Laura MillerLaura Miller is a books and culture columnist for Slate and the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. Follow her on Twitter @magiciansbook
PanSlateTwo recent novels—The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo and Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor—retell The Great Gatsby’s story ... Cantor’s is by far the weaker of the two efforts ... The rest of Beautiful Little Fools follows this pattern: Any situation from the original novel in which a female character might be found at fault has been carefully reworked to render her blameless and victimized ... The men in Beautiful Little Fools are all selfish brutes and the women are, if not outright saints, remarkably noble, selfless, and long-suffering. They are also extremely dull, and indistinguishable in voice and temperament. It could be argued that ...Cantor’s version testifies to a truth about gender relations in 1922 to which Nick, and possibly Fitzgerald himself, was oblivious. But if so, then Nick somehow also made them more witty and dashing ... Beautiful Little Fools strips the gauzy romance from The Great Gatsby down to the bare kitchen-sink melodrama of soap opera.
RaveSlateI knew that Darnielle leads the Mountain Goats, an indie rock band with a fervent following. For that reason, I assumed that his fiction would ease into publication, that it would be read and positively reviewed by critics who are Mountain Goats fans ... A couple of chapters in, I had to admit I’d been wrong—at least about Darnielle ... Reading Devil House, a strange, enthralling novel, precipitated a binge through Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester, books with an idiosyncratic flavor most unlike the usual run of literary fiction ... Devil House can be read as an indictment of the true crime genre, specifically of the way stories are concocted to explain often-unfathomable tragedies, and of how some stories take precedence over others regardless of their truth ... A feel for time and place is also what Darnielle’s novels are known for ... The passages of Devil House depicting the lives and feelings of these kids are so saturated in anticipatory nostalgia that they suggest an adult sensibility seeping in through the cracks. If Darnielle’s fiction has a predominant mood, this is it: the sensation that whatever golden moments the present offers are receding even as we savor them, and if we don’t savor them, we’ll regret it because every scene becomes infinitely precious in memory, glowing in the rearview mirror. There’s a pleasant melancholy to this outlook that at times becomes piercing ... Darnielle’s fiction resists closure ... Fortunately, the foolish story I once told myself no longer keeps me from seeing how good Darnielle is at it.
MixedSlateYanagihara toys, dominatrix-style, with her readers’ desire for narrative fulfillment ... . It’s to Yanagihara’s credit that To Paradise kindles such desire in its readers, even if the novel is too rangy and diverse to satisfy the hurt/comfort fans who adored A Little Life. To leave that desire unsatisfied, however, seems imperious and even a bit cruel. Seven hundred and twenty pages makes for a very long tease.
MixedSlate... the sitcom version of Trump’s White House years. Grotesque as it is, I found myself LOLing every few pages ... Part of this book’s perverse appeal lies in Grisham’s basic-ness. The quotations that serve as epigraphs to each chapter read like wall art picked up along with the latest Rae Dunn products at TJ Maxx ... What on Instagram would be aesthetically irksome, in a Trump memoir is weirdly endearing. Grisham is so average, and so comfortable in her averageness, that she becomes a recognizable comedic figure, the chagrinned everywoman. The tale becomes Bridget Jones Goes to Washington, but instead of finding a decent chap to fall for, Grisham gets involved with a creep Trump nicknamed the Music Man for his ability to queue up enough Andrew Lloyd Webber show tunes to soothe the savage president ... At times, Grisham presents herself as a beleaguered professional coping with conniving co-workers, a crazy boss, and his sphinxlike wife. At others, she sounds like someone’s scornful 13-year-old daughter ... while Grisham’s book shows considerably more humility and self-reflection than that of any other Trump administration veteran I’ve read (and I’ve pretty much read them all), it eventually becomes frustrating that she can’t seem to make the connection between the risible character of her boss and the policies he advanced ... For all her soul-searching about why she spent so much time in the spectacular clusterfuck of the Trump White House, she does not ask herself how her own party became so beholden to a man who clearly cares about nothing but himself, a man so vapid he’ll interrupt a professional discussion to ask his press secretary if pantyhose is something only older women wear. I laughed at that story, too, because it so perfectly encapsulates the disastrous triviality of the man Grisham’s party chose to put in office and now can’t seem to exorcise. By all means, she should be questioning why she put up with so much personal abuse, and why she tolerated the abuse of her co-workers. But take it a step further, Steph, and ask yourself why you and your party put the rest of us through that mess, too. Now that’s a serious question.
MixedSlate... proceeds sedately, perhaps a bit too sedately at first, after its action-packed beginning. Only very gradually does Stephenson reveal the nature of T.R.’s plan, and while every element of the novel is driven by the problem of climate change, the effects of that change don’t seem especially severe yet, except in Texas. It’s the politics of the crisis, rather than its logistics, that have captured Stephenson’s interest ... despite the thrilling action sequence involving drones, eagles, and rattlesnakes that serves as its climax, feel a bit inconclusive. There’s no indication that it’s the first novel in a series, but it feels like one all the same. And I want to know how it ends.
PositiveSlateMaking Dee an essayist rather than a novelist is a shrewd choice on Shteyngart’s part. Why bother with the novelist’s old-fashioned preoccupation with art, when straightforward, combative self-assertion is so much more engaging? ... Our Country Friends is, like Chekhov’s plays, very much of its particular moment ... Sasha broods over his withering career and assures himself that \'he would renounce all his privileges. He would not write another novel so that others could be heard.\' This is funny, because the reader knows that Sasha’s contrition is feigned ... He doesn’t consider the possibility that he could do something different, about himself but also about others, a novel shaped by a long, compassionate, deep consideration of their lives, their flaws, their loneliness and disappointments and hopes—a novel, for that matter, very much like Our Country Friends. That would, indeed, be unfashionable. But it would be a book very much worth reading.
RaveSlateBy the time I hit page 50, she’d already finagled me into her corner. Reading it was a two-day crash course in the American infatuation with Couric’s wholesome smile and cap of tousled brunette hair, spiced by her late-life regrets over how she once handled everything from race and gender to homelessness. The book satisfies the appetite for two types of voyeurism: the desire to peek into the lives of the rich and famous, and the wish to see them do penance for the sins they committed along the way ... full of reckonings of the type widely demanded these days, although Couric’s are exceptionally candid ... The tales of glory, the mea culpas, and even the dish proved less fascinating to me, however, than Couric’s command of the art of being likable. (In fact, the tales, the confessions, and the astutely deployed gossip are all part of that art.) This is a skill often derided but disastrously beyond the reach of figures ranging from politicians to fictional characters. Going There is a master class in likability, the careful balance of self-deprecation, identifiable yearnings, and chipper indomitability ... She really seems to be fulfilling the promise in her prologue of delivering, in this book, \'the whole me\' ... dishes out anecdotes, funny or chilling, that resemble scenes from Lifetime movies ... The book absolutely convinced me that it was delivering the real Katie Couric, unvarnished and unpretentious, someone I could well imagine befriending. Whether that’s just another outfit that Couric can shed at will is something I’ll never know.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)The effect is a confiding intimacy, as if the reader were catching up with an old friend in a particularly confessional mood. At the same time it invites the reader to speculate on what isn’t being told and what the speaker doesn’t even realise she is telling you. The wandering structure belies a tight underlying web of recurring motifs: phone calls, unappreciated gifts, road trips ... In this way, Strout sneaks up on profundity ... The miraculous quality of Strout’s fiction is the way she opens up depths with the simplest of touches, and this novel ends with the assurance that the source of love lies less in understanding than in recognition – although it may take a lifetime to learn the difference.
Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
MixedSlate\"... a more virtuous bowl of schadenfreude than Michael Wolff’s racier Landslide, published earlier this year. Call it cornflakes to Wolff’s Cap’n Crunch. In either case, it’s not good for me, but it’s so hard to pass up ... Books like this are shaped by their sources, and those sources always have their own agendas ...
In counterpart to Trump’s mercurial narcissism, Peril presents an almost ridiculously glowing portrait of Biden ... Only twice do the authors offer anything in the way of personal criticism. Sometimes it seems Biden is \'testy.\' Sometimes he misspeaks. But that’s about it. At any moment, I expected him to untie a swooning maiden from the railroad tracks. While this is reassuring, it’s also a bit dull. Which may indeed be the point ... I can’t judge the accuracy of the authors’ depiction of Biden, but I have no doubt that Woodward himself has much invested in the political establishment. Peril portrays the political events of the past year as a battle between the evil of Trump’s self-serving chaos and the orderly virtue of the system he promised to blow up. Biden’s election represented a return to that system and its protocols, which is more or less why I and more than 81 million other Americans voted for him. Still, is it really necessary to get quite so starry-eyed over business as usual? The old ways definitely look good compared with the past four years, but their shortcomings were one of the reasons Trump happened in the first place.\
MixedThe New York Times Book Review... erudite but frustratingly unfocused ... The Heroine With 1001 Faces wanders aimlessly over the vast territory she stakes out for it, ranging from the folklore of Western, Native American and Asian cultures to 19th-century novels, biography, movies and TV. The book is a treasure trove of examples in search of an argument. In the epilogue, when the reader hopes to find some synthesis of what’s come before, Tatar is still introducing new material on a hodgepodge of subjects ... If Tatar’s response to Campbell is simply a catalog of various heroines and their excellences, she has fallen into a category error ... The Heroine With 1001 Faces does not present its readers with a similarly well-defined alternative narrative [to Campbell\'s \'hero\'s journey\'], let alone one with the same resonance ... Nevertheless, Tatar has done her research, and while meandering through her notes she occasionally bumps into the components of such a story, one rooted in the lives traditionally led by women ... she seems on the verge of discerning a narrative there, but it is a destination at which she never arrives.
RaveSlate... a novel that takes the religious beliefs of its characters seriously, without ever forgetting how easily faith can twist itself into absurdity ... is light on curmudgeonly social commentary. (Readers who prefer his breakout 2001 novel, The Corrections, will surely welcome this ... As with the best of Franzen’s fiction, the characters in Crossroads are held up to the light like complexly cut gems and turned to reveal facet after facet ... feels purged of showy writing and stylistic set pieces, but the long flashback recounting this interlude feels bleached with the merciless glare and punishing downpours of winter afternoons on treeless Southern California boulevards. The way Franzen conveys this atmosphere without calling attention to how well he’s conveying it is in tune with the deferential spirit of the novel ... The power of this enveloping novel, facilitated by neatly turned plot elements finally resides in how uncannily real, how fully imagined these people feel ... Real people are tricky puzzles, volatile blends of self-knowledge and blindness, full of inexhaustible surprises and contradictions. Literary characters seldom achieve a comparably unpredictable intricacy because they are, after all, artifacts made by equally blinkered human beings, and furthermore they are the means to an artistic end. Franzen hasn’t always given his readers characters as persuasively flawed as the Hildebrandts. He hasn’t always tried to. But in Crossroads, his satirical and didactic impulses largely in check, his touch gentled, Franzen has created characters of almost uncanny authenticity. Is there anything more a great novelist ought to do? I didn’t think so.
Stephen Graham Jones
PositiveSlate... clever ... this novel is nothing if not a web of allusions to other works. My own horror fandom doesn’t typically extend to slashers, which have always seemed overly predictable and rigid to me, fueled by an inchoate teenage rage too far back in my own past to feel immediate. But Jones makes the case for the slasher as the sestina of adolescent fury; the very inflexibility of the form at once both weirdly comforting and a daunting challenge to anyone seeking to do anything original with it ... Literary novels—which is what My Heart Is a Chainsaw, for all its reveling in trashy pop culture, really is—care as much about character as plot, so the mystery here is equal parts \'Who is the slasher?\' and \'Why is Jade so angry and sad?\' Over and over again, just when I thought I knew what Jones was up to, he ingeniously anticipated and shot down my suspicions. Meanwhile, the novel stretches the boundaries of the horror genre, its whole first half a slow burn that tricks the reader into investing deeply in Jade herself ... If My Heart Is a Chainsaw has a weakness, it’s that Jones peels off so many layers of assumption and cliché that by the time the bloody bill of the slasher plot comes due, as it must, the climax feels a bit rushed ... Jones brings the novel to a close with a reveal that knits his themes together beautifully, but perhaps he underestimates how much readers will have invested in Jade and the people he’s surrounded her with, as well as how deeply the slasher’s blows cut when they finally come.
RaveSlateVelvet Was the Night has little in common with the delirious Mexican Gothic. Its prose is lean, its characters are nobodies, its setting is urban, and there isn’t the slightest speck of the supernatural. But Moreno-Garcia, a bona fide literary chameleon, slips effortlessly out of the satin pumps of the gothic and into the beat-up wingtips of noir. The scary thing about this novel is how good it is ... the way that war—not a world war, but the Dirty War between the government and its restive citizens—keeps erupting into their lives, forcing them to confront the reality of history and politics, keeps the novel fresh; in contrast with classic noir, this war refuses to remain hidden. The delectable cocktail that is Velvet Was the Night contains a generous dash of bitters, but the finish is satisfyingly mellow. It goes down so smoothly that it left me marveling at what kind of sorceress Moreno-Garcia must be as she reworks genre after genre, weaving in Mexican history and culture, satisfying familiar cravings without resorting to mere pastiche.
RaveSlateTypically, contemporary novelists speak reverently of their form, as if the result were some kind of sacred object, so Alice’s position has a refreshing lack of mummery. But Rooney undermines her character’s point by making her own novels so uncannily enthralling. In summary, her books sound like trifles of no particular interest, but in execution they’re as habit-forming as crack ... A confession: I find the ideological garment-rending and hair-tearing of Rooney’s protagonists endearingly comical ... The contrast between the way these people talk about the world, the performative doom ’n’ glooming so prevalent in social media and casual conversation, and their actual, lived concerns seems the point of Rooney’s fiction. It’s ironic in the original sense of the word ... the ordinary loneliness of Rooney’s characters can be piercing ... Their stumbling progress through the minefield of intimacy, related in Rooney’s plain prose and via several exquisitely-rendered sex scenes, has the raw, wincing tenderness of skin under a scab scratched off too soon. That literary characters serve as moral exemplars seems a childish thing to expect, and a foolish one. A novel about characters of impeccably non-gestural Marxist politics sounds both hard to imagine and fairly dull. What I, in my shameless bourgeois complacency, prefer is that the characters in a novel be, as Rooney’s are, eminently human.
PanSlateEvery concern in the novel is claustrophobically personal, domestic, and sexual, with the actual policies and actions of the Trump administration pushed so far off into the distance they become invisible. None of the characters seem to be paying any attention to anything besides themselves ... To set a breezy screwball romantic comedy against the Trump regime is an odd choice to say the least, like setting a Clueless remake among the children of the Franco regime. What made Lipman’s novel such a queasy read with the prospect of another four years looming was just how unremarkable the characters in Rachel to the Rescue seem to consider his presidency. Her Trump might as well be a kooky studio head in a Hollywood satire, or the humorously narcissistic mayor in a small-town novel—his scams and showboating a generator of laughs and mild wisecracks because the stakes are frivolously low ... Someday, I thought, using the Trump administration as a backdrop for a lighthearted comedy will feel acceptable—or at least, I hope so, since that will signal how firmly these four years have been relegated to our collective rearview mirror ... Only when it feels like there’s no chance of him ever regaining a position of power or otherwise continuing to stir up the forces of hatred and fear does it makes sense to portray him as Lipman does, as not much worse than a coarse buffoon with a wandering eye ... right now any comic narrative as gentle and toothless as this rom-com, set against the bleakness of the past four years, comes across as almost sociopathic in its obliviousness. Lipman’s American publishers were wrong: It’s not too late for Rachel to the Rescue. It’s way, way too soon.
MixedSlateGod help me, but I inhaled Landslide, gobbled it up despite the notorious opaqueness of Michael Wolff’s reporting methods, his overfondness for the word quite, and the suspicion that several of his sources are former Trump administration staffers seeking to launder their reputations ... Wolff is good at ontological flights...which would seem florid if applied to anything other than the madness and confusion of the postelection White House. Surely the reportage and probably the writing in I Alone Can Fix It...will be better than Landslide’s. But the sheer, freaky liftoff from the planet Earth that constituted Trump’s response to his defeat at the polls cries out for the sort of meta rumination that Wolff provides ... Landslide ends with an interview Wolff conducted with Trump, as repetitive, boring, and unrevealing as the nonstop diatribes the former president was famous for delivering in office.
Shirley Jackson, Ed. by Laurence Jackson Hyman
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewJackson is such merry company in this domestic mode that it feels churlish to complain how little most of the letters in this collection fit the title of Laurence Hyman’s preface: \'Portrait of the Artist at Work.\' She does not discuss her writing with most of her correspondents, apart from her agents ... The funny stories about her kids, while as snackable as popcorn, come to feel themselves a bit like currency, or a screen ... Here at least, the inner world that writes gives voice to the outer world that doesn’t.
PositiveSlateThe core of Wayward’s charm lies in what good company Sam is. She dissects many flavors of contemporary delusion and distraction with consummate precision and yet never comes across as waspish or savage. She observes her own desire to imagine herself as \'subtly different from everyone else, enjoying the tension and mystique of being ordinary on the surface but with a radical, original interior life\' with a cool, easy tolerance but zero vanity ... Simmering under Spiotta’s deceptively breezy, fluid description of everyday life in 2017 Syracuse are large and perplexing questions about the eternal interplay of idealism and pragmatism, of the longing for a better world and the reality of human frailty.
RaveSlateThe Chosen and the Beautiful makes...changes to Fitzgerald’s novel without sacrificing the gossamer charm of the original ... The world of The Chosen and the Beautiful is one in which the supernatural routinely brushes against the reality of the Jazz Age. Odd as this may sound at first, Vo makes it work, and beautifully ... The Chosen and the Beautiful pays close and fruitful attention to its source material ... Vo ingeniously weaves her fantasy elements into Fitzgerald’s world, making Gatsby a man rumored to be not a bootlegger but to have sold his soul to the demonic underworld to get the wealth he believes will win Daisy over ... The Chosen and the Beautiful sustains and expands the novel’s spell, venturing into subcultures and erotic adventures that Fitzgerald only hinted at or could not conceive ... The Great Gatsby is like one of the paper conjurations Vo’s Jordan creates with her scissors, cutting away everything that does not contribute to the enchantment to form a fleeting but glorious wonder.
RaveSlate... gorgeous ... trains our attention on everyday life and seemingly unremarkable people, those who, as George Eliot wrote, \'lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs\' ... Spufford is less interested in how people with different dispositions and capabilities \'end up\' than in specific moments, be they routine, wondrous, or horrifying, that make up the texture of a life, events that make it worth living or a living hell ... Spufford is uncannily good at capturing the allure such boys exert over a certain kind of girl. This, too, is a high point, an interlude picked out as if by a spotlight, in which Val feels especially alive ... the sort of novel that’s carried by its descriptions, passages that transform the ordinary into the transcendent and leave us marveling ... The peril with this approach, of course, is that we might miss the goals—an author’s vision might dissolve into merely a page full of words. Spufford almost always strikes the right balance, although his restraint does fail him in the book’s overlong opening scene ... Ben may close the novel with a paean to the creator that he and his inventor (Spufford has written about his Christian faith) believe in. But this genial novel makes space for readers who believe that nothing is eternal.
Patrick Radden Keefe
RaveSlate... masterfully damning ... Empire of Pain, Keefe explains in his afterword, is a dynastic saga. Like Purdue, it is all about the Sackler family: how it transformed American medicine, the key role it played in the opioid crisis ... Empire of Pain amply demonstrates that Arthur [Sackler] created the playbook used to make OxyContin a blockbuster drug ... Keefe has a knack for crafting lucid, readable descriptions of the sort of arcane business arrangements the Sacklers favored. He is also indefatigable.
PanSlateWonderworks is a cornucopia of insufferable-but-profitable intellectual and publishing trends, a survey that grinds down centuries of art into the stuff of dietary supplements and serotonin reuptake inhibitors ... For thousands of years, the world’s great writers have provided \'solutions\' to problems people didn’t even realize they had, Fletcher declares, using the power of neuroscientific principles that hadn’t been discovered yet ... Wonderworks covers a lot of ground, and I’m only familiar with some of the authors he treats with, but the chapters on those I know well contain multiple falsehoods and/or misrepresentations ... Fletcher likes to coin leadenly literal terms like \'Sorrow Resolver\' for the \'inventions\' he identifies in various texts. Often these amount to merely renaming well-known literary devices; what you and I know as foreshadowing is, to Fletcher, the \'Tale Told from Our Future.\' Sometimes he reduces complex forms, like the lyric poem, to basic psychotherapeutic functions ... Because the purpose of any of these devices must, in his framing, be proven to serve some curative psychological purpose, he often has to stretch works completely out of shape to make them fit ... Unfortunately for Fletcher, literature is made of culture, not neurons, and any given literary work can’t be fully appreciated if separated from the thousands of cultural, social, political, economic, and historical factors that affected its making. Those factors include such basics as who in a society is permitted to read and write, who (if anyone) pays the author for her work, how the work is circulated, what its audience expects of it, etc ... But of all the irksome aspects of Wonderworks , surely the most depressing and symptomatic of our increasingly aliterate age is its calculating utilitarianism. This is a book for people who don’t really want to read books, and therefore need to be reassured that reading is as good for them as a doctor’s appointment, or a yoga class.
Edward St. Aubyn
PositiveSlateSt. Aubyn seems to be struggling for direction after the series that made his reputation ... With Double Blind, St. Aubyn aims for a novel of ideas similar to those of Richard Powers, but without Powers’ intellectual density or his churning, cyclical narrative structures ... The fictional action tends to bog down when it hits...data dumps. But if St. Aubyn still seems to be figuring out how to integrate all this information into the smooth, elegant fiction that has been his trademark, he does often get it right ... The angrier St. Aubyn’s characters get, the more Double Blind comes alive. The emotion is one of the founts of St. Aubyn’s fictional gift, but a dangerous one ... Double Blind suggests that St. Aubyn has gone in search of healthier material. Happily, the moments when St. Aubyn’s main characters are quarreling with someone aren’t the book’s only high points. The loveliest parts of the novel have to do with one of Martin’s patients ... Double Blind might not burn as furiously as the Patrick Melrose series—I suspect some fans of those books will find this one tepid by comparison—but it is nevertheless full of the tender green shoots of new life.
RaveSlatePeople can figure out how to survive under the most punishing circumstances, and learning about how these people do it—how they have done it for centuries—makes Winter Pasture an unlikely but inspiring getaway read for the late pandemic ... Winter Pastures is rich with the habits and textures of domestic life in the burrow, presided over by Cuma’s wife—known only as \'Sister-in-Law\'—a warm but taciturn woman with a particular knack for roasting flatbread in, yes, sheep manure charcoal ... Peaceful and quiet are a pair of words that appear like incantations in the passages of Winter Pasture devoted to her deepest feelings ... Winter Pasture features some beautiful writing, particularly when describing the landscape.
MixedSlate... intriguing, philosophical ... Angel hasn’t really convinced me that consent culture does this. It doesn’t, for example, always insist that women map out their preferences beforehand. The Antioch policy allows for couples to negotiate throughout sex, deciding on the fly whether both of them are game to try this or that. This seems to allow for what Angel claims consent culture denies: that you might start out thinking you do or don’t want to do something, but change your mind along the way.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
RaveSlateThere’s a deliciously complex irony to this development, as there is in so much of Nguyen’s fiction ... Nguyen takes those Vietnamese to the dark heart of their postcolonial turmoil—and at the same time again denies Americans the spotlight we so love to hog. America simply isn’t where the action is. The American Dream, the narrator opines, is \'as shallow, boring, and sentimental as a bad television show that had somehow become a hit.\' But oh, France! ... Nguyen’s narrator now considers himself fractured into at least three parts. Before, he was just two, as a result of being the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese orphan and a Catholic priest ... Absolutism is always reductive, and therefore, like the inability to sympathize with one’s enemies, is an anathema to art. While the Captain has a bit of a feminist awakening in The Committed , he is mostly a cynic, and he has been ever since The Sympathizer . This is the heart of his charm, which in this reader’s opinion is more potent than that of the French. I could never entirely believe the Captain as an ardent communist, and in The Committed , he is free to let his sardonic flag fly. He’s at his funniest when pointing out the absurdities around him.
RaveSlateIshiguro shows us the world as Klara’s artificial intelligence perceives it. When she encounters unprecedented input—a grassy meadow, a crowd of theatergoers on a sidewalk—her field of vision is partitioned into \'boxes\' for processing by the software whose operations seem undetectable to her ... Sometimes Klara’s perceptions delight (I laughed when she passingly referred to an \'anti-parking sign\'), but often she’s not curious about the things that most intrigue the reader. She doesn’t ask what ails Josie, even as the girl’s condition worsens and it becomes clear her life is in danger ... It’s not a mistake to view Ishiguro’s novels as works of social criticism, but to approach them that way won’t get you to the heart of the thing. The strange and beautiful poignancy of Klara and the Sun has less to do with its commentary on the transformative role of technology in contemporary life than with the flowering of such transcendental thoughts in a mind like a walled garden, unwitnessed by anyone around her ... She is Ishiguro’s most fulfilled character yet, and that may be the most inhuman thing about her.
Vanessa Springora, tr. Natasha Lehrer
RaveSlateBoth a captivating story in its own right and an account of how the pride of French culture—its worldliness and its respect for the arts, in particular—made it corrupt and craven in the presence of a predator ... Springora herself was adamant about her own desires at the time. Matzneff loved her and she loved him and he was the man she was determined to lose her virginity to; to deny this misbegotten passion would be to oppress Springora herself, as her mother saw it. Eventually, their relationship, which lasted two years, became an open secret, and Matzneff was often a guest for dinner at Springora’s mother’s house ... No! Yet despite such moments, Springora is not, for the most part, all about the drama. Her memoir has something steely in its heart, and it departs from the typical American memoir of childhood abuse in exhilarating ways. Where an American memoirist might emphasize the trauma she’d endured under the influence of this imperious older man, Springora is not particularly interested in her status as a victim or in finding an official psychiatric diagnosis to define them both, an authoritative superstructure to establish control over their shared narrative. She’s not content with merely reclaiming her own story, the story Matzneff stole, along with her childhood. She’s gunning for his story, too ... Springora is not sorrowful and suffering; she’s pissed off. She’s sarcastic and derisive on the mystique surrounding Matzneff’s alleged genius. She demolishes what remains of his literary reputation by illustrating that it’s an edifice built of lies and vanity, with himself the Mary Sue at the center.
MixedSlateThe narrative of No One Is Talking About This comes at the reader in disconnected fragments, stand-alone collections of two or three paragraphs that often carry a one-liner in their tail like the sting of a scorpion ... But what feels most original in No One Is Talking About This is Lockwood’s depiction of the shaping pressure of social media on the self ... Presumably, No One Is Talking About This is an autobiographical novel, given that the main character, her experiences, her family, and the stuff she posts closely resemble Lockwood’s own ... Throughout the first of the novel’s two parts, the book appears simply to be a depiction of how it feels to be both extremely online and very good at it. This flood of shards is not a narrative, let alone a plot, but maybe that’s the point—or at least that’s what I found myself thinking, skeptically ... But No One Is Talking About This does turn out to have a story to tell.
MixedSlateA Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a distillation of what he tries to impart to his students. It’s difficult to name a contemporary writer whose work departs further from the stereotype of the overcrafted, MFA-boilerplate, New Yorker story than Saunders, the inventive, playful, idiosyncratic author of Tenth of December. Yet in this book, rather than advising his readers (and his students) how to write as far outside of the box as he does, Saunders seems surprisingly inclined to help them squeeze themselves into it ... Much of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain addresses how to write, but for someone like myself, a person with no plans to produce a short story, it better serves as a course in how to read short stories ... True, I closed A Swim in a Pond in the Rain with an improved appreciation of the fineness of the Russians’ craft, but none of that gave me much sense of how Saunders’ own peculiar magic, the fictional magic I prefer, gets made. So is it a good book or a bad book? The answer is yes.
RaveSlate... what a limber, untroubled, deliciously fluent piece of fiction it is ... Purity...has a larkish air ... a novel that in truth has happily surrendered itself to the pleasures of story and character ... Skeptical, loyal, self-deprecating, determined, Pip provides the novel with a grounding sensibility ... The Bolivia section of Purity melds the sensual overload of the tropics with precise, chilled satire, here targeting the Information Age’s propensity for unfounded utopianism and cults of personality ... I read these passages as sheer impishness, the high spirits of an author relaxing into his considerable native gifts. Of all the things people expect from a new Franzen novel, who’d have anticipated that more than anything else it would be so much fun?
RaveSlateThe Obama of A Promised Land seems complicated or elusive or detached only if you think that these two elements of the president’s job—the practical and the symbolic—must be made to add up in every particular. Obama himself doesn’t. Even at his most inspiring, he was never a firebrand speechifier. He preached faith in the ability of Americans’ commonalities to overcome their differences. This is a creed in which he continues to believe, even if A Promised Land contains its share of dark allusions to the advent of division and acrimony in the form of Donald Trump. Obama is not angry, the sole quality that seems obligatory across party lines in every form of political discourse today. Plenty of people think he should have been angrier or should have displayed more of the righteous anger they’re convinced that he, as a Black man, must secretly harbor—the joke animating Key & Peele’s classic \'Obama’s Anger Translator\' sketch. But he no longer needs to hide it now, and while Obama gets testy and appalled on occasion, there isn’t a single page of A Promised Land that betrays an underlying layer of simmering rage. Furthermore, in his eyes, insisting on \'the most uncompromising positions on everything from affirmative action to reparations\' would have betrayed a disbelief that winning would ever be possible, and would have condemned his campaign to the status of \'a useful if transitory platform from which to raise a prophetic voice against racial injustice.\' ... while A Promised Land is a pleasure to read for the intelligence, equanimity, and warmth of its author—from his unfeigned delight in his fabulously wholesome family to his manifest fondness for the people who worked for and with him, especially early on—it’s also a mournful one. Not because Obama doesn’t believe in us anymore, but because no matter how much we adore him, we no longer believe in leaders like him.
PositiveSlateSerpentine, a new book by Philip Pullman set in the universe of the His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust novels, is not properly a book at all. It’s a short story with its page count plumped up with numerous (charming) engravings by Tom Duxbury ... Serpentine is strictly for Pullman completists—newcomers to the Lyra novels will be entirely lost. Still, the printed book is a lovely object, with the aesthetic bonus of Duxbury’s cozy, Nordic illustration.
PositiveSlateThe Cold Millions, published at last, could hardly be more different that Beautiful Ruins, although it’s still recognizably a Jess Walter novel ... The Cold Millions often feels like a Western, a story set in a distant time in a remote and alien place ... But to publish a novel this political and this deeply concerned with income inequality at this particular point in history is to beg comparisons between Rye’s day and our own.
MixedSlateCal’s experiences investigating Brendan’s disappearance will challenge him, but in ways that don’t shift him fundamentally, as French’s plots usually do. Surely that’s because history has caught up with French this time around, instead of vice versa. The bits of The Searcher that address race and the cops back in the U.S. feel a bit tacked on. More importantly, how can Cal have a crisis of faith in the morality of his old job when that faith and the purpose it once brought to his life have already been lost before he arrives in Ardnakelty? Yet French’s hero could not be the decent, dependable man of action that she clearly intends him to be if he weren’t deeply skeptical about the ethics of urban policing after his years in Chicago ... The Searcher is one of only two French novels that isn’t narrated in the first person. (The other, The Secret Place, is, after The Searcher, her least effective book.) This reflects Cal’s relative lack of a complex, conflicted inner life ... what’s been most spellbinding in French’s novels is the quest to obtain truth through the imperfect vehicle of the human psyche and the way that her detectives stare so long into the mystery that they find the mystery staring back into them. Cal comes away from his investigation with his sense of himself more or less intact. That makes him the kind of hero it’s all too easy to find somewhere else.
RaveSlate...[a] radiant new essay collection ... The most transfixing texts are powered by an irresolvable tension. In Macdonald’s case, it’s between her almost religious belief in the otherness of animals and her own lifelong desire to find significance in that otherness, to seek lessons that pertain to herself and to humanity ... Readers willing, once in a while, to put up with the sensation of being schooled like a recalcitrant toddler will receive in exchange armfuls of literary riches ... In her introduction, Macdonald writes that she hopes this collection “works a little like a Wunderkammer,” a German word usually translated as \'Cabinet of Curiosities,\' but she prefers the more literal \'cabinet of wonders.\' It is that, but the treasures in it are mostly not exotica and relics collected from far-off lands. They’re all around us, just waiting to be noticed by the right person.
RaveSlateA novelist at heart, Smith writes essays that scarcely abide by the current understanding of the form. She doesn’t buttonhole her reader with fervent arguments and rarely brandishes a suitable object for blame. And while one of the pieces in Intimations concerns suffering, Smith seems allergic to the notion of testifying to her own in any detail. She’s ambivalent, sometimes rueful, often self-deprecating. Her first inclination is to laugh at herself ... That’s the scale of Intimations: the human comedy ... To read Zadie Smith is to recognize how few writers seem to genuinely love human beings the way she does, with such infinite curiosity and attention, even when they are behaving monstrously. Or, for that matter, how few are able to do justice to what, for want of a better term, we’ll call common decency.
PositiveSlate... delivers everything that the pseudonymous author’s fans love about her work—or at least I think it does ... a coming-of-age story that appears to have everything to do with the minefields of sex and femininity as confronted by its teenage narrator in what appears to be the 1970s or ’80s. But like the Neapolitan novels themselves, this book derives much of its powerful momentum from the deeper currents of identity and class ... Ferrante depicts all of this with the utmost seriousness, in a prose style as mercurial as her teenage narrator ... Some scenes are depicted dramatically, while others are described in lengthy summaries ... shares with Ferrante’s great Neapolitan novels the sly knack of undercutting whatever straightforward thing it seems to be saying on its surface. Or perhaps, like Giovanna heading out on her journey down to Pascone, we each of us find in Ferrante’s fiction exactly what we’re seeking.
RaveSlateThe [gothic] genre’s palette is typically limited, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be—as Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic amply, deliriously, and gloriously demonstrates ... a little bit trashy. A promising sign, indeed ... But if Mexican Gothic begins like du Maurier, it veers a little before its midpoint into the territory of a Guillermo del Toro movie ... It’s an audacious and satisfying move, because while Moreno-Garcia lacks du Maurier’s gift for conjuring a hypnotic atmosphere, her skill with the baroque and hallucinatory is peerless ... quintessential gothic concepts—female powerlessness and voicelessness, the house as body or psyche—but Moreno-Garcia turns them up to 11 ... while sustaining the gothic’s old-fashioned appeal, Moreno-Garcia converts its motifs into a supple metaphor for colonialism, which she conceives of as a kind of disease ... I’ll say that it’s possible to read Mexican Gothic for its shiver-inducing surface pleasures alone, but you can also find much more should you choose to look for it. And no lazy afternoon spent reading it will ever feel wasted.
PositiveSlateThe overarching plot of Utopia Avenue is one long climb ... a highly schematic structure that doesn’t do the novel any favors ... fortunately Mitchell firmly corrals the novel’s supernatural elements into Jasper’s storyline, leaving the rest of the book to paint a sumptuous portrait of life in Swingin’ ’60s London ... all of these personal challenges and more get tied up as tidily as three-minute pop songs ... The gang seemingly can’t walk into a room without encountering movie stars ... Perhaps life in London at that time really did resemble It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the exemplar of a goofy ’60s subgenre of movie comedy featuring scads of cameos by famous faces. Or perhaps Mitchell hopes to educate younger readers about a historical and cultural milieu he obviously adores. At times, though, he seems starstruck by his own novel ... Since Utopia Avenue—rather than any individual member—is the protagonist of the novel, this makes for a strangely friction-free plot. The band has a disappointing first gig, but it’s all uphill from there, up and up and up, until—poof! Utopia Avenue dematerializes in a rosy cloud, without suffering the corrosion that tarnished so many counterculture dreams ... Despite its flaws, Utopia Avenue is, page by page, a sheer pleasure to read. Mitchell’s prose is suppler and richer than ever, and his ability to conjure a historical milieu he never actually experienced does not falter ... Making your way through this novel feels like riding a high-end convertible down Hollywood Boulevard on the prettiest day of the year while luminaries wave to you from the sidewalks and nothing truly bad ever happens. Of course, eventually all the flower children will become boomers, the designated bad guys of our time, but that’s no concern of Utopia Avenue. As with enjoying any great party, the art lies in knowing when to leave.
PositiveSlateTrue, it lacks the trilogy’s commercial canniness. Gone is the crisp, action-packed pacing of The Hunger Games, and the epigraphs featuring quotes from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley suggest that success has filled Collins with a perhaps overly optimistic sense of how much philosophical weight a YA novel (or, really, any novel) can bear. But The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes nevertheless constitutes a bold move on Collins’ part ... A friend asked me if I thought The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, being a portrait of a tyrant as a young man, might be a veiled commentary on Trump. But Coryo is no vulgar, narcissistic bully and parvenu. The closer parallel is collective—to America itself, frantically trying to live up to past glories and cover up past sins ... Most people, and that includes most readers, are more like Coryo than the blameless and noble Katniss, and that makes his story, with its petty resentments, flashes of generosity, and moral failures truly (rather than aspirationally) identifiable. It also makes The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes a true novel, in the 19th-century sense, Balzac compared with the adventure yarn and romance of The Hunger Games. Its psychological realism will surely disappoint many fans of the earlier trilogy, and somewhere in the middle I did find myself growing impatient with Coryo’s ceaseless machinations. The stakes seemed low, and Lucy Gray the more obvious choice as a hero. But finally, particularly in the last section set in District 12, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes found its feet, maneuvering Coryo toward his moment of truth. The Hunger Games describes how life often feels to teenagers: a horror show endured in a state of total, excruciating surveillance. But The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes describes how most lives are actually lived, the consequences of countless small choices that ultimately amount to a big one: not just how to feel but who to be.
MixedSlateUnlike American Wife, Rodham has a strong whiff of longing about it, a resemblance to the category of fan fiction known as RPF, or real-person fiction, in which fans write fictional stories about actual celebrities ... the character Sittenfeld makes of this alternate Hillary remains essentially static: cautious, mildly humorous, committed to public service, but no firebrand. Above all, she is diligent, a grind. The weakness of Rodham is this lack of any significant transformation. Unlike Alice Blackwell, the narrator of American Wife, Hillary Rodham doesn’t come to the gradual realization that she has thrown away her life on a man she can no longer respect and whose values she doesn’t share. Sittenfeld’s Hillary eventually grasps how perilous her passion for Bill Clinton was, but that’s a revelation without much of a price ... Sittenfeld’s Hillary hasn’t been made to stand, in the imaginations of countless resentful and insecure men, for every unwelcome change in women’s roles over the past 50 years. She is an admirable woman, but a bit boring, her interior life free of the kind of conflicts that make for a fascinating heroine, and there’s something melancholy in that.
PanSlateI’ve long had a weakness for obsessive, neurotic, paranoid, and comically vain narrators, but Charlie Kaufman’s overstuffed, formless first novel, Antkind, may have finally cured me of it ... If this sounds wearisome, it is. Yet Antkind also has flashes of wit and even beauty, often just at the point when the reader has started to wonder if Kaufman wants her to suffer ... What at first appears to be a parody of the parasitical nature of criticism soon metastasizes into a grab bag of long-standing Kaufman motifs and themes: doubles, time travel (mental and otherwise), the torment of consciousness, the impossibility of truly representing experience in art, erotic fixations, professional envy, artistic failure. This proves a mixed blessing, as B himself is such a relentlessly broad caricature that he makes the cadaverous restaurant critic in Ratatouille seem nuanced ... These gags are funny once, perhaps twice, but Kaufman keeps making them over and over again until they arrive like a kind of blow ... In another giddily amusing section of the novel, B meets an imperious woman named Tsai and becomes sexually obsessed...Sadly, however, this segues into an extended bit about clowns and clown porn that is best passed over in silence.
PositiveSlate... utterly terrifying ... Probably this seemed like fodder for informative entertainment as recently as a few months ago, but at the moment it may be more excitement than many readers can take. Zombie apocalypse yarns are fun enough when you’re cozily streaming Netflix on your living room sofa, but it’s another matter once the zombies are scrabbling with their bony fingers on your front door ... sometimes feels like the war and terrorism is meant to juice the story ... largely an information-delivery system for the history of and bad news about the pandemic threat, something journalists and public health officials—not to mention at least one Hollywood screenwriter—have been warning us about for years. It seems prophetic because Wright, unlike most of the rest of us, was paying attention ... chances are The End of October would have found only a modest audience had it been published in a COVID-19-free America during the unfolding of an exceptionally divisive presidential campaign ... As a novel, even as a thriller, this book is pretty basic. The characters are rote: noble, self-sacrificing scientists; stalwart, no-nonsense military men and women; spunky 12-year-old girls; shortsighted politicians; Jürgen with his Bond-villain hair...The novel has neither the panache of a Lee Child thriller nor the ingenuity of Harlan Coben, although occasionally a minor character stirs to life ... Nevertheless, The End of October scared the shit out of me. I couldn’t decide if it was exactly the thing I ought to be reading right now—and excuse me while I head to Walmart to pick up 50 pounds of lentils and a gun—or if it was exactly the wrong thing. It’s got me side-eyeing my neighbors and wondering if they can be counted on in a pinch.
PositiveSlateMoshfegh gives the old canard about the association between artistic genius and madness an additional twist to arrive at the notion that inventing complex stories about the intersecting lives of entirely imaginary people is itself a species of madness. In Death in Her Hands, the plots devised by novelists uncomfortably resemble the conspiracy delusions of a paranoiac ... Vesta lacks the deliciously shameless antisocial tendencies of Eileen and of the main character of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, who prefers sleeping huge chunks of her life away to dealing with just about anyone—or, at least, Vesta lacks the courage to embrace and celebrate such tendencies. This prevents Death in Her Hands from attaining the perverse grandeur of those two novels. It feels like an interlude, a chamber piece, one of Shirley Jackson’s more claustrophobic short stories stretching its cramped, goblin limbs into novel-length. The minor, idiosyncratic key it strikes does not make it any less enjoyable, and may even make it more so. A bolder, more universal vision of how isolation can drive you nuts would, right now, cut a little too close to the bone.
MixedSlateThe Mirror and the Light, at more than 750 pages, is a novel with a lot less narrative drive than its predecessors—no matter how false Cromwell’s sense of security, or how ominous the doom that closes in on him ... The novel bogs down with portentous conversations and remodeling plans and municipal updates and protocol. Cromwell faltering hasn’t the power to bind all these details together the way that Cromwell ascendant did ... The Cromwell of The Mirror and the Light is beset by ghosts...his past seems to be devouring him ..When Wolf Hall came out, the notion of a professional class rising to rule on the strength of its knowledge and competence felt almost inevitable. Bring Up the Bodies showed that consolidating power usually requires feeding a beast of some species. The Mirror and the Light is a protracted journey to arrive at the conclusion that expertise, talent, and tireless commitment are not enough to hold it. This is a novel of its time, despite appearances. No wonder Mantel puts her ending off for so long.
Yuval Noah Harari
PositiveSlateDespite publishers’ initial skepticism toward Sapiens, its success can’t be called a fluke. Readers have long exhibited an appetite for sweeping surveys of world history ... Sapiens appeals to this old-fashioned appetite even as it revamps the genre to address the dreams and fears of a 21st-century audience ... Harari...makes an unsettlingly nervy, cerebral successor to Clark’s suave Oxbridge accent and Bronowski’s grandfatherly bristling silver eyebrows. He has come not to congratulate us for our achievements, but to deliver some inconvenient truths ... Unlike... serenely authoritative 20th-century history summarizers, he’s frank, even humble, about what the available data can’t tell us. This makes him seem more scrupulously scientific and less like someone selling a party line ... Chastened by the spectacle of social media and big data mobilized to manipulate voters and sow tribal division, Harari now sounds the alarm ... Whether he can sway the tech moguls and Hollywood types who adore him to take greater responsibility for their actions is hard to say, but at least he’s trying and, at least for now, they’re listening.
RaveSlateIn such a climate, McBride’s affectionate, forgiving, hopeful humanism arrives like a balm, or—dare I say it?—a blessing ... feels historically unmoored; not a single character mentions Vietnam or Martin Luther King Jr. None of the men appear to be veterans of any war...Is this a weakness? Perhaps, but McBride doesn’t seem interested in writing historical fiction ... McBride’s love for this small-time, profoundly decent churchy milieu, with all its foibles, radiates from Deacon King Kong so powerfully you can almost feel the pages warm in your hands.
Emily St. John Mandel
RaveSlateBy some miracle, although it’s hard to determine what it’s about, The Glass Hotel is never dull. Tracing the permutations of its characters’ lives is like following the intricate patterns on Moroccan tiles. The pleasure, which in the case of The Glass Hotel is abundant, lies in the patterns themselves, not in anything they mean. This is a type of art that closely approximates life, and a remarkable accomplishment for Mandel, whose prose style in this novel is more transparent and less deliberately fussy and \'literary\' than in Station Eleven. This novel invites you to inhabit it without striving or urging; it’s a place to be, always fiction’s most welcome effect.
PositiveSlate... dark, witty, and astute ... a satire in which scraps of optimism drift down the streets of Manhattan like torn and trampled flyers ... an acid dissection of social media–based stardom ... Is there a moral to this story? Probably not. And that’s the realest thing about it.
PositiveSlate\"...beautifully obsered ... Wiener lavishes her most meticulous observational powers on the many older (and sometimes younger) people she views as enviably sure of themselves and their place in the world ... Someone like Wiener makes for a good spy in the house of tech, although most of what she has to say isn’t particularly revelatory. The Valley’s culture has been exceedingly well-documented ... What Wiener excels at is not argument or analysis—the articulation of deep patterns or historical shifts in power and attention—but the texture of life for people in a particular and pivotal time and place ... The spongelike quality of the Wiener of Uncanny Valley makes her a frustrating memoir narrator, however. While the book is never dull, it often feels as if it’s idling overlong in front of an interesting view. It has a vagueness at its center that’s only exacerbated by Wiener’s hesitation to use proper names.\
MixedSlate... the popular version of the movement soon drops out of the book. The following chapters, often broken into fragments, ruminate on the most culturally exalted manifestations of minimalism: fine artists like Donald Judd, avant-garde composers like John Cage, and Japanese writers and philosophers who elucidated the Zen-influenced aesthetics of their own culture...This is disappointing, and at times intellectually muddled. What begins, promisingly, as wide-ranging synthesis of a fascinating and perplexing impulse becomes an exercise in taste, a guide to distinguishing between \'good\' and \'bad\' minimalism ... It’s not that this kind of analysis has no merits; Chayka makes a fine art critic who persuasively argues for the power of works associated with the minimalism movement...He testifies, persuasively, to having experienced some transcendent moments when meeting those challenges ... But there’s a good deal of been-there-done-that in The Longing for Less. Plenty of critics have made the case for these minimalist artists, whose heyday came in the 1950s and ’60s. The fresher subject of contemporary lifestyle minimalism and its relationship to this high-art past goes largely unexplored ... True, the quintessential blogger minimalists often seem to rely, paradoxically, on the fetishization of certain perfect commodities...But high-art minimalism has its fair share of absurdities, too ... I found myself wishing that Chayka might occasionally live up to this rhetoric and succumb to the charms of a stand mixer or any other genuinely mass-produced object, minimalist in style or not.
N. K. Jemisin
PositiveSlateForget all those pandemic novels people have been praising for their prescience in the age of COVID-19: For uncanny relevance, no fictional crisis rivals the showdown in N.K. Jemisin’s new urban fantasy The City We Became. A valentine to New York City ... What it isn’t, at least not consistently, is a crackerjack piece of storytelling. Jemisin’s premise is so savory and persuasive that it sometimes doesn’t matter that she hasn’t found a narrative style worthy of both. The city she sings fizzes so joyously through the veins of this novel that anyone mourning the New York before COVID-19 will likely find The City We Became equally sustaining and elegiac, a tribute to a city that may never fully return to us. Maybe that’s enough ... While it’s bemusing that not one of the five boroughs is represented by a Jew, for the most part this makes for a thrilling conceit, full of imaginative promise ... Unfortunately, the plot Jemisin uses to explore this world is fairly generic and overly in debt to cinematic precedents like superhero films ... shows some signs of genre confusion ... Jemisin too often lets herself get bogged down in unnecessary exposition and transitions; characters are constantly explaining that knowledge has simply popped into their heads, that they just had a feeling that they ought to do this or that, go here or there. It’s as if Jemisin were under orders to spell out their every motivation to a dim-witted movie studio executive. I found myself wishing that she’d trusted more in the spell she’s cast, in magic as a manifestation of our deepest wishes and fears, rather than a coherent, explicable system ... The hallmark of great fantasy is that it feels true even when you know it isn’t, and The City We Became does that, especially right now
PositiveSlate... enjoyable—charmingly wry after the fashion of Lorrie Moore ... What Offill excels at committing to the page is the flux and ephemera of everyday consciousness ... It’s as comfortable as an old slipper, which is one of the reasons why Offill’s fiction is such a pleasure to read and yet also disconcertingly easy to forget. Like water at the exact temperature of the human body, it can be hard to tell when you’re in it and when you’re not, where your transitory idle thoughts begin and Offill’s end ... Instead of a call to arms, Weather is a document of a certain way of life that we take for granted now, so much so that we barely pay attention to the texture of our own days. One day, all this will be gone, but here are some fragments to shore up against that ruin. Maybe then, they will be precious to us.
RaveThe New York TimesLike all of Morrison\'s best fiction, this is a village novel. Race and racism, ancillary concerns in Love for the most part, throw the small groups she writes about back upon one another, steeping their passions. Even when the setting is contemporary, Morrison\'s books feel old-fashioned, set in a world where the perpetual distraction of the media hasn\'t diluted people\'s fascination with their neighbors ... What the middle-class blacks in Morrison\'s fiction gain in order, stability and mutual support -- no small blessing in a hostile, white-run world -- they lose in vitality, in wildness and perhaps in truth ... When passion is at its most extreme, Morrison suggests, its workings can be indistinguishable from those of ordinary heartlessness.
Carmen Maria Machado
PositiveSlateEach chapter of In the Dream House tries on a different way of seeing this relationship and recounting it, reflected in the book’s chapter titles: \'Dream House as Lesbian Pulp Novel,\' \'Dream House as Stoner Comedy,\' \'Dream House as Myth,\' etc. Most of these takes can’t be sustained for more than a page or two; despite the grim subject matter, some land almost like jokes. But all of the chapters gesture toward Machado’s fundamental dilemma in writing the book: How can this story be told? ... Machado’s tale also serves to debunk the fable of utopian lesbianism, a story that has helped many people defy prejudice and familial disapproval ... Perhaps because she’s primarily a fiction writer, Machado doesn’t fall back on the memoirist’s bedrock defense: This is my truth, and everyone is entitled to tell the truth about her life as she understands it. Instead, she experiments with forms known for their irreality, especially fairy tales and folklore. Fairy tales offer a surprisingly good model for abuse memoirs because, like a fairy tale, the dynamic between abuser and victim seems to take place within a closed system, cut off from the outside world, where the usual rules don’t always apply ... In the Dream House would have benefited from a deeper delving into this conundrum; the relationship between the current Machado, a writer of great talent and authority, and this lost shard of a woman from her past who “was always anxious and vibrating like a too-small breed of dog” is the most fascinating aspect of the book ... this book...despite its superficially fragmented form, is held together like a string of beads by a single, unbroken narrative. It even ends in a fittingly fairy-tale twist I won’t spoil. This story may be too dark to be called a last laugh, but its power is undeniable nonetheless.
MixedThe New YorkerFrench’s fifth and least successful novel ... The novel’s emotional center is diffused, and it loses the tense, marvelous effect of French’s other books, in which the scrim of a faltering narrator makes it impossible to ascertain whether the supernatural elements are real or merely a manifestation of the detective’s psychic distress. The girls’ witchy exploits are a thin pop-culture borrowing, and teen-agers are so protean to begin with that their identity crises lack the power to unnerve.
RaveSalonAs in the previous two novels, Faithful Place has a murderer who will be identified, but in the process of discovering that truth, the detective\'s own psyche will be dismantled. Detective fiction\'s legions of brooding sleuths have paid lip service to Nietzsche\'s observation that if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss starts looking back. In French\'s novels, the person looking becomes the abyss ... French\'s hypnotic storytelling remains in full force in this novel, despite having shaken off the dreaminess that suffused In the Woods and The Likeness.This is Roddy Doyle territory, an excavation of that particular torture experienced by those who want to break out of a hopeless, working-class world but keep getting sucked back in by the loyalty that is its one redeeming quality. Faithful Place is wrenching to a degree that detective fiction rarely achieves ... French does something fresh with every novel, each one as powerful as the last but in a very different manner. Perhaps she has superpowers of her own? Whatever the source of her gift, it\'s only growing more miraculous with every book.
Kim Stanley Robinson
RaveSalonFor the most part, what a novelist tries to do with any given book is far less important that what he or she actually manages to accomplish, but it\'s impossible to read The Years of Rice and Salt without stopping now and then to contemplate the vastness of the task Robinson has set himself ... After having cut out so much cerebral work for himself, Robinson could hardly be blamed if he lost track of more intimate matters in this book. But perhaps what\'s most remarkable about The Years of Rice and Salt is the way it hews so closely to the lineaments of the human heart even as it fans out across such a mammoth stage ... It\'s only...in the home stretches...that Robinson\'s utopian inclinations wrest the novel away from his storytelling ones. The writing often becomes regrettably expository, weighed down by long, stodgy passages about economic and political developments ... Nevertheless, The Years of Rice and Salt is for the most part a magnificent and endlessly fascinating book. Setting himself the Scheherazadean labor of holding his readers through a chain of tales, a series of endings and beginnings in which we must let go of one story and then quickly be caught up again in the next, he pulls it off with a trapeze artist\'s grace.
David Foster Wallace
RaveSalonThe oblivion in this collection\'s title is what most of his characters are after. They have a past they want to forget, a future they\'d prefer to avoid, and things about themselves they\'d rather not think about at all. When you find out what they\'re running from, you can\'t blame them ... Wallace can still be funny, but his humor has been creeping away from the playful, omnivorous sort on display in his first three books...and toward a bleaker variety -- as if he were making a slow switch in allegiance from Thomas Pynchon to Samuel Beckett ... Trauma lurks somewhere, usually offstage, in each of the eight stories ... In Oblivion, Wallace\'s long arcs of prose and the narrative sidetracks are exposed not as tortuous strivings toward some hard-won truth but as an insulation that people spin between themselves and the sharp edges of their condition.
PositiveSalonPowers, when you get right down to it, is more interested in processes and patterns than in people, but when he hits on the right combination of ideas, as he does in his newest book, The Time of Our Singing, he finds a place for people in his celestial clockwork ... Character and story drive most good novels, while theme makes a satisfying byproduct, but for Powers the idea is the engine that makes everything go ... Powers, on the other hand, knows that it\'s not David and Delia\'s love that chips away at the bedrock of race, but the family they make of it, their light-skinned children, the vanguard of a world where \'someday everyone will be brown\' ... The dilemma galvanizes Powers\' gifts and spins some of his novelistic weaknesses into gold ... You care all the same, not just about the way this author opens up a universe of thought and makes you hear the legendary music of the spheres, but also about the fate of a few baffled human beings, muddling their way through to a life worth living.
RaveSlateAtwood picks up plot elements that originated in the TV series...and twists them to her own ends ... The Testaments owes more to the TV series than a handful of details. Its tone hews closer to the series than to the novel that precedes it ... The Testaments is fun to read in a way that The Handmaid’s Tale is not, fun in the same way that the TV series, for all its grim lighting and performances, is crowd-pleasing. Its characters are not powerless or crushed ... The Testaments comes adorned with much splendid writing. Atwood, who is also a poet, can turn a metaphor that feels both original and like something you’ve always known ... All of this and a corker of a plot, culminating in a breathless flight to freedom, makes The Testaments a rare treat.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewKing’s most unsettling antagonists are human-size ... consummately honed and enthralling as the very best of his work ... these first 40 pages — low-key and relaxed, an unaffected and genially convincing depiction of a certain uncelebrated walk of life — demonstrate how engaging King’s fiction can be even without an underlying low whine of dread ... ruminates on the people who carry out the administration’s policies on the ground, the sort of working folk he usually champions ... Of all the cosmic menaces that King’s heroes have battled, this slow creep into inhumanity may be the most terrifying yet because it is all too real.
MixedThe New York TimesQuite a few aspects of White\'s life and career seem more significant than the reminiscences and character sketches he includes in My Lives ... It\'s possible that the principle at work here is something elliptical and formalist, like the haute European literature White admires. Such a memoir might be meant to circle around the key events of the author\'s life without ever settling on any of them ... My Lives does bear a resemblance to party chatter and coffee shop confidences. The chapter titles are like conversation topics, and White\'s digressive elaborations on each theme -- full of anecdotes about intellectual celebrities, recreated dialogues and provocative epigrams -- are the sort of thing ideal dinner guests produce on demand ... Wit and charm this memoir has in abundance, but that, I\'m afraid, is not to its credit.
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
MixedThe New York TimesThe lush Madeleine Is Sleeping...can be trying. It is too often reminiscent of those French films where long-haired peasant maidens in muslin shifts flash their tawny limbs in fields of wildflowers and the countryfolk demonstrate their lusty nature by making a mess with their food. Two blurry, surreal stories intertwine: a rural French family thinks its daughter\'s state of perpetual slumber is good luck for the farm, while the reader has access to her dreams of adventures at a boarding school and later a circus. There\'s some fine writing here ... but in service of a showy sensuality that seems more insisted upon than felt.
PositiveSlate... Tolentino is a classical essayist along the lines of Montaigne, threading her way on the page toward an understanding of what she thinks and feels about life, the world, and herself ... The strongest pieces in Trick Mirror have to do with the commodification of the self ... Tolentino’s insights are sterling ... She’s particularly fun to read when she’s bemused by the absurdity of all these performances, stopping just short of outright cynicism ... The less penetrating essays in Trick Mirror—a consideration of literary heroines and a critique of the wedding industry—are solid enough but cover well-trodden ground.
RaveSlateIts characters aren’t representative, but that goal, while admirable, is a casualty of the approach Taddeo took, which is a deep, deep dive into the sexual psyches of her three characters: two Midwestern women and a sleek East Coast restaurateur ... What makes Three Women so remarkable and indelible, and also so refreshingly out-of-step with the tenor of the present moment, is Taddeo’s refusal to judge these \'characters.\' She is not particularly interested in determining who is right, who is wrong, and who is to blame ... None of the narratives in Three Women are inspirational or empowering, but they are what the best long-form journalism should be, which is truthful ... Some of Taddeo’s best writing (presumably facilitated by Maggie herself) comes in the description of how this rejection devastates a girl who first couldn’t believe her brilliant teacher really loved her and then couldn’t believe that the orchestrator of such a courtship really didn’t love her ... magnificently depicted.
PositiveSlateFall tricks you into thinking it plans to be this or that sort of fiction (a bitingly plausible near-future dystopia or tale of corporate intriguing, for example), only to heel around and head off in a new direction entirely. It does this more than once, yet remains a coherent whole. The audacity of Stephenson’s intentions is itself part of the entertainment value ... a feat of mind-blowing adventure powered by deep existential questions ... The last section of the novel assumes the form of a rippingly Tolkienesque epic fantasy quest: an eventful journey through a magical landscape, embarked on by characters it’s impossible to think of as mere processes. It’s great fun.
PositiveSlate...the heist story that makes up the bulk of Cari Mora is inventive and crisp, with a prose style that owes less to the floridness of the last two Hannibal novels than it does to the late and much-lamented Elmore Leonard ... Whether or not Harris ever consciously endorsed the anxieties expressed by the genre he created (he hasn’t granted an interview since the ’70s), Cari Mora represents a bid for a more liberal worldview. The novel makes multiple digs at the Trump administration’s immigration policies, and all of the good characters are people of color. (Hans-Peter is technically a Paraguayan national, suggesting that he’s descended from Nazis who fled to Latin America after World War II.) Sexuality still represents a monstrous threat and a potential source of corruption and danger, however; Harris’ fiction offers few depictions of nondestructive physical love.
PositiveSlateThe Nickel Boys is a strictly realist work, albeit still ripe with Whitehead’s signature deadpan wit ... It’s possible to read the novel naïvely, as a wrenching exposé of the barbarism of so-called reform schools ... Can he please them while continuing to fascinate those of us who fell in love with his idiosyncrasies two decades ago? It’s intriguing to watch this novelist figuring out how to split the difference, delivering what can pass as a straightforward \'protest novel\' of the type he once found uninteresting, while also gratifying his own impulses toward complexity, allusion, and all the other moves of postmodern fiction ... a tighter and neater work [than The Underground Railroad] ... The Nickel Boys often feels like Whitehead’s conversation with both the idealistic forerunners of the civil rights generation and, by implication, the woke youth of today ... rest assured that Colson Whitehead still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
PositiveThe New YorkerAs remote as this world is, readers will find it strangely familiar. Petropavlovsk uncannily resembles a small, overlooked city in the American West, with its old-timers praising the way things used to be, its restless youth dreaming of metropolitan glamour and escape ... all that shared personal history becomes a breeding ground for intrigue. But for Phillips the intricate web linking her characters is not a mystery to be uncovered by a solitary detective. The official investigators in Disappearing Earth dither at the story’s periphery and come up empty-handed. It is the web itself that provides the solution ... The ending ignites an immediate desire to reread the chapters leading up to it: incidents and characters that seemed trivial acquire new meanings ... This story will be retold by the novel’s close, just as the novel will retell itself. What appears to be a collection of fragments, the remains of assorted personal disasters and the detritus of a lost empire, is in truth capable of unity.
RaveSalonThe most slicing satire in this novel is reserved for the technologized culture of everyday urban life; Shteyngart is the Joseph Heller of the information age ... That\'s the difference between Shteyngart and the average literary satirist (or even an above-average one, like Martin Amis): his warmth ... overflowing with mercy ... It\'s a high-wire act, pulling off a novel that\'s simultaneously so biting and so compassionate, and in his earlier books Shteyngart, while unfailingly shrewd and funny, wasn\'t always this tender.
Robert S. Mueller
MixedSlatePalace intrigues make for addictive storytelling, as the popularity of Game of Thrones illustrates, and reading the report as a work of literature makes clear that the narrator of the document, whoever that may be, relishes a little bit of that now and then ... But how does it read? Given that journalists and experts are willing to read it for you, does the report itself...reward the time it takes to plow through almost 500 pages of densely footnoted findings? ... The first volume, devoted to Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, begins, like any good political thriller, with a bang ... A thriller is only as good as its villain, and the bad guys here have an undeniable panache ... The closest thing the Mueller report has to supervillain material is Julian Assange, whose bogus maverick posturing, suave mendacity, and comprehensive lack of human decency is spectacularly showcased in these pages ... Things quiet down after this roaring start, alas, as the report moves toward documenting evidence that the Trump campaign might have conspired with Russian persons ... The report’s account of their activities constitutes what we in the book-reviewing trade like to refer to as a longueur. Even the infamous June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower comes across as something of an anticlimax ... the report refrains from drawing almost any conclusion, to the frustration, surely, of many of its readers ... It’s less invigorating than a report voicing decisive judgments about the events it describes, but you get the sense that sticking to that Tolstoyan detachment is the only thing keeping the authors sane ... The Mueller report, Olympian and meticulous, feels like an attempt to wrest back our government on behalf not just of real lawyers but of reality itself.
PositiveSlate...sharp, wily ... Trust Exercise seems to be about the incendiary, ravenous nature of first love, nascent artistic ambition, hero worship ... Not so fast, the novel’s second part commands. Here is where Trust Exercise busts out of its coming-of-age shell and becomes a stranger and far more marvelous creature ... Spoiler-ish as this summary may sound, it seems a necessary spur to get readers unfamiliar with Choi’s work through the novel’s unexceptional first lap ... The first part of Trust Exercise, the reader may realize, is just a bit bad, with a foggy center you almost don’t notice thanks to the bogus frankness of the sex scenes ... Each of the novel’s three parts (the third is a relatively short coda) concerns a woman who feels betrayed, her trust violated—but the locus of that betrayal, the truly guilty party, looks different to the reader than it does to the women themselves.
PositiveSalonIn a way, it\'s not quite a novel, and if you come to it expecting a novel\'s pleasures, you\'re likely to be disappointed. Better to think of this book as a Flemish painting, something replete with the allegorical significance of forward movement, like Hieronymus Bosch\'s \'Haywain,\' in which worldly life is depicted as an overstuffed cart from which everyone is trying to grab his or her handful, oblivious to the fact that the journey is taking them from Paradise to Hell. Doctorow hasn\'t got Bosch\'s hankering for apocalyptic moralizing, though, so the tone is closer to Bruegel; the novel\'s wide field is studded here and there with pairs of characters, little incidents and moments, none given more weight than any other ... [Doctorow] makes it a novel of scenes, a pageant that flits from one character\'s experience of the march to another\'s, and mostly refrains from comment. It chafes a little to have to surrender a particularly appealing character or interesting situation when the march moves on, but that\'s the point; there\'s always a new one bringing up the rear ... It must be said that the black characters in The March are too uniformly noble, and this has the counterintuitive effect of depriving them of the stature of the flawed whites. The war is a mixture of grandeur and degradation, and only the characters who have sounded its depths seem to have fully grasped their experience.
MixedThe New Yorker\"... extensively researched ... In truth, Keller isn’t particularly interesting, and Barrera is not much better, but they really don’t need to be. Supporting characters are Winslow’s forte ... If the two main characters of The Cartel are a little thin, they do their job, delivering the reader into the ongoing disaster that is the war on drugs ... Best of all, in the middle of the novel Winslow turns his attention to a passel of journalists working in Ciudad Juárez when the cartels were at their peak, and it’s as if he’d opened a window and let in some air. These people... feel conscripted from life, not films or books ... The machinery that has delivered all of Winslow’s characters to this place is a vast, interlocking system of competing national interests, ass-covering government agencies, delusional lawmakers, stupid policies, a shortsighted public, corrupt officials, and big business, the whole mass of it driven by the desire for money, power, and chemically induced ecstasy. This machinery has its own perverse majesty, despite Winslow’s well-founded outrage that it has been allowed to grind on and on and on.\
G. Willow Wilson
PositiveSlate\"... sumptuous ... Wilson conjures the legendary beauty of the Alhambra... but she doesn’t sentimentalize Al Andalus ... The pacing of Fatima and Hassan’s escape—essentially one long chase scene—is brisk and flawless, but there’s a lot of message delivery going on whenever the novel hits a quiet spot ... [Its] leaden moments don’t sink The Bird King, and Wilson is far from alone in feeling the need for them. We live in an anxious and therefore lecturesome age, surrounded by daily reminders how easily and perhaps willfully others will misinterpret our words if we don’t make them dully obvious. But too many life lessons can sap some of the life from a novel, which is why The Bird King doesn’t quite attain the vitality of Alif the Unseen ... The Bird King offers a rare portrayal of a platonic love fiercer than any of its erotic counterparts.\
PositiveSlate\"... splendid, witty ... Oyeyemi’s point can sometimes seem as elusive as that house, but the charm evident on every page of this novel is enough to lure any reader through its twistier passages, and gradually the novel’s ideas emerge from the thicket of droll jokes, fantastical occurrences, and the occasional reference to Lady Gaga.\
PositiveThe New Yorker...[a] sober epic ... The Power of the Dog...seem[s] like the work of...a guy with salt-and-pepper temples and an off-the-rack suit, hovering over his bourbon on the next barstool. He’s telling you everything you did and didn’t want to know about what went on and still goes on south of the border in the feeding of North America’s insatiable appetite for pot, heroin, cocaine, and meth. You can’t be sure how much of it is true; Narcolandia is ballad country, a realm of legend and rumor. But none of it is a laughing matter. Scratch that. Some of The Power of the Dog is funny. Winslow can do a comic mid-level Italian gangster as well as most guys. But that novel was written before the slaughter and chaos of the cartel wars reached hallucinatory proportions.
RaveSlate\"... The Silk Road is also a feat of flashing enchantment. I read it in a state I can only describe as baffled wonder, and no small part of the wonder came from how much I enjoyed the novel considering the fact that much of the time I had no idea what was going on ... The Silk Road is a mystery for sure, just not the kind that Agatha Christie ever wrote. I can be an impatient reader when I sense a writer is being obscure for obscurity’s sake, but Davis has an oddly humble approach for someone whose work is so ambitious ... Perhaps if she were more grandiose (or, let’s face it, male) she’d have a large following of fanboys intent on decoding her every allusion and device, like Thomas Pynchon’s. As it is, she has a devout but tiny band of admirers. Join us.\
MixedSlate\"What’s good about Merchants of Truth... is also its weakness: Abramson’s adherence to a mid-20th-century standard of reportorial objectivity. There are countless occasions when that is exactly the approach called for from a writer. This book wasn’t one of them. Although the accuracy of Abramson’s reporting in this extensively footnoted book has been contested by some of her subjects, she clearly cares about the facts. But it’s ludicrous for her to pretend that she can tell this story in large part without bias. It’s also a missed opportunity ... Merchants of Truth would feel more coherent if it recounted how it felt to be leading the Times during these convulsions ... In trying to sound impartial, Abramson sometimes comes across as attempting to pass off her own prejudices as fact ... In a way, the most puzzling aspect of Merchants of Truth isn’t the errors Abramson made and then did or didn’t correct: It’s the narrowness of the book’s purview\
RaveThe New Yorker\"... clever and arresting ... Mackintosh is up to something far more interesting than a celebration of female dysfunction. Still, I sometimes longed for the narrative reins to be returned to the more hardheaded and clear-eyed Grace ... [The book\'s] insularity gives The Water Cure the cloistered, ahistorical atmosphere of a fairy tale, where elemental dramas play out much as they have since humanity first began telling stories ... Ingenious and incendiary, The Water Cure is less a warning about the way we live now, the hazardous path society is careering down, than it is about the way we have always lived, parents and children, fathers and daughters, men and women.\
MixedSlate\"The collection, which abounds in macabre scenarios and sadomasochistic themes, will cause many of those who saw themselves in \'Cat Person\' to recoil ... The S&M element in some of the stories here...will remind many readers of the early work of Mary Gaitskill... But unlike Gaitskill, Roupenian seems to be reaching, flaunting her edge, eyeing her readers and hoping to see them gasp or wince. Even Gaitskill’s most unsettling stories aren’t performative in that way. They feel like the work of an intelligence wholly devoted to telling the truth, to the titanic task of doing justice to human beings as she sees them, without artifice or mystification ... Roupenian has a gift for locating the monstrous in the mundane; she doesn’t need to head out into the wilds to find it.\
PositiveSlate\"About halfway through Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, I realized I was enjoying the book in almost exactly the same way—fully absorbed, gobbling it down in long, lolling sessions on the sofa—that I’d savored a Trollope novel I read a few months ago ... Although Rooney can turn a fine simile when she pleases... her prose style shuns most self-conscious displays of beauty. At times it reads like a report and at others like casual conversation ... And while [Rooney\'s] authorial voice is unflappably straightforward, the characters in Normal People are far from numbed out...\
RaveSlateThe novel is a delirious smoothie of cultural influences and tributes ... James’ mode is \'grimdark,\' the subset of speculative fiction George R.R. Martin’s epic exemplifies, a mode that eschews J.R.R. Tolkien’s idealized, chivalric vision of the Middle Ages for something much closer to the brutal, hierarchical truth ... James seems to view Black Leopard, Red Wolf as a chance to gleefully embrace a host of established pop tropes ... The special skill James himself brings to the table is a voice of almost overwhelming confidence, earthiness, and brio ... Voice has always been James’ superpower ... Tracker’s voice—wounded, furious, disillusioned, impassioned, implacable—carries the reader through Black Leopard, Red Wolf like a riptide. Truth be told, the plot itself, although liberally salted with spectacular chase and fight scenes, unfolds at a leisurely pace. Furthermore, James molds the novel’s diction to African grammatical structures not always easy to follow ... ultimately they are what makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf so satisfying. The novel reshapes the way you read it as you go along.
PositiveThe Guardian\"Once Upon a River takes more than a few pages to begin properly, even though it kicks off with a promisingly dramatic event ... The primary characters are all good people, drawn in bold strokes without much shading; the influence here seems more Dickens than Brontë, albeit without the comic brio ... Because these antagonists mostly lurk in the background, their motives unclear until near the story’s end, the conflict must be generated among the admirable leads ... [The book] cannot be called a page-turner, certainly not in the order of the previous book, yet ultimately it is a success ... In spots, the prose could use some polish... but originality has never been Setterfield’s strong suit. She serves you bread and cheese, but it is very good bread and cheese, the sort of meal that is often more satisfying than fancier stuff.\
N K Jemisin
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"Some of the pieces are simple yet highly enjoyable ... If Jemisin has a weakness, however, it’s a propensity for didacticism ... There is, fortunately, much more to love in this collection. Some of the stories are good old-fashioned science-fiction yarns shot from new angles ... This collection features many similarly uncanny moments in which the human integrates with what feels profoundly inhuman. (Jemisin does creepy so well, it’s enough to make you wish she’d try a straight-up horror novel — another genre that could really use more black writers.) The stories here teem with impostors, parasites and hybrids. Sometimes they must be fought off, but this is one science-fiction author who does not take that stance reflexively. Expand your notion of what we can be, she suggests. Recognize that change is inevitable and often strengthening. Don’t kid yourself that the alternative is safety; the alternative is death.\
MixedSlate\"Unfortunately, In Byron’s Wake is a taxing book, the sort of biography that feels enslaved by its source material—in this case, the many letters written by the various principals—into reporting all the numbing details of daily life. Every tutor hired, every change of address (19th-century aristocrats moved around a lot), every notable visitor or encounter, every minor illness as well as the major ones, it seems, must be mentioned. Seymour offers both too much information and not enough ... What makes In Byron’s Wake worth reading is its account of how reputation and public image worked in early Victorian England, particularly for women, and how little this minefield has changed despite the technological advances Ada’s work predicted. A gossipy writer herself, Seymour understands the workings of gossip better than most, and Annabella and Ada’s lives were shaped by celebrity and rumor ... A better book would have looked harder at this stubborn inclination to make excuses for famous and talented men as it took root during the birth of celebrity culture.\
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Seething with black humor and adolescent anger at the adult world and its brutal absurdities, Milkman wedges itself too deeply in middle sister’s psyche to resemble a wandering city novel like Ulysses. Instead, the way that Burns’s clauses trace the switchbacking self-consciousness of social life in her community recalls the mental torments that often seize David Foster Wallace’s characters ... A novelist can get lost in such labyrinths, but the saving grace of Milkman is a tensile story line involving the title character, a forty-one-year-old married local who’s reputed to be a major player in the paramilitary groups ... For a novel about life under multifarious forms of totalitarian control—political, gendered, sectarian, communal—Milkman can be charmingly wry.\
PositiveSlateChapter 3 will tell you more than you’d ever want to know about Trump’s low-energy sexual performance and low-end toiletries ... Daniels makes the ideal nemesis for Trump, Full Disclosure reveals, because she really is what he mostly just pretends to be. Her red-state cred is solid ... Unlike every other porn star memoir, Full Disclosure doesn’t traffic in inane industry clichés about Daniels getting into the business because she \'loves sex\' ... She’s a witty, scrappy underdog who stood up to a fat cat and his big-city lawyers, to all the snooty hypocrites who turn their noses up at her in public while eagerly consuming her movies in private ... Both Trump and Daniels like to trumpet their own achievements, but she’s actually earned hers the hard way. If he’s a fearless \'straight-shooter,\' Full Disclosure amply proves that she’s a far superior one—with much better aim.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewTaken in long swigs, Daemon Voices can be overwhelming, a torrent of enthusiasm for science, art, music and literature ... these essays cast a spell \'for the refreshment of the spirit.\' To read them is to be invigorated by the company of a joyfully wide-ranging, endlessly curious and imaginative mind ... Daemon Voices includes appreciations of Milton and Blake, as well as of Dickens, and Phillipa Pearce ... If that sounds like a tall order for kids’ books, this is in fact the essence of Pullman’s appeal: He takes children seriously. He addresses them as intelligent, moral beings struggling to make sense of the world. He writes clearly when writing for them because that’s how he writes for everyone.
MixedSlateReader, Come Home’s chapters are written in the form of letters—Wolf’s attempt to strike an intimate tone—but for all her adoration of literature, this is a writer who lives most of her professional life in the realm of academia and policymaking, an environment that has left its mark on her prose. Her sentences sometimes resemble a stand full of broken umbrellas through which the reader must forage in search of a workable statement ... In her defense...Wolf is a serious scholar genuinely trying to make the world a better place. Reader, Come Home is full of sound, if hardly revelatory, advice for parents...and considered policy recommendations ... But if Wolf is impassioned about the importance of deep reading, she doesn’t always seem fully cognizant of the forces arrayed against it. She seems to be responding to the digital culture of nearly a decade ago ... It would be nice if Wolf caught up with the times and stopped fretting about e-books and the notion that they inhibit this kind of immersion. Perhaps the answer to Wolf’s worries is neither so complicated nor so apocalyptic as technology’s champions and Cassandras have made it out to be, but largely a matter of willpower and common sense. Most adults do know what’s good for them.
Kwame Anthony Appiah
MixedSlateAt times in The Lies That Bind, Appiah seems to be either fighting a battle that’s already been won, as when he challenges the scholarly movement known as Afrocentrism, which he believes perpetuates 19th-century delusions about race, or debating with the sort of people—white nationalists, Brexiters—who are never going to listen to someone like him in the first place ... Perhaps the most challenging chapter in The Lies That Bind for Appiah’s educated, open-minded readership will be the one on class. While Appiah rejects the notion that some traits are innate to particular groups, he does believe that some traits are innate to all people ... It’s an appealing ideal, and while I’m under the influence of Appiah’s suave vision of communal magnanimity, it seems doable, a city on the hill that will encompass the whole world, a city we might actually get the chance to build ... An hour or two after closing The Lies That Bind, however, doubt creeps in. Not everyone wants to glide among multiple identities in a chattering marketplace.
RaveSlate\"The Witch Elm is not just spooked but spooky. It arrives at precisely the moment when many of its readers will be wondering about the inner lives of men much like her narrator, Toby Hennessy; its timeliness alone is unsettling ... Toby’s awakening parallels the experiences of many men like him in the age of #MeToo: guys previously oblivious to the mistreatment going on all around them because they haven’t witnessed it or been its target. Surely, Toby, thinks over and over, things can’t have been as bad as all that. And over and over, he’s proven wrong ... even if Toby isn’t on the Dublin Murder Squad, the events in The Witch Elm spur his great, transformative upheaval. The discovery they force on him revolves around one question: Whose story is this? By the time French is done retooling the mystery form—it seems there’s nothing she can’t make it do, no purpose she can’t make it serve—the answer is clear: hers and hers alone.\
PositiveThe New YorkerHere Edugyan transforms Washington Black from a Grand Guignol of slavery’s horrors into a lush, exhilarating travelogue reminiscent of Jules Verne, full of improbable events and encounters but with a splinter lodged in its heart ... Edugyan has a chameleonic knack for adapting her novels to the periods in which they’re set ... In Washington Black, Edugyan suggests the diction of another time without attempting to replicate it ... The voice that Edugyan has conjured for her narrator is articulate, precise to the point of fussiness, yet subject also to fits of melancholy, emotional agony, and ravishing transports at the glories of the natural world.
PositiveSlate\"The concealed sharp edges of Juliet’s personality, evident even at this tender age, will delight Atkinson fans. This novelist specializes in female characters whose running internal monologues take witty, no-nonsense shots at the selfish and thoughtless ... In this sense, Atkinson suggests, all women are spies; they appear to be what others need them to be and contain a secret world all their own.\
RaveSalonThis is a story of passionate, doomed love; of the glory of art; of the triumph of our shared humanity over the forces that divide us, and a couple of other unbearably cheesy themes, and yet Patchett makes it work, completely ... For in spite of the ripe emotionality of Bel Canto, Patchett proves herself from the start to be too unsentimental and honest to serve up a contrived ending. You can tell by the book\'s host of tart observations...that this is one writer who won\'t bullshit us.
R O Kwon
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Kwon evades the pitfalls of the religious novel by giving them the widest possible berth. Here are a handful of facts, she seems to say, if they even are facts. Make of them what you will ... The Incendiaries is so parsimonious with description as to seem nearly starved of it. Kwon makes few attempts to summon an atmosphere or to flaunt arresting imagery, although when she does she acquits herself beautifully ... The Incendiaries seeds such paradoxes in the mind of the reader. It doesn’t force them. It is full of absences and silence. Its eerie, sombre power is more a product of what it doesn’t explain than of what it does. It’s the rare depiction of belief that doesn’t kill the thing it aspires to by trying too hard. It makes a space, and then steps away to let the mystery in.\
Martha C. Nussbaum
MixedSlate\"Most of what Nussbaum writes in The Monarchy of Fear has the ring not just of truth but sometimes also of truism. Do we really need a philosopher to point out that the current president’s base fears the many changes convulsing our world, changes that make them feel powerless and sidelined? ... it hardly requires a philosopher of Nussbaum’s stature to point these things out, and at times her classical background causes her to gloss over significant observations. Anger may, in almost every human society, carry with it a desire for revenge, but not every society encourages retribution the way America’s does ... Realistically, the only citizens paying her the attention and respect of reading her thoughts on this will be those who share her own liberal orientation, and in that respect The Monarchy of Fear seems like a missed opportunity. Understanding what motivates Trump supporters is a lot less difficult than figuring out how to live with them. A nation, unlike a social media feed, can’t be curated to erase all the people whose beliefs we find risible. The Monarchy of Fear doesn’t help much in this respect. It does assert something important: Anyone campaigning for an alternative to the current regime must talk about the America they want to create more than they focus on the people they’re trying to thwart.\
RaveSlateThe bravado in Moshfegh’s comprehensive darkness makes her novels both very funny and weirdly exhilarating, despite her willingness to travel so far down the road of misanthropy that she approaches nihilism. Forget likable, these young women refuse even to be acceptable, and this ushers them into a certain kind of freedom. They are to conventional femininity what pirates were to 19th-century mercantilism, and this makes them a blast to read about ... Reviewers have focused on the sleeper’s privilege and attempted to interpret the novel as a gloss on contemporary lifestyle fixations like \'self-care\' and political apathy. Yet My Year of Rest and Relaxation is patently a novel about grief ... The painful and humiliating predicament of unrequited love redounds throughout the novel in the sleeper’s attachment to the indifferent Trevor and in her unkindness to poor Reva ... By the novel’s end, she’s attained some kind of higher state, and you can see why Moshfegh was in no great hurry to get her there. Ultimately, the sleeper does and should become a better person—it’s just that the worse one was a lot more fun.
PositiveSlate...a scrappy continuation of his disagreement with Kuhn ... it might have been titled Errol Morris Kicks a Rock ... The Ashtray strikes me as an unlikely source for reaching a better understanding of Kuhn; Morris dislikes him too much and can’t be trusted not to stack the deck against him ... But the book is a marvelous tool for the better understanding of Errol Morris, who is both a great artist and a fascinating individual in his own right.
David Lynch and Kristine McKenna
MixedSlate[T]he Lynch of Room to Dream lives a bit like a medieval peasant, in a realm of signs and portents, a cosmos whose ultimate design he cannot grasp but devoutly trusts. A good portion of the latter half of the book makes clear that this inexplicable universe includes the business of Hollywood, as he relates the often tricky deals required to get his films made ... Room to Dream runs on the ebullience of Lynch’s creative process: his gee-willikers enthusiasm, his quirks, his often cryptic yet effective direction of actors (\'It needs a little more wind,\' he once told MacLachlan, the star of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), his openness to improvisation and luck, his do-it-yourself spirit ... But it lacks both the soul-searching of a great memoir and the interpretive perspective of a great biography, two pretty crucial elements for a 500-page memoir to lack ... The eternally alluring depth and mystery of Lynch’s work is missing from this narrative of his life. His movies and paintings are art, and can rely on his audience to provide an interpretation. His biography is another matter. What we need from Room to Dream is precisely what we don’t need from his films: for someone to tell us what it all means.
PositiveSlateLike his previous two best-sellers, The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it’s a mixture of history, profiles, first-person reportage, and wonder-struck rumination ... Pollan took a couple of research trips himself in the course of writing How to Change Your Mind, with results that are interesting only to the extent that they help him make sense of other people’s accounts of their own journeys. The meat of the book is its chapters on the neuroscience of the drugs and their evident ability to suppress activity in a brain system known as the \'default mode network\' ... If How to Change Your Mind furthers the popular acceptance of psychedelics as much as I suspect it will, it will be by capsizing the long association, dating from Leary’s time, between the drugs and young people ... If psychedelics can help cure the midlife crises of disaffected baby boomers and Gen Xers, then it’s only a matter of time until we’ll be able to pick them up with a prescription at our local pharmacy.
RaveSlate\"...[a] magnificently hard-boiled novel ... a powerful undertow pulls the reader through the book. I didn’t consume it so much as it consumed me, bite by bite. Part of its traction comes from Kushner’s mastery of mood and place, which in this novel is less flashily intellectual, in the style of Don DeLillo, and more infused with yearning ... In The Flamethrowers, Reno had a way of absorbing the voices speaking around her and passing them on to the reader, and so does Romy ... Kushner doesn’t soft-pedal her character’s crimes, some of which are as cruel as the treatment handed out to them. She’s not a polemical novelist. But while the prison guards berate their charges that they have ended up in this hellhole as a result of their own choices, she summons the indelible image of lives from which all meaningful choices have been erased, one by one.\
MixedSlate\"Instead of demanding that she perform a virtuosic solo, recovery asks Jamison to become part of a chorus of unremarkable equals. The Recovering is her heartfelt but haphazard, repetitive, and frequently exasperating attempt to represent that change ... The Recovering is overlong—a better book seems entombed within it by a surplus of at least 100 pages—partly because Jamison still has a hard time distinguishing excess from essence, actual problems from the dramas and messes, often involving her relationships to men, that she once ginned up to make her life feel more thrilling and vital ... What The Recovering falls short of articulating is the ironic paradox at the heart of AA: its ability to turn the alcoholic’s grandiosity against itself. Like a martial art that redirects the enemy’s strength to defeat him, the 12-step method transforms the dismantling of the addict’s narcissism into a heroic task appealing to that very same narcissism—all while providing it with an appreciative audience.\
MixedThe New Yorker\"Tangerine works best when Mangan juggles the untrustworthiness of her two narrators, writing and then rewriting their history together ... For a novel that leans so heavily on its setting, Tangerine rarely succeeds at evoking more of Tangier than its heat, its humidity (or dust), its \'confined and chaotic streets,\' and its sweet mint tea. This, the novel’s biggest weakness, is largely a failing of Mangan’s prose, which tends to be general rather than specific, lofty rather than grounded, received rather than observed ... Tangerine is undeniably hokey...But these clichés do not detract from the enjoyment the novel offers; they are, paradoxically, part of its charm. Tangerine is not a book about real people and how they feel or behave but a book about other books, and a few old movies, a concoction of familiar yet also reliably fun fictional gestures.\
RaveSlateReaders with a detective-style true-crime jones will probably find I’ll Be Gone in the Dark a bit of a letdown ... But the lack of a concrete answer in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark works to highlight McNamara’s other, more evocative gifts ... I’ll Be Gone in the Dark blossoms into a masterful accounting of what might at first seem like a minor issue: where. We’re used to thinking of crime as the product of psychological, historical, and social factors, but in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark McNamara skillfully demonstrates the role geography and architecture played in shaping the Golden State Killer’s reign of terror ... the detective’s nose for the crucial clue transmutes so easily into a novelist’s eye for the concrete detail that conjures a memory or emotion. She applies the same gift to a handful of portraits of people affected by the killer’s crimes ... These read like fragments from Raymond Carver stories, tales of ordinary lives fractured by incomprehensible violence. Had she lived, McNamara might have helped identify the man who committed that violence, but before she died, she did something nearly as miraculous: making them all live again in some small way.
RaveSlateHollinghurst claims Henry James as his great influence. Like James, he finds the gradations of taste and class, the shifting balance of power between individuals as they gradually and sometimes inadvertently reveal themselves to each other, fascinating. Unlike James, he’s not inclined to circle these observations with an infinite delicacy. His fiction delivers the frisson of witnessing such a rarefied sensibility expressing itself directly to the subjects of sex and social power ... The Sparsholt Affair lacks the sturdy momentum of Hollinghurst’s masterpiece, The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize ... But like all of Hollinghurst’s novels this one is still a wonder, full of wit and tenderness, rendered in prose of unostentatious, classic beauty. There is no better English stylist alive.
MixedThe New YorkerThe classic coming-out narrative describes how the central character makes a leap from one identity to another, into a different, freer life, while the classic immigrant novel depicts what it’s like to straddle two worlds, old and new, with a foothold in each. Speak No Evil is both and neither ... Iweala’s technique is uneven. Sometimes he borrows canned storytelling devices from TV and film ... These clichés sit uneasily beside such literary affectations as the absence of quotation marks. But Iweala can also invoke the bland, vacant tranquillity of his upscale setting in a few potent lines ... For a place deliberately designed to have no particular qualities, the novel’s D.C. suburb feels palpably real.
RaveSlateWinter, the next and most recent novel in the series, contains references to Donald Trump and the lethal Grenfell Tower fire in West London last summer. Smith is trying to see \'how closely to contemporaneousness a finished book might be able to be in the world,\' as she told one interviewer ...begins with a bravura litany of all the things that are \'dead,\' which is essentially everything — God, chivalry, history, the welfare state, neoliberalism, hope, racism, TV, marriages, flowers, the earth itself ... And while this seasonal quartet has its angry and agonized passages — Winter includes many small but insistent notations of the way institutions of Britain’s public culture, from bus service to libraries, have been gradually privatized and downsized — its creator wants to remind us that the pendulum can swing back and that one day the sun will return.
RaveSalonThe stories in this new collection don't play dazzling tricks with time and memory as some of her recent work has, but they're sagacious nevertheless … They're like compressed novels, three-course meals rather than the unsatisfying canapes most short stories resemble. They are replete with the histories of restless girls trying to shake off their mundane origins and grown women who have built dream castles around a single, breathless, unconfessed adultery … This is the terrain of love seen from the long prospect, a seasoned view. As unprepossessing as her characters may seem, Munro knows that their lives include the far reaches of ambition, betrayal, regret and, finally, wisdom.
MixedThe New York Times SundayThe novel is divided into three sections (‘The Beginning,’ ‘The Middle’ and ‘The End’), each further divided into four parts, one per family member. The considerable charm of The Accidental lies in the way it follows each character's mind for a while, tracing not so much the stream of these people's consciousness as the idling of their thoughts … The awkwardness of the novel's moralizing is all the more disconcerting given its fine, lustrous texture on the page. Smith is a wizard at observing and memorializing the ebb and flow of the everyday mind...The close-up is Smith's forte. Her long shots need a little work.
Mario Vargas Llosa, Trans. by Edith Grossman
MixedSalonThe structure, set up to deliver great globs of exposition, is a bit clunky, and the book isn't helped by Edith Grossman's wooden and often inept translation, but once the action starts, it reaches a breakneck momentum. What keeps the early parts of the novel percolating is Vargas Llosa's portrait of Trujillo, who, at the age of 70, can't seem to distinguish between the state of the nation and the condition of his own penis … In the end, though, Trujillo falls, and the nation is salvaged by the man the general accuses of lacking ‘a man's natural appetites.’ Vargas Llosa's account of Balaguer's apotheosis is a tour de force depiction of political skill. By the time he steps in, the reader — like the Dominicans, battered and hypnotized by Trujillo's spectacular bullying — has almost forgotten that authority doesn't always have to take the form of crushing force.
RaveSalon\"Sarah Waters\' masterly, enthralling new novel, The Little Stranger, hews to the essential aspects of the traditional ghost story: the big spooky country house with a tragic past, the peculiar noises and eerie events that slowly intensify into a terrifying assault, the blurring line between internal turmoil and external phenomena, the skeptical scientific observer nudged ever closer to belief. Yet Waters has boldly reassigned all these gothic motifs from their usual Freudian duties to another detail entirely: The Little Stranger is about class, and the unavoidable yet lamentable price paid when venerable social hierarchies begin to erode … Waters has managed to write a near-perfect gothic novel while at the same time confidently deploying the form into fresher territory. It\'s an astonishing performance, right down to the book\'s mournful and devastating final sentence.\
PositiveSlate\"Fraser aims to address both the particulars of the Ingalls’ lives and the way Laura spun the humble facts into a narrative that feels so central to a certain strain of American identity. Her books, Fraser writes of Laura, have made her ‘the emblematic figure of pioneer history’ as well as ‘a treasured incarnation of American tenacity’ … In Prairie Fires, Fraser places Laura’s choices as a writer within the larger context of Americans’ self-deception when it comes to the pioneer life and its legacy. This she manages to do without diminishing Laura herself, a woman Fraser clearly admires.\
PositiveSlateBy turns brilliant and frustrating, Bunk is nevertheless that rare thing, a trove of fresh and persuasive insights. When a poet turns to history, the expectation is often that the scholarship will be light, perhaps even superficial, but the prose will be gorgeous. Bunk, in the first of its many surprises, reverses that formula. Young indulges in a style that tends to obscure his sophisticated arguments, but the book is impeccably, even superhumanly erudite ... If I take issue with Young’s style in Bunk, it’s because the book’s pleasures are often squandered when he opts for a folksy bantering voice that values wordplay over precision ... Bunk is at its sharpest when scrutinizing lying journalists, offenders who particularly irk Young because they provide the first draft of a history whose truth must be held sacred ... [an] occasionally aggravating but more often enlightening book.
MixedSlate...the novel’s eccentric and often clumsy style, its tumbling clauses, fugitive commas, run-on sentences, and oddities of punctuation. It’s a decent approximation of the inner monologue of a precocious 14-year-old girl, but most of the novel reads this way and isn’t told from Heather’s perspective ... Each of the three adults wishes, in his or her own way, to possess the girl, a desire that makes it impossible for any of them to know her. Unfortunately, the parts of the novel told from her perspective make their fascination hard to share. Heather, like her parents and the man who spies on her, is described so generically that she never comes into focus ... he abandons almost entirely the storytelling tools that are the forte of every good screenwriter: dialogue and dramatic scenes. The action, the background, and the characters’ inner lives are conveyed not through conversation or conflict but by summarizing sentences ... What is Weiner up to? Am I kidding myself in trying to read more into this book than meets the eye? I finished Heather, the Totality as most of us finished watching Mad Men: scratching my head.
RaveSlateI’ve never read a better depiction of how a sudden, violent event rips through a human being’s apprehension of reality while, at the same time, some stubborn version of the self soldiers on, doing what it takes to survive … Mysteries remain, about her mother’s relationship to her murderer and, most painfully for Perry, everything of the evening leading up to the moment he walked in their door. She has no memory of what happened during that handful of hours, and most likely they have nothing to do with the crime itself. Their irretrievable absence gives After the Eclipse an eerie, heartbreaking power that it shares with the very best of true crime.
G. Willow Wilson
RaveSalonIt's difficult to convey how outrageously enjoyable Alif the Unseen is without dropping names — the energetic plotting of Philip Pullman, the nimble imagery of Neil Gaiman and the intellectual ambition of Neal Stephenson are three comparisons that come to mind. Yet I'd hate to give the impression that the novel lacks freshness or originality … Yet for all the richness of the literature — Western and Eastern — it weaves into its own idiosyncratic pattern, Alif the Unseen never feels derivative. First, there is Wilson's deep immersion in the Gulf's culture, with its distinctive caste system, bickering subgroups and the peculiar lassitude of a people whose lives and speech are strictly controlled. Then there's the heady fusion of magic and technology, the tantalizing promise of quantum computing and the knowledge of the jinn, which takes the form of stories that can mean several things at once.
PositiveSlateTurtles is a confectionary romantic comedy and a tear-jerker and a detective story and a high school friendship drama and a problem novel (the term used for young adult fiction illuminating a social issue like drug abuse or teen pregnancy). Its narrator may not actually be aware that she’s the imaginary creation of a man named John Green, but she knows all too well how a story has the power to hijack your life ... If Green’s fiction has a fault, it’s the way his characters’ thoughts and dialogue lean so hard toward the aphoristic, neat if melancholy formulations that seem purpose-built for excerption on a Goodreads favorite-quotes-from page ... Green created Aza, endowing her with his own wit, heart, and terrors, and perhaps in her dreams she appeals to him just as Molly pleaded with Joyce for escape. He told her story, but he never forgets that she is also telling his.
PositiveSlateManhattan Beach is sober, even staid, a historical novel set in World War II–era New York City. It’s delivered not in the sparkly, fast-acting fragments of mass and digital culture—the fictional equivalent of espresso shots—but in long, deep draughts like tall glasses of ice water … Manhattan Beach is not especially original. Originality itself is often overrated. The novel is more deeply imagined than most historical fiction; Egan summons the material and social texture of 1940s New York, from the cosmetics to the food to the sounds and smells of street and apartment and merchant marine life, so completely that the world of the novel closes over its reader’s head like the waters of Wallabout Bay engulfing Anna on her first dive.
MixedSlate...700 pages of closely argued indictment intended to definitively bury what Crews regards as the myth of Freud as an innovative and insightful thinker. By the time he’s done, the legendary Viennese doktor has been reduced to not much more than a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair … On occasion in Freud, Crews touches on the most fascinating aspect of Freud’s reputation: why he still retains the image of a seminal thinker when he doesn’t seem, after all, to have earned it … If the book fails, it is not in pressing its cause so fiercely but in mistaking who deserves the lion’s share of his scorn.
RaveSalonParrot and Olivier in America is still a Peter Carey novel, which means that it’s amusing and wise and graceful to a degree that we almost don’t deserve … The debate between Olivier and Parrot is insoluble, but then fiction isn’t in the business of offering solutions; its mission is to coax us into feeling the breadth and depth of the question as it’s asked by human beings every day of their lives. Can Olivier (absurd yet endearing) survive in America, and can Parrot (embittered yet softening) thrive anywhere else? The trick of a great novel like this one lies in convincing you that you can’t bear to part with either one.
MixedSlateThis is a subject great novelists have been writing about for decades, yet each new instance tends to get treated as a revelation, a foray into seldom-visited territory. Better to leave off the marveling and ask how (and if) a novelist brings something fresh to the theme. Claire Messud mostly doesn’t in The Burning Girl ... The enjoyability of The Burning Girl, while not inconsiderable, is a function of its familiarity ... The whole narrative feels set slightly outside of time, and the pleasant, trancelike state it induces, its aura of unreality, keeps it from attaining the rawness of Sula or Cat’s Eye.
RaveSalonThe book’s premise — what happens to the Roth family of Newark, N.J., when Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and America descends into an orgy of anti-Semitism — is an embrace of the catastrophic anxieties Roth once rebelled against. He envisions the kind of America where, like it or not, he is a Jew first. But equally unexpected is the novel’s credibility: By setting it in a wholly imaginary history, Roth has paradoxically managed to write his most believable book in years … The nightmare of the Lindbergh presidency becomes, for Roth the novelist, a way of applying a brutal pressure to his father and mother, an experiment that reveals, in extremis, their true worth. At the moment of greatest crisis, each of them is called upon to act, and each shows the clarity of genuine courage, mobilized by their most deeply held ideals.
PositiveSlate...a collection of deft portraits in which food supplies an added facet to the whole. Sometimes it strains to do so. With Dorothy Wordsworth in particular, Shapiro is forced to read a great deal into a single line from a 1829 diary entry...But Shapiro is such a shrewd, sprightly writer that it’s hard to fault her for reading more into Wordsworth’s 'food story' than the record warrants. Each of her subjects fascinates in a different way, and Shapiro has a wizardly epigrammatic knack for summing up paradoxes ... British cuisine becomes a metaphor or counterpart to Pym’s fiction, and perhaps (I’m obliged to admit) food writing itself, at least the way Shapiro does it: underestimated by those who judge too quickly and by appearances, but full of hidden glories.
RaveSalonThe Passage begins a little like a Raymond Carver story, describing how the novel’s enigmatic central figure, Amy Harper Bellafonte, came to be...The story of Amy’s first few years is a piercingly naturalistic tale of downward mobility amid truck stops and cheap motels. Like much of the book, it’s suffused with the doomed yearning of adults who want to protect children from the brutality of the world. Then, suddenly, you’re reading documents about an ill-fated scientific expedition to ‘the jungles of Bolivia,’ and the weird virus brought back by the handful of survivors … Yes, there are vampires, although they’re semiconscious beasts, a far cry from the suave, politicking predators of True Blood or the immortal dreamboats of Twilight...they stand for the ravening external forces — time, violence, madness, death — that are forever battering against the walls of every hopeful community.
RaveSalonBring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s follow-up to her Man Booker Prize-winning 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, is a high-wire act, a feat of novelistic derring-do. Mantel makes bold not with form — by now meaningful experimentation in that area seems exhausted — but with the very material that brings most readers to novels in the first place: our imaginative identification with fictional characters and the experiences we feel we’re sharing with them … We are shown that Cromwell is ruthless — there’s passing mention of hangings in Ireland, among other things — but we also know that he is loyal. This is his saving virtue. His allegiance is to England and to Henry, who, like the late Cardinal, has recognized his worth and raised him up.
PanSalonVernon God Little shows some promise, but it is not a good book. More important even than that, it’s not a plausible book … DBC Pierre isn’t really capable of re-creating this voice. To make matters worse, he attempts a kind of Texan variation on the cranky teenage diction of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, possibly the single most distinctive and imitated voice in American fiction…Vernon God Little doesn’t sound American, it doesn’t sound Texan, and it doesn’t sound teenage … Vernon God Little isn’t really about school shootings in any meaningful way. The massacre is affixed to the book like a sticker vouching for its import, the thing that purportedly transforms it from a minor Salingeresque coming-of-age story into a ‘coruscating black comedy reflecting our alarm and fascination with modern America.’
PositiveThe New Yorker\"The sinews of Perrotta’s fiction are the tensions within and between characters, tensions that he steadily and artfully amplifies until the reader becomes possessed by curiosity about how they’ll be resolved ... Though Perrotta’s novels are rarely beautiful, they are never dull, as beautifully written novels can often be ... If Mrs. Fletcher has a theme, it’s the reshaping of American erotic life by technology ... An amiable, diverting novel, Mrs. Fletcher doesn’t wedge itself as firmly into America’s fault lines as many of Perrotta’s other books do. It features no religious zealots or sexual predators or dementedly ambitious overachievers, just a few souls blundering into a future whose contours they can never quite make out, looking for love and doing the best that they can.\
RaveSalonThe peculiar style Carey uses to re-create Ned’s voice is crude without the sacrifice of eloquence; it comes across as the heartfelt expression of an intelligent, reflective but indifferently educated man … ‘I wished only to be a citizen,’ writes Ned, and the bulk of the book consists of how circumstances drove him inexorably toward bushranging despite his preference for the quiet life of a farmer … True History feels raw, passionate and unqualified, and yet it’s also surprisingly free of romanticism. Perhaps that’s because Carey’s describing a man who tried to be a rugged individualist, only to find his final glory in the embrace of the class that he ultimately found inescapable. This novel is a cry out against a history of crushing injustice.
PositiveSlate\"Conversations With Friends slips in slyly by a side door, its categories askew or in flux. Is it a love story about Frances and Bobbi (or Frances and Nick)? Is it an adultery novel? Is it a comedy of manners? Rooney, who reportedly wrote the novel in three months, doesn’t seem to feel that she needs to make up her mind about that, just as her characters believe they have kicked off the categories that restrained generations before theirs ... At times, Conversations With Friends reads like a satire, its characters prattling on about love as a \'discursive practice,\' reading books about \'postcolonial reason,\' and calling themselves communitarian anarchists while living what are, after all, fairly routine bourgeois lives ... The novel is a masterful portrayal of the formlessness of that period in contemporary middle-class life when schooling is over, or nearly over, but adult life hasn’t really begun ... The end of Conversations With Friends isn’t romantic, but it is oddly hopeful. Frances may be on the verge of becoming lost by her best friend, but she is also on the brink of finding herself.\
RaveSalonFrom the first five pages of The Luminaries, it’s evident that Catton’s model is the Victorian ‘sensation novel,’ in which middle-class characters were suddenly confronted with alarming, inexplicable and uncanny events whose true causes and (usually scandalous) nature are gradually revealed in the course of the story … All you need to take from Catton’s conceit is the idea that the story itself is driven not by individual characters and their wills but by the ever-changing relationships and combinations among them. You think you’ve got a handle on the nature of its mysteries, then the earth shifts on its axis, the perspective changes to reveal more hidden connections or influences, and you must think again.
RaveSalonProperty is a ferociously honest book attacking a subject that has long been wrapped in what her heroine calls ‘lies without end’: race in America. So much ink has been spilled on the topic, and so much of it pabulum and equivocation, that you wouldn’t think any writer could find a way to make it fresh or show you anything new, but Martin has … Manon is intelligent and observant, but — and this is central to Martin’s conception of her — she has no imagination. She can tell that Sarah hates her husband as much as she does and takes some bitter comfort in their shared antipathy, but it never occurs to her to wonder what it must be like to suffer the wrenching abuse of slavery, the routine loss of loved ones and relatives, the beatings, the insults.
MixedSalonLike his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours, the book is made up of three stories set in different historical periods by people whose lives echo one another in mysterious yet significant ways. All this is infused by the spirit of a past literary genius, with Walt Whitman serving in that role for Specimen Days ...Cunningham, the quintessential contemporary literary novelist, aims in this book to embrace three literary genres that are usually considered 'beneath' his own: historical fiction, police thriller and science fiction ... While the devices and clichés of genre fiction can make it entertaining but shallow, the narrative listlessness of a lot of literary fiction often undermines its lovely prose and delicate character insights. Readers seldom get both in one package ... The big ideas in Specimen Days have a touch of the plaque in them, so just keep your eye on the nut jobs.
Jonathan Safran Foer
PanNew YorkFoer’s second and latest novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, shows that he hasn’t lost his taste for naïve or otherwise unreliable narrators … It may just be too early to get cute in writing about September 11; on the other hand, there’s never a good time to get as cute as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close get … Oskar resembles nothing so much as a plastic bag crammed with oddities. For every eccentricity that makes psychological sense—fear of public transportation or an overly clinical interest in the bombing of Hiroshima, for example—there’s another that’s just piled on … Choosing a child narrator gives Foer access to extravagant emotions and quirky imaginings that would seem cloying or self-indulgent in a grown-up, but at the cost of allowing the central trauma its due.
Jonathan Safran Foer
MixedSalonThere are two stories wound together in this first novel, and as is often the case, one is more engaging than the other … The Alex sections of the book feel utterly alive and teeter invigoratingly between hilarity and a terrible, creeping dread. By contrast, the Trachimbrod sections only remind the reader of other works — rehashed Chagall and dime-store Garcia Marquez … Ordinarily, this caveat would make Everything is Illuminated unrecommendable, but the Alex portions of the novel are so good that in the final calculation they far outbalance the book’s weaknesses (Plus you can skim the Trachimbrod sections without missing that much) … As the novel shades inexorably into the tragic mode, and as Alex comes to be a much better writer than Jonathan, with both a finer sense of truth and a more urgent understanding of the need for happy endings, his stumbling English incandesces into eloquence.
PositiveThe New YorkerIt is trim rather than bulky, refrains from indulging in too many antique spellings, and tells its story with crafty precision ... It is also a sort of mocking reversal of the 'innocents abroad' motif of such Henry James novels as Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady, in which fresh-faced, straightforward Yanks are confounded by the perilous subtleties of Europeans ... Golden Hill is neither a shaggy-dog yarn, like Tristram Shandy, nor a bloated doorstop, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, for readers with scads of time on their hands. It keeps its theme—the moral conundrum of America—ever in its sights, through breakneck chase scenes and dark nights of the soul. It has the high spirits of an eighteenth-century novel, but not the ramshackle mechanics.
Haruki Murakami, trans. Jay Rubin & Philip Gabriel
PositiveSalon1Q84 mostly describes the long, slow process by which Tengo and Aomame, who knew each other as schoolchildren, seek to reunite. Never was a love story so overpopulated with hardcore isolates, people who have severed ties to family, maintaining a cool distance from friends and lovers while investing their identities in the rigorous pursuit of some personal cause or obsession … This faith in the significance of Tengo and Aomame’s bond makes 1Q84 warmer than some of Murakami’s other ‘big’ novels … Translation is at the center of what Murakami does; not a translation from one tongue to another, but the translation of an inner world into this, the outer one. Very few writers speak the truths of that secret, inner universe more fluently.
PositiveSalonThis Is How You Lose Her traces Yunior’s very rocky path to the understanding that women are people whose dignity and feelings matter as much as his own — as opposed to interchangeable cogs in the supply line of sex ... Yunior is a reluctant adult, prone to selfishness and preoccupation with his own sufferings, like many people in their 20s trying to sort out how to live ... The familiar tropes of immigrant literature dictate that this sort of thing leads to a “divided self,” a man who bounces painfully back and forth between his roots and his chosen way of life ...the centripetal force of Díaz’s sensibility and the slangy bar-stool confidentiality of his voice that he makes this hybridization feel not only natural and irresistible, but inevitable, the voice of the future ... The linked-story structure of This is How You Lose Her does keep it from offering complete satisfaction. Why, you can’t help wondering, does it stop just shy of being a novel, given that so much of its effect is cumulative? Most of the stories depict the same character, with minor variations, making his way to maturity.
RaveSalonOn Beauty belongs to the well-established genre of academic comic novels, and it’s openly a riff on Howards End by E.M. Forster, a writer she’s described as her first literary love. Nevertheless, to the mere reader, plunging into On Beauty feels a lot like being Dorothy in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, stepping from the black-and-white Kansas of 2005’s ephemeral literary offerings and into the Technicolor of Oz ... Smith is Rembrandtian (and, for that matter, Shakespearean and Tolstoyian) in her inexhaustible interest in and sympathy for even her most disagreeable characters ... The ideological battles between Howard and Monty (who in the course of the novel comes to work at Howard’s university) may sound, in this polemical age, like the meat of the matter, but they’re only a foil. Howard’s marriage to Kiki, an African-American hospital administrator, is the real substance here ... are greater or lesser examples in a catalog of human folly, but none are depicted without compassion and a certain measure of delight in their vibrant particularity and underlying universality ... Beauty is both powerful and helpless, the university both precious and hellish, ideas both essential and superfluous, people both funny and tragic.
RaveSalonAs Nora Eldridge, the narrator of Claire Messud’s claustrophobically hypnotic new novel would have it, we are all of us surrounded by reservoirs of invisible rage. The Woman Upstairs purports to be the story of one of the ragers, although Nora both does and doesn’t wish to be identified with the archetypal figure in the novel’s title … An air of imminent betrayal hangs over the novel, although it’s hard to see how the Shahids could fail to disappoint Nora, who never really questions her conviction that they are capable of rescuing her and furthermore, have somehow promised to do so.
RaveSlateThis sounds insanely complicated, but like all of Meloy’s novels, Do Not Become Alarmed glides along with a clarity that’s almost uncanny. How did she turn a contraption this elaborate into a page-turner? ... Each of these seemingly inconsequential, accidental incidents changes the course of fate, often in momentous ways. Do Not Become Alarmed proves that you don’t need hackneyed thriller devices to generate powerful momentum and suspense ... This novel is a bait and switch in the best possible sense. It promises readers easy-to-identify-with protagonists in a pair of mothers going through a parent’s worst nightmare. Then it presents them with so much more, a richer, broader palette of people to believe in and to understand.
RaveSalon… [McBride’s] hugely enjoyable African-American variation on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn … The Good Lord Bird careens through a series of often hilarious exploits and encounters … It’s a view of the antebellum world refreshingly free of pieties, and full of questions about the capacity of human beings to act on their sense of right and wrong, about why the world is the way it is, and what any one of us can do to make it better. It’s the rare comic novel that delves so deep.
MixedThe GuardianRape isn't really the subject of The Round House. Rather, this is the story of a teenage boy whose world and self are pulled apart and reassembled in the course of a year. Unlike Erdrich's other novels, which feature an assortment of narrators or points of view, The Round House is limited by what Joe himself can understand. He has no imaginative access to the visceral nightmare of sexual assault … Meanwhile, the adults around Joe offer him rival ways to respond to his mother's suffering and its perpetrator, who is as one-dimensionally monstrous as the baddie in a paperback thriller.
PositiveSlateYou Don’t Have to Say You Love Me sometimes repeats itself, because, as Alexie writes, 'Great pain is repetitive. Grief is repetitive.' Sure, but it doesn’t automatically follow that the literature of either needs to be ... For Alexie’s fans, the essence of his appeal is his scouring honesty. He’s not merely willing to tell people what they don’t want to hear; he leaps at the chance. Piety in every guise draws his fire ... does You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me deliver the heartwarming satisfactions of the sons’ memoirs that precede it? Not quite; if it succeeds, it will be on the strength of Alexie’s own eccentric charm.
PositiveThe New York TimesThere's the gap between male and female, obviously, but also between Greek and WASP, black and white, the old world and the new, the silver spoon and the sluggish sperm. Finally, there is the tug of war between destiny and free will – an age-old concern of Greek storytellers, as every college freshman learns, reborn in the theories advanced by evolutionary psychology … Eugenides pitches a big tent, but one of the delights of Middlesex is how soundly it's constructed, with motifs and characters weaving through the novel's various episodes, pulling it tight.
PositiveSalonWith its mythological echoes, puns, in jokes and other decodable references, American Gods will delight the sort of reader who likes to hunt for such things … American Gods is a crackerjack suspense yarn with an ending that both surprises and makes perfect sense, as well as many passages of heady, imagistic writing. And for all that he’s missed in the American propensity for religious fanaticism, Gaiman has exactly nailed the way we talk; some of the most savory characters are the minor ones.
David Foster Wallace
RaveSalonThe Pale King is by turns funny, shrewd, suspenseful, piercing, smart, terrifying and rousing. It feels less intently worked than Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, and is much better ventilated than his last short story collection, Oblivion … The Pale King is ‘about boredom,’ although that is only where it starts. It’s also about the transformation of America from a stakeholder society in which citizens view themselves as active, responsible participants into a consumer market in which people simply demand value for money. And it’s also about existential dread and loneliness, which ‘David Foster Wallace’ suspects of being at the root of the human aversion to boredom.
PositiveSalonNW is less antic, outlandish and funny than Smith’s debut, and it also lacks the extraordinary ambient joyfulness of her third novel, On Beauty. It’s more sober, more formally adventurous and exhibits less confidence in what’s customarily referred to as ‘the human spirit’ … It’s a marvelously accomplished work, perhaps her most polished yet, but its appeal lies in a quiet, even chastened reassessment of her former brio … The question of who makes it out of Caldwell and why, as well as the possibility of ever entirely escaping it, haunts NW.
MixedSlateLike The God of Small Things, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is full of chronological switchbacks. Characters brood over events that haven’t yet been explained or refer to people before Roy introduces them. This is the novel’s greatest weakness, because unlike The God of Small Things, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness isn’t knit together by the tight bonds of kinship. Longer and looser, it ranges across the past two decades of Indian history, taking in politics and several momentous events ... the effect is merely confusing, and doubly so for readers unfamiliar with recent Indian politics. Even so, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness remains a deeply rewarding work, if you can let the novel wash over you rather than try to force it into shape.
RaveSalonFlynn’s particular specialty is ‘unlikable’ narrators: Not freakish killers, but ordinarily selfish, resentful or sarcastic types, the kind of characters that readers often seem to dislike because they offer an uncomfortable reflection of their own mundane shortcomings … Gone Girl has two such narrators, the halves of a broken marriage...and the novel has two mysteries: What happened to Amy, and what happened to Nick-and-Amy? … For the first half of the novel, these two contradictory yet strangely harmonized accounts of the marriage’s decay command most of the attention … You couldn’t say that this is a crime novel that’s ultimately about a marriage, which would make it a literary novel in disguise. The crime and the marriage are inseparable.
PositiveThe New Yorker[Augustown] exemplifies the belief that everything you want to know about human beings can be found in an overlooked, out-of-the-way little community, as long you pay it sufficient attention ... The barely perceptible Caribbean lilt in Miller’s prose exerts a hypnotic effect that is one of the great pleasures of Augustown, even if every so often he uses it to deliver a horror ... Augustown isn’t without its storytelling flaws...But these are the peripheral stumblings of an expansive talent, of a writer stretching to catch up with his own curiosity and fertility. The center of the novel, Miller’s portrait of Augustown, holds.
W. G. Sebald
RaveSalonAusterlitz’s story is told through his conversations with the novel’s unnamed narrator. The two men meet from time to time over the course of years, sometimes by appointment and sometimes by coincidence. Their conversations wander, as conversations do, and so do the ruminations of the narrator … It isn’t difficult to guess what happened to Austerlitz’s parents; even his own mind tries to protect him from the truth by conceiving an unexamined aversion to the German language and 20th-century European history. And yet, Sebald implies, inside each of us lies an impulse toward understanding, toward remembrance and toward feeling that fights to escape into the open air and will give us no peace if we deny it … The seemingly miscellaneous digressions in Austerlitz are pieces of a puzzle that, when assembled, form a man’s soul and make him whole again for the first time in decades.
RaveSalonIan McEwan’s latest novel is a dark, sleek trap of a book. It lures its readers in with the promise of a morality tale set in an English country manor in 1935. There will be a crime, we learn, and so far the novel’s furnishings are at once cozy and exciting...Once we’re caught in his snare, though, McEwan takes us deep into far more menacing territory … Of the lies people tell themselves to make life more palatable, however, some are more dangerous than others. Briony’s coming of age involves a hard lesson in the difference … The question about atonement goes back to the root of the word: it means to be ‘at one,’ and sometimes refers to the sacrifice by which Jesus united man and God. A human being who becomes God in the act of creating fiction, though, is only all-powerful within that fictional world.
RaveSalonAn autistic savant who can list all the prime numbers up to 7,057, he’s not so good with emotion, and since the story he relates in Mark Haddon’s delightful first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, concerns the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and the precarious nature of the care he needs to survive, we have to read between his lines … In tracking down the truth about Wellington’s untimely death, Christopher discovers more than he bargained for...Haddon depicts his hero with expansive sympathy and an irresistible humor … All of this makes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time feel light, but that’s deceiving. There are vast reservoirs of human suffering and courage beneath its sprightly, peculiar surface.
RaveThe New York TimesMurakami is an aficionado of the drowsy interstices of everyday life, reality's cul-de-sacs, places so filled with the nothing that happens in them that they become uncanny … The author achieves this effect by doing everything wrong … Clichés, the ephemera of pop culture, characters who proclaim their thematic function -- these sound like the gambits of postmodernism, tricks meant to distance the reader from the artificiality of narrative and the sort of tactic that gets a novel labeled 'cerebral.' But Kafka on the Shore...doesn't feel distant or artificial. Murakami is like a magician who explains what he's doing as he performs the trick and still makes you believe he has supernatural powers. So great is the force of the author's imagination, and of his conviction in the archaic power of the story he is telling, that all this junk is made genuine.
PanSlateInto the Water isn’t an impressive book. Its tone is uniformly lugubrious and maudlin, and Hawkins’ characters seldom rise to the level of two dimensions, let alone three. Their depth is telegraphed by the way they brood over their failings while staring into the dark waters, and they seem to be constantly exclaiming, 'You don’t understand what I’ve done!' Hawkins makes liberal use of coy suspense-building devices, such as having people think in vague terms about an important event or object without describing it clearly enough to give away later plot developments. Yet few readers will have difficulty figuring out who’s guilty of what well before Hawkins delivers the obligatory twists.
PositiveThe New YorkerTheir world is a version of the lost and longed-for territory of fantasy and romance, genres that hark back to an elemental, folkloric past roamed by monsters and infested with ghastly wonders ... Borne is VanderMeer’s trans-species rumination on the theme of parenting. 'It' becomes 'him.' Borne learns to read and to play. He asks the thousands of maddening questions familiar to any adult who has spent much time with a four-year-old ... The novel’s scope is of human dimensions, despite its nonhuman title character. But VanderMeer’s take on the postapocalyptic fantasy is not without subversive ambition...The novel insists that to live in an age of gods and sorcerers is to know that you, a mere person, might be crushed by indifferent forces at a moment’s notice, then quickly forgotten. And that the best thing about human nature might just be its unwillingness to surrender to the worst side of itself.
Omar El Akkad
PositiveThe GuardianThe mission of Omar El Akkad’s first novel, American War, is admirable: to encourage western readers, especially Americans, to put themselves in the shoes of the world’s radicalised displaced people ...El Akkad sets American War not just in America, but in the American south ... El Akkad’s southerners don’t talk like southerners, don’t behave like southerners, don’t seem to have any real roots in the land they fight for ... It’s hard to view this novel as the story of how an American would respond to the conditions that create terrorists in other nations because Sarat and her family don’t seem especially American ...Sarat can’t be stripped of any of those things because she never really has them to begin with. She is a contrivance, existing only to serve the message of American War. War may inevitably dehumanise the people caught up in it, but a novel, however well intentioned, ought not to follow its example.
RaveSlateBrian Alexander’s Glass House belongs to a new and still fairly accidental genre: the on-the-ground Trump explainer, a nonfiction book illuminating the desperation driving white small-town Americans, as told by a native son ... Glass House reads like an odd—and oddly satisfying—fusion of George Packer’s The Unwinding and one of Michael Lewis’ real-life financial thrillers. Alexander pings back and forth between portraits of despairing and bewildered Lancastrians and the labyrinthine corporate history of Anchor Hocking ... By the end of Glass House, as Alexander works his rhetoric up to this fiery pitch, all the preceding chapters in which he carefully detailed the arcane financial engineering that enabled private-equity financiers to strip Lancaster of its hard-earned wealth and ultimately its soul pay out like gangbusters. The case he makes is damning.
PositiveSlateOne of the small pleasures of this novel is the precise way Kunzru etches the awkward parameters entailed in befriending the very rich ... [Kunzru's] novels share a suave yet searching confidence and a fascination with how technology, so often viewed as a catalyst of the future, tends to dig up the unresolved messes of our past ... Whatever, exactly, is happening, Kunzru creates the overwhelming sense that White Tears is spiraling down into the shadowy heart of the matter, to the poisoned center of America’s past. The novel’s momentum is irresistible. Call it a ghost story or a rumination on art, possession and responsibility—or both—it has all the force of a truth that can be neither denied nor buried—at least not for long.
MixedSlateWe’ll Always Have Casablanca is less a history than a scrapbook: a digestible assembly of interesting facts, a few fresh quotes, ongoing controversies about who wrote which bits of dialogue, and tributes—from Simpsons parodies to Saturday Night Live sketches—meant to illustrate Casablanca’s lasting legacy. But as the 75th anniversary of Casablanca’s release arrives, Isenberg doesn’t seem to perceive the subtle but distinct transformation of the movie’s cachet over the past 10 or 15 years ... Certainly, Casablanca is a movie about political resistance, but it’s also a clarion call to cast aside isolationism and self-interest to fight on behalf of the invaded and oppressed. Although Isenberg doesn’t include interviews with conservative students who supported the Vietnam War, it’s not difficult to see how they might have interpreted the movie as an argument on behalf of their side.
RaveSlate\"Smith knows how to tease the glory out of the most plainspoken English. Smith is sometimes classified as an experimental novelist, a label that may impute for some readers a grim, chorelike quality to the reading of her work. But Smith’s literary spirit is essentially playful ... Autumn’s most daring formal move is to attempt the immediacy of journalism, depicting the national mood while the nation is still feeling it ... At first Smith’s choice to start with autumn seemed out of character, but of course that means that this ambitious four-novel sequence will end with summer and Smith in her element. If we are all very lucky, perhaps the world will catch up with her there, too.\
MixedSlateIt’s not that Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t worthwhile. It has many moments of power, and even passages of the sort of lushly sensual prose that hasn’t previously been a Saunders specialty. It definitely marks an advance into new formal territory. It’s just that the timing on this thing is really, really bad. A George Saunders novel seems like just what we need right now, but chances are Lincoln in the Bardo is not the George Saunders novel you’re looking for ... Jaded readers may suspect that Saunders needed to contrive a selfless cause—saving Willie—to unite all the ghosts in a group effort, thereby providing a plot and the opportunity for redemption in community. The metaphysical apparatus must be explained to some extent, and those explanations are both a bit tedious and at odds with the moral center of the book, which is the grief of Lincoln ... [a] melancholy, inward-looking, often lovely and moving but fundamentally private novel ... Saunders is a writer whose satire has long seemed a bit too monstrous for mainstream success, yet now that he has published what is surely his most gently accessible work, reality has abruptly caught up to his darkest visions.
PositiveSlate[Mishra] wants to remind Westerners of our own painful, violent transition to modernity and to emphasize that much of the turmoil in the developing world is a symptom of the same ordeal ... There are two aspects to Mishra’s argument. One is that the Western model of secular rationalism—whether it takes the form of democratic capitalism or state socialism—promises equality, opportunity, and dignity for all and then fails to deliver on that promise. The other is that the malaise of modernity afflicts even the privileged because the promise itself is hollow ... Age of Anger is a short book into which a lot of intellectual history has been packed ... Only occasionally does Mishra explicitly address the rise of Donald Trump and similar demagogues in Europe and the U.K., but anyone reading Age of Anger with them in mind will find that nearly every page illuminates the current political climate of 'cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality' that has left many feeling sideswiped and bewildered.
Ed. by Manjula Martin
MixedSlate...as Scratch repeatedly demonstrates, the nitty-gritty on this stuff is in short supply in the wider writerly imagination, while fantasy, evasion, and envious brooding runneth over. Strayed is among the few prospering contributors to this collection of essays and interviews who speaks so explicitly. ('We’re only hurting ourselves as writers by being so secretive about money,' she told Martin.) Another is Roxane Gay ... Like most anthologies, Scratch is uneven; not every contributor is equally talented and none is able to drill very deeply into the relationship between work and money in writers’ lives ... But if the mission statement of this anthology is to demystify 'how, exactly, literature and the people who make it are valued,' many of the pieces here seem to deflect away from transparency as if repelled by a magnetic field. If their authors set out to write about money, they end up spinning their wheels on the more formulaic and far less interesting subjects of self-discovery, dream-following, and 'career' ... as none of the contributors has quite the nerve to state baldly, in order to support themselves, they train others to do the work that isn’t providing them with a viable living.
PositiveSlateGoodnight Moon is less a story than an incantation. It summons a cocoon around reader and listener, a sensation of being pulled out of the hurly-burly of the world into a pocket of charmed tranquility. Amy Gary’s new biography, In the Great Green Room, replicates this spell for adult readers ... Gary has written the book as an intimate, immersive narrative, closely following the chronological unfolding of Brown’s life and focusing almost entirely on how Brown experienced the events described ... you won’t find much background [information] in In the Great Green Room ... Her relationships, for all their persistent frustrations, gave her much joy, and Gary successfully conveys how the delight that Brown took in her merry friends, her summers in Maine, and her work suffused most of her days ... The fairy-tale tinge of In the Great Green Room can occasionally be perplexing...yet this faint aura of unreality made the book into a blessed retreat during a rough season, a bit like a P.G. Wodehouse or Barbara Pym novel.
MixedThe New Yorker\"He packs the books with minor characters of assorted races and ages, and attempts to conjure up a jaunty urban cacophony. That goal, however, is incompatible with Auster’s habitual style, which is a top-down, summarizing narration that closes like a fist around the proceedings. His novels are short on dramatic scenes and dialogue, and it’s not easy to celebrate a polyglot metropolis when you’re unaccustomed to letting characters speak for themselves. Whoever is telling the story—whoever is speaking, period—always sounds too much like Paul Auster ... Sprawling, repetitive, occasionally splendid, and just as often exasperating, 4 3 2 1 is never quite dull, but it comes too close to tedium too often; there is no good reason for this novel to be eight hundred and sixty-six pages long, or for every Archie’s love of baseball and movies and French poetry to be rhapsodized over, or for every major headline of the nineteen-fifties and sixties to come under review.\
PositiveSlate[Beam] never quite stops laughing through the 200 pages that follow, which is exactly what makes The Feud such wicked fun ... The most sublime and insightful words, more often than not, emerge from decidedly ignoble creatures. You could wring your hands over the misguided senselessness of it all, but it’s saner to follow Beam’s lead and learn to laugh.
PositiveSlateWilson makes De Quincey a character so immediate you half expect him to materialize ... But Guilty Thing is short on literary analysis and long on dish; Wilson spends more words on De Quincey’s epic, late-life financial woes than on the Confessions themselves. Her De Quincey is more literary character than literary figure ... Wilson is refreshingly uninterested in explaining De Quincey’s character and behavior in light of contemporary understandings of addiction. This book is much more rewarding as a cautionary tale about the dangers of placing too much faith in art and as a jaundiced portrait of what it’s like to inhabit the fringes of greatness.
PositiveSlateSwing Time can rightly be called a return to the kind of fiction Smith does best and seems to enjoy most, whatever her concerns about its significance ... Some of the best chapters in the novel describe this weirdly subsidiary existence, tending to someone who inhabits a customized reality, who is both ridiculous and impressive ... To live in the syncopation between what ought to be and what is, in swing time, is to know that the latter, for all its unruliness, is always more human and often more interesting. Every once in a while, it can even be more beautiful.
RaveThe New YorkerMost crime fiction is diverting; French’s is consuming ... French has figured out how to expand the series’ scope without abandoning the intensity of its focus ... Antoinette and Stephen get saddled with a third detective, a fatuous, patronizing showboater whom French deploys to delicious comic effect ... [most fictional] detectives investigate crimes, but French’s pursue mysteries, the kind that can never be completely solved, although we all spend a life’s worth of days in the trying.
PositiveSlateZink fears nothing—or at least nothing in the form of moral, political, or artistic reproach. Her novels contain not a speck of cant or piety from any position on any spectrum ... The ideological stew of millennial activism serves as a backdrop. Zink’s approach to this milieu is remarkably subtle—too sympathetic, perhaps, to qualify as satire, but uninclined to let anyone off the hook ... Nicotine hasn’t really got a moral, despite the high-minded types who populate its pages. It spills out like the endlessly unfolding events of life itself.
PositiveSlate... a fresh effort to frame her as an artist with extraordinary insight into the lives, the concerns, and—above all—the fears of women ... Gender is not the only prejudice that has kept us from acknowledging the brilliance of Shirley Jackson, but Franklin’s biography is a giant step toward the truth.
MixedSlate...where Jacobs’ writings tore down and reconstructed the way we understand cities, Kanigel never quite succeeds in digging down to his subject’s foundation ... Eyes on the Street is haunted by the impression that Jacobs has gotten the better of her biographer...Despite the ostentatious familiarity of the book’s tone, his subject remains always at arm’s length.
Jonathan Safran Foer
MixedSlateHere I Am worms its way closer to the squirmy kernel of Foer’s talent ... Foer never brings this drama from background to foreground; it’s ghostlike and theoretical, the undercurrent to Sam’s long-delayed bar mitzvah ... Here I Am returns him to what worked best in Everything is Illuminated: the uncomfortable probing of his own conscience. If too much of his fiction has felt cooked, this, at least, tastes raw and true ... This political gloss on a private misery can come across as an imitation of the social novels of Jonathan Franzen, just as the scattered passages of dirty talk and reveries on masturbation seem to ape Philip Roth. Here I Am is strongest when it dares to be unlikeable in its own, funny way.
PositiveSlatePlaying Dead belongs to that genre of popular nonfiction best exemplified by Jon Ronson...It’s a form that above all requires a likable, self-deprecating, curious narrator, and Greenwood fits the bill, although her prose lacks the polish of Ronson’s deceptively casual wit.
PositiveSlateAt moments in The Underground Railroad, the novel feels a bit hemmed in by its obligation to present a historically accurate atrocity exhibition and explain its precise significance ... Such dissonance between subject and sensibility means this novel ought not to succeed, yet it does. Whitehead finds his commonality with the fierce but rather prim Cora through her stalwart longing to do an honest day’s work for people who will honestly appreciate it ... The Underground Railroad makes it clear that Whitehead’s omnivorous cultural appetite has devoured narratives of every variety and made them his own.
PositiveSlateToobin frames American Heiress as a tribute to her resilience: what he sees as the 'rational' response of a determined survivor to a string of extraordinary challenges ... [Hearst] appears as the only ordinary person in a parade of weirdos, creeps, fanatics, scoundrels, idealists, firebrands, and outright maniacs ... Yes, the SLA were idiots who didn’t have a viable plan for changing the world, but Toobin leans so hard on the meaninglessness of their agenda that he creates the impression their idiocy was obvious to everyone around them.
PanSlatePoverty, in the form of miserable living conditions, dirtiness, ignorance, illness, violence, and despair, was viewed as the inherited misfortune of blighted bloodlines. Isenberg shows how consistent this prejudice has been over the centuries, carrying on with only a few alterations right down to the present. The first few chapters of White Trash can be heavy sledding due to the density of information and occasional clumsiness of Isenberg’s prose ... If White Trash is rather weak at weaving its assorted elements into a coherent narrative, it sheds bright light on a long history of demagogic national politicking, beginning with Jackson. It makes Donald Trump seem far less unprecedented than today’s pundits proclaim ... White Trash is weakest in its handling of race, a theme intimately entangled with the notion of a white-trash identity, but a subject Isenberg avoids when at all possible.
PositiveSlateSusan Faludi is a formidable reporter, an old hand at beguiling secrets out of sources and digging up incriminating facts ... Most of In the Darkroom, and the best of it, consists of the epic battle, and eventually the epic rapprochement, between Susan and Stefánie—an irresistible force meeting an immovable object ... Susan never truly can sort out her father’s slippery identity. Given her skepticism about the notion of any fixed identity—the 'Holy Grail' of contemporary American life, as she puts it—this makes for a happy ending to a book whose complexity fascinates.
MixedThe New YorkerTaken in as a panorama, Homegoing can be breathtaking ... Gyasi has conscientiously assembled the furniture of each of these American historical periods, but she never seems quite at home in them. The farther back in time she goes, the more prone she is to jarring anachronisms ... Too often, however, Gyasi struggles to make the linked-story form suit her epic enterprise. There are significant challenges to overcome, not least the lack of a central character to arrest the reader’s attention and carry it through the book ... Rough as it is page by page, hampered as it is by a form that would daunt a far more practiced novelist, Homegoing succeeds, by the end, in accumulating no small emotional power.
PositiveSlateThe Girls works a well-tapped vein in literary fiction: the queasy exploration of how young women with crippled egos can become accessories to their own degradation. Joyce Carol Oates and Mary Gaitskill are masters of this theme. Cline’s contribution is a heady evocation of the boredom and isolation of adolescence in pre-internet suburbia, in houses deserted by their restless, doubt-stricken adult proprietors where 'the air was candied with silence.' The novel is heavy with figurative language; Cline has a telling fondness for the word 'humid.' Not all of this comes off effectively (Evie’s mom makes Chinese ribs that 'had a glandular sheen, like a lacquer'), but most of it does (Evie, dazzled by her father’s girlfriend, thinks she has a life 'like a TV show about summer.') And in this case, the languorous effects of the prose match its subject: that state of feeling as if you’re stuck in life’s antechamber, scrutinizing the static world around you for clues on how to get out, hoping to be rescued by someone more real than yourself, someone who deems you worthy.
RaveSlateMillet gives us a new paradigm; her adversary isn’t horror’s usual bad guy, an atavistic entity hell-bent on destruction for its own sake, but the modern world’s infatuation with manufactured, convenient sameness. The showdown still comes decked out in all the suspenseful trappings we love best—a plot filled with surveillance and intrigue; a terrifyingly malevolent antagonist; an endangered child; a ragtag crew of brave resistors—but the soul of humanity is only one modest portion of what’s at stake. Her vision of the good is transhuman. In opposition to Ned’s cold, hollow will, Sweet Lamb of Heaven champions the fractal beauty of the chaotic and fecund...What does it take to make these things seem worth fighting for, you can almost hear the novelist ask. Good question.
RaveSalonKelly Link belongs to that tiny population of authors whose short story collections never leave you wondering when she’ll write a novel. It’s occasionally tempting to fantasize about what she’d do if some genius hired her to show-run a cable TV drama; does any writer have a better, deeper instinct for the subterranean overlap between pop culture and myth? But then we’d have fewer of her stories, and let’s face it: There are far too few of them as it is ... When Link published her first collection, Stranger Things Happen, this sort of fiction, with its playful intersections of the banal and the wondrous, was rare. There’s more of it now, but Link remains the master of a delicate genre; she never descends into the cutesiness or shtick it is too often heir to. She has also never lost her keen understanding of adolescence, but she’s added a more seasoned, worldly perspective to her repertoire.
MixedThe Guardian...not every virtuoso of one form excels equally at the other, and Hystopia shows the strain of an author pushing to adapt to a form in which he is not at home ... For the first two thirds of the book, these characters seem mired in a drug-fuelled state of gluey semi-stasis, while all around them the novel sizzles and hisses with proliferating what-is-real palaver reminiscent of the fiction of Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace ... When he turns, instead, to another character’s beautifully precise observations of the natural world, the book settles into itself, but to keep things moving forward it must revert to its frantic efforts to wrestle with 'big ideas'.
PositiveSlateAdd it all up, and you’ve got two central characters, each with two different timelines and a nameless omniscient 'historian' filling in all the background information. Then Gonzales tosses in this slightly uncanny 'interlude,' which feels both artificial—because who really thinks and speaks collectively—and alarmingly realistic—because this, you sense, is the unflattering truth of how it really would go down in most hostage situations. It sounds like a crazy salad of a novel, but what binds the whole thing together is a persistent, self-contradictory human desire to both be extraordinary and to fit in, finally, somewhere.
RaveSlate...Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a riot, a profusion, a veritable jungle of ideas and sensations...
PositiveSlateWithout a doubt, Spiotta is a novelist of ideas, but she’s extraordinary in her ability to shrug off the refrigerated grandiosity that typically infects such writers, including DeLillo himself...Spiotta’s idea-driven fiction feels extraordinarily alive because she’s just as interested in the tensions between two artist friends as she is in the friction between morality and creativity or truth and art or identity and time.
MixedSlateBullies is expertly written in the style of the magazine feature that spawned it. Abramovich sets out a collection of vivid scenes, pithy bits of local history and a lot of bar-stool racounteuring, all of it arranged like tarot cards on a table: not touching but clearly related in ways you need to figure out for yourself ... But instead of burrowing under this facade, Abramovich gets sucked into the unreflective ethos of the Rats, whose only stunted avenue for understanding and expression is their fists.
RaveSlateOyeyemi has her flashes of lyricism, but they’re so fleeting that they leave you refreshed and yearning rather than drenched in verbiage; her stories are never mere set pieces for the display of exquisite prose ... her stories will remind some readers of those of Kelly Link and Angela Carter. But her buoyant embrace of the multicultural milieu her characters inhabit also recalls the joyousness of early Zadie Smith, especially White Teeth. Hers is a vision where identity matters, but it doesn’t trump everything. What has the power to transcend it is love and literature.
PositiveSlateWith The Lonely City, a mixture of biography, memoir, travel writing, and criticism, [Laing]'s still producing the sort of book that at first seems to wander as extravagantly as Baudelaire’s flâneur. But that impression is deceptive; Laing is always circling back toward a piercingly relevant observation. And, oh, those observations!
RaveSlateThe effect of Kang’s prose is difficult to convey. I’ve scoured The Vegetarian in vain for a passage to quote that will illustrate how the novel transmits a feeling of great stillness even as its characters undergo convulsions of rage, sorrow, and lust .... it has an eerie universality that gets under your skin and stays put irrespective of nation or gender.
John Donovan & Caren Zucker
PositiveSlateWhile neither as literary nor as searching as, say, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, In a Different Key is grounded and sensible, which in the contentious world of autism activism constitutes a kind of grace.
Edmund de Waal
PanThe New York Times Book Review[The White Road] is a diffuse and often tortured book, full of clouded narrative lines and vague poetical musings that strain too hard after the momentous...De Waal can tease a lot of atmosphere out of the most unprepossessing archival research...He’s not, however, a natural travel writer, and the many places he visits flicker past without making much of an impression, backdrops to his perpetual agitation.
RaveSlateWhat makes his book completely mesmerizing—besides his lovely prose, that is—is how exquisitely it balances between the poles of revelation and disintegration.
PanSlateA former editor at Simon & Schuster, Schiff is a publishing industry veteran rather than a historian. She, surely, can be trusted to focus on the crowd-pleasing elements of the Salem crisis, rather than getting bogged down in the pettifoggery of historical accuracy. Yet the result, The Witches: Salem, 1692, is a disappointment.
PositiveSlate“Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning is one part modern-day Lives of the Saints, one part confirmation that this is no age for saints.”
PositiveSlateThe Art of Memoir attests to how hard [Karr] works at getting her words just right and how deeply she understands the way great writing works.
PositiveSlate\"Each [part] comes with its own comforts and terrors, its own insights and blind spots. Fates, published alone, would have felt slight. Furies, published alone, would have seemed farcical. In binding them together and letting the parts reflect each other like distorted mirrors, Groff reminds us that while Lotto may live in a dream world, he’s not the only one.\
Elena Ferrante, Trans. by Ann Goldstein
RaveSlateAs the Neapolitan novels progress, the books come to seem less and less a work of realist autobiographical fiction about female friendship and more and more a covertly mythic tale of the creation of a self through agonizing division and uneasy reintegration.