Katy Waldman is Slate's Words correspondent. She can be found on Twitter @xwaldie
Ed. by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
MixedThe New Yorker... the tales sit at various intersections of smolder and technical accomplishment. Many do exert an indirectness or subtlety that bends the straight line from longing to gratification. Of these entries, some are arresting—the characters precise, the language invitingly lush—and some are inert. Several contributions evoke erotica, and a few manage to be both sexy and illuminating, although too much thoughtful interrogation can diminish the sex, like explaining a joke. What becomes clear is that a perhaps irreconcilable tension exists between a good story about kink and a good story about what kink means ... Stories that cut, as many of Kink ’s do, in the other direction—toward metaphor, subtext, an interior world—conform to our idea of good fiction, but they also seem to waste an opportunity to explore kink as an aesthetic ... the book doesn’t offer precise definitions of its subject, and so its aesthetics are also imprecise, defaulting often to a diligent seriousness. Mainly, the book bestows visibility: on unconventional desires, on the authors who depict them ... You might secretly wait and hope for the acknowledgment of your own proclivity—who wouldn’t—but it’s also pretty clear that part of the book’s allure flows from what could (charitably) be called curiosity, or (uncharitably) voyeurism. This isn’t unique to Kink, of course. On some level, to read anything is to press your face to the keyhole of other people’s fantasies ... I would be remiss if I did not mention that several of the stories in Kink are abysmally bad. You can pursue the causes, consequences, and metaphors of B.D.S.M. so studiously that the acts themselves become domesticated. (Also, several entries are rife with cliché—and not the liberating kind.) It’s curious that the collection declares its subject to be kink, not sex; doing so embeds the gathered work in a firmament of norms and identities rather than one of hungers, sensations. But maybe this is by design; as the reader’s mind tracks back and forth between bodies and definitions, she begins to see those definitions’ flimsiness, and to wonder about the unexpressed depths that live in each of us. Cultural judgments are never fixed, and the imprecision of the word “kink” in some ways echoes the imprecision of the word \'literature,\' which depends on a superfluity of truth or beauty that is impossible to pin down. In that way, at least, art is exactly like smut: you know it when you see it.
RaveThe New Yorker[Schofield] dispenses plot details sparingly, so that you hardly know what has happened or why, and yet the book’s driving enigma turns out to be of the second variety ... Bina is not a conventionally unreliable narrator. She’s forthright ... But, little by little, the picture fills out. Bina is tormented by a man named Eddie, her \'sorta son,\' whom she took in after he crashed his motorcycle in a ditch by her house ... Careful readers of Schofield’s work may recognize Bina from Malarky ... the author’s début, from 2012, in which Bina, in a cameo role, attacks a plane with a hammer ... while Schofield’s themes are transcendently bleak—so bleak that the bleakness must be the point—her style feels almost decadently addictive. Bina makes for great company; her obstinacy, like Bartleby’s, is flecked with heroic resistance, and her complaints elicit a pleasing mixture of satisfaction and dread ... The stubborn lack of charisma to these facts makes the novel almost as recalcitrant as its narrator—both demand, grouchily and wittily, to be taken on their own terms.
RaveNew Yorker... the book feels at once crafted, its prose full of calibrated grace, and startlingly unmediated. No brush (with obscurity) is necessary to buff its surface ... Howland seems reluctant to reinscribe the cruelties of these categories: sick and well, normal and abnormal. Suspicious of the ways in which they are delineated, she proceeds according to a simpler binary. Those who suffer are patients. Those who don’t are not ... The choice for Howland thus becomes one between the vulnerability of the inmate and the brusque, fatuous bullying of the keeper ... Her tone, recounting the stampede toward the doors, feels slightly mocking. She’s no longer present in the anguish of the moment, but she isn’t explaining it to us from without, either. Instead, she seems to be ironically reconstructing a flood of feelings that has already subsided, serving them up as a wry, self-conscious simulation: \'We’re being forced, that’s what it is!\' There’s the nauseating sense that Howland is veering ever closer to a real, claustrophobic horror—one that even now lunges toward her, out of the past—but, thank God, the doors are sliding shut ... Howland holds her life at arm’s length; recounting a nurse’s rudeness or a fellow-inmate’s aggression, she sounds grateful for the good material ... It all feels like an attempt to overwrite, or perhaps just write away from, the present tense of suffering—which, for Howland, is akin to madness. Similes, any device that transforms a thing into what it is not, become helpmeets: if Howland’s mother suggests a glamorous animal, then the patients appear as beautiful aliens ... When people write about their rendezvous with mental illness, there are often a few false notes scattered among the true ones, places where the meaning of the thing feels not fully absorbed. Howland’s book struck me as remarkably perceptive and wise, but there was one passage, toward the end, that protruded as an exception .. This may not be the smug sentimentality of the memoir’s psychiatrists, who are eager to congratulate Howland for submitting to their expert care. But it does seem to contain the felt truth of someone who parted from her life and then returned. No one is going to rediscover you. You have to rediscover yourself.
RaveThe New YorkerThe book, which follows the critically lauded Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, from 2010, examines alienation and the phantasmagoria of racial performance—how certain interactions can seem so forced and strange that they might as well take place underwater ... Evans evinces a special vigilance toward threats that are familiar, in the sense of both inherited and routine. To read her is to become aware of ambience, of the peculiar iridescence that short fiction can sometimes offer: the stories are infused with many things but not precisely “about” any of them ... It’s not spoiling much to say that the twisting, turning novella finally drops the collection off back where it began: with a woman yearning to be treated as human. But Evans, reprising her fairy-tale motif, offers no cartoonish certainties. She regards her characters with real curiosity and edges their discoveries with real terror ... I was moved, reading Evans’s stories, by a sudden, flooding feeling of familiarity. Here were themes from childhood picture books, problems that seemed native to the past, and yet they rushed back, louder than ever. Metaphors amount to their own form of passing, obscuring realities that can only hide for so long. Is it worth surrendering your voice to be safe? Conversely, is it worth sacrificing your life to be heard? Suppose that the creature weighing these things is a mermaid. Now suppose that she’s been human from the start.
RaveSlate... lush sentences and speculative wit ... it is signature Russell: a fanciful, droll, elaborately thought-through allegory with a dark center. (People don’t always credit how grim this author can be, but to read Russell is to realize that you can have invention without joy.) ... Not that you will be reading Sleep Donation for the plot or even for the themes. You will be reading it for the pleasure of Russell’s language, which is acrid, luminous, and deft, and for the way she confuses the ordinary and the marvelous. She is a special kind of magical realist in that she is wholly committed to both registers ... Russell has diagnosed something elemental about the way we grasp for things we may or may not want ... matter-of-factness becomes an asset, heightening the weirdness by contrast and acquainting us with our readerly situation: bizarro world, level-headed and trustworthy narrator. In the magical realism of our own lives, that’s sort of how we see ourselves.
PositiveThe New YorkerIf Just Us extends Citizen’s effort to “pull the lyric back” into reality, it may succeed too well. Rankine cedes large swaths of her imagination to mourning the constraints placed on it, and her self-subordination—to white people, especially—hardens many of the certainties that her art aims to unsettle. The book returns often to the phrase “what if,” but it feels besieged by “what is”: unfreedom is the point, as is a shift in the “American conversation” from hope to a kind of dignified resignation ... As a study of what it’s like to operate within society’s limits, Just Us is exactly the mixed triumph that Rankine has permitted herself to hope for.
RaveThe New Yorker... details are carefully chosen: sparse but vivid. Trethewey’s souvenirs from the past, inflected with the knowledge of the poet she’d become, have the intentionality of memorials, not just memories ... Much of the book’s memorializing occurs at a remove. The narrator pays unusual attention to photographs, as if only documentary evidence were trustworthy ... the book swarms with fantasy ... Trethewey inlays [police] materials directly into the book, like a witness entering facts into the record. The effect is devastating ... Trethewey offers us an unvarnished, individuated Gwen in the precise moment that she snatches her away, leaving Persephone and Eurydice, photographs and dreams, an avenue lined with memorials, everything but her.
PositiveThe New YorkerDolan has a wonderfully intuitive and fluid handle on Ava, a young person who equates adulthood with moral imperfection and who finds herself disgusted and beguiled by both ... an examination of sex, queerness, self-sabotage, power, and privilege. Its milieu is young and left-leaning, and its tone is dry, sharp, and cerebral ... Believe me when I say that I did not want to make this review all about Rooney. But imitation is part of Exciting Times ’s virtuosity. Deadpan prose punctuated by similes? Check ... Exquisitely precise observations about social dynamics? Check ... Dolan, like Rooney, conjures her protagonists in a few selective strokes—an effect that bewitches, at first, but the characters don’t linger afterward, and they seem mostly defined by the impression they make on others. Most important, Dolan follows Rooney into the jaws of the reflexivity trap ... Dolan’s engagement with politics feels at least as superficial ... One could even argue that Dolan’s own socialist leanings—her grasp of how grinding and impossible the system can be—inform her depiction of characters with untenable ideological commitments. But those commitments, and others, never feel real on the page; they feel like credentials, and if a character acts against them he or she is dutifully redeemed by self-awareness. ... If Dolan considers the ego affirmation that powers Ava and Julian’s relationship to be hollow, even toxic, then why spend so much time evoking characters who long to befriend, sleep with, or—in the case of a jealous rival—usurp her protagonist? ... As entertaining as Dolan can be, the world of the book feels rigged, as if its purpose were to produce an outcome that maximally flatters its protagonists ... What does it mean to write a coming-of-age novel when a character’s life is predestined? These books, so reluctant to engage with change, agency, and suffering, turn instead to awareness, which they frame as atonement.
RaveThe New YorkerWatching Samantha Harvey obliterate the advice that’s so often and so smugly offered to the exhausted...is one of the grim pleasures of The Shapeless Unease ... This book seems appropriately messy-haired and wild-eyed ... Anyone who has lain awake the night before a big test will recognize such manic flourishes. Harvey captures the 4 a.m. bloom of magical thinking; stories proliferate within stories ... One feels deranged, reading it, and part of the book’s disturbia may derive from its refusal to stay confined between its own covers ... To read Harvey is to grow spoiled on gorgeous phrases; she’s an author you want to encounter with pencil in hand.
PositiveThe New YorkerStrangely, given her reputation as a polemicist, she seems to avoid resolution; many of her chapters end on unshowy, almost awkward lines. This quality speaks to a tension in her work—the extent to which her political activism is subsumed by her diffuse, lyrical sensibility. In fact, Solnit can be most persuasive not when dispensing feminist credos but when she is studying the fine grain of intimate experience .
Emily St. John Mandel
PositiveThe New YorkerMandel’s gift is to weave realism out of extremity. She plants her flag where the ordinary and the astonishing meet, where everyday people pause to wonder how, exactly, it came to this. She is our bard of waking up in the wrong time line ... One effect of Mandel’s book is to underscore the seemingly infinite paths a person might travel ... Mandel is not the first writer to observe that the world seems to hang in a delicate and improbable balance ... Mandel freshens these ideas by examining what they do to notions of responsibility ... There is a sense that, the more susceptible characters are to visions of an alternative life, the less they care about causing harm. What does crime matter if, in a parallel universe, one obeys the law? ... [Mandel\'s] story offers escape, but the kind that depends on and is inseparable from the world beyond it—not unlike the hotel of the title, which is triumphant and precarious at once, \'lit up,\' as Mandel writes, \'against the darkness of the forest.\'
RaveThe New Yorker...a fascinating, busy document. The sentences are worked and reworked, twisted into wires and drawn through multiple clauses. Straightforward memories alternate with meditations on family dynamics and quotes from psychologists and social scientists. Tallent, who takes pass after pass at her elusive subject, evokes a fisherman in a fairy tale, repeatedly casting his rod. There is something compulsive at work here, and a pathos that rises from the simultaneous breadth and modesty of the author’s yearning. Tallent wants nothing less than perfection, because nothing less will make her safe ... The passages in Scratched that deal with writer’s block will have the effect of quicksand on anyone who’s struggled to express herself on paper. You sink under, horrified and enthralled ... Tallent’s writing can have a pleasingly labored quality, as if she were a metaphysical poet comparing sex to a flea ... The memoir relies on words that, inscribed with their author’s desire to express the inexpressible, become almost tragic. Each adjective—\'radiant,\' \'numinous\'—gestures toward a splendor it can’t reach.
MixedThe New YorkerWhat emerged in me, at first, was wariness. There can be something suspect about dolor, with its seam of gratification, and Christle’s self-awareness occasionally falters, so that her objective can feel less like catharsis than like a literary ode to wallowing ... But Christle anticipates this skepticism, the way grief can feel secretly thrilled at itself, and addresses it in several ways ... a sincerity that makes room for the reader’s embarrassment, thereby neutralizing it ... her unguarded tone shifts the burden of that shame onto us, forcing a consideration of our own sympathy and distaste ... evocative factoids ... There is power in holding grief at a remove, [Christle] knows, but The Crying Book seems determined to dissolve that remove: to press up against the edge of language, to push beyond representation into the real ... less a journey than a set of paratactic ideas. The reader surfaces, as if from a crying session, sensing that something has been gained, but unsure what.
Carmen Maria Machado
RaveThe New YorkerThe book itself takes a breathtakingly inventive form ... This elaborate architecture could have felt florid, but the headings also help unlock each vignette’s function, like a brushstroke guiding viewers’ eyes around a painting ... These shifting angles of illumination achieve a full, strange representation of the subject ... Machado’s writing, with its heat and precise command of tone, has always had a sentient quality. But what makes In the Dream House a particularly self-aware structure—which is to say, a true haunted house—is the intimation that it is critiquing itself in real time. Machado seems to anticipate—and even riff on—our skepticism of her tricks ... Some of Machado’s preëmptive maneuvers work better than others ... Machado understands that memoir, like architecture, requires a sense of proportion. The problem is that women’s feelings are rarely ever considered proportional ... Machado understands that memoir, like architecture, requires a sense of proportion. The problem is that women’s feelings are rarely ever considered proportional ... Here and in her short stories, Machado subjects the contemporary world to the logic of dreaming. She is often said to spin urban legends or fairy tales; her writing, while clear, is full of nameless currents, hidden transactions between pleasure and terror. The result is a space that cannot, even years later, be easily escaped.
PositiveThe New YorkerBall maps the delusions of a society that lacks kindness but compulsively tells itself stories about its virtue. (In this, the resonances between his nameless country and our own seem unavoidable.) ... most of these characters, corroded by complicity, can’t or won’t identify the source of their pain. Here, Ball’s guileless style serves as psychological characterization, conjuring people who long, above all, to remain blameless ... Ball asks whether true innocence can exist in the society he imagines ... Ball shows how a social order that excites destruction at empathy’s expense eventually consumes its own—and I worried, at times, that the book would likewise consume itself in moral outrage. Yet three of the novel’s four parables refuse resolution outright; the language, rich and inscrutable, is both a barrier to and a protest against certainty. One must conduct extracurricular research to uncover what Ball says is the simple aim of his fiction ... The novel’s focus on empathy may open it to charges of sentimentality, but there is little in The Divers’ Game to flatter the hope that people have any interest in treating each other well. Ball, instead, conveys a warm pity, or a mediated grace.
PanThe New YorkerThese characters are so unreal—she a wet dream, he a cipher—that any specificity at all becomes embarrassing, as if Aciman were revealing his particular turn-ons ... This points to a bigger problem with the book: since all of the narrators are in love and interact mainly with their lovers, the only opinions we ever hear expressed about these people are sweaty and rapturous. The result is a novel that feels besotted with its characters despite scant evidence of their charms. The sex writing itself is unfortunate ... Never has a whirlwind romance felt so interminable ... The leads in Call Me by Your Name were self-conscious and soulful, but they also scanned as sweet and curious; theirs was the insufferability of youth ... That universality has fled from Find Me, which feels alternately too vague, too offensive, and too ridiculous to do anything but place one’s empathic imagination on a rack until one surrenders to one’s own contempt ... The relationships in Aciman’s novel, be they transient or lasting, are marked by an affinity that tends to deepen through conversation, though it requires no words. It is all the more ironic, then, that this reviewer’s experience of Find Me was one of such profound disattunement. The book wants to be intimate, profound, but it reads as glib and remote, impervious to actual feeling. Indeed, the text seems not to account for an audience. An apter title would be Get Lost.
RaveThe New Yorker...urgent, immediate, matter of fact ... His title carries an edge of social critique. To be black, gay, and American, the book suggests, is to fight for one’s life ... Like most memoirs, Jones’s is concerned with the construction of identity—with how its narrator resolves or at least reconciles himself to his own contradictions, and with the masks he wears and sets aside ... He often feels doomed and spectral, and yet his writing activates the body ... One gets the impression that Jones relates to an artist formerly known as himself ... \'Being a black gay boy is a death wish.\' This fatalism, which exists in contrast to Jones’s uncommon openness and aesthetic ravening, is wrenching. The narrator’s fear and desire swirl into a power fantasy, a vision of subjugating those who would subjugate him ... How We Fight for Our Lives doesn’t belabor Jones’s learning, or his love of language, even as biographical details (he was a speech champion and a star student; he went to graduate school in creative writing) hint at what literature means to him. There is a confidence in refusing to reach for mythic analogues ... Jones’s prose, though, shines with a poet’s desire to give intellections the force of sense impressions ... How We Fight for Our Lives, the two main concerns of which are Jones’s coming of age and his mother’s death, often feels like a complicated working-through of this guilt. But there’s a way in which the book also refutes its own premise. It is a tale of self-making that gives its last pages to Jones’s mom, and spends its most beautiful language on his love for her.
MixedThe New YorkerStylistically, the book is almost frustratingly eloquent. Jamison can pin an idea with the speed and fluidity of a pro athlete. She thinks ethically but feels aesthetically. Her writing, although lyrical, proceeds with a precise, searching sobriety—each sentence a controlled swoon ... A question raised by these new essays is whether they advance the work done by The Empathy Exams, ... she avoids interrogating her empathic impulse, even as her skeptical setup feints in that direction. There is nothing wrong with Jamison’s thesis: reaching and imagining are, in fact, good. But she can seem, at times, to be throwing complexity in her own way merely to exercise her thoughtfulness. The resulting essays adopt uncertainty almost as style rather than as subject. Reasoning by metaphor allows Jamison to please everyone ... Jamison cares that we care about the whale. But what does she believe? ... this effort to honor the represented has the effect of centering the representer. Jamison, for whom the themes of imagination, narration, and metaphor will never not be seductive, endlessly elevates the act of portrayal above the thing being portrayed. While this doesn’t invalidate her ethical inquiries, it does reorient them ... That Jamison’s essays are continually searching for their true subject, like wanderers on romantic quests, contributes to their aura of rigor and humility. But seeking can become its own kind of stasis, and I caught myself wishing, as I read this new volume, for Jamison to push beyond articulate hunger ... If Make It Scream, Make It Burn at times feels invested in challenging Jamison’s earlier ideas about empathy, what it actually moderates is her romanticism ... It is true that the distance between who you are and who you long to be—as a woman, as a writer—is interesting. But, as Jamison realizes, there are many ways to be interesting. A whale being a whale is interesting. Jamison being herself is interesting. To be released from metaphor is not the same as to be cut off from meaning.
RaveThe New YorkerMuch of the pleasure of this book is the pleasure of learning a puzzle’s rules ... Even more effective is the way the text circles particular fragments, layering them with meaning as their salience to the story becomes clear ... What emerges is almost a joking definition of consciousness: the facts of life exist, in a jumble, and this book is content to perform awareness of them ... Instead of evoking the felt experience of inner life, Ellmann seems to be creating a stylized braid of conscious and unconscious thought—an artifice that’s aware of its own construction ... there is restraint, and even intimacy, to the way that the book theorizes about \'the moment.\' Ellmann captures the pathos of the everyday, how one might use pie crusts and film synopses to dam in pain ... Maximalism drives home Ellmann’s social critique...But the reader can wonder about the costs of this style, which explores what it would mean to record everything, to leave no stray thought or dream untagged. One effect of Ellmann’s portrait is that we’re privy to seemingly every piece of information; there’s no sense of selection, no room for the reader to project ... Ellmann’s commitment to compilation and description suggests a resistance to hierarchies. It also flickers with tenderness. The time and care that she lavishes on her narrator seem like their own form of political speculation—that every individual is owed an unending devotion, and that such devotion, applied universally, might change the fate of the world.
MixedThe New Yorker... elegiac ... The novel is a study of self-consciousness and a too gentle interrogation of upper-crust norms and codes. Tilney seems to argue that, if boarding school does not agree with Ben, then it cannot possibly agree with anyone ... Ben and his roommate, the child of an Emirati cigarette tycoon, never live on the page; Ben’s crush, Alice, is defined by not being defined by her large chest, which is about as narratively compelling as it sounds. Tilney appears to like his characters, and yet that affection never translates into specificity, intelligibility. What The Expectations does accomplish is the wholesale abandonment of the pretense that fancy, name-brand education has anything to do with academic or personal excellence.
PositiveThe New YorkerHolsinger captures the language of anxious parenting: the neuro-jargon, the tone of chirpy terror ... Intriguingly, Holsinger tends to filter the story through his least sympathetic characters ... Atik’s is the only plotline with real stakes—elsewhere, the reader feels as though she is watching an enthralling, faintly distasteful sporting event, like a hot-dog-eating contest. There are moments of white-liberal affectation so sublime that they waft off the page like laughing gas ... And yet the oblivious parents are more than fodder for hate-reading. Holsinger renders his helicopter moms and soccer dads so precisely that one understands their motivations, even feels their longing and pride ...The book exposes how easily a mix of good intentions, self-delusions, and minor sins can escalate into the kind of skullduggery that might prompt an F.B.I. sting ... Holsinger leaves the political implications...largely unexplored. What he does show is...these parents committing, in Rose’s rueful words, a \'collective crime against childhood.\' While the adults of Crystal dream of meritocracy, their kids bear the burden.
PositiveThe New Yorker...[an] effervescent study of how the digital world is transfiguring English ... Through gifs, emojis, and the playful repurposing of standard punctuation, McCulloch insists, Internet natives are bringing an unprecedented delicacy and nuance to bear on their prose ... McCulloch’s own style is the endearingly nerdy presentation of an educator ... She’s inside the clubhouse, sipping Martinis with Philosoraptor and Doge. All language declares identity, and yet the performative aspect of McCulloch’s writing feels, itself, Internetty—deeply concerned with inclusion and exclusion ... A sense of doubleness, of trade-offs, is what is perhaps lacking from this celebration of Internet style. Yes, emotional precision is more accessible to the digital writer. (Evoking a mix of outrage and self-deprecation is easy when you have caps lock.) But sometimes discipline vivifies thought. Sometimes, to co-opt a modernist principle, difficulty is good. One wonders whether the eggplant emoji, a shorthand for lust, discourages less efficient, but more original, expression: Rachel Cusk’s formal restraint, or the smolder of an Alan Hollinghurst sentence. McCulloch would say it doesn’t. Maybe that’s true. Her book’s almost political thesis—the more voices, the better—rebukes both the élitism of traditional grammar snobs and the cliquishness of, say, Tumblr. It’s a vision of language as one way to make room for one another.
PositiveThe New YorkerThe book feints toward an Ottessa Moshfegh–style ennui, the kind of tragic vision that disguises itself as satire. But Oval has a warm center in Anja, who is friendlier, more approachable, less alienating and alienated than the typical Moshfegh heroine. (For her sake, the reader forgives occasional clichés in the world-building.) Oval wants to hold a dystopian mirror up to the way we live now, and sometimes its approach resembles that of the artist-consultants: airily grand, conjectural. Anja, who is pragmatic to a fault, mitigates against this ... Wilk entwines a classical sensibility with biological determinism—she almost suggests that humans have reached the final phase of a natural decomposition process, like cells programmed to grow and then atrophy ... I finished the book feeling calmed by the evil that Wilk reveals. For the first time, the events felt almost improbable, like a bad dream.
PositiveThe New Yorker...marital emotion boils within a cool experimental framework ... the theme is carefully developed, pulling the reader toward the incomprehensible, the unintelligible, the question of what’s left in language once sense departs ... Reeves wants to discover her characters’ stony places. She wants to explore what it feels like when the mind breaks, when language becomes a door swinging closed on meaning, and yet she is never so supple or interesting a writer as when she is tracing a character’s fugitive shreds of consciousness ...
RaveThe New YorkerThese quick recalibrations—from contemporary realism to suspense to epic—convey bravura, a giddy sense of possibility, a love of story. Have we entered a zone of gods and monsters, or simply men? Haddon...declines to resolve such ambiguities. He is working from rich, if messy, source material ... Now and then, the story’s wild twists and pileups of incident hint sweetly at its teen-age creator. But the narration can also be alien, frightening, with an implacable omniscience ... The Porpoise is terrifically violent, with a bright, innocent ferocity ... Descriptions of death are beautifully wrought and clinical ... Haddon wants to restore agency to the female characters sidelined by the Antiochus legend. This could feel like a condescending attempt to end up on the right side of history, but doesn’t—the characters are never reduced to props in a you-go-girl power ballad ... Haddon’s book is almost more evocative of pre-stories: of the phase before the story is told, when it is still indeterminate, unbound from words.
RaveThe New YorkerFleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, meanders amiably until it becomes, suddenly, all sharpness ... Brodesser-Akner, a Michelangelo of magazine profiles (in an echo of Libby, she used to work for GQ and now lives in New Jersey), writes with a thrilling swagger, though her descriptions can feel cartoonish, more intent on charming an audience than on getting it right ... The book channels Tom Wolfe’s fiction—the gonzo, swooshy sentences, the satirical edge—and Roth is everywhere, too ... There’s an electric surge wherever the raggedness of this language touches Libby’s own story ... Brodesser-Akner prods the form of the marriage novel as though it were a sleeping lump on the other side of the bed. What if there were a third character? ... And yet there is, in the end, a redemption at work, achieved not by novelty—the surprise of perspective—but by old-fashioned insight. As a profile writer, Brodesser-Akner kindles empathy for her famous subjects, and her novelistic approach is similar.
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Alison is in a lightly transgressive space, in which chatting about your own sexual pleasure is as unremarkable as mapping a metaphor, and in which the two things are highly relevant to each other ... One quibble is that the book’s thesis, that literature is boringly in thrall to Aristotle, is a bit of a straw man. Another quibble is that Alison is working at a level of abstraction that insures she can apply almost any shape to almost any text. These vulnerabilities are not lethal—a house-of-cards constructedness is a feature of a lot of literary criticism. What matters is the ingenuity and beauty of the construction, and Alison’s close readings can be exhilarating ... Meander, Spiral, Explode is a deeply wacky book, in ways that are both obvious and subtle. Alison cuts extraneous words for breathless effect ... [Alison\'s] verbal raptures may ensorcell seventh graders and leave older readers occasionally feeling that they need to lie down. But the fecundity of Alison’s writing is of a piece with her larger mission: to turn narrative theory into a supersaturated mindfuck of hedonistic extravaganza. It is a special kind of literary criticism that can make the reader appear to herself a prune, or a prude ... Her book takes the shape of a roller coaster.\
RaveThe New Yorker...brilliant ... Lasdun’s writing spreads implication like condensed flavor crystals that dissolve in water. By the end of the novel, he has examined every corner of the narrator’s conflicted psyche and surveyed an ever-shifting social question without once resorting to cliché. The book achieves a state of suspension that is at once fascinating, draining, and dismal—one imagines oneself, along with the narrator, vacillating forever, doubting, arguing both sides, weaving and unweaving webs of justification and delusion. But an objective truth does exist here, and, finally, Lasdun reveals it. The shock of this moment owes to how tightly the book’s psychological mechanisms are wound ... Lasdun marries autofiction to the more obviously stylized genre of the psychological thriller, deploying cliffhangers and the trope of the unreliable narrator. This is a neat idea: autofictional garnishes on a suspense novel can create a sense of claustrophobia, or become an eerie extra quotient of human consciousness, as if another pair of eyes were watching ... Faun might be an act of exorcism or masochism or dark curiosity, an alternate history of an incident whose truth can never be known.
PositiveThe New Yorker\"The book seems afraid to take the emotional risk of leaving a sardonic mode, which prevents it from attaining the thoughtfulness and pathos of [other books]. The result is attractive, well-made fiction with occasional hollowness ... The [book contains] both sadness and expectation—[it leaves] the reader grazed by tempered hopes.\
PositiveThe New YorkerThe narrator has a strange, sharp brain, roiling with classical references, and her judgments give the book an intellectual rigor that is somehow not at odds with its dreamy lethargy ... Aridjis is deft at conjuring the teenage swooniness that apprehends meaning below every surface. Like Sebald’s or Cusk’s, her haunted writing patrols its own omissions ... self-contained, inscrutable, and weirdly captivating.
PositiveThe New Yorker\"[Such Good Work is] wary of affectation or grandstanding; it works small, as if from a sense of modesty, a reluctance to presume; it cuts sincerity with the driest of humor ... [the book contains] thoughtfulness and pathos ... The [book contains] both sadness and expectation—[it leaves] the reader grazed by tempered hopes.\
PositiveThe New YorkerDreyer himself is a charming, chatty narrator with a soft spot for both digressive footnotes and name-dropping. He dislikes scare quotes and lauds parentheses for their \'conveyance of elbow-nudging joshingness.\' He is just persnickety enough ... The emphasis on grammar as a tool for self-expression, not just communication, feels evocative of an era in which online dogmatists periodically go scorched earth on punctuation marks or parts of speech that offend their sensibilities ... Dreyer beckons readers by showing that his rules make prose pleasurable ... His book is in love with the toothsomeness of language. Its sentences capture writing’s physicality ... He takes a tinkerer’s joy in breaking apart syntax and putting it back together. Restrictive clauses are like Legos to him ... Dreyer’s attention to gusto in language use is magical in a way that resists full explication ... For Dreyer to wade into this process with news of pleasure is lovely.
PositiveThe New YorkerNinth Kingdom conveys a sense of Lady Lazarus limbering up ... A sinister mood prevails ... The story bears a shivery likeness to a tale by the Italian writer Dino Buzzati, originally published in English in 1965, about a passenger who grows convinced that his train is speeding toward an unnamed catastrophe ... The tale contains the seeds of the writer Plath would become. There is a raw revulsion and disconnection in it ... In Plath’s descriptions, reality has been exhausted by a churning mind. Mary defamiliarizes the ordinary...and finds no space too grand or airy for claustrophobia ... Both character and author may feel themselves to be in motion without purpose, on a train to nowhere, yet they do not dare resist ... Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom is the type of story that is often called dreamlike, but it comes nearer to the experience of being trapped in a nightmare.
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Wit’s End sometimes treats these [examples of puns] the way Freud treated dream images: as supercharged particles, burls that mark the convergence of multiple trains of thought ... Geary is a keen storyteller, promiscuous with quotes and figures. One could do worse at a cocktail party than simply opening his book at random and reading aloud ... Occasionally [Geary] falters badly: his \'Hamilton\'-inspired rap contains the line \'Wit. It’s the shit. Wit. It’s so lit.\' For the most part, though, the formal shifts playfully enact the notion of wit as \'improvisational intelligence that allows us to think, say, or do the right thing at the right time in the right place.\'\
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Some voyeurs are discomfiting because they hunger for things that we hate to admit we want: sex, material wealth, admiration. In Looker, the unnamed narrator’s motivations feel more devastating ... Sims delays resolving [the book\'s] tensions. She gives us the seedy, genre-peculiar pleasures of an unreliable narrator, especially as the looker’s trespasses worsen ... In the end, the Hitchcockian thrills of Looker prove only skin-deep; the book unmasks itself as a twisted portrait of pain ... Looker, at a hundred and eighty pages, lasts about as long as a movie, and not even half as long as a full night’s sleep. It’s an ephemeral fiction with a hard landing—like a window, seen in passing, that glows and goes dark.\
Yukiko Motoya, trans. by Asa Yoneda
PositiveThe New YorkerThe stories are funny and creepy; they have a campfire vibe, a brush of the moonless night. ... characters correctly identify weird behavior as weird, but they mistake out-of-bounds, supernatural weird for human, \'life’s a rich tapestry\' weird. This normalization gives the stories their irony and their sense of being just a bit off, like a lingering scent of formaldehyde. The reader wonders: Am I the strange one? ... The tales boil down to the problem of balancing empathy with self-assertion—of both practicing kindness and expressing your own needs, and all while the people around you are behaving like wraiths or aliens. Motoya’s protagonists feel quietly radical in a literary moment that seems particularly interested in unpacking various forms of narcissism. They treat the importance of others’ inner lives as a given ... But too much open-mindedness and empathy can become a kind of permeability, and that gets these characters into trouble ... There is acid in Motoya’s surrealism: these women will put up with anything! A draft blows through the tales—loneliness, the most spectral emotion ... At first, The Lonesome Bodybuilder appears most interested in chills and moods; I needed time for its feminism and its political threads to catch the light.
PositiveThe New YorkerOne of the best things that can be said of Nick Groom’s colossally smart The Vampire: A New History is that it gets the hellion out from under its humid cloud of melodramatic pining. ... at times, leads the book into ludicrousness as it struggles to make its way back to vampires ... It is a great relief to meet Groom’s vampire, still icy from the void and unburdened by the aesthetic of Gothic nightingale-lite.
RaveThe New Yorker...[an] entrancing debut novel ... Johnson’s waterways—muddy, unpredictable, treacherous, full of half-submerged souvenirs and elusive creatures—evoke the fluidity of memory, as well as of language, gender, and sexuality ... Johnson’s own writing summons the just-off-ness of the uncanny; she is capable of passages of exquisite creepiness, a mood partially achieved via slight syntactical perturbations ... Her sentences have an aqueous quality, an undertow that drags you on and down.
PanThe New Yorker\"Here, Lethem captures the florid horror and the weird, nihilistic sense of possibility that arrived in the immediate wake of Trump’s election. Elsewhere, his tone is both wisecracking and stricken; its serious and comic notes cancel each other out, and what’s left is a cartoon despair ... The Feral Detective runs for nearly the same number of pages as Motherless Brooklyn, but it registers as much longer, both draggy and strained. It’s not just that the novel is loaded with lazy signifiers... it’s that [Phoebe\'s] aide-de-camp and eventual lover, never lives on the page—he’s a thousand-mile stare, a leather jacket—and that Phoebe’s incessant, effortful banter is as repellent as Lionel’s was irresistible ... The 2018 Lethem attempts to transcend clichés via different, worse clichés ... The real missing-persons case here is a meta one: Where has the sly, surprising Lethem gone?\
MixedThe New Yorker\"Though the memoir conjures the pain of lost or interrupted relations, its big strength is relatability ... One wishes for more surprise, more invention, from this book—a less conventional way of seeing and writing ... Aside from Mrs. Chung, who is presented with compassion despite her abuse, the characters all seem like ordinary, well-meaning men and women, doing what anyone would do under the circumstances. This makes them sympathetic, but not particularly enthralling. It is sometimes true that the more you relate to something, the less captivating it is. And yet there may be value in that familiarity, as in a sibling’s embrace.\
PositiveThe New YorkerSmall Fry, a book of no small literary skill, is confused and conflicted, angry and desperate to forgive. Its central, compelling puzzle is Brennan-Jobs’s continuing need to justify not just her father’s behavior but her longing for his love. It is a mesmerizing, discomfiting reading ... Brennan-Jobs’s book seems more wounded than triumphant; it can feel like artfully sculpted scar tissue.
PositiveThe New YorkerIn his new novel, French Exit, deWitt serves up a modern story, a satire about an insouciant widow on a quest for refined self-immolation. The novel engages the tropes of the comedy of manners ... DeWitt’s surrealism is cheerful and matter-of-fact, making the novel feel as buoyantly insane as its characters ... DeWitt is a stealth absurdist, with a flair for dressing up rhyme as reason. His best dialogue is decorous, with a preposterous thrust ... Death suffuses French Exit, lending the book shape and perfume ... In its preoccupation with the macabre, the book feels insistent but polite, like a waiter at a Michelin-starred restaurant gently drawing one’s attention to the bill ... My quibble with French Exit is that it fails to commit in its last act: as true nullity beckons, the tone shifts, becoming more tender and pathetic.
PanThe New YorkerThe sections detailing Sally’s abduction read as standard-issue, ripped-from-the-headlines Dead Girl fare ... Weinman has written widely on crime fiction; in her own prose, cheesed-up cliffhangers abound ... The Real Lolita—which has won a flurry of advance praise—hopes to transcend its essential salaciousness and its warmed-over genre clichés by appealing to something resembling restorative justice. But the nets are empty, and the butterflies are already dead ... The problem with Weinman’s approach is that novels aren’t murder mysteries or missing-persons cases. They cannot be reduced ... Weinman’s stance also seems fundamentally anti-fiction. She appears to resent Lolita for depicting cruelty with charm, allusive style, and psychological acuity—for being beautiful, when its subject matter is not. This is an unsophisticated criticism, and Weinman tries to disguise it, by making the act of novel-writing an actual crime, and Nabokov a villain who trapped a girl in a book ... this book presents no evidence that Nabokov exploited Sally Horner to breathe life into his imaginings. What it insinuates, powerfully, is that Weinman has exploited both Sally and Nabokov to justify her prurient interest in yet another sad, dead girl.
PositiveThe New YorkerThe Shakespeare Requirement, like Straight Man, sublimates Professor Stoner by using his gentle shade as fuel for humor; the book leans into Fitger’s haplessness but remains attuned to his essential nobility ... In The Shakespeare Requirement, Schumacher blends satire with righteousness; she seeks to circle collegiate wagons against external threats to the liberal arts ... The Shakespeare Requirement imagines the work of teaching with compassion and urgency.
RaveThe New YorkerOrdinary People in many ways resembles a traditional novel: realistic, concerned with social mores and psychological states, full of sharp descriptive language. Still, if you asked its characters to account for their unhappiness, they might complain that their lives don’t feel sufficiently plotted, especially compared to the artistic and media narratives that they consume ... This sense of being un- or under-written raises the spectre of another English author, Rachel Cusk ... It’s possible to read Ordinary People, too, as a reply to Cusk ... Despite its apparent traditionalism, the book itself resists the conventions of steadily rising action or dénouement ... These choices create mini-ruptures, but they don’t produce the novel’s most heightened moments, which are to be found, instead, in passages of exceptionally sensitive writing ... There is a richness to the novel’s smaller units, its phrases and passing moods ... [There is] a surprising, convulsive twist ... But it succeeds as an expression of the couple’s desperation and a glimpse at how the slog of domesticity can turn to phantasmagoria.
Robin J Diangelo
PositiveThe New YorkerIn a new book, White Fragility,, DiAngelo attempts to explicate the phenomenon of white people’s paper-thin skin. She argues that our largely segregated society is set up to insulate whites from racial discomfort, so that they fall to pieces at the first application of stress—such as, for instance, when someone suggests that \'flesh-toned\' may not be an appropriate name for a beige crayon ... The value in White Fragility lies in its methodical, irrefutable exposure of racism in thought and action, and its call for humility and vigilance. Combatting one’s inner voices of racial prejudice, sneaky and, at times, irresistibly persuasive, is a life’s work. For all the paranoid American theories of being \'red-pilled,\' of awakening into a many-tentacled liberal/feminist/Jewish conspiracy, the most corrosive force, the ectoplasm infusing itself invisibly through media and culture and politics, is white supremacy.
PositiveThe New YorkerAndrew Martin’s new novel of would-be writers sleeping with each other, understands the power of the first impression. Martin introduces characters in sharp, funny flash-portraits that declare the book’s intention to perch, vape in hand, on the border of earnestness and satire ... Early Work is a gift for those readers who like being flirted with by thoughtful and interesting people, and who like observing such people as they flirt with each other ... Early Work’s fetish is bibliophilia; it’s at least as romantic about literature as it is about romance ... This erotic literariness sometimes helps prop up the satire ... It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly what it wants to say about sex and books, because it appears to care less for arguments or judgments than for watching itself wander among characters who are themselves watching themselves wander.
RaveThe New Yorker\"This novel, instead, explores what characters who have been beaten down and confined by sexism might be capable of. Abbott tempts us to read her tale as a study in what happens when female revenge overflows its bounds, when female rage rises up like a ghost out of the earth ... The femme fatale, like the Dead Girl, traditionally functioned as a cipher, a scrim for misogynist fantasies. Abbott’s fiction hungers for more complex versions of these old types ... At times, though, Abbott mistakes reproducing noir myths of femininity for subverting them.\
PositiveThe New YorkerThe novel, unfolding in a slang that is equal parts Jonathan Swift, Sarah Waters, and Eimear McBride, flexes its moral imagination with inclusive casting ... The colors are deftly blended and controlled. Confessions is an action-adventure tale with postmodern flourishes; an academic comedy spliced with period erotica; an intimate meditation on belonging that doubles as a political proof. Its themes are sex and repression, writing and silence. It is also a mystery ... Foxes are getaway artists: they leave behind only traces and symbols. One virtue of Rosenberg’s novel is that it never tries to cage the wild animals at its heart.
RaveThe New YorkerLike family members around a dinner table, the tales in [Half Gods] support, contradict, and argue with one another. They create a rich disorder. But the disjointedness of the portrait they form also speaks to trauma: how it can interrupt both chronology and one’s sense of self ... [Half Gods] is both generous and parsimonious ... As a writer, Kumarasamy refuses the divine; for her, the force with quasi-supernatural powers, the thing that disrupts linear time, disintegrates the self, and troubles the borders between countries, is violence.
Sayaka Murata, Trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori
PositiveThe New Yorker\"The novel borrows from Gothic romance, in its pairing of the human and the alluringly, dangerously not. It is a love story, in other words, about a misfit and a store. Or is horror the more accurate genre? ... One eerie achievement of Convenience Store Woman is that the reader is never entirely sure how to think about Keiko. Is she monstrous? Brave and eccentric? ... Murata’s flattened prose has a bodega-after-11-p.m. quality: it feels bathed in garish, fluorescent light. If Keiko comes off as frightening and robotic, so does the entire universe in which her story unfurls ... But, for all the disturbance and oddity in Convenience Store Woman, the book dares the reader to interpret it as a happy story about a woman who has managed to craft her own \'good life.\' ”
RaveThe New Yorker\"With the Faye triad, Cusk has created if not an obliterated narrator then the entrancing illusion of one. Yet Kudos bristles with pitiless—one might say \'negative\'—description that invites the question of whether cruelty and honesty are the same thing ... Cusk, who with her Faye novels has achieved something both radical and beautiful, is pursuing the impossible. As she knows, there is no such thing as a fully negative novel: one that is entirely passive, impartial, and devoid of authorial imagination. Far from abrogating her powers as narrator, Faye takes possession of other people’s stories ... Cusk has not written a negative novel so much as she has written a novel about her failure to write a negative novel. In the end, though, one suspects that Cusk’s desire for creative authority is too understandably fierce for her to ever really sign on to negative literature, even if she could. Which makes Kudos—the title translates to \'honor, glory, status\'—a book about failure that is not, in itself, a failure. In fact, it is a breathtaking success.\
RaveThe New Yorker\"Despite its departures from Groff’s earlier work, the collection still conjures that feeling of when the floor falls out from under you; as in Fates and Furies, familiar, everyday life dangles by a thin string ... Taken together, the stories have the feel of autobiography, although, as in a Salvador Dali painting, their emotional disclosures are encrypted in phantasmagoria. Fates and Furies spelunked into characters’ psyches, while Groff’s short fiction projects psychology outward, externalizing dread, pleasure, and innocence in feral cats, jasmine, and cygnets ... Groff has always been a sentence-level writer, and the sentences indigenous to Florida are gorgeously weird and limber ... The author practices a kind of alchemical noticing that destabilizes reality and brings the outside world into alignment with characters’ inner lives.\
RaveThe New Yorker...[a] supple novel ... The prose is cadenced and uncluttered, with some memorable phrases stuck in the stream like ice floes ... That Kind of Mother takes its place in the mini-boom of mothering literature ... Alam’s contribution feels more traditionally novelistic, with a regular rhythm of chapters proceeding in a straight chronological line ... He alternates, as Offill and Galchen did, between wryness and the sort of dazed lyricism accessible to those who wake up at 3 a.m. to breast-feed. And he is similarly wise about how even the most enlightened households distribute domestic labor along gendered lines ... Where the novel breaks new ground is in its balancing of these themes with issues of race and adoption ... For all its affinity with the mom-lit canon, That Kind of Mother is also in dialogue with books explicitly about white privilege.
PositiveThe New YorkerCrammed with feverish, hallucinatory imagery...these are gynocentric tales of angsty adolescent girls, anomic wives, adult women with difficult mothers, and elderly women with lost daughters. Braverman’s feminism can be hot and oleaginous, like the burning oil of medieval punishment ... But elsewhere the book’s politics, gender or otherwise, seem threaded with a gentle mysticism. Abandoned by any force resembling a plot, women stand, in meadows or on beaches, and tilt their faces upward ... With that elevation comes a poetic correlative: images before ideas, lush language before shaped story lines ... This is the over-saturated, psychedelic, sensual thrust of Braverman’s heightened prose ... Of course, the aesthetic of the high, of the sugar rush, can grow monotonous when not relieved by more complex sensations—the type of responses provoked by, say, fully fleshed out characters, or a deep sensitivity to time and place. Seppuku is not, as a rule, good for you, even if it happens to be a good day for it ... One lesson of this author’s career is that she is as unbeholden to the moment as the moment is to her. The day’s preferences aside, she knows how to drive in the knife.
RaveThe New Yorker\"...captures the unreality and absurdity of the American mass-murder playbook, from the culling of \'persons of interest\' on social media to the Orwellian political gestures ... The violence in How to Be Safe unfolds out of sight; instead, readers get descriptions of the shooter’s bedroom. They get litanies of names. It should all feel tedious and strident, except that the book’s alienated affect, flecked with sorrow and humor and rage, is so recognizable as one of the few rational responses to the status quo ... Compelling us to miss people that we never knew: that is one task that [this] novel—and all of the rhetoric multiplied by the gun violence crisis—discharge[s] with a savage grace.\
RaveThe New YorkerMoore proves herself the rare critic who’s as satisfying to read on the volumes you haven’t heard of as on the ones you have. (Maybe the \'autobiographical\' book reviewer is only ever reviewing one book, its subject her own powers of expressivity.) The minute attention Moore pays to what were, at the time of writing, up-and-coming authors—Matthew Klam, Joan Silber—pleads their interestingness; an essay on Silber, from 2005, borrows the passionate exhaustiveness of a TV recap ... her reviews persistently worry the distinction between the human being and his or her work ... Moore-as-essayist scans much as Moore-the-fiction-writer does: as lightly melancholy, with a compensatory inclination to amuse both herself and us ... Still other passages sailed beyond me ... Still, Moore is one of our best documentarians of everyday amazement.
PositiveThe New YorkerGreen excels at capturing the insidious ways prejudice works through people—in a store owner’s guarded interactions with Mar, in thoughts David doesn’t want to think. But the book sometimes seems to lose sight of the fact that racism is about more than feelings ... In this sense, the empathy and sensitivity that is so clearly a strength of Graham-Felsen’s is also a weakness, inclining him to exhaust most of his considerable descriptive powers on the pain of ostracization, of lost connection The authorial sin here is not malice or even incomprehension—more like a kind of distraction, a straying of focus. And the consequence is a coming-of-age tale of uncommon sweetness and feeling that does not always seem in total command of the difficult ideas it grapples with.
PositiveThe New YorkerGun Love both glamorizes and interrogates a mindset that assigns commodities the importance and the characteristics of living people ... The writing is unguarded, addicted. (It is full of plainly stated but unelaborated metaphors: \'She was the broom and I was dust.\' \'My mother was a cup of sugar.\') ... These are old questions: how can art make itself meaningful in the face of horror? What kind of monument can a story possibly place? I was surprised when Gun Love made its own humble attempt at an answer. An older character, Corazón, stands with Pearl in a cemetery ... \'Do you miss the people you never knew?\' Compelling us to miss people that we never knew: that is one task that these two novels [Gun Love and Tom McAllister’s How to Be Safe]—and all of the rhetoric multiplied by the gun violence crisis—discharge with a savage grace.
PositiveThe New YorkerWhat Vengeance really attempts to unravel is the problem of injustice, although it is not a protest novel. Despite its powerful social critique, it is cautious and prismatic, openly troubled by its own claims to authority ... To call Vengeance a 'novel,' therefore, is like titling one of M. C. Escher’s hallucinatory trompe-l’oeils 'Landscape' or 'House.' The art in question is far more deceptive and slippery than the name suggests ... Does life—anyone’s life—have an inherent design, and does that design hold meaning? In some ways, such a deft and supple novel can’t help but voice confidence in its own methods, or at least find redeeming value in the devices of fiction ... Vengeance, itself a tissue of echoes and associations that asks the reader to fill in its gaps, is not ready to dismiss the world’s jumble of shards as meaningless.
PositiveThe New YorkerIgbo spirituality, Emezi radically suggests, has as much to offer as any of these schemas when it comes to decrypting human folly or transcendence. Ada’s story involves depression, loneliness, and the seductions of self-harm. The book would have made grim sense through a mental-health lens; instead, it is an indigenous fairy tale ... Freshwater is alive to the tension between the affirmation of owning a single identity and the freedom and mutability of being multiple.
RaveThe New YorkerAsymmetry poses questions about the limits of imagination and empathy—can we understand each other across lines of race, gender, nationality, and power? The fluttering way in which Halliday pursues her themes and preoccupations seems too idiosyncratic and beautiful to summarize ... The book richly considers the diffusions of life into art, of my consciousness into yours. It is also a musical document, with characters that play the piano or devote a great deal of energy to considering which CDs they’d want to bring with them to a desert island. Like music, Asymmetry possesses the mysterious quality of a created thing moving through time, expressing its own patterns, its meaning subsumed in the shifting symmetries of its form ... Asymmetry stops short of arguing that novelists can leave themselves entirely behind; no person has the power to turn a mirror into a rabbit hole. The book does, however, evoke how our lives can sometimes blur with the lives of others, how a stranger’s features can occasionally ripple up the glass like an arpeggio.
RaveSlateA Natural is a slow burn of a book, the novelistic equivalent of an athlete gradually limbering up ... the last third uses strategic strokes of plot—a determinative game, swirling rumors—to apply increasing degrees of pressure to the characters. The results are riveting, full of airlessness and desperation ... Raisin proves a restrained yet imagistic writer, well-suited to describing people who observe rather than participate. His prose, combining a flattened emotional affect with chaotic eruptions of visual description, turns repression into an aesthetic ... A Natural owes something to elegies as well as to sports-tinged coming-of-age novels like A Separate Peace and The Art of Fielding. What it adds to these genres, though, is narration attuned to the kind of coded and private language that LGBTQ people have relied upon for years to seek each other out.
RaveSlateI am confident in pronouncing that people will love the first volume of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, The Book of Dust, with the same helpless vehemence that stole over them when The Golden Compass came out in the mid-’90s, or even when they first met their partners or held their newborn children ... The sheer polyphony of his sourcing is audacious, and it shouldn’t work, but it does; reading this novel is like standing in a room in which suddenly all of the windows have blown open at once ... Pullman may write crackling adventures, but he also possesses what feels like direct access to everything that is wordless and watery in the human subconscious ... with La Belle Sauvage, the author hasn’t just stitched together sources, or glued whimsical new features atop a young adult template. This is a book rooted in elemental forces: earth, water, and fire. Its pages house a living soul.
RaveSlateThanks, Obama is a compendium of patriotic lessons that may or may not endure; it feels like a time capsule or a magical portal to a republic turned to smoke. It can be disorienting, as when the author describes Donald Trump’s comeuppance—and, it was then presumed, political annihilation—at Obama’s hands during the 2011 nerd prom ... I consumed Thanks, Obama as a eulogy, a call to action, and a fervent rearticulation of first principles. But it’s hard not to also experience it as the setup for a terrible cosmic punch line. Of course, none of this is the book’s fault! The book itself is immensely appealing. In addition to Litt’s warm and engaging prose, it benefits from the inherent charm of its premise: the little guy brushing shoulders with the unthinkably powerful ... Certainly, there is a bit of elision here: Litt, a white male Ivy League graduate, is not quite the zero his comedic/fairy-tale setup needs him to be. But you never doubt that he feels like one ... But Thanks, Obama distinguishes itself as a feat of thinking, not just telling. Litt’s years in the White House have given him insight into the political moment ... Litt minted his star converting world affairs into jokes. The translation of satire back to sincerity is trickier to pull off, and lands with its own undeniable grace.
PositiveSlateAtkinson’s tone has become more careful and meditative, as if she had set out to write the adagio second movement to Life After Life, and had substituted a single sad strain for the first’s flourish of melodies and countermelodies. I’m thinking orchestrally because Atkinson excels at conveying bigness. She loads her observational, plot-driven prose with a sense of larger significance, of elements aligning … The world conjured by Atkinson’s god in ruins—a man, in other words, according to the epigraph, or perhaps a woman—is one suffused with fictionality, one in which small flickers and giveaways abound. In addition to the jumpy chronology (we move from 1925 to 1980 in the space of a page), Atkinson will present the same scene from multiple perspectives … If A God in Ruins suffers from a touch too much tidiness, if it overcalculates the glories of a sensitive “artistic soul,” those flaws pale next to Atkinson’s wit, humanity, and wisdom.
RaveSlateSour Heart feels a bit like Girls at its best: a profane and sensitive female bildungsroman filtered through several interlaced perspectives ... As a genre, immigrant literature often seems to demand that characters act grateful upon entering the rags-to-riches national pipeline. They can now access the American dream! But Sour Heart sets the 'model minority' myth on fire. I cannot overstate how satisfying it is to hear such maximalist obscenity gushing from Asian American women, who are rarely afforded the luxury of coarseness when they appear in pop culture. It’s not that Zhang’s characters are tough-talking rebellious 'types,' but simply that they’re full of all the humanity that real people possess ... Fiction about the immigrant experience is often fiction about powerlessness—people dropped into foreign contexts and left at the mercy of forces they don’t immediately understand. That’s one reason Zhang’s child’s-eye view succeeds so beautifully: Kids are frequently powerless, too, and characters’ coming-of-age can sync up with the arc of their integration into a new country.
RaveSlate\"Sally Rooney is a planter of small surprises, sowing them like landmines. They relate to behavior and psychology—characters zigging when you expect them to zag, from passivity to sudden aggression and back ... Conversations With Friends asks whether it is possible to sustain authentic connections to people in the presence of flawed, overarching structures: capitalism, patriarchy, a devilish ménage à quatre ... Rooney herself is acute and sensitive—she may have pinned these fragile creatures to a board, but her eye is not cruel. Bobbi, Frances, Nick, and Melissa excel at endearing banter and hesitant, vulnerable disclosure. They are all thrillingly sharp, hyperverbal ... Rooney has done the impossible in the Trump era: She’s rescued the ego as an object of fascination ... Rooney reveals a young woman painfully coming to terms with the beliefs, desires, and feelings that belong irrevocably to her. Conversations With Friends sparkles with controlled rhetoric. But it ends up emphasizing the truths exploding in the silences.\
PositiveSlateThe ‘bad feminist’ moniker turns out to have a special magic—it allows Gay to resist the pressure to be perfect, and points out the irony of women fighting the sexist idea that they must be other than what they are (more beautiful, more agreeable, more maternal or professional or fill-in-the-blank), yet still demanding flawlessness from their feminist idols … While she shows a refreshing willingness to pose questions, treat them as deadly important, and not resolve them, the true value of her work might lie in illuminating, with startling immediacy and boldness, what it is like to be Roxane Gay, an author who filters every observation through her deep sense of the world as fractured, beautiful, and complex.
MixedSlateAt times, reading her essays, I’ve longed for her to bring more nuance or rigor to the act of disclosure. But in Hunger, Gay discovers what might be her ideal form and mode: a sustained, vulnerable striptease—revelation’s slow burn. It is in a book like this that her gift for dramatizing the breaking of silence can take priority over what she says ... the connections between her rape, her eating habits, and her body seem fertile and complex in ways that don’t always feel fully unpacked. Cause and effect are elided...I found myself wishing that a book-length exploration of the author’s hunger would examine every inch of this terrain, not merely skim it ... Empathetic representations of this disorder in nonfiction are scant. Unfortunately, instead of bringing her compassionate observation to bear on a syndrome that too often goes unacknowledged, Gay presents reams of what feels like her attempts at self-justification ... In her memoir’s loveliest moments, Gay seems to transfuse what she relishes about her physical self into her prose. 'I have presence,' she observes. 'I take up space. I intimidate.' Her best sentences embody this account of her body: They possess majesty and resonance. They are direct and undeniable, a powerful physical manifestation.
PositiveSlateLockwood’s commitment to fun burns bright in Priestdaddy ... Lockwood may be an absurdist, but she’s a perceptive one. Her mom serves as the memoir’s quiet heart ... But for all its madcap humor, Priestdaddy feels fraught with un-negotiated darkness. This makes the book at once fascinating and frustrating: Around the edges of even the silliest anecdote laps our awareness that the gleefully blasphemous narrator once attended protests outside abortion clinics and had swaths of the Bible seared into her memory ... ultimately, Priestdaddy announces itself as a labor of love, an expression of gratitude to Lockwood’s parents and a celebration of their idiosyncrasies ... Reconciliation and connection are beautiful notes on which to conclude a family memoir. But Lockwood races to the ending, to forgiveness, before fully illuminating what must be forgiven.
MixedSlateTogether the chapters add up to more than a lived trajectory: They are an argument for girls’ complicated selfhood and underrated power, an examination of the ways in which female celebrities have been misrepresented and reclaimed ... Massey seems to aspire to a kind of complicated soulfulness. Her prose is measured and cool ... Massey’s concentration and fierceness make her compelling. But her insistence on intellectualizing so-called lowbrow culture can also feel performative, as if she believes only she can see the shattered beauty that attends certain pop stars or has the courage to defend mopey teenage girls. Surely that is too harsh. Yet I couldn’t help reacting to All the Lives I Want with a peculiar mix of absorption, curiosity, and not buying it.
RaveSlateThe Idiot is wonderful. Batuman has brave and original ideas about what a 'novel' might mean and no qualms about flouting literary convention. She is endlessly beguiled by the possibilities and shortcomings of language ... Her novel is gloriously stuffed with detritus, with characters that serve no narrative purpose and details that mean nothing beyond themselves ... In allowing her language and details to pile up randomly, Batuman makes them more than they might otherwise be. She gives presence and power to what previously 'didn’t exist.'”
MixedThe New YorkerNorse Mythology employs a curious, childlike tone that seems intended to be polarizing ... Gaiman’s intended audience of both kids and adults can’t quite explain away such guileless prose. Either the entire volume is secretly narrated by the not-too-bright Thor, or this is sly provocation, an invitation to compare the modesty of the language with the depths of wit and trickery that it might conceal ... Such a theatre of apocalypse may seem ill-fitted to Gaiman’s Looney Tunes physics, his delight in meting out violence for a comic, no-real-harm-done effect. The cold core of the source material is the nihilistic knowledge that these glorious characters, like all of us, are living on borrowed time ...The author does conclude his telling on a note of fragile hope, conjuring a time, post-doomsday, when \'the green earth will arise once more\' ... This is hardly a true resurrection—if anything, a chess metaphor quietly suggests that the wars and loves of the Asgardians were never more than a game. But a game is more bearable than a tragedy. Gaiman, who can’t forestall the night, can still whistle in the dark.\
PositiveSlate...still feels like something Marnell dashed off in 24 hours while on speed ... But this book is a work of substance disguised as an evanescent sparkle ... the blur is punctuated by black humor and bratty italics—peppered with the names of luxury brands, designer products, and onomatopoetic cries of AUGGGH. (The most frequently used word in the book may actually be AUGGGH.) And then, after 350-plus pages of vertiginous dazzle, the thing just stops, with no indication that our heroine has learned anything at all ... Cat Marnell is likely the least introspective memoirist ever to attempt memoir. I love her ... Marnell is delightful! She sounds like a fallen angel laughing all the way to hell.
PositiveSlateTransit continues a fascinating experiment. But as in Outline, its title also states an intention: Transit wants to be Cusk’s Purgatorio, her account of a character’s growth, crossing, and metamorphosis. That’s where the novel, wonderful and moving as it is, falls short ... These tantalizing pieces appear to fit together. They give the book artistic cohesion even as the precise argument hovers just out of reach ... It is a lovely ars poetica. The problem is: Transit’s forms don’t quite match its themes as perfectly as Outline’s did.
PanSlateThese are pages intended to catch the shape of a writer’s thoughts—the tome remains more of a notebook than a series of persuasive essays, with all the indeterminacy and occasional solipsism that form entails ... But it is hard to say who exactly this particular collection is for. As searching and seductive as the essays occasionally can be, they are also absolutely maddening. For someone convinced that the truth is not just apprehended by the intellect but also felt, remembered, and imagined, Hustvedt makes little effort to welcome readers with her prose ... windiness I can forgive. Obscurity I can forgive. More off-putting is the author’s preening self-regard ... there is a lot of performative contemplation here, during which the occasion for and specifics of the chin stroking seem to matter less than the fact that the author is stroking her chin ... Hustvedt’s title makes much of her status as gimlet-eyed observer. She seeks to turn the tools of scientific examination upon the examiners, and analyze the analysts, and criticize the critics. Yet too often the object of her investigations ends up being her own excellence. For all the looking that transpires in A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, there isn’t enough seeing.
PositiveSlate...pit[s] the streamlined grace of narrative against the chaos of lived experience ... There’s something tearstained about even the wildest flights of Chabonian fancy, as if each wondrous occurrence stood in for some feeling the writer couldn’t state outright. For his part, Chabon appears aware of this tendency to sublimate pain into fantasy ... A fevered and turbulent passage like this reveals just a fraction of Chabon’s range. He can be sardonic or sincere.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...a grim portrait of a family weathering the Dust Bowl as naggingly evocative as grit in your mouth ... Meadows works in a biblical or mythic mode, presenting timeless tableaus. If the book’s meticulously researched, precisely evoked setting can sometimes feel more alive than the Bells, I Will Send Rain still eyes them with compassion. These characters learn to practice kindness, even without knowing one another fully. We may not suppose we know them fully either, but Meadows nevertheless makes them deserving of our empathy.
PositiveSlateWith this fiercely female chain of stories, Spiegelman has decided to plunge right into the most intimate and radioactive psychic material most women have on hand ... Spiegelman is masterful at loading up her language with more meaning than is at first apparent. Often that fantastical tendency—that rush to interpret—imbues her words with a kind of elliptical peril ... On the subject of memory, Spiegelman is remarkable—mature, wise, and richly expressive.
MixedSlateI cherish nourishing potato people and stable mountain people, and sometimes I worry Polly doesn’t give them enough credit. One might also question whether creative brilliance has to go hand in hand with messiness—aren’t there plenty of calm, focused artists and disheveled, shallow normals out there? (I often suspect that I am an anxious normal; even if Polly might atomize that qualm with the glistening affirmation that my anxiety is a byproduct of my awesomeness, I’m not convinced she’d believe it.) But I’m also making Havrilesky sound more insufferable than she is. She’s not a first-person essayist reframing her weirdo habits and painful fallibilities as empowering virtues. She’s an alluringly wry cheerleader, an enthusiastic volunteer offering sports drinks as we struggle past during the half-marathon of life.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...[a] wonderful doorstop of a book ... Broun packs his novel with futuristic invention, Chablis-dry humor and a thick, dreamy nostalgia for the midsummer mayhem of Puck and his retinue ... a story as wildly moving and singular as an animal’s eyes in the dark.
MixedThe Washington PostThis aching — and at times infuriating — account of attempting to live, date and work while female is a brave admission of vulnerability, an invitation to intimacy from a woman with no reason to trust that a great many readers won’t throw her disclosures back in her face ... Valanti resists playing the hero. Instead, she sets down something more private and surprising: a thoughtful lament, an elegy for the person she might have been in a less sexist world ... Still, it must be said that Sex Object, which registers a life spent under the gaze of others, doesn’t always hold up under aesthetic scrutiny. It feels like the work of a passionate but tired feminist, a fighter too worn down by struggle to alchemize it. There are moments of epiphany — and certainly enough shocking tales of sexual debasement — but they occasionally fail to come together in a narrative arc.
PositiveSlateBut despite its reception as an act of high-wire trolling, Lerner’s 86-page essay makes one thing abundantly clear: He loves poetry. Not only that, he loves poems—a much messier proposition ... Hatred of Poetry does a brilliant job showing how poets 'strategically disappoint' our assumptions about what the medium should do ... It’s engaging stuff, and superbly written, with a kind of soft-shoeing élan that wants to project humility but also delight ... I don’t mind Lerner’s (post-modern) knack for creasing old materials into fresh critical origami. He’s not bullshitting us; his rhetorical sorcery levitates plenty of plausible claims, and ones burnished with the extra shine of his sincere belief.
RaveSlateAs in the best ensemble novels, much of the pleasure of Modern Lovers comes from observing its affecting, palpable characters interact. Straub has so intricately and cleverly connected them that when she moves one, the whole chessboard reconfigures ... There is much to praise, too, in Straub’s renderings of twee Brooklyn, particularly a cultish meditation-and-kombucha commune that springs up, replete with lissome half-naked yogists and a toothy guru, to seduce Andrew. And Straub is shrewd about high school social dynamics.
RaveSlateIf the title of Helen Macdonald’s memoir H Is for Hawk evokes a tidy, elementary school correspondence, don’t be fooled. Hawk is for everything. Not only does the creature Macdonald ties herself to in the wake of her father’s death come to represent the entire range of her grief, fury, and love, but it also stands for England, imagination, aristocracy, manhood, and T.H. White. It stands as well for the opposite of these. And then—while you are scrambling to grasp that T.H. White, beloved children’s author and broken sadist, is his own opposite—it shakes the symbolism from its feathers like rainwater ... Despite the contradictions and shape shifting that allow H Is for Hawk to elude domestication, it still feels wonderfully unified, weaving together biography, history, literary criticism, grief memoir, field guide. And ghost story.
RaveSlate[Tisdale] catches so many strings and braids so many tones into her mostly autobiographical pieces that you don’t want to diminish her by attempting description. Her dense but light-fingered language holds a dozen wiggling and contradictory ideas in suspension. To enumerate them one by one, as a critic must, feels like bloodying a face or trying to play a symphony on a chainsaw. It feels like plucking all the threads out of a tapestry so that you can no longer see the woven image. It feels—and of course, she’s set us up for this—like violation.
PositiveSlatePart elegy, part natural history, and all memoir, The Narrow Door traces two of Lisicky’s long-term relationships, the first with Gess, and the second with Lisicky’s ex-husband, a poet he calls M. The Gess friendship, plunging between support and competition (writers!), takes center stage. It is a road paved with heartfelt correspondence yet pocked by silences, sore spots.
MixedSlateThe book betrays a similar uneasiness in its own skin. Hence the mild case of first novel–itis: a reliance on symbols (the lost necklace), foils (de Maupassant), motifs (the short story), and genre tropes, not to mention cataracts of occasionally unnecessary plot.
MixedSlateMaguire’s gently sepulchral take on the Carrollian dreamscape freshens it again.