RaveThe New YorkerThrilling ... This ultra-lucrative, odds-defying crime streak is wonderfully narrated by Finkel, in a tale whose trajectory is less rise and fall than crazy and crazier. Only briefly does his book lag, in its discussions of the alleged science of our attraction to art ... Over all, The Art Thief, like its title character, has confidence, élan, and a great sense of timing. It is propelled by suspense and surprises, and it is neither ashamed of nor stingy with the fundamental emotional payoffs of the heist—the disbelieving No way!, the unabashed glee at the deft accomplishment of the seemingly impossible and definitely illegal. Nor does it hesitate, when the time comes, to bring down the boom.
MixedThe New YorkerConover keeps his readers waiting for too long, almost half the book, before saying anything about how the San Luis Valley came to be a magnet for the dispossessed ... Conover’s book is full of remarkable characters ... All of these people are fascinating, but none of them is the main character of the book. That role goes to Conover, who calls the second chapter \'My Prairie Life, Part I\' and the third \'My Prairie Life, Part II.\' The titles change after that, but the gist remains the same. As a writer, Conover is most at home in the first-person present tense; he prefers the closeup to the wide-angle shot, action to exposition, the immediate moment to context or history ... The virtue of this approach is that it brings the San Luis Valley into relief. Conover has a good eye for the particularity of life on the flats ... Still, all this immediacy comes at a cost, one I felt acutely throughout the book: off to the side of Conover’s own high beams, a great deal lies in darkness. The tens of thousands of other people living off the grid elsewhere in America are acknowledged in a single parenthetical aside, and the scope of rural poverty in this country goes entirely unmentioned. You would not know from Cheap Land Colorado that life in the San Luis Valley, presented here as extraordinary, looks a lot like life in countless other impoverished places. Nor does Conover pay much attention to the structural problems that have swept his characters out onto the flats, like so many Joads on the road. Although he wrote an entire book, Whiteout, about Aspen, which is a few hours away and has a median home price upward of three million dollars, we get no consideration of that town here, no sense that the lives of the rich have any bearing on those of the poor ... The cumulative effect of all this is that Cheap Land Colorado reads more like a travelogue...The San Luis Valley we encounter in the book exists mostly insofar as Conover is there exploring it; only occasionally do we see the place or its people without the writer in the frame. Sometimes this author-centric perspective serves the story well ... although consistently interesting to read, is hamstrung by the hovering presence of its author—not because Conover isn’t good company on the page but because his book never finds another focus. It is full of so many compelling people that he could have assembled a truly stellar ensemble cast—or, conversely, picked a few of them and stuck with them long enough to make their own prairie lives vivid, expansive, and illuminating. Instead, most of the characters wander in and out of the book without leaving much behind, except for the impression that potentially captivating stories have gone untold ... What makes this distractible style of storytelling particularly frustrating is that it is at odds with what Conover claims to do.
Felix Salten, Tr. Jack Zipes
MixedThe New Yorker... the book is even darker than Bambi the movie...translated by Jack Zipes, with wonderful black-and-white illustrations by Alenka Sottler ... [Salten\'s] his depiction of our impact on nature is considerably more specific and violent than the one in the film, not to mention sadder ... Does all this make Bambi a parable about Jewish persecution? The fact that the Nazis thought so is hardly dispositive—fascist regimes are not known for their sophisticated literary criticism—and, for every passage that supports such a reading, numerous others complicate or contradict it ... Yet the most striking and consistent message of the book is neither obliquely political nor urgently ecological; it is simply, grimly existential. Whatever else Bambi may be, it is, at heart, a coming-of-age story ... the book is at its best when it revels in rather than pretends to resolve the mystery of existence ... What are we to make of this muddy, many-minded story? Zipes, in his introduction, blames some of the confusion on Chambers, contending that he mistranslated Salten ... Zipes is knowledgeable about his subject matter, but he is not a lucid thinker or a gifted writer ... the Chambers translation...is much the better ... In both versions, the Bambi that emerges is a complex work, part nature writing, part allegory, part autobiography.
Sylvain Tesson, Tr. Frank Wynne
MixedThe New Yorker... ably translated by Frank Wynne ... Tesson is hardly the first to sing the praises of patience...but that doesn’t stop him from presenting it to the reader as a revelation. This would be tiresome if he weren’t a terrific writer, making the most of staying put in an interesting place ... The other saving grace of The Art of Patience is that...it is often quite funny ... Observant, funny, a stylish writer: so far, so encouraging. But what Tesson is not, we soon learn, is patient ... Markedly antediluvian notions of gender run through The Art of Patience. In Tesson’s telling, women are from Venus, as are most modern men; real men are, apparently, from twelfth-century Mongolia ... Tesson... tilts dangerously toward that old familiar strain of fascism in nature writing, the strain that despises cities as breeding grounds for the foreign and impoverished while promising to restore to a purer people glory and lands ... Humankind as destructive, culture as corrosive, progress as decline: these are old saws, dull from use, dull from their stalemate combination of truth and falsity ... The great imaginative failure of both the spiritual and the misanthropic strains of nature writing is that they valorize the challenges that arise when we confront ourselves and the wilderness but not the challenges that arise when we confront one another. Tesson comes maddeningly close to understanding what those interpersonal challenges require of us ... The real art of patience isn’t the one required to see a snow leopard, that grand incarnation of unfettered wildness; it’s the one required to save it.
PositiveThe New Yorker... at first glance the goings on at a Christian youth group in the nineteen-seventies seem less like the stuff of serious literary fiction than like the premise of the newest movie from Christopher Guest ... As it turns out, though, Crossroads is classic Franzen fodder: a slice of suburban life ripe not for satire but for the far deadlier scrutiny that comes from taking it seriously ... Franzen is not Dickens, which I mean here as a compliment; he does not do moral pageantry, doling out impossible quantities of virtue to some characters while withholding it entirely from others. Instead, in Crossroads, the desire to be good is broadly shared but alarmingly ephemeral, dissolving with equal ease in the face of forces as potent as addiction (for Perry), as insidious as self-pity (for Russ), and as trivial as a traffic jam (for Marion). Yet it is also strangely persistent, readily rekindled by an encounter with another person, an experience of the ineffable, or the banked heat of some mysterious inner fire. This combination of fragility and tenacity renders the old-fashioned question of virtue interesting again, by rendering it suspenseful ... What makes the book distinctly part of his canon, with its ambient atmosphere of self-absorption, self-loathing, and disaffection, is not the question of whether virtue can triumph but the meta-question that Perry asks: Does real goodness even exist, or is it always compromised by the dividends it pays to the do-gooder? ... It would be a mistake to conclude, from all this talk of virtue, that Crossroads is a solemn book. It is, on the contrary, a breezily written family drama with plenty of plot and a touch of melodrama; on the map of literary culture, it shares a border with the beach read. As befits a novel of middle-class suburban life, its crises are insular: a kid isn’t living up to his potential, a woman is unhappy about her weight, a teen-ager has a crush on someone else’s boyfriend ... some part of Franzen is forever turning outward, toward the grand sweep of history and the prevailing customs and troubles of our era. Sometimes his attempts to square those two scales are successful. Without manipulation or overreach, he nicely instantiates in the characters of Crossroads a series of larger phenomena ... he is at his finest when writing about the Midwest, the middle class, midlife crises, middlingness in general. The farther he ventures from all that, the shakier his plots become, the less organically they arise from his characters ... the pacing is off at the end ... when I got to that unsatisfying ending, I found myself irritated less by its shortcomings than by the fact that I couldn’t read those other volumes right away ... raises the question of what, other than suspense, makes Franzen’s new novel so compelling. That’s tricky to answer, because what’s true of ethics is also true of aesthetics: certain forms of goodness are strangely elusive. And Franzen, more than most contemporary writers of his calibre, operates in this covert mode almost exclusively ... his prose has grown looser and laxer; never a showy author, he now sometimes scarcely seems like a good one. He has become so assertively styleless that he appears to have deemed linguistic pleasure not only inferior to but anathema to all other literary aims. Whole chapters—almost whole books—go by without a beautiful line or an arresting image ... an imperfect novel that is nonetheless a great one, its inner operations lofting it high above its flaws. Only the rest of the trilogy can tell us whether the same will hold for any of its characters ... The deepest form of suspense at work in his novel is driven not by its plot but by a kind of moral uncertainty. At its conclusion, almost every character is at his or her worst; the question it leaves us with is whether any of them can ever be better.
RaveThe New YorkerIrreverent,; that prose-friendly adjective, does not come close. White writers seldom laugh about race—or, for that matter, write about it. But Zink, who has the courage of her convictions and the buffer of the Atlantic Ocean, creates in Mislaid a high comedy of racial identity...That makes the book a rarity on at least two fronts, because the shortage of smart new novels about race has nothing on the shortage of genuinely funny literary fiction. But Zink is a comic writer par excellence, one whose particular gift is the capacity to keep a perfectly straight face ... The result is a hoot, a lark—all those bird words. But it is also deadly smart ... We think of being deadpan as playing it straight during comic episodes, but Zink stays deadpan through everything—through outlandishness, anger, injustice, grief. Both that voice and the stories Zink tells are so startling, so seemingly without antecedent, that she would seem like an outsider artist, if she did not betray so much casual erudition.
William Melvin Kelley
RaveThe New YorkerA Different Drummer ... earned [Kelley] comparisons to an impressive range of literary greats, from William Faulkner to Isaac Bashevis Singer to James Baldwin ... When I read A Different Drummer I understood why ... we have a paucity of art that chooses to imagine a different outcome for the civil-rights movement, or alternate universes where African-Americans, from any era, wield not less power but more ... It’s a brilliant setup ... Moreover, it is wonderfully executed ... Kelley was...a strikingly confident writer, with a sense of humor reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor in stories like \'Revelation\': caustic, original, efficacious. He was also a keen observer, and although his story has the emotional proportions of a myth, his sentences reliably feel like real life.
Haruki Murakami, trans. Jay Rubin & Philip Gabriel
MixedThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewFor all its superb moments, 1Q84 feels uncontrolled, erratic and repetitive: it is threadbare where it should be plush, and overstuffed where it should be streamlined. The writing, meanwhile, veers from exquisite to slapdash to simply embarrassing … 1Q84 is psychologically unconvincing and morally unsavory, full of lacunas and loose ends, stuffed to the gills with everything but the kitchen sink and a coherent story. By every standard metric, it is gravely flawed. But, I admit, standard metrics are difficult to apply to Murakami … It’s a credit to Murakami’s mammoth talent that 1Q84, for all its flaws, got to me more than most decent books I’ve read this year, and lingered with me far longer: a paper moon, yes, but by a real star.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
PositiveNew York MagazineAmericanah traverses three genres (romance, comedy of manners, novel of ideas), three nations (Nigeria, Great Britain, the United States), and, within each, a swath of the social spectrum as broad—and as difficult to nail—as the hand spans in a Rachmaninoff concerto. It is a book about identity, nationality, race, difference, loneliness, aspiration, and love, not as distinct entities but in the complex combinatorial relations they possess in real life … In Americanah, Adichie is to blackness what Philip Roth is to Jewishness: its most obsessive taxonomist, its staunchest defender, and its fiercest critic.
PositiveThe New Yorker...it’s not simply that her public struggles on behalf of women, minorities, and the working class suddenly seem more relevant than ever. It’s that her private struggles—documented for the first time in all their fullness by Rosenberg—have recently become our public ones ... a scholarly and methodical biography that is built, occasionally too obviously, from one hundred and thirty-five boxes of archival material ... Rosenberg mostly takes Murray at her word, though she also adds a new one: transgender. Such retroactive labelling can be troubling, but the choice seems appropriate here, given how explicitly Murray identified as male, and how much her quest for medical intervention mirrors one variety of trans experience today.
RaveThe New YorkerHad there been an award for the best new book that defies every genre, I imagine it would have won that, too. H Is for Hawk is an improbable and hybrid creature. It is one part grief memoir, one part guide to raptors, and one part biography of T. H. White, who chronicled his maiden effort at falconry in The Goshawk, written just before he began work on The Once and Future King. I am describing Macdonald’s book by its parts for the same reason we describe a griffin by its parts—because how else would we do so? But it is coherent, complete, and riveting, perhaps the finest nonfiction I read in the past year.