Dwight GarnerDwight Garner is a book critic for the New York Times. A former senior editor of the New York Times Book Review, he was the founding books editor of Salon.com. His writing has appeared in Harper's Magazine, The Oxford American, The Nation, Slate, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere. Garner lives in Garrison, New York, with his wife and two children. He can be found on Twitter @DwightGarner
PanThe New York TimesSlaughter of every variety is on Ms. Proulx’s mind. Barkskins — the title refers to woodcutters — is a Baedeker of doom. Characters die from cholera and measles and smallpox, from shipwrecks and scalpings and botched amputations and occult tortures. More often, they perish in grisly logging mishaps. Ms. Proulx is adept at this culling. She has a lesser knack for first bringing her men and women to life. Barkskins rarely warms in your hands. Its ideas are more finely beveled than its people, never a good sign. Ms. Proulx favors 'characters' rather than character, as Alfred Kazin complained about John Irving. (Among the names here: Blade Scugog, Dud McBogle and Hudson Van Dipp.) Watching its action is like strolling around the world’s largest ant farm. There’s more wriggling than drama ... At its best, it is vivid, mean and wordy, as if the film The Revenant had been annotated by Bob Dylan ... Op-ed sound bites light the way toward this novel’s truly abysmal ending, in which a modern scientist solemnly warns about global warming that 'a great crisis is just ahead' and a woman wants to cry out 'The forests, the trees, they can change everything!' You feel your synapses, as did the forests, turn to pulp.
PositiveThe New York Timest’s an unpretentious, truth-dealing, summer-weight novel — bought by Knopf in an attention-grabbing six-figure deal — that reads like a letter home from a self-deprecating friend...At the beginning there are gimmicky interpolated sections about things like the nature of sweet versus sour. You fear you may be headed into a genre fiction tunnel of love. Those fears are quickly dispelled. Ms. Danler is a gifted commenter (chilly autumn air in Manhattan 'tasted of steel knives and filtered water') on many things, class especially. An awareness of privilege runs through this novel like a tendon.
War & TurpentineStefan Hertmans
RaveThe New York Times... an uncanny work of historical reconstruction ... The result is a gritty yet melancholy account of war and memory and art that may remind some readers of the work of the German writer W. G. Sebald ... Urbain Martien was a man of another time. This serious and dignified book is old-fashioned, too, in the pleasant sense that it seems built to last.
Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane JacobsRobert Kanigel
PanThe New York TimesAlas, the book is a word-heap. Eyes on the Street is graceless, infantilizing of its subject and strangely unbuttoned in tone. It often seems to be muttered as much as written, like one of those garbled subway announcements you cannot understand but suspect might matter ... Mr. Kanigel quotes his interview subjects haplessly. His analogies are inane ... His book somewhat finds its feet in its second half, as Mr. Kanigel increasingly gets out of the way and lets Jacobs’s story tell itself. Many readers will have already returned to their apartments, run their fingers through some gin and ice, and slammed the door.
The Fire This Timeed. Jesmyn Ward
PositiveThe New York TimesA few essays scratch at the surface only to find more surface. They’re the mussels, in this fragrant bowl, that fail to open ... There are five excellent reasons to buy this book: The essays by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Carol Anderson, Kevin Young, Garnette Cadogan and Ms. Ward. Each is so alive with purpose, conviction and intellect that, upon finishing their contributions, you feel you must put this volume down and go walk around for a while.
Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species DivideCharles Foster
RaveThe New York Times...[an] intensely strange and terrifically vivid new book ... reads like what you might get if you took a writer like Julian Barnes or Anthony Lane and dropped him into the woods with only a granola bar and a pointy stick ... His awareness of his failures makes him all the more winning ... an eccentric modern classic of nature writing.
Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed EverythingJennifer Keishin Armstrong
MixedThe New York TimesThese sorts of arguments — that we are living in the world that X made — have become coma-inducing. X can be solved for anyone and anything: Betty Boop, Betty Crocker, Henry Ford, Hedda Hopper, Bo Diddley, Twiggy, Daniel Ellsberg, Boris Johnson. The reasons to come to Seinfeldia are its carefully marshaled history lesson, and Ms. Armstrong’s way of laying out her produce as if she were operating a particularly good stall at a farmer’s market...I haven’t watched Seinfeld reruns for a while. I overdosed years ago and went cold turkey. Perhaps the highest praise I can give Seinfeldia is that it made me want to buy a loaf of marbled rye and start watching again, from the beginning.
The Voyeur's MotelGay Talese
PositiveThe New York TimesHe is right to stand by his book. Mr. Talese makes it abundantly clear in The Voyeur’s Motel that Mr. Foos is not an entirely reliable narrator ... I’m not altogether certain I can make an airtight ethical case for Mr. Talese’s journalism in The Voyeur’s Motel, at least not in the space remaining in this column, but I can make a literary one. This book flipped nearly all of my switches as a reader. It’s a strange, melancholy, morally complex, grainy, often appalling and sometimes bleakly funny book ... one reason The Voyeur’s Motel is gripping is that Mr. Talese doesn’t fletcherize his material. He lays out what he knows and does not know in sentences that are as crisp as good Windsor knots. He expresses his qualms, but trusts the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. Nor does he demonize Mr. Foos ... You will often feel shabby while reading The Voyeur’s Motel. You are meant to. It’s an intense book that reminds us that a problem of being alive is seeing things you hate but are attracted to anyway. It’s possible to admire it while wanting to pluck out your own prying eyes.
PositiveThe New York Times...like her previous books, it’s a mess: anarchic in its plot machinations, scrambled in its themes, mostly shallow in its emotions ... The strange thing is that you’re never tempted to put Ms. Zink’s novels aside. They contain so much backspin and topspin that you’re kept alert by the leaping motion ... Ms. Zink has a confident feel for the dynamics of a group house, and for the lives of young, earnest, befuddled, middle-class kids who will sacrifice a good deal in order to believe in something ... I could listen to Ms. Zink’s dialogue all day; she may be, at heart, a playwright.
Collected Poems: 1974-2004Rita Dove
PositiveThe New York TimesThere are so many casual pleasures in Ms. Dove’s poetry that the precision and dexterity in her work — the darkness, too — can catch you unawares ... Ms. Dove’s poems have earthiness, originality, power and range. Despair and loss are among her central themes, but so is the hunt for bedrock human pleasures.
A Manual for Cleaning WomenLucia Berlin
PositiveThe New York TimesThere’s a radical kind of transparency to her work. Ms. Berlin has a gift for describing the intimate lives of her characters, many of them harried and divorced single mothers who have been, or are, addicted to strong drink or far worse ... She was unusually perceptive about working life, a subject that still gets short shrift in American letters. The title story, a near masterpiece, is told from the perspective of a woman who cleans houses, including those of her friends, to survive after her husband has died ... This book should have been better. The foreword by Lydia Davis and the introduction by its editor, Stephen Emerson, maddeningly overlap. Each says the same thing many times (basically, 'Look how talented my friend Lucia Berlin was') while skimping on what you really want, which is context and biographical detail ... This book would have been twice as good at a bit more than half the length. Ms. Berlin is a writer you want in your back pocket; this volume’s tombstone heft turns her into homework. Stories could have been omitted. In some she went in for twist endings you see coming a block away. She could veer toward melodrama.
S O S: Poems 1961-2013Amiri Baraka
PositiveThe New York TimesYou can open to nearly anywhere in the first third of S O S: Poems 1961-2013, a career-spanning new collection of his work, and find fresh evidence of his capacities ... What’s best about Baraka’s verse is that this historical sensibility and sense of historical dread bump elbows with anarchic comedy ... S O S is the best overall selection we have thus far of Baraka’s work, but he is served poorly by it. The introduction by Paul Vangelisti, the volume’s editor, is an anthology of unforced errors. Mr. Vangelisti neglects to provide the most basic details of Baraka’s life, so these poems are shorn of context. He also writes academic jargon of the sort Baraka despised ... Baraka’s poems are filled with tantrums and sophistries, stances and dances. There are many, many deficiencies of coherence. Some make only the dead, clicking sound cars make in the frost. But others plant a hatchet in your skull that you won’t be able to pull out for weeks.
From the New World: Poems 1976-2014Jorie Graham
RaveThe New York Times[Graham's] new book, From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, is an important consolidation of her work. It reshuffles but does not essentially alter our sense of her verse, which has grown somewhat more political and environmentally minded over time. We watch the length of her lines expand and contract. But her voice has barely changed. This is a poet who, for better and sometimes worse, arrived almost fully formed ... Her poems tend to be difficult, but not in an academic sense. She leads you to the door of comprehension, often enough, only to close it on your ankle. To remain with her, you must be willing to suspend reason and allow her language to flow over you like a syntactic spa treatment.
Voyage of the Sable VenusRobin Coste Lewis
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Lewis arranges this material with genuine technical ingenuity, until its incremental emotional force begins to make you feel you have an elephant lowering itself onto your chest ... In the lesser poems in this volume, Ms. Lewis’s language can turn gauzy. In one poem we read, for example: 'Pray/the stars/are all the feelings.' This kind of thing is rare in Voyage of the Sable Venus, however. More often, her poems land with defoliating force.
PositiveThe New York Times[T]his book’s depths reside in Mr. Berlinski’s rich portrait of a society, and his cool, probing writing about topics like sex, politics, journalism, race, class, agriculture, language and fear.
Scary Old SexArlene Heyman
PositiveThe New York TimesIn Arlene Heyman’s first book, the short-story collection Scary Old Sex, she pays such sustained and stylish attention to late-life lovemaking, however, that you may feel you are reading about it for the first time...A few of these seven stories don’t entirely work. Some sag somewhat toward the middle, like the insides of some of the thighs she describes. But Ms. Heyman is never an uninteresting writer.
For a Little WhileRick Bass
PanThe New York Times...I’d be lying if I didn’t say that reading For a Little While mostly made me wish I’d left my fond memories of Mr. Bass’s work alone. Read in bulk, his stories begin to seem soft and similar and frequently shapeless. They drain the life from each other rather than striking sparks....Stories like 'Wild Horses,' 'In Ruth’s Country,' 'Pagans' and 'Elk' more than hold up. They display clarity and heart and moral vision, and glow like a well-stoked wood stove. Still, their heat can’t warm the entire structure of this long book.
RaveThe New York TimesThe writing in Greg Jackson’s first book of stories, Prodigals, is so bold and perceptive that it delivers a contact high. You know from the first pages that, intellectually, you’ve climbed into a high-performance sports car. Only one question remains: Will the author smash it into a tree?...Best of all there’s that sense — only the excellent ones give it to you — that whatever topic the author turns his mental LED lights toward will be powerfully illuminated.
The FugitivesChristopher Sorrentino
PanThe New York TimesChristopher Sorrentino grafts a halfhearted, Elmore Leonard-style casino heist plot onto what is fundamentally the mournful story of one man’s failures as a writer, a husband and a father. The result is something close to a disaster. The elements don’t mesh, and what we’re left with is what’s called, in the video game world, at least, a mutual kill: Each side is fatally damaged.
Black DeutschlandDarryl Pinckney
PanThe New York TimesThis is the sort of novel you find yourself reading aloud to those within earshot, because you can’t quite believe how often the autumnal-intellectual tone Mr. Pinckney searches for veers instead toward ripe nonsense ... Black Deutschland works best, and loses its hydroponic quality, when it is grounded in the soil of close observation. Mr. Pinckney is very good, for example, on the intricacies of race and class.
Hotels of North AmericaRick Moody
PositiveThe New York TimesThis is Mr. Moody’s best novel in many years. It’s a little book, a bagatelle, but it’s a little book of irony and wit and heartbreak.
The MareMary Gaitskill
MixedThe New York TimesMs. Gaitskill is such a preternaturally gifted writer that nearly every page of The Mare shimmers with exacting and sometimes hallucinatory observation...As this novel moves forward, however, we begin to feel we’ve been here many times before. The Mare trots, in fairly docile fashion, along the path of nearly every sports-underdog story ever written.
Avenue of MysteriesJohn Irving
PanThe New York TimesAvenue of Mysteries is to fiction, it can seem, as the Cirque du Soleil is to gymnastics. There’s athleticism and a degree of difficulty, for sure, in Mr. Irving’s storytelling. There are also a lot of sequins and canned melodrama and hammy showmanship.
Slade HouseDavid Mitchell
MixedThe New York TimesSlade House is Mr. Mitchell’s shortest and most accessible novel to date, and you don’t have to have read The Bone Clocks to comprehend it. Readers who come to this book first, however, will get only a slivery glimpse of this writer’s talent. Our seats are the intellectual version of 'obstructed view,' as cheap theater tickets sometimes say.
What Belongs to YouGarth Greenwell
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Greenwell writes long sentences, pinned at the joints by semicolons, that push forward like confidently searching vines. There’s suppleness and mastery in his voice. He seems to have an inborn ability to cast a spell.
Did You Ever Have a FamilyBill Clegg
PanThe New York Times“This is one of those novels in which digression piles upon digression until the digressions become the thing itself. You float on a raft of misdirection ... We get the author’s point. Life is easy for none of us and, as he might put it, funny how time slips away. But these events don’t resonate as they scroll past. It’s like watching someone stir plastic toads in an unlit caldron.”
Walk Through WallsMarina Abramovic
PanThe New York TimesA tolerance for a certain amount of pomposity is a prerequisite for keeping up with serious art...Ms. Abramovic pushes this tolerance to its limits ... There’s a self-help aspect to this memoir that blends poorly with the implicit injunctions to warm one’s hands on the blaze of her greatness ... [a] shallow and misconceived memoir.
The GirlsEmma Cline
PanThe New York TimesMs. Cline can’t come close to sustaining her novel’s early momentum. After 30 or 40 pages, my enthusiasm for The Girls began to wane. After 60 pages, I was scanning for the exit signs. The storytelling becomes vague and inchoate, as if you are reading a poem — a windy poem of the Jorie Graham variety — about the novel you’d rather be consuming. This humorless book whispers when you wish it would scream. Its sentences go soft, like noodles in a pot ... It’s not that Ms. Cline doesn’t possess obvious talent. She has an intuitive feel for the interiors of a 14-year-old’s mind, especially the way that Evie, with her fragile sense of self, becomes party to her own abasement at the hands of Russell, the charismatic cult leader ... Everything in The Girls is pre-elegized. Thesis statements jam this novel’s circuitry, as well. Ms. Cline has a good deal to say about how young women move through the world, except when she tells instead of shows. Then her book simply collapses.
The Bed MovedRebecca Schiff
PositiveThe New York Times[Schiff's] dark wit gives her stories genuine tensile strength, even when they misfire. She dips into her own braininess as if it were a bottomless trust fund...If these stories are not the real thing, they’re such a good imitation of it that the distinction is meaningless. Ms. Schiff has an almost Nabokovian boldness and crispness of phrase.
The Accidental LifeTerry McDonell
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Accidental Life is by and large a fond book. It’s a fan’s notes from a man who, before the apocalypse, edited and often befriended many of his literary heroes ... Don’t come to The Accidental Life looking for score-settling or acid gossip. Mr. McDonell is writing about his friends. He isn’t opening his vault or baring his soul ... Mr. McDonell is proud of each of his teams at the magazines he’s edited, but this memoir is far from self-congratulatory. He writes winningly about his regrets ... intelligent, entertaining and chivalrous. It’s a savvy fax from a dean of the old school.
PositiveThe New York TimesTestimony ends when its author was still relatively young, but it is packed with incident ... His memoir is confident and well oiled. At times it has the mythic sweep of an early Terrence Malick movie ... Mr. Robertson, in Testimony, occasionally leans too heavily on mythopoeticism. But just as often his writing is wonderfully perceptive.
Avid ReaderRobert Gottlieb
PositiveThe New York TimesAvid Reader manages to cover all this territory, as well as Mr. Gottlieb’s decades-long association with New York City Ballet, with grace and guile and a sometimes-barbed wit ... And at times this book has, perhaps justifiably, a self-congratulatory ring. But this is an indispensable work of American publishing history, thick with instruction and soul and gossip of the higher sort.
Born to RunBruce Springsteen
RaveThe New York Times...[a] big, loose, rangy and intensely satisfying memoir ... The book is like one of Mr. Springsteen’s shows — long, ecstatic, exhausting, filled with peaks and valleys ... Born to Run is, like his finest songs, closely observed from end to end. His story is intimate and personal, but he has an interest in other people and a gift for sizing them up.
RaveThe New York TimesThere’s little in the way of conventional plot. But Ms. Bennett has a voice that leans over the bar and plucks a button off your shirt. It delivers the sensations of Edna O’Brien’s rural Irish world by way of Harold Pinter’s clipped dictums ... You swim through this novel as you do through a lake in midsummer, pushing through both warm eddies and the occasional surprisingly chilly draft from below ... Sometimes first novels like Pond are one-offs. They deliver a voice the author can’t tap again. Ms. Bennett’s sensibility here feels like the tip of a deep iceberg, and I’ll be in line to read whatever she publishes next.
All That Man IsDavid Szalay
RaveThe New York TimesDavid Szalay writes with voluptuous authority. He possesses voice rather than merely style ... This cosmopolitan author is not overtly funny; his humor seeps organically to the surface, like a rising water table ... Mr. Szalay’s own stream of perception never falters in its sensitivity and probity. This book is a demonstration of uncommon power. It is a bummer, and it is beautiful.
The Kingdom of SpeechTom Wolfe
PositiveThe New York Times...a whooping, joy-filled and hyperbolic raid on, of all things, the theory of evolution ... Because this is a Tom Wolfe production, there is a great deal of funny and acid commentary on social class ... Mr. Wolfe’s prose here is mostly sure-footed, but there are moments when he seems on the verge of losing it, of falling into fragments of Morse-code nonsense ... The Kingdom of Speech is meant to be a provocation rather than a dissertation. The sound it makes is that of a lively mind having a very good time, and enjoying the scent of its own cold-brewed napalm in the morning.
Kenneth Clark: Life Art and CivilizationJames Stourton
PositiveThe New York Times...[a] crisp and authoritative new biography ... He tells Clark’s story with dispassionate grace and wit. His prose is unobtrusive but well tailored. He delivers any number of well-observed set pieces, such as the time Clark visited Andy Warhol’s Manhattan studio and found the art so bogus he had a sneezing fit.
MixedThe New York TimesIt doesn’t always click. There are passages that, in this translation by Jen Calleja, veer close to psychobabble. But when Nicotine stays dry, earthy and combustible, like a Virginia tobacco blend, it has a lot to say and says it well ... He is especially good on how those who quit become vicarious smokers ... Like any author worth reading, Mr. Hens is sometimes best when he goes off-topic, dispatching obiter dicta. He is brutal about the Midwest. ('The most insignificant city in the United States is Columbus, Ohio.') ... This edition of Nicotine includes an introduction by the English writer Will Self that belongs in the hall of fame of bad introductions. Mr. Self (never has his name seemed so apt) tries to one-up Mr. Hens by bragging at length about his own peerless nicotine addiction. This introduction is profitably torn out, the way smokers of unfiltered cigarettes tear the filters from Marlboros.
Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer
PositiveThe New York TimesThis is a big spread, in other words, an ambitious platter of intellection and emotion. Its observations are crisp; its intimations of doom resonate; its jokes are funny. Here I Am consistently lit up my pleasure centers. Like Kedem kosher grape juice, it is also very sweet, in ways that later made me a bit ill ... Mr. Foer’s dialogue is so crisp you can imagine him writing for the stage ... This book offers intensities on every page. Once put down it begs, like a puppy, to be picked back up. But its insistent winsomeness cloys.
PositiveThe New York TimesOdes picks up where Stag’s Leap left off, which is to say that it contains some of the best and most ingenious poems of her career ... Ms. Olds renders the personal universal ... There is a good deal of lesser work in Odes. When Ms. Olds’s poems miss, they really miss, more so than most poets at her level ... The book’s warmth comes from the intensities of its language and the intensities that emerge from a life that seems well lived.
The Men in My LifePatricia Bosworth
MixedThe New York TimesThe material she has to work with is, once again, ridiculously good ... Ms. Bosworth does not recount these stories as a striding march through Manhattan and Hollywood. The Men in My Life attends just as fully to loneliness and darkness, to the slivers of dread that prickled her psyche. There is a good deal of talk in this book about what she calls 'the bereaved creature inside me' ... She writes deliciously, in this memoir, about her sexual awakening, her pursuit of ravishment ... This book’s anecdotes are struck like matches, and there are small glowing moments, but no warming narrative fire results. The tone is detached, and the many cameos by the talented and famous are not sharply drawn ... There is something impacted at this book’s core. It’s a survivor’s memoir, a book by an adult child of alcoholics, and Ms. Bosworth evokes her suffering with patience and care. But the psychological knots this book presents are not profitably untangled.
A Gambler's AnatomyJonathan Lethem
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Lethem’s backgammon writing has a satisfying crunch. It’s witty and sexy, too. ... It’s when the novel returns to the Bay Area that it fully becomes a Jonathan Lethem production. That is, the author begins to pour many of his abiding concerns into it: radical politics, underground art, an interest in literary genre (here a loose-leaf tea blend of detective fiction and science fiction), misplaced memories, a missing mother ... A Gambler’s Anatomy is a fluky novel, not among Mr. Lethem’s very best. Its themes are underdeveloped, and it moves in zigs and zags, like a squirrel in headlights ... This novel is a tragicomedy; it plays at its best like a Twilight Zone episode filmed by the Coen brothers. At its worst, nothing is at stake — the characters are breezy ciphers.
They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson Baltimore and a New Era in America's Racial Justice MovementWesley Lowery
RaveThe New York TimesHis book is electric, because it is so well reported, so plainly told and so evidently the work of a man who has not grown a callus on his heart ... Mr. Lowery’s book is valuable for many reasons. He circles slowly and warily around the question of why, during Barack Obama’s presidency, so little has seemed to improve on the racial front ... Mr. Lowery collected hundreds of interviews for this book, and he recounts his visits to many cities to cover shootings. But his book never reads like a data dump. It has a warm, human tone.
True SouthJon Else
PositiveThe New York TimesHis book does several things at once. On one level, it’s a biography of Mr. Hampton, who grew up in an upper-middle-class black family in St. Louis. On another, it’s a lucid recap of many of the signal events of the civil rights movement. It’s also a book about how a long and complicated documentary is made ... Mr. Else, who has a clear and easygoing prose style, has things to say about many topics: the bravery of the network cameramen who filmed in Selma and elsewhere; the roadblocks to documentary work set up by misguided intellectual-property laws; and the difficulty of getting old segregationists to talk on camera. I wish this book were 75 pages shorter. I wish it had gotten a bit closer to Mr. Hampton ... [a] warm and intelligent book.
Selection DayAravind Adiga
RaveThe New York TimesSelection Day, Mr. Adiga’s third novel, supplies further proof that his Booker Prize, won for The White Tiger in 2008, was no fluke. He is not merely a confident storyteller but also a thinker, a skeptic, a wily entertainer, a thorn in the side of orthodoxy and cant ... Mr. Adiga’s take on the world often makes you consider what the apocalypse might sound like as reported by the BBC’s Hindi service ... Mr. Adiga, who was born in India and attended Columbia and Oxford, again displays what might be his greatest gifts as a postcolonial novelist: His strong sense of how the world actually works, and his ability to climb inside the minds of characters from vastly different social strata ... Selection Day is not perfect. Its plot loses altitude on occasion...But I don’t come to novels for plot — or I rarely do, at any rate. What this novel offers is the sound of a serious and nervy writer working at near the top of his form.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?Kathleen Collins
PositiveThe New York TimesThe best of these stories are a revelation. Ms. Collins had a gift for illuminating what the critic Albert Murray called the 'black intramural class struggle,' and two or three of her stories are so sensitive and sharp and political and sexy I suspect they will be widely anthologized. If the bulk of the 16 stories in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? are less fully realized, they point in directions she might have taken had she lived. They have a talky, crackling quality that keeps them afloat even when they veer toward the pretentious ... This foreword is titled 'In Search of Kathleen Collins,' yet Ms. Alexander writes almost entirely about herself. On the back flap, Ms. Alexander’s paragraph of biographical details is longer than the author’s. Ms. Collins deserves a proper introduction to American readers, one she does not receive here.
PositiveThe New York Times...[a] transfixing new novel ... These two short books are part of a projected trilogy, and together they’re already a serious achievement: dense, aphoristic, philosophically acute novels that read like Iris Murdoch thrice distilled. Increasingly, I’m more interested in getting my hands on the final installment in Ms. Cusk’s series than I am the last of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle books. Ms. Cusk is perhaps more profitably compared to writers like J. M. Coetzee and Mr. Roth himself. Her writing offers the iron-rich pleasures of voice instead of style. Each sentence is drilled down, as with an auger ... Transit is fat with substance, as August Wilson once said he wanted his plays to be. There’s a lot of humor in its talk ... Faye occasionally makes the kind of oracular pronouncements that make you want to ask the waiter for the check, please. Such moments are few, but there are more than in the last book, and it’s a worrisome trend.
RaveThe New York TimesThere’s a bit of a Harold and Maude thing going on here. Daniel is a Manic Pixie Dream Oldie, to twist a phrase, as was Harold’s much older friend, played by Ruth Gordon in Hal Ashby’s indelible 1971 movie ... As Elisabeth and Daniel talk, and as Elisabeth processes the events of her life, a world opens. Autumn begins to be about 100 things in addition to friendship. It’s about poverty and bureaucracy and sex and morality and music...All along, in the background, like the lounge music of the damned, there is a sense that a certain kind of world is coming to an end, post-Brexit ... Ali Smith has a beautiful mind. I found this book to be unbearably moving in its playful, strange, soulful assessment of what it means to be alive at a somber time ... Autumn has a loose structure, almost like that of a prose poem. This form is perfect for Smith, because her mind will go where it wants to go. And where her mind goes, you want to follow.
A Line Made By WalkingSara Baume
PanThe New York TimesAnother sort of writer might send Frankie up, might make of her an object of aspirational satire. (Samuel Beckett described tears as 'liquefied brain.') But Baume takes her seriously indeed, and we follow her down a rabbit hole of elegiac quarter-life distress ... A Line Made by Walking becomes a wallow, a trunk of oozing funk, a narrative in which very little happens. I’m a fan of a good wallow, in fiction. But by its midpoint, Baume’s novel begins to stall. Rot and claustrophobia set in. It’s a major event in this novel when the doorbell rings ... It’s the work of an intelligent writer who strands her character in the intellectual and moral horse latitudes.
The CorrespondenceJ.D. Daniels
MixedThe New York Times...from the moment you crack it open, you’re in the presence of an original voice ... These essays and stories move high and low at once. Some read a bit like the earthy and doomed short stories of the West Virginia writer Breece D’J Pancake, as tweaked by an ironic miniaturist like Lydia Davis. It’s an intoxicating combination ... The problem that confronts the reader of The Correspondence is that, after the near-brilliant first three essays, the pieces begin to display glitches. The second half of the book (two stories and another essay) is lesser work, uneven in tone. Given that the first three essays fill only 76 pages, this entire book begins to seem like a premature birth. The second half can’t come close to cashing the check the first half has written. This is a book proposal as much as a book. The short stories are of a piece with the essays; they’re essentially written in the same voice and fit inside the same loose narrative arc. But they lack the gravitas of the earlier letters, and the wit fizzles ... The Correspondence doesn’t have a proper ending. But its beginning is packed with so much promise that 2017 looks better already.
Sunshine StateSarah Gerard
PositiveThe New York TimesThanks to books by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead) and Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams) and a handful of other young writers, the essay collection has new impetus and drama in American letters. The essay has gained ground on the short story. Sunshine State deserves to be talked about in this company, even if its essays are hit-and-miss. When Gerard is on, she is really on ... The first essay ['BFF'] is a knockout, a lurid red heart wrapped in barbed wire ... Two of the longer pieces, about work to care for the homeless in Florida and about a troubled bird sanctuary, are serious and impeccably reported. But the author’s voice is lost in the telling. She’s best when her evocations of the frenzy that is Florida are personal.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksRebecca Skloot
RaveThe New York Times… one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time … Ms. Skloot, a young science journalist and an indefatigable researcher, writes about Henrietta Lacks and her impact on modern medicine from almost every conceivable angle and manages to make all of them fascinating … Ms. Skloot writes with particular sensitivity and grace about the history of race and medicine in America…[and] makes it abundantly clear why, when Henrietta Lacks’s family learned that her cells were still living, the images that ran through their minds were straight out of science-fiction horror movies … The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is also, from first page to last, a meditation on medical ethics — on the notion of informed consent, and on the issue of who owns human cells. When they’re in your body, it’s obvious — they’re yours. But once they’ve been removed? All bets are clearly off.
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Lerner is among the most interesting young American novelists … In 10:04, he’s written a striking and important novel of New York City, partly because he’s so cognizant of both past and present. He’s a walker in the city in conscious league with Walt Whitman, but also with writers up through Teju Cole, whose protagonists are wide-awake flâneurs … At one point in 10:04, the narrator is having dinner with his agent...He tells her he hopes his novel will be, on some level, ‘a long list of things that quicken the heart.’ At this he has succeeded perfectly.
The FlamethrowersRachel Kushner
RaveThe New York TimesThe Flamethrowers unfolds on a bigger, brighter screen than nearly any recent American novel I can remember … The Flamethrowers is a coming-of-age novel of a sort, one that has dozens of topics on its mind: speed and sex, reality and counterreality, art and intellect, politics and fear and perhaps, above all, ‘the fine lubricated violence of an internal combustion engine’ … Reno is a persuasive and moving narrator because Ms. Kushner allows her the vulnerability and fuzzy-mindedness of youth while rarely allowing her to think or say a commonplace thing … Ms. Kushner has long since burned down whatever resistance you might have toward her talent or her narrative.
The Gulf: The Making of An American SeaJack E. Davis
PositiveThe New York TimesThe author has a well-stocked mind, and frequently views the history of the Gulf through the prism of artists and writers including Winslow Homer, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway and John D. MacDonald. His prose is supple and clear ... Davis’s book functions, as well, as a cri de coeur about the Gulf’s environmental ruin. His book runs up through the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That event aside, he writes, 'Every day in the Gulf is an environmental disaster, originating from sources near and far, that eclipses the spill.'
The SelloutPaul Beatty
PositiveThe New York TimesThe first 100 pages The Sellout are the most caustic and the most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read in at least a decade...like the most concussive monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility ... Broad satirical vistas are not so hard for a novelist to sketch. What’s hard is the close-up work, the bolt-by-bolt driving home of your thoughts and your sensibility. This is where Mr. Beatty shines ... The Sellout I am sad to say, falls into a holding pattern in its final two-thirds. Mr. Beatty still writes vividly, and you’re already up there at 30,000 feet. But the sense of upward thrust is mostly absent.
Somebody With a Little HammerMary Gaitskill
PositiveThe New York Times...a cool and formidable collection of essays, reviews and other matter ... Gaitskill is the second writer I’ve read in the past year (the other was Jenny Diski, in her memoir In Gratitude) to say about rape something I hadn’t before heard and would not have expected: that it was not a defining event in her life ... There’s an appealing sense that she composed these essays because she wanted to, not because a payday was on offer ... She continues to wield a remorseless little hammer.
PositiveThe New York TimesShe injects whimsical imagery into weightier reveries in a manner that can make your head, like the unlucky little girl’s in The Exorcist, perform what in ice skating they call a double axel. Lockwood’s prose is cute and dirty and innocent and experienced, Betty Boop in a pas de deux with David Sedaris. When her stuff is good, it is very good...When her attention drifts, as it sometimes does in her memoir, the kookiness wears. Each sentence is its own quirky cameo appearance ... Lockwood manages to make her father not only more complicated than he seems, but also oddly lovable in his lurching way ... Priestdaddy is consistently alive with feeling, however, and I suspect it may mean a lot to many people, especially the lapsed Catholics among us. It is, for sure, like no book I have read.
You Don't Have To Say You Love MeSherman Alexie
MixedThe New York TimesAs a writer, Alexie wears his heart on his sleeve, his spleen in a go-cup and his cranium in a sleek postmodern headdress. He can be powerfully direct and plain-spoken. He speaks, for example, of hatred that 'felt as ancient as a cave painting.' He picks up many darkly interesting topics, such as anti-Indian racism delivered by Native Americans themselves. He can also be vivid and very funny ... His sentences often seem composed for the ear rather than the mind. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me has a talky, baggy quality, especially in its second half. What begins as speech ends in filibuster ... Like so many writers, and humans of all stripes, however, Alexie is a Möbius strip of self-loathing as well as egomania. As if to pre-empt criticism of his memoir, Alexie also speaks more than once about how he is famous, in his family, as a serial stretcher of the truth. Yet it’s a genuine drawback of this memoir that so little feels reported out and pinned down. The reader vaguely trusts Alexie emotionally. Factually? Hardly at all.
To the New Owners: A Martha's Vineyard MemoirMadeleine Blais
PanThe New York TimesMadeleine Blais has written a strange book. In part it’s a tour of the island’s faux-casual charms, and as such it’s threaded with mindless chitchat of the sort you find in the TripAdvisor comments section ... Most notably, perhaps, as its title hints, To the New Owners is a steaming load dropped on the author’s former doorstep, a book-length act of revenge, a cleat-hitch slap that will reverberate up and down the Eastern coastline ... Everyone feels possessive and sentimental about the houses they occupy, even summer rentals. But Blais squanders what sympathy we might have, the way those noisy spinning extractors force the water out of swimsuits.
Homesick For Another WorldOttessa Moshfegh
PositiveThe New York TimesShakespeare told us, in Sonnet 118: 'We sicken to shun sickness when we purge.' Moshfegh’s men and women cannot quite cope with this world. They are desperate and lonely and estranged. They want to tear the pain from their hearts, and it is less complicated to void their stomachs. Our empathy for them blends with disgust, which is nearly the definition of the grotesque in literature ... Moshfegh uses ugliness as if it were an intellectual and moral Swiss Army knife. The transgressive sex in her stories can put you in mind of Mary Gaitskill. Her stories veer close to myth in a manner that can resemble fiction by the English writer Angela Carter ... If her work has echoes of other writers, her tone is her own. At her best, she has a wicked sort of command. Sampling her sentences is like touching a mildly electrified fence. There is a good deal of humor in Homesick for Another World, and the chipper tone can be unnerving. It’s like watching someone grin with a mouthful of blood ... A few of these stories are dead ends or semi-stunts, vignettes that strain for eccentricity. More often, one by one, they click and spin like bullets in a revolver.
Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for BreakfastMegan Marshall
PanThe New York TimesMarshall’s biography is dull and dispiriting. The author, who studied briefly with Bishop at Harvard in the mid- to late-1970s, has made the awkward decision to interlard the text at regular intervals with detailed stories from her own life: her youth, her depression, her attempts to study music and poetry ... Marshall’s attempts at memoir are painfully earnest ... This book does not contain strong or especially perceptive readings of Bishop’s poems. Marshall fails to fully set the milieu of midcentury American poetry. She lacks seizing talons for detail ... As Bishop aged, she increasingly took on younger lovers, sometimes women less than half her age. After decades of reading about the late-life sexual exploits of male poets, this is tonic.
The Invention of Angela CarterEdmund Gordon
RaveThe New York TimesEdmund Gordon has written a terrific book — judicious, warm, confident and casually witty. The ratio of insight to literary-world gossip, of white swan to black swan, is as well calibrated as one of Sara Mearns’s impossible balletic leaps ... This bio unfolds a bit like one of the fairy tales Carter shook to release its meaning. The pages turn themselves ...After her death, Rushdie wrote that 'English literature has lost its high sorceress, its benevolent white witch.' This biography is witchy, in the best sense, as well.
You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis KahnWendy Lesser
PositiveThe New York TimesHer biography is not the first we have of Kahn, but it is notable for its warm, engaged, literate tone and its psychological acuity. Lesser’s prologue is almost too tasty, an intellectual fanfare ... Lesser enjoys unspooling the threads of Kahn’s unconventional personality ... Lesser has done a great deal of traveling for this book, and she has an innate feel for Kahn’s architecture ... Lesser’s biography has a flaw, and it’s not insignificant. She races through the eight years Kahn spent in high school and college in eight pages. There’s little exact detail. These are the years most biographers linger on, extracting all the juices, because they’re when an unusual life begins to diverge from the mundane ones that surround it. They’re when a personality is forged.
The Descent of ManGrayson Perry
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Descent of Man is a short book that remixes a good deal of academic feminist thinking about braying masculinity. Little in it is truly original. But Perry has a quick mind and a charming style of thrust and parry. He’s a popularizer, an explainer, a stand-up theorist. His book is as crisp and tart as a good Granny Smith apple ... Even at fewer than 150 pages, The Descent of Man is too long. In the last third Perry is reduced to stating poorly what he said well earlier in the book. He’s begun to twist a dry sponge. But when he’s on, which is frequently enough, Perry is an eloquent and witty tour guide through the fun house that is modern masculinity. He wants us guys to be weirder, freer, less predictable. He’s just the man for the job.
The Sport of KingsC.E. Morgan
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Morgan’s literary sins, if sins they are, derive from her muse, which appears to be almost too big to carry. Because she can do anything, she tries to do everything. In The Sport of Kings she has clearly written a serious and important novel if not a great one. She has constructed an enormous bonfire that never fully lights. What’s interesting about it is her almost blinding promise.
The Idiot.Elif Batuman
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s memorable to witness Selin, via Batuman, absorb the world around her. Each paragraph is a small anthology of well-made observations ... Small pleasures will have to sustain you over the long haul of this novel. The Idiot builds little narrative or emotional force. It is like a beautiful neon sign made without a plug. No glow is cast ... Sexual heat is at a minimum. This is too bad, because Batuman has a rich sense of the details of human attachment and lust ... There are two things I admire about this novel. One is the touching sense, here as in everything Batuman writes, that books are life. Selin is, convincingly and only slightly pretentiously, the sort of person who buys an overcoat because it reminds her of Gogol’s...I also liked Selin’s determination to be 'someone trying to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity.' She’s an interesting human who, very much like this wry but distant novel, never becomes an enveloping one.
The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the CameraAdam Begley
RaveThe New York Times...[a] concise and thoughtful new biography ... It’s among the satisfactions of Begley’s The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera that he delivers a subtle accounting of Nadar’s career as a photographer while reminding us of his subject’s many other talents and exploits ... It’s remarkable that Begley’s is the first [biography] in English. He’s found a great life to delineate — this book, like that life, roars past with a whooshing sound ... This story, in other words, would be hard to mangle, and Begley most assuredly does not.
The Incest DiaryAnonymous
MixedThe New York TimesThe author sugarcoats nothing about her ordeal and the damage done. But her memoir seeks to evoke, in a way few before it have, the transgressive rush some might find in taboo sexual behavior ... This is a book about heat rather than coolness. It is about incandescent libido and the charring that is a result. Among the many disturbing things about The Incest Diary is a sense that the author is working to turn the reader on, too ... The prose in The Incest Diary is clear and urgent. This is not a major book but it has genuine intensities of thought and feeling. I was never happy to be reading it. You may feel that your face is being rubbed too repeatedly in a certain kind of mud ... This book offers more sensation than perspective. The author’s scalded and mixed emotions are best summarized by these two sentences: 'I want him to think that I’m sexy. And I want to savagely mutilate his body and feed his corpse to dogs.'”
Killers of the Flower MoonDavid Grann
PositiveThe New York TimesGrann’s new book, about how dozens of members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s were shot, poisoned or blown to bits by rapacious whites who coveted the oil under their land, is close to impeccable. It’s confident, fluid in its dynamics, light on its feet. What it lacks is the soulful, trippy, questing and offhandedly cerebral quality of his last and best-known book, The Lost City of Z ... Killers of the Flower Moon has cleaner lines, and it didn’t set its hooks in me in the same way. But the crime story it tells is appalling, and stocked with authentic heroes and villains. It will make you cringe at man’s inhumanity to man ... Reading his book reminded me that the magazine’s founding editor, Harold Ross, once dreamed of starting a serious true-crime magazine he planned to call Guilty? This never came to pass. Grann’s book investigates one painful splinter of America’s treatment of its native people, and it snips the question mark off Ross’s title.
The Unwomanly Face of WarSvetlana Alexievich, Trans. by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky
MixedThe New York TimesThe author unearths a mostly buried aspect of Russian history. There’s a great deal that’s moving and memorable about the hardships described. But it’s possible to read this book and have reservations about it ... Many of the author’s interviews, in this book and others, are repetitive in their facts and their tone. An original voice is rare. Is Alexievich a gifted, probing interviewer? It’s hard to say. Her own questions are rarely included ... It’s possible to hold these reservations in mind and still recognize a kind of greatness in the amplitude of Alexievich’s project ... The shock and sadness in The Unwomanly Face of War are, at times, crushing. You may wind up feeling like the young female soldier Alexievich interviews who says, 'We no longer wept, because in order to weep you also need strength.'”
A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaAnthony Marra
MixedThe New York TimesA Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set against the tangle of wars, occupations and insurgencies that have racked Chechnya since the early 1990s. It hews to the historical record...As such, Mr. Marra’s novel can be sickening reading … In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena Mr. Marra introduces us to exuberant characters, only to shuffle them into the wings for chapters at a time. Tension is rarely allowed to build. The grease of human existence is kept from plausibly accumulating. I disliked the sensation that I was reading a feat of editing as much as a feat of writing. I admired this novel more than I warmed to it.
Wear and Tear: The Threads of My LifeTracy Tynan
MixedThe New York TimesThe conceit of Wear and Tear is that Ms. Tynan, who was born in 1952, recounts her life through the clothes she wore in each era: private-school uniforms and bikinis and apple-green shoes and plaid pinafores and Ossie Clark dresses. This works except when it feels forced, which is about half the time ... Wear and Tear is written cleanly and well, even if it deflates a bit each time Tynan and Dundy aren’t around. 'Watching them was like watching a horror movie,' Ms. Tynan writes. When the monsters slink off, our pulse rate declines.
The Sound of Things FallingJuan Gabriel Vásquez
MixedThe New York TimesMr. Vásquez’s novel is a kind of languid existential noir, one that may put you in mind of Paul Auster. Hot things are evoked in cool prose. Everything is, in Miles Davis’s terms, kind of blue … Mr. Vásquez is an estimable writer. His prose, in this translation by Anne McLean, is literate and dignified. Fetching images float past. We read that ‘a friend’s house smelled of headache.’ And that Elaine has never slept with anyone who ‘didn’t have orgasms in English’ … The plot can seem overdetermined. I turned the pages with interest — Mr. Vásquez is a gifted writer — but without special eagerness. He sometimes seems more interested in poetic generalities than in squirming people.
An Odyssey: A Father a Son and an EpicDaniel Mendelsohn
RaveThe New York TimesThese sentences — well made, revealing and funny — are typical of Mendelsohn’s book. What catches you off guard about this memoir is how moving it is. It has many complicated things to say not only about Homer’s epic poem but about fathers and sons. If you have not read the Odyssey, or have not read it since you were 30 pounds lighter and regularly wore sandals, this is a rich introduction or reintroduction. Mendelsohn makes Homer’s epic shine in your mind ... Homer composed the Odyssey in dactylic hexameter, the six-beat meter that gives the poem its elevated oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah cadence. Mendelsohn’s cadences in An Odyssey are softer and fonder, but there’s a brisk undercurrent. You feel you’re reading the literary equivalent of a Rodgers and Hart song ... he’s written a book that’s accessible to nearly any curious reader. In her memoir Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz remarks that 'early in life I discovered that the way to approach anything was to be introduced by the right person.' For Homer, that person is Daniel Mendelsohn, and this blood-warm book.
RaveThe New York TimesInstead of inventing a mythos, Wainwright simply wrote some excellent songs — rich, complicated, sometimes dorky, marked by unexpected wordplay and often surprisingly dark. His new memoir is all of these things, too. It’s a funny, rueful thing to consume. Wainwright has hurt most of the people he’s loved, and he’s loved some remarkable people. He’s written fond and sometimes acid songs about them; they’ve returned serve ... Wainwright does not go easy on himself in this book. In typically memorable prose, he describes how he got into 'the nasty and destructive habit of picking up women after shows, bringing a sort of love hostage back to the hotel room, a raunchy token of esteem.' He’s jealous of the success of others in his family. He likes reading his own good reviews and other people’s bad ones. He describes ogling women while doing laps at his local pool. He’s a stinking, traitorous cretin. And yet, as he woos his memories back, there’s a great deal of fondness in this book, too. Like the best songs of the Wainwright-McGarrigle-Roche clan (Rufus has a child with Leonard Cohen’s daughter, Lorca, so this dynasty may still be in its infancy), this straightforward book makes your heart wobble on its axis. And it sends you back to the songs.
The LocalsJonathan Dee
PanThe New York TimesThis novel is a big machine, and Dee drives it calmly, like a farmer inside the air-conditioned cockpit of a jumbo tractor pulling an 80-foot cultivator. He drives it perhaps too calmly. He has the intelligence to pull off a novel of this size but lacks, somehow, the killer instinct — the ability to move in for intensities of feeling and thought and action. He’s written a lukewarm book that seems far longer than its 383 pages. Consuming it is like being in one of those frustrating dreams in which you run and run but don’t go anywhere ... there are too many lumpy homilies in The Locals, sections that read like monologues from lesser Arthur Miller plays.
Home FireKamila Shamsie
RaveThe New York Times...[an] ingenious and love-struck novel ... This novel may seem to wobble in the minutes after its landing gear retracts. There are lurching shifts of tone as it moves between matters of the heart and of state. Do not panic. Order something from the drinks cart. Shamsie drives this gleaming machine home in a manner that, if I weren’t handling airplane metaphors, I would call smashing ... Home Fire builds to one of the most memorable final scenes I’ve read in a novel this century.
The Point of VanishingHoward Axelrod
MixedThe New York TimesA few crucial topics feel underexplored. At various points in this memoir the author is at work on poems, or a novel. Yet he never says if one reason he wanted that remote house was simply to clear space to write. (He supported himself on meager savings.) The literary motive, if there is one, is left to the side.
Deep SouthPaul Theroux
PanThe New York TimesEarly on, you notice a certain defanged quality. More alarming are the slack passages, the repetitions, the lack of anything truly fresh to say.
Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up With Hunter S. ThompsonJuan F. Thompson
MixedThe New York Timesa careful yet harrowing account of an offbeat childhood, and of a father-and-son relationship that grew very dark before it began to admit hints of light.
SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeMary Beard
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s a weakness of SPQR that Ms. Beard seems more eager to tell us what historians don’t know than what they do...You push past this book’s occasional unventilated corner, however, because Ms. Beard is competent and charming company. In SPQR she pulls off the difficult feat of deliberating at length on the largest intellectual and moral issues her subject presents (liberty, beauty, citizenship, power) while maintaining an intimate tone.
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' RollPeter Guralnick
RaveThe New York Times...beautiful and meticulous...Mr. Guralnick is the perfect man to tell this story.
Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995Iris Murdoch (Edited by Avril Horner & Anne Rowe)
PositiveThe New York Times...anyone who misses the regular appearance of new Murdoch novels will find plenty to enjoy and admire in these letters. They pitch us back into her cerebral yet vaguely surreal and magical intellectual world. Her mind, here as in everything she wrote, is formidable.
Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry SouthernEd. Nile Southern and Brooke Allen
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewSouthern’s letters were antic, but they were also surprisingly unlettered and juvenile in an ur-Judd Apatow sort of way. (A lot of penis jokes.) He was not a close observer of people, in these letters, nor of his environments. He didn’t reveal much about his own life. There aren’t many facts to hang onto.
The Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert HughesRobert Hughes
PanThe New York TimesThis large volume, welcome though it is, is unwieldy. The excerpts from some of Mr. Hughes’s other books — The Fatal Shore, about Australian history, Goya, Barcelona, Rome — rest uneasily next to his criticism and more personal writing. Out of context, these lumps feel undigested.
And Yet...: EssaysChristopher Hitchens
PositiveThe New York Times...a very good new collection of Mr. Hitchens’s work previously unpublished in book form.
The Blue Touch PaperDavid Hare
RaveThe New York TimesWhat’s extraordinary about The Blue Touch Paper is how much intellection and drama and sensibility and wit Mr. Hare squeezes into the telling of his first three decades or so. This is no butterfly-watching stroll through a life. Mr. Hare is a man who seizes on details and ideas, and who writes as if words matter.
In Other WordsJhumpa Lahiri
PanThe New York Times“In Other Words is, sadly, a less ecstatic experience for you and me. It’s a soft, repetitive, self-dramatic and self-hobbled book, packed with watercolor observations like: 'There is pain in every joy. In every violent passion a dark side.' That someone gets a lot out of writing something does not necessarily mean anyone else will get a similar amount from reading that thing.
The Lonely CityOlivia Laing
PositiveThe New York TimesThe sorts of loneliness that can envelope you in a big city have been much explored in music and art and literature, where a plump blue moon is always shining down on someone. The British writer Olivia Laing, in her new book, The Lonely City, picks up the topic of painful urban isolation and sets it down in many smart and oddly consoling places. She makes the topic her own.
Spain in Our HeartsAdam Hochschild
RaveThe New York TimesWhat makes his book so intimate and moving is its human scale. Mr. Hochschild follows the paths of a handful or two of American (and occasionally English) volunteers, as well as journalists, and tells the larger story of the war through their tribulations ... [Hochschild is] a generally sympathetic observer of this conflict’s journalists, but he can also be stern. He criticizes the herd mentality that led journalists to miss one of the war’s biggest stories — how Franco’s side was propped up with oil delivered by Texaco, at the behest of an executive with Nazi sympathies.
The Burning GirlClaire Messud
MixedThe New York Times...there’s a void in The Burning Girl. That void is the absent sound of Messud’s sophisticated and unfettered voice. This novel is small and soft, pensive and diffident. It sneaks in, and out again, as if on cat’s paws. In composing it from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl, the author underwrites so thoroughly that she mostly blots out her own sun. Her virtuosity is in retreat. We burn our retinas on a self-eclipse ... Messud writes with insight about how female friendships dissolve, and about things like how terrifying certain stray glimpses of adult life can be. But The Burning Girl is an oddly distant novel. Its tone is formal and ultimately unconvincing ... This is the first of Messud’s novels that didn’t, on a regular basis, flood my veins with pleasure. It’s the first Messud novel I might have, if I could have, put down before the end. It’s a common book by an uncommon writer.
A Legacy of SpiesJohn Le Carré
PositiveThe New York TimesThe good news about A Legacy of Spies is that it delivers a writer in full. Le Carré’s prose remains brisk and lapidary. His wit is intact and rolls as if on casters. He is as profitably interested as ever in values, especially the places where loyalty, patriotism and affection rub together and fray. He wears his gravitas lightly ... There’s a distant oink of male chauvinism in this tweedy novel, one that goes beyond establishing the sexual atmosphere of swinging ’60s-era Britain ... Le Carré is not of my generation but I have read him for long enough to understand how, for many readers, his characters are old friends — part of their mental furniture. There’s something moving about seeing him revive them so effortlessly, to see that the old magic still holds. He thinks internationally but feels domestically. In an upside-down time, he appeals to comprehension rather than instinct. I might as well say it: to read this simmering novel is to come in from the cold.
The AnswersCatherine Lacey
RaveThe New York TimesLacey’s sentences are long and clean and unstanchable. They glow like the artist Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light tubes. In her new novel, The Answers, she sweeps you up in the formidable current of her thought, and then she drops you down the rabbit hole. She’s the real thing, and in The Answers she takes full command of her powers ... This is a novel of intellect and amplitude that deepens as it moves forward, until you feel prickling awe at how much mental territory unfolds ... it’s a neuronovel that floods with tangled human feeling. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s also a novel about a subjugated woman, in this case not to a totalitarian theocracy but to subtler forces its heroine is only beginning to understand and fears she is complicit with ... It comes to be a meditation on fame and art as well as love. A suspension of disbelief will sometimes be required. Lacey makes you happy to submit. She casts a spell.
Do Not Become AlarmedMaile Meloy
MixedThe New York Times...an earnest and surprisingly generic children-in-jeopardy novel, one that makes few demands on us and doesn’t deliver much, either ... These women and their husbands aren’t distinct characters; they’re upper-middle-class types. The crunchy details, the chili-rub and panko crust that would bring them to life, are absent ... Meloy’s portrait of well-meaning but still ugly Americans resonates. So does her depiction of a certain kind of mental state.
Golden HillFrancis Spufford
PositiveThe New York Times...an ebullient, freewheeling historical fiction ... Its action is so vivid that you seem to be consuming (imagine Wolf Blitzer’s voice here) breaking news. Delirious storytelling backfilled with this much intelligence is a rare and happy sight ... he’s written a high-level entertainment, filled with so much brio that it’s as if each sentence had been dusted with Bolivian marching powder and cornstarch and gently fried. Some of this swashbuckling action goes over the top, but you will probably be turning the pages too quickly to register a complaint.
The Golden HouseSalman Rushdie
MixedThe New York TimesEach sentence in it is a Cirque du Soleil leap into a net that only he can see. Each sentence seems to be composed of stardust, pixie dust, fairy dust, angel dust, fennel pollen and gris-gris powder, poached in single-udder butter, fried and refried, encrusted with gold as if it were a Gustav Klimt painting, and then dotted with rhinestones ... The effect is exhausting — and deadening. Anything can happen, so nothing matters. Rushdie is obsessed with 'characters,' as Alfred Kazin once said of John Irving, yet somehow does not evoke the more difficult thing: character. There is a reason to consider sticking with all 380 pages of The Golden House, however. It has little to do with the novel’s plot ... In Trump, Rushdie finds such a perfect villain that he finds it hard to let him go. The Trump character is named Gary 'Green' Gwynplaine, a wealthy vulgarian, born with green hair, who likes to refer to himself as the Joker. About this Joker, and about the threat he poses to an America this writer loves, it’s a treat to watch Rushdie let fly ... The Golden House has been billed by its publisher as Rushdie’s return to realism. Yet the New York City on offer is so gilded and remote that the novel reads like what one’s impressions would be if all one knew of it came from back issues of Vanity Fair magazine ... The Golden House is a big novel, wide but shallow, so wide it has its own meteorology. The forecast: heavy wind.
Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up BubbleDan Lyons
PositiveThe New York Times...a cooly observant book ... you couldn't have written a tastier ending, even for HBO.
My Struggle: Book 5Karl Ove Knausgaard
RaveThe New York TimesThere are moments in My Struggle: Book Five that drag. Once or twice, I wrote 'Help Me' in the margins and doubled down on the double espressos. These were small eddies in an onrushing river. The critic James Wood has captured my sense of Knausgaard: 'Even when I was bored, I was interested.' My Struggle is fundamentally a confessional work, and Karl Ove has admitted, in Book Three, that he is writing in part to exact revenge on those who pitied, dismissed or bullied him. He wants to return home a literary champion, someone who is impossible to ignore. As we await the concluding volume in this series, it’s a reminder, for those who still need it, that great impulses are not required to make great art.
Old Age: A Beginner's GuideMichael Kinsley
RaveThe New York TImesMr. Kinsley is now 65, with body more or less intact, and wits entirely so, if his superb new book is any indication. Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide isn’t really about Parkinson’s. It’s about aging in general. More specifically, it’s about how the baby boomer generation, which is now rounding third base like a herd of buffalo and stampeding for home plate (which is a hole in the ground, as the novelist Jim Harrison liked to say), will choose to think and act in the face of it.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing LifeWilliam Finnegan
PositiveThe New York TimesNo pretension or flab here. Just sturdy verbs, a casual flowing power, tantric masculine reticence, a melancholy sense of a sidewise-drifting life, little humor. There isn’t a line the most mischievous critic could single out for ridicule. Barbarian Days reminds you, though, that not being able to find fault with something isn’t the same as loving it. This is a very long book with excellent things in it, but it can be like watching a brooding film that’s mostly fine cinematography. The characters (including Mr. Finnegan) only rarely squeak to life ... As both travel writing and memoir, Barbarian Days often slips into the horse latitudes between the ode to joy that is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the misanthropic wit that fills Paul Theroux’s accounts of his adventures. There’s little sting in its tail.
One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in NorwayAsne Seierstad
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Seierstad has read everything about Mr. Breivik and the case, interviewed everyone. (Her epilogue, about her methods, should be required reading in journalism schools.) She is determined to see Mr. Breivik, so much so that her steely approach put me in mind of something Roy Blount Jr. once said: 'If you won’t talk to me I’ll write about your face. If you won’t look at me I’ll write about the back of your head' ... The roughly 70 pages Ms. Seierstad devotes to it are harrowing in their forensic exactitude. She seems to note the trajectory and impact of every bullet Mr. Breivik fired ... It’s said that exact detail is uniquely helpful when it comes to mending after terrible events. If it is true, as Stephen Jay Gould contended, that 'nothing matches the holiness and fascination of accurate and intricate detail,' then Ms. Seierstad has delivered a holy volume indeed.
RaveThe New York TimesGhettoside is old-school narrative journalism, told strictly in the third person. It’s as square as a card table. Yet the book is a serious and kaleidoscopic achievement ... Ms. Leovy’s greatest gift as a journalist [is] her ability to remain hard-headed while displaying an almost Tolstoyan level of human sympathy. Nearly every person in her story — killers and victims, hookers and soccer moms, good cops and bad — exists within a rich social context ... Ms. Leovy’s narrative has its share of clichés and mildly soggy moments, yet on the whole she’s a crisp writer with a crisp mind and the ability to boil entire skies of information into hard journalistic rain.
H is for HawkHelen Macdonald
RaveThe New York TimesHelen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative ... H Is for Hawk is good about death, about parents, about depression, about solitude and about keeping small cute, dead animals in your freezer to toss to your hawk. But it is especially good about class and gender.
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to ForgetSarah Hepola
RaveThe New York TimesThe first two-thirds of Blackout are simply extraordinary. Ms. Hepola’s electric prose marks her as a flamingo among this genre’s geese. She has direct access to the midnight gods of torch songs, neon signs, tap beer at a reasonable price, cigarettes and untrammeled longing.
Paul McCartney: The LifePhilip Norman
MixedThe New York TimesIf there aren’t many grace notes in his prose, neither is there much perceptive musical criticism. When Prince Charles presents Mr. McCartney with an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Music, for example, Mr. Norman writes, 'Never again would the classical music world be able to condescend to him.' Does Mr. Norman understand how condescension works? I don’t wish to be too hard on Paul McCartney: The Life. The story of its subject’s life from his childhood in Liverpool through the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 has lost none of its ability to charm. The first 400 pages relate, once more, one of the best stories the past century has to tell.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the SovietsSvetlana Alexievich, trans. Bela Shayevich
PositiveThe New York TimesOccasionally you are made to feel adrift in narrative Siberia, left to dream about condensation and editing, about the knife skills an oral historian should have in her kit. This book can leave you lost in time, as well. The interviews were collected over many years, but dates are rarely supplied. This book is dense on a macro level, but one sometimes misses the sentence-by-sentence density of the best fiction. These are quibbles. Secondhand Time is an avalanche of engrossing talk.
Seven Brief Lessons on PhysicsCarlo Rovelli
RaveThe New York TimesThe essays in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics arrive like shots of espresso, which you can consume the way the Italians do, quickly and while standing up. As slim as a volume of poetry, Mr. Rovelli’s book also has that tantalizing quality that good books of poems have; it artfully hints at meanings beyond its immediate scope ... Mr. Rovelli imparts a sense that we may have begun to wave farewell, and his book is a roll call of the scientists who have taken us so far, from Einstein and Niels Bohr through Werner Heisenberg and Stephen Hawking. Like us and everything else in our universe, they emerged from one small, dense hot cloud. These men’s intellects simply burned a bit brighter. The lessons in Mr. Rovelli’s book, as elegiac as they are incisive, do them justice.
In GratitudeJenny Diski
RaveThe New York TimesWith In Gratitude, she has written a different kind of cancer memoir, and an almost entirely platitude-free one, simply by writing a typically sui-generis Jenny Diski book. Which is to say, a book that pushes in five or six directions at once...There’s a raw, almost feral quality to Ms. Diski’s writing about cowering in Lessing’s long shadow. It’s a trait she brought to so much of her writing. It’s just like her to leave us a title, In Gratitude, that slowly sheds its softness and sends up a mischievous flare.
Diane Arbus: Portrait of a PhotographerArthur Lubow
MixedThe New York Times...written a tepid and bloodless book, one that demonstrates the defects and virtues of consummate professionalism. It’s all here, but the details remain flat on the page, as if pressed on with Fun-Tak ... Mr. Lubow does get Arbus’s life onto paper, however, and there is no denying that her story is a whirlpool, sucking you in ... One of his book’s achievements is to take us inside the making of famous image after famous image.
Blood Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry CrewsTed Geltner
PositiveThe New York Times[Geltner has] written a lean and pleasingly consumable book by sticking to essentials. He’s delivered what Vladimir Nabokov said a biographer should: 'plain facts, no symbol-searching, no jumping at attractive but preposterous conclusions, no Marxist bunkum, no Freudian rot' ... This biography comes to weird, florid life in its middle sections. As Crews’s star rose in American fiction, he reveled in his outsider status ... Harry Crews led a big, strange, sad and somehow very American life. It is well told here.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in AmericaNancy Isenberg
RaveThe New York Times[Isenberg] has written an eloquent volume that is more discomforting and more necessary than a semitrailer filled with new biographies of the founding fathers and the most beloved presidents. Viewed from below, a good angle for no one, America’s history is usefully disorienting and nearly always appalling. White Trash will have you squirming in your chair ... From this beginning, Ms. Isenberg moves confidently forward, through, for example, the class issues that undergirded the Civil War and the popular eugenics movement, favored by Theodore Roosevelt, that marked many as targets for sterilization. Slavery and racism are hardly discounted in this book, but she maintains her focus on poor whites ... This estimable book rides into the summer doldrums like rural electrification ... White Trash is indeed a bummer, and a thoroughly patriotic one. It deals in the truths that matter, which is to say, the uncomfortable ones.
Jackson 1964Calvin Trillin
PositiveThe New York TimesNot everything in it is top shelf. Some of the early articles are tentative and straightforwardly reportorial; Mr. Trillin was still finding his voice. But everything in Jackson, 1964 resonates. The book builds, and the payoffs in some of its later pieces (the most recent is from 2008) are generous. The volume is more than a history lesson. The issues it considers — police shootings, voter suppression tactics, race-based acts of terrorism — seem taken from today’s headlines. We’ve come so far, yet we haven’t come very far at all ... Jackson, 1964 is a memorial of sorts. It contains the names of many forgotten figures in the civil rights struggle. The biggest honor Mr. Trillin paid these men and women was to write about them so honestly and so well. These pieces have literary as well as historical merit, and they will continue to be read for the pleasure they deliver as well as for the pain they describe.