Michelle DeanMichelle Dean is a journalist and critic based in New York. Her book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion will be published in 2017. She can be found on Twitter @michelledean
PositiveThe New RepublicJenny Offill’s aptly titled Weather is a dispatch...vacillating between gallows and humor, almost always living in the space between both. But, though concerned with topical matters, it is not exactly what was once called a social novel. There’s neither much plot nor much character to speak of ... this novel is propelled by voice, not machinery. The narrator’s mood is, in a pleasing way, internally contradictory. She is full of anxiety, but she arrives at such a beautifully laconic mode of expression that the effect is lulling rather than unsettling ... There is an elegance even in her more depressing insights[.]
RaveSlateThe book is an attempt to answer that titular question—and as something of a philosophical investigation, it is bound not to be everyone’s travel mug of fair-trade Darjeeling ... This is a story of girl meets girl, girl talks to girl, girl talks to girl again, girl buys same dress as girl, girl makes up with girl, and so forth. There are other friends in the constellation Heti presents, but they are dwarves to Margaux’s supergiant, at least in Sheila’s ordering of the universe. And it’s in her relationship with Margaux, a painter, that Sheila investigates, and reinvestigates, and reinvestigates, the question that obsesses her. This is not the kind of book you can really spoil, but I will say, right off the bat, that the process of asking turns out to be just as important as the answer ... Heti’s closer analogue might be Fiona Apple, who wrote a beautiful, musically virtuosic album with a long title that she fought for because it was what suited her ... This is a novel that wonders if the ugly can be beautiful, if there is clarity to be found in the drifting. The occasional banality of the conversations is a deliberate challenge, not least to the notion of banality itself.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorCountry Girl is bulwarked by a certain amount of reluctance. You can see that most closely in the form of the book. Its artfulness suggests that O\'Brien is still reserving judgment on the propriety of disclosing her personal life. That said, the narrator does not come across as coy or evasive. It\'s more a matter of structure. Everything is related in brief vignettes and anecdotes, the author preferring lyricism and metaphor to exhaustive detail. And while O\'Brien moves her story through time in a broadly linear fashion, the chronology forks with regularity enough that an inattentive reader might get lost. It is a bit like being guided through a forest by someone who does not want you to remember the way out yourself.
RaveThe GuardianWhen presented this way, through Mann’s seductive, cerebral, yet preternaturally calm written voice, the controversy seems shouted across a long void of history, though it wasn’t so very long ago. The age of ubiquitous self-disclosure, wrought by the internet, throws into sharp relief the fact that these pictures are, at the very least, clearly art ... Another surprise of this volume is learning what a good critical mind Mann has. Not all artists possess, as she does, the ability to articulate her vision in clear language.
PanThe Guardian\"Westover’s narrative style – episodic, meditative and repetitive – doesn’t embrace melodrama to the extent that many of those [\'misery lit\'] books did. Her voice is slightly flimsy, scaffolding with sheets of plastic floating off, as if still in the process of building itself. Other than as a sort of articulate vortex of suffering, one hasn’t much of a sense of her. Educated relies on the conceit that Westover was saved by books, but at the end I had a sense of our narrator still hiding behind her degrees and certificates, not quite ready to step into the light ... Westover has a story to tell that shouldn’t be ignored. Her background says something important about the US: that even in a place of great opportunity, you can grow up without any idea of how to touch its white-hot centre. This memoir tracks all the ways that traditional American life puts up roadblocks and actively dissuades you from outgrowing your \'roots.\' There are insights here that could compete with JD Vance’s problematic and more ideological Hillbilly Elegy – if only they were more directly articulated.\
Ursula K. Le Guin
MixedThe Los Angeles Times\"The dominant theme, beyond cats and books, is worry. Worry about a ruined environment and worry about the vagueness of the modern obsession with the ‘inner child’ and a worry about the proper uses of anger … I’m not sure how I feel, in the end, about the existence of this book. It is not that these are ‘blog posts’ that bother me. Famous writers’ diaries are published as standalone books all the time all the time...all I could think was: I want Le Guin to keep going, on and on. I want to read more. But of course, in a blog post, there wasn\'t time for that.\
MixedThe New RepublicWhereas her other novels invited comparisons to the postmodernists—say Don DeLillo—here we’re closer to the realm of lyrical realism, something more like a novel by Colm Tóibín that quietly works through Egan’s particular concerns. While there are breaks and loop-backs in its narrative timeline, Egan has put together a rather uncharacteristically ordinary book ... There is something wondrous about the technologies that the characters in Manhattan Beach have at their disposal. They don’t seem to carry any real costs. That, of course, is the rub. The novel so elegantly represents the past that it doesn’t have any sense of friction or edge. The social conditions are scarcely fleshed out, with little sense of how race and class shape the characters and their wartime work ... Research can be a boon to a novelist—there are more things in heaven and Earth than can be dreamt of in a single writer’s philosophy—or it can become a hindrance, a thick layer of algae that weighs down the storytelling. Egan’s wartime divers, for all their breathing apparatus, threaten to sink Manhattan Beach ... The deep sea is indeed very quiet, an oasis from all the activity on the surface, a place where the normal rules of movement, and even of breathing, don’t apply. The slow, meditative pace of Manhattan Beach was perhaps meant to mimic this, the entire book a vacation from the frantic everyday onslaught of disconnected information that Egan has usually been so eager to chronicle. But maybe that’s it: Maybe Egan, in this book, needed a break too.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesJesmyn Ward’s latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is a multivocal book, switching voices from chapter to chapter ... Everyone is lost in daydreams, as people often are in cars, which helps expand from this potentially claustrophobic setting ...maintains a tricky balance: her [Ward's] story is moral-but-not-judgmental, political-but-not-polemical, sad-but-not-treacly ...as economical a writer, in her own way, as Hemingway, using only the necessary number of words. If anything, there are times the reader wants Ward to elaborate more, not less ... With first Salvage the Bones and now Sing, Unburied, Sing, she has proved herself to be an excellent writer of brief but socially and intellectually ambitious novels. One only wants to ask her to push further, and write even more.
PanSlateThe problem with writing a novel about climate change—and Kingsolver is not the first to attempt it—is that the issue is fundamentally abstract. There is very little one person can do to stop the icebergs from melting. That is not to pronounce against everyone doing their part; it’s simply to say that as a dramatic engine, climate change doesn’t have much of heart … So she stuffs 400 pages with information about monarchs and their habits, stringing them between tales of the disintegrating marriage between Dellarobia and Cub, and her growing affection for Byron, the scientist who’s come to investigate the phenomenon. There are also interstitial comments on the class biases, and pure economics, that are preventing Dellarobia’s extended family from seeing the crisis before them, and acting accordingly. What results is unwieldy and, at times, dense.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesSex and Rage is less controlled, and in my view, a more interesting work from Babitz. Jacaranda shares some of her biographical markers but not all of them, giving her room to experiment. And though the book is plotless, told in vignettes, and this will bedevil some readers, there is something about its portrait of an It Girl on the verge of a nervous breakdown that softens and opens the type ... All that allure, that veneer of endless cool, it can be a little intimidating. But Babitz is up to something more interesting by the time she plants Jacaranda in the legendary New York artist’s watering hole called Elaine’s. Jacaranda looks around that room with ambivalence. 'In Elaine’s it was almost impossible to pull off being incredibly beautiful and splashy and fabulous,” she remarks. It fits, because most of Sex and Rage seems to be about the difficulty of pulling off that It Girl illusion too.
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes
MixedThe Guardian...a standard campaign machine story, in which the reason for the loss can always be divined from within the loser’s staff ... Allen and Parnes have nothing particular to say about the afflictions America that faced in 2016. They’re just here for the facts, ma’am, and if the facts happen to make for entertaining anecdotes, so be it ... The Trump campaign was shambolic, the chaos on full display. And with that in mind, one wonders how Allen and Parnes expected readers to take their loose argument, that the campaign was doomed from the start, at face value. Competence doesn’t seem to correlate with electoral victory.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewIn nonfiction Gaitskill proves a very effective analyst of her own impulses ... This qualified, considered view of difficult questions means that Gaitskill sacrifices the propulsive force of the firebrand for the more unsettled role of the essayist. The result is that it’s much more difficult to forget the insights that she comes to. By tethering herself to the complexities of human experience, Gaitskill gets a lot more mileage out of her subject that a writer of lesser intelligence does. Put together here, all her essays do seem to be making a similar point: what looks like one kind of humanity, from a distance, is actually something more internally conflicted, more lost to itself.
RaveNewsday...[an] idiosyncratic and unforgettable first novel ... incident isn’t what draws you into The Idiot. Character is. From the beginning, the reader notices that Selin is very intelligent but also somewhat aloof, not quite together. Her combination of ambition and aimlessness is a very recognizable type ... Readers of Batuman’s nonfiction in The New Yorker and of her previous book, The Possessed will recognize the signature blend of Batumanian intelligence and lightly ironic detachment in that voice.
MixedThe Los Angeles TimesThere is almost nothing of haphazard daily life in Didion’s work, no sense of accident or chance. Everything in controlled, measured out and sharpened to a point. Even the meaningless is given meaning. That sort of paradox is central to Didion’s work: She takes a ruin and in prose makes it whole and beautiful. It is mysterious, in that context, to be presented with South and West: From a Notebook. It is not actually new work but a collection of notes from two failed works in progress. We are given no indication of why Didion has chosen to publish this book now ... So this is a book of notes, and the notes are explicitly not meant to amount to anything in particular. That does not mean that the observations Didion presents here are without elegance and insight ... There are also, perhaps inevitably, a few unforgettable shards of prose...But her hypnotist’s tricks keep getting broken up by the necessarily partial, impressionistic progress of a book like this. No anecdote gets longer than a page or two, and none ties smoothly to the rest. South and West is a book for the completists and hardcore fans, in other words.
PanThe Los Angeles Times\"It’s almost as though it’s been written by some other writer. The Other Auster of 4 3 2 1 is a wry authorial presence but not a particularly interesting one ... This is a novel that accumulates small incidents rather than tells the story of some Big Event ... The book is not badly written, per se, and Auster crams so much material and action in that one can’t help but be propelled along. But even the most devoted Auster fan, the sort of reader who enjoys the struggle of keeping track in a book like this, seems very likely to lose the thread. It’s not hard to keep track of which Ferguson you’re talking about, but it’s hard to know why we must learn so much about each particular Ferguson ... There isn’t enough ambition in the narrative message to justify the page length, and all along I thought to myself: Auster is smarter than this. He’s proven it before...But one leaves 4 3 2 1 feeling tricked. The reader goes into the book believing he’s getting some serious Auster, and comes out the other end with a joke.\
MixedThe Barnes & Noble ReviewTime invested in Rachel Cusk’s work is never ill spent. There is so much to luxuriate in. Her sentences are like artfully laid little paths in a beautiful bit of woods ... The world is big and confusing, and we find ourselves wanting guidance. Some people like to find it in churches; others like to find it in fiction. But Cusk is one of those novelists — and they abound right now, from Ben Lerner to Sheila Heti — who are looking to trouble that relationship ... Does all this blabbing sound a bit tedious? I fear that it does; I fear that this sort of book has nothing to say to vast swaths of humanity...sometimes, as I read Transit, I had questions about whether or not any of this was really improving fiction in the way that the intellectual justification seems to imply. One does not get the impression, for example, that what Cusk is actually importing into the novel is unadulterated experience ... Though mostly a vessel for other people’s stories in Outline and Transit, there is a certain elegance to the existence this narrator has. She does not seem to fear anything. She does not seem to want anything. And above all, she never seems uncertain about who she is or what she’s doing.
MixedThe Barnes & Noble Review...her companionable voice will carry you for hundreds of pages ... Charity, class, and celebrity all get their turn at the helm of this elegant ship Smith has constructed ... Smith keeps things moving at a steady, elegant pace, but the journey remains all on one plane of experience. Never precisely a moralist, Smith isn’t very comfortable pushing her characters deep into the dilemmas they find entangling them, in the difficult questions the novel does seem to want to raise. This, perhaps, is true to the way people actually live, skimming the surface of meaning. But in a novel it can occasionally be unsatisfying.
MixedThe Los Angeles Times[Boyle] has a better handle on some of the characters than he does on the others — Ryu frequently borders on caricature. Overall though they’re human beings: brave, lost and often annoying ... But as the novel wears on, Boyle’s purpose in telling their story starts to become opaque. He is at best ambivalent on whether there is any method to the Terranauts’ madness, and his ambivalence becomes less a point of subtlety than a hole in the middle of the novel ... you’ll leave this book wondering what exactly this whole grand experiment of Boyle’s, in all its beauty and ambition, was ever really about.
MixedThe Barnes & Noble Review...one senses that Lethem has nowhere near the affection for gambling stories that he has for other literary genres ... formal flashes make the book very entertaining to read. There are also surpassingly beautiful passages of prose, especially in the section about Bruno’s surgery ... After reading A Gambler’s Anatomy twice it’s hard to say what Lethem is hoping the reader will take away. There are no characters to love. There are no real philosophical questions posed. At the risk of using a cliché that Lethem himself is far above using, this book lacks any obvious heart.
Jonathan Safran Foer
PanThe New Republic...as one burrows deeper into Here I Am, the solipsism of a gilded life becomes stifling ... Foer writes in the certainty that all of humanity shares universal experiences, so for him the particulars are often irrelevant, which feels like the most Brooklyn thing about him ... When Foer does try to address large questions, he is able to deliver only clichés in response, and not particularly resonant clichés at that.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewPerhaps it goes without saying that this is not the story America usually tells itself about immigrants ... Partanen is good at blending the individual stories of her friends into the cold, hard facts of national statistics. Nevertheless, after a while, even a Canadian like me starts to feel frustrated when Partanen lists all the benefits she derived from her Finnish taxes ... Partanen has much to say about what the Nordic countries have to offer, but remarkably little to say about how Americans can achieve this kind of glory for themselves ... Partanen is a careful, judicious writer and she makes a careful, judicious case. But I doubt any American not already sympathetic to her argument will be persuaded.
MixedThe Barnes & Noble ReviewLubow is not an abstract thinker; instead, he spends most of the book trying to convince us that Arbus was neither as perverse nor as tragic as she sometimes seemed ... Lubow is at his best, however, when his focus includes not just the photographer but her camera. He surveys the history of photography in America as he glides from each of Arbus’s images to the next. The book canvasses the careers of Robert Frank and Richard Avedon alongside Arbus ... Still, Lubow is somewhat hampered as he tracks Arbus’s life, as opposed to her work. He reveals, early in the book, that he was not granted access to the Diane Arbus archive held by the Museum of Modern Art.
MixedThe GuardianAt first I wondered if Danler meant to satirize Tess’s self-involvement, a symptom of the sense of importance that young people often have. She doesn’t. This is a novel for those who like to think coming-of-age in New York is as poetic as the movies say it is. Tess is left to her own self-absorbed devices throughout the book ... characters are thinly drawn, so it’s hard for the reader to feel the same stake in their deceptions as Tess does ... In most novels, these problems with main characters would be insuperable obstacles, but Sweetbitter actually goes down very easily ... It’s a boon that unlike most food writers, Danler isn’t anxious to plaster over the experience with words. This allows the book to develop the atmosphere of sensuality she was clearly hoping to create. One only wishes it had been put to use to create a better, more inviting atmosphere.
PositiveThe GuardianAwad’s prose style is spare, which keeps the novel from descending into voyeurism, though it also means that Elizabeth spends much of the book hiding from the reader. She’s not comfortable enough to linger for more than a paragraph or two of interiority ... In the last few lines both Awad and Elizabeth seem to be trying to persuade her, over all the cliches that attach to pedalling nowhere, that her obsession with weight has not doomed her to any particular fate. The effect is subtle, but poignant, not least because you’re not quite sure where the author lands on the subject.