Michiko Kakutani is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the chief book critic for The New York Times. She can be found on Twitter @michikokakutani
PositiveThe New York TimesThese more cerebral aspects of Hystopia — the much anticipated first novel by a veteran short-story writer — can weigh the book down, like too-heavy ornaments and garlands on a spindly Christmas tree. At the same time, the reader cannot help but admire its ambitions, and Mr. Means’s potent language helps power the story over its more lugubrious sections...Hystopia is at its most haunting not when it’s trying to fulfill its big, visionary aspirations but when it’s focusing on singular moments in its characters’ lives when hope and disappointment and loss converge...
PanThe New York TimesAlthough there are glimpses of Ms. Sittenfeld’s storytelling talents in the novel’s opening chapters, “Eligible swiftly devolves into the glibbest sort of chick lit; it reads less like a homage or reimagining of Austen’s classic than a heavy-handed and deeply unfunny parody ... It’s not just that many of Ms. Sittenfeld’s characters often seem more like the Kardashians than Austen heroines, but that the entire tone of this novel feels off: The layered satire and irony in Pride and Prejudice have been replaced here with high-decibel mockery, just as Austen’s sense of irony has been supplanted by sophomoric jokes.
Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939Volker Ullrich
PositiveThe New York TimesThis is the first of two volumes (it ends in 1939 with the dictator’s 50th birthday) and there is little here that is substantially new. However, Mr. Ullrich offers a fascinating Shakespearean parable about how the confluence of circumstance, chance, a ruthless individual and the willful blindness of others can transform a country — and, in Hitler’s case, lead to an unimaginable nightmare for the world ... provides vivid insight into some factors that helped turn a 'Munich rabble-rouser' — regarded by many as a self-obsessed 'clown' with a strangely 'scattershot, impulsive style' — into 'the lord and master of the German Reich.'”
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Konar makes the emotional lives of her two spirited narrators piercingly real ... What is most haunting about the novel is Ms. Konar’s ability to depict the hell that was Auschwitz, while at the same time capturing the resilience of many prisoners ... [certain] plot points can seem melodramatic and contrived, and Ms. Konar’s prose occasionally eddies into self-consciously pretty writing...but these doubts are steamrollered by Ms. Konar’s ability to powerfully convey the experiences of her heroines.
War PornRoy Scranton
MixedThe New York Times[Scranton has a] keen reportorial eye and [a] Michael Herr-like gift for conveying the surreal feel of modern war ... the novel is at its most persuasive not when Mr. Scranton is laboriously trying to illustrate his arguments but when he trusts his own myriad gifts as a storyteller.
Rogue HeroesBen Macintyre
PositiveThe New York Times...reads like a mashup of The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape, with a sprinkling of Ocean’s 11 thrown in for good measure ... Mr. Macintyre draws sharp, Dickensian portraits of these men and displays his usual gifts here for creating a cinematic narrative that races along ... Mr. Macintyre is masterly in using details to illustrate his heroes’ bravery, élan and dogged perseverance ... Mr. Macintyre has difficulty zooming out from his heroes’ story to give a broader understanding of how their operational work fit into the larger canvas of the war.
RaveThe New York Times...a smart, funny and utterly captivating novel ... Nutshell is a small tour de force that showcases all of Mr. McEwan’s narrative gifts of precision, authority and control, plus a new, Tom Stoppard-like delight in the sly gymnastics that words can be perform ... It’s preposterous, of course, that a fetus should be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his sleight of hand.
The Innocent Have Nothing to FearStuart Stevens
MixedThe New York TimesMr. Stevens, a veteran of the George W. Bush and Mitt Romney campaigns, brings a full arsenal of gifts to this enterprise: humor, tactile prose and an insider’s knowledge of the hardball tactics employed on the campaign trail...The problem is that Mr. Stevens’s Donald Trump-like villain and a Hillary Clinton-like rival pale next to their real life counterparts ... By far the most interesting parts of this novel are the behind-the-scenes accounts of the tactical and strategic maneuvering of political operatives faced with a contested convention.
Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal IconLarry Tye
PositiveThe New York Times...does a compelling job of showing how a tough-guy counsel to the red-baiting, demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s became, in the next decade, 'a liberal icon' ... Mr. Tye has a keen gift for narrative storytelling and an ability to depict his subject with almost novelistic emotional detail ... conscientiously strips away the accretions of myth that have come to surround Robert F. Kennedy, while at the same time creating a sympathetic portrait of this complex, searching man.
The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead
RaveThe New York Times...a potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery. It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift ... [Whitehead] has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.
Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief LifePeter Ackroyd
PositiveThe New York Times...offers no new revelations, but it provides a smart, fluent overview of the director’s life and art, and the mysterious dynamic between the two. As with other serious books on Hitchcock, this volume will be judged, partly, by how closely the author’s take on various films accords with the reader’s own ... Mr. Ackroyd does deftly situate Hitchcock’s work in the rapidly emerging film industry.
Night Sky with Exit WoundsOcean Vuong
RaveThe New York Times[Vuong] grew up listening to his grandmother’s stories and folk songs, and his poetry takes the musicality of that oral tradition and weds it, brilliantly, with his love of the English language. The poems in Mr. Vuong’s new collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds possess a tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work, combined with a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like appreciation for the sound and rhythms of words. Mr. Vuong can create startling images (a black piano in a field, a wedding-cake couple preserved under glass, a shepherd stepping out of a Caravaggio painting) and make the silences and elisions in his verse speak as potently as his words ... Mr. Vuong writes as an immigrant and as a gay man, and his poems capture what it means to be an outsider (a 'beast banished/ from the ark') and the brutal history of prejudice in America.
Modern LoversEmma Straub
RaveThe New York TimesHowever familiar the overall dynamics of Modern Lovers might be, Ms. Straub writes with such verve and sympathetic understanding of her characters that we barely notice. Reading this novel has all the pleasures of reading one of Anne Tyler’s compelling family portraits — but transported from Baltimore to Brooklyn, peopled with aging hipsters (instead of perennially middle-aged folks) and doused with a Lorrie Moore-like sense of the absurdities of contemporary life ... Like The Vacationers, this entertaining novel takes place during one momentous summer, and with its sunny cover and May 31 publication date, the book looks like designated vacation reading — but it’s just too deftly and thoughtfully written to be relegated merely to the beach.
The Morning They Came for UsJanine di Giovanni
RaveThe New York TimesMs. di Giovanni writes here with urgency and anguish — determined to testify to what she has witnessed because she wants 'people never to forget.' Her sorrow comes through in the writing — in the book’s staccato sentences, in its flashbacks to similar scenes of suffering in the Balkans, in its helpless empathy for people she met in Syria, like the ailing woman in a hospital who begged her to take her children away to some place safe ... Leaving Aleppo, she writes, she did her best 'to take photographs inside my head, pictures that I would remember, that would show a country that no longer existed.' Her testimony is contained here in this searing and necessary book.
The Noise of TimeJulian Barnes
MixedThe New York TimesIn recent books like The Lemon Table and The Sense of an Ending, Mr. Barnes has become increasingly preoccupied with characters looking back over the receding vistas of their lives. Here, he has tried to echo Shostakovich’s work with an aphoristic, irony-laden style of his own. His composer is so given to bellyaching and navel-gazing, however, that the novel gains power and resonance when it steps outside its hero’s head, and instead uses Shostakovich’s story to probe such favorite themes as the relativity of history and the subjectivity of experience (the same themes that animated earlier Barnes novels like The Porcupine and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters), and to chronicle the absurdities that artists suffer under totalitarianism.
Fortune SmilesAdam Johnson
PositiveThe New York TimesThe volume’s two standouts — the title story and 'Nirvana,' about a computer programmer who uses virtual reality to reanimate a dead American president — straddle the worlds of realism and fable, and attest to Mr. Johnson’s elastic and idiosyncratic voice: his ability to write with both tenderness and satiric verve, and his electro-magnetic feel for the absurdities of life and the human costs they represent ... The two weakest links in this collection — 'Dark Meadow' (about a pedophile) and 'George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine' (about a former East German prison warden) — feature such reprehensible characters that Mr. Johnson has a difficult time persuasively putting across their points of view ... The other tales in Fortune Smiles are worth everything: They reaffirm all the gifts Mr. Johnson demonstrated in The Orphan Master’s Son.
God Help the ChildToni Morrison
PositiveThe New York TimesThis novel does not aspire to the grand sweep of history in Ms. Morrison’s dazzling 1987 masterpiece, Beloved, but like Home (2012), it attests to her ability to write intensely felt chamber pieces that inhabit a twilight world between fable and realism, and to convey the desperate yearnings of her characters for safety and love and belonging ... Because so many lives are mapped in this slender book and because so many of these characters speak to us directly in the first person, God Help the Child jumps around a lot in time and space; it is up to us to connect — or not connect — many of the dots. The narrative also has touches of surrealism that may initially seem jarring and bizarre, but that gradually lend Bride’s story a fairy-tale-like undertow ... As the book flies toward its conclusion, the speed bumps in its early pages quickly recede in the rearview mirror. Writing with gathering speed and assurance as the book progresses, Ms. Morrison works her narrative magic, turning the Ballad of Bride and Booker into a tale that is as forceful as it is affecting, as fierce as it is resonant.
Zero KDon DeLillo
PositiveThe New York TimesThis novel does not possess — or aspire toward — the symphonic sweep of Underworld; it’s more like a chamber music piece. But once the novel shakes off its labored start, Zero K reminds us of Mr. DeLillo’s almost Day-Glo powers as a writer and his understanding of the strange, contorted shapes that eternal human concerns (with mortality and time) can take in the new millennium.
Black Flags: The Rise of ISISJody Warrick
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Warrick has a gift for constructing narratives with a novelistic energy and detail, and in this volume, he creates the most revealing portrait yet laid out in a book of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the founding father of the organization that would become the Islamic State ... The final chapters of this volume have a somewhat hurried feel ... But for readers interested in the roots of the Islamic State and the evil genius of its godfather, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, there is no better book to begin with than Black Flags.
Between the World and MeTa-Nehisi Coates
MixedThe New York TimesThere is a Manichaean tone to some of the passages in this book, and at times, a hazardous tendency to generalize ... Sometimes Mr. Coates can sound as though he’s ignoring changes that have taken place over the decades, telling his son that 'you and I' belong to that 'below' in the racial hierarchy of American society: 'That was true in 1776. It is true today.' ... Such assertions skate over the very real — and still dismally insufficient — progress that has been made. After all, America has twice elected a black president. At other moments in this powerful and passionate book, Mr. Coates acknowledges such changes. In fact, his book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.
Mothering SundayGraham Swift
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Swift makes little nods and bows to Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, as well as Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. But Sunday wears such borrowings lightly. As a result, it feels less self-consciously literary than Mr. Swift’s earlier novels, and while it has a haunting, ceremonious pace, it also possesses a new emotional intensity.
Lab GirlHope Jahren
RaveThe New York TimesVladimir Nabokov once observed that 'a writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.' The geobiologist Hope Jahren possesses both in spades. Her engrossing new memoir, Lab Girl, is at once a thrilling account of her discovery of her vocation and a gifted teacher’s road map to the secret lives of plants — a book that, at its best, does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.
PositiveThe New York TimesSome of Mr. Fair’s descriptions of Abu Ghraib and the National Security Agency facilities at Camp Victory recall the absurdities of Catch-22 and Animal Farm, but here the sense of the absurd is infused with real horror and injustice ... [a] profoundly unsettling book.
Burning Down the HouseJane Mendelsohn
PanThe New York Times[Burning Down the House] is a melodramatic mess: suspenseful, even moving at times, but atrociously overwritten and overstuffed with implausible plot twists, stereotyped characters and scenes oozing sweat and tears ... Burning Down the House is not without reminders of Ms. Mendelsohn’s evocative abilities. Sadly, these elements don’t make up for the ponderous, portentous storytelling in this high-strung and histrionic novel.
The North WaterIan McGuire
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. McGuire nimbly folds all these melodramatic developments into his story as it hurtles toward its conclusion. He has written an allusion-filled novel that still manages to feel original, a violent tale of struggle and survival in a cinematically beautiful landscape reminiscent of the movie The Revenant but rendered with far more immediacy and considerably less self-importance.
The Year of the RunawaysSunjeev Sahota
RaveThe New York TimesWriting with unsentimental candor, Mr. Sahota has created a cast of characters whose lives are so richly imagined that this deeply affecting novel calls out for a sequel or follow-up that might recount the next installment of their lives. (An epilogue, set more than 10 years later, is way too cursory and hasty.) At the same time, he’s written a novel that captures the plight of many immigrants, who count themselves lucky enough to have made it to the land of their dreams, only to worry that those dreams may be slipping out of reach.
American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of TeenagersNancy Jo Sales
PanThe New York TimesThis book does an unnerving job of depicting the highly sexualized environment teenagers inhabit today on the web and the social anxiety created by spending hours a day online. But American Girls is hardly groundbreaking in its revelations ... Sadly, many of Ms. Sales’s common-sense observations are undermined by her lapses into psychobabble.
The BlizzardVladimir Sorokin, Trans. Jamey Gambrell
PanThe New York TimesThough a handful of dream sequences in these pages showcase Mr. Sorokin’s antic and sometimes grotesque imagination, the novel as a whole is a glum, predictable and cursory affair.
Children of ParadiseLaura Secor
MixedThe New York TimesThe problem with Children of Paradise is that it can feel haphazardly assembled, hopping and skipping around, and sometimes providing only a fuzzy sense of political context ... What Ms. Secor does do in this book — with intense emotion — is convey the often harrowing stories of her subjects’ lives: their hopes, their aspirations and the often terrible prices they paid for dissent.
United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown TerroristsPeter Bergen
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Bergen does a nuanced job here of pointing out the difficulties of tracking lone wolves and the significant warnings missed by law enforcement. He also offers a judicious assessment of controversial F.B.I. sting operations, using often unsavory informants, and the overreach by intelligence agencies in their surveillance efforts.
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Gallagher has a keen reportorial eye, a distinctive voice and an instinctive sympathy for the people he is writing about, and he uses those gifts here to immerse us in his characters' lives ... an urgent and deeply moving novel.
The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted ConvictAustin Reed
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Reed writes in an utterly idiosyncratic pastiche of styles and genres — part confession, part jeremiad, part lamentation, part picaresque novel (reminiscent, at times, of Dickens and Defoe) ... Though Mr. Reed’s book suggests he found some solace in the act of writing, it is also a chilling reminder to the reader of the roots of an American prison system that has grown no more humane and grown so exponentially that it now houses a startling 2.2 million people.
This Old Man: All in PiecesRoger Angell
PositiveThe New York TimesPerhaps most of all, Mr. Angell — like Updike and White — is a prime noticer: a sharp-eyed collector of details, gathered over the course of nearly 10 decades, and dispensed here, with artistry and élan, in these jottings from a long and writerly life.
John le CarreAdam Sisman
PositiveThe New York Times“In John le Carré: The Biography Mr. Sisman creates an insightful and highly readable portrait of a writer and a man who has often been as elusive and enigmatic as his fictional heroes.”
Sinatra the ChairmanJames Kaplan
PanThe New York Times[A]s this more-than-900-page book increasingly turns from Sinatra’s music to his life in Hollywood, Vegas and Palm Springs, it bogs down in gossipy anecdotes and details that feel tedious and beside the point. It’s as if Mr. Kaplan had decided, with the second part of this volume, to go for inclusiveness rather than insight, encyclopedic compilation rather than interpretive analysis.
The WitchesStacy Schiff
PanThe New York TimesMore perplexingly, Ms. Schiff has decided not to really address the social, cultural and psychological reasons behind Salem’s witch hysteria (much the same way she curiously declined to grapple with Nabokov’s literary achievement in Véra). She mentions various factors in passing...But she never investigates such dynamics in any depth
The Return: Fathers Sons and the Land in BetweenHisham Matar
RaveThe New York TimesHere, in The Return, [Matar] writes with both a novelist’s eye for physical and emotional detail, and a reporter’s tactile sense of place and time. The prose is precise, economical, chiseled; the narrative elliptical, almost musical, cutting back and forth in time between the near present, Mr. Matar’s childhood memories of growing up in Libya, and pieced-together accounts of his father’s work as an opposition leader and his imprisonment. The Return is, at once, a suspenseful detective story about a writer investigating his father’s fate at the hands of a brutal dictatorship, and a son’s efforts to come to terms with his father’s ghost, who has haunted more than half his life by his absence.
Heroes of the FrontierDave Eggers
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s not as moving as Hologram and hardly as bravura a performance as the author’s stunning debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but Mr. Eggers has so mastered the art of old-fashioned, straight-ahead storytelling here that the reader quickly becomes immersed in Josie’s funny-sad tale ... Mr. Eggers doesn’t inhabit Josie’s mind with the same depth of intimacy he brought to the hero of Hologram, and he depicts her adventures in Alaska in a breezy, almost improvisatory fashion ... That bone-deep knowledge of a child’s relationship with a parent informs Mr. Eggers’s portraits of Paul and Ana, and their love for and dependence upon Josie — by far the strongest and most deeply affecting parts of this absorbing if haphazard novel.
Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildJ.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne & John Tiffany
RaveThe New York Times[Cursed Child is] a compelling, stay-up-all-night read ... this play nimbly sustains itself simply by situating its canny story line in that world and remaining true to its characters and rules. As in the books, the suspense here is electric and nonstop, and it has been cleverly constructed around developments recalling events in the original Potter novels.
The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My LifeJohn le Carré
RaveThe New York Times...recounted with the storytelling élan of a master raconteur — by turns dramatic and funny, charming, tart and melancholy ... this volume is filled with wonderfully drawn portraits of writers, spies, politicians, war reporters and actors who possess a palpable physicality and verve.
The Dream Life of AstronautsPatrick Ryan
PositiveThe New York TimesSome characters pop up in different stories — set years, even decades apart — and together they create a kind of choral portrait of a place, which turns out to be less a real community than a collection of misfits and Isolatoes ... if Mr. Ryan is unflinching in depicting their liabilities, he also displays a gift for excavating the dashed hopes and yearnings that lie beneath. He is especially adept at capturing the point of view of children, with a Salingeresque understanding of their alienation, their vulnerability, their keen powers of observation.
PanThe New York Times...the publication of Frantumaglia turns out to be a hugely misguided endeavor on the part of both Ms. Ferrante and her publishers. It’s a padded, often self-indulgent volume that undermines her stated belief that 'books, once they are written, have no need of their authors' ... Elsewhere, she sounds pretentious and self-important ... Such self-conscious and stilted statements stand in stark contrast to the visceral immediacy of Ms. Ferrante’s novels.
Trump RevealedMichael Kranish & Marc Fisher
PositiveThe New York Times...provide[s] useful, vigorously reported overviews of Mr. Trump’s life and career ... deftly charts his single-minded building of his gaudy brand and his often masterful manipulation of the media.
Innocents and OthersDana Spiotta
PanThe New York TimesUnfortunately, Innocents does not deliver on its ambitions. Despite the gifted Ms. Spiotta’s feel for the dislocations of modernity and her sharp, kinetic prose, Innocents turns out to be a lumpy, unpersuasive novel — enlivened by some arresting moments and thoughtful riffs, but ultimately a sort of hodgepodge of derivative scenes and ideas that have been cut together into a meaning-heavy montage.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
MixedThe New York Times...the narrative cuts back and forth in time, alternating between persuasive chapters about the unnamed narrator’s memories of her childhood and adolescence, and dull, strangely generic chapters about her grown-up experiences ... The novel’s flashback chapters, set in London, possess the tactile energy and emotional detail of White Teeth. Ms. Smith conjures the electric pulse of the 1980s and 1990s ... Aimee is a complete celebrity stereotype...and the chapters that chronicle Aimee’s much publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country are beyond tedious ... [a] clumsy novel — a novel that showcases its author’s formidable talents in only half its pages, while bogging down the rest of the time in formulaic and predictable storytelling.
The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They MatterDavid Sax
RaveThe New York Times...[a] captivating new book ... Sax provides an insightful and entertaining account of this phenomenon, creating a powerful counternarrative to the techno-utopian belief that we would live in an ever-improving, all-digital world ... In these pages, Mr. Sax takes us on a spirited tour of the resurgent analog universe.
PositiveThe New York Times...elegiac and deeply poignant ... Mr. Chabon weaves these knotted-together tales together into a tapestry that’s as complicated, beautiful and flawed as an antique carpet. The novel would have benefited from some rigorous editing...But the fraying story lines seem to be a deliberate narrative strategy meant to convey the chaos of life and distortions of memory ... Although Moonglow grows overly discursive at times, it is never less than compelling when it sticks to the tale of Mike’s grandparents.
MixedThe New York TimesIt’s impossible not to admire the ambition and scope of Homegoing, and thanks to Ms. Gyasi’s instinctive storytelling gifts, the book leaves the reader with a visceral understanding of both the savage realities of slavery and the emotional damage that is handed down, over the centuries, from mothers to daughters, fathers to sons. At its best, the novel makes us experience the horrors of slavery on an intimate, personal level ... Ms. Gyasi’s workmanlike prose and brisk jump-cuts from one generation’s woes to another’s, however, mean that Homegoing never creates the sort of immersive, fully imagined fictional world that One Hundred Years of Solitude did — never makes the leap into the hyperspace of myth that Toni Morrison’s Beloved achieved. As a result, Homegoing often feels deliberate and earthbound ... It’s when she focuses not on the wide-angle aspects of her story, but on relationships — between parents and children, wives and husbands — that her writing is at its most potent.
Born a CrimeTrevor Noah
RaveThe New York TimesBy turns alarming, sad and funny, his book provides a harrowing look, through the prism of Mr. Noah’s family, at life in South Africa under apartheid and the country’s lurching entry into a postapartheid era in the 1990s ... Born a Crime is not just an unnerving account of growing up in South Africa under apartheid, but a love letter to the author’s remarkable mother.
Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders
PositiveThe New York TimesThe supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times — the novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning — but their voices gain emotional momentum as the book progresses. And they lend the story a choral dimension that turns Lincoln’s personal grief into a meditation on the losses suffered by the nation during the Civil War, and the more universal heartbreak that is part of the human condition ... In these pages, Saunders’s extraordinary verbal energy is harnessed, for the most part, in the service of capturing the pathos of everyday life ... Saunders’s novel is at its most potent and compelling when it is focused on Lincoln: a grave, deeply compassionate figure, burdened by both personal grief and the weight of the war, and captured here in the full depth of his humanity. In fact, it is Saunders’s beautifully realized portrait of Lincoln — caught at this hinge moment in time, in his own personal bardo, as it were — that powers this book over its more static sections and attests to the author’s own fruitful transition from the short story to the long-distance form of the novel.
South and WestJoan Didion
PositiveThe New York TimesAt a remove of more than four decades, she maps the divisions splintering America today, and uncannily anticipates some of the dynamics that led to the election of Donald J. Trump and caught so many political and media insiders unawares ... Her notes lack the depth and understanding of J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which depicts the frustrations and anger of poor white communities from within. And while Didion’s estrangement sharpens her reportorial eye, it can curdle, at times, into condescension ... What Didion does capture, powerfully, in this book is the insularity of many places in the South, and, by implication, how insular the elites (like herself) are in places like California and New York and Washington ... The other reason that readers will find this volume so fascinating is that it shows Didion at work, as a writer and reporter, gathering details, jotting them down and running her observations through the typewriter of her mind. Even these hurriedly written notes shine with her trademark ability to capture mood and place.
The One InsideSam Shepard
PositiveThe New York TimesMemories of these women — along with memories of acting jobs, travels and childhood exploits — are woven together here, along with dreams, fantasies and Bosch-like hallucinations. The overall effect recalls Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece 8 ½, in which the real, the surreal and the imagined converge, as its film director hero thinks back upon the women in his life ... As in Shepard’s plays, time past and time present blur and overlap in this story, just as boundaries — between, say, an actor and his roles, a writer and his creations — grow fluid and porous ... This volume, too, can feel improvised and impressionistic, but it’s glued together, collage-style, by the consciousness of the hero: an archetypal Shepard male, engaged in an Oedipal struggle with his cantankerous father, and caught in a passive-aggressive dynamic with his girlfriends, whose company he both craves and disdains ... [certain] scenes will remind Shepard fans of the surreal images that bloom in his plays — at once feverish projections of his characters’ imaginations, and richly complex symbols used by the author to create a metaphorical, Bunuel-like landscape. The One Inside may be a minor Shepard work, but it provides a sharp-edged distillation of the themes that have preoccupied him throughout his career, and serves as a kind of Rosetta stone to such remarkable plays as Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind, Buried Child and True West.”
American WarOmar El Akkad
PositiveThe New York Times...a surprisingly powerful novel — one that creates as haunting a postapocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy did in The Road (2006), and as devastating a look at the fallout that national events have on an American family as Philip Roth did in The Plot Against America (2004) ... His familiarity with the United States’ war on terror informs this novel on every level, from his shattering descriptions of the torture endured by one of his main characters to his bone-deep understanding of the costs of war on civilians ... There are considerable flaws in American War — from badly melodramatic dialogue to highly contrived and derivative plot points — but El Akkad has so deftly imagined the world his characters inhabit, and writes with such propulsive verve, that the reader can easily overlook such lapses ... El Akkad has written a novel that not only maps the harrowing effects of violence on one woman and her family, but also becomes a disturbing parable about the ruinous consequences of war on ordinary civilians.
Exit WestMohsin Hamid
RaveThe New York TimesWriting in spare, crystalline prose, Hamid conveys the experience of living in a city under siege with sharp, stabbing immediacy. He shows just how swiftly ordinary life — with all its banal rituals and routines — can morph into the defensive crouch of life in a war zone ... In summary, it might sound perversely counterintuitive of Hamid to use a fairy-tale-like device as a way to move his characters from their war-torn homeland to a new life in the West...Hamid, however, is less interested in the physical hardships faced by refugees in their crossings than in the psychology of exile and the haunting costs of loss and dislocation ... By mixing the real and the surreal, and using old fairy-tale magic, Hamid has created a fictional universe that captures the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines, while at the same time painting an unnervingly dystopian portrait of what might lie down the road.
The Moth Presents All These WondersEd. by Catherine Burns
RaveThe New York TimesSome [stories] are heartbreakingly sad; some laugh-out-loud funny; some momentous and tragic; almost all of them resonant or surprising. They are stories that attest to the startling varieties and travails of human experience, and the shared threads of love, loss, fear and kindness that connect us ... The stories here, for the most part, have translated seamlessly to the page. Though they are all relatively short — average Moth performances range from five minutes to 12 minutes — most possess a remarkable emotional depth and sincerity ... They are not random reminiscences, however, but closely focused, finely tuned narratives that have the force of an epiphany, while opening out to disclose the panoramic vistas of one person’s life or the shockingly disparate worlds they have inhabited or traversed.
Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed CampaignJonathan Allen and Amie Parnes
RaveThe New York Times...the blow-by-blow details in Shattered — and the observations made here by campaign and Democratic Party insiders — are nothing less than devastating, sure to dismay not just her supporters but also everyone who cares about the outcome and momentous consequences of the election. In fact, the portrait of the Clinton campaign that emerges from these pages is that of a Titanic-like disaster: an epic fail made up of a series of perverse and often avoidable missteps by an out-of-touch candidate and her strife-ridden staff that turned 'a winnable race' into 'another iceberg-seeking campaign ship' ... In chronicling these missteps, Shattered creates a picture of a shockingly inept campaign hobbled by hubris and unforced errors, and haunted by a sense of self-pity and doom, summed up in one Clinton aide’s mantra throughout the campaign: 'We’re not allowed to have nice things.'
White TeethZadie Smith
RaveThe New York TimesA novel that announces the debut of a preternaturally gifted new writer — a writer who at the age of 24 demonstrates both an instinctive storytelling talent and a fully fashioned voice that's street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time … In recounting the story of Archie and Samad's families, she shows not only how one generation often revolts against another — sons against fathers, daughters against mothers — but also how they repeat their predecessors' mistakes, retrace their ancestors' dreams, and in the case of those who are immigrants, commute nervously between the poles of assimilation and nationalism, the embrace of the Other and a repudiation of its temptations … These characters are all players in Ms. Smith's riotous multicultural drama, living out their stories on her chessboard of postcolonial dreams and frustrations, and yet at the same time, they've been limned with such energy and bemused affection that they possess the quirks and vulnerabilities of friends and neighbors we've known all our lives.
A Brief History of Seven KillingsMarlon James
RaveThe New York Times[A Brief History of Seven Killings is] epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex. It’s also raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting — a testament to Mr. James’s vaulting ambition and prodigious talent … [Bob] Marley...becomes an almost peripheral figure in this novel, as the story focuses in on fictional versions of ‘the people around him, the ones who come and go’ … Mr. James’s characters, old and young, male and female, Jamaican and American, exhale their thoughts in language that is casually profane, and as kinetic and syncopated as music. Many of this novel’s chapters are written in a kind of patois stream of consciousness, which, however confusing at first, works to immerse the reader in the world in which Marley grew up, the world that gave birth to reggae.
The GoldfinchDonna Tartt
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Tartt has made Fabritius’s bird the MacGuffin at the center of her glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading … It’s a work that shows us how many emotional octaves Ms. Tartt can now reach, how seamlessly she can combine the immediate and tactile with more wide-angled concerns … Ms. Tartt is adept at harnessing all the conventions of the Dickensian novel — including startling coincidences and sudden swerves of fortune — to lend Theo’s story a stark, folk-tale dimension as well as a visceral appreciation of the randomness of life and fate’s sometimes cruel sense of humor.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeMark Haddon
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Haddon has deliberately created a story defined and limited by his hero's very logical, literal-minded point of view. The result is a minimalistic narrative – not unlike a Raymond Carver story in its refusal to speculate, impute motive or perform emotional embroidery … Christopher's detective work eventually takes him on a frightening trip to London, a trip that Mr. Haddon makes us experience from the boy's point of view as a harrowing adventure, as scary as anything in an action thriller. And it also leads to an unraveling of his own family's past … Christopher emerges as a wonderfully vivid individual. He never for a moment feels like a generic teenager or a composite portrait of someone with Asperger's syndrome.
The CorrectionsJonathan Franzen
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Franzen has brought a family and its problems center stage to try to write a sort of American ‘Buddenbrooks.’ In doing so he has harnessed his penchant for social criticism and subordinated it to his natural storytelling instincts, while at the same time, shucking off the influence of other writers to find an idiosyncratic voice of his own … While he is eviscerating the Lamberts' pretensions – and by extension, the culture they represent – Mr. Franzen also manages to make palpable the familial geometry of their problems … The Corrections remains a remarkably poised performance, the narrative held together by myriad meticulously observed details and tiny leitmotifs that create a mosaiclike picture of America in the waning years of the 20th century.
RaveThe New York TimesIan McEwan's remarkable new novel Atonement is a love story, a war story and a story about the destructive powers of the imagination...It is, in short, a tour de force … The novel, supposedly a narrative constructed by one of the characters, stands as a sophisticated rumination on the hazards of fantasy and the chasm between reality and art … There is nothing self-conscious or mannered about Mr. McEwan's writing. Indeed Atonement emerges as the author's most deeply felt novel yet – a novel that takes the glittering narrative pyrotechnics perfected in his last book, Amsterdam, and employs them in the service of a larger, tragic vision.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusDave Eggers
MixedThe New York TimesA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius may start off sounding like one of those coy, solipsistic exercises that put everything in little ironic quote marks, but it quickly becomes a virtuosic piece of writing, a big, daring, manic-depressive stew of book that noisily announces the debut of a talented -- yes, staggeringly talented new writer.
Go Set a WatchmanHarper Lee
MixedThe New York TimesStudents of writing will find Watchman fascinating for these reasons: How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father? How did a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech (from the casually patronizing to the disgustingly grotesque — and presumably meant to capture the extreme prejudice that could exist in small towns in the Deep South in the 1950s) mutate into a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement, hailed, in the words of the former civil rights activist and congressman Andrew Young, for giving us 'a sense of emerging humanism and decency'?
Rising Star: The Making of Barack ObamaDavid Garrow
PanThe New York Times...a dreary slog of a read: a bloated, tedious and — given its highly intemperate epilogue — ill-considered book that is in desperate need of editing, and way more exhausting than exhaustive ... In the absence of thoughtful analysis or a powerful narrative through line, Garrow’s book settles for barraging the reader with a cascade of details — seemingly in hopes of creating a kind of pointillist picture. The problem is that all these data points never connect to form an illuminating portrait ... Whereas the rest of the book is written in dry, largely uninflected prose, the epilogue — which almost reads like a Republican attack ad — devolves into a condescending diatribe unworthy of a serious historian ... It’s odd that Garrow should seize on one former lover’s anger and hurt, and try to turn them into a Rosebud-like key to the former president’s life.
The Art of FieldingChad Harbach
RaveThe New York TimesChad Harbach’s book The Art of Fielding is not only a wonderful baseball novel — it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics … Mr. Harbach has the rare abilities to write with earnest, deeply felt emotion without ever veering into sentimentality, and to create quirky, vulnerable and fully imagined characters who instantly take up residence in our own hearts and minds … Mr. Harbach skillfully constructs a story with startling depth of field. Although his novel is strewn with literary allusions, it wears its literary borrowings lightly, focusing instead on the inner lives of its characters … What makes The Art of Fielding so affecting is that it captures these people at that tipping point in their lives when their dreams, seemingly within reach, suddenly lurch out of their grasp (perhaps temporarily, perhaps forever), reminding them of their limitations and the random workings of fate.
The Tiger's WifeTéa Obreht
RaveThe New York TimesTéa Obreht’s stunning debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, is a hugely ambitious, audaciously written work that provides an indelible picture of life in an unnamed Balkan country still reeling from the fallout of civil war … It’s not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez or Günter Grass as it is an extraordinarily limber exploration of allegory and myth making and the ways in which narratives reveal — and reflect back — the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies and hatreds … As Ms. Obreht parcels out chapters of these two fables, she gives us vivid portraits of Gavo, the tiger’s wife and other fairy-tale-like characters. By peopling The Tiger’s Wife with such folkloric characters, alongside more familiar contemporary types, Ms. Obreht creates an indelible sense of place.
AusterlitzW. G. Sebald
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Sebald uses the same anomalous technique in this volume as he has in his last three books, combining fiction, reportage, photographs and travel writing in a digression-filled narrative that has the resonant texture of a memoir … Embedded in these asides is the story of Austerlitz himself, whose ongoing conversations with the book's nameless narrator slowly assume the shape of an autobiography … Austerlitz tells the narrator of his belated search for his past – how he revisited his childhood home in Prague, retraced his journey to England and tried to find clues to his parents' fates...Despite the gratuitous device of the narrator, Austerlitz possesses a harrowing emotional power.
There's a Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice SendakJonathan Cott
MixedThe New York Times[There's a Mystery There] is lazily written — it’s less a scholarly or journalistic essay than a kind of assemblage of Cott’s conversations with Sendak, and with various experts (including the psychoanalyst Richard M. Gottlieb and the Jungian analyst Margaret Klenck) about Sendak’s work ... What makes this volume worth reading, in the end, are Cott’s genuinely thoughtful insights into his subject’s work, and Sendak’s own wise, sometimes cantankerous musings about the relationship between words and pictures in illustrated books; the artists who inspired him (including Mozart, Melville, Blake and Emily Dickinson); and the kinetic dynamic between his life and art.
The LeftoversTom Perrotta
MixedThe New York TimesMr. Perrotta has trouble reconciling this high concept platform with his talent for smaller-scale portraits of awkward adolescents and angst-ridden suburban families. The result is a poignant but deeply flawed novel … The Sudden Departure, which occurred one Oct. 14, is never made remotely real — we’re told that various children and spouses just abruptly vanished into thin air — and laborious and unconvincing analogies to 9/11 are repeatedly hurled at the reader … It is the portions of The Leftovers where Mr. Perrotta avoids the more cartoony and melodramatic aspects of his story that are by far the most persuasive.