PositiveThe Observer (UK)I don’t mean it as a criticism when I say that Attenberg’s book has an untidy, artless structure. Yes, its narrative, which moves repeatedly back and forth in time, is often in danger of seeming repetitive, and perhaps it comes with one too many Zoom meetings ... But such restlessness reflects its subject matter ... Her cheeriness – her absolute disdain for self-pity – only serves to make the sad parts of her book seem the more plangent ... Parts of this work do border on self-obsession ... She’s very funny, and it’s this that makes her marvellous.
Rutu Modan, tr. Ishai Mishory
RaveThe Guardian (UK)How to describe this complex and thrilling book? Think of it as Raiders of the Lost Ark as reimagined by a feminist Hergé, with a few light top notes of Raja Shehadeh thrown in for good measure (the latter being the Orwell prize-winning Palestinian lawyer who writes about hiking in the occupied territories). Every page is gripping, every frame profoundly political. If Modan has given us a tightly plotted adventure story, she has also delivered a brilliantly daring satire ... To have built such a wonderfully witty and enjoyable comic on such vexed territory is quite some achievement. But then, Modan is a uniquely talented artist and writer.
Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Masterly ... I know that I brought some of my own stuff to this, an account – half fact, half fiction – of families separated by the Korean war, tears rolling down my face as I turned its inky pages. But I won’t compare my own experiences to those of its characters – they don’t even come close – and nor do I want to take anything away from her achievement in this book ... Keum takes the reader inside some of the human heart’s most inaccessible chambers, places that are all but closed to most visitors – and yet she does so almost casually, the stark economy of her drawings no guide at all to their lasting emotive power. What a talent she is ... The Waiting involves many miracles, not least its author’s brushwork, at once beautiful and forbidding. But chief among them is surely the fact that without her own mother’s tenacity and courage, it would not exist at all.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)... while [Catherine\'s] extreme bravery during the war is not in doubt, there’s little for Picardie to go on even in that period: no diaries, no letters, few eyewitness accounts. To bring this part of her life alive, she must rely on the experiences of other Resistance fighters, the work of other historians ... she remains a shadow. For pages at a time, there’s no mention of her at all. I enjoyed reading Miss Dior, though Picardie can be a bit wafty; she’s always communing with spirits ... The book is full of things like this: unlikely, even bizarre, shafts of light that have you blinking, given the darkness all around. It’s also beautiful; her publisher has done her proud. But it comes with so much padding. A long account of the relationship of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, for instance, cannot be justified by the fact that the former was a client of Dior (their connection with Catherine is nonexistent). Like a dress by some wilfully edgy label...its constituent parts seem not to go together. The sleeves don’t match the bodice, and there’s a gaping hole where there really shouldn’t be one.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)In one way, there’s not much to it: some fairly standard childhood memories; a half-funny anecdote about the time Meryl Streep ordered andouillette (a stinky sausage made with chitterlings) in a French bistro; an account of the (to him, frankly batty) manner in which his British wife roasts potatoes. But in another way, it is… oh, dear. How to frame this for a family newspaper? Suffice to say that when he gets going, Tucci can make a woman feel quite agitated. Why, she may think wildly, will he not treat me to spaghetti con le zucchine alla Nerano at La Scoglio on the Amalfi coast? ... The tone of his book is light and, for an American actor, moderately ironic ... he doesn’t get Oscar-speech mushy ... There are lots of gaps ... after a while, it ceases to matter that he’s no Robert Evans, nor even a David Niven. The mind clings, like a good sauce, to other things. The fact that Tucci finds his wife’s greediness sexy and endearing – and that she, in turn, felt no need to hide this part of herself on their early dates, chasing after a restaurant cheese trolley with her eyes as if it were the last train home and she was about to miss it – makes me very happy. I’m not even being facetious when I say that, if we’re serious about ending cultural sexism, a good place to start might be right here. The world needs more men like this: the kind of bloke – and a Hollywood star, to boot – who could not be more delighted when a woman asks for seconds; who cooks for a girl like he really means it.
PanThe Observer (UK)Jennifer Higgie tells the story of the female self-portrait from the 16th century on, her inevitably sprawling narrative taking its structure from what is essentially a group biography—though she seems to be reluctant to admit to this, titling her chapters not for the women they portray, but for vague moods and themes ... Group biographies are extremely difficult to pull off successfully: the danger is that the narrative will seem hurried and superficial, and that the connections between its subjects, in as much as they exist at all, will feel forced and contingent. In theory, The Mirror and the Palette is my ideal book. I could hardly be more interested in its subject. But I’m afraid that both these problems are apparent here. Scooting dutifully over territory that will already be very familiar to many readers, Higgie strains to justify the way she has bunched together artists who have relatively little in common. Somewhat desperately, she keeps asking if this artist ever met that artist, or even knew of her work, and then answering her own question with the words: \'We don’t know\' ... As I read, I longed for a deeper interrogation of the tensile strength of the artist who practises, metaphorically speaking, in a corner ... But perhaps the real problem with this book is that it has already been written.
MixedThe Observer (UK)Crikey, but this is daring. Attempting to squeeze the short, dazzling lives of Fitzgerald and Keats, already so much written about, into one short volume, he asks a huge amount of himself, and of his reader. Flipping between 19th-century Hampstead and 20th-century Los Angeles, between Keats’s mooning after the barely outlined figure of Fanny Brawne and Fitzgerald’s tortured relationship with the altogether more vivid creation that was his wife, Zelda, has the potential to cause a certain amount of dizziness. I felt at moments as though I was caught between two lovers. When I was with Keats, I longed to get back to Fitzgerald; when I was with Fitzgerald, I would experience a sudden, fierce pang for Keats ... But this, I suppose, is the nature of the beast – and such yearning at least serves to remind you of both writers’ powerful conviction that happiness is always and inevitably fleeting ... Bate is at his best when he zeroes in on the work: his feeling for it, by being so exacting, is infectious, especially in the case of Keats. But elsewhere, he struggles. How to connect, again, Fitzgerald to Keats? This is his problem, and the strain of it tells ... the principal achievement of this pairing is to remind us of the way that literature connects us.
PanThe Guardian (UK)The book comprises \'four songs of care and constraint\': in effect, four essays (I struggle to think of them as songs, not least because their musicality seems to me to be gravely in doubt) ... Only the first two essays come close to working, if by this we mean that they make some kind of vaguely perception-shifting argument ... Do these seem like slim pickings, ideas-wise? If so, then all I can tell you is that I felt the same disappointment myself on finally making it to the end of On Freedom, a book that is close to unreadable at moments ... Like The Argonauts, Nelson’s account of her life with the artist Harry Dodge, it is clotted with jargon and arcane references to Foucault et al. Unlike that book, however, it comes with no element of memoir, and thus with no narrative urgency. Its pace and tone never change ... [A] stifling, boring, impenetrable thicket.
RaveObserver (UK)\" Frances Wilson, who has been quietly in thrall to the novelist since she was a student, does not grill him lightly over charcoal; not for her the righteous disgust of Kate Millett ... Nevertheless, her book is a highly flammable thing. If its subject is a crazed prophet, sex-obsessed and violently contrarian, who stalks Bloomsbury drawing rooms breathing fire all over everyone he meets, her own style is hardly any less combustible ... I cannot recall when last I felt so uncertain of a book’s essential merit, so confused by its intensity, its digressions, the way it disappears down wormholes. But equally, I cannot remember the last time one left me feeling so exhilarated, so challenged and absorbed. Will it restore Lawrence’s reputation? Will it make people want to read the old fox again? I’m not sure it matters if it doesn’t. Burning Man is a work of art in its own right, as wanton and as magnificently flawed as anything Lawrence ever wrote; an object lesson in all that can happen when literary passion is allowed to go completely mad in the archives ... There are longueurs. I was bored and confused by the more than 100 pages she gives over to Lawrence’s escapades with Magnus. Were the two men lovers, or not? ... But Wilson writes so brilliantly, and with such conviction. If you believe, as I do, that to live life well is to fail in ways that may be unimaginably huge, this strange and confounding book is for you.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)But even in this comic, the author appears before us in the guise we now know so well—a baffled outsider trying, and often failing, to navigate a culture that isn’t his own ... But the book isn’t really about social class so much as it is about men and their agonising inability to talk to one another ... It’s this plangent undertow that makes Factory Summers worth your time. We all know about summer jobs. Many of us have experienced the borderline bullying that comes with a certain kind of envy and fear. But the emotionally silent world of men is more difficult territory to reach and it finds its perfect expression here in Delisle’s effortless concision: so much paralysing gaucheness in a beer belly, a pair of bandy legs, a head bent over a homemade sandwich; so much sadness in a single glance.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)A downbeat but moving exploration of the aftermath of a relationship ... if its minimalist, indie-film tone is ever downbeat, it’s also, at moments, highly affecting. But you finish it with no hope at all that its characters will ever be able to resolve their difficulties. There is something intensely bleak at its centre: a sense, perhaps, that while blood is not always thicker than water, even happily chosen families may not be able to withstand certain kinds of emotional inheritance ... it impresses from the moment we first meet Bron and Ray, a couple who relish their role as wild, alternative aunties to Ray’s six-year-old niece, Nessie ... Lai’s monochrome illustrations are, like her dialogue, spare and unyielding; she wants for a lightness – the occasional joke would help – that would imbue this story with a warmth it sometimes needs. But she tells her story with control and authority and it’s impossible not to admire the way she has made a dextrous narrative out of so much taciturnity and mossy sadness.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)...quietly astonishing ... Suffice to say that while her subjects—nature, love, work, sexuality—are huge, The Secret to Superhuman Strength never feels heavy. If it were a barbell, you’d be able to lift it with one hand. Her drawings are always extremely precise and extremely nimble.
Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)In Bacon, Mena saw something that was apt to escape others – a gilded ease, as well as an isolation; an unexpected tenderness – and in their magnificent new life of the artist, the Pulitzer prize-winning critics Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan are wise enough to make good use of it, deploying Mena’s memory at a point when others might have been inclined, in the race to the finish, to throw it away. But then, this is them all over. How judicious they are, how determined to rub away at their subject’s corners ... The authors are diligent about the shows, the critics, the mentors. It’s fascinating (and startling, when you consider what his studio looked like) to read of his first career ... But where they really triumph is in their sympathetic, psychologically convincing accounts of his love life .. This book’s great achievement is that it does not confuse flexibility in the matter of relationships with insincerity, nor ravenous desire with decadence. Bacon, you come to understand, was fundamentally serious, and fundamentally loving. If his heart was often on the hustle, it was also ardent: as twisted and as fervent as his art.
Michel Rabagliati, Trans. by Helge Dascher
RaveThe Guardian (UK)If the latest volume in the long-running, semi-autobiographical Paul series by the Quebecer cartoonist Michel Rabagliati is by far the saddest of these wonderful books, it’s also much the better for it. No one writes, or draws, the nerdish white male quite as Rabagliati does, but in this volume, as his titular hero finds himself adrift in middle age, there’s a special richness: a melancholy that has its perfect expression in his monochrome pages. A story of loneliness and loss, it could hardly have arrived at a better moment. Who knew that I would find Paul’s daily dread so soothing? ... His mother, though… At the heart of this book is a fine portrait of a stoical, reserved and sometimes rather difficult woman who lives alone in a retirement flat ... blackly funny, whether our narrator is obsessing over the typeface of street signs, or giving yet another talk to bored students at a school ... there are moments of solace, too.
Jerome Mulot, Florent Ruppert, and Bastien Vives
RaveThe Guardian (UK)If you like comics, and you’re also in need of some serious, escapist fun – at the moment, surely that’s pretty much all of us – I suggest that you dive straight into The Grande Odalisque ... Naturally, I like the way this book flips things around, the women getting up to all the stuff, and with such relish, that’s ordinarily the province only of men. But such reversals have been done before. Its real originality lies, I think, in the undercurrents that flow between these young women, a complex dynamic that ultimately binds them together. Their backstory, which I won’t spoil here, lends the narrative an unlikely tenderness, one that will keep you reading even when the action is at its most preposterous (think hang-gliders and tranquilliser darts), though I must also admit to experiencing a certain horrible delight whenever our heroines blow the head off some lecherous villain. (Even at my age, there’s excitement in being given licence to enjoy this kind of thrill.)
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)When the second volume of William Feaver’s fat and extremely juicy biography of Lucian Freud begins, the artist is middle-aged ... Ahead of him lie another 40 years in the studio ... Feaver’s narrative, peppy and mostly nimble, is based in part on the near daily phone calls and many encounters the two men had over several decades ... you can hear Freud’s voice on the page, which is thrilling when he’s talking about art ... Yes, the book bulges with gossipy stuff. Jerry Hall, Kate Moss and the Queen all have walk-on parts ... he was more vivid than other people – more nervous, more simple, more honest and Feaver’s great and generous achievement in his book is to enable us to imagine this.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)W-3 is a debut and, as debuts go, it’s very fine, at moments dazzlingly and daringly written. In the early 70s, it was not beholden on a writer to tip-toe around the subject of mental illness, to worry about terminology or stereotyping; it is a ruthlessly straightforward, almost impudent book and all the better and wiser for it. Its author captures quite brilliantly the comical competitiveness of her fellow patients ... she is excellent, too, at delineating what we might call the secret life of the institution ... But Howland’s technique in this memoir is to stare at others, not herself; her breakdown and its causes (men, money, something horrible that happened when she was a child) are touched on only intermittently and always at an angle. In the main, she is painfully absent from the text, an omnipotent narrator who also seems to be standing with one leg on either side of a gaping void. W-3 is more or less shapeless, its tone unvarying, the camera permanently fixed at the same distance from the action, its end oddly peremptory. While this may be an important part of the book’s design—its relentlessness mirrors both her illness and the unpunctuated days of hospital life—it’s also utterly exhausting. W-3 is not a locked ward, but the reader, held prisoner too long, leaves it with an overwhelming sense of relief.
RaveThe Guardian... Burning the Books reveals on every page, not only is he careful, diligent and wise, he also knows what to leave out, and what to keep in – and it’s this quality, above all, that makes his book so remarkable. Its sweep is quite astonishing and yet, amazingly, his narrative runs to just 320 pages ... Ovenden’s somewhat more diminutive ark, also written at a time of huge political and economic strife, attempts to save the concept of the library itself, something it achieves not through polemic – though his book comes with a handy, cut-out-and-keep five-point plea for their continued existence – but by telling stories.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)This funny and very knowing graphic novel will still strike an exceedingly loud chord with anyone who is, or has ever been, a fresher, far from home and all at sea ... Drawn in black and white, Yanow’s figures are a couple of rectangles topped by the circles of their anoraks, rucksacks and spectacles, while the boulevards and canals around them appear hardly at all. But though such a pared-back style can hardly be said to be beautiful, it’s perfect here. As they trudge from city to city, their days bereft of beauty, variety and everyday joy, Sophie and Zena could be almost anywhere. In the end, for all its comedy, The Contradictions is a book about how principles, if too firmly held, can make a person blind—not just to new ideas, but to all the good things in the world.
Jake Halpern & Michael Sloan
PositiveThe Guardian (US)Welcome to the New World is a somewhat earnest book, one that prioritises education over entertainment. But its granular, journalistic approach does take you to places rarely imagined in terms of the refugee experience – and in this sense, at least, their narrative is truly thought-provoking.
PanThe Guardian (UK)An account of a teenage affair with a teacher feels like therapy and lacks deep thinking ... If this scene – a predatory teacher grooming a student by encouraging her to read Nabokov – was in a film, you’d rightly think it preposterous. But Being Lolita is not fiction; it’s memoir. The reader, then, must try to put aside the feeling that its author’s account of her relationship with Mr North feels embarrassingly schematic; that by repeatedly returning to Nabokov’s story, as she comes close to admitting herself, she is merely using his narrative to elevate her own (\'to raise it above the tawdry\'). Nor must we bridle at her depressing verdict on female agency (\'no matter how active or passive a girl is, she is still doomed\'). She has suffered. To do anything else would be unkind. But I must be honest. This book feels like therapy, and writing should never be only that. If Wood’s style, which aims for suspense – Will Mr North get found out? Will they really wait until she is 18 to sleep together? Will he ditch her once she is at university? – gives it, at moments, the pulpy, almost romantic feel of an airport novel, it’s also unsuccessful. Nothing that happens is surprising; no image lingers long in the mind. Two hundred pages in, and I still had no clear image of Mr North, save for the soft swell of his belly (his weight fixates them both). He remains, throughout, an outline: not a charismatic figure, but a juvenile one ... What’s strange about the result is how little discomfort it involves for the reader; how rarely this narrative truly provokes. There is surely a good and challenging book to be written about the erotic charge that, for good or/and ill, is often involved in pedagogy; about relationships that, though they may be wrong, are not illegal. But Being Lolita , so limp and overly straightforward, is not, alas, it.
Yeong-Shin Ma, trans. by Janet Hong
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Yeonsun and co are the stars of Moms, a graphic novel by Yeong-shin Ma that was published in his native Korea in 2015 – and when I say \'stars\', I mean it. What a remarkable, joyous book. Our culture, like his, is hell-bent on rendering middle-aged women invisible, and yet here are four of them, their lives not only filling every single page of this comic, but brought to us with such intimacy.
André Leon Talley
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Talley believes that Wintour has \'dashed\' many people \'on a frayed and tattered heap during her powerful rule”\' Somehow, though, he never expected to be a victim himself...What’s strange, of course, is that he could ever have imagined he would be any different. For all his plaintiveness, he seems to have not even the dimmest sense that if you spend your life creeping to those who only respond to toadying, the people involved are probably not very sincere, and your relationship with them is probably not very real ... And it’s not as if his own behaviour is impeccable. Take a look in the mirror, Andre ... This is not to say that The Chiffon Trenches doesn’t have its… moments. Laugh as Talley primly turns down the chance to participate in Warhol’s Oxidation series, AKA his \'piss paintings\'. Cry as he describes the fearful cold at the Shropshire home of John Galliano’s muse, Amanda Harlech ... Yes, there are poignancies: the abuse Talley suffered as a child; the friends who die from Aids. But because he always rushes straight back to his own wonderfulness – that time Diana Vreeland told him he was a genius! – they do not detain the heart for long. What he gives us, ultimately, is a circus the likes of which, given present circumstances, we may never see again. My advice is to do as I did: apply a good squirt of Fracas to your wrists, and sit back and enjoy the lunatic ride.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)The things that I like about this book—sometimes, I love them almost as much as I love a fat, chewy slice of saucisson secare—are also the things that make it flawed. I adore Buford’s enthusiasm, which is unstinting, endlessly curious and absolutist in the best sense (no, he will not hang out with other expats; yes, he will try to enjoy the piggiest treats, even when all he can taste is the sty). But could he not, sometimes, rein himself in just a little? ... his verbosity is matched only by his determination. Everything must be described, up to and including the laborious process of getting a French visa. If it were a dish, it would be something rich that can only be eaten in small amounts. Readers should use a teaspoon and remember that any leftovers will taste even better tomorrow.
Tian Veasna, Trans. by Helge Dasche
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Tian Veasna\'s brilliant and powerful book...is extremely nimble, making easy work of complex political history. But it’s also exquisitely spare. Sometimes, there is nothing to be said; no words are adequate. In these moments, Veasna lets his brush do the talking. Like a bird, he soars above the country where he was born, gazing down on its gutted cities, on its workers slaving in the fields. The documentary precision of his landscapes seems to do the work of a thousand written pages ... an account of terror and unimaginable loss. But it’s not only this. I felt slightly guilty that I found it so exciting—and it was an education, too.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)In his marvellous new biography of Wordsworth, it’s as if Jonathan Bate has inhaled the very air these two young men [Wordsworth and Coleridge] breathed; there is a giddiness here—a passionate enthusiasm—that’s all too rare in books about poets, particularly those who, having failed to die young, grew stodgy in later life ... This is a narrative that celebrates the fact that our lives are marked by turning points ... There are a few inconsequential (if delightful) details ... After I finished his inspiriting, fleet-footed book, in which he embroiders together life, poetry and landscape with such dexterity, I pulled down my old university copy from the shelf. It might have been a bag of pasta, so greedily did I fall on it.
PanThe Observer (UK)Shahidha Bari’s Dressed...should have been purest catnip for me, the kind of book I’ve longed for half my life. Its high-minded intentions are obvious even before you open it: thanks to her publisher...it is more than elegant enough to inhabit one of those fashion emporiums for the thinking woman where hardbacks slyly cosy up to the latest trainers and piles of white T-shirts ... But what is she talking about, exactly? To be truthful, I am unable to summarise her arguments for the simple reason that I’m not sure she has any. Her book consists largely of long, rather overworked accounts of paintings, films and novels in which certain clothes appear...which are then analysed with recourse to, among others, Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, Derrida and Freud ... my real problem with Dressed hasn’t to do with its thinking. It’s more a matter of tone. Sometimes, we get a glimpse of the richer, more exciting book it might have been ... For the most part, however, Bari is interested neither in history, nor in talking to other people (she has, so far as I can see, done no interviews at all). Her voice is entirely unmodulated, her words steadily piling up, like balled tights in a crowded sock drawer. She never makes jokes, nor is she moved to anger, not even when talking about the more grotesque designs of Alexander McQueen; the snippets of memoir she serves up at the beginning of each chapter are smaller than Lucy Locket’s pocket, and so coy that I am still not sure they are memoir. She is seemingly as afraid of judgment as she is of questions of taste and class – aspects of clothes that seem unignorable and vital to me. I understand that she isn’t interested in fashion, per se. But still, Diana Vreeland, a dash of whose daffy wit she could really use sometimes, and even that great genius Balenciaga, make not a single appearance between them. The search for a smart book about clothes, I’m afraid, goes on.
MixedThe Observer (UK)...Allen’s autobiography is a mixed bag. If he can write (obviously, he can), and if he is, at points, surprisingly honest (eye-poppingly so, on occasion), then he can also be a bore and a self-deceiver. Of course, if you’re one of those who, disgusted by what you regard as his moral failings, has vowed never to watch Annie Hall or Manhattan again, then you’re unlikely to want to embark on Apropos of Nothing in the first place – and fair enough, that’s up to you. But I’m not in that camp. Nor can I comment on Allen’s alleged abuse of his adoptive daughter, Dylan, a crime of which he was first accused in 1992 (two police investigations into this have come to nothing). What I will say, however, is that I regard it as both disgraceful and alarming that Hachette, his original publisher, gutlessly dropped his book following a walkout by some of its staff – and that though I was sometimes repulsed by it myself, I was also fascinated, even entertained. So, shoot me. Again, that’s your choice ... OK… I’m coming to it. Allen devotes around 100 pages – extremely energetic, committed pages: by turns angry and whiny, disingenuous and sometimes just plain baffled – to his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn and its discovery in 1992 by her mother, his then partner, Mia Farrow ... However, Allen would have been equally damned had he said nothing at all on this score ... This is a horrible, painful and, above all, highly opaque story, and it always will be – up to, and including, the day it is inevitably mentioned in the first paragraph of a long newspaper obituary.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Being very common, I have something of a mania for aristo-lit: a passion for stories about big houses and the wanton eccentrics who inhabit them ... Nevertheless, I have to admit to being somewhat unprepared for Lady in Waiting ... Is [Glenconner\'s] memoir a horror show or a delightful entertainment? A manual for how to live, or how not to live? In truth, I’m not sure even she would know the answer to these questions ... Much as I loved reading about the way, say, that she and her mother, the countess, would gather jackdaw eggs using a ladle attached to a walking stick...after a while there’s no ignoring the painful and widening disjunction between the outward whirl of her life and the repeated tragedies that befall her family ... In the end, her book isn’t only a record, funny and sometimes dazzling, of a way of life now almost disappeared. It’s an unwitting examination of English repression: both of how it gets you through and of how it can slay you.
PanThe Guardian (UK)My Autobiography of Carson McCullers , as its too-clever-by-half-sounding title implies, is neither memoir nor biography ... such a declaration cannot disguise the fact that her (over) identification with McCullers takes us nowhere that is very productive ... She wants to name lesbians – to use the word, over and over – not only as a point of principle, but because it does her such good. I understand this. But there is a problem here. In all the pointing, McCullers’s work is lost; Shapland is keen on the novels’ queerness, but never gets too involved with their literary achievements. Like many of the other women in the book, she is seen almost entirely through the prism of her sexuality ... how reductive this is and how antiquated. It’s a diminishment that invites another kind of invisibility and I think McCullers (and all of them) would have despised it ... Still, I’m glad to have read My Autobiography of Carson McCullers . Its mere existence stands as a warning of the cul-de-sac into which publishing has lately wandered (I mean, run, blindfolded, at full tilt). It could not be more modish, from the floating paragraphs of its fractured narrative to its breathless quoting of Maggie Nelson (of whom, incidentally, I’m a fan). In the US, it was a National Book award finalist; Carmen Maria Machado calls it – preposterously, given the single note it sounds – \'symphonic\'. Why the dazzlement? Why won’t anyone take this book on? Because I’m here to tell you that it often makes no sense ... What’s funny about this is that before I read Shapland’s book, I’d no idea anyone believed McCullers was straight. What’s much less funny is its utter futility. What a dead end. For writing, for the imagination, for empathy.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)...in the present moment, this is an incendiary volume ... Nothing in This Is Pleasure, however, is clear cut. If Gaitskill’s narrative is dextrous, taut and pertly sexy, it is also ambivalent, hell bent on a certain kind of obfuscation ... Gaitskill isn’t in the business of exonerating Quin. Nor is Margot simply a walking, talking embodiment of internalised sexism. If he has done things wrong, her grief and confusion aren’t misplaced. No, Gaitskill’s real interest lies in matters that can hardly be spoken at this point: things that even her characters struggle to articulate ... What do we want, and why? What happens when we are attracted by – when we really long for – things that we are told are off-limits, disgusting, unacceptable? Do people always mean what they say? At the heart of this extraordinary, daring, provocative, pitch perfect story lies the idea that, sometimes, we act out a truth, only to run from it. The sensible among us know that the running is true, too, and that between these two realities lies a world of pleasure and then, abruptly, pain.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Ronan Farrow’s extraordinary Catch and Kill, in which he masterfully tells the story of his quest to reveal Weinstein’s repugnant activities to the world, doesn’t merely answer these questions. It makes them come to seem complacent, even profoundly stupid. Several times while reading it, I had the sense that, having been blind, I could now see – and for miles, too ... Farrow’s narrative has the pace of a thriller. Were it really a thriller, however, the collusion at its heart would be too much: you would dismiss it as airport pulp. Here is a conspiracy so deeply embedded and far-reaching that even as I write, those alleged to be involved not only remain in their jobs; in recent days, they have pugnaciously denied all wrongdoing in the matter of the reporting of Weinstein’s behaviour ... If Farrow is in possession of an abundance of empathy – Weinstein’s victims trust him and rightly so – he also has an ear for dialogue and a taste for drama. There is something amusingly self-conscious about the way, at one point, he places evidence in a safety deposit box. He’s not being histrionic ... captures the terror and paranoia that eat away at Weinstein’s victims for the simple reason that he comes to experience them himself, a human mirror.
MixedThe Guardian...Roe is not in the business of pausing for thought. Like her previous book...this is a ceaselessly forward-moving narrative – she tells and tells and tells – and while highly colourful, it’s sometimes wearying to read. An almost month-by-month account of the activities of a quite large group of artists, most of whom worked in Montparnasse from 1910-11, they themselves are only sketchily drawn, arriving on the page without much context ... It’s as if you’re at a long and glamorous party, but are allowed to spend only a few minutes at a time with each guest. Meet Man Ray! she says, excitedly. But no sooner have you shaken the great photographer’s hand than she’s urging Marcel Duchamp on you ... Still, they’re all here, the big names of the time – behaving badly and, at times, quite madly, too ... Roe’s restive narrative, then, does at least reflect the wildly spinning, agitated lives of its subjects.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)... fascinating – at times, gruesomely so. I found myself quite mesmerised by Malabar; like some desperate old actress, she’s permanently ready for her closeup ... But Brodeur’s memoir is somehow a lot less gripping than it should be. Why? At first, I thought this was down to her writing. Combine her travel writerly descriptions of Cape Cod with her lusciously precise accounts of her mother’s cooking and what you have is memoir as it might appear in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop: varnished rather than visceral, more complacent than searching ... But there’s also the problem that too much of the action takes place off stage: though we hear about Malabar’s affair, we never really see it. A gauzy veil hangs over Brodeur’s narrative; people’s essence, like their motivation, eludes her ... But how and why did Malabar exert such power over her daughter? For whatever reason, she is not fully able to express how this snare felt – and so I wondered repeatedly why she remained for so long in her clutches; why she did not just abandon her ringside seat at Malabar’s kitchen counter and set about making her own carpaccio, elsewhere.
Julia Blackburn, Illus. Enrique Brinkmann
MixedThe ObserverFor all these marvels, though, I struggled with Time Song ... the challenge its author sets herself here is...enormous, her subject being... elusive, even invisible to a degree...she combines memoir with an unusually agreeable form of oral history ... Time Song feels silted up, somehow, [Blackburn\'s] paragraphs heavily caked not only with geology and archaeology, but with some slightly beside-the-point personal digressions, too ... I do see that this muddiness could be said to be highly appropriate. But it doesn’t always make for clear or satisfying reading ... Blackburn has punctuated her narrative with a series of what she calls Time Songs, but are basically narrative poems, most of which are inspired by her background reading.I must be honest: I was not sure about these. Some readers may appreciate their concision, and the change of pace they represent, but they seemed to me to be at once both plodding and a bit fey. I could have done without them.
RaveThe Guardian... reading Gina Rippon’s careful and prolonged demolition of the myth of the \'female brain\' left me with a powerful sense of relief. Here, at last, are things I’ve long felt instinctively to be true, presented as demonstrable facts ... It is a highly accessible book. It’s also an important one. Quite apart from how interesting the science contained within it is, it has the power – if only people would read it – to do vastly more for gender equality than any number of feminist \'manifestos\' ... Brick by brick, Rippon razes this history and, for the (non-scientist) reader, what she says is revolutionary to a glorious degree ... The science in Rippon’s book is complex and multilayered. But she looks, too, at the pernicious influence of psychobabble ... She is brilliant on baby brains ... She is supremely clear-eyed when she comes to unpick the reasons why there are still relatively few women in science. Above all, she has the research that proves that women are as good (or as bad) at visuospatial processing as men ... It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that I felt like cheering when I read this, and perhaps such information will provide food for thought for those campaigning for women to be given so-called menstrual leave.
MixedThe GuardianIn The Journal I Did Not Keep, a rattle bag of writing that comprises a kind of retrospective of Segal’s long career, there are several stories starring [a character named] Lotte and...each one is delightful. Blackly funny and threaded with an indignant bewilderment that is pure gold, they are a sharp and necessary reminder of how rarely one tends to encounter seriously good fiction about old age ... But would I recommend that you go out and buy this book for these tales alone? I must admit that I would not ... I’m not convinced that the way to bring [Segal] to new readers is by gathering together these extracts from her novels, some new and old stories, some scraps of memoir and a few essays. Whether by accident or design, the result is oddly repetitive, particularly in the sections of the book devoted to nonfiction ... Segal is a marvellous and singular writer. But she is ill-served by this baggy, stop-start collection. My advice to new readers: begin elsewhere.
PositiveThe Guardian... the overwhelming impression for the reader is of a youthful experiment gone monstrously wrong. Georg is so decent, and Kimata so despicable, you can’t help but wonder why she returns to him again and again. But this is unfair. How powerful is desire. We need it so badly – without it, life is sludgy and grey – and yet, it can induce us to make such bad decisions, particularly when we are young. Lust’s drawings of her encounters with Kimata are highly explicit – this isn’t, I must warn you, a book to be breezily flipped open on the bus or the train – without ever being gratuitous ... As a leftist anarchist who disapproves of the Austrian state, our heroine is determined to do right by this new immigrant even when he does wrong by her. But in the end, Lust’s energetic, searching book has at its heart the question, still not fully answered, of why fulfilling their needs so often leaves women feeling so abject, so utterly undone.
RaveThe GuardianSeth is the pen name of the Canadian cartoonist Gregory Gallant, and I think he’s a genius ... nothing could have prepared me for Clyde Fans ... There is a kind of magic in this one. For a long time – it runs to almost 500 pages – you think you’re reading the story of two elderly brothers. It’s a terribly sad story, but it also feels quite small and clenched and familiar. Only when you finally put it down, do you realise you were utterly wrong. Out of the particular springs the universal. What Seth has given us is nothing short of the story of mid-20th century capitalism: of all that it promised, and all that it failed to deliver ... Seth draws in shades of blue and black – the colours of melancholy, and of (to me) smoky jazz – and he pays special attention to things like advertising hoardings, rotary telephones and greasy diners. The look of Clyde Fans like all his books, is nostalgic without being sentimental. But it’s his extraordinary empathy that marks this one out: the way he depicts the queasy churn of his characters’ emotional lives; their delusions and missteps and repressed rage ... It opens with an interior monologue that runs to almost 100 pages, something that should be practically illegal in a comic, but which, in his hands, makes you feel as if you’re sitting in a theatre, watching some brilliant actor perform Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. Truly, it’s a masterpiece.
MixedThe GuardianSteinke is determined to butch things out, at least in a medical sense. Like Germaine Greer before her, she regards [menopause medication] as an instrument of the patriarchy ... Personally, I think this is a depressingly retrograde argument, and a pretty stupid one, too. You might as well describe the pill, which also fiddles helpfully with a woman’s hormones, as an instrument of the patriarchy ... Nevertheless, I found myself oddly compelled by this weird, infuriating, uncategorizable book ... But it’s important, too, to remember that not all women experience this time in the same way. Not everyone is as miserable—or even as sweaty—as Steinke ... Her feelings of loss seemed to me to be so extreme I began to wonder whether she hadn’t simply internalized some of the attitudes (to do with female youthfulness and pulchritude) that she most purports to despise ... She develops a fascination with whales ... I loved this section of her book, for its wonder and its sense of inquiry, but there is something muddle-headed, for me, in the way she seeks kinship in animals ... Flash Count Diary is a book you want to argue with and herein lies both its weakness and its strength. It moved me, if not to bright, ascendant rage, then certainly to exasperation. But talk back to it and you may feel (I hope this doesn’t count as inspirational guff) emboldened: more powerful and even, perhaps, more beautiful.
Zidrou, Illus. by Aimee de Jongh
PositiveThe GuardianAs I read Blossoms in Autumn, a collaboration between the Belgian writer Zidrou and the Dutch artist Aimée de Jongh, I thought more than once that it was not quite to my taste. I found the dialogue a little cheesy; I hate the fact that the arc of its plot suggests a woman can consider her life a failure if she has not had children. In the end, though, these things didn’t really matter. Sometimes, a book pierces your heart like an arrow in spite of its faults and Blossoms in Autumn was, in my case, one of these. The story of an older couple who fall suddenly and unexpectedly in love, it has a rare sweetness, a glorious innocence that is unusual even in the world of comics ... I won’t give away the book’s improbable and (to me) somewhat infuriating ending. But Zidrou and de Jongh have caught something both beautiful and true.
MixedThe GuardianAll this is fascinating. Nevertheless, part of me can’t help but wonder what Wilson’s book is for. For one thing, she has relatively few answers when it comes to effecting change ... A much bigger problem, though, is that books like this preach only to the converted. Nobody who disagrees with the essence of what she has to say is likely to pick it up – and even those who are on her side, as I broadly am, cannot read her in isolation. The din coming from elsewhere is simply too loud ... Wise as she is, she only has her finger on the dam.
RaveThe Observer (UK)... devastatingly scrupulous ... Critics often describe books as \'long overdue\', but few histories have arrived as late in the day as this one: you could fill a library with titles, serious and spurious, dedicated to so-called Ripperology, yet not one of them would cover this territory. Turning resolutely away from the theories, the gore and the prurience, Rubenhold’s achievement is two-fold. The Five is an immaculate work of social history, her accounts of Victorian workhouses, slums and brothels as vivid as any I’ve ever read. But it’s also a feminist act. Her simple care and exactitude in the matter of these women – her dogged refusal to accept that they were “only prostitutes” – restores their dignity and humanity, and in doing so exposes in the most powerful way the misogyny that has for so long been the repugnant, ever-whirring engine of the Ripper myth ... Rubenhold dedicates her book to the five, and this seems right, for she has done them proud.
Gebe Trans. by Edward Gauvin
RaveThe GuardianIts primary subject being political complacency, this is a comic that speaks to this moment almost as vividly as the one that inspired it ... Gébé is interested in the influence of nostalgia on groupthink, something that has only grown the more corrosive in the decades since Letter to Survivors first appeared ... This is a book whose relative brevity and outward simplicity may, on a first reading, obscure its deep philosophical richness. It is, somehow, so incredibly French and all the better for it. To be read when you’re feeling at your most calm, possibly while wearing a black polo neck.
RaveThe GuardianOff Season combines a blue-collar setting with a prose style so pared down, it comes almost as a surprise to feel a lump suddenly rising in your throat as you turn its pages ... Sturm...has many gifts, but perhaps greatest among them is his ability to capture the sudden crosscurrents that come with any intimate relationship ... I cherish many things about this book, from the way it deals so delicately with the (often toxic) issue of masculinity in Trump’s America to the many shades of blue-grey in which it is drawn (every scene, whether in a diner or the offices of a marriage counselor, comes with a hint of darkness) ... There is a sweetness here—trace it back to Charles Schulz—that both mitigates against the story’s existential sadness and deepens it, somehow. It democratizes Sturm’s characters and, in doing so, reminds the reader at every turn that the U.S. is growing ever less fair almost by the minute.
Luke Jones and Anna Mill
RaveThe GuardianThis exquisite book...isn’t a very talky comic; its subject matter, which has to do with the dangers of the digital future, dictates that the dialogue is ever minimalist, Mill’s incandescent images doing all the work, and more, of words. Nevertheless, following the action requires serious concentration, and it may be that some readers will, as I did, struggle to follow the storyline. What precisely happens in its last pages? Even now, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell you. Perhaps, though, that’s half of the point. Mill, a professional illustrator, and Jones, an architect...are dealing in their book in confusion and half-truths, their landscape a desolate near future in which the boundaries between memory, dreams and data have begun dangerously to blur ... I’m not recommending Square Eyes for its dystopian plot, for all that it may scare you half to death should you think about it for too long. What truly sets this book apart is its extraordinary illustrations ... beautiful, teeming, phantasmagorical page ... It would be worth buying Square Eyes for her monochrome depictions of brutalist architecture alone, images in which she manages to make huge expanses of concrete seem both solidly cliff-like and unfathomably ghostly. So much sheer, bloody work has gone into this book, and in our instant culture, an environment it also happens to excoriate, it fairly takes the breath away.
MixedThe Guardian\"... each of the essays in it comes with the mild but confounding sense of lifelessness and disorganisation one often finds when reading words that were written originally to be spoken aloud ... I think, too, that we’ve probably already heard quite enough – too much – about Wilde and his strange, passionate family... Reading about all this again made me feel as I do when I’ve eaten too much cake. All the same, there is something interesting and insightful to be found on almost every page ... I cannot tell you how affecting I found this: Tóibín’s open-hearted interpretation of the letters almost as much as the notes themselves. Desire goes on and on and on, and never believe anyone who tells you otherwise.\
PositiveThe GuardianInteresting and clever ... The Missing Ingredient is the result of a great deal of research; it’s also the product of a 25-year career in food writing, something you feel on every page. Yet its arrival couldn’t be more timely.
MixedThe Guardian\"[Plath\'s lettters to her psychiatrist] don’t make volume two, which covers the period from Plath’s marriage until her death, worth your time in its entirety. Running to more than 1,000 pages, it comes with all the same problems as its predecessor ... But Frieda [Hughes] was right: the letters to [Plath\'s psychiatrist] are extraordinary, throwing vital light on Plath’s mental state in the period after she discovered Hughes’s affair with Assia Wevill ... [Plath] is needy and demanding, suggestible and narcissistic. I should say that none of this remotely bothers me... But it will trouble some, and over the course of so long a book, Plath’s voice, hectoring and frequently manipulative, is undoubtedly wearying.\
MixedThe GuardianMoney often takes centre stage in Behind the Throne, Adrian Tinniswood’s juicy new domestic history of the royal household, which begins with Elizabeth I and ends with a future king who – if the stories are true – is not inclined so much as to squeeze out his own toothpaste ... I didn’t admire Behind the Throne half so much as Tinniswood’s brilliant last book, The Long Weekend, in which he served up life in the English country house between 1918 and 1939; this volume, romping through several hundred years of history, wants for its beady focus. Nevertheless, it’s often delicious – as piquant as the green salad with which Edward VIII liked to eat his cold grouse.
PositiveThe Guardian...its primary subject is voicelessness ... All of the power of Home After Dark lies with his meticulous pen and waterproof ink drawings ... While another artist might not have been able to resist giving his story a happy ending, Small doesn’t quite go there. He is never sentimental.
RaveThe Guardian...[a] tender, complicated narrative ... If reading it makes you think long and hard about neurological difference and the isolation it may involve, it also reminds you that we all feel weird at times – as if we are, as she puts it, only passing for human ... This book comes with a lot of whimsy: shadows that walk and talk; a god that is a queen on a cloud ... Her biblical-mythological interludes don’t always work. Somehow, though, this doesn’t matter – and not only because it’s impossible not to admire both her ambition and the beautiful economy of her line drawings ... There is a resonant truth at the heart of this book, and it soars above everything else.
Liv Strömquist, Trans. by Melissa Bowers
RaveThe GuardianIf her strips are clever, angry, funny and righteous, they’re also informative to an eye-popping degree ... It feels unfair to single out one section of Fruit of Knowledge for particular praise; every page is so fantastically acute. The chapter on menstruation, in which Strömquist goes after the tampon industry and its obsession with the words \'fresh\' and \'secure,\' is particularly good; so, too, is her nifty send-up of Dr Freud. But I think I like it best when she invites the reader to imagine the patronizing sexual advice that is regularly doled out to women...being given to men instead.
PositiveThe GuardianMany of the attacks on him...took a highly specific and more pernicious form, and it is Michèle Mendelssohn’s account of these that constitute the backbone of her revelatory narrative—a retelling of Wilde’s American adventure that genuinely makes you rethink vital elements of his life and work ... Nineteenth-century America might well have been a land of immigrants, but it had a [racist] social hierarchy all the same—one that clumped Irishmen (like Wilde) and blacks together right at the bottom ... Harper’s Weekly published an image of a monkey dressed as Wilde; in New York, a woman announced to his face that she was glad to have seen a gorilla at last ... Mendelssohn very skilfully reveals the impact these attacks had on him: not only the misery they caused but also, in the longer term, their effect on both his public persona and his work ... Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance is, she believes, a near relative of the blackface dandies who parodied Wilde while he was on tour ... Mendelssohn’s research is prodigious; she has tapped sources previously unavailable to other scholars ... It may be that we can only see him as a victim of the attitudes of his age, when, at key moments, he was also in cahoots with them, an accomplice after all.
RaveThe Guardian\"Brown has done something amazing ... It is a cubist book, a collection of acute angles through which you see its subject and her world (and, to an extent, our world) anew ... His reading has been prodigious: not only the diaries of everyone from Chips Channon to AL Rowse, but dozens of gruesome royal biographies and memoirs...Together, these things conjure Margaret in all her dubious glory. Nancy Mitford likened her to a \'hedgehog covered in primroses,\' but the reader will come to feel this is unfair to hedgehogs.\
RaveThe GuardianClever, funny and disarmingly honest, it is, of course, predictably lovely to look at; Thompson is a master sketcher. What I like about it most, though, is the way it acts as an antidote to the all-seeing, all-consuming power of the smartphone. As its author notes in his opening pages, no cameras or mobiles were used in its making: his eyes and his brush pens did all the work ... A lot of this was terribly and painfully familiar to me, and will be to anyone who has travelled alone. The highs are incredible: those sudden epiphanies in which you’re consumed by a sense of freedom and privilege. But then, of course, there are the lows, when you must face up to how unexpectedly pathetic you are: unable, sometimes, even to leave your hotel room, however grim ... Thompson captures all of this, and if his narrative is, as a result, sometimes a little claustrophobic, you always forgive him for it. All human life is here: in his head, as on the teeming streets.
RaveThe Guardian\"... Edmund White, the tone of whose new book, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, quite often resembles the gentle whisper of a sweetheart. Ownership, you see, is not at all his style. In fact, he doesn’t claim always to understand the books that he loves most ... White’s book is a collection of essays, each connecting the seemingly thousands of books he has read – I find it impossible to imagine anyone better read than White, though with typical modesty he insists he knows lots of people who are – to his long writing life ... White isn’t in the business of pressing books on the reader. He merely considers them, almost as if he were thinking out loud: why they work, what their particular qualities might be.\
RaveThe GuardianThis is a panorama, one that feels in some senses definitive (largely, perhaps, because he has the guts to turn periodically away from the most famous figures of the time, the better to allow other names—David Bomberg, say, or Victor Pasmore—a look in). But it also swirls excitingly. Even the long, drawn-out conflict between abstraction and figuration appears here not as some dry, academic thing, but as the very air artists breathed—and on which some of them would end up choking ... Gayford deploys [Francis] Bacon’s voice to brilliant effect, and you hang on to every word, from his conviction that he wanted his pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, leaving a trace of human presence \'as a snail leaves its slime\' ... In Modernists & Mavericks, then, he [Bacon] is inevitably the star around which all the other planets orbit.
Emily Jane Fox
MixedThe Guardian[Cooke\'s] breathless prose is neither quietly angry nor laced with irony ... [the] text often reads like nothing so much as an elaborate cuts job ... Fox’s book is a gossipy family study; by design, it touches on politics hardly at all ... All in all, [Born Trump] fairly makes you weep, though whether from boredom or because no fewer than three of these people are now installed in the White House, it’s sometimes hard to say.
MixedThe Guardian...very sensible but also somewhat dreamy and a bit obsessive ... In a way, it’s like a book for children. Every animal has a name – Araminta, Black Hat, Dorothy – not to mention parents, brothers and sisters. Most have adventures, albeit not massively exciting ones ... After a while, though, you get used to all this, and as a consequence the world does indeed tilt. Or bits of it, at least. This book will change forever the way you see a field of ayrshires or friesians ... Young’s style, careful and straightforward, is extremely soothing; her book should be prescribed for anxiety. But it doesn’t, it must be said, answer all one’s cow questions.
RaveThe GuardianDiane Atkinson’s detailed and authoritative Rise Up, Women!...seems to me to be pretty much a definitive history of the suffragettes ... Given both the length of her book (the text runs to almost 700 pages) and the nature of the sometimes internecine squabbles of the Pankhursts and their associates, the only tiny steps forward the campaign was at times able to take, it’s a huge achievement that her narrative, so crisp and clear, is never less than enthralling; it rushes along with all the speed of the motorbike in whose sidecar the released Kitty Marion would later niftily elude the police.
Seymour M. Hersh
MixedThe Guardian\"...it seems a bit much when, determined not to leave anything out, he resorts literally to running lists of the other, smaller scandals on which he worked in between. Detail swamps his narrative, like creeper clambering over an ancient Mayan ruin, and for the reader, hacking through it is completely exhausting ... Hersh might be a monomaniac, but he deserves all the respect in the world for the work he did then [on My Lai].\
Bill Clinton & James Patterson
PanThe GuardianThis novel is indeed missing several things, including a believable plot and even the remotest sense of narrative tension. The president, however, is not one of them. OK, so he briefly slips out of the White House minus his Secret Service detail, the better that he might meet an actress friend who will give him distracting new eyebrows to match the beard he has grown in record time (so very manly, this particular leader of the western world). On the other hand, given that he is the novel’s principal narrator, we always know where he is, be it bunker or bathroom. He’s also, incidentally, just about the most reliable narrator ever written in English, even if he does say everything in a present tense so weirdly emphatic and muddled, you half wonder if American is his first language—or his second (\'Her face once again becomes a poker-face wall\'). He does not lie. He does not dissemble. If he tells us he’s \'enjoying the comfort\' of the embrace of the Israeli prime minister—don’t panic: it’s not what you think—we’d better believe him.
PositiveThe GuardianIs it possible to trace the \'weird nativity\' of Shelley’s celebrated novel Frankenstein, which she would begin writing only 18 years later ... The poet Fiona Sampson believes that it is ... there is no doubting the impact of Wollstonecraft’s death on her life. It runs like a thread through everything she does, and everything she is, and while Sampson’s sense of this may sometimes be a touch 20th century – her recourse to what \'the psychologists\' have to say can be wearing – it is also the chief virtue of her daringly swift and enjoyably irreverent retelling of Shelley’s life. At the heart of her biography lies a paradox, which is that its engine is powered by absence and loss. Even when the action is at its most frantic, Sampson never loses sight of the gaping void below.
PositiveThe Guardian\"Her new book is, she writes in an enticing introduction, an attempt to reverse the situation whereby biography, the writing of life, has become indifferent to the \'vital signs\' of that life – to breath and movement, to touch, taste and smell. One can’t help but sense in this a certain weariness. Who can blame Hughes, the author of major books about George Eliot and Isabella Beeton, for wanting to try out a different kind of narrative, one both more visceral and less gargantuan? ... Nevertheless, she has a point. How many times have you ploughed right to the end of a long biography only to find yourself asking: yes, but what was she really like? ...
None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy Victorians Undone. Some of the encounters in its pages, whiffy and indelible, will stay with me forever.\
MixedThe Guardian\"Dean’s book is far from perfect. She skims where she should dive; her tone is unvarying, with the somewhat dispiriting result that her essays are considerably less distinctive than the women they portray ... Above all, I’m resistant to the way she struggles with what she clearly regards as her subjects’ disappointing attitude to feminism. It’s not only, as she notes herself, a question of historical context. Like so many others right now, she seems to have forgotten that, even five years ago, you would have been hard pressed to get many, if not most, women in the public eye to call themselves feminists. Nevertheless, this is a great and worthy project: a primer for those for whom these names are new; a sustaining reminder for those already familiar with them. You put it down feeling steadier, more determined.\
PanThe GuardianHaving never really fancied him much as a reviewer – I dislike the pomposity, and (call me old-fashioned) I’ve learned not to trust his taste – I don’t really have it in me to go on about the impossibly high standards to which he holds other novelists, and his unerring failure to live up to them himself ... But still, what a strange and disappointing novel this is, its nuts and bolts so much in evidence there are times when what it resembles most is a diagram: a scheme, all long arrows and stark oppositions, to be marked out on some college whiteboard ... Fiction should cast a spell, not send you to Google, searching for the names of homeware stores in Morpeth and the Metro centre.
RaveThe Guardian\"Whether by accident or design, something of the oddly pale quality of Christie\'s fiction has leached into Thompson\'s own book. Agatha Christie, as she appears here, is as elusive as ever - which is, I\'m afraid, exactly the way she would have wanted it.\
RaveThe GuardianVery few cartoonists are able to convey so wide a range of emotions while also keeping their drawings so fluid, so wild – and she has charm and wit to spare. But with Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, she is truly in her element. This book already feels like a classic, one to be loved by every girl who reads it from now until the end of time.
RaveThe GuardianThere are two things you need to know about it. The first is that what Mary Beard has to say is powerful: here are more than a few pretty useful stones for the slingshots some of us feel we must carry with us everywhere we go right now. The second is that most of its power, if not all, lies in its author’s absolute refusal to make anything seem too simple ... Beard knows that the matters with which she is concerned are extremely complicated. Before she arms you, then, she makes you think. In this sense, if no other, Women & Power deserves to take its place alongside Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, the text that first suggested literature as a medium for consciousness-raising ... What I relish about Beard’s approach is that once she has told us all this – I am not a classicist, so some of it was new to me – she doesn’t simply sink down into disapproval and hand-wringing (the fatal flaw of so many recent feminist texts). She wants to know: how can we be heard? And her answers are radical.
Richard Lloyd Parry
RaveThe GuardianIn the face of several grief manuals that have been published this year, Richard Lloyd Parry’s account of the 2011 Japanese tsunami and its aftermath arrives like a ghost at the feast, its mind set not on platitudes, but on the very hardest kind of truth-telling ... This is not, then, a book of easy consolation. It is, as it should be, painful to read. All the same, every time I think of it, I’m filled with wonderment (and, I suppose, professional envy). Lloyd Parry is such a good reporter: discreet yet unsentimental; ever-present, but able also swiftly to absent himself from the page. He never overwrites. His capacity for intimacy with relative strangers is a kind of gift ... It is hard to imagine a more insightful account of mass grief and its terrible processes. This book is a future classic of disaster journalism, up there with John Hersey’s Hiroshima.
Sylvia Plath, ed. by Peter K. Steinberg & Karen V. Kukil
PanThe Guardian\"Lugging around this rusty anchor of a book – it runs to more than 1,400 pages – what I felt mostly was exasperation. The notion that Plath’s every utterance is sacred would be dumb even if she ranked with Keats or Waugh as one of the truly great letter writers. The fact that she clearly doesn’t – the majority of those in this volume, written to her mother, Aurelia, are marked by their quotidian sameyness – only makes it seem the more vacuous ... The reader, then, is entirely in Plath’s hands, which is not only tricky in narrative terms – ellipses come as standard in correspondence of which you get to read only one side – but also perilously unbalanced. Where does the truth, or what passes for it, ultimately lie? The editors offer us no rudder ... Plath’s letters to the men she imagined she loved before Hughes have a certain too-muchness: a risky intensity of feeling that brings to mind a circus knife-thrower marking an outline with her blades. So, too, do the 16 love letters, owned by her daughter Frieda and now published for the first time, that she wrote to Hughes in 1956, the year they married (and the book’s cut-off point). Nevertheless, it is for these last that you should borrow this collection from your library, and to which you should turn once it’s in your hands. They alone make the prospect of volume two seem fully tantalising.\
PanThe GuardianWhile most biographers regard the unpicking of untruths as central to their work, Kraus has a different approach. As the reader will shortly discover, her opening line is a get-out clause. If Acker did indeed lie 'all the time', as she also asserts, Kraus doesn’t necessarily see it as her job to dismantle those deceptions. At best, she is too credulous. At worst, she is haphazard, even lazy ... It’s not only that so many of the stories she tells about her are so hilarious (impossible to believe that Kraus doesn’t know that the majority of these anecdotes are way beyond satire). Rather, it’s that she singularly fails to make a case for Acker the writer ... She ends (and what a relief it is when that moment comes) with what I can only describe as a little hymn of identification with Acker. In a book full of baffling, queasy-making things, this is surely the most befuddling of all. Kraus, whose own novels are rather good, is so much the better writer, even if, this time around, her id seems sometimes to have wrestled her ego to the floor.
RaveThe GuardianTamaki’s short comics, as they appear in her aptly titled new collection, Boundless, all have this surface lightness; they’re never anything less than droll. But something sharper and darker is simultaneously at work below. Fleeting as they are – most can be read in as long as it takes to order and receive a latte – each one is as indelible as it is singular ... Each one is so beautifully told that after a while you begin to feel that Tamaki, whose last book, SuperMutant Magic Academy, was a New York Times bestseller, is capable of almost anything. And perhaps she is ... these are models of the form.
RaveThe GuardianThree months, one room. This is, to say the least, extremely challenging territory for a cartoonist. Somehow, though, Guy Delisle has turned André’s account of his weeks of hell into a gripping visual narrative ... In Hostage, it’s the treacherous landscape of the mind that Delisle determinedly makes his own ... Looking at these cells within a cell, every corner of André’s prison depicted from every possible angle, you’re able to absorb the terrible accretion of time in a single glance – at which point you suddenly grasp just how well the comic serves this particular story. All this darkness and claustrophobia shouldn’t be exhilarating. The fact Delisle makes it so is yet another reason why he must be counted as one of the greatest cartoonists of our age.
PositiveThe Guardian...a weird and restless book preoccupied with decaying and destroyed landscapes ... Radtke has a grand theme, but not much by way of what you might call a narrative arc. But her writing is never less than lovely, and her black-and-white drawings are masterfully eloquent: at once vivid and faded. Think Shelley’s Ozymandias, with light top notes of Alison Bechdel and Adrian Tomine.
MixedThe GuardianIt is rich and scholarly, something fascinating to be discovered on every page. But it is also digressive, meandering. Her stated theme – how did the men and women whose tales she tells feel about their physical selves? – comes in and out of focus. Each essay works beautifully alone. Hughes is a thoroughly engaging writer: serious-minded but lively, careful yet passionate. In its entirety, though, it feels strained, uncertain of itself. The pieces do not quite fit together ... None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy Victorians Undone. Some of the encounters in its pages, whiffy and indelible, will stay with me for ever.
RaveThe GuardianOllmann spent 10 years researching Seabrook’s strange, ramshackle life, and it shows: his book is wonderfully rich and detailed. Nothing seems to escape his attention or his compassion, whether we’re talking about Seabrook’s interest in S&M or about the long-suffering women in his life. His drawings of Seabrook, blunt-lined and scratchy, are a perfect match for his personality, which is at once charming and repulsive, fascinating and frustrating, while his depictions of such things as camel raids and tribal dances have a romantic, overblown quality, almost as if they are only figments of Seabrook’s imagination. In a way, of course, they are. In the end, this is not so much a simple biography, as a book about writing, and just how painful it can be when the words on the page don’t adequately match the pictures in a man’s head.
MixedThe GuardianHis relationship with [the diaries] is, however, strange – and for this eager reader, vexing. He doesn’t whip through them, urgently seeking some clue as to their author’s identity. Nor does he put them in chronological order, or not for some years. Instead, he faffs around, looking at them piecemeal ... Masters’s stubbornness is of a different order altogether. It’s a condition, something to be looked up: Extreme and Wilful Procrastination ... if this stuff had to be exhumed at all, at least it was Masters who did the job; a more loving undertaker you could not hope to have ... At his best, Masters is a beautiful writer: funny, inquisitive and attentive...But he has allowed his whimsical side to get out of control; his circuitous, over-involved technique feels out of kilter with his subject.
PositiveThe GuardianThis a darker book than its predecessor, though it’s still drily funny, Sattouf never failing to make the most of the aching gap between his father’s fantasies and reality. Clémentine’s melancholy clouds the story’s edges, while centre stage is Sattouf’s schoolteacher, a foul woman who uses violence and intimidation to rule the crowded classroom where she so enthusiastically preaches pro-regime propaganda ... To find out [more] , alas, we have a long wait. Volume three isn’t due until September 2017.
RaveThe GuardianAs reckonings-up go, this is a sombre ledger; I never stopped wishing that this book had not needed to be written, that the experiences that gave birth to it had not happened. But Matar has turned it into something exquisite, too. Shafts of light will come in, and sometimes they are dazzling. A son massages his beloved father’s feet. A mother whispers a line from a smuggled letter. A boy makes a new friend in an English boarding school. A man embraces an uncle, feeling the bones of his 'prison body.' A family, big and fond, is reunited over nuts, pastries and sweet tea. Matar has a reserve that only makes his way with intimacy all the more moving. Critics like to call books unflinching but the point about this one is that its author flinches all the time; it’s in his turning away that we feel his unfathomable sorrow, not in those moments when he describes, as he sometimes must, all the unspeakable ways in which the regime liked to torture its prisoners; the great pile of bloodied watches collected by the guards after the Abu Salim massacre.
RaveThe GuardianI never stopped wishing that this book had not needed to be written, that the experiences that gave birth to it had not happened. But Matar has turned it into something exquisite, too. Shafts of light will come in, and sometimes they are dazzling ... Matar has a reserve that only makes his way with intimacy all the more moving. Critics like to call books unflinching but the point about this one is that its author flinches all the time; it’s in his turning away that we feel his unfathomable sorrow ... his book is bounded by a magnificent gentleness, a softness and care the reader experiences as a blessing.
Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner
RaveThe Guardian[This] is a partnership made in heaven. In Everything Is Teeth, a crazily evocative graphic memoir about Wyld’s shark-infested childhood, words and pictures are in perfect harmony, the joins between them so seamless you could almost be watching an old black-and-white film ... What a fantastic book this is. Sumner’s drawings are adorable and acute; Wyld’s words are first wry and then wise. Embracing life and death and everything in between, in Wyld’s hands the shark is a powerful metaphor: it stands for those demons that, when faced down, mostly turn out to be far less terrifying than they appeared at first.
RaveThe GuardianFaludi is a mercilessly droll and careful writer. The emotional incontinence and narcissism that pass for insight and power in memoirs these days is not for her; being interested in facts, she is unlikely to play the dubious trump card of personal experience. All the same, I cried quite often as I read her book ... On the page, Stephanie is a huge character: Holocaust survivor, American dad, Magyar repatriate, overdressed shiksa. Her new identity is in a bizarre dance with the old ... Faludi’s book, reticent and elegant and extremely clever, will not be to everyone’s taste. But this doesn’t preclude it from being an out-and-out masterpiece of its kind.
MixedThe GuardianThose who think of Roiphe as one of the most dazzling writers around (I am one) will perhaps be surprised to find such a deficiency in her – and by the way she seems to acknowledge it. The Violet Hour is written in short paragraphs that float in white space. Sometimes, this lends them a lyrical, meditative, even prayerful quality. At others, the reader has the sense that for all her reading, their author remains uncertain, floundering, unable wholly to marshal her thoughts ... Roife’s passion for these writers – the clue is the word 'great' in her subtitle – means that she loses her distance...The Violet Hour often reads like a book about gods and their willing handmaidens ... Her writing is elegant, cool, unforgettable.
PositiveThe GuardianTender and heartfelt, exciting and bizarre, Patience is interested above all in the stories we tell ourselves about love. Loyalty can be toxic, for all that we prize it. Patience isn’t always a virtue; sometimes, it’s just a time bomb in disguise.
PositiveThe Guardian[T]he sections of First Bite that are devoted to the feeding of children are, for me, its least compelling...More enlightening and sparky by far are the chapters devoted to the effect of memory and gender on our tastes. Wilson is a brilliant researcher and in this, her fifth book, she has unearthed science that makes sense of our most intimate and tender worlds.
RaveThe GuardianIf I had to describe Adrian Tomine to someone who didn’t know his work, I would call him – I can’t possibly conjure any higher praise – the Alice Munro of comics. But not even this quite does it.