Nathaniel Rich is an American novelist and essayist. He is the author of the 2013 novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, the 2008 novel, The Mayor's Tongue and the 2005 nonfiction book, San Francisco Noir: The City in Film Noir from 1940 to the Present. Rich has written essays and criticism for The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, Harper's Magazine,Rolling Stone, and Slate. He can be found on Twitter @NathanielRich
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewIn short order Smil summarizes the history of global energy, food, material production and trade. (Smil has dedicated books to each subject.) Salient details emerge ... Smil’s impartial scientist persona slips with each sneer at the \'proponents of a new green world\' or \'those who prefer mantras of green solutions to understanding how we have come to this point.\' Still, his broader point holds: We are slaves to fossil fuels. The global transition that we’ve only barely, unevenly, begun is not the work of years but decades, if not centuries ... Smil’s book can best be understood as a work of criticism. He finds a worthy target in the inane rhetorical battle, waged by climate activists (and echoed by climate journalists), between blithe optimism and apocalyptic pessimism ... It is nevertheless reassuring to read an author so impervious to rhetorical fashion and so eager to champion uncertainty...His most valuable declarations concern the impossibility of acting with perfect foresight ... This may not be a particularly galvanizing conclusion, but it is, yes, how the world works.
Jack E. Davis
RaveThe AtlanticDavis’s most surprising contribution is to show how adulation of the natural world can accelerate its destruction. We came very close to loving the bald eagle to death ... That we didn’t...is the source of the book’s bouncy optimism. The Bald Eagle is the rare natural history that plays as a comedy. It’s a dark comedy, however, because its lessons are not easily transferable to our broader, ongoing ecological catastrophe ... The Bald Eagle is a shaggy dog. It proceeds by the principles of accretion, with no eagle fact, or eagle-adjacent fact, left behind ... From the trivia, however, emerges a moving portrait of a species victimized for its own evolutionary successes ... Davis makes the subtle but persuasive point that the ubiquity of eagles in American culture...made individual animals seem expendable.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksIt’s easy to imagine an alternative version of Harrow that proceeds in this fashion for its full two hundred pages—a prose poem of disembodied monologues, interrupted by postapocalyptic panoramas. It’s easy to imagine because Harrow periodically withdraws into this mode, as if pulled gravitationally, the plot abstracting into a bedlam of voices, alternately outraged, numb, and screamingly insane ... To imagine that our pious efforts to stave off environmental collapse might succeed is insanity squared. It is hard to think of another American novelist brave enough to structure a novel around this theme ... Williams’s reverence for the magnificence of the nonhuman world can only be glimpsed in its reverse image, as if through a mirror—the funhouse mirror of the planet that we’ve trashed ... triumphantly, ecstatically antihumanist, mercilessly unforgiving of human foibles. Its voracious misanthropy is the source of its comedy ... Williams’s misanthropy is also the source of the novel’s exhilaration—for it is thrilling, enlivening even, to read a novel so contemptuous of the domineering pieties of our age.
George R. Stewart
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksStorm is the second-strangest book ever written about a storm ... As Stewart elevates the storm to protagonist, and demotes his human beings to animal passivity, what seems at first a high-concept premise develops into something more radical ... Storm’s drama hangs on the influence of environmental conditions on human fate, on the revelation of indirect but profound connections between erosion, ice melt, and vermicular digestion on the intimate lives of Americans ... Stewart’s prose is never more rhapsodic than when he charts profound transformations that unfold over vast, inhuman stretches of time ... He is...a poet-ethicist in the tradition of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Annie Dillard, a dramatist of the natural order and our fragile standing within it.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksThere are limits to the jollity that can be summoned from the reflected thrills of more than a century ago. Barnum’s most vivid moments are the fugitive flashes of a different Barnum, a doppelgänger whom he banished from his own memoirs and largely succeeded in concealing from the historical record ... Some of these details are less incriminatory than revelatory, suggesting a narrative that doesn’t square with the one he cultivated for public consumption ... Wilson finds himself in the uncomfortable position of celebrating Barnum’s outrageousness while pausing to censure those qualities that \'a modern sensibility must struggle to understand\': the casual if spirited racism of his early career; his aloof attitude toward the women in his life; his indifference to the capture, torture, and indiscriminate slaughter of animals ... The contortionist act forces Wilson into a retiring middle ground: \'Barnum embodied some of America’s worst impulses, but also many of its best.\'
RaveThe New York TimesGiraldi is our most tenacious revivalist preacher, his sermons galvanized by a righteous exhortative energy, a mastery of the sacred texts and — unique in contemporary literary criticism — an enthusiasm for moralizing in defense of high standards ... Giraldi is defiantly, lavishly unforgiving ... American Audacity is the rare example of a collection that coheres into a manifesto ... His critical criteria are timeless ... American Audacity is, despite itself, a deeply optimistic book.
PositiveThe New York Review of Books\"The defining characteristic of Amis’s own style is not a countertone so much as a counterphrase, the employment of a modified repetition to startling effect. His paragraphs bring to mind an Olympic slalomer, executing a series of tight, hard pivots, each marking a punch line, a critical insight, a dramatic turn, or a moment of horror ... Amis’s prose...withstands even the most pedestrian subjects. If anything, the more predictable material leads him to compensate with his most frenzied writing ... criticism can reveal unseen qualities of even a beloved work. At its highest level, it can enrich one’s understanding of the art of literature. Amis has a surgical ability to isolate the qualities that distinguish a writer’s genius, particularly those that break with \'ovine\' critical consensus ... Now Amis prepares for his greatest adversary yet. He won’t come away triumphant—no one does—but we can be assured that his fight will resound with the best qualities of his work: humor, originality of voice, and exacting, unflinching scrutiny.\
PanThe New York Review of Books'Attack' is the word that rises, three-dimensionally, from the text. It recurs often throughout Roth’s nonfiction, invoked to describe the various aggressions he has absorbed, his resentment toward his critics, and his assault on the blank page that faced him each morning ... The force of Roth’s attack, sustained for more than a half-century, is what made his retirement so startling. It is also the quality that, more than anything, sustains this volume ... But in these pages he rarely approaches the intimacy of his two short books of memoir ... Instead he is generally at great pains to depict his adult life as a dreary parade of professional monotony ... 'A writer needs his poisons,' Roth said in his Paris Review interview. 'The antidote to his poisons is often a book.' He published more than two dozen such books. Why Write? is not one of them. It more closely resembles an account of the poisons Roth was made to swallow and the symptoms they caused—the headaches, the convulsions, the bouts of delirium.
László Krasznahorkai, Trans. by George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet & John Batki
PositiveThe Atlantic\"The World Goes On begins with a series of short pieces that are closer to philosophical salvos than to narratives, but many of the stories that follow offer similarly tantalizing lures ... Yet hidden within these dense thickets of prose are sublime, often uncanny visions ... The eeriness of Krasznahorkai’s best work derives from its dogged hostilities to resolution, revelation, symbolism, parable, narrative clarity, character development. His fiction is not faithful to literary convention, but it is faithful to life. The extended periods of quiescence, the isolated glimpses of the sublime, the portentous images signifying nothing, the mundane images signifying everything, the arbitrary eruptions of horror and beauty—though Krasznahorkai’s technique relies upon artifice, the result is an honest, courageous, often harrowing portrait of a civilization in drift and decline. His dreary worlds are familiar, and the recognition of that familiarity is unsettling: We don’t like to acknowledge the meaninglessness of our lives. Most fiction is essentially escapist, allowing the reader passage to distant worlds or to the even more distant territory of the inner self. Krasznahorkai offers no escape. He writes fairy tales without morals, jokes without punch lines. They are designed to appeal to two kinds of readers: those with a good sense of humor, and those with none.\
PositiveThe AtlanticVeteran readers of Ishiguro therefore will approach The Buried Giant, his first novel in a decade, in a spirit of deep precaution ... It is hard to shake the sense that Ishiguro is up to his old tricks: one expects the ogres to be revealed as members of a rival village, the dragon to be some kind of a communal delusion, and Merlin to be a crackpot ...he is just as interested in collective memory. What does a society choose to remember? ... For all its dragon-slaying and swashbuckling, The Buried Giant is ultimately a story about long love and making terms with oblivion. It is an eerie hybrid: a children’s fable about old age. In Ishiguro’s novel, as in life, love conquers all—all, that is, but death.
PositiveThe AtlanticWhen Bleeding Edge begins, on ‘the first day of spring 2001,’ the dot-com bubble has burst, and the start-ups of Silicon Alley, that ‘enchanted country between the Flatiron Building and the East Village,’ have defaulted on their leases. Maxine Tarnow—Jewish, sardonic, single mother of two boys—is a professional fraud investigator … Though accessible through the Internet, DeepArcher links to no other Web site and is hidden from Google; it’s a closed system. It is, in other words, much like a Pynchon novel—shapeless, chaotic, open to interpretation, equally capable of producing boredom and wonder, bewilderment and enlightenment … Technology is paradise; technology is hell. Pynchon embraces both interpretations.
PositiveThe New York Review of BookLess than eight months into the administration, Rushdie has produced a novel that, if not explicitly about the president, is tinged a toxic shade of orange … The Golden House is primarily a character study, not only of Golden but of his three sons, his viperish young wife, and René. Rushdie is too devoted a storyteller to rely entirely on characterization, however. He turns to a trio of narrative conceits to enliven the action, one for each of the novel’s three acts … For all of The Golden House’s folkloric architecture and twinkling prose, for all its impish cartoonery and exuberant storytelling, the novel is at its heart an unsettling portrait of the state of humanity in the United States of 2017.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksDidion’s notes, which surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers, are a fascinating record of this time. But they are also something more unsettling. Readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror, how much is familiar in these long-lost American portraits. Didion saw her era more clearly than anyone else, which is another way of saying that she was able to see the future ... South and West is, in one regard, the most revealing of Didion’s books...offers for the first time a glimpse inside the factory walls ... even in its most casual iteration, Didion’s voice, with its sensitivity to the grotesqueries and vanities that dance beneath the skim of daily experience, is unmistakable ... A writer from the Gulf South once wrote that the past is not even past. Didion goes further, suggesting that the past is also the future. Now that we live in that future, her observations read like a warning unheeded. They suggest that California’s dreamers of the golden dream were just that—dreamers—while the 'dense obsessiveness' of the South, and all the vindictiveness that comes with it, was the true American condition, the condition to which we will always inevitably return. Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.
PositiveThe New York Review of Books\"...in 4 3 2 1 he has taken up a new, expansive style, dominated by paragraph-length sentences that crash over the reader like waves, dousing us continually with new information, the sentences expanding to summarize an event instead of pausing to inhabit it, often extending into the future or the past...One either succumbs to this type of prose or doesn’t, just as some people are susceptible to hypnosis while others, confronted with a dangling amulet, simply laugh. 4 3 2 1 is a novel you can lose yourself in. It does not make heavy demands, except perhaps on your time, though a sympathetic reader will glide through it ... 4 3 2 1 is best when Auster does just that—when the ground beneath the reader’s feet is spongy, unstable. The novel sputters when it lingers over what Ferguson calls the \'things you already knew,\' a category that includes not only the milestone historical events but the familiar coming-of-age plots and the reassuring opinions about politics and art ... Though 4 3 2 1 is not the most successful example of Auster’s project—it is too heavily weighted with the familiar, too stingy with the strange—it offers the clearest explication of his sensibility. Alternative realities have their uses, and for more than escapist fantasy. It takes a strong imagination to see the world as it isn’t. It takes an even stronger imagination to see the world as it is.\
Arlie Russell Hochschild
MixedThe New York Review of BooksStrangers in Their Own Land is the most satisfying example yet of this fish-out-of-water approach, with a premise out of Preston Sturges ... [Hochschild] makes a point of being on good terms with the people she studies. She refers to them as her 'friends,' dedicates the book to them, and praises them for being 'caring'...Yet these warm and caring people say the darnedest things, particularly when it comes to immigrants...Hochschild shows such an excess of good faith that it comes to seem a form of naiveté ... We come to know Hochschild’s subjects intimately: their thoughts, their prejudices, and most of all their fears, which form the foundation of their worldview. But we never get the sense that they know themselves.
RaveThe AtlanticOne of the triumphs of the novel is the delicacy with which Ball opens his narrator’s smart-aleck voice just wide enough to admit a sincere measure of wonder and dread ... How to Set a Fire and Why has the mood of a thriller but the plot of a coming-of-age novel. Although Lucia’s efforts to join her local Arson Club, and later to get revenge on an evil landlord, give structure to the narrative, much of the novel is devoted to Lucia’s thoughts about morality and 'the false parade of garbage that characterizes modern life.' Ball calls himself a fabulist but he is also a deeply moral writer, with a fine sense of tragedy.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksZero K is DeLillo’s most determined effort yet to deflect attention away from story, or below story, to the questions that lie beneath our lives and the life of our culture as it marches implacably toward its Omega Point...'Death,' writes DeLillo, 'is a tough habit to break.' But art retains its powers of consolation and transcendence, and its skepticism about both. Like any living thing, it continues to evolve. Of this Zero K is both a reminder and a bracing example.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewRivlin’s valuable book is among the first to relate, in clear and scrupulous detail, the decisions that have brought us this far, and to identify those who made them ... Rivlin is a sharp observer and a dogged reporter. He is unerringly compassionate toward his subjects — even [former Mayor] Nagin, who recently began serving a 10-year sentence for corruption at a federal prison in Texas. But Rivlin’s most valuable journalistic skill is his acute sensitivity to absurdity. He is particularly piqued by the absurdities of racial and economic injustice.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksIt is impossible to read The Invention of Nature without contracting Humboldt fever. Wulf makes Humboldtians of us all.