Lidija Haas is an Senior Editor at Bookforum. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Harper's, The New Republic, and The London Review of Books. She can be found on Twitter @lidijalidijjja
Heike Geissler, Trans. by Katy Derbyshire
PositiveHarper\'sChillingly effective, not least for its accumulation of details, which seem both aggressively banal and freighted with an excess of symbolic meaning ... The ubiquitous linguistic debasement and corporate doublespeak is made strange and new again, the small humiliations and injustices pile up along with their psychological and social consequences.
PositiveHarper\'sLike other tales of old Hollywood, this one is full of tantalizing nuggets ... Hudson seems fundamentally unresolved. This seeming lack of resolution—in life and onscreen—poses a problem for a biographer even as it makes him compelling on film whenever a script leaves room for any ambiguity.
PositiveHarpers\"These [letters] are unusually frank by Plath’s standards, and they cover the brief period of greatest interest (both prurient and literary), during which she wrote her best and best-known poems ... The book provides, in the end, an account of an ordinary anguish out of which Plath produced something extraordinary.\
PositiveHarpersLaymon examines the many obstacles to honesty and how they infect both public and private life. He weaves a rich...colloquial self-interrogation in the service of a larger interrogation of the country he lives in. It takes in how deeply and variously his body has been marked by shame and trauma, by sexual and physical abuse, by the compulsive soothings and punishings of food and starvation and obsessive exercise, his anorexia often invisible to others because of their inability to see a tall black man as in any way vulnerable ... Time bends and stretches as slow, detailed scenes are followed by delicate slips into an incantatory future tense, conveying a predictive cycle of complicity and hurt.
PositiveBookforumTwo Southern belles on the run get catcalled one too many times by the same schlubby dude; they blow up his truck. A couple of rough-and-ready French chicks talk their way into an architect’s house...and point their Smith & Wessons at him. \'It’s clear to me,\' one of them tells him affectionately, \'that you stand out from our past encounters.\' Then she shoots him in the face. \'Get your fucking hands off me, goddamn it!\' yells a leader of the National Women’s Political Caucus at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, addressing the member of the white-guy network-news crowd who is trying to restrain her as she rages over their failure to cover her group’s contributions ... Furious women make for good montage. It’s true that the examples above are angry for very different reasons and channel their anger in very different ways; it’s also true that the first two scenarios are fictional. Still, together they give you a glimpse of the kinds of pleasures and frustrations on offer for readers of Good and Mad, journalist Rebecca Traister’s reported manifesto on feminism after Trump.
Luce D'Eramo, Trans. by Anne Milano Appel,
RaveHarper\'sLuce D’Eramo’s extraordinary novel Deviation...is, as its title may imply, a rejection of the idea that literary form can be neatly separated from psychic and political life. Autobiographical without ever being simply or transparently so, the story is so eventful that it initially threatens to make the style of its telling invisible—the content upstaging the form—when in fact the drama and difficulty of that telling will become central to the book. It’s no mean feat even to summarize the novel’s plot, which emerges in uneven, nonchronological, tonally disparate sections, written at different times and dated as such, their edges left jagged, the elisions and distortions of earlier parts revisited and highlighted in later ones ... A novel is the classic form through which to convey a drastic shift in individual consciousness. By dramatizing its own struggle to be written, this one displays the process of changing your mind and trying to take responsibility for yourself and your place in the world ... She keeps shedding her bourgeois skin but it always regrows, protecting her from what others must suffer, trapping her by turns in self-serving and self-punishing delusions ... She is aware of the way her memory continually alters the past and especially the self that occupied it. The book’s vividly drawn early sections are presented as memories long repressed ... Yet they are also revealed as highly artificial reconstructions that must be painfully torn down and reassembled to find what has been left out.
PositiveHarpersWhile continuing the discussion of existential and religious questions he addressed in earlier books, such as My Bright Abyss, in this latest work Wiman considers some of the central problems of a life dedicated to poetry—how the work must reach out toward something beyond it, and how one must nonetheless take the work seriously as an end in itself in order to produce any writing worth a damn ... If writers are striving for something beyond what they’re literally working on, Wiman wonders what that something could be—God? Death? There’s another possibility, the yearning for a more concrete ethical engagement with other people...and it is, intriguingly, one he barely considers. The spiritually inflected reaching-outward he recommends—love for poet friends, his wife, his daughters, to whom his study door is nowadays \'always open;\' the work of the oncologist who treated his cancer—never exceeds the bounds of private life.
PositiveHarper\'s MagazineMokhtefi handles some spectacular material in brisk, modest fashion. The inevitable doubts and conflicts that arise are not agonized over ... Mokhtefi focuses less on how her political allegiances developed, what she was or wasn’t willing to do and why, than on telling, in lively, lucid fashion, what happened and who did what. To do otherwise might have produced a longer and in some ways more substantial book. But it also seems possible that this readiness to minimize herself on the page is related to whatever capacity allows a person, over the years, to participate in politics, navigating the compromises involved.
PositiveHarpersNotes from the Fog, Ben Marcus’s new story collection, shows a persistent awareness of the violence involved in interpretation—of the difficulty of fully understanding something without in the process destroying it ... Notes from the Fog adopts a grimly low-tech vision of the future that mostly ignores machines and systems to work directly on bodies ... the wilder and more Swiftian the plots get, the more intimately the stories seem to evoke a lived reality ... Given the considerable range of these stories in tone and scope, it’s striking how neatly their concerns and techniques are prefigured by Marcus’s deceptively simple opening salvo ... This subject matter is a gift, a giant joke on the geopolitical import one’s home life can be felt to have, though perhaps it’s inevitable that not all...personal anecdotes can quite bear the weight this places on them.
PositiveHarper\'s[A Girl\'s Guide to Missiles] has a brilliantly overdetermined setup, one that yields both black comedy and sickening lurches of insight ... While still a child, Piper naturally isn’t equipped to question the broader context she’s living in, although there is the occasional kids-say-the-darndest-things moment ... This subject matter is a gift, a giant joke on the geopolitical import one’s home life can be felt to have, though perhaps it’s inevitable that not all of Piper’s personal anecdotes can quite bear the weight this places on them.
Christian Kracht, Trans. by Daniel Bowles
PositiveHarpersFramed by two highly aestheticized death scenes that balance precariously between real and unreal, the book is structured more by its images and digressions than by its nominal plot. Even the details snatched from history seem dreamlike ... for Kracht’s characters, even the merest nap can have a cinematic quality ... In Kracht’s novel, the politics of sleep are ambiguous, and everyone’s inner life (except perhaps Chaplin’s) involves a dreamy floating punctuated by bursts of real or imagined violence.
PositiveBookForumMost of the book’s pleasures are traditional ones, welcome reminders of how much an old-fashioned novel can do. It expands the sympathies of its readers, delicately explores the connection between historical experience and the everyday, and offers a picture of a whole social system and what it does to the people who inhabit it ... The personal is political here in a quieter way than in Gessen’s earlier novel ... If the novel contains an implied injunction for readers, it may be simply that we learn to pay closer attention.
PositiveHarpers MagazineThough the book is by no means a memoir, it does chart the development of Stein’s thinking alongside that of her subjects, and her willingness to explore her own limitations makes it a livelier and more moving study than it might otherwise have been.... [Stein] insists on questioning anything in the discourse on gender and transition that smacks of essentialism—yet she frequently realizes (and has the grace to say) that much of the rigid thinking she encounters is her own.
RaveHarpers... a sleek, lush romance... [Never Anyone But You is] a deftly conventional treatment of a stubbornly unconventional subject. Thomson’s [novel] is an extraordinary and rollicking tale, occasionally slowed down by his need to make sure that readers are getting the message.
PositiveThe New Yorker\"Despite its intermittently chatty tone, Sick is a strange book, one that resists the clean narrative lines of many illness memoirs—in which order gives way to chaos, which is then resolved, with lessons learned and pain transcended along the way ... By focussing on place, Khakpour implicitly situates herself in the long line of women who have been, as the writer-director Todd Haynes has put it, speaking of his 1995 film Safe, \'pathologized by their own dis-ease in the world\' ... Though she’s worn down by her mistreatment at the hands of some of her doctors, Khakpour seems unsurprised; as a woman of color, born in Iran, she begins from the assumption that many Americans will find her suspect. Her lack of defensiveness is perhaps the book’s most remarkable quality ... Khakpour’s decision to avoid explicit claims to scientific or literary authority is a bold move, one that draws attention to the ways in which women are expected to tell stories of sickness—and the ways in which their storytelling can affect their chances of accurate diagnosis and effective treatment ... Rather than wrestle her subject into more comfortable territory, Khakpour forces her reader to deal with unrelieved uncertainty ... She dramatizes a paradox: solidarity with other sufferers is a source of both comfort and information, and yet it can also lead you to be written off as one more member of the herd of suspected malingerers.\
PositiveHarper\'sThough Groff moves adroitly through an impressive range of lives, times, and places, the stories often seem propelled more by a supercharged pathetic fallacy than by action and character. The storming, punching, chasing rain alone displays a frightening autonomy, while the landscape and fauna seem to make metaphor on a monumental scale ... The pages are full of cascade, swamp, and drift; everything and everyone seems on the slide ... the reader senses that the refuge of the mind has been invaded, and is beginning to flood.
MixedHarper's MagazineFundamentally, he writes, it is the manifestation of desire, especially the desire to be liked or at least watched, that evokes disgust ... No surprise, then, that Mann takes the effort to embarrass himself so much further than Feigel does, offering up his petty ambitions and insecurities in excruciating detail, sparing no undignified angle, letting no vain or histrionic thought go unshared.
PositiveHarper\'sHers is a quest narrative, exploring ideas about freedom that she finds in Lessing’s biography and work—how, and at what cost, it might be found, sexually, politically, socially, intellectually, in passionate love, or alone in nature—and weaving them into an account of her doubts and concerns about the course of her own life and marriage ... Feigel is an attentive reader, but the slightly riskier part of her venture is its demand that attention be paid to the inner workings of her life, a life that is extraordinary only in its advantages. In the course of writing the book, she becomes aware that the sense of unfreedom she chafes at may have more to do with her own oppressive \'eagerness to please\' ... Feigel’s goal is to describe her feelings and discoveries in as much detail as possible.
RaveHarper\'s\"Kushner’s great gift is for the evocation of a scene, a time and place, and the atmosphere this book most frequently conjures is one of pervasive claustrophobia ... For the reader, there’s a familiarity to all this that only adds to the sense of walls closing in—we seem already to know the violence and boredom of the prison routines; the unintentionally comic institutional language; the casual sadism of the guards; the systems for smuggling in contraband; the alliances, power struggles, and racial divides among the inmate population. Most of all, there’s the claustrophobia of the narrative itself: the combination of constant risk and limited possibility, the sickening strain of knowing something bad could happen at any minute and that nothing good ever will.\
Tracy K Smith
PositiveHarper\'s\"The year 2017 was, I presume, an awkward, anxious moment to be named poet laureate of the United States. What the writer owes the collective and where she fits within it is a fraught question at the best of times, one subject to frequent border disputes. Yet Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith’s first collection since her appointment, considers the state of the union with characteristic grace ... Smith seems to want to show a country to itself, and a people — not just an American people, either. This can yield false notes (I could have done without the penis and rape metaphors in \'A Man’s World\' and \'The World Is Your Beautiful Younger Sister,\' respectively), but for the most part she is too attentive to overgeneralize. Some of the most striking poems here are the simplest.\
PositiveHarper\'sSlender, tricksy, and absorbing, this new book announces itself \'A Fiction\' on the cover but, inside, protests the label at every opportunity ... Long, liquid sentences seem apt to induce a trance even as they keep drawing the reader’s attention back to the only immediate reality, which is that we are reading Murnane’s words. His account of distraction, the mind’s constant wanderings while reading and writing, creates a mise en abyme in which we read and think about him ruminating on his reading and thinking about reading and thinking until the book rather gloriously threatens to swallow itself whole.
MixedThe Guardian\"At times Michelle Dean\'s Sharp feels like a zany game of Twister ... Yet her argument might appear to be right there in the subtitle – The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion – it remains frustratingly vague ... By including so many writers about whom so much is already widely known, Dean has set herself an impossible task – there’s just not enough room to say much that’s new in the breathless sweep from one woman to another, and what links them is often tenuous, except in the case of those who were friends (such as Arendt and Mary McCarthy, whose relationship is given a separate chapter) ... In the end, even though Dean has chosen her women precisely for their exceptional qualities, the form of the book tends to imply once more that female writers must occupy the same category. It’s always fun to read about these women as social and professional creatures – where they published, whom they seduced, how they treated one another – but perhaps inevitably, given how little many of their intellectual projects had in common, Dean doesn’t always pay enough attention to what each one was saying, and how she said it.\
Clarice Lispector, Trans. by Benjamin Moser & Magdalena Edwards
PositiveHarper\'s\"Pulsing descriptions of her inner struggles make up the bulk of the novel, driving it forward in an ever-recurring epiphanic rise and fall ... As children, Virginia and Daniel play in a clearing \'where everything that had to happen in somebody’s life hurried up and happened, and that’s a good hint at how the novel is structured, as a forested tangle of terrors and extremes where the usual elements of plot — domestic violence, secrets revealed, humiliations endured, arguments, unsatisfactory affairs, a hit-and-run — have to squeeze themselves into the clearings in between, a paragraph or two at a time. For my money, Lispector could have left even more out. The Chandelier doesn’t measure up to the likes of The Passion According to G. H.. That novel’s intensity is more ruthlessly controlled, and its reaches must confront race, class, shame, God, humanity, and nature while locked for the book’s span in a single mind, in a single room ... You could say that Lispector’s method involves neither showing nor telling but provoking. That may be as good an answer as any to the question of what a writer owes her public.\
PositiveHarper'sVarious facts and stories in Blue Dreams feel familiar — the hit-and-miss development of antipsychotics, MAOIs, and SSRIs; the cynical machinations of drug companies and the routine compromises of psychiatrists — yet the result is a vivid and thought-provoking synthesis. Some of the book’s most striking insights come when Slater, rejecting mainstream psychiatry’s Whiggish claims about increasingly precise diagnoses and constant drug innovation, inverts them to reveal a different form of optimism: older treatments that have fallen out of fashion, often because they’re harder to patent or to make a profit from, still offer promising avenues for exploration ... If Slater has any discernible bias, it’s in favor of human connection, of relationship, despite the messy and unpleasant side effects — the dangerous power imbalances — that this, too, can bring.
PositiveHarper\'s\"I might not have made it up the slope of Part 1 but for the rigorous constructedness of the book’s world and its sentences. Throughout the novel there is a sense of shimmering, almost Nabokovian artifice, only without the great man’s exuberant glee in showing the authorial hand — here, we’re never allowed to forget that the author is not a self-delighting puppet master but an anxious young woman … In the end, the novel succeeds admirably on its own terms. By gently politicizing her book’s aesthetic asymmetry, Halliday manages to have it both ways.\
RaveHarper\'s MagazineThe Friend, Sigrid Nunez’s sneaky gut punch of a novel, is a consummate example of the human-animal tale. It presents itself as a thinly fictionalized grief memoir in which an unnamed, Nunez-like writer, after the suicide of her beloved mentor, adopts his heartbroken Great Dane, Apollo ...tone is dry, clear, direct — which is the surest way to carry off this sort of close-up study of anguish and attachment. More for aesthetic than for moral reasons, the narrator gives up her attempt to write about a group of traumatized women with whom she’s been volunteering to slowly, painfully, construct instead the book we’re reading. Someone is being played here, but whether the game is at the reader’s expense or the subject’s (the dead mentor’s) remains deliberately unclear.
PositiveHarper\'sSigrid Nunez’s sneaky gut punch of a novel, is a consummate example of the human-animal tale ... \'Find the right tone and you can write about anything,\' the narrator says of her most famous predecessor in canine romance, J. R. Ackerley. The Friend’s tone is dry, clear, direct — which is the surest way to carry off this sort of close-up study of anguish and attachment. More for aesthetic than for moral reasons, the narrator gives up her attempt to write about a group of traumatized women with whom she’s been volunteering to slowly, painfully, construct instead the book we’re reading. Someone is being played here, but whether the game is at the reader’s expense or the subject’s (the dead mentor’s) remains deliberately unclear.
MixedHarper'sThere was an uncomfortable dissonance between the cheerful tone of Monk and my own overriding feeling while reading it, which was a dread akin to that I might feel on seeing a child totter into oncoming traffic ... My interpretation of Mokhtar as a specifically American hero is evidently the intended one. US citizens like him 'bravely embody this nation’s reason for being, a place of radical opportunity and ceaseless welcome,' Eggers writes, before closing his prologue with a rousing call to arms...That’s some 'authentic frontier gibberish' all right (to quote Blazing Saddles), but I’m struck especially by the phrase 'irrational exuberance,' more usually associated with housing and tech bubbles whose sudden burstings have disastrous consequences. Eggers seems to mean it in a good way, but that isn’t how it reads to me.
RaveHarper'sThe book is in part an artful homage to one of V. S. Naipaul’s most surprising works, In a Free State. Without announcing his experimental intent too loudly, Mukherjee rips the meat of the novel (imagery, incident, social insight, feeling, mood) from the bones (narrative and character development in the usual sense) and feeds his readers only the richest pieces … The book is divided into five stylistically disparate parts—ranging from an urbane first person to omniscient narration to hurtling stream of consciousness—that look in on tangentially connected lives … From its opening pages, Mukherjee’s narrative has an eerie, haunted quality. The most comfortable lives here are lived surrounded by disquieting, spectral presences. It’s an unaccustomed form of realism.
PositiveThe GuardianGay’s tone shifts between a breezy, conversational style and something harsher, and she recounts painful events in short, almost incantatory sentences ... Gay alludes to or summarises difficult conversations, but rarely recounts them in full, and the overall effect is often one of claustrophobic intensity, as if the reader is trapped inside her head much the way she describes feeling caged in her flesh. Some of the book’s repetitions may be due to its origin in shorter pieces written for various publications, but most reflect the near-constant frustrations of living in a body the world both fixates on and refuses to accommodate.
Malin Persson Giolito
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThe novel is structured as a courtroom procedural, yet it clearly has ambitions beyond that, addressing Sweden’s underlying economic and racial tensions. Characters often conform to social as well as narrative type, and we can’t ignore the connections between the two ... the weakest sections of her story [are the ones] in which Maja recalls a series of lurid parties, tearful breakups and tense family dinners, and explores the ins and outs of Sebastian’s dime-store psychology. In the end, the novel’s emotional logic keeps it on a fairly conventional path, but it nonetheless points to issues beyond its own frame.
PositiveBookforumThe Idiot is in one sense a coming-of-age story of a fairly traditional kind, and yet Selin's developing consciousness is a stranger and more fun place to be than most: She sets about not knowing what she wants with rare energy and purpose, and meets the pains and indignities of youth with an unfailing, almost cheerful curiosity ... Although the sheer entertainment her prose offers doesn't require that we constantly think about how it works, Batuman is an unapologetically literary creature. She knows that the way you tell a story is the story ... The Idiot is a portrait of a mind examining itself and everything else, an argument for the occasional generous error, and an incidental confirmation—not in its plot but in its execution, which is the only way a novel can confirm anything—of the theory that it's possible to make anyone fall in love with you.
RaveThe New RepublicWhile Swing Time, is superficially smoother and more conventional than NW, it makes a remarkable leap in technique. Smith has become increasingly adept at combining social comedy and more existential concerns—manners and morals—through the flexibility of her voice, layering irony on feeling and vice versa ... Smith’s feeling for class is unnervingly precise ... Swing Time’s great achievement is its full-throated and embodied account of the tension between personal potential and what is actually possible.
PositiveBookforumWhat is most distinctive in her writing is its tone, a sweetly ironic, melancholy deadpan that makes you feel she’s looking straight at the things she describes, not quite wide-eyed and not quite world-weary ... One of Witt’s great strengths as a reporter is the steadiness of her gaze: She looks long enough to notice both what is valuable in the seemingly comical or bizarre and what’s ludicrous in the ostensibly normal ... At times, Witt’s tone makes it hard to know how to interpret the material she presents ... it can’t be that there’s nothing between a depressing status quo and a 1960s wet dream—and the in-between is where Witt’s subtle gifts come into their own.
PanHarper's MagazineIf the connections between work, commerce, and love seem fuzzy in Weigel’s telling, perhaps that’s the point. We all know that the economy determines many of our social and sexual mores, but the details of how it does so are hard to tease out with any precision...Weigel’s intuition that our dating lives feel unsatisfactory not just because of human error and the vagaries of love but because they reflect in every detail the unjust, exploitative economic and political system within which they take place, is a very dark one — this, too, surely, is the stuff of horror movies, where the threat is both inside and outside us, not to be escaped. That she has chosen such a worthy foe makes it seem all the stranger that when the time for battle approaches, Weigel turns coy. What exactly are these mysterious new ways of loving and living toward which she hopes we will direct our efforts?
PositiveBookforumStreisand's is a classic underdog narrative, and it seems every biographer must note the odds she overcame. Some of the details are fairy-tale-like... Others are frankly bizarre... Neal Gabler, in his thoughtful and enjoyable book-length essay for Yale's 'Jewish Lives' series, Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power, claims this meant 'too Jewish,' which seems plausible ... She often seemed to be rehearsing her own painful story on-screen and on record, a transference that was unique in its overtness: There are plenty of stars who might be said to embody a single theme in much of their work, but as Gabler puts it, where others express that theme in subtext.