Lauren LeBlanc is a freelance book editor and writer, as well as a nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn. Lauren can be found on Twitter @lequincampe
Maurice Carlos Ruffin
RaveLos Angeles TimesTime and again, Ruffin constructs a life’s history in the space of a page or two. His skill as a writer and his birthright as a New Orleanian equip him for the task ... Ruffin draws particular attention to ragged, flawed and unexpected relationships ... For all of Ruffin’s clear literary homages and influences, there are also, I sense, musical structures embedded in these intimate, often playful stories ... A sense of controlled improvisation allows him to lay claim to his city without resorting to either satire or pseudonym. It makes his book achingly truthful and incredibly accessible ... Ruffin knows that sometimes simply telling the truth isn’t enough to make a world familiar. It takes a chorus of stories, chaotic and loving, to bring a city to life. In this penetrating and energetic collection, as in the city it honors, the rhythm is as important as the details.
RaveThe Boston GlobeLaing steadily built her reputation as an editor and writer with an earnest sophistication. She doesn’t make her mark with arch observations or cool reserve. Her enthusiastic criticism is fueled by a political and humane connection as well as an aesthetic and intellectual one ... Everybody concentrates with exuberance on bodies as a means to riddle out the expression and performance of freedom. Through protest, suppression, illness, sex, and movement, human bodies are a battleground for freedom ... Through careful study of the lives and deaths of artists and activists such as Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, Christopher Isherwood, Andrea Dworkin, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, and Nina Simone, Laing uncovers Reich’s influence beyond his lifetime into the civil rights movement as well as the gay and sexual liberation movements of the 20th century ... What surfaces are the mechanisms of shame and glory that inform radical engagement ... Dreaming beyond conventional wisdom and restrictive visions, Laing emboldens us to seek liberation across difference in the face of turmoil. Everybody is a galvanizing book during a time of incredible hesitation.
RaveThe Washington Post... spellbinding ... Dennis excels at delving into the psyche of these women, exploring their traumas and constructing wholly engrossing worlds ... Through Ella and Elena’s efforts to reconstruct a sense of self — outside family, beyond academia and expectation — through language, Dennis confronts the various ways we try to understand ourselves and others.
RaveThe Observer... sharp and vibrant ... offers a distinctive portrait of the sustained challenges of a woman with considerable advantages ... Nemerov seizes upon Frankenthaler’s ability to draw from private experience to articulate public feelings that create a more expansive and universal emotion rather than a personal narrative ... What’s curious is that Gordon Parks, the photographer, is the only person of color mentioned in this book. His struggle as well as his vivid use of color photography to convey life and emotion is less abstract but no less pure or potent than Frankenthaler’s painting. Here were two radically different people who knew how to best package art and emotion. It’s an overlap that a longer book could explore at greater length and marks a rare moment where I was disappointed by Nemerov’s disciplined and narrow focus ... Keeping the biography tightly drawn to the 1950s gives Nemerov the space to speak at length about her work as well as the theory and motivation behind it ... This slim biography touches upon considerable facets of history, art, and society in such a way that leaves you eager to read further and return to museum halls. It’s also a clear-eyed assessment. Based on a thumbnail biographical sketch, Frankenthaler possesses the potential of an Edith Wharton heroine. Yet Nemerov doesn’t slide into an easy narrative about an orphaned rich girl, striving to be an artist. Frankenthaler’s far too savvy and complicated for that. At the time of this biography’s publication, after years of waxing and waning interest in her work, the price for Frankenthaler’s work is rising as her auction sales climb dramatically. Yet, her life and legacy stands as a lesson that success, like fashion, comes and goes. What matters is the devotion you bring to your passion and your willingness to explore it.
Dantiel W. Moniz
RaveThe Boston GlobeAlthough her stories are as emotionally gutting as the wake of a hurricane, Dantiel W. Moniz deserves more than the easy weather metaphors that come to mind. A resident of northern Florida, Moniz is an achingly insightful and soulful writer who deserves more than that. Her blistering range is evident in the 11 stories of her stunning debut collection, Milk Blood Heat, all of which are set in the Sunshine State ... Moniz possesses a calm ability to capture unspoken yet palpable awkwardness and disconnect ... Throughout the book, it’s these sustained beats, reverberating with gravity, that give the book texture and depth ... Actions mean more than words, but as a writer, Moniz knows that words are the connective tissue that give us the faith we need to carry on. How she illuminates that reasoning through direct and unwavering language is downright magical ... Words punctuate the wrath and mystery of a natural and spiritual world in this tremendous and sensual collection ... With worlds collapsed into single words and answers found in emptiness, Moniz empowers readers to find potential in lack. There’s always trouble brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, but Florida is a rich landscape for characters who dare to endure despite the ravages of body and mind in Milk Blood Heat.
RaveThe Observer... through new research on Woody Guthrie in Haverford College professor of American literature Gustavus Stadler’s important biography Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life, one finds greater depth and complexity in a man you may have otherwise considered a myth not unlike Johnny Appleseed ... Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life examines a more corporeal and personal side of the man behind the legend ... This biography offers not only a fresh portrait of Guthrie, but also participates in a more spacious and critical project—how self-expression evolves within the course of a lifetime in play with others to track a shift in society. Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life reimagines an American legend and creates space for emotional exploration and radical companionship.
Jenny Erpenbeck, Trans. by Kurt Beals
RaveThe Observer... very little about this book resembles a traditional memoir. We walk briefly among shadows and memories of her childhood in East Berlin, but there is nothing in the way of immersive personal detail save her granular memories of losing her mother and managing the inventory of her belongings and apartment after her death ... Artistic craft and influence occupy the bulk of the text ... A deeply deliberate writer in possession of a keen sense of tempo, it’s telling that she trained and worked as an opera director for years before concentrating on fiction, a detail that reveals itself in relation to her development as a writer ... Erpenbeck tackles enormous, complex topics in the memoir—freedom, citizenship, humanity, refugees, asylum, identity. But she’s in no way didactic. Rather, she takes these subjects presumably because she finds herself at an impasse ... A child of the Cold War as well as a survivor of the ruins of the Third Reich, Erpenbeck considers our contemporary moment with an especially sharp lens ... In so far as this is a memoir, it’s one that perhaps argues that all personal histories are significant when you consider lives through unifying perspectives. Concluding with a sharp focus on society, her memoir closes with a haunting look at individuals who are stateless, giving ample space to an obituary for Bashir Zakaryau ... Erpenbeck is a virtuoso whose eye for detail depends entirely on a refusal to write what’s easy or straightforward. It’s a perspective conditioned by losing one identity and watching an entire country disappear in the name of freedom.
RaveLos Angeles TimesBliss enlivens her own critique of capital in the 2020s by delving into the trouble we all avoid discussing — and then staying with it ... A middle-age, middle-class white American writer and professor, Biss lays bare her own privilege from the start ... Loose in its greater arc but always tethered to an awareness of the insidious influence of capitalism, each essay originates in conversation or personal observation. This allows her to explore the candid ways we reveal our own biases around money, class, wealth, property and work ... If there is not an exact category for this type of book, that’s by design. Biss’ works of nonfiction expand the definition of personal essays. She is not afraid to disclose personal details, but she isn’t writing memoir; she is illustrating points. What guides her writing is careful attention to language and behavior, cause and effect ... In both her scrutiny and her style, Biss implies that the only way to address our complicity is full transparency ... It’s not uncommon for essayists to be \'in conversation\' with writers (like Didion) who came before them. But Biss takes that sense of collaboration further than most. She retains firm control over her own lines of inquiry, but — fittingly for a critique of capitalism’s warped and warping individualism — she allows others to amplify or shape her thinking...Biss drives the story forward, but she isn’t alone at the wheel ... I’d argue that Having and Being Had is a reminder that even discussing our contemporary chaos is an act of awakening and a call to action ... Ultimately, this is not a book that aims for catharsis or redemption ... Biss examines these stories of ideas in order to help us live with our fate — asking, among other questions: To what degree can we come to know our passions as something free from consumerism? How can we live a life of dignity — with flashes even of luxury and indulgence — without sacrificing ourselves through work without joy or income beyond purpose?
RaveLos Angeles TimesSmith manages to restore both a sense of community and something even rarer in the wired world: narrative ... One of the most powerful moments in Summer involves the mystery of connection ... a revelation of endurance and a balm even in the worst of times.
RaveObserverA relatively slim yet potent book, Surviving Autocracy is an essential read for anyone who says that all politicians are the same ... It’s a crucial book for our times. Staying abreast of the news is a daily challenge. It takes an even greater effort to telescope beyond the relentless news cycle to analyze the chaotic nature of civic and social life ... Gessen’s lucid explanation of the \'fog\' we live in, the behavior of those who hope to perpetuate that condition, and humane reparations to which we should direct our energy, make this a book that one should send to friends and family ... Gessen unpacks the source of this political and social instability in their potent book.
RaveObserver... a blisteringly innovative and outrageous novel ... If you’re searching for a sharp, looking-glass view into the far end of contemporary politics, look no further. Jessica Anthony’s second novel has the pacing of a thriller with satirical verve of Nathaniel West. Beyond a fabulist send-up of our current political chaos, it’s an examination of the fall out of masculinity’s rigid constraints, played out through sexual repression and relentless power dynamics.
RaveObserverIn this arresting, exquisite novel, time acquires a new quality. When human civilization is over and there’s no hope left for society, what Krivak imagines is a stillness ... Other authors (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Ling Ma’s Severance to name a few) focus on the catastrophe followed by its fallout. This is what makes The Bear so striking. Krivak isn’t interested in how or why human society is ending ... This respect for nature informs his choice to open The Bear at the point of human extinction. In doing so, he makes space for a meditation on stewardship ... Struck by the book’s peaceful pacing and meditation on nature, I read with a humble sense of awe rather than an ever-growing sense of dread ... Concentrating on nature as the guidepost for the book, Krivak reveals how much we’re losing when we fail to serve as good stewards of the planet. However, his tone is never didactic or melodramatic ... The Bear is more than a parable for our times, it’s a call to listen to the world around us before it’s too late.
RaveThe Star TribuneWhile politicians argue over a response to climate change, writer Anna Badkhen takes a different approach. The lives of fishermen may not seem like an obvious choice, but their daily struggles and triumphs illuminate a certain truth at the heart of these issues. No polemical treatise, Badkhen’s Fisherman’s Blues offers a critical take through subtle and beautiful methods of storytelling. It creates a remarkable snapshot of lives we’d otherwise never know ... Badkhen’s lyrical prose swells as she describes the pastoral beauty of life at sea ... Developing trust with subjects and truthfully rendering their life stories with great elegance, she achieves a level of poetic political action.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune\"No heartwarming tale of pet ownership, The Friend presents a meditation on the raw experience of losing someone who is neither lover nor family yet who occupies a distinctive place in the lives of those left behind ... With enormous heart and eloquence, Nunez explores cerebral responses to loss — processed through the writer’s life — while also homing in on the physical burden felt by those left behind ... Nunez offers no easy solutions; instead, she offers the solace that comes from accepting change. Friendship comes with the possibility of great joy and deep sorrow. Surviving suicide throws us into a realm outside words. The Friend exposes an extraordinary reserve of strength waiting to be found in storytelling and unexpected companionship.\
RaveBOMBMyriam Gurba’s Mean is the latest in a tear of recent autofiction that employ the genre to showcase the complications of modern women’s lives … With the familiar trappings of a traditional coming-of-age novel—school uniforms, the unwelcome smell of a neighbor’s kitchen, friendships gone sour, deep parental devotion—Gurba demands her reader recognize her dense life as one equal to any other, as valid as that of Sweet Valley High’s Jessica and Elizabeth. But unlike a series, unspooling through predictable and deeply sequential plot twists, Gurba condenses an entire girlhood march into adulthood into one slim novel … Bruised but exuberant, Gurba’s brash voice eschews any sanctimonious overtones.
RaveThe St. Louis Post-DispatchIn the hands of a lesser writer, this scenario could devolve into melodrama. Instead, Erdrich’s lucid prose propels her nail-biting plot with passionate but precise movement. As one series of events unfolds, other complications present themselves. All the while, Erdrich’s incredible empathy for her characters allows them to shine as both wholly complex and warmly familiar individuals trapped by circumstance. This harrowing novel sinks so deeply into your subconscious, you cannot help but finish it with an incredible degree of dread ... Erdrich joins the esteemed ranks of Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and others who present a horrific fictional world that seems possible if we do not protect our democratic institutions.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneA survivor of the latter political crisis, writer Kapka Kassabova returns to her native Bulgaria ...Kassabova carefully circles her former home to better understand the land through those who never left and the immigrants who struggle to survive during these unprecedented times ... Rich with a profound sense of the region’s political and cultural history, this travelogue moves at an often meandering pace, its narrative broken up by condensed musings on personal conflict, historical ephemera or folklore ... This indirect journey answers no specific questions, but it presents an array of evidence through which one may consider why this was such a crucible for horror and displacement ... Kassabova zeros in on the indiscriminate risk embedded in this purgatory that leaves one with very little to lose.
RaveThe St. Louis Post-DispatchZinzi Clemmons captures the dissonance of profound loss through her electric debut novel ... More than a story of a daughter’s grief for her mother, What We Lose sheds light on muddled historical memory as seen through the fog of loss. Born in the aftermath of apartheid, Thandi’s life demonstrates the varied ways in which one country’s history can be both known and utterly mysterious. Clemmons’ deft hand introduces cultural and national memories that many would prefer to leave in the past, a legacy that permeates the lives of those who will never forget.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThrough this addictive, brainy and vibrant novel, which straddles nonfiction and fiction, Browning celebrates an unabashed passion for art and togetherness in a world muddled by assumed intimacy and inherent skepticism … The book would succeed on its own as a unique meditation on creativity, but Browning introduces a collaborator whose troubling and muddied history challenges Andersen's notion of empathy … Despite the darkness that complicates Sami and Barbara's entanglement, The Gift is infused with humor and tremendous emotion. As Andersen falls deeper into a world of shared intimacies, she bravely explores the extent to which we can be honest with ourselves and others.
RaveBOMBIn The Book of Joan, Yuknavitch creates a Joan free of Catholicism's trappings, but manages to maintain, and even elevate, the moral and ethical stakes that made her a compelling historical heroine to begin with ... What Yuknavitch does by reviving the myth of Joan in the face of utmost climate change, is center the female body as the site of destruction and also as the driving source of power for salvation. She endows Joan with powers that only men have in the Bible, subverting the myths of patriarchal authority that undergird it.
RaveThe St. Louis Post-DispatchOur Short History doesn’t traffic in platitudes or soft-focus farewell monologues. For that, we are all grateful. Instead, Lauren Grodstein has subtly written a cathartic and unexpectedly profound book that connects with an experience we all hope to put off as long as possible. It’s also impossible to put down ... Just as you think that Grodstein is steering her reader down a well-trodden road, she turns cliché on a dime. Her gimlet eye offers surprises throughout the book ... Our Short History delivers the emotional punch you expect it to, only it comes from an angle you didn’t anticipate. This letter from mother to son speaks to all.
Stephanie Powell Watts
RaveThe St. Louis Post-Dispatch...[a] stunning debut novel ... I found this book improves upon the classic through its modern interpretation. A far more wistful, eloquent, heartfelt and humane novel, Watts’ story creates a world empty of tycoons and swimming pools, but rich with characters working their way through the highs and lows of late capitalism ... It’s a testament to Watts’ steady vision and incisive language that she manages to convey the raw anger and loss felt by this tangled family. She channels Toni Morrison’s masterful direct address with great success ... The overwhelming power of this remarkable novel rests in its ability to face excruciating truths with optimism through its singing prose. A necessary retelling of an American classic made better through its contemporary perspective.
RaveThe St. Louis Post-DispatchWith great empathy, Hamid skillfully chronicles the manic condition of involuntary migration — more plainly labeled, the refugee crisis — without the remove of history or a specific location ... For such an intensely fraught novel, Hamid maintains a light remove from gritty quotidian details through his third-person narration. This dreamlike narrative provides the space for his characters’ uncertain course to float along without the overbearing tension of melodrama ... Exit West rattles our perception of home and denies us the ability to dismiss the likelihood of domestic chaos.
RaveThe St. Louis Post-DispatchPatrick Kingsley has written a lucid and unflinching book that captures the ripples of the largest wave of mass migration since World War II. The New Odyssey delicately grapples with the task of encapsulating the crisis without diminishing its sprawling horror ... After reading this wrenching account of the refugee plight, you will not question their motivations ... Kingsley’s steady reporting underlines his critical humanitarian message. While war and repression spurred this current migration, he predicts the situation will not abate.
RaveThe St. Louis Post-DispatchCusk weaves her narrative through stories that build upon other stories with no regard for transition or excessive internal narration. There’s nothing more steady than change in this slim, steely novel. No room for sentimentality, yet violence lurks beneath the surface ... Faye rarely reveals much about herself, but her vulnerability is never hidden. In its subtle way, Transit brilliantly empowers its readers to live and write boldly, aware of consequence, but with one eye always on the open road ahead.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneIn this slim collection Caldwell speaks squarely on her own behalf with great clarity and humor. She regales the reader with her experiences as a child of divorce, as a Manhattan shop girl, a heroin addict, a failed singer, a babysitter, a yogi. Caldwell isn’t trying to shock the reader. Rather, these stories are a means of locating herself in an ever-shifting world. She successfully maneuvers the tough practice of empathy.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneRuth Franklin painstakingly examines Jackson’s extensive correspondence, diaries and interviews, as well as drafts of her work. This biography is no critical reassessment. It strongly affirms the American author’s powerful collection of stories, novels and memoirs ... [a] magisterial and compulsively readable biography.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneRiverine is an incredibly personal and eloquent book. Circling buried truths and confronting ghosts, this is a book that wrestles with issues of nature and nurture ... Palm’s memoir is lifeline and letter to the parallel universes we so often wish for.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneIn recent years, Scandinavian literature has become synonymous with thrillers. The pervasive cool detachment that cloaks those novels is deftly applied to Jensen Beach’s collection of short stories ... It seems a disservice to classify this skillful collection as one of interconnected stories. Rather, characters appear, recede, then resurface throughout the book.
Yasmine El Rashidi
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneSacrificing action for atmosphere, Chronicle of a Last Summer slips the reader into the experience of a world aching for change yet struggling to hold onto familiar places and rituals. While El Rashidi struggles to create a convincing childlike voice, her narrative strengthens as her heroine reveals her desires and passions as a college student and then as an artist.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune\"The cycle of violence cannot be broken. It’s a fate that [Michelle] Cliff explored throughout her work, and Dennis-Benn carries the torch for another generation. Here Comes the Sun is a crucial book that commands attention. May this brave storytelling shine a brighter path for those who follow.\
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...[a] hugely satisfying novel ... Schine turns the conventional “coming of age” novel on its head by examining the ways in which unexpected, late love upends identity. They May Not Mean To, but They Do confronts the simple-minded perspective that assisted living kills romantic love ... This richly empathetic novel embraces the fact that to live means to accept change. This may rattle those in middle age, but is understood best by the very young and the very old.
A. Igoni Barrett
PositiveElectric LiteratureBarrett’s frenetic plot and pacing takes his characters to uncomfortable places that seem unbelievable and yet, in the moment of this novel, feel entirely plausible. When faced with the question of abandoning his personal history and family for his new life, Furo makes what seems like a shocking decision. For better or worse, his call speaks to the world we live in. Sometimes it’s only through the looking glass that we can honestly see the true extent of the damage inflicted by the world we live in.
PositiveBookslut[Calasso's] latest book, The Art of the Publisher, a collection of essays, can be seen as commentary and rich observations centered around aphorisms that confront not only the art, but the challenge of publishing during a time of great transition.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneSparks recognizes perverse mythology uncovers the most innate truths about human nature and connection. When the stories you’ve been told aren’t enough, make up your own. Forged in an evocative and sensual fire, these tales transcend tradition to shine new light onto timeless complications.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneRawlence's portrait of nine Dadaab residents offers a stark counterpoint to the rhetoric that too often speaks for refugees ... This is a vital book at a critical moment in global history.
RaveBookslutAltogether, this irreplaceable cultural history is not only a complete portrait of a beloved city, but a compulsive read.