PositiveBookforumIn its aesthetics and ontology, The Red Arrow is a throwback to the pre-alt-lit tradition of autofiction as cunningly mutilated truth. And yet Brewer’s reflexive credulity toward contemporary lit-tropes (American culture is traumatic! Self-help is cool again! Shrooms are meds now!) vibes way harder with Lin’s Leave Society than Sebald’s The Emigrants. Rather than engage in Bloomian agon with the contested tradition to which he may well be an heir, Brewer tends toward evasion, hedged bets, and a patina of middle school mysticism in the vein of Hermann Hesse and Richard Bach. The Red Arrow is beautiful, ambitious, whip-smart, and achingly sad. It is at all times astonishingly confident, and never commanded less than my full attention, even when highly dubious narrative decisions left me extremely pissed off, unsure of what Brewer was playing at, of whether he had outsmarted me or himself ... ome of the finest passages in The Red Arrow are serial sentences that blossom into pages of poetic detail, delivered with an acrobatic syntactical precision worthy of comparison with the great Donald Antrim, with whom Brewer also shares an unflinching honesty about the experience of living with a brain that keeps trying to trick you into murdering yourself. But then you turn the page and hit another tedious sidebar: writing about writing, drug-trip minutiae, a commercial for Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind ... on the whole, the decisions about where to be exactingly journalistic and where to be maddeningly coy are, well, maddening ... I don’t care how fastidious your endnote is: giving Johnson’s work away like this is bullshit. It’s an offense to the memory of the man and well beneath the dignity of a writer as talented, compelling, and important as I continue to believe that William Brewer is, or will be when he gets past forcing pseudo-intellectual head games into works of art that are already heady enough, and intellectual enough, without them ... loved most of this novel. I hated some of it, and the parts that I hated I hated a lot. I would have read a Shadow Country’s worth of the West Virginia-in-the-’90s material, and/or the writings on depression, while quantum physics, poetry school, publishing-biz satire, and Michael Pollan could have all been left on the cutting-room floor. But in the end, if you’re asking me if I would recommend this book, the answer is an easy yes, because Brewer is a writer whose early promise is already proven and who may well be on the cusp of his major work. Also because when dudgeon gets this high, some second-guessing is salutary. (Now who’s hedging his bets?) Maybe the meta-dramatic struggle at the heart of The Red Arrow is that of contemporary autofiction’s ongoing attempt to escape itself, to step out of its own lengthening shadow and into the light of whatever comes next. If that’s the case—which is itself debatable—then I don’t think we’re there yet, but I could believe that we’re on the way.
RaveNew York Times Book ReviewAt 370 pages, Rao is on the short side for a multigenerational family saga and sweeping social epic ... Rao might appear at first like a welterweight among heavies. Don’t be fooled ... Vara...is a minimalist’s maximalist, leavening lushness of language with economy of execution ... The novel makes rapid shifts between registers of rhetoric and modes of attention, and it moves just as deftly between timelines ... Information-dense microhistories of industry and culture...are folded into scenes of achingly intimate sensory detail ... How to mediate between the competing interests of autonomy and collectivity, the desire for self-sovereignty and the reality of interdependence, is the major question this novel poses, over and over, at familial, societal and global scale ... The Immortal King Rao is a monumental achievement: beautiful and brilliant, heartbreaking and wise, but also pitiless, which may be controversial to list among its virtues but is in fact essential to its success. Vara respects her reader and herself too much to yield to the temptation to console us. How rare these days as a reader — and how bracing, in the finest way — to encounter a novel that refuses to treat you like a child or a studio audience. If that were the only thing to love about Rao, it would probably be enough. But as I’ve said, there’s also everything else.
RaveBookforumHarrow reminds me very much of Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but, with apologies to the boys, it’s better than both of their novels put together. Harrow belongs at the front of the pack of recent climate fiction, even as it refuses the basic premise (human survival is important) and the sentimental rays of hope (another world is possible!) that are the hallmarks of the genre. This novel doesn’t care who you vote for or if you recycle ... a crabby, craggy, comfortless, arid, erudite, obtuse, perfect novel, a singular entry in a singular body of work by an artist of uncompromised originality and vision. For all of its fragmentation and deliberate strategies of estrangement, Harrow feels coherent and complete, like a single long-form thought or a religious epiphany. It’s also funny as hell ... To read this novel is to know and to be known (Galatians 4:9) by a profound and comfortless alterity, to encounter the cosmic otherness at the very core of the self.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez, tr. Anne McLean
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...haunting and beautiful ... if you appreciate the intelligence and ambiguities of the genre’s best practitioners, you’ll have some affinity for what Vasquez is up to here ... his notion of a literature steeped in history, one that does not so much blur as obviate the line between fiction and nonfiction, and between scholarship and imagination, may owe more to Borges than anyone else ... Songs for the Flames is a book about war and imperialism, which in Vasquez’s view never really end, but rather mutate ... a book about secrets and lies, which is to say speech acts: their tremendous power, but also the limits of that power and the wretched ecstasy of revelation.
RaveHarpers... easily his strongest book in twenty years ... His work is funny, smutty, voice-driven, and deeply rooted in Southern traditions that it can neither condone nor wholly reject, and it distinguishes itself in part by asking simple yet fraught questions about how narratives function as forms of power ... Despite the odds and sods vibe of the title, the Uncollected Stories has heft and deftness, tonal unity and thematic range.
RaveBookforumPerhaps the best reason to pick up a Collected Stories is practical: Economy size! Four for the price of one! This volume, with Everyman’s Library’s signature cramped typesetting and small trim size, is dense as a study Bible. It contains all of Moore’s collections in their entirety plus one excerpt apiece from her three novels, though if you want to know what’s what you’ll have to consult the back matter, because the stories are presented neither chronologically nor by original collection, but alphabetically by title. This is, on first appraisal, a baffling choice ... But Moore is quick to remind us—in a brief and maybe just slightly tetchy author’s note—that all her books are still in print, so if the \'obvious, sequential order\' is what you want, you can still have it ... alphabetization yields unexpected juxtapositions, revealing obsessions and tendencies not just within a given book but from book to book and from era to era ... Of this marvelous and slightly forbidding monument to a life’s monumental work, all I really want to say is that we are lucky to have it, in this edition or any other. And insofar as museums are not mausoleums, here’s looking forward to volume two.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... as quiet as Lust is loud ... Not every story in the new book works. \'Café Mort\' is an improbable excursion into the supernatural, a latter-day fable that never establishes its rules or finds its footing. \'The Torch\' smolders but doesn’t catch. \'Listen,\' written entirely in bits of unattributed dialogue, is about the 2016 presidential election and grief at the outcome thereof, but I was unable to determine whether Minot was lampooning a certain strain of liberal teeth-gnashing or indulging in it herself ... The title story, also told in fragments, is a more successful experiment — almost giddily grim, with echoes of Beckett and David Markson ... I said before that Why I Don’t Write is a quiet collection, but it is not a halting or timid one. Minot still has a poet’s instinct for the surprising volta, the striking image, the bracing final line. After 30 years away from the short story, it is good to have her back, cleareyed and fearless as ever, whispering difficult truths and ambiguities that a less assured writer would feel compelled to shout.
MixedBookforumCarlisle is capable of sketching a vivid picture ... Carlisle has a tendency to make liberal use of free indirect style, attributing to her subject thoughts and observations that are almost certainly of her own invention, then this might not be the book for you. Philosopher of the Heart is intended as \'a Kierkegaardian biography of Kierkegaard,\' and Carlisle is largely successful on these peculiar terms, though such an approach is necessarily blinkered in its focus and bound to exclude readers not already conversant in Kierkegaard’s work. I doubt that Philosopher of the Heart will win any new converts, but those already captivated by Kierkegaard are likely to have their passion reignited ... Philosopher of the Heart lacks...self-awareness ... her approach \'as a Kierkegaardian biographer\' is \'to resist the urge to impose or invite these judgments.\' I sometimes wished she’d let herself succumb ... To a modern reader (and, probably, to women of all eras), Kierkegaard’s behavior toward Regine Olsen—first breaking the engagement, then writing about it, then continuing to make claims on her attention and render judgments about her life—will register as hypocritical, obnoxious, creepy, and all too familiar. It would have been nice to see this more fully acknowledged, or dealt with on any terms other than Kierkegaard’s own, which are as hopelessly convoluted as they are self-serving. A truly Kierkegaardian biography would have found some way to give Regine a voice. Moreover, it would have employed more of Kierkegaard’s own formal approaches: pseudonymous authors possessing plausible psychologies in open conflict with each other; essays and fictions presented as found texts; layers of diegesis and vortices of Socratic irony. Maybe a truly Kierkegaardian biography of Kierkegaard could only ever be a novel.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens
RaveBookforum... a novel that makes for propulsive reading despite having relatively little forward motion, its plot tending less to arc than—pace critic Jane Alison—to meander and spiral, then explode ... Stevens’s vivid, swerving sentences stage bracing dramas ... For some writers, a terrorist attack and an unplanned pregnancy would be enough narrative fodder for a spare, lyrical novel composed largely of interiority. Not for Stevens, who packs in a crash course in art history; asides about the early internet’s false promises of freedom and anonymity; a New York coming-of-age story; and a supporting cast that includes a self-help author, a psychic, and a neighbor who disappears. Unsurprisingly, keeping all these people occupied leads to a couple of cul-de-sac subplots and some surfeits of quirk. But I admire that Stevens is willing to take risks, and—crucially—all her highest-stakes gambles pay off ... The Exhibition of Persephone Q is a resonant and uncanny novel ... Jessi Jezewska Stevens is a promising, persuasive new writer, and I will be surprised if this doesn’t turn out to be one of the strongest debut novels of 2020.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewMeans, like Proust or Woolf or Munro, is a time artist ... What I had first taken for dislike was in truth a sort of altitude sickness. Once acclimatized, I recognized that I was having an encounter with radical originality, and that understanding this work on its own complicated, rewarding terms would mean rethinking what a story could be ... Means extends the profound empathy of his attention to those who need it most, even if they deserve it least, which must be why he writes so often about adulterers, criminals and teenagers ... Like Flannery O’Connor, Means senses that beneath every act of violence there pulses a vein of grace ... his commitment to exploring its implications is the rock on which his writerly project is built ... Means’s recursive, iterative approach links individual stories to one another within a given book and connects each book to the rest ... this is Means’s most self-reflective and self-reflexive book to date ... both sweeping and narrow, panoramic and fragmentary, possessed ... What pleasure it gives us to gather them up, and to dream of a world made whole.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"...the stories are uniformly brilliant ... I don’t know what happened during that long break between the first and second collections, but McGuane has emerged a master of the short story. However close together the bulk of these pieces were written, Cloudbursts is clearly the product of a life’s worth of thought and feeling and experience; it ought to be savored. That said, if you find yourself tearing through the book like a flash flood washing out a dirt road, I say go for it ... As many of his characters come to realize in these wise and moving stories, the blessing and the curse of a vast landscape is to have yourself for company. That’s no less true on the range than on the sea. A man can outrun all kinds of things, at least for a while, but never himself.\
RaveThe Los Angeles Times\"...[a] slim surrealist masterpiece ... There are many familiar things on which it draws (B-grade monster movies, suburban malaise, romance tropes), and it has been justly compared to cultural touchstones from David Lynch and Richard Yates to The Wizard of Oz and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but there is nothing else out there that is \'like\' it, or even close.\
Mathias Enard, Trans. by Charlotte Mandell
MixedThe Los Angeles Times\"...one conceit of the novel is that Ritter is writing (or imagining he might write) a work of scholarship (or a satire of a work of scholarship) to be called \'On the Divers Forms of Lunacie in the Orient\' which is (at least in part) the novel we are reading, or it would have been if Ritter had written any of it down. This element of the book is, to be perfectly honest, irritating and a little bit dumb. It doesn’t work as a conceit or as a structural device ... Reading Compass brought me back over and over to a line from Borges: \'A book which does not contain its counter book is considered incomplete.\' This novel contains many books and all of their counter books. Ritter himself is a knot of contradiction ... Compass is as challenging, brilliant, and — God help me — important a novel as is likely to be published this year, but there was more than one occasion on which I had to stop myself from throwing it across the room.\
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesComparisons to Amy Hempel and Grace Paley have been made, and are apropos. Collins can work wonders with a single line ... There is admittedly — perhaps inevitably — some variation in quality among the 16 stories. I will even share my suspicion that the author herself, had she lived, might have regarded a few of them as not quite finished. But Collins’ voice is so original, her corpus so small and this discovery of her work so long overdue that one can only applaud the editors’ decision to err on the side of inclusion ... The best reason to read this book is simply that it is fantastic: original, provocative, revelatory and bursting with life.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewWry and playful, except for when densely allusive and willfully obtuse, Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a treasure trove of bafflements and tiny masterpieces ... Williams is a vociferous and despairing pantheist, more Spinoza than St. Francis (though she does love dogs). Her apocalyptic worldview often translates on the page to comedy, albeit of a brutal and comfortless sort.
RaveBookforumI loved The Bed Moved. I love the traditions of narrative obsession, syntactic contortion, and blurt-it-out black humor from which it springs ... My favorite moments in The Bed Moved pushed past Woody Allen-ish nebbishing and Amy Schumer-ish schlemieling to arrive at a place of bracing savagery ... So much darkness delivered in such consistent doses risks habituation, but Schiff keeps things lively with her fearlessness and/or shamelessness and/or fearlessness of shame. This quality—and the refusal or inability to distinguish its different versions from each other—marks Schiff as heir to a specifically American Jewish tradition.
RaveBookforumInnocents and Others is a confrontation with the blessings and curses of the body, the pleasures and costs of fantasy, the impossibility of either total truth or total fiction. It is a work of acute cultural intelligence and moral imagination, and is far too wise to offer anything as paltry as answers to the great and terrible questions that it raises.