Kevin CanfieldKevin Canfield is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle,Film Comment,Bookforum, and other publications.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle...bold, humane and rigorously researched ... Farmer’s portraits of survivors are moving ... Anyone who comes to this book with an open mind will find it hard to dispute his premise.
PositiveThe Star Tribune... a powerful portrait of our volatile political moment ... thoroughly original, a bracing portrayal of rootlessness in a divided nation ... It’s a relatable depiction of an up-and-down courtship. And it’s full of thought-provoking observations about language, art, gender and expat life ... an intellectually stimulating gem, a timely novel that won’t feel any less beguiling as the years pass.
PositiveThe Star TribuneThe \'little acts of charity\' recounted in Fabes’ first book are quietly powerful. The British doctor’s Signs of Life is a plucky memoir about the six years he spent cycling around the world. His journey was eventful and sobering ... But this is not a dour book. Fabes is a winning storyteller, and when he arrives in a new spot, he gives us some irreverent local history ... For all its strengths, Signs of Life has a flaw that’s fairly common to memoirs: Some of its quotations feel a little too perfect ... like a punched-up version of reality. Though there’s no reason to doubt most of what Fabes writes, a no-nonsense fact-checker might have some questions for him ... there’s no denying that this is a bridge-building book.
PositiveThe San Francisco Book Review... a collection of perceptive essays about natural resources, nostalgia and vanishing ways of life ... Not all of Hohn’s essays are memorable. One, about extinct mammoths, is brief yet takes too long to get to the point. But most are excellent. He has a charming attraction to quixotic characters ... insightful.
PositiveThe Star TribuneNarrowly focused but deceptively complex ... tender, relatable scenes take up fewer pages than Davy’s ramblings, but they form the heart of the book. They also raise a timeless question: What do faltering relationships tell us about those that endure? A lot more than we might realize, according to this subtle, observant novel.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleA polymath who writes with enviable fluency about music, literature, politics and the place where the mainstream meets the counterculture, Marcus applies a Fitzgeraldian lens to a host of disparate artistic developments, interweaving them in enlightening, idiosyncratic fashion ... [Marcus\'] smart, singular book gives us invigorating new ways to think about Fitzgerald’s iconic novel.
RaveThe Star Tribune... [an] incisive and funny debut ... The...bold, sardonic narrative voice is original and, at times, irresistible. In a world that lately seems to have gone mad, her characters’ conundrums make perfect sense ... This is a sharp-eyed novel that tackles serious ideas ... Which isn’t to suggest that Dolan’s dialogue or characters are leaden. Ava’s clashing impulses make for an engrossing story line, and her observations capture the world-weariness of a generation that’s never known life without the internet ... Dolan’s novel—wry and jaded, yet sometimes hopeful—understands this volatile era.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksWriting about Jordan is a tricky task because of his complex legacy....Lulu Miller does the job with style and intelligence ... In this engrossing narrative, she crafts a memorable portrait of a man whose success in legitimate scientific pursuits fortified him as he embraced eugenics, a cruel ideology about the supposed hierarchy of humanity.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleAmerican Harvest, in which Mockett has intelligent things to say about race, faith and food, is a nimble blend of personal reflection and incisive social history. Consistently thought-provoking, it also features lots of keen-eyed nature writing ... If a less-talented writer tackled such a project, the results might be condescending. But Mockett’s sincerity and curiosity—and her long-standing connection to the region—make for an insightful book ... Mockett is deeply attuned to the land. Her description...is vivid. She asks smart questions about genetically modified foods and organic farming. And when she looks to the horizon, her prose dazzles.
RaveThe Star Tribune... vivid ... Along with memorable characters and a powerful story line, A Thousand Moons blends bygone language with rich imagery ... like its predecessor, this novel considers timeless ideas like tolerance and human rights. Taken together, these books stand as a sustained interrogation of this country’s founding ideas and myths ... Barry’s affection and respect for Winona is palpable. A Thousand Moons is a sincere and well-written novel starring an intrepid, self-sufficient heroine. We can never have too many of these.
RaveThe Star TribuneWhat happened to Katherine O’Dell? It’s what all of Dublin wants to know. But it isn’t the only riveting story line in Actress, Anne Enright’s new novel. The Irish author and Man Booker Prize winner...has crafted a perceptive portrait of a complex fictional performer, the headliner in a captivating story about celebrity, grief and family secrets ... Katherine may be the main attraction, but her daughter Norah is the book’s most relatable character... The twinned story lines are very powerful, as is Enright’s understated prose.
RaveThe Star TribuneLittle Constructions resembles Burns’ award-winner in several ways. It’s about violence and its consequences. It’s told in vibrant, conversational prose. And it’s very funny ... Burns’ verve is evident from the start ... Throughout the novel, Burns uses humor to dissect an insular, callous community ... Happily, there are still publishers who seek out bracing, acerbic books like this one.
PanSan Francisco ChronicleHe\'s right to praise short-short fiction, an exciting genre, but he does so in such clumsy fashion that the point is virtually lost. Similar problems crop up throughout Shields\' frustrating \'manifesto.\' Some of his observations are interesting—occasionally they\'re even inspiring. But there\'s a huge gulf between his ideas and their execution ... Shields tends to undermine his own argument ... which is it: Are we lacking compelling narrative artists, or has Shields simply chosen to check out on contemporary fiction? ... Shields\' method treats \'art\' of all different kinds in democratic fashion—too democratically, in fact ... This is an awkward, artless book. Shields might hope we believe that\'s by design - the new movement he wants to embody, he writes, will be notable for its \'deliberate unartiness\'—but that sounds like a pre-emptive salvo meant to fend off criticism.
PositiveThe Star TribuneLynch has been an undertaker in Michigan since the 1970s. He’s been an acclaimed writer for almost as long. His latest book, The Depositions is a wry, poignant collection of his best and newest essays. It’s packed with penetrating observations about faith, family, work, art and, yes, death. Taken together, these pieces form an episodic autobiography of a man whose day job has immeasurably enriched his creativity ... His essays about being an undertaker are reliably thought-provoking ... He’s as irreverent as ever, though ... As a funeral director, Lynch has learned \'that people in need are glad to see you coming and gladder still to see you gone.\' That may be so, but on the page, he’s company you want to keep.
Nona Fernandez, Trans. by Natasha Wimmer
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksA nimble tale told in letters and the shared recollections of now-distant childhood friends, Fernández’s book presents a devastating portrait of the trauma that a savage, rapacious government inflicted on a community and a country ... The story has a big, introspective ensemble cast, but its central character is an enigmatic presence ... Fernández’s use of vivid imagery evokes the oppressive nature of life in an authoritarian state.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune... explores uncanny terrain but never leaves the real world. What begins as a straightforward yarn about a vain academic becomes a complex portrait of a man who begins to wonder about his own identity ... Not by accident does Levy place her characters in Soviet-era Berlin, the famous divided city. As her protagonist struggles with his confusing \'double life,\' her supporting characters lead similarly bifurcated existences. Outwardly respectful of the oppressive state, they’re rebellious in private. With the lightest of touches, Levy ponders big questions about family, love, citizenship and mortality. The Man Who Saw Everything succeeds as both a book of ideas and a philosophical thriller, a brainy, brisk and mesmerizing novel.
MixedThe San Francisco Chronicle... the veteran space journalist ably explains the challenges facing NASA engineers as they sought to overtake their accomplished Soviet counterparts ... Fishman’s is the most comprehensive of the three titles, and that’s not always a good thing. His crucial first chapter is weighed down by extraneous details about space-themed TV series. And though he makes a solid case that Apollo \'launched America into the Digital Age,\' his closing argument is repetitive and gratingly triumphalist.
RaveThe Star TribuneNight Boat to Tangier is further evidence that Barry...is a writer of inspired prose, a funny and perceptive artist who can imbue a small story with tremendous depth ... melancholy...shapes every relationship in the book ... Night Boat to Tangier is more controlled [than Beatlebone], more mature, a sad, lyrical beauty of a novel about regret, from a dependably entertaining and perceptive writer.
PositiveThe Star TribuneRusso has crafted a twisty novel about lies, secrets and a missing friend\'s \'ghostly presence\' ... his latest is often satisfying, a brisk story with memorable characters and smart things to say about loss and missed opportunities ... Two of Russo\'s male characters...are complex and believable. Mickey, alas, is more a type than a person, a Harley-riding rocker who isn\'t given many good lines ... As Russo\'s characters grapple with the book\'s central mystery, a second emerges; though this one features an unconvincing revelation, it provides a fuller picture of Jacy, elevating the novel above those that employ the woman-in-peril trope yet neglect to make her a multidimensional character.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...eerie yet captivating stories ... Like its satisfying predecessors, his latest story collection is often unabashedly bizarre ... Although this isn’t for everyone, Evenson’s uncanny but accessible fiction can remind you of Edgar Allan Poe or The Twilight Zone. Readers who appreciate the unusual will find this to be an inspired, thoroughly entertaining book ... Some of Evenson’s finest stories are about everyday people who lose control in disturbing fashion. In Room Tone, a filmmaker wants to do an extra day of filming in a suburban house, but when the homeowner resists, there’s a stunning confrontation. In A Disappearance, a woman vanishes from a beach, leaving her husband and closest friend at odds, suspicious and reckless. The book’s title story, meanwhile, is a splendid work of misdirection; it features a father, his missing daughter and a series of harrowing revelations ... From certain angles, [Evenson\'s] fictional universes seem livable, but once you’re inside, following apace with his accursed characters, you see the landscape looks very different.
RaveThe Star TribuneLike [Hessler\'s] terrific 2013 book...this one seamlessly blends memoir, history and energetic reporting. Hessler wisely focuses on working- and middle-class citizens. Their challenges often highlight the disappointments and inertia of the post-revolution years ... Hessler subtly juxtaposes examples of ancient ingenuity with the intractable problems of the modern world ... Although Egypt and America may never fully understand each other, reporters such as Hessler help narrow the gap. In The Buried, he’s crafted an edifying portrait of a nation that experienced a dramatic uprising—and hasn’t changed as much as many of its citizens had hoped.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleAn epistolary novel has a tricky framework, but for Vuong, an award-winning poet, it’s a platform for extraordinary imagery, carefully parsed relationships and intense prose. He’s a writer with the patience and skill to develop a cast of complex characters ... a distinctive, intimate novel that is also a reckoning with the Vietnam War’s long shadow. His prose is direct and potent; sometimes, it has the elegance of an ancient proverb ... it’s unsurprising that Vuong’s debut novel is full of rich images ... Vuong is a skillful, daring writer, and his first novel is a powerful one.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleChiang...has an original—and gratifyingly accessible—way of contending with the ethical and existential quandaries that regularly crop up in his work. These are humane, skillfully assembled stories, populated by vivid and memorable characters. Even his lone misstep is interesting ... If not always upbeat, his best stories boast a beguiling mix of compassion and awe ... Worthy of comparisons to the work of sci-fi innovators like Philip K. Dick ... Chiang’s formal inventiveness drives several...stories ... He likes to hop around, exploring a varied set of ideas and employing whatever narrative style suits his aims. His versatility and intellectual restlessness have yielded an immensely pleasing book.
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleDunbar-Ortiz is a knowledgeable, unflinching writer ... isn’t uniformly convincing; occasionally, Dunbar-Ortiz presents some eccentric, unverifiable theories. But her main arguments — that the Second Amendment enabled slave owners and many settlers to persecute black and Native people, and that these devastating power dynamics continue to shape our society — are unassailable ... Alongside Dunbar-Ortiz’s compelling arguments are a few questionable theories...if even the author concedes that such an assertion can’t be fact-checked, it’s not worth including in a book that intends to be a serious work of history.
PositiveMinneapolis Star Tribune\"... poetic ... My Coney Island Baby covers familiar narrative ground, but there’s nothing formulaic about this talented Irishman’s second novel ... If this is the end of the affair, O’Callaghan is determined to capture it in extraordinary detail. He has a sculptor’s eye ... [O’Callaghan\'s] plot may not be expansive, but he’s intensely in touch with his characters’ sensory experiences ... A small story told at close range, My Coney Island Baby is suffused with great, painful beauty.\
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleMalcolm always has been very good at writing about innovative thinkers. But as we’ve learned over the course of her sterling career, the New Yorker staffer is even more compelling when she aims to debunk a piece of conventional wisdom ... the spirit that animates Malcolm at her most daring is often present. If an essay’s aim is to provide readers with a new angle on a subject they thought they understood — or didn’t think they cared about in the first place —Malcolm is definitely a master of the form. But her perspicacity doesn’t mean she’s immune from missteps. Some of her assertions are dubious, and she can be uncharitable to those she’s writing about. To read Malcolm is to be dazzled by her intelligence — and, every so often, puzzled by her misjudgments ... always engaging, if not always right ... Malcolm, a vital voice in American nonfiction since the 1960s, is an intensely original thinker, and sometimes she misses the mark. More often, though, her essays are novel and bracing. This collection reminds us that she’s almost always a must-read.
PositiveMinneapolis Star Tribune\"... moving ... When All Is Said is an accomplished debut, a sensitive, layered depiction of grief and regret. [Griffin\'s] sentences are often very sharp, and her pacing is excellent. Her final chapter is surprising and powerful.\
RaveWorld Literature TodayThe author of a lauded memoir about living in Iceland, Moss writes beautifully about the natural world, and she’s incisive when discussing the dynamics that emerge among strangers in close quarters. But this is more than just a story about a horrifying misadventure in the woods. Moss has written a feminist parable for an era in which an American president promises to build an insuperable wall and Brexit-supporting Brits are erecting barriers between their country and the rest of Europe. An unflinching depiction of tribalism and sexism, Ghost Wall is an intelligent work of fiction, one in which a character’s baleful misunderstanding of the past helps explain our fraught present.
PositiveMinneapolis Star Tribune\"Although its plot gets a little shaggy — there are betrayals, crimes, geopolitical chaos — Hark is a tartly effective sendup of 21st-century America ... Lipsyte ably skewers our fads and phony gods. His sharpest observations focus on language itself, like the Silicon Valley-birthed babble that melds mindfulness and corporate-speak ... Lipsyte crafts an arresting portrait of a charlatan and his hopeful but misguided public ... awfully funny...\
PositiveMinneapolis Star Tribune\"The Patch, John McPhee’s new book, could only have been written by a journalist with decades of experience and an archivist’s disposition ... Although there are many lovely passages in The Patch, a handful are frustratingly short. A single paragraph on Peter O’Toole, sun-scorched and battered after shooting \'Lawrence of Arabia,\' is beautifully written — if only it weren’t so fleeting. But such is the nature of this project. McPhee, a journalistic pack rat, has shared the best of his archives, and the result is a valuable overview of a long, peripatetic career.\
PositiveSan Francisco Chronicle\"The End of the End of the Earth teems with exotic avian life, but don’t be scared off if, like me, you can’t tell a flappet lark from a bar-tailed godwit. Franzen... is just as eloquent when writing about friendship, technology and other novelists. Though the subject matter of these pieces varies widely, they’re united by a belief that, in our fragmented, increasingly absurd world, paying close attention — to the planet, to books, to those we love — is perhaps the most meaningful thing any of us can do ... In these subtle, nondidactic, immaculately written essays, [Franzen is] just encouraging us to look up from our screens.\
RaveStar TribuneBurns, a Belfast native, makes an audacious narrative decision, giving us a telling peek at her titular villain’s fate in the book’s first sentence. Her prose is equally daring. She invents her own colloquialisms ...and her dialogue is often subtly hilarious ... Dramatic events occur, but the flash-bang of urban combat stays in the background. To Burns, what matters most are her working-class lead character’s daily struggles, which are related in bold, dynamic language ... This is a powerful, funny and sometimes immensely beautiful novel, with a female lead whose life is a low-key renunciation of the violence that shook her city for a generation.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleBaker’s narrative is eventful and diffuse. A cast-of-characters list in the opening pages includes more than 50 names, and the proceedings play out against dozens of backdrops ... Occasionally, it’s tough to keep track of who’s doing what and why they’re doing it. But Baker writes beautifully, and she’s done ample research. Drawing on a host of private and public archives, she crafts memorable portraits of dynamic, flawed men and women ... The \'love\' in Baker’s subtitle refers to the relationships Auden and Spender had with an artist named Nancy Sharp (she married the latter). Their romantic entanglements are semi-interesting, but as described in Baker’s vivid prose, Sharp’s wartime reinvention is fascinating.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleThe Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy is an exceptional work of journalism ... Her book is a deeply reported account of catastrophic mismanagement. But it’s also a celebration of civic engagement, a tribute to those who are fighting back against governmental malpractice.
PositiveStar Tribune...82-year-old Marion Gilchrist was beaten to death in her Glasgow, Scotland, home. A brooch was stolen during the crime, and when police learned that Oscar Slater, a foreign-born gambler, had a similar item, they arrested him. It soon emerged that Slater had pawned his brooch before the murder, but the authorities were undeterred. A jury deliberated for about an hour before convicting him, and he was given a life sentence...Three years later, encouraged by Slater’s lawyer, Conan Doyle studied the case. He came to believe that Slater was innocent, and when he said so in print, Conan Doyle became the prisoner’s most prominent advocate. Were this one of Conan Doyle’s fictional tales, logic would’ve prevailed after the publication of his book. In reality, \'The Case of Oscar Slater\' had little immediate influence. Conan Doyle stepped away, then redoubled his advocacy before the saga took a final twist — one that reshaped Slater’s life and the British justice system’s appeals process. A brisk account of the celebrated novelist\'s campaign to overturn a controversial murder conviction.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleIn How to Change Your Mind, Pollan explores the circuitous history of these often-misunderstood substances, and reports on the clinical trials that suggest psychedelics can help with depression, addiction and the angst that accompanies terminal illnesses. He does so in the breezy prose that has turned his previous books — these include The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cooked, the inspiration for his winning Netflix docuseries of the same name — into bestsellers ... Ever the diligent reporter, Pollan has recently tried several psychedelics himself (with help from experienced guides) ... LSD and psilocybin will have to be better understood, and this enlightening book figures to play an important role in that conversation.
RaveThe Star Tribune...this is a typically gratifying effort, a volume of faultless prose and contemplative characters, and a fitting testament to his storytelling prowess ... Trevor’s fiction isn’t always teeming with hope, but I think he means something else here. The fact that we tell them at all — that’s the hopeful bit. His stories are suffused with longing and pain, beauty and humanity, and, as promised, they’re full of answers to timeless questions.
RaveThe Star TribuneBrinkley’s book is packed with valuable, if disconcerting, insights. His stories, frequently set in New York City, where he grew up, often focus on introspective black male characters. Race is an important theme, but it’s just one of many subjects that inspire him: He’s particularly sharp on the ways in which children use fantasy to fortify themselves, and his depictions of love’s many varieties are subtle and deeply observant ... With this observant book, Brinkley demonstrates an enviable capacity for narrative compression. In the space of 25 pages, he’s capable of creating complex and memorable emotional worlds. This is a very hard thing to do, but in A Lucky Man, he pulls it off in one story after the next.
PositiveThe Star TribuneThe recollections on display in Time Pieces are episodic and very personal. Accompanied by Paul Joyce’s cityscape photos, the text blends dreamlike recollections with wry character sketches and glimpses of civic strife. Although he devotes an abundance of maudlin, occasionally flabby pages to a single short-lived courtship, most of Banville’s anecdotes are quite vivid.
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"Enlightenment Now not only tackles widely held misconceptions about major issues, but also quantifies the many ways in which cool-headed inquiry has improved the lives of billions … Pinker’s assertions may sound fanciful, but they’re supported by detailed data. Drawing on the research of dozens of historians, economists and social scientists, the Harvard psychology professor demonstrates that for an ever-greater portion of humanity, things are far sunnier than they were just decades ago … But Pinker isn’t always so convincing. At times, he downplays some of the 21st century’s biggest worries.\
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune\"Smith is a nimble thinker, allergic to dogma. Her new book is titled Feel Free, which is just right for a set of charmingly digressive essays about politics, the arts and personal subjects ... Although the book’s first four essays are weighty — they explore what the state owes its citizens, and vice versa — Smith sets an unpretentious tone ... In her most personal essay, she reflects on our era of heightened racial consciousness. Smith and her children are biracial; she wonders how others might try to define or constrain them in these?‘us’ and ‘them’ times. \'Like it or not,\' adds the part-time New Yorker, \'Americans are one people.\' It may not be her most original observation, but at this moment in history, it’s worth remembering.\
Bill Minutaglio and Steve L. Davis
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleBill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis revisit this wild saga in The Most Dangerous Man in America, a rip-roaring tale of hallucinogenic drugs, revolutionary politics and an intercontinental standoff between a law-and-order president and a louche ex-professor ... Their deep dive into government archives supports a narrative that never lacks for drama ...prose is lean and brisk...in Leary, they’ve found a brilliant, ridiculous main character who was one of the era’s emblematic figures ...an energetic nonfiction narrative, one made up of short chapters and cinematic scenes ... On the whole, though, this is a well-researched and factually sound book ... The Most Dangerous Man in America isn’t what you’d call an important work of history, and it has its imperfections. But it also happens to be awfully entertaining.
MixedThe Minneapolis StarSome of these are delightful, and at its best, this book reminds us that Salter, who died in 2015, was among his generation’s finest literary craftsmen ... Alas, there are several duds. Salter’s take on President Bill Clinton’s second term is superficial and muddled, and though he discusses his favorite Parisian restaurant in two essays, he barely mentions the food. At times, he sounds like an elitist ... There are many reasons to worry about the future of literature, but this isn’t healthy skepticism — it’s snobbery. Salter was a wonderful writer, and his novels still resonate. His nonfiction could be awfully good, too, yet as this collection demonstrates, even he filed a few clunkers.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleMany years in the making, it’s a book that arrives at an opportune moment … A portion of the information contained in those storm-tossed papers has since been unearthed by journalists and activists. But The Doomsday Machine is nonetheless effective, a book that challenges some big assumptions about America’s weaponry — and questions the shaky intellectual foundation on which the nuclear program rests … In the book’s final pages, Ellsberg makes several admittedly ‘quixotic’ recommendations...Ellsberg isn’t optimistic that these things will happen — but he maintains that they must.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...inspired and emotionally rich … Though he spins a great tale, the most important facet of City of Bohane isn't its plot. What really matters, what distinguishes the novel from so many others, is Barry's lively, original and charismatic voice. A native of Limerick, Ireland, who's in his early 40s, Barry has a linguist's ear for colloquialism, an anthropologist's eye for detail and a daffy fantasist's appreciation for tall tales.
Marcel Proust, Trans. by Lydia Davis
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneLetters to His Neighbor is an entertaining collection of notes the author sent to a woman who lived in his building in Paris. Discovered in a French archive in 2013, the letters, from 1908-16, depict a person just begging for a few minutes of peace ... Accompanying essays by Lydia Davis, whose translation preserves Proust’s sparse punctuation, and Jean-Yves Tadie, Proust’s biographer, provide the requisite background ... Proust also wrote vividly about the war, and about his worries for his brother, Dr. Robert Proust ...was never more detailed than when discussing his noise-related concerns.
Edward St. Aubyn
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleEdward St. Aubyn’s new novel is a retelling of King Lear, an undertaking that the widely admired British author has approached with plenty of cheek. Dunbar is brisk, biting and, despite the untimely deaths of at least two innocents, easy to like … Though we know what awaits Florence and Henry, St. Aubyn manages to craft an inspired, allusive quasi-thriller … Dunbar works as both a moral tale and a biting satire of the 1 percent, a novel of depth and wit, with just the right amount of irreverence for its august source material.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia is a remarkable portrait of an ever-shifting era, as told through the experiences of four people who were born in the waning years of the USSR ...two men and two women at the heart of this rich and deeply reported book are neither famous nor blessed with unique talents. But taken together, their life stories form an extraordinarily detailed picture of the country’s fraught recent past ... Gessen weaves her characters’ stories into a seamless, poignant whole. Her analysis of Putin’s malevolent administration is just as effective ... Her ambition has resulted in a harrowing, compassionate and important book.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThough some of his arguments will agitate readers on both sides of the political spectrum, Andersen maintains that in the past 25 years, 'America’s unhinged right became much larger and more influential than its unhinged left' ... This is an entertaining but intellectually restless book, one that moves fast and divines links between dozens of ideological, social and political developments. In a two-page section about the 'national ratification of fantasy' of the ’60s and ’70s, Andersen covers state lotteries, the birth control pill, Portnoy’s Complaint, Cosmopolitan magazine, 'Deep Throat' and 'the slang term stroke book.' It can be hard to keep up.
Mostly, however, Fantasyland is a persuasive work of diagnostic journalism. With this rousing book, Andersen proves to be the kind of clear-eyed critic an anxious country needs in the midst of a national crisis.
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleIn At the Strangers’ Gate, Gopnik — a superb prose stylist who has won three National Magazine Awards — looks back at the 1980s, his first decade in New York City ...has some easily spotted imperfections. Anyone who’s ever read his New Yorker pieces knows that Gopnik is at once extremely skillful and somewhat vain. It’s apparent that he enjoys the sound of his own sentences, and sometimes, he seems more concerned about the handsomeness of his prose than the logic of his arguments ...beautifully written nonsense ... Happily, Gopnik has enough good stories to carry the day. Which brings us back to his chats with Joseph Mitchell.
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneMathews’ characters are likable and clever. His plot, rife with geopolitical intrigue, is nicely calibrated. And he packs his debut with period details that evoke the vibrancy of the Savoy Ballroom and the magnificence of the then-new RCA Building (now known as 30 Rockefeller Plaza). For all its strengths, though, this is a good novel needlessly stretched to 500-plus pages ... Mathews writes extraordinarily well, but he has a habit of interrupting himself with protracted digressions that add many extraneous pages. Even bit players get lengthy back stories. Midway through the book, for instance, we meet a doctor who has a tiny role — but that doesn’t stop Mathews from detailing the physician’s family tree, newspaper-reading habits and digestive frustrations ... This is an expansive theme, and from it, the first-time author has carved a commendable novel, even if it’s not the epic he’d like it to be.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe essays in Life in Code, Ellen Ullman’s smart, civic-minded new book, were written over a period of almost 25 years. The newest entry, completed a few months ago, is as current as could be ... Not all of these essays are unadulterated gems. Ullman is a longtime San Francisco resident, but her brief piece about the changing complexion of SoMa never quite coheres. Most of the entries, however, are excellent ...her experience informs her clear-eyed assessments of the tech economy, artificial intelligence and the industry’s power dynamics ... This is a measured perspective, and like the rest of Life in Code, it figures to stand up over time.
Lawrence P. Jackson
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...an insightful study of an exceptional storyteller ... In this comprehensive yet nimble book, Jackson gives Himes’ prose the perceptive critical analysis it deserves. But if he’s an unabashed fan of the work, Jackson is also determined to avoid hagiography: When Himes’ behaves horrendously, as he did in some of his romantic relationships, Jackson offers no excuses for his subject’s actions. An English and history professor at Johns Hopkins University, Jackson began researching Himes’ life in 2002. His efforts have yielded an illuminating portrait ... Jackson’s book — big, intelligent and unflinching — is what literary biography looks like when it’s done right.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...it is that midway through his latest, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, a man who appears to be a soulless con artist surprises us with a bit of workaday wisdom ... Like its predecessors, Colorless Tsukuru is pleasingly off-kilter and a bit otherworldly, even as it tells a story rooted in the here and now ...there's a hint of the bizarre in this otherwise earthbound tale — notably, an unsettling story-within-a-story about a foretold death ... Off-the-cuff philosophical musings; a brand of foreshadowing that suggests an adult fairy tale; a melancholy fascination with youthful relationships gone wrong; narrative playfulness... isn't the 65-year-old Murakami's most daring work.
PanThe San Francisco ChronicleThis is a book of fleeting anecdotes told in short paragraphs. Often, Shopsin stops writing halfway down the page. Her approach prevents Shopsin from developing much momentum, a problem that’s accentuated by her narrative detours … Though her writing about Willy is sometimes moving, Shopsin’s appraisal of the neighborhood’s transformation doesn’t go very deep. Meanwhile, it’s hard to understand her decision to include periodic accounts of unremarkable journeys she’s taken in the U.S. and Europe. There are single-sentence paragraphs throughout the book, but in these sections they can be exasperatingly twee … The book’s capriciousness makes a little more sense when, at the very end, Shopsin explains her title.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe 72-year-old narrator of Rabih Alameddine's restlessly intelligent An Unnecessary Woman has the complete works of Nabokov, Rilke, Donne and many others on file in the card catalog that is her mind ...what makes An Unnecessary Woman such a convincing tale is his ability to ground the novel's heroine in a set of real-world concerns and resentments ...Alameddine does his most nuanced writing in sections that chronicle Aaliya's important — and invariably doomed — relationships ... Her most formative bond, however, was with a woman named Hannah ...Alameddine makes clear early on in the novel that the relationship is headed for a painful end, theirs is nonetheless a tender and exquisitely rendered love story ...novel full of elegant, poetic sentences, this might be the most wonderful of the bunch.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneAn Iraq war veteran himself (but not in the Super Twelve), Bardenwerper has written an exceptional debut. Coupled with his knowledge of military rules and customs, his storytelling skills — confident but never showy prose, a terrific sense of pacing — make for an enlightening piece of journalism … Though there are glimpses of Saddam’s soul, this isn’t a book that soft-pedals his horrible misdeeds. Bardenwerper recounts several instances in which Saddam ordered indiscriminate killings ...In the closing pages, Bardenwerper brings his story into the present, giving us a look at the post-Iraq lives of the Super Twelve. It’s here that the book’s primary point — that the consequences of war are ultimately immeasurable — is most effectively made.
RaveThe Kansas City StarElizabeth Strout’s new book grows more impressive with each passing page, as it becomes clear that the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is slowly, subtly building one big story from a bunch of small ones. There are nine chapters in Anything is Possible. Each can be enjoyed as a stand-alone short story. But read them in order, and you’ll see that they fit together like tiles in a mosaic.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleGuinn offers what might be the most complete picture to date of this tragic saga, and of the man who engineered it ... The result is a disturbing portrait of evil — and a compassionate memorial to those taken in by Jones’ malign charisma.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleYiyun Li’s prose is lean and intense, and her ideas about books and writing are wholly original. Read the essays gathered in Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life and you’ll be left with the sense that they’re the product of a singular mind, one that has no time for cliches or pandering ... there’s a distinctly dark tenor to her work. You might say that this book is haunted, although she probably wouldn’t put it that way ... Li is at her most interesting when discussing her profession and her relationship with English. It has become her 'private language,' one that molds her ideas and compels her to write with uncommon precision ... There are moments when Li strives for profundity and ends up with puzzling results...Li hits the mark more often than not, though, and she finishes strong.
PositiveThe Washington PostMyers’s collection of music milestones covers four decades. The most recent song is from 1991. By his reckoning, it’s impossible to say yet which songs from the past 25 years will endure. Fair enough, but there are some oversights. He could’ve stuck with his timeline and still included an original hip-hop track ... Generally, however, Anatomy of a Song, adapted from Myers’s Wall Street Journal column of the same name, is a smart, gracious book. His interviews yield some fascinating details.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleAs his fans will attest, Johnson’s writing derives its appeal from his ability to illuminate complex ideas in unpretentious language ... The qualities that have earned him such success are evident in Wonderland. In his strongest chapters, Johnson connects a spark of inspiration from the Islamic Golden Age to the marvels of modern technology ... Johnson’s prose is nimble, his knowledge impressive. By necessity, he oversimplifies a number of scientific advances, and as he concedes, some of the historical trends he identifies have been discussed in greater detail in other recent books. Mostly, though, Wonderland is original and fun, as well it should be, given the subject.
PanThe San Francisco ChronicleValley of the Gods is couched as a behind-the-curtain look at various tech subcultures, but it’s mainly a collection of worn-out stereotypes and meaningless generalizations ... her knowing depiction of the valley relies on the kind of cliches that have informed dozens of previous books and magazine articles ... Wolfe focuses on Thiel Fellowship recipients, budding entrepreneurs who’ve skipped or postponed college in exchange for grants from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. While this approach provides her with some compelling people to interview, it also places Wolfe in the camp of Thiel fans...Elsewhere in the book, Wolfe isn’t shy about mocking entire professions for their supposed social backwardness, but when it comes to a powerful mogul like Thiel, she equivocates ... With its well-chronicled diversity problems and its enormous self-regard, Silicon Valley is always ripe for a takedown. But in Valley of the Gods, Wolfe does little more than string together a set of geek-centric cliches.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...this is a busy novel: a bloody war saga that also happens to be a tale of forbidden love; a lament for those who perished during the Great Famine, and a paean to the vigor of the natural world ... [Barry] writes with intensity and confidence. No one can outdo Cormac McCarthy when it comes to evoking the feral, punishing nature of frontier life in the 19th century, but at times, Barry comes pretty close ... Days Without End spends much of its time on the Thomas-John relationship. These scenes are moving and tender ... Barry is expecting too much, however, when he asks the reader to accept a jarring plot turn that occurs in the novel’s first half: Thomas and John’s adoption of an Indian child. In an otherwise immaculately structured book, this is an egregious misstep considering the role Thomas and his fellow soldiers play in decimating the Indian population. The tone-deafness of this narrative development reduces the novel’s appeal, but Days Without End is still powerful and unsettling, an important look at one of history’s most regrettable chapters.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune\"...a bona fide epic that manages to be both accessible and formally daring ... This book contains some of the most perceptive writing of Auster\'s career. His multipart narrative gives him ample room to explore the vagaries of identity and, as he put it an earlier book, \'the music of chance.\' But 4321 can also be frustrating. There are extended set pieces that would\'ve been just as effective at half the length and lots of stream-of-consciousness sentences that, at 200 and 300 words long, will try the patience of even the most assiduous reader. Auster, though, works hard to place his characters within the context of their times, and his efforts are almost always successful.\
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleShe has a big personality and acknowledges a 'tendency to overshare.' This trait pops up a few times in A Really Good Day ... But if she sometimes reveals more than you need to know, Waldman is reliably thought-provoking. A Really Good Day is informed by her previous career as a federal public defender. She worked on numerous drug cases and became an outspoken critic of harsh narcotics sentencing guidelines. In these pages, she makes a strong argument that taking a microdose of LSD is 'a crime, but it really shouldn’t be.'
MixedThe San Francisco Chronicle...an unusual, enlightening effort, an intelligent blend of memoir and cultural criticism that breaks fresh ground in the crowded field of JFK assassination studies ... Occasionally defensive when discussing her family’s stewardship of the film, Zapruder’s book is at its most moving when she considers her grandfather’s unintended, often painful status as 'the quintessential eyewitness' of the postwar era ... On a few occasions, it seems as if she intends to use the book as a platform to counter every unsympathetic word that’s ever been published about her family. But when she stops responding to decades-old slights and simply explains the family’s position, it makes a lot of sense.
RaveThe Kansas City StarMoonglow is gorgeously written and shaded with sadness, a story of recklessness, bravery and loss that spans the 20th century ... Harrowing in its depiction of war and deeply attuned to the double-edged legacies bequeathed by our elders, this is often a decidedly mournful book. There are funny moments, but Chabon mostly embraces the grief, plumbing it for answers to long-guarded family mysteries. Moonglow may not be cheery, but it’s often very powerful.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune[Percy] demonstrates he’s one of contemporary fiction’s sharper critical minds, an author with a rare talent for explaining his craft. Writers, editors and teachers — they’re among the target audience for Percy’s Thrill Me. But really, this book will appeal to anyone who’s interested in storytelling. And that’s just about all of us.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...[an] extraordinary book ... at once poignant and rigorous, a compassionate dual biography and a forthright examination of codified racism. Macy is a resourceful reporter and a strong but never showy writer ... The overall effect is extremely powerful. Truevine may focus on events that began a century ago, but its guiding spirit couldn’t be more urgent.
PositiveThe Washington PostGenial, occasionally funny and largely devoid of gossip, A Life in Parts is a book about ambition and persistence. Though Cranston tells some interesting stories about his best-known performances his liveliest writing focuses on his days as an 'always hustling' young actor ... [some] anodyne hat-tips can get tedious ... Unlike some of his early, easily summarized roles, A Life in Parts does not lend itself to pithy postcard blurbs. But take Cranston’s book for what it is — the controversy-free reflections of a hard-working and apparently well-grounded actor — and there is plenty to admire.
MixedThe Minneapolis Star Tribune\"...[a] smart, impassioned and uneven novel ... Just when you’re expecting sentimentality, Jacob hits you with a bolt of bracing R-rated humor. He’s especially good at dreaming up filthy riffs based on beloved poetry ... But The Angel of History, for all its intelligence and immediacy, can also be frustrating ... At times, Alameddine’s novel reads like a script for a stilted stage play. The good news is that the narrative dead-ends are clearly labeled (\'Satan’s Interviews\' and \'Jacob’s Stories\') and take up no more than a third of the page count. The rest of The Angel of History is Alameddine at his best, or very close to it.\
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle...a provocative, and often very effective, book ... That said, it’s somewhat disappointing that Danner’s assessment of the Obama presidency takes up only a little more than half the text. The rest is given over to a rather stale review of Bush’s counterterror efforts...even as Danner presses a compelling case against the 43rd president, there’s a sense that he’s simply rehashing arguments he formulated years ago — preaching to a choir that has long since convicted Bush in the court of public opinion ... [Danner has some] forward-looking ideas, and they’re among the reasons why at its best, Spiral is a timely, valuable book.
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleIt is not a great book, nor, at times, a very likable one. But it does not lack for admirable qualities. A knowing send-up of liberal pieties, it’s also a wistful rumination on the fate of America’s great cities in an era when real estate is the new religion ... The book’s political chatter is platitude-laden, but it serves an important function, enabling McInerney to poke fun at the cosmopolitan liberals who make up his target audience.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleIn American Heiress, Toobin has crafted a book for the expert and the uninitiated alike, a smart page-turner that boasts a cache of never-before-published details ... Throughout, Toobin’s book successfully captures the unrivaled spectacle of the Hearst drama ... The Heiress has an obvious, if unavoidable, shortcoming: Because Hearst declined Toobin’s interview requests, we don’t know what she makes of all this 40 years later. Nonetheless, he conveys a sense of how much of Hearst’s life has changed.
PanThe Kansas City StarThough The Voyeur’s Motel is initially gripping, it soon reveals itself for what it is: a one-note portrait of a man with an extremely disturbing hobby ... Foos comes off as single-minded — he appears to have been unaccountably obsessed with his guests’ amorous habits. As a result, the book is correspondingly one-dimensional; chapter after chapter is devoted to Foos’ half-baked theories about human sexuality ... Late in the book, Talese asks Foos how he’d like to be received when his secret goes public. 'I think of myself as a ‘pioneering sex researcher,' he replies. It’s a safe bet that some readers won’t see it that way.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleSome will argue that in making this argument, the author reveals he’s not an impartial journalist. Ehrenreich doesn’t dispute this interpretation — he embraces it ... Such boldness is one of the book’s defining traits. Convinced that it’s impossible to discuss the relevant issues without appearing to pick a side, Ehrenreich, a novelist and a National Magazine Award winner, is open about his sympathies ... those willing to listen will find that Ehrenreich’s industrious reporting can help us better understand some of those at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. His scope is narrow and his book has its flaws. But this doesn’t mean that The Way to the Spring is any less distressing or important ... the vast majority of The Way to the Spring is made up of much more solid reporting. Ehrenreich proves to be the kind of tough-minded yet searching writer we need to help us understand this intractable divide, and the people shaped by it.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneVoyager takes the reader on a global tour. It includes magnificently written reports from Senegal, Ecuador and Scotland, the Himalayas, the Andes and the Seychelles. It’s a notably personal work, too. The lauded author of more than a dozen novels, Banks has never before published a full-length memoir. This introspective book goes a long way toward plugging that gap. The best of these essays have an elegiac quality ... A nimble, if occasionally tone-deaf blend of autobiography, history and nature writing, 'Voyager' is his most personal essay, as Banks reckons with his choppy romantic past ... But look past his awkward self-justifications and you’ll find that Banks writes with erudition and depth about important subjects ... Though it spans six decades of Banks’ life, Voyager isn’t exactly a full-on memoir. Nonetheless, it’s lively and revealing, a worthy, if minor addition to Banks’ impressive body of work.
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneOn occasion, Far and Away feels stale and bloated, an overstuffed monument to authorial vanity, built from old magazine articles. But more often, this is an improbably well-timed collection ... Arriving at a moment when the ideological and political gaps between us can seem insurmountable, Solomon’s imperfect yet deeply humane book cuts against the grain, urging readers to exit their comfort zones and engage with new people and unfamiliar points of view ... Content-wise, these pieces don’t always have a lot in common, and individually some aren’t terribly effective ... But there’s a democratic spirit that binds the best of these chapters, and, in the aggregate, Solomon’s reporting from far-flung places is surprisingly powerful.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleLike its predecessor [The Emperor of Maladies], this one is both expansive and accessible, a breezily written manual to the potent little 'unit of inheritance' that helps make us who we are ... This is a rich, occasionally whimsical book. Lengthy discussions of Mendel’s findings and Charles Darwin’s explorations are interspersed with playful references to Philip Larkin’s poetry and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The architecture of the double helix is explained in gratifyingly clear language, and groundbreaking initiatives like the Human Genome Project are imbued with fresh details. Pseudo-scientific claims that one racial group is intellectually superior to another are methodically dismantled, and pioneering researchers whose contributions were marginalized — mainly because they were women — finally get their due.
PositiveMinneapolis Star TribuneThese scenes are Russo at his best, and they’re what make him of one of our best humorists (his campus farce Straight Man is one of the funniest novels of the ’90s)...This isn’t to suggest that Russo is only out for laughs. There are several harrowing confrontations in these pages, none of which end in predictable fashion, and virtually every character is wounded in one way or another. Everybody’s Fool is a decidedly bittersweet affair, a sequel that proves both entertaining and elegiac.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...more than anything else, the latest installment is the one in which Knausgaard wills himself to become a writer. It’s a book that does a remarkably good job of depicting failure, and of capturing the single-mindedness required to make real artistic progress ... Knausgaard has his detractors. They argue, with some merit, that his 'Struggle' is self-indulgent and his prose uneven. But even his fiercest critics might concede that Book Five contains fascinating insights about inspiration and hard work.
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleHaag’s book is strongest when it upends the belief that America has had an uninterrupted love affair with guns ... The Gunning of America has its flaws. Haag authors some jarring juxtapositions. Discussing Sarah Winchester’s miscarriages and the company that made her wealthy, she writes, 'These rifles, and designs to follow, would proliferate and carry the Winchester name forward intergenerationally, whereas Sarah’s womb had failed in the task, and would fail again.' This isn’t the only instance of awkwardness. But Haag’s book is generally quite readable.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle'Loneliness,' Laing says, 'is not supposed to induce empathy.' In her case, however, that’s clearly what happened. With The Lonely City, Laing has taken a painful spell in her life and turned it into a book of extraordinary compassion and insight.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneEvenson is a writer with an uncommonly dark vision ... a provocative and thoroughly entertaining collection.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneReplete with imaginative action sequences, smart-alecky sidekicks and a quixotic conspiracy meant to right many years of wrongs, The Yid is a bracing fictional take on a crucial moment in history.
PositiveThe Daily BeastThis Old Man might not fit Angell’s definition of a weighty professional accomplishment, but it’s nonetheless a charming addition to an estimable—and time-tested—career.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleAs chronicled by McGilligan, a skilled film historian, Welles’ rise is colorful and remarkably industrious, and though this book is on the far side of 800 pages, it never tips over into tedium...the definitive portrait of Welles in his youth.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThough Mayer’s story is broadly familiar, she adds countless new details and important context along the way. And by synthesizing so much in a single volume, she’s written one of the essential books about our political system’s unparalleled capacity for perpetuating income inequality.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle“Bad News is a searing illustration of the dangers associated with newsgathering in an authoritarian state, and a paean to those courageous enough to practice it in such dire circumstances.
PanSan Francisco ChronicleIt is not her best bit of work.... Though she does some solid storytelling, Cheever is often glib, and she can be oddly judgmental. She also has a debatable sense of what merits her attention...
RaveMinneapolis Star TribuneBirkerts says he's 'not ready to assent' to the total technological takeover of contemporary life, and in Changing the Subject he makes an inspired argument that his is a campaign worth supporting.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThese stories are alternately funny and distressing, and while she’s aware that this sort of thing has been tried before... Dovey conjures new ways of thinking about species that are subject to humanity’s whims.