PanThe New RepublicDo we need another Steinbeck biography—and if so, is Souder’s the one we need? For this reviewer the answer, at least in the second instance, is no ... What the reader—better yet, let me say this reader—would like to see in a new Steinbeck biography is...an exploration of the self-destructiveness that rescues Steinbeck’s inner chaos from the merely incidental, leaving it so indelibly imprinted on the reader’s felt memory that from this moment on his books read differently. It’s not that Souder needs to psychoanalyze Steinbeck’s behavioral extremities; to the contrary, he merely has to illustrate them with the kind of accumulating depth that lends texture to the prose. This, however, he does not do ... Instead, we get something halting, even insinuating that leaves both Souder and the reader feeling morally puzzled, if not downright suspicious ... What we get instead is intellectual vacancy coupled with a deal of absurd moralizing...and...some really bad writing ... Steinbeck...has somehow eluded Souder’s capacity for deep-down engagement. It would have been interesting to know him better.
PositiveThe NationAronson’s biography pays Crystal Eastman the enormous respect of presenting her as a woman of parts in whom we see fused the best of American leftism with the best of Christian compassion and the near best of modernist courage. For this, I applaud it. But I also must say that this is an academic biography, meaning the author feels obliged to provide extensive explanations of the social, political, and cultural atmosphere surrounding every move Eastman made. The issues, the organizations, the internecine clashes are all here in somewhat wearying detail. It’s not that it isn’t all interesting; it’s just that Eastman herself gets lost for pages (and pages!) at a time. Only rarely—and then mainly through her letters—do we glimpse the progress of her inner life, gain any insight into her conflicts, her blind spots, her fearsome drive. In short, only rarely do we feel her alive on the page. These objections notwithstanding, Aronson’s book is prodigiously researched, the writing easy on the eyes, and it deserves, without a doubt, a place on any shelf of biographies devoted to the stirring history of American radicalism.
MixedThe New York Times Book Reviewa skilled, lively, prodigiously researched book that, in the main, neither whitewashes nor rebukes its subject: It works hard to make the reader see Sontag as the severely complex person she was. But Moser doesn’t love her, and this absence of emotional connection poses a serious problem for his book. A strong, vibrant, even mysterious flow of sympathy must exist between the writer and the subject — however unlovable that subject might be — in order that a remarkable biography be written. And this, I’m afraid, Sontag is not ... it strikes me that because [Moser] doesn’t trust his own feelings, he often fails to probe as far as we’d like him to. There are times when this timidity twists his paragraphs into distinctly odd shapes ... If I have any other complaint about the book, it is that it is somewhat psychologically reductive. Repeatedly, it returns to the negative influence of the alcoholic mother — as though growing up the child of an alcoholic could explain a Susan Sontag — and repeatedly, it dwells on the fame that assaulted rather than gratified her, certainly never put her demons to rest. Somehow, neither of these explorations allows Moser to dive deep. On the other hand, he writes vividly of a woman of parts determined to leave a mark on her time; and makes us feel viscerally how large those parts were — the arrogance, the anxiety, the reach! No mean achievement.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"Mary Norris’s Greek to Me is one of the most satisfying accounts of a great passion that I have ever read. It traces a decades-long obsession with Greece: its language (both modern and ancient), literature, mythologies, people, places, food and monuments — all with an absorption that never falters and never squanders the reader’s attention ... [Norris] mourns the centuries-long effort at developing punctuation for the sake of ever greater clarity, now being abandoned, day by day, in our benighted contemporary culture. This observation is only a reminder of what we all know; nevertheless, it stunned me ... Western women traveling to the Mediterranean in search of sensual experience is one of the great clichés I thought we had put behind us. This caveat aside, Norris’s irreverent reverence for the history of the Greek language is not only admirable, it is moving. When she writes, \'Ancient Greek is like the Bible (from βιβλος): records of the past that preserve the things that humans most need to know,”\'you feel yourself in the presence of a traveler whose authority emanates from lived experience.\
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewIt is not necessary that we, the reader, understand, as an analyst might seek to understand, the origin in such a character of a constitution permanently afflicted by the dread of existential nothingness. However, it is very necessary—if the book is to lift itself from the quotidian to the metaphorical—that we feel that dread; and feel it so strongly we connect anew with our own experience of the humdrum anxiety embedded in daily life. If we do not, all is summary and surface. And the latter, I am much afraid, is what prevails in Upstate.
RaveBookforumI don’t know whether or not The Friend is a good novel or even, strictly speaking, if it’s a novel at all — so odd is its construction — but after I’d turned the last page of the book I found myself sorry to be leaving the company of a feeling intelligence that had delighted me and even, on occasion, given joy ... The dog, the suicide, the writing life: These are the three strands of thought and feeling that make up the weave of The Friend. They don’t always mesh or make a satisfying design, but they are held together by the tone of the narrator’s voice: light, musing, curious, and somehow wonderfully sturdy ... The heartbreak inscribed in those final words fills the page to the margin and beyond with the penetrating loneliness—the sheer textured burden of life itself—that all of Sigrid Nunez’s fine writing had been at brilliant pains to keep both within sight and at bay ... From beginning to end, I thought myself engaged with what we now call the personal narrative.
RaveThe New Republic\"...an impressive piece of social history that uses the events of Wilder’s life to track, socially and politically, the development of the American continent and its people ... Prairie Fires could not have been published at a more propitious time in our national life. In the 1930s, populists like the Wilders were a minority voice in America; it was rather the characters in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath who reflected the mood of the country. They resembled the people who, in their millions, greeted Roosevelt as a savior, convinced that his was the view required for national survival. Today, the balance of power has reversed. The Wilders among us now occupy a position so influential they have been able to elect someone of their own persuasion to the American presidency. The frontier mentality they still embody is less likely to shore up a potentially failing democracy than to wreck it altogether.\
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewGopnik knows full well that the unholy alliance between art and commerce, which emerged in the ’80s, has contributed mightily to the horrifying money culture that has led us to where we are today, but he finds merit in the scene as a whole. In fact, he loves it. Which perhaps accounts for the occasional glibness in this book that I, for one, found either silly or startling or offensive ... What we have here is the story of a pair of privileged young adults who suffer neither intellectual disappointment nor spiritual disillusion nor emotional setbacks: everything that is required for a person to mature. As they are at the beginning, so Adam and Martha are at the end. Consequently, what is missing from At the Strangers’ Gate is a sense of progress toward self-discovery: the very essence of any memoir that hopes to achieve lasting value.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThe middle section is a 200-page presentation of the various kinds of neurobiological work now being done on the age-old mind-body problem. It is this part of the book — the one that concentrates on the astonishing efforts being made to understand the mind as distinct from the brain — that most seriously commanded my attention...reads like the work of a talented teacher who has the drive and the ability to organize and present — in an exceptionally clear, clean, even limpid voice — a monumental amount of abstract information ... Hustvedt repeatedly gives herself over to the language of science — which, when applied to the right subject, is illuminating, but when applied to the wrong one can be jarring ... I think she is happiest — and makes the reader happiest — in the presence of the great abstractions derived from the analytic intelligence. What is missing from the pages of her book is only an equal abundance of felt life.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksIn all of [the stories] we hear a voice—black, urban, unmistakably rooted in lived experience—speaking not only to let us know what it felt like to be living inside that complex identity, but to make large, imaginative use of it, the way [Grace] Paley used her New York Jewishness to explore the astonishment of human existence ... What we have here, in Collins’s sixteen stories, is sensibility in service of a state of mind whose authenticity none, I think, can challenge. Written in the 1970s and 1980s, when African-American writing was ablaze with rage and righteousness, they might have seemed too nuanced to make an impression. Coming to us as they do now, when we are living once more through a period of flaring racism that has brought talented protest writing to a new level, they strike a note on the one hand oddly original, on the other painfully familiar. Either way it drags at the heart.
Elena Ferrante, Trans. by Ann Goldstein
PositiveThe Nation\"...the book is not at all a jumble of fragments. It is in fact unified by two subjects that dominate the collection: her insistence on preserving her anonymity as a private person, and her intentness on explaining herself as a writer—that is, on identifying the source of the emotional energy behind the work ... Ferrante’s answers are impressive for the coherence and expansiveness with which she takes up each question.\
Anne Boyd Rioux
PanThe NationA servicable biography that tracks Woolson's movements from birth to death ... we are told these things but unfortunately we do not feel their import because Woolson does not come alive in the pages of this book ... Nor, sorry to say, does Rioux offer anything in the way of a satisfactory criticism of Woolson's work.