RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThis spiny, scary story of moral decline, crisply plotted and no thicker than my thumb, has been heralded as the finest Indian novel in a decade, notable for a book in bhasha, one of India’s vernacular languages ... Folded into the compressed, densely psychological portrait of this family is a whole universe: a parable of rising India, an indictment of domestic violence, a taxonomy of ants and a sly commentary on translation itself ... Shanbhag is excellent on the inner logic of families, and of language, how even the most innocent phrases come freighted with history ... The book in our hands is elegant, lean, balletic.
RaveBookforumSmith’s fiction has never been this deadly, direct, or economical…NW is embroidered with eccentric flourishes—a (baffling) prose poem here, a section in numbered sequences there. And the staccato street scenes let her strut … Where, why, and how these women diverge is the book’s inquiry and one of Smith’s great obsessions: ideological differences between intimates, how we grow with—and apart—from the people we love best … She’s given us a book soggy with feelings but one that illustrates how political identities—race, class, sexual orientation—influence our putatively personal decisions, how our choices are as distinctive as our fingerprints.
Salvage the BonesJesmyn Ward
RaveThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewJesmyn Ward makes beautiful music, plays deftly with her reader’s expectations: where we expect violence, she gives us sweetness. When we brace for beauty, she gives us blood … Best of all, she gives us a singular heroine who breaks the mold of the typical teenage female protagonist. Esch isn’t plucky or tomboyish. She’s squat, sulky and sexual. But she is beloved — her brothers Randall, Skeetah and Junior are fine and strong; they brawl and sacrifice and steal for her and each other. And Esch is in bloom … For all its fantastical underpinnings, Salvage the Bones is never wrong when it comes to suffering. Sorrow and pain aren’t presented as especially ennobling. They exist to be endured — until the next Katrina arrives to ‘cut us to the bone.’
The Idiot.Elif Batuman
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...a hefty, gorgeous, digressive slab of a book ... It lopes along like a highbrow episode of Louie, a series of silly, surreal, confident riffs about humiliations, minor and major. It is a rejoinder to the pressure on literature to serve as self-help, to make us empathetic or better informed, to be useful. Here, fiction’s only mandate is to exploit the particular freedom afforded by the form — to coast on the charm and peculiar sensibility of our narrator ... Her instincts are, in general, excellent — she is Selin, more or less — save the odd, unhappy decision to repurpose details, characters, conversations and even whole scenes from her previous book ... for all [the] moments of evasion, there is more oxygen, more life in this book, than in a shelf of its peers.
The Ministry of Utmost HappinessArundhati Roy
MixedThe Atlantic...as was true of The God of Small Things, there is more than a touch of fairy tale in the book’s moral simplicity—or clarity, if you’re feeling charitable...Yet to simply find fault with the lack of psychological shading would be, I think, a genre mistake. Roy’s indifference to precisely that problem suggests that something interesting is afoot...It isn’t concerned with the conventional task (or power) of fiction to evoke the texture and drama of consciousness. Instead, it acts like a companion piece to Roy’s political writings...It tours India’s fault lines ... The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is plagued by almost rudimentary errors: There is near-total confusion about point of view. Messages and morals come ponderously underscored. The two central stories never convincingly come together. In the absence of psychological development or real suspense, chapters end with portentous rhetorical ellipses. Worse still, the creation of characters as stand-ins for causes results in formulaic depictions of the very people she is trying to humanize.
Draft No. 4: On the Writing ProcessJohn McPhee
PositiveThe New York Times...a sunny tribute to the gloomy side of the writing life: the insecurity, dread, shame, envy, magical thinking, pointless rituals, financial instability, self-hatred — the whole 'masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine.' And then the queasy desire to do it all over again ... It’s McPhee on McPhee; commentary on his greatest hits, a little backstory, a little affectionate gossip, much of it about the genius and squeamishness of the longtime editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, 'the iron mouse,' who blanched at profanity, mentions of sex and articles about any place cold. It’s an intimate book — and intimacy is rare in McPhee’s work ... He can lapse into occasional hokiness. But generally his advice is in the service of making the text as sturdy, useful and beautiful as possible ... reading McPhee makes you realize that perhaps writers wax about craft because it’s the easiest part of writing to talk about. It’s much harder to account for the flashes of inspiration, the slant of seeing, the appetite for the world — to know it down to its core — that keep you coming back to McPhee...You want to lick the pages.
Sing Unburied SingJesmyn Ward
PositiveThe New York TimesHowever eternal its concerns, Sing, Unburied, Sing is perfectly poised for the moment. It combines aspects of the American road novel and the ghost story with a timely treatment of the long aftershocks of a hurricane and the opioid epidemic devouring rural America ... It is Ward’s most unsparing book. Leaving aside the instances of explicit violence, the scenes featuring the hunger and confusion of small children are almost physically unbearable. This isn’t to say that there aren’t missteps. Any writer trafficking in such lofty Faulknerian themes risks melodrama, and Ward can get positively melismatic when she strains for poetic effect. But we can forgive a few of these excesses. With the supernatural cast to the story, everything feels heightened.
Autumn.Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
PositiveThe New York TimesWhere My Struggle was blunt and rangy and plagued by scandal Autumn is sweet and slender and very circumspect ... This is the opposite of escapist reading. Knausgaard plunges you into the material world, not just with his choice of subjects — apples, adders, tin cans, faces — but in the telling ... This becomes the central preoccupation of the book: to restore our sense of awe, to render the world again strange and full of magic, from loose teeth to rubber boots to hardened pieces of chewing gum. There are misfires but fewer than you’d expect. Simone Weil wrote that 'attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer' — and so it is here. Loose teeth, chewing gum, it all becomes noble, almost holy, under Knausgaard’s patient, admiring gaze. The world feels repainted ... It’s strange to see Knausgaard play it so safe. The book reeks of good taste and appropriate boundaries (save a few enthusiastic sentences about oral sex). He refuses to stray into the shadows. Whatever portraits we get of his family are Instagram-worthy. I longed for the fearlessness of My Struggle, its unwillingness to tame 'the ugly and unpleasant,' its oceanic sense of life’s dangers and unpredictability. But in Autumn, Knausgaard keeps us on the shore. The shells he gives us to admire are intricate, absorbing and beautiful; this book is full of wonders. But it isn’t, just yet, the whole story.
My Absolute DarlingGabriel Tallent
MixedThe New York TimesAlong with its horrors, My Absolute Darling is also a book of nostalgic pleasures. Turtle is a staunchly American type, perhaps the American type — tough, taciturn and almost pathologically self-sufficient ... This is a book profoundly about other books, fed by the classics like tributaries. Nabokov’s ghost presides — as it always does, over stories of innocence defiled — not just in Martin’s arias of self-pity or desire, which recall Humbert Humbert, but in the vocabulary, in the satisfaction of naming the world with scientific precision ... For all its pedigree, however, My Absolute Darling isn’t especially self-reflective. It’s really just a sequence of tightly choreographed action scenes ... Tallent is a confident enough writer to leave plot strands loose, but he leaves too much psychological terrain unmapped...What we’re left with is an action hero, a kind of male fantasy figure out of Mad Max: Fury Road. And it’s a fantasy of a wearying sort, because Turtle has clearly been designed to be 'empowering' ... Tallent is so fearless when evoking what the body can withstand, so scrupulous at capturing the visible world; what a writer he’ll be when he turns to charting internal, invisible cartographies as well.
New PeopleDanzy Senna
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewNew People riffs on the themes she’s made her own — with a twist. It’s a novel that reads us. It anticipates, and sidesteps, lazy reading and sentimental expectations. In interviews, Senna has spoken with some weariness of the pressure to create positive depictions of mixed-race characters, to educate, to uplift. It’s a deep pleasure to see her shrug off such strictures and lavish her attention on the petty, the creepy and the galloping mad ... The material is hot but the style stays cool, as calm and impersonal as a hotel room. The tone is starched; each tight, tidy sentence has hospital corners ... She conjures up ’90s-era campus politics with pitiless accuracy...These are, admittedly, easy targets, but Senna lampoons the worlds she knows, the people she’s been. (Maria is her middle name.) This amused self-implication supplies her caricatures with their damning details but keeps them from feeling cruel ... These sections sing. They are so fluent, and seem to have been so much fun to write, that other strands of the story suffer neglect by comparison. Plot points and characters that seem significant are allowed to wither on the vine.