RaveThe New York Times Book Review... ferocious ... what, exactly, are we seeing? This question nipped at my heels throughout this book, even as the writing propelled me forward ... When a piece of writing is autobiographical, or semi-autobiographical, or memoir-adjacent, as many of these essays appear to be (not only those written in the first person, but also a couple that feature a character called Joan), the questions it provokes are: Why insert this distance here and not there? What does the similar but not identical name allow her to say — and us to receive — that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise? These questions act not as obstructions but revelations. They invite us to peel away some of our certainties, defenses, blinders ... But when this casualness — is it casualness? We might as easily call it daring, or radical empathy, or resistance to over-scrupulosity — is applied to another person’s story, it provokes a different set of questions. Why weren’t the reportable facts enough? What has been gained — aesthetically, morally, spiritually — and what has been lost by mingling the real and the invented? ... This is not censure masquerading as inquiry. It’s a testament to Beard, a towering talent, that she pulls off what might otherwise seem an act of egoistic insouciance to deliver a book as forceful as it is fine, leaving us both awed and unsettled ... What’s unsettling isn’t just her flouting of the distinction between fact and fiction. It’s her themes — often loss, violence, destruction, death — as well as her forms. Even before we understand what’s happening, we may find ourselves bracing for a blow ... A premonitory energy, an inchoate awareness, powers us along like a perfectly modulated engine, barely audible but filling every line with tension, the tension of knowing we’re heading inexorably toward the unknown. Sometimes she’ll break things up with humor (there’s a killer bit, the funnier for being hypothetical, about a poet and a prose writer catching ducks). Sometimes she’ll shake things up by having the encounter to which the essay is building turn out to be sweet. Sometimes she seems to practice a kind of augury that involves throwing wildly disparate items into the air, then trying to make sense of them once they land. Occasionally she slides into such elliptical allusiveness ... it’s as if she couldn’t care less whether we’re following along or not. But in every one of these pieces, her method does its work. Perhaps instead of an essayist we should think of her as a poet-naturalist, wedding intuition and observation, and forming from this union something unaccountably yet undeniably real.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe body—especially the body in pain—blazes on the pages of Shuggie Bain . . . This is the world of Shuggie Bain, a little boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s. And this is the world of Agnes Bain, his glamorous, calamitous mother, drinking herself ever so slowly to death. The wonder is how crazily, improbably alive it all is . . . The book would be just about unbearable were it not for the author’s astonishing capacity for love. He’s lovely, Douglas Stuart, fierce and loving and lovely. He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster—only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains . . . The book leaves us gutted and marveling: Life may be short, but it takes forever
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... does a very good — which is to say very uncomfortable — job of exploring the way our desire for connection and approval swims against the tide of our propensity to judge and feel judged by those who are close to us ... The novel takes place during the months leading up to and following the 2016 presidential election. Against this backdrop, what might otherwise have been a tale of petty strife and mildly amusing snark takes on deeper import. Wisely, Anshaw keeps the national politics mostly offstage, alluding to them just enough to lend a sense of proportion — not so much counterpoint as compass rose — to the fictional events she maps ... perhaps Anshaw means to shake us awake from our little narcissisms, our devout solipsisms, our daily applications of principled maquillage. Perhaps, in its curiously bleak way, the novel means to nudge us toward some much-needed muddying. I mightn’t have thought so if not for the last paragraph, which, like a sudden break in the weather, astonishes with the force of its unexpected beauty.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThe typical Pearlman story unfolds in a straightforward manner only to reveal—perhaps not until it’s over—a lambent lining. She treats her subjects seriously without ever being self-serious. Her compassion for her characters is leavened with clear-eyed pragmatism. Even the gravest of her stories are marbled with wit. And their range of subject...suggests an unfettered intelligence and capacious appetite ... Her relationship with her characters is one of thoughtful curiosity rather than intimate presumption ... To readers, too, she affords uncommon respect, treating them as capable and intelligent—as collaborators, even.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewWhat kind of selfhood is it possible to possess when we come from a spiritually impoverished home, one that fails to concede, let alone nourish, each inhabitant’s worth? This is the question Morrison asks, and while exploring it through the specific circumstances of Frank Money, she raises it in a broader sense. Threaded through the story are reminders of our country’s vicious inhospitality toward some of its own ... the book’s most powerful proposition: that there is no such thing as individual pathology ... At times, Home displays its meanings with all the subtlety of a zoot-suiter ... revelations read like in-text SparkNotes. The book doesn’t need them. Part of Morrison’s longstanding greatness resides in her ability to animate specific stories about the black experience and simultaneously speak to all experience. It’s precisely by committing unreservedly to the first that she’s able to transcend the circumscribed audience it might imply. This work’s accomplishment lies in its considerable capacity to make us feel that we are each not only resident but co-owner of, and collectively accountable for, this land we call home.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewMotherhood figures queasily throughout these sometimes frantic, sometimes enervated pages, which trace the zigzag journey of Shirley Kaszenbowski (née Silverberg, alias Lola Montez), as unreliable a narrator as they come ... While the novel maps Shirley’s obsessive searching within a gray urban grid, its real journey is subterranean, taking the form of peregrinations through her jumbled psyche ... We’re treated to fantasies of harried mothers, whoring mothers, suicidal mothers, impoverished mothers, impostor mothers and indifferent mothers pulling their little girls along the sidewalk ... On the particulars of sexism and misogyny, Weinzweig can be superbly caustic. Here is the question: If the protagonist volunteers for her own victimhood, can it be called a work of feminism? The more reasons we’re given to doubt whether [her lover] Coenraad even exists, the more Shirley seems implicated in her own romanticized self-abnegation. And yet there’s something admirably ornery about Weinzweig’s refusal to deliver a straightforward novel of empowerment, a narrative of liberation, a role mode—as if insisting on a flawed heroine is itself an act of resistance. One might even call it a phenomenon of paradox.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewBreaking easily and often out of first-person narration to address his readers directly, Díaz flatters us with his confidences. Yet his prose also throws up walls, equally abruptly and equally seductively. Refusing to condescend or even pause for edification, the narrative moves along at speed, exciting us with its demands ... His new collection, This Is How You Lose Her, can stand on its own, but fans will be glad to hear that it brings back Yunior, who narrated several of the stories in Díaz’s first collection, Drown, as well as parts of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao ... His prose style is so irresistible, so sheerly entertaining, it risks blinding readers to its larger offerings ... The book is billed as a collection of love stories, but for all the sexy bits and all the heartache, for all that four of the nine stories are named for lovers and eight of the nine revolve around relationships gone sour, Díaz is most affecting when he’s writing about the inescapable undertow of family history and cultural mores, about the endless difficulty of loving oneself.
PanThe Boston GlobeIn her steely concentration and her shambolic purity, Lila harbors the potential to become a great, complex character – as great and complex, in her own way, as the Ames of Gilead, or the Sylvie of Housekeeping … I read Lila anticipating a moment when she might grow fully into that potential, take her inner battle public, and engage her husband in urgent theological debate. We see a spark of willingness to do so … But the deck feels stacked. Unlike Ames, whose humanity Robinson brings so beautifully and complexly to life, Doll and her cohort read as types, like an idea of what destitute characters should be. And time and again she has Lila demur, self-efface, comply.
MixedThe Boston GlobeThe Fact of a Body makes for an uncomfortable read. That’s not a disparagement. The book, a mashup of genres, flings readers into a pit of ominous subject matter and ethical uncertainty ... What sets this book apart from most true crime is that it plays out against the backdrop of the author’s memories of her own childhood trauma ... She writes about her childhood in dream-stippled prose, at once sharp with beauty and lush with horror ... Marzano-Lesnevich writes, 'I have been driven all along by the belief that there is a knot at the heart of the collision between me and Ricky that will help me make sense of what will never be resolved.' No one who reads The Fact of a Body could doubt the author’s sincerity of purpose. But I’m not sure that knot helps us make sense of anything. In the end, her searching, searing account of her own story is far more moving, and far more credible, than her pastiche of the decades-old crime.
PositiveThe Boston Globe...our interest derives less from the piecing together of clues and practical facts than from the surprisingly moving voice of the narrator himself ... Livesey’s prose has a brusque sensuality: It reads lucid and forthright and lean ... In constructing a narrator who is at once transparent and opaque, Livesey roots tension not just in the bones but in the very marrow of the book. In the end, this is not so much a crime novel as a novel about a trial: the story of one man’s austere endeavor to hold himself to account.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewIn Hot Milk Levy has spun a web of violent beauty and poetical ennui. As a series of images, the book exerts a seductive, arcane power, rather like a deck of tarot cards, every page seething with lavish, cryptic innuendo. Yet, as a narrative it is wanting ... The symbols here, although entrancing individually, feel at once overdetermined and underpurposed. They never fully cohere into a satisfying web.
Joyce Carol Oates
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewEarly on, we learn that E.H. has a flattened affect, 'as a caricature is a flattened portrait of the complexity of human personality.' In confining her search to the realm of darkness and depravity, Oates has flattened the potential complexity of her own novel.