Mike Fischer is a freelancer who writes frequently on the arts, serving as as the primary theater critic on behalf of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for whom he has written hundreds of features and reviews covering theater in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. His book reviews have appeared in newspapers throughout the United States and Canada. Mike is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and the National Book Critics Circle.
RaveThe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel...a masterfully crafted, deftly connected collection of stories involving the history of the Eide clan and the fictional town of Gunflint since Gus' great-grandmother's arrival there from Norway ... So much for the philosophy. There's plenty of it in Wintering, but it's as taut and lean as Geye's muscular prose, which simultaneously shapes a thrilling and terrifying adventure story, pitting the Eides against darkness itself ... I was most impressed by how successfully Geye joins Harry and Berit's narratives, stitching together two frequently dissociated strands in American literature: its dramas of beset manhood and its domestic chronicles — often playing out in our fiction as a division between male and female writers.
Heroes of the FrontierDave Eggers
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelTrue to form, [Eggers] is again as earnest, lyrical, passionate — and, yes, sometimes annoyingly preachy — as any contemporary American novelist ... Eggers is not giving us yet another treacle-filled account of how we should live for our kids, be defined by our kids, or describe our life's purpose through our kids. Eggers dares to offer still more: two extraordinarily textured and credible portraits of young children — rare, in American literature — coupled with a trenchant, spot-on account of how hard parenting can be.
The Women in the CastleJessica Shattuck
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelShattuck manages to be both morally tough-minded and remarkably empathetic toward all of her characters ... Shattuck is best in the second half of her book, as she turns her gaze on those immediate postwar years when lying in Germany was both survival tactic and way of life ... Shattuck’s effective, cross-cutting temporal shifts — from Kristallnacht in 1938 to the end of the war in 1945, forward to 1950 and then back to the 1920s and 1930s — underscores the ongoing, nightmarish yesterday that Germany continued to live, long after the war ended. As one character ruefully learns, one ultimately cannot narrate 'away evil while staring it in the face.'”
The LuminariesEleanor Catton
RaveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelThere's a postmodern wink in all of this: for all the language and characters in the impeccably paced and executed opening section, there's ultimately more truth to be found in the novel's moving, closing coda … By bringing these men together — and using their distinct, astrologically coded personalities to illustrate the necessary limitations to their individualized points of view — Catton underscores all that divides her characters. Race, class and gender. Family, culture and education. Addiction, passion and greed. But having posed this problem, Catton sets out to solve it. Insistently drawing characters into relation, the very existence of this novel suggests the insight we gain and how we might be changed by interacting with those around us.
Bring Up the BodiesHilary Mantel
RaveThe Houston ChronicleMuch of the dialogue in Bodies has the feel of masterfully crafted depositions or a first-rate police procedural, as Cromwell gently questions Anne's ladies-in-waiting – before cranking the heat while interrogating Anne's suspected lovers. But even as Bodies narrows its focus on the hunted Anne and hurtles toward its conclusion, part of Mantel – and her marvelous, many-sided Cromwell – refuses to be reduced to another episode of Law & Order … This Cromwell, keeping his own counsel even as he does Henry's bidding, gives us magnificent soliloquies. On his dead wife and vulnerable son. His colorful past and his decaying body. On the end of feudalism and the decline of honor. On the modern England he hopes to birth – and his growing fear that the capricious Henry will turn on him before it can be born.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetDavid Mitchell
PanThe Milwaukee Journal-SentinelThe primary reason why Dejima is recognizably Mitchell territory is that it is border country – that shadowy land between peoples that inevitably exposes the fault lines within their competing historical narratives … With the exception of the fabulously drawn doctor who is Jacob's ally, I rarely believed in any of the major characters in Thousand Autumns, including Jacob himself. The primary problem is Mitchell's often clumsy third-person narration … Mitchell is a born storyteller, and no reader of Thousand Autumns will have trouble turning pages – or feel cheated by the three stories' climactic final scenes, all of which are really good. But one can say much the same of any decent thriller, quickly consumed and then readily forgotten. Thousand Autumns clearly aspires to more, and it is a tribute to Mitchell's unmistakable ambition, sheer intelligence and prior achievement that for all this novel does well, it is ultimately still a disappointment.
The DovekeepersAlice Hoffman
PanThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelHoffman tells all four stories in the first person – a risky choice in a historical novel, for reasons this one makes painfully clear. Because the characters surrounding this quartet rarely get to speak for themselves – The Dovekeepers doesn't have much dialogue – they are reduced to chess pieces, moved by Hoffman at will to satisfy the needs of a clumsily handled plot … Stripped of its overworked plot and overwrought prose, The Dovekeepers could have been a much better book.
The Seventh Function of LanguageLaurent Binet, Trans. by Sam Taylor
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelHearing this crowd natter won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; self-important intellectuals will strike some readers as more boring than brainy. It pays to remember that when the literary theory craze was at its height some 30 years ago, luminaries like these were celebrities; I’ll admit that encountering them again here made me nostalgic for a time when reading their seductive prose rocked my world ... as every good novelist knows, there’s more than one way to tell a tale. Once again, Binet’s telling is flat-out ingenious.
The Chalk ArtistAllegra Goodman
MixedThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelGoodman takes her time rendering this richly imagined alternative universe, so that we might better understand why, for Aidan, his 'ordinary body seemed a dim reflection of his gaming self' ... The weakest sections of this novel involve Collin’s romance with Nina, which is never quite believable and for which some of the dialogue is remarkably stilted, coming from such an experienced novelist. Conversely, Aidan and his twin sister nearly always ring true, whether the topic is their fractious entanglement as twins, their loneliness as teens or the corresponding yearning they share for love and connection.
The Ministry of Utmost HappinessArundhati Roy
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelLike Rushdie, Roy recognizes that there are atrocities on both sides – and that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism leaves ever less room for the idyllic, more tolerant world Kashmir once was ... [an] ambitious, all-encompassing novel, which dares to imagine that the pursuit of happiness might take many paths – and accommodate multiple versions of India.
Men Without WomenHaruki Murakami, Trans. by Philip Gabriel & Ted Goossen
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelMoody and melancholic as this collection’s stories can be, some of them offer comparable hope that these men without women might emerge from their long and isolating loneliness, acknowledging the hurt, pain and even rage they feel rather than folding in on themselves and ceasing to fully live ... That recognition of time’s passage necessarily includes an acceptance of loss; 'from the instant you meet' a new woman, one narrator muses, 'you start thinking about losing her.' Every love ends in rupture or death. But as these wise stories suggest, that’s no reason to avoid living.
RaveThe Milwaukee Journal-SentinelMiller’s novel exhales the breathy immediacy of the here and now, even as it ranges back toward Bedward – proving the claim staked in this story’s first pages, in which we’re told that 'it would be no exaggeration to say that every day contains all of history' ... Augustown pays attention to those lives, offering a compelling variation on the theme that black lives matter ... as with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, it demands they be heard.
Amiable With Big TeethClaude McKay
MixedThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelThat doesn’t mean Amiable is a good novel; it’s not. Set in Harlem during the aftermath of Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, it’s primarily interesting for sociological rather than aesthetic reasons ... a book with many clunky and protracted political discussions ... Even Maxim’s abstractions go down easier than the novel’s purple prose...McKay is at his best in capturing the appeal of his Popular Front ideology, for reasons having little to do with Maxim himself.
The Idiot.Elif Batuman
RaveThe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel...a funny, thoughtful and poignant portrait of an artist as a young woman ... Batuman takes her time with this journey of self-discovery; readers looking for propulsive narrative drive ought to look elsewhere. The Idiot meanders; it’s willing to risk coming off as slow (sometimes, it is) ... There is plenty that moves and is interesting, here; the truth with which it unfolds gives it a wonder and beauty all its own.
RaveThe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel...[a] zany, moving, beautiful and soul-affirming novel ... What this odd couple share is a gift for telling stories and an accompanying 'capacity to become someone else, if we so choose.' What they become — and what Autumn itself becomes — is a leisurely, time-shifting collection of short snapshots featuring their friendship, from their first encounter as neighbors to Elisabeth’s long hours at Daniel’s bedside, in the assisted care facility where he straddles the boundary between life and death ... as is often true with Smith, fiction and history are entwined — true to her belief that the stories we tell not only empower us to create new worlds but also remind us that what we inherit as fact is itself an interpretation, inviting us to question the order of things ... It’s why I’ve long loved Smith. Like Boty — and like Dickens — she helps us see our best selves, even in the worst of times. We’ve never needed her more.
They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson Baltimore and a New Era in America's Racial Justice MovementWesley Lowery
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelLowery can get lost in the minutiae of those separate stories. He occasionally repeats himself. And his transitions can be disjointed – a consequence, I suspect, of wanting to include too much, and too many names, in this relatively brief account. For all that, I highly recommend his book, and not just because the story he tells about why black lives should matter – and, in America, often don’t – can’t ever be heard often enough. What makes They Can’t Kill Us All more than a ripped-from-the-headlines chronicle is Lowery’s combination of solid reporting, emotional commitment to his story as a black man and a reflective turn of mind.
PanThe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel...[a] hugely disappointing and seemingly interminable novel, populated by hundreds of nearly indistinguishable characters. They come and go faster than the trees, whose death by a thousand cuts is continually decried ... embarrassingly overwritten prose, light years removed from Proulx's spellbinding The Shipping News ... 'The forest was a distant smudge,' one character reflects. He could have been describing Barkskins itself.
To the Bright Edge of the WorldEowyn Ivey
MixedThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelMuch of this material has a museum-like quality to it. True to her thematic focus on the partiality of our vision, Ivey approaches her material with so much respect and such attention to detail that it often fails to breathe. A reader’s trek through Ivey’s pages can therefore double what Forrester and his fatigued men frequently feel, as they slog forward. But both reader and Forrester’s crew also experience the imaginative phenomena I’ve described above (and others like it). Making good on what Ivey’s title promises, they take us to the edge of the world and the heart of Alaska, challenging us to see the mystery in everyday life.
Vinegar GirlAnne Tyler
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelAs with the best stage productions of Shrew, love creates a fundamental equality between the pair at the center of Tyler's novel; critics apt to castigate Shakespeare's play for its supposed sexism repeatedly miss this underlying truth. Tyler misses nothing. Yes: In her best novels about marriage the canvas on which such truths appear is bigger and more textured; in comparison, Vinegar Girl is a bit of a lark. So was Shrew. But this jeu d'esprit embodies all the reasons readers love Anne Tyler: it's fun, lighthearted, clever, compassionate and filled with Tyler's always extraordinary love for her characters, liberating them here to love each other.
A Grace Paley ReaderGrace Paley, Ed. by Kevin Bowen
RaveThe Milwaukee Journal-SentinelLucky us that a generous selection of her stories, essays and poems has been collected in the just-published A Grace Paley Reader ... Best and most memorable of Paley’s characters is Faith Asbury, who is so colorful that Paley couldn’t bear to confine her to a single story. A single mother of two strong-willed boys, she’s messy and conflicted, about men and kids and the many women in her life ...[George] Saunders gets it right when he observes that she’s both 'particularly attentive to things as they are and extraordinarily accepting of them.' Her essays and poems continually champion the importance of listening, and she listens well.
Human ActsHan Kang
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelDespite Deborah Smith’s poetically rendered translation, reading about human acts like these can be excruciating. But true to the urgency conveyed through its frequent use of second-person narration, Han’s book is also filled with human acts involving profiles in courage that inspire hope ... Human Acts is filled with talk of wandering and lost souls, struggling to connect; here, they’re allowed 'grazed contact' with one another, painstakingly recreating a community that the government tried to destroy but which cannot be silenced.
Selection DayAravind Adiga
MixedThe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel...[a] scathingly satiric novel of modern Indian life ... Adiga’s account of the brothers’ efforts to grow up and fly free of the nets holding them back is itself held back by Adiga’s broad and satiric focus, which stunts his characters’ growth and results in a disjointed narrative. While much more ambitious, Selection Day is ultimately less effective than Adiga’s tighter, Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger ... But Selection Day is also filled with smart, spot-on observations about the perils of growing up in a country where both sports and politics have become increasingly degraded forms of mass entertainment.
RaveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelThe existence of this beautiful, brave book confirms that we must nevertheless continue constructing narratives, no matter how ephemeral they are. We cannot fully recover what’s been lost. But we can tell stories like this one, remembering where we came from so that we might somehow keep going.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
MixedThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelSmith’s novel swings time between the narrator’s formative years in London and her current challenges in Africa; the bridge connecting them isn’t always apparent. It doesn’t help that the African chapters aren’t nearly as compelling as those spent in London; while Smith tries to avoid creating another morality tale involving the limits of feel-good philanthropy, her African characters aren’t sufficiently fleshed out ... to an even greater extent than with NW, history in this often dark book hurts too much.
A Gambler's AnatomyJonathan Lethem
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel...plays out at a heightened pitch and can be very funny; A Gambler’s Anatomy marks one of Lethem’s periodic returns to those lighter (and shorter) novels reminding us that this prodigiously talented writer isn’t always trying to write the great American novel ... loaded with piquant aphorisms and spot-on descriptions ... Lethem fares best when taking apart our current stories of self and world. This novel is less compelling when imagining Bruno’s efforts to construct something new.
The Little Red ChairsEdna O'Brien
PanThe Miami Herald...halfway through Red Chairs, O’Brien makes an abrupt swerve, whisking Fidelma to London and turning her attention to the plight of refugees among whom Fidelma lives and associates ... Such Bosnian stories nominally tie this often lifeless and diffuse second section of the novel to the capture of Vlad, who will himself re-emerge in a final, even less successful third section, set at The Hague during his war crimes trial.
Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer
MixedThe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel...[a] moving, maddening and messy novel ... Safran Foer is excellent in summarizing how an idealistic couple moves from A to Z ... Safran Foer is far less successful when applying the lessons learned through this domestic drama to the larger story he simultaneously tells, involving an earthquake that nearly destroys an embattled Israel ... it’s an imperfect novel...But I’m confident I’ll continue recommending its uneven sprawl because it rightly dares to insist that it nevertheless has something vital to say.
No One Cares About Crazy PeopleRon Powers
MixedThe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel[The] historical portions of the book don’t break new ground; good a writer as Powers is, they could be much shorter ... It doesn’t help that much of this material reflects Powers’ self-confessed tendency to be a 'sanctimonious bloviator,' There are too many snarky, sarcastic passages ... But through judicially interspersed chapters involving his beloved boys, one is brought back to why Powers is so passionate...The chapters on Kevin and Dean are heartbreaking.
Listen to MeHannah Pittard
PanThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelAt its best, Pittard's fast-moving story recalls a legion of American writers from Hawthorne to McCarthy, each chronicling existential encounters framed by the wilderness and exposing the heart of darkness ... But her tight plot proves too intent on making the next bend in the road to pay sufficient attention to the menacing terrain being traversed ... What could have been riveting drama about one of those frightening forks in life's road gets hijacked instead by melodrama — or, worse, confirmation of one's nagging suspicion that most of this couple's preceding problems are contrived and unreal.
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel...[a] moving, beautifully crafted novel ... Patchett’s dramatic forward and backward shifts in time and among her characters, coupled with her frequently elegiac tone, recall Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
The Boat RockerHa Jin
PanThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelUnfortunately, Ha Jin seems less interested in writing a novel than a screed taking aim at the various permutations of Chinese censorship ... Danlin’s quest — often less heroic than priggishly self-righteous — results in some of the most wooden, ideologically charged dialogue I’ve read in a long time ... Recollecting infinitely better Ha Jin novels, this poorly constructed and executed book induces such nostalgia in me.
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelAlong the way, we occasionally lose sight of Anna; hiding from those around her, she also hides from us. We don’t always know what makes her tick or why she chooses — often spontaneously and desperately — as she does. These narrative holes our deliberate; Egan won’t let her heroine be pinned down and classified. That, after all, is what others have been doing to Anna all her life ... time bends are a modest variation on the dramatic temporal shifts in Goon Squad; they’re also true to Egan’s abiding sense — reflected in so much of her fiction — that ghosts from the past always linger, collapsing time while haunting us.
Sing Unburied SingJesmyn Ward
RaveThe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel...as in everything she writes, Ward’s gorgeous evocation of the burden of history reminds me of Mississippi’s most famous writer, in a novel with more than a trace of As I Lay Dying. As with Faulkner, the past in Ward’s world is never dead. It isn’t even past. 'We all here at once,' Mam says to Jojo. 'The branches are full . . . with ghosts,' Jojo tells us. 'All the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves.' How might one live in a world so choked with death?
That’s the urgent question Ward asks in everything she writes; the answer, time and again, involves the healing stories that can make us whole.
AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie
MixedThe Milkwaukee Journal-SentinelIfemelu dissects American slang. The meaning of Obama. Slovenly American dress, reflective of an easy sense of superiority. American's overly indulgent, self-absorbed child-rearing. The petty infighting among academics. The herd mentality among the upwardly mobile. And, most of all, Americans' screwed-up language and politics of race … Adichie creates scores of characters, but they're flattened types; that's consistent with the often satiric tilt of the novel but does little for making us care about these characters as people … Despite this novel's identity crisis, Adichie's willingness to try something different — and her insistence on posing questions that matter — is bracing.
Forest DarkNicole Krauss
PositiveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelIn Forest Dark, Nicole – who shares numerous biographical details with Krauss and reminds one of those narrating doubles in Philip Roth – tells us that she can’t write because 'in my work and my life,' 'I had become distrustful of all the possible shapes that I might give things' ... She gets there by channeling Kafka – himself forever frustrated by the sense that our lives are partial and incomplete, while forever hopeful that we might someday walk through the door separating us from the eternal ... That fantasy is necessarily implausible, just as the second and shorter part of Krauss’ novel is less successful than the first... But Krauss’ intrepid journey into this forest reveals great secrets, involving the tales we tell as we whistle in the dark.
RaveThe Milwaukee Journal SentinelReading this compelling book, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll continue to define Grant by these scandals rather than all he accomplished in winning the war and doing his best to make peace, on inclusive terms that would be fair to all. No president after Lincoln and before Lyndon Johnson did so much for civil rights. It was the bravest and hardest of many battles this great general fought.