MixedThe New RepublicCrossroads is a different mode, even a different genre for Franzen, as it explores a world-ordering system with less satire and more earnestness. And unlike his last three novels, Crossroads isn’t exactly social realism. It’s closer to a novel of ideas, though it’s not quite this either. Unlike a more typical novel of ideas, such as J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, there are no lectures or staged debates. Characters are more than mouthpieces, although they and their discussions of being good are relatively flat. On some level, Franzen seems to know this, as the novel’s plot ultimately undercuts its philosophizing. The irony of Crossroads is that it’s a novel of ideas about the inadequacy of ideas—a book full of people thinking that dramatizes the danger of too much thought ... At times, the novel feels like a crash course in comparative religion: One can imagine the book’s ideal reader drawing a Venn diagram and noting places where various doctrines overlap ... may not be a return for Franzen, but it is something like a retreat: from the urgencies of our current moment, and from the ways that they warp our literary discourse. The historical moment that Crossroads depicts—of asking big, existential questions, or of working hard to avoid having to—feels definitively like the past. But Franzen has promised not to linger in this earlier era: He’s indicated that the trilogy will eventually describe the 2020s. One hopes that by the time this third book comes out, we’ll have collectively found ways to be—that is, to do—good.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review... the story Orange excavates is rich and moving ... Orange skirts the traps of the mother-daughter memoir by going beyond personal history. She interleaves memories of her mother and maternal grandmother with discussions of writing by Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich and Susan Sontag, among others. Their thoughts on motherhood and feminism don’t perfectly align, nor do they match the views of Orange’s own mother, who climbed the corporate ladder and agitated for equal pay but who never considered herself a feminist. This is a good thing: Different voices and perspectives are allowed to coexist, thus undercutting any universal truths about women and motherhood ... Orange has matured as a writer in the intervening years. Her writing is more even and assured, her perceptions subtler. After my first reading, certain scenes haunted me for a week ... If at times I wanted to know more about how Orange felt about potentially becoming a mother herself (she describes two miscarriages but says little about their emotional impact), I was also impressed by her ability to observe her mother so carefully. She presents her mother as a separate person — not simply as the mother of a daughter, but as another self ... It is rare to see — to really see — one’s mother. Pure Flame may be Orange’s legacy. It is already her gift.
PositiveThe NationBoth books can be read as twists on the campus novel, a genre mastered by Mary McCarthy, David Lodge, and Zadie Smith, among others. Both provide doses of academic satire. Smallwood makes satire central to her project, introducing us to insecure grad students who, in her words, read aloud \'in the same tone one uses for driving directions or a recipe.\' She describes \'paradigm-shifting\' work in literary studies that seems trivial to the untrained eye (and often to the trained one). In a scene so funny I cried from laughing, she describes a grad student’s dissertation on \'the politics of doors.\' ... these adjunct novels are versions of the bildungsroman, the novel of education—but here education means learning just how precarious your future is. Will these adjuncts be able to pay their rent, afford health care, bear and care for children? Will they have anything like the future they dreamed of when they were young? ... In both novels, plot—the literary structure that signals progress—gives way to an atmosphere of anxious uncertainty, one familiar to many of us who came of age during a moment of financial and ecological crisis ... This opening scene, impressively executed, sets the tone for the rest of the novel ... Smallwood’s achievement is to describe, with humor and precision, the affective conditions—what Dorothy’s students might call the \'vibe\'—of a generation living at the end of the end of history but with very little sense of the future ... Although the novel presents emotional detachment as a way to cope with apocalyptic conditions, it also demonstrates a kind of giddy, resilient attachment: to texts, language, art, to what we might call the life of the mind. The novel is a critique of academia and its abhorrent labor practices, but it is also a celebration of humanistic learning.
RaveThe New YorkerWhich of these women was the real Rich? The dutiful daughter, the star undergrad, the excellent cook? Or the political poet who used every platform she had—and she had many—to criticize violence in all its forms? This is the question that the scholar and writer Hilary Holladay poses in The Power of Adrienne Rich, the first biography of the poet and, one hopes, not the last. \'Who was she? Who was she really?\' Holladay asks near the end of the book. Her question recalls a claim she makes in the preface, where she argues that Rich never felt she had a \'definitive identity,\' and that \'the absence of a fully knowable self\'—a \'wound,\' in Holladay’s words—spurred her on, to both self-discovery and creative success. According to Holladay, the only secure identity Rich ever found was in her art. \'That is who and what she is,\' Holladay concludes.
Lynn Steger Strong
PositiveThe NationStrong, meanwhile, is great on the small details of the literature classroom ... plot—the literary structure that signals progress—gives way to an atmosphere of anxious uncertainty, one familiar to many of us who came of age during a moment of financial and ecological crisis ... in Want, financial precarity is the central subject, shaping the characters, the events, the prose. The novel describes downward mobility: a rare plotline in American literature, though not in American lives ... The narrator’s uneasy and shifting social position allows Strong to sketch a broader portrait of life than we find in many New York novels about youngish literary types ... Strong interweaves wonderful depictions of parenting: two children learning to share a stuffed octopus, a child’s joy at seeing her mother wearing a purple dress ... Her prose is spare, as if performing the deprivation the book’s title suggests. Her tone is lyrical, even elegiac at times; there’s less irony than we might expect from a narrator with a PhD ... paradoxical feeling characterizes much of the novel. The narrator is both desperate and grateful, cursed and lucky, envious and content ... Want...beautifully sketch[es] those feelings, which more and more of us are coming to know. There’s the anxiety of wanting or having children without a future on offer, for you or for them. There’s the envy of those who have lucked out or gamed the system or inherited wealth.
RaveThe NationThe story is typical of Gaitskill in that it explores a familiar, even clichéd situation, only to subvert our expectations. The story is not one of justice served, nor is it one of justice miscarried. Instead, it is a story about how loneliness can deform a person, even one who seems to have so much going for him. The story doesn’t excuse Quin’s behavior, but in recognizing his flaws, it doesn’t outright condemn it, either. Instead, it asks us to see Quin for who he is—eager, erring, lonely, a creep and a bad guy who probably deserves to lose his job but not his humanity—and it also asks us to try to recognize what we might share with him, what might cause us to behave badly. If this story of sexual misconduct refuses easy resolutions, it also offers something more sustaining: a recognition of the loneliness plaguing each of us and a suggestion for how the damaged among us might possibly be redeemed ... This Is Pleasure is confounding in part because it seems more interested in examining Quin’s inner life than it does in judging his behavior. The story does not deny his culpability and acknowledges that the loss of his job fits his crimes. But through the character of Margot, Quin is seen as not so much evil or tragic but pitiful ... Gaitskill, while deeply moral, is not a moralist. Whereas others might only judge, she attends, as artists are meant to do. By offering us a portrait of ourselves, lonely and uncertain and vulnerable, she finds that miracles occur: rapprochement and forgiveness, sudden kinds of intimacy and, if not love, then recognition.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review[Tolentino\'s] voice here is fully developed: She writes with an inimitable mix of force, lyricism and internet-honed humor. She is the only writer I’ve read who can incorporate meme-speak into her prose without losing face ... This kind of fatalism, dispiriting but perhaps fair, runs through the book ... Tolentino’s earnest ambivalence, expressed often throughout the book, is characteristic of millennial life-writing, and it can be contrasted with boomer self-satisfaction and Gen X disaffection in the same genre. Though she never presumes to be anything like the voice of a generation, Tolentino is a fair representative ... a cri de coeur from a writer who has been forced to revise her youthful belief in American institutions ... As a reader (and a fellow millennial), I could have done with more essays like Ecstasy, in which contradiction felt enriching, or generative, rather than imprisoning. I credit Tolentino for examining her complicity in the structures she critiques, but at times I wished she would go easier on herself, or that she’d keep working to transcend the contradictions she observes.
PositiveThe New RepublicThere are no first sentences full of orienting details, no dramatic dialogue, no neat epiphanies in a story’s final lines. A concluding sentence is more likely to open up a story than to resolve it ... Tones clash; idioms and allusions brush up against each other. Even her shortest stories, written in the simplest language, have a kind of uneven texture that forces a reader to proceed slowly. One of Williams’s great themes is the dark underbelly of domestic life ... The Collected Stories of Diane Williams presents domesticity as foreign and contrived, as an arbitrary and risky way to organize one’s life. In their weirdest moments, these stories can feel unreal, disconnected from the texture of experience; at their best, their abandonment of logic can feel like liberation, as they lay bare the disjointedness and confusion that structure so much of reality ... Although she uses simple words—her prose has a kind of Dick-and-Jane quality—she arranges them in unusual ways. A reader can linger on each sentence, willing herself to comprehend it ... There’s an intensity to Williams’s early stories that is missing from some of her later work. Reading the first two collections produces a rush, as if one has just narrowly avoided some disaster ... This doesn’t mean that Williams, now in her early seventies, has grown complacent. She is still a restless writer, still committed to revealing all the ugly feelings within the functional person or the happy home.
RaveBookforumEssential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry...includes many of her most audacious and significant attempts to reimagine the world through women’s eyes ... one is struck by the breadth of Rich’s research, the force of her arguments, the elegance and honesty of her personal writing. Though she didn’t fetishize academic expertise—she once wrote that what women need \'is not experts on our lives, but the opportunity and the validation to name and describe the truths of our lives\'—she took pains to synthesize work by historians, psychologists, and legal scholars. And though she was not interested in confession and abjured \'therapeutic\' genres that failed to engage with the social world, she understood that personal experience shapes one’s politics and one’s prejudices ... Rich applied her convictions about re- imagining the past to her own writing. She revisited old topics, changed her mind, revised or re-visioned her earlier work ... she reflected critically on the women’s liberation movement and tried to understand how and why it had been co-opted by capitalism. She did this not to assign blame, but rather to better understand how present organizers could avoid the mistakes of the past. In this, Rich was obeying one of her own edicts, the title of an essay in her first prose collection: to expand, constantly, the meaning of her love for women.
PositiveHarvard MagazineGessen’s second novel, arrives like a cold, welcome wind ... [A Terrible Country] is less a travelogue, or a guide to post-Soviet Russia, than it is a novel about life under neoliberalism—a political ideology that dictates that the market, not the state, rules the citizenry ... [A Terrible Country] is a more mature work, written in pared-down prose noticeably different from the headlong style of the first novel. The sentences are simple and direct, as if subordinate clauses were the stuff of youth. The book is funny, but darkly so—many of the best jokes are about the protagonist’s disappointment in himself and in others ... [A Terrible Country] is not exactly a hopeful book about political protest, but neither it is a fatalistic one. Instead, it suggests what resistance might mean, not as a slogan, but as a life.
MixedThe NationThe handful of poor or working-class characters who appear in her books are often rendered unsympathetically and without much psychological depth. This can be frustrating, given that her middle-class characters often opine on their experiences in ways that draw universal lessons from their privileged status ... Critics have praised the way the trilogy [in which Kudos is the last novel] upends the rules of fiction, and they’re mostly right: Although Cusk’s material here is the same as in her earlier novels, she has reworked it so that it’s almost unrecognizable in its new form. The formal strategies she’s devised—outlining and erasing, compiling and undercutting—allow her to write honestly and precisely about the many sacrifices that women and men make in order to abide by the rules of domestic life. Unlike her memoirs, which at times can feel overwrought, Cusk finds a way here to be serious without being self-serious. While the novels are about the impossibility of achieving freedom or liberation, they are also evidence that an experienced artist can dispense with old habits and conventions to experiment with new styles and forms. Cusk finds a freedom in art that she cannot locate in life.
PositiveThe New Republic\"How can I be sure that I want to have a child Motherhood—a tortured, honest novel—is the Canadian writer Sheila Heti’s attemp to answer this impossible question ... The result is a book that is eclectic and compelling, a rare account of how a woman might sidestep what is, for many, a defining life event: the birth of a child ... If the project of [How Should a Person Be?] was to learn how to be, then the project of Motherhood is to learn how to live. Motherhood is a more mature work, its subject matter more serious and its tone more vexed. At times, the novel can feel heavy and unrelenting in its anxious self-inquiry. But what it lacks in humor, it makes up for in precision ... Heti tells a different story, about waiting, and watching yourself as you do so. It is the stuttering, recursive story of what happened—the arc of a life that goes on.\
Grace Paley, Ed. by Kevin Bowen
RaveThe NationWith an introduction by George Saunders, the Reader includes stories as well as essays, talks, and poems. The book reminds us that Paley the short-story writer was also Paley the activist, the pamphleteer, the poet, the community organizer, and the committed leftist … A Grace Paley Reader helps to return the writer to her historical moment, to the specific conditions that shaped her life as an artist and activist … The concept of interdependence was both the foundation of Paley’s politics and the organizing principle of her art. No story illustrates this better than ‘Faith in a Tree’...An entire neighborhood—which is to say, an entire world—is contained in this park, the province of women and children.
RaveThe New RepublicCarter had no time for female melancholy. A woman whose quiet demeanor belied her forceful mind, Carter was that rarest of things—a happy writer. She followed her desires—for travel, for learning, for (younger) men—with little hesitation or regret … This is the Carter that comes through in Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography. Gordon’s biography, the first in-depth treatment of Carter’s life, is both thorough and careful. Gordon is primarily concerned with emancipating her from the mythologizing descriptions that proliferated, especially after her death in 1992 … Sex may have been Carter’s great subject, but autonomy was her true concern. She called sex ‘the most elementary assertion of the self.’
MixedThe New RepublicAt its best, the resulting manifesto serves as a useful skewering of feminism’s worst tendencies ... Crispin’s stance in Why I Am Not a Feminist fits with this outsider mentality. Her main objection to contemporary feminism seems to be that it is popular. To her mind, if a social movement is popular, then it must necessarily be 'banal…nonthreatening, and ineffective' ... The problem with Crispin’s vision is twofold: It misconstrues feminism’s past, and thus offers the wrong prescription for the present. For starters, the last decade has seen renewed interest in the art and thought of many radical feminists, including those Crispin name-checks...What’s more, there was as much ideological variation within second-wave feminism, and even within radical feminism, as there is in the feminist movement today ... By missing this history of conflict and coalition-building, Crispin implies that one should only participate in a movement when it mirrors your own beliefs—beliefs you’ve already formed ... Living with conflict, building coalition—this is the stuff of politics. As the threats to feminism grow ever more apparent, I hope Crispin will stay in the fight.
PositiveThe New RepublicIndeed, the voice of the memoir is muted, reflective. Sentences unspool slowly, following the shape of a thought. The spare prose is punctured by cheeky humor and by the occasional, lovely simile..Wrestling with contradiction is a hallmark of the writing process—Little Labors suggests it is also a feature of modern parenthood. Perhaps this isn’t something to fear or reject but to recognize, accept, and, simply, express.
RaveThe New RepublicThis fiction isn’t quiet or composed; there’s plenty of pain, but there’s rarely pathos. Berlin’s tales of addiction and violence, formally unpredictable and drolly grotesque, defy our expectations for working-class fiction ... Unlike Carver, Berlin didn’t generalize or ironize working-class experience; she instead presented her neighbors in all their compelling specificity ... What this writing affirms is the beautiful, broken human body as well as Berlin’s rightful place in the canon of American short fiction.