RaveThe New RepubilcPart biography, part memoir, it reflects the half-spoken belief that writing about the things and people we love is often a lot easier than living with them ... isn’t about the study of poetry so much as about living with it—and this energetic living with poetry was something that Frank O’Hara very industriously did. Like Ada and her father, he walked and drank and partied and read and wrote and made love; he exulted in the beauties of streets and cities and rarely had anything negative to say about any of them ... O’Hara never seemed to give up on the exultant life, and it is perhaps one of the greatest and saddest ironies of contemporary poetry that he died so young, and so unexpectedly. Like all lives, his was a messy one; but at times, no life seemed more gloriously messy than his. And it is the glorious messiness of O’Hara’s life (and of Ada Calhoun’s own) that this little book captures elegantly and transparently without ever aspiring to capture something as fragile and pointless as \'literary greatness.\'
MixedThe New Republic... while Catani provides a fairly robust critical argument for continuing to read Céline, much of this book has less to do with Céline the writer than with our current anxieties about the responsibilities of literature ... There are at least a couple of long passages in Catani’s book where it’s unclear whether he is recounting Céline’s life or summarizing Céline’s fictional versions of it ... Catani’s book spends more time wrestling with these political ghosts than it does addressing the specific merits and demerits of Céline’s work ... It is often interesting, or even exhilarating, to witness genuine human emotions pouring forth from raw, unusual books like Céline’s; but after a few hundred pages or so, all that emotional intensity seems like too much of a good thing.
PositiveThe New RepublicJeremy Dauber’s American Comics: A History is an entertaining, big, and (sometimes too) comprehensive survey of the comics industry, from its inception in early twentieth-century newspapers to the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe megamovie crossover empire ... For all its strengths, American Comics: A History often feels more like advocacy for the medium than an analysis of it. Many pages are filled with quick synopses and appraisals of notable comics that came along over the last hundred years, along with reflections on how the once-family-owned companies that invented comics were eventually subsumed by megagiants. At times, reading Dauber’s warm, appreciative comments...feels like strolling through Roger Angell’s essays on baseball, where every game in the sun is entangled with the memory of every other game ever played in a sort of eternal blissful childhood of sunny bleachers and savory, dripping hotdogs.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times... provides an excellent opportunity to revisit and re-enjoy the fabulous genius of Wilde ... While Sturgis doesn’t approach his subject with Ellmann’s critical intensity, he includes much new material, especially recovered testimonies from Wilde’s reputation-ending trials in 1895. The first two-thirds is as bright and entertaining as an evening with its subject; the final third describes one of the saddest stories ever told.
RaveThe New York TimesThe Truth and Other Stories, a new collection of Lem’s previously untranslated stories, shows that even the \'scatterings from his workshop,\' as Kim Stanley Robinson puts it in his foreword, could outstrip a typical writer’s lifetime of creation ... But Lem’s fictions aren’t simply sparkly idea-fests; rather, they explore cosmic possibilities ... The author always seems to argue that asking the next question is just about the best achievement that human intelligence can possibly hope to accomplish.
Shirley Jackson, Ed. by Laurence Jackson Hyman
RaveLos Angeles Times... the volume is filled with energy, compassion, crudely drawn and often hilarious cartoons and an almost overbearing affection for both the family Jackson loved and the world she didn’t love quite so much ... In propulsive, uncapitalized sentences, Jackson could make even a random trip to the train station or post office sound like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, driving through every tossed-off anecdote with a sort of unstoppable, manic passion that must have been both entrancing and exasperating to live with on a daily basis ... Reading these letters is just as enjoyable as reading Jackson’s fictions — filled with the same intensity that entertained her friends and children as well as recurring glimpses of whatever dark demon was riding her into the ground ... These are remarkably narrative letters, as if Jackson couldn’t bear to waste anybody’s time with words unless they were charged with storytelling ... Too often, the publication of an author’s selected letters turns out to be a fairly dry, humorless event. They help establish (or reinforce) the idea that this writer was important (Jackson definitely was). Or they remind us how much trouble they had making enough money to live (Jackson certainly had it) or how little they were appreciated in their lifetimes. Often they help explain why they wrote the particular types of books they wrote (she is refreshingly quiet on this topic.) But for those who already love Jackson’s fiction, the papers feel like a big, unexpected gift — much as each individual letter must have felt to each original recipient. The woman simply couldn’t write a dull sentence. And however much each day may have exhausted her, she didn’t seem to live a single uninteresting one ... Then again, perhaps it’s all in the telling.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesBefore you commit to reading William Gaddis’ two greatest novels, JR and The Recognitions — recently reissued by New York Review Books with new introductions — you need to get a few things straight. First of all, this isn’t going to be a fly-by-night quickie, some passing summer fling you’re going to leave behind, dog-eared and water-stained, in a cabin or resort. This has to be a long-term relationship or it won’t mean anything to either of you. Their surfaces will seem daunting but look beyond these novels’ haughty, hefty façades. Once you get to know them inside, they’re much more fun than they look. They will make you laugh out loud. They will absorb you. They will keep you coming back for more ... Pick them up curbside from your local bookstore, bring them home and shut the doors. Everything you need to know about life is bubbling away under the covers of these two world-size books.
RaveThe New Republic... the most readable, balanced approach so far to both a complicated life and an intensely enjoyable body of work; it makes use of newly available letters, diaries and recollections concerning Greene and his closest friends. It is neither as excessively detailed as the Norman Sherry biography released in three volumes between 1989 and 2005, nor as combative as Michael Shelden’s 1994 portrait ... The Greene who emerges here rarely stayed in one place for very long and was continually dissatisfied with the world that he witnessed changing convulsively around him.
A. N. Wilson
PositiveLos Angeles TimesWilson has taken a personal, almost memoir-ish approach to a writer who comforted the biographer at key points in his life, especially the gauntlet of British boarding school ... Like Dickens’ last major biographer, Ackroyd, Wilson notes that the mere facts of Dickens’s hyper-productive life never make clear what a complicated man he truly was; and just as Ackroyd embellished his book with intermittent fictionalized passages (for which Ackroyd was often criticized), Wilson has taken a similar, near-fictive approach to Dickens’ life.
RaveThe Washington Post... excellent ... as a major poet who worked at both evading and establishing his sexual identity, [Whitman] is almost a perfect topic for Doty, who recalls (in some of this book’s most powerful opening chapters) his own youth spent trying to live his life as others expected him to live it ... Doty has long been one of our best living American poets, and his recent memoirs, including 2008’s Dog Years, prove him one of our best prose writers as well. What is the Grass doesn’t possess a single inelegant sentence or poorly expressed thought. Doty does what traditional academic criticism often fails to do: He makes poetry part of how we live and how we think about living ... [Doty] doesn’t simply \'analyze\' poems or narrate events; instead he continually illuminates how those who love books can grow old reading writers who help make sense of their lives ... provides an excellent opportunity to re-examine the work of one of America’s first major poets through the prose of one of its best living ones.
William T. Vollmann
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times... while it possesses the scope of [Vollmann\'s] past novels, it also feels driven by an urgent contempt toward current politics. His narrator often refers to an \'uncouth nationalist\' who recently won an election, but Vollmann’s aim is broader — to build a sense of fictional community that welcomes anybody who seeks love and fellowship with others ... Like many Vollmann novels, The Lucky Star is too long. But at the same time, it develops a powerful sense of human life and its elemental pleasures set amid countless scenes of sucking, licking, penetrating and more. At times, this tawdry tableau rises like a bright balloon out of the sticky world into a better, more ethereal place ... At times it provides a sense that love is both miraculous and mundane; at others, it feels like the longest possible candidate for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Ultimately, though, it adds up to a hypnotic, sad and angry novel about people striving to be more than they’re allowed to be — a \'seance\' of rough living and simple community that rejects no one ... Vollmann’s books embrace everything and everybody, and it is hard to read him without feeling both energized and exhausted. It’s also hard not to wonder what kind of person could produce such things in such volume.
PositiveThe Washington Post... enjoyable and absorbing ... There are many monumental biographies of Dickinson...and there are many useful, pocket-size quick-study guides. But Ackmann’s list aims for the sweet spot in terms of length and depth, and generally hits its target ... Sometimes, Ackmann’s selected \'moments\' seem like arbitrary pegs on which to hang a piece of Dickinson’s life...but others are indisputably important[.]
Jean Stafford, Ed. by Kathryn Davis
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesThis excellent, handsome new edition of Stafford’s novels provides excellent testimony that [Stafford\'s] California-like embrace of extremes may be just what our culturally fractious age needs ... Boston Adventure (1944) stands as a textbook example of formal dexterity and invention... Sentence for sentence, is as beautifully composed as any American novel I have ever read ... it’s impossible to open to a paragraph that doesn’t make you want to read it out loud ... It is hard to think of an American writer whose work embraced so many extremes: novels and short stories, formal excellence and experiential detail, Proustian paragraphs and Steinbeckian ranch hands, Boston and Covina. With this new \'rediscovery\' of her old work (I just wish there was some way Library of America could make the pages a little less tissue-papery thin!) she deserves to be embraced by readers all over again.
Piero Chiara, Trans. by Jill Foulston
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewLike Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf in Highsmith’s best-known novel, the central characters in The Bishop’s Bedroom orbit one another like ballroom doppelgängers until it’s difficult to tell who is lying to whom or why ... As Orimbelli decides at one point: \'The earth, like life, can be measured in triangles.\' But when this novel reaches its somewhat inconclusive (criminologically speaking) conclusion, one might well add: Measured, O.K., maybe. But understood? Not quite ... Everything the three principal characters have told us sounds equally unreliable. Eventually, there’s a murder, and when the \'solution\' finally arrives, it’s impossible to accept at face value or feel that it resolves any of the conflicts brought into the open by a woman’s death. This is a strong, well-written and weirdly seductive little novel about enjoying the small pleasures of life on your own little boat — or pretending that you can live apart from the world you think you’re simply observing, dispassionately, from way up there in \'the bishop’s bedroom.\'
PositiveThe Washington PostHer life was good, at least viewed from this side of her biography ... Bishop has never lacked good biographers, but Travisano has written a readable, appreciative book that does not analyze Bishop’s poems so much as read them out loud, admiring each line and beat. In fact, reading it is almost as enjoyable as reading one of Bishop’s strange and marvelous poems—or encountering her moose on a dark road late at night.
MixedThe Washington Post... requires patience and good cheer; otherwise you may not find your way through the continual and often exasperating redundancies that occur on every one of this book’s pages ... The novel bombards its reader with info-bites — funny, sad, thoughtful, angry, confused, apocalyptic — with the ceaseless regularity of a combustion engine. Sometimes the repetition can drive a weak mind (like mine) a bit mad; but every time I was about to put the book down and walk away, I would be struck again by the protagonist’s bright, unpretentious, ironic voice ... The narrative voice that drives this inexhaustible and exhausting accumulation of \'facts\' is surprisingly interesting, engaging and inventive ... Ellmann’s fictional world reminds us, over and over, that yeah, we get it. We live here, too, lady. We feel engulfed, every day when we wake up and every night when we go to bed. Engulfed, engulfed, engulfed. The world just doesn’t quit, does it? ... My biggest failure as a reader of Ducks (and I’ll have to leave it to posterity to decide if this is my failure or the book’s) was in trying to discern a \'front story\' ... maybe we don’t need reminding what a mess we’re drowning in. Or maybe it’s just too late.
PositiveLos Angeles TimesHollywood’s Eve is only partially a biography of a fascinating and unusual subject; it is a reflection on why the author finds Babitz so interesting that she wanted to spend several years writing a book about her—sort of like a self-conscious New Journalistic exploration into the era of self-conscious New Journalism. But at the heart of this book beats the hard, strong pulse of Babitz’s life and prose, one funny, erratic and unabashed sentence after another. It still rewards a good listen. So do it. Go listen.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review[Kennedy\'s] prose style and the way she tells stories seem unspectacular at first—a series of genuinely odd observations on the world, conducted by unhappy people—but through the strength of her emotional accuracy and an idiosyncratic, often profound sense of humor she creates absorbing entrapments. After entering Kennedy’s world, it’s hard to find a way out, except through the final pages ... There seems to be no situation, however awkward or mundane, in which Kennedy can’t discover humor and humanity. In The Little Snake, the swift emotional slippages click along, one after another, sentence after sentence, like an intricate concatenation of rainbow-bright dominoes. Funny, surprising and unexpected, her individual sentences seem to follow inevitably from the equally surprising sentences that precede them ... Kennedy’s prose—like the endlessly unreeling speculations of her most interesting characters—is simultaneously logical and illogical, sad and funny, simple and profound, turning over and over in endless permutations, like an elegant small snake wrestling against the constraints of its own shiny and menacing skin.
Joyce Carol Oates
PositiveLos Angeles TimesIn Oates’s shorter fictions, she excels, especially in her volumes of \'macabre\' or \'suspense\' stories, such as the latest, Night-Gaunts ... this one doesn’t let go until it’s finished with you ... There are other good stories here, such as \'The Long-Legged Girl\' or \'The Woman in the Window,\' both of which develop from Oates’s recurring narrative obsessions about older men seeking to dominate younger women and the younger woman who let them (until, often quite violently, they stop). But there are also some over-long, broken-backed stories in here too.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewIt is funny, perplexing, consistent and unusual, with all the characteristic Mathews obsessions. It may also be one of the best places to start enjoying his work ... In this and his other books, Mathews appreciates frauds and forgers, those who recognize the disconnect between who people are and who they pretend to be ... \'writing that cuddles up to the so-called truth but never pretends to be it\'—a fine and memorable expression of the magic that happens when readers read good fiction, especially the good fiction of Mathews.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times...[a] complex, multi-perspective novel of looping realities ... Even when it’s hard to follow, Shadowbahn grabs hold of its narrative idea early and never lets it go. Lacking the emotional focus of previous Erickson books, its central characters, especially Parker and Zema, sometimes get lost in the wide sweeps of history and counter-history; but the book’s driving argument never loses control of the wheel, and never stops asking: How can any one region of a country this vast and interdependent ever claim precedence over any other region — or any other form of music? ... While Shadowbahn is a more complicated (and sometimes more interesting) novel than Erickson’s previous ones, its concerns are as genuine as its characters — believable people traveling through a degenerating political landscape while trying to remember how they got to where they are before they reach the end of the road. In some ways, it could be called a 'prescient' book (if 'prescient' means anything in Erickson’s universe, which it doesn’t.) For in Shadowbahn, there’s no way to escape the world one is born into, or to avoid the final horrors it has in store for us.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times...a well-written, well-considered and enjoyable opportunity for those of us who recall the pleasures of reading Jackson to go out and enjoy her all over again; it also helps make up for the poor scholarly attention her novels and stories have received since her death.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewHow to Set a Fire and Why is about as close to verisimilitude as Ball usually gets ... [it] journeys into new and fruitful territory for Ball — not entirely successfully. For while the voice of Lucia is funnier, sharper and more poetic than the deliberately flat and inexplicit prose of his previous books, and the American landscape he depicts is far more terrifying than any Kafkaesque prison, this novel gradually loses focus as it develops ... It may be Ball’s deliberate strategy to make us watch his story drift away into a fog of vague language, but it also fails to bring out what is most memorable about one of his most vivid and engaging characters, Lucia Stanton.
MixedThe New York Times...while there’s usually a pleasurable sense that the numerous narrative entanglements are well designed and just perplexing enough to inspire curiosity (for the most part), the physical landscapes often feel anonymous and inexplicit ... Not quite so successfully, Arcadia leads readers into an escalating series of interconnected textual worlds and deliberately avoids helping them to achieve any final utopian vision. Find your own way home, this book seems to tell them.