RaveThe Washington PostLively and vivid ... traces the dual arc of the men’s rise with consummate skill and authority ... Port does an outstanding job of tracking the ways each new musician, from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix, vaulted over the next, engaging the new instruments with ever-surprising results. Port tells the story elegantly and economically ... Describing sound is extraordinarily difficult; Port can do it without channeling one of those weird, adjective-heavy descriptions of wine or perfume...he just gets it ... The story of these instruments is the story of America in the postwar era: loud, cocky, brash, aggressively new.
MixedThe Washington Post... likable and workmanlike but hardly revelatory ... Connolly is able occasionally to relay personal conversations that prove legitimately new and interesting and that elevate Being John Lennon into something more than a glorified clip job ... Aside from the primary material, Connolly’s strengths as a biographer are numerous. He writes crisply and well, albeit very much in the British vernacular, and he traverses the contours of his subject’s short but momentous life with authority. The chapters are short, the pacing is quick, and the author is able to mold Lennon’s often diffuse interests and experiences into a satisfying narrative ... Connolly...provides vivid descriptions ... Aside from the occasional gaffe...he is mostly a canny guide to the music ... Despite the book’s many fine qualities, however, there remains a nagging sense that Being John Lennon, at bottom, does not really enhance our understanding of its subject in any profound way.
MixedNewsdayKarina Longworth’s Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood is a big, messy, sometimes fascinating, sometimes tedious account of a Hollywood culture of sexual entitlement, embodied by its most flamboyant practitioner — eccentric multimillionaire playboy Howard Hughes ... Seduction is a sprawling, many-faceted story, one teeming with famous names, and despite Longworth’s passion and energy the narrative drags at times.
PositiveNewsday...crisply written ... The pros of Ribowsky’s account are plentiful, and the cons—the inclusion of eye-glazing financial details for every contract a Manning ever signed, a certain repetitiveness in narrating game details—are minor. Ribowsky is perceptive and articulate on the darker facets of the Mannings’ ties to the University of Mississippi and its long history as a bastion of retrograde Southern pride, and he is unblinking on the ugly and protracted Jamie Naughright affair, in which Peyton Manning repeatedly sought to silence and discredit the woman who accused him of sexual assault while at the University of Tennessee. Peyton, in fact, comes across as a pill in these pages: often churlish and unfunny, a killjoy and a goody two-shoes, weirdly obsessed with milking every last advertising dollar out of his celebrity—much to our collective irritation.
R O Kwon
RaveThe Open Letters ReviewKwon’s depiction of the enchantments of extreme faith is subtle, assured, and cumulatively rock-solid. While reading the book, I kept thinking (pretentious critic alert here) of Soren Kierkegaard, specifically of his meditation on the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Incendiaries shares with Kierkegaard’s parable some of the unsettling sense that pure faith is, in its drive for transcendence, capable of utter monstrousness, that the line between devoutness and insanity is porous indeed. Kwon does not shy away from the disturbing elements of this dynamic, and Phoebe’s spiral into madness is effected with a calm rigor that is, paradoxically, nearly sickening in its emotional affect. The engine of this rigor is a species of prose that is so eerily good in its rhythms and evocative nuances that one has the mysterious and disorienting feeling of reading a really good, really long poem ... The union of language and thought is complete and seamless; there is no separating the terror from the delight, the tragedy from the pleasure. This is the mark of literature operating at its highest capacity, and it transcends topicality.
MixedNewsday\" \'A Modest Proposal\' it’s not, but Big Guns and its rollicking carousel of political skulduggery provide plenty of opportunities for Israel to score points off the foibles of our political system — an admittedly broad and eminently hittable target ... Humor is notoriously subjective, but Beltway wit has always seemed to me curiously adolescent, long on corn and innuendo, short on sophistication. Big Guns is no exception ... If this is your kind of thing, you’re probably going to need an oxygen tank at some point; more refined readers may find themselves groaning. Israel’s writing in general is more energetic than skillful — his first novel was written \'in cars, planes, and the occasional boring meeting,\' he says — but no one is likely to pick up Big Guns in search of shimmering literary prose. As it is, he is surprisingly deft at constructing a twisty plot capable of keeping the reader flipping the pages — a harder task than it seems ... The denouement is cleverly engineered but emotionally empty, and the book’s moral standpoint can be reduced to a shrug.\
RaveNewsday... Weegee receives a warm and sympathetic treatment in Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, an outstanding biography by New York magazine staff editor Christopher Bonanos ... Flash is a superior work of biography, largely because Bonanos is clear-eyed about his subject’s less attractive traits — his lechery, misogyny and free-and-easy way with the truth — while conveying affection for the man’s brio and essential sweetness.
RaveThe Washington PostThe novelist’s equanimity is so unassailable, and his parenting style so judicious and measured, that lesser men may feel inadequate ... To be sure, though, Chabon writes with grace and insight about his relationship with his father, which is \'shadowed by the usual anger, disappointment, and failure, strewn with the bones of old promises and lies.\' The best part of Pops— which is admittedly often dazzling—is the introduction, in which Chabon relates, with consummate skill, a long-ago conversation with an anonymous older writer who warned the impressionable young writer, \'You can write great books, or you can have kids.\' Chabon’s rejection of this sinister bit of advice is genuinely wise, concluding that only \'a scant few\' novels and short stories will survive anyhow.
RaveThe Millions\"With The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner cements her place as the most vital and interesting American novelist working today. A brutal, unforgiving, and often grimly funny tour de force of wasted lives, The Mars Room makes most other contemporary fiction seem timid and predictable; in doing so, it reminds us that fiction that startles and abrades is as necessary, or even more necessary, than fiction that comforts and assuages ... In the shadow of The Mars Room, middlebrow literary fiction, with its urbane cosmopolitanism, its careers and affairs and families and houses, seems pale, stuffy drawing-room drama drained of vitality or force. The world of The Mars Room may be grim and hopeless, but it is shot through with an electric vitality and a harsh kind of beauty.\
Luis Alberto Urrea
PositiveThe Washington PostLuis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels is a big, sprawling, messy, sexy, raucous house party of a book, a pan-generational family saga with an enormous, bounding heart, a poetic delivery and plenty of swagger ... the big ethnic gathering as plot engine is a fairly tired device — but Urrea’s embrace of it is so ardent, and his execution of it so energetic, that he blows right past any reservations about originality. The most technically impressive element of this spiraling group narrative is how the story rotates among the various family members, weaving their disparate voices, with effortless command, into a kind of Hispanic fugue of memory and desire ... The pace slackens noticeably as the book approaches its ending, a situation which is made worse by the introduction of an appallingly misplaced plot thread that nearly spoils the book’s denouement. And for all its flamboyance, Urrea’s novel has an uncertain relation to ethnic identity ... This dichotomy, which has manifested in Urrea’s fiction before, finds a paradoxical release in the novel’s full-throated enactment of a Latinx culture, one so exuberant that it begins after a while to feel . . . performative, perhaps even to the edge of caricature ... A flawed if ambitious and energetic book, one that troubles and questions and confronts, is more admirable than one that is highly polished but timid.
RaveNewsdayLippman deploys, with obvious relish and consummate skill, an assortment of classic pulp crime-novel tropes. ... What makes the novel such good fun for fans of the genre is the self-aware way Lippman plays with these conventions ... What makes the book so lethally seductive is Lippman’s utter control over the narrative, which ticks away with relentless fatalism.
MixedThe Washington PostThis heartwarming story of a man who surmounts immense obstacles to start his own coffee company is what certified literary good guy Dave Eggers does best: a true account of a scrappy underdog, told in a lively, accessible style ... The last third of the book details Alkhanshali’s hair-raising plan to escape by whatever means come to hand, and it is absolutely as gripping and cinematically dramatic as any fictional cliffhanger ... The problem with Eggers’s book is not in its execution, which is superb, but with its conception. Eggers, of course, means to use his celebrity platform to give a leg up to a worthy unknown, which is commendable but faintly discomfiting. In the end, appropriating a person of color’s experience this way feels a tad patronizing.
RaveThe Washington PostBrolliology is not, blessedly, one of those ambitious tomes that purports to explain the whole of civilization via some quotidian element such as salt or coffee. Instead, Rankine deftly combines a sociological touch with a survey of the umbrella in literature from Defoe to Roald Dahl and beyond ... The color illustrations throughout Brolliology are marvelously selected and reproduced, leaning heavily toward the opulent style of commercial illustration common to Edwardian Britain. And like the umbrella itself, which seems in some essential way both eccentric and comical, Rankine’s book has a very English affect — both amused and amusing, droll in temperament, maybe slightly dotty. The performance is so polished as to skirt weightlessness. One comes away from Brolliology with a quiverful of cocktail-party-ready facts ... best of all, Brolliology offers the feeling of having consumed something delicious but light: a tea sandwich, perhaps.
MixedNewsdayThe opening of The Cuban Affair is dynamite — crisp, funny and dramatic — and the climactic conclusion is masterful action writing, fast, precise and genuinely gripping. What becomes in between, though, is curiously static … DeMille pumps up the suspense with direful warnings of ubiquitous secret spies and gruesome torture chambers, but Mac’s Cuban nemeses are more Keystone than Castro. His personal adversary is their tour guide-turned-informant Antonio, who says things like ‘Cuba is like a mother who welcomes the return of her sons and daughters,’ and who is easily bamboozled by appeals to his personal vanity. It’s hard to make the bad guys chillingly sinister when they seem like bumbling clowns.
MixedThe Washington Post...equal parts exasperating and inspiring. . Whatever its merits, it’s safe to say that her admirers — who are legion — will receive it worshipfully, while her skeptics — if there even is such a thing — will find it slight, precious and unconvincing. The opening sequence describes what we are meant to assume is a typical week or so in the life of Patti Smith, and is followed by a short story titled 'Devotion' and a brief postscript. Unfortunately, this first section veers — unintentionally, one hopes — toward a parody of the kind of high-toned aspirational lifestyle hokum that one sees in magazines aimed at a certain demographic ... 'Devotion,' the story, is weak sauce, too: folktale claptrap about an orphan for whom ice skating 'is pure feeling' and who has a tempestuous affair with a Svengali-like older man ... What gives the story a ghostly resonance is the way that it picks up on elements that Smith scatters desultorily through the preceding essay: a snatch of an Estonian film, a memory of her father at an ice-skating event, a visit to a French cemetery. Operating in tandem, the two sections provide an organic illustration of how a creative mind transforms impressions and thoughts into art, itself a rare accomplishment, even if the end product is humdrum.
RaveThe Washington Post...genuinely fresh and inspiring. Bellos’s book is a major accomplishment. His warm and engaging study of Victor Hugo’s 1862 masterpiece renews faith in the idea, so fundamental to the mysterious attraction of literature, that great books of whatever age continue to be worthwhile objects of attention. In applying a melange of literary criticism, linguistics, political science and history to the study of one of the best-known, if least-understood great books of all time, he illuminates the work in a way that transcends conventional literary criticism. Bellow displays a dazzling range of erudition with lightness and easy wit, and almost every section of his book bears surprising insights.
PanThe Washington PostAs seductive as the idea and as likable as its executor are, the anthology is handicapped by two serious problems. The first is, quite simply, one of quality. For every story that is deeply imagined and felt, there is one that feels perfunctory, at best..The second problem is deeper and altogether more slippery, but it has to do with a certain banality inherent in the book’s operating principle, one that fundamentally misunderstands both Hopper specifically and the relation between art and narrative more generally ... As clever and loving as some of these acts of homage are, their creation ultimately works against the paintings that inspired them. Their celebration contains a diminishment.
MixedThe Washington Post...[a] breezy, often scattered autobiography ... For every Bruce Springsteen who writes thoughtfully and perceptively about his life, there are a dozen more erstwhile rockers whose books are cheap cash-ins or vanity projects. Unfortunately Set the Boy Free tilts toward the latter, although not without some redeeming qualities ... The book is best when he sticks to musicianly shop-talk ...This odd evasiveness is not confined to all things Morrissey. Much of Marr’s story is shadowed by an elliptical defensiveness.
Peter Ames Carlin
PositiveThe Washington PostCarlin provides a brisk and engaging overview of Simon’s career and protean musical output ... Carlin’s account of this early, near-anonymous phase of Simon’s career is both the most fascinating and the most telling part of the story ... For the most part Homeward Bound is crisp and well-paced, not long on psychological depth or detailed analysis, but generally lucid and evocative ... Not surprisingly, the long anticline of Simon’s post-Graceland career is the dullest part of the book.
MixedThe Washington PostThe Hero’s Body, offers a brilliant anthropological excursion into a world few of us will ever penetrate ... Giraldi’s understanding is often perceptive and eloquent while somehow falling short of that last clarifying twist of insight that would vault his account into the ranks of the sublime. He is not helped by prose that betrays the awkwardness of someone straining after the poetic ... It feels deeply ungenerous to say that a writer doesn’t understand the meaning of his own experience, but there is nonetheless something opaque about Giraldi’s hindsight.
PanThe Washington PostHow strong is Shelden’s case? Plausible, but not definitive. As in many such exercises, circumstantial evidence is often suggestively framed as conclusive. Shelden’s assertion, for example, that the birth of Morewood’s son was accompanied by 'the knowing glances of astute observers' is highly speculative, to put it mildly. Provocative hypothesis aside, the most vivid character in the book is Morewood herself. A proto-feminist woman of letters, impresario and poet in her own right, Morewood strikes us in Shelden’s account as a person of imagination and courage straining against the socially imposed constrictions of her time.
PanThe Washington PostMoby’s decision to focus solely on the beginning and middle years of his career, breaking off just before his leap into mainstream popularity, is fresh and canny: It spares us the inevitable tedium of reading about the anticlimactic aftermath of success, the inevitable weakness of many such accounts. And his inversion of the usual narrative arc of squalor and redemption — midway through the book, Moby abandons sobriety and descends into decadence — demonstrates his integrity...The anthropological value of the account, though, cannot in the end overcome distinctly pedestrian prose. Moby’s occasional detour into philosophical speculation ('Descartes and I had decided that the world as we perceived it must be pretty close to how it objectively was') is high-school-parking-lot philosophizing of a particularly irritating sort. A graver flaw is the strange emptiness at the center of the book; for all its flash and grime, Moby seems unwilling or unable to place his story within the greater context of the times.
PositiveThe Washington PostSome of the chapters here are curiously disjointed, skipping back and forth between the present and the past with no discernible pattern and a kind of tonal uncertainty that leaves the reader unsure of what to make of certain passages ... In the end, the value of this haunting account lies in Chris Offutt’s refusal to find a pat moral in his journey, or to reach for some neat, bow-wrapped reconciliation.
Juan F. Thompson
PanThe Washington PostThough frequently engaging, in the end, Stories I Tell Myself feels faintly underpowered. It’s neither accomplished enough to ascend into the ranks of memorable literary memoirs nor irreverent enough to qualify as a delicious celebrity tell-all.