Jennifer SeniorJennifer Senior is a contributing editor at New York magazine, where she writes profiles and cover stories about politics, social science, and mental health. Her work has been anthologized four times in The Best American Political Writing. She is the author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Jennifer can be found on Twitter @JenSeniorNY
Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in AmericaPatrick Phillips
RaveThe New York Times...an astonishing and thoroughgoing account of the event, its context and its thunderous reverberations ... [Phillips] did a heroic amount of archival spelunking to tell this story, one that still humanizes its subjects and brims with details ... Sometimes, Mr. Phillips gets a bit too granular in his research, bombarding readers with a great many names and places all at once ... But this rookie mistake does not, ultimately, detract from the moral force of Blood at the Root or even how involving it is.
A Truck Full of MoneyTracy Kidder
MixedThe New York Times...a book about a software guy and software culture in 2016 isn’t nearly as novel as a book about hardware guys and hardware culture in 1981, and Mr. Kidder is not in the same command of his material. He seems much more like a fellow who’s stepped off a cruise ship for an afternoon than like someone who’s spent many months inhabiting Mr. English’s world ... Mr. Kidder’s portrayal of living with manic depression is as nuanced and intimate as a reader might ever expect to get ... [the conclusion] feels a bit arbitrary, much like the book itself. But you can’t help admiring Mr. English and cheering for him.
Patient H.M.Luke Dittrich
PositiveThe New York Times[The first two-thirds] are an exciting, artful blend of family and medical history — expertly structured, told in a jiggly, vérité style. They make clear that H.M.’s surgery did not happen in a vacuum. It was part of a much larger and unseemly trend ... Any book with neuroscience this complex and content this provocative really needs footnotes. This book has none. Zero. And that’s just weird. If Mr. Dittrich is going to insist on stringent documentation from M.I.T., he ought to do the same himself. This controversy, however, should not obscure the fine personal and historical story Mr. Dittrich tells, which remains the most interesting material in the book.
How Everything Became War and the Military Became EverythingRosa Brooks
PositiveThe New York TimesAt its finest, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything is a dynamic work of reportage, punctuated by savory details ... When Ms. Brooks’s book lives up to its subtitle it delights. The author is a chipper field guide and canny ethnographer, writing with refreshing honesty about the folkways of the Defense Department, which often confound outsiders ... Ms. Brooks’s writing possesses a few grating tics...I also sometimes wondered who Ms. Brooks was writing for.
The Art of WaitingBelle Boggs
PositiveThe New York Times[Boggs'] book is a corrective and a tonic, a primer and a dispeller of myths. It is likely to become a go-to guide for the many couples who discover that having children is not the no-assembly-required experience they were expecting. They will come away enlightened, reassured and comforted by her debunker mentality ... These discussions aren’t always earth-shattering. Some, like her rehash of the custody battle over Baby M, are downright rote ... Yet Ms. Boggs has done something quite lovely and laudable with The Art of Waiting: She’s given a cold, clinical topic some much-needed warmth and soul.
An Abbreviated LifeAriel Leve
PositiveThe New York Times[A] painful, strangely mesmerizing memoir ... You could therefore view An Abbreviated Life as an act of supreme vengeance. But I have a different theory: After living through so many years of uncontrolled hysteria and histrionics, Ms. Leve badly pines for witnesses ... The book is a portrait of something familiar gone wildly, tragically awry ... At times Ms. Leve goes overboard when she gets into the clinical aspects of what she suffered.
You Will Know MeMegan Abbott
PositiveThe New York Times[Abbott] is in top form in this novel. She resumes her customary role of black cat, opaque and unblinking, filling her readers with queasy suspicion at every turn ... You Will Know Me revisits some of the author’s favorite themes — community hysteria, the chaos of adolescent sexuality — but with a slight twist. Usually, teen-girl misanthropy and anxiety figure prominently into Ms. Abbott’s novels. Here, the author is far more interested in the way adults recapitulate teenage behaviors, fretting and sniping and stirring the pot ... What clearly intrigues Ms. Abbott about gymnastics is the way it offers girls a means to master pain and take control of their bodies — particularly as they get older, when their desires and hormones are raging out of control.
Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley BrownGerri Hirshey
PositiveThe New York Times[Hirshey] is a studious and generous biographer, embracing the philosophy of the Crunch gym chain — 'No judgments' — when approaching her subject. The debate about whether Brown was good for feminism does not interest her. 'She was a realist,' the author writes, 'not a revolutionary.' This attitude has clear advantages. It frees Ms. Hirshey to do a compassionate, psychologically complex biography, arguing the world from her subject’s point of view. Brown, who could run the risk of appearing like a caricature, never once does so here...At 500 pages, though, this book could have lost about a third of its weight without readers’ noticing.
Children of the New WorldAlexander Weinstein
PositiveThe New York TimesThis is not an impeccable book. Going through it is a bit like going through a carwash, with alternating spells of monotony and liveliness; some parts are messier than others. But the best of Mr. Weinstein’s stories whistle with a cockeyed, formidable intelligence, and he is not afraid to provoke ... At his least artful moments, Mr. Weinstein’s stories are too literal, and his moral takeaways, too obvious ... But at their finest, Mr. Weinstein’s stories contain moments of moral complexity and, even more challenging — and more moving — moments of grace.
A Book About LoveJonah Lehrer
PanThe New York TimesMr. Lehrer could have written something complex and considered. Books are still the slow food of the publishing business. Yet here is Mr. Lehrer, once again, serving us a nonfiction McMuffin ... His book is insolently unoriginal ... This book is a series of duckpin arguments, just waiting to be knocked down ... There’s a lot of dime-store counsel in this book, often followed by academic citations. It’s like reading an advice column by way of JSTOR ... Perhaps Mr. Lehrer has changed — personally. But not sufficiently as a writer. I fear it may be time, at long last, for him to find something else to do.
Ordinarily Well: The Case for AntidepressantsPeter D. Kramer
PositiveThe New York TimesA bit of advice before reading Peter D. Kramer’s timely book, Ordinarily Well: The Case for Antidepressants: Skip the preface. There’s too much Peter Kramer in it, and it’s off-putting ... I carp because I care. In Ordinarily Well, Dr. Kramer, who has written so well about the curse of melancholia — that thief who steals your blood and slyly replaces it with lead — has done something very valuable: He has waded into the contentious debate about the efficacy of antidepressants. It’s an important and confusing subject. One in eight Americans rely on these medications, hardly a trivial number. Dr. Kramer shouldn’t risk losing readers so early in the climb with rickety little cairns of humblebrag ... Ordinarily Well can be slow going. While I delight as much as Dr. Kramer does in scrutinizing studies for flaws in design and execution — he talks effect sizes, dropout biases, additivity — his writing is maddeningly turgid in places. But stick with him. He has done some much-needed synthesizing and debunking ... my favorite chapters, by a long chalk, are his 'interludes' describing his own experience treating patients. They are beautiful, philosophical, ambivalent — brimming with all the humility that his opening pages lack.
MixedThe New York TimesI read the first half with a frenetic intensity, though as the book went on, with a mild annoyance, too. Mr. Vyleta, known in Canada and Britain for his atmospheric, well-made thrillers (including The Quiet Twin and The Crooked Maid), writes with intricacy and imagination and skillful pacing; never once would I have considered putting his book down. But when he wants to make a point, he plays with a heavy hand — fortissimo, when piano would have done.
Tribe: On Homecoming and BelongingSebastian Junger
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Junger has raised one of the most provocative ideas of this campaign season — and accidentally written one of its most intriguing political books. All without mentioning a single candidate, or even the president, by name ... There’s a numbingly familiar quality to much of the social science research he cites. It is not exactly news that nations with large income disparities are less happy than those without them, or that group cooperation increases levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone ... But Mr. Junger’s most powerful — and surprising — argument is the one he makes about the military’s epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Moth SnowstormMichael McCarthy
MixedThe New York Times...much more than a paean to the Earth’s beauty. It is also an elegy for it, and a particularly distressed one at that ... I take no issue with this emotional — and at times, unabashedly spiritual — line of appeal. I do, however, take issue with Mr. McCarthy’s pecking this same note with the assiduousness of the Chinatown chicken ... Mr. McCarthy is certainly a personable companion, prone to bursts of eccentric charm ... Mr. McCarthy has more than enough descriptive power to drive this book. It’s only when the engine overheats that his readers start to squirm.
The Gene: An Intimate HistorySiddhartha Mukherjee
MixedThe New York TimesMany of the same qualities that made The Emperor of All Maladies so pleasurable are in full bloom in The Gene. The book is compassionate, tautly synthesized, packed with unfamiliar details about familiar people (Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, used to rank the beauty of women on the street by 'using pinpricks on a card hidden in his pocket.' Ick.) But there are also crucial differences. Cancer is the troll that scratches and thumps beneath the floorboards of our consciousness, if it hasn’t already beaten its way into the room ... There are far fewer psychological stakes in reading about the history of genetics.
We Were Feminists OnceAndi Zeisler
MixedThe New York TimesMuch of Ms. Zeisler’s analysis, as trenchant as it is, often focuses less on ground realities than on epiphenomena — questions of how women are represented in popular culture, questions of what is and isn’t a feminist issue...I understand that We Were Feminists Once is a book of pop culture and media criticism. But if you chase after every outrage in the media micro-cycle, you’re inevitably, if unconsciously, going to get sucked into the very meta-debates that you’re railing against. Before you know it, your own commentary becomes a whistling, six-burner range of tempests in teapots. After reading Ms. Zeisler so expertly catalog all the fake issues that are diverting women away from the real ones, I personally started to pine for a more substantive discussion about those very issues — and not another analysis of Emma Watson’s feminism...Ms. Zeisler has written a funny, polished, intrepid book. But I ask that she aim for something wonkier next time. Though if she writes about the wage gap, family leave policies and all those other difficult, virtuous things, Lord knows if that book would sell as well.
Barbra StreisandNeal Gabler
MixedThe New York TimesThis is not, it should be said, a particularly original thesis. But it doesn’t seem to have been Mr. Gabler’s intention to write a groundbreaking book so much as to write a spirited and entertaining cultural appreciation. (He never interviewed Ms. Streisand.) Generally, he succeeds, though at times his appreciation is so full of treacle that it’s a wonder the pages don’t stick together. Anyone with a serious distaste for Ms. Streisand would be advised to dine at some other establishment.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...[an] ambitious, meticulous and largehearted (if occasionally long-winded) history ... The implications here are staggering: Had the definition included Asperger’s original, expansive vision, it’s quite possible we wouldn’t have been hunting for environmental causes or pointing our fingers at anxious parents. This is, without a doubt, a provocative argument that Silberman is making, one sure to draw plenty of pushback and anger. But he traces his history with scrupulous precision, and along the way he treats us to charming, pointillist portraits of historical figures who are presumed to have had Asperger’s ... His book drags in places. Almost every character who appears in NeuroTribes, no matter how minor, is supplied with a back story so long it reaches a vanishing point.
PositiveThe New York TimesFor me though, the most involving passages in Pumpkinflowers are not about politics. They are about Mr. Friedman’s personal war stories. An infantryman’s experience of battle is invariably at odds with the official record, which is linear, vectored, clear. But a truly fine war memoir — and Pumpkinflowers is certainly one — almost always shows just how disorienting and ambiguous combat can be.
Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood's Messy YearsCatherine Newman
MixedThe New York Times...writing about toddlers, whose challenges are all pretty similar requires one kind of skill: You’ve got to be able to make the banal seem surprising. Boy, can Ms. Newman do that. Writing about older children, though, requires different gifts ... She appears to have left the page and been replaced with artisanal co-op mom. What started as a ring-a-ding vaudeville act, with Ms. Newman as the star stooge, descends uncomfortably into a series of soliloquies about imparting liberal values to children, which contain more than a few notes of self-congratulation.
Tuesday Nights in 1980Molly Prentiss
PositiveThe New York TimesNew York is its own dynamic character in Ms. Prentiss’s hands. It’s a city of towering grime, with graffitied koans on the sidewalks and store windows that advertise 'BEST PORN IN TOWN XXX.' Her book falls neatly into the current New York grit nostalgia, captured in Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and HBO’s Vinyl ... Ms. Prentiss concludes her novel on a note that’s both ethereal and brutally realistic. She cauterizes wounds, but they’re still visible and bare. But for her characters — for this promising author — it’s enough.
High DiveJonathan Lee
RaveThe New York TimesRather than slavishly recreating the Brighton bombing in its every detail, Mr. Lee freestyles, creating a sympathetic ensemble both at the Grand Hotel and in the streets of Belfast — the book tacks back and forth between the two — all while making expert use of the dramatic tension inherent in waiting for a lethal explosion...There’s great range and compassion and high-definition imagery in Mr. Lee’s writing.
The Vanishing VelazquezLaura Cumming
RaveThe New York TimesThe Vanishing Velázquez is a sumptuous, impressively erudite effort by Laura Cumming to retrace Snare’s attempts to determine the painting’s elusive pedigree. But it’s a good deal more than that. The book is a pair of biographies (Snare, Velázquez), a series of critical essays, a history of King Philip’s IV court, a cold-case mystery, a courtroom drama, an adventure story, a travelogue, a floor wax, a dessert topping. Whatever it is, it’s extremely accomplished — a gleaming work of someone at the peak of her craft.
The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the EndKatie Roiphe
PositiveThe New York TimesDeath is an excellent subject for Ms. Roiphe, who delights in exploring subjects that upset us. A psychoanalyst might say that her interest in this topic is also overdetermined: As a child, she had a pneumonia so dangerous and acute the doctors removed half of one of her lungs. My only objection to her book is that it does not precisely deliver on what it promises: a look at writers in their last throes. Ms. Roiphe is, in her heart, a critic, with sensibilities heavily inflected by the work of Freud. Which means these essays, at their finest, are often literary analyses.
The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd CultureGlen Weldon
PositiveThe New York TimesThe book is, in many respects, a roaring getaway car of guilty pleasures — film gossip, comic-book esoterica, hilarious tales of nerd rage ... There are a few times when the biggest villain in this book is not the Riddler but the Straw Man, a rhetorical device of which Mr. Weldon can be overly fond. And occasionally, Mr. Weldon becomes Comic Book Guy in spite of himself, writing with the same pedantry and fastidiousness.
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer SpaceJanna Levin
PanThe New York TimesMs. Levin’s first few chapters start strongly enough. She profiles the physicists who showed, despite widespread skepticism, an early and unwavering belief in gravitational waves, collaborating across institutions and nations to build the equipment that would ultimately prove their existence ... [she] starts to lose her footing the moment she begins telling the story, rather than scribbling character sketches. Her narrative often devolves into an inside-baseball account of a very long, very slow season with a host of very grouchy managers.
PanThe New York TimesAn unsuspecting innocent, an ambitious country doctor, a nation briefly infatuated with a despicable ideology — these would all seem to be the elements of a captivating narrative. Yet Imbeciles is often a boggy read, and a disorganized one at that. Mr. Cohen, now a senior writer at Time magazine, repeats himself early and often, which suggests that the basic outline of a propulsive story eluded him...He takes the reader down a couple of biographical sinkholes, giving us pages of back stories when a simple paragraph would have done the trick.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American CityMatthew Desmond
RaveThe New York Times...an exhaustively researched, vividly realized and, above all, unignorable book — after Evicted, it will no longer be possible to have a serious discussion about poverty without having a serious discussion about housing. Like Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, this sweeping, yearslong project makes us consider inequality and economic justice in ways we previously had not. It’s sure to capture the attention of politicians. (Hillary, what are you reading this summer?) Through data and analysis and storytelling, it issues a call to arms without ever once raising its voice.
My Father the PornographerChris Offutt
RaveThe New York TimesThrough it all, Mr. Offutt somehow manages to summon compassion for his father. That, ultimately, is what makes this memoir so unexpectedly moving ... he pities his father’s loneliness, for being sentenced to a lifetime preoccupation with torture and a headful of savage sexual fantasies, predicated on the harming of innocents.
Like FamilyPaolo Giordano
PositiveThe New York TimesThis may sound terribly bleak. But bleakness isn’t the overall mood of Like Family, nor is it the final note the book sounds; rather, it’s melancholy, and there’s a world of difference. The characters in Like Family know what hope is. They know joy, they know love. They are in pain because they know that illusions are often required to sustain these feelings.
MixedThe New York TimesFor those who don’t know much about the history of cholera, Ms. Shah’s dense, compact book is a decent primer ... Perhaps my favorite chapter, though, is about waste — or, as Ms. Shah puts it, 'the rising tide of feculence.' Nothing seems to awaken the muse in Ms. Shah like excreta, the ideal delivery system for all kinds of diseases.
The HeartMaylis de Kerangal
RaveThe New York TimesMs. de Kerangal’s long, rolling sentences pulse along in systolic thumps, each beat punctuated by a comma; they’re packed with emotional intensity and florid imagery, and they’ve been superbly translated by Sam Taylor ... The entire hospital in this book pounds with life.
MixedThe New York TimesI enjoyed getting lost in the book’s melodies, but I also found its airiness dissatisfying in places; I longed for sharp analysis where there was only atmosphere. The first few chapters and subtitle both suggest that the book will be about the friendship between Zweig and Roth, as complicated a relationship as one might imagine. But their story fades from view until the end of the book.
The Portable VeblenElizabeth McKenzie
RaveThe New York TimesFor all its charm, bounce, radiant eccentrics and diverting episodes involving drug companies and squirrels, that is what The Portable Veblen is about: shaking the demented ghosts of our youth so that we can bind with clean spirits to someone in our adulthood.
The Narrow DoorPaul Lisicky
RaveThe New York TimesVery beautiful ... Mr. Lisicky has a gift for understanding suffering, an added bundle of receptors for detecting loneliness.
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over BodyJo Marchant
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Marchant has chosen very moving characters to show us the importance of the research she discusses — we forget that those who turn to alternative medicine are often people in extremis — and she possesses an equal flair for finding inspirational figures.
In the DarkroomSusan Faludi
RaveThe New York TimesIn the Darkroom is an absolute stunner of a memoir — probing, steel-nerved, moving in ways you’d never expect. Ms. Faludi is determined both to demystify the father of her youth — 'a simultaneously inscrutable and volatile presence, a black box and a detonator' — and to re-examine the very notion and nature of identity. In doing so, she challenges some of our most fundamental assumptions about transsexuality ... in telling her father’s story, Ms. Faludi is also adding a layer of complexity to this evolving canon of literature, and she’s doing it with typical brio ... What Ms. Faludi eventually suspects is that her father’s late-in-life decision to change sexes may be determined by a much broader variety of personal and historical forces, and that gender, as she has long argued, is more fluid than we’d like to believe ... As In the Darkroom progresses, it becomes clear that Ms. Faludi’s father will always elude explanation. The real Rosebud the author provides is her own. Her identity as a feminist, she realizes, sprang from her father’s 'desperation to assert the masculine persona he had chosen.'”
A Wild Swan and Other TalesMichael Cunningham
PanThe New York TimesHe tells his stories with the same louche, ominous disdain of the M.C. in Cabaret...It’s positively delectable. I had no idea Mr. Cunningham had it in him.
The Confidence GameMaria Konnikova
PanThe New York TimesUsually, the complaint about social-science writing is that authors cherry-pick their data to support a slick argument. That isn’t Ms. Konnikova’s problem. Her problem is that she’s shaken the entire tree. In each chapter, she fills page after page with study after study, all generally in the service of making rather similar points.
City of ThornsBen Rawlence
PositiveThe New York Times[an] ambitious, morally urgent new book ... Mr. Rawlence tells the story of Dadaab both at ground level and high altitude, alternating between portraits of its residents and big-picture accounts of the regional turmoil that drove them there...In theory, this structure makes perfect sense; in practice, it takes an experienced writer to make a seamless blend of personal and political stories, and this book has some conspicuous ridges and lumps.
The Improbability of LoveHannah Rothschild
PositiveNew York TimesThe book may on occasion be silly and over-the-top, even for a satire. But Ms. Rothschild writes with such exuberance and spins such a propulsive yarn that you happily accept these excesses as part of the package, the same way you happily accept the frippery of Elton John.
Empire of Self: A Life of Gore VidalJay Parini
PanThe New York TimesMr. Parini fills page after page with plot summaries of Vidal’s work — even the pulp he penned under the names of Edgar Box and Katherine Everard, even the novels available only on Amazon Marketplace. Any literary biography runs this risk...but here, this tic is especially pronounced, to the point that the biography feels like an exercise in slaloming through SparkNotes.
Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsburgIrin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
PositiveThe New York TimesNotorious RBG may be a playful project, but it asks to be read seriously. It’s an artisanal hagiography, a frank and admiring piece of fan nonfiction...That I responded so personally to it is a testimony to Ms. Carmon’s storytelling and panache.
Another Day in the Death of AmericaGary Younge
RaveThe New York Times...exactingly argued, fluidly written and extremely upsetting ... But Mr. Younge makes for a personable, unusual narrator. As a Briton, he brings a fresh perspective to this topic. As a father and a man of Barbadian descent, his interest in it is also personal ... What is perhaps most disheartening and eye-opening about Mr. Younge’s book is the fatalism he discovers in the communities most affected by gun violence.
Hero of the EmpireCandice Millard
PositiveThe New York Times...her book is much shorter on the anxiety of influence and far longer on the blustery impatience of youth. In Ms. Millard’s retelling, young Churchill was entitled, precocious, supernaturally confident — one of those fellows whose neon self-regard is downright unseemly until the very moment it is earned ... as involving as a popcorn thriller. Ms. Millard does an excellent job conveying the drama of confinement, both inside the prison and out ... What’s striking is the high volume of evidence Ms. Millard has compiled to show how unswervingly he believed in his own majestic destiny more than 40 years before he fulfilled it.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisJ.D. Vance
RaveThe New York Times...a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump. Combining thoughtful inquiry with firsthand experience, Mr. Vance has inadvertently provided a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he’s done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans ... Whether you agree with Mr. Vance or not, you must admire him for his head-on confrontation with a taboo subject.
White Sands: Experiences From the Outside WorldGeoff Dyer
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Dyer is keenly, almost achingly, aware of our own impermanence. His imagination, you could say, has a built-in time-lapse function. He sees a lifetime of past and future boredom in a museum guard’s face; the sight of a particular soccer field immediately induces 'a vision of its own demise'; 'The Lightning Field' makes him wonder what aliens will make of it long after humans are gone.
PositiveThe New York TimesAny exciting book about the history of Bellevue — which this one surely is — is destined to be as much about the history of disease, medicine and New York City as about the hospital itself. Mr. Oshinsky’s chapters about the early days of medicine are especially, distractingly interesting — so much so that they’ll inspire you to read them aloud to anyone who’ll listen ... The book offers an eye-opening lesson on how the two-tiered system of health care started in this country ... [Oshinsky] has a lovely flair for detail. His chapter about the AIDS crisis, which tested the mettle of many physicians — they were at once afraid for their health and demoralized by their powerlessness — is moving and humane ... At times, however, Mr. Oshinsky’s sourcing is inexplicably sloppy ... Most baffling of all, there’s no discussion of Bellevue’s famous services for survivors of torture.
RaveThe New York Times...[an] exquisite new novel ... Commonwealth spans over 50 years, and the stories of how these children move uncertainly into adulthood — and how their parents adjust to the misfortunes that accrue — are painfully beautiful.
Settle for MoreMegyn Kelly
MixedThe New York Times...her memoir is a reminder that she is a complicated feminist figure — starting with the fact that she rejects the label 'feminist.' The needle she threads has an almost microscopic eye. She is trying simultaneously to appeal to both her new 'Lean-In' fan base and the regular Fox news watchers who abhor identity politics ... This book will doubtless have sex appeal among gossips and Kelly obsessives. But the author wants to do more than tell a juicy story. She’s positioned this book as a self-help guide ... Me, I’m not feeling it. Like most superstars, Ms. Kelly is a metabolic anomaly. She’s willed herself into her own spectacular existence. Along the way, she got the best of the next president of the United States. And the worst.
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our HeadsTim Wu
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Attention Merchants is more survey than treatise. Few chapters offer startling new arguments, though Mr. Wu is well attuned to paradoxes and ironies ... Only in the last 50 pages, when he appraises the excesses of the modern internet does Mr. Wu turn savage, sinking enough venom into Twitter and Instagram to kill a baby monkey ... [Wu] writes with elegance and clarity, giving readers the pleasing sensation of walking into a stupendously well-organized closet ... Mr. Wu’s chapters about the early days of advertising are some of this book’s most enjoyable, easily serving as a reader’s companion to Mad Men.
The Private Life of Mrs SharmaRatika Kapur
RaveThe New York TimesRenu, the mesmerizing narrator in Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma, has a gift for self-deception. It is baffling, then funny, and then quite poignant to witness ... The story it tells is taut, focused; its wider setting, the new India, pops with life. But the real star of this show is Renu, the Mrs. Sharma of the book’s title. She starts in one dimension, then gradually plumps into three.
The Undoing ProjectMichael Lewis
PositiveThe New York TimesAt its peak, the book combines intellectual rigor with complex portraiture. During its final pages, I was blinking back tears, hardly your typical reaction to a book about a pair of academic psychologists. The reason is simple. Mr. Lewis has written one hell of a love story, and a tragic one at that. The book is particularly good at capturing the agony of the one who loves the more ... this book could stand a bit of trimming, and readers should ready themselves for tougher meat than they might be expecting to chew ... In The Undoing Project, Mr. Lewis has found the granddaddy of all stories about counterintuition, because Dr. Kahneman and Dr. Tversky did some of the most definitive research about just how majestically, fantastically unreliable our intuition can be.
In the Great Green RoomAmy Gary
PanThe New York TimesBrown may have led a vibrant, colorful life. But Gary only manages to render her in shades of taupe. Her sentences are strictly utilitarian. Her early pages are teeming with dead-end digressions ... Far more baffling — criminal, actually — is that Brown’s voice is absent, entirely, from In the Great Green Room until the final page. Here is a woman who left behind diaries, letters and papers of all kinds. Why are we not hearing from this thrilling creature, celebrated for her ear, renowned for her sound? ... Instead, we get Gary’s. She is a strangely passive-aggressive biographer — too timid to analyze Brown’s life in any large and meaningful way, yet presumptuous enough to speak for her ... This seems a terrible missed opportunity.
Against Empathy: The Case for Rational CompassionPaul Bloom
PositiveThe New York Times... too highbrow to be a self-help or parenting manual, but parts of it could be. Its wingspan is too wide to be a simple guide to philanthropy, but parts of it could be that as well. And it’s a bit too clotted with caveats to be a seamless read, which is a shame, because it could have been, with more shaping ... Look past the book’s occasional loop-the-loops and intellectual fillips. Against Empathy is an invigorating, relevant and often very funny re-evaluation of empathy ... he is by no means making the case for heartlessness. His point, rather, is that empathy is untempered by reason, emanating from the murky bayou of the gut. He prefers a kind of rational compassion — a mixture of caring and detached cost-benefit analysis. His book is a systematic attempt to show why this is so ... More than any book I’ve read this year, Against Empathy is an overt, joyful conversation with readers.
A Really Good DayAyelet Waldman
MixedThe New York TimesJust because she doesn’t have a picturesque version of melancholy doesn’t make it any less real or any less deserving of compassion. And after reading A Really Good Day, you understand just why Ms. Waldman might have been willing to experiment to find relief ... The reader doesn’t have quite as uniformly positive an experience. Part of the problem is aesthetic: Ms. Waldman has a tendency to slide into the prefab language of psychotherapy or self-help. Her sense of humor can be unsubtle...And her observations can be trite ... But then Ms. Waldman will capture you with genuinely brave and human moments, like when she confesses that she yells at people because she enjoys it ... Ms. Waldman’s survey of the history and literature of psychotropic drugs is informative, though it can also, on occasion, be too sloppy and loose ... Whatever her foibles or stylistic lapses, she makes a persuasive case for the therapeutic use of psychedelics.
Black EdgeSheelah Kolhatkar
RaveThe New York TimesKolhatkar’s Black Edge tells it depressingly well. Justice is not served. The little guy does not triumph ... If Black Edge weren’t about real life, it would be an uncomplicated pleasure to read. The book is many things: a Wall Street primer; a procedural drama; a modern version of Moby-Dick, with wiretaps rather than harpoons. Kolhatkar, a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former hedge fund analyst, expertly synthesizes an enormous amount of material, including court documents and hundreds of her own interviews ... Kolhatkar never reduces anyone in Black Edge to a stone-gargoyle grotesque. But Cohen certainly goes across the street and around the corner to reify certain stereotypes about hedge fund managers ... my hunch is that readers will most remember Black Edge for showing them just how alarmingly pervasive insider trading was in the years surrounding the 2008 collapse.
The Arab of the Future 2Riad Sattouf
RaveThe New York TimesEven without a shard of context, Mr. Sattouf’s story and storytelling would be irresistible ... The series is very funny. Particularly this second installment, which takes place over the course of a single year, 1984-85 ... Living betwixt and between cultures may be Mr. Sattouf’s destiny. It was hard on him as a child, and it may remain so in adulthood. But it makes for exceptionally good art.
Do Not Say We Have NothingMadeleine Thien
RaveThe New York Times...a beautiful, sorrowful work. The book impresses in many senses: It stamps the memory with an afterimage; it successfully explores larger ideas about politics and art; it has the satisfying, epic sweep of a 19th-century Russian novel, spanning three generations and lapping up against the shores of two continents ... The larger saga unfurls like silk — and proves similarly resistant to knots, a testament to Ms. Thien’s storytelling skills ... Ms. Thien captures painfully well the depersonalization and numbness of living through the Cultural Revolution.
History of WolvesEmily Fridlund
PanThe New York Times...here is the danger in withholding crucial information from your readers for so long: Eventually they expect their uncertainty to be rewarded, preferably with interest. This does not happen in History of Wolves, as promisingly as it starts out. I sensed where Ms. Fridlund was heading before she started dropping explicit clues, and even if I hadn’t, I suspect I’d have been underwhelmed. Those thunderheads massing on the horizon let loose only a weak drizzle ... History of Wolves contains the kernels of many possible novels, with lots of larger ideas to plumb...[but] all the ideas in the world can’t make a great novel. It’s what you do with them that matters.
No Knives in the Kitchens of This CityKhaled Khalifa
PositiveThe New York TimesKhaled Khalifa writes about his native city with sensuality and an almost feral intensity in his new novel. The book focuses on just one family, and it stops several years short of the Syrian civil war. But it offers a glimpse into how terrified and empty of hope the people of a city must be to rise up in revolt. The future offers them nothing. It is a castle of closed doors ... no synopsis can give a sense of what reading this book is like. Mr. Khalifa’s story is episodic rather than linear; it is more about an atmosphere, both emotional and physical, than any defining event. The author writes in lush, pungent prose, some of it overripe, like a fermented banana. But some of it is also beautiful ... Mr. Khalifa is interested in erotic desire — and its repression. He lingers over it, conjuring some of the most graphic depictions of sex (in hotel rooms, in prisons, in the recesses of the imagination) I’ve read all year. No Knives in the Kitchens of This City meanders a great deal. At moments, it can be slow and hard to follow; its characters sometimes act in ways that make little sense, even by the erratic standards of human behavior in dictatorships. But the sights, smells and horror of living in Aleppo come pounding to life in this book.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of TomorrowYuval Noah Harari
MixedThe New York Times...lively, provocative and sure to be another hit among the pooh-bahs. But readers ought to be prepared: Almost every blithe pronouncement Harari makes (that 'the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms,' for instance) has been the exclusive subject of far more nuanced books, whose arguments have in turn been disputed by other intellectuals. I do not mean to knock the handiwork of a gifted thinker and a precocious mind. But I do mean to caution against the easy charms of potted history ... This dystopian vision rests on many questionable assumptions, of course. One of them is that we don’t have free will, and never did, a philosophical question that Harari insists on treating as settled ... Harari promises that Homo Deus is not a prophecy. Let’s hope so.
Spaceman of BohemiaJaroslav Kalfar
PositiveThe New York TimesJaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia is not a perfect first effort. But it’s a frenetically imaginative one, booming with vitality and originality when it isn’t indulging in the occasional excess. Kalfar’s voice is distinct enough to leave tread marks. He has a great snout for the absurd. He has such a lively mind and so many ideas to explore that it only bothered me a little — well, more than a little, but less than usual — that this book peaked two-thirds of the way through ... Kalfar has an exhilarating flair for imagery. He writes boisterously and mordantly, like a philosophy grad student who’s had one too many vodka tonics at the faculty Christmas wingding. This is generally a good thing, though it can also mean periodic forays into pretentiousness.
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to CampusLaura Kipnis
PositiveThe New York TimesIt is invigorating and irritating, astute and facile, rigorous and flippant, fair-minded and score-settling, practical and hyperbolic, and maybe a dozen other neurotically contradictory things. Above all else, though, Unwanted Advances is necessary. Argue with the author, by all means. But few people have taken on the excesses of university culture with the brio that Kipnis has. Her anger gives her argument the energy of a live cable ... Now: I certainly appreciate Kipnis’s forensics. And the story she tells is psychologically complex. But one of the women in Ludlow’s case comes across as genuinely troubled...if that’s the case, isn’t that an argument in favor of forbidding relations between faculty and students? Because some students might not be able to handle them? ... Kipnis never minimizes the devastating consequences of sexual violence. And she’s on to something, really on to something, when she rails against the 'neo-sentimentality about female vulnerability.' But the most powerful and provocative part of her book, its final chapter, suggests that today’s young college women really do suffer from a crisis of agency. The pressure to drink themselves senseless and then hook up is so pervasive that they seem to have trouble saying no.
Insomniac CityBill Hayes
PositiveThe New York TimesRead just 50 pages, and you’ll see easily enough how Hayes is Sacks’s logical complement. Though possessed of different temperaments, both are alive to difference, variety, the possibilities of our rangy humanity; both are avid chroniclers of our species — Sacks in his case studies, and Hayes in his character sketches of the people he meets in the street. Hayes is a true flâneur, a man who actively engages the city with all of his senses ... I adore this observation. Yet readers should be warned: Hayes’s writing can also be terribly precious ... Hayes’s poetry is pedestrian, but his street photographs are not. They are frank, beautiful, bewitching — they unmask their subjects’ best and truest selves. And his account of Sacks’s final months will no doubt inspire many readers.
Richard Nixon: The LifeJohn A. Farrell
RaveThe New York TimesTo read this biography with an eye only toward the parallels between the two presidents would be lazy and unfair, a disservice to Farrell’s nuanced scholarship. But the context here is unignorable. The similarities between Nixon and Trump leap off the page like crickets ... Like Trump, Nixon was a monomaniac on the stump, obsessed with the enemies lurking within. Nixon, too, had a penchant for sowing mayhem and a gourmand’s appetite for revenge, especially in the wee hours of the morning. (Trump tweets. Nixon made phone calls) ... He’s an electrifying subject, a muttering Lear, of perennial interest to anyone with even an average curiosity about politics or psychology. The real test of a good Nixon biography, given how many there are, is far simpler: Is it elegantly written? And, even more important, can it tolerate paradoxes and complexity, the spikier stuff that distinguishes real-life sinners from comic-book villains? The answer, in the case of Richard Nixon, is yes, on both counts.
Here Comes the SunNicole Dennis-Benn
RaveThe New York TimesThis lithe, artfully-plotted debut concerns itself with the lives of those for whom tourists can barely be bothered to remove their Ray-Bans ... Much of the dialogue in Here Comes the Sun is written in this patois. It’s one of the book’s incidental pleasures, its own melodious tune ... Margot is one of the reasons to read this book. She is a startling, deeply memorable character. All of Ms. Dennis-Benn’s women are. The author has a gift for creating chiaroscuro portraits, capturing both light and dark. In almost every scene, she conveys how the molecules shift around Margot, the air vibrating with the tension between her stone-cold resolve and her electric sexuality ... Here Comes the Sun is deceptively well-constructed, with slow and painful reveals right through the end. Just who’s able to give history the slip, and at what cost, is one of the saddest things you’ll ever read.
The Stranger in the WoodsMichael Finkel
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s campfire-friendly and thermos-ready, easily drained in one warm, rummy slug. It also raises a variety of profound questions — about the role of solitude, about the value of suffering, about the diversity of human needs ... A few sentences in this book are sprayed with that inexplicable men’s-magazine hyperbole cologne ... Finkel, to whom Knight gave stunning access while in jail — especially for a hermit — also does a fine job conveying the idiosyncrasies of his subject’s character ... The Stranger in the Woods is involving and well-told; it certainly casts its spell. But there are inconsistencies in Knight’s story.
Janesville: An American StoryAmy Goldstein
RaveThe New York Times...[a] moving and magnificently well-researched ethnography of a small Wisconsin factory city on economic life support ... [Goldstein] opts for complexity over facile explanations and easy polemics. (Neither Obama nor Ryan comes off looking particularly good; and no, she does not conclude that these layoffs put Donald J. Trump in the White House) ... Janesville joins a growing family of books about the evisceration of the working class in the United States. What sets it apart is the sophistication of its storytelling and analysis. The characters are especially memorable. This may be the first time since I began this job that I’ve wanted to send notes of admiration to three people in a work of nonfiction ... Janesville is eye-opening, important, a diligent work of reportage. I am sure Paul Ryan will read it. I wonder what he will say.
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black AmericaJames Forman Jr.
RaveThe New York Times...[a] superb and shattering first book ... That is truly what this book is about, and what makes it tragic to the bone: How people, acting with the finest of intentions and the largest of hearts, could create a problem even more grievous than the one they were trying to solve ... This is the exceptionally delicate question that he tries to answer, with exemplary nuance, over the course of his book. His approach is compassionate. Seldom does he reprimand the actors in this story for the choices they made ... The stories he shares are not just carefully curated to make us think differently about criminal justice (though they will, particularly about that hallowed distinction between nonviolent drug offenders and everyone else); they are stories that made Forman himself think differently, and it’s in telling them that he sheds his cautious, measured self and becomes a brokenhearted, frustrated civil servant.
Women Who WorkIvanka Trump
PanThe New York Times Book Review...the book is not really offensive so much as witlessly derivative, endlessly recapitulating the wisdom of other, canonical self-help and business books ... And because Ivanka alone can fix our problems, she opens her book with a pasture full of straw men, including the argument that our culture isn’t having nuanced conversations about working mothers ... The book is manifestly the descendant of many TED talks and lifestyle websites. It’s perfect for a generation weaned on Pinterest and goop.com ... This is the sort of feminism that drives some women bananas, having less to do with structural change than individual fulfillment and accessorizing properly; perhaps it can even be achieved by wearing her fine jewelry or apparel, which she repeatedly mentions throughout the book (as well as her family’s tremendous hotels). There’s certainly a market for it. There’s also family precedent for it. Her father nearly annihilated his millions, and went on to write many successful business books. Why not Ivanka?
RaveThe New York Times...the real revelation in Trajectory is 'Milton and Marcus,' the story of a down-on-his-luck novelist and sometime screenwriter who’s summoned to the home of a legendary actor ... Don’t let the wickedness of 'Milton and Marcus' fool you. It happens to be the most beautiful story in the book. And how much of it is true is beside the point. What matters is how it reflects the larger themes of Russo’s work. Jackson Hole is the ultimate foil to the decaying mill towns of Russo’s novels, and actors the ultimate foils to the low-esteem schlubs Russo writes about so well ... It will abruptly break your heart. That’s what Richard Russo does, without pretension or fuss, time and time again.
The End of EddyÉdouard Louis, Trans. by Michael Lucey
RaveThe New York TimesÉdouard Louis’s The End of Eddy is the Hillbilly Elegy of France ... For anyone interested in learning about the white underclass that’s helped power the populist movements of Europe, it is an excellent and accessible place to begin ... The End of Eddy, however, is not just a remarkable ethnography. It is also a mesmerizing story about difference and adolescence, one that is far more realistic than most.
Anything is PossibleElizabeth Strout
RaveThe New York TimesWhere this book sharply departs from Strout’s previous work is in its frank, unapologetic emphasis on forbidden desire. Not a chapter spins by, practically, without the unveiling of some sexual secret ... Anything Is Possible is certainly more grim than Strout’s previous work. It’s more audacious, too, and more merciless, daring you to walk away ... But the writing is wrenchingly lovely. It almost always is with Strout, whether she’s knitting metaphors or summarizing, with agonizing economy, whole episodes of a life ... You read Strout, really, for the same reason you listen to a requiem: to experience the beauty in sadness.