PositiveNew York Times Book ReviewA group biography of sorts, which charts, in sometimes gratuitous detail, the triangulated love affair between Duchamp, Wood and Roché, and the others who crossed their paths and their beds ... The claims Brandon makes at the outset seem a little far-fetched ... It is hardly the case that these people were dreaming up new patterns for living. So Duchamp and Roché had threesomes (and, I counted, at least one foursome). These things were hardly invented in 20th-century New York ... The portrait Brandon sketches of Wood is especially winning ... It is questionable whether we really need the pages and pages devoted to ferreting out whether or not Wood actually had penetrative sex with her various lovers ... In spite of this — or because of it? — Spellbound by Marcel is a delicious and deeply researched portrait of its time; Brandon mines the archives to establish who did whom when. I’m not sure this generates any insight into Duchamp’s work, but spending time with Beatrice Wood was an unexpected surprise.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)The containment and even pacing of the short sections preserve these fragments as if in a block of ice. The details of a 1980s childhood are the easiest to recall, because they are the most colourful and least harmful ... The small alliances forged by the \'girls of Waitsfield\' are the warm living nerve system of the novel. They wait together to grow up, or not; to be liberated, to move elsewhere, to commit their own atrocities or to raise their children with “ordinary love”. But the novel is a testament to the marks left by the past from generation to generation.
PositiveFinancial Times (UK)In the great tradition of the English Gothic novel ... Yet allusions to the Gothic novel and the supernatural are a red herring in a book that is actually a celebration of the body and physical contct in all its forms ... [A] temporally tricky novel ... Burntcoat is an elemental novel, of earth and fire and water, wood and mud and peat, graphite and charcoal, resins, pine tar and ashes. It is a novel woven from the language of the English landscape: branches, gorse, moor, sand, cold water, sodden oak. This is fertile territory for Hall, whose previous work has so brilliantly sung of the north.
Vanessa Springora, tr. Natasha Lehrer
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... elegant, focused prose, fluidly translated by Natasha Lehrer ... With admirable restraint – another author might have been tempted to veer off into disquisitions on De Sade, Balthus, or Nabokov – Springora describes how Matzneff expertly manipulated her into believing she had as much agency and power as he did.
Yu Miri, Trans. by Morgan Giles
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... a social novel, but in more of a magical than a strictly realist sense. History can’t be reduced to dates on the calendar, but is grasped at elliptically. The text is full of line breaks, as if with each new paragraph Kazu is making a new attempt to understand the past, and with every new line it slips further away. The past and its inhabitants are untouchable, like Kazu himself in his spectral state ... How Kazu comes to be homeless, and then to haunt the park, is what keeps us reading, trying to understand the tragedy of this ghostly everyman. Deftly translated by Morgan Giles, the novel most effectively conveys its concerns through dense layers of narrative, through ambiguity rather than specific fates. It is an urgent reminder of the radical divide between rich and poor in postwar Japan. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics just around the corner, the reader is urged to think about which kinds of endurance will be celebrated, and which will continue to be ignored.
PositiveFinancial Times...absorbing ... The emotional mapping of the novel is intricate and precise, especially when it comes to Margot’s plaintive longing for her father ... A former cookbook editor, Lemoine writes evocatively about food, showing its correlation to Margot’s sense of being nurtured.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewIn her searching, pensive new book, The Power Notebooks, Roiphe turns her theorizing on herself ... Roiphe’s aim is to investigate a profound contradiction within herself, between her submissive attitude toward men she desires and her fierce, feminist self-reliance ... Roiphe has a tendency to think mainly about how power affects her and women like her — white, straight, upper-middle-class, with elite educations and successful careers. Perhaps because she rose to prominence during the 1990s, the media world she describes doesn’t seem to have changed much since then. All her friends and lovers seem to be heterosexual and rich. All seem to have houses in the city and houses in the country. I half expected John F. Kennedy Jr. to saunter across the page, a copy of George rolled up under his arm ... For all her commitment to honesty, Roiphe has blind spots, including an inability to reckon with her own professional clout ... Finally, there is something troubling about the way abuse figures in these essays ... Roiphe’s larger goal here is to investigate the lived reality of her romantic dynamics, not to get on a soap box and opine. The result is a beautifully written and thoughtful book. But there is a limit to the responsibility that women can take, the ambiguity in which we can dwell; at a certain point, we have a duty to make men who behave like this acknowledge their culpability.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewSmee’s English translation captures the storytelling cadences of the original French, which is touching, considering that Frenkel would have acquired them through her own deep reading of French literature and the devoted friendships she formed in France ... The question of whether and how she will survive drives Frenkel’s account. But the misadventures of her personal belongings provide a subtle yet humanizing strand of the narrative, as does the documentary material provided at the end of the boo.
PositiveThe Quarterly ConversationThis authorial self-consciousness is clear from the novel’s by-now conventional metafictional mode...it is occasionally punctuated with segments of dialogue, reportedly recorded by Heti while hanging out with her friends over the period of a year ... The novel is accordingly stripped of devices like a narrator, descriptions, metaphors, etc., and yet it loses none of its poetry and succeeds as a literary artifact, rather than a collection of quotidian observations ... Part of what distinguishes Heti’s writing is the very banality of it. She tends to use short, staccato words, to dangle her prepositions, to make clear, simple pronouncements ... The genius of Heti’s conceit is that if the novel seems sometimes a bit thin, or self-indulgent, a case could be made that this is part of the point. I did get the feeling, reading How Should a Person Be?, that Heti’s editor at Anansi is a little afraid of her. There are occasional digressions that amount to little, as well as a whole sub-theme involving ancient Jews that didn’t seem to cohere with the rest.
Edouard Louis, Trans. by Lorin Stein
PositiveThe GuardianThrough a non-chronological series of memories—fragments of his childhood concerning his father—Louis takes aim at the self-defeating masculine ethos of the place where he grew up ... With remarkable delicacy and understanding, Louis conveys the relationship between a father and a son whose love for each other is so fierce and so hard to assimilate to their experience of masculinity that it often can be mistaken for hatred. The careful, deliberate narrative reads as if Louis were testifying, or building a case for a jury in real time ... Who Killed My Father reads like a hinge work between Louis’s early autobiographical fiction and the mature writing that is surely to come: perhaps a gilets jaunes Germinal for the 21st century.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review\"In her debut novel, The Age of Light, Whitney Scharer delves with great sensitivity into this past and its effect on Lee ... Yet the pedestrian, realist form the novel takes is baffling ... this is precisely what is missing from Scharer’s novel: any sense that language can be \'solarized\' like a photograph, that life’s \'luminous halo\' can register on the page ... When Scharer intersplices short scenes from Miller’s time as a photojournalist during the war, the juxtaposition is promising, but doesn’t quite work; the Man Ray material unfolds at so leisurely a pace that it feels jarring when she interrupts it to flash forward ... It’s a shame because Scharer is herself a talented image-maker ... Scharer also excels at conjuring Lee’s ever-evolving understanding of the power of images ... The Age of Light flickers companionably, but never ignites a fire.\
Leila Slimani Trans. by Sam Taylor
PositiveLondon Review of BooksFor an unsexy book about sex addiction, you can’t do much better than Leïla Slimani’s Adèle ... Slimani’s subject in both of her novels...is women’s freedom – or unfreedom. In many ways Adèle treats this in a more nuanced fashion than Lullaby ... There’s an enviable clarity and forthrightness to Slimani’s writing, both in French and in Sam Taylor’s capable translation ... In both Adèle and Sexe et mensonges, Slimani suggests that women cannot contribute fully to society as long as society maintains itself by controlling their bodies, whether through capitalism or patriarchy ... She upends the notion of monolithic identity in her novels, asserting North Africanness through ambivalence rather than resorting to a Scheherazade-like Orientalism ... In the 19th-century novel, Madame Bovary included, female characters are given two possible outcomes – marriage or death. Slimani’s novel refuses both, choosing instead an ending in which it cannot be said precisely what has happened to Adèle.
RaveThe GuardianThe essay has to convey mastery while admitting partiality. This is very hard to do well ... Dillon himself is a superbly varied essayist ... Dillon argues earnestly for aphorists to turn away from this fetish for essence or assertion and to instead fill that space with \'desire\' and urgency ... it is a testament to Dillon’s sharp critical eye that he can move from Clark to Perec in this way. One of the marks of a great essayist is to be able to see connections ... this one is a collection of essays on essays, part literary critical appreciation of writers such as William Gass and Elizabeth Hardwick, part belle lettristic exploration of the essence of a genre. But Dillon does not shy away from letting us in, obliquely but unmistakably, to his own personal struggles with depression and anxiety ... written in lucid, exacting and unsentimental prose, Essayism is a vital book for people who turn to art – and especially writing – for consolation ... As the book draws to its conclusion, it must confront another habit of the merely competent essay: the way such a piece of writing returns, too neatly, to an initial premise or image. This, too, raises Dillon’s critical hackles.
PositiveThe GuardianSight is narrated by a nameless young woman who, pregnant with her second child, meditates on her mother’s death and its aftermath, her relationship with her psychoanalyst grandmother, and how difficult it was to decide to have her first baby. The narrative brushes back and forth in time, bringing unexpected connections to the surface. One section details the period after her mother’s death when she would spend days and days reading aimlessly about science and history, seeking \'a way to understand myself by analogy, a pattern recognised in other lives which might be drawn across my own to give it shape and, given shape, to give it impetus, direction\'. She would page through medical textbooks, looking at images of \'bodies dissected or described\', reading case files and contemplating \'all the many ways there are to see inside ourselves and still I feel that, correctly understood, they might constitute a key – \' ... By using words like ruminative or meditative to describe the book, I am not implying it is messy or haphazard. On the contrary, the writing is poised – but as if on the edge of a precipice. Hovering between the novel and the essay, unfolding through long, languorous sentences, Sight builds meaning through juxtaposition, through surprising mirrorings and parallels; the narrator even keeps a bulletin board where she places certain photographic talismans that recur across the narrative.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewCarefully combing through an impressive amount of material, Poirier assembles the history of a decade in Paris as she tries to explain how these figures came to loom so large ... Poirier loftily extols the way Dior \'reintroduced glamour and luxury,\' the way he \'invented a new sexy silhouette,\' reminding us that Hollywood stars demanded to be dressed by him. This is typical of the way the breathless mythology of the era, to which none of us are immune, can obscure the way we see it. Poirier buys into the \'glamour and luxury\' at moments like these, but who can really blame her? ... Far from romanticizing the American expat community, Poirier gives us some unflattering portraits of visiting writers ... As group biographies go, Left Bank lacks the weightiness of Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café. But Poirier excels on a different level, going just beyond the shallows without venturing into the depths. And it’s here that we can best observe the wonderful material details of history that have accrued beneath the waters.
Tara Isabella Burton
PositiveFinancial Times...a lurid thriller, Gossip Girl meets Gone Girl ... Social Creature takes the question of Lavinia’s perspective and makes it key to what happens after she is killed. Burton brilliantly deploys the distorted mirror-world of social media to ask how much we can rely on anyone’s perspective or account of their own lives.
Alicia Kopf, Trans. by Mara Faye Lethmen
PositiveThe GuardianThe novel – if that’s what we can call it – integrates these preoccupations, but contextualises them ... Kopf frequently juxtaposes science with the metaphysical, or with quotidian banality... A writer, she shows us, is a kind of polar explorer: both are driven by an obsession with abstraction; both are \'seeking out something in an unstable space\'.
PositiveThe Guardian\'We need to constantly push against the narratives we are told to swallow,\' Groff said in a New Yorker interview last year. This is what she shows in story after story: a heroic pushback against the way we live now, against waste, against the artificial environments in which we find ourselves maintained by corporations, but equally against the pressures on women to be flawless, effortlessly excellent mothers, wives, sisters, lovers, friends, within this dire state of affairs. Groff’s lyrical and oblique stories catch these women in the midst of becoming aware of their complicity in perpetuating these narratives – to which their response is to walk, flee, or conversely refuse to budge ... Though they are written in a moodily realist mode, the stories are poised just this side of dystopian fiction. The end of the world, or of life as we know it, hovers somewhere in the not unimaginably far-off future.
J. M. Coetzee
PositiveThe GuardianA writer of JM Coetzee’s stature needs no preamble, and Late Essays does not offer one, plunging the reader directly into the literary criticism that the novelist has accumulated over the past 11 years … Coetzee’s essays are different; this book emerges as an engaging series of master classes in novel writing, from which we might distil a selection of dos and don’ts … The culture believes the western male to be the image of genius, and enlists Coetzee, a male genius in the western tradition, to consider the subject. Though Coetzee himself is a wonderful critic and writer, a ‘radical idealist’ perhaps, in the vein of Flaubert or Murnane, his list of recent commissions reveals that the highest echelons of literary criticism remain a conservative field.
Annie Ernaux, Trans. by Alison L. Strayer
RaveThe GuardianAnnie Ernaux is long overdue to be recognised in Britain as one of the most important writers in contemporary France, and this edition of The Years ought to do the trick ... It has been expertly rendered into English by Alison Strayer, who captures all the shadings of Ernaux’s prose, all its stops and starts, its changes in pace and in tone, its chatterings, its silences ... Ernaux captures the ineffable passage of time, which she layers like \'palimpsests,\' in order to express the \'lived dimension of history\' and, perhaps more crucially, to \'give form to her future absence.\'
Mary S. Lovell
PanThe Guardian...yet in spite of these details the book reads less like a delightful portrait of high society at play, and more like an extended society column, lacking even the affectless intrigue of an episode of Made in Chelsea. Although Lovell goes after Elliott’s and Khan’s stories with enthusiasm and empathy, it’s never clear why they are worth reading about. She seems interested only in establishing that the house became a symbol of the wealth and success epitomised by the Riviera. Yes, and …? ... The third big personality at the chateau was Churchill. Lovell, the author of a biography of the wartime prime minister and his family, seems blinded by affection for him. There is no mention of Churchill’s involvement in empire, famine, chemical weapons or 'Britain’s gulag' in Kenya; nothing about the people who suffered while he swam in the pool ... There is, however, an unmissable photograph of Churchill going down Elliott’s waterslide. They should have put that one on the £5 note.
Anne Garréta, Trans. by Emma Ramadan
RaveBookforum\"A love story written without assigning either lover a gender (though both are explicitly given different racial identities), it foils the binary classifications we usually apply to who we are and how we love. Reading the novel forces us to confront, and abandon, our need for narrative (and pronominal) definition. Nearly thirty years later, Sphinx is now available in English, thanks to an ingenious translation by Emma Ramadan that preserves the constraint under a totally different set of linguistic demands … To transcend gender, Sphinx has to work against language, trying not to play with it but to remake it. Instead of setting false limits, it must test the very real ones that usually confine us. In that sense, Sphinx is the opposite of an Oulipian text: the linguistic ‘constraint’ is actually a prison break … Just as the novel is genderless, it is also genderfull, as the narrator\'s and A***’s sexes reconfigure and reform.\
RaveThe Financial TimesNow, thanks to Chris Kraus’s thoughtful, sympathetic biography, the doubters can perhaps find their way towards an appreciation of this enfant terrible of late 20th-century American literature. Kraus is the perfect mediator for Acker, finding in her work an aesthetics of provocation, discomfiture, risk and radical empathy ... Writing in the present tense, Kraus employs italics when citing Acker’s work. It’s an effective technique, making it seem as if Acker were writing in a foreign language. Without quotation marks, Kraus’s voice slips almost unnoticed into Acker’s, which nicely echoes Acker’s appropriative work, and minimises the difference between biographer and subject. This feels like the right form for writing about Acker, who often blended texts with her own diary writings.
Laurent Binet, Trans. by Sam Taylor
RaveThe GuardianThe 7th Function is a satiric romp through the upper echelons of Parisian intellectual life, indicting anyone – Sollers, for example – who takes the signified more seriously than the signifier. Yet it also has a serious point to make about the power of language to shape reality ... It is also very entertaining, like a dirty Midnight in Paris for the po-mo set; look out for Bernard Henri-Lévy getting fondled by Lacan’s mistress at a dinner party hosted by Julia Kristeva, or Judith Butler in a threesome with Bayard and Hélène Cixous ... But in the end, The 7th Function of Language isn’t (only) playing for lowbrow/highbrow laughs; it’s a mise en scène of conflicting ideas about Frenchness. In an election year that saw Marine Le Pen get dangerously close to the French presidency, Binet’s postmodern policier asks where the nation is going, and what kind of car it will drive to get there.
MixedThe Daily BeastNW shows a calmer author at work, one who pays more thoughtful attention to the intersection of place and character … Alas, although Smith has so much rich material to work with, the novel suffers from an overdose of cuteness. Smith leans too heavily on her authorial presence, controlling the way the words appear on the page, inserting line breaks, breaking her characters off mid-sentence, disrupting them as surely as engineering works on the Jubilee line. As a visual representation of the way people talk and interrupt each other, it sort of works, but it mainly feels inorganic to the material.
PositiveThe Financial Times...many of the essays seem slight, their insights not given room to develop ... But then there are wonderful essays on place — 'Black Body,' 'The Reprint' — that have this sense of space and pacing. And even some of the shorter essays are fully formed and affecting ... they feel most satisfying where the author has followed his ideas to places the reader hadn’t thought to visit.
RaveThe Financial TimesFrom its heroine’s first entrance, Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night grabbed me, sat me down in a plush red velvet seat, and kept me rapt as it writhed and contorted its way through 500 pages of love and murder, courtesans and empresses, fates and curses — and plenty of opera. A more impressive, richly imagined novel I have not read in many years.