PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesA museum of imaginary history, Nights of Plague is stocked with stuff that a more frugal curator might choose to deaccession. Detailed descriptions of foods, pharmaceuticals and clothing in Arkata and disquisitions on Mingherian language add density to the prose. They furnish the work with artifacts of the communal experience while magnifying the duration of the nightmare. As transposed from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap...the pages bear the weight of a fateful year ... However, they come in the form of exposition more often than dramatization ... muffles a story that should resonate loudly with the current pandemic ... In the film Night at the Museum, Ben Stiller, a security guard at the Museum of Natural History, undergoes a harrowing night in which the collection’s ancient predators come to life. It is safer — and more thrilling — to spend a week inside Nights of Plague.
RaveThe Boston GlobeJumping back and forth in time, McEwan’s generous, ambitious novel — his longest — tracks Roland through more than 70 years ... a masterpiece of modulation among pathos, fury, and affection ... The story of how Roland smuggles Animal Farm, a Velvet Underground album, and other contraband to friends in East Germany is a miniature, flawless thriller ... acks the same authority wielded by either the novelist in Atonement or the reciter in Saturday. Confined to each day’s vantage point, the diaries that Roland keeps and later burns offer few lessons. He imagines writing a history of the 21st century, but, without knowing how things will end, realizes it is an empty dream ... McEwan’s richly textured novel offers cryptic lessons, but what they teach leaves Roland, \'an ardent autodidact,\' bewildered. The literary artistry leaves this reader in awe.
RaveForwardA secular, urban, atheist Jew living in modern-day New York, Sol Fields, the narrator of Alexander Maksik’s fourth novel,The Long Corner, learned a similar lesson from his father: to be Jewish is to be \'scrappy, funny, depressed, anxious, worried, nervous, tough, nuts, smart\'...Maksik’s novel is the story of what happens when a kvetcher encounters kitsch...The voices of Sol’s favorite women, his grandmother and his mother, haunt him throughout the novel...The former, a Holocaust survivor, is a bright, brash, and bawdy figure who urges her grandson to pursue pleasure above all else. \'There are three true sins,\' she declares: \'Utilitarianism, snobbery, and orthodoxy\'...Wary of self-indulgence, through art or any other opiate, Sol’s mother, by contrast, insists that \'Whatever you do, it’s got to be for more than yourself\'...The quarrel between these two women reenacts the ancient tension between the id and the super ego...Like the true nature The Coded Garden, that battle is never settled...Instead, it\'s another of the unresolved conflicts that elevate The Long Corner
PositiveTint JournalLahiri’s Ovidian conception of literature — and life — is the enemy of stasis and complacency. Everything is in a state of transformation, of translation, and, because literary relationships are always in flux, there is no permanent, stable text. Just as every translation alters what it translates, every language a speaker adapts alters — and quickens — the speaker ... Lahiri continues her restless project of double-checking the world.
RaveForward ReviewsEnticing ... Few contemporary writers share Hamilton’s mastery of English prose ... There is much more to The Pages than an amateur detective plot that concludes with a facile deus ex machina ... [The] most endearing element is the first-person story of the book itself.
PositiveLos Angeles Review of BooksFiction based on other fiction has an obligation to accept the premises of the earlier work. But details of Lucy’s story in Lacuna differ wildly from Coetzee’s, and not only in small details ... Most astonishing, though, are the abrupt departures that Lucy’s narrative takes from publicly known facts about Coetzee’s life ... Lucy attributes to Coetzee egregiously misogynistic statements that a neutral arbiter would find defamatory had he not attained the celebrity status she resents ... And yet, it would be premature to dismiss Lacuna as sloppy literary criticism disguised as sneering fiction ... Ultimately, the connection to Disgrace is a MacGuffin that Snyckers employs to gain the reader’s attention and then focus it elsewhere. The claim by the narrator of Lacuna that she is Lucy Lurie, abused in and by Coetzee’s novel, is merely the pretext for the creation of a text about the aftershocks of sexual violation. Frantic, rather than fan, fiction, Lacuna ends up being an account—and product—of extreme trauma, experienced by an anxious narrator whose indeterminate ordeal has rendered her delusional.
RaveLos Angeles TimesDexterous ... The tale he tells is rich, complex and convoluted, and though he must have struggled in constructing it, Birmingham writes with the poise and precision his subject sometimes lacked ... A book about a book, an inside look at literary creation. The reader becomes a spectator to the construction of Crime and Punishment while learning a great deal along the way about the criminal justice system in 19th-century Russia, temporal lobe epilepsy, promissory notes, phrenology, gold mining, nihilism and much else ... In contrast to the untidy brilliance of its subject, The Sinner and the Saint is an admirably lucid distillation of hundreds of other texts ... It is an audacious effort — especially given that Birmingham was dependent on others to translate sources from Russian and French for him. Not by or for an academic specialist, his book instead invites any English-language reader to peer over a famously tormented Russian author’s shoulder while his deathless novel comes to life.
Domenico Starnone, Tr. Jhumpa Lahiri
RaveThe Los Angeles Times... a short, sharp novel that cuts like a scalpel to the core of its characters ... Starnone has earned a reader’s trust with another agile analysis of frail humanity. And Lahiri, whose award-winning fiction has made her one of the most visible figures in contemporary American literature, continues her self-effacing yet wildly ambitious project of vanishing into another language and another writer’s prose.
PositiveThe American Scholar... a metabiography—a long rumination on a short existence and the many radiant texts it produced ... suffused by a melancholy over contingency, wistful wonder at what Crane might have accomplished had he lived to Auster’s age of 74 ... Much of Burning Boy takes the uninitiated reader through Crane’s novels, short stories, poems, and journalistic sketches. It quotes extensively from those works and will leave some readers sated but others eager to read Crane on their own. This is a writer’s book, and much of its interest lies in the opportunity to see how one brilliant writer responds to another ... Auster, who titled his 1982 memoir The Invention of Solitude, describes writers as \'the strangest, loneliest people on earth.\' This generous book breaches that solitude.
Marina Jarre, tr. Ann Goldstein
PositiveLos Angeles Review of BooksA memoir that shuns linear chronology in favor of personal and historical musings, from sibling rivalries to the Easter Massacre ... Although written in lucid, luminous prose, much of the book implies rather than states ... The book demands a...commitment to perpetual rereading and a willingness to leave mysteries unresolved ... Her book is itself in many ways a sealed letter. We can sense something important inside the envelope, but we never get to learn exactly what that is ... [There are] many points of luminescence scattered like seashells through Jarre’s verbal littoral ... As irruptions into the void formed by the memoir’s elliptical narrative, however, they create a pointillist effect, requiring an active viewer to make sense of the radiant light show. Marina Jarre’s struggle to find fitting words flashes through the murk.
PositiveLos Angeles Review of Books... although Bailey’s capacious book is an authorized—almost collaborative—biography, it is not hagiography ... Bailey captures the sweet generosity of a man who—often secretly—paid others’ medical bills and college tuition and saved endangered writers in Europe and Africa, but also his malice toward those he thought had wronged—or merely bored—him ... a balanced, thorough account of an enormously gifted and troubled troublemaker.
MixedSouthern Review of BooksDuncan tells his own story ... His account is vivid with details of how to light a fire with a spindle and fireboard and the distinctions among a flintlock rifle, a longbore, and a five-shot Colt revolver. It is peppered with pungent period terms ... Unlike Duncan, Cecelia does not get to tell her own story ... It as if, wary of the Cultural Appropriation Police, Gwyn does not dare simulate the voice of a Black Texan woman. Cecelia, who models herself after the wily Odysseus she read about in Virginia, is a fascinating figure and might have been even more remarkable if allowed to speak for herself. As historical fiction, All God’s Children seems obliged to provide cameo appearances by familiar personages ... But Gwyn is also capable of inventing vibrant minor characters, including a flamboyant Spaniard with a fondness for Wordsworth who, abducted by Barbary pirates and forced into slavery, eventually makes his way to Texas.
PositiveForward... a vibrant addition to the sizable bibliography in English [on Ellis Island] ... Drawing freely on letters, diaries, photographs and oral histories, most of the book recounts what Ellis Island was like for immigrants and government employees. Some of the most poignant passages draw from hundreds of letters sent back home—when Poland was absorbed into Russia—by Polish immigrants ... Though Szejnert’s book first appeared in 2009, its translation now is a reminder that the United States need not be defined only by a border wall.
PositiveTexas ObserverThe structure of The Secrets We Kept observes a fine symmetry ... Both sections are full of compelling prose, but, because the CIA activity was declassified only recently, \'West\' is fresher. The symmetry extends to a sort of meta-device: The novel begins and ends with the collective voice of the typists—bright, talented women who sometimes know more than the men they work for, serving as a Greek chorus to a heartrending drama ... Prescott’s novel, shaped by a central intelligence of its own, is a bittersweet reminder of a world in which eloquent books like hers still counted.
PositiveTexas Observer...an experimental, tantalizing hybrid of biography, memoir, and meditation ... Digression, the organizing principle of this book, is the temptation of the intellectually adventurous and inquisitive, who will binge on Olsson’s bracing prose ... what she and any reader can envy is the \'lucid exaltation\' attained by immersion in a discipline such as pure mathematics. It is not necessary to be fluent in Diophantine equations, Hilbert spaces, and Fourier analysis—or even André Weil’s conjectures—in order to read The Weil Conjectures, a book ecstatic with intimations rather than mere equations.
PositiveThe Washington PostGripping ... recounts how and why its author began to write the kind of poetry she published in her 1981 book The Country Between Us, what she calls \'the poetry of witness\' ... One might expect a poet’s prose to be florid, or at least highly metaphorical. But Forché honors her responsibility to the Salvadoran calamity by writing sparely and precisely. On occasion, recalling the verdant fields and starry nights of Central America, she can wax lyrical. More often, the poet’s voice is manifest in a luminous sentence ... Much of the book consists of extended conversations between Forché and the varied people she meets. And though it is highly improbable that she could remember everything that was said verbatim, what appears in the book seems plausible ... A portrait of the artist as political and poetic ingénue, What You Have Heard Is True is just such a response, a riveting account of how she made good on that conviction. It bears eloquent witness to injustice and atrocity and to how observing them shaped a fearless poet.
PositiveThe ForwardLeader is, after Mark Harris, Ruth Miller and James Atlas, the fourth to attempt a book-length biography of Bellow. It is likely to be the definitive one. Though Leader lacked access to his subject himself, he has interviewed almost everyone still alive who knew him ... Leader’s own text could not be called hagiography; he does not attempt to excuse Bellow’s racially insensitive attacks on multiculturalism ... However, he endows Bellow with a cultural gravity and flawed grandeur that make him seem, in the final years, like a Jewish Lear ... He is more concerned with tracing how elements of Bellow’s life show up in the fiction than in rummaging the fiction for clues to the life. Ultimately, the books are what justify the years that Leader has spent parsing details of how the man spent his time. Though they exhibit some of their author’s flaws, the books will be read as long as readers continue to care about the art of fiction.
Mario Vargas Llosa, Trans. by Edith Grossman
MixedBarnes & Noble ReviewThe characters that Vargas Llosa conjures up to propel a plot through malicious gossip are either repulsive, obnoxious, or pathetic ... The Neighborhood is an audacious descent into the mean streets of Lima, and employs Vargas Llosa’s trademark interlacing dialogue – a montage of separate conversations. But it is an indelicate literary stunt that lacks the operatic eloquence of Conversation in the Cathedral, The War of the End of the World, and The Feast of the Goat – when Vargas Llosa made his pages sing.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleExcept for its focus on the fate of the Jewish state, Englander’s fourth book, his second novel (after The Ministry of Special Cases), is a spy thriller that has more in common with John le Carré than Cynthia Ozick ... Like Dorit Rabinyan’s recent novel All the Rivers, Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a wistful fantasy of an impossible Israeli-Palestinian romance ... Though written in English, it is attentive to the distinctive landscapes of Israel and speech patterns of Israelis ... Much of the end is told before the beginning, so the suspense that keeps us turning pages is not over what will happen next, but rather over what is the larger pattern that connects characters and situations ... Though the novel’s scattered design might irritate some readers who yearn for coherence, it reinforces the vision of a world in which each is condemned to separate, mute quarantine.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Golden House is another American immigrant tale of successful assimilation, in this case to a culture that is destroying itself in a paroxysm of hatred and violence — crazed homicidal veterans, psychopathic gangsters and maleficent politicians. With Midnight’s Children, Rushdie gave lasting literary form to the painful birth of India. The Golden House is a dirge for the American dream. It is a Greek tragedy with Indian roots and New York coordinates. The new order in which the resplendent veneer of the Goldens is exposed as pyrite illuminates 'a kind of radical untruth: phoniness, garishness, bigotry, vulgarity, violence, paranoia.' Rushdie’s latest novel is a tonic addition to American — no, world! — literature.
Orhan Pamuk, Trans. by Ekin Oklap
MixedThe Boston GlobeMany of Pamuk’s works, including My Name Is Red, Snow, and The Black Book, contain self-conscious, postmodern twists in which the tale reflects back on itself. This one is packed with so many allusions to patricide and filicide that the plot ends up overdetermined. Perhaps the point is that human freedom is an illusion, that by trying to elude fate we only end up hastening its arrival. But Pamuk has also built a structure whose scaffolding has not been removed. It is a well site that, for all the strenuous digging, comes up dry. Narrated by a middle-aged Cem reflecting on the passions and blunders of his youth, the opening section is the most evocative part of the novel. The rest, delivered by another narrator, is commentary ... The myths of violent encounters between fathers and sons that are the subtext for The Red-Haired Woman are familiar and credible. But the story contrived to give fresh life to those myths creaks.
David Samuel Levinson
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle...no responsible reviewer would reveal how Levinson’s novel ends, only that it is fortified with surprises and, for all its slapstick props, including a dead peacock floating in a swimming pool and a Heimlich maneuver performed during a nationally televised seder, is unexpectedly affecting. For all the narrative pranks and pratfalls, the book is a moving account of the rich complexities of maternal love and the bewildering ecstasies of sibling rivalry.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
MixedThe Barnes & Noble ReviewAmericanah is cosmopolitan fiction that seeks universal truths in the particulars of three distinct cultures … Americanah is filled with such provocative aperçus and vivified by its awareness that not all people of African origin speak with the same voice — though all share euphoria in the election of Barack Obama. It provides white American readers the privilege of eavesdropping on the conversations of Africans, African Americans, and African Britons of a variety of backgrounds and personalities … Americanah, which might have benefited from judicious pruning...provides a long and soapy immersion in distinctive lives lived here and now.
RaveCritical MassCaught on video by Fox News, the skirmish turned the young soldiers – crude, irreverent kids – into American idols, ripe for exploitation by politicians, corporate executives, and other predatory patriots. Yanked out of Iraq, the Bravos are sent on a two-week ‘Victory Tour’ throughout the United States … 19-year-old Billy Lynn, the focus of the novel who received a Silver Star for acting out of instinct and fear, is confused by all the attention...It is through Billy’s virginal eyes and his boozy, migrained brain that we encounter the wretched excess of the Stadium Club buffet; the 3,000 pairs of shoes in the equipment room; and the bloated halftime extravaganza starring Destiny’s Child.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleLerner writes rich, ruminative fiction that gnaws over one idea, moves on to another, and then returns to chew over the first again … 10:04 is a self-begetting novel, a metafiction that recounts its own genesis … Though a summary of 10:04 might make it seem insufferably cerebral, it is in fact heady without being precious, packed with striking, often comic, incidents … Ben Lerner is a courageous chronicler of meditative ambulation, of the mind reflecting on its own vibrant thinking processes before they congeal into inert thoughts.
J. Robert Lennon
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle...[a] virtuosic eighth novel ... The metafictional musings of the Observer — a clever rehabilitation of the ancient Omniscient Author — seem to me superfluous. Readers of Broken River do not require prompting from an Observer in order to reflect upon the inscrutable lines of human intersection and collision. Or to admire the uncommon cunning behind this dark and brooding thriller.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewTóibín adds a few characters and intrigues, but the result, told with remarkable literary restraint, possesses the authority of an oracle etched into a clay tablet ... Tóibín has poured old wine into an exquisite new bottle, using invisible artistry to make it seem as if there is nothing to it.
PositiveThe Dallas Morning NewsIt would be tempting to catalog Exit West with Nineteen Eighty-Four, It Can't Happen Here, and other dystopian alternative histories that, after November, have become popular again — except that, at a time when violence, famine, and natural disasters have produced unprecedented dislocation, Hamid's book is not necessarily alternative history. Rather than the totalitarian tyranny envisaged by George Orwell and all too easily anticipated in 2017, Hamid emphasizes anarchy, a world in which authority has collapsed and exile is the universal condition ... The effect is to conjure up a bewildering, violent world that resonates with our own, in which anonymous masses swarm across arbitrary borders.
RaveThe Boston GlobeAvishai, who was dismissed from the bench for intemperate comments in open court, recognizes a secret affinity with Dov. Not so secret is Avishai’s affinity with the reader, who might be turned off by Dov’s abrasiveness but keeps turning pages. Like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, he is both enraging and engaging. Grossman’s short, blunt novel is as cunning and compelling as the stand-up guy at its center. In this funnyman’s sad, grotesque performance, Grossman reaffirms his power to entertain and unnerve.
J. M. Coetzee
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Schooldays of Jesus is written in English, as if in translation. Scattered throughout the text, Spanish words such as novio, amigo and huérfano are clear from context, but the effect is to create a kind of linguistic scrim, as if, like the foreigner Simón, we, too, are strangers in a strange land. Forced to make do with an English approximation, we are forever denied access to the original ... Resembling the Platonic dialogues more than the four canonical gospels, The Schooldays of Jesus proceeds through a series of conversations about fundamental topics such as education, passion, numbers, justice, penance and death ... Some will likely find this novel exasperatingly evasive. But if, as Arroyo claims, 'the stars have dances of their own,' Coetzee’s novel — a fresh addition to his Jesus franchise — is an invitation to the celestial dance.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"With echoes of The Adventures of Augie March and American Pastoral, it is a vast, sprawling American Jewish bildungsroman that draws the reader in from the very first sentence and does not let go until the very end ... Auster’s take on the legend of Ellis Island christenings is hilarious in itself, enough to make it impossible not to keep turning pages. However, it also announces the theme of contingency, a vision of identity as fluid and improvised, the consequence of happenstance ... Beyond its value as a meditation on contingency, 4321 is an absorbing, detailed account — four accounts! — of growing up in the decades following World War II ... Since any life has more than four forking paths, I emerged from a week immersed in this prodigious book eager for more.\
Amos Oz, Trans. by Nicholas de Lange
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"Judas is a vibrant specimen of a nearly extinct species, the novel of ideas. As long as they have functioning brains and tongues, Oz is not especially interested in providing his characters with flesh and blood. And the novel’s plot, such as it is, is largely advanced through conversations ... Oz does not canonize Shealtiel, his prickly fictional creation. Judas is a novel, not a polemic, and he presents Wald, a patriot who lived with Shealtiel in bitter silence, as a powerful antagonist ... a fascinating coming-of-age story in which young Shmuel learns that society turns its black sheep into scapegoats.\
PositiveBookforum\"Like Tony Kushner’s play [Angels in America], The Angel of History is an elegy for a lost generation of gay men. It is also a structurally inventive bildungsroman ... much of the story—filtered through Jacob’s notebooks and conversations between Death, Satan, and a succession of angels—is an abstraction. We learn few details about Doc; he remains a wraithlike place-marker, a surrogate for the Unknown AIDS Victim ... Nevertheless, The Angel of History marks the triumph of memory over oblivion.\
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewThough its prose is more graceful and its erudition less ponderous, it is the grandchild of John Livingston Lowes’s 1927 The Road to Xanadu (1927), a 972-page inquest into the literary sources and personal circumstances that gave birth to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 'Kubla Khan' ... Thoroughly, cogently, Looking for The Stranger traces the birth of a literary classic.
RaveThe Dallas Morning News...[an] unbearable but transcendent debut novel ... In its blend of realism and fantasy, cruelty and beauty, the book itself affirms the value of mischling ... the aesthetic achievement of Mischling cannot redeem the world after Auschwitz. It merely illuminates it, woefully, brilliantly.
MixedThe Dallas Morning NewsReaders of more modest means might take scant interest in the family's travails, except for this memoir's vivid reflections of a common humanity and a tractable memory.
PositiveThe Dallas Morning NewsStork Mountain recounts some of the bloodiest episodes in the history of a region that is home to forced conversions, witch hunts, mass migrations and massacres. The book marks its expatriate author’s return to his native land, by reinventing it through multiple, overlapping stories, and by reminding us that all the stories and histories we collectively recount are fabrications. A reader is likely to be as overwhelmed as the narrator — who, unable to cope, takes to bed for days — by all the disparate myths and truths that compete for our attention.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleBarnes constructs his penetrating nonfiction novel through third-person free indirect style, in which the consciousness is Shostakovich’s. So, instead of a detailed account of people, places and events, the book consists largely of the fearful meditations of a cultural celebrity who is convinced that 'it was impossible to tell the truth here and live' ... As striking an invention as any fictional character, Barnes’ Shostakovich is a man who has sacrificed his soul to save a life he dismisses as 'a farce.'”
MixedSan Francisco ChronicleFishman’s respect for the absurdity of his preposterous tale usually, but not always, redeems some of his more extravagant touches. And a gaudy supporting cast — a bus driver who plays impresario to his passengers, a henpecked park ranger who takes his shotgun to a rattlesnake, a reclusive one-eyed popular novelist — leavens what might otherwise be a somber story of marital discord. Fishman sometimes tends to belabor unnecessary explication. But his second novel is a fresh, unpredictable departure from his first.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeAll of this...might seem like so much pious piffle, but for Martel’s drollery and ingenuity in packing his inventive novel with beguiling ideas ... Though there are no mountains where Martel sets his stories, the elevation is sufficient to make a reader lightheaded and heavy-hearted in The High Mountains of Portugal.
PositiveThe Dallas Morning NewsLady Stanley’s pencil sketch that concludes the novel envisions her late husband and the American author entering Paradise together. Isn’t it pretty to think so? The power of Hijuelos’ own incisive and affectionate portraiture makes it impossible not to.
Vladimir Nabokov, Olga Voronina, Brian Boyd
PanSF GateWith scholarly apparatus including chronology, bibliography and 186 pages of endnotes, this hefty edition shadows the young author but sheds little light on his art.