MixedThe AtlanticIt had been years since I’d spent time with Dyer’s work, and I was eager to see how that deliciously remembered persona had been progressing. To my very great surprise, I’ve come away more puzzled than pleasured. There is much here to enjoy: the familiar spirit of digression, the razor-sharp wit, the distressing obsessiveness, along with those dictionary-size amounts of information about—you name it, Dyer has something to say about it. Yet somehow the pages fail to accumulate into something larger than the sum of their discrete selves. The book is advertised as being about the lives of creative people nearing their end, and, to the degree that anxiety over aging runs like a thread through the prose, it is, but that anxiety provides only coloration, not an organizing principle. In time, the reader comes to realize there is no organizing principle. ... Dyer rambles as superbly as ever about whatever comes to mind after the lead sentence has been written, but like a Möbius strip, the segments repeatedly loop back on themselves, making room again and again either for one of those very familiar obsessions of his (sex, booze, music, tennis) or for one of the many figures he writes of with the awe reserved for heroes (is it common for a man over 60 to have heroes?), among whom are Bob Dylan, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Roger Federer. Especially Nietzsche. He finds his way into almost everything ... Self-conscious remarks sprinkled about The Last Days indicate Dyer’s own unease regarding this book, at the same time that they expose a certain defensiveness ... If ever there was a writer’s plea to be let off the hook for having stitched together rather than written the book you are reading, I think this is it.
MixedThe New Republic... admirably researched and supplies the reader with a thorough account of Hardwick’s calendar life, complete with names, dates, places, publication summaries, and—most important—a remarkably well-organized portrait of the chaos that dogged the Lowell-Hardwick marriage. Everything one could ever want in a biography is here. Everything but Hardwick herself. There are not many places in the book where one feels the live presence of the woman who made herself up from Kentucky scratch, was instrumental in bringing new life to a long-neglected genre, worshipped art but identified with the sleaze and dereliction of the city, and dreaded not so much the reality as the stigma of a woman alone ... It’s the inner life of that woman—the one who wrote the celebrated essays—that we want on the page, but it’s not here; just as it wasn’t 40-odd years ago, when I took her to task for not writing in the voice of a militant feminist 20 years her junior. Hardwick deserved better then, and she deserves better now.
PositiveThe New York TimesWe are, [Turkle] fears, in danger of producing an emotionally sterile society more akin to that of the robots coming down the road. Now Turkle has written a memoir, forthrightly called The Empathy Diaries,in which she seeks to tell the story of her own formative years and how she became the distinguished social theorist that she is today ... The strong suit of “The Empathy Diaries” is the wonderful clarity with which Turkle guides us through her intellectual development ... In a memoir written by a person of accomplishment, the interwoven account of childhood and early influences is valuable only insofar as it sheds light on the evolution of the individual into the author of the memoir we are reading. For me, the ongoing story of Turkle’s family life seemed to hit a single note — one of sympathy and gratitude, to be sure, but one that did not necessarily deepen the main narrative. However, with Turkle’s story of her marriage to Seymour Papert her personal adventures struck gold.
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.