RaveThe New York Times Book Review... intricate, cunning and consistently surprising ... Diaz’s own prose keeps an antiseptic distance of its own, no matter who his narrator might be ... Some writers capture their characters’ thoughts through what creative writing teachers call a close third person. Diaz relies in contrast on a far one, and his sentences are at once cool, deliberate and dispassionate. In both books, he reports on his characters’ inner lives instead of dramatizing them, and in Vanner’s hands especially, the result reads more like a biography than a novel: a narrative without dialogue, in which Rask’s life is given to us more often in summary than in scenes ... It’s a disorienting but effective way to present a character who seems almost entirely without an inner life of his own, whose whole being lies in anticipating the clickety-click of a ticker tape ... much of the novel’s pleasure derives from its unpredictability, from its section-by-section series of formal surprises ... a strangely self-reflexive work: strangely, because unlike some metafictional exercises this book does more than chase its own tail. The true circularity here lies in the workings of capital, in a monetary system so self-referential that it has forgotten what Diaz himself remembers. For Trust always acknowledges the world that lies outside its own pages. It recognizes the human costs of a great fortune, even though its characters can see nothing beyond their own calculations; they are most guilty when most innocent, most enthralled by the abstraction of money itself.
MixedThe New York Review of Books... massively detailed ... Every serious reader still knows [Crane\'s] name, and yet, Auster suggests, few students now pick him up. Burning Boy hopes to change that, though I have to wonder if 783 pages about a man who died before he was thirty is the best way to do it. Auster notes that he doesn’t expect his readers to have ever \'read a word of Crane,\' but anyone who finishes this book will have read quite a lot of them ... Some of Auster’s readings seem marvelous, showing exactly how Crane got a particular effect or the way a seemingly inconsequential detail pays off on a story’s last page. Others plod ... Auster relies on the earlier and generously credited scholarship of Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino ... Sorrentino’s biography remains the standard. His prose is drier than Auster’s, or maybe just tighter, and his judgments have a pith that Burning Boy lacks ... Auster is loose and baggy by comparison, yet there are compensations. He has the space to make the writer’s friends and especially Cora Crane into vivid presences, and he uses the memoirs those friends left behind to capture Crane’s life in mid-1890s New York.
PositiveNew York Review of BooksThe sense of character Bailey offers is above all a social one. This isn’t an oral history, but he does quote extensively from his interviews, and not just with Roth. We listen as the novelist’s friends think aloud and at times second-guess themselves, hear them describe his relation to them as much as theirs to him. In consequence these secondary figures become exceptionally vivid, and that ability to animate his minor characters seems to me Bailey’s most distinctive gift ... Philip Roth comes as brightly peopled as a Victorian novel, with detailed portraits ... Bailey’s one significant weakness as a biographer becomes apparent, one that marked the Cheever book as well. He’s not really a critic, and he isn’t that interested in the inner life of the fiction itself. I don’t expect him to offer a coherent reading of each book...but I do wish he had more to say about the product of Roth’s long hours at that standing desk ... Bailey has traced the novelist’s every relative and their medical records too, he’s defined the financial ups and downs of their immigrant history in America, but he doesn’t have the same grasp on this world that he does on the reticences of Cheever’s. What he does superbly, in contrast, is chart Roth’s sexual and emotional life, and map its effects on his work ...Some readers will wish Bailey were harder on his subject, more openly judgmental, and another biographer will one day write a more prosecutorial book.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksThis book made me laugh out loud; its pages are marked by a snorting ungenerous glee that is at times indistinguishable from despair, and if some of its language feels more epigrammatically poised than Dorothy herself might be capable of, more perfectly paced and timed, well, I never thought that Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim Dixon owned all his good lines either. Smallwood likes long sentences and fully developed scenes; she avoids the collage-like assemblage of bits that marks...recent novels ... And she also likes risk. Dorothy’s miscarriage isn’t only a miscarriage, for all the physical precision with which it’s described; it’s also a metaphor, it’s how she sees herself, believing that her life of promise, of privilege even, has failed to develop as it should ... a good ending—it made me wince, and laugh, and it reminded me that The Life of the Mind is a campus novel ... Christine Smallwood has nevertheless managed to link Dorothy’s contingent labor to the problems of American society at large. I enjoyed these pages for the exceptional wit and polish of their prose. I’m remembering them for other things as well.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksThe Silence is full of voices, a work of talky minimalism whose characters are all troubled by the absence of sound ... I think that most people who read The Silence will ask how one might come to an ending; will recognize that both the inevitability and the impossibility of ending provide this slender tale’s real subject ... Some pages in this book verge on self-parody, and I doubt it will draw any readers who haven’t already invested themselves in DeLillo’s work, in the half-century of risks his voice has taken. But those of us who have will find something poignant and terrible in this strange unbroken silence.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review...clever but exasperating ... Red Pill depends on Kunzru’s skilled use of a seemingly unreliable narrator. We have to believe that maybe he really is being watched; at the same time, we want to shake him into sense, and with each page he grows ever more puzzling ... the generalized sense of dread that the narrator of Red Pill feels becomes all too specific, a dread to which names and causes are firmly attached and open for analysis ... Kunzru’s own journalism, however, will tell you much more about it than Red Pill does, and for all its technical skill the novel finally sings an old refrain: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksThe fame is what interests Benjamin Moser. His Sontag flows smoothly, with each of its forty-odd chapters as sharply paced as a short story. Nevertheless, it makes me uneasy. Moser’s front cover comes to us without words: just a Richard Avedon photo from 1978, with its subject in a dark turtleneck and loose leather jacket, lean and handsome and unsmiling, yet maybe just a bit amused. Looking at that image, I can’t help but wonder what the skeptical author of On Photography... would have said about the way it’s used here. It tells us that Sontag is as recognizable as a water lily or an Oscar winner: no words necessary. But that is in fact how Moser sees her ... She enjoyed the opportunities of fame—the people, the parties—and none of it would have been so immediately possible without a face that, while not conventionally beautiful, was made for the camera’s caress ... And yet that focus on stardom is distorting ... Moser loses the writer in the personality ... I finished his book feeling that I knew less than I should about the daily grind of being Susan Sontag—as opposed to the public staging of a persona with the same name. Moser tells us that she wore a lot of scarves, didn’t exercise, liked dim sum, and used speed for many years to help her meet her deadlines. Yet did she have a favorite restaurant? How did she take her coffee, and where did she like to shop? Sontag offers little sense of its subject’s quotidian life, for all that Moser interviewed hundreds of people who knew her.
RaveThe New York Review of Books...it’s not the German material that makes Neiman’s book so powerful. She recounts it with a lucid, masterful brevity, but what really matters here is the juxtaposition contained in its first sentence: \'I began life as a white girl in the segregated South, and I’m likely to end it as a Jewish woman in Berlin.\' Neiman wants us to use each place to think about the other, but she’s finally more interested in America, for we are the ones with something yet to learn about the business of facing the past ... She’s not, of course, the first to make that link. W.E.B. Du Bois saw a parallel between the color line and the Warsaw ghetto ... But none of the Americans who’ve seen the connection has had Neiman’s comprehensive knowledge of how the Germans have worked to overcome their past; none has pursued it so tenaciously, so originally ... Neiman poses questions, but rather than answering them she educates her readers by thinking through their implications ... Neiman isn’t the ironist that West was, but she too believes that history has lessons, and that if we think hard enough, carefully enough, we can learn them. We can fail better, at least, at the endless job of getting straight with our past. Race and the Memory of Evil—there’s not a corner of this country untouched by that evil, and it endures precisely because of the way we misremember it.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksHorwitz’s best-known book remains Confederates in the Attic...an often funny and penetrating piece of reporting about the world of Civil War reenactors...while its pages are fully alive to absurdity, they are marked by generosity too. Spying on the South has many of the same strengths, but reading it is a melancholy experience. Horwitz died in May of cardiac arrest, at sixty, just after its publication. I say \'the same strengths,\' and yet that American divide feels far more consequential here than it did in Confederates ... As a traveler, Horwitz is ready to talk and listen to anyone, and to laugh with them too. Some of that’s a reporter’s skill in making himself liked, but a lot is a matter of temperament, a warm, open ability to suspend judgment and take people at their own valuation. And his method often relies on chance, the accidents of the road ... He sees himself as an \'infiltrator\' in accepting the hospitality of men and women who gleefully conform to \'a garish stereotype of the rural white South,\' liking them individually but repelled by what they stand for. Yet he doesn’t build on that discomfort, that paradox, and the more I read, the more questions I had ... I enjoyed every diverting page of Spying on the South, but we need something more now.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[Winder] likes to present himself as a world-class bore...but he is deeply read and endlessly curious, a man with the enviable ability to make one share his obsessions ... He makes no claim to originality, but it doesn’t matter—that’s not why one reads him. No professional historian would dare begin a section by announcing that \'ever since I can remember I have hated Louis XIV\' ...Such claims are an amateur’s privilege, amateur in the old sense of the word: someone who pursues his subject for the sake of love alone and is therefore free to indulge his idiosyncrasies and passions. In that, Lotharingia seems less successful than Germania precisely because it’s got less of Mr. Winder himself; the book is determined instead to tell its 1,000-year story, in which there’s always another war or reign to get through. Still, at his best Mr. Winder makes me laugh aloud, and anyone who grew up with Monty Python will feel at home in his pages.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewIt is often very funny, with some moments paced like a drawing room comedy ... There are some wonderful characters here ... Still, to concentrate on such things is to miss the point of this fascinating and judicious book ... as she moves through her family’s story The Beneficiary starts to resemble a quest, a search for something bigger than a factual answer to that reporter’s question ... This new work is inevitably more personal, but she never makes herself its focus. She concentrates on the family instead ... Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. called his 1988 account of his own family Old Money and parts of The Beneficiary offer a similar taxonomy, with Scott presenting herself as an anthropologist, defining the odd folkways of her tribe.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"So one of Hilary Spurling’s achievements in this fine book lies in the way she uses Powell’s few hints to identify Widmerpool’s origins... Another lies in the structure of her work itself. Ms. Spurling knew Powell well. As a young woman she produced a guide to the recently completed Dance and in the years since has become one of Britain’s finest biographers, known especially for her two-volume life of Matisse. This book was written with the cooperation of the novelist’s two sons, but she doesn’t hide the family secrets, and its proportions are in keeping with his achievement.\
PositiveThe New York Review of Books\'Sex is the area where moral decisions, moral questions, most clearly express themselves; it’s only in sexual relationships that you come up against immediate questions of right and wrong.\' So Barnes said in an interview some thirty years ago ... The Only Story suggests something more complicated. Decisions, choices, questions, consequences: Paul’s affair with Susan will let him in for all of them, and yet right and wrong seem curiously irrelevant here. Things happen, and you live with them, or try to, until you can’t ... Much of the pleasure in The Only Story comes from the wit and verbal precision that Barnes allows his narrator ... First to second to third [person narration]—Barnes’s switch from voice to voice is at once understated and dazzling. Which perhaps sums him up, the dazzle lying not in the shimmer of individual sentences so much as in the curves and vaults of his structural decisions. Those decisions embody the psychic consequences of this love affair in a far more vivid way than do any details of its plot, and they do something else as well. They speak to his characteristic formal daring. Barnes takes chances, and his books don’t always work; this one does.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewA State of Freedom requires those of us who live comfortably to imagine a world in which almost no one ever does, a world in which the novel’s very title seems like a bad joke. Indeed, the Londoner who narrates the book’s second part makes just such an effort, in effect modeling what Mukherjee asks of his readers. This would suggest that this novel carries a more obvious ethical burden than anything Naipaul might allow himself, and it’s correspondingly less concerned with awakening a sense of wonder, with providing what the Trinidadian master himself described as a 'cause for yearning.' A book that begins in homage remains then a bit narrow when set against its model. But it’s a mark of Neel Mukherjee’s range and force and ambition that any lesser comparison would seem an injustice.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...what makes Heart of Darkness (1899) and indeed Conrad himself so interesting is precisely the fact that they don’t evade their moment. They embrace it instead; they confront it. The achievement of Maya Jasanoff’s continuously perceptive book lies in showing just how. The Dawn Watch is the most vivid and suggestive biography of Conrad ever written. Yet it covers only a part of his life. Or maybe I should say that it skips over a lot, that it barely touches many of the things that fill most other biographie ... We’ve lately begun to see books about serious literature that combine rigorous scholarship with an appeal to the general reader, works of inspired popularization that avoid the specialized language of literary theory. Most of them use the scaffolding of biography, and the best are James Shapiro’s two studies of single years in the career of Shakespeare, 599 and 1606. The Dawn Watch is a worthy companion, with its story framed by an account of Ms. Jasanoff’s own travels, first on a container ship, and then down the Congo River itself. It isn’t perfect, and she does scant themes and works she should really consider ... I wish Maya Jasanoff’s beautifully written book were longer.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe Irish novelist John Banville has now done what Isabel’s creator did not. He has imagined a version of her next months, in prose that echoes James’s own, and the first thing to say about Mrs. Osmond is that it seems an almost entirely plausible next installment ...book’s real triumph, however, lies in its portrait of Gilbert Osmond, in which Mr. Banville does something James avoided ...offers many such chapters, moments in which this Isabel hangs upon James’s, in which she works her mind through the plot in which the earlier novel enmeshed her ...a tribute paid by a great writer to a greater one... Nevertheless there are some scenes here — a few, but enough — when Mr. Banville drives James himself from my mind.
RaveThe New York Times...with When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro appears to have found his synthesis, not only in its expansive yet finely modulated narrative but also in the way it bends the hallucinatory world of its immediate predecessor toward the surface verisimilitude of the butler's story ...seem like another deft postmodern exercise, a historical novel that's not concerned with the life of the past so much as with its literary assumptions. Yet Ishiguro stops just short of parody, and though he won't let his readers surrender to the genre, he doesn't condescend to it either ... The orphan's life is never fully his own, but seems instead as secondhand as the form of this novel itself, so brilliant in its tireless echoes of earlier texts. When We Were Orphans goes much farther than even The Remains of the Day in its examination of the roles we've had handed to us.
MixedThe Daily BeastThough Canada has every bit of its predecessors’ ambition, Ford works here from a different part of his sensibility. Put simply, he writes differently about the American West than he does about the East … The novel isn’t perfect, and the bit of back-story that Ford uses to move the book toward its climax seems mishandled, a MacGuffin that’s too busy for its own good. But no matter; plot has never been what his work is really about. Canada is Richard Ford’s best book since Independence Day, and despite its robbery and killings it too depends on its voice, a voice oddly calm and marked by the spare grandeur of its landscape.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksAlmost every page in this novel draws attention to its telling. Its suspense-inducing first sentence establishes a note of foreboding, and yet its full burden doesn’t become clear until the book’s last pages. Messud plays no metafictional or self-reflexive tricks, but the book does offer a continuous loop of narrative, and even the most careful reader will want to return to that beginning with the novel’s ending in mind … To me the book’s concluding pages have too many moving parts, as Messud shifts between Cassie’s unfolding story and the lessons Julia draws from it, the part it plays in her own quickening maturation. Nevertheless The Burning Girl as a whole is both piercingly intelligent and emotionally acute, its ambition at odds with its apparently modest scale.
PositiveThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewFlanagan has done something difficult here, creating a character who is at once vivid and shadowy. In his long postwar life, Dorrigo will see his own moments of heroism as if performed by someone else. He fulfills his duty while remaining separate from it, and as a husband and father is most often an absent presence … Flanagan manages these shifts in time and perspective with extraordinary skill. They’re never confusing but they are dizzying, and demand the reader’s full attention in a way that reminds me of Conrad. I suspect that on rereading, this magnificent novel will seem even more intricate, more carefully and beautifully constructed.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksNothing extreme, nothing unmannerly; it’s all a little bit gray, as if the novel itself were as determined as Subhash to refuse any moment of emotional crisis. That makes Lahiri sound cautious, and in reading her I have in fact sometimes wished she would break her own rules, and allow herself to flower into extravagance. Yet restraint has a daring of its own, and The Lowland is her finest work so far … Lahiri takes no explicit position, and reading The Lowland made me recall one of Stendhal’s most famous aphorisms: politics in a novel are like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert. They are entirely out of place but impossible to ignore, and though Lahiri herself has put those politics in, she also wants us to look away from them, to concentrate on the spectators instead of the struggle around the gun.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalSome of the 15 essays here are autobiographical, but most provide an elegant glance at one historical figure or another, often those associated with Mr. Holmes’s earlier work ... This Long Pursuit can stand either as an introduction to his full-length works or as a reminder of what makes them so compelling.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewNoonday seems just a bit smaller than Pat Barker at her best, however readable and indeed enthralling, and however much its stakes are matters of life and death — smaller than when art and history were on the table as well.