Laura MillerLaura Miller is a books and culture columnist for Slate and the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. Follow her on Twitter @magiciansbook
PositiveSlateI read these passages as sheer impishness, the high spirits of an author relaxing into his considerable native gifts. Of all the things people expect from a new Franzen novel, who’d have anticipated that more than anything else it would be so much fun?
Kafka on the ShoreHaruki Murakami
RaveThe New York TimesMurakami is an aficionado of the drowsy interstices of everyday life, reality's cul-de-sacs, places so filled with the nothing that happens in them that they become uncanny … The author achieves this effect by doing everything wrong … Clichés, the ephemera of pop culture, characters who proclaim their thematic function -- these sound like the gambits of postmodernism, tricks meant to distance the reader from the artificiality of narrative and the sort of tactic that gets a novel labeled 'cerebral.' But Kafka on the Shore...doesn't feel distant or artificial. Murakami is like a magician who explains what he's doing as he performs the trick and still makes you believe he has supernatural powers. So great is the force of the author's imagination, and of his conviction in the archaic power of the story he is telling, that all this junk is made genuine.
PositiveSalonNW is less antic, outlandish and funny than Smith’s debut, and it also lacks the extraordinary ambient joyfulness of her third novel, On Beauty. It’s more sober, more formally adventurous and exhibits less confidence in what’s customarily referred to as ‘the human spirit’ … It’s a marvelously accomplished work, perhaps her most polished yet, but its appeal lies in a quiet, even chastened reassessment of her former brio … The question of who makes it out of Caldwell and why, as well as the possibility of ever entirely escaping it, haunts NW.
The Pale KingDavid Foster Wallace
RaveSalonThe Pale King is by turns funny, shrewd, suspenseful, piercing, smart, terrifying and rousing. It feels less intently worked than Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, and is much better ventilated than his last short story collection, Oblivion … The Pale King is ‘about boredom,’ although that is only where it starts. It’s also about the transformation of America from a stakeholder society in which citizens view themselves as active, responsible participants into a consumer market in which people simply demand value for money. And it’s also about existential dread and loneliness, which ‘David Foster Wallace’ suspects of being at the root of the human aversion to boredom.
American GodsNeil Gaiman
PositiveSalonWith its mythological echoes, puns, in jokes and other decodable references, American Gods will delight the sort of reader who likes to hunt for such things … American Gods is a crackerjack suspense yarn with an ending that both surprises and makes perfect sense, as well as many passages of heady, imagistic writing. And for all that he’s missed in the American propensity for religious fanaticism, Gaiman has exactly nailed the way we talk; some of the most savory characters are the minor ones.
PositiveThe New York TimesThere's the gap between male and female, obviously, but also between Greek and WASP, black and white, the old world and the new, the silver spoon and the sluggish sperm. Finally, there is the tug of war between destiny and free will – an age-old concern of Greek storytellers, as every college freshman learns, reborn in the theories advanced by evolutionary psychology … Eugenides pitches a big tent, but one of the delights of Middlesex is how soundly it's constructed, with motifs and characters weaving through the novel's various episodes, pulling it tight.
The Round HouseLouise Erdrich
MixedThe GuardianRape isn't really the subject of The Round House. Rather, this is the story of a teenage boy whose world and self are pulled apart and reassembled in the course of a year. Unlike Erdrich's other novels, which feature an assortment of narrators or points of view, The Round House is limited by what Joe himself can understand. He has no imaginative access to the visceral nightmare of sexual assault … Meanwhile, the adults around Joe offer him rival ways to respond to his mother's suffering and its perpetrator, who is as one-dimensionally monstrous as the baddie in a paperback thriller.
The Good Lord BirdJames McBride
RaveSalon… [McBride’s] hugely enjoyable African-American variation on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn … The Good Lord Bird careens through a series of often hilarious exploits and encounters … It’s a view of the antebellum world refreshingly free of pieties, and full of questions about the capacity of human beings to act on their sense of right and wrong, about why the world is the way it is, and what any one of us can do to make it better. It’s the rare comic novel that delves so deep.
The Woman UpstairsClaire Messud
RaveSalonAs Nora Eldridge, the narrator of Claire Messud’s claustrophobically hypnotic new novel would have it, we are all of us surrounded by reservoirs of invisible rage. The Woman Upstairs purports to be the story of one of the ragers, although Nora both does and doesn’t wish to be identified with the archetypal figure in the novel’s title … An air of imminent betrayal hangs over the novel, although it’s hard to see how the Shahids could fail to disappoint Nora, who never really questions her conviction that they are capable of rescuing her and furthermore, have somehow promised to do so.
On BeautyZadie Smith
RaveSalonOn Beauty belongs to the well-established genre of academic comic novels, and it’s openly a riff on Howards End by E.M. Forster, a writer she’s described as her first literary love. Nevertheless, to the mere reader, plunging into On Beauty feels a lot like being Dorothy in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, stepping from the black-and-white Kansas of 2005’s ephemeral literary offerings and into the Technicolor of Oz ... Smith is Rembrandtian (and, for that matter, Shakespearean and Tolstoyian) in her inexhaustible interest in and sympathy for even her most disagreeable characters ... The ideological battles between Howard and Monty (who in the course of the novel comes to work at Howard’s university) may sound, in this polemical age, like the meat of the matter, but they’re only a foil. Howard’s marriage to Kiki, an African-American hospital administrator, is the real substance here ... are greater or lesser examples in a catalog of human folly, but none are depicted without compassion and a certain measure of delight in their vibrant particularity and underlying universality ... Beauty is both powerful and helpless, the university both precious and hellish, ideas both essential and superfluous, people both funny and tragic.
This is How You Lose HerJunot Díaz
PositiveSalonThis Is How You Lose Her traces Yunior’s very rocky path to the understanding that women are people whose dignity and feelings matter as much as his own — as opposed to interchangeable cogs in the supply line of sex ... Yunior is a reluctant adult, prone to selfishness and preoccupation with his own sufferings, like many people in their 20s trying to sort out how to live ... The familiar tropes of immigrant literature dictate that this sort of thing leads to a “divided self,” a man who bounces painfully back and forth between his roots and his chosen way of life ...the centripetal force of Díaz’s sensibility and the slangy bar-stool confidentiality of his voice that he makes this hybridization feel not only natural and irresistible, but inevitable, the voice of the future ... The linked-story structure of This is How You Lose Her does keep it from offering complete satisfaction. Why, you can’t help wondering, does it stop just shy of being a novel, given that so much of its effect is cumulative? Most of the stories depict the same character, with minor variations, making his way to maturity.
1Q84Haruki Murakami, trans. Jay Rubin & Philip Gabriel
PositiveSalon1Q84 mostly describes the long, slow process by which Tengo and Aomame, who knew each other as schoolchildren, seek to reunite. Never was a love story so overpopulated with hardcore isolates, people who have severed ties to family, maintaining a cool distance from friends and lovers while investing their identities in the rigorous pursuit of some personal cause or obsession … This faith in the significance of Tengo and Aomame’s bond makes 1Q84 warmer than some of Murakami’s other ‘big’ novels … Translation is at the center of what Murakami does; not a translation from one tongue to another, but the translation of an inner world into this, the outer one. Very few writers speak the truths of that secret, inner universe more fluently.
Everything is IlluminatedJonathan Safran Foer
MixedSalonThere are two stories wound together in this first novel, and as is often the case, one is more engaging than the other … The Alex sections of the book feel utterly alive and teeter invigoratingly between hilarity and a terrible, creeping dread. By contrast, the Trachimbrod sections only remind the reader of other works — rehashed Chagall and dime-store Garcia Marquez … Ordinarily, this caveat would make Everything is Illuminated unrecommendable, but the Alex portions of the novel are so good that in the final calculation they far outbalance the book’s weaknesses (Plus you can skim the Trachimbrod sections without missing that much) … As the novel shades inexorably into the tragic mode, and as Alex comes to be a much better writer than Jonathan, with both a finer sense of truth and a more urgent understanding of the need for happy endings, his stumbling English incandesces into eloquence.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseJonathan Safran Foer
PanNew YorkFoer’s second and latest novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, shows that he hasn’t lost his taste for naïve or otherwise unreliable narrators … It may just be too early to get cute in writing about September 11; on the other hand, there’s never a good time to get as cute as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close get … Oskar resembles nothing so much as a plastic bag crammed with oddities. For every eccentricity that makes psychological sense—fear of public transportation or an overly clinical interest in the bombing of Hiroshima, for example—there’s another that’s just piled on … Choosing a child narrator gives Foer access to extravagant emotions and quirky imaginings that would seem cloying or self-indulgent in a grown-up, but at the cost of allowing the central trauma its due.
Specimen DaysMichael Cunningham
MixedSalonLike his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours, the book is made up of three stories set in different historical periods by people whose lives echo one another in mysterious yet significant ways. All this is infused by the spirit of a past literary genius, with Walt Whitman serving in that role for Specimen Days ...Cunningham, the quintessential contemporary literary novelist, aims in this book to embrace three literary genres that are usually considered 'beneath' his own: historical fiction, police thriller and science fiction ... While the devices and clichés of genre fiction can make it entertaining but shallow, the narrative listlessness of a lot of literary fiction often undermines its lovely prose and delicate character insights. Readers seldom get both in one package ... The big ideas in Specimen Days have a touch of the plaque in them, so just keep your eye on the nut jobs.
RaveSalonProperty is a ferociously honest book attacking a subject that has long been wrapped in what her heroine calls ‘lies without end’: race in America. So much ink has been spilled on the topic, and so much of it pabulum and equivocation, that you wouldn’t think any writer could find a way to make it fresh or show you anything new, but Martin has … Manon is intelligent and observant, but — and this is central to Martin’s conception of her — she has no imagination. She can tell that Sarah hates her husband as much as she does and takes some bitter comfort in their shared antipathy, but it never occurs to her to wonder what it must be like to suffer the wrenching abuse of slavery, the routine loss of loved ones and relatives, the beatings, the insults.
The LuminariesEleanor Catton
RaveSalonFrom the first five pages of The Luminaries, it’s evident that Catton’s model is the Victorian ‘sensation novel,’ in which middle-class characters were suddenly confronted with alarming, inexplicable and uncanny events whose true causes and (usually scandalous) nature are gradually revealed in the course of the story … All you need to take from Catton’s conceit is the idea that the story itself is driven not by individual characters and their wills but by the ever-changing relationships and combinations among them. You think you’ve got a handle on the nature of its mysteries, then the earth shifts on its axis, the perspective changes to reveal more hidden connections or influences, and you must think again.
True History of the Kelly GangPeter Carey
RaveSalonThe peculiar style Carey uses to re-create Ned’s voice is crude without the sacrifice of eloquence; it comes across as the heartfelt expression of an intelligent, reflective but indifferently educated man … ‘I wished only to be a citizen,’ writes Ned, and the bulk of the book consists of how circumstances drove him inexorably toward bushranging despite his preference for the quiet life of a farmer … True History feels raw, passionate and unqualified, and yet it’s also surprisingly free of romanticism. Perhaps that’s because Carey’s describing a man who tried to be a rugged individualist, only to find his final glory in the embrace of the class that he ultimately found inescapable. This novel is a cry out against a history of crushing injustice.
Vernon God LittleDBC Pierre
PanSalonVernon God Little shows some promise, but it is not a good book. More important even than that, it’s not a plausible book … DBC Pierre isn’t really capable of re-creating this voice. To make matters worse, he attempts a kind of Texan variation on the cranky teenage diction of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, possibly the single most distinctive and imitated voice in American fiction…Vernon God Little doesn’t sound American, it doesn’t sound Texan, and it doesn’t sound teenage … Vernon God Little isn’t really about school shootings in any meaningful way. The massacre is affixed to the book like a sticker vouching for its import, the thing that purportedly transforms it from a minor Salingeresque coming-of-age story into a ‘coruscating black comedy reflecting our alarm and fascination with modern America.’
Bring Up the BodiesHilary Mantel
RaveSalonBring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s follow-up to her Man Booker Prize-winning 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, is a high-wire act, a feat of novelistic derring-do. Mantel makes bold not with form — by now meaningful experimentation in that area seems exhausted — but with the very material that brings most readers to novels in the first place: our imaginative identification with fictional characters and the experiences we feel we’re sharing with them … We are shown that Cromwell is ruthless — there’s passing mention of hangings in Ireland, among other things — but we also know that he is loyal. This is his saving virtue. His allegiance is to England and to Henry, who, like the late Cardinal, has recognized his worth and raised him up.
The PassageJustin Cronin
RaveSalonThe Passage begins a little like a Raymond Carver story, describing how the novel’s enigmatic central figure, Amy Harper Bellafonte, came to be...The story of Amy’s first few years is a piercingly naturalistic tale of downward mobility amid truck stops and cheap motels. Like much of the book, it’s suffused with the doomed yearning of adults who want to protect children from the brutality of the world. Then, suddenly, you’re reading documents about an ill-fated scientific expedition to ‘the jungles of Bolivia,’ and the weird virus brought back by the handful of survivors … Yes, there are vampires, although they’re semiconscious beasts, a far cry from the suave, politicking predators of True Blood or the immortal dreamboats of Twilight...they stand for the ravening external forces — time, violence, madness, death — that are forever battering against the walls of every hopeful community.
The Plot Against AmericaPhilip Roth
RaveSalonThe book’s premise — what happens to the Roth family of Newark, N.J., when Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and America descends into an orgy of anti-Semitism — is an embrace of the catastrophic anxieties Roth once rebelled against. He envisions the kind of America where, like it or not, he is a Jew first. But equally unexpected is the novel’s credibility: By setting it in a wholly imaginary history, Roth has paradoxically managed to write his most believable book in years … The nightmare of the Lindbergh presidency becomes, for Roth the novelist, a way of applying a brutal pressure to his father and mother, an experiment that reveals, in extremis, their true worth. At the moment of greatest crisis, each of them is called upon to act, and each shows the clarity of genuine courage, mobilized by their most deeply held ideals.
Parrot & Olivier in AmericaPeter Carey
RaveSalonParrot and Olivier in America is still a Peter Carey novel, which means that it’s amusing and wise and graceful to a degree that we almost don’t deserve … The debate between Olivier and Parrot is insoluble, but then fiction isn’t in the business of offering solutions; its mission is to coax us into feeling the breadth and depth of the question as it’s asked by human beings every day of their lives. Can Olivier (absurd yet endearing) survive in America, and can Parrot (embittered yet softening) thrive anywhere else? The trick of a great novel like this one lies in convincing you that you can’t bear to part with either one.
Mrs. FletcherTom Perrotta
PositiveThe New YorkerThe sinews of Perrotta’s fiction are the tensions within and between characters, tensions that he steadily and artfully amplifies until the reader becomes possessed by curiosity about how they’ll be resolved ... Though Perrotta’s novels are rarely beautiful, they are never dull, as beautifully written novels can often be ... If Mrs. Fletcher has a theme, it’s the reshaping of American erotic life by technology ... An amiable, diverting novel, Mrs. Fletcher doesn’t wedge itself as firmly into America’s fault lines as many of Perrotta’s other books do. It features no religious zealots or sexual predators or dementedly ambitious overachievers, just a few souls blundering into a future whose contours they can never quite make out, looking for love and doing the best that they can.
Conversations With FriendsSally Rooney
PositiveSlateConversations With Friends slips in slyly by a side door, its categories askew or in flux. Is it a love story about Frances and Bobbi (or Frances and Nick)? Is it an adultery novel? Is it a comedy of manners? Rooney, who reportedly wrote the novel in three months, doesn’t seem to feel that she needs to make up her mind about that, just as her characters believe they have kicked off the categories that restrained generations before theirs ... At times, Conversations With Friends reads like a satire, its characters prattling on about love as a 'discursive practice,' reading books about 'postcolonial reason,' and calling themselves communitarian anarchists while living what are, after all, fairly routine bourgeois lives ... The novel is a masterful portrayal of the formlessness of that period in contemporary middle-class life when schooling is over, or nearly over, but adult life hasn’t really begun ... The end of Conversations With Friends isn’t romantic, but it is oddly hopeful. Frances may be on the verge of becoming lost by her best friend, but she is also on the brink of finding herself.
The Ministry of Utmost HappinessArundhati Roy
MixedSlateLike The God of Small Things, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is full of chronological switchbacks. Characters brood over events that haven’t yet been explained or refer to people before Roy introduces them. This is the novel’s greatest weakness, because unlike The God of Small Things, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness isn’t knit together by the tight bonds of kinship. Longer and looser, it ranges across the past two decades of Indian history, taking in politics and several momentous events ... the effect is merely confusing, and doubly so for readers unfamiliar with recent Indian politics. Even so, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness remains a deeply rewarding work, if you can let the novel wash over you rather than try to force it into shape.
Do Not Become AlarmedMaile Meloy
RaveSlateThis sounds insanely complicated, but like all of Meloy’s novels, Do Not Become Alarmed glides along with a clarity that’s almost uncanny. How did she turn a contraption this elaborate into a page-turner? ... Each of these seemingly inconsequential, accidental incidents changes the course of fate, often in momentous ways. Do Not Become Alarmed proves that you don’t need hackneyed thriller devices to generate powerful momentum and suspense ... This novel is a bait and switch in the best possible sense. It promises readers easy-to-identify-with protagonists in a pair of mothers going through a parent’s worst nightmare. Then it presents them with so much more, a richer, broader palette of people to believe in and to understand.
Golden HillFrancis Spufford
PositiveThe New YorkerIt is trim rather than bulky, refrains from indulging in too many antique spellings, and tells its story with crafty precision ... It is also a sort of mocking reversal of the 'innocents abroad' motif of such Henry James novels as Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady, in which fresh-faced, straightforward Yanks are confounded by the perilous subtleties of Europeans ... Golden Hill is neither a shaggy-dog yarn, like Tristram Shandy, nor a bloated doorstop, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, for readers with scads of time on their hands. It keeps its theme—the moral conundrum of America—ever in its sights, through breakneck chase scenes and dark nights of the soul. It has the high spirits of an eighteenth-century novel, but not the ramshackle mechanics.
PositiveThe New Yorker[Augustown] exemplifies the belief that everything you want to know about human beings can be found in an overlooked, out-of-the-way little community, as long you pay it sufficient attention ... The barely perceptible Caribbean lilt in Miller’s prose exerts a hypnotic effect that is one of the great pleasures of Augustown, even if every so often he uses it to deliver a horror ... Augustown isn’t without its storytelling flaws...But these are the peripheral stumblings of an expansive talent, of a writer stretching to catch up with his own curiosity and fertility. The center of the novel, Miller’s portrait of Augustown, holds.
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted LifeRuth Franklin
PositiveSlate... a fresh effort to frame her as an artist with extraordinary insight into the lives, the concerns, and—above all—the fears of women ... Gender is not the only prejudice that has kept us from acknowledging the brilliance of Shirley Jackson, but Franklin’s biography is a giant step toward the truth.
Into the WaterPaula Hawkins
PanSlateInto the Water isn’t an impressive book. Its tone is uniformly lugubrious and maudlin, and Hawkins’ characters seldom rise to the level of two dimensions, let alone three. Their depth is telegraphed by the way they brood over their failings while staring into the dark waters, and they seem to be constantly exclaiming, 'You don’t understand what I’ve done!' Hawkins makes liberal use of coy suspense-building devices, such as having people think in vague terms about an important event or object without describing it clearly enough to give away later plot developments. Yet few readers will have difficulty figuring out who’s guilty of what well before Hawkins delivers the obligatory twists.
PositiveThe New YorkerTheir world is a version of the lost and longed-for territory of fantasy and romance, genres that hark back to an elemental, folkloric past roamed by monsters and infested with ghastly wonders ... Borne is VanderMeer’s trans-species rumination on the theme of parenting. 'It' becomes 'him.' Borne learns to read and to play. He asks the thousands of maddening questions familiar to any adult who has spent much time with a four-year-old ... The novel’s scope is of human dimensions, despite its nonhuman title character. But VanderMeer’s take on the postapocalyptic fantasy is not without subversive ambition...The novel insists that to live in an age of gods and sorcerers is to know that you, a mere person, might be crushed by indifferent forces at a moment’s notice, then quickly forgotten. And that the best thing about human nature might just be its unwillingness to surrender to the worst side of itself.
White TearsHari Kunzru
PositiveSlateOne of the small pleasures of this novel is the precise way Kunzru etches the awkward parameters entailed in befriending the very rich ... [Kunzru's] novels share a suave yet searching confidence and a fascination with how technology, so often viewed as a catalyst of the future, tends to dig up the unresolved messes of our past ... Whatever, exactly, is happening, Kunzru creates the overwhelming sense that White Tears is spiraling down into the shadowy heart of the matter, to the poisoned center of America’s past. The novel’s momentum is irresistible. Call it a ghost story or a rumination on art, possession and responsibility—or both—it has all the force of a truth that can be neither denied nor buried—at least not for long.
RaveSlateSmith knows how to tease the glory out of the most plainspoken English. Smith is sometimes classified as an experimental novelist, a label that may impute for some readers a grim, chorelike quality to the reading of her work. But Smith’s literary spirit is essentially playful ... Autumn’s most daring formal move is to attempt the immediacy of journalism, depicting the national mood while the nation is still feeling it ... At first Smith’s choice to start with autumn seemed out of character, but of course that means that this ambitious four-novel sequence will end with summer and Smith in her element. If we are all very lucky, perhaps the world will catch up with her there, too.
Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders
MixedSlateIt’s not that Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t worthwhile. It has many moments of power, and even passages of the sort of lushly sensual prose that hasn’t previously been a Saunders specialty. It definitely marks an advance into new formal territory. It’s just that the timing on this thing is really, really bad. A George Saunders novel seems like just what we need right now, but chances are Lincoln in the Bardo is not the George Saunders novel you’re looking for ... Jaded readers may suspect that Saunders needed to contrive a selfless cause—saving Willie—to unite all the ghosts in a group effort, thereby providing a plot and the opportunity for redemption in community. The metaphysical apparatus must be explained to some extent, and those explanations are both a bit tedious and at odds with the moral center of the book, which is the grief of Lincoln ... [a] melancholy, inward-looking, often lovely and moving but fundamentally private novel ... Saunders is a writer whose satire has long seemed a bit too monstrous for mainstream success, yet now that he has published what is surely his most gently accessible work, reality has abruptly caught up to his darkest visions.
Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De QuinceyFrances Wilson
PositiveSlateWilson makes De Quincey a character so immediate you half expect him to materialize ... But Guilty Thing is short on literary analysis and long on dish; Wilson spends more words on De Quincey’s epic, late-life financial woes than on the Confessions themselves. Her De Quincey is more literary character than literary figure ... Wilson is refreshingly uninterested in explaining De Quincey’s character and behavior in light of contemporary understandings of addiction. This book is much more rewarding as a cautionary tale about the dangers of placing too much faith in art and as a jaundiced portrait of what it’s like to inhabit the fringes of greatness.
MixedThe New YorkerTaken in as a panorama, Homegoing can be breathtaking ... Gyasi has conscientiously assembled the furniture of each of these American historical periods, but she never seems quite at home in them. The farther back in time she goes, the more prone she is to jarring anachronisms ... Too often, however, Gyasi struggles to make the linked-story form suit her epic enterprise. There are significant challenges to overcome, not least the lack of a central character to arrest the reader’s attention and carry it through the book ... Rough as it is page by page, hampered as it is by a form that would daunt a far more practiced novelist, Homegoing succeeds, by the end, in accumulating no small emotional power.
The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead
PositiveSlateAt moments in The Underground Railroad, the novel feels a bit hemmed in by its obligation to present a historically accurate atrocity exhibition and explain its precise significance ... Such dissonance between subject and sensibility means this novel ought not to succeed, yet it does. Whitehead finds his commonality with the fierce but rather prim Cora through her stalwart longing to do an honest day’s work for people who will honestly appreciate it ... The Underground Railroad makes it clear that Whitehead’s omnivorous cultural appetite has devoured narratives of every variety and made them his own.
What is Not Yours is Not YoursHelen Oyeyemi
RaveSlateOyeyemi has her flashes of lyricism, but they’re so fleeting that they leave you refreshed and yearning rather than drenched in verbiage; her stories are never mere set pieces for the display of exquisite prose ... her stories will remind some readers of those of Kelly Link and Angela Carter. But her buoyant embrace of the multicultural milieu her characters inhabit also recalls the joyousness of early Zadie Smith, especially White Teeth. Hers is a vision where identity matters, but it doesn’t trump everything. What has the power to transcend it is love and literature.
Get in TroubleKelly Link
RaveSalonKelly Link belongs to that tiny population of authors whose short story collections never leave you wondering when she’ll write a novel. It’s occasionally tempting to fantasize about what she’d do if some genius hired her to show-run a cable TV drama; does any writer have a better, deeper instinct for the subterranean overlap between pop culture and myth? But then we’d have fewer of her stories, and let’s face it: There are far too few of them as it is ... When Link published her first collection, Stranger Things Happen, this sort of fiction, with its playful intersections of the banal and the wondrous, was rare. There’s more of it now, but Link remains the master of a delicate genre; she never descends into the cutesiness or shtick it is too often heir to. She has also never lost her keen understanding of adolescence, but she’s added a more seasoned, worldly perspective to her repertoire.
The Art of MemoirMary Karr
PositiveSlateThe Art of Memoir attests to how hard [Karr] works at getting her words just right and how deeply she understands the way great writing works.
4 3 2 1Paul Auster
MixedThe New YorkerHe packs the books with minor characters of assorted races and ages, and attempts to conjure up a jaunty urban cacophony. That goal, however, is incompatible with Auster’s habitual style, which is a top-down, summarizing narration that closes like a fist around the proceedings. His novels are short on dramatic scenes and dialogue, and it’s not easy to celebrate a polyglot metropolis when you’re unaccustomed to letting characters speak for themselves. Whoever is telling the story—whoever is speaking, period—always sounds too much like Paul Auster ... Sprawling, repetitive, occasionally splendid, and just as often exasperating, 4 3 2 1 is never quite dull, but it comes too close to tedium too often; there is no good reason for this novel to be eight hundred and sixty-six pages long, or for every Archie’s love of baseball and movies and French poetry to be rhapsodized over, or for every major headline of the nineteen-fifties and sixties to come under review.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
PositiveSlateSwing Time can rightly be called a return to the kind of fiction Smith does best and seems to enjoy most, whatever her concerns about its significance ... Some of the best chapters in the novel describe this weirdly subsidiary existence, tending to someone who inhabits a customized reality, who is both ridiculous and impressive ... To live in the syncopation between what ought to be and what is, in swing time, is to know that the latter, for all its unruliness, is always more human and often more interesting. Every once in a while, it can even be more beautiful.
Fates and FuriesLauren Groff
PositiveSlateEach [part] comes with its own comforts and terrors, its own insights and blind spots. Fates, published alone, would have felt slight. Furies, published alone, would have seemed farcical. In binding them together and letting the parts reflect each other like distorted mirrors, Groff reminds us that while Lotto may live in a dream world, he’s not the only one.
The Story of the Lost ChildElena Ferrante
RaveSlateAs the Neapolitan novels progress, the books come to seem less and less a work of realist autobiographical fiction about female friendship and more and more a covertly mythic tale of the creation of a self through agonizing division and uneasy reintegration.
Innocents and OthersDana Spiotta
PositiveSlateWithout a doubt, Spiotta is a novelist of ideas, but she’s extraordinary in her ability to shrug off the refrigerated grandiosity that typically infects such writers, including DeLillo himself...Spiotta’s idea-driven fiction feels extraordinarily alive because she’s just as interested in the tensions between two artist friends as she is in the friction between morality and creativity or truth and art or identity and time.
The VegetarianHan Kang
RaveSlateThe effect of Kang’s prose is difficult to convey. I’ve scoured The Vegetarian in vain for a passage to quote that will illustrate how the novel transmits a feeling of great stillness even as its characters undergo convulsions of rage, sorrow, and lust .... it has an eerie universality that gets under your skin and stays put irrespective of nation or gender.
In the Great Green RoomAmy Gary
PositiveSlateGoodnight Moon is less a story than an incantation. It summons a cocoon around reader and listener, a sensation of being pulled out of the hurly-burly of the world into a pocket of charmed tranquility. Amy Gary’s new biography, In the Great Green Room, replicates this spell for adult readers ... Gary has written the book as an intimate, immersive narrative, closely following the chronological unfolding of Brown’s life and focusing almost entirely on how Brown experienced the events described ... you won’t find much background [information] in In the Great Green Room ... Her relationships, for all their persistent frustrations, gave her much joy, and Gary successfully conveys how the delight that Brown took in her merry friends, her summers in Maine, and her work suffused most of her days ... The fairy-tale tinge of In the Great Green Room can occasionally be perplexing...yet this faint aura of unreality made the book into a blessed retreat during a rough season, a bit like a P.G. Wodehouse or Barbara Pym novel.
Scratch: Writers Money and the Art of Making a LivingEd. by Manjula Martin
MixedSlate...as Scratch repeatedly demonstrates, the nitty-gritty on this stuff is in short supply in the wider writerly imagination, while fantasy, evasion, and envious brooding runneth over. Strayed is among the few prospering contributors to this collection of essays and interviews who speaks so explicitly. ('We’re only hurting ourselves as writers by being so secretive about money,' she told Martin.) Another is Roxane Gay ... Like most anthologies, Scratch is uneven; not every contributor is equally talented and none is able to drill very deeply into the relationship between work and money in writers’ lives ... But if the mission statement of this anthology is to demystify 'how, exactly, literature and the people who make it are valued,' many of the pieces here seem to deflect away from transparency as if repelled by a magnetic field. If their authors set out to write about money, they end up spinning their wheels on the more formulaic and far less interesting subjects of self-discovery, dream-following, and 'career' ... as none of the contributors has quite the nerve to state baldly, in order to support themselves, they train others to do the work that isn’t providing them with a viable living.
Age of AngerPankaj Mishra
PositiveSlate[Mishra] wants to remind Westerners of our own painful, violent transition to modernity and to emphasize that much of the turmoil in the developing world is a symptom of the same ordeal ... There are two aspects to Mishra’s argument. One is that the Western model of secular rationalism—whether it takes the form of democratic capitalism or state socialism—promises equality, opportunity, and dignity for all and then fails to deliver on that promise. The other is that the malaise of modernity afflicts even the privileged because the promise itself is hollow ... Age of Anger is a short book into which a lot of intellectual history has been packed ... Only occasionally does Mishra explicitly address the rise of Donald Trump and similar demagogues in Europe and the U.K., but anyone reading Age of Anger with them in mind will find that nearly every page illuminates the current political climate of 'cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality' that has left many feeling sideswiped and bewildered.
We'll Always Have CasablancaNoah Isenberg
MixedSlateWe’ll Always Have Casablanca is less a history than a scrapbook: a digestible assembly of interesting facts, a few fresh quotes, ongoing controversies about who wrote which bits of dialogue, and tributes—from Simpsons parodies to Saturday Night Live sketches—meant to illustrate Casablanca’s lasting legacy. But as the 75th anniversary of Casablanca’s release arrives, Isenberg doesn’t seem to perceive the subtle but distinct transformation of the movie’s cachet over the past 10 or 15 years ... Certainly, Casablanca is a movie about political resistance, but it’s also a clarion call to cast aside isolationism and self-interest to fight on behalf of the invaded and oppressed. Although Isenberg doesn’t include interviews with conservative students who supported the Vietnam War, it’s not difficult to see how they might have interpreted the movie as an argument on behalf of their side.
RaveSalonIan McEwan’s latest novel is a dark, sleek trap of a book. It lures its readers in with the promise of a morality tale set in an English country manor in 1935. There will be a crime, we learn, and so far the novel’s furnishings are at once cozy and exciting...Once we’re caught in his snare, though, McEwan takes us deep into far more menacing territory … Of the lies people tell themselves to make life more palatable, however, some are more dangerous than others. Briony’s coming of age involves a hard lesson in the difference … The question about atonement goes back to the root of the word: it means to be ‘at one,’ and sometimes refers to the sacrifice by which Jesus united man and God. A human being who becomes God in the act of creating fiction, though, is only all-powerful within that fictional world.
AusterlitzW. G. Sebald
RaveSalonAusterlitz’s story is told through his conversations with the novel’s unnamed narrator. The two men meet from time to time over the course of years, sometimes by appointment and sometimes by coincidence. Their conversations wander, as conversations do, and so do the ruminations of the narrator … It isn’t difficult to guess what happened to Austerlitz’s parents; even his own mind tries to protect him from the truth by conceiving an unexamined aversion to the German language and 20th-century European history. And yet, Sebald implies, inside each of us lies an impulse toward understanding, toward remembrance and toward feeling that fights to escape into the open air and will give us no peace if we deny it … The seemingly miscellaneous digressions in Austerlitz are pieces of a puzzle that, when assembled, form a man’s soul and make him whole again for the first time in decades.
In a Different Key: The Story of AutismJohn Donovan & Caren Zucker
PositiveSlateWhile neither as literary nor as searching as, say, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, In a Different Key is grounded and sensible, which in the contentious world of autism activism constitutes a kind of grace.
Lab GirlHope Jahren
RaveSlate...Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a riot, a profusion, a veritable jungle of ideas and sensations...
Strangers DrowningLarissa MacFarquhar
PositiveSlate“Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning is one part modern-day Lives of the Saints, one part confirmation that this is no age for saints.”
The WitchesStacy Schiff
PanSlateA former editor at Simon & Schuster, Schiff is a publishing industry veteran rather than a historian. She, surely, can be trusted to focus on the crowd-pleasing elements of the Salem crisis, rather than getting bogged down in the pettifoggery of historical accuracy. Yet the result, The Witches: Salem, 1692, is a disappointment.
The Point of VanishingHoward Axelrod
RaveSlateWhat makes his book completely mesmerizing—besides his lovely prose, that is—is how exquisitely it balances between the poles of revelation and disintegration.
The White Road: A Journey into ObsessionEdmund de Waal
PanThe New York Times Book Review[The White Road] is a diffuse and often tortured book, full of clouded narrative lines and vague poetical musings that strain too hard after the momentous...De Waal can tease a lot of atmosphere out of the most unprepossessing archival research...He’s not, however, a natural travel writer, and the many places he visits flicker past without making much of an impression, backdrops to his perpetual agitation.
The Lonely CityOlivia Laing
PositiveSlateWith The Lonely City, a mixture of biography, memoir, travel writing, and criticism, [Laing]'s still producing the sort of book that at first seems to wander as extravagantly as Baudelaire’s flâneur. But that impression is deceptive; Laing is always circling back toward a piercingly relevant observation. And, oh, those observations!
Bullies: A FriendshipAlex Abramovich
MixedSlateBullies is expertly written in the style of the magazine feature that spawned it. Abramovich sets out a collection of vivid scenes, pithy bits of local history and a lot of bar-stool racounteuring, all of it arranged like tarot cards on a table: not touching but clearly related in ways you need to figure out for yourself ... But instead of burrowing under this facade, Abramovich gets sucked into the unreflective ethos of the Rats, whose only stunted avenue for understanding and expression is their fists.
Sweet Lamb of HeavenLydia Millet
RaveSlateMillet gives us a new paradigm; her adversary isn’t horror’s usual bad guy, an atavistic entity hell-bent on destruction for its own sake, but the modern world’s infatuation with manufactured, convenient sameness. The showdown still comes decked out in all the suspenseful trappings we love best—a plot filled with surveillance and intrigue; a terrifyingly malevolent antagonist; an endangered child; a ragtag crew of brave resistors—but the soul of humanity is only one modest portion of what’s at stake. Her vision of the good is transhuman. In opposition to Ned’s cold, hollow will, Sweet Lamb of Heaven champions the fractal beauty of the chaotic and fecund...What does it take to make these things seem worth fighting for, you can almost hear the novelist ask. Good question.
MixedThe Guardian...not every virtuoso of one form excels equally at the other, and Hystopia shows the strain of an author pushing to adapt to a form in which he is not at home ... For the first two thirds of the book, these characters seem mired in a drug-fuelled state of gluey semi-stasis, while all around them the novel sizzles and hisses with proliferating what-is-real palaver reminiscent of the fiction of Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace ... When he turns, instead, to another character’s beautifully precise observations of the natural world, the book settles into itself, but to keep things moving forward it must revert to its frantic efforts to wrestle with 'big ideas'.
The Regional Office is Under Attack!Manuel Gonzalez
PositiveSlateAdd it all up, and you’ve got two central characters, each with two different timelines and a nameless omniscient 'historian' filling in all the background information. Then Gonzales tosses in this slightly uncanny 'interlude,' which feels both artificial—because who really thinks and speaks collectively—and alarmingly realistic—because this, you sense, is the unflattering truth of how it really would go down in most hostage situations. It sounds like a crazy salad of a novel, but what binds the whole thing together is a persistent, self-contradictory human desire to both be extraordinary and to fit in, finally, somewhere.
Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American TownBrian Alexander
RaveSlateBrian Alexander’s Glass House belongs to a new and still fairly accidental genre: the on-the-ground Trump explainer, a nonfiction book illuminating the desperation driving white small-town Americans, as told by a native son ... Glass House reads like an odd—and oddly satisfying—fusion of George Packer’s The Unwinding and one of Michael Lewis’ real-life financial thrillers. Alexander pings back and forth between portraits of despairing and bewildered Lancastrians and the labyrinthine corporate history of Anchor Hocking ... By the end of Glass House, as Alexander works his rhetoric up to this fiery pitch, all the preceding chapters in which he carefully detailed the arcane financial engineering that enabled private-equity financiers to strip Lancaster of its hard-earned wealth and ultimately its soul pay out like gangbusters. The case he makes is damning.
The GirlsEmma Cline
PositiveSlateThe Girls works a well-tapped vein in literary fiction: the queasy exploration of how young women with crippled egos can become accessories to their own degradation. Joyce Carol Oates and Mary Gaitskill are masters of this theme. Cline’s contribution is a heady evocation of the boredom and isolation of adolescence in pre-internet suburbia, in houses deserted by their restless, doubt-stricken adult proprietors where 'the air was candied with silence.' The novel is heavy with figurative language; Cline has a telling fondness for the word 'humid.' Not all of this comes off effectively (Evie’s mom makes Chinese ribs that 'had a glandular sheen, like a lacquer'), but most of it does (Evie, dazzled by her father’s girlfriend, thinks she has a life 'like a TV show about summer.') And in this case, the languorous effects of the prose match its subject: that state of feeling as if you’re stuck in life’s antechamber, scrutinizing the static world around you for clues on how to get out, hoping to be rescued by someone more real than yourself, someone who deems you worthy.
Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer
MixedSlateHere I Am worms its way closer to the squirmy kernel of Foer’s talent ... Foer never brings this drama from background to foreground; it’s ghostlike and theoretical, the undercurrent to Sam’s long-delayed bar mitzvah ... Here I Am returns him to what worked best in Everything is Illuminated: the uncomfortable probing of his own conscience. If too much of his fiction has felt cooked, this, at least, tastes raw and true ... This political gloss on a private misery can come across as an imitation of the social novels of Jonathan Franzen, just as the scattered passages of dirty talk and reveries on masturbation seem to ape Philip Roth. Here I Am is strongest when it dares to be unlikeable in its own, funny way.
The TrespasserTana French
RaveThe New YorkerMost crime fiction is diverting; French’s is consuming ... French has figured out how to expand the series’ scope without abandoning the intensity of its focus ... Antoinette and Stephen get saddled with a third detective, a fatuous, patronizing showboater whom French deploys to delicious comic effect ... [most fictional] detectives investigate crimes, but French’s pursue mysteries, the kind that can never be completely solved, although we all spend a life’s worth of days in the trying.
PositiveSlateZink fears nothing—or at least nothing in the form of moral, political, or artistic reproach. Her novels contain not a speck of cant or piety from any position on any spectrum ... The ideological stew of millennial activism serves as a backdrop. Zink’s approach to this milieu is remarkably subtle—too sympathetic, perhaps, to qualify as satire, but uninclined to let anyone off the hook ... Nicotine hasn’t really got a moral, despite the high-minded types who populate its pages. It spills out like the endlessly unfolding events of life itself.
You Don't Have To Say You Love MeSherman Alexie
PositiveSlateYou Don’t Have to Say You Love Me sometimes repeats itself, because, as Alexie writes, 'Great pain is repetitive. Grief is repetitive.' Sure, but it doesn’t automatically follow that the literature of either needs to be ... For Alexie’s fans, the essence of his appeal is his scouring honesty. He’s not merely willing to tell people what they don’t want to hear; he leaps at the chance. Piety in every guise draws his fire ... does You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me deliver the heartwarming satisfactions of the sons’ memoirs that precede it? Not quite; if it succeeds, it will be on the strength of Alexie’s own eccentric charm.
In the DarkroomSusan Faludi
PositiveSlateSusan Faludi is a formidable reporter, an old hand at beguiling secrets out of sources and digging up incriminating facts ... Most of In the Darkroom, and the best of it, consists of the epic battle, and eventually the epic rapprochement, between Susan and Stefánie—an irresistible force meeting an immovable object ... Susan never truly can sort out her father’s slippery identity. Given her skepticism about the notion of any fixed identity—the 'Holy Grail' of contemporary American life, as she puts it—this makes for a happy ending to a book whose complexity fascinates.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in AmericaNancy Isenberg
PanSlatePoverty, in the form of miserable living conditions, dirtiness, ignorance, illness, violence, and despair, was viewed as the inherited misfortune of blighted bloodlines. Isenberg shows how consistent this prejudice has been over the centuries, carrying on with only a few alterations right down to the present. The first few chapters of White Trash can be heavy sledding due to the density of information and occasional clumsiness of Isenberg’s prose ... If White Trash is rather weak at weaving its assorted elements into a coherent narrative, it sheds bright light on a long history of demagogic national politicking, beginning with Jackson. It makes Donald Trump seem far less unprecedented than today’s pundits proclaim ... White Trash is weakest in its handling of race, a theme intimately entangled with the notion of a white-trash identity, but a subject Isenberg avoids when at all possible.
American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping Crimes and Trial of Patty HearstJeffrey Toobin
PositiveSlateToobin frames American Heiress as a tribute to her resilience: what he sees as the 'rational' response of a determined survivor to a string of extraordinary challenges ... [Hearst] appears as the only ordinary person in a parade of weirdos, creeps, fanatics, scoundrels, idealists, firebrands, and outright maniacs ... Yes, the SLA were idiots who didn’t have a viable plan for changing the world, but Toobin leans so hard on the meaninglessness of their agenda that he creates the impression their idiocy was obvious to everyone around them.
Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death FraudElizabeth Greenwood
PositiveSlatePlaying Dead belongs to that genre of popular nonfiction best exemplified by Jon Ronson...It’s a form that above all requires a likable, self-deprecating, curious narrator, and Greenwood fits the bill, although her prose lacks the polish of Ronson’s deceptively casual wit.
American WarOmar El Akkad
PositiveThe GuardianThe mission of Omar El Akkad’s first novel, American War, is admirable: to encourage western readers, especially Americans, to put themselves in the shoes of the world’s radicalised displaced people ...El Akkad sets American War not just in America, but in the American south ... El Akkad’s southerners don’t talk like southerners, don’t behave like southerners, don’t seem to have any real roots in the land they fight for ... It’s hard to view this novel as the story of how an American would respond to the conditions that create terrorists in other nations because Sarat and her family don’t seem especially American ...Sarat can’t be stripped of any of those things because she never really has them to begin with. She is a contrivance, existing only to serve the message of American War. War may inevitably dehumanise the people caught up in it, but a novel, however well intentioned, ought not to follow its example.
Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane JacobsRobert Kanigel
MixedSlate...where Jacobs’ writings tore down and reconstructed the way we understand cities, Kanigel never quite succeeds in digging down to his subject’s foundation ... Eyes on the Street is haunted by the impression that Jacobs has gotten the better of her biographer...Despite the ostentatious familiarity of the book’s tone, his subject remains always at arm’s length.
PositiveSlateManhattan Beach is sober, even staid, a historical novel set in World War II–era New York City. It’s delivered not in the sparkly, fast-acting fragments of mass and digital culture—the fictional equivalent of espresso shots—but in long, deep draughts like tall glasses of ice water … Manhattan Beach is not especially original. Originality itself is often overrated. The novel is more deeply imagined than most historical fiction; Egan summons the material and social texture of 1940s New York, from the cosmetics to the food to the sounds and smells of street and apartment and merchant marine life, so completely that the world of the novel closes over its reader’s head like the waters of Wallabout Bay engulfing Anna on her first dive.
The Burning GirlClaire Messud
MixedSlateThis is a subject great novelists have been writing about for decades, yet each new instance tends to get treated as a revelation, a foray into seldom-visited territory. Better to leave off the marveling and ask how (and if) a novelist brings something fresh to the theme. Claire Messud mostly doesn’t in The Burning Girl ... The enjoyability of The Burning Girl, while not inconsiderable, is a function of its familiarity ... The whole narrative feels set slightly outside of time, and the pleasant, trancelike state it induces, its aura of unreality, keeps it from attaining the rawness of Sula or Cat’s Eye.
The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov Edmund Wilson and the End of a Beautiful FriendshipAlex Beam
PositiveSlate[Beam] never quite stops laughing through the 200 pages that follow, which is exactly what makes The Feud such wicked fun ... The most sublime and insightful words, more often than not, emerge from decidedly ignoble creatures. You could wring your hands over the misguided senselessness of it all, but it’s saner to follow Beam’s lead and learn to laugh.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeMark Haddon
RaveSalonAn autistic savant who can list all the prime numbers up to 7,057, he’s not so good with emotion, and since the story he relates in Mark Haddon’s delightful first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, concerns the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and the precarious nature of the care he needs to survive, we have to read between his lines … In tracking down the truth about Wellington’s untimely death, Christopher discovers more than he bargained for...Haddon depicts his hero with expansive sympathy and an irresistible humor … All of this makes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time feel light, but that’s deceiving. There are vast reservoirs of human suffering and courage beneath its sprightly, peculiar surface.
Gone GirlGillian Flynn
RaveSalonFlynn’s particular specialty is ‘unlikable’ narrators: Not freakish killers, but ordinarily selfish, resentful or sarcastic types, the kind of characters that readers often seem to dislike because they offer an uncomfortable reflection of their own mundane shortcomings … Gone Girl has two such narrators, the halves of a broken marriage...and the novel has two mysteries: What happened to Amy, and what happened to Nick-and-Amy? … For the first half of the novel, these two contradictory yet strangely harmonized accounts of the marriage’s decay command most of the attention … You couldn’t say that this is a crime novel that’s ultimately about a marriage, which would make it a literary novel in disguise. The crime and the marriage are inseparable.
What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their StoriesLaura Shapiro
PositiveSlate...a collection of deft portraits in which food supplies an added facet to the whole. Sometimes it strains to do so. With Dorothy Wordsworth in particular, Shapiro is forced to read a great deal into a single line from a 1829 diary entry...But Shapiro is such a shrewd, sprightly writer that it’s hard to fault her for reading more into Wordsworth’s 'food story' than the record warrants. Each of her subjects fascinates in a different way, and Shapiro has a wizardly epigrammatic knack for summing up paradoxes ... British cuisine becomes a metaphor or counterpart to Pym’s fiction, and perhaps (I’m obliged to admit) food writing itself, at least the way Shapiro does it: underestimated by those who judge too quickly and by appearances, but full of hidden glories.