RaveThe Washington PostAs in many anthologies, there are moments when the narrative arc commonly expected of book-length works feels more like a winding trail through the woods. But the wet slap of ferns is a good reminder that not all paths should be cleared, and that the moments of delight are many. More than informative, The Language of Trees is inspiring; many of its writers merge the lyric with insights that are scientific, intimate and surprising ... A few themes crop up again and again — climate change, in particular — but they feel necessary; what must be remembered bears repeating.
RaveThe Washington PostMillner explores what happens when the ferocity of wanting is bound by the restraint of form ... Millner depicts a woman fully awakened to the possibilities of being alive, despite the shackles on her hands, mind and heart. Keeping the stakes high on every page, Millner transcends the tawdry to ask readers, obliquely, whether they are sleepwalking through their days ... Millner delights in the small pivots and grooves afforded by strict verse. Even the line breaks provide fractals of the fractured themes of longing, grief, hope and passion. Restless, imaginative and daring, Couplets advances the canon of the erotic.
RaveThe Washington PostI worried. From gratitude to delight to joy … had becoming a best-selling author turned this man’s beautiful mind into a brand? ... With Inciting Joy, which inspires us to look beyond the miseries of our era to envision a more welcoming future, Gay vaults over the possibility of treacle to offer a concept of joy akin to what Audre Lorde conceptualized in her essay Uses of the Erotic ... I kept writing quotes down and sharing them with whomever was near ... May these quotes plant seeds that flourish. His final metaphor (which I will not describe, to preserve for you the elation made possible by an unforeseen volta about farming) stirred in me a shimmering fire that was banked but not doused by time ... Get yourself a copy of Inciting Joy, then gift yourself the great pleasure of giving it away. The deepest joys are those we share.
Werner Herzog, trans. by Michael Hofmann
PositiveThe Washington Post... spare and lyric ... Beautifully translated from German into English by Michael Hofmann, The Twilight World reveals the companionship of soldiers with nature and each other but concludes without examining the collective damage wrought by their imperialist fantasy. Mimicking nesting dolls with an architecture of time from 1997 to 1974 to 1944, where it lingers before boomeranging back, the novel’s construction could have made it possible to see into and around Onoda more ... In his feverish search for ecstatic truths, Herzog has given readers a portal into human folly, self-discipline and domination — surely his life’s work.
MixedWashington PostIn The Red Zone, Caldwell begins boldly, as she often has ... Caldwell teaches a creative writing workshop, which along with her wedding provide a narrative arc to The Red Zone. The betrothal is framed as a triumph of her and Tony’s commitment, which survived the fights that Caldwell engineered while suffering from PMDD. She is savvy enough to know such trajectories hark to Victorian literature, whose women were either wed or dead by the last page ... As much as I appreciate when form delivers meaning, the repetitions in The Red Zone did not always feel fruitful. Recurrence works best when each return to a scene or idea gains further purchase on its meaning, complicating the argument. But The Red Zone is not always deepened by its myriad juxtapositions of Caldwell’s youth as a child of divorce with her current penchant for petty screaming matches while attending to the real hardships of her period. The Red Zone could have been distilled by at least 50 pages without losing its value ... Still, I found myself texting images of certain pages to a friend ... From a literary perspective, the lists are handy but overused as a substitute for more profound reflections on the trial and error of solving a puzzle uninteresting to the capitalist patriarchy.
MixedWashington PostA cross-pollination of a parable, an allegory and a novel ... Upon [a] rather precarious conceptual tripod, Heti built Pure Colour. Its abstracted trajectory, spanning the individual, the societal and the eternal, reaches for the canon occupied by Rachel Cusk and Milan Kundera ... Pure Colour pairs whimsy with desperation through the story of Mira ... Both direct and digressive, Heti overlays ethical arguments on the narrative of Mira’s life, which is less interesting than the aims of this book. That’s partly the point ... Here the plot is an excuse for characters to remain in dialogue with themselves, conversations which are intimate, oppositional and overlapping ... At its best, Pure Colour recalls The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Both books provide the barest frame of a story upon which hang lengthy philosophical interjections that illuminate the dynamic between people living through difficult eras ... Heti shines when dealing with bumbling, lustful hope, that mystical ignition of the body, mind and spirit in the throes of sexual or romantic encounter ... At its worst, reading Pure Colour is like scrolling through an Instagram spiritualist’s wall. When attempting to explain love (and later, death), Heti slips from her biblical register into a kind of animism ... Heti is positing that the dead are petri dishes for divine judgment of those who remain. Fine, but it was at this point that my distanced reading of Pure Colour deepened into an active dislike. Too befuddled to interrogate the basic premise of her belief systems, Mira accepts despair as part and parcel of her privilege ... Despite my admiration for the ambition which compels Heti’s entire oeuvre, Pure Colour lagged behind its premise.
PositiveThe Washington PostWhile her intellect is the driving force of On Freedom, Nelson decenters herself to build a canon of radical thought with reference to artists and thinkers too numerous to name here. Tapping into her own experience lightly, if at all, she gets to the marrow of being ... In defense of what should be obvious — we are beholden to each other and the planet that sustains us — Nelson encourages readers to examine \'how we negotiate, suffer, and dance with that enmeshment,\' therein finding meaning, purpose and joy in an age of justifiable anxiety.
PositiveThe Washington PostDebut author Gabriela Garcia makes her intentions clear from the first page ... Like the lyric narratives that follow, these family trees feature the first names of women. Abusive men damaged these trees and deadened their branches, but matriarchs are the root of these stories ... In Of Women and Salt, the women do not surrender their hopes, but they also flail against fates they never would have chosen for themselves nor their daughters.
PositiveThe Washington PostI wish I could have read Girlhood when I was young. While I am decades past the era investigated by essayist Melissa Febos, her third memoir resonated with my own fraught emergence under surveillance and scrutiny ... whether examining adolescent bullying and the etymological roots of the word \'slut\' or exploring the evolution of consent against the backdrop of cuddle parties, Febos illuminates how women are conditioned to be complicit in our own exploitation. Like much of her scholarship, it begins with somatic knowledge of the self.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
RaveThe Washington PostMany writers have tried to describe the chill of Seattle’s social distance, an aloof tendency that predates the pandemic. No one got it right until queer activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore in The Freezer Door, an aching, playful memoir of vivid desire amid the desperation of midlife disconnection ... alive with the existential nausea of being displaced ... With the probing, restless spirit of the flâneuse, Sycamore traces topographies of hurt and want during long walks on Seattle streets mapped with the same precision shown to Boston in her third novel, Sketchtasy ... The sheer density of ideas in this subversive memoir hovers at an exponentially higher level than most books, which build to major revelations choreographed over a three-act structure that is the calcified legacy of dead men. Pushing the boundaries of her mellifluous stream-of-consciousness style, there is little respite in The Freezer Door. The rigor and clarity of her thinking may not be evident to those who need character and plot development through linear narrative ... reading her prose is like watching someone burn themselves on heat of their own making, made frantic by the bared bulb of instinct. This book unfurls in one long feverish rush with philosophical crests and scenic meanders through clubs, bars and parks where, sober and toting condoms, Sycamore seeks connection that does not last ... Whimsical and disaffected, that surreal dialogue provides a respite. Otherwise, this book brims with slippery sentences that reach their truths like rivers finding the sea. With an intellect that supersedes social boundaries through sheer insistence, Sycamore chronicles the paradox of inhabiting a fluid life in a rigid world.
Yuri Herrera, Trans. by Lisa Dillman
PositiveThe Washington Post...underscores the need to defend workers against corporate greed, the devaluation of individual lives and the collusive erasure of community suffering by the media, government and corporations ... Reading against the grain of official documents, defining what is there by what is not, Herrera bears witness to a crime that preceded his birth by 50 years ... Herrera shines in the details, whether his ekphrastic reading of the scant photographic records or his accounting of the instructions the inspector did not receive from the judge ... With \'this story of murder, plunder, and the determination to escape oblivion,\' Herrera resurrects a century of dead files to disclose that which is \'palpable\' in this mining community ... its title a testament to the endurance of people \'determined to remember\' and with their memory resist racist brutality that protects corrupt governments and corporate property instead of human life.
PositiveThe Washington PostBelcourt breaks form to gesture toward a queer indigenous utopia ... A History of My Brief Body resists distillation, embracing instead the contradictions of triumphing over oppression by honoring joy and desire ... at heart, a rallying cry for freedom ... Belcourt to draw nearer to his subject through poetry, theory and essays in which “a third you exists—the ‘lyric you’: he who observes, keeps watch, analyzes from afar, takes in data, then writes from a distance.\' That expanse narrows and widens in these essays, in which the register rises and falls like a conversation that takes all night.
MixedThe Washington Post... a quick read with big ambitions for the here and now ... Alvarez probes the contours of private moral decisions that echo our national conversation, which excludes migrant communities from claiming their contributions to this country ... Ultimately, Afterlife falls apart when Alvarez stops trusting the reader to understand her intentions, ruining perfectly good lines with narrative summaries ... Still, there are moments. In the shifting dynamic between the sisters, Alvarez finds her stride.
Isabel Allende, Trans. by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
MixedThe Washington Post...no amount of summary — pages and pages of historical and political background in which every conclusion feels foregone — is enough to save the dialogue that follows from exposition. Less interested in scene than in sweep, Allende nonetheless describes her characters’ emotions with great detail, writing in third person with an omniscience that drains any wonder from their choices and interactions ... The attributions are laden with unnecessary and burdensome adjectives ... I like that Allende pays attention to the lives of women, but I didn’t, at any point, forget that these characters were fictional. Though she shared their thoughts constantly, their interiority felt forced, falsified into caricature sketches meant to add emotional heft to scenes quickly overwhelmed by summary ... A Long Petal of the Sea is a draft of the book it could have been if the corporations profiting from its publication had invested in a rigorous editorial process to support Allende’s noblesse oblige.
MixedThe Washington Post... does Adiga create characters only to exploit their paradigms? ... Adiga shines when documenting the ways in which immigrants are marginalized by those who claim to care about them ... With crisp dialogue, constant movement and occasional flashbacks, Adiga shows Danny’s choice to close himself off as reasonable. Facing desperate consequences occasioned by one misplaced secret, Danny cannot afford to trust ... a soulful premise and a possible remedy for how global economic discourse retreats into statistics. In Danny, Adiga creates an archetype of the human condition — a manual laborer trapped by his basic needs, mired in lost hope for the flourishing of a botched migration. But no matter how taut the plot, Adiga’s spare secondary characters failed to break free of two dimensions ... While Amnesty succeeds in wrenching attention toward systemic injustice, its stylized, iterative interactions are too cursory to move past being concept demonstrations. Adiga provides just enough character development to support the assertion that yes, people are so like that, and here’s an antagonist to prove it.
Carmen Maria Machado
RaveThe Washington PostThis review would be easier to write if Carmen Maria Machado weren’t so good ... Machado’s meta-intrusions disrupt and enrich in ways that hark to Jorge Luis Borges ... Sound complicated? Perhaps. But In the Dream House is a page turner of psychological suspense ... a literary treasure.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe \'you\' of Bloomland feels self-reflexive — a character talking to himself — but it is not. The \'you\' in this book keeps changing ... Cycling between these characters observed and addressed, Bloomland juxtaposes the proximate with the predator, intermingling their perspectives until the flickering becomes a bloody tapestry of our beleaguered nation.
RaveThe Washington Post\"I struggled to write this review. Not because Juliet the Maniac is undeserving of praise. But how to honor the glimmering beauty of its teenage voice, sharpened by pain, without amplifying the siren calls of self-harm and suicidal ideation that fell over author Juliet Escoria during the onset of bipolar disorder, which she fictionalized for her debut novel? ... Novels that consider the unflinching question of whether to die often bend toward showing us how to live. To read Juliet the Maniac is to confront our shared faith in the flawed logic of life’s meaning, and by so doing, become worthier of our humanity.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"... [a] fresh telling of the flood story as seen by Noah’s wife, now rescued from submergence ... Blake is a poet. In her lyric debut novel, Naamah escapes the hold of the ark to feel God’s wrath on its deck ... Naamah dares us to center the experience and wisdom of women as we devise answers to [several] questions, reminding us that the final covenant — our future — belongs to our children, the latest of a long lineage that emerged, crawling, from the same bitter water to which we will return.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"In spinning Tell Me How It Ends into a work of ambitious fiction, Luiselli widens her lens to capture the unruly intimacies of marriage and parenthood ... Lest anyone get upset about artistic license, Luiselli includes a detailed works cited page that sources those quotes, allusions and craft decisions. Does plot matter, when her deep thinking yields vital insights? Her mind is a delight. Still, Luiselli builds heat she doesn’t use, preferring the elision provided, halfway through, by a switch from the point of view of the wife/mother/narrator to that of her stepson ... In the book’s late, lyric section, [Luiselli\'s] writing shimmers like its desert setting, flickering among the minds of children walking to find a future.\