RaveThe Chicago Tribune...her return to fiction has a shaggy structure and polemical bent that might confuse and disappoint some readers. Yet its keen characterizations, ardent conscience and brilliant writing on a sentence level make the years this tale has taken to arrive somewhat understandable ... scathing yet beautiful and rich with metaphorical resonance — while also unfurling into an excessively digressive slog that threatens to bog down ... The ferocity of Roy's anger at what governments do (and fail to do) and her fervid desire to hold people accountable are admirable...But her myriad minor characters and political discursions cause the narrative threads to slip from her hands, leading to a bewildering lack of momentum and focus ... Yet even with its many flaws and frustrations, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a grand if perplexing achievement: an ambitious story with a profound moral integrity and a deep emotional impact. Roy sets her aims incredibly high, and even when she misses the mark, she has written the kind of monumental and messy book that the monumental and messy world is perennially in need of.
A House Among the TreesJulia Glass
RaveThe Chicago TribuneModeling Lear loosely after real-life author-illustrator Maurice Sendak,who was gay, Glass uses his biography as a jumping off point to create a charming yet cagey character whose darkest secret itself has a secret ... Writing about writing can be a tough trick to pull off without descending into cliches about troubled geniuses or mystification of the creative process itself or even pandering about the nobility of books and the people who read them. But Glass accomplishes her task with a fresh vision and little fuss ... Eloquent and spell-binding, Glass interrogates these notions of intimacy: who we let see us and how much we let them see.
House of NamesColm Tóibín
PanThe Chicago Tribune[The] detachment comes at a price, and though the novel isn't bad — it's really all right — it fails to feel as riveting as its premise suggests, ending up less revelatory and more superfluous. Its short, stating sentences have the effect of summary and synopsis instead of depth or disclosure. Even in the penultimate section — when Toibin lets Clytemnestra narrate as a ghost — the reader is left wanting more ... this book, which seems to want to be ferocious and bracing, feels like a competent arm's-length recapitulation. If you don't know or like mythology and the classics, then you might do better to go straight to those, and if you do know and like them, then you might very well end up wishing you were just rereading them directly in all their original glory without the interruptive layer of Toibin's earnest and effortful lyrical interpolation.
Edgar and LucyVictor Lodato
RaveThe Chicago Tribune...writer Victor Lodato seems to be something of a polymath. His second novel, the wonder-filled and magisterial Edgar and Lucy, certainly feels as though it was written by one, so wide-ranging is it in its concerns and themes, and so ardent is it in its desire to bring everything — life, love, family, loneliness, magic, spiritualism and death — together in its pages ... Lodato's skill as a poet manifests itself on every page...His skill as a playwright shines in every piece of dialogue...And his skill as a fiction writer displays itself in his virtuoso command of point of view ... The book pushes the boundaries of beauty, inviting the reader to be like Edgar, who, even when staring at litter on the ground, 'knew that these things were garbage, but at the same time he could feel their tiny breathless souls.'
Pretentiousness: Why It MattersDan Fox
PositiveThe Chicago TribuneFox understands that '(w)hen authenticity is in question it generates deep anxieties.' He elucidates in an intelligent and conversational style the many complex layers of aesthetic, class and social discomfort that often arise in the face of pretentiousness ... Fox's essay goes a long way toward making the compelling case that '(t)he pretensions of individuals from all walks of life — their ambition, their curiosity, their desires to make the world around them a more interesting place — is cultural literacy in action.'
To the Bright Edge of the WorldEowyn Ivey
PositiveThe Chicago TribuneThese interwoven voices are held together by the clever frame of the book's modern-day premise ... Far from being incapacitated, Ivey makes the most of the superabundance of her chosen subject, resulting in an absorbing reminder that, 'each of us is alive only by a small thread.'
Lucky BoyShanthi Sekaran
PositiveThe Chicago Tribune...[a] sweeping, deep and strikingly compassionate second novel ... Topical and timely, but thankfully neither pedantic nor preachy, Sekaran's book invites the reader to engage empathetically with thorny geopolitical issues that feel organic and fully inhabited by her finely rendered characters. Because of the way Sekaran examines the vagaries of economic inequality and the messiness of love in addition to the intricacies of immigration and adoption, Lucky Boy would make a promising pick for a book club. The circumstances feel well-researched, but Sekaran never lets that research get in the way of what is, at its core, a gripping story.
A Woman Looking at Men Looking at WomenSiri Hustvedt
RaveThe Chicago Tribune...[a] voluminous, humorous and wide-ranging new collection ... Hustvedt doesn't just offer up information, although there's plenty of it here; she also delivers it to her audience with an invigorating blend of personality and imagination ... Hustvedt's inquisitive and generous responses to paintings and poems give the reader the feeling of going to a museum or library with their most casually intelligent and infectiously enthusiastic friend ... Hustvedt tempers her presentation of knowledge with doubt, and the resulting book is paradoxically more satisfying in its thought-provoking ambiguity than all the confidently stated answers in the world.
I'll Tell You in PersonChloe Caldwell
RaveElectric Literature...[an] exceptional personal essay collection ... after reading the 12 essays in this fantastic collection, I feel as though I know Chloe Caldwell, a statement which is a testament to the power and satisfaction to be found in her utterly funny, confiding, and self-aware skill as a writer.
Gone With the MindMark Leyner
PositiveThe Chicago TribunePacked with — as Mark puts it earlier in his non-reading reading — 'cosmic apercus and trippy metaphysical speculation,' Gone with the Mind is all strained anticipation and endlessly prolonged prologue. Leyner delivers an exercise in deferred gratification that is itself immensely entertaining and surprisingly gratifying.
RaveThe Chicago TribunePatience is stunning. Disturbing, convoluted, darkly comic and just plain dark, the book itself is a thing of beauty ... The book's self-awareness and sympathy make it more than just an exercise in the mixing of genres, but it's in this unabashed mixing that Clowes creates a story that is as transcendent as it is upsetting — and affirming.
PositiveThe Chicago Tribune...[an] eclectic and absorbing memoir and cultural history ... Throughout the pages of this erudite yet conversational book, Elkin sets about successfully persuading her audience that the joy of walking in the city belongs now — and has for ages belonged — to both men and women ... The book strikes a rewarding balance between present and past, as it establishes and illustrates the much-needed definition of the flaneuse as 'a determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk' ... Though the book derives its chapter titles primarily from geographic locations, as a whole it feels drifty and meandering, almost like a walk itself. Elkin's sections give the reader the sensation one often has with neighborhoods when one is strolling — the locations feel distinct, but the borders are vague.
Why I Am Not a FeministJessa Crispin
MixedThe Chicago Tribune...[a] bellicose and bracing book ... Anybody who sets out to diagnose flaws in any movement is probably going to find a lot. So too is anybody who sets out to diagnose the flaws of the person pointing out the flaws. It's possible to come at Crispin's book with the intent of engaging in an infinite regression of flaw-diagnosing, a hall of mirrors of pointing hands. So it's worth mentioning that Crispin's book feels woolly at times and in need of better editing. It's also long on strawmen (strawwomen?) for its surprising lack of sources and specifics, and short on prescriptions for how to actually do the revolutionary work she rallies the reader to do ... A useful attitude when dealing with such a brickbat of a text might be to let the provocations have their intended provocative effect. And then, after the initial impact has settled, decide whether the missiles have really hit their mark — and whether we feel inspired to react.
How to Survive a PlagueDavid France
RaveThe Chicago Tribune...riveting and comprehensive ... Its 640 pages are packed with scientific, medical and social history, offering the reader a simultaneously intimate and sweeping understanding of the crisis ... amid this wealth of sources and data, France never lets the reader forget the human scale of the crisis ... How to Survive a Plague stands as a remarkably written and highly relevant record of what angry, invested citizens can come together to achieve, and a moving and instructive testament to one community's refusal — in the face of ignorance, hatred and death — to be silenced or to give up.
The ArgonautsMaggie Nelson
RaveThe Chicago TribuneThe Argonauts is a thrilling read for the way in which Nelson crafts an exceptional form uniquely suited to her exceptional content: the story of falling in love with the gender-fluid artist Harry (formerly 'Harriet') Dodge, building a queer family and having a child through IVF. Yet this summary can do neither the book nor Nelson's huge-brained and big-hearted ambitions for it justice. One could call what she has done a motherhood memoir, which it undeniably is, but that label risks reducing its scope, which is practically boundless ... a beautiful, passionate and shatteringly intelligent meditation on what it means not to accept binaries but to improvise an individual life that says, without fear, yes, and.
Grief is the Thing with FeathersMax Porter
RaveThe Chicago Tribune...[a] brief, bizarre and brilliant debut ... Simultaneously straightforward and mysterious, the book illustrates the need for and calls into question 'moving on, as a concept' with Dad insisting that 'any sensible person knows that grief is a long-term project.'
PositiveThe Chicago TribuneFor a book that is largely about the loneliness of a life lived through the distancing mediation of technology, Mickey is an arrestingly immediate and personal work ... [the] concise yet ever-unspooling structure evokes the reading of texts or tweets or status updates, building a similar tension to that found in scrolling and swiping ... If you enjoy futility, sarcasm, aggravation and art, then you will most likely enjoy this book as an excellent distraction from your own self-conscious and self-sabotaging brain.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 QuestionsValeria Luiselli
RaveThe Chicago Tribune...simultaneously dazzling and apt ... With anger and lucidity, Luiselli depicts the nightmares these children are forced to flee in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, as well as the destructive ignorance and bigotry that awaits them in America ... she invites us to consider what we want our own roles to be in how this transnational humanitarian catastrophe ultimately plays out.
RaveThe Chicago Tribune...[a] delightful and debauched prose debut ... using the same offbeat intelligence, comic timing, gimlet skill for observation and verbal dexterity that she uses in both her poetry and her tweets, she delivers an unsparing yet ultimately affectionate portrait of faith and family. And her metaphors really are deserving of royalty status ... The frequency of her jokes and the grotesqueness of her hilarity lead to a high density of pleasure; virtually every page is packed with the potential to make the reader laugh out loud ... Priestdaddy gives both believers and nonbelievers a great deal to contemplate.
Unbearable SplendorSun Yung Shin
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of Books...[a] strange and captivating hybrid ... flexibility and willingness to interrogate even what poetry and art themselves consist of make Unbearable Splendor read like an irresistible invitation to test out and redefine notions of race, gender, and the rules that govern everything from creative writing to the political economy ... she joins the exhilarating ranks of poets who cross the borders of genre to use poetry/the lyric as essay ... an incredibly compact use of commanding and vibrant language which coheres into work that feels restless and deft, as cerebral as it is emotional.
Poetry Will Save Your LifeJill Bialosky
MixedThe Chicago TribuneAs her superlative title suggests, Bialosky organizes this memoir around 52 poems by such poets as W.H. Auden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson and many more that she believes answer Milosz's question admirably...this is a delightfully hybrid book: part anthology, part critical study, part autobiography ... Throughout, Bialosky provides a refreshing tonic to the periodic, exaggerated and self-indulgent reports of poetry's death, difficulty or irrelevance ...structure of the book teaches the reader that a poem is not an object of static perfection to be encountered once and correctly, but rather is an ever-changing occasion for contemplation by various individuals, each with an ongoing life story that yields an array of reactions ... The memoiristic passages, unfortunately, tend to be mundane and mediocre; she paints her autobiographical anecdotes in broad strokes, which makes the various incidents, large and small, feel brushed over.
Would Everybody Please Stop?Jenny Allen
MixedThe Chicago TribuneQuotidian and clever, they feel like sketches — sketches as in comedy bits but also as in sketchy and not tremendously deep ... Fans of Nora Ephron, Erma Bombeck and even the peevish Andy Rooney will find a lot to enjoy in these essays, which are lively and not afraid to be quarrelsome ... Ten of the pieces originally appeared in The New Yorker, so if you like the droll lampoons and opinings of that magazine's Shouts & Murmurs column, then you'll enjoy the raconteur-ish jocularity that Allen displays here. Yet the cumulative effect becomes one of cutesiness. On the whole, Allen's riffs are pleasant enough while you're reading them but likely won't stick in your mind for terribly long after. Unlike the best satire, they don't pick targets in need of deflating. Unlike the best comedy, which is always complex and even surprising, they rarely mix their modest goofiness with more piquant emotions like sadness or outrage, anger or indignation. Middle of the road, they risk offending nobody and perhaps that's what will make them, paradoxically, offensive, for some readers.
The Graybar HotelCurtis Dawkins
PositiveThe Chicago TribuneAlmost every one of the 14 short stories in the collection seems to have originated from something Dawkins experienced or witnessed in jail or prison, and almost every one reflects with devastating compassion on the guilt and regrets of the criminals inside ... It's well-written and worth reading for Dawkins' craft and insight, but it's also an occasion to consider an industry that has little to do with rehabilitation, and that makes it nearly impossible for its participants to recuperate their lives.
Ghosts of the Tsunami
RaveThe Chicago Tribune...remarkably written and reported ... In a gripping fashion, Parry builds his account around solving the excruciating mystery that haunts the parents of those who were killed...In doing so, he produces a page-turner. In lesser hands, this tactic could seem ghoulish or exploitative — 'an effort to squeeze spooky entertainment out of the tragedy.' But in Parry’s, the material gets assembled into a moving study of character and culture, love and loss, grief and responsibility ... He constructs the book as an exquisite series of nesting boxes of sorrow and compassion ... Reminiscent of John Hersey’s classic Hiroshima, a devastatingly calm and matter-of-fact look at the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb, Parry recounts this story with a necessary balance of detachment and investment. Significantly, unlike Hersey, Parry was in Japan during the disaster he’s describing, and so he includes the occasional first-person experience in his multilayered account. The result is a spellbinding book that is well worth contemplating in an era marked by climate change and natural disaster.
Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife
RaveThe Chicago Tribune...an exhaustively researched and engrossingly written examination of the life and work of the enormously talented and intensely private American photographer ... Throughout the book, Bannos gives a thorough account of how 'mansplaining Vivian Maier contributed to her mythologizing.' In turn, she provides a much-needed alternative to these largely reductive and romanticized myths ... As her subtitle suggests, Bannos deftly weaves Maier's chronological biography with the afterlife of the work she left behind. This multilayered structure results in a fascinating and balanced look at questions of artistic authority, appropriation, legacy and copyright ... By the end of this impressively documented and nuanced page-turner, Maier will no longer be a mystery woman to the reader either. Instead, a much richer and more valuable portrait emerges: that of a gifted and methodical artist and a multifarious human being.
Her Body and Other Parties
RaveThe Chicago TribuneIn her twistedly original and thrilling debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blends both the terrifying and the horrible into a psychologically realistic and darkly comic mixture … Time and again, Machado freaks the reader out while making them think. Her work calls to mind other stellar practitioners of this kind of literary horror and speculative-gothic genre-bending, including Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, Kelly Link and Sofia Samatar. Yet her voice and her sensibility seem singularly her own … By honing in on the grotesquerie and uncanniness of such familiar things as bariatric surgery, pornography, motherhood, women's clothing stores and Girl Scout camps, to name a few, Machado discloses and critiques the threats and exploitations inherent in capitalism and the patriarchy, while above all weaving narratives that refuse to be put down.
MixedThe Chicago TribuneEach story includes the year it was written at the end, instructively calling attention to the development of Eugenides' approaches and themes across the decades. This collection contains flashes of what makes his longer work a pleasure to read — fraught situations, keenly observed behaviors, and senses of complicated humor and empathy — but on the whole, it feels uneven ... In the strongest stories, particularly 'Timeshare' and 'Capricious Gardens,' Eugenides comes across as bemused by — but not mocking or contemptuous of — his characters. In too many others, his tone condescends and dismisses ... One regrets this collection's lack of consistency, but it is worth a read as one waits for Eugenides' next novel.
Forest DarkNicole Krauss
PanThe Chicago TribuneUnfortunately, the Nicole sections of Forest Dark suffer from a humorless tone and a foregrounded self-regard in which both writer and character seem to think themselves more insightful than they actually are ... Superficial and self-satisfied, these passages seem intoxicated with their own Intro to Philosophy-style pontification ... This disappointing narrative comes off as all the more unfortunate when one considers that the other half of the book is more engaging and dynamically written ... Ultimately, the novel itself loses its way amid rambling solipsism and forced plot twists. Given the critical and popular success of her three previous novels, one hopes that Krauss' fifth book will see her finding her way again.
PositiveThe Chicago TribuneHis copious research, his talents in literary analysis and his associative skills as a poet are on acrobatic display as he argues convincingly that the hoax is all too often an underrecognized mechanism for maintaining white — and to a concurrent extent, male — supremacy ... Admittedly, hoaxes are a shaggy subject, yet one wishes that Young’s book were a bit more trim, as he turns and returns to subjects across chapters in a nonlinear and at times perplexing and repetitive fashion ... As we enter the second year of the Trump administration — with its railing against 'fake news,' its failure to unilaterally condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville and its assertion that climate change is itself a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese — this book could scarcely be more timely or useful.