such moments is that, with racism as with aids, Guibert does his readers the favor of being shamelessly transparent about his sickness ... Perhaps it’s this mischievous affirmation of life’s mess and sensuality, even in the face of death, that will define Guibert’s contribution to the literature of illness. Rejecting its taboos, he scaled aids’ very long flight of steps and fearlessly recorded what he saw on the climb.
PositiveHarpersBall reconstructs his ancestor’s world and moral insight in a work of novelistic expansiveness ... Ball makes it easy to grasp, if not excuse, the sense of social upheaval that motivated Klan violence ... Ball refuses to “disown” the past, believing it crucial for white Americans to acknowledge ... he approaches his ancestor’s story with shame, but also sympathy and imagination ... In two short interludes, Ball meets with descendants of those who survived the Mechanics’ Institute Massacre, letting their family stories share space with Constant’s ... Here, the connections feel more tangential, and the encounters forced. Perhaps Ball could have investigated not Constant’s survivors but his successors, who, fearful of replacement by racial \'inferiors,\' are once again infiltrating police departments and organizing militias. Most readers will have little trouble drawing these parallels themselves; the strategies are familiar because the struggle is ongoing.
Dola de Jong, Trans. by Kristen Gehrman
PositiveHarpersSilence lies at the heart of Dola de Jong’s The Tree and the Vine...a short novel of unrequited desire set in Amsterdam on the eve of World War II....a sharp and erotic domestic drama, sometimes comic yet darkened by the looming Nazi occupation ... Erica’s restlessness and Bea’s obstinacy destroy any chance of fleeing together, but their increasingly high-stakes standoff makes for some slashing arguments. ... [a] midcentury queer classic...
Fernanda Melchor, Trans. by Sophie Hughes
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...[an] impressive new novel ...Hurricane Season belongs to the Gothic-grotesque tradition of the transnational American South. The novel’s tortured self-deceptions and sprung-trap revelations evoke the stories of Flannery O’Connor, or, more recently, the neuroses of Marlon James’s Kingston gunmen in A Brief History of Seven Killings In an interview about that novel, James spoke about the need to \'risk pornography\' in the portrayal of violence—and Melchor certainly does. At times, she enters so deeply into the psyche of sexual violence that she skirts the voyeurism risked by any representation of cruelty ... The crime is not an act but an entire atmosphere, which Melchor captures in language as though distilling venom. Sometimes, though, this claustrophobic style breaks like a fever, yielding to flights of mesmerically expansive prose ... Offering such glints of transcendence at the edge of an ugly killing, Melchor creates a narrative that not only decries an atrocity but embodies the beauty and vitality it perverts.
Jacob S. Dorman
PositiveHarper\'sDorman’s contribution to this story is the revelation of Drew Ali’s pre-Moorish identity. By means no less forensic than spotting a birthmark in an archival photo, he identifies Drew Ali as Walter Brister, a former cornetist and child star ... Dorman, a sometimes digressive storyteller with a redeeming knack for keeping one amused and amazed, is a historian at the University of Nevada, Reno. His intent is not to discredit Moorish Science but to demonstrate the cultural ingenuity of early African-American Muslims ... The story of Drew Ali’s apotheosis may be vaudevillian, but his influence endures.
Maryse Condé, Trans. by Richard Philcox
PositiveHarper\'s... a lightheartedly grand and gossipy memoir in meals. The genre might seem insubstantial fare for a writer of Condé’s stature, and she knows it, slyly opening with her publisher’s pearl-clutching refusal to consider the book of recipes she initially proposed ... She brings the same transgressive spirit to the book’s mélange of cooking and literature ... The book is more travelogue than gastronomic treatise ... The book’s great pleasure is how frankly Condé, a one-woman dinner party, holds forth on everywhere she’s been and everyone she’s met ... There’s plenty of dishing throughout ... Cuisine becomes a model for the intuitive allergies and affinities that govern interpersonal relations—and indeed, for the cosmopolitan writer, tasked with adapting the tastiest morsels from every milieu.
PositiveHarpers... an arresting novel ... an electrifying portrait of sex’s power to lacerate and liberate, to make and unmake our deepest selves. The book arrives amid a wave of mainstream interest in the erotic lives of gay men, but its frank exploration of kink, loneliness, shame, and dark pleasures hearkens back to a less carefree period—as though to restore a charge of risk and consequence to queer sex in the era of corporate pride and Call Me by Your Name ... self-reflexive in outlook, as concerned with the purpose of passion as with its fulfillment ... The book’s sex scenes unfold like revelations, effortlessly braiding inner drama with precisely choreographed intimacy. Greenwell’s long, luxuriously becomma’d sentences, always on the edge of ending, create a tension receptive to the lightest touch: a shift in rhythm, or one clause’s tiny revision of its predecessor, can entirely alter the chemistry of a scene. He melds an incantatory cadence with the catechistic language of porn, which is ridiculous until you’re \'lit up with a longing that makes it the most beautiful language in the world\' ... Bulgaria itself provides a less stimulating backdrop. Too often, Greenwell aligns the narrator’s angst with its vaguely sketched political malaise, as though the nation, too, feels trapped between a repressive status quo and libidinal chaos ... Despite his seven years in Bulgaria, the narrator remains a self-conscious interloper, and the scene a perfunctory engagement with circumstances that might have added dimension to Greenwell’s otherwise intimately powerful work.
Johannes Anyuru, Trans by. Saskia Vogel
PositiveHarper\'sReligion deeply informs Anyuru’s third and latest novel, which draws equal inspiration from quantum theory and Qur’anic hadiths. Artfully translated by Saskia Vogel ... an ingeniously plotted work of what could be called theological science fiction ... Anyuru’s novel applies the observer effect to a moral quandary. Just as measuring a quantum phenomenon can change it, so too can the effort to predict future violence help usher it into being. This truism of an age when jihadist terror fuels nativist bigotry and preemptive wars swell the ranks of millenarian caliphates is also the structuring irony of Anyuru’s narrative ... Anyuru’s dystopia persuades because it is inextricable from the anxieties of his Muslim characters in contemporary Sweden, from disaffected youths who sell hash and flirt with radicalism to imams preaching forbearance in cramped basement mosques. The grammar of their faith, from its rituals of prayer to its reassurances of eternity, offers a means of orientation beyond precarious circumstances—as well as a counterpoint to the nativist equation of birthplace and belonging.
Andrea Long Chu
PositiveHarper\'sStriking the tone of a very online Enlightenment aphorist, Chu is less interested in exhaustive explanation than in the flash of insight produced by a well-thrown knife ... Counterintuitively, Chu’s confrontational approach is more embracing than a bland tolerance that \'validates\' everyone by retreating to subjective experience.
Hiroko Oyamada, Trans. by David Boyd
MixedHarpersIn a wry, deadpan style, [Oyamada] distills the profound unease of a world where companies grow more and more imperceptibly controlling even as they promise workers less. Very little happens in The Factory, and Oyamada’s tendency to plot through the drifting accumulation of odd encounters—strolls, moss hunts, co-worker dinners, the vanishing or sudden appearance of colleagues—would have been more effective in a longer work. The characters, possibly by design, are regrettably indistinct. But the narcotized vision of an endlessly accommodating company town feels prescient in the era of \'smart cities\' chartered by Alphabet, Amazon, or Mohammed bin Salman; in plans for Neom, a futuristic city-state,
Yoko Ogawa, Trans. by Stephen Snyder
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...an elegantly spare dystopian fable ... Reading The Memory Police is like sinking into a snowdrift: lulling yet suspenseful, it tingles with dread and incipient numbness. The story accrues in unhurried layers of coolly reported routine ... Rarely has the relationship between author and editor felt more fraught with consequence ... The Memory Police expounds no politics ... There are book burnings and a special class of scapegoats, but the novel shares less with dystopian classics like Fahrenheit 451 or The Handmaid’s Tale than it does with the novels of Samuel Beckett; or, in Japanese literature, Kobo Abe, whose landmark 1962 novel, The Woman in the Dunes, is also a story of surreally escalating diminishment. The effect isn’t solipsistic. Rather, Ogawa’s ruminant style captures the alienation of being alive as the world’s ecosystems, ice sheets, languages, animal species and possible futures vanish more quickly than any one mind can apprehend.
PositiveHarpers... spare and affecting ... Tunde recounts his troubled upbringing with a hypnotic mix of tenderness and analytic detachment. At times recalling Meursault in The Stranger—another displaced loner who loses his mother—he emphasizes the elusiveness of identity for a young immigrant who never stays long in the same place ... More existential than Afropolitan ... Folarin’s decision to write about a suburban, working-class Nigerian family living farther west—as do growing numbers of Africans, especially in Minnesota and Texas—is refreshing because it portrays the estrangement of immigrants outside the enclaves where new arrivals typically cluster ... It’s hard not to feel cheated by the neat resolution; the book wraps up just as Tunde starts to complicate his parents’ portraits.
PositiveHarpersTerry Eagleton offers a concise and playful primer in Humour ... The book is also a sensitive appraisal of humor’s contradictory role in politics, where it can serve to level hierarchies but also to erode compassion and neutralize dissent ... Eagleton proves a witty and opinionated, if not exactly sidesplitting, tour guide. In the spirit of Alexander Pope’s \'Essay on Man,\' he revels in humor’s paradoxical \'glory, jest, and riddle,\' the way that laughter \'is a miming of the noise of the beasts\' but also a distinctively human and social practice ... Eagleton, a Marxist, is most compelling when he historicizes humor.
Fernando A. Flores
PositiveHarpersFlores expertly lampoons the narcotraficante predilection for exotic collecting and baroque violence. But his bigger target is authenticity fetishism, the backward-looking, vinyl-loving, locavore culture that distracts, like Nero’s fiddle, from natural and social disaster ... Fraught with confusing metaphors and expository dialogue, Tears of the Trufflepig is an uneven debut, inconsistently fulfilling the promise of its brilliant, madcap conceit. But Flores has such a distinctive, irresistibly strange sensibility that I almost didn’t care—better half-baked genius than exquisitely turned mediocrity. The novel delivers where it counts...
PositiveThe New YorkerBuyer’s remorse is a recurring theme in Ian McEwan’s witty and humane new novel...a retrofuturist family drama that doubles as a cautionary fable about artificial intelligence, consent, and justice ... Why write a novel, in 2019, about a humanoid robot? Like the flying car, it’s a long-anticipated idea that, although not quite obsolete, has begun to feel curiously dated ... McEwan is aware of this belatedness ... There’s a sense in which Adam is supposed to be retro, the misleadingly familiar avatar of an inconceivable future ... You could find reassurance in this parable—robots will never replicate Homo sapiens—but also the expression of an even greater nightmare, that true A.I. will completely depart from anthropocentric standards ... Machines Like Me explores the anxiety of living under a superman’s inflexible scrutiny.
Olga Tokarczuk, Trans. by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
RaveHarper\'sBeautifully translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead...is a riveting whodunit with a black-ice surface of fairy-tale charm and a white-hot core of moral fury ... Drive Your Plow’s scope can feel almost picayune. But the novel’s guise of country farce belies a masterpiece of deeper spiritual conflicts ... Duszejko is an acid wit yet a tender observer, with a predilection for nicknames...and a nearly animistic mode of perceiving nature that lends her narrative a fabular charge. In her spare time, she translates William Blake—the novel takes its title, along with a dash of apocalypticism, from his Proverbs of Hell—and her gift for metaphor is among the novel’s greatest pleasures.
Henry Louis Gates
PositiveHarper\'s... a timely chronicle of the battle to define blackness that raged from the Civil War through civil rights ... [a] vivid survey of recent scholarship ... There’s a lesson in this, Gates implies, for contemporary culture: whatever the talent of a Kehinde Wiley or an Amy Sherald, stylizing black excellence is no defense against state violence and voter suppression.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"... a sweeping portrait of Ugandan history that begins with the fall of a powerful clan in the 18th century and follows the family’s line through the 21st. The novel, like Genesis, is an origin story ... Writing with the assurance and wry omniscience of an easygoing deity, Makumbi watches her protagonists live out invariably provisional answers ... when Kintu’s carnival of clans, royal courts, Kampala apartments and church groups concludes, it is hardly clearer what form “family” might take, or how individuals should reconcile themselves to kinship. There is, nevertheless, a beauty to how Makumbi’s characters improvise alternatives to what they do not have or cannot be.\
Scholastique Mukasonga, Trans. by Jordan Stump
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"Around the hearth, old Rwandan folk tales dispel the gloom of exile. Yet loss is lodged in every reminiscence. Grief recalls Mukasonga to the hard present ... Mukasonga is a master of subtle shifts in register — a skill inherited, perhaps, from the Rwandan traditions of intricate courtesy and assiduous privacy that Stefania maintained. She turns everything over restlessly: In her prose, poignant reminiscences sharpen into bitter ironies, or laments reveal flashes of comedy, determination, defiance.\
Mathias Enard, Trans. by Charlotte Mandell
MixedThe New YorkerTell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants (deftly translated, like Énard’s three previous English releases, by Charlotte Mandell) is a tale of bastard genius that might have been, and a cautionary fable about the consequences of parochial timidity. Yet the book itself, scarcely over a hundred pages long, is marked by a certain reticence. A third-person narrative unusual in Énard’s œuvre, it suggests a sketchbook rather than a marble likeness, executed in terse, muscular scenes interspersed with lists, drawings, and letters—many of them taken directly from the artist’s correspondence. Impressions are the principal access to Michelangelo’s mind; he apprehends the city in sumptuous catalogues of spices, minerals, dyes, and other rare merchandise that he records in a notebook. The structure leaves a measure of white space, creating a sense of encounter with a \'lost\' artifact ... Ultimately, Énard’s imagined history confines itself to threading a nearly invisible influence through Michelangelo’s existing work ... There is hardly a glimpse, though, of what kind of world a worldlier Michelangelo might have made. Which is not to suggest that Énard should have written a full-fledged alternate history. Fragments, after all, can be keys. But it’s never quite clear what doors Énard is trying to open; why, if Michelangelo had travelled to Constantinople, it would have mattered.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review\"The Liberian-American writer’s debut novel is a Marvelesque national epic about Liberia’s independence centered on three supernaturally gifted misfits ... The varied and frenetic action makes for a novel that, while stimulating, is often confusing and overstuffed. Some sections read like folk tales or adventure novels, while those set in Virginia serve up reheated plantation melodrama. She Would Be King shows greater originality when Moore dissects Monrovia’s social world ... Moore’s sophisticated treatment of [the singular relationship between Liberia’s black settlers, for whom \'returning\' to Africa was a form of deliverance from American white supremacy] showcases her novelistic talents, though the tension somewhat dissipates when the \'real\' enemies arrive: The complex dance of nation-building gives way to a Garveyite battle royale pitting the reconciled settlers and natives against French slavers who attack Monrovia.\
Patrick Chamoiseau, Trans. by Linda Coverdale
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewImagine Walt Whitman adapting Apocalypto and you might approximate the awe and adrenaline of Chamoiseau’s action pastoral ... His exhilarating flight evokes the shock of freedom with tactile immediacy ... If the runaways of American literature seek autonomy and self-ownership, Chamoiseau’s maroon enters a \'Great Woods\' where distinctions between past and present, human and animal, Old World and New dissolve ... Slave Old Man transpires in a solitude that can be limiting. Chamoiseau’s descriptions of the forest—beautifully translated from French and Creole by Linda Coverdale—are exhilarating, but the old man never quite comes into focus against the background of foliage and verbiage. A character without relationships or concrete memories, he risks becoming a cipher ... If the old man proves himself to anyone, it is his canine pursuer ... The sparks from their contest kindle this bonfire of a book, a maroon story written with \'a folktale parlance and a runner’s wind.\'
PositiveThe New York Review of Books\"Yunte Huang’s Inseparable is a whirligig vision of nineteenth-century America, the portrait of a young democracy as it saw and was seen by its most unusual citizens ... a learned romp more guided by than limited to the story of Chang and Eng ... One of Inseparable’s thrills is the deftness of Huang’s associative leaps. Each chapter is a crank of the kaleidoscope, placing Chang and Eng at the heart of an ever-changing matrix. Digression is the rule; world events scroll past in panoramic miniature ... Huang’s clear affection for the twins enlivens his account of their independence ... Huang is unfortunately fuzzy about the moral implications. Though he doesn’t omit the known details... he repeatedly insists on a misleading symmetry between the twins’ experience and that of their captives ... For all Inseparable’s narrative exuberance and delightful, Melvillean erudition, it left me wondering about the twins’ hustle—their motives, means, and the social forces that governed their lifelong game.\
RaveThe New York Review of BooksIf A Brief History of Seven Killings can be said to have a main idea, it’s that nobody escapes, at least not entirely, from violence. Because violence isn’t an event, but a kind of potential—a force, like gravity, that lurks in every curve of space … It has less in common with most recent literary fiction than it does with Breaking Bad and The Wire...Seven Killings is surprising, suspenseful, and, when it stirs from its sinister languor, fast, with action sequences as finger-curling and eyelid-lifting as anything onscreen. But as much as it resembles the best of today’s television, the novel conveys violence with an interior nuance perhaps only achievable in prose. Its intensity comes less from the story’s underworld glamour than it does from James’s style and syntax—a language that gives texture to danger and its psychic terrain … Some will be frustrated by its lack of ‘larger comment,’ the usual hall pass for dangerous art. Others will find it too painful. People who think good writing should always be graceful won’t like it at all.
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewA galvanizing account of his coming-of-age in the movement, it’s a capsule lesson in courage of conscience, a story that inspires without moralizing or simplifying in hindsight ... more movement blueprint than civil rights monument, avoiding the Old Testament spectacle of good versus evil in favor of the clashing visions and fractious passions of those pledged to the same fight ... Vivid and dynamic, yet easily accommodating political nuance, this [graphic novel] form lends itself to depicting the complex confrontations and negotiations of a wide range of individuals ... Emphasizing disruption, decentralization and cooperation over the mythic ascent of heroic leaders, this graphic novel’s presentation of civil rights is startlingly contemporary. Lewis may be one of the 'great men' of the movement, but his memoir is humble and generous.
MixedThe New RepublicTruevine is a moving attempt to reconstruct this David and Goliath story, a chronicle of the Muses’ unlikely victory in a game that was doubly rigged against them ... Warm, personable, and empathetically speculative, it centers on experiences that shed light on the brothers’ inner lives ... You can’t fault a writer for not discovering what isn’t there to be known. But it’s hard to escape the sense that some of the time Macy spends developing the Muse brothers’ scant personal history might have been better spent on a subject she assiduously avoids: the attraction of their stage personae as sideshow freaks ... The book’s most glaring flaw is its unwillingness to make a study of the sideshow’s spectators.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksThe Underground Railroad isn’t the modern slave narrative it first appears to be. It is something grander and more piercing, a dazzling antebellum anti-myth in which the fugitive’s search for freedom—now so marketable and familiar—becomes a kind of Trojan horse. Crouched within it are the never-ending nightmares of slavery’s aftermath: the bloody disappointments, usually sidelined by film and fiction, that took place between the Civil War and civil rights. In Whitehead’s hands the runaway’s all-American story—grit, struggle, reward—becomes instead a grim Voltairean odyssey, a subterranean journey through the uncharted epochs of unfreedom.