MixedThe Brooklyn RailBy stretching his novel across nearly 600 pages, Franzen has time to provide in-depth narratives on his characters—at times interesting, even compelling, at times not so much ... There is much that is good here. After all, this is Franzen and he is a masterful writer—of character, conflict, suspense, and the narratives of select middle-class white Americans. But after more than 500 pages, I wanted less of Russ and more of Marion and Becky, more of the Navajo and Black Americans, more of an America that isn’t just white and hypocritically Christian.
MixedThe Brooklyn Rail... there seems to be some sexual tension between Alice and Eileen, but it’s perhaps just there to add some much-needed depth. And that’s a part of the problem with this book: it’s very subtle, at times too much so ... (the working class, it seems, is something to do with having a job and nothing to do with the non-white working poor). It becomes an exercise in readerly patience to continue to care about Eileen ... Perhaps this is the point, it can be very confusing to be on the cusp of turning 30, even when you’re privileged. The failure of both female characters to push back against negative behavior...is disappointing. If the reader is expecting a novel about the transition and growth of two young women into more positive, vibrant people, this is not that novel. Instead, it’s a gracefully written study of relationships between four deeply flawed people who try to find love in whatever form works for them.
J. Nicole Jones
PositiveThe Brooklyn RailThere is sharp prose ... There are also some clunky metaphors ... There are distracting asides to the reader ... And some phrases that are just confusing ... There are also phrases that hold the whole thing together ... I had little interest in stories of the hard-drinking, sometimes violent, often broke, outlaw country musician-father and much more interest in the women ... The violence that threads through these pages is brutal: physical and verbal abuse that would leave most of us shattered ... The matter-of-fact way Jones writes about hurricanes is some of the best regional writing in the book ... A difficult, sometimes meandering, but ultimately, powerful debut.
PositiveThe Brooklyn RailIn Jarrar’s new book (a memoir), Trump’s rise to power is an undercurrent as, in over more than 200 pages, across decades, time zones, and borders, Jarrar explores what it is to live as an American who is also Palestinian, a woman, and a woman of a certain size who also self-defines as queer. We can all learn a lot from Jarrar: about racism, privilege, oppression, fat-phobia, sexual violence, and the way this country (and others) treats women. Trump has shown himself to be the monster many of us already knew he was, but he is not the only monster. Jarrar is unsparing in her critique of her ex-husbands, her father, and the systems of power that create and enable violent men ... In the first chapter, Jarrar states that she wants \'to commune with the land I lived on\' and “\'o look at the place that might elect a person like Trump.\' This is not that book: it is not an American road memoir, but it is something much more personal ... Jarrar does not focus just on the broader political narrative; she also presents a deeply personal series of narratives on her own history and her relationship with her body. It is a courageously political act for any woman—especially a woman of color—to openly write about her body, the violence done to it, and how she heals. A central thread that holds this memoir together is the idea of memory, perhaps an obvious statement, but Jarrar stresses that America is an amnesiac country ... There are missed moments here, but this isn’t the book she claims she’s writing in the first chapter. This isn’t a road trip memoir: Jarrar doesn’t explore the map of this country but instead the map of her own body, her relationship with it, and how she/it moves through the world. It is a book of personal exploration and, ultimately, redemption and healing.
MixedThe Brooklyn RailIn this equally exhausting and well-executed debut, Lauren Oyler turns her sharp critical eye on the world of social media—the lies we tell online and the lies we tell ourselves ... Language shifts from immensely run-on sentences—reminiscent of intelligent but overly lengthy blog posts; there is no dialogue, and there is very little in the way of traditional conflict and/or action ... it feels like I’m listening to a very long, circuitous, and not very interesting story told by a privileged and incredibly self-absorbed young woman. Maybe that’s the point: in a world where many people under a certain age live large parts of their lives online, it’s hard for them not to be self-absorbed, and it’s equally hard for the rest of us to care ... That she’s bright is obvious, that she’s both insecure and wildly self-absorbed becomes apparent in many of her statements, including, \'pace yourself, you still have a lot to read,\' which, while meta, is more annoying to the reader than amusing: again, this is likely the point—we aren’t meant to \'like\' her ... There’s a certain appeal in a narrator so unlikeable as to be laughable. And there’s also a certain appeal in Oyler’s playing with structure while signaling that she’s doing so with big flag ... As a first novel, this is both an ambitious project and a difficult read: Oyler is an adept and interesting writer who has successfully created a (mostly) unlikeable and unreliable narrator, while also presenting a deep critique of the ways we communicate.
PositiveThe Brooklyn RailI’ve never been much of a fan of romance novels or novels about relatively privileged young people making their way in the big city, but this is a coming of age romance novel with some compelling twists. This is a queer multi-racial love story and both women come from complex family histories. These elements shift the novel beyond genre to explore elements that held my interest through the lengthy novel ... despite expectations, the novel provides a twist at the end that again shifts it out of genre and into something stronger and more transcendent.
Cristina Rivera Garza, tr. Sarah Booker
RaveThe Brooklyn RailAcross some 200 pages, Garza applies a lingual scalpel to the narrative of systemic violence ... Although Garza’s writing style is easy to enter into and become subsumed by, this collection should be read slowly in parts or sections and not devoured in one sitting (as I did) ... the stories she tells are often simply too painful to read: there needs to be time to stop, to read, to grieve, to repeat, to remember, to move on ... a powerful call to action.
Sayaka Murata, tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori
RaveThe Brooklyn Rail[A] deeply disturbing exploration of one woman’s attempt to try to survive outside cultural norms in Japanese society ... what transpires is both horrifyingly bizarre and wildly transcendent; there are no traditionally romantic \'Earthling\' endings in store ... Murata doesn’t shy away from writing extreme violence (some may be too much for some readers) and at times the graphic gore can seem gratuitous but there are also elements of sharp cultural critique and very dark humor that help to shift this novel into a powerfully good read.
MixedThe Brooklyn Rail... a long, circuitous and often incredibly wordy meditation on love, life, parenthood, family, the lies we tell, technology, and the brutal machinations of global intelligence and terror ... The power of the domestic scenes made me impatient with the larger systemic critique in which the novel engages. This is a system critique on the level of Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, or William Gibson ... While I was reading and desperately trying to keep track of the various plot lines, characters, hints of connections, I remained focused on just what all of it meant for the domestic life of Jeremy, Alexandra, and baby Han. Because ultimately, that’s what’s important–the love between partners, between parents and children ... Living in a city on lockdown, where we are encouraged to report our neighbors who may not be practicing \'safe social distancing\' and where we are encouraged to self-isolate, to only connect through technology, makes O’Neill’s critique seem almost soft ... this is not an easy book to read. Of course, the constant shifts in language and narrative add to the atmosphere of unease.
Deb Olin Unferth
RaveThe Brooklyn RailShe’s a wildly creative, sharply insightful, and deeply compassionate writer (not to mention funny!) ... Separated into four sections and a brief epilogue, Unferth shifts adroitly between narrators giving the novel a rich variety of points of view, including a foray into the philosophy of chickens themselves ... Although the novel is written in Unferth’s signature concise and elegant prose with a clear forward moving plot, there’s enough here to warrant slow and careful reading ... rewarding and deeply moving.
Emily St. John Mandel
RaveThe Brooklyn Rail... much more than a retelling of one of the 20th century’s most spectacular financial frauds. There is a complex grace to The Glass Hotel that’s often lacking from contemporary fiction, particularly contemporary thriller fiction. It’s not simply Mandel’s deft prose, her ability to write Dickensian networks of coincidence, but her keen observation of human behavior: our fears, our dreams, what drives us, and what might ultimately destroy or save each of us ... From the opening scene of the book, I was hooked ... There is a sort of musicality to the novel that appears not only in Paul’s musical obsessions but also in the repetition of small phrases that are lyric-like throughout; appearing as sort of refrains or hints of connectivity ... a superbly wrought ending to the novel: a stunningly good meditation on human frailty, the nature of love, and what it means to survive in the modern world.
RaveThe Brooklyn RailErin Morgenstern’s new novel The Starless Sea is a beautifully wrought and many-layered tale; a riveting, rollicking, and complex quest for the very heart of story. For those who loved the magical depths and wondrous spaces of Morgenstern’s debut The Night Circus (2011), there is much here in her second novel to entertain and enthrall ... a sometimes frustrating, but often engrossing epic narrative focused on love, magic, and the essential importance of stories to human survival. We are our stories and The Starless Sea is a glorious attempt at reminding us of this ... the excitement and the desire to open a new book and be swallowed whole by story. And that’s what Morgenstern accomplishes with this novel—a reawakening of the desire to be engulfed by story and a reminder as to how story shapes who we are, how we love, and how we live in the world.
MixedThe Brooklyn Rail... the second half of the novel is far more interesting ... Until she gives up on grad school, her dreams, and herself, Flora truly is a compelling character but by the end of the novel, she\'s made the same poor decisions her mother made and while we love her and want her to be happy, it\'s hard to keep rooting for a girl whose lack of self-care is almost a mimic of her mother\'s ... There are deep and compelling moments throughout Doxology but there are also deeply troubling moments. Pam and David and Joe seem to live in a Lower East Side that is largely (and inaccurately) white but the \'80s hipster\' is described as not capable of gentrification (a stance that is never clearly explained) ... But this novel is still a good albeit somewhat madcap and maddening read ... Perhaps the central flaw in the novel is that throughout there is an overwhelming cynicism that cuts through joy and hope and leaves us wondering, did these people—did we—learn nothing on 9/11? ... Zink provides moments of transcendence but there is no true \'doxology,\' no hymn of praise present here, save the individual moments of love between Flora and her father.
RaveThe Brooklyn RailThese are not easy stories but neither are they as redolent of violence and despair as some of Danticat’s previous and powerful work. Instead, we are given the intimate daily life experiences of those who struggle on the margins in Little Haiti and those who also, although more privileged, still struggle for a sense of belonging ... Danticat’s writing is language stripped bare which lets her stories and characters breathe. There is a rising intensity in these stories from the first sentence of the first page that draws the reader in and demands we pay attention ... The grief and loss of homeland, past, and family is palpable, rising to a peak and then ebbing gracefully into a newfound sense of community at the end of the story ... This is a masterful collection, beautifully wrought and elegantly told.
Suzette Haden Elgin
RaveThe Brooklyn Rail... [a] highly readable introduction to Elgin’s world. There are decided commonalities between Elgin’s Fundamentalist Christian misogynist dystopia and Margaret Atwood’s better known The Handmaid’s Tale ... Each chapter in Native Tongue begins with an epigraph of text from a fictional historic source. These epigraphs help world-build and also create a clear history of the rise of the misogynist society that exists in the present day of the novel. While there is a lot of world-building and feminist-rhetorical work done in the novel, it’s important to note that it’s also a very engaging read ... As engrossing as any well-written genre novel, Native Tongue entertains while it also shocks and illustrates the depths of oppression these women are forced to live under. But aside from all of this, Elgin’s genius resides in her ability to create compelling and memorable characters: the reader wants these women to survive, to succeed in their rebellions, and when terrible things transpire, it’s deeply upsetting. These characters will stay with the reader long after the last page—their lives, their joys and nearly unendurable suffering helping to humanize the deeply relevant and compelling feminist themes in the novel.
PositiveBrooklyn RailElvia Wilk’s debut novel Oval is a speculative meditation on the evil humans do—to the planet and to each other. It’s also a distinctly millennial love story and a sometimes sharp and sometimes meandering critique of modern society ... There is heavy critique throughout the novel of the Neo-Liberal project of charity, of NGOs, and of the life of the (mostly) white, hip, cultural class ... Wilk’s corporate speak throughout the novel is terrifyingly accurate ... There are critiques that could be made about Anja’s inherent position of white privilege, her failure to critique her own lack of any meaningful activism, and her ability to escape the destruction meted out on the less fortunate. But these are all simplistic and avoid the broader global critique Wilk is making—efforts at \'sustainability\' and charity under the guise of corporate power likely will lead only to the ruin that comes at the end of the novel. There is no great redemption here and Anja’s last thoughts at the close of the novel speak to a failure at the very heart of modern society. It is a shatteringly good end to a largely good debut.
RaveThe Brooklyn Rail...powerful...brilliant...stories that need to be heard ... In Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut story collection Sabrina & Corina we find a different narrative of the West. These are women who inhabit a space between the Indigenous and the Latinx, they are fierce, powerful in their own way, and many have suffered unspeakable trauma ... But not all of the women in these stories come to terrible ends. Some are survivors ... there is a deeper resonance here—a connection with family, with memory, and with story that speaks of a survival that moves beyond any attempt at erasure. These are voices that must be heard, stories that must be read.
RaveThe Brooklyn RailRodriguez’s women (and one boy) are complex, well-wrought ... These nine stories present a complex, multifaceted, and somewhat connected narrative of Puerto Rican life ... Rodriguez writes about obsession, depression, and the harm we do to ourselves better than most. She also writes about the balancing acts many of us have to perform between cultures ... \'Love War Stories\' is the final piece in the collection and beautifully sums up so many themes: love as battlefield, as belief, as impossible expectation ... Throughout this collection Rodriguez writes brilliantly of love, life, and loss.
RaveThe Brooklyn Rail\"Every once in a while a book comes along that is so powerful, so replete with well-sculpted prose and telling such an urgent narrative that I find it impossible to put down. Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel is just such a book. I want everyone to read it, especially every woman, every writer ... Mackintosh is never heavy-handed in her fable, instead the story unfolds slowly through the voices of the three sisters together ... A masterful writer, Mackintosh draws the reader in incredibly skillfully. Generally when I’m reading, I line edit in my head as I go but Mackintosh’s prose is so clear, so perfect that for once, I could just relax and read ... These women are fascinating and the patterns of their language and ways of living in the world are so compelling...\
Armonia Somers, Trans. by Kit Maude
PositiveThe Brooklyn RailThis slim novel packs a major wallop ... Highly surreal and somewhat reminiscent of Djuna Barnes or Clarice Lispector...an important work of twentieth century feminism whose central meaning clearly resonates today.
RaveThe Brooklyn RailThe eight stories in this collection feature varied characters in different states of diaspora each with their own powerful voice ... With a vision that is both sharp and compassionate, Chai allows us to see just what it is to be \'different\' in a world that embraces conformity ... Chai is masterful here at interweaving American suburban life and Chinese-American specificities ... a significant piece of art reminiscent of Madison Smartt Bell\'s brilliant novella The Year of Silence ... Chai is a masterful writer and this collection presents a deeply moving portrait of the varieties of Chinese diasporic experience.
RaveThe Brooklyn RailEvery once in a while a book comes along that merits special attention...is one of those books. It’s masterfully written, wildly entertaining, incredibly clever, and a creepily thrilling good read ... will leave you haunted and questioning the very nature of human existence ... a weighty and wildly creative tome of a novel that will leave you questioning the very nature of writing and reading, of life and death itself.
Kim Sagwa, trans. by Bruce Fulton & Ju-Chan Fulton
MixedThe Brooklyn Rail\"Kim Sagwa\'s English-language debut is both a difficult and complex read ... Throughout the novel Sagwa veers off on detailed critiques of South Korean society and while this might seem confusing or at least a distraction from the forward motion of the text, these mini-rants are essential in understanding the horrific violence that arises later in the novel ... While the narrative shifts tone in several places to give the reader a sharp critique of South Korean society, these shifts actually serve as counterpoint to the teen melodrama of Crystal\'s narrative. And while Sagwa’s use of long stretches of dialogue can be somewhat excessive, ultimately her strong characterization of these two troubled young women makes for a compelling and deeply disturbing read.\
PositiveThe Brooklyn RailLydia Kiesling’s fiction debut is a road trip novel with a twist bringing with it all the basics of road fiction ... Instead of the usual soul-seeking inner dialogues or buddy conversations one finds in road novels, Kiesling portrays the frazzled and fractured thought processes of a stressed out single mother with her first child using run-on sentences, repetition of words, and omission of punctuation—all of which works to bring the reader in to Daphne’s state of mind ... This novel is an equally frustrating and beautiful read.
RaveThe Brooklyn RailWhen Margaret Atwood, Marlon James, and Louise Erdrich rave about a book before its release, it had better live up to the hype and Tommy Orange’s debut, There There very much does ... The voices of his characters are well wrought but what is most striking is the clean integration of twenty-first century technology and urban culture into the novel ... this is part of what makes Orange a superior writer: he’s not just writing stories that need to be told, he’s creating narrative with a razor sharp attention to craft ... Unlike so many of his male contemporaries, Orange does an excellent job with his female characters: they have depth, complexity, and are central, integral actors in the larger drama of the novel ... This is a truly harrowing, powerful read and a wonderfully sculpted novel.
MixedThe Brooklyn RailMuch has already been written about Meg Wolitzer’s lengthy new novel The Female Persuasion, calling it everything from the \'Great American Novel\' to retro elitist white middle-class feminism. I would argue that this novel is neither of those but exhibits both elements of genius and significant limitations for a twenty-first century feminist novel ... While there are issues about the use of various tropes and criticisms surrounding so-called \'second wave\' feminism throughout the novel, there are larger issues of structure that can frustrate the reader. The novel starts out with two main characters (Greer and Faith), but midway through we are given long sections dedicated to the other people in Greer’s life. While these sections do serve to give added depth to these other characters, they leave Greer and the main narrative of the novel mostly on hold while we work through some one hundred pages of minor narratives ... Wolitzer’s attempts to be inclusive are often clunky (as an example, she tries to slip the word “trans” into the novel in a brief inessential passage). What The Female Persuasion is not is a viable manifesto for modern feminism, but what it is is a mostly well-wrought narrative of two white women ... It’s a story about a young woman, an older woman, and two of the young woman’s friends; it’s not a guide for twenty-first century feminism, and it’s both limiting and unfair to treat it as more than what it is—a good novel.