PanThe ObserverI can divulge up front that his latest, First Person Singular, is not very good ... Among its themes are nostalgia, music and erotic reminiscence. The book is not without its charms and Murakami’s mild and affable authorial persona will please his fans. While his novels tend towards the baroque and the fantastical, First Person Singular works best when Murakami keeps it simple in stories that resemble memoir and recount affairs, friendships or one-night stands from bygone decades ... While Murakami’s more thrilling novels contain war crimes, sexual deviancy and other sinister elements, the abiding tone here is of grandfatherly niceness. It leaves you craving an edge, which only arrives in the final, titular story, and even then inconclusively. First Person Singular’s blandly nostalgic musings on, say, watching baseball at a stadium in Tokyo would go down without much friction if only Murakami wrote better prose ... what I find instead is lazy, halfhearted prose and what I’ve come to think of as Murakami’s trademark banality ... To be charitable, we might put all this down to the late-career trailing off of a much-loved storyteller. The cynic in me wonders if the bizarrely limp style is a performance calculated to disarm: insipid Murakami the non-threatening crowdpleaser – the Forrest Gump of global literature.
Roberto Bolaño, tr. Natasha Wimmer
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Like virtually everything the incomparable Chilean wrote, a newly excavated trio of unarguably minor novellas, Cowboy Graves, is companionable, exotic, witty and glamorously suggestive ... To an extent, the value and interest of Cowboy Graves depend on a prior familiarity with the sprawling, hyperlinked metaverse of Bolaño’s fiction ... In fact, Cowboy Graves may be the most plainly autobiographical fiction Bolaño ever wrote ... A primary element in the compound that keeps Bolañoites hooked is the voice: it hardly matters what it’s saying, or what the torrent of words ultimately amounts to, when it speaks so seductively (as it does in Natasha Wimmer’s dependably limpid translations) ... Characters, fictional cities and real-life poets recognisable from other novels flicker briefly into sight and then vanish. Cowboy Graves is a minor chamber in the labyrinth of Bolaño’s fiction, but it’s one with many doors.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, tr. Martin Aitken
MixedThe Guardian (UK)In the Land of the Cyclops heightens the suspicion that Knausgaard fulfilled his authorial project with the completion of his six-part autofictional epic in 2011 ... A lengthy review here of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission opens with a plodding explanation of why Knausgaard has never before read the author, and labours on under the presumption that we are as interested in the underqualified reviewer as we are in his subject ... Knausgaard can be engaging on art and photography (subjects include Cindy Sherman, Anselm Kiefer, Francesca Woodman), but as a novelist turned philosopher-critic, he often reads as an Aristotelian particularist trying to be a universalising Plato. Whenever he looks up from the concrete, sensuous and personal, he drifts into watery abstraction. His essays are wide ranging in the sense that they tend to cover too much ground ... At his worst, Knausgaard the essayist is a monological bore ... The Knausgaard diehard will appreciate the reminiscences of childhood journeys and youthful misadventures, even if some of these are recycled ... did find myself hoping he’d take a hint and let me usher him out of the door, so I could collapse into my armchair, knackered.
Jonas Lüscher, tr. Tess Lewis
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... resembles a German free-market ideologue’s High Fidelity ... Composed in wry, long sentences agreeably translated from the German by Tess Lewis, “Kraft” serves up a digestible treatise on Europe’s economic and political history of the last few decades, with the laissez-faire duo of Kraft and Istvan as cartoonish vessels for their author’s findings. It’s also an amusing study in how intellectuals become neutered and co-opted through venal self-interest. The scene in which Kraft finally writes a lecture to suit the benefactor’s facile prejudices is a finely handled, comic dramatization of the microcompromises, stifled shame and bad-faith gymnastics of sham writers who tell the Culture whatever it wants to hear ... The novel’s broad satirical strokes limit its emotional heft, and a too-tidy ending fails to convince. But Lüscher is a perceptive commentator on Silicon Valley’s heady and hubristic ideological climate ... Lüscher sniffs out the fraudulence in the very roots of his characters’ political stances.
MixedThe Irish Times (IRE)After reading Clare Carlisle’s biography, I’m still not sure how much Kierkegaard the religious philosopher has to say to the non-Christian in the 21st century ... This is one of those biographies of a life that was outwardly not all that dramatic ... Wisely, Carlisle focuses on this inward struggle, but we only occasionally descend to the emotional depths Kierkegaard sought to plumb ... Philosopher of the Heart is weakened by a confusing structure ... It’s clear that Kierkegaard’s religious and existential concerns are very much alive to [Carlisle], even if she cannot entirely convey the urgency of those concerns to the reader. For that, it seems, we must return to the original works – Søren Kierkegaard’s strange, difficult, contrary books, wherein we might \'grasp the secret of suffering as the form of the highest life, higher than all good fortune\'.
Daniel Kehlmann, Trans. by Ross Benjamin
MixedThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)While Tyll shows impressive imagination, learning and ambition, it is quite a slog—there’s lots of history and not enough story ... Choosing Tyll as the binding element in this sprawling epic leads to a certain narrative awkwardness. While the novel requires him to perform as the charismatic, mercurial figure of legend, Kehlmann also makes efforts to flesh him out as a feeling, thinking, embodied human being. The result is that he dangles in an unsatisfying limbo between mythos and character, never fully convincing as either ... Much of Tyll, however, rumbles along in rather plain, magic realism-tinged prose. The most amusing passages riff on arcane theological, philosophical and scientific intrigues ... These Borgesian tidbits, though, are insufficient nourishment over Tyll’s long march.
Svetlana Alexievich, Trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
MixedThe Irish TimesIn her great works, while allowing her witnesses to speak for themselves, Alexievich occasionally intervenes to comment on the challenges she underwent while composing the work, her feelings around the material, and so on ... In Last Witnesses, she is entirely absent: on the first page, a voice begins to speak – an adult recalling childhood experiences of war. A few pages later, another voice takes over, and this relay continues till the end, with no particular shape to the material nor any authorial comment at all ... Resultantly, there is no real structure to the book, nor much to suggest that Alexievich has sequenced the testimonies so that they might become more than the sum of their parts ... somewhat lesser than its author’s greatest books, yet the project of which it is an instalment elicits deepening awe at what this still-living Belarusian has accomplished: an irreplaceable \'living history\' of the Soviet Union and its people. Alexievich stands among the greatest chroniclers of hell, but she is also an affirmer of that grizzled and unfashionable entity, the human spirit. Few have done so much to trace the emotional contours of the 20th century’s cataclysms before they tumble into oblivion.
PositiveThe Irish TimesAs Mezrich acknowledges in his new book, Bitcoin Billionaires, the image needs revising ... An author who keeps using the word \'Billionaires\' in his book titles likely keeps one eye firmly on the bottom line himself, and Bitcoin Billionaires feels like a draft of the screenplay for the film that Mezrich wills into being on every page (the rights have already been sold) ... The real function of a book like this, though, is to serve as a painless primer on Bitcoin, blockchain, cryptocurrency, and the metaphysics of money ... As Mezrich concludes, cryptocurrency is not going away.
PositiveThe Irish Times\"It shares with All That Man Is a fluent internationalism, and a structure that plants it in a fertile borderland between the novel and the collection of stories ... Those who struggle to muster zeal for fiction set in drably familiar locales can rely on Szalay for the pleasures of armchair wanderlust ...
Szalay works within the classical tradition of the short story, crafting epiphanies and heightened moments that throw light on a character’s past, present and future ... It’s powerful stuff. The problem is, a few such arresting moments aside, the sections are so brief that we don’t get time or space for the characters’ crises to wholly captivate our sympathy. At its weakest—for example, when a pilot recalls his sister’s drowning in childhood—it comes across as melodrama, an appeal for unearned emotion. There is enough deftness of portraiture and incisive writing to make Turbulence worth the time of day, but the best way to regard this book is as a stepping stone, an exercise to maintain authorial fitness between one major work and—let us hope—the next.\
RaveThe Irish TimesIn The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner vaults over any such obstacles to produce one of the greatest novels I have read in years ... richer and deeper, more ambitious in its moral vision ... Kushner has been compared to Don DeLillo, and he is a clear influence – the cool humour, the alert and swerving prose – but Kushner is streets ahead in terms of pacing and the feel for story, and her characters are quickened by a warmth of authorial feeling that is sparse in DeLillo’s work ... Like all great fiction, The Mars Room is by native instinct a carnival of human complexity, emphasising the vast unknowability of human lives against systems and ideologies that would reduce them to manageable binaries ... Kushner has a flair for portraying awful men ... Ultimately, this very great and very American novel is a paean to amor fati, to embracing one’s fate no matter how strange or terrible.