Index of Nonfiction Reviews

Michelle-Fost-Author-PhotoNonfiction reviews editor Michelle Fost is a writer living in Toronto. Her fiction has appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly and Geist Magazine. Her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Boston Phoenix Literary Section. She works as a writing instructor at the Victoria College Writing Centre at the University of Toronto. The grandchild of German Jews who escaped Germany in 1934, she is working on a novel that explores what it means to be at once firmly rooted in and separated from a place and a past. Contact her at mfost@me.com.

Nathaniel-PopkinNonfiction reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of three books, including the 2013 novel Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and senior writer of “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” an Emmy award-winning documentary series. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine. Contact him at nathaniel.popkin@gmail.com.

Array DAYS by Léon Werth, with an introduction by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry [translated by Austin Denis Johnston] Melville House Publishing, 116 pages reviewed by Nathaniel Popkin There are occasions when a phrase or a paragraph or a book hits the main line and after the dose everything is different. Array Days arrived in the mail ten days ago, on a Friday. Guests were coming for the weekend. Already, the city was filling with people. The weather was warm, finally; pink and purple and white flowers garlanded the city. Fragrance smothered street corners. Whole neighborhoods were ripe for seduction. The book, slender and impeccably designed, put itself in my hands. I gazed at it quickly then put it down on the cushion in the old grocery store window where in winter we take turns stretching toward the sun. I picked it back up. I hadn’t heard of Léon Werth. But Saint-Exupéry—we forget Saint-Exupéry at our peril. Still, with masses of people sweeping by the window just as the leaves do in autumn, I skipped the introduction, which Saint-Exupéry wrote in late 1940 to accompany both French and English versions of Array Days. I went straight for the narrative ...
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A QUESTION OF TRADITION: WOMEN POETS IN YIDDISH, 1586-1987 by Kathryn Hellerstein Stanford University Press, 496 pages reviewed by Alyssa Quint Poetry by female Yiddish writers has become the tree that falls in the empty forest of Jewish literature. As a discrete body of work it resonated only faintly with the same Yiddish critics and scholars who gushed over male Yiddish authors. English translations have become an important repository of the dying vernacular of East European Jews but, again, not so much for its female poets. Women's Yiddish poetry finally gets its scholarly due from Kathryn Hellerstein, long-time champion of the female Yiddish poetic voice, in her comprehensive and accessible account, A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987. Hellerstein organizes her book around the concept of a literary tradition as invoked by the likes of T.S. Eliot in his monumental essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent." To Eliot's eloquent if male-dominated and Eurocentic discussion of what "compels a man to write," (my italics), Hellerstein counters with a chain of women who work off the energy of the East European Jewish female experience with its idiosyncrasies of language, religion, gender, and culture. The Yiddish poetry of the sixteenth to ...
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ABDUCTING A GENERAL by Patrick Leigh Fermor NYRB, 206 pages reviewed by Rory McCluckie In 1933, aged only 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor began walking from Rotterdam to Constantinople. Clad in an old greatcoat and a pair of hobnail boots, he had left his native England on the deck of a Dutch steamer and set off on foot with a few letters of introduction, some notebooks, and a copy of Horace's Odes in his rucksack, It was an extraordinary thing to undertake but we've long known that Leigh Fermor was an extraordinary man; a skilled linguist, a vivid, ebullient writer, and a lover of literature, people, and the world in all its variable wonder—of life, essentially—he has become celebrated for enjoying an existence so improbably charmed that his travel books often read like stirring, romantic fictions. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Leigh Fermor—then living in Romania—returned home and was accepted as a candidate for a commission in the Irish Guards, a posting he quickly came to regard as dull. It was with some relief, then, when the Intelligence Corps took note of his lingustic capabilities and offered him courses in military intelligence and interrogation before dispatching him, in ...
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BALTHUS: A BIOGRAPHY by Nicholas Fox Weber Dalkey Archive Press, 656 pages reviewed by Gabriel Chazan When looking at the paintings of Balthus, the viewer can’t help but react. Seeing paintings of young and often pre-pubescent girls and women in poses loaded with a strange sexuality, there is no possibility of cool remove. The viewer is made to consider actively their role in looking at the young women in these sometimes cruel, always compelling, provocative and often beautiful images. Balthus’s images have a strange, almost dreamlike hold, as they look back at us, impenetrable and confrontational. Balthus himself is somewhere in them yet distant. He wished his life to be separate from his work, something to be never included in exhibits or official publications, only “a misleading and harmful screen placed between the viewer and painter…paintings do not describe or reveal a painter.” He almost entirely obscured the true facts of his life, recreating himself as a count and rendering himself a challengingly elusive subject for biography. He placed the most responsibility on those looking at his work to react to whatever sexuality or darkness they might find in the work as their own perception. The relationship of ...
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BEFORE PICTURES by Douglas Crimp University of Chicago Press/Dancing Foxes Press, 307 pages reviewed by Gabriel Chazan Douglas Crimp’s memoir Before Pictures invites readers into the lively artistic and queer worlds of 1960s to 1970s New York where Crimp was formed as an art historian. This is the same New York which brought him to curate Pictures, a small exhibit at Artist’s Space now considered pivotal to ideas about contemporary art. In the art history textbook Art Since 1900 (2004), Pictures is historicized as having given a platform to artwork meant to give “a new sense of the image as ‘picture’” and to “transcend any particular medium.” Here, Crimp embraces this transcendence in a different way. In his consideration, no single art form, from fashion to architecture, comes out as primary. On the inside covers of Before Pictures are two New York City subway maps from 1972. The book structured by the stops where Crimp has resided—it is Crimp’s many encounters, intellectual, artistic, sexual and architectural, on the city streets which anchor this memoir. Just as there are stops on the subway line, there are many different and often unexpected stops of interest in Crimp’s own intellectual journey ...
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Bolaño: A BIOGRAPHY IN CONVERSATIONS by Mónica Maristain Melville House, 288 pages reviewed by Ana Schwartz “Companionable Fictions” The first section of Roberto Bolaño’s Array describes a small but ardent group of academic literary critics who dedicate their lives to the work of an obscure German author, Benno von Archimboldi. Almost five hundred pages later, in the last section, “The Part About Archimboldi” Bolaño finally introduces the author. In between stretch many strange adventures, but most are not directly related to the work of the author. But neither, really, was the first part, “The Part About the Critics.” Instead, Bolaño narrates the friendships and rivalries of four dedicated readers. If not for the table of contents, the fictitious novelist would appear to be merely the occasion to build a story out of these otherwise unremarkable lives. Actually, for the characters, Archimboldi, who keeps evading their grasp, really does turn out to be an excuse for them all to sustain richer and more companionable lives. Mónica Marstain’s recent biography of Roberto Bolaño is a little like that. What’s different is that she interviews almost everyone in his world. Reminiscing on their various relationships with the cult author, one gets a more ...
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CAT IS ART SPELLED WRONG edited by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz Coffee House Press, 160 pages reviewed by Justin Goodman Anonymous' Internet Rule 38: “one cat leads to another.” This rule is played out, true to form, within the universe it governs. I think of Douglas Davis’s classic “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence,” which (half Mobius Strip) perpetually leads, and (half Internet) begins with “cat purring softly”; or, in the same vein, the more contemporary “Drei Klavierstücke op. 11” by Cory Arcangel, composed of cat-on-piano videos molded into Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone music. The Internet seems to have returned us to what Schoenberg’s contemporary, the painter Gustav Klimt, asked with his bijou palette and bourgeois nudes: when does something exit coincidence and enter art? As with Klimt's regal-looking prostitutes, we might ask, where is the line between artistic intention and the more accidental capturing of internal feeling? Now, amidst a flurry of cat media, editors Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz have gathered the work of 14 authors to discern meaning in the paw swipes virtuosity. The work is gathered in the collaborative Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong. This is what is presumed. What happens is that ...
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DAVID LYNCH SWERVES: UNCERTAINTY THROUGH LOST HIGHWAY TO INLAND EMPIRE by Martha P. Nochimson University of Texas Press, 295 pages reviewed by Chris Ludovici In David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty Through Lost Highway to Inland Empire, Martha P. Nochimson presents a radical interpretation of David Lynch’s last four movies. She rejects the popular critical interpretations of his work, in favor of her own theory: a complicated mix of eastern philosophy and quantum physics. It’s fascinating, challenging, frustrating, and only intermittently persuasive. Her ideas are compelling, especially when she’s addressing Lynch’s philosophy. As a devoted believer in Hinduism and tantric meditation, Lynch creates movies with strong spiritual components. They are intense stories, and his characters are often emotionally troubled. Nochimson clearly and thoughtfully explains Lynch’s repeating themes of the dangers of life lived in the service of greed and ambition, and his commitment to spiritual peace over material satisfaction. But it’s her more radical, scientific ideas that are troublesome. Quantum physics isn’t exactly simple, and frankly, I don’t have enough knowledge on that subject to understand anything beyond her most superficial points. But here’s the part that’s tricky: the book is unclear as to whether or not Lynch does, either. When Nochimson uses ...
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FAR COUNTRY: STORIES FROM ABROAD AND OTHER PLACES, essays by Timothy Kenny Bottom Dog Press, 144 pages reviewed by Beth Johnston In the preface to Timothy Kenny’s new essay collection, Far Country: Stories from Abroad and Other Places, Kenny links his stories to the new journalism of the 1960s, the work of “Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Joan Didion.” Yet although Kenny positions himself as Didion, personal and revealing, he more often echoes New Yorker journalist John McPhee. His essays hold back, shield the author’s character, and confess little. The best of them capitalize on Kenny’s strengths: carefully observed detail, compelling stories, and flair for sentence. But only a few of them require Kenny to risk baring himself and his responses to distant places. Kenny is a former USA Today journalist and a journalism professor who has worked abroad since 1989. He’s seen a lot: Belfast during the Troubles, Berlin right before the wall fell, Sarajevo during the siege, and Kabul as Afghanistan is rebuilt. He’s interviewed Vaclav Havel in Prague and fought off feral dogs in Kosovo. His character feels like the movie version of a Western journalist abroadhe’s Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously or Stephen ...
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FLYOVER LIVES: A MEMOIR by Diane Johnson Viking, 265 pages reviewed by Colleen Davis It takes guts to become a writer. Not because it’s a dangerous profession, but a person drawn to serious writing often discovers that there’s no clear employment path. Some people pursue newspaper or magazine jobs, and these positions can offer training and guidance to novice writers. But for those like me, who feel no calling for hard journalism, becoming a writer has meant making a series of strange, often irrational, choices. The careers of beloved authors provided me with my only roadmap. Unfortunately, most of the writers I admired were men who never faced the same social dilemmas (marry/don't marry; kids/no kids, etc.) that stymied me, a resolute female from birth. Despite the gender issues, Fitzgerald and Hemingway inspired me to pursue the expatriate tradition. I traveled in France, Brazil, and Japan. I moved to Mexico, lived on a vineyard in Italy. I searched for unusual opportunities to write and when they were not forthcoming, I invented new ones. My efforts brought me years of random joy and satisfaction. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled on the novels of Diane Johnson. It was incredibly reassuring to ...
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HANDLING THE TRUTH: ON THE WRITING OF MEMOIR by Beth Kephart Gotham Books, 254 pages reviewed by Stephanie Trott It is a rainy Tuesday in January and I lace up the new cherry-red boots before heading out the door of my warm little warren. Through the stone-laden campus, across the slippery streets of town, and onto the train that will take me into the city. I am in my final semester as an undergraduate student at Bryn Mawr College and I still have not learned to buy shoes that fit my feet — I dig into the walk through West Philadelphia, burdening myself with blisters that will not heal until the first flowers have shed their petals to spring. Stumbling onto the porch of the old Victorian manor, I step into the most challenging, inspiring, and rewarding fourteen weeks I’ve yet experienced: I step into Beth Kephart’s Creative Non-Fiction class. Flash forward one and a half years later and I am standing on the back steps of my first apartment, wearing shoes that (finally) fit and hooting jubilantly at the tiny brown box in front of me. I hug the cardboard to myself as though I could absorb the details ...
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harbors
Donald Quist's short story "Takeaway" appears in Issue No. 12 of Cleaver.  HARBORS by Donald Quist Awst Press, 136 pages reviewed by Benjamin Woodard As I plan to write a review of Donald Quist’s fine debut essay collection, Harbors, I follow the stories of two more black men shot and killed by police officers and know that, statistically as a white male, I will most likely never be positioned to fear the same fate. I write while growing increasingly concerned about my nation’s frenzied and ugly presidential race and about the increased acceptance of hateful speech in everyday conversation. I write as a person born with automatic privilege based first on my birth gender and skin pigment, and second on my middle class New England upbringing. But mostly, I write as a person dissatisfied with these inherited social constructs, of the prejudice fed to so many from their first breaths, and as someone who is so incredibly grateful for authors like Donald Quist, who parse these fears and frustrations through eloquent prose. There may not be an immediate solution to bring the nation together, but within Quist’s writing, empathy and forgiveness thrive alongside disappointment, offering us all the chance ...
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HOW AMERICANS MAKE RACE: Stories, Institutions, Spaces by Clarissa Rile Hayward Cambridge University Press, 234 Pages reviewed by Irami Osei-Frimpong I attended a White Protestant church last Sunday. The question, you ask, is what makes a church White? Sure, all of the congregants, except this reviewer and his children, were White. But that fact alone does not a White space make. The church’s ethnic Whiteness is not a matter of congregation clapping to the hymns on beats one and three. Nor do I suspect that a significant number of the congregants make an effort to keep the congregation all and only White. The overriding signal that I attended a White church is that next Sunday, the Sunday of Martin Luther King Jr.’s national holiday, I have every reason to believe that this church in Mississippi will have a crisp, efficient service that will start promptly at 10 and let out at 10:55 with nary a reference to King, nor will the general congregation notice King’s absence. This omission will not be a matter of calculated indifference or passive-aggressive spite; rather, a characteristic feature of this White church is that it simply operates from a different historical, narrative context that does not ...
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IN OTHER WORDS by Jhumpa Lahiri translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein Knopf, 233 pages reviewed by Michelle Fost In Other Words, a departure for Jhumpa Lahiri as she turns for the first time to memoir, took shape as weekly writing assignments—in Italian—that were published over six months in the Italian magazine Internazionale. Regular deadlines and the constraint of writing in a language she was still learning re-energized Lahiri. These very personal pieces are framed and contained self-portraits. They are fascinating, focused, and at times repetitive, and give the sense of a complex literary artist with a passion for language. Part of Lahiri’s accomplishment in In Other Words is her recovery of a way of working that is unspoiled by the expectations of a demanding readership. I thought of a story told to me by an early childhood educator about a child who loved to paint. An adult, looking at the child’s work asked, “Is that a flower?” Is that the sun? What a beautiful yellow.” For weeks, the child, now self-conscious, did not return to paint. Lahiri’s project is a return to a literary garden, a place where she is free to play with language and expression in a way ...
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Mermaid by Eileen Cronin
MERMAID: A Memoir of Resilience by Eileen Cronin W.W. Norton, 336 pages  reviewed by Colleen Davis When I read a memoir, I feel like I’m climbing into the kitchen of someone I’ve never met to see if their recipes for life trump mine. It’s amusing—and sometimes shocking—to discover the great variety of messes humans can create with similar ingredients. Lives get twisted and re-shaped by crazy family members, creative impulses, and random events. But some people get a truly strange variable thrown into their stew. Eileen Cronin, for example, was born without legs. You might think that if you’ve spent your earthly time in prime physical condition, her story will not connect with yours. But that’s not how Cronin’s memoir, Mermaid, comes across. Sure the young Eileen is at a great disadvantage in her early years. She must “squiddle” from one place to another instead of walk. But once she’s old enough to get prosthetic legs, her challenges start to resemble those of typical teenagers. In fact, it seems that the most complex feature of Cronin’s life is not her lack of legs. She has a much tougher time navigating the shifting emotional currents set off by members of her ...
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MY ITALIANS: True Stories of Crime and Courage by Roberto Saviano translated by Anne Milano Appel Penguin, 118 pages reviewed by Jeanne Bonner The essay collection My Italians: True Stories of Crime and Courage, the provocateur Robert Saviano’s newest nonfiction work, is a startling condemnation of contemporary Italian life. For about a decade, Saviano’s one-man campaign against organized crime in Naples has made him famous across Italy. But he’s little known in the U.S., or he was at least until recently when a TV adaptation of his 2007 bestseller, Gomorrah, about the crime syndicate, la Camorra, began airing on the Sundance Channel (Italian director Matteo Garrone also made a 2008 film by the same name). Yet Saviano’s expertise on the malavita and how it’s infiltrated legitimate business knows no borders. Last year, he gave a talk at a conference in England about how business transactions in London’s much-vaunted City financial district are in fact influenced and manipulated by organized crime. Saviano shot to prominence in Italy after Gomorrah was published; as the book sold millions of copies, he was put under a kind of witness protection that’s essentially removed him from everyday life for the past decade. He composed the ...
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MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY: A MEMOIR by Brian Turner W.W. Norton & Company, 240 pages reviewed by Jamie Fisher Just a few years into the Iraq invasion, I remember a certain amount of critical hand-wringing over the absence of War Literature, or the absence of an audience willing to receive it. We had the relentless daily body counts, the Iraqi countryside reduced to numbers and the names of cities. We had news. What we were waiting for was a sense of perspective: writers who could walk into the news cycle and persuasively inhabit the numbers. Preferably we wanted soldier-poets, in the Wilfred Owen tradition, who could combine the insiders’ perspective and personalization with a capacity for irony. In a decade characterized by the deterioration of public institutions and increased privatization, we wanted, oddly enough, more privatization.  Ten years later, we have a crop of fine veteran-writers and a receptive market, from Kevin Powers’s novel The Yellow Birds, Phil Klay’s stories in Redeployment, and Brian Turner’s poetry collection Here, Bullet. Turner, who has been praised as the poet of the Iraq/Afghanistan Generation soldier-writers, has now released his much-anticipated memoir of seven years spent fighting in the Army. Even in ...
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My Struggle Book Three
MY STRUGGLE: BOOK THREE: BOYHOOD by Karl Ove Knausgaard translated by Dan Bartlett Steerforth Press, 432 pages reviewed by Ana Schwartz Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow If all one reads is Proust, it might be easy to forget that some young boys—a lot of young boys—are really fascinated with the body and its messy, abject creations: excrement, urine, semen, saliva. What a relief to see that Karl Ove Knausgaard is, at least in this respect, less Proustian than the great hubbub would have it. You have probably have heard of his six-volume memoir-novel, My Struggle. Most famously, Zadie Smith, in a tweet, called it her “crack.” The third volume, Boyhood, translated by Dan Bartlett and published in London earlier this year, has, thanks to Steerforth Press, finally arrived here in the states. This installment takes readers back to the childhood of the narrator-protagonist, roughly from when he is eight to twelve years old. The plot, such as there is one, is picaresque: young Karl Ove’s adventures with his friends. It describes his early intuitions of history, and his discovery that his parents were real people. There’s an early scene that very quickly establishes ...
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ON GHOSTS by Elizabeth Robinson Solid Objects, 64 pages reviewed by Vanessa Martini Elizabeth Robinson’s On Ghosts is, in her own words, “an essay” that seeks to understand the idea of haunting. As many teachers—perhaps just many of my teachers—like to say, to “essay” means to try, and what Robinson tries to do is to create a haunting so slowly and carefully that at first a reader does not notice. The structure of the text is simple: many small sections compound upon one another in an attempt to understand “the phenomenon of ghosts and haunting.” What seems at first to be an Explanatory Note quickly proves itself rather similar to many sections that follow; we readers are suddenly sucked in, like hikers who swear the day was clear until fog rose all around. Though it’s hard to say whether this is Robinson’s fault or my own, the first few sections seem awkward, too wordy, at once overly precise and not clear enough. Robinson describes apparition as “Rough erasure, but not real agency, not ‘power’…It is palimpsest, implicit disclosure.” Perhaps these attempts at definition rely too much on words that are already weighted, already haunted by meaning. Perhaps this means her definition ...
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ON THE ABOLITION OF ALL POLITICAL PARTIES by Simone Weil, translated by Simon Leys New York Reviews of Books, 71 pages reviewed by Ana Schwartz When Albert Camus heard that he had won the Nobel Prize in 1957, he ran and hid. Averse to the frenzy of the press, he sought refuge in the home of a friend. He landed at the apartment of the family of Simone Weil in Paris’s 6th Arrondissement. Another friend, Czeslaw Milosz, in an essay on Weil, recalls that home fondly. He notes the humble, ink-stain-covered kitchen table, and he recalls the generous hospitality of Mme. Weil, mother of the young philosopher. He all but represents the quality of morning light illuminating the desk at which the young Weil would do her thinking. He never directly states that by 1957, Weil had been dead for almost fifteen years. Simone Weil’s short 34 years leave a high-water mark for any politically committed life. Her primary occupation was education, one likely reason for her lucid and straightforward prose. After a precocious youth, she attended university in Paris in the same class as Simone de Beauvoir. The two of them, apocryphally, achieved the highest marks for the certificate ...
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OSTEND: STEFAN ZWEIG, JOSEPH ROTH, AND THE SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK by Volker Weidermann, translated by Carole Brown Janeway Pantheon Books, 165 pages reviewed by Michelle Fost …it would be something, to my mind, if the museums would display not only the finished article but the preparatory studies, the sketches, the plans which preceded them, so that people did not regard the finished work as something which just dropped out of the sky, but instead realized that these masterpieces were created by their brothers, men just like them, created through great pain, with suffering, with joy, torn from the raw material of life at the highest price to the soul. —Stefan Zweig, “The Secret of Artistic Creation,” 1938 Volker Weidermann’s Ostend gives us the stories of writers Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, along with an ensemble of friends, coming for summer holiday to a favorite Belgian beach resort. The style is clipped and brief. History, dark fairy tale, friendship, fleeting joy, literary enchantment, dissipation, destruction, exile. Ostend reads as a time capsule that Weidermann has sorted through for us, and organized. It’s 1936, and the holiday begins like a David Hockney print, with an inviting surface of sea and sun ...
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OUTSIDE THE BOX: INTERVIEWS WITH CONTEMPORARY CARTOONISTS By Hillary L. Chute University of Chicago Press, 272 Pages reviewed by Seamus O'Malley Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists by Hillary Chute contains interviews with Scott McCloud, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Phoebe Gloeckner, Joe Sacco, Alison Bechdel, Françoise Mouly, Adrian Tomine, Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware. If you know comics you’ll recognize this as the auteur scene, and if you don’t you’ve just been given your starter syllabus. Many of these interviews appeared before, especially in Believer magazine, but those have been expanded, and several others are appearing for the first time in print. It is a valuable record of some of the industry’s greatest talents contemplating their work, their influences, and comics culture at large. There is some precedent for such a collection, such as Todd Hignite’s In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists (2007), which interviewed many of the same artists. That work, as its title suggests, was more about the creative process, and Hignite was mostly interested in the physical details of draftsmanship. Chute, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, is possibly the world’s only full-time graphic novel scholar, so approaches ...
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PUNK ELEGIES by Allan MacDonell Rare Bird Books, 306 pages DADDY Madison Young Rare Bird Books, 323 pages reviewed by Johnny Payne “Let my heart tell you what prompted me to do wrong for no purpose, and why it was only mischief that made me do it.” Thus spoke Saint Augustine of Hippo, and with those words, invented the confessional memoir and spawned the talk show in which the recounting of misdeeds leads—it is hoped—to self-reflection, repentance and salvation. When you put the peccadillos in print, it is difficult to escape this literary paradigm, for, as with Augustine’s sins (and our own), the more you struggle, the more surely redemption will drag you toward a hopeful destiny, like the mighty Mississippi at flood tide, and you borne aloft on your own self-damning words. Two such memoirs have just been issued from Rare Bird Books. The first, Punk Elegies, is the sometimes desultory, occasionally comical, and moderately self-aware account of Allan MacDonell’s drugged and drunken misbehavior as a skilled yet dubious reporter of punk music for Slash magazine in Los Angeles, present at what is dubbed the birth of stateside punk, via a band called The Screamers. He has ...
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REALLY THE BLUES by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe NYRB, 464 pages reviewed by Beth Johnston You’re in another anonymous suburb at an undistinguished hotel on a Tuesday evening, traveling for work. After a day of meetings, you’re finally free to visit the hotel bar for a burger and a beer before you do it all over again tomorrow. At the counter, you take a seat two stools away from a middle-aged man in fine trousers, a white shirt, and a wide, loud tie, drinking something brown on the rocks. The man’s exchanges are first cordial, but then stretch into tall tales that make you fidget in your seat, and finally become oddly compelling, even touching. Just as the bartender calls for your last order, the story winds to a shimmering conclusion, leaving you with an unexpected sense of hope, of the power of persistence, of the redemption of art. That’s the feel of reading Mezz Mezzrow’s classic 1946 memoir, recently republished by NYRB Classics, about his life as a jazz saxophonist. “Music school?” the book begins. “Are you kidding? I learned to play the sax in Pontiac Reformatory”—the prison for younger offenders where Milton “Mezz” Mesirow, born in 1899, ...
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RITTENHOUSE WRITERS Reflections on a Fiction Workshop by James Rahn Paul Dry Books, 255 pages reviewed by Jacqueline Kharouf For an aspiring creative writer, the writing workshop can be a fruitful and inspiring environment, a precarious and vulnerable setting, or some mixture of the two. In truth, a good workshop is hard to find, but most workshops are organized so that writers can gather as a group, share ideas, concepts, craft, and acquire the guidance of a bona fide published author. Writers utilize the workshop as a space to showcase their work, receive feedback, critique others, and ultimately gain some deeper understanding of craft. Writers, like all artists, strive to be better. That desire to be better—to be a better teacher, partner, father, writer—threads through James Rahn’s part-memoir, part-anthology, Rittenhouse Writers, an account of his work to develop and sustain the Rittenhouse Writers’ Group for nearly 28 years. Rahn is the author of Bloodnight, a novel based loosely on his experience growing up in Atlantic City, and his short fiction and articles have been published in many literary magazines. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania for fifteen years and, in addition to leading RWG workshop sessions, maintains a ...
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SO LONG, SILVER SCREEN by Blutch Picturebox, 88 pages reviewed by Gabriel Chazan Every film is a ghost story. When we go to the theater, we see flickering images of things in the eternal past yet present which persistently haunt us. This observation cannot be avoided reading the French cartoonist Blutch’s new graphic essay/novel So Long, Silver Screen. With this book, Blutch summons the ghosts from his own filmgoing past to consider the film form. Death pervades the book from the very first panel in which a woman writes, “Adieu Paul Newman.” When the woman tells her lover Newman is dead, he reacts in disbelief: “it can’t be—I think about him every day” as if, by being captured onscreen, stars are immortal. Blutch has decided to try his hand at film criticism. The book is largely comprised of discussions and arguments between a man and woman about film. We get all of the enduring debates—theater or film, how are women treated in film, and many more. In the discussion of why film is better than theater, the unnamed woman says that “movies give us something plays don’t...faces...and to top it off, dead people’s faces, too.” The book reminds us constantly ...
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TALK by Linda Rosenkrantz NYRB, 215 pages reviewed by Rory McCluckie Whatever else it might be, Talk is the bearer of a remarkably terse and comprehensive title. Has there ever been a work that so accurately summarizes its contents in so short a space? In four letters, Linda Rosenkrantz encapsulated the interior of her 1968 literary experiment immaculately; this is a book of talk. All 215 pages are repositories of speech, unadorned by scenic description or third-person agency. What's more, they're pages of genuine talk, not a word of it imagined or fabricated. Over the summer of 1965, Rosenkrantz decided to capture the conversation of friends on tape, a process that eventually lead to her picking out three personalities, and presenting their interactions in the form of a “novel in dialogue.” Stephen Koch's introduction fleshes out the context: “I had the tape recorder running all summer,” Rosenkrantz recalls, even dragging the bulky monster to the beach. At first there were about twenty-five different characters and fifteen hundred pages of single-spaced transcript, which I took close to two years honing down to the three characters and two hundred fifty pages. Quite the project, in other words. A little later in this ...
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THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson Graywolf Press, 160 pages reviewed by Gabriel Chazan Sometimes an idea reverberates and echoes for a long time, like a song. This was my experience reading Maggie Nelson’s revelatory new memoir, The Argonauts, which starts with an idea Nelson found reading Wittgenstein: “the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed…” She goes on to describe that its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.” Nelson wrote the book while she was with her partner, the non-binary trans artist Harry Dodge, and pregnant with their first child. At one level, The Argonauts recounts her experiences as a writer in a relationship with Dodge, whose gender identity consciously resists the traps of language. In attempting a reconciliation of the two perspectives, Nelson tries to find a freedom through language. More than simply telling a ‘story’, Nelson considers here the act of trying to bring experience into language and ideas, particularly those which seem to oppose this very act. She incorporates an array of ideas from theorists ranging from Judith Butler to Wittgenstein in order to consider the inexpressibles of gender, sexuality, joy, and the seeming contradiction of queer parenthood and marriage—an experience increasingly brought into the mainstream of social structures and ...
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THE ART OF ASKING by Amanda Palmer Grand Central Publishing, 333 pages reviewed by Justin Goodman "Art is the Artist" I first heard of Amanda Palmer while driving a flashy, cherry-red Mustang convertible blasting “Girl Anachronism” from a speaker system clearly not made to handle any song at full volume, let alone one already deafening at standard volume for an ipod-earbud combo. It didn’t help that it was my car, and that my first girlfriend and I were the ones in it. By 2009 a year had passed since Palmer’s band, the Dresden Dolls, broke up, and three years before she would give the TED talk that would inspire the memoir The Art of Asking. My relationship and my car had both broken down by that point and as I, that bachelor now in a minivan, would likely have said about Palmer’s memoir-essay, there is one thing the three have in common: they deeply affected my life, and then repeated themselves enough that I wanted them to be done with. Memoirs often annoy me, in part, because they take Whitman’s advice too literarily: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” And that’s not to ignore that such songs lend themselves to ...
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THE CRETAN RUNNER: HIS STORY OF THE GERMAN OCCUPATION by George Psychoundakis translated by Patrick Leigh Fermor 352 pages THE COWSHED: MEMORIES OF THE CHINESE CULTURAL REVOLUTION by Ji Xianlin translated by Chenxin Jiang New York Review of Books 216 pages reviewed by Beth Johnston Over the years, I’ve consumed dozens of memoirs of hardship. I’ve accumulated shelves full of first-person accounts of war, revolution, genocide, and slavery, and developed a sideline collection of journeys that end in failure or death.  These accounts of people swept up in forces far larger than they are comfort me because their problems dwarf everyday concerns like workday traffic or messy kitchen sinks. Their perspective reminds me that much of human history has been dark and difficult, and that in the face of those difficulties, our only choice is whether to act bravely or poorly. These stories also do what good fiction—and good history—do: they let us glimpse the lives of those whose experiences we cannot imagine. So I was excited to learn that New York Review Books had just published two more of this kind of memoir, one by a Greek resistance fighter during World War II and one by a scholar ...
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THE DEEP ZOO by Rikki Ducornet Coffee House Press, 106 pages reviewed by Kim Steele Rikki Ducornet begins her newest book of essays, The Deep Zoo: To write a text is to propose a reading of the world and to reveal its potencies. Writing is reading and reading a way back to the initial impulse. Both are acts of revelation. And, just as a text is unknown until it is written, the deep zoo—the essential potencies at the core of humanity—exist unknown until explored. In this book of essays Ducornet boldly ventures into this essential human core. Ducornet is the author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays, and five books of poetry. She has received an Academy Award in literature as well as a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. Ducornet is also a painter who exhibits around the world. While slim, The Deep Zoo is not a quick read. In the barely three page piece, “Eros Breathing,” Ducornet manages to reference Lewis Carroll, Dick Cheney, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, Rig Veda, Victor Jara, and Borges. She draws connections with the grace of someone who has been doing this a ...
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THE FARAWAY NEARBY by Rebecca Solnit Viking, 272 Pages Reviewed by Colleen Davis  Once a month my Saturday morning yoga class swaps our beloved Iyengar teacher for a visiting Power yoga trainer from Manhattan. Captain Kate is not her real name, but that’s what I call the woman who drives us through 85 minutes of fast, challenging postures which are not all that different from our normal fare. What Kate changes is the pace of our effort and the time we spend holding each pose. Under her direction, my country classmates and I move at the speed she expects from students in her 105-degree New York studio. Our local practice site has no amped up heating system, but a class with Kate still leaves us drenched. This is her rigorous lead up to the final moment when we gratefully follow Kate’s instruction to “lower our head and bow our mind to the power of the heart.” After all the physical exertion we’ve just endured, this commandment becomes easier to follow and sweet to feel. Rebecca Solnit is a writer who also understands a thing or two about the power of rigor. Her writing displays a masterful command of language, imagery, ...
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THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY: A PILGRIMAGE THROUGH ALZHEIMER’S  by Jeanne Murray Walker Center Street, 384 pages Reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier “I worry about Mother, mostly,” writes Jeanne Murray Walker in her memoir, The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s (Center Street), “but I also worry about myself, because I am beginning to get myself mixed up with her. What does it mean that, in company with her, I ‘live’ in the past so much?” This question shapes Walker’s story of caring for her mother Erna Kelley, who lost her memory and life to the disease. Seeking answers, Walker offers insight into how memory works and what remembering means. As she flies between Philadelphia and her mother’s home in Dallas, the author’s own 1950s childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska, keeps flooding back. Her own life seems boxed up with her mother’s stories about driving her brothers and sisters to school in a Model A, teaching in a one-room school house, staffing the night shift alone as a hospital ER nurse—cargo that was once pulled by the “powerful locomotive” of her mother’s memory. As Erna becomes increasingly disoriented to time, place, and person, it’s as if her daughter has been uncoupled and ...
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THE GREAT DERANGEMENT: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh The University of Chicago Press, 196 pages reviewed by Robert Sorrell Almost exactly a year ago, I walked into a large lecture hall at the University of Chicago and found a seat near the back. The hall was half full, an equal mix of students and professors waiting for the novelist Amitav Ghosh to take the stage. Emerging from the wings, Ghosh gave off a dignified air in his black Nehru vest, his hair shockingly white. When he began to speak however, any trace of austerity, of distance between the speaker and the crowd, disappeared. His voice was soft and surprisingly pleasant, so much so that I began to wonder if he narrated his own audiobooks (he doesn’t). His subject, somewhat to my surprise, was climate change. The lectures can still be found on YouTube, and were recently published in book form with the title The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. In the work, Ghosh argues that future generations will see our cultural response to climate change as one of denial and avoidance, bordering on the pathological. Our failure to acknowledge the dire position in ...
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THE GREAT FLOODGATES OF THE WONDERWORLD by Justin Hocking Graywolf Press, 266 pages reviewed by Ana Schwartz “Grand Programmes of Providence” Boys can be so mysterious, so closed off with their feelings. Surely they must feel things. But what are they feeling? And what are they thinking about those feelings? Why don’t they talk about those feelings? What do they expect women to do, simply divine those feelings like a barometer at sea—blind to the gathering clouds, deaf to the sound of the gulls and the waves, unable to smell the saltiness of the air? What is the deep wonderworld of a boy’s mind? What do boys want? Let’s get this out of the way: According to Justin Hocking, it’s not not sex. In his recent memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, Hocking shows that boys also want emotional gratification that often, coincidentally, happens with sexual encounters. And he wants it pretty badly. He might even want it as badly as Ahab wants revenge on the white whale. Hocking’s desire—his addiction—certainly leads him to some strange and dicey situations, and, like Ahab’s quest, often has harmful effects on the people surrounding him. Hocking makes many analogies to characters and ...
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THE NEW YORK NOBODY KNOWS: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City by William Helmreich Princeton University Press, 449 pages BAGHDAD: THE CITY IN VERSE edited by Reuven Snir Harvard University Press, 339 pages reviewed by Nathaniel Popkin  Writers, this one included, have long struggled to capture in words the dynamic and multi-layered ways that cities change. Cities themselves are powerful change agents in the wider world, but they are defined and redefined constantly by the evolving tastes and desires of their residents (who themselves are always changing), technology, culture and religion, structural political and economic shifts, and the feedback loop of history and history-telling, characterized through myth, poetry, and mass media. Here’s how I try to make sense of it in Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books): Think of the city as a collection of swarming cells that change, adapt, grow, shrink, and grow simultaneously. Imagine hundreds or thousands or millions of cells, each living and dying not in parallel or even in sequence, but overlapping from one generation to the next. The whole place moves in several directions at once. Unless calamity hits, no city dies in a single instant. Despite what you read in ...
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THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS by Marina Keegan Scribner, 240 pages reviewed by Colleen Davis There’s a stretch of Philly’s Walnut Street Bridge that makes me tap my brakes. I’m not a slow driver by nature, but that corner with the new streetlight always makes me reduce speed. About a year ago, a young man lost his life right there, when two cars collided. As one of the vehicles spun onto the sidewalk, Zachary Woods climbed the streetlight to avoid the car. Unfortunately the vehicle knocked both man and lamppost over the bridge. If the story isn’t sad enough, consider how talented Zachary was: he’d received dual admission to the MBA program at the Wharton School and a selective International Business program with the Lauder Institute. The guy was fluent in Chinese, skilled in international investment, and a record-breaking NCAA swimmer. No calculator is sophisticated enough to tally what the world lost during that crash. The memory of this incident haunted me as I read The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection of pieces written by Marina Keegan. Her title essay scored more than a million Internet hits shortly after its online publication. Marina, whose lovely smile adorns the book jacket, earned ...
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The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 244 pages reviewed by Jamie Fisher Authenticity is Her Bag So here's the problem with coma stories: not everyone gets a coma story. Life-threatening medical emergencies chased closely by miraculous recoveries are, for most of us, in short supply. People who do find themselves with a coma story shouldn't be surprised when friends, relatives, and neighbors want a piece of it. They want your Ninety Minutes in Heaven, absent the ignominious retraction. They want to know how your near-death experience has changed you, brought you closer to God. They want your spiritual lesson, and they will be insistent. Meghan Daum’s coma story caps off what you might call a tough year. First her grandmother died, then her mother. Then she began to feel woozy with grief or flu, except that it turned out to be flea-transmitted typhus that knocked her prone on a hospital bed, hovering for days in a medically induced coma. Her total recovery is so unanticipated that her neurologist is prompted to call it miraculous. (Not the word you want to hear from the man with his tools inside your skull, ...
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UNDOING THE DEMOS: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution by Wendy Brown Zone Books/MIT Press, 296 Pages reviewed by Irami Osei-Frimpong “SEN. KIRK: RE-ELECT RAHM OR CHICAGO COULD END UP LIKE DETROIT,” reads the Chicago Sun-Times headline. In the ensuing article, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk argues that the bond market supporting Chicago's debt respects current mayor Rahm Emanuel over challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. Those of us who care about democracy wonder if democratic self-determination—whether defined minimally as self-rule, or, more robustly, as participating in popular sovereignty—is extinguished when one's vote is determined by the bond market and its assessments. This is the question U.C. Berkeley Professor Wendy Brown explores in her latest book, Undoing the Demos. Moody's does not have a citizen's concern for public schools, parks, museums, local ecology, or Chicago's other common institutions. Yet these are the political conditions through which citizens find meaning in their lives. For those of us who care about democracy, the worry is whether the authority of finance capital on our political imagination relegates democratic citizenship to being simply the medium through which the investment market controls public life. The transmogrification of democratic processes to financial ones, a process Brown calls economization, is not only a ...
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