RaveThe Washington PostRachel Cusk shows that after the confessionalism of the Outline trilogy, she’s reembraced artifice and abstraction. Second Place digs beneath the subjects of Cusk’s previous books — marriage, male privilege and motherhood — and engages with the murkier and more interesting relationship of art and evil ... Cusk has previously demonstrated how false narratives arise from honest feelings, in her nonfiction and the Outline trilogy. But while widely acclaimed, those novels are deliberately hollow — wanting to avoid a central \'I,\' Cusk created mere \'outlines\' of narrative, mostly anecdotes and contrived conversations. In contrast, Second Place is solid — despite its appropriation of Lorenzo in Taos. Or, perhaps, because of it; by using Luhan’s memoir as a template for character and plot, Cusk is able to dig deeper into the ideas that most interest her, taking Second Place to some profoundly insightful places. Near the end, Cusk writes, \'The truth lies not in any claim to reality, but in the place where what is real moves beyond our interpretation of it. True art means seeking to capture the unreal.\' By writing this work of \'true art,\' Cusk finally captures that unreal.
PositiveLos Angeles Review of Books[Red Pill] is, essentially, the story of a man’s breakdown ... Kunzru makes the narrator’s wife a human rights lawyer, the epitome of Enlightenment values, and drops a reference to the blue flower, the symbol of hope and beauty during German Romanticism. And so, through hints and symbols, he implicitly sets up a framework of Enlightenment values versus anti-Enlightenment values, the conflicting ideologies currently dividing Western culture. Because that’s what the political divide is fundamentally about. On one side are people who believe in reason and human rights, and on the other are people who believe in nothing. We can call them nihilists, or opportunists, though they might call themselves realists. But what they call realism, Kunzru notes, \'is just the cynical operation of power.\'
Roberto Calasso, Trans. By Richard Dixon
MixedThe Washington PostCalasso has a style that is at times obscure and impenetrable; unlike most writers of contemporary nonfiction, he never explicitly articulates his point—giving you the wild feeling of swimming in the open ocean. He likes to start his short sections with declarative, aphoristic sentences that give pause ... Yet Calasso follows these opaque openings with meandering paragraphs that give the reader the experience of trying to catch a fish with your hands—the moment you think you’ve grasped something, it slips away ... maybe this is what Calasso is doing with The Celestial Hunter—trying to unravel a tangle of reasons that can never be unraveled. By the end of the book, I felt that the fish ultimately got away. Calasso left me in the middle of the ocean, exhausted and unsure what I was doing there.
PositiveLos Angeles Review of BooksLike any good noir, Take Me Apart has frequent flashes of fine art, and many passages sparkle with Sligar’s style ... Through the stories of Kate and Miranda, Sligar explores the sticky territory of power dynamics between men and women, whether boss and employee, teacher and student, or husband and wife. She threads a scathing feminist critique throughout both narratives, nailing all the right talking points of the current discourse ... The riskier parts of Take Me Apart are when Sligar opens up the more ambiguous spaces of the #MeToo conversation ... Sligar avoids an easy cliché, changing what could have been a caricature [of Kate] into an authentically complex character ... Exploring this ambiguity may make readers uncomfortable, even upset ... But that’s okay. As Miranda Brand writes in her diary, \'Art is supposed to upset you. Art is supposed to make you feel afraid.\'
MixedThe Star TribunePravda Ha Ha is perhaps the wildest travel book I’ve come across ... But he moves so quickly that we never get to really know anyone or anyplace, and this makes for easy but ephemeral reading. It’s formulaic travel journalism: Go somewhere for a couple of days, meet some people, ask them questions, report the interesting things they say. And like most contemporary travel writers, MacLean gives himself a starring role in his narrative ... In his story, MacLean is a defender of journalistic integrity, an exposer of hypocrisy and a proponent of truth. But in shaping his characters into caricatures of sinister nationalists and brave liberals, MacLean dodges the tougher, more nuanced questions.
Emmanuel Carrere Trans. by John Lambert
PositiveThe Los Angeles Review of Books... a smooth translation by John Lambert ... Yes, the title is terrible, but the essays are delightful, plunging into the mysterious minds of people who tell honest lies ... Unlike Capote, who tells us everything about his subjects but nothing of his own involvement in their lives, Carrère is always in the scene, his faults and ignorance on full display ... by the end of the collection, we are forced to ask: What underlying lie is driving Carrère’s obsession? What lies drive us?
MixedThe Washington PostThe introduction and conclusion of The Lost Art of Scripture have the tone of a manifesto, but this hefty work is otherwise a panoramic tour of religious history. In it, Armstrong does not deeply explore any single scripture. There is no exegesis nor any original ideas — she’s a scholar but not an academic. She repeatedly refers to scripture as an art form. And despite the book’s title, she doesn’t satisfactorily explain why the art is \'lost\' or the sacred texts need \'rescuing.\' But Armstrong is an exceptional storyteller, and The Lost Art of Scripture is an amazing story. It is, admirably, a compendium of religious philosophy ... With meticulous sections on Talmudists, neo-Confucians, medieval theologians and Kabbalists, Armstrong continues the story through the Great Awakening, Hasidism and the rise of modern fundamentalism — easily the most misguided religious development in the book ... if there’s a unique slant in her book, it’s her attempt to screen religious history through a neurobiological lens ... by filtering scriptural understanding through this right-brain/left-brain prism, she falls into the same trap she condemns: trying to understand religion rationally ... Perhaps she’s trying to appeal to skeptics, but even Armstrong admits that such an approach is misconceived ... Armstrong’s mission to spread compassion through understanding is certainly laudable. But despite being extensively researched and lucidly written, the aims and means of The Lost Art of Scripture are unfortunately confused.
Ludmila Ulitskaya, Trans. by Polly Gannon
MixedThe New York Times Book Review... Jacob’s Ladder...shows how Ulitskaya continues the tradition of prerevolutionary Russian literature and demonstrates why she’s one of the most popular novelists in today’s Russia. Yet, as with real letters, much of the material can be rather mundane, and while wading through it I often wondered whether she hadn’t gotten carried away with all this spinning of documentary threads. In one letter, Jacob writes that an argument Maria makes is \'incoherent and puzzling,\' and the same could often be said of the novel. Sometimes, though, Ulitskaya’s lines jump out and resonate, sharpening the reader’s vague impressions ... Jacob’s Ladder dramatizes this Russian concept of sudba, the understanding of fate as a kind of prison we can never escape. But at a subtler level, it’s about the essence of life itself, particularly the essence of our ancestors that’s manifested through us.
PositiveLos Angeles TimesIn this moving memoir, Hemon approaches the general through the particular, capturing the refugee experience of displacement through writing about his Bosnian family ... My Parents is not all grim. The chapter on food will not only have you heading to the kitchen, but laughing out loud. Describing his parents uncomfortably eating at a restaurant, Hemon gets on a roll like he’s doing stand-up ... When you finish My Parents, you flip the book over and start This Does Not Belong to You, a separate collection of isolated memories, musings and anecdotes. This is Hemon at his most contemplative, whimsical, and personal ... This Does Not Belong to You is Hemon looking deeply into himself, mining the recesses of his mind, and while he doesn’t always strike gold, it is, like My Parents, a joy to join in the reflection.
RaveThe Star TribuneReading the opening of Mark Haddon\'s novel The Porpoise is like stepping into the ring with Mike Tyson—you\'re knocked out before you know what\'s going on ... Haddon is renowned for his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is excellent, but The Porpoise is about a thousand times better. The early sections seem perfectly detailed, but later those details reveal themselves to actually be foreshadows, and the book reformulates itself to be even more perfect. There are dozens of one-liners worthy of being chiseled in stone ... And there are passages so stylistically transfixing that they urge you to kneel down humbled, as Job before God, before the power of nature and of the written word ... The Porpoise pounds away...so consistently a pummel of literary excellence I found myself repeatedly checking the cover, making sure the book was written by a human and not an AI designed to compose the best novel this side of the 20th century...to weave it all together with the art of a master storyteller.
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksBy taking us through the year after the sisters were kidnapped, from month to month, chapter by chapter, character by character, slowly spiraling back to the Golosovskaya family, Phillips is able to strike at so much of what ails not only Russia but also most tradition-bound areas all over the world today ... So far, Disappearing Earth appears to have universal praise, already being called a masterpiece. While that could be a stretch, Phillips has certainly woven a sophisticated and powerful literary thriller; the stitches of her language make you go, Damn, that’s good. ... And yet, it’s the ending that makes Disappearing Earth an absolute knock-out, an ending that can’t be described without borrowing some of Phillip’s own language: it peels open your chest, cracks back your ribs, grips that muscular organ, and squeezes out the stuff we read fiction to feel.
RaveLos Angeles Review of BooksMeandering like a river, [Autumn Light] flows along with a steady pace of rumination, only to abruptly plunge off a profound waterfall. At other times, it stagnates in an eddy of banality, treading water, barely flowing at all—as in the many sections when Iyer plays ping-pong with elderly acquaintances at the local health club. It is a mysteriously affecting book, but some readers might be frustrated by its swirling structure ... Like the films of Ozu and Bergman, Iyer’s book is something you feel from within—a mood that is being conveyed ... Autumn Light certainly induces contemplation. A strange emotional fragility arises after sinking into the book, a heightened sense of awareness of what is usually neglected ... Autumn Light is ... not only a joy to read, it’s helpful.
MixedThe Boston GlobeThe reader may be forgiven for going, \'Wait, what?\' Part One of kaddish.com is comic but authentic...But that tension vanishes once Larry returns to orthodoxy, and we’re left with something that feels artificial. Even Shuli’s language is stiff, as if he’s always been Orthodox. But how much can a personality change? Shuli simply doesn’t feel like a future Larry. And because Englander skimps on sharing how this transformation occurred, we can’t make the connection ourselves. And yet this leap is crucial for Englander’s plot ... almost too on the nose, just like kaddish.com’ on the whole. That is, it digs into the friction between ancient ritual and contemporary culture, but not too deeply. It questions how we’re supposed to be living, but because the authentic character Larry becomes the caricature Shuli, the stakes never feel that high. kaddish.com’ is often fun and thought-provoking, but it makes the deep feel superficial, dealing with a solemn topic in a lighthearted way. Some readers might think the combination multiplies pleasure, like putting cheese on a hamburger. But others, like myself, will feel it’s decidedly unkosher, and that one would have been better without the other.
PositiveThe Star Tribune\"... short yet haunting ... [The story] becomes a pagan nightmare heading toward Heart of Darkness proportions ... Peppered with such exquisite lines... Ghost Wall isn\'t merely a timely topical novel, but rather a timeless work of art.\
MixedThe Washington Post[T]this third book, which could have simply been called Allah, is much more modest than the other two [God: A Biography and Christ] in both content and ambition ... It’s clear where his expertise lies; he admits he doesn’t know Arabic ... Despite being an Episcopalian, Miles says he writes not as a religious believer but as a literary critic ... And with this key, Miles avoids the distracting question of belief, thereby enabling us to understand. But rather than being a thorough excavation of Allah, God in the Qur’an focuses on the sections of the Koran that retell biblical stories ... In the Bible, Yahweh often acts like a violent, jealous lover. Yet Allah is like a stern but forgiving grandfather ... Aside from theological differences, it’s interesting to note that from a literary perspective, the revised stories in the Koran are told with less indirection than they are in the Bible ... And so with its corrections, the Koran loses the literary artistry of its predecessor.
PositiveMinneapolis Star Tribune\"About half of the 16 essays are about birding, and sometimes there’s the feeling, All right, enough with the birds! But his birding expeditions allow him to engage with much more than birds — environmental issues and climate change particularly. Often there’s a pleading, if not a preaching tone to these sections, and because we’ve become so inured to dire prophecies regarding the melting ice caps and rising sea levels, these bits come off as rather banal. But then, bam, he hits with something profound ... And here’s where Franzen is at his best. Not when he’s analyzing politics, defending himself against gratuitous attacks from the orthodox left, playing spokesman for environmental causes, or kvetching about social media, but when he causes us to call ourselves into question, and look more deeply at what we’re doing with our lives.\
MixedStar TribuneLike all good fiction, there is a mystery at the invisible heart of Dog Symphony, and Munson’s elusive style forces you to read the lines as if scanning for clues. His obscure vocabulary itself begs scrutiny ... unfortunately — perhaps inevitably — Dog Symphony lacks the artistic originality of the Argentinian fiction it echoes, and feels rather like an amusing game the author is playing, an homage of sorts, a pastiche.
Haruki Murakami, Trans. by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
RaveLos Angeles Review of Books\"In Murakami’s Killing Commendatore (translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen), another masterpiece as good as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–’95) and 1Q84 (2009–’10), both the characters and the reader traverse such magnificent subterranean chambers ... It’s not that these characters are fatalists. And they’re certainly not putting things in God’s hands or anything like that. Rather, Murakami is having them express the truth that despite how rational and stable we may be, our lives are actually out of our control ... By writing about metaphors and ideas, by ringing bells underground and animating two-foot-tall men, by having the desperate desires of others intrude on the simplest of plans and a whole lot else, Murakami is reminding us that the world is more enchanted than we might think. And an enchanted world is a wonderful place to live.\
Laura Van Den Berg
RaveThe Washington Post\"The most transforming kind of fiction is capable of causing a dislocation of reality: a bit of the bizarre, a lot kept beneath the surface and worlds can open within worlds. There’s Borges and Bolaño, Kafka and Cortázar, Modiano and Murakami, and now Laura van den Berg ... The fantastic plot is elevated by van den Berg’s fantastic writing and unique twists of language ... so much subtextual lava is coursing under the surface of every page of The Third Hotel the book feels like it’s going to erupt in your hands.\
Therese Bohman, Trans. by Marlaine Delargy
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksIt\'s rare when a literary character is defined by what they think and not by who they are or what they do. Herein lies the allure of Karolina Andersson, the protagonist ... Eventide is full of damn fine writing, but it’s the novel’s irreverent attitude toward feminism that makes it as challenging as it is necessary to read ... She’s a cheater, encourages others to cheat, and has inappropriate relationships that could get her fired. She drinks a river of wine and wastes a lot of time on the internet. Just the same, Karolina is so well drawn that she’ll be instantly recognizable to readers ... Karolina lives by her own terms, and that alone is a courageous kind of success. Maybe the most important kind.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksAslan’s contribution is unique. For one thing, his writing is inarguably kick-ass, and so his God is simply much more pleasurable to read ... We don’t really know, but Aslan’s decisiveness does make for a better story. And as he’s proven in Zealot and even more here, he’s certainly a great storyteller ... Aslan’s idea essentially negates the religious beliefs of every traditional culture in the world. Since, by his own account, he’s a believer, I’m sure Aslan wants to understand the beliefs of others, not dismiss them, and yet, ironically, that’s what he does in God ... Aslan doesn’t negate divinity, however. In fact, by presenting the perhaps paradoxical idea that humans are God, Aslan is pointing to a crucial belief in contemporary spirituality, which is that whether one believes or disbelieves in God or any divine being is less important than acting kindly, compassionately, and otherwise divinely. And one way to do that, he suggests, is to appreciate the divinity in each other.
PositiveThe Washington Post...it’s the way Prochnik weaves memoir through this intellectual biography that shows how thoroughly the author’s own life has twined with Scholem’s ideas. Just as a mystic ascends from one palace to the next in Kabbalah cosmology, Scholem’s life and work have led Prochnik from phase to phase of his own.