PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewA sense of self-estrangement pervades Memorial which centers on the relationship between Mike and his Black boyfriend, Ben (short for Benson) ... From the beginning, then, Washington lays out the various factors that lay a claim on us and help determine who we are: race, nationality, sexual orientation, family. Over the course of the novel these vectors cross and get tangled up, binding Mike and Ben in knots ... In plain, confident prose, Washington deftly records the way the forces of loyalty pull the heartstrings in different directions. The tone and dialogue are cool, almost jaded, gesturing obliquely at the emotions roiling beneath the surface ... Memorial leaves us with the sense that our true selves, like our true names, aren’t necessarily bestowed at birth. They are chosen, too.
MixedThe New RepublicA self-aware perspective...is all to the good, essential even, but it comes with a cost: deeply felt emotion, unobstructed by the restless voice in one’s head ... Martin is not as torn as [Ben] Lerner. He is looser, less earnest, and often very funny. If his fiction is wrapped in self-awareness, the swaddling is soft. But it is still there, resulting not only in fictional creatures who are emotionally stunted, but in fiction that is emotionally stunted, too. And it is this, not privilege per se, that would seem to be the big problem for literature about being white ... His prose is smooth and unfussy ... it’s not really on the sentence level where Martin excels, but in the book’s easygoing flow ... It is all voice, no lyricism. Martin, like many other American writers of his generation, is not one to strain for anything so gauche as poetry ... There are, thankfully, different kinds of stories in this collection than Martin’s go-to story of the scruffy writerly type who may or may not be in the midst of screwing up his life. There is a tale about a pair of sibling drug addicts that is by turns horrifying and amusing ... The alcohol and drug abuse is less cheerfully innocent in this book than the previous one ... there is the same carefully cultivated nonchalance, a sense that even the emptiness of these people’s lives is a bit shallow ... There is no Joycean epiphany, no god descending from the proverbial rafters. There is only life in media res, and the result is a successful translation of autofiction, which we normally associate with multi-volume quasi-autobiography ... it is hard not to feel that Martin himself is a casualty of this ironic distance, that the author suffers from the same debilitating affliction as his characters.
MixedThe New RepublicLike all sequels, Dirt struggles with the successful formula of its predecessor ... there are several mentors, but none quite takes the central role that is Batali’s blazing presence in Heat. The result is a more disjointed book than the first, less focused, particularly at the beginning, when Buford struggles to find a restaurant that will hire him and allow him to do his \'kitchen bitch\' bit ... If Heat sometimes feels like a magazine assignment that unexpectedly resulted in something more, then Dirt is more committed, more lived-in. It is not a better book, but it might be the deeper one ... Heat rode the crest of a larger trend, a greater thoughtfulness about what we eat; Dirt is a continuation of that trend, both a lament for a lost world and a hope that it can be regained.
J. M Coetzee
PositiveThe New RepublicMen and their desires. Do we really need more on the subject? ... Where Coetzee comes down on the divide between passion and reason is difficult to say. He is both a roiling cauldron of emotion and the analytical, unblinking eye trained upon it. One senses a deep shame on his part, almost a revulsion at the way desire betrays what is exalted within us. In his conception, desire entails men behaving disgracefully, sometimes monstrously. And even when its effect is more benign, it involves a humiliating loss of autonomy ... Perhaps, Coetzee suggests, desire is really the expression of some original lack, a bedrock dissatisfaction with the world ... Can another person fill the hole in our lives? In the books of J.M. Coetzee, as in the real world, desire usually leads to complications, disasters. There are few happy endings and a lot of pain, loneliness, frustration. If there is solace to be had, it lies in higher pursuits—in writing, for example, in the sublimating act that lifts even the lowest desires into the rarefied echelon of art. But what would we have to write about were it not for feelings like desire? Coetzee’s early work was so immersed in the political, but in the dusk of his career he has reoriented himself toward a more elemental subject: the longing for happiness, for wholeness, for life itself. Desire is the proof that we are alive; that we are, in both the best and worst senses of the word, human.
PanThe New Republic[Daum\'s] real beef is not with oppression or inequality, but with millennials who have framed \'Trumpism as a moral emergency that required an all-hands-on-deck, no-deviation-from-the-narrative approach to cultural and political thought\' ... Indeed, this could be fodder for an excellent, Salvador-esque examination of political culture in a time of crisis. But no matter how many times Daum invokes the spirit of Didion...she has nothing of Didion’s dispassionate precision. What we get instead are hopped-up rants against pussy hats cut with rueful digressions about menopause and marriage, like a dismal cross between a Bari Weiss op-ed and Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. ... There are so many potential angles of attack on this deeply silly book that it is hard to know which to choose ... Her argument usually boils down to this: Meghan Daum herself was not directly disadvantaged by systems of oppression, and therefore she has trouble believing they exist ... Astonishingly for a book about feminism in 2019, she fails to discuss in any depth the examples of Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose or Les Moonves or even Donald Trump, all of whom have been accused of using their power to abuse women for decades without repercussions. To read her book, you would not think that the problem is the men who have long degraded women, but the women who have finally dared to speak up about it.
Thomas Chatterton Williams
MixedThe New RepublicMemoir is Williams’s most powerful device, the lived reality that provides crucial ballast to all his ideas, but it does not magically resolve the contradiction of a figure who uses his identity with one hand and abnegates it with the other ... The Williams of this book is far more measured and ambivalent than the swaggering Williams of social media ... memoir is the most effective tool in Williams’s rhetorical kit, giving his cutting-edge ideas about racelessness the heft of sincerity. But it is simultaneously his weak spot, for if some memoirs aspire to connect the individual to the universal, Williams’s book only succeeds in underscoring just how un-universal his experience has been. His path to postracial enlightenment—which included a book deal in his twenties that allowed him to travel around the world and establish himself as a writer—is so narrow that it is hard to imagine more than one person walking down it, let alone an entire country ... As Williams has exemplified in his own memoir, politics is not just about ideas. It is also about experience—all the ways in which the tectonic movements of the world have subtly entered our lives. Like Williams, like all people of good faith, I want to reach that place where our politics is universal, working toward the benefit of everyone. The question is how to get there. Is it through teaching our children ideas inscribed on a piece of paper? Or is it through inculcating empathy for other people, even those who may seem foreign to us? ... The latter is the principal appeal of identity politics, which is not narrow or divisive, but the opposite: a vehicle for solidarity, community, and true inclusivity. The way to solve the race problem in this country is not to transcend race but to embrace it, to use it as an invitation to everyone to understand humanity’s limitless variety. Whatever politics I possess rests on this truth, familiar to all who still call themselves people of color: that the other is, both literally and figuratively, me.
PositiveThe New Republic...it is only in two new books of nonfiction—My Parents: An Introduction and This Does Not Belong to You—that he really comes to terms with the limits of individual agency, and the grim prospect that there may be no salvation for the exile after all ... the two books meet, like hemispheres, in the middle. Together, they constitute the poles of Hemon’s world: history and memoir, reality and myth, realism and the avant-garde ... As a writer, Hemon is exact, unsentimental, cerebral. That is not to suggest that he is aloof or unfeeling ... There is an ocean of pain underneath his prose, and his brainy stoicism is the raft that prevents him from drowning in it ... This Does Not Belong to You represents a step forward in Hemon’s relationship with the written word. Or maybe it’s a step back. The confidence of his earlier work has now been checked by a pervasive doubt—about literature’s ability to create order and meaning, and to put a broken life back together ... Hemon’s crisis in This Does Not Belong to You also undermines the writer’s greatest conceit: that by describing the world truthfully he can somehow control it ... We know, in our bones, that control is an illusion ... Great literature still provides its comforts.
Bret Easton Ellis
PanThe New RepublicThat there are children in cages or that newly emboldened white supremacists have taken to the streets of American cities does not seem to have left much of an impression on Bret Easton Ellis. Indeed, in his telling, the most pernicious consequence of Trump’s otherwise inconsequential election is that it gave woke culture the license to run riot. \'Everyone has to be the same\' now, Ellis grumbles; everyone is forced to applaud the same politically correct television shows and cheer for the same politically correct heroes ... The irony of White is that it is a book-length exercise in playing the victim ... It is difficult to engage these broadsides in any serious way, because Ellis does so little work to back them up ... Are millennials thin-skinned? Ellis is so upset about being called a sexist and a ninny online that he has written tens of thousands of aggrieved words about it ... White shows that coldness can be as banal as it is outrageous. One can imagine an elderly Bateman in the austere luxury of his Manhattan apartment, his impassive face bathed in the greenish glow of a smartphone, sending his empty thoughts about pop music and Hollywood and politics into the ether.
Jackie Chan with Zhu Mo
MixedThe New RepublicNever Grow Up, in mostly inadvertent ways...offers another way of telling Jackie Chan’s story. It’s about colonialism, capitalism, and the myths we construct to justify living under both ... every episode in this memoir, even the most traumatic, is told with Chan’s indefatigable merriness, which as the book goes on starts to feel like a protective mechanism, a carapace of cheer ... Each trial is a stepping stone to the super-stardom that will legitimize everything that came before, rather than an examination of the ways in which being poor and Chinese in a colonial city in the 1950s might have messed a person up ... what to my mind reads like a brutal account of exploitation and abuse is meant to be inspirational, a testament not only to Chan’s personal fortitude, but also to a certain ethic ... the myth of the self-made man ... read as a Hong Kong success story, it leaves the unfortunate impression that the only way to make it in this town was to literally almost kill yourself with work. It is a shame that Chan is unable to evoke in his writing the joyful magic of a Jackie Chan fight scene ... It is a shame, too, that Chan does not say much about his filmmaking style ... The reader is left not with a reminder of Jackie Chan’s genius, but with the rather sad story of his very successful life. It is an old colonial tale, the hapless provincial who becomes worldly, though in Chan’s case he doesn’t evolve beyond being a clownish parvenu ... If Chan once represented what a Hong Konger could do with a little pluck and a little luck, his relentlessly buoyant memoir offers a different message: Life is hard, so one must be harder.
MixedThe New RepublicThere is something extreme in Yang’s characterization of the Asian American’s plight, a bottomless self-loathing that is as repellent as it is fascinating. But for the most part it rings true ... Yang makes for a curious critic of woke culture ... There is a point in The Souls of Yellow Folk where you can see Yang poised uneasily on the fence ... And yet he cannot quite get on board: The idea that we really can be equal \'still seems to me an impossible wish, and, like all impossible wishes, one that is charged with authoritarian potential.\' The book concludes with a couple of essays that explore this potential. It is perhaps no coincidence, though it is a shame nevertheless, that Yang’s normally lucid prose gives way in these later essays to a hectoring tone, full of opaque jargon ... The individual, in the form of Yang himself, is the hero of \'Paper Tigers\'—the person who becomes a writer so he can be \'his own law\'; who rejects both the fetters of a self-destructive Asian American culture and a hegemonic white culture that demands his fealty; who is determined to express his \'obdurate singularity at any cost.\' I can recognize the appeal of this creed. Yet where does it leave everyone else? To repurpose a criticism of V.S. Naipaul, the implication of Wesley Yang’s work is that the only way to transcend America’s various racial traps is to become Wesley Yang.
RaveThe New Republic\"To read Murnane at great length—to read, say, nearly 550 pages of his collected short fiction—is to feel as though you are reading some variation of the same story over and over again. Personages mull the ideal combination of colors for horse-racing silks. They stare at books on the shelves and try to recall the sentences within them ... The repetition is deliberate ... The sentences are laid on like varnish, coat after coat, until the text gleams with a high shine. Immaculate in its unadorned plainness, at certain moments his prose achieves a crystalline beauty.\
RaveThe New Republic\'My last book would be a book of books: a distillation of precious imagery.\' This is, essentially, a description of Border Districts ... Repetition is also a feature of Murnane’s prose style. His implied author has a naïve affect, as if describing the world for the first time at an anthropologist’s clinical remove ... The sentences are laid on like varnish, coat after coat, until the text gleams with a high shine. Immaculate in its unadorned plainness, at certain moments his prose achieves a crystalline beauty.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
RaveThe New RepublicIt has always seemed audacious for Knausgaard to name his novel after Hitler’s autobiography-cum-manifesto, but Book Five is proof that we didn’t realize the extent of his ambitions. It turns out that his Min Kamp is meant to be Mein Kampf’s fraternal twin, and proof that the evil of their shared birthright can be overcome.