Katy Waldman is Slate's Words correspondent. She can be found on Twitter @xwaldie
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.\
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.
RaveSlateSally 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.