Parul Sehgal is a book critic at The New York Times. She was previously a columnist and senior editor at the Book Review. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic, Slate, Bookforum and The New Yorker, and she was awarded the Nona Balakian Award from the National Book Critics Circle for her criticism. @parul_sehgal
MixedThe New York TimesMary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom is clumsy, no getting around that—Plath has a heavy hand, and the novice fiction writer’s conviction that elaborate description will render her world real ... And yet the story is stirring, in sneaky, unexpected ways ... It’s unabashedly Freudian (and Plath herself seemed ambivalent about its merits), but look carefully and there’s a new angle here—on how, and why, we read Plath today ... It is not the familiar story about a heroine and her solitary triumph but a story about aid—the aid women can provide each other; and aid that is possible only from other generations, from those who know something of the journey.
Samanta Schweblin, Trans. by Megan McDowell
MixedThe New York TimesChildhood, and its contusions, are...the governing preoccupations of the Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin. Her stories are obsessed with notions of purity and danger; with the ways people can be deformed, very early on, in the name of tenderness, teaching and care. All this without a whisper of sentimentality ... to me, her true ancestor could only be David Lynch; her tales are woven out of dread, doubles and confident loose ends ... The new collection is impressive, but it lacks the finish of [her novel] Fever Dream. It contains three perfect stories...three stinkers and a handful of exploratory sketches. There’s a feeling of peeking into Schweblin’s notebook, of watching her early experiments with technique ... These stories spiral into their own circles of madness, but they all belong to the same universe. Odd plot points repeat: mysterious holes in the ground, violence to animals, violence to children, violence to children disguised as animals ... What makes Schweblin so startling as a writer, however, what makes her rare and important, is that she is impelled not by mere talent or ambition but by vision ... Schweblin’s dark farces just might awaken you to some of your own.
PanThe New York Times\"There’s plenty of London slang, to be sure, but it’s all garnish; the real sounds and deeper rhythms of the novel aren’t snatched from the streets but from literature. This book was incubated in a library ... But Gunaratne is a more passionate reader than he is writer. His novel is weirdly somnolent given how portentously it primes us for danger, for the burning of mosques and blood in the streets. On my first reading, I was not sure how this happened; had I missed something? Was I reading too quickly, too callously? ... Although interested in the clashing voices of London, of homegrown Grime music, the book itself is as tidy and contrived as a suburb. The characters speak their subtexts and announce their motivations. The rowdiness of the city is conveyed in summary, in blunt statements... and only rarely staged or subverted. Nor does the carousel of alternating viewpoints serve any real purpose. We see the same scene from different perspectives, but all reinforcing a single story. For all their \'fury,\' the young men of the novel feel so thinly drawn and so stubbornly on message that they remain devices; every one of their thoughts and observations goes to advance the machinery of the plot.\
PanThe New York Times\"Pedophilia, necrophilia, child abduction, child murder, mass murder—go down the menu of fears and outré fantasies; they’re all here. And for what? This is a dull, needy book. The desire to seem shocking—as opposed to a curiosity about thresholds physical and ethical—tends to produce provocation of a very plaintive sort ... With Roupenian, there is just the giddiness of her imagination, of what she can get away with ... characters remain their pathologies; the curtain falls on them before we can ever ask: Now what? There’s none of the simmer of \'Cat Person\' or its attention to language in the rest of these stories. Roupenian will work a metaphor until it screams.\
Anne Serre, Trans. by Mark Hutchinson
RaveThe New York Times\"[The Governesses is] a rawboned little story — a novella, really — prim and racy, seriously weird and seriously excellent; a John Waters sex farce told with the tact and formality of a classic French fairy tale ... There’s an energy here that recalls The Virgin Suicides — a story building around surveilled women. Mark Hutchinson’s splendid and sensitive translation sets the mood; he has a talent for the off-kilter adjective that first startles us and later explains so much ... The Governesses is not a treatise but an aria, and one delivered with perfect pitch: a minor work, defiantly so, but the product of a significant talent.\
MixedThe New York TimesRivkin travels in Twombly’s footsteps. He conducts scenic interviews with Twombly’s son and peripheral characters (the artist’s estate did not cooperate with the book). He scrapes up what he can, but very little is new, or surprising. The juiciest stories still come from the Vogue profile, the most sensitive readings of the work from an essay by Roland Barthes and the sharpest analysis of the man from Edmund White, who has written critically about Twombly’s decision to stay closeted ... Rivkin does his best Janet Malcolm impression as he considers the question of who own the facts of a life. But this besotted, often very beautiful book continually loses its way. Rivkin is an anxious writer, with a slightly clammy style ... He takes cover behind other people’s statements, pelting us with distracting, irrelevant quotes. And where Twombly is concerned, Rivkin makes the occasional wildly intriguing claim...only to hide his face and retreat into ambiguity, marveling at all we will never know about Twombly ... It’s not that such sentiments aren’t true, it’s that they begin to seem self-serving. The flaw of the book becomes its fetish. Vladimir Mayakovsky has a poem titled \'Cloud in Trousers,\' and that is what Twombly remains in this book. We don’t see the bawdiness, the nasty wit described by his friends, including the photographer Sally Mann and Rauschenberg ... Among the genuine discoveries in Chalk is that Twombly, a frenetic collector, owned a handwritten letter by Monet.
RaveThe New York Times...exemplary ... In this biography, Nietzsche steps out of the mists of obfuscation and rumor, vividly evoked with his beautiful manners and ridiculous mustache ... What is illuminated here owes as much to Prideaux’s sensibility as her approach ... his letters can be wildly funny and full of comic set pieces. Prideaux relishes this side of him. It helps that she is something of a specialist in the lives of histrionic male geniuses of the 19th century ... What Prideaux contributes is mainly shading and psychological insight ... an attentive, scrupulous portrait.
Uwe Johnson, Trans. by Damion Searls
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"Anniversaries [is] Uwe Johnson’s oceanic, nearly 1,700-page masterpiece ... It is a novel that swallows reality — as noisy and demanding as the world itself ... Anniversaries is not difficult reading, but it is painstaking. The story is tangled, the characters traumatized and suspicious of language. It requires a hard chair, a fresh pen and your full attention — for attention is its great subject ... The excess of this book can feel occasionally oppressive, the detail mismanaged even — must every tertiary character come equipped with such a lavishly imagined back story? But two days without the novel now, and I’m lonesome for its patient, laboring gaze, a kind of holy attention that Gesine recalls in her youth...\
PositiveThe New York Times\"In this new book of letters, written between 1956 and 1963, ending a week before Plath’s death, at 30, we see the [project\'s] goals triumphantly and tragically fulfilled ... In her final letters there was a note of wild, almost unbearable optimism... It’s a genuine shock to see her strength flare (\'my life, my sense of identity, seemed to be flying back to me from all quarters, buried hidden places\') just as the pages begin to dwindle. No one can seem quite so alive on the page as Plath...\
Perumal Murugan, Trans. by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
PositiveThe New York Times\"It’s not just the physical world Murugan describes so vividly — the way a cow clears its throat, for example — but the rural community, a village of 20 huts and a thousand ancient resentments, where there is no privacy and your neighbor’s suffering can serve as your evening’s entertainment ... At times, Vasudevan capably conveys the distinctiveness not only of Tamil but the language of a farming people — the insults (Ponna: \'Let her come. I will scoop the life out of her!\') and the particular metaphors (Kali is a light sleeper — \'his was a chicken’s sleep\'). But too often Vasudevan resorts to bland, anachronistic English clichés — \'testing the waters,\' \'leaving no stone unturned.\' To borrow a (stronger) expression from Murugan himself, it’s like coming across a small stone in rice ... I’m hoping for a whole shelf of books from this writer...\
RaveNew York Times\"Belonging, Krug’s new visual memoir, is a mazy and ingenious reckoning with the past. Born three decades after the Holocaust, she traces the stubborn silences in German life and investigates her own family’s role in the war. The book takes the form of an overstuffed scrapbook, jammed with letters, photographs, official documents and fragments from her uncle’s childhood journals — doodles of flowers, flags and swastikas ... The wisdom of this book is that it does not claim to [wash away stains or mend scars]. The notion of \'consolation\' is one I suspect Krug would regard with suspicion. What she seems in pursuit of is a better quality of guilt.\
PositiveThe New York TimesEach detour in Melmoth could be its own novel, and I was often sorry to leave them. There is a clarity to these historical sections, a care and restraint ... The murky Helen storyline, set in the present day, however, has all the subtlety of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho, except here danger is broadcast with the shrieking of jackdaws, the appearance of bloody footprints, the reek of jasmine and hyacinth. Perry strains for effect ... I put it down ... But I picked it up again, sooner than I anticipated. The novel reels you in, using the same trick of all the best ghost stories ... For all the strenuous special effects, it’s the simple, domestic details that shine in this book ... Perry brings a character to life in a few swift slashes ... She’s brilliantly acute on women, too, the subtle signalings of hierarchy in a group of friends.
RaveThe New York TimesDillon is a mournful, witty and original writer ... It is a beautiful container for irreconcilable desires and impossible ambitions ... Dillon’s mode is rhapsody, not analysis. He invites us to gawk at his intellectual crushes — their shapely sentences, wily inversions, daring transitions ... he moves with a hummingbird energy, flitting to the next writer, the next effect he loves ... He often writes in generalities — but they bristle with clues, with suggestive and, yes, odd language ... Out of that disarray come these crystalline pieces — and a sense, never belabored, of the stakes of creating essays and the consolations of loving them.
PositiveThe New York Times\"Ayoola — lovely, dopey, incorrigibly murderous — is the chaos at the heart of My Sister, the Serial Killer, a much-anticipated first novel from the Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite ... The chapters are brisk... The narration is clean and efficient; the characters lightly sketched. Psychologizing is kept to a minimum. There are a few tiresome genre tropes... But this book is, above all, built to move, to hurtle forward — and it does so, dizzyingly ... There’s a seditious pleasure in its momentum. At a time when there are such wholesome and dull claims on fiction — on its duty to ennoble or train us in empathy — there’s a relief in encountering a novel faithful to art’s first imperative: to catch and keep our attention.\
RaveThe New York TimesMost of the pieces here are canonical ... The book reveals how private reckonings bloomed into public stances ... Although she writes powerfully of her Jewishness and her experience of motherhood, this aspect of her identity — of being the exceptional woman, of being establishment-approved — provokes her most fluent and furious prose ... This is the usual charge levied at Rich — that she was more polemicist than poet. These essays tell a different story. We see how frequently, and powerfully, she wrote from her divisions, the areas of her life where she felt vulnerable, conflicted and ashamed ... I once read that a blue whale’s arteries are so large that an adult human could swim through them. That’s what entering these essays feels like — to flow along with the pulses of Rich’s intelligence, to be enveloped by her capacious heart and mind.
Sjón, Trans. by Victoria Cribb
PositiveThe New York TimesIt contains every fictional element and effect I’m leery of — unicorns, for example. Elaborate framing devices. Moist ruminations on mythopoeia. Angels. Everything I can scarcely bear in novels, I found in this book. And I was spirited away — for a time ... it toys with every genre under the sun ... One blindingly beautiful section comprises a list of surrealist images, the nightly dreams of a group of townspeople ... This book is a Norse Arabian Nights. Each section is a honeycomb. Stories are nested in stories and crack open to reveal rumor and anecdote, prose poems, tendrils of myth. This abundance isn’t an empty show of virtuosity but rooted in Sjon’s belief in the power and obligation of old-fashioned storytelling ... Where Sjon occasionally loses the reader is when he extols stories for their sheer existence, when he basks in their plenitude and his proficiency ... CoDex 1962 raised me up, let me down and consumed me for the better part of a week.
Javier Cercas, trans. by Frank Wynne
RaveThe New York TimesIt is thrilling to be in the room with the two of them once their cat-and-mouse game commences: Marco, unctuous, a savant of manipulation; Cercas, recoiling in his chair, empathizing against his will, trying desperately not to be used ... This torsion — from outrage to compassion to revulsion to baffled admiration to outrage all over again — gives the book its squirmy drama. It vibrates with an insomniac energy. I did, too, while in its throes ... The brilliance of The Impostor is how Cercas connects Marco’s desire for reinvention with Spain’s national project of burying its history as it transitioned from dictatorship to democracy ... The language is precise, distinctive and delicious. Is there a more gifted or versatile translator working today than Frank Wynne? ... The voice of this book, the voice of Cercas, with its beautiful grain and restlessness, its swerves from pity to fury, from calm to hysteria, owe much to Wynne’s almost musical modulations.
MixedThe New York TimesIt’s a doorstop, full of sound and fury, more nihilistic than Shakespeare’s original, with all the blunt and dismal machinations of a soap opera. It’s not a subtle novel ... Taneja’s very busy book...leaves little room for the reader to experience the strange, shifting identifications the original play makes possible, the way we can turn from pitying Lear to loathing him ... The narrative is easy enough to track, but where is the emotional truth of the story? We get motifs instead, grist for a dozen stimulating term papers: the inheritance of historical trauma, the unresolved repercussions of Partition, vivid examples of Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival ... On a sentence level, the book is a shambles. Exposition is meted out in clunky dialogue; themes are announced in portentous, nonsensical mantras ... Although you can sense the influence of Bret Easton Ellis and Martin Amis in Taneja’s broad characterizations of her villains, they lack the savagery and panache. She is fatally attracted to syrupy metaphors and has a tin ear when it comes to humor ... we rarely meld with the consciousness of the characters. The author keeps elbowing them out of the way to telegraph her contempt for them, their venality, their obscene wealth. Still, Taneja is a writer of considerable energy and invention. She is unflinching when it comes to the world she conjures ... It\'s when she ceases strenuously \'writing\'...and begins to ask questions of her characters and herself, that we get an entirely original take on Lear.
RaveThe New York Times\"[Eisenberg] is always worth the wait. The new book is cannily constructed, and so instantly absorbing that it feels like an abduction ... On the face of it, Your Duck Is My Duck could be regarded as a politically mild book for Eisenberg. The world intrudes only at the margins — tumult is hinted at in unnamed countries, glimpses of unspecified migrants. But these are stories of painful awakenings and refusals of innocence. This book offers no palliatives to its characters or to its readers — no plan of action. But it is a compass.\
RaveThe New York TimesAs he follows scientists into thickets, real and rhetorical, he keeps an eye not only on the rigor demanded by science, but on the wonder and play and curiosity—the noodling—of serious creativity. These are the very qualities that infuse and leaven his own work, making unlikely page-turners out of burly books ... What does it mean to be an \'individual,\' if we are such composite creatures? Quammen raises and rushes past these existential questions; like the White Rabbit, he spends some sections in a bit of a mad rush. There’s a \'Montana blizzard of facts\' he wants to shepherd us through; a dizzying array of scientists, past and present, he must introduce ... But Quammen is generally an exemplary guide; there are few writers so firmly on the side of the reader, who so solicitously request your patience...and delightedly hack away at jargon ... He keeps the chapters short, the sentences spring-loaded. There are vivacious descriptions on almost every page ... Each section ends with a light cliffhanger. Quammen has the gift of Daedalus; he gets you out of the maze.
PositiveThe New York Times...A putative guide to what happens to the body as it dies and directly after — and how to care for it. How to touch someone who is dying. How to carry a body and wash it. How to remove its dentures ... It should be noted that this book is not for the queasy. Frankly, neither is dying. Tisdale writes calm but explicit descriptions of \'the faint leathery smell\' of dead bodies and the process of decomposition. \'A dead body is alive in a new way, a busy place full of activity,\' she writes ... Tisdale does not write to allay anxieties but to acknowledge them, and she brings death so close, in such detail and with such directness, that something unusual happens, something that feels a bit taboo. She invites not just awe or dread — but our curiosity. And why not? We are, after all, just \'future corpses pretending we don’t know.\'
Thomas Clerc, Trans. by Jeffrey Zuckerman
PositiveThe New York TimesFor three years, the French writer Thomas Clerc cloistered himself in his 50-square-meter Parisian apartment, compiling an annotation of his possessions, including some 700 books, two old pornographic magazines, one electric kettle and one small spider who had taken up residence in his living room. The project became a book — Interior, a \'poetics of property,\' a room-by-room tour of his home, published in France in 2013 and now translated into English ... The stolid descriptions, the allergy to suspense and any real storytelling, feels all the more strange given that the references in the book run almost exclusively to twisty mysteries — to Hitchcock, Columbo, the board game Clue.
RaveThe New York TimesBrown ignores all the starchy obligations of biography and adopts a form of his own to trap the past and ensnare the reader — even this reader, so determinedly indifferent to the royals. I ripped through the book with the avidity of Margaret attacking her morning vodka and orange juice ... [Brown] swoops at his subject from unexpected angles — it’s a Cubist portrait of the lady ... The wisdom of the book, and the artistry, is in how Brown subtly expands his lens from Margaret’s misbehavior ... History isn’t written by the victors, he reminds us, it’s written by the writers, and this study becomes a scathing group portrait of a generation of carnivorous royal watchers ... Without ever explicitly positioning Margaret for our pity, Brown reveals how we elevate in order to destroy.
PanThe New York Times Book Review\"Never an especially subtle writer, Ryan has cast off any lingering restraint in his latest. In old movie parlance, this book is a three-hankie weeper. No need to sift for themes; they’re practically announced in booming voice-over ... Farouk is Syrian, but he might as well be Iraqi, Libyan, Uighur. He might be from Neptune. His country is presented to us as all heat and dust and moonlight; his family communicates in inscrutable Eastern-sounding parables ... From the first page to the last, the character remains hazy, a generic \'other\' conjured to make the reader feel (poor Farouk!) but never think ... One expects more from the author, however, who gives us bathos and melodrama and vacuous philosophizing instead of real intimacy and narrative stakes ... This feels particularly like an affront because Ryan, when disciplined, can notice so finely and can capture personality in such swift strokes.\
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Poisoned City is [dry] but a comprehensive chronicle of the crisis—with an eye for the institutional corruption and indifference that enabled it ... [an] important book... useful—as history and as blueprint ... Opportunities to use these blueprints will never stop presenting themselves.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson
RaveThe New York TimesMachado’s stories pulse with life. The endings are frequently murky and strange, often abruptly truncated... Few fiction writers have written so affectionately about ideas, as if they were real people; he is always describing how ideas emerge and move, the way they can lose their way and get caught in a crush with others... To Machado, your identity and the contours of your world are formed not just by your circumstances but by what you think about habitually. You are what you contemplate, so choose wisely. These stories are a spectacular place to start.
PositiveThe New York TimesRose is a calm and stylish writer ... Mothers is a useful synthesis of and loving engagement with many of the writers who have shaped our thinking on motherhood—[Toni] Morrison, Simone de Beauvoir and Adrienne Rich, whose unsurpassed Of Woman Born (1976) is a template for Rose. Mothers follows the same arc, arguing for the radical potentialities in motherhood, how women’s initiation into the relentless, often invisible labor of caretaking produces not the solipsistic, bourgeois creature of myth but something close to the ideal citizen—more responsive to the community and naturally inclusive.
Robert W. Fieseler
MixedThe New York TimesThe book is loving, sensitive and diligent. It is also overstuffed, unfocused and vexing. When I say Tinderbox should be taught in journalism schools, I mean it as praise and rebuke. There is smart media criticism in these pages. Fieseler examines how the tragedy was covered (or more usually ignored), tracing newsroom attitudes toward homosexuality and the euphemisms used to report on gay life ... Why does this seem like an energetic impression of a book? The anxious, frantic shifts make it feel as if he is constantly trying to please someone reading over his shoulder.
Dorthe Nors, Trans. by Misha Hoekstra
RaveThe New York TimesNors at her most unassuming and ambitious ... We’re locked in Sonja’s consciousness, but the novel never becomes claustrophobic. Opening it feels like opening a window — there’s a bracing freshness and chill to the writing, and the unforced ease of a song ... However plain the prose, Nors can’t help but handle words in interesting ways and put them to original uses ... This has always been a favorite move of hers— to yoke together unrelated clauses, to bring together despair and banality ... Nors’s fiction begins at the moment of unmooring — in all its pain and possibility, as these women imagine themselves into being. It’s the foundation, too, of a harsh wit that recalls early Lorrie Moore.
Olga Tokarczuk, Trans. by Jennifer Croft
RaveThe New York TimesIt’s a busy, beautiful vexation, this novel, a quiver full of fables of pilgrims and pilgrimages ... The narrator, coolly evasive in the way of Rachel Cusk’s heroine in the Outline trilogy, relishes how travel and growing older allow her to become invisible ... Interspersed with the narrator’s journey is a constellation of discrete stories that share rhyming motifs and certain turns of phrase. These vignettes often have the flavor of case studies ... Shaggy maximalism is the ethic and aesthetic of Flights. It is thronged with plots and subplots ... it feels impossible to connect to characters no sooner conjured than whisked away and replaced. Monotony settles in; we read at a remove, which feels cruel given that Tokarczuk’s aim is so clearly to train the eye to see more deeply ... Still, as plots ramify and the cast grows, the individual vignettes are themselves sculpted, and anchoring. In Jennifer Croft’s assured translation, each self-enclosed account is tightly conceived and elegantly modulated, the language balletic, unforced. And Tokarczuk has a canny knack for reading the reader, for anticipating your criticisms.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by by Ingvild Burkey
RaveThe New York TimesThe book begins in a home where everything is leaking and creaking and on the verge of collapse. Every zipper is stuck, every button loose. The drains are clogged. The light bulbs have burned out long ago. So has the marriage ... Spring features Knausgaard unbound, writing for the first time without a gimmick or the crutch of extravagant experimentation, the endurance test of My Struggle or the staccato essays of his previous books on the seasons. Spring refuses contrivance; it refuses to parry ... the book’s blunt, unforced telling brings the larger project’s meaning into sudden, brilliant focus ... Knausgaard has assembled this living encyclopedia for his daughter with a wild and desperate sort of love, as a way to forge her attachment to the world, to fasten her to it — to fight the family legacy of becoming unmoored and alienated.
Patrick Chamoiseau, Trans. by Linda Coverdale
RaveThe New York Times\"Slave Old Man is Chamoiseau’s strongest work since his masterpiece, Texaco ... Slave Old Man is a cloudburst of a novel, swift and compressed — but every page pulses, blood-warm ... The prose is so electrifyingly synesthetic that, on more than one occasion, I found myself stopping to rub my eyes in disbelief.\
Yoko Tawada, Trans. by Margaret Mitsutani
MixedThe New York Times\"The Emissary is a contentedly minor work. It has a recessive, lunar beauty compared to the sunny ambition and inventiveness of its predecessors ... Tawada is a great disciple of Kafka’s; he \'predicted reality,\' she is fond of saying. And while she shares certain of his preoccupations — with otherness and evoking animal life — hers is a more prosaic mission: She mirrors reality. Although her work is frequently described as strange — which it is, determinedly — there is always a stark social critique at its core ... It’s quite a premise, but remains just that. The book feints at a narrative and at wrestling with the issues it raises ... Tawada seems content to evoke mood, to polish her sentences to a high sheen. Her language has never been so arresting. But as Virginia Woolf wrote, novels are composed of paragraphs, not sentences. The Emissary is stalled there, at the level of a flickering brilliance that never kindles into more. From a writer with Tawada’s gifts, mere beauty can be a disappointment.\
Zora Neale Hurston
RaveThe New York Times\"Hurston herself is present only at the edges of the narrative, but she is unmistakable. She is most beloved for her novels, but she was also a gifted folklorist, and the qualities that distinguished her are on display in this early work: her patience, persistence and charisma; her ability to read her subjects; her tact ... The details he shared with Hurston are indelible ... There is, in Hurston’s attentive gaze, not restitution but the consolations of kinship and witness, the sweetness of clingstone peaches, of the life built within the constraints.\
PositiveThe New York Times\"Her new book is blunt: Nothing in modern life prepares us for the leaving of it ... The wellness movement, as you might imagine, doesn’t stand a chance. She fillets it with ease and relish—revealing the paucity of research supporting the usefulness of everything from annual physical exams to meditation—and dismantles nostrums about the innate balance and wisdom of the body ... Natural Causes is peevish, tender and deeply, distinctively odd—and often redeemed by its oddness.\
Åsne Seierstad, Trans. by Seán Kinsella
MixedThe New York Times\'We were blind. We thought it would pass. Now we know better. \' This admission is tucked away at the very end, in an afterword. It explains the prickling feeling you might have while reading the book that information is being withheld, that Seierstad knows more than she’s telling ... Seierstad is at her best when she pans out to consider the variety of reasons Western women join ISIS (by 2013, there were 3,000 Westerners in Syria, several hundred of them women), drawn by a hunger for sisterhood, adventure and membership in a society they felt was colorblind — where shared allegiances were more important than race ... Extremism more often follows crises in identity and in community, when other narratives of making sense of the self have fallen away. This is what becomes obvious every time the sisters in Seierstad’s book flicker into focus, when their voices can be heard, unmediated. This story of theirs has yet to be told — despite the resonant clues they left along the way — and even as it promises to be repeated by others.
Clarice Lispector, Trans. by Benjamin Moser & Magdalena Edwards
PositiveThe New York Times\"No one sounds like Lispector — in English or Portuguese. No one thinks like her. Not only does she seem endowed with more senses than the allotted five, she bends syntax and punctuation to her will. She turns the dictionary upside down, shaking all the words loose from their definitions, sprinkling them back in as she desires (along with a few eyelashes, toast crumbs and dead flies) — and doesn’t the language look better for it? ... But The Chandelier is uniquely demanding — it’s baggy, claggy and contentedly glacial. We get interior monologues and barometric readings of the drifting mood of a young, unhappy woman named Virginia. Paragraph breaks are few; chapter breaks are nonexistent ... If the pages of The Chandelier are so thickly lacquered with description, streams of adjectives and looping repetition, it’s because Lispector is flexing, coming into her power. She’s playing, she’s practicing. These pages are full of finger exercises, arpeggios of thought and perception ... The Chandelier might best be understood as a bridge in Lispector’s work. But even so, it conveys a special charge, an undeniable quantity of genius.\
PanThe New York TimesLake entertains all these ideas in a confused fashion. What she doesn’t do is give sufficient space to Chinese women to explain their decisions and desires themselves. When that happens, in a fleeting scene halfway through the book, a more intriguing picture emerges. The female founder of a dating website tells her: 'Most of these so-called leftover women have voluntarily chosen their lifestyle.' Lake scarcely grapples with the implication of this statement — how could she? It’s too at odds with her story, which has so firmly cast her subjects as victims and not agents.
PositiveThe New York TimesAside from the voyeuristic pleasures (which are substantial), we get a sense of entering the consciousness of each character. So much of our personal lives can feel like desperate improvisation, but Flock reveals the scripts we consult — from novels, television, family lore and religion ... A small armada of books have explored the aspirations of India’s booming middle class ... What distinguishes Flock’s take is her interest in and access to the inner lives of married women who face particular constraints: Divorce is difficult to obtain and highly stigmatized ... Marriage is changing because women are changing ... We are...meeting the protagonists of a new global narrative.
RaveThe New York TimesIn eight novels produced in just over a decade, [Ball] has combined Kafka’s paranoia with Whitman’s earnest American grain to found a fictional kingdom of genial doom and melancholia ... Census, Ball’s new work, [is] his most personal and best to date ... I can think of no higher praise for this novel than to echo what this woman tells the father for traveling with his son, for letting the world experience his gift: 'I think you cannot know the good you do.'”
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewIt’s an intellectual autobiography — a starchy, ardent and, on occasion, surprisingly personal account of what it means to be the custodian of one’s conscience in a world saturated with orthodoxies. In other words, it’s a passionate treatment of one of Robinson’s longtime preoccupations … She published no new fiction for 24 years, devoting herself instead to deep study of Marx, Darwin and the history of political thought. In many ways, What Are We Doing Here? is a response to those years of study, a repudiation of Marx and Darwin, of powerful ideologies of any stripe that simplify the world … Most of the essays in this new book were delivered as speeches, and some repetition is inevitable. But so too is our desire for more — for the refinement of her ideas instead of the rehashing — especially since the final essay, which takes an unexpectedly personal turn, delivers like no other.
Terese Marie Mailhot
RaveThe New York Times\"Don’t be fooled by the title. Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir, published under the romantic, rather forgettable name Heart Berries, is a sledgehammer … Phantoms speak throughout Mailhot’s book — they speak through her. She began working on it when she had herself committed after a breakdown. She wrote her way out of the chaos of her past … Heart Berries has a mixture of vulnerability and rage, sexual yearning and artistic ambition, swagger and self-mockery that recalls Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick … So much of what Mailhot is moving toward here still feels nascent — the book wants a tighter weave, more focus. But give me narrative power and ambition over tidiness any day.\
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"...a scorchingly intelligent first novel ... The two stories never explicitly intersect. A third section, a radio interview with Ezra, hints at the link between them, but the game — and real pleasure — for the reader is to trace deeper resonances. What does it mean that these lives coexist? ... this book is musical, not architectural in structure; themes don’t build on each other as much as chime and rhyme, repeat and harmonize, so what we receive is less a series of thesis statements than a shimmering web of associations; in short, the world as we know it ... On every page, you interrogate every detail: What are you doing here? Why do you matter? Asymmetry is not complicated, but it cannot be read complacently. Like it or not, it will make you a better reader, a more active noticer. It hones your senses.\
PanThe New York TimesThe Nothing, Kureishi’s latest, is a strange performance: a mound of words presented to us as a novel, a situation passing as a story … Kureishi’s book is sour and shallow; it’s over before it begins. Waldo stalks and plots, fights listlessly with his wife. There’s none of the amplitude, the imaginative energy of his best work or even the interesting surliness of his more mediocre efforts.
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s narrative nonfiction that is his natural home. Telling other people’s stories seems to focus him. The sentences take on an Orwellian clarity — they’re lean and clean, flensed of the tics, doodles and strenuous self-consciousness of his early work, and of the dour didacticism of the new novels. In The Monk of Mokha, he moves lightly between story and analysis, and between brisk histories of Yemeni immigration to America; gentrifying San Francisco; coffee cultivation; and the saints and thieves who dispersed the beans around the world ... It left me warmed, but also wired, and a little twitchy. What is it about Eggers? What accounts for this aftertaste that is equal parts admiration and suspicion?...Eggers wants to humanize immigrants, but in his telling, something very different seems to occur. Everything about his characters is outsize — their bravery and suffering, their resilience and capacity for forgiveness, their contributions to the country. They are supermen, their powers 'entrepreneurial zeal and dogged labor.' Time was, to make a home in this country it was enough to yearn to breathe free.
PositiveThe New York Times\"A radiant first novel ... Neon in Daylight has antecedents in the great novels of the 1970s: Renata Adler\'s Speedboat, Elizabeth Hardwick\'s Sleepless Nights, Joan Didion\'s Play It as It Lays ... Precision--of observation, of language--is Hoby\'s gift. Her sentences are sleek and tailored. Language molds snugly to thought. Story isn’t her interest — or her forte. The foreshadowing can be heavy-handed, and I’m agnostic about the book’s climax ... Her talent is for evoking mood. The title comes from one of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems (\'Neon in daylight is a / great pleasure\'), his collection of odes to New York, a great dispensary of pleasure and strangeness. Hoby shares O’Hara’s keen eye for the city’s grubby beauty.\
MixedThe New York TimesMyriam Gurba is a self-professed 'final girl' and Mean is her testimony: a scalding memoir that comes with a full accounting of the costs of survival, of being haunted by those you could not save and learning to live with their ghosts ... Mean calls for a fat, fluorescent trigger warning start to finish — and I say this admiringly. Gurba likes the feel of radioactive substances on her bare hands. She wants to find new angles from which to report on this most ancient of stories, to zap you into feeling. She hunts for new language, her own language, to evoke the horror and obscene intimacy of sexual violence ... The book keeps revolving between these poles of horror and humor, sometimes wobbling on its axis. Gurba is addicted to terrible puns, and they get worse and more numerous as the book goes on...Worse, the compulsive punning and jokiness distract from the book’s more ambitious possibilities — and its most interesting tension ... It feels as if Gurba is drawn to these details not from ghoulishness but from a need to make her own suffering and fear feel more real to her. The book’s clear forebear is The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson’s book about the murder of her Aunt Jane. I wished Gurba had wrestled with, as Nelson does, what it means to use a dead woman, a stranger, in this way: as a blank slate on which to project her fantasies and fears.
Norma Stevens and Steven M. L. Aronson
RaveThe New York TimesIt’s a good time, this book. There’s a feeling of arriving at a party where everyone is at least two drinks (and who knows what else) ahead of you, and the hostess has you by the arm and is barreling you into the thick of things … Stevens is most illuminating in her behind-the-scenes glimpses of the work. Avedon revolutionized the field; he brought an end to the era of the docile mannequin posing stiffly in this season’s clothes — his women leapt off the page; they danced and tumbled and communicated … Avedon’s secretiveness might have scuttled a traditional biography, but it’s sidestepped with Stevens’s oral history approach. Everyone saw one side of him — but together the testimonies of his assistants, models and lovers add up to a mosaic of the man.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...[a] sparkling and forceful manifesto ... The book is a straight shot of adrenaline, animated less by lament than impatience and quick wit ... It’s a tonic to encounter a book that doesn’t just describe the scale of a problem but suggests remedies — and exciting ones at that ... Lest this seem hopelessly utopian, she points to those doing this very work, including the founders of Black Lives Matter: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. In promoting decentralized leadership and emphasizing the movement over personalities, these three women are recasting power, 'decoupling it from public prestige,' transforming it from a possession one can seize to an attribute that can be shared.
PositiveThe New York TimesDifficult Women is creepy, it is cruel, it is morally indefensible — and it is exhilarating … There may be no defending these heartless portrayals, but there’s also no denying their power. Each scene is expertly staged, and burns with the same dark excitement you find in Mary Gaitskill’s fiction or Harold Pinter’s plays, the feeling that these characters have sought one another out to exercise hidden fears and desires, to expose primal wounds … Nor is there any denying how severe Plante is on himself. He is the book’s ugliest character, a Uriah Heep content to grovel at the feet of genius (or, at the very least, social influence), lap up abuse and act out his revenge on the page … The women may utter Plante-speak, they may look ridiculous — they throw tantrums (Rhys), bully their dinner guests (Orwell), wander around half-dressed and flashing the neighbors (Greer) — but they get the best lines.
PositiveNPREnglander is interested in how faith is understood, rejected and defended, and in the tension between the needs of the individual and the demands of the community. If the themes are familiar — this is terrain well-mined by Malamud, Bellow and Roth — Englander refreshes them with narrative experimentation and a cast of appealingly crazy characters … Englander unwittingly makes us wonder: If a writer takes Jewishness as his subject, is he obligated to tell us something new about Jewishness? Or is he only obligated to describe Jewish characters in the most precise language he can, putting them in the most psychologically revealing situations he can imagine? Such questions — irresolvable, hairsplitting, Talmudic — prove more satisfying than the answers posed by a more perfect book.
RaveThe New York TimesThis self-criticism has a whiff of desperation. Now in his 80s, the British playwright of stage-to-screen hits like The History Boys and The Lady in the Van has become, to his dismay, beloved, a national monument to coziness and harmless affability ... Keeping On Keeping On comprises a decade of diary entries, from 2005 to 2015, all originally published in The London Review of Books, each one a burst of intellectual fire and feeling — but unpretentious and unsentimental to the core ...a string of wry asides to the audience — pensées, jokes and anecdotes with the compression and tang of a Lydia Davis short story ...the proof is on every page. He remains energetically and profitably exasperated, committed to exposing corruption, the abuse of language, the exploitation of people and assorted foolishness of all kinds.
PositiveThe New York Times...almost point by point, Bannos refutes how Maier has been marketed. And she looks at how it has benefited Maloof et al. to present Maier as a strange, incapable wraith, how it made them look all the more heroic, and allowed them to cavalierly overlook her absolute unwillingness to show her work publicly ... The achievement of Bannos’s intelligent, irritable self-reflexive study is in its restraint. She unseats the ghost and restores to us the woman — but in her own words and images, and without psychologizing. It’s a portrait as direct as any of Maier’s, and what a distinct pleasure it is to meet her gaze again.
PositiveThe New York TimesIn The State of Affairs, Perel delves into cheating, asking the usual questions (Why did it happen? How can we recover?) and some that might occur only to her (What if an affair is good for a marriage?). She doesn’t dispense advice as much as scratch at orthodoxies, and pose questions with wit and a Continental exasperation with American mores ... As a writer, Perel is nimble and playful, and she knows her way around a phrase. We can hear these qualities on the podcast, where her good ear and gentle teasing produce quick complicity with each client. But as a thinker, she’s essentially a synthesizer — albeit a talented and confident one. The State of Affairs is a patchwork of (mostly attributed) common references ... Like other writers on sex — Emily Witt and Dan Savage come to mind — Perel is inspired by communities of queer and polyamorous people; 'monogamy’s dissidents,' she calls them, who are rethinking the boundaries of the couple. It’s an idea that’s easy to dismiss as outré but, Perel reminds us, so was premarital sex not so long ago. This is the kind of maneuver that makes Perel so bracing to read, this quick pivot to remind us how culturally specific our traditions are and, in some cases, how new. She doesn’t peddle in bromides or offer a shoulder to cry on — she’s too busy trying to shake you to your senses, insisting on your agency, your vitality and your complicity in what happens in your marriage. She’s a tonic, and sometimes a tough one to swallow.
Sylvia Plath, ed. by Peter K. Steinberg & Karen V. Kukil
MixedThe New York Times\"Frieda Hughes, the couple’s daughter and only surviving child, begins the book of letters with a spectacularly defensive foreword — a tribute less to Plath than to Hughes...There is the effect, slightly comic and horrifying, of the daughter presiding over the vow renewal ceremony for the ghosts of her parents ... to speak of Plath’s letters is to speak of her relationship with Aurelia, to whom she wrote twice a day at times — long letters that swarmed to fill every inch of space on the page and trailed onto the envelopes. This was, no doubt, lovely for her mother (and her biographers), but it can be rough going for even the committed Plathophile ... The achievement of this avalanche of letters — 1,300 pages and counting — is that it disabuses everyone of the notion that Plath wasn’t aware of her contradictions or in (some) control of them. She referenced her two selves every time she went from blonde to brunette. Her honors thesis was, in part, on Dostoevsky’s The Double, after all, in which a self splits, and one kills the other. \'How can you be so many women to so many people,\' she once wrote in her journal, \'oh you strange girl?\'\
MixedThe New York Times...an important if frustrating new work influenced by such classics of immersion journalism as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed ... Nomadland is part of a fleet of recent books about the gig economy. More than most, it’s able to comfortably contain various contradictions ... Bruder is a poised and graceful writer. But her book is plagued by odd evasions. Take race, the major one. She writes that 'there is hope on the road' — a blinkered view in 2017, after the passage of Arizona SB 1070, which required law enforcement to request the immigration papers of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally (portions of the bill have since been overturned). Not to mention that in the light of the death of Philando Castile, among others ... These omissions don’t doom the book; but they do mark it. You ache for the Gulf War veteran who tells Bruder, 'I survived the Army. I can survive Amazon.' But you also ache for the ones without even this option, who don’t even merit a mention.
Carmen Maria Machado
RaveThe New York TimesHer Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado, is a love letter to an obstinate genre that won’t be gentrified. It’s a wild thing, this book, covered in sequins and scales, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi, and borrowing from science fiction, queer theory and horror ... Machado is fluent in the vocabulary of fairy tales — her stories are full of foxes, foundlings, nooses and gowns — but she remixes it to her own ends. Her fiction is both matter-of-factly and gorgeously queer. She writes about loving and living with women and men with such heat and specificity that it feels revelatory ... But if Machado is strong on pleasure, she’s better on despair, on our rage at our bodies — for their ugliness and unruliness, their excess and inadequacy and, worst of all, their temerity to abandon us altogether ... We see what her characters cannot — that some of the scariest monsters come from within. And learning to identify what to fear, and to fear the right things, can be a kind of power.
PositiveThe New York Times...a sunny tribute to the gloomy side of the writing life: the insecurity, dread, shame, envy, magical thinking, pointless rituals, financial instability, self-hatred — the whole 'masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine.' And then the queasy desire to do it all over again ... It’s McPhee on McPhee; commentary on his greatest hits, a little backstory, a little affectionate gossip, much of it about the genius and squeamishness of the longtime editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, 'the iron mouse,' who blanched at profanity, mentions of sex and articles about any place cold. It’s an intimate book — and intimacy is rare in McPhee’s work ... He can lapse into occasional hokiness. But generally his advice is in the service of making the text as sturdy, useful and beautiful as possible ... reading McPhee makes you realize that perhaps writers wax about craft because it’s the easiest part of writing to talk about. It’s much harder to account for the flashes of inspiration, the slant of seeing, the appetite for the world — to know it down to its core — that keep you coming back to McPhee...You want to lick the pages.
PositiveThe New York TimesHowever eternal its concerns, Sing, Unburied, Sing is perfectly poised for the moment. It combines aspects of the American road novel and the ghost story with a timely treatment of the long aftershocks of a hurricane and the opioid epidemic devouring rural America ... It is Ward’s most unsparing book. Leaving aside the instances of explicit violence, the scenes featuring the hunger and confusion of small children are almost physically unbearable. This isn’t to say that there aren’t missteps. Any writer trafficking in such lofty Faulknerian themes risks melodrama, and Ward can get positively melismatic when she strains for poetic effect. But we can forgive a few of these excesses. With the supernatural cast to the story, everything feels heightened.
MixedThe New York TimesAlong with its horrors, My Absolute Darling is also a book of nostalgic pleasures. Turtle is a staunchly American type, perhaps the American type — tough, taciturn and almost pathologically self-sufficient ... This is a book profoundly about other books, fed by the classics like tributaries. Nabokov’s ghost presides — as it always does, over stories of innocence defiled — not just in Martin’s arias of self-pity or desire, which recall Humbert Humbert, but in the vocabulary, in the satisfaction of naming the world with scientific precision ... For all its pedigree, however, My Absolute Darling isn’t especially self-reflective. It’s really just a sequence of tightly choreographed action scenes ... Tallent is a confident enough writer to leave plot strands loose, but he leaves too much psychological terrain unmapped...What we’re left with is an action hero, a kind of male fantasy figure out of Mad Max: Fury Road. And it’s a fantasy of a wearying sort, because Turtle has clearly been designed to be 'empowering' ... Tallent is so fearless when evoking what the body can withstand, so scrupulous at capturing the visible world; what a writer he’ll be when he turns to charting internal, invisible cartographies as well.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
PositiveThe New York TimesWhere My Struggle was blunt and rangy and plagued by scandal Autumn is sweet and slender and very circumspect ... This is the opposite of escapist reading. Knausgaard plunges you into the material world, not just with his choice of subjects — apples, adders, tin cans, faces — but in the telling ... This becomes the central preoccupation of the book: to restore our sense of awe, to render the world again strange and full of magic, from loose teeth to rubber boots to hardened pieces of chewing gum. There are misfires but fewer than you’d expect. Simone Weil wrote that 'attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer' — and so it is here. Loose teeth, chewing gum, it all becomes noble, almost holy, under Knausgaard’s patient, admiring gaze. The world feels repainted ... It’s strange to see Knausgaard play it so safe. The book reeks of good taste and appropriate boundaries (save a few enthusiastic sentences about oral sex). He refuses to stray into the shadows. Whatever portraits we get of his family are Instagram-worthy. I longed for the fearlessness of My Struggle, its unwillingness to tame 'the ugly and unpleasant,' its oceanic sense of life’s dangers and unpredictability. But in Autumn, Knausgaard keeps us on the shore. The shells he gives us to admire are intricate, absorbing and beautiful; this book is full of wonders. But it isn’t, just yet, the whole story.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewNew People riffs on the themes she’s made her own — with a twist. It’s a novel that reads us. It anticipates, and sidesteps, lazy reading and sentimental expectations. In interviews, Senna has spoken with some weariness of the pressure to create positive depictions of mixed-race characters, to educate, to uplift. It’s a deep pleasure to see her shrug off such strictures and lavish her attention on the petty, the creepy and the galloping mad ... The material is hot but the style stays cool, as calm and impersonal as a hotel room. The tone is starched; each tight, tidy sentence has hospital corners ... She conjures up ’90s-era campus politics with pitiless accuracy...These are, admittedly, easy targets, but Senna lampoons the worlds she knows, the people she’s been. (Maria is her middle name.) This amused self-implication supplies her caricatures with their damning details but keeps them from feeling cruel ... These sections sing. They are so fluent, and seem to have been so much fun to write, that other strands of the story suffer neglect by comparison. Plot points and characters that seem significant are allowed to wither on the vine.
RaveThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewJesmyn Ward makes beautiful music, plays deftly with her reader’s expectations: where we expect violence, she gives us sweetness. When we brace for beauty, she gives us blood … Best of all, she gives us a singular heroine who breaks the mold of the typical teenage female protagonist. Esch isn’t plucky or tomboyish. She’s squat, sulky and sexual. But she is beloved — her brothers Randall, Skeetah and Junior are fine and strong; they brawl and sacrifice and steal for her and each other. And Esch is in bloom … For all its fantastical underpinnings, Salvage the Bones is never wrong when it comes to suffering. Sorrow and pain aren’t presented as especially ennobling. They exist to be endured — until the next Katrina arrives to ‘cut us to the bone.’
RaveBookforumSmith’s fiction has never been this deadly, direct, or economical…NW is embroidered with eccentric flourishes—a (baffling) prose poem here, a section in numbered sequences there. And the staccato street scenes let her strut … Where, why, and how these women diverge is the book’s inquiry and one of Smith’s great obsessions: ideological differences between intimates, how we grow with—and apart—from the people we love best … She’s given us a book soggy with feelings but one that illustrates how political identities—race, class, sexual orientation—influence our putatively personal decisions, how our choices are as distinctive as our fingerprints.
MixedThe Atlantic...as was true of The God of Small Things, there is more than a touch of fairy tale in the book’s moral simplicity—or clarity, if you’re feeling charitable...Yet to simply find fault with the lack of psychological shading would be, I think, a genre mistake. Roy’s indifference to precisely that problem suggests that something interesting is afoot...It isn’t concerned with the conventional task (or power) of fiction to evoke the texture and drama of consciousness. Instead, it acts like a companion piece to Roy’s political writings...It tours India’s fault lines ... The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is plagued by almost rudimentary errors: There is near-total confusion about point of view. Messages and morals come ponderously underscored. The two central stories never convincingly come together. In the absence of psychological development or real suspense, chapters end with portentous rhetorical ellipses. Worse still, the creation of characters as stand-ins for causes results in formulaic depictions of the very people she is trying to humanize.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...a hefty, gorgeous, digressive slab of a book ... It lopes along like a highbrow episode of Louie, a series of silly, surreal, confident riffs about humiliations, minor and major. It is a rejoinder to the pressure on literature to serve as self-help, to make us empathetic or better informed, to be useful. Here, fiction’s only mandate is to exploit the particular freedom afforded by the form — to coast on the charm and peculiar sensibility of our narrator ... Her instincts are, in general, excellent — she is Selin, more or less — save the odd, unhappy decision to repurpose details, characters, conversations and even whole scenes from her previous book ... for all [the] moments of evasion, there is more oxygen, more life in this book, than in a shelf of its peers.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThis spiny, scary story of moral decline, crisply plotted and no thicker than my thumb, has been heralded as the finest Indian novel in a decade, notable for a book in bhasha, one of India’s vernacular languages ... Folded into the compressed, densely psychological portrait of this family is a whole universe: a parable of rising India, an indictment of domestic violence, a taxonomy of ants and a sly commentary on translation itself ... Shanbhag is excellent on the inner logic of families, and of language, how even the most innocent phrases come freighted with history ... The book in our hands is elegant, lean, balletic.