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
Tove Ditlevsen, trans. by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman
RaveThe New York TimesI bring news of Tove Ditlevsen’s suite of memoirs with the kind of thrill and reluctance that tells me this must be a masterpiece ... a portrait of an artist and a portrait of an addict — and the product of a terrifying talent ... They exert a particular fascination, these books. It’s like watching something burn. The language is plain, unadorned, almost masklike — a provocative composure that settles even more tightly over the narration as we enter Dependency, in which Ditlevsen describes her years of addiction ... It’s this composure that gives the trilogy its suspense — and it’s a kind of composure that is much misunderstood ... Ditlevsen confesses and confesses, but it is what she does not say, what she shows us and does not acknowledge — the murk in the book — that gives the memoirs that rippling quality of something alive, something still unfurling.
PositiveThe New York Times[Saunders] is moved by an evangelical ardor where fiction is concerned, intent on how it can help us \'become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional,\' as he put it in a viral commencement speech. These particular hopes have never been more precisely, joyfully or worryingly articulated than in his new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain ... I’m making the book sound revoltingly technical. It isn’t. Saunders lives in the synapses — he looks at all the minute and meaningful decisions that produce a sentence, a paragraph, a convincing character. He offers one of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of the writer that I’ve ever read — that state of heightened alertness, lightning-quick decisions ... The book might provoke comparisons to Nabokov’s classic lectures on Russian literature, first delivered at Cornell. But where Nabokov is all high-plumed prose and remove, presiding at his lectern, Saunders is at your elbow, ladling praise ... Here’s where I must admit that I can find myself in an occasional bardo of sorts about Saunders, torn between admiration and wariness. The breadth of his belief in fiction is inspiring — and suspiciously flattering to the reader ... Now, I’m as self-interested a champion of fiction as anyone, but such overstatement does the form no favors — at best it feels naïve, at worst, deeply solipsistic. Is the invasion of Iraq best understood as a \'literary failure,\' as Saunders has written? Can racism be described as an \'antiliterary impulse\'?
PositiveNew York TimesThe book has the feeling of live performance, never mind a wrong note or two (the dull poems on Donald Trump, for example). Its strength is in its abundance, its desire for language to stir body as well as mind. As the chapters wind back into Sneed’s early years, we realize how hard-won is such rawness on the page. All her earnestness, wonder, rage — the plain innocence of feeling — was denied to her in childhood ... Always, this writer, so haunted by her unknown origins, diligently fills in the silences she can.
PositiveThe New York Times... pensive and surprisingly poignant ... With Goodings we have the distinct feeling of always being in earshot of the shareholders; there will be no talk of thighs here, and she’s discreet about her own politics, insisting on a flexible, welcoming notion of feminism ... Even as Virago’s mission was to shatter silences, the costs of speech were very clear. And so, perhaps, this deeply modest book that, of all things, contains its own critique and argues against its own circumspection, deploring the feminine habits of \'modesty, likability and anxiety.\' It’s a memoir that doesn’t merely look backward, but in its form, in all its limitations, gestures at the work to be done. It’s a memoir of a Virago reader.
MixedThe New York TImes... passionate, profoundly chaotic ... A breakthrough: The heroically cogitating, exquisitely sensitive, cruelly alienated solitary male consciousness is finally getting his due! Beaumont is at least a bit sheepish on this score. He nods at the stories that go missing in his narrative ... Beaumont is perfunctory on the more interesting and important questions about the takeover of public spaces ... He may worry about \'the marginalized,\' but he rarely if ever cites or consults their work ... Even as Black artists have complicated, adopted, parodied the notion of flânerie, they are absent here — an omission that feels striking given Beaumont’s phosphorescent erudition (and his advanced case of quotomania). His book fairly buckles under its references to the great theorists of walking, the body, the city. All the usual suspects are present, although at times deployed strangely. Ray Bradbury is endowed with his own section while Walter Benjamin, as significant a figure imaginable where such subjects are concerned, hovers at the edges of scenes, solicitously holding up a tray of useful quotations ... What distinguishes Beaumont’s book, for its doggedly narrow focus, is how it mimics — in form, excess, annoyance — the very experience it extols, of moving through the city.
PositiveThe New York TimesBy no means is Fiorani the first to make this case...but she makes it with fresh force and pitches it against the misconception that Leonardo abandoned painting for science in his later years ... One wishes only that Fiorani felt freer to think alongside this work. Her approach is admiring but oddly withdrawn. She is prone to parroting her thesis and lapsing into somnolent praise .. The patness of this description is striking; its laziness borders on indifference. Does it bespeak the challenges of writing about Leonardo — how to make a fresh case for his obvious genius? How to write in the wake of so many others? ... Dimmi, I wanted to say to the writer, tell me not what has been seen before but what you have seen. Sometimes Fiorani does exactly that, and in such passages, when she loses herself in looking, the book achieves fluency and power ... Its focus may feel narrow at times, and yet its pleasures often prove surprisingly wide. The book reorients our perspective, distills a life and brings it into focus.
Jonathan Daniel Wells
RaveThe New York TimesIn The Kidnapping Club, the historian Jonathan Daniel Wells describes the circle of slave catchers and police officers who terrorized New York’s Black population in the three decades before the Civil War. They snatched up children, as well as adults, and sold them into slavery ... Wells conjures the pungent atmosphere of Manhattan in the early 19th century ... Wells writes, one senses, not to memorialize the missing, but to reopen their cases — to make a larger argument about recompense ... This is history read with a sense of vertigo, suffused with the present...
PositiveThe New York TimesThe book is a \'novelized autobiography\'—an unstable and charismatic compound of fact and fiction. Amis revisits stories he told in his memoir Experience. Some other passages have been grafted from his essays and speeches. He reproduces a New Yorker article in its entirety ... Amis feels a bit like a beloved vice these days. You read him through your fingers. As a critic, he remains strong and original. His memoir is a model of the form ... Inside Story is rife with dreams, sex fantasies and maundering meditations on Jewishness, a longstanding obsession. The book feels built to baffle. It is an orgy of inconsistencies and inexplicable technical choices ... Most maddening of all, Inside Story also includes some of Amis’s best writing to date.
PositiveThe New York TimesAny opportunity to contemplate Lorde would be a cause for celebration. The Selected Works of Audre Lorde, edited and introduced by Roxane Gay, arrives at an especially interesting moment, however. Lorde’s writing has rarely been more influential — or more misunderstood ... this is a balanced and representative sampling of Lorde’s writing — inspired, even, where the poetry is concerned. I longed only for context and more restitution ... I wished for more reckoning with her political imagination and why she is persistently misread, with both cynicism and sentimentality ... The boon in this book is its wealth of poetry. Lorde is beloved for her essays and her groundbreaking memoir, Zami, with its vivid, sexy, very funny depictions of the drama of Downtown \'gay-girl\' life in the ’50s, but she insisted she was a poet first.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review... among the most mysterious books I’ve ever read — a dense, dark star ... The stones in this book tell strikingly similar stories — stories whose contours we might know, but whose details and particular, individual impacts have been lost or blunted ... Raffles is serenely indifferent to the imperatives and ordinary satisfactions of conventional storytelling. Character, coherence, a legible and meaningful structure — these are not his concerns. The organization of the book feels profoundly random. There are no attempts to suture together the various stories, no attempts to enact something \'learned\' by the author. The photographs accompanying the text are dim and blotchy, and Raffles favors slabs of prose unbroken by punctuation. I intend all this as praise ... There is no great dawning of understanding; clarity arrives in sudden shafts — and any coherence is for us to supply. Raffles makes us sift for meaning; how do they connect, these juxtaposed narratives about Indigenous history, whaling, his sister Franki’s photographs of women at work? ... We’re called to engage in that signal human activity: interpretation. What intuition the book requires, what detective work — and what magic tricks it performs. Stones speak, lost time leaves a literal record and, strangest of all, the consolation the writer seeks in the permanence of rocks, in their vast history, he finds instead in their vulnerability, caprice and still-unfolding story.
Joaquim Maria Machado De Assis, trans. by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux
RaveThe New York TimesWe read not for plot, in the usual sense, but to be close to Brás Cubas, his disarming candor and deeply merited self-disgust, and for the questions he prompts: What is a life, if defined outside of incident and achievement? What is a novel?...The two new translations have their differences, but are remarkably complementary. Flora Thomson-DeVeaux’s edition is a gift to scholars. Her introductory essay and notes offer a rich guide to Machado’s work and world — and an important corrective. Machado has been described as reticent on race. In fact, Thomson-DeVeaux reveals, his fiction is drenched in references to the slave trade ... Thomson-DeVeaux’s version can feel mustier and blurry ... This is a book of refusals — the hero’s refusal to commit to anything or anyone, his refusal to satisfy conventional narrative expectations, all anchored by his underlying refusal to see himself clearly, even as he presents his life for our inspection ... For a writer with a bottomless bag of tricks, his core achievement is, finally, more humble and infinitely more dazzling than any special effect. It’s not exploring what the novel might be, but looking at people — purely and pitilessly — exactly as they are.
Joaquim Maria Machado De Assis, trans. by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson
RaveThe New York TimesIs it possible that the most modern, most startlingly avant-garde novel to appear this year was originally published in 1881? ... Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’ masterpiece, a metafictional, metaphysical tale ... We read not for plot, in the usual sense, but to be close to Brás Cubas, his disarming candor and deeply merited self-disgust, and for the questions he prompts ... His favorite weapons are irony and charm — although he doesn’t shy from needling readers, especially critics, for their narrowness of taste and fondness for facile interpretation. (Duly noted.) He is a writer besotted with the license afforded by fiction ... Read Machado, and much contemporary fiction can suddenly appear painfully corseted and conservative ... Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson...offer little historical context, only sparse notes. Their book is unadorned, and often better for it, where the common reader is concerned. We encounter the novel not as a relic, encrusted with renown and analysis, much revered and much handled, but in all its freshness and truculent refusal of fiction’s tropes. Jull Costa and Patterson also offer the superior translation. The language is honed and specific, effortless yet charged with feeling ... For a writer with a bottomless bag of tricks, his core achievement is, finally, more humble and infinitely more dazzling than any special effect. It’s not exploring what the novel might be, but looking at people—purely and pitilessly—exactly as they are.
RaveThe New York TimesFirst published in 1972, the book passed into obscurity and has been happily reissued this month, fresh as ever — a seething, stylish reclamation of a forgotten life ... In Victorian England, Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith had the gall to believe herself to be an utterly fantastic creature: a person ... That distinctive voice: fond, amused, outraged. Johnson writes as if taking revenge for her subject. It is not only Mary Ellen’s daring that so compels us, but her biographer’s. Johnson discovers new ways to write her way into history’s silences ... In one eerie scene, Johnson imagines the ghosts of Mary Ellen’s spiritual godmothers — Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft — attending her grave: \'They are angry on Mary Ellen’s behalf. Their impatient feet tap, they pace over the grave. Must it always be this way for women? Here was one they thought might persevere in woman’s name. She had promise. She had courage.\' A century after her death, she was rewarded with a biographer who possesses the same traits in abundance, and who, persevering in her name, lifts her from ignominy into stardom.
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, trans. by Michele Hutchison
RaveThe New York Times... an earthy and irreverent new voice, thrillingly uninhibited in style and subject matter ... The novel teems—I say this admiringly—with all the filth of life ... The title refers to the point in the evening when cows begin to low and call for relief, their udders heavy with milk. The story is about painful repletion of another kind, and of solace that never arrives ... The novel didn’t give me nightmares only because sleep became a faint possibility. Rijneveld will play to all your phobias and nurture new ones. Even now, my blood jumps to remember certain images ... It’s not the violence that feels so shocking—it’s the innocence. The violence in the book is visited on small bodies, mute bodies, by those who are themselves small, young, lacking in language ... However strong your readerly constitution, it might feel like a peculiar time to pick up a book so mournful and gory. And yet, I went to it every day without dread, with, in fact, a gratitude that surprised me. It was the gratitude of not being condescended to. Novels disappoint not only by being clumsily written or conceived but by presenting a version of the world that is simpler and more sanitized than we know it to be. Fiction about childhood is especially prone, with a few notable exceptions. The spaciousness of Rijneveld’s imagination comes as terror and solace. That lack of squeamishness, that frightening extremity, which, in Hutchison’s clean, calm translation, never feels showy or manipulative, gives full voice to the enormity of the children’s grief, their obscene deprivation.
PositiveThe New York Times...[a] desolate story of dysfunction ... For such a force of menace, Laveau-Harvie’s mother is a strangely silent antagonist. Once placed in care, she vanishes from the story; the focus shifts to the father — depicted as a helpless, blameless lamb — and the vulnerabilities of old age. The mother is so absent, I began to wonder if Laveau-Harvie still fears her contaminating charm, her ability to distort reality ... She dips into the past to present a few examples of bizarre behavior — how her mother once crept up behind her and snipped off her ponytail with a pair of scissors — but there is no full accounting of what it was like to grow up with such a woman, no interest in exploring the sources of her cruelty. As a choice it is unsatisfying, but also curiously mesmerizing: the mother as the glacier, the great governing force in their family life, and still too dominant, too vast to be seen whole ... In its compression and odd omissions, its reluctance to diagnose, this memoir is itself an erratic — an outlier in its genre ... Laveau-Harvie depicts her mother neither as a riddle to be solved nor as a woman to be understood, but as an implacable act of nature, who must only be survived. If she remains a hazy character in the book, she inflects its every sentence, its structure, its aversions. She was a mother with a monstrous talent for twisting reality. In her memoir of the aftermath, her daughter tethers her story to the very ground beneath her. She speaks only of what she can confirm; she moves carefully, finding her footing.
RaveThe New York Times... [Macdonald\'s] work is an antidote to so much romantic, reductive writing about the natural world as pristine, secret, uninhabited—as a convenient blank canvas for the hero’s journey of self-discovery ... Macdonald’s writing teems with other voices and perspectives, with her own challenges to herself. It muddies any facile ideas about nature and the human, and prods at how we pleat our prejudices, politics and desires into our notions of the animal world. There’s nothing of the tourist or bystander in her approach ... Hers is a gritty, companionable intimacy with the wild ... The essays are short, varied and highly edible, some only a page or two long. Macdonald experiments with tempo and style, as if testing out different altitudes and finding she can fly at just about any speed, in any direction, with any aim she likes, so supple is her style...I was reminded of the goshawk, so thickly plumed, so powerful that it can bring down a deer, and yet it weighs only a few pounds. These are the very paradoxes of Macdonald’s prose—its lightness and force ... That step back, that act of revision, of re-seeing, provides the book with its chief animating drama: Macdonald getting things wrong. She cheerfully charts her errors in judgment, her bungles, her myopia. Vesper Flights is a document of learning to see, of growing past useful defenses of diversion and escape ... For its wry self-deprecation, Vesper Flights is a book thick with sorrow, an elegy in the midst of the sixth great extinction underway ... It is awe, but no need to wait for an eclipse—Macdonald presents it everywhere for the taking, in the underground networks of fungi, in fog, in deer that \'drift in and out of the trees like breathing.\' It exists in birdsong and the \'cobra-strike\' of a heron stabbing at a fish. It’s in the pages of this book, in the consciousness of a writer admiring the world, so grateful for its otherness.
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s little wonder that Trebek has written a memoir of consummate caginess, one of the wariest I’ve read: a friendly, often funny account marked by a reluctance so deep that it confers a curious integrity upon the celebrity tell-all ... he never takes himself seriously; his memoir is a shameless dad-joke extravaganza, largely at his own expense ... He is exhausted by cancer treatments, exhausted by uncertainty but still sublimely calm and grateful.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe method is programmatic openness, deep listening, a willingness to be waylaid; the effect, a prismatic picture of history as experienced and understood by individuals in their full amplitude and idiosyncrasy ... masterly ... Demick covers an awe-inspiring breadth of history—from the heyday of the Tibetan empire, which could compete with those of the Turks and Arabs, to the present day, as the movement for Tibetan independence has faltered and transformed into an effort at cultural and spiritual survival. She charts the creative rebellions of recent years, the efforts at revitalizing the language and traditions, Tibetans’ attachment to the Dalai Lama (and their criticisms). Above all, Demick wants to give room for contemporary Tibetans to testify to their desires.
PositiveThe New York Times... suspenseful and propulsive; in style and theme, a sibling to [Ferrante\'s] previous books. But it’s also a more vulnerable performance, less tightly woven and deliberately plotted, even turning uncharacteristically jagged at points as it explores some of the writer’s touchiest preoccupations ... The pleasure for the reader is often in spotting those moments of disjuncture that Ferrante flags for us, where the narrative is partial or incomplete. But here is where some wobbliness presents itself in the new novel. The mournful opening paragraph — with its caveat that this tale might only be \'a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption\' — doesn’t square with the story in our hands, of the evolution of a young woman, so brash and sensibly secretive, allergic to banality, prone to fabrication but honest with herself about her desires. Ferrante leaves many threads dangling; we’re left to wonder at the initial forecast and the novel’s enigmatic, oddly heroic conclusion: What is this progress that seems to contain the seeds of regression? When is a revolt indistinguishable from a retreat?
MixedThe New York TimesThe through line in [Garber\'s] eclectic body of work has been an interest in the proper use of literature, which exists, Garber argues, not as a tool of moral instruction but as \'a way of thinking.\' To think in a literary way is to privilege the question over the answer, to embrace uncertainty and associative imagination. \'I do not propose to diagnose culture as if it were an illness of which we could be cured,\' she has maintained, \'but to read culture as if it were structured like a dream\' ... To read culture, mind you, not interpret it. To hunt meaning is to squeeze art of its value, subtlety and pleasure. Her new book is the complicated fulfillment of this credo ... References whiz by, like uprooted trees in a cyclone ... I have a high tolerance for rapid, associative, hunch-based writing, but I began to crave an argument, or at least a more explicit examination of the roots and consequences of character’s evolution. Garber will occasionally sidle up to tracing some point of continuity before parachuting away on the gusts of digression ... It’s not merely that Garber valorizes description over analysis; it’s that this method strips ideas of their historical context and function ... Her governing ethic is always to pose \'literary questions: questions about the way something means, rather than what it means.\' In this instance, it’s not merely a case of bringing the wrong weapons to a fight, but also, perhaps, a fitting capitulation to a word whose vacancy remains its power.
MixedThe New York TimesWhere [Li\'s] previous book is stripped down, a bundle of exposed nerves, Must I Go is upholstered with the nested narratives, intricate back stories and details of a historical novel. For all their differences, their concerns are knotted together. They reach into realms that the author and characters feel are unspeakable ... They are among the loneliest books I’ve ever read—if they are merely books. At times they seem more like ruins; the chipped sentences and broken structures let you see all the devastated, discarded certainties ... Little happens, but I’ve always found the openness, the near shapelessness of Li’s work to be part of its beauty. Her characters are never coerced; they are patiently observed, they are allowed to live, allowed to disappoint ... The new book is bloated and unwieldy, however; it lacks the blunt power of its predecessor, which was stark and swift, flensed of artifice. There is a strange feeling of watching Li retreating into a form and narrative structure she has outgrown and outpaced.
MixedThe New York Times... a book that has been so feverishly praised for its boldness, humor and sexual frankness that I was a little crushed to find instead a perfectly agreeable if uneven first novel—brisk and pleasantly pulpy, hobbled occasionally by some seriously mangled prose and pat psychology ... Sex has a way of getting all the attention; in this case, it obscures that, page by page, this is less a story about coupling than it is one about work. The spikiest, funniest scenes send up corporate life, with all its feints at inclusion and its complacent racism ... A blurry feeling settled over me as I kept encountering rhyming descriptions and plot points. Edie’s moments of connection with women take identical forms. She shares a cigarette with each of them, and cares for their hair, or tries to ... The reader, though, perhaps sees Edie too clearly. Narrative causality flows a little too neatly, the back story filters in to explain Edie as a culmination of her upbringing ... It’s strange, perhaps, to crave more privacy for a fictional character, but I wanted it for Edie. I wanted more mystery, for her to resist being so neatly summed up. In a word she might use, I wanted agency for her, but this story is interested in inheritance, hence those echoes and doublings ... Your enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for run-on sentences that strain painfully for profundity, for odd, often indecipherable metaphors ... The dialogue is flat, mostly expository with an interesting repetition. The characters frame their impatience with Edie—her transgressions, her need—as a generational divide, prefiguring, perhaps, how this book might be read. Novels by young writers tend to attract a strange sort of attention—more anthropological than literary.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewAnonymity comes for us all soon enough, but it has encroached with mystifying speed upon the French writer Hervé Guibert, who died at 36 in 1991. His work has been strangely neglected in the Anglophone world, never mind its innovation and historical importance, its breathtaking indiscretion, tenderness and gore. How can an artist so original, so thrillingly indifferent to convention and the tyranny of good taste — let alone one so prescient — remain untranslated and unread? ... Whatever his subject, he possessed an aloof, silvery style — a cool envelope for the hot material. Flinch, cringe, weep, laugh at his books; only indifference seems impossible ... His candor can be so extreme as to feel like provocation, and his love of provocation can tip into outré pornography. Even he could be disturbed by his brutal scenarios ... How free is a writer? And how ought we use our freedom? This is the pulsing question in Guibert’s work ... he hurtles toward all he finds frightening, anatomizing and eroticizing his terror and disgust. There can be something showy in his systematic attack on various taboos, but his inquiry is never flippant and never boring. There is a strangeness to his sentences, in their coil and snap, that gives the prose a freshness and ease. He seemed to write with enviable effortlessness. His drafts...contain few corrections or evidence of hesitation. He simply seemed to pour out onto the page ... The book is a homage to a friendship as well as a record of its gaudy betrayal. Guibert revealed to readers that Foucault did not die of cancer, per the public record, but of AIDS-related complications. He aired his friend’s laundry with ruthless efficiency ... The breach of trust still disturbs me, even as I think I understand Guibert’s brand of logic — for him, it was a commitment to a higher truth.
PositiveThe New York TimesBennett is a remarkably assured writer who mostly sidesteps the potential for melodrama inherent in a form built upon secrecy and revelation. The past laps at the present in short flashbacks, never weighing down the quick current of a story that covers almost 20 years. Each chapter ends on a light cliffhanger, and the pages fairly turn themselves. Some depth is sacrificed for the swiftness; the book doesn’t burrow into the psychology of its characters so much as map the wages of artifice, fracture and loss across generations ... The authorial control that so efficiently serves the plot can clip the characters’ wings. They are given such narrow and precise roles to play...and they play them so responsibly, never deviating from their scripts, that repetitiveness and flatness creep into the writing. Only Stella, gifted in all forms of escape and wonderfully inscrutable to the end, is permitted the mystery and self-contradiction that allows for the fullness of personality on the page. Bennett’s tendency toward narrative neatness and explication also results in an unhappy tic of tying up sections and sentiments with banalities unworthy of her ... But Bennett excels in conjuring the silences of families and in evoking atmosphere ... The Vanishing Half is a book sashed in influences. Bennett has written about her debt to Toni Morrison ... There is a touch of Dorothy Allison ... Larsen ... These echoes—deliberate and affectionate—are beautiful to behold in a book about suppressed lineages[.]
PositiveThe New York TimesKoestenbaum has long been fascinated with people who rarely speak or who speak awkwardly — the breathy banalities of Andy Warhol and Jacqueline Kennedy, for example. He crushes on evasion and ambiguity, but his own prose has always been distinguished by its tautness and agility. The new book is a more relaxed performance, however. The pieces feel rawer, some almost deliberately jagged, even unfinished; they trail off, or end in sudden dissolve. The polish has been sacrificed for a kind of intimacy, of interrupting the writer at his desk, midsentence ... There is a feeling of watching a writer so allergic to cliché now interrogating his own moves, annotating his own clichés with diligent, affectionate exasperation. Figuring it out, after all, is a life sentence.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review... it’s a very polite book [Carlisle] offers us, one that never probes Kierkegaard’s secrets or stoops to speculation. The book ambles along the well-trodden conclusions and avoids engaging with his darker impulses, his own conformism and distaste for democracy ... Carlisle does make an unfortunate innovation of her own. She conceives of her book as \'a Kierkegaardian biography of Kierkegaard,\' following \'the blurry, fluid lines between Kierkegaard’s life and writing, and allowing philosophical and spiritual questions to animate the events, decisions and encounters that constitute the facts of a life.\' In practice, this gives us a reading experience that feels a bit like the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland, information flying at us untethered, the courses all out of order ... Carlisle begins in the middle of Kierkegaard’s life and stays trained on him as a young philosopher, displaying an odd indifference to his harrowing childhood ... The narrative slips in and out of a breathless present-tense voice with flourishes of soppy characterization ... At times Carlisle succumbs to outright fiction ... The attractions of Kierkegaard — his severity and wit, the force of his rhetoric, his defense of the individual and the example of his solitary spiritual striving — survive even a middling biography. That voice is unmistakable and startling — ironic, moody, modern — full of caustic, strangely comforting honesty.
Lynn Casteel Harper
RaveThe New York TimesIn a searching, poetic inquiry into dementia, Lynn Casteel Harper delves into a disease that afflicts some six million Americans and yet seems shrouded in secrecy, its sufferers hidden away in institutions, its symptoms cloaked in a peculiar, telling language of terror and contempt ... She writes without fear or aversion but with a robust, restless curiosity, a keenness to reframe our understanding of dementia with sensitivity and accuracy. She has not merely observed decline in patients and family members; she has also observed fresh opportunities for \'compassion, honesty, humility.\' ... It isn’t that people with dementia vanish, Harper argues, it’s that we insist they do ... What gives On Vanishing its particular, idiosyncratic energy is the unexpectedness of its focus. Rather than concentrating on case studies from her own practice or alternative models of care across cultures ...she turns to art and literature ... Sontag wrote that we are dual citizens of the kingdom of the sick and the kingdom of the well. In her beautifully unconventional book, Harper examines the porousness of the borders, the power of imagination and language to grant better futures to our loved ones and ourselves.
RaveThe New York Times...[a] propulsive debut novel ... a baldly, horrifyingly plausible premise ... The narration swivels from the perspective of one character to the next, each of whom, by dint of status or sensibility, knows something the others cannot ... Lovely is the guerrilla unit, the novel’s most exuberant creation ... The texture of the novel — its amplitude, tenderness, commotion — comes to us from her curiosity and habit of attentiveness ... This is a book to relish for its details, for the caress of the writer’s gaze against the world, the way it dawdles over all that might be considered coarse or inconsequential ... Majumdar’s descriptions of life, of stench and bodies, of stifled ambitions and stoked resentments, feel instructive, a rejoinder to the ways reality is so commonly distorted ... Majumdar writes with a lanky, easy authority; the narrative stride is broken only by rare missteps ... What we describe helplessly as our fate is, very often, other people’s choices acting upon us — choices that remain largely unknown or, at best, dimly perceived. The novel flays open these mysteries ... The interplay of choice and circumstance has always been the playing field of great fiction, and on this terrain, a powerful new writer stakes her claim.
Anton Chekhov, Trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
MixedThe New York TimesThe minor hits are represented here, the juvenilia, playful sketches and a handful of more fully realized stories, like the characteristically queasy romances \'The Kiss\' and \'About Love\' ... \'With what trash I began!\' Chekhov once said of his early efforts, but from the beginning, you can discern his hallmarks, the shock of his disorienting last lines in which the stakes of a story are suddenly revealed ... The stories, however, seem curiously translation-proof. Even in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s occasionally stilted interpretation, they lose nothing of their vigor and sheen. They reek with life. This might be because the pleasures of reading Chekhov aren’t at the sentence level — the language is unvarnished, the metaphors simple, sturdy and often repeated, a few plots even borrowed ... It’s the watchfulness, the lack of contrivance and the economy of his fiction that still feel so shocking, so modern; the momentum he engineers, which carries his characters to the point where their defenses break down and ready-made language runs dry and they are left frighteningly exposed ... he issues with the new translation are not grievous. They’re little fish bones in the mouth, they stall and annoy. Pevear and Volokhonsky take strange pains to avoid idiomatic language, giving the prose an awkward formality ... The deeper disappointment lies in how much of Chekhov’s subtle and comic characterization is lost ... it misses some of the richness, the delicacy and irony of previous editions.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review...a sprawling, comically unfocused study ... the book steps away from straightforward memoir and starts flailing, taking up whatever aspects of attention that can hold Schwartz’s own. The narrative caroms between the science of A.D.H.D. to the promise of psychedelics in aiding focus to wan descriptions that feel grafted from Wikipedia on the work of David Foster Wallace, Simone Weil and William James, all of whom were consumed with the difficulty and holiness of attention ... [Schwarz] tells us one thing, shows us another; we finish her book having gorged on trivia but finding basic questions unanswered ... Instead, pointless, pallid excursions pad out the narrative: generic, listlessly described psychedelic conferences and ayahuasca ceremonies ... celebrity anecdotes feel like gaudy bids for our interest — strange in a book that has, in its meandering way, argued for just the opposite approach.
PositiveThe New York TimesLife has never been better to Samantha Irby. Can she still be funny? It’s a gentler kind of humor we encounter here. The drama of publishing a book or pitching a show to Netflix executives (so many chairs in the room!) can’t compete with the rawness and surreal scatological pageantry of the earlier essays. Nor must it. These three collections [Wow, No Thank You, Meaty, and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life] which span a decade, ought to be read together, with this latest as a coda, striking its valedictory note and reiterating the refrain that runs through the essays. In a crisis, circling \'life’s drain,\' as Irby calls it, don’t cling unnecessarily to dignity. But don’t for a second stint on the good snacks, or the good stories.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewWhen it comes to reading in an emergency, in a moment of crisis and uncertainty, comfort seems to be the order of the day — old favorites, regressive pleasures, cozy classics ... What happens if they fail you? Mine have...so I am here to champion the opposite: the enlivening, more absorbing distractions of disagreement, argument and pure pique, of being profitably at odds with what you are reading; the deep diversion of a good, cleansing quarrel, especially with a book that is game and gleefully provocative. Threshold, a nettlesome new novel — surly, ambitious, frequently annoying — has been my treasured companion of late ... Rob — the loafer and the mope, the impressively successful Lothario and pretentious little troll — is the protagonist of this book, which could be called autofiction (the author is also named Rob Doyle), anti-woke polemic or obsessive riff. It isn’t much interested in classification — in fact, it would rather like to annihilate pointless distinctions outright, much like the character himself, who is on a fervent spiritual quest with the aid of acid, meditation, magic mushrooms and ayahuasca ... Are you wincing with irritation yet? Good; irritation is this narrator’s specialty. He’d like to be \'a hate figure, a Shylock,\' but he wonders if he has the nerve ... Doyle enjoys poking fun at Doyle, his habit of making sure his books are stocked at various bookstores, his dour pomposity ... Large swaths of Threshold — the would-be writer making pilgrimage to the homes of his heroes, in order to do anything but write — feel beholden to Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s affectionate tribute to procrastination, via an attempted biography of D. H. Lawrence. Sections in which Rob haunts museums...feel heavily indebted to Ben Lerner’s novels ... At another point, it is one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s most famous passages that is channeled as Rob scribbles in his notebook ... Still other scenes recall Milan Kundera.
RaveThe New York Times...the triumphant capstone to Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell ... At more than 700 pages, this is the longest book in the series, the most mournful — and the slackest. It lacks the formal play (and humor) of Wolf Hall and the ruthless compression of Bring Up the Bodies, ... This new novel is a different creature — Cromwell is a different creature, less tentative and more ruminative ... The startling, bony style of the first two books has been abandoned. The prose is plush, the sentences longer and more adorned, tricked out with little tassels and extended metaphors. Even as certain pages proved a slog, certain scenes repetitive, even as I entertained heretical thoughts about pruning certain sections, or striking them entirely, these choices follow a certain logic ... This is not a younger man’s book, not a book of striving. It is a novel of late middle age, a novel of preserving what one has seized ... Above all, it is a novel of living with the dead.
RaveThe New York Times... brisk, wildly imaginative ... you can hear an old note, a note I’ve missed in American fiction, and am surprised to have noticed myself missing—for so long it seemed dominant to the point of imperishability. The violent, surreal, often cartoonish scenarios delivered deadpan that draw attention to the freakishness of ordinary life—from writers like Donald Barthelme, Gordon Lish, Ben Marcus ... This novel could have easily sagged into dogma, but Leichter keeps the narrative crisp, swift and sardonic. Temporary reads like a comic and mournful Alice in Wonderland set in the gig economy, an eerily precise portrait of ourselves in a cracked mirror.
PositiveThe New York TimesIn A Woman Like Her, an exemplary work of investigative journalism, Sanam Maher delves into the story of a woman as misunderstood in death as in life. Maher conducted hundreds of interviews — with Baloch’s family, the media, mullahs, feminist activists, experts in cybercrime — to indict the society that enabled and applauded Baloch’s murder. Waseem Azeem and his associates killed Qandeel Baloch, Maher argues, but they did not act alone ... Baloch cannot speak for herself, and Maher allows her to remain elusive, a figure who fashioned her public face out of truth, yearning and exaggeration, and who possessed a dogged insistence on living her life on her own terms. Her book attempts to tell a broader story exploring the fractures opened in Pakistan by social media, which offers and even encourages a kind of freedom and daring of self-presentation that exist in deep conflict with a conservative society.
RaveThe New York TimesTwo voices vie in this book. There is the voice we recognize in the reviews: the professor, stately and composed, guiding the reader through forensically close readings of the text, pointing out fiction’s innovations and revolutions ... The other voice — pitched about half an octave higher, blunt, reedy, very winning — pops up in the essays ... The two voices mingling in this collection give a beautiful, moving sense of the stakes of criticism as Wood has practiced it, vigorously, without interruption for 30 years ... Wood writes as if enmeshed in the text itself; registering shifts in point of view and perspective with seismographic precision ... Little in \'sanitized\' adult American life, where Wood is productive and content, seems to have the same kind of purchase as those bygone places and people, that bygone music. He does not tell us — he does not need to — where those vivifying details can still be found (\'the poplar, the lilac and the roses\'). \'To notice is to rescue, to redeem,\' Wood writes. \'To save life from itself.\'
RaveThe New York TimesI’d like to invent or order up new adjectives to describe the startling originality and ambition of Smith’s work. I’d like to unwrap some brand-new words, oddly pronged words, to convey their wary intelligence and open heart ... These poems emerge from places of paradox, and are animated by the spirit of the dozens, where deep love can be best conveyed through imaginative insult ... The radiance of Homie arrives like a shock, like found money, like a flower fighting through concrete ... Each poem feels like a maze designed to take the poet and the reader to some new destination, some new understanding. Smith applies shocks to the language, twists tenses at will ... Smith got their start in spoken word, and their work has always retained the intimacy and directness of performance ... This is a book full of the turbulence of thought and desire, piloted by a writer who never loses their way.
PositiveThe New York TimesIt is not a pure biography or history, but an ever-widening gyre of the scandals, art, theory and fashions of the time ... a sharp commentary on biography — the phrase \'we cannot know\' echoes not as a statement of failure but an ethic ... This new book — so contentedly diffuse — pulls into sharp focus. How were these men judged in their time? And how are we prompted to judge them now?
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s a brisk and friendly introduction to linguistics, and a synthesis of the field’s recent discoveries ... The scope of Don\'t Beliee a Word is impressive ... Shariatmadari is an earnest writer—clarity, not style, is his priority—but the quirks of human and animal speech are strange and alluring enough to leaven the narrative ... I am glad to have had this conversation.
Jean Stafford, Ed. by Kathryn Davis
PositiveThe New York TimesForty years after her death, [Stafford\'s] sentences still gleam like knives ... There is a new opportunity to ask why work of such originality could ever be forgotten. It is not a case of ordinary neglect ... Her frankness about the aggression in childhood, the drives to masochism and domination — along with her absolute lack of alarm — are what give these novels their uneasy, marginal status. They are threatening; her intensity lies in her descriptive language, not in her moral judgments. She is content to hold everything in her eye, all the ambivalences of intimate life.
Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell, Ed. by Saskia Hamilton
PositiveThe New York Times... brings to life one of literary history’s most famous scandals ... [an] unusual book ... What makes the letters so darkly compelling, and such uneasy, thrilling company, is a different concern — the very one, in fact, that Hardwick pursued in all her writing, whether on Ibsen’s heroines or on the civil rights movement. It is the elemental question of motive. Why do people do what they do? How much do they understand their own impulses and responsibilities?
Perumal Murugan, trans. by N. Kalyan Raman
RaveThe New York TimesPerumal Murugan the writer lives, fearless as ever. He has returned with another parable about village life, written with breathtaking and deceptive simplicity ... Murugan writes about animal life (and death, lust, resentment) without a whiff of sentimentality ... How badly will this little goat be made to suffer? If very badly, why bother with such a story? Why go to literature to encounter suffering? The Story of a Goat answers this question with more grace, wit and feeling than any book I’ve encountered in recent memory. We go to such stories for the relief of honesty; to see what is hidden brought to light; to acknowledge, if here alone, the pain routinely inflicted on lives normally considered too insignificant to be the subject of great literature ... Murugan writes a disconcertingly effective goat sex scene ... Originally published in 2016, the novel feels prophetic, anticipating the new law in India that grants citizenship to migrants on the basis of religion ... Murugan traces the entire life of his little goat — her despair, her small acts of heroism, her longing — with Chekhovian clarity. Each sentence in Raman’s supple translation is modest, sculpted and clean, but behind each you sense a fund of deep wisdom about the vagaries of the rains, politics, behavior — human and animal.
PanThe New York TimesThe motives of the book may be unimpeachable, but novels must be judged on execution, not intention. This peculiar book flounders and fails ... everything follows as predictably as possible ... There is a fair amount of action in the book—chases, disguises, one thuddingly obvious betrayal—but if you’re at all sensitive to language, your eye and ear will snag on the sentences. There are so many instances and varieties of awkward syntax I developed a taxonomy ... the writing grows so lumpy and strange it sounds like nonsense poetry. I found myself flinching as I read, not from the perils the characters face, but from the mauling the English language receives ... Cummins has put in the research, as she describes in her afterword, and the scenes on La Bestia are vividly conjured. Still, the book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider. The writer has a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin ... The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist ... What thin creations these characters are—and how distorted they are by the stilted prose and characterizations. The heroes grow only more heroic, the villains more villainous. The children sound like tiny prophets ... The tortured sentences aside, American Dirt is enviably easy to read. It is determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that \'these people are people,\' while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore—and then congratulating us for caring.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewAt first glance, Lakota America is every inch a sober, stately work of scholarship ... Look again, however, and you’ll catch something roiling beneath that professional composure: a lively truculence that gives this book its pulse, and its purpose. Pekka Hamalainen’s impressive history is also a quarrel with the field, with how history—especially the history of indigenous Americans—has been told and sold ... Hamalainen renders the Lakotas as full protagonists. This is an American story with their contribution, influence and version of events at the center—and to build that story, there is a rich, idiosyncratic archive to draw on ... Hamalainen seeks to...infuse a sense of chance and contingency in the narrative ... He sows this feeling of uncertainty into the composition of the book, replacing a traditional arc ... Lakota America takes us from the 16th century to the present, with painstaking, carefully marshaled detail, but its real feat is in threading how the Lakota philosophy and vision of the world guided their reinventions and their dealings with colonial powers ... Hamalainen has the novelist’s relish for the strange, pungent detail, and he conjures early America in swift strokes ... an accomplished, and subtle, study.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewThis is the real story of Parisian Lives. It promises insights into the art of biography, perhaps a little gossip, perhaps a more intimate look of Beckett and Beauvoir. Instead it is something more unusual: an itemized receipt of the costs of female ambition ... It is this thread that runs through the book: how professional and intellectual aspirations in women are mocked, diverted, punished ... [Bair] marks every slight, every humiliation, while noting how pleasant, how unruffled she tried to stay at the time ... Although she quotes the critic Margo Jefferson approvingly — \'How do you reveal yourself without asking for love or pity?\' — this book clamors for love, sympathy, recognition; it rejects the concealments necessary to preserve certain forms of dignity, certain forms of injustice.
RaveThe New York TimesThese pieces exalt clear language and the complicated work of looking and seeing ... Davis takes pure pleasure in the muscular act of looking, and invites us to look alongside her. She presents long passages of text for our inspection, like X-rays, teaching us to read Jane Bowles, for instance, clause by clause ... Davis returns to a series of virtues repeatedly: clarity, compression, frank emotion, oddness. She has a preference for overheard speech, \'tangled, yet correct, syntax,\' and, very often, for writing that reinterprets a text or pokes fun at conventional, sentimental writing. The book itself embodies these qualities with its commentaries on writers and its puckish awareness of its own genre — those valedictory sermons on craft from the established writer, those moist and vague maunderings on the virtue of \'storytelling\' ...\'Read the best writers from all different periods,\' she says. She’s right. Begin here.
MixedBook Forum...an earnest but scattershot book ... What we want is more of Nelson’s blunt commentary ... Her generalizations can ring so true that they’re like hearing your own half-realized truths in someone else’s mouth ... But this quality of thought is too frequently concealed behind an impermeable, marmoreal style of academic theory. This voice does not come naturally to Nelson, but she adopts it nonetheless to quell a suspicion about beautifully made arguments—namely, that it is hard to know when they are false. So she chooses—to her detriment—rococo sentence constructions ... She is at her best when she allows herself to linger. When she meditates on how, for example, Mendieta’s obsessions intersect with her politics or the torsion in the artist-viewer relationship. Nelson is so strong on this last point—pondering how artists of cruelty hold our attention even as they strive to offend and terrify us—that it’s a pity she chooses not to engage the reader more in her own book, to demand, as Mendieta does, our attention and complicity. She’s here to reckon with cruelty. We’re here to watch. But Nelson keeps the reader at bay.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewIn her new book, the subtle, spellbinding On Immunity, [Biss] goes under the skin. She asks why vaccination triggers such anxiety — anxiety so intense it lives in the language: The British call it a \'jab,\' Americans, a \'shot.\' ... \'Our fears are dear to us,\' she writes, and she parses these fears with kindness and complicity ... Biss is stealthy. She advances from all sides, like a chess player, drawing on science, myth, literature to herd us to the only logical end, to vaccinate. To refuse is to fall in love with our fears, to create a fantasy of our purity and vulnerability and forget all the ways we are dangerous ... Biss reminds us that we owe each other our lives.
Carmen Maria Machado
RaveThe New York TimesWhat could seem gimmicky—I confess I braced myself at first—quickly feels like the only natural way to tell the story of a couple. What relationship exists in purely one genre? What life? ... a hive of frenetic experimentation, tactics and tricks ... There is something anxious, and very intriguing, in the degree of experimentation in this memoir, in its elaborately titivated sentences, its thicket of citations. The flurry—the excess—feels deliberate, and summons up the image of the writer holding a ring of keys, trying each of them in turn to unlock a resistant story, to open a door she might be hesitant to enter ... written into the silence surrounding violence in queer relationships, the silences around emotional and psychological abuse ... a living archive of her own loving, idiosyncratic design.
Hiroko Oyamada, Trans. by David Boyd
MixedThe New York Times... enigmatic ... The voices, and attitudes, of the three are identical: puzzled, passive and melancholy. Only a sudden pronoun shift or small detail indicates a shift in perspective. It’s an alertness Oyamada inculcates in her reader. She is fond of jump cuts and scenes that dissolve mid-paragraph and flow into the next without so much as a line break. A pleasant vertigo sets in. Objects have a way of suddenly appearing in the hands of characters. Faces become increasingly vivid and grotesque. Nothing feels fixed; everything in the book might be a hallucination. Food is the only reality and comfort ... David Boyd’s translation is smooth and plain-spoken, if occasionally marred by a jarring American phrase. It captures the aridity and somnolence of life at the factory ... truthful, indignant, evasive and, very much, still in progress ... The proofreader and moss expert are thinly, indifferently drawn. Only Yoshiko, with her harsh, unpredictable edge, has the charisma of a fully imagined character. Subsidiary plot points and characters are summoned up only to be forgotten. The story and central ideas still need time to ripen and connect; they remain merely suggestive, slightly unsure, a little garbled, like Yoshiko’s own reasoning ... the book feels too diffuse for satire, too lonely and questioning. The conventions of the novel, or the character, seem less interesting to Oyamada than mapping a particular emotional state: the intersection of numbness and fear that is induced by the company and all it seems to represent about precarity, alienation, climate change. The questions the characters finally ask of themselves — Why am I here? What role do I play? — have nothing to do with their jobs and everything, we learn, to do with the real notion of work at hand.
RaveThe Irish TimesNox, a grey, squat slab of a book – a book in a box, as self-enclosed as grief; a book so bulky it cannot be carried but must be visited – is [Michael\'s] headstone ... The single sheet of paper, folded accordion-style, that is Nox might be her most personal and accessible book to date – a surprising claim, perhaps, for a book that invites the reader to peer over the translator’s shoulder and has two complementary texts ... Just as every word of Catullus is painstakingly translated, as Carson pries open even the humblest preposition or utilitarian conjunction to reveal its associations, so too is the physicality of the book: the reproduction faithfully re-creates every staple’s shadow, every instance Carson’s pencil cuts into the page ... It’s reading at its most mimetic: Carson makes the reader participate in translating the poem – and in deciphering her elusive elder brother.
PositiveThe New York Times... has the startling distinction of being the first global anthology of migration literature ... bears the clear if charmless structure of a seminar, complete with a recommended reading section. But [Ahmad\'s] introduction is fiery and charismatic, almost outshining the pieces themselves. The book doesn’t exist to benignly bear witness or give voice but to dislodge the lazy, pernicious — and dominant — conceptions of migration, she writes, to tell a more truthful and sophisticated version than the linear narrative of departure, arrival and assimilation. These stories and poems push back against the fallacies that migration is always elective; that migrants are always keen to leave their home countries; that migration is one-way, and necessarily leads to a better fate ... This book encompasses the diversity of experience, with beautiful variations and stories that bicker back and forth.
MixedThe New York Times... a book as handsome, provocative and troubled as its subject ... Moser...is triggered. His book has an interesting, jumpy, adversarial energy, with its author caught up in the drama and not so subtly taking sides in the clashes surrounding Sontag ... We encounter Sontag as a series of masks, motifs, symptoms and symbols, with her biographer presenting a set of master keys that might explain her behavior ... Where Moser shines is not in analysis but in narrative, no easy feat for a life committed to reinvention ... Moser offers an elegant, sensitive summation of the decades that followed [her] ugly divorce ... It’s a pity that Moser is only dutiful about the work, given that in a sense, the work was her real life, the place where she found the eros, the excitement and fulfillment she long sought; it is perhaps why he gives such centrality to her myth instead.
PositiveThe New York Times[Levy\'s] prose is light-handed and leaves a pleasant sting ... it isn’t the grand reveal that feels like the novel’s achievement. It’s the evocation of a state of mind — of haziness and confusion that are, in fact, unwanted knowledge, what the characters have trained themselves not to notice let alone confront ... [Levy\'s] novels and memoirs are noirish, lean and intellectually chewy — good to glut on if only to marvel at her private mythography, how her obsessions crop up and combine in each book ... Levy likes lines that come undone, that double back on themselves to fray .
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Topeka School is so different in tone, so unabashed in its conventionality — and even geometric in plot — that it can read like a critique of Lerner’s previous work. Gone is the archness and detachment; the formal, furrowed sentences with their fondness for oddly technical language ... Gone too is the interest in solipsism; for the first time we see Lerner the novelist embody the perspectives and voices of other characters, which he does with ease — in fact, the sections devoted to Adam’s parents, and the blurriness of their professional and sexual lives at their psychiatric institute...are the book’s most textured and unforced sections. There is no rush to judgment of these characters, even at their cruelest or most cowardly. By comparison, Adam and Darren, positioned as a man and his shadow self, are thin constructions. There is a feeling in this book, new and unpleasant in my reading of Lerner, of being frog-marched toward a thesis ... There is a real richness, however, in regarding Lerner’s three books together, as the story of a kind of political maturation.
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Eds. Cathy W. Barks and Jackson R. Bryer
PositiveThe New York TimesRead this book for Zelda, even if you’re weary of the cultural obsession with her. Better yet, if you’re disinterested entirely, as I was, and perplexed by the cultural fascination (in recent years, there have been four novels based on her life, and three major biopics are in the works) ... I was anticipating someone doleful, distracted—not this funny, hard-boiled observer of her own life whose letters read like short stand-up sequences ... She remains this way: arch, amused, self-mocking, writing parodies of the kind of simpering love letters expected of young women ... She has no secondhand impressions or turns of phrase—everything she writes and thinks feels tart, original, lightly distressing ... Ardor is her mode, and Scott her \'sungod\' ... We recall their raucous early days, their extravagant unhappiness, but after reading these letters what strikes you is their steadiness, a shocking word to apply to them.
Daša Drndic, Trans. by S.D. Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth
RaveThe New York TimesDrndic is often described as a blend of Beckett (for the bleakness and rhythms), W.G. Sebald (the reliance on photographs and interest in historical amnesia) and Thomas Bernhard (first-rate misanthropy), but these sorts of comparisons do nothing to convey the singular experience of reading her work ... This writer does not tell stories; she had flagrant contempt for them — those cozy bourgeois tchotchkes that belonged to a safer time, when retreat from the political was permissible. Her books are contraptions intended to produce a series of psychological and somatic responses in her readers. In short: panic, pity, shame, nausea, exhilaration — and then, the bewildering desire to experience these very emotions again ... These are not books to be read but endured. I resumed all my old vices to survive them, and adopted a few new ones. I developed warm, fraternal feelings for Job ... Drndic’s fondness for commas gives her sentences their peculiar gasping quality. The characters choke on what they cannot, will not, say.
PanThe New York TimesThe novels [of Rushdie] are imaginative as ever, but they are also increasingly wobbly, bloated and mannered. He is a writer in free fall ... Rushdie’s narrative impulses are centrifugal; they lie in tossing in celebrity cameos and literary allusions, in sending new plots into orbit in the hope they might lend glitter and ballast to a work sorely in need of both, sorely in need of tethering to the world, the concerted thinking and feeling of realism, not magic. As Cervantes’s Don Quixote tells Sancho: Teeth are more precious than diamonds.
Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. by Jordan Stump
PositiveThe New York Times...a compendium of unspeakable crimes and horrifically inventive sadism, delivered in an even, unwavering tone. Mukasonga intended it to be a \'paper grave\' for her dead; the last paragraph is just a list of their names: this one whose rice she had loved, another who thought himself so handsome, the one killed along with her 10 children.
Edoardo Albinati, Trans. by Antony Shugaar
PanThe New York Times... a 1,200-page slab of lament, accusation, exorcism ... Albinati is a scholar of the harlequinade of masculinity, its rites and subtleties ... His book—a blend of novelistic imagination and true crime—is a taxonomy of male types, of bullies and victims; a close reading of locker room behavior; an analysis of the correct proportion of vulgarity necessary for humor between friends ... There are only a few scenes, lightly sketched; the modes here are the tirade and the aria—compulsively repetitive discursions with Albinati occasionally and apologetically catching himself ... There are occasional flashes of epigrammatic wit ... but Albinati is generally a humorless writer ... A peculiar, disconcerting feature of the book is how frequently it reproduces the conditions it purports to criticize. It too is a harshly male-only space ... Women generally appear here in slices—as membranes, fleshy protuberances, vessels for male insecurity and revulsion ... Albinati conjures the minds of the killers and descends into them; we are trapped in their amber, their humid, claustrophobic logic. You expect him to take an ax to all this, to let in reason, but he merges with the muck ... What is striking is how banal these statements feel, for all their horror ... It seems that for Albinati, the unearthing of these ideas is work enough, truth enough, however nauseatingly familiar they may be.
RaveThe New York TimesPatchett’s prose is confident, unfussy and unadorned. I can’t pluck out one sentence worth quoting, but how effective they are when woven together—these translucent lines that envelop you like a spider’s web. It can feel old-fashioned: her style, her attachment to a very traditional kind of storytelling — a vision of the novel as a Dutch house, with a clarity and transparency of purpose and method, a refusal of narrative tricksiness. But like the family’s Dutch house, it’s an enduring structure, which gives an added dimension to the references in the text — its way of gesturing toward a lineage ... Our willingness to serve each other represents the best of us, according to Patchett, and it is almost as if she wants to take the notion of motherhood and release its power into the commons — what if we were willing to mother one another, mother strangers? But she is also always full of warnings about the self-abnegation it requires, especially of women — and never more clearly than in this new novel ... \'The love between humans is the thing that nails us to this earth,\' Patchett wrote in her memoir This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage — a belief her new novel shares but shades with caution. There’s no missing the statement’s brutal, brilliant ambivalence.
RaveThe New York Times...seems designed to thwart the timid or lazy reader but shouldn’t. Timid, lazy readers to the front! Ellmann’s unnamed narrator, a mother of four living in Ohio, has a cutting power of observation and a depressive charm ... This book has its face pressed up against the pane of the present; its form mimics the way our minds move now: toggling between tabs, between the needs of small children and aging parents, between news of ecological collapse and school shootings while somehow remembering to pay taxes and fold the laundry ... feels dense at first, a bit like drowning, without a period or paragraph break in sight. But a rhythm asserts itself and a structure, musical and associative ... Never mind the mountain lioness subplot, the novel’s most startling feature is the marriage at its center: the narrator’s life with her husband, their steadiness and mutual enchantment, their kindness to each other. In literature, sometimes nothing seems so extraordinary as ordinary happiness ... The capaciousness of the book allows Ellmann to stretch and tell the story of one family on a canvas that stretches back to the bloody days of Western expansion, but its real value feels deeper — it demands the very attentiveness, the care, that it enshrines.
PositiveThe New York TimesKaren Olsson’s beguiling new book, The Weil Conjectures, arrives as a corrective [to the idea that math is boring], describing mathematics—its focus, abstraction, odd hunches, blazing epiphanies—as a powerful intoxicant, a door to euphoria ... The book unfurls effortlessly, loose and legato. There are no real revelations—the subjects are well known and long dead. There are no stakes; there is no suspense. I was riveted. Olsson is evocative on curiosity as an appetite of the mind, on the pleasure of glutting oneself on knowledge ... The glamour of mathematics is what excites her, its colorful stories. The book advances in fragments, historical divagations that drift by, smoothly as clouds ... For all of Olsson’s skill at untangling knotty mathematics, she is baffled by Simone, insensible to her charisma and put off by her prose ... It is a freakish version of the thinker she offers us, a gaunt catastrophe in wide skirts ... \'Unhinged\' is a crude diagnosis [for Simone], especially in a book that gives short shrift to her work and influence. From The Weil Conjectures, it’s difficult to discern how rich and various her life truly was; or to grasp her political shrewdness and the intellectual concerns ... [Olsson\'s] book is full of...moments of connection, combustion and surprise ... For all the riddles of mathematics, there is also the ordinary and eternal mystery of other people’s minds.
PositiveThe New York Times...Watson traces the warring (and gendered) camps of prose style — a fixation on clarity and directness versus a curled sensibility, one interested in the fertile territories of ambiguity. Watson covers impressive ground in this short book, skittering back and forth like a sandpiper at the shores of language’s Great Debates. There are fascinating forays into how grammarians \'created a market for their rules,\' the strange history of diagramming sentences and the racial politics of so-called standard English. Watson is sharpest when acting a bit like a semicolon herself, perceiving subtle connections and burrowing into an argument. Whatever her subject, her targets are always pedants, those acolytes of \'actually,\' all those who profess to love language but seek only to control it ... Watson opposes conventions only as they exist to spare us from thinking. Don’t just learn the rules, her clever, curious book prompts us; learn to ask, whose rules (and to admire that semicolon while you’re at it).
Natalia Ginzberg, Trans. by Frances Frenaye
RaveThe New York TimesThe voice is instantly, almost violently recognizable — aloof, amused and melancholy. The metaphors are sparse and ordinary; the language plain, but every word load-bearing. Short sentences detonate into scenes of shocking cruelty. Even in middling translations, it is a style that cannot be subsumed; Natalia Ginzburg can only sound like herself ... translated with mirrorlike polish by Frances Frenaye ... The mystery of the novel, its coiling allure, is not what happens or why but how ...This book is a Roman candle — quick and explosive ... Where does style come from? Is it knowingly constructed or unconsciously secreted? Invented or inherited? These questions dog me whenever I read Ginzburg, whose thumbprint is so unmistakable, so inscribed by her time, yet whose work stands so solidly that it requires no background information to appreciate ... The war is not merely her subject...it is the weather in her work, the foundation on which her stories are based — the randomness, confusion, lack of resolution or explanation. And above all, her skepticism of happiness — and her passion for writing about it ... these books snare so much of what is odd and lovely and fleeting in the world. It is work that saved and sustained the writer after unimaginable loss. It buoys us up, too.
Jennifer Berry Hawes
PositiveThe New York Times... offers a fuller, more complicated picture of the massacre and its aftermath ... Hawes is a poised writer and a patient observer who trains her focus on the present ... Hawes takes an obsessive interest in his size and fragility...It’s as if Hawes cannot reckon that monstrosity should present in such a package — and these sections want for self-scrutiny on her part, about which bodies might be automatically coded to her as harmless and innocent ... Hawes says that she wanted to write as comprehensive an account as possible. She largely succeeds — if sacrificing, invariably, some depth for breadth. Still, she lands the book with moral force and great feeling, writing about the soil that could produce both the Emanuel Nine and a Dylann Roof.
MixedThe New York Times...a vexed, nearly decade-long investigation into the sex lives and desires of three American women ... an immersive look at a particular story of female sexuality, albeit refracted three ways. It’s florid and sometimes inexcusably clumsy but also bracing, bleak and full of nagging questions about why it remains so difficult for some women to access their secret lives, to name—let alone pursue—their desires ... [Taddeo\'s] intentions partly feel wobbly because the language of the book is so inconsistent, full of odd homilies—an assembly line of truly terrible metaphors. I was awe-struck by their number, dottiness, incomprehensibility ... These are not merely cosmetic flaws, or matters of taste. To see language treated so shabbily shakes the reader’s confidence; if a writer can’t work her way around a sentence or land a metaphor, what assurance have we that she can parse her subjects’ traumas, their complex, sometimes inchoate yearnings?The faux-literary language seems larded on to distract from the book’s essential pessimism about power and conflict between men and women. That harshness, however, is a great strength of the book. The boldness in Three Women—and its missteps—are both born of the risks Taddeo takes[.]
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewNaomi Wolf’s long, ludicrous career has followed a simple formula. She audits herself for some speck of dissatisfaction, arrives at an epiphany—one that might contravene any number of natural laws—and then extrapolates a set of rules and recommendations for all women ... Always the books are lit by a strange messianic energy, shored up by dubious data ... What Wolf regarded as evidence [in Outrages] of executions—the notation of \'death recorded\' on court records—indicated, in fact, the opposite, that the judge had recommended a pardon from the death sentence ... The mistakes matter because this book takes as one of its great subjects our duties as stewards of history, of the care and preservation of texts ... They matter because although there are stretches of the book that I enjoyed—there is a hint of A. S. Byatt’s Possession as Wolf plays literary detective in the archives, puzzling over Symonds’s codes and concealments—I don’t trust it. My woman’s brain...can’t quite overlook Wolf’s distinguished career of playing loose with facts and the historical record.
Natalia Ginzburg, Trans. by Minna Proctor
RaveThe New York TimesThe voice is instantly, almost violently recognizable—aloof, amused and melancholy. The metaphors are sparse and ordinary; the language plain, but every word load-bearing. Short sentences detonate into scenes of shocking cruelty. Even in middling translations, it is a style that cannot be subsumed; Natalia Ginzburg can only sound like herself ... The families...are petri dishes of fizzing dysfunction ... Happiness, as Such...reveals...Ginzburg’s natural sympathy and wit ... few writers make as liberal and effective use of the first-person-plural narration ... The war is...the weather in her work, the foundation on which her stories are based—the randomness, confusion, lack of resolution or explanation. And above all, her skepticism of happiness—and her passion for writing about it.
A K Benjamin
RaveThe New York Times...magnificently unsettling ... His interest isn’t merely in describing this empathy but evoking it, slightly coercively, from the reader (there’s an annoying yet undeniably powerful twist in this tale that I’m trying to sidestep) ... Benjamin’s narrative creeps along the borders of his case studies. His patients’ suffering recalls his own ... He reels off superbly sympathetic statements — \'patients are often our imagined others\' — with the kind of professional tenderness worthy of Oliver Sacks. He is no Sacks. Something stranger is afoot ... The language suddenly changes, turns jagged and gnomic ... This book about madness becomes itself the chronicle of a shattering breakdown ... Certain sections are inevitably difficult to follow ... Be advised: You’ll need a mighty tolerance for that Laingian mythopoeic perspective of mental illness to make it through this maze. But succeed and its conclusion feels like a benediction.
PanThe New York Times...a universe populated exclusively by the dupes, villains and victims of America’s forever war, along with a few charlatans, people driven mad by grief and, to my great unhappiness, one talking dog ... It is the bleakest, most mournful book by an author celebrated for his barbed tongue and high silliness ... Hanif’s writing has always been anchored in Pakistan, and in a very Punjabi sense of humor. Here it floats free, leached of color and all local detail. For the first time he plays with parable — and what an exciting departure it might have been ... Instead, we get an alarmingly sloppy and choppy ghost story ... the pacing is all wrong ... Criminally — for such a savagely funny writer — the jokes don’t land ... Wrestling with the novel, I began to feel I was reading less a document about trauma than a document of trauma. The story is weirdly repetitive ... The book behaves like a grieving person ... what happens to a writer when he recognizes the limitations of his favorite form? This novel isn’t riddled with mere flaws but heartbreak.
RaveThe New York TimesThe Nickel Boys—a tense, nervy performance—is even more rigorously controlled than its predecessor. The narration is disciplined and the sentences plain and sturdy, oars cutting into water. Every chapter hits its marks. Even if your prose taste runs to curlicue and adornment (mine does), the restraint feels significant. Whitehead comports himself with gravity and care, the steward of painful, suppressed histories; his choices on the page can feel as much ethical as aesthetic. The ordinary language, the clear pane of his prose, lets the stories speak for themselves ... while Whitehead is frank about the barbarity his characters endure, there are few scenes of explicit violence—most of it happens offstage. And none of the violence is exaggerated. A reverence for the victims can be detected in this refusal to sensationalize their suffering ... Whitehead has written novels of horror and apocalypse; nothing touches the grimness of the real stories he conveys here, of a cinder-block building that still stands, a school that was closed only eight years ago. Its starkness and irresolution recalls the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s point that the opposite of forgetting is not merely remembrance. It is justice.
RaveBookforum... an anatomy of American racism in the new millennium, a slender, musical book that arrives with the force of a thunderclap ... Rankine shows us how dehumanization works—over brunch, in the checkout line, at the university. At the hands of people you admired and trusted. She traces the ions, the shocks and currents that become the storm ... even if there is no solace on offer, this work of careful, loving, restorative witness is itself an act of resistance, a proof of endurance.
RaveThe New York Times...an irresistible first novel ... Arnett possesses all the bravery her characters dream of. There’s none of the shyness and self-consciousness of so much American fiction that masks itself as austerity. She writes comic set pieces to make you laugh, sex scenes to turn you on. The action flips from the past to the present, swimming through first love and first grief on a slick of red Kool-Aid and vodka, suntan oil and fruity lip gloss, easy and unforced. This book is my song of the summer. Corner me, though, and I’ll admit that it suffers slightly from some first-novel blues. The setup is expert, but the pace occasionally stutters. The climax feels rushed and muted, the resolution a little pat. Not that it matters much; in fiction as much as taxidermy, it is the feeling of vigor and spirit that matters, that is proof of success. And the pulse in this book emanates not only from its sun-drunk, word-drunk wit, but from what it knows about life ... Subtly, unmistakably a beautiful lineage is suggested in these echoes of the great heroines of American literature — so many tomboys, so many queer women. Their shadows flicker, trailing between the alligator jaws and deer hooves and peacock feathers in this book of inheritances, this cabinet of wonders.
Rachel Louise Snyder
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...extraordinary ... She powerfully dismantles the question of why women seem to stay in violent relationships ... There’s an immediacy in these scenes, the raw, ragged tension of people exhausted by fear, that recalls Donna Ferrato’s portraits of domestic violence in Living With the Enemy. I read Snyder’s book as if possessed, stopping for nothing, feeling the pulse beat in my brain ... In its scope and seriousness — its palpable desire to spur change — this book invites reflection not only about violence but about writing itself. What kinds of reportage really move policy? ... She brings all of fiction’s techniques to this new book — canny pacing, an eye for the animating detail and bursts of quick, confident characterization. There is a fullness and density to every one of her subjects ... She glides from history to the present day, from scene to analysis, with a relaxed virtuosity that filled me with admiration. This is a writer using every tool at her disposal to make this story come alive, to make it matter.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review... after the buildup (and garbled metaphors), what Herbert trundles out is fairly straightforward: a dense, detailed narrative of the massacre — although not without a few flourishes ... It’s the unearthed American connection to the massacre that is Herbert’s most interesting contribution ... The great strength of Herbert’s book, written with such shame and fury, is that it is not framed as epitaph but as dispatch from a live crime scene, attentive to the silences, the still seething resentments, relinquishing nothing to history.
PositiveThe New York Times\"Despite the broad diagnosis promised by the title, the focus is narrow, personal — and frank. Shields breaks the sound barrier for indiscretion ... In the past, I found Shields’s project occasionally impressive and more often exasperating. He’s fatally attracted to the manifesto and strident pronouncements on life and literature. But in this latest work, some of his masks and bombast fall away. He is wry and self-deprecating ... For the first time, this writer becomes good company — thankfully, for we have to travel a long way with him, deep into the labyrinth of his past ... The Trouble With Men is unabashedly queasy. Reading about Shields’s lust for Pippa Middleton ranks among the more depressing literary experiences of my life. But it’s curious that he doesn’t reckon more with what it means to expose himself (and his wife) so openly ... I often found this book beguiling, and moving. There is always the temptation, in writing about sex, to sound superior, arch, immune to its power. But Shields writes from a place of genuine curiosity and confusion. He is ridiculous and brave, he never conflates sincerity with genuine candor, and he poses the kinds of questions that only ever bring trouble...\
Mitchell S. Jackson
MixedThe New York Times\"The [book\'s] detours recall the hectic narrative nonfiction of the ’90s and early aughts, by writers like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace. I’d forgotten how much I didn’t miss it ... The elaborate architecture of the book can feel like an exercise in misdirection, especially when Jackson turns to his treatment of women ... These stories shimmer with pain. But Jackson doesn’t linger on them ... Too often, a strong protective instinct takes over [in Jackson\'s writing] ... This [passage from the book] is stale writing — period, exclamation point. It is beneath Jackson... it misses the pungency and wisdom of the scenes, the richness and beautiful uncertainties of the voice he inhabits, when he seeks to depict and not merely sermonize ... I will never forget [Jackson\'s encounter with his mother]. What a book this might have been had he stayed in this register a little longer, had he stayed with all that is “frightening and exhilarating,” and let us truly encounter him.\
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewHow they leap off the page ... a rich resurrection of a forgotten history ... [Hartman\'s] rigor and restraint give her writing its distinctive electricity and tension. Hartman is a sleuth of the archive; she draws extensively from plantation documents, missionary tracts, whatever traces she can find— but she is vocal about the challenge of using such troubling documents, the risk one runs of reinscribing their authority. Similarly, she is keen to identify moments of defiance and joy in the lives of her subjects, but is wary of the \'obscene\' project to revise history, to insist upon autonomy where there may have been only survival, \'to make the narrative of defeat into an opportunity for celebration\' ... Hartman is most original in her approach to gaps in a story, which she shades in with speculation and sometimes fictional imagining—a technique she has used in all her work but never quite so fully as in this new book ... This kind of beautiful, immersive narration exists for its own sake but it also counteracts the most common depictions of black urban life from this time—the frozen, coerced images, Hartman calls them, most commonly of mothers and children in cramped kitchens and bedrooms.
PositiveThe New York Times\"[Toews’s] celebrated novels are haunted by her upbringing, but she has never written with such heartbreak, or taken such sure aim at fundamentalism and its hypocrisies, as she does in her new book, Women Talking ... Did I mention the book is funny? Wickedly so, with Toews’s brand of seditious wit ... One wishes, at times, that the voices were more individuated ... few of the women emerge distinctly enough for there to be any drama in their evolution. It’s the chorus that interests Toews, not character, the etiology of violence and the structures — not merely the personalities — that perpetuate it.\
MixedThe New York Times Book Review[Malcolm\'s] new collection is a reminder that she is a great champion ... She is drawn to decency, cleanliness, sanity, simplicity—these words recur in her work like talismans, when she writes about Edith Wharton or the biographer Quentin Bell. Goodness, but of a narrow kind, matters intensely to her. Malcolm is impatient with weakness and a lack of self-control—with people who \'leak.\' The goodness that attracts her is born of strength, reserve and resources. It is tangled up with tastefulness, too ... There is stirring, beautifully structured writing here, particularly in the title essay, a profile of Fisher, which combines many of the writer’s signal interests—our unconscious aggression and the way we methodically and unknowingly recreate the world of our childhood in our adult lives ... Several pieces, however, particularly the short reviews, make for intimate but curiously unsatisfying reading ... too often in this book we watch a powerful critic taking on targets that feel unworthy—not because they are small but because she does not elevate them or make a sufficient case for their importance. She flatters them instead, bathes them in adjectives ... With all due respect to both Maddow and Malcolm, I started to feel a little insane.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewFor those under Collins’s spell, our plaint will always be the same: more. Give us more—more letters, more diary entries, more careful curation of the work. What we really want for her is more life. And more art, because what we have—even when raw, unfinished or this carelessly presented—is dazzling ... her voice and vision are idiosyncratic and pitiless, combining mischief and crisp authority, formal experimentation and deep feeling. More and more writers, I hazard, will start to sound like her. (I am fighting the impulse here myself; her voice is strong and contagious) ... There is the sleekness of her sentences, and the burrs. There is cool skepticism but also hunger for rapture. There is humor a knife’s edge from despair.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"Where Reasons End belongs to a band of books produced in the forge of intense pain; their authors, aristocrats of suffering—think of The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s memoirs of the deaths of her husband and daughter in close succession ... For Li, to apply her own language to suicide means to understand suicide as the most private of decisions, to address it without cheap sentiment or condemnation ... As the title alerts us, this book takes place in a territory beyond reason, in all its connotations—beyond explanation or understanding. The mother does not require them.
PositiveThe New York Times\"... enthralling ... Robertson does not work for the prosecution or the defense. She marshals us to no conclusion. She only reopens the case and presents the evidence afresh, all those alluring details out of an Agatha Christie novel (the mystery of Lizzie’s burned dress, the curious disappearance of a hatchet handle). The reader is to serve as judge and jury ... Robertson is a scrupulous writer who stays tethered to the archives, but I often wished she had permitted herself to rove more freely, to speculate and imagine. The real riddle of Lizzie Borden isn’t whether she did it, or why, but can be found in the dark fascination she continues to exert.\
RaveThe New York Times\"The novel truly becomes novel again in [Luiselli\'s] hands — electric, elastic, alluring, new ... Luiselli is a superb chronicler of children, and the narrator’s 5-year-old daughter and her husband’s 10-year-old son feel piercingly real — perceptive, irreplaceable, wonderfully odd ... Luiselli drives home just how much pain and sacrifice we are prepared to accept in the lives of others. She dramatizes what it takes for people to stare hard at their own families, to examine their complicity in other people’s suffering.\
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 Times\"Her 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 Times\"Where 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.