• review • October 15, 2019

    Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

    Early in Middlemarch, George Eliot’s young heroine finds herself alone on her honeymoon, bewildered by her disappointment in her new marriage. After describing Dorothea’s desolation, the narrator addresses the reader directly:

    Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of

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  • review • October 08, 2019

    All or Nun

    History, Tolstoy insisted, is not driven by great men—the Bismarcks, the Napoleons of this world. It is constructed from an endless number of minute details, like drops of water, or grains of sand.

    The protagonists of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, recently reissued by New York Review Books, are not great men; they are not men. In fact, they’re nuns. The novel describes an unremarkable fourteenth-century Benedictine convent and what happens there.

    Not a lot happens. “A good convent should have no history,” Warner writes at the beginning. “Its life is hid with Christ who

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    The Margins Will Not Hold

    The decades of near-silence that came in the wake of Charles Wright’s trilogy of short novels seem almost as aberrant and disquieting as the novels themselves. Wright died of heart failure at age seventy-six in October 2008, one month before Barack Obama’s election and thirty-five years after the publication of Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About, the last of Wright’s novels, whose 1973 appearance came a decade after his debut, The Messenger. Wright clawed and strained from the margins of American existence for widespread acknowledgment, if not the fame his talent deserved. Cult-hood was

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Press Play

    The erstwhile wunderkind has been coping with the onset of middle age for four books now. The novels NW (2012) and Swing Time (2016) were about the ways youth slips away, among other things: friendship, neighborhood loyalties, class, celebrity, violence, inequality, biracial identity, sex, the internet, Africa, England, and how to write a novel when realism is anxious about its own survival. The essays in Feel Free (2018) and now the stories in Grand Union have taken in parenthood, the passing of the older generation, unexpected political upheavals, unwelcome physical transformations, and the

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Sons and Haters

    At the midpoint of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love occurs one of the really extraordinary hidden scenes in English literature. Ursula and Gudrun are the young protagonists, figuring out their ambitions, their loves, and their futures. They are walking to a neighborhood water-party, with their father and mother in front of them, when suddenly they burst out in mockery. “‘Look at the young couple in front,’ said Gudrun calmly. . . . The two girls stood in the road and laughed till the tears ran down their faces, as they caught sight again of the shy, unworldly couple of their parents going on

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    From a Whisper to a Scream

    We all know that men don’t understand women. How could they? Women spend the whole time trying to understand themselves. “I specialize in women,” the writer Nancy Hale said in 1942. “Women puzzle me.” Hale felt that she knew how, “in a given situation, a man [was] apt to react.” (She’d been married three times by the age of thirty-four.) Women, on the other hand, vexed and intrigued her. Her mother, the portraitist Lilian Westcott Hale, made a career of looking at other women, including her daughter. In The Life in the Studio (1969), a memoir about growing up with wealthy, bohemian parents,

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Life? Or Theater?

    On October 17, 1973, Ingeborg Bachmann—the Austrian poet, novelist, librettist, and essayist—succumbed to burns sustained three weeks prior when she, tranquilizers swallowed and cigarette in hand, lay down to sleep and inadvertently lit her nightgown and bed on fire. She was forty-seven and had, since receiving the Gruppe 47 prize even before the 1953 publication of her first poetry collection, Borrowed Time, astonished the German-speaking public as well as esteemed peers with texts that pushed against tradition and played at the limits of language. She awed the likes of Günter Grass, Peter

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    The Revolution of Everyday Life

    In the eight years since a small group of anti-capitalist activists set up camp in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street has generated its own literary subgenre: Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, and Ling Ma’s Severance all feature scenes of the 2011 protests. In these novels, the Occupy movement, with its non-programmatic political aims and nonviolent tactics, represents a particularly utopian way of thinking about contemporary revolution—one that is less about direct action than it is about nonaction, about indirection.

    Caleb Crain’s new novel,

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  • 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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