RaveNPRWhen seasoned journalists turn to fiction, I often think \'uh oh, here comes trouble.\' ... Land of Big Numbers, the debut story collection from Te-Ping Chen [...] is as brilliant an instance of a journalist\'s keen eye manifesting in luminous fiction as one can find ... Chen [...] seems to have no problem at all bridging the divides of class, gender, and ideology. What else can explain this unlikely page-turner of a book, except her already envious career as an embedded journalist, reporting on everything from the Chinese criminal justice system to tech companies ... Pretty much everything about Land of Big Numbers is specific and keen yet somehow generalizable. These stories could appear as news right now, at any moment. They could be deeply reported longform features, even some of the magical realism detours Chen makes, such as a story about a life-changing, mind-bending new fruit. The broad strokes of it all, truly, could happen anywhere — maybe right where you are. It is a gift to read stories like this. Almost any one of them is worth the price of admission.
PositiveThe AV ClubFerrante’s prose is, as always, sharp and intimate, her situations loaded, but what precisely this is a story of is more difficult for the reader to suss out than in any of her other books ... a brilliantly simple construction: A woman and her niece are connected, in a cruel momentary lapse by the child’s father, and the child believes, for better or worse, that she is like her aunt. The novel is so single-minded on class and Giovanna’s naiveté that when, unlike with Lenù, other characters find Giovanna potently intelligent, it’s hard for the reader to fully believe it. Ultimately, Ferrante marches straight through the story of a wealthy child’s loss of innocence, and the novel only ends when the process is complete, if perhaps too abruptly ... To be sure, Ferrante is too sophisticated a writer to make honest and intelligent people only out of those who are not rich. But for Giovanna, that is how the world seems to operate. In a very different way than ever before, Ferrante has fashioned a knotty polemic about class and the shelters it provides. The kind of truth Costanza hides—that of her affair—is not \'difficult\'. It is simply debased and shameful, and the novel is sufficient for it.
César Aira, Trans. by Katherine Silver
RaveNPRIs there any other writer who can get away with such overshot, brazen hyperbole? Aira is unencumbered. He does what he does, and what we receive is giddy, unquestionably self-indulgent, and yet absolutely perfect ... Aira uses a sort of technique one finds not in writing workshops but in comedy improv: Take a ludicrous and specific thing. Then fashion it into a disquisition on the condition of man. Or whatever ... The silliness doesn\'t stop there, it blooms and creates new branches ... Literary critics often find Aira difficult to pin down. There\'s an understandable struggle to understand what the shtick is all about. But for me personally, there\'s no need to wonder, for Aira is a remarkably direct writer. In novella after novella, he explains his motives plainly ... For a novella like Artforum, one doesn\'t need to reach deep into the toolkit of literary theory. Aira creates his own epistemology. It\'s marvelous to witness.
MixedNPR\"There\'s a strange quality to Yuknavitch\'s stories, contradictions that rub up against each other. The stories are indeed strange, but the strangeness can become formulaic ... It all makes for some beautiful sentences, and also some deeply unsatisfying stories ... Too often, Verge often provides a universalizing way of thinking of, say, class or gender by presenting a view of inequality and womanhood so monolithic and flattened that it wards off a reader\'s investment ... When Verge presents womanhood by not taking the obvious path of contrasting women\'s actions with male agency, it is deeply insightful and riveting.\
RaveThe A.V ClubCleanness, which shares the same narrator as What Belongs To You without explicitly harkening back to its antecedent, is at least partly about love, but doesn’t always feel like it ... In this magnificently controlled book, Greenwell places himself in a queer canon that is at some remove from the queer men coming of age more recently. Longing for a reckless display of queer desire, fumbling with whether or not to wear a condom—it is all familiar, and Greenwell renders it beautifully here. More importantly, though, it is deeply radical to reclaim the \'filthy\' spaces of queer longing, to find, again, the guilt or the complicity in the violence enacted by one queer man on another, all things that feel more and more excised from queer writing. A diffusion of queer communion has occurred. Away from the bathhouses and cruising gardens, modern queer literature tends to be overly virtuous, far too straight; yet inside them, such writing can appear outdated. Somehow, Cleanness avoids all that. It is both painful plea and wise instruction ... Together Cleanness’ nine stories reclaim the somewhat-forgotten element of dangerous power struggle that used to more frequently define queerness. Greenwell puts the queer man back into his simultaneously alive and desolate landscape of desire—the one many of us have a hard time remembering in more scrubbed versions of queerness ... Cleanness wants to hum at a frequency the reader must tune to catch. And it does.
MixedThe Los Angeles Review of Books... who is telling this story? An unnecessary device I’m afraid. It is disappointing to find a writer as talented as NDiaye employ a narrator who is, sure, unreliable, but in discursive and extremely frustrating ways ... Nothing can be said about the Cheffe that isn’t filtered through a narrator who smacks of a mechanism merely for plot contrivance. The Cheffe is eternally enigmatic, until she is not. The Cheffe is boundlessly independent, until she is not. The Cheffe comes from poverty and knows there is genuine dignity in it, but the novel keeps forgetting all about that. That last one stings most. NDiaye is a writer with a great many talents, but the primary talent The Cheffe uses is her deftness with the matter of social class ... even with such a grave misstep, NDiaye’s spry prose and psychological acuity — in a translation from Jordan Stump — are on display, dimmed greatly, but not gone. How the Cheffe goes from indigence to somebody with razor-eyed, almost-mystical levels of culinary brilliance is the real story, and the most intriguing part of the book ... NDiaye supplies mouth-watering detail ... When the whole point of a story is so incisive and provocative, it is sad to see the whole carry such an irrelevant burden ... But most of all, the question The Cheffe raises for its high-minded, literary audience: Is Marie NDiaye the only acclaimed novelist willing to be self-aware, even guilty, of her own stature?
Anne Serre, Trans. by Mark Hutchinson
RaveNylonAnne Serre, the remarkable French writer...writes in a manner...exploring the contours of female sexuality in its shocking, violent, racy, and mostly completely incomprehensible ways. That isn\'t to say that\'s all that Serre does. In fact, she does quite a bit more. In two of the three \'moral tales\' that comprise The Fool, Serre is indeed very much like César Aira in that both often seem to depart from an autobiographical premise and move outward from there, exploring a cavernous terrain with a dark wit and more than a hint of improvisation ... What matters is the rumination through which Serre ramblingly leads me either to recognize myself...or an odd and funny fact I\'ve never quite thought about ... When Serre sinks her teeth into human, often female, sexuality, she\'s peerless. That\'s a real feat, because Serre is not exactly in uninhabited territory. Her manner of exploring the taboo, for instance, puts her in conversation with fellow female Francophone writers Leila Slimani, Marie NDiaye, and Amélie Nothomb. Her way of questioning what society deems immoral seems of a piece with Amparo Dávila, Clarice Lispector, and Carmen Maria Machado. The difference, perhaps, is the dissonance between Serre\'s soothing, even prim prose and the alarming premises ... Countless times in my life the fundamental wrong-headedness of stories has made me object, without regard to the writer\'s self-awareness. But just a few writers—great misanthropic writers—navigate depravity in a manner so enthralling. In a manner that informs my objections rather than calling to mind old ones.
PanNPRA fairly straightforward traipse through organs or organ systems, The Body is the sort of book that makes one wonder how it is that Bryson lost his magic touch in making very big books transcend the common textbook. Oftentimes during The Body, it\'s unclear what exactly makes Bryson feel that the words of a living scientist or two per chapter are sufficient to enthrall the reader more than an introductory human biology textbook would. If anything, the way The Body moves along, it makes one wish there were sub-headings and diagrams — things textbooks have. So, what happened? ... Perhaps what\'s missing most is Bryson\'s characteristic wit and ingenious ways of analysis. There is a little of both ... What The Body is left with, then, is a heavy sense of didacticism, and a pedestrian tone of unrelenting pomp and hyperbole so common in popular science books that aim to make everything about scientific discovery seem just awesome. There are glimmers of hope when Bryson uses quirky, fascinating stories ... The tendency to abandon fruitful threads can be infuriating ... The truth is, it\'s just not clear who The Body is for. Is it the sort of book targeted to the children bored by textbooks, or is it targeted to the casual adult reader? Is it meant for people who care for and know about the human body, or is it for people who know nothing about it? It is a strange burden to put on a writer to expect an entirely different book than the one that is present, but for many long-time Bryson fans, this may be exactly the conundrum ... And no matter who the reader is, it is hard to imagine The Body making the kind of incredible impact that A Short History did, especially in a time when so many wonderful books with similar scope exist.
PositiveThe A.V. Club... one may be forgiven for thinking Lerner is trying to make up for his implied shortcomings in prose. So much so that reading The Topeka School feels like being thrust into a graduate seminar on grand literary theory. For the most part, it’s as engrossing as can be ... Strictly on its own terms—as formal innovation driving a relatively static present by imbuing it with a deep past—The Topeka School mostly succeeds. Lerner’s method has a fair bit of madness, but it’s all about the relationship between language and what it has the power to conjure. The narrative shifts from first- to second- to third-person with surprising smoothness ... On occasion, the interpretative possibilities are remarkably unsubtle ... If the parallels creak, Lerner has a scaffolding rich enough to avoid hamminess, more so than in his previous novels ... But something is getting in the way of how good this novel really is. The Topeka School, a novel being released now, in October of 2019, bears a sales pitch and has elicited a critical response so familiar that it casts a pall over Lerner’s craft. The novel has been marketed and praised as a product of that exhausting trope—\'fiction for our times\'. Such weighty expectations deeply affect how a reader approaches the novel ... Lerner has not pulled off some grand historical response to America in 2019. The men in The Topeka School may be a familiar amalgam of disaffection and privilege, but Jane, the character least connected to some overarching narrative of the white American today, isn’t as easy. That it is this free-wheeling, second-guessing, instinctual character who ends up walking away with the whole book through sheer emotional heft, seems like a rebuke to the idea that any novel published in Trump’s America can be sufficiently \'timely.\'
MixedThe A.V. ClubKlosterman comes across as familiarly irreverent ... while its tone may be alluring to fans, the collection is less clever, incisive short stories than it is akin to a series of premises pitched in a precocious TV writers’ room. Pilot season might do well to have Klosterman relate such jumping-off points, which is to say that the book sounds fun, but as a collection, it’s undercooked ... as soon as things start to get interesting, Klosterman shuts it all down ... Klosterman’s best stories are those that deal with the ethics of his premise in a more meaningful way ... The only problem is that for every good story in this collection of 34, there are far too many middling ones, and more than a couple bad ones. One story in particular is almost offensive in its belief of its own cleverness ... may as well be titled Nonfictional Fiction.
MixedNPRBrook zooms in on idiosyncrasies. Most mixed-race free men in antebellum Charleston were blind to the ills of slavery, and Creoles of color in New Orleans found even elite professions very much in reach, with some amassing great wealth. These aren\'t particularly new insights, to be sure, but reading about two Southern cities as a challenge to the tidy notion that the South wasn\'t ready for civil rights is refreshing ... This is valuable history. However, if it\'s often unclear what purpose Brook is writing toward, it\'s because the complications of biracial and mixed-race populations seem more to bookend The Accident of Color than provide a throughline for it ... In a sense, the idiosyncrasies that make Charleston and New Orleans seemingly important test cases for Brook also effectively render them far less anomalous once this alliance was formed ... Brook rarely talks about wage labor of any kind, focusing instead on schools, streetcars and legislatures ... Brook has written a book that goes a long way toward injecting thoughtfulness into popular notions of the history of race and racism in America, but he also doesn\'t go far enough. After all, the story of the social construction of race cannot really be told without understanding the motivations — both racial and nonracial — that undergird it.
RaveThe A.V. ClubThere’s a hothouse isolation pervading Chia-Chia Lin’s debut novel that’s evocative of Jeffrey Eugenides’ much-lauded 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides ... What The Unpassing does is so brutal yet intensely immersive that questioning Lin’s choices feels like asking for a novel far less authentic ... The Unpassing is far more bleak than The Virgin Suicides ... It’s brutal, but marvelous. The prose is so sparse that it feels designed to describe Alaska, and Alaska alone ... It’s an arresting approach. Lin does not dwell; she lingers—her lingering a sort of haunting.
Olga Tokarczuk, Trans. by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
PositiveNPRJanina\'s story suffers from a general sense of lassitude in its first third — a result of frustrated expectations brought on by an exaggeratedly-pulpy cover blurb. But Tokarczuk also pulls off some nigh-impossible feats. To get a reader to believe even fictitiously in the power of Janina\'s astrological readings requires a sense of staunch belief that she is indeed onto something. And in doing so, the story has Janina, and the reader, hitting the limits of capability, of believability, even a real and tangible limit — like a national border ... As far as Drive Your Plow Into the Bones of the Dead is a paean to nature, it works precisely because it works solely through the character of Janina, sidestepping a more sweeping polemic ... Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a sort of ode to Blake ... And in tying Janina with Blake so closely, Tokarczuk manages to link Blake\'s sharp indictment of human encroachment into nature with Janina\'s horror at the hunting and killing of animals, and the creep of human corruption into the Polish wilderness ... It may be worth to ask: Does Tokarczuk transcend Blake? Arguable — perhaps. Does she render the limits of human effort more viscerally than Blake? Arguable — perhaps.
César Aira, Trans. by Chris Andrews
PositiveLos Angeles Review of Books\"A beautiful memoir inspired by Aira’s 50th birthday, Birthday is worthy of serious philosophical attention: lengthy digressions tell one explicitly how Aira perceives the past, the present, and the future, but what clarifies all his work is how he how he wrangles strangeness out of the quotidian.\
Edouard Louis, Trans. by Lorin Stein
MixedThe Masters Review... the question the reader may pose to Who Killed My Father is not one that doubts Louis’ veracity or moral integrity, but simply the question: \'OK. What’s new?\' ... Curious in the way that if one rolls a word around one’s tongue enough times, it begins to lose meaning. In the way a reader might think: \'Yes, thank you, we got it the first time\' ... like any intelligent writer, Louis teases out confounding contradiction. But then, Louis remains committed to conclusions as well; confident proclamations about the nature of his father ... The problem is: I don’t believe Louis actually does convince anyone except someone like me, someone who already agrees. I wish dearly for him not to sound so trite, but there it is ... Even comparing Louis to his French peers, it’s doubtful he has does enough to stand with the best, partly because he’s so bent on waging a war with ambiguity.
RaveThe Masters ReviewI’ve never encountered a version like the Shakespeare in Sandra Newman’s latest book, The Heavens ... The Heavens is a novel with so many premises, in fact, that the permutations of those we read feel a bit dizzying and sometimes even a bit disappointing because they inevitably mean we won’t have time to cover more ... The whole edifice upon which Newman’s changing premises are built is Kate herself, who has dreamed herself as another person all her life—but who, obviously, no one believes ... what’s most intriguing about it all is how easily Newman convinces us that Kate is entirely in the right ... Any ordinary writer can create a world where mind-bending time-travel and flights of fancy are basically the same thing, and most could also elevate the simple banalities of romance in modern-day New York with elegiac party tricks. But few could credibly grant a pitied girl like Kate with staggeringly convincing world-historical agency, and even fewer, I suspect, would choose to abandon vague lyricism for realism in such a situation ... The feint that Kate’s delusion is real is impressive in how plainspoken it is ... In lesser hands, this would all be rather tedious ... marvelous.
Leila Slimani Trans. by Sam Taylor
MixedThe A.V. Club\"The standard that readers who loved The Perfect Nanny will hold Adèle to—both the woman and the book—is too high ... Part of the disappointment is in realizing Slimani’s shtick. All she wants is for us to sit with this person for some time—and that’s great—but in Adèle, unlike The Perfect Nanny, this yields diminishing returns ... But then Adèle does have a twist coming. Late in the book—too late—Richard gains a perspective, a stake, before turning to the inevitable. For the reader with some fealty to Slimani’s way, it’s profoundly unsatisfying. But for that persnickety Goodreads reviewer, it’ll work: It delivers that pulpy quality one should never have expected from Slimani in the first place.\