PositiveThe Boston GlobeWoolf loves her symbols — and she’s good at them ... Woolf interrogates both the conventional narratives of femininity and motherhood that kept her in a marriage she hated and the infidelity and lies that felt like her only way out ... All of This is a lot. Woolf is at her best when deep in the details, conjuring her experience onto the page with her rich command of imagery, metaphor, and symbol ... When Woolf tries to make her story into something bigger, she is less compelling. Her forceful declarations — on men, women, death, sex, widowhood, stories, memoirs — run a gamut from convincing to banal to meaningless. Her ruminative rambles are as repetitive as they are revealing ... We read memoirs of crisis and self-discovery to recognize ourselves and observe others. For some readers, Woolf’s lacerating commitment to her truth and to refusing the good widow narrative will resonate and reassure. Others may find it self-serving. Fortunately, there are more than enough truths to go around.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeManguso’s trademark discrete paragraphs, separated by (snowy) white spaces, accumulate in detailed taxonomies of food and eating habits, bodies and their injuries, school and its tribulations. Formal and informal social structures receive similarly anthropological attention, from class distinctions and the nuances of bullying to the rituals and tokens of gift exchange, which may hold this frigid society together but never truly bonds it ... the novel’s abrupt ending seems at once narratively inadequate and an implicit narrative reward for the self-awareness Ruthie shares, not with her peers, but with the other observant, bookish girls of literature ... Manguso is an exquisitely astute writer, and there is something admirable about her refusal to bow to predictable plot tropes that might rescue Ruthie more definitively—or condemn her. Still, her efforts to describe \'everything\' about Waitsfield may leave readers more chilled than satisfied … which is perhaps the point.
MixedThe Boston GlobeThe unnamed protagonist of Fake Accounts details the habits of our age with anthropological accuracy and their anomic consequences with sharp and rueful insight. Her creator, feminist literary enfant terrible Lauren Oyler, deftly manipulates writerly tropes and cultural stereotypes, staying always a sneaky step ahead of her reader. All this intimidating intelligence is deployed in service of … not much, which is at once a theme of this debut novel and a bit wearing ... This narrative grounds a stream of astutely detailed ruminations on the experience of contemporary life ... Is she right? Sure. Does she mean it? Maybe. Does it matter? In a novel where nobody is held to account, not really ... reading Fake Accounts at the start of 2021, when fake accounts have killed people and brought our political system to its knees, its flipness seems as insufficient as it is apt.
MixedThe Boston GlobeThis rock ’n’ roll story may sound familiar. But Mitchell’s narrative finesse, impeccable research, and detail-loving prose bring the band and its equally archetypal characters to mostly entertaining life ... It’s the era of album covers, pirate radio, and listening booths in record stores, and Mitchell revels in capturing it all: music and society, high and low, fictional and real, adjectives and nouns ... If rock fans will thrill to the musical references, Mitchell groupies will salivate at allusions to previous novels ... While Jasper’s question \'Am I insane or is this real?\' leaves open the possibility of reading these scenes as hallucinations, they nevertheless add to the intertextual fictional world Mitchell has built over the last two decades, which will reward some readers and leave others cold ... the novel itself is strangely reactionary. Conversations between men objectify and disparage women, while women rarely converse with each other, aside from Elf and her sisters. Elf explicitly suffers from the music world’s sexism but is depicted as the band’s compassionate peacemaker. Black women appear only as scenery ... This can all be read as the verisimilitude of the committed historical novelist, for it would be anachronistic at best to write 1960s rock ‘n’ roll London as an egalitarian paradise. Yet Mitchell has demonstrated boundless literary imagination in the worlds he creates. Surely, he could have been more imaginative in reckoning with past mores as he created Utopia Avenue.
Emily St. John Mandel
PositiveThe Boston GlobeEmily St. John Mandel’s eerie, compelling follow-up to her award-winning bestseller Station Eleven is not your grandmother’s Agatha Christie murder mystery or haunted hotel ghost story ... The novel’s ongoing sense of haunting extends well beyond its ghosts ... The narrative bounces about in time, madly foreshadows...and wraps its characters in their memories ... the ghosts in The Glass Hotel are directly connected to its secrets and scandals, which mirror those of our time: addiction, abandonment, suicide, lies, and crime, especially Alkaitis’s Ponzi scheme. Mandel meticulously depicts Alkaitis and Vincent’s life of misbegotten wealth, the collapse of his scheme (modeled after Bernie Madoff’s), and the aftermath for all involved, with criminals and victims alike thrust from \'the kingdom of money\' to \'the shadow country.\'
RaveThe Boston Globe... exuberant, capacious, and engaging ... Is it perfect? No. But few novels are, even Booker winners. Is it complex, astute, painful, funny, enlightening, and most of all enjoyable? No question ... an elegant and compulsively readable account of the black women of England ... one of the many achievements of Girl, Woman, Other is how its story lines at once stand alone and layer together. Plumbing the many dimensions of her character’s lives, Evaristo revels in universals and singularities alike ... As a novelist, Evaristo is firmly in control of the waves she rides. When her characters skirt the edge of stereotype, she holds them back or gleefully pushes them in ... I laughed, I cried, I turned the last page fully satisfied.
RaveThe Boston GlobeFans of Ben Lerner will be shocked to discover in the first pages of The Topeka School that Lerner can write action ... At the same time as these particulars illuminate individual characters, they, like so many of the novel’s images and references, recur, reverberate, and bleed into each other (sometimes to excess), coming to stand for a more generalized experience ... Ultimately, these repetitions feed into the novel’s incisive anatomization of what it means not just to be Adam, but to be a white male in America ... We are no longer the kind of America where we can speak of The Great American Novel. We are too fractured, too fraught. But we can still speak of great American novels: novels that give voice to our fractures and fraughtness, that display our multitudes or inhabit one of the specificities within those multitudes. In this context, Lerner has written an occasionally overdetermined but nevertheless pretty darn great American novel, framed, for sure, by his own decidedly specific experience, but so is America, for all of us.
PositiveThe Boston Globe... a well-written, sometimes entertaining, occasionally irritating portrait of an intelligent and accomplished woman struggling with identity and aging ... a profound subtext emerges: the diary as a way to collect time and stave off existential dread.
PositiveThe Boston Globe\"... a painful, thought-provoking, strangely lovely gem rendered broadly relevant by our #MeToo moment ... [the] narrative unfolds a horrifying history and a moving interrogation of the fate of women in a society under patriarchal theocratic control ... In a book that is at once allegory and story, the eight women serve as avatars for the roles available to women, but also come alive as personalities whose complex relationships have been formed by decades of insular intimacy and conflict.\
PositiveThe Boston Globe\"In this collection of nonfiction written over the past four decades, [Morrison] reinforces her status as a piercing and visionary analyst of history, society, literature, language, and, always, race ... [Morrison\'s] analyses of the role of blackness in the white literary imagination and the limitations placed on black authors are affecting and will be particularly trenchant for those encountering them for the first time ... Where the book explodes into pure brilliance, though, is in Morrison’s comprehensive account of her own writing, from its origins in slave narratives, to its philosophical underpinnings, to its artistic influences ... The meticulous care with which Morrison constructs the prose of her magnificent fiction and elegant nonfiction make the sloppy editing of \'The Source of Self-Regard\' that much more distracting. In a collection where so many pieces are occasional, providing the date and occasion of each piece alongside its title would have made reading and comprehension easier ... Yet despite its overflowing content, the book still inspires the desire for more. These pieces were written between 1982 and 2013, but only three in the last decade and none in the four years since Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president.\
MixedThe Boston Globe\"It is no faint praise to say that Michelle Dean’s Sharp reminds me of the biography collections I loved as a child. Books with titles like Great Women in History and Great Jewish Women introduced me to historical figures I remember to this day ... her persistent focus on reviews, both written and received, suggests a history of reviewing trying to claw its way out of these pages ... Dean has a gift for summarizing eras, issues, texts, and relationships, from Martin Heidegger’s Nazi period, West’s psychoanalysis of Yugoslavia, and Arendt’s influential account of totalitarianism, to the evolution of The New Yorker and Partisan Review, Ephron’s career at the Post, and Malcolm’s furniture columns. However, she often lets her observations and the connections she uncovers go relatively unexamined.\
RaveThe Boston GlobeDiski’s wonderful story collection, The Vanishing Princess, holds riches for all. Longtime fans will celebrate the very fact of more Diski and thrill to familiar preoccupations in new settings and shapes. Those who know only the self-elegizing Diski will encounter the expansive parameters of her imagination and intellect. Those who read Diski for the first time are in for the delight of discovery ... The three fairy tales that anchor the book speak both to Diski’s timelessness and to her contemporary feminist perspicuity ... The book’s other stories begin in the cold reality of women’s daily lives...What makes these stories quintessentially Diski is the way they balance between the sometimes mundane, sometimes grim, sometimes arresting detail of those lives and the spiraling thoughts of the characters who inhabit them. In so doing, they not infrequently stretch the boundaries of realism .. In all her writing, Diski turned her sharply observant gaze on the stuff of the world — people, places, books, things, oncologist appointments — and then thought hard not only about that stuff, but about the thoughts generated by that stuff and the thoughts further generated by those thoughts. In The Vanishing Princess, her characters are to a degree her avatars, sometimes in their reenactments of scenes and themes detailed elsewhere in memoirs and essays, always in the trenchant thinking that makes their stories — and hers — memorable.
MixedThe Boston Globe\"Daniel Alarcón’s new collection, The King Is Always Above the People, begins with four top-notch stories...The sophisticated stylistic diversity of this entertaining and inspiring opening quartet is a delight. Yet as the ensuing stories unfurl, some wonderful, some so slight as to feel like filler, the collection begins to resolve into a set of repetitive themes ... If Alarcón explicitly thematizes migration, urbanization, the lives of those left behind and discarded, and the emotional byproducts of geographic and social mobility, a related but distinct theme eventually comes to dominate the book: men coping with the inadequacies of their lives ... Fiction about men is, of course, hardly notable, but Alarcón’s dispirited, frustrated, and endlessly seeking — even when they are successful — men stand out in particular against the flatness of his women. These muted barmaids, wives, mothers, and girlfriends function largely to thwart or succor their men, a banal dichotomy and frustrating misstep for a book with so many strengths ... These stories might be better read on their own than together; while Alarcon is a truly impressive writer, the sum here is less than the parts.\
RaveThe Boston GlobePlot is in vogue these days, but while The Ninth Hour has a girl on a train — teenage Sally on a misbegotten, infernal trip to Chicago — McDermott largely eschews dramatic arcs. Instead, she fluidly pieces together seemingly minor events, gradually unfolding characters and relationships across decades, and gently but firmly wrestling with the issues they face. In so doing, she reminds us of the pleasures of literary fiction and its power to illuminate lives and worlds ... if McDermott shows the power of this collective of women to support each other and their community, she also reveals how the nuns struggle with — and ultimately find their own ways to reconcile themselves to — the limits of their vocation and each other ... Like James Joyce, whose Dubliners could serve as The Ninth Hour’s literary, historical, and ecclesiastical prequel, McDermott is a virtuoso of language and image, allusion and reflection, reference and symbol ... McDermott once again demonstrates her expansively attentive literary care and its quiet power.
RaveThe Boston GlobeModernist stream of consciousness lives on in the brilliant Dirt Road ... Like a 21st-century, Scottish, working-class, Leopold Bloomian Holden Caulfield, 16-year-old Murdo Macdonald ruminates on boats, sounds, birds, insects, cells, girls, music, work, race, life, and death in a narrative as epic as it is quotidian, an adolescent Hero’s Journey through grief and America ... Through Murdo’s eyes, contemporary America — 'A different world. That was America. Ye thought ye knew it from the movies but ye didnt' — appears defamiliarized yet spot on: our sidewalk-less suburbs and seedy bus stations; convenience-store food and mall walking; weather obsession, security state, guns, and racism. But if both Kelman, a lifelong radical, and his teenage protagonist are skeptical of our politics (the Scottish gathering is threaded with white supremacy), they embrace our music as a powerful unifying force, transcending and bringing together races and cultures. Murdo can never escape the loss of his sister and mother; he can only assuage them. One facet of Dirt Road’s genius is that it recognizes this, offering neither pat catharsis nor improbably definitive resolution. Yet Murdo and his father both move forward in a final move that is unexpected, if a bit fantastic, but perfectly in line with this beautiful novel.
RaveThe Boston GlobeIf The Golden Legend documents agonizing political and sectarian realities, it is also masterful and compelling fiction, intricately layering symbols and parallels, unspooling its plot in dramatic twists until the very last sentence, and revealing the deep interconnections between the themes of power, principle, love, and loss that underlie those realities. Since the November election, American writers have anxiously questioned the role and value of fiction in the face of national exigency. The Golden Legend demonstrates its necessity.
RaveThe Boston GlobeAt once hilarious and sobering ... shows what happens when truthful stories hit the wall of Chinese politics, and it’s not pretty. At the same time, in crafting a memorable hero and a narrative that is both entertaining and thought-provoking, he affirms the value of fiction itself as not simply a source of profit, but a powerful vehicle for the truths of our times.
Jonathan Safran Foer
PanThe Boston Globe[Foer] seem[s] determined not to tell a compelling story ... Here I Am meanders along via internal monologues, lists, speeches, gnomic pronouncements, Chinese boxes of secrets and lies, and endless conversations — all of varying degrees of interest ... Here I Am was your chance to prove that you’re not just extremely precious and incredibly self-absorbed. Unfortunately, it’s a lost opportunity.
RaveThe Boston GlobeMbue’s narrative energy and sympathetic eye soon render these commonplace ingredients vivid, complex, and essential ... though her black characters provide practical and emotional succor to her white ones, especially as the two families further entwine, professionally and personally, she also effectively and pointedly keeps them at the center of the story, a narrative accomplishment too many white authors are still unable to achieve ... [a] beautiful, empathetic novel.
MixedThe Boston GlobeWhile the appearance of so many familiar historical tropes like the Underground Railroad, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights movement threaten to create a Forrest Gump’-like vibe, there are also illuminating glimpses of less well-known experiences, from free black life in Baltimore and interracial union organizing in 19th-century Alabama coal mines, to African nations manipulating the British and each other during the slave trade. Gyasi is also admirably determined to show the complexities of culpability and affinity ... Homegoing is ultimately a tad schematic. Many of the narrative choices can be justified as the overlaying of myth and history, another of Gyasi’s literary strategies, but they are nonetheless more predictable than they need to be. The writing can also be anachronistic in a way that’s not quite worthy of the novel’s ambitions.
RaveThe Boston GlobeThe Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe is a polemic and a pleasure. Showalter deploys her prodigious research and narrative skills, acerbic wit, and feminist commitments to reveal the entwining of Howe’s public and private lives, as she righteously battled her husband and society, and finally saw the glory she always believed she deserved.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThis kind of pointed analytic synthesis is Traister’s great strength, and it characterizes the best of the book’s subsequent chapters, which address different aspects of contemporary single women’s lives, from sex and money to friendship and solitude...That said, the topical chapters are not always as compelling. Paeans to female friendship, urban living, and sexual adventurousness rest a bit too heavily on single-life-loving anecdotes from urban writers and activists (a limitation Traister acknowledges), while chapters on marriage and parenting offer little we haven’t read elsewhere.
RaveThe Boston GlobeIt is not often that a novel comes along that is laugh-out-loud hilarious and thought-provokingly philosophical. Good on Paper is both.