• pubdates • August 22, 2019

    Meg's Frock Shock

    “Little Women was about the best book I ever read.” So began my fourth-grade book report, in 1981. Clear, if uninspired. After one-and-a-half double-spaced pages of cursive rhapsodizing in support of this daring claim, I concluded with the lazy feint of an already overburdened critic: “I would like to go on and on with this report but it would be longer than the book, so if you want to find the rest out my opinion is to read it.”

    I hadn’t remembered this foray into criticism when I rediscovered it recently, at the bottom of an old wooden box in my childhood home. What I had remembered was the

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  • review • August 13, 2019

    Epistolary Blazing

    The year is 1927. A schoolteacher who twenty-three years ago showed up with a bicycle and a duffel bag in Thyregod, Denmark, has just lost her husband. Vigand was a cold, pretentious doctor. Once, he could barely be bothered to make a house call on a man who had swallowed his dentures. Vigand knew he was dying. He drove himself to the hospital. He checked himself in, wearing his new gray suit. He told none of this to his wife, twenty years younger and ten times warmer.

    In A Change of Time, Ida Jessen has crafted a masterpiece of the epistolary novel told in diary entries. Each log is rich with

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  • review • August 07, 2019

    Pictures from an Institution

    Today’s challenges of transparency and opacity in everything from the personal to the institutional have created a desire to experience these qualities afresh in literature. I have often thought of these issues as lake-like, because lakes are eerily both. It is a psychic challenge to imagine what cold, still pools of water withhold below a calm, shimmering surface. The work of the Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy is similarly lacustrine, typified by cool observations that quickly plunge into uncertain depths. Sweet Days of Discipline, set in the 1950s at an elite girls’ boarding school in Switzerland

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  • review • July 24, 2019

    Silent Retreat

    The question that arises whenever a novel is reissued is “why now?” In the case of Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue, republished by the Feminist Press this month, the answer is evident: First published in 1984—one year before Margaret Atwood’s similarly dystopic The Handmaid’s TaleNative Tongue is, depressingly, still extremely relevant.

    The novel opens with a meeting of male linguists in the early 2200s, in a world that resembles our own, but with a few key differences. For one, the global economy relies on doing business with other planets, whose alien inhabitants speak complex foreign

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  • review • June 26, 2019

    Like a Prayer

    There is an oft-quoted line from the Talmud: “And whoever saves a life from Israel, the Scripture considers it as if he has saved an entire world.” Nathan Englander’s latest novel, Kaddish.com, is centered on a son’s preoccupation with saving his father’s soul—not for this world, but for Olam HaBa, or the World to Come. The novel is the Pulitzer Prize finalist’s most humorous and moving work since his best-selling debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Divided into four parts, Kaddish.com follows its protagonist’s transition, from secular, single, cynical Larry to devoted husband,

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  • review • June 24, 2019

    The Dizziness of Freedom

    We live in “the Bad Timeline.” It’s a trope you see surface occasionally on social media, especially after some cartoonishly awful thing happens. The idea is this: At some point before Trump was elected or before 9/11 or before Vietnam (pick your generational trauma), reality cleaved in two. In one reality, the Bad Thing was averted. In ours, the Bad Thing happened.

    Out there, in the quantum ether, there’s a better version of Earth where a better version of you is living a better life in better times. No forever war, no children in cages, no climate catastrophe. But here in the Bad Timeline,

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  • pubdates • June 17, 2019

    Like Sleeping Next to a Boiling Kettle

    A man named Osvaldo Ventura entered a boarding house in Piazza Annibaliano. He was square, stocky, and wore a mackintosh. His hair was grey-blond, his skin flushed pink, his eyes yellow. He tended to smile when he felt uncertain.

    He’d gotten a telephone call from a girl he knew who was staying there. Someone had loaned her an apartment on Via dei Prefetti and she’d asked him for a ride.

    She was waiting in the lobby, wearing a cotton turquoise shirt, eggplant-colored pants, and a black kimono with silver dragons embroidered on it. At her feet there were suitcases, shopping bags, and a baby in

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  • review • June 12, 2019

    Hopeless Hope

    Ali Smith is writing the world as it happens. In the vein of Charles Dickens, she has set out to reshape the serial form in her Seasonal Quartet of interwoven yet stand-alone novels, responding to the times, not in a mode of reflection but immersion, publishing as she goes. And what times to choose: best of, worst of, as it goes. To say that these have been eventful years, particularly in Britain still in the tenebrous haze of Brexit’s implosion, is beyond understatement. And yet Autumn (2017) and Winter (2018) both circle these political ups, downs, and side to sides with a distinct wariness.

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  • print • Summer 2019

    Guided by Voices

    What we talk about when we talk about women talking: Gossip. Secrets. Men. Sex. Babies. Broken hearts. First dates. Messy divorces. The Bechdel Test. Men again. Still. Always?

    In Miriam Toews’s new novel, Women Talking, the women are talking about men. Specifically, they are talking about the men who have repeatedly drugged and raped them in their remote Mennonite colony, knocking them out with an animal tranquilizer in the middle of the night before violating them in their own bedrooms. After years of being told that they were suffering from hysterical delusions, or else being punished by

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  • print • Summer 2019

    The Anomie Within

    “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” begins L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between. There is a hazy sense in which Hartley’s iconic opening applies to every life: The passage from childhood to adulthood always involves a kind of expatriation. But for Romanian(ish) writer Gregor von Rezzori, the force of Hartley’s formulation is literal. Rezzori’s past is at least three different countries, and things are done differently in each of them.

    Rezzori was born in 1914 in what was then Czernowitz, a Romanian outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents were

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  • print • Summer 2019

    The Worst of Everything

    As someone who lives uptown, I’m used to qualifying that my boyfriend bought our apartment for cheap in the late ’90s. My desire to lightly establish my adjacent moral authority—he’s not a banker, slumlord, or trustfunder, he’s just from New York—is as inevitable as strangers wanting to know my cross streets. Where on the Upper East Side? is a follow-up question I’ve come to expect, and it elicits the information people nod at in knowing recognition, and saves them from asking uncouth questions: How close to the park? How far from East Harlem? Where would gossip be without light taxonomy?


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  • print • Summer 2019

    Moral High

    In a 2015 Guardian article titled “The Death of Writing,” the novelist Tom McCarthy argued that fiction, which had retreated into “comforting nostalgia,” had been replaced by the “funky architecture firms, digital media companies and brand consultancies that have assumed the mantle of the cultural avant garde.” “If there is an individual alive in 2015 with the genius and vision of James Joyce,” he went on, “they’re probably working for Google.”

    Oval, the first novel by the thirty-year-old writer Elvia Wilk, is a box-tickingly perfect dramatization of the landscape McCarthy envisioned. The

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