Madeleine Schwartz is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. Her writing has also appeared in The London Review of Books, The Guardian, Harper’s, Politico, Elle, Artforum, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. She writes regularly on European politics from Berlin, where she was recently a fellow with the Robert Bosch Stiftung. She is an incoming member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle.
MixedNew York Review of BooksMarie NDiaye is so intelligent, so composed, so good, that any description of her work feels like an understatement ... On first read, I was disappointed with The Cheffe. Compared to NDiaye’s other great novels, The Cheffe feels a little simple: it’s the story of a man’s infatuation with his former boss. It’s far more coherent in style and content than NDiaye’s previous works, plays less with genre, lacks the strange plasticity that makes reading her books something like handing over your ticket at the entrance of a haunted house. And yet, as I thought about and reread NDiaye’s mirror-smooth prose, I wondered: What am I not seeing? ... NDiaye illustrates the class dynamics of the kitchen: who sips from a spoon and who wields a knife ... Translator Jordan Stump...has done a wonderful job here ... as often happens in NDiaye’s work, the violence of the past is merely punted to the next generation. For now, they may still hope to do things differently.
MixedThe New YorkerZink narrates this story in a deadpan third person. Her sentences are little nuggets, in careful equipoise between high irony and mere accuracy ... It is not always clear where, exactly, these jabs are meant to land ... As the novel unfolds, the reader isn’t sure whether its portraits count as realism or as satire. The novel seems to approach the sweeping, multigenerational sagas of Zink’s pen pal Franzen. In tone and structure, Doxology sheds Zink’s usual frantic energy. But, even as she turns toward the cadences of social realism, Zink fights its constraints. She places potholes along her paved road ... Zink’s move toward realism may be her attempt to take material that her readers have spent three years mulling over and make it fresh—an attempt to stop stretching reality and acknowledge it instead ... By hewing more closely to a shared idea of the present, Zink may be using her talents not to invent but to understand ... But this shakiness between reality and satire also suggests some skepticism about what, precisely, a novelist—or an activist or any individual—can accomplish. Zink’s characters are essentially powerless—powerless against big labels, against environmental catastrophe, against the political-financial complex. The characters don’t even have the force that comes from conviction ... Zink has spent her career probing the extent to which people on the fringes can change the world around them. But what does making art mean in a world where no creation can bring together individuals who feel flattened by politics? ... Part of the reason that Zink’s barbs, however pointed, seem to ricochet from one victim to the next is that they lack the conviction that they’ll land on a public ready to respond. How do you empower people who can unite only through dread?
PositiveHarpersThe Journal I Did Not Keep is...a fitting bookend to a long career and an excellent introduction to her work. It’s an eclectic, covertly joyful book, and shares with the rest of Segal’s writing an openhearted curiosity toward life, even at its ugliest moments. The highlights of the book are Segal’s stories ... [stories] proceeds through dialogue ... Ideas are bounced around and shaped as they pass through one person and then another, so that the stories have the effect of a dialectic in plain language. It’s like a Greek chorus, except that the tragedy is also funny ... How does one form one’s identity? How do people belong? To what extent do immigrants stay immigrants? These questions ricochet through Segal’s later works, vibrating at different frequencies ... Sweet as they are, the little essays make one want to go back to the novels, with their arguments, parties, and their subtle and serious considerations of the central questions of American life. This new book may be best for what it reminds us about Segal: that in her long career of remembering and reshaping, she has given readers a new form of the immigrant novel, showing her new country what it cannot see.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewDepending on how you read this two-part book by Aleksandar Hemon, you’ll either be going from a concrete account to disarray, or watching the threads of memory come together into a single story ... I started with My Parents, a sensitive and absorbing account of the author’s mother and father from their life in Sarajevo through their move to Canada during the Bosnian war. Hemon creates thoughtful portraits of his parents ... This Does Not Belong to You, the book’s other volume, is arranged like a scrapbook. In short vignettes about his childhood, Hemon probes his memories and his ability to reliably relay them ...Sometimes I had the impression that the ideas on the page were still forming, finding their way into thought. But in its contradictory nature, its lack of interest in settling on a single form or account, the book prevents the creation of a narrative that could be used by someone else. In a world that demands of every migrant a story that justifies his or her arrival, Hemon’s book keeps these memories within his own private language, for his purposes alone.
PositiveBook Post...tantalizing ... Miller’s book is fascinating—a beguiling mix of gossip, scandal, and social analysis ... after reading the Miller’s account of this strange and sad life, it’s hard to read the poems without sympathy, or what Landon lacked in her own life: respect.
PositiveLondon Review of BooksCollins’s characters are rarely political, but at no point do they forget the way politics affects their lives ... Collins’s talent at presenting conflicting accounts is...complicated by the fact that her characters are coming to the relationship with expectations not only about the way men and women act, but how white people and black people act ... Collins unspools the pressures and lies created by racism most delicately in the title story of \'Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?\' ... the distance Collins creates is the most interesting aspect of the account. Her story is tinged with nostalgia, yet gently mocks the desire to look on the 1960s with any kind of hope. Racism, here, can’t be healed by everyone coming to dinner. Collins doesn’t allow the civil rights movement to be romanticized ... the work doesn’t read first and foremost as political: it doesn’t slot easily into any of the categories that still determine the way writers deemed outside the mainstream are packaged and sold. Every era has its own rigid expectations; concealed behind them are writers and artists, talented but unseen.
Elsa Morante, Trans. by Ann Goldstein
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksItalian speakers have complained of the stilted way Morante’s prose comes out in English ... Ann Goldstein’s deft translation is an exception; it gives a clear sense of Morante’s love of the romantic, while preserving a lightness of tone that prevents the lyrical prose from calcifying.
PositiveThe New York Review of Books\"Rooney does away with quotation marks, which has the double effect of speeding the book up and blurring the voice of the narrator with everyone else’s ... The loose rumblings of the narration often reminded me of a long e-mail from one friend to another, or a Tumblr post, typed in haste after a long night out ... [Rooney\'s] characters talk the way they do because that’s the way people talk now, and there’s no reason to imbue a narrator with style in an age that sees style as affect. But Rooney’s books lack Heti’s humor or Dunham’s goofy mishaps. Her characters are earnest to the bone ... The quietness of Rooney’s writing creates a different effect, powerful in its own way—the \'I could do that\' thing, the false sense that if readers were to copy all their texts and e-mail threads they’d have a novel too. Her popular appeal comes in part from muting the voice on the page.\
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksRhys unstitched Brontë to show a Caribbean view of Britain. Phillips continues that tradition, taking her life as representative of the British Empire rather than the exception ... Phillips’s prose is often formal and distant. One of Rhys’s great skills was to strip her writing of emotion, so that the sadness she portrayed comes across as sharp and aggressive rather than sentimental. Phillips veers in the opposite direction ... You are always aware that you are reading Phillips’s version of Rhys, Phillips’s version of England ... Reviews of the book have argued that Phillips’s Rhys is not always fair to the real one ... though ... A muted Rhys is a choice rather than a mistake ... Phillips’s real target is England itself ... In making Rhys just another blinkered Brit, Phillips may be saying more about the literary culture that has welcomed her than her books themselves. It’s in this small act of revenge that he best embodies the spirit of his subject.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksLike recent literary memoirs such as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and Bee Rowlatt’s In Search of Mary: The Mother of All Journeys, Feigel examines Lessing primarily through her own experiences, an approach that introduces Lessing to a new audience and dulls her edge. The genre of the \'bibliomemoir\' has grown in recent years, in part because its combination of close readings and contemporary inquiry often leads to new and lively interpretations of classic works. (Though just as often, this gives the impression that books only have literary value when the situations they describe closely match those of the memoirist’s own life.) Feigel reads thoroughly and carefully ... More than Lessing’s adventures, what comes across most strongly in the book is Feigel’s sensitivity and thoughtfulness. She seems disappointed that she could not live the life that Lessing led and that she does not even want it.
PositiveThe New York Review of Books\"...[an] expert, often remarkable, and sometimes frustrating novel ... The amount of detail she presents here, some amassed and some imagined, is astonishing ... In The Mars Room, Kushner has written a powerful account of the prison-industrial complex as the complex that it is: byzantine, sprawling, brutal, constructed of channels and links that even its inhabitants cannot see ... The Mars Room seems to sometimes fall into the pitfalls of the social realist novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Characters in the book often come across more strongly as circumstances than as real people ... There’s so much information on the page that the reader cannot hear the characters breathe.\
MixedThe New York Review of BooksIt’s a sharp, funny, clever selection. But for fans of her work it may feel like a disappointment, a bunch of crumbs when what you wanted is another cake ... There’s much to admire in this book—the energy of the prose, the playfulness with which Diski approaches her stories. In just under two hundred pages, she tries her hand at fairy tales, erotica, and scenes of domestic life. Such inventiveness is typical of Diski’s fiction. Her novels are incredibly varied in their form. But however daring and original, the novels lack the immediacy of Diski’s nonfiction. As a result, the stories in The Vanishing Princess may be something of a letdown ... Reading it, one can see Diski’s later words hovering around the edges. It’s easier to deal with stories that have a beginning and a middle and an end. But minds don’t work that way. Our experience of the past is not linear. It pokes through, it prods, it shapes how we view the world no matter how distant it may feel. What makes Diski’s work so brilliant is that she was able to present her life in all its untidiness.
PositiveThe Boston Globe“MacFarquhar writes full and nuanced profiles, often by letting her subjects speak for themselves. She doesn’t cast judgment on their ideals or their struggles to live up to them.