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 GlobeClaire-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.”