PositiveThe New Yorker... as compact and potent as a capsule of cyanide, a poison whose origin story takes up much of the opening chapter—the first of many looping forays into the wonders and horrors unleashed by science in the past few centuries ... As the layers of patterns and affinities accumulated, I realized that I was no longer compulsively Googling, instead allowing the stories to flow ... There is liberation in the vision of fiction’s capabilities that emerges here—the sheer cunning with which Labatut embellishes and augments reality, as well as the profound pathos he finds in the stories of these men. But there is also something questionable, even nightmarish, about it. If fiction and fact are indistinguishable in any meaningful way, how are we to find language for those things we know to be true? In the era of fake news, more and more people feel entitled to \'make our own reality,\' as Karl Rove put it. In the current American political climate, even scientific fact—the very material with which Labatut spins his web—is subject to grossly counter-rational denial. Is it responsible for a fiction writer, or a writer of history, to pay so little attention to the line between the two?
Paul Celan, trans. by Pierre Joris
PositiveThe New YorkerNo translation can ever encompass the multiplicity of meanings embedded in these hybrid, polyglot, often arcane poems; the translator must choose an interpretation. This is always true, but it is particularly difficult with work as fundamentally ambiguous as Celan’s. Joris imagines his translations as akin to the medical diagrams that reproduce cross-sections of anatomy on plastic overlays, allowing the student to leaf forward and backward to add or subtract levels of detail ... As Joris writes, Celan intended his poems to be read in cycles rather than one at a time, so that the reader could pick up on the patterns. But he did not intend for four books to be read together in a single volume. The poems, in their sheer number and difficulty, threaten to overwhelm, with the chorus drowning out the distinct impact of any particular poem ... I wish that Joris had made more of an effort to reproduce the rhythm and music of Celan’s verse in the original, rather than focussing so single-mindedly on meaning and texture. When the poems are read aloud in German, their cadence is inescapable. Joris’s translation may succeed in getting close to what Celan actually meant, but something of the experience of reading the poetry is lost in his sometimes workaday renderings. Still, Joris’s extensive commentary is a gift to English readers who want to deepen their understanding of Celan’s work.
MixedNew York Review of BooksFor Alam, who writes about his characters as if he were a medical student dissecting a cadaver, psychological depth is not the point. He has an interior barometer exquisitely calibrated to signifiers of social class: ...His interest lies in taxonomies of race and class, not in generating the reader’s empathy or evoking an emotional response. Lacking the capacity for deep reflection, his characters drift along in their bubbles, so perfectly self-absorbed that the other people in their lives are all but invisible, except to the extent that they function as projections. With chapters often only three or four pages long and tending to cut away just as a scene starts to get complicated, the effect is disconcerting, destabilizing. But it is also necessarily limited. Tensions are left unexplored; paths for development are foreclosed ... Both the advantages and disadvantages of this approach are evident in Leave the World Behind, Alam’s third novel, which is an odd hybrid of thriller and social satire ... Alam is at his best when lavishing attention on the texture and details of a certain style of privileged contemporary urban life, rendering it with a Chuck Close–style hyperrealism that magnifies its flaws ... Despite its appearance, Leave the World Behind isn’t a book about a global disaster; it’s a book about racism—or, more precisely, white entitlement...As the novelist, Alam controls the narrative; it’s his prerogative to spotlight white ignorance and entitlement. At the same time, the stereotype-heavy characters combine with the lack of plot development to give this book the feeling of a set piece rather than a fully realized work of fiction ... Alam is a gifted writer; I devoured Leave the World Behind in a long gulp on an insomniac night. The verisimilitude with which he depicts a certain social world is impressive. But I was left wishing he had marshaled his talents in the service of something more ambitious. This slender book feels like half a novel, one that might work better if it dissected human motivation as assiduously as it does shopping habits, or if it tried to pull its seemingly random nuggets of terror into a cohesive shape. When a writer seems to be more interested in describing shallowness than in diving into the mess of human emotion, the result can be fiction that circles around urgent social questions without really examining them.
Maria Dahvana Headley
RaveThe New Yorker...electrifying. The lack of scholarly apparatus is deceptive: Headley has studied the poem deeply and is conversant with some of the text’s most obscure details. Though she comes to Beowulf from a feminist perspective, her primary purpose is not polemical or political but, as she writes, to render the story \'continuously and cleanly, while also creating a text that felt as bloody and juicy as I think it ought to feel.\' ... Headley’s version is more of a rewriting than a true translation, reënvisaging the poem for the modern reader rather than transmitting it line for line. It is brash and belligerent, lunatic and invigorating, with passages of sublime poetry punctuated by obscenities and social-media shorthand ... the over-all effect is as if Headley, like the warrior queen she admired as a child, were storming the dusty halls of the library, upending the crowded shelf of Beowulf translations to make room for something completely new ... Headley is obviously enjoying herself, and never more than when she’s speaking in the voice of her hero ... (Heaney’s Beowulf, suiting up for battle, is \'indifferent to death\'; Headley’s \'gave zero shits.\') ... With a Beowulf defiantly of and for this historical moment, Headley reclaims the poem for her audience as well as for herself.
RaveHarpers... electricity is palpable in Doherty’s pages. I have rarely, if ever, read a work of non-fiction that chronicled relationships like these, with women in conversation about everything except men. Even Sylvia Plath appears without Ted Hughes, befriending Sexton at a poetry seminar in Boston. There were moments when I wanted to know more about the rest of their lives—the troubles in Sexton’s marriage, including her multiple affairs, are mentioned only in passing. But I understood, also, why Doherty focuses so tightly on the Institute. Her book is a love story about art and female friendship ... I consumed both Wade and Doherty’s books at a furious speed, scrawling notes in the margins with greater-than-usual intensity, pausing occasionally to let the ideas sink in. The urgency with which their subjects—ten between them, extending across more than a century—negotiated the demands of intellect and life is timeless. Women must undertake that project anew in each generation because the social structures to support it do not exist. We are still trying to figure it out.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"One night in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, I found myself jolted awake at 2 o’clock in the morning, shaking with adrenaline and dread. Avoiding the call of my Twitter feed, I dragged myself from bed and cast an eye over my to-be-read pile. But nothing seemed right for this moment of uncertainty verging on unreality. Even my old favorites now seemed to come from another world. They weren’t speaking to a mind-set recalibrated by the crisis ... Then my eye fell upon If It Bleeds, the new collection of novellas by Stephen King ... The straightforward cadences of King’s voice, paired with his signature sit-down-and-let-me-tell-you-a-story style, were immediately soothing. And the stories he was telling — about the seductions and corruptions of technology, the extremes of beauty and depravity in even the most ordinary life, the workings of a universe we can never entirely understand — were somehow exactly what I wanted to read right now ... \'The Life of Chuck\' is one of the oddest, most affecting stories I have read in a very long time. It’s a little disappointing, then, that the two remaining pieces in the volume feel more like retreads of conventional material ... But I wouldn’t begrudge any reader refuge in familiar pleasures, least of all now ... As sirens blare outside my Brooklyn window and the headlines grow more apocalyptic by the day, I might start working my way through King’s backlist. He’s good company in the dark.
RaveHarpers...rich and powerful ... By telling the stories of women scholars and artists—stories about research and creative work, but also about marriage and partnership and female friendship—in a way that emphasizes the social and communal force of their subjects’ lives, Wade and Doherty suggest that the classic cradle-to-grave treatment applied to men is not always appropriate for women’s narratives: not because they aren’t interesting enough to deserve it, but because it can’t adequately represent the profound and inextricable networks in which women work and live ... A minor disappointment of the biography is that while Wade discusses her subjects’ work lovingly and comprehensively, their personalities sometimes remain elusive. It’s not entirely her fault: Harrison burned her personal papers. Also destroyed were those of Eileen Power... I consumed both Wade and Doherty’s books at a furious speed, scrawling notes in the margins with greater-than-usual intensity, pausing occasionally to let the ideas sink in. The urgency with which their subjects—ten between them, extending across more than a century—negotiated the demands of intellect and life is timeless. Women must undertake that project anew in each generation because the social structures to support it do not exist. We are still trying to figure it out.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewAs the novel proceeds...it becomes clear that the true mystery is how much of what Vesta says the reader should believe. Some of her peculiarities seem harmless and even charming ... But her mind does wander to unexpected and disturbing places ... \'How did people go on with their lives as though death weren’t all around them?\' The line is from Moshfegh’s book ... Moshfegh is sounding a related alarm, and it’s just as urgent. We might be inclined to dismiss Vesta as a madwoman, just as we might laugh at the parodic efforts of the woman in My Year of Rest and Relaxation to put her mind out of its misery. But to do so obscures the way each woman’s condition mirrors that of Western elite society in the past decade or so: suspended in a kind of fugue state, projecting our fantasies onto others, medicating our brains with the dopamine hits of smartphone pings. Meanwhile—now more visibly than ever—death is all around us. A recent profile of Moshfegh in this newspaper suggested that her stories of detachment are perfectly suited to this moment of global isolation. But her goal isn’t to lull us to sleep; it’s to wake us up. Why aren’t we paying attention? What are we missing? Isn’t it time for us to start seeing the world as it really is?
PositiveThe New York Review of Books... a novel as tightly wound as its predecessor was exuberant. McBride seems to be testing how much can be communicated within a radically restricted structure ... Her subject matter has shades of Dorothy Allison’s domestic Gothic; Anna Burns and Kristen Roupenian are among her contemporary fellow travelers. But she is distinct from all of them in offering a frank, unsentimental, and serious treatment of women’s sexual experience—and in placing it at the center of her novels ... To say that McBride writes experimental novels in stream-of-consciousness style does not capture the wreckage her sentences inflict on the English language. Lines break off mid-phrase, punctuation is percussive, shorthand locutions substitute for exposition ... the first of McBride’s novels to be written in the third person, but it is no less intimately observed. The woman at the center watches herself with the attention of a hunter stalking prey ... Still, there is something odd about the way her thoughts are presented. We see her up close but also at a remove; it can be hard to work out exactly what she’s up to ... All the woman’s actions are described with minute physicality, but in an analytical language that tamps down even the possibility of feeling, as if she is directly restricting access to emotion ... In Strange Hotel, in which writing about sex becomes a way of expressing both intimacy and its absence, the opposite of love might be grief, despair’s close cousin, and the novel’s true story is the journey from the bottom of that grief back to love.
Emily St. John Mandel
RaveThe Atlantic... deeply imagined, philosophically profound reckonings with life in an age of disaster ... If Station Eleven is a mosaic—we see the outlines of the picture nearly at once, but precisely how the pieces fit together appears later—The Glass Hotel is a jigsaw puzzle missing its box ... moves forward propulsively ... The structure of The Glass Hotel is virtuosic, as the fragments of the story coalesce by the end of the narrative into a richly satisfying shape. There are wonderful moments of lyricism ... But for the most part Mandel’s language is understated, fading almost invisibly to serve the familiar pleasures of character and plot. Despite the initial disorientation of its kaleidoscopic form, The Glass Hotel is ultimately as immersive a reading experience as its predecessor, finding all the necessary imaginative depth within the more realistic confines of its world ... Mandel’s affirmation that a somewhat old-fashioned fictional model is not only relevant to our alarming new world but also deeply appropriate for it manages, remarkably, to feel both consoling and revolutionary.
PositiveHarper\'sRifkind makes a passionate case for rescuing her subject from anonymity ... Rifkind focuses her book on Salka Viertel’s years in Hollywood, skipping her subject’s early life almost entirely. It’s a defensible choice—many biographers chafe at the de rigueur recitation of grade-school accomplishments. Still, knowing where a person comes from, especially an exile, is important ... Rifkind laments in her biography that researchers have mined Salka’s book for anecdotes about her more famous acquaintances while ignoring the memoirist herself, but it’s easy to see why—the anecdotes are wonderful ... Rifkind argues strenuously for Salka’s significance in shaping the motion-picture industry...But it’s a stretch to call Salka a filmmaker: she seems to have been mainly a screenwriter and consultant, although it’s hard to tell, since some of her work was uncredited ... It is a distinct challenge to write the life story of someone who has already written it so well herself. Rifkind’s main contribution is providing historical context, filling in details that Salka herself didn’t know ... Rifkind’s wide-angle view is also useful in examining what happened to Salka during the years immediately following the war, when she was \'pink-listed\' owing to what some people misinterpreted as her sympathy for the Soviet Union ... \'Whoever touches your heart does not foresee that he is unleashing an avalanche!\' Berthold told her after witnessing her distress over her breakup with Reinhardt. If something is missing in Rifkind’s book, it’s a sense of Salka as avalanche. While others have written of her sharp tongue and her eccentricities, in Rifkind’s telling she comes across as nearly saintly ... But Rifkind has done an enormous service in spotlighting the life of Salka Viertel: not only by telling a story that deserves to be better known, but also by implicitly making the case for more such books.
RaveSlateWith The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon has finally made the only use of genre fiction that a talented writer should: Rather than forcing his own extraordinarily capacious imagination into its stuffy confines, he makes the genre—more precisely, genres—expand to take him in. This novel bursts with so many forms and styles, it’s hard to know where to start ... As such details demonstrate, Chabon has lavished an unfathomable amount of love on his creation, leaving no quirk of Jewish life unexploited for its comedic or absurdist potential ... In the finest Jewish tradition, Chabon has produced a paradox: a mass entertainment largely inaccessible to the masses.
Jokha Alharthi, trans. by Marilyn Booth
PositiveThe New York Review of Books... a rich, dense web of a novel ... The structure of Celestial Bodies might be described as labyrinthine, with characters retracing similar paths again and again, retelling old stories from changed perspectives or revisiting past wrongs after acquiring new information. There are dark secrets at the heart of the labyrinth, but the point of the novel is not necessarily to find one’s way to them—much about the plot ultimately remains cryptic. Instead, Alharthi constructs a tapestry of interlocking lives, some seen over the course of decades, others at just a single pungent moment. Rarely have I encountered a work of fiction in which form and idea were so inseparably, and appropriately, fused ... With the sparest of transitions, Celestial Bodies jumps nimbly between generations ... Marilyn Booth, the translator, has done a wonderful job of conveying a lyricism I can only assume is present in Alharthi’s original ... The extended cast of characters and the nonlinear plot can make Celestial Bodies challenging to follow, and the confusingly drawn family tree at the start doesn’t offer much help. Plot strands are begun, dropped, and picked up again. Stories are told in different ways by different people, who may have incomplete or incorrect information. The fluidity of the style at times resembles stream of consciousness ... The chorus of voices that arises from these pages, at once harmonious and dissonant, constitutes nothing less than the assertion of the right to exist and to be recognized.
MixedThe New Republic... a vision of the worst-case scenario, a dystopian American culture sexed up, dumbed down, and digitized ad absurdum ... a person who bangs on a piano long enough will start to hit the right notes. Super Sad True Love Story is a satire that strikes painfully at many of our culture’s weakest spots, particularly its pornographic obsession with sex and its nonchalance about Internet privacy, or what remains of it ... Shteyngart’s often very funny novel derives much of its humor from the fact that the journey from our world to his requires only a minor tweak ... in the end the joke is on us, the readers of this absurd novel that is finally neither super sad nor true nor actually about love. To criticize Shteyngart’s book for its emotionally stunted prose is beside the point. One has only to contrast it with the capaciousness of Three Years, the Chekhov novella of May-December love that Lenny admires, to understand that a real love story simply cannot be told in such a debased style, even in a joke. The form mortally reduces the text ... finally unmoving.
PositiveThe Atlantic\"Hempel’s background in journalism—she started out as a medical reporter—taught her the value of grabbing a reader from the start ... As in all her best stories, Hempel plants a small bomb with a surprisingly powerful detonation. When other stories in this volume fail to yield the same richness, it’s because the connections that should feel organic are instead forced or just unfulfilled ... Hempel’s method of transmuting life into fiction is nothing if not exacting ... The best of [Hempel\'s sentences]—riveting in their precision—also take on new lives of their own.\
PositiveThe New York Review of Books\"... wildly discomfiting ... Not every story in You Know You Want This is equally inspired [as \'Cat Person\'], but even the ones that don’t quite land have a line or image worth savoring ... Roupenian’s language is often wonderfully, if grotesquely, physical ... This book isn’t bedtime reading. I found one of the stories so upsetting that I couldn’t bring myself to revisit it. Though I read much of the collection with admiration, I put it down wondering, in the end, where Roupenian’s madly misanthropic vision leads.\
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"At any rate, the true drama of Inheritance is not Shapiro’s discovery of her father’s identity but the meaning she makes of it ... Shapiro’s account is beautifully written and deeply moving — it brought me to tears more than once. I couldn’t help feeling unnerved, though, by the strength of her conviction that blood will out, which leads her uncomfortably close to genetic determinism.\
MixedThe New York Times Book Review\"... a stunning, haunting work of art that is unfortunately marred by some questionable interpretive choices ... Polonsky’s illustrations, richly detailed and sensitively rendered, work marvelously to fill in the gaps, allowing an image or a facial expression to stand in for the missing text and also providing context about Anne’s historical circumstances that is, for obvious reasons, absent from the original ... The comedy of the Diary — one of the book’s most charming and often overlooked aspects — shines in this form ... it seems a mistake not to have included more in the way of critical apparatus to explain the ways the creators diverged from the historical record, especially when they touch most directly on the Holocaust ... Folman and Polonsky’s greatest missed opportunity, however, is their representation of Anne... Folman and Polonsky depict Anne as a schoolgirl, a friend, a sister, a girlfriend and a reluctantly obedient daughter. But only once, at the close of the book, do they show her in the act of writing. In so doing, they perpetuate the misconception about the book that so many have come to know, love and admire — it was, in truth, not a hastily scribbled private diary, but a carefully composed and considered text. As artists, they ought to understand how important it is to recognize Anne’s achievement on her own terms, as she intended it. Their book is brilliantly conceived and gorgeously realized; sadly, it does a disservice to the remarkable writer at its center.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Mr. Balint’s story has its roots in the most forgivable betrayal in literary history: Brod’s famous refusal to burn Kafka’s papers, as the writer had directed Brod to do after his death in 1924 ... Mr. Balint gives a touching chronicle of their friendship. The two enjoyed traveling together and dreamed up plans for a series of \'on the cheap\' travel guides, with the motto \'Just dare.\' They read each other’s drafts and even collaborated on a novel ... Mr. Balint takes an evenhanded approach...\
PositiveHarpersThere’s something of Norman Rush in Eisenberg’s manically intelligent narrators, something of Joan Silber in her elaborate structures, something of George Saunders or Margaret Atwood in her dystopian visions. But the experience of reading Eisenberg is radically alien ... in Your Duck Is My Duck, Eisenberg seems to have in her sights a more general—and extremely pessimistic—assessment of American life ... It’s not just in the specifics—the effects of climate change, the decrepitude of the New York City subway—but in the sense of malaise, both emotional and political, that despite flashes of humor (Eisenberg can be a very funny writer) hangs over this collection ... What is most startling is not her assessment of American decline but the realization that it has been going on for so long. Entering Eisenberg’s fiction is like diving off a cliff into a freezing lake: you are plunged into a world of confusion, with no one to help you get your bearings and no recourse but to struggle your way to the surface. Her openings are trapdoors, pushing the concept of in medias res as far as it can go ... Eisenberg’s process is one of radical immersion: We’re plunked down with a group of characters and, for a moment, given full access to their thoughts and feelings. Then we’re off to plunge into a new scenario, knowing nothing ... \'It’s not my duck, it’s not my bottle, it’s not my problem.\' In a book in which titles tend to the inscrutable, this one feels like a shot in the arm ... Your problem is my problem—your duck is my duck. The things we do elsewhere will come home to haunt us. Perhaps they always have.
Orhan Pamuk, Trans. by Maureen Freely
RaveThe Washington PostKars is a tightly wound knot of tension between secular and religious forces, and Ka's investigations lead him into encounters with all the major players … The poems that Ka writes in Kars turn out to be governed by a ‘deep and mysterious underlying structure’ similar to that of a snowflake, and the same is true of the novel itself. The deeper you read, the more the symmetries multiply. Nearly every character has a double, down to the narrator himself, who is eventually revealed to be a novelist friend of Ka's named Orhan, telling Ka's story after his death based on information gleaned from his notebooks. All these mirror images add up to create a dizzying effect, which is deepened by the snow that begins to fall on the first page of the novel and does not let up until nearly the end.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksThe uniformity of Silber’s tone is the only real limitation of her method. The narrative’s perspective moves fluidly from one character to the next, but each of them sounds more or less the same ... It is both tragic and infuriating that a writer as innovative, humane, and wise is not read more widely.\
RaveThe New YorkerOliver’s new book, Devotions, is unlikely to change the minds of detractors ... But for her fans — among whom I, unashamedly, count myself — it offers a welcome opportunity to consider her body of work as a whole ...an ecstatic poet in the vein of her idols, who include Shelley, Keats, and Whitman. She tends to use nature as a springboard to the sacred, which is the beating heart of her work ...more often there is a moral to her poems. It tends to be an answer, or an attempt at an answer, to the question that seems to drive just about all Oliver’s work: How are we to live? ... Although these poems are lovely, offering a singular and often startling way of looking at God, the predominance of the spiritual and the natural in the collection ultimately flattens Oliver’s range.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review...[a] fascinating if not entirely satisfying novel ... Unfortunately, too many moments in Erdrich’s novel are rushed through without sufficient explanation or elaboration ... Because of the diary form, the novel’s perspective is limited to what Cedar experiences personally or hears about, which also results in tantalizing plot points that aren’t followed through ... I couldn’t help wondering what was in the pages that Erdrich cut, and whether, had this book not been brought out so quickly, the loose ends might have come together in a more satisfying way. Still, the urgency of this novel’s subject matter goes a long way to compensate for its flaws.
PositiveHarper's...[a] strange and beguiling novel, a mystery that operates on grounds simultaneously literary and existential ... Krauss marshals facts from Kafka’s biography — his long-standing interest in Zionism, his Hebrew lessons, a failed plan to immigrate in 1923 — to brilliantly unspool this alternate history ... The themes of doubling and entrapment in this novel may be reminiscent of Kafka, but the scenario itself calls to mind the work of a more recent forefather: Philip Roth. His entire body of work, but especially the Nathan Zuckerman novels, plays with similar questions of Jewish history, identity, and obligation ... It has become conventional for writers to suggest identification with their narrators while at the same time coyly denying it. Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Rachel Cusk have all recently used this trope. The effect is like looking into a warped mirror: The reflection is easily perceived, the distortion less so. The technique can veer dangerously close to solipsism. Look at me, these writers seem to be saying, this is my life, or at least I want you to perceive it as such. Krauss, however, uses it self-consciously as an echo of Kafka, emphasizing her doppelgänger’s own entrapment in an existentially bewildering predicament. Look at me, she says: I could be you ... What Forest Dark shows — with its bold reimagining of Kafka’s life, as well as its intimations that Nicole’s life might be something other than what she thinks it is — is that the distinction between authentic and inauthentic might not be as important as we believe. It’s a perfectly Kafkaesque vision, almost uncanny enough to be sublime.
MixedThe Washington PostKelly argues — passionately and engagingly, if not always convincingly — that modern readers have failed to read Austen as she was meant to be read: in the context of her historical moment ... Her critical method is to focus microscopically, generating meaning from the smallest details of the novels — names of people and places, lines of poetry quoted, the etymology of words — juxtaposed with historical context ... We don’t have to subscribe to Kelly’s vision of Austen as a political revolutionary to understand her as a radical, though not a secret one. That her novels prioritized the true circumstances for women in her era is radical enough.
PanThe New RepublicThe dominant freedom in Freedom is, as Walter puts it in a moment of aggravation, ‘the freedom to fuck up your life’ … There is something vaguely misogynist (though the tone is always too noble for any awareness of prejudice) in the novel’s suggestion that Patty’s emotional troubles—by this point she is drinking a bottle of wine or more a day—are primarily motivated by an unsatisfied desire to ‘properly [have] sex’ … The lack of plausibility presented by Patty’s autobiography and by the numerous contrivances in this meandering narrative would be disturbing in any serious novel. But it is all the more striking in light of Franzen’s celebrated knack for accurately capturing the particulars of modern life.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
RaveBookforumMore than race, Americanah is about all the ways people form their identities: what we put on and what we take off, the things we accumulate and those we discard along the way … Those who stand outside are in a good position to look in, and it is Adichie’s remarkable powers of observation that drive this novel. Every detail feels relevant, because they all work as markers of what the novel calls ‘costume’: the mannerisms and affectations that we use to create an image of ourselves in the eyes of others, and even ourselves … It is rare to come upon a novel that genuinely alters one’s view of the world. For me, Americanah was one of those books.
MixedThe New YorkerHis opacity is perhaps appropriate, given that the actual Kosinski was a figure almost lost beneath his layers of imposture, but, as the book goes on, it becomes harder to invest much feeling in someone so maddeningly indeterminate. Often he seems almost like a stock figure, performing the role of Jerzy Kosinski before a credulous audience ... The final section of Charyn’s novel reimagines parts of The Painted Bird as they might actually have taken place—a moving attempt to envision the real wartime traumas that led Kosinski to invent fake ones ... Charyn doesn’t try to provide a definite answer to the crucial question of why Kosinski passed off his most famous book as something it was not, but this last section goes some way toward suggesting why he felt the need to conceal himself behind a mask.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...[a] sympathetic, cleareyed new biography ... A judicious and diligent biographer, Gordon faces the obvious criticism that, as a man, he can’t fully appreciate Carter’s work. He argues convincingly that his sex shouldn’t be held against him, noting that Carter 'never thought of gender as the most important division between human beings,' and that 'almost all writing involves an act of identification' with people who are unlike oneself. Indeed, if there is a problem with this well-researched, carefully assembled book, it’s not that the author is a man; it’s that his approach doesn’t quite measure up to his subject. If Gordon has passionate feelings about Carter’s work, his utterly balanced and evenhanded treatment leaves no air for them to escape. Carter herself was so funny and stylish a writer that one wishes a few more sparks would rise from these cool pages. Thankfully, quotations from her letters and journals are plentiful.
Joyce Carol Oates
RaveThe New York Review of BooksOates’s oeuvre includes gang rapists, serial killers, and even the devil in disguise, but Luther Dunphy may be her most disturbing character—not because of the militancy of his beliefs, but because of how intimately we come to inhabit his consciousness...It is frightening to be so far inside this way of thinking, to know how deeply wrong it is, and yet, at the same time, to sympathize ... For most of the novel Oates’s prose is clipped, with many one-sentence paragraphs that speed the momentum of the text, but in her description of Luther’s agonized death her language takes lyrical flight ... Like much of Oates’s other recent work, it is clearly an attempt to speak for 'those unable to speak for themselves'—the uneducated white working class. In the presence of the Dunphys and their distinctive religious and family culture, this novel is most alive, especially in its portrayal of Dawn ... Oates is sometimes spoken of as a novelist of sensationalism, her Gothic and morbid tendencies emphasized. In fact, A Book of American Martyrs is a deeply political novel, all the more powerful for its many ambiguities. With its depiction of these families caught literally in the crosshairs of the anti-abortion movement, this novel may well shock and offend readers. But it fearlessly exposes not only an element of American society rarely seen in literature, but also the hypocrisies of those who would pass judgment on it.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewKonar’s novel takes an unorthodox, though not unprecedented, approach to these horrors: She describes them beautifully, lyrically, in the language of a fable. Mischling is not for everyone, not least because it is excruciating to read about such pain. I do not remember the last time I shed so many tears over a work of fiction. And it will surely offend those who still chafe at the idea of fictionalizing the Holocaust. But readers who allow themselves to fall under the spell of Konar’s exceptionally sensitive writing may well find the book unforgettable.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...[a] searing exemplar of a disquieting new genre — call it dystopian finance fiction ... Shriver isn’t the kind of writer who lets her themes rise gently to the surface. She seizes them with an almost animalistic ferocity and interrogates them for all they’re worth. Her smart, satirical fiction is old-fashioned in that it serves as a vehicle for investigating political and social questions, but it’s also almost uncannily of its moment ... Shriver’s dystopia is imagined as minutely as a pointillist image, with every detail adding another dot to the overall picture. The devolution of civilized society happens slowly at first, then all at once ... But The Mandibles suffers from a common flaw of speculative fiction: Virtually every detail of the narrative serves to communicate some expository element, giving it a didactic tone. The characters sometimes feel less like human beings than figures in a modern morality play ... I don’t remember the last time a novel held me so enduringly in its grip.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe emotions in A Manual for Cleaning Women are maximalist, but the language is sparse and unadorned. Sentences are fragmentary, sometimes just single words. They turn on the sudden flash of an image, not the elegance of the construction. The language is so precise that it paradoxically creates ambiguities ... she never found a large number of readers — perhaps because she resided on the margins of the literary world, or perhaps because of the uncompromising, unsanitized nature of her writing. Berlin’s stories are full of second chances. Now readers have another chance to confront them: bites of life, chewed up and spat out like a wad of tobacco, bitter and rich.