PositiveThe NationHowever such detailed realism was achieved—mining old diaries? wolfing down packs of madeleines from Harvard vending machines?—the effectiveness of the evocation is undeniable: We have arrived back in college in the mid-1990s ... This [Hungarian section] is Batuman in her element—writing about Batuman (sorry, Selin) out of her element—but though the setting and subject matter play to her strengths as a humorist, there is a noticeable slackening of narrative focus. A sense of futility starts to take over the novel, which gradually becomes a kind of depressive picaresque ... But if The Idiot is a defiantly imperfect novel, its imperfection feels both true to Selin’s teenage confusion and true to Batuman’s long-standing critique of fictional 'craft.' There is certainly a great deal of writerly skill on display in The Idiot—as a maker of sentences and scenes, Batuman is masterful—but she is committed to retaining a certain randomness that evokes the mess of real life.
The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early LifeKarin Roffman
PositiveThe New Republic...by far the most thorough and reliable account of a formative period in the biography of one of our greatest and most mysterious writers ... Roffman argues, plausibly, that Ashbery’s practical need to disguise his homosexuality led him to cultivate his taste for ambiguity and indirection, and she analyzes many of his early poems along these lines ... The Songs We Know Best lets us see, clearer than ever before, how the poet’s mind works, and how it developed. Still, you can’t help remaining a little nostalgic for the mystery.
Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand KidsNicholson Baker
PositiveThe NationBaker’s latest nonfiction book, Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids, is his longest by some distance—running to over 700 pages—and it does not skimp on detail ...has brought the intensity of attention displayed in his novels to the particulars of substitute teaching... Baker is such a wonderful prose stylist that he could probably get away with publishing his diary—which, for epic stretches, is what Substitute feels like ... He fills the space usually occupied by plot and tension — by what the teacher who drew up the lesson plan calls 'conflict' — with observation, lyricism, imagination, humor, and occasional fits of pique ... Finding pleasure in the details is ultimately what’s at the center of Substitute.
Joe Gould's TeethJill Lepore
RaveThe New RepublicJoe Gould’s Teeth is far from a dreadful book—it’s a rather wonderful one, in fact—but it is, like Joe Gould’s Secret before it, full of dread. Joe Gould haunts journalists and historians alike as he raises unwelcome questions about the limitations of what they do. At times Lepore’s book feels like an exorcism, an attempt to banish Gould’s unquiet spirit from the archives, to undermine the power he wields. At other times, it falls under that uncanny power itself.