RaveThe New YorkerNothing has brought back the thrill of...the pleasures of excavating strangeness from banality—as sharply as reading the prose of Kathryn Scanlan ... Turns of phrase are saturated by the quiet menace that Scanlan brings to her estranging evocations of daily life. Scanlan makes art about ordinary living—ordinary people, ordinary days, ordinary events—by distorting it ... The idea that ordinary life can be the subject of great art has long been accepted when it comes to poetry and literary fiction—in these genres, its status as a worthy subject feels self-evident—but it can still raise hackles in creative nonfiction. An invented life can be ordinary, but an actual life had better be seasoned by either extraordinary suffering or particular achievement. Scanlan, however, is almost insistently drawn to ordinariness ... Scanlan writes about ordinary life in extraordinary ways by compacting it radically, like pressurizing carbon into diamonds ... The effect of Scanlan’s work rises as much from its form as from its content ... Her prose has a cool efficiency, the kind of spare disclosure that makes you feel ashamed to want more, as if you were asking for a third serving of dessert. Her minimalist style accomplishes a sleight of hand. At first glance, her compression seems to elide the evidence of its making—reticent in its concision, rather than broadcasting its artifice. Yet this radical brevity ultimately demands that we see it as a crafted thing. The efficiency is both graceful and aloof ... Scanlan’s anecdotes...do not unfold quite like a traditional plot, with deepening relationships and a narrative arc. They are more like rosary beads, each a tiny, contained unit ... The visceral specificity of her writing, by refusing to sanitize our physical presence in the world, makes the ordinary strange. It’s like saying a familiar word so many times that it starts to sound as if it were from a foreign language ... This compression amplifies the effect of violence rather than diluting it—the way a blade gets sharper the more precisely it’s ground. No extra words offer solace, distraction, or epiphanic recuperation.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksDivorcing is a strangely provocative and unsettling work of art—a quilt of memories, dreams, arguments, trysts, snippets of motherhood, and dark fantasies, including an autopsy, a funeral, and a trial. The novel moves across national borders—her working title was To America and Back in a Coffin—and zigzags constantly between gruesome daydreams and mundane daily life. The thresholds that obsess it most are death and divorce, the latter as a kind of death-in-life. Both dangle the prospect of simultaneous anguish and liberation; both illuminate Sophie’s desire for self-possession ... thrilling economy. Taubes whittles the expansive terrain of the marriage plot into a single paragraph ... These pages are full of affairs that veer between unsentimental detachment and impulsive romance, refusing to resolve into any consistent emotional register ... By dramatizing the messy intersections between Sophie’s life as a mother and her life as a lover, Divorcing collapses the madonna–whore dichotomy ... Part of the novel’s brilliance is its refusal to remain trapped in the tonal claustrophobia of either anguish or optimism ... tacking back and forth in time allows Taubes to dramatize, in a nuanced rather than reductive way, the connection between Sophie’s relationship with her husband and her relationship with her father ... It certainly carries the bloody residue of pain and the imminent arrival of death. But the novel isn’t just bleeding. It’s crafted. It shapes pain into something intricate and searching.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewOffill takes subjects that could easily become pedantic and makes them thrilling and hilarious and terrifying and alive by letting her characters live on these multiple scales at once, as we all do ... fragmented structure composed of short bursts of mundane intensity that make me think of Dalí’s animal sketches, in which a few spare ink strokes evoke the essence of each beast ... Offill’s writing is shrewd on the question of whether intense psychic suffering heightens your awareness of the pain of others, or makes you blind to it ... part of the brilliance of Offill’s fiction is how it pushes back against this self-deception ... If I responded more strongly to Dept. of Speculation than to Weather, it might be a testament to the narrative dilemma the new novel is reckoning with: the scale of its ambition, despite its brevity, in its attempt to tell a story about climate change that carries the same visceral force as our private emotional dramas — that is, in fact, inseparable from them ... Offill’s whittled narrative bursts are apt vessels for the daily experience of scale-shifting they document — the vertigo of moving between the claustrophobia of domestic discontent and the impossibly vast horizon of global catastrophe ... something like an inverted X-ray: a narrative that illuminates not the obvious bones of the story but its unexpected details; not the bold lines of your femurs but the detritus in your pockets — the crumpled receipts, the pacifier dropped on the sidewalk, the key whose lock you can’t remember ... Offill’s fragmentary structure evokes an unbearable emotional intensity: something at the core of the story that cannot be narrated directly, by straight chronology, because to do so would be like looking at the sun.
RaveThe New RepublicOne of the many fascinating dimensions of Sontag is its scrupulous attention to Sontag’s futile struggle to reconcile mind and body. Even at 700 pages, the book is utterly riveting and consistently insightful, in no small part because of its faithful attention to nuance ... The great ambition of Moser’s book is its willingness to organize itself around guiding ideas rather than simply the chronology of events. Or rather, all of these events illuminate the structuring tensions of Sontag’s life ... Moser continually peels away the mythology of Sontag—as a single-name icon—to reveal the beating heart of a mortal woman underneath. The book takes this larger-than-life intellectual powerhouse and makes her life-size again ... If the project of literary biography involves staging a conversation between the intellectual and personal plotlines of a life, one of the most moving illuminations of Moser’s book is that Sontag’s intellectual plotline—the evolution of her ideas—offers more traditionally recognizable progression and resolution than the narrative arc of her personal life ... He honors the ways in which her life was never just one thing at once ... Many of the most exciting moments in his biography are the ones in which Moser brings himself to argue with Sontag directly ... By framing Sontag’s intellectual project within the landscape of her personal experience—bringing her cancer and her queerness and her fragility back into the picture—Moser honors Sontag’s intellectual legacy not just by arguing with her claims but by arguing with her mode—by wondering what additional layers of meaning her work might hold when it’s brought back into conversation with her personal experience.
RaveBookforum... less an indignant manifesto about sexual trauma, or a speculative celebration of female empowerment, than it is a confession of violence as something stitched into the fabric of every community, and an exploration of what it means to claim communal thought—even disagreement itself—as an inalienable human right ... crackles with the energy of consciousness on every page. Its attention is tender and funny, its characters utterly distinct and alive ... The novel is deeply aware of how this simultaneity—the weighty sitting shoulder to shoulder with the daily—is especially inescapable for women ... Toews doesn’t just allow the trivial to live alongside the weighty, she insists on it...By refusing to segregate the mundane from the consequential, Toews implicitly argues that what we call trivial often isn’t trivial at all—that just as much truth lives inside those small moments of care and grace as in our grand philosophizing about authority and justice—and allows her characters to come to life as more than helpless victims or walking thesis statements ... resists false binaries at every turn. Profundity and banality are entangled ... This novel knows that truth: Violence is something more systemic than a few rapists; more like a wildfire than a small burn contained to a few toxic bodies you can lock away for good ... holds the persistence of their grace while refusing to make false promises about the redemption or vindication waiting for them beyond its final page.
RaveThe AtlanticRobinson resists the notion of love as an easy antidote to a lifetime of suffering or solitude, suggesting that intimacy can’t intrude on loneliness without some measure of pain … Lila takes as its core concern what might have constituted, in another narrative, a happy ending: two lonely souls who never expected happiness somehow finding it. But Robinson’s quest is to illuminate how fraught this happiness is, shadowed by fears of its dissolution and the perverse urge to hasten that dissolution before it arrives unbidden … Robinson’s choice to keep returning to the world she first introduced in Gilead is itself a way of paying tribute to complexity. Beneath the surface of each character, the trio of novels reminds us, is a particular and infinite soul.
RaveThe New York TimesKraus is interested in the dynamics of exposure itself: why we judge acts of self-exposure as self-absorbed or needy, especially if they come from a woman; how any trace of the self can become a kind of shameful stink, the whiff of some failure of imagination or, worse yet, self-pity or self-aggrandizement. She hates that one female artist’s “willingness to use her body in her work” is immediately labeled “narcissism.”
Kraus uses this critique to imply that she has a different set of purposes in her own acts of self-exposure, and one of them, of course, is an exploration of our fascination with exposure itself. Her book, which her husband (in its pages) calls “a new genre, something in between cultural criticism and fiction,” explores the particular tenor of exposure we find when autobiography comes packaged in a novel; the exposure is a bit obscured, a bit skewed or destabilized, as if nestled between scare quotes. We feel ourselves subject to the opaque terms of an authorial presence that refuses to neatly categorize its offering: We are, at once, deeply immersed in the Icy North, its extreme exposures, and deeply aware of the hands that built it for us.
RaveThe New YorkerAs a writer—especially as a woman who has written “personal” material—I’m grateful to Kraus for deploying the materials of her life in rigorous and compelling ways; for holding vulnerability “at some remove” in the face of those determined to read any act of self-disclosure as narcissistic or self-pitying. But as a reader, Kraus makes me confront my own hunger for autobiographical access; it makes me aware of how much I crave a sense of the true story beneath her written narratives, even as I respect the ways they refuse to deliver any kind of one-to-one correspondence between lived and constructed experience.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThere’s a deep generosity in Levy’s willingness to acknowledge that trauma is rarely dignified or simple; her writing offers readers a salve against the loneliness of feeling that one’s own sorrow should feel more elegant or pure ... This book is haunting; it is smart and engaging. It was so engrossing that I read it in a day. But it’s also a deeply uneven book whose power in some moments only illuminates the absence of this force elsewhere. Its strongest sections illuminate the hollowness of passages that lean hard on cursory insights instead of probing beneath the surface of their easy summations to excavate more precisely articulated truths ... everything I loved about Levy’s voice — her intelligence, her candor, her sense of humor — also made me feel disappointed by the ways this book didn’t fully rise to meet the call of its strongest moments.
RaveBookforumThis is what’s so brave about The Mare—the way it does believe in the mess of connection, and does attempt its ragged portrait, rather than simply outlining the crystalline loneliness of disconnection. It dares us to find it sentimental—squatting inside the prefab frame of an easy redemption story—but ultimately resists sentimentality with a powerful insistence on the vexed complexities of sentiment.