Nonfiction Reviews

Cover art for The Way Through the Woods

THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS: ON MUSHROOMS AND MOURNING, a memoir by Long Litt Woon, reviewed by Beth Kephart

nonfiction reviews, reviews, translation /
I bought Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning for the promise embedded in the premise. How would Woon make her way back into the world after the shocking, sudden death of the fifty-four-year-old husband with whom she had spent all her adult years? What do mushrooms have to do with recovering from such a loss? Does anybody ever actually recover? ...
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Art Can Help Book Jacket

ART CAN HELP, essays by Robert Adams, reviewed by Beth Kephart

“[I]f you begin with an idea you’re usually beat before you start,” writes Robert Adams in Art Can Help, as he tries to imagine Edward Ranney photographing the Canyon del Muerto, and, so, here I begin, having been holding this slender silver volume in my hand all afternoon, interrupted only by the sound of a neighbor’s lawn mower and the smell of some ambient spray paint. (A long sentence, a beginning.) ...
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Passing for Human cover art

PASSING FOR HUMAN: A GRAPHIC MEMOIR by Liana Finck reviewed by Alexandra Kanovsky

Liana Finck wants to be seen. In creating Passing for Human, a graphic memoir and her second full-length work, she constructs her life story as Leola, and in doing so fantastically reimagines her youth and early adulthood in a quest to be seen and heard—by peers, by readers, and by herself ...
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The Real Sky Book Jacket

THE REAL SKY, a mixed-genre chapbook by Valerie Fox & Jacklynn Niemiec, reviewed by Kendra Jean Aquino

Within the first few pages of The Real Sky by Valerie Fox and Jacklynn Niemiec we meet a theatrical tour guide in a haunted town, a man named Andrew who might turn into someone else at the end of the day, and a mother, covered in plaster, who walks into a field and never returns. Valerie Fox’s hybrid writing in The Real Sky is unexpected and surreal ...
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ALL THE FIERCE TETHERS, essays by Lia Purpura, reviewed by David Grandouiller

ALL THE FIERCE TETHERS, essays by Lia Purpura, reviewed by David Grandouiller

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
It’s hard to find communion with a living thing in winter. Anyone with a burrow crawls in, wraps their tail around their eyes. The other night, when snow had just started falling, I braved the interstate on my way to another city, to share a friend’s burrow. Some black ice spun me around, and I slid off the road, stopped in the median, my tread marks looping back through the new snow like a confused shadow. I’m fine, thanks. I didn’t turn around, kept driving, couldn’t bear missing a chance not to be alone. The car’s fine, too, just brown ...
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STARVATION MODE, a chapbook memoir by Elissa Washuta, reviewed by Michelle Crouch

STARVATION MODE, a chapbook memoir by Elissa Washuta, reviewed by Michelle Crouch

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
Originally released as an E-book by Instant Future in 2015, essayist Elissa Washuta’s Starvation Mode is now reborn in corporeal chapbook form. At 50 pages, it can be read in one sitting, and I recommend this approach for best absorption of its nutrients. Nutrients, numbers, rules—Washuta is constantly searching for a calculus that will solve the problem of what goes into the body: “I would like to return to a time before it got so hard to eat,” she writes in the chapbook’s opening, “but eating has always been the hardest work I’ve ever had to do.” ...
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WAYWARD LIVES, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS: INTIMATE HISTORIES OF SOCIAL UPHEAVAL, nonfiction by Saidiya Hartman, reviewed by Gabriel Chazan

WAYWARD LIVES, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS: INTIMATE HISTORIES OF SOCIAL UPHEAVAL, nonfiction by Saidiya Hartman, reviewed by Gabriel Chazan

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
What is a free life? This seemingly simple question is, of course, anything but simple. Theorizing a possibility of a free life with a recognition of the various structural oppressions in society is a challenge brought to vivid life in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman ...
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ROOM FOR GRACE, a memoir by Maureen and Daniel Kenner, reviewed by Colleen Davis

ROOM FOR GRACE, a memoir by Maureen and Daniel Kenner, reviewed by Colleen Davis

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Grief is a waiting room with broken blinds. Cracks in the slats reveal some light outside, but since the pulleys won’t move, it’s impossible to know when—or if—the sun will shine on us again. The first time you lose a parent, this room feels strange and its shadows thwart your compass.  Like death itself, you’ve been told that grief brings anguish ...
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THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM, nonfiction by Timothy Snyder, reviewed by Susan Sheu

THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM, nonfiction by Timothy Snyder, reviewed by Susan Sheu

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Since 2016, many journalists—as well as academic, political, and literary writers—have been sounding the alarm about the future of American democracy. The writers trying to shake Americans out of their manifest-destiny stupor are a diverse cast, ranging from activists who wouldn’t hesitate to label themselves members of “the resistance,” like New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow, to people like David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who is still reviled by many on the left for his role promoting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars ...
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I’M FINE. HOW ARE YOU? a chapbook by Catherine Pikula, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

I’M FINE. HOW ARE YOU? a chapbook by Catherine Pikula, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

A few days after I finished Catherine Pikula’s chapbook I’m Fine. How are You? I read the following sentence: “I would like to make a book out of crumpled-up pieces of paper: you start a sentence, it doesn’t work and you throw the page away. I’m collecting a few … maybe this is, in fact, the only literature possible today.” The sentence came in the last hundred pages of The Story of a New Name, the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. And while the “today” referenced above was Italy in the 1960s, the description was oddly reminiscent of ...
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SACRED DARKNESS: THE LAST DAYS OF THE GULAG, a narrative by Levan Berdzenishvili, reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

SACRED DARKNESS: THE LAST DAYS OF THE GULAG, a narrative by Levan Berdzenishvili, reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

“As with any book, my book had its own special fate—it was born by mistake,” claims Levan Berdzenishvili, in the opening chapter of Sacred Darkness. Levan wakes up in a hospital, sick and disoriented, with a high fever. He realizes he has some debts to pay before he can jaunt off to Hades. Levan is a specialist in Greek literature, so he doesn’t talk of “dying.” He refers to “my departure to Hades.” ...
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EVERYDAY MADNESS: On Grief, Anger, Loss, and Love, a memoir by Lisa Appignanesi, reviewed by Gabriel Chazan

EVERYDAY MADNESS: On Grief, Anger, Loss, and Love, a memoir by Lisa Appignanesi, reviewed by Gabriel Chazan

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
Lisa Appignanesi’s latest book comes at a time in which most of us regularly feel beside ourselves in what she describes as an “everyday madness.” She devotes herself to describing this mundane madness, something which could be called trauma but is experienced by almost everyone, in three manifestations ...
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BOOT LANGUAGE, a memoir by Vanya Erickson, reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier

BOOT LANGUAGE, a memoir by Vanya Erickson, reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier

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The paradox in writing a postmodern memoir is that the author must somehow convince readers she’s telling the truth—typically by admitting to subjectivity and fallible memory, and by interrogating her version of events. But that’s not the strategy Vanya Erickson employs in her post-WWII coming-of-age story, Boot Language. With vivid detail and some implausibly long passages of remembered dialogue, she presents herself as the sole reliable narrator of her life in California, where she was raised by an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who failed to protect her (but did “soften Dad’s blows” with inherited money) ...
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GASLIGHT: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century, essays by Joachim Kalka, reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

GASLIGHT: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century, essays by Joachim Kalka, reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

With a title and subtitle like Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century, the reader will be forgiven for thinking Joachim Kalka’s book is a collection of visual art. It is not. Though it does contain a handful of visual descriptions, it bears not one illustration, woodcut, or photograph. No lantern slides, and no visual depictions of gaslight. What it has instead are words, many of them, artfully arranged. Kalka’s words, assembled into eleven essays and a preface, are densely packed and remarkably pointed. Although his purpose is to glance back at the nineteenth century, not to historicize it, or ...
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AARDVARK TO AXOLOTL, essays by Karen Donovan and TALES FROM WEBSTER’S, essays by John Shea, reviewed by Michelle E. Crouch

AARDVARK TO AXOLOTL, essays by Karen Donovan and TALES FROM WEBSTER’S, essays by John Shea, reviewed by Michelle E. Crouch

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Karen Donovan’s Aardvark to Axolotl and John Shea’s Tales from Webster engage with this paradox via the dictionary, that great alphabetizer of language. The dictionary is the reference-book-of-all-reference-books. It is writing broken down to its most basic components, as a color wheel separates out the most basic tools of the painter. It also makes for dry reading. As far as plots go, it’s lackluster ...
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DIFFICULT WOMEN, a memoir by David Plante, reviewed by Susan Sheu

DIFFICULT WOMEN, a memoir by David Plante, reviewed by Susan Sheu

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Acclaimed writer David Plante’s book, published originally in 1983, is an account of his friendships with three women central to the artistic and intellectual world of the 1970s. It is a rare act of memoir writing to describe oneself as the shadowy sidekick to other, presumably greater and more interesting characters. In nonfiction writing classes, this point of view would be discouraged ...
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PLAYING CATCH WITH STRANGERS, essays by Bob Brody, reviewed by Colleen Davis

PLAYING CATCH WITH STRANGERS, essays by Bob Brody, reviewed by Colleen Davis

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Playing Catch with Strangers consists of a long series of short essays. Most were written for print or online publications and not originally intended as book chapters. They are clean, straightforward, and easy to read. They are also salutary—in the sense of promoting better mental health and positive emotions. Brody reminds us of the many gifts that life offers to those who pay it close attention ...
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BAD JOBS AND POOR DECISIONS Dispatches from the Working Class, a memoir by J.R. Helton, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

BAD JOBS AND POOR DECISIONS Dispatches from the Working Class, a memoir by J.R. Helton, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
The jacket of J.R. Helton’s memoir, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions: Dispatches from the Working Class, shows an assortment of loose black-and-white sketches: a marijuana leaf, a packet of cigarettes, a typewriter, crumpled beer cans, lines of (presumably) cocaine, a gun, a cockroach. Among them, figures emerge: A man’s face covered in huge beads of sweat, a woman with long dark hair shown from the shoulders up, a pole dancer. These images appear regularly in each of the seven long anecdotes that make up Bad Jobs, working as signifiers of a place, time, and social class. The place is Austin, ...
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PLAYING WITH DYNAMITE, a memoir by Sharon Harrigan, reviewed by Brian Burmeister

PLAYING WITH DYNAMITE, a memoir by Sharon Harrigan, reviewed by Brian Burmeister

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Who we are is a complicated thing. Interactions influence perceptions, and perceptions influence memories. Having lost her father in a tragic accident when she was only seven, author Sharon Harrigan attempts to unravel the mystery of the man her father was in the powerful new memoir Playing with Dynamite. “I was relieved when he died,” her brother wrote her in an email. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s true.” ...
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NEAPOLITAN CHRONICLES, stories and essays, by Anna Maria Ortese reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

NEAPOLITAN CHRONICLES, stories and essays, by Anna Maria Ortese reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

Any book that has a ringing endorsement on its cover from Elena Ferrante these days will merit a second look. But there is another, potentially more important endorsement of Neapolitan Chronicles—a silent endorsement on the part of the translators of this Italian story collection by Anna Maria Ortese, originally published in Italy in 1953 ...
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BIRTH OF A NEW EARTH: The Radical Politics of Environmentalism, a manifesto by Adrian Parr, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

BIRTH OF A NEW EARTH: The Radical Politics of Environmentalism, a manifesto by Adrian Parr, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
When will we stop imaging climate change in the future and how can we reorient ourselves to this reality? Adrian Parr’s new academic work on climate change, Birth of a New Earth, attempts to answer this question by tapping into the recent trend of considering the positive, some might even say utopian, possibilities that the crisis of climate change allows. She argues, “Regardless of environmental harms and changes in climate impacting people differently, there remains a shared human experience of hardship that will intensify as time passes. For this reason, the environmental and climate crises contain the political potential to ...
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TIME OF GRATITUDE, essays and poems by Gennady Aygi, reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

TIME OF GRATITUDE, essays and poems by Gennady Aygi, reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

Time of Gratitude is an unusual text: the collected pieces are both prose and poetry, some of them written for events and some written as personal reflection. Translator Peter France has organized the book into two sections. The first one is devoted to Russian and Chuvash writers and artists, including Boris Pasternak, Kazimir Malevich, Varlam Shalamov, and Chuvash poet Mikhail Sespel ...
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TRANSLATION AS TRANSHUMANCE, a book-length essay by Mireille Gansel, reviewed by Rachel R. Taube

TRANSLATION AS TRANSHUMANCE, a book-length essay by Mireille Gansel, reviewed by Rachel R. Taube

nonfiction reviews, reviews, translation /
For Mireille Gansel, the work of translation is an all-consuming task. Before embarking on a project, Gansel first immerses herself in the world of the poet she is translating. She studies the historical context of their writing as well as the personal context. Wherever possible, she engages with their physical environment: she visits their home, observes their writing space. And, ideally, she listens to the poet read their work aloud. Attempting to translate a single German word, “sensible,” in a poem by Reiner Kunze, Gansel travels from West to East Germany to “[listen] to the poet read, alert to his ...
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COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN, nonfiction by Luke Harding, reviewed by Susan Sheu

COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN, nonfiction by Luke Harding, reviewed by Susan Sheu

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
Reading Harding’s new book Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, published in mid-November by Vintage Books, gives the sense that we are living in a John Le Carre novel where we are not certain that the West won the Cold War or that the Cold War ever ended. Collusion is a deep dive into the coverage of the administration and the crisscrossing lines of Russian money and influence ...
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I’M THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY, a memoir by Andrea Jarrell, reviewed by Helen Armstrong

I’M THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY, a memoir by Andrea Jarrell, reviewed by Helen Armstrong

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
Reading Andrea Jarrell’s memoir felt like I was squatting in the bushes outside of her house, fingers perched on the windowsill, watching and listening as her life unfolded, taking comfort in her family’s dysfunctions which mirrored my own in asymmetric ways. Being from a dysfunctional family myself, I take some sick comfort from seeing crying children in grocery stores, their mothers looking like they’ve reached their wits’ end. I thrive on overhearing family fights in restaurants, because for so long, it was my family who were making heads turn. Once, at a rest stop in Delaware, my younger brother pelted ...
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AFTERGLOW by Eileen Myles and THE STRANGERS AMONG US by Caroline Picard, reviewed by Jordan A. Rothacker

AFTERGLOW by Eileen Myles and THE STRANGERS AMONG US by Caroline Picard, reviewed by Jordan A. Rothacker

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
Dog people and cat people often like to stake their identities on the idea that they are starkly different from one another, but are they really so different? Regardless of species, a pet’s companion is a certain type of person who probably prefers their dog or cat to other people. In two recent books, by Eileen Myles and Caroline Picard, a dog person and a cat person, respectively, confess the closeness they feel to their pets while also marveling at the strangeness of intimacy with another kind of being. Reading both of these books together becomes a chance to deeply ...
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THE COLLECTED ESSAYS OF ELIZABETH HARDWICK reviewed by Robert Sorrell

THE COLLECTED ESSAYS OF ELIZABETH HARDWICK reviewed by Robert Sorrell

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Reviewing Elizabeth Hardwick’s new collection of essays is a task to strike fear into the heart of even the most headstrong literary critic. Biographer of Melville, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, and noted sharp tongue, Elizabeth Hardwick cast a long shadow in the literary world of the twentieth century. Darryl Pinckney introduces Hardwick in this volume as a New York intellectual firebrand, an avant-garde thinker with an acerbic writing style, and a cutting, devastatingly smart critic who employed a withering gaze.  Would-be reviewers, if not scared off by Hardwick’s biography, will encounter an essay in the book’s ...
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THE MADELEINE PROJECT, a work of creative nonfiction by Clara Beaudoux, reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

THE MADELEINE PROJECT, a work of creative nonfiction by Clara Beaudoux, reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

nonfiction reviews, reviews, translation /
In 2013, a young journalist named Clara Beaudoux moves into a Paris apartment. The previous tenant, a woman named Madeleine, lived there for 20 years before passing away in her nineties. Strangely, Madeleine’s things have not been removed from the cellar. “All I had to do was open a door, the door to my cellar, for the adventure to begin,” writes Beaudoux ...
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ROMEO AND JULIET IN PALESTINE: TEACHING UNDER OCCUPATION, a memoir by Tom Sperlinger, reviewed by Beth Johnston

ROMEO AND JULIET IN PALESTINE: TEACHING UNDER OCCUPATION, a memoir by Tom Sperlinger, reviewed by Beth Johnston

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
Trust the Brits to find the humor in anything. Tom Sperlinger’s Romeo and Juliet in Palestine, a brief memoir of a semester the author spent as a visiting professor of English literature at Al Quds University in Abu Dis in the West Bank, deploys wry wit to combat the absurdities of living and teaching in a place of controlled chaos ...
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FAMILY LEXICON, a novel by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Jenny McPhee, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

FAMILY LEXICON, a novel by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Jenny McPhee, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

Now in a new translation by Jenny McPhee (and with a new English title), Family Lexicon is Natalia Ginzburg’s Strega Prize winning memoir/novel of life in Italy before, during, and after World War II, Lessico famigliare, first published in 1963. Ginzburg is known mainly in this country for being a “writer’s writer,” a phrase which is often used to compensate for an author’s lack of fame. But in Ginzburg’s case, perhaps there’s a bit more to it; her essays are often assigned on writing workshop syllabi alongside favorites like Joan Didion, James Baldwin, and George Orwell. A quick Internet search ...
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HOW WE SPEAK TO ONE ANOTHER: AN ESSAY DAILY READER, edited by Ander Monson & Craig Reinbold, reviewed by David Grandouiller

HOW WE SPEAK TO ONE ANOTHER: AN ESSAY DAILY READER, edited by Ander Monson & Craig Reinbold, reviewed by David Grandouiller

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
How We Speak to One Another, which came out this month, is a book of essays on essays, on the Essay—that sprawling mountain of a form, reaching its roots into every fallow field. The reader sinks in to find Ander Monson digging his way: “I’d thought of my own essaying as mine work, a kind of solo exploration down here in the dark. But then one time I was chipping at a hunk of rock, watching my tool spark, and suddenly it broke through a wall and ran into another tunnel.” The tunnel is John D’Agata’s. This kind of encounter, ...
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DOWN BELOW, a memoir by Leonora Carrington, reviewed by Justin Goodman

DOWN BELOW, a memoir by Leonora Carrington, reviewed by Justin Goodman

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A hundred years after Leonora Carrington’s birth, her painting and writing seems, to the modern viewer, as defamiliarized and spontaneous as it did when it first appeared under the Surrealist banner ...
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THE MONEY CULT by Chris Lehmann reviewed by Melanie Erspamer

THE MONEY CULT by Chris Lehmann reviewed by Melanie Erspamer

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
The Trump administration, however, is a near perfect embodiment of the Money Cult. One need simply look at the two men on top: Trump, one of the embodiments of American capitalism, and Pence, a fervent evangelical. There is also open access in the administration for other ardent Christians, such as for the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, a surgeon who preaches self-activation. Lehmann argues that the United States began, essentially, during the seventeenth century colonial era of John Winthrop, as a kind of theocracy, a union between religion and politics; and now it has ended with ...
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MY ITALIANS: True Stories of Crime and Courage, essays by Roberto Saviano, reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

MY ITALIANS: True Stories of Crime and Courage, essays by Roberto Saviano, reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

nonfiction reviews, reviews, translation /
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 ...
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BEFORE PICTURES, a memoir by Douglas Crimp, reviewed by Gabriel Chazan

BEFORE PICTURES, a memoir by Douglas Crimp, reviewed by Gabriel Chazan

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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 ...
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The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh reviewed by Robert Sorrell

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh reviewed by Robert Sorrell

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
If writers are interested in portraying human experience in its varied forms, then part of that work is depicting climate change. Certainly there has been a strong tradition of writers turning to their surroundings for inspiration and literary fodder. And for many of these writers—Wendell Wendell Berry, Homero Aridjis, and Jean Giono for example—the earth becomes a character just as palpable and mercurial as any human, with capacity for danger alongside beauty. Yet our current moment calls for something even more complex: not just the earth, plants, and animals as powerful forces in fiction, but also a realization that we ...
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REALLY THE BLUES, a memoir by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, reviewed by Beth Johnston

REALLY THE BLUES, a memoir by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, reviewed by Beth Johnston

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
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 ...
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harbors

HARBORS, essays by Donald Quist, reviewed by Benjamin Woodard

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
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 ...
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RITTENHOUSE WRITERS: Reflections on a Fiction Workshop by James Rahn reviewed by Jacqueline Kharouf

RITTENHOUSE WRITERS: Reflections on a Fiction Workshop by James Rahn reviewed by Jacqueline Kharouf

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
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 private practice for individual writing and psychoanalytic consultations ...
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The_Cretan_Runner

The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis and The Cowshed by Ji Xianlin, two memoirs 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 ...
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OSTEND: STEFAN ZWEIG, JOSEPH ROTH, AND THE SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK, nonfiction by Volker Weidermann, reviewed by Michelle Fost

OSTEND: STEFAN ZWEIG, JOSEPH ROTH, AND THE SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK, nonfiction by Volker Weidermann, reviewed by Michelle Fost

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 and wide blue sky. But as we make our way through Weidermann’s collections of scenes from the period, ...
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IN OTHER WORDS, essays by Jhumpa Lahiri, reviewed by Michelle Fost

IN OTHER WORDS, essays by Jhumpa Lahiri, reviewed by Michelle Fost

nonfiction reviews, reviews, translation /
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 ...
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ABDUCTING A GENERAL, a memoir by Patrick Leigh Fermor, reviewed by Rory McCluckie

ABDUCTING A GENERAL, a memoir by Patrick Leigh Fermor, reviewed by Rory McCluckie

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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 ...
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CAT IS ART SPELLED WRONG reviewed by Justin Goodman

CAT IS ART SPELLED WRONG reviewed by Justin Goodman

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CAT IS ART SPELLED WRONG edited by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz Coffee House Press, 160 pages Cat-is-art 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 ...
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TALK by Linda Rosenkrantz reviewed by Rory McCluckie

TALK by Linda Rosenkrantz reviewed by Rory McCluckie

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 ...
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PUNK ELEGIES by Allan MacDonell and DADDY Madison Young reviewed by Johnny Payne

PUNK ELEGIES by Allan MacDonell and DADDY Madison Young reviewed by Johnny Payne

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
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 ...
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FAR COUNTRY: STORIES FROM ABROAD AND OTHER PLACES, essays by Timothy Kenny reviewed by Beth Johnston

FAR COUNTRY: STORIES FROM ABROAD AND OTHER PLACES, essays by Timothy Kenny reviewed by Beth Johnston

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
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, ...
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THE ARGONAUTS  by Maggie Nelson reviewed by Gabriel Chazan

THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson reviewed by Gabriel Chazan

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
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…”, and “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 with ...
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THE ART OF ASKING by Amanda Palmer reviewed by Justin Goodman

THE ART OF ASKING by Amanda Palmer reviewed by Justin Goodman

nonfiction reviews, reviews /
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 ...
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33 DAYS by Léon Werth reviewed by Nathaniel Popkin

33 DAYS by Léon Werth reviewed by Nathaniel Popkin

33 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. 33 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, ...
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