RaveThe AtlanticSontag’s stylish, idiosyncratic approach to the feminist debates and preoccupations of her era can be distilled pretty well into tangible guidance for ours. This is one of those moments when smart voices from other times can offer us clarity and fresh perspectives on our own.
Rachel Louise Snyder
RaveThe Washington PostAbsorbing ... nlike many memoirists, she seems completely uninterested in self-mythologizing or reveling in her specialness. Though her childhood is unusually arduous, her writing is stripped of self-pity ... Snyder’s harrowing descriptions of her childhood...are precise, controlled, well-wrought ... Her restraint and pared-down prose allow the reader to enter the scene, to see, in a way that more obtrusive narration would not ... Snyder brings a journalist’s eye to her own past, applying balance and precision to intimate family scenes, which is incredibly difficult to do.
RaveThe Atlantic[Malcolm\'s] choice to turn to autobiography in her last book, Still Pictures, is so intriguing. From the moment you open it, the book does not present itself as a conventional memoir ... It feels as if she is almost tricking herself into it, as if writing a memoir is something that sort of happened to her while cleaning out a shelf or an attic ... Somehow, without a reader even quite realizing it, Malcolm’s memoir slips into being a commentary on memoir ... For Malcolm obsessives, of whom there are many, these are intriguing glimpses of her life, but they are only glimpses ... Ending with a photograph that means nothing to her, or means something because it means nothing, is the final subversion of her profound and mischievous scrapbook ... One is still left with a mystery, though. Why did Malcolm write an autobiography when the form vexed and repelled her? ... She was not one to resist a challenge. She liked inventing or remaking forms. She thrived on the meticulous solving of aesthetic problems.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewA vibrant new book ... Reveals the hidden ardors running beneath the surface ... Gordon neither lionizes nor takes down Eliot. Rather, a deep respect for and curiosity about his writing, combined with a supple psychological portrait, animates her analysis ... Gordon somehow manages to keep Eliot’s poetry and prose at the center of the book, while preserving a quiet but persistent moral authority ... Gordon does an admirable job navigating the ambiguities of the tangled situations she chronicles; she is respectful of complications, of emotional messiness, of unusual attachments. She patiently evokes the intricacy and singularity of each intimate relationship.
Elizabeth Hardwick, Ed. by Alex Andriesse
RaveThe New York Times Book Review... the late author compares writing an essay to catching a fish with your hands. Her own are so strange, surprising, slippery and beautiful that we can see how this might be true ... [a] whimsical, uneven collection ... As always, Hardwick is elegant, sharp-witted, eccentric, exacting, dreamy ... One can’t help feeling that the prickly and controlled Elizabeth Hardwick might not have cared for a collection of her leftover writings, many from places like Mademoiselle and House & Garden, even one as thoughtfully curated as this. This doesn’t mean the reader isn’t grateful to have it. There is a bit more idiosyncrasy and wildness in this book than in her more willfully collected volumes. One gets to know a writer in her casual offhand pieces, churned out for money or on assignment ... One of the pleasures of the collection is lovely evocation of place ... Her prose has an entrancing power of description, a formidable prettiness combined with razor precision ... If one is the sort of person who takes pleasure in intelligent meanness, Hardwick is certainly one of its master practitioners. She is sharp in her satirizing, icy in her judgments, shrewd in her takedowns ... One bracing and refreshing aspect of Hardwick’s work is that she does not spare herself from her own critical rigor and fierceness. She pins herself down just as she skewers other people ... Her highly fraught attitude toward other women writers will not have eluded close readers of her work, but there is something about her grappling openly with this tendency on the page that is disarming. As a critic, she doesn’t shy away from the complications, ambiguities and self-incriminations many other people would leave simmering but unmentioned ... Some of the weaker essays in the collection feel perfunctory, slight, but they are always stylish ... The glimpse this collection gives of Hardwick, the woman, is intriguing. We experience her mind in darts and flashes. Browsing these essays is what I imagine it would be like to be standing next to her in the corner of a crowded party, in a cloud of smoke: at times uncomfortable, thrilling, alarming ... One falls a little in love with her sentences.
Sandra M Gilbert
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewWhile it provides an engaging tour of female voices, the new book feels flabbier, shallower, more diffuse. Some of its inquiries seem unrelated to feminism or anger, such as an interesting rumination on Adrienne Rich’s relation to her Judaism, and others seem overly familiar ... nonetheless entertaining and lively; it offers up many fascinating nuggets of information, and unearths intriguing biographical struggles ... Gilbert and Gubar are, perhaps not surprisingly, sharpest in their assessment of the political landscape of the 1970s ... The two critics are deft in their evocations of politically electric writers like Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, but towering figures like Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, who defy easy ideological characterization, pose a little more difficulty. Gilbert and Gubar seem not quite sure what to do with them, and consequently their analysis of the two independent thinkers seems odd and off-key. It is a little disheartening to see them downplay Didion’s enormous literary contribution and overemphasize what they view as her conservative politics. Their desire to squeeze Didion into some sort of feminist narrative feels forced ... Regarding Sontag, they almost seem more comfortable talking about her appearance and star power, comparing her to \'Marilyn\' and \'Jackie,\' than they do with her complex and nuanced relationship to the women’s movement and her sexuality ... While it is, of course, Gilbert and Gubar’s prerogative to choose their own literary feminist pantheon, some of their exclusions are a bit hard to fathom ... I find myself wondering why Still Mad lacks the fire and focus of its famous predecessor ... Though Still Mad may not feel as profound, intellectually sinewy or fiercely focused as The Madwoman in the Attic, it remains an excellent resource for anyone seeking a spirited guide through the past few decades of feminist history. One can feel the sensibilities of these two pioneering scholars — humane, fair, impassioned, well intentioned — hovering over the page.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review... crisp, unadorned prose ... In the course of Selvaratnam’s careful, detailed narrative, we see how a story that looks extraordinary isn’t extraordinary. We see how millions of other less sensational, lower profile stories of abuse are contained within this one. How step by step, a strong woman is seduced by the confounding combination of male woundedness and power ... The difficulty of going public with this account can’t be underestimated—nor can the forces working against Selvaratnam: his influence, the potential for shame, the panic of letting one’s perfectly serviceable public image slip. The sheer effort involved in looking very straightforwardly at this story, allowing it to exist, is palpable on the page ... Selvaratnam is at her most powerful when she tells her own story rather than rehashing familiar feminist truisms or quoting experts. One wishes at times for more of her: her childhood, her trips to Sri Lanka, her prickly complicated mother, her irrepressible grandmother. The book cycles obsessively over its raison d’être: At least 10 times, Selvaratnam explains that she is going public with her story to save other women. The energy expended on all this justification is wasted; the reader is already on her side. But her defensiveness speaks to the arduousness of this kind of revelation, the fact that it is going against not just entrenched power structures, but some formidable internal dictate of decorum or pride ... In methodically describing how a successful artist and activist can fall into a dark relationship with a controlling man, she is performing a rare and valuable service. It is important to see how frighteningly easy it is to lose power even for extremely confident, professionally accomplished women ... Selvaratnam writes to the chasm between who we are publicly and privately, exploring how easily the facade of our politics, our most passionately held conviction dissolves in intimate life.
Vanessa Springora, tr. Natasha Lehrer
RaveThe New York Times Book Review... a devastating literary takedown of another powerful man ... eloquent ... Springora’s prose, smoothly translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer, is spare and novelistic. She is a graceful stylist, though her story also burns with a sense of purpose, a clarifying force. Her ravishing descriptions of the restlessness and boredom of teenage life rival those of Françoise Sagan ... Her cool, precise account reveals his grand seductions as the brutal, petty, narcissistic fumblings that they were ... [an] act of revenge. What makes [it] so satisfying is that the writer takes over the story, turns the tables, goes from being the fearful to the feared, the controlled to the controlling ... These are stories that are hard to tell even to ourselves ... excellent.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewMockingjay is not as impeccably plotted as The Hunger Games, but nonetheless retains its fierce, chilly fascination. At its best the trilogy channels the political passion of 1984, the memorable violence of A Clockwork Orange, the imaginative ambience of The Chronicles of Narnia and the detailed inventiveness of Harry Potter ... The entire series, and Mockingjay in particular, also offers an investigation of the future frontier of the screen: There are cameras everywhere recording at the outer limits of experience.
Kate Elizabeth Russell
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe adult Vanessa is a classic unreliable narrator, and as she is reporting the sexual entanglement the reader becomes queasily aware of this ... One of the cleverest aspects of the novel is how it resists the facile linear form of revelation; it backs up toward insights, runs away from them, sifts through them again, obsesses. The book reads like a thriller or mystery story though there is no mystery ... The novel flickers between the horror of the situation and the romantic overlay with the stylized dizziness of a disco ball. The reader struggles, along with Vanessa, to make sense of what is happening ... One of the more radical aspects of the novel is that it maintains its ambiguities ... Very occasionally the writing veers toward clunkiness or overexplication, but at her best, Russell probes deftly at the disorienting paradoxes inherent in these relationships ... It is difficult to write about this subject without falling into predictable tropes or clichés, but Russell manages a brutal originality. In an era of neat furious accounts of victimhood, this novel stands out for elusiveness, its exceedingly complex, inventive, resourceful examination of harm and power.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"... the adroitly edited new collection of her letters, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963, which spans her entire marriage to the English poet Ted Hughes and its aftermath, and includes many letters that had not previously been published, provides one of the most vivid and intimate accounts of her life to date. In particular, these letters vastly enrich our understanding of Plath’s state of mind leading up to her suicide, which has been patchy and sparse, in part because of Hughes’s decision to destroy her final journal ... One striking aspect of these letters is how prominently and enthusiastically the domestic details of Plath’s life in England, like stew recipes or flaky crusts or home-sewn baby clothes, are discussed, even as she remains intensely dedicated to her work ... These desperate letters [to Dr. Ruth Beuscher], which until recently were privately held, provide astonishing insight into Plath’s inner state in the troubled months when she wrote her strongest poems.\
RaveSlateIn Ian McEwan’s tricky and captivating new novel Sweet Tooth, he takes as his complex subject the male writer entering a woman’s consciousness (or it might be more accurate in this case to say breaking and entering a woman’s consciousness) … Even the sensitive, artistically attuned, intellectually sophisticated male writer sees a woman in a very different way than she would see herself. The gap McEwan investigates is enormous and fascinating, and if we truly want to understand sexual politics, we need to read, instead of ironic blogs and Caitlin Moran and faux sociology, more novels like this one … McEwan’s meta-fictional trick, his pulling the rug out from under the reader is interesting, because it requires her to reread, rethink, retread the novel.
MixedSlateClaire Messud's remarkable new novel The Emperor's Children is that mythical hybrid that publishers dream of one day finding in the piles of manuscripts on their desks: a literary page-turner … For at the heart of this book isn't love, but work, which so rarely comes into the late-coming-of-age novel. With each character, she methodically examines the secretly harbored illusions, the grand thoughts that we have about our talents, and how they careen to Earth … Messud fails to bring off the operatic finale that her characters, and her Iris Murdoch-like plot, compel. She has set up all sorts of denouements and resolutions that are left dangling; she has let the proverbial gun set up in the second act remain unfired.