PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksBoyles has tapped into a largely untouched goldmine of stories about environmental issues in the American West, and the people involved in the often-lonely fights for their jobs, their land and their resources on a changing planet. By writing this book, Boyles provides a peek into the fascinating world of niche environmental policy that is usually perceived as too dull and complex for most people to care about ... Boyles is a Coloradan and a former sustainable farmer, and it’s immediately apparent she knows what she’s doing, both as a writer and an environmentalist. The book is heavily character-driven, but every story takes place amid a fairly complicated setting involving environmental issues that don’t typically get a lot of attention in fiction. Boyles deftly explains these situations without coming across as dogmatic, connecting problems that might seem theoretical to people whose lives are immensely impacted by them ... an impressive collection of stories that exudes kindness and warmth for its characters and a clear passion for its central thesis ... Boyles crafts beautiful sentences easily, and the dialogue is realistic and illustrates genuine relationships between characters ... However, it’s necessary to point out that this book does little if anything to challenge the predominantly white face of environmentalism and environmental writing. It’s curious that a book about human attachment to—and destruction of—land and nature fails to even tangentially mention the genocide of indigenous people from the very spaces Boyles writes about so endearingly. It is especially disappointing that this collection looks at environmental crises and climate change from a colorblind lens, when its effects are so racially disparate. Given the diversity of characters and themes in the book, it is disheartening that she didn’t include the perspectives of indigenous people and other people of color who are already being severely impacted by the climate crisis ... Despite these omissions, Site Fidelity is a solid debut collection by a writer to watch out for. It is a noble pursuit to challenge the traditionally masculine mythology of the American West, and I have no doubt that Boyles cares deeply about the environment and the nitty-gritty details of land management debates. Even as the climate crisis is visibly worsening, there remains a group of skeptics who aren’t swayed by traditional reporting. Creating fictionalized stories about these urgent but often inaccessible issues might be the best way to drive change from people who may not otherwise be inclined to care.
MixedThe Chicago Review of Books... some aspects already feel a little dated. But if she were to include the effects of recent social distancing and isolation requirements, it would be an entirely different book, one that she indeed hadn’t intended to write ... takes readers on a much larger trip through loneliness, making a claim that it is not inherently specific to any one era, but instead suggests the idea that humans are always prone to it to some degree. Depicting Radtke’s personal experience with solitude, scientific research about how loneliness can wreak physical havoc on our bodies and the cultural conditions that have set Americans up to especially feel this pain, the book reaches very wide in its scope ... In many ways, it meets the mark, serving as an entertaining and informative encyclopedia of seclusion. But the book’s thesis is scattered, and Radtke’s thoughts can appear to tumble over themselves, leaving readers to flip back and forth between pages, wondering what thread they might have missed ... While this book is a very well-researched piece of nonfiction, Radtke’s writing does veer into the poetic, especially when she describes her own experiences with loneliness ... aesthetically stunning too. Radtke’s illustrations are expressive ... Despite the many sections of this book that are lovely to look at, containing much thought-provoking and readable prose, the book remains a non-intuitive read. I think this is where the otherwise deftly-deployed comic format fails: if you are required to scrimp on words when connecting such far-reaching thoughts and research, it’s easy for your narrative to come across as scattered ... It feels dizzying to go back and forth between microbiological details of how loneliness can physically alter our brain chemistry and intimate stories of Radtke’s friends’ loneliest moments in only a few pages, and neither narrative gets a fair shot at more development ... Even after all of this rich analysis, Radtke does not reach a sensical conclusion about her thoughts on gun violence and its place in our culture. This is completely understandable—it’s a big issue!—but it becomes a bit tiring to read such meandering thoughts, even if they are written beautifully and accompanied by engaging illustrations ... It’s a simple thesis that has served as the basis for gorgeous and important art and literature for time immemorial, but it is complicated in this piece of graphic nonfiction that tries to be too many things.
PanThe Chicago Review of BooksI can’t help but wish that I’d spent a few of my pandemic hours doing something other than reading The Mysteries by Marisa Silver. In theory, this novel—that centers on the intoxicating, dangerous relationship that two little girls can tumble into—should be a rich text, with descriptions of female attachment that ring true to anyone who once found themselves head over heels in a childhood friendship. Unfortunately, it is distracted, jumping around too much to provide even cursory information about peripheral characters, making everyone mostly flat and one-dimensional. And the apex of the book doesn’t do anything to challenge these caricatures ... Silver clearly has the tools to create multidimensional characters: this relationship starts off strong, and there is the space for more nuance; it just doesn’t lead anywhere ... This novel sets out to be about so much: friendship, marriage, grief, politics, and that adults don’t actually know anything even though they pretend to. In attempting that ambitious task, it fails to provide meaningful insights on any of those fronts ... The novel is set in the Nixon era, though you wouldn’t know it if not for some throwaway lines about what a hack he is ... The novel really pays more attention to the adults in the story than the kids, to the point where the children often feel like caricatures of girls engaging in immature sadomasochism. It’s not out of line with how kids sometimes act, but is also a pretty shallow representation of this behavior and is curtailed by the parents’ involvement ... The real problem with The Mysteries happens at its climax, which is so meaningless it destroys any hope for a satisfying ending. I hoped that The Mysteries wouldn’t fall prey to the formula it set from the jump, but it did, and a little more than halfway through the story, as we are warned on the back cover, \'tragedy strikes\' ... Ultimately, The Mysteries lacks imagination, because the author doesn’t trust her audience would understand anything that isn’t explicitly laid out. Ellen’s death is so on the nose for what her character was destined for because her innocence and martyrdom needs to be hammered home, lest the readers didn’t understand. With more trust between the author and her readers, The Mysteries could be strong and poignant. Without it, it consists of over-explanatory exposition that ends in disconnection and disappointment.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksSilverman uses suspense to good effect here, compelling readers to flip pages quickly, desperate to know what happened; what’s the big thing Cass did to ruin her life? ... Silverman handles these overlapping stories well. There is a lot going on in the plot, however, and not enough time to spend with each of Cass’ relationships. The teenage girl fight club documentary plotline is less interesting than it could be because the reader’s ear is always to the wall, waiting to find out more about what happened with New York and Tara-Jean Slater ... While Cass’ relationship with her new housemates appears dynamic, there still isn’t enough room to explore these relationships in depth, leaving some character arcs feeling a little like reading off a list of names ... the drama of that event isn’t what readers will be left thinking about. The plot grabs you in more subtle ways ... an excellent dynamic that Silverman does a great job exploring, inviting readers to sympathize with Cass’ jealousy but realize, even as she talks from the first-person perspective, she’s missing something important ... a brilliant ending.
PositiveChicago Review of Books... a psychological thriller with elements of horror which extend far beyond what simply happens in the plot. Johnson’s writing is at once transparent and opaque, with crisp, meaningful sentences guiding readers through intentionally murky details, establishing character relationships that are case studies in toxicity and abuse ... a meditation on complicated grief and mental illness. It explores, using the language of horror, the nuances of mourning someone who caused you pain, the disgusted relief that could come with it ... This book, also, understands and sympathizes with the impulse to be needed too much. But it turns that sympathy into a powerful demonstration of how that much need can turn lethal. I would have liked to see July become angrier at some point, to see a glimmer of kindness in September so she isn’t completely irredeemable too. The characters in Sisters are not very multifaceted, but that might be the point. This could happen to anyone, the book says.
Jean Kyoung Frazier
PanThe Chicago Review of BooksUnfortunately, Pizza Girl lacks a sense of meaningful self-awareness, and the narrator is more unlikeable for it ... precious little evidence for the reader about why Jane is so obsessed with this woman. This, paired with Jenny’s many quirks reads a bit like a cliché from a YA novel ... If we had the chance to move from Jane’s eyes, maybe we could get a better sense of how her boyfriend, who is grieving the loss of both of his parents, is feeling. We could see how her mom, an immigrant from Korea, dealt with her abusive, dangerous husband...We’re stuck with Jane, though, and she’s stuck on Jenny, and neither of them are very likeable. A protagonist can make mistakes, can be reckless and cruel–up to a certain point. Kyoung Fraizer’s portrayal of addiction is raw and candid, but it doesn’t sit right with an audience correctly predispositioned to be wary of people who drink while they’re pregnant ... Jane’s priorities haven’t shifted by the end of the book, and it’s really too bad ... a sad ending for everyone, not least for the story itself, which had the potential to be an honest, wry look at addiction and abuse and ended up more like a silly love story that doesn’t make sense.
Laura van den Berg
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksAll of the stories in this book explore relationships in a strikingly unconventional way. It’s impossible to ignore van den Berg’s attention to the intricacies of sisterhood, in particular, and the way that she sets up these sister relationships ... Van den Berg’s detached writing might strike some as cold. There aren’t many overtly touching moments in any of the stories, and it seems like van den Berg keeps her characters at arms-length, perhaps overcautious against sentimentality. I don’t think she cares about her readers forming an opinion on her characters or the subject matter; she’s not a needy author. But the characters in I Hold a Wolf by the Ears are so odd, their desires so universal, that they endear to us anyway ... The writing is beautiful and the stories are some of the most peculiar I’ve ever read ... the collection isn’t \'urgent and unsettling\' so much as it is touched with grief and loneliness and weirdness, and even the shortest stories feel well-paced. This isn’t the kind of book that should be described as something that we, as a society, need at this time to poignantly sum up all the universal cultural oddities that we’re experiencing right now. It’s not here to try and heal our collective Trump-induced trauma. But spending time reading something this bizarre and captivating encourages you to see the world in a necessary, fascinating way, and a little healing might be a side effect.
Samanta Schweblin, trans. by Megan McDowell
MixedChicago Review of BooksThe novel lays out a convincing case for why one would want to inhabit a kentuki ... It’s not clear why the keepers like their kentukis ... Unless you are an exhibitionist who is more than completely laissez-faire about giving a complete stranger visual and aural access to your home, Schweblin doesn’t give any reason for you wanting to own a kentuki at all ... Schweblin’s series of vignettes...is fascinating as a character study, and the novel’s subplots can be deliciously weird and thought-provoking. But Schweblin openly ponders the meaning of her own book too often for readers to ignore the holes, and as the book fizzles to an ending, its related subplots still unconnected, we’re left unsatisfied.