Katy Waldman is Slate's Words correspondent. She can be found on Twitter @xwaldie
I Will Send RainRae Meadows
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...a grim portrait of a family weathering the Dust Bowl as naggingly evocative as grit in your mouth ... Meadows works in a biblical or mythic mode, presenting timeless tableaus. If the book’s meticulously researched, precisely evoked setting can sometimes feel more alive than the Bells, I Will Send Rain still eyes them with compassion. These characters learn to practice kindness, even without knowing one another fully. We may not suppose we know them fully either, but Meadows nevertheless makes them deserving of our empathy.
How to Be a Person in the WorldHeather Havrilesky
MixedSlateI cherish nourishing potato people and stable mountain people, and sometimes I worry Polly doesn’t give them enough credit. One might also question whether creative brilliance has to go hand in hand with messiness—aren’t there plenty of calm, focused artists and disheveled, shallow normals out there? (I often suspect that I am an anxious normal; even if Polly might atomize that qualm with the glistening affirmation that my anxiety is a byproduct of my awesomeness, I’m not convinced she’d believe it.) But I’m also making Havrilesky sound more insufferable than she is. She’s not a first-person essayist reframing her weirdo habits and painful fallibilities as empowering virtues. She’s an alluringly wry cheerleader, an enthusiastic volunteer offering sports drinks as we struggle past during the half-marathon of life.
Night of the AnimalsBill Broun
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...[a] wonderful doorstop of a book ... Broun packs his novel with futuristic invention, Chablis-dry humor and a thick, dreamy nostalgia for the midsummer mayhem of Puck and his retinue ... a story as wildly moving and singular as an animal’s eyes in the dark.
The Hatred of PoetryBen Lerner
PositiveSlateBut despite its reception as an act of high-wire trolling, Lerner’s 86-page essay makes one thing abundantly clear: He loves poetry. Not only that, he loves poems—a much messier proposition ... Hatred of Poetry does a brilliant job showing how poets 'strategically disappoint' our assumptions about what the medium should do ... It’s engaging stuff, and superbly written, with a kind of soft-shoeing élan that wants to project humility but also delight ... I don’t mind Lerner’s (post-modern) knack for creasing old materials into fresh critical origami. He’s not bullshitting us; his rhetorical sorcery levitates plenty of plausible claims, and ones burnished with the extra shine of his sincere belief.
Modern LoversEmma Straub
RaveSlateAs in the best ensemble novels, much of the pleasure of Modern Lovers comes from observing its affecting, palpable characters interact. Straub has so intricately and cleverly connected them that when she moves one, the whole chessboard reconfigures ... There is much to praise, too, in Straub’s renderings of twee Brooklyn, particularly a cultish meditation-and-kombucha commune that springs up, replete with lissome half-naked yogists and a toothy guru, to seduce Andrew. And Straub is shrewd about high school social dynamics.
H is for HawkHelen Macdonald
RaveSlateIf the title of Helen Macdonald’s memoir H Is for Hawk evokes a tidy, elementary school correspondence, don’t be fooled. Hawk is for everything. Not only does the creature Macdonald ties herself to in the wake of her father’s death come to represent the entire range of her grief, fury, and love, but it also stands for England, imagination, aristocracy, manhood, and T.H. White. It stands as well for the opposite of these. And then—while you are scrambling to grasp that T.H. White, beloved children’s author and broken sadist, is his own opposite—it shakes the symbolism from its feathers like rainwater ... Despite the contradictions and shape shifting that allow H Is for Hawk to elude domestication, it still feels wonderfully unified, weaving together biography, history, literary criticism, grief memoir, field guide. And ghost story.
RaveSlate[Tisdale] catches so many strings and braids so many tones into her mostly autobiographical pieces that you don’t want to diminish her by attempting description. Her dense but light-fingered language holds a dozen wiggling and contradictory ideas in suspension. To enumerate them one by one, as a critic must, feels like bloodying a face or trying to play a symphony on a chainsaw. It feels like plucking all the threads out of a tapestry so that you can no longer see the woven image. It feels—and of course, she’s set us up for this—like violation.
The Narrow DoorPaul Lisicky
PositiveSlatePart elegy, part natural history, and all memoir, The Narrow Door traces two of Lisicky’s long-term relationships, the first with Gess, and the second with Lisicky’s ex-husband, a poet he calls M. The Gess friendship, plunging between support and competition (writers!), takes center stage. It is a road paved with heartfelt correspondence yet pocked by silences, sore spots.
The ClaspSloane Crosley
MixedSlateThe book betrays a similar uneasiness in its own skin. Hence the mild case of first novel–itis: a reliance on symbols (the lost necklace), foils (de Maupassant), motifs (the short story), and genre tropes, not to mention cataracts of occasionally unnecessary plot.
After AliceGregory Maguire
MixedSlateMaguire’s gently sepulchral take on the Carrollian dreamscape freshens it again.
Sex ObjectJessica Valenti
MixedThe Washington PostThis aching — and at times infuriating — account of attempting to live, date and work while female is a brave admission of vulnerability, an invitation to intimacy from a woman with no reason to trust that a great many readers won’t throw her disclosures back in her face ... Valanti resists playing the hero. Instead, she sets down something more private and surprising: a thoughtful lament, an elegy for the person she might have been in a less sexist world ... Still, it must be said that Sex Object, which registers a life spent under the gaze of others, doesn’t always hold up under aesthetic scrutiny. It feels like the work of a passionate but tired feminist, a fighter too worn down by struggle to alchemize it. There are moments of epiphany — and certainly enough shocking tales of sexual debasement — but they occasionally fail to come together in a narrative arc.
A Woman Looking at Men Looking at WomenSiri Hustvedt
PanSlateThese are pages intended to catch the shape of a writer’s thoughts—the tome remains more of a notebook than a series of persuasive essays, with all the indeterminacy and occasional solipsism that form entails ... But it is hard to say who exactly this particular collection is for. As searching and seductive as the essays occasionally can be, they are also absolutely maddening. For someone convinced that the truth is not just apprehended by the intellect but also felt, remembered, and imagined, Hustvedt makes little effort to welcome readers with her prose ... windiness I can forgive. Obscurity I can forgive. More off-putting is the author’s preening self-regard ... there is a lot of performative contemplation here, during which the occasion for and specifics of the chin stroking seem to matter less than the fact that the author is stroking her chin ... Hustvedt’s title makes much of her status as gimlet-eyed observer. She seeks to turn the tools of scientific examination upon the examiners, and analyze the analysts, and criticize the critics. Yet too often the object of her investigations ends up being her own excellence. For all the looking that transpires in A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, there isn’t enough seeing.
PositiveSlate...pit[s] the streamlined grace of narrative against the chaos of lived experience ... There’s something tearstained about even the wildest flights of Chabonian fancy, as if each wondrous occurrence stood in for some feeling the writer couldn’t state outright. For his part, Chabon appears aware of this tendency to sublimate pain into fantasy ... A fevered and turbulent passage like this reveals just a fraction of Chabon’s range. He can be sardonic or sincere.
I'm Supposed to Protect You From All ThisNadja Spiegelman
PositiveSlateWith this fiercely female chain of stories, Spiegelman has decided to plunge right into the most intimate and radioactive psychic material most women have on hand ... Spiegelman is masterful at loading up her language with more meaning than is at first apparent. Often that fantastical tendency—that rush to interpret—imbues her words with a kind of elliptical peril ... On the subject of memory, Spiegelman is remarkable—mature, wise, and richly expressive.
All the Lives I WantAlana Massey
MixedSateTogether the chapters add up to more than a lived trajectory: They are an argument for girls’ complicated selfhood and underrated power, an examination of the ways in which female celebrities have been misrepresented and reclaimed ... Massey seems to aspire to a kind of complicated soulfulness. Her prose is measured and cool ... Massey’s concentration and fierceness make her compelling. But her insistence on intellectualizing so-called lowbrow culture can also feel performative, as if she believes only she can see the shattered beauty that attends certain pop stars or has the courage to defend mopey teenage girls. Surely that is too harsh. Yet I couldn’t help reacting to All the Lives I Want with a peculiar mix of absorption, curiosity, and not buying it.
How to Murder Your LifeCat Marnell
PositiveSlate...still feels like something Marnell dashed off in 24 hours while on speed ... But this book is a work of substance disguised as an evanescent sparkle ... the blur is punctuated by black humor and bratty italics—peppered with the names of luxury brands, designer products, and onomatopoetic cries of AUGGGH. (The most frequently used word in the book may actually be AUGGGH.) And then, after 350-plus pages of vertiginous dazzle, the thing just stops, with no indication that our heroine has learned anything at all ... Cat Marnell is likely the least introspective memoirist ever to attempt memoir. I love her ... Marnell is delightful! She sounds like a fallen angel laughing all the way to hell.
PositiveSlateTransit continues a fascinating experiment. But as in Outline, its title also states an intention: Transit wants to be Cusk’s Purgatorio, her account of a character’s growth, crossing, and metamorphosis. That’s where the novel, wonderful and moving as it is, falls short ... These tantalizing pieces appear to fit together. They give the book artistic cohesion even as the precise argument hovers just out of reach ... It is a lovely ars poetica. The problem is: Transit’s forms don’t quite match its themes as perfectly as Outline’s did.
PositiveSlateLockwood’s commitment to fun burns bright in Priestdaddy ... Lockwood may be an absurdist, but she’s a perceptive one. Her mom serves as the memoir’s quiet heart ... But for all its madcap humor, Priestdaddy feels fraught with un-negotiated darkness. This makes the book at once fascinating and frustrating: Around the edges of even the silliest anecdote laps our awareness that the gleefully blasphemous narrator once attended protests outside abortion clinics and had swaths of the Bible seared into her memory ... ultimately, Priestdaddy announces itself as a labor of love, an expression of gratitude to Lockwood’s parents and a celebration of their idiosyncrasies ... Reconciliation and connection are beautiful notes on which to conclude a family memoir. But Lockwood races to the ending, to forgiveness, before fully illuminating what must be forgiven.
Bad FeministRoxane Gay
PositiveSlateThe ‘bad feminist’ moniker turns out to have a special magic—it allows Gay to resist the pressure to be perfect, and points out the irony of women fighting the sexist idea that they must be other than what they are (more beautiful, more agreeable, more maternal or professional or fill-in-the-blank), yet still demanding flawlessness from their feminist idols … While she shows a refreshing willingness to pose questions, treat them as deadly important, and not resolve them, the true value of her work might lie in illuminating, with startling immediacy and boldness, what it is like to be Roxane Gay, an author who filters every observation through her deep sense of the world as fractured, beautiful, and complex.
The Idiot.Elif Batuman
RaveSlateThe Idiot is wonderful. Batuman has brave and original ideas about what a 'novel' might mean and no qualms about flouting literary convention. She is endlessly beguiled by the possibilities and shortcomings of language ... Her novel is gloriously stuffed with detritus, with characters that serve no narrative purpose and details that mean nothing beyond themselves ... In allowing her language and details to pile up randomly, Batuman makes them more than they might otherwise be. She gives presence and power to what previously 'didn’t exist.'”
Conversations With FriendsSally Rooney
RaveSlateSally Rooney is a planter of small surprises, sowing them like landmines. They relate to behavior and psychology—characters zigging when you expect them to zag, from passivity to sudden aggression and back ... Conversations With Friends asks whether it is possible to sustain authentic connections to people in the presence of flawed, overarching structures: capitalism, patriarchy, a devilish ménage à quatre ... Rooney herself is acute and sensitive—she may have pinned these fragile creatures to a board, but her eye is not cruel. Bobbi, Frances, Nick, and Melissa excel at endearing banter and hesitant, vulnerable disclosure. They are all thrillingly sharp, hyperverbal ... Rooney has done the impossible in the Trump era: She’s rescued the ego as an object of fascination ... Rooney reveals a young woman painfully coming to terms with the beliefs, desires, and feelings that belong irrevocably to her. Conversations With Friends sparkles with controlled rhetoric. But it ends up emphasizing the truths exploding in the silences.
Sour HeartJenny Zhang
RaveSlateSour Heart feels a bit like Girls at its best: a profane and sensitive female bildungsroman filtered through several interlaced perspectives ... As a genre, immigrant literature often seems to demand that characters act grateful upon entering the rags-to-riches national pipeline. They can now access the American dream! But Sour Heart sets the 'model minority' myth on fire. I cannot overstate how satisfying it is to hear such maximalist obscenity gushing from Asian American women, who are rarely afforded the luxury of coarseness when they appear in pop culture. It’s not that Zhang’s characters are tough-talking rebellious 'types,' but simply that they’re full of all the humanity that real people possess ... Fiction about the immigrant experience is often fiction about powerlessness—people dropped into foreign contexts and left at the mercy of forces they don’t immediately understand. That’s one reason Zhang’s child’s-eye view succeeds so beautifully: Kids are frequently powerless, too, and characters’ coming-of-age can sync up with the arc of their integration into a new country.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) BodyRoxane Gay
MixedSlateAt times, reading her essays, I’ve longed for her to bring more nuance or rigor to the act of disclosure. But in Hunger, Gay discovers what might be her ideal form and mode: a sustained, vulnerable striptease—revelation’s slow burn. It is in a book like this that her gift for dramatizing the breaking of silence can take priority over what she says ... the connections between her rape, her eating habits, and her body seem fertile and complex in ways that don’t always feel fully unpacked. Cause and effect are elided...I found myself wishing that a book-length exploration of the author’s hunger would examine every inch of this terrain, not merely skim it ... Empathetic representations of this disorder in nonfiction are scant. Unfortunately, instead of bringing her compassionate observation to bear on a syndrome that too often goes unacknowledged, Gay presents reams of what feels like her attempts at self-justification ... In her memoir’s loveliest moments, Gay seems to transfuse what she relishes about her physical self into her prose. 'I have presence,' she observes. 'I take up space. I intimidate.' Her best sentences embody this account of her body: They possess majesty and resonance. They are direct and undeniable, a powerful physical manifestation.
A God in RuinsKate Atkinson
PositiveSlateAtkinson’s tone has become more careful and meditative, as if she had set out to write the adagio second movement to Life After Life, and had substituted a single sad strain for the first’s flourish of melodies and countermelodies. I’m thinking orchestrally because Atkinson excels at conveying bigness. She loads her observational, plot-driven prose with a sense of larger significance, of elements aligning … The world conjured by Atkinson’s god in ruins—a man, in other words, according to the epigraph, or perhaps a woman—is one suffused with fictionality, one in which small flickers and giveaways abound. In addition to the jumpy chronology (we move from 1925 to 1980 in the space of a page), Atkinson will present the same scene from multiple perspectives … If A God in Ruins suffers from a touch too much tidiness, if it overcalculates the glories of a sensitive “artistic soul,” those flaws pale next to Atkinson’s wit, humanity, and wisdom.