PanThe New RepublicThe dominant freedom in Freedom is, as Walter puts it in a moment of aggravation, ‘the freedom to fuck up your life’ … There is something vaguely misogynist (though the tone is always too noble for any awareness of prejudice) in the novel’s suggestion that Patty’s emotional troubles—by this point she is drinking a bottle of wine or more a day—are primarily motivated by an unsatisfied desire to ‘properly [have] sex’ … The lack of plausibility presented by Patty’s autobiography and by the numerous contrivances in this meandering narrative would be disturbing in any serious novel. But it is all the more striking in light of Franzen’s celebrated knack for accurately capturing the particulars of modern life.
MixedThe New YorkerHis opacity is perhaps appropriate, given that the actual Kosinski was a figure almost lost beneath his layers of imposture, but, as the book goes on, it becomes harder to invest much feeling in someone so maddeningly indeterminate. Often he seems almost like a stock figure, performing the role of Jerzy Kosinski before a credulous audience ... The final section of Charyn’s novel reimagines parts of The Painted Bird as they might actually have taken place—a moving attempt to envision the real wartime traumas that led Kosinski to invent fake ones ... Charyn doesn’t try to provide a definite answer to the crucial question of why Kosinski passed off his most famous book as something it was not, but this last section goes some way toward suggesting why he felt the need to conceal himself behind a mask.
A Book of American MartyrsJoyce Carol Oates
RaveThe New York Review of BooksOates’s oeuvre includes gang rapists, serial killers, and even the devil in disguise, but Luther Dunphy may be her most disturbing character—not because of the militancy of his beliefs, but because of how intimately we come to inhabit his consciousness...It is frightening to be so far inside this way of thinking, to know how deeply wrong it is, and yet, at the same time, to sympathize ... For most of the novel Oates’s prose is clipped, with many one-sentence paragraphs that speed the momentum of the text, but in her description of Luther’s agonized death her language takes lyrical flight ... Like much of Oates’s other recent work, it is clearly an attempt to speak for 'those unable to speak for themselves'—the uneducated white working class. In the presence of the Dunphys and their distinctive religious and family culture, this novel is most alive, especially in its portrayal of Dawn ... Oates is sometimes spoken of as a novelist of sensationalism, her Gothic and morbid tendencies emphasized. In fact, A Book of American Martyrs is a deeply political novel, all the more powerful for its many ambiguities. With its depiction of these families caught literally in the crosshairs of the anti-abortion movement, this novel may well shock and offend readers. But it fearlessly exposes not only an element of American society rarely seen in literature, but also the hypocrisies of those who would pass judgment on it.
A Manual for Cleaning WomenLucia Berlin
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe emotions in A Manual for Cleaning Women are maximalist, but the language is sparse and unadorned. Sentences are fragmentary, sometimes just single words. They turn on the sudden flash of an image, not the elegance of the construction. The language is so precise that it paradoxically creates ambiguities ... she never found a large number of readers — perhaps because she resided on the margins of the literary world, or perhaps because of the uncompromising, unsanitized nature of her writing. Berlin’s stories are full of second chances. Now readers have another chance to confront them: bites of life, chewed up and spat out like a wad of tobacco, bitter and rich.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewKonar’s novel takes an unorthodox, though not unprecedented, approach to these horrors: She describes them beautifully, lyrically, in the language of a fable. Mischling is not for everyone, not least because it is excruciating to read about such pain. I do not remember the last time I shed so many tears over a work of fiction. And it will surely offend those who still chafe at the idea of fictionalizing the Holocaust. But readers who allow themselves to fall under the spell of Konar’s exceptionally sensitive writing may well find the book unforgettable.
Jane Austen: The Secret RadicalHelena Kelly
MixedThe Washington PostKelly argues — passionately and engagingly, if not always convincingly — that modern readers have failed to read Austen as she was meant to be read: in the context of her historical moment ... Her critical method is to focus microscopically, generating meaning from the smallest details of the novels — names of people and places, lines of poetry quoted, the etymology of words — juxtaposed with historical context ... We don’t have to subscribe to Kelly’s vision of Austen as a political revolutionary to understand her as a radical, though not a secret one. That her novels prioritized the true circumstances for women in her era is radical enough.
The Invention of Angela CarterEdmund Gordon
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...[a] sympathetic, cleareyed new biography ... A judicious and diligent biographer, Gordon faces the obvious criticism that, as a man, he can’t fully appreciate Carter’s work. He argues convincingly that his sex shouldn’t be held against him, noting that Carter 'never thought of gender as the most important division between human beings,' and that 'almost all writing involves an act of identification' with people who are unlike oneself. Indeed, if there is a problem with this well-researched, carefully assembled book, it’s not that the author is a man; it’s that his approach doesn’t quite measure up to his subject. If Gordon has passionate feelings about Carter’s work, his utterly balanced and evenhanded treatment leaves no air for them to escape. Carter herself was so funny and stylish a writer that one wishes a few more sparks would rise from these cool pages. Thankfully, quotations from her letters and journals are plentiful.
The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047Lionel Shriver
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...[a] searing exemplar of a disquieting new genre — call it dystopian finance fiction ... Shriver isn’t the kind of writer who lets her themes rise gently to the surface. She seizes them with an almost animalistic ferocity and interrogates them for all they’re worth. Her smart, satirical fiction is old-fashioned in that it serves as a vehicle for investigating political and social questions, but it’s also almost uncannily of its moment ... Shriver’s dystopia is imagined as minutely as a pointillist image, with every detail adding another dot to the overall picture. The devolution of civilized society happens slowly at first, then all at once ... But The Mandibles suffers from a common flaw of speculative fiction: Virtually every detail of the narrative serves to communicate some expository element, giving it a didactic tone. The characters sometimes feel less like human beings than figures in a modern morality play ... I don’t remember the last time a novel held me so enduringly in its grip.
AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie
RaveBookforumMore than race, Americanah is about all the ways people form their identities: what we put on and what we take off, the things we accumulate and those we discard along the way … Those who stand outside are in a good position to look in, and it is Adichie’s remarkable powers of observation that drive this novel. Every detail feels relevant, because they all work as markers of what the novel calls ‘costume’: the mannerisms and affectations that we use to create an image of ourselves in the eyes of others, and even ourselves … It is rare to come upon a novel that genuinely alters one’s view of the world. For me, Americanah was one of those books.
Forest DarkNicole Krauss
PositiveHarper's...[a] strange and beguiling novel, a mystery that operates on grounds simultaneously literary and existential ... Krauss marshals facts from Kafka’s biography — his long-standing interest in Zionism, his Hebrew lessons, a failed plan to immigrate in 1923 — to brilliantly unspool this alternate history ... The themes of doubling and entrapment in this novel may be reminiscent of Kafka, but the scenario itself calls to mind the work of a more recent forefather: Philip Roth. His entire body of work, but especially the Nathan Zuckerman novels, plays with similar questions of Jewish history, identity, and obligation ... It has become conventional for writers to suggest identification with their narrators while at the same time coyly denying it. Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Rachel Cusk have all recently used this trope. The effect is like looking into a warped mirror: The reflection is easily perceived, the distortion less so. The technique can veer dangerously close to solipsism. Look at me, these writers seem to be saying, this is my life, or at least I want you to perceive it as such. Krauss, however, uses it self-consciously as an echo of Kafka, emphasizing her doppelgänger’s own entrapment in an existentially bewildering predicament. Look at me, she says: I could be you ... What Forest Dark shows — with its bold reimagining of Kafka’s life, as well as its intimations that Nicole’s life might be something other than what she thinks it is — is that the distinction between authentic and inauthentic might not be as important as we believe. It’s a perfectly Kafkaesque vision, almost uncanny enough to be sublime.