PositiveThe Boston Globe... atmospheric, gossipy ... His interviews with several dozen longtime Cape denizens, combined with his firsthand knowledge of the area, give The Shores of Bohemia an engaging immediacy. Loving descriptions evoke the golden light that attracted generations of painters, the kettle ponds nestled behind towering dunes, the golden sands fronting the Atlantic. You can practically smell the fresh fish roasting and hear the clink of ice cubes at the annual beach party celebrating the Perseid meteor shower thrown by Jack Phillips ... the plethora of names he showers on readers is a mixed blessing ... It can be difficult to keep all those names straight as Williams’s very loosely organized narrative zigzags through the years and a large cast of characters ... His aim, achieved somewhat at the cost of coherence, is to convey these bohemians’ sense that it was all connected: artistic experiment, political activism, sexual freedom, and intoxication of every kind ... meandering, affectionate.
Antonio Scurati tr. Anne Milano Appel
MixedThe Washington Post... stuffed with provocative ideas and squirm-inducing contemporary parallels ... Writing in the present tense, Scurati immerses us in the hurly-burly of politics on the ground ... Scurati invites our deepest contempt for the lack of conviction displayed by politicians charged with preserving democratic government ... Regrettably, it’s a long slog to get to this chilling final declaration. European critics who noted that M was not precisely a novel had a point. Virtually every narrative chapter is followed by excerpts from period documents that mostly repeat the material laid out. This bumpy mix of fact and sort-of-fiction kills the book’s momentum and makes it much longer than it needs to be. Mussolini’s henchmen and lovers enter and exit the scene without being much more than plot elements ... this relentless chronicle of authoritarianism emboldened and empowered offers a painful and valuable reminder that democracy is fragile, never to be taken for granted and always in need of committed defense. M may be more interesting to think about than it is to read, but it certainly gives us a lot to think about.
RaveThe Washington PostCole has a sharp eye for the way physical surroundings reflect their inhabitants’ characters and circumstances ... Given a novel so satisfyingly rich in themes and details, a review can only touch briefly on some of its many virtues ... Cole writes about lives damaged beyond repair and the accommodations people make to endure them with sensitivity and understanding, qualities he shares with his protagonist. Owen is entirely believable as a developing writer, jotting down his recollections and observations as the building blocks of his project to become an artist and a better human being. Alma is depicted with equal subtlety and generosity; their relationship drives the plot and brings the novel to a fitting conclusion. Groundskeeping is very fine work indeed from an exciting new voice.
RaveThe Boston GlobeA haunted and haunting book, short, but densely packed with metaphor and meaning. Ghostly black-and-white photographs of the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris and women treated for hysteria there in the 19th century, accompanied by case study notes and \'photographic service\' cards recording the subjects’ symptoms, convey the impression that we are reading messages from the dead past. This is an illusion created by Casey’s skillful blend of fact and fiction. The case histories and service card texts are partly based on rough translations of primary sources, partly invented ... Yet the novel is poetic rather than polemic, elegantly written and filled with resonant imagery ... Casey crafts individual portraits and a collective monologue that show them as human beings with histories, desires, and, yes, bodies: their principal weapon in the battle to wrest some kind of recognition from the men who rule their lives ... Despite its often somber tone, City of Incurable Women is in the end affirmative and inspiring, a powerful demonstration of Maud Casey’s artistry.
Charles J Shields
PositiveThe Washington Post... offers general readers a well-researched account of Hansberry’s life and conscientious summaries of her literary and political work ... Making good use of private papers as well as published materials, Shields paints an evocative portrait of Hansberry’s childhood in Chicago ... When it comes to her personal and emotional life, however, Shields is regrettably hands-off ... Given her subsequent marriage to Marxist activist Robert Nemiroff and later lesbian affairs, this moment cries out for consideration of Hansberry’s complicated sexuality. Instead, Shields jumps to the fact that she met the \'wonderful young man\' through a left-wing group supporting Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace ... Shields’s capable account of her journalism reminds us just how radical Hansberry was ... Shields presents provocative source material without offering much in the way of analysis. He describes as \'indulgent\' an excerpt from a letter by Nemiroff urging Hansberry to stick to her writing, advice that might well strike other readers, especially female readers, as patronizing and controlling ... The chapters on A Raisin in the Sun are Shields’s best, detailing an engrossing narrative of the creation and production of an American classic. Later chapters that chronicle Hansberry’s declining health and difficulties with later plays are also compelling. But Shields dodges the question voiced by several of how extensively Nemiroff revised Hansberry’s work when she was dying and after her death ... Rich in detail if short on commentary, Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind a Raisin in the Sun fills a niche on the growing shelf of books devoted to her by offering a solid introduction to this important American artist and social critic.
RaveThe Washington PostIn elegant prose, Zgheib skillfully mingles her protagonists’ memories with a nail-biting account of their 2017 ordeal to craft a narrative rich in metaphors and complex, believable characters ... A fascinatingly open-ended conclusion is fueled by decisions Hadi and Sama make that will stir lively debate among readers. It’s a fitting close to a novel alive to the ambiguities of the American and the immigrant experience.
Elizabeth D. Samet
PositiveThe Boston GlobeSamet will make plenty of people angry ... a text that sometimes meanders but is unified by the author’s ethical fervor. Samet, who has written eloquently about her experiences teaching literature at West Point in Soldier’s Heart and No Man’s Land, clearly feels a particular responsibility to urge Americans to face facts about the nature of war — any war. Her students leave West Point and go into combat; Looking for the Good War seethes with her personal outrage over attempts to sanitize the brutality and suffering they will inevitably encounter.
PositiveThe Washington PostSolomon uses a fraught mother-daughter phone conversation to deftly set up the conflicts to come ... Having piqued our curiosity, Solomon whisks us to preparations for the dinner party, tipping her hat to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as she anatomizes the discomfiting class and racial distinctions ... a present-day forum for Solomon’s witty depiction of a racially mixed, decidedly well-to-do group’s freighted social interactions in the still hopeful days of Barack Obama’s second term ... In these poignant yet often bitingly funny chapters, Solomon affirms her descent from the African American foremothers who claimed the Black female experience as their literary turf in the second half of the 20th century ... Liselle is an appealing, believably imperfect protagonist, intelligent and perceptive yet apparently unable to extricate herself from a life she no longer really wants. Seen through her eyes, the dinner party guests and other subsidiary characters...are vividly drawn with economical brushstrokes. But Winn is not as fully fleshed-out as his role in the novel requires, and the excavation of Selena’s past comes jarringly late in the narrative, keeping her an enigma for too long and blunting the impact of Liselle and Winn’s climactic confrontation. Solomon has crafted a good novel about the racial and social complexities of American life, observed in shrewd detail. If this gifted writer had allowed her material more room to breathe, and herself more time to develop it, The Days of Afrekete would have been even better.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe author has so much she wants to say that her narrative is sometimes as cluttered as the cramped half-house in which Benny’s mother, Annabelle, obsessively piles up unnecessary purchases. Fortunately, one of Ozeki’s gifts as a novelist is the ability to enfold provocative intellectual material within a human story grounded in sharply observed social detail. Her emotional engagement with her characters and her themes makes The Book of Form and Emptiness as compelling as it is occasionally unwieldy ... The Zen teachings seamlessly integrated into the story line of Ozeki’s previous novel, A Tale for the Time Being, here seem a slightly redundant addition to the chorus of voices urging us to see the desolation manifest in our mania for possessions and the terrible consequences of viewing the Earth’s bounty as raw material to be exploited for human gain ... It’s unclear how this call to revere all objects relates to the Book’s equally fervent denunciation of the way humans have overloaded the planet with trash. With so many philosophical balls in the air, Ozeki’s ideas are sometimes as inchoate as the metaphor of form and emptiness she periodically invokes but never entirely elucidates. Like all artists, her flaws are intertwined with her strengths; she embraces complexity and contradiction ... The Book itself has a marvelous voice: adult, ironic, affirming at every turn the importance of books as a repository of humanity’s deepest wisdom and highest aspirations ... The human drama Ozeki crafts comes to a satisfying conclusion; Benny and Annabelle work and grow to achieve their measured happy endings. The larger issues their stories raise remain unresolved, because there are no easy resolutions in life — or in the challenging kind of art practiced in The Book of Form and Emptiness.
PositiveThe Washington PostBarker’s prose has a plain force more powerful than fancy wordsmithing; she makes these long-ago events immediate ... The novel closes with the Greek ships finally able to embark, carrying Briseis and her companions to new lives in unknown lands. Asides throughout reveal that Briseis is telling this story from a vantage point 50 years on and hint that there will be another volume to chronicle her life after Troy. More work from one of contemporary literature’s most thoughtful and compelling writers is always welcome.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThe Man Who Hated Women, Amy Sohn’s lively new book, spotlights eight women who challenged Comstock with their writings and actions ... Sohn deploys a veteran novelist’s skills to animate Comstock and his antagonists.
PositiveThe Washington PostReaders of Shriver’s previous work will recognize the bluntly unsentimental attitude, and the smooth way she inserts essential details into the couple’s post-funeral conversation ... can appear heartless as the author rearranges her plot pieces into new formations with almost insolent ease, disdaining anything as cheap as an appeal for readers’ emotional engagement. It’s only gradually apparent that this sharp-elbowed satire is also a brusquely tender portrait of enduring love ... Shriver isn’t interested in reassuring us, but in the closing chapter, \'The Last Last Supper,\' she gives us something more satisfying than reassurance or facile sentiment: a couple honestly assessing their 57 years of marriage and affirming their commitment to each other.
PositiveThe Washington Post... so overstuffed with characters and plot that readers will either close it in frustration or embrace it for the author’s verbal gusto and brilliant, kaleidoscopic scene-setting ... [Ross] emulates the work of Gabriel García Márquez and his Latin American peers by delineating a world in which magic is a matter-of-fact presence in people’s lives ... Ross tends to be vague about details of the magical features she vividly establishes ... Even when you’re not quite sure exactly what’s going on, Ross’s imagery makes a visceral impact ... A laboriously extended sequence that begins with the pum-pum of every Popisho woman falling out (for no apparent reason) marks the moment when Ross’s extravagant style crosses the line into absurdity ... Silliness like this muffles the serious issues Ross also addresses, most connected to a plot strand tracing the orange graffiti springing up across Popisho to expose wrongdoing by Intiasar and others ... Ross writes throughout with such juice and verve that she can be forgiven for her novel’s occasional cloudiness and excesses. Popisho will please and excite anyone who appreciates literary ambition and risk-taking.
PositiveThe Houston Chronicle... Ross’ third novel is so overstuffed with characters and plot that readers will either close it in frustration or embrace it for the author’s verbal gusto and brilliant, kaleidoscopic scene-setting ... she emulates the work of Gabriel García Márquez and his Latin American peers by delineating a world in which magic is a matter-of-fact presence in people’s lives ... Ross tends to be vague about details of the magical features she vividly establishes ... Even when you’re not quite sure exactly what’s going on, Ross’ imagery makes a visceral impact ... Silliness like this muffles the serious issues Ross also addresses ... Ross writes throughout with such juice and verve that she can be forgiven for her novel’s occasional cloudiness and excesses. Popisho will please and excite anyone who appreciates literary ambition and risk-taking.
PositiveThe Boston Globe... incisive ... Do we really need another? The answer turns out to be yes: White makes multiple connections between Hitchcock’s complex personality and unsettling films in fresh and stimulating ways ... White probes the conflicted man concealed behind the persona but respects Hitchcock’s jovially sinister facade as a means of placing uncomfortable personal emotions under the control of his creativity ... White’s measured take on Hitchcock is evident throughout — as is his fondness for meandering ... As in The Tastemaker, his brilliant biography of the writer and photorapher Carl Van Vechten, White perceptively explores the interplay between someone whose tastes and neuroses might have made him an outsider, but who instead asserted himself to make an enormous impact on the culture of his time. Dealing with a much more famous subject, The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock can’t be as revelatory. but it offers an intriguing approach to a much-chronicled career. Hitchcock the insecure man and Hitchcock the supremely self-assured artist each get his due.
PositiveThe Washington Post... a fascinating blend of family memoir and moral reckoning ... Archibald’s personal recollections vividly demonstrate the conflicts experienced by people rooted in traditional values during a period of rapid social change, when a liberal interpretation of those values offends their conservative community ... Archibald’s honest account of one family’s uneasy journey through the civil rights and gay rights revolutions makes it clear that there are no easy decisions—or answers—when grappling with issues of faith and social justice.
RaveThe Washington PostJago weaves an intricate web of social, sexual and political maneuvers that entangles all her characters. Even Frankie’s abusive husband is depicted with a measure of empathy as the traumatized son of a man executed for treason ... (Readers lacking a degree in English history, relax: It’s not necessary to know precisely what historical events Anne alludes to in order to follow the plot, and Jago provides a helpful list of \'the principal actors.\') ... Anne is our guide to this decadent society, a wonderfully complex, not entirely likable character who shrewdly observes other people’s missteps but is sometimes maddeningly oblivious to her own failures of judgment ... a dense narrative stuffed with vividly drawn secondary characters and atmospheric set pieces that include a gruesome bearbaiting and a visit to an elaborately depraved brothel. Uncompromisingly dark though it often is, A Net for Small Fishes is also highly satisfying entertainment.
PanThe Washington PostHarold Bloom was one of the leading critics of his generation, and there is no question about his erudition. It is on full display in the posthumously published The Bright Book of Life. If only his vast trove of knowledge weren’t so often employed to place writers within a hierarchy. Must virtually every author be compared unfavorably with Shakespeare? ... I wish Bloom, who died in 2019, could have sometimes appreciated writers for what they are rather than grading them on a curve. But it was evident at least since \'The Anxiety of Influence\' appeared in 1973 that he viewed literature as a contest, measuring writers against a yardstick of purportedly timeless values without acknowledging that such values might reflect his personal tastes. In The Bright Book of Life, this is a glaring omission, since Bloom often tosses off judgments that will be incomprehensible to readers unfamiliar with his previous books ... The lengthy quotations, which sometimes go on for several pages, do not necessarily illuminate anything other than Bloom’s fondness for them ... I found myself wondering if this was a rough draft, unfinished when Bloom died, a suspicion reinforced by autobiographical asides that were often tenuously related to the novel under examination ... No one who loves literature will be unmoved by his sense of engaging in a conversation across the centuries with writers and their creations. But I wish the conversations in The Bright Book of Life offered more than competitive rankings and fleeting moments of insight.
Christine Leigh Heyrman
PositiveThe Boston GlobeHeyrman plays up the drama with anachronistic, pop culture-inspired chapter titles ... Heyrman is serious, however, about the broader significance of her story ... Heyrman chronicles Martha’s panicked maneuvers to placate Thomas, reassure Elnathan, and satisfy the American Board’s doubts in a cliff-hanging style that gins up the tension but also muddles the chronology. And sometimes she takes her analysis a step further than seems warranted: It’s a stretch to compare Thomas’s actions with \'today’s ‘revenge porn\' ... Doomed Romance has its faults, primarily a confusing structure and a weakness for overstatement, but Heyrman’s empathetic connection with her 19th-century characters—even those whose actions she deplores— makes for vivid and compelling history.
RaveThe Washington PostMark Harris’s portrait of director Mike Nichols is a pleasure to read and a model biography: appreciative yet critical, unfailingly intelligent and elegantly written. Granted, Harris has a hyper-articulate, self-analytical subject who left a trail of press coverage behind him, but Nichols used his dazzling conversational gifts to obfuscate and beguile as much as to confide ... Harris, a savvy journalist and the author of two excellent cultural histories, makes judicious use of abundant sources in Mike Nichols: A Life to craft a shrewd, in-depth reckoning of the elusive man behind the polished facade ... Harris gently covers those declining years with respect for the achievements that preceded them. His marvelous book makes palpable in artful detail the extraordinary scope and brilliance of those achievements.
PositiveThe Washington PostVeteran biographer Hermione Lee’s massive new tome follows Stoppard through more than 80 years in meticulous detail ... the biography provides information in occasionally exhausting and unnecessary abundance. However, this wealth of material gives a vivid sense of Stoppard’s glamorous social life, enduring personal and professional relationships and political commitments ... The key test of an artist’s biography is how well it handles the art, and Lee gets good marks here ... Lee’s thorough exegeses of his plays make palpable the intellectual and artistic aims that unify them. She weaves these commentaries into an equally thorough chronicle of Stoppard’s personal life ... Lee doesn’t pretend to be entirely objective. She tells us that Stoppard, now 83, asked her to write this biography, and her respect and affection for him are evident throughout. There is undoubtedly more to learn from a harder-edged, more critical biography by someone unconcerned with the subject’s reaction. But that doesn’t diminish the value of this intelligent, admiring tribute to a playwright who remains a vital figure in international theater after more than 50 years.
MixedThe Washington PostThere is something compelling about a person so totally indifferent to social norms, but can you make readers care about her? ... Bradford doesn’t, in contrast to his predecessors ... The merit of Bradford’s book, for those who can slog through all the sordid details and judgmental appraisals, is the substantive argument he makes that Highsmith deliberately courted emotional violence in her life as fuel for her fiction ... Bradford provides similarly interesting exegeses of autobiographical echoes in other Highsmith novels, but this generally valuable material gets lost in an endless parade of lovers and equally endless litany of Highsmith’s appalling personal conduct. Glaringly absent is substantive analysis of the writer’s tortured bond with her mother, Mary, to which Bradford devotes perfunctory attention in a brief chapter on her childhood and declines to evaluate in a peculiarly noncommittal three-page account of Mary’s cataclysmic 1964 visit to her daughter in London ... Later chapters become a depressing catalogue of bad books and bad health ... It’s characteristic of this intelligent but alienating text, which works better as literary criticism than biography, that Bradford feels no need to display any compassion for such a sad, lonely end.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeHas Jane Smiley mellowed? After writing some of the most brilliant and ferocious fiction of the past 40 years [...] Smiley takes a gentler approach in Perestroika in Paris ... Smiley’s tone may be genial, but she’s as tough-minded as ever ... This is a fable, but it operates within realistic conventions.
André Gregory and Todd London
RaveThe Washington PostReading This Is Not My Memoir is like playing Wallace Shawn’s part in My Dinner With André. You are the beguiled, occasionally alarmed audience for boundary-smashing director André Gregory’s free-form monologue about his quest for meaning in life and art ... Co-author Todd London, a seasoned theater journalist and practitioner, presumably decided to skip fact-checking and simply edit Gregory’s exuberant flow of reminiscences into a relatively coherent roller-coaster of narrative. Theater lovers will happily go along for the ride ... Regret over his lack of engagement with Chiquita, who died of breast cancer in 1992, is a running theme, culminating in a painfully honest, surprisingly moving assessment of their 33-year marriage ... For all its exuberance, this is very much the work of a man in his 80s, aware that his remaining time is brief ... Yet Gregory powerfully conveys his joy in the theater ... The zest for living and working he displays throughout this vibrant memoir is a good indication that he’ll be around to give the opening night speech.
PositiveThe Washington PostShe risks coming across as elitist — ouroboros, for those who lack her formidable vocabulary, refers to a snake swallowing its own tail — but her intent is generous ... Her faith is quite possibly unrealistic, but couched in Messud’s lucid, quietly fiery prose, it’s also inspiring ... Messud communicates that inner life and the outer trappings of her peripatetic childhood with marvelous particularity, capturing in palpable, resonant detail various family homes and intricate familial interactions ... astute ... Progressing from Messud’s autobiographical essays through her criticism, we come to understand what she most values in art.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeSouder’s account of Steinbeck’s youth in Salinas, Calif., vividly evokes the landscape \'between the mountains and by the sea\' that nurtured his love of nature, as well as his burgeoning urge to write ... [an] appreciative yet clear-eyed assessment.
RaveThe Washington Post... the pandemic is simply a backdrop for Donoghue’s searing portrait of women’s lives scarred by poverty and too many pregnancies in a society that proclaims ... From these dark materials, Donoghue has fashioned a tale of heroism that reads like a thriller, complete with gripping action sequences, mortal menaces and triumphs all the more exhilarating for being rare and hard-fought ... Many novels depict the brotherhood of men at war. Donoghue celebrates the sisterhood of women bringing life into the world and those who help them along this perilous journey. ... The Pull of the Stars closes with a final surge of plain-spoken poetry.
PositiveThe Washington PostOur national history and literature are Norman Lock’s playground ... from such dark materials, Lock fashions surprisingly entertaining fiction ... By the time Ellen, Margaret, Anthony and Stanton board Barnum’s private train for Memphis, where the baby is to be \'sacrifice[d] at the foot of the fiery cross,\' readers may well feel as \'overwhelmed with absurdity\' as Ellen ... Lock isn’t striving for credibility in the events that erupt from there, or for an emotional response to the fraught subject of an infant’s abduction and threatened murder. He aims to make palpable Barnum’s contention that \'history is one smashup piled on top of another, the shards glued together with irony.\' Since Barnum proves to be both the plot’s deus ex machina and the deliverer of the novel’s most terrifying speech, we may conclude that Lock expects us to keep an ironic distance as well. The belated revelation of the cause of Ellen’s delusions is almost beside the point ... an ambitious book that sprawls over some material that could have been better developed, in particular the intermittent attempts to see race relations through the lens of a minstrel show. Nonetheless, this provocative, funny and sobering novel makes another valuable addition to Norman Lock’s impressive body of work ... Despite the American Novels’ dark subject matter, their impact is exhilarating as well as scarifying. In American Follies as in its predecessors, Lock’s supple, elegantly plain-spoken prose captures the generosity of the American spirit in addition to its moral failures, and his passionate engagement with our literary heritage evinces pride in its unique character possibly equal to his chagrin over our bloodstained past.
PositiveThe Washington PostDoctors seem to have a great deal of control over the woman they supervise, but Mackintosh keeps the details deliberately vague, intensifying the mood of generalized dread ... Without delving into specifics, Mackintosh creates a hostile environment that deforms all relationships ... Blue Ticket is not about whether women should have babies but about what happens to human beings when their ability to choose is denied. When Calla is finally offered a choice, it’s a terrible one, and Mackintosh gives her only the smallest modicum of hope to lessen its bleakness. Written in cool, clinical prose parceled out in short paragraphs separated by lots of white space, Blue Ticket does not aim to stir our emotions, even though it deals with emotionally fraught material. Mackintosh traffics in ambivalence and ambiguity, suitable tools for charting Calla’s hesitant progress toward, if not self-knowledge, at least knowledge of what she is looking for.
RaveThe Boston GlobeLacking personal particulars, Boin paints a richly detailed portrait of the world in which Alaric maneuvered, defined by the thrashings of an empire in turmoil ... It is by now common wisdom among academics that the Germanic peoples whose incursions contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire were seeking to be part of it, not to destroy it. Boin conveys this scholarly insight to general readers in a cogent, readable text that vividly conveys the fear and confusion that surrounded the issue of immigrants’ rights in a period of declining Roman power. He draws the contemporary parallels with a freedom that teeters on the brink of overstatement, but his handling of the relocated Gothic boys’ deaths is characteristic of his bold yet scrupulous reading of ancient sources.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeWalter Johnson doesn’t mince words in his blistering new book ... an outraged dissection of a malignant pattern Johnson discerns in the way white St. Louis treated Native Americans and then Blacks, a pattern he sees as relevant to us all ... It’s a shameful story, and Johnson tells it lucidly in appropriate detail. Readers who pay attention will emerge from his book knowing a lot more ... Johnson\'s...occasionally simplistic ... Mind you, Johnson backs up his assertions with documentation, though he sometimes over-reads the evidence ... Overheated and overstated though it sometimes is, Johnson’s narrative is also comprehensive and convincing in its particulars ... A more measured tone might make The Broken Heart of America more persuasive for readers who don’t already share Johnson’s views, but there’s no denying his moral passion, or the terrible history that inflames it.
RaveThe Boston GlobeValentine is an angry novel, a blast of feminist outrage against a toxic culture that breeds racism and violence against women. The narrative hurtles forward with urgency of a thriller, and it emulates the darkest spy fiction by making it painfully apparent that the good guys are at least as likely as the bad guys to be punished. Elizabeth Wetmore’s mingled love and fury for her native West Texas electrifies her prose; despite its grim subject matter, her first novel is exhilarating to read, because the characters are so alive, the drama that engages them so compelling ... interconnected stories play out against the backdrop of a harsh, lonely land lovingly evoked by Wetmore ... She’s not painting a pretty picture here, but it’s palpably real, and her characters’ grit and resilience infuse the novel with a spirit of hard-won resolution ... a gripping, galvanizing tale from a strong new voice in American fiction.
PositiveThe Washington PostCromwell is still a nimble operator, and Mantel provides many scenes — a few too many, in the novel’s overstuffed middle section — of the elaborate maneuvering that also enlivened her first two Booker Prize-winning volumes ... As always, Mantel is clear-eyed yet compassionate in depicting her coldly calculating, covertly idealistic protagonist and the equally complex people he encounters in his rise and fall from power. Dense with resonant metaphors and alive with discomfiting ideas, The Mirror and the Light provides a fittingly Shakespearean resolution to Mantel’s magisterial work.
PositiveThe Philadelphia InquirerThe past catches up with Thomas Cromwell in the searing finale of Hilary Mantel’s magnificent trilogy ... she builds suspense by turning us into alarmed onlookers who want desperately to seize him by the shoulders and cry, \'Don’t you see what’s happening?\' Cromwell is still a nimble operator, and Mantel provides many scenes—a few too many, in the novel’s overstuffed middle section—of the elaborate maneuvering that also enlivened her first two Booker Prize-winning volumes ... As always, Mantel is clear-eyed yet compassionate in depicting her coldly calculating, covertly idealistic protagonist and the equally complex people he encounters in his rise and fall from power. Dense with resonant metaphors and alive with discomfiting ideas, The Mirror and the Light provides a fittingly Shakespearean resolution to Mantel’s magisterial work.
RaveThe Boston GlobeFamily ties have always been a central focus of Anne Enright’s probing, gorgeously written fiction, and her new novel examines two in eloquent detail ... Though the tone here is generally dark, Enright is bitingly funny about academic jargon and other forms of blather ... Enright’s unflinching portrait...is scrupulously developed and painfully moving ... Enright is too discerning an artist to make blanket assertions about human nature or human behavior, and her characters are too vibrant to be neatly categorized.
PositiveThe Washington PostKrivak’s gorgeous descriptions suggest a world that has returned to its proper equilibrium and rightful inhabitants ... shares with its predecessors a preoccupation with loss and endurance, themes explored here in a more mythic style still firmly grounded in physical reality. Any shadow of preciousness is quickly dispelled by the clarity of Krivak’s prose and the precision with which he delineates the girl’s struggles during a bitter winter when she is once again alone ... Krivak reminds us of the extraordinary knowledge and discipline those skills require in detailed, virtually step-by-step accounts of tasks from making snowshoes to skinning a deer and harvesting its carcass for food. Depicting the drama of her daily efforts to survive, The Bear demonstrates its kinship with such classic coming-of-age-in-the-wild tales as My Side of the Mountain and Island of the Blue Dolphins ... Krivak’s serene and contemplative novel invites us to consider a vision of time as circular, of existence as grand and eternal beyond the grasp of individuals — and of a world able to outlive human destructiveness.
RaveThe Boston GlobeGish Jen’s fifth novel imagines a dystopia so chillingly plausible ... [a] gripping tale of a family confronting the digitally empowered authoritarian state ... Jen doesn’t over-explain individual elements of her richly textured dystopia; she assumes we can deduce the meanings of her bitingly witty neologisms ... Over the course of three decades, Jen’s social and psychological observations have only sharpened, while her marvelous humor has darkened ... amusing but vaguely menacing, frequently with a sting to follow ... Jen’s closing pages invite optimism about the prospects for change[.]
RaveNewsday... full-bodied ... a large cast of characters delineated with Erdrich’s customary vibrancy and wit ... Grittily realistic about the problems faced by modern Indians, The Night Watchman is also steeped in ancient folkways that acknowledge no arbitrary division between the physical and spirit worlds ... embraces the multifaceted nature of human experience and adds a valuable new chapter to this fine writer’s career-long project: tracing in richly individual details the complex variety of Native American lives while also paying tribute the web of relationships and traditions that sustain them as a collective.
RaveThe Washington PostCesare reaches a bleakly transcendent conclusion ... Uncompromising to the last, Charyn allows a surprising redemption that is swiftly punished ... Cesare’s clear-eyed tour of Nazi Germany’s moral contradictions and complexities acknowledges the truth in that statement. But it also acknowledges unlikely kindnesses and loyalties as tenacious as they are conflicted. And no matter how wrenching the subject, Charyn’s blunt, brilliantly crafted prose bubbles with the pleasure of nailing life to the page in just the right words. Cesare is by no means lightweight fare, but it’s provocative, stimulating and deeply satisfying.
RaveThe Boston Globe... [a] fine new work which reminds us that what’s important about Emily Dickinson is that she wrote some of the greatest poetry in the English language ... Ackmann makes good use of scholarship that has long recognized her as an unconventional, formally inventive artist. The subtitle’s Ten Pivotal Moments prove a useful organizing principle ... provides with panache in a lucid narrative grounded in solid research colored by appreciative warmth ... Ackmann’s insights are unfailingly fresh and vivid, evidence of a profound personal affinity for her subject ... palpable, exciting, and accessible.
Julie Des Jardins
MixedThe Boston GlobeThroughout her life, Meloney forged connections with major political and cultural figures in her professional capacities, then deepened them into personal relationships with her warm, engaging manner. Her biography reveals a good deal about mass media and women’s evolving role in society in the first half of the 20th century, and Des Jardins capably weaves together these narrative strands. But sometimes you want to pat the author’s hand and tell her to relax and stop trying so hard to convince us of her subject’s importance ... Meloney’s moderate politics and ladylike strategies were hardly surprising for a woman born into respectable middle-class circumstances in Kentucky in 1878, but they seem to embarrass Des Jardins, who compensates with a mix of defensiveness and overstatement ... It’s flat-out absurd to claim that in 1920, as the editor of a popular women’s magazine, \'Missy had engaged women as political beings more than anyone else before her\' ... Fortunately, when Des Jardins gets off her hobbyhorse she is an effective chronicler and astute analyst of Meloney’s life and work.
PositiveThe Washington Post... [an] ambitious, formally complex debut ... Jin sometimes flags her themes with undue insistence ... there are...moments in the novel when a character seems to speak more as the author’s mouthpiece than from credible personal motives. Nonetheless, Little Gods gains plausibility and texture as it progresses ... Discontinuous but complementary, the three monologues accumulate to paint a powerful, poignant portrait of a woman crippled by her fear of looking back ... Liya’s voice is less compelling, muffled by some heavy plot lifting as she seeks the father whose identity has already been revealed to readers. It doesn’t help that Jin pulls back abruptly to a third-person narrative for the enigmatic, too-brief completion of Liya’s odyssey. Sketchy and muddled though this section is, there’s a haunting poetry to Jin’s final images ... Little Gods marks a bold first step for a novelist who promises to give us even finer work in the future.
MixedThe Boston GlobeCole Porter’s admirers will approach this collection of his correspondence eagerly, anticipating the same sophisticated wit that sparkles in the lyrics of Anything Goes or Let’s Misbehave ... Those elements are all there in The Letters of Cole Porter, but in fairly small doses substantially supplemented by other people’s words ... There aren’t many long, gossipy letters of the sort that make fellow composer/lyricist Noël Coward’s published correspondence such a delight. Porter’s letters mostly buttress the reputation he acquired early in life of being difficult to know, despite his affable manner and nonstop socializing. The collection’s editors, two British musical scholars, compensate with extended commentary giving biographical context, some contemporary press coverage, and a considerable number of letters from friends, collaborators, and business associates. The result, appropriately published by a university press, is an informative but patchy volume that will appeal more to scholars and extremely dedicated fans than to casual readers ... It’s possible to wish that Porter had been a more loquacious and self-revealing correspondent, but his editors have done their best to provide a framework that enables readers to appreciate the letters we do have as intermittent glimpses into the life and craft of a legendary American songwriter.
PositiveThe Chicago TribuneRebecca Makkai tips her hat to a shelf-load of children\'s literature, offering sly echoes of everything from Charlotte\'s Web by E.B. White to Where\'s Spot? By Eric Hill, while crafting her own distinctive sound in a first novel definitely not for kids. Makkai avoids almost all the pitfalls of debut fiction, including sentimentality and undigested autobiography, and though her plotting isn\'t as deft as her characterizations, the wonderfully nuanced closing pages more than make up for the occasional longueurs that precede them ... The momentum sags a good deal along the way ... What holds our interest is Lucy\'s sardonic, self-doubting narrative voice, and her refreshingly astringent relationship with Ian ... every conflicted word Lucy utters in Makkai\'s probing novel reminds us that literature matters because it helps us discover ourselves while exploring the worlds of others.
MixedThe Washington Post... not always quite as clever as the author intends, but it has plenty of energy to atone for its predictable satiric targets and some real emotional heft to counter the whiffs of pretentiousness ... very familiar stuff, and it’s not entirely persuasive that Owen agrees to a collaboration with Kurt that he knows is exploitative ... This brand of wit largely depends on readers patting themselves on the back for getting the references. If they don’t get it, or don’t care, then meant-to-be-hilarious set pieces fall flat ... It comes awfully late in the novel, but Professor Burr’s painful concern for his son finally provides a ballast of recognizable feeling to anchor the airy intellectualizing. A lot of plot is required to get father and son separately to Iceland, but it’s worth it for their moving reunion ... Wonderful passages of vivid prose and pungent dialogue occur throughout, although they too often make overly obvious points. Chancellor’s knowing catalogue of the market-driven imperatives of the art world and the academy isn’t as fresh as his way with words. He still has some thematic growing-up to do. The marvelous Iceland chapters — earthy and ruefully funny, warm yet coolly aware of absurdity — suggest that he’s already on his way.
PositiveNewsday... lively thumbnail histories ... fun facts abound ... each one thoughtfully chosen and vividly depicted ... The book is necessarily highly selective...Still, it seems odd not to have anything constructed after 1936 ... Surely the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, an exemplary urban pushback against the post-World War II mania for highway building, deserves a spot as a monument to New Yorkers’ love of walking. Also, given the current ferocious debate over whether it should be closed while the Brooklyn Queens Expressway it was built to cover is repaired, the Promenade demonstrates the complex issues raised by each shift in the city’s ever-evolving landscape ... Each reader is likely to think of a meaningful structure that should have been included, and that’s just what Roberts wants. His declared goal is \'to stimulate debate\'; he invites readers to submit their own lists. Meanwhile, his own list provides much food for thought and an enjoyable portrait of New York as embodied in 27 key landmarks of its built environment.
PositiveThe Washington Post... slick, entertaining ... gossipy text, studded with juicy anecdotes. This once-over-lightly approach is perhaps appropriate, given that Stritch was not inclined to introspection ... Consistency doesn’t unduly concern Jacobs if it gets in the way of a good one-liner ... Jacobs’s show-by-show narrative captures the professional life of a working actor in the commercial theater ... Stritch’s tumultuous life and career make an absorbing story, which Jacobs tells briskly and readably. Readers looking for something deeper than the standard showbiz biography will wish that Still Here displayed greater empathy and insight when discussing Stritch’s frequently bad behavior, so obviously rooted in insecurities and anxieties whose origins Jacobs might have done more to explore. For those content with a capable recounting of a colorful life, Still Here will do just fine.
RaveThe Washington PostAmanda Coplin’s somber, majestic debut arrives like an urgent missive from another century. Steeped in the timeless rhythms of agriculture, her story unfolds in spare language as her characters thrash against an existential sense of meaninglessness ... Coplin’s saga of a makeshift family unmoored by loss should be depressing, but, instead, her achingly beautiful prose inspires exhilaration ... In fewer than 100 pages, Coplin has established the brooding central theme for the rest of her novel: People don’t get over their losses and failures; they try to make up for them in disastrous ways ... Angelene’s final epiphany equals in stark grandeur similar scenes in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Pat Barker’s Another World — heady company for a first novelist, but Coplin’s talent merits such comparisons.
PositiveThe Boston Globe... Williams balances carefully between nostalgia and clear-eyed realism ... vivid character sketches abound ... Jumbling chronology and interjecting retrospective opinions as everyone does when remembering the past, Noe warmly evokes a village immersed in the timeless rhythms of nature and the rituals of the Catholic Church, counterpointed by blunt depictions of the bone-deep fatalism of people who know that outsiders view them as backward ... gorgeous flights of lyrical description ... Noe’s musings may occasionally dip into sentimentality, but it’s honest sentiment honestly acquired from his embrace of the full spectrum of human experience — a lesson he learned during the transformative months eloquently captured in Niall Williams’s tender, touching novel.
PositiveThe Boston Globe... a good set-up, fraught with unresolved emotions and promising undertones for future amplification ... Lillian is impressively, perhaps improbably well-informed about her motivations. Despite the antic humor and bizarre details that give Wilson’s fiction a postmodern spin, he is at heart a traditional novelist who carefully connects plot point A to plot point B on his way to a carefully worked-out resolution ... Lillian’s bond with the twins is never quite as interesting, though Wilson portrays it with a pleasing blend of tartness and tenderness, simply because Madison is by far the novel’s most interesting character ... a satisfying ending, steeped in a very human mix of ambivalence and optimism. Wilson’s ability to capture such tangled sentiments makes him a thoroughly engaging and appealing writer.
RaveThe Washington PostPrice, a poet and the author of two previous works of fiction, emulates the lucid, courtly cadences of Tomasi’s prose and hews closely to the known biographical facts, but he makes this material his own. Lampedusa illuminates the complex connections between life and art, winding through Tomasi’s memories to reveal that his loving, profoundly sad depiction of 19th-century Sicily was rooted in 20th-century experiences of war, dislocation and loss ... Price depicts the creative process with precision balanced by respect for its mysteries ... As Giuseppe’s health worsens, the narrative surges and recedes with his memories. It’s particularly fascinating to see him grapple with the shadow of his imperious, furious mother, dead for more than 10 years but still powerfully present ... An unsparing yet tender portrait that makes Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa as compelling as his great novel.
PositiveNewsdayJoining the broderers brings Violet new friends and a sense of purpose, Chevalier demonstrates, as she neatly — sometimes too neatly — lays out a plot that confronts Violet with sexism, homophobia and a stalker who would be scarier if his motive was more specific than free-floating menace. The characterizations are also broad, but vivid ... Drawing on her customary thorough research, Chevalier provides nicely evocative detail about different embroidery stitches and the imaginative designs created by Miss Pesel (a historic figure). She also offers a crash course in the ancient art of church bell ringing ... Tracy Chevalier once again proves herself a reflective and generous crafter of smart, thoughtful popular fiction.
RaveThe Washington PostElliptical, elusive and endlessly stimulating ... packs an astonishing amount into 200 pages ... a brilliantly constructed jigsaw puzzle of meaning that will leave readers wondering how much they can ever truly know.
RaveLos Angeles TimesIt is a searing account of ambition derailed by personal demons...It is a painful depiction of \'greatness comically humbled\'...Most of all, it is a triumphant drama of \'political genius in action\' ... Caro combines the skills of a historian, an investigative reporter and a novelist in this searching study of the transformative effect of power — its possession, its loss, its restoration — on the character and destiny of a man who from his teens had one overriding goal: to be president of the United States ... With each volume (a fifth is promised on Johnson’s final decade), the biography gains a cumulative richness that mostly justifies its length and Caro’s fondness for emphatic repetition, as well as frequent digressions into wonderful background material ... With his habitual clear-eyed assessment of a very flawed human being warmed by appreciation for that unexpected heroism, The Passage of Power quite possibly will stand as Robert Caro’s finest moment as well.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeKing provides a knowledgeable tour through the history of anthropology ... King does not cite examples later than Bloom, but his passionate final exegesis of cultural relativism’s core beliefs makes it clear that he wants us to see their present-day relevance ... his frank depiction of his subjects’ irregular, often troubled lives doesn’t scant the personal toll it sometimes took. Nonetheless, his absorbing book makes a compelling case that the struggle to see other cultures’ and people’s points of view is worth the effort.
PositiveThe Boston Globe...[a] lively, scattershot book ... [Watson] is great fun to read and pleasingly opinionated, with a tendency to wander ... Watson’s academic training is broad-based, encompassing the history of science, philosophy, and the humanities, so it’s not surprising that her book ranges widely. Her best chapter closely examines passages by five wildly different writers...masterfully demonstrate the varied ways individual artists use semicolons to speed up a sentence, slow it down, create energy, suggest mysteries. Watson’s joyful love of language comes through in her marvelous appreciations ... Rambling and idiosyncratic, Semicolon is nonetheless essential reading for anyone who cares about language and its uses.
J. Ryan Stradal
RaveThe Washington Post[An] engaging debut ... Stradal skillfully develops his story in a nonlinear fashion ... It’s a shrewd strategy. Providing Helen’s perspective humanizes her without whitewashing her behavior ... the novel is so rich and satisfying. Characterizations are pleasingly three-dimensional ... The zingers don’t disguise Stradal’s fundamentally optimistic view of human nature, a belief that people can change and virtue can be rewarded, at least sometimes. This generous spirit makes The Lager Queen of Minnesota a pleasure to read and the perfect pick-me-up on a hot summer day.
MixedThe Washington PostThe Ministry of Truth addresses \'the political and cultural life of Nineteen Eighty-Four\' since Orwell’s death, in scattershot fashion. The problem isn’t Lynskey’s judgments, which are generally sound, but the rambling way he develops them and the odd tangents he wanders into ... Lynskey...muddles some interesting analysis of Orwell’s reclamation by the left with a bewilderingly excessive amount of material about Diamond Dogs [by David Bowie] ... Part Two is a mess; it reads like a magazine article that grew but never matured into a coherent overview of the shifting ramifications of Orwell’s most famous novel ... Despite its faults, Lynskey’s jeremiad remains valuable and terrifying for the blistering spotlight it shines on Orwell’s overriding purpose, defined in its title, The Ministry of Truth.
PositiveNewsdaySome of the loose ends [Collins] ostentatiously dangles are so relentlessly hinted at throughout later chapters that it muffles the impact of their resolutions in the closing scenes. These technical flaws are less important than the ferociously unsentimental portrait Collins paints of enslavement both external and internal, voiced by an agonizingly conflicted narrator ... Some readers will be troubled by Collins’ portrait of an enslaved woman consumed with guilt that is not entirely unearned ... not a cheerful book, but its scathing honesty and rivetingly complicated narrator demand attention.
RaveThe Washington PostHallie Rubenhold’s hard-edged, heartbreaking biographies ... [resurrect] these women’s complicated lives through diligent research in public records, Rubenhold aims to restore them to history as full human beings. Equally important, she places them in context within the beleaguered Victorian working class, struggling to survive in the brutal society forged by the Industrial Revolution ... Rubenhold does not pretend her subjects were admirable characters, but she makes a compelling case that \'the cards were stacked against [them] from birth\' ... Her tone is slightly overheated ... But she has a point about the legions of books that speculate endlessly about Jack the Ripper’s identity while displaying scant interest in the five human beings he viciously dispatched. Her riveting work, both compassionate group portrait and stinging social history, finally gives them their due.
PositiveThe Washington PostBurke depicts with intelligent nuance the evolution of the couple’s intertwined personal and professional connection ... Burke eschews feminist outrage, preferring to quote examples of oblivious sexism with no commentary beyond such dry asides as, \'One wonders what Beck thought.\' She shows Salsbury and O’Keeffe determinedly navigating a male-dominated world with the tools at their disposal ... Burke eschews feminist outrage, preferring to quote examples of oblivious sexism with no commentary beyond such dry asides as, \'One wonders what Beck thought.\' She shows Salsbury and O’Keeffe determinedly navigating a male-dominated world with the tools at their disposal ... [Burke\'s] not interested in making grand statements, preferring to focus her sharp analytical skills on explicating in rich detail the complex interactions among four vibrant people during a seminal era in American culture — a task she accomplishes in astute, lucid prose.
RaveThe Washington Post\"Few contemporary writers are as satisfying and stimulating to read as Siri Hustvedt. Her sentences dance with the elation of a brilliant intellect romping through a playground of ideas, and her prose is just as lively when engaged in the development of characters and story. Her wonderful new novel, Memories of the Future, is, among other things, a meditation on memory, selfhood and aging ... Hustvedt’s lovely novel closes by reclaiming one of those people and imagining her soaring over Manhattan, an image of freedom and agency that is always endangered, always to be fought for.\
MixedThe Boston Globe...a vivid chronicle of the suffrage movement that may prove a bit disappointingly thin for some ... That said, Cassidy crafts a lively narrative of the struggle’s final six years, from the Suffrage Parade organized by Paul that filled the streets of Washington the day before Wilson’s inauguration in March 1913 to Senate passage of the amendment in June 1919. (Ratification gets a skimpy seven pages.) She also does a good job sketching Paul’s and Wilson’s lives before they first faced off at a meeting in the Oval Office shortly after the parade. Her cogent sketch of Paul’s youth limns a fiery progressive ... Cassidy’s portrait of Wilson’s early years is less successful as it feels somewhat slanted, emphasizing as it does his Southern roots (he was a child in Georgia during the Civil War) and his defense of slavery and championship of states’ rights ... Cassidy does well with her you-are-there descriptions of the Suffrage Parade and three subsequent meetings between Wilson and suffragists, which led Paul to conclude only militant tactics would prod him to action. Throughout the book, Cassidy draws on contemporary newspaper accounts to colorfully convey what it was like to be in the room or on the streets ... She comes up a bit shorter on analysis and context ... a brisk, readable narrative that would be a pleasure for those who’ve either forgotten or are curious about the saga of women’s suffrage in America. But those seeking a more detailed, thoughtful assessment of the movement and its relevance for 21st-century social justice crusades will be less satisfied.
PositiveThe Boston Globe\"Reading [Houston\'s] warm, reflective book about her beloved Colorado ranch is like sitting down with a friend — and after reading it, you understand why some of Houston’s are so devoted they would drive 10 hours through a blizzard to sit with her over a dying dog, or talk their way through roadblocks to rescue her horses from an oncoming wildfire ... [Houston\'s] writing displays the same attention to particulars demanded by ranch chores. When Houston describes a thunderstorm at high altitude, or the 360-degree view from the top of Copper Mountain, or a first warm day in April, she doesn’t indulge in self-consciously poetic language. Her precise, straightforward prose catalogues vivid physical details that accumulate to give us \'the thing itself\' in its specific beauty ... The emotional core of Houston’s narrative lies in the connections she makes between her desolate childhood and her drive \'to love the damaged world and do what I can to help it thrive.\'\
PositiveThe Boston GlobeHis detailed descriptions of some 100 titles produced by Gorey capture in cleverly turned phrases his distinctive visual style and the brooding emotional atmosphere it creates ... Dery documents several infatuations with men, sufficient to make the point that Gorey would have had gay sex if he had any sex at all. But Dery’s tossed-off comment about The Curious Sofa as \'a shudder of amused revulsion at the ickiness of all sex\' is more illuminating than his labored exegeses of various Gorey works as coded expressions of gay sensibility ... Dery is on firmer ground when he positions such early books as The Listing Attic within \'a groundswell of intellectual discontent with the conformity of ’50s America.\' He’s also informative about Gorey’s participation in the transformation of postwar book publishing as house designer for the pioneering quality-paperback imprint Anchor Books and as an uneasy-making figure hovering on the outskirts of the revolution in children’s books ... Dery’s affectionate tribute to an artist who was \'incomparably, unimprovably himself\' also shows Gorey evoking in his work feelings of alienation, longing, and dread that are perhaps more common than we like to admit.
MixedThe Washington PostWorth the wait. ... an astute account ... a densely packed, sometimes excessively detailed narrative ... It must be noted, with regret, that Giddins has a terrible weakness for unnecessary material ... [an] evocative portrait of a man and a historical moment, which would be even better if it were about 100 pages shorter.
Anne Boyd Rioux
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThe subtitle of Anne Boyd Rioux’s engaging reassessment of Little Women may seem to protest too much ... Rioux has a point, however. As she ruefully acknowledges, 21st-century girls left to their own devices prefer fantasy or dystopian adventures ... these books and movies lack the textured evocation of day-to-day female experience that made Little Women a cherished touchstone for generations of readers—and not just female ones. Rioux names male devotees, including Teddy Roosevelt and James Carville, and argues persuasively that Louisa May Alcott’s nuanced examination of the losses and gains inherent in the process of growing up can strike a chord in readers of any gender ... Rioux’s astute analysis of how a 19th-century bestseller \'devoured by children and adults of both sexes\' was gradually downgraded to just-for-girls status will surprise no one who read her excellent Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist a similar blend of biography and cultural history ... Rioux’s affectionate and perceptive tribute asserts, that we should still be reading a warm, entertaining novel that suggests ways we can get there.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeJell-O heir Allie Rowbottom’s keening book is at its core an act of devotion to her mother, Mary ... What gives her text its emotional force is the interweaving of this material with her own personal stories and those of her mother ... Mary saw herself and the afflicted girls as equally victims of a patriarchal order that expected women to be as sweet and smooth as Jell-O ... These ideas seem a tad schematic at first, as does Rowbottom’s account of her grandmother Midge’s short life ... The narrative moves onto stronger ground with Mary’s youth ... What lingers most after reading Jell-O Girls, however, is Rowbottom’s moving portrait of abiding mother-daughter love.
MixedThe Boston GlobeAs she demonstrated in her two previous novels... Blum is an ambitious writer who likes to tackle serious subjects, as she does [in The Lost Family]. While there are parts of the book that are undeniably compelling, stumbles in execution prevent this new work from really taking off and soaring.
MixedThe Boston Globe...we might feel more sympathy for Lucy if she weren’t so sure that her perception...makes her superior to all those oblivious people who manage the chores of daily living at which she’s so proudly inept ... [Broder\'s] drawn such a persuasive portrait of someone mired in a toxic blend of self-loathing and twisted self-regard that it’s hard to believe Lucy will ever find something outside herself to embrace — except that nothingness, back for two final bows in the last paragraph. Sharply observed and often bleakly funny, The Pisces, like its anti-heroine, is encased in a carefully constructed private universe that anyone with a broader perspective is likely to find stifling.
RaveThe Boston Globe\"McNamara, who was granted access to Eunice’s private papers by her family, persuasively speculates that Eunice’s advocacy for the intellectually disabled sprang in part from her guilt about acceding to this silence ... Her vivid biography is neither a hagiography nor a hatchet job, but a frank and nuanced assessment of a complicated woman ... McNamara’s blunt depiction of Eunice’s flaws by no means diminishes her. Rather, it prompts admiration for her ability to channel anger and frustration into a life dedicated to the causes she believed in ... Famous for her indifference to such social niceties as good grooming and good manners, she would likely have appreciated Eileen McNamara’s forthright portrait.\
Todd S. Purdum
PositiveThe Washington PostGiven how large Rodgers and Hammerstein have loomed over the theatrical landscape, and how many books have been published about them, is there anything really new to say? Well, no, but Todd S. Purdum offers a great introduction for newbies and enough fresh insights to engage readers familiar with the story ... The most distinctive aspect of Purdum’s portrait is his attention to the oddly distant relations between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, despite the united front they presented to the world. Each confessed late in life he had never really known what the other thought of him ... Purdum demonstrates that R&H were committed artists operating comfortably within commercial parameters ... This appreciative survey of their joint achievements might not break new ground, but it is a welcome return to theatrical territory that always rewards further exploration.
RaveThe Washington PostBalancing Acts, Hytner’s shrewd and engaging memoir of his 12 years at the National, makes it clear that from the moment he took charge in 2003 his mission was to shake up the traditional repertory and make it as broadly popular as a blockbuster musical ... All were the results of a collaborative creative process made palpable in Hytner’s vivid account. He has a particularly keen appreciation of scenic designers’ vital contributions in shaping physical space to illuminate a play’s themes ...also acknowledges the directors who gave the National a scope beyond his own tastes... The key to making that connection is the actor, and many of the best pages in his memoir contain Hytner’s perceptive and appreciative sketches of English masters... This generous, pragmatic spirit is what makes Balancing Acts not just a colorful theatrical memoir but a rousing statement of theatrical faith.
MixedThe Boston GlobeThe subject matter will be familiar to his readers: the stern ethos of military life, the equally stern imperatives of literature, the exhilarating rigors of extreme sport, the civilized joys of France, good times and changing times in Aspen, complex sexual and emotional negotiations between men and women ...Salter’s attitude toward women generally, an aspect of this beautifully written and generally appealing anthology likely to make many readers squirm ...faint note of regret is unmistakable and several italicized passages... There’s much to admire in the values Salter conveys with such lucidity in his work and in the unflinchingly honesty with which he voices more tangled, less admirable feelings ...the product of his personal background and his historical moment, which come alive for better and worse in this evocative, sometimes maddening collection.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeAs he chronicles the popularization of French food in America during the decades after World War II, Justin Spring describes in luscious detail some fabulous meals, helpfully annotated for those who have no clue what poularde à la vapeur de Lucien Tendret or rissolettes of foie gras Carisse might be … Spring’s mixed feelings about the process of making French food accessible are most evident in his scathing take-down of M.F.K Fisher for self-mythologizing, carelessness with facts, and sloppiness with recipes, especially as manifested in The Cooking of Provincial France … The broad outline of Spring’s thesis is so persuasive, the details so evocative (not to mention mouth watering), that anyone interested in the evolution of cooking and eating in America will find The Gourmand’s Way informative and indispensable.
RaveThe Washington PostHis lovely new book, An Odyssey, draws on all Mendelsohn’s talents as he braids critical exegeses into intimate reminiscences to illuminate them both ... An Odyssey is very much a book about the power and purpose of education. Some of its most affecting pages pay warm tribute to the high school teachers who mentored Mendelsohn when he was a lonely gay teenager, and to the classics professors who invited him to join 'this vast lineage of scholarship' that stretches 'in a more or less unbroken line all the way back to ancient times.'”
PanThe Boston GlobeThroughout the book, Gopnik is torn between his desire to self-deprecatingly proclaim '[m]y inadequacy as hero of the city or even the story' and his need to spotlight the hip social circles he moves in, name-dropping along the way artists David Salle, Eric Fischl, and Jeff Koons, as well as the art critic Robert Hughes, in addition to the aforementioned Avedon and Varnedoe. The unstated implication is that these important, interesting people sense the special qualities of our modest nonhero. Gopnik describes himself on more than one occasion as a simple storyteller whose only gift is for 'spinning tales,' but simple stories are greatly outnumbered by blustery aphorisms ... If only he could relax and trust his keen eye for character and atmosphere.
RaveThe Washington PostJessie Burton’s accomplished first novel is many things — a deftly plotted mystery, a feminist coming-of-age drama and a probing investigation of marriage. Burton evokes the sights, sounds and smells of 17th-century Amsterdam as she brings to life a cast of sensitively rendered characters, each longing to be free … The novel’s central journey is Nella’s maturation, and it goes grimly hand in hand with the suffering of people she has come to love. Burton gives her narrative the propulsive drive of a thriller, but her distinctive prose conveys deeper, harder answers than a whodunit. This fine historical novel mirrors the fullness of life, in which growth and sorrow inevitably are mingled.
RaveThe Washington PostFrom the first page of A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki plunges us into a tantalizing narration that brandishes mysteries to be solved and ideas to be explored ... Ozeki masterfully develops the two parallel stories, creating a virtual dialogue between the blocked writer and the diarist...plenty of Japanese pop culture, juicily but scathingly portrayed as exploitative of vulnerable young women and a tool in the enforcement of conformism ... She finishes off her dazzling tapestry of metaphor and meaning with a short, tender letter from Ruth to Nao. This erudite author knows that in the end, the most important truths are simple.
RaveThe Washington PostThere will be plenty of fresh corpses by the time Hilary Mantel’s narrative completes its mordant course through the nine months required to send Anne Boleyn to the scaffold and clear the way for Henry’s new love, Jane Seymour … The reader’s problem, deliberately created by Mantel, is that we know Cromwell too intimately to hate him for his terrible deeds. We understand the stark imperative that drives him: Satisfy the king or be thrown to the aristocratic wolves. We feel his bleak acceptance of guilt that is no less onerous for being unavoidable. The past he has shared with us ‘lies about him like a burnt house’ … The pleasures of Bring Up the Bodies — and they are abundant, albeit severe — reside in Mantel’s artistic mastery. She animates history with a political and psychological acuity equal to Tolstoy’s in War and Peace.
MixedThe Boston GlobePlausibility will not likely concern readers unfamiliar with details of the case (or the mores of Victorian New England) and even those who are can appreciate the atmosphere of brooding dread and lurking neurosis that Schmidt creates ... The characters’ memories and grievances conjure up decades but restricting the physical action to two days (with a single late-chapter exception) conveys a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment appropriate to her tale of seething jealousies and familial love and hate inextricably intertwined ... Whodunit is not really the point here, and the trouble with this well-crafted but surprisingly unengaging novel is that it’s not clear what alternative point Schmidt might have in mind ... The Borden murders are among a number of crimes whose particulars are so logistically complicated and psychologically suggestive that any fictional version tends to pale in comparison, except when it’s utterly bizarre. See What I Have Done can be read with some enjoyment but is neither weird enough nor profound enough to rival the fascinations of the real-life story.
PositiveThe Washington PostAlameddine’s erudite narrator, Aaliya Saleh, enfolds her personal story within the 20th-century history of her beloved Beirut, battered by decades of war. She sings the glories of literature and scorns the stupidities of human beings. She critiques the sexism of Arab society and is no less scathing about the smug ignorance of Americans ...much of the wonderful humor in An Unnecessary Woman comes from her pithy contempt for those who fail to live up to its sacred precepts ... Her marvelous descriptions of Beirut, where a circuitous old street 'wiggles its hips quite a bit,' contain a note of wistfulness over the way she stands apart from the crowd ...her interior journey is all the plot this novel really needs. It throbs with energy because her memories are so vivid and her voice so vital ... Alameddine has given us a marvelously cranky heroine, gruffly vulnerable and engagingly self-mocking.
RaveThe Boston Globe...a lovely meditation on the mysteries of creativity and its costs, not just to creators, but to those who surround them ... It’s a pleasure to be in the hands of a consummate storyteller, and Glass’s mastery is particularly evident in her skillful use of Morty’s obvious but never overbearing resemblance to the late Maurice Sendak...From this factual scaffolding Glass constructs a fully imagined fictional figure. The traumas that inform Morty’s art are quite different from those Sendak acknowledged to his biographer; more importantly, they resonate with the experiences of other characters as three-dimensional and engaging as he is ... Avoiding clichés about tortured, exploitative genius, Glass crafts a thoughtful, warm-hearted tale about the choices each of us makes, with consequences inevitably both good and bad.
RaveThe Washington PostHilary Mantel has created a novel both fresh and finely wrought: a brilliant portrait of a society in the throes of disorienting change, anchored by a penetrating character study of Henry's formidable advisor, Thomas Cromwell … Mantel's choice of protagonist signals her intelligence and artistic ambition...Historians have long acknowledged Cromwell as the administrative genius who transformed a medieval fiefdom into a modern nation-state, but only an exceedingly bold novelist could envision this odyssey as the stuff of gripping fiction … The present-tense narrative thrusts us into history, not as a stately procession of inevitable events, but a dynamic process shaped by an unstable agglomeration of individual wills, mass movements and random chance … Wolf Hall is uncompromising and unsentimental, though alert readers will detect an underlying strain of gruff tenderness.
RaveNewsdayEgan's ability to mingle the troubling issues of the Internet age with eternal human questions about the nature of self and the consequences of compromise, evident in such earlier works as Look at Me and The Keep, reach a new level of strength and simplicity here. A Visit From the Goon Squad reaffirms her stature as one of our most thoughtful and exciting writers.
RaveThe Boston GlobeOne of Attenberg’s great gifts as a writer is her ability to create characters who aren’t necessarily likeable but are wincingly credible and vulnerable ... Attenberg stays true to her protagonist’s honesty in a painfully moving final scene that suggests hope but makes no promises. Has Andrea finally discovered empathy and rediscovered her calling as a painter? Or has she temporarily been jolted loose from her habitual self-absorption, which will reabsorb her once these extreme circumstances pass? Based on the evidence All Grown Up provides, the latter is more likely. Based on the powerful emotions Jami Attenberg excavates and elicits, we hope for the former.
RaveThe Boston Globe...In her graceful biographies, Patricia Bosworth has written with sensitive restraint about artists whose self-destructive lives often attract lurid coverage, including Montgomery Clift and Diane Arbus...So it’s a pleasure but not entirely a surprise to report that in her new memoir Bosworth writes about her own life with the same nonjudgmental candor ... Bosworth provides colorful snapshots of the Studio’s starry membership in its heyday, from Ben Gazzara and Elaine Stritch (at the time a boozy couple) to Steve McQueen (on a motorcycle, naturally) and Arthur Penn (acidly depicted as a sadistic bully). Despite the big-name cameos, this is an unsentimental account of life as a journeyman actor ... Self-pity is all too common in memoirs of family dysfunction, but Bosworth eschews it in favor of self-knowledge. Her lucid, low-key prose is nothing like Mary Karr’s salty Texas snap, but The Men in My Life shares with The Liars’ Club the distinction of describing a turbulent coming-of-age with the nuance and acuity that real lives deserve.
MixedThe Boston Globe...a vivid snapshot of American intellectual life on the verge of the Civil War ... Displaying a flair for evocative scene setting, Fuller begins with a single copy of On the Origin of Species passed around over dinner in Concord on New Year’s Day, 1860 ... Fuller cogently follows the propagation in America of Darwin’s ideas (with distinctly American adaptations) via literary publications like the Dial ... The Book That Changed America strains to cram all of American culture into Fuller’s thematic straitjacket; he does much better when he sticks to Americans who actually were galvanized by On the Origin of Species ... If all Fuller’s explications were this persuasive, his book would be transformative cultural history. As it stands, The Book That Changed America is provocative but over-determined special pleading.
RaveThe Boston GlobeA serious participant in both artistic and scientific communities, Hustvedt brings a refreshingly interdisciplinary perspective to bear on each ... Readers of her 2012 essay collection, Living, Thinking, Looking, will recognize many of the themes here, but this time they have an even sharper feminist edge ... her provocative and probing essays encourage us to keep asking questions and distrust easy answers.
MixedThe Boston GlobeNapoli’s prose at times verges on purple, and her book’s organization can kindly be described as impressionistic, but there’s no denying the storytelling appeal ... [Napoli has a] tendency to skate over the surface of her subjects’s psyches with just enough perceptiveness to inspire the wish that she would go deeper ... Napoli’s portrait of Joan in her final two decades, impulsively writing multimillion-dollar checks and dispatching her private jet 'like a pickup truck' to run personal errands for friends, is charming and engaging. It’s also meandering and occasionally baffling.
PositiveThe Washington PostAmazingly, from this mishmash of materials (including a fair dose of liberal platitudes), Lamb manages to spin a family yarn compelling enough so that you may not notice that the life-on-film conceit drops away about 100 pages short of the end ... his affection for these characters is so palpable, his intentions so palpably good, that it’s hard not to be touched by this sweet-natured novel.
PositiveThe Boston Globe...as Kamensky makes clear in her intelligent and substantive analyses of his paintings and drawings, Copley’s art captured the zeitgeist of both his native land and the nation in which he lived the second half of his life ... Kamensky captures [this world] in all its political and moral messiness.
Blanche Wiesen Cook
PanNewsday...this account of her wartime efforts on behalf of liberal democracy would have had more impact in a better-proportioned book ... Even Cook’s assessment of the Roosevelts’ fraught marriage seems tired here...Cook’s dislike of FDR as a person — glib, calculating, and secretive where his wife was sincere, honest and occasionally maladroit — is obvious ... It’s hard to resist the conclusion that she simply ran out of steam on this project. This bloated yet truncated volume brings to a disheartening close the work of groundbreaking scholarship launched with such promise.
RaveThe Washington Post...stories are empty without heart and soul, and Jiles gives us plenty of both as she renders the pain of loss and the power of words for an old man and a young girl who don’t really belong anywhere anymore ... Jiles grounds her characters’ metaphysical musings in a starkly realistic portrait of the lawless Texas landscape ... Even staunch pacifists may find it hard to resist being thrilled by Jiles’s intoxicating, blow-by-blow account of the way this unlikely pair, outmanned and outgunned, outwit and wreak bloody vengeance on their opponents ... Her lovely and tender novel affirms that the news of the world can be good, if we strive together to make it so.
PositiveThe Boston Globe...a sprawling, wildly ambitious novel into which Penkov crams centuries of history and folklore ... By the end, the author’s ambitions have outrun his ability to harness them, but if Stork Mountain is sometimes incoherent, it is seldom dull and always intriguing ... Soaring into the fantastic while claiming an anchor in gritty reality is a tricky artistic strategy, and Penkov doesn’t quite pull it off ... Stork Mountain is by no means perfect, but it’s thoughtful and thought-provoking, with a passionate faith in the redemptive powers of art.
RaveThe Washington PostThis Must Be the Place matches its predecessors for sheer reading pleasure and engagement ... O’Farrell expertly unravels the tangled threads that lead her protagonists to a wrenching confrontation that quite probably will destroy their marriage. This possibility is all the more painful because she has surrounded them with a richly colored supporting cast that would also suffer ... underscore[s] O’Farrell’s principal theme: the struggle to locate our true selves amid the disorderly mess of our lives.
RaveThe Boston Globe\"Claire-Louise Bennett’s unnamed narrator is smart and funny, wickedly observant of her own and others’s quirks, extraordinarily sensitive to her physical surroundings ... The only thing you won’t get from this slim but demanding book is a straightforward recounting of events. Information is doled out piecemeal and in asides. Attentive readers only need apply ... Slowly, seemingly isolated incidents and fleeting references accumulate to form a tentative portrait of someone who has survived a painful, impossible love and a family tragedy ... Mysteries aren’t meant to be solved in this elliptical, elusive text, reminiscent of Joyce and Beckett in its unmistakably Irish blend of earthy wit and existential unease. Yet Bennett does much more than emulate literary forebears. Pond expresses her unique sensibility in deceptively simple, delightfully unsettling prose.\
RaveNewsdayDeath and destruction abound in the apocalyptic finale, but The Sport of Kings closes with a darkly radiant vision of transcendence: a wounded man racing to cross one last river, his arms raised to embrace a beloved too long absent. With this extraordinary work, C.E. Morgan moves into the front rank of contemporary writers.
PositiveThe Washington PostAlice & Oliver has flaws considerably less important than its tough-minded commitment to truth-telling and to honoring the complexities, contradictions and even the cruelties of people under extreme duress. Lasting damage and lasting loyalties are equally part of the human condition, Bock reminds us in an elegantly rueful epilogue set in 2010: Death happens, and life goes on.
Anne Boyd Rioux
PositiveThe Boston GlobeWarmly sympathetic evaluations of Woolson’s fiction may spark reprintings and rereadings, but at the very least, this gentle portrait of a woman who struggled to be true to herself as an artist adds much-needed nuance to American cultural and social history.
PositiveThe Washington Post...Hare’s detailed account of his artistic evolution [gives] us an intelligent, unsentimental glimpse inside the creative process.
PositiveThe Washington PostHis close analysis of craft doubles nicely as an account of the American musical’s evolution over the past century. From Carousel to Hello, Dolly! to Hamilton, we see style and content changing dramatically, even as the tools for conveying new ideas and new musical idioms remain generally the same.
MixedThe Washington PostThat’s a lot of plot, and the unmasking of its 'secret architect,' who has been shaping Lilliet’s destiny since her brothel days, is regrettably anticlimactic. Chee’s novel will best please those who can enjoy its baroque complications without worrying unduly about plausibility, which is arguably a reasonable response to a text imbued with the extravagant ethos of opera.
RaveThe Boston GlobePlanting clues and dangling red herrings as though he were writing a murder mystery, Faulks expertly crafts a harrowing portrait of Hendricks as a man defined by loss: first of his father, then of comrades slaughtered on the battlefields of North Africa and Europe, and finally of the Italian woman he falls in love with towards the war’s close.
PositiveThe Daily BeastAmerica Dancing pays eloquent tribute to that historical tradition, and to the vision of a freer future that set generations of feet in motion.
RaveThe Boston GlobeEthan Michaeli, a white University of Chicago graduate who worked at the paper from 1991 to 1996, traces with intelligence and empathy the Defender’s rise from shoestring origins as a four-page weekly produced in the dining room of Abbott’s landlady.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeTart humor has always been the antidote to Cunningham’s occasional over-investment in his gorgeous prose, and his wicked wit is particularly welcome when directed at those who usually get off scot-free in fairy tales.
MixedThe Boston GlobeRobinson’s variety of Christian faith is appealingly humane and broad-minded, but the dodgy way she often explicates it makes The Givenness of Things inspiring and infuriating in roughly equal measure.
RaveThe Boston Globe“As always, Banville traces this journey of self-discovery in the distinctive language he commands so effortlessly: precise yet evocative, clear-eyed and down-to-earth, yet shimmering with the mutability and mystery of art.”