Articles in criticism
Biographer Zachary Leader takes his readers on a long, detailed tour of the first half of Saul Bellow’s life, and while those readers may be loving it, the critics have been complaining!
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life emphasized the contingency of any single story. In contrast, her new novel focuses on one life lived to the full. But for better or for worse, Atkinson can’t resist the lure of metafiction…
Why do we read the same story over and over? In Virginia Woolf’s case, it’s to learn again how great art emerged from her strange life of privilege and grief.
A thousand years ago, a refined lady at the Japanese Court wrote the first and one of the greatest novels of all time, The Tale of Genji; Dennis Washburn does the latest translation of this immense work, with stunning results.
Sure, we all know Superman, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man – but what about the also-rans? Who played the Captain and Tennille to the Avengers’ Sonny and Cher? Zach Rabiroff looks at the heroes who didn’t quite make the prime-time cut.
For decades, famed academic and critic Harold Bloom has been tilting against the windmills of cultural fads and forgettings. But in his latest (and last?) book, he strikes a different pose.
A trio of mysteries cum thrillers from Stephen King, Peter Lovesey, and Mike Lawson—each one in its own way stylish, suspenseful, and sharp.
In life there are no second chances, no do-overs. But what if we could keep trying until we got it right? Kate Atkinson explores the possibilities in a novel that just might win her a coveted literary prize or two.
The best of Anthony Lane’s many New Yorker reviews and essays were collected in Nobody’s Perfect, a big volume that amply displays this writer’s wit and subtlety.
Hausfrau is a grim addition to the array of contemporary novels exploring an old theme: women’s discontent. Rebecca Hussey reviews.
In Anna North’s new novel, many narrative voices attempt to tell the story of film director Sophie Stark – but can any number of perspectives reveal an essentially unknowable character? Katie Gemmill reviews.
The dark, crime-ridden world of Putin’s Kremlin and Victorian Scotland Yard aren’t as different as you might think – as two gripping new mysteries demonstrate.
Like an overheated love letter, André Aciman’s florid novel novel of obsession, Eight White Nights, is very easy to mock–but is it perhaps just as candid and emotionally powerful? Sam Sacks tests it against the truth of experience.
Major Kolt “Racer” Raynor doesn’t salute the U.S. flag – it salutes him. He punches bad guys so hard their grandkids are born with bruises. He garrotted a terrorist using a string made from his own eyelashes. He stars in Dalton Fury’s action novel – and if you don’t read the book, he’ll know.
The Tim Parks essays collected in this pretty volume range over the whole landscape of the book-world, from endangered copyright to foreign-lit chic to the inescapability of Jonathan Franzen
If Richard Pryor had spent time in the ghettos of L.A. County and had any interest in writing a novel, he might have come up with a book like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout: a beautifully offensive meditation on riches and race.
Nothing shakes up the literary establishment like women writers — or women readers — who won’t stay quietly in their place.
Usually Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrators implicate us in their world, reminding us of all we have in common. But in his new novel we are strangers looking at an unrecognizable landscape.
Master of the mannered sneak-attack, Kazuo Ishiguro has enraptured readers for years – including Karen Vanuska, who walks us through Nocturnes, his collection of linked stories.
Hilary Mantel’s best-selling Tudor novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, have made their way to the stage on the expert handling of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Zach Rabiroff had front row center.
In Michel Houellebecq’s uncannily timely new novel, the triumph of an Islamist government relieves the dreary banality that defines the secular France of the 21st century.
On its schematic blueprints, the latest book by noted literary polymath Alberto Manguel is “about” Dante’s Divine Comedy – but as Robert Minto discovers, this author is at his best when he’s digressing.
An Orwellian dystopia, a deposed humanity, and a cat passionately in love with a dog – Justin Hickey reviews Robert Repino’s fiendishly clever novel Mort(e).
Set in the precarious territory between fiction and history, Nicolas Rothwell’s beautiful, haunting Belomor explores the ways storytelling serves as an impetus for self-discovery.
The star translating team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (aided this time by Richard Nelson) translate Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, with predictably disruptive results. Jack Hanson reviews.
April 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. In this essay from 2009, Open Letters‘s resident Victorianist Rohan Maitzen looks at how this author made the everyday epic.
In the latest Princeton “Writers on Writers” installment, novelist Colm Toibin writes about poet Elizabeth Bishop
At the outbreak of the First World War, American writers flocked to Europe and headed for the Western Front in order to find their Muse – and to make some quick cash. A new book follows a handful of these earliest chroniclers
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” Woody Allen famously quipped; “I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” Robert Minto reviews a new book on what it takes to make it big in the literary afterlife
For over a century, Oscar Wilde’s notebook on Thomas Chatterton has been regarded as a ‘smoking gun’ of Wilde’s plagiaristic tendencies. A new book radically re-examines the issue
Can you improve on a classic? A new novel retells George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda — but much more is lost than gained in the attempt.
The great Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa claims he became a writer in order to annoy his father; his new novel takes up this age-old theme of the strife between fathers and sons.
As we should expect from someone whose previous work is both experimental and kinky, Miranda July has written a first novel that refuses to play by the rules.
Despite his iconic status today, in the 19th century Sherlock Holmes was neither the alpha nor the omega of crime fighters: a fascinating new book introduces us to his many contemporaries.
Ron Howard’s adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestselling In the Heart of the Sea will soon appear, but even the trailers raise rich questions: Why does this story still have the power to fascinate? A Moby-Dick fan ponders.
When we say of someone that they died too early, does this posit that there is a perfect time? How does the meaning of a life change the longer it’s lived. Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel End of Days explores some answers.
Stalking the pages of Thomas Pierce’s debut story collection, where the surreal shares quarters with the ordinary, are dwarf mammoths, genetically modified guard dogs, baby Pippin monkeys, and a parakeet named Magnificent.
The Friendship of Criminals by Robert Glinski is a fresh, original and totally entertaining perspective on mob relationships; A Murder of Magpies is Judith Flanders deliciously wry take on murder and publishing.
Irma Heldman dives into a rollicking, bawdy yarn depicting an infamous, turn-of-the century caper masterminded by Professor Moriarty—Sherlock Holmes’ archenemy. Then she matches wits with a cheeky mini-tome refuting the great detective’s solution to his most illustrious case.
Julio Cortázar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez brought Latin American fiction to the attention of the world. Now a young crop of writers are trying to move beyond magical realism–a new anthology charts the diverse approaches.
For twenty-five years, the “Table Talk” feature of The Threepenny Review has offered occasional musings on a wide range of topics by some of the best freelance writers and critics in the business. A new hardcover collects a generous helping of highlights
Any new translation of a classic like Anna Kareninainevitably raises an awkward question: what was wrong with all the old translations? Debut writer Zach Rabiroff takes it line-by-line
Claudia Rankine articulates the truths of the black experience so poignantly in her celebrated collection Citizen by putting them, paradoxically, both plainly and artfully.
With so many versions of War and Peace to choose from, is there anything that translators can do to set themselves apart? Yes, says Steve Donoghue, they can make old mistakes.
Michael Mewshaw comes not to praise Gore Vidal but to bury him in this new memoir of a friendship that did not outlast Mr. Vidal’s funeral.
Horror fiction may not at first compare with more respectable genres, but look a bit closer. Horror is one of the oldest emotions known to man, and the artists who’ve evoked it have been some of our most brilliant and most strange …
It’s comforting to believe there are lessons to be learned from the Holocaust, or to treat it as a story about the triumph of the human spirit. Jona Oberski’s Childhood rightly refuses us these consolations.
The voice of poetry can often be the voice of lyric witness, turning our attention to moments in history that would have eluded us, or that might never have been felt as well as understood. These titles perform this function about as well as it can be done.
The contemporary American short story is a kind of stunt double for the novel. Monica McFawn’s Bright Shards of Someplace Else is one such collection, each of its eleven stories posturing like a dare accepted.
Historical novelist Andrew Levkoff stuffs the last installment of his “Bow of Heaven” trilogy with battles, love, loyalty betrayed, crucifixion, cross-purposes, loyalty regained, and deep reflections on what it all means.
“We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun,” wrote Virginia Woolf. Roxana Robinson’s riveting novel challenges us to imagine how we can do that as we work for peace.
Book critic James Wood is a fascinating collection of contradictions: an apostate true believer, a champion of experimental fiction, an earnest searcher in empty temples. Sam Sacks reads one of our foremost readers.
Nora Webster may be Colm Tóibín’s slightest novel yet, but his later novels are born from and echo this wise and intimate investigation of the interior life.
Literature by post-Yugoslavian writers is often about identity in flux. That includes the books of David Albahari, one of the most widely read of contemporary Serbian authors and one of the most worth reading.
The author made immortal by the novel Dune also wrote a career’s worth of short stories. Robert Minto looks at the first-ever complete collection of those stories.
Norman Mailer was as fiery and mercurial a letter-writer as he was a novelist and journalist – and ten times as prolific. A big new volume collects the highlights of a lifetime in the post.
Now back in print: an English translation of iconic Polish writer (and compulsive re-inventor of himself) Marek Hlasko’s most powerful novel.
“Our belief in Literature has collapsed” Lars Iyer once wrote, but his new novel Wittgenstein Jr, the story of a passionate philosophy professor and his apathetic students, bristles with literary faith.
A veteran and a newcomer give us two gripping thrillers: The Big Finish by the critically acclaimed master of suspense, James W. Hall, and The Life We Bury, a mesmerizing debut by Allen Eskens.
Against a pervasive American sports culture, author Steve Allmond pits a devastating critique of the savage violence – and staggering toll in injuries and deaths – of football.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson returns to small-town Iowa in this new novel full of deceptive calms and clear mastery.
Felix Francis continues to artfully follow in his late father’s footsteps with his newest thriller, Dick Francis’s Damage. The Button Man, Mark Pryor’s fourth Hugo Marston novel, is a prequel that adds a fascinating dimension to the highly charismatic protagonist of this splendid series.
John Updike once affably damned James Agee as a wasted talent who failed to cultivate his craft. Liza Birnbaum replies with a defense of the glories of Agee’s ragged, heartfelt work.
Martin Amis’ new novel not only delves into the souls of a small group of characters involved in the running of concentration camp – it also interrogates the very nature of Holocaust fiction. Jack Hanson reads the latest from the author of Time’s Arrow.
James Ellroy begins a second L.A. Quartet with his new novel Perfidia. But does it harness the demonic madness and stylistic panache of the author’s earlier works of historical crime fiction?
A British historian’s richly-sourced accounting of Molotov-Ribbentrop offers fresh insights into this Nazi-Soviet pact of “non-aggression.”
With literary criticism disappearing as a popular artform, we increasingly look to the book reviewer to do the critic’s work. A new collection by John Domini offers an example of reviews that transcend their form to provide analysis alongside mere evaluation.
Sophie Hannah revives Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot with panache in The Monogram Murders, and Joe Gannon’s debut thriller Night of the Jaguar is a tightly wound, gut-wrenching read.
In her debut collection of stories, Tiphanie Yanique attempts to capture in prose the complexities of modern-day life and racial identity in a Caribbean behind the tourism ads.
The critical consensus around reclusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante is enough to make you suspect collusion – but to what end? and at what cost? Rohan Maitzen reviews the reviewers.
Can Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda heal Canada’s colonial relationship with its First Nations? Why should we expect literature to succeed where our leaders have failed?
A disaffected British colonial officer with a yearning for heroism is relegated to a doomed imperial outpost where he meets a native boy with a yearning for heroes – and from this unlikely pairing, Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman weaves its fantastic, moving story.
It’s been half a century since the appearance of Saul Bellow’s seminal novel Herzog – Jack Hanson revisits the work to see how Bellow’s various machinations have held up over time.
Christopher Beha’s new novel Arts and Entertainments aims to be that weirdest of all things: a serious, even elegant, book about … reality television. As our reviewer reports, the oddity is that it was even attempted, and the wonder is that it succeeds so well.
In the world of Julie Hayden’s stories, the contingency of all experience, let alone of literary creation and reputation, is inescapable.
A tightly drawn disturbing novel, The Frozen Dead is Bernard Minier’s auspicious debut. The Long Way Home is the tenth in Louise Penny’s celebrated Armand Gamache series.
Ben Lerner has followed his breakout novel Leaving the Atocha Station with a metafictional tale of a second-time novelist trying to throw a book together. Is it more than a game?
Metaphor: a tool for poets and rhetoricians, but also, perhaps, the way that people connect to the world at large. Lianne Habinek reviews a gamesome new study by the great literary critic Denis Donoghue.
A Colder War is the latest from Charles Cumming, one of the best at depicting the frail and brutal world of spydom. Neely Tucker’s The Ways of the Dead marks the debut of what promises to be a first-rate series.
Powerful South Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin’s second novel to be translated into English tells a touchingly human tale set in a world which, for most of her Western readers, could scarcely be more alien.
Michael Cunningham’s beautiful new novel The Snow Queen follows the wisdom of fairy tales: its revelations occur at dusk, because the hour of despair is the most fertile of the day.
Over time, the books of our youth make way for titles better suited to the grown-up readers we have become. But not all of them: YA or not, some books — such as K. M. Peyton’s Pennington trilogy — deserve a lasting place on our shelves.
It’s summer at last, and you won’t find any relief from the heat in our editors’ round-up of the hottest books they know.
Daniel Wilson’s first book, Robopocalypse was a straightforward adventure story about robots rising up against their human makers. His new book takes that simple premise and expands on it in complex and timely ways.
The new Scribner “Hemingway Library” edition of The Sun Also Rises offers annotations, rough drafts, and alternate line-edits – but how much light does it shed on its “near-perfect work of fiction”?
Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, those supersmart, sophisticated sleuths, are back in The Late Scholar, a savvy new detective story by Jill Paton Walsh.
A ticking clock hangs ominously over every page of Craig DiLouie’s genuinely creepy new horror novel, filled with beings who aren’t quite zombies and not quite vampires. Our resident horror maven Deirdre Crimmins tells us all about it.
Rusty Barnes’ debut novel Reckoning is both a hardbitten Appalachia noir and tender coming of age tale, both real art and real fun.
Rjurik Davidson’s stunning debut – an epic of espionage, magic, and beasts migrated out of mythology – isn’t the sixth in a series, or the tenth, or the fifteenth; it’s that rare thing in the genre: a stand-alone novel
Legendary Indian author Saadat Hasan Manto’s choicest short stories – depicting a teeming Bombay that’s both long-vanished and eternal – receive an attractive new paperback edition from Vintage International
Our mystery columnist looks at a highly anticipated debut, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, as well as the second novel in Jonathan Holt’s brilliant Carnivia trilogy, The Abduction.
Is it really the immigrant writer’s job to represent third-world suffering for the sake of first-world catharsis? In All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu resists the pressure to substitute autoethnography for art.
Characters never go wrong when their poor life choices make for fascinating reading. Kathleen Rooney supplies us with eight unmissable examples.
In Valeria Luiselli’s debut novel, a young Mexican woman imagines the real life of a long-dead man whose writings she has forged in the voice of a famous American poet. Then things get complicated.
A troika of mysteries—one a gripping debut, Precious Thing by Colette McBeth, the others superb new novels from two very special authors: Peter Robinson returns with Children of the Revolution and Donna Leon is back with By Its Cover.
In his latest novel In Paradise Peter Matthiessen dramatizes a collision between the thoughtful philosophy of Zen and the worst of the 20th Century’s horrors.
William S. Burroughs’s notorious Cut-up Trilogy was his fiercest broadside against what he felt was the tyranny of linear thought. Steve Danziger delves into their Word Hoard.
“Your field is the mind, mine is the brain – will the twain ever meet?” Master novelist E. L. Doctorow’s latest deals with the traumas of duality.
The Cairo Affair is an elegant new espionage thriller from the highly accomplished Olen Steinhauer. And in The Revenant of Thraxton Hall, Vaughn Entwistle teams Arthur Conan Doyle with Oscar Wilde – what could be better?
B. J. Novak, the gamine and unassuming star of the American version of The Office, has written a collection of short stories, and that collection, remarkably, got published. Justin Hickey decides to judge it on its merits.
A dazzling, kaleidescopic debut novel journeys through Kenya’s fraught post-colonial history while unpacking the tangled question of what it means to be a Kenyan.
A close reading of Elisabeth de Waal’s The Exiles Return reminds us that the dream of every returning exile is to savor not only a lost land but a lost time.
The books we reread say a lot about who we are or who we hope to be. They also shape us, as Rebecca Mead discovers in exploring her own long relationship with George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
Spike Jonze is the most mainstream of indie directors — or the most indie of mainstream directors — and his newest film Her is a triumph of quirky charm and visionary depth. Matt Sadler reviews.
Martha Grimes’ The Way of All Fish is a delectable satire set in the cutthroat world of New York publishing. Max Kinnings’ Baptism is a taut thriller of unbridled terror in the London subway.
One could argue, from the evidence of cable TV ratings, that we’ve entered the age of the anti-hero. But why are they so popular? Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel provides some unexpected answers.
Romance, nostalgia and beguiling delusions are hallmarks of Lara Vapnyar’s novels, including her sinuous newest, The Scent of Pine
Two fine, first-rate thrillers usher in the New Year. One centers on a major drug bust in a cutting edge contemporary setting, the other tackles one of the most baffling and notorious crime sprees of the Victorian era.
The new Bridget Jones novel will make you laugh and cry — but it might also make you fret, as it continues the series’ ongoing celebration of incompetence. Is blue soup really the best we can hope for, or the most we should strive for?
John Ford’s story of star-crossed lovers is bloodier than Shakespeare’s and more heart-wrenching, too, for it’s a tragedy of childhood, of innocence lost.
A murder, a trip to the dump, and oh yah – September 11. That wacky Thomas Pynchon is at it again!
“The Moonstone will have its vengeance on you and yours!” Those fateful words propel us into one of the first and best of modern English detective novels — still sensational after all these years.
Led on by a “shared obsession,” a philosopher and a psycyhoanalyst have teamed up to offer their interpretation of Hamlet. With the ghosts of countless critics looming before them, how has this pair fared?
Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s expansive novel Americanah centers on a Nigerian woman’s immigration to the United States and eventual return to Nigeria. Orem Ochiel explores what her story says about complex, often traumatic experience of being black and African in the West.
Vintage records, black dogs, and lost souls fill Dead Set, a teen novel for readers (of all ages) who are sick of half-hearted Hunger Games clones.
A light mantle of frost settles over the crowded events of Jumpha Lahiri’s new novel, which is “about” loss in the way that Anna Karenina is “about” love
The splendid Tatiana is Martin Cruz Smith’s eighth Arkady Renko novel, while Sins of the Flesh is the fifth thriller to feature Colleen McCullough’s offbeat detective Carmine Delmonico.
Jonathan Franzen has translated and annotated a collection of essays by Karl Kraus, the Austrian polemicist known as the Great Hater and one of the signal curmudgeonly influences behind Franzen’s fiction.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s ambitious new novel imagines the life of a 19th-century woman botanist, as insightful as Darwin but lost to history. It’s an interesting project, and a worthy one, but does the novel live up to its premise?
The style of Clarice Lispector’s unconventional and uneasy fiction was driven by both social anxiety and physical pain. How did this transubstantiation take place?
Fearless reporter Renata Adler’s novel “Speedboat” has been stirring debate and controversy since it was published in 1976; now, in a new reprint from the New York Review of Books, it retains its power to shock, subvert, and just maybe seduce.
Never Go Back, Lee Child’s 18th Jack Reacher adventure, is a winner; plus, the second in a nifty new series, Mortal Bonds by Michael Sears, redefines “follow the money.”
To many the scriptural story of Joseph is ancient and arcane. But its exploration into divine and authorial omniscience make it seem powerfully contemporary.
Distance is complicated: it measures intimacy, but in unpredictable ways. Rebecca Solnit’s evocative new book explores the meaning of distance and closeness.
Two special thrillers, The Edge of Normal by Carla Norton and Alex by Pierre Lemaitre: They “star” a duo of sexual predators—each a particularly nasty piece of work that makes for heart stopping suspense.
A wild fever-dream of a book, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept careers between thrilling emotion and absurd histrionics.
The meek and peaceful Jesus has become the standard Christian image of the Messiah. Religious scholar Reza Aslan’s controversial new book shatters that image and replaces it with something very different: a violent revolutionary who came not to bring peace but a sword.
In Caleb Crain’s debut novel, a young man puts his ordinary life on hold and goes to post-revolution Prague in search of all the usual things young people go searching for in Prague. But, as reviewer Yulia Greyman observes, “false selves are a part of love.”
The Lord of the Rings draws on many medieval stories and myths. Oddly absent, however, are overt references to the one myth that ruled them all. A newly published poem fills that gap – but it may bemuseTolkein’s usual readers.
‘Everyone knows who won the war,’ runs the refrain of Muriel Rukeyser’s Savage Coast; her newly published 1930 novel about the Spanish Civil War shows what it meant to be a witness to it.
The stories of British writer H.H. Munro, known by his pen-name Saki, are devastating studies in torment and cruelty; they’re also exceptionally funny. A new collection offers a bracing reminder of that duality.
From the surfeit of Scandinavian thrillers comes one that stands out with the best: Bad Blood by Arne Dahl.
Shirley Jackson is best known – infamous, even – for her chilling story “The Lottery.” But it’s her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, where battle rages between evil within and without, that’s her masterpiece.
When Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1964, her moral authority was called into question. Now Margarethe von Trotta’s new film Hannah Arendt explores both who has the right and who has the responsibility to speak about the Holocaust.
In the famous jingle ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived,’ Katherine Parr comes last – the sixth wife of King Henry VIII. But she was far more than that – scholar, regent, and passionate young woman – as a new Tudor historical novel attempts to portray
An auspicious debut, The Abomination is a riveting conspiracy thriller by Jonathan
Holt. Plus, Philip Kerr’s cheeky, charismatic Berlin cop Bernie Gunther is back in A Man Without Breath.
Our feature continues, as more Open Letters folk share their annual Summer Reading recommendations!
Richard Ford likes complexity, and he filled his novel, The Sportswriter, with sonnet-like weights and counterweights of tangled and gorgeous intricacy. As Spencer Lenfield’s reading demonstrates, single sentences can contain worlds.
Olivia Manning: A Woman at War
By Deirdre David
Oxford University Press, 2013
When is a woman writer not a “woman writer”? What does it mean to claim or resist that identity — for a woman who writes, …
Fintan O’Toole is an idealist about Irish republicanism and his books begin a desperately necessary conversation. It’s a bad sign, though, that he can’t quite get past the preliminaries.
Nice as it is to revisit old friends, readers of Jane Gardam’s latest may end up wondering if all the most interesting things happened somewhere else, at some other time.
John le Carré, the pre-eminent spy writer of the 20th century and beyond, dazzles us again with A Delicate Truth. Plus a debut addition to the ranks of the genre, Red Sparrow, might just earn the author Jason Matthews a pat on the back from the master.
In Andre Aciman’s latest novel, a man recalls his time as a graduate student at Harvard, revisiting the early days of a long-estranged friendship.
On Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and the crime of dismissive criticism in both Bookforum and The LA Review of Books
Mark Wallace’s novels won’t be found at a Barnes & Noble, and that may be a shame beyond words: both Dead Carnival and The Quarry and the Lot reveal haunting truths and wrestle language into terrifying attitudes.
In a new memoir packed with garbled madness, we get a funhouse-mirror autobiography of the legendary Richard Hell, who did more than anybody to invent punk rock and only haphazardly survived to tell the tale
Does love create an unbridgeable distance between two souls? Marco Roth’s searching memoir of his microbiologist father alternates between longing and numbness in its search for what, if anything, binds fathers and sons
Born of ancient Buddhist philosophy into the fragments of the modern world, Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge asks essential questions about what it means to be human.
Two seductive thrillers: one starring a fearless female cop, the other a boatload of washed-up MI5 spies.
The lurid pathology of Patrick McGrath’s fiction – its endless procession of madmen, derelicts, and misguided psychiatrists – can often blind us to the fact that he is first of all a historical novelist – and a great one.
Why, asks James Meek’s latest novel, should the rich get smoother, easier lives than their less well-paid fellow men? And what can an innovative novelist do with the oft-visited ‘immoral rich versus honorable poor’ premise?
Elie Wiesel once claimed “a novel about Treblinka is either not a novel or not about Treblinka.” How does Steve Sem-Sandberg grapple with representing the unrepresentable in his sweeping chronicle of the Łódź ghetto, The Emperor of Lies? A review from our archives.
George Eliot’s Middlemarch is beloved for its wit and wisdom. But behind its many beauties lurks a disquieting possibility: that misery is the price we must pay for morality.
After fictionalizing his experiences in his previous four books, Aleksandar Hemon revisits his memories in a new collection of essays.
Yes, we know Sam Lipsyte’s stories are laugh-out-loud funny. But all that low comedy–the pratfalls, the dirty jokes–serves as the ballast for some of the darkest stories in contemporary fiction. Steve Danziger elaborates.
To make something we must first unmake or take apart something else. Why, then, in a novel preoccupied with acts of destruction and reconstruction, does Pat Barker not offer a corresponding deformation of form? Has her critique of Modernism led her to disavow art altogether?
Car crashes, suburban swingers’ societies, accidental prostitution, Nixon enthusiasts, and a cameo performance by Don DeLillo – in her latest novel, A.M. Homes maintains her equilibrium
Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs, is a dazzling debut that deserves a place as a benchmark of the crime-thriller genre
Spoiler alert! It’s a familiar warning — but isn’t it also a silly one? There’s so much more to novels than their plots. And yet what if we’re better readers for not knowing? Consider The Mill on the Floss, for example.
In M. John Harrison’s lyrical Viriconium trilogy, the high science of quantum physics meets the low art of fighting giant locusts. Justin Hickey finds a quiet spot to watch the chitin fly.
Joseph Epstein has a cult following as a sharp-tongued critic and essayist. His latest collection showcases his love of words and ideas as well as his caustic wit.
“The proper function of a critic is to save a tale from the artist who created it” wrote D. H. Lawrence, but sometimes – most of the time – despite the best efforts of the best critics, both tale and artist disappear. What do we do with the criti-cal darlings of yesteryear, now filling the library bargain sale? And what of the critics, who called them imperishable?
Watching the Dark, the latest in Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series, shows the master crime writer at the top of his form.
In 2011, Aleksandar Hemon chooses his favorite short fiction from all across Europe. From our archives, Kevin Frazier celebrated these bracing imports.
Say “Evgeny Onegin” to any educated Russian and you will trigger the first stanza or two of Pushkin’s great novel in verse. Now Russia’s national poet is finally coming into his own in the West as well.
Dan Fesperman’s The Double Game is a complex literary novel of intrigue that makes spy fiction a central character, “doubling” the reading pleasure.
The Hemingway Library has given us a variorum edition of A Farewell to Arms with 39 alternate endings. But how might Hemingway himself have felt about the resulting collage?
Anthony Burgess is famous, but not for his best book. John Cotter sees your A Clockwork Orange and raises you the new Europa edition of Earthly Powers.
Anthony Burgess the novelist had dreams of being a composer. He had little success, but along the way he delved deep into the nature and meaning of music.
Europa Editions has reprinted Anthony Burgess’ masterpiece Earthly Powers. Our editors talk about that seminal volume which has inspired an issue wide celebration of Burgess and his work.
Respectable novelists are solemn, meditative, and deliberate–they certainly don’t churn out book reviews every week. Anthony Burgess smashed that fussy mold and left us a lifetime’s work of brilliant, omnivorous literary journalism.
A Clockwork Orange turned 50 this year and received the gift of an anniversary edition. Justin Hickey looks anew at the novel Anthony Burgess claimed to have knocked off in three weeks, and which made him famous.
Anthony Burgess’ first novels were a series of dark comedies set in colonial Malaya. Did he fall prey to Edward Said’s Orientalist crtitique, or did he anticipate it?
Some of Anthony Burgess’ most accomplished inventions roam into the past, to Shakespeare and Marlowe’s England and Jesus’ Judea. How well has his historical fiction stood up across the years?
“I knew my trip would mean an encounter with Adela Quested”: Victoria Olsen reflects on what she found, and what was lost in translation, when she travelled to India with E. M. Forster on her mind.
A city in northern England and a remote Scottish island are appropriately bleak settings to launch two impressive new series.
Open Letters Weekly has been the venue for hundreds of book reviews in 2012. For your reading pleasure and holiday book-buying convenience, we gather them here in chronological order.
Bossophilia: The idolization of Bruce Springsteen that comes from midlife nostalgia and a fear of dying. Steve Danziger confronts the phenomenon, and a new biography.
What does it mean to say “only the music matters?” In her bleakly intelligent new novel, Lynne Sharon Schwartz challenges us to consider what we really value in music and how our own demand for superhuman perfection strips it of its soul.
William Kent Krueger and Steve Hamilton, authors of two critically acclaimed series, have winning new detective novels. Irma Heldman reviews.
Renowned reviewer and cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn has a scintillating new collection of his recent work; John Cotter and Steve Donoghue compare notes on “Waiting for the Barbarians”
How can writers depict the fragmented modern soul? For Zadie Smith, the solution is an untidy, fragmented novel. M.K. Hall reviews NW
Can a famously cold and impersonal writer like Paul Auster make a memoir of aging that works against his strengths? And are they strengths after all?
The seventeenth Lee Child is vintage Jack Reacher and the eighth Louise Penny is, as always, compelling and charismatic
What does the soul-searching writer do when the concept of the soul–to say nothing of God–has lost its currency? Two new confessional novels try to navigate that uncharted territory.
It’s a bridge, a barrier, and a burden; it’s used in the bedroom, the kitchen, and the outhouse. Leah Price helps us think again about what we can, should, or want to do with that most fetishized of objects: the book.
The worlds of fine art, porno, hollywood, meth addiction, and quality lit cross and recombine in Bruce Wagner’s latest Dead Stars. We made this culture, now what do we make of it?
What would it mean if history were a joke, a shaggy dog story? J. G. Farrell’s bleakly funny Troubles reflects the struggle of post-war British literature to come to terms with the inheritance of modernism.
A rare film is the centerpiece of Syndrome E, a cutting-edge, mesmerizing thriller.
Two scalpel-sharp political thrillers that mark the welcome return of the thoroughly winning, charismatic protagonists: Charlie Muffin and Joe DeMarco.
2012, a William Gaddis renaissance year, sees the reissue of the author’s awesome, strangely prescient 1975 novel J R. Greg Gerke and Gabriel Blackwell discuss their experiences tackling the tome.
Nerdy teenager Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider – and a super-franchise was born! As a new blockbuster Spider-Man movie hits the summer theaters, Justin Hickey takes us on a tour of the character’s colorful – and often tortured – past!
The inventor of the beloved Inspector Maigret was gigantically prolific – hundreds of novels, churned out at lightning speed (80 pages a day, according to the author himself) – and in this as in many other things, Georges Simenon was a world unto himself.
Cop to Corpse, the 12th in Peter Lovesey’s Detective Supt. Peter
Diamond series, finds the master at the top of his form.
Dubbed the Voltaire of science fiction, Robert Sheckley often denied that there was anything serious in his fabulations. But a new collection belies the claim, displaying inventive satire mixed with wisdom
This picaresque classic by Colombian novelist Álvaro Mutis doubles as an extended valentine to the author of Heart of Darkness. Robert Latona revisits it.
Carsten Stroud’s Niceville is a wildly edgy thriller with the heart of a dark comedy–our resident mystery maven reviews
Steve Donoghue takes the emperor’s box to thumbs-up or thumbs-down an array of Roman historical novels, as “A Year with the Romans” continues.
Felix Holt, the Radical may be one of George Eliot’s least-read novels, but its questions about a democracy that puts power in the hands of “ignorant numbers” still have both moral and political resonance.
Brian Evenson’s work is a violent exploration of a violent medium: language. His new novel Immobility and the stories collected in Windeye continue that journey into dark territory.
Art, Truth, Data, Sex, and Facebook–rabble-roused by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact, Max Ross connects them in a key to all nonfiction aesthetics
No form of literature seems as thoroughly doomed in the 21st century as the printed encyclopedia, but even dinosaurs can have rich and rewarding life-stories. Where did we go, before we all went to the Internet?
Ken Layne’s political writing is sharp and raucus, and a novel about a financially devastated near-future United States would seem like a perfect vehicle for more anger. But though that fire is still there, a gentle-but-compelling spiritualist tone has risen to to the fore.
Randall Jarrell was suspicious of attempts to turn criticism into a science: he wrote as a reader, for other readers, with the work itself foremost in his mind.
A thumping mix-tape of dystopian fantasy and gangster noir, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane defies easy categorization–but does it offer a story to match its stylistic bravura?
The box office record-setting movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is the latest incarnation of an unsettling children-as-prey plot that’s been with us in one form or another for a long time – and never more vividly than in Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale
When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 2010, it was given to an empty chair. Its recipient, Liu Xiaobo, was in prison for advocating human rights in China. Though he is still incarcerated, a collection of essays sheds light on his thought and struggle.
With its headspinning wordplay and lunatic cast of characters, Seth Morgan’s 1990 novel Homeboy blazed like a comet into the literary pantheon. Steve Danziger revisits this grime crime classic.
Long-time critic John Sutherland’s latest book The Lives of the Novelists takes readers on a biographical tour of 294 creators’ lives. But does it work? Long-time critic Steve Donoghue and novelist John Cotter try to figure that out.
In Nick Harkaway’s altogether remarkable novel Angelmaker, blistering gangster noir meets Rabelaisian comedy
In The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson evokes the brutality of North Korea’s authoritarian regime by way of an over-the-top love story. Joyce W. Lee investigates whether torture and romance can coexist in one novel.
Of his 60+ books, one in particular, The United States, is best representative of his work as a whole and, by readers, best loved. On the Collected Essays of Gore Vidal.
Frank Kermode consumed all of the tumultuous 20th century’s literary theories without being consumed by them. A look at the work of this wisest of secular clerics.
For two generations, the great American critic and man of letters Edmund Wilson has been instructing and delighting his readers – and inspiring some of them to become critics themselves.
Elizabeth Hardwick joined the literary world of mid-20th century Manhattan with every intention of making her mark upon it – which she did, in review after inimitable review, taking American book-discourse to levels and places it had never reached before
Where would Lionel Trilling, godfather of the liberal imagination, fit into our contemporary culture of ideas? And how much of that culture is of his making?
Most criticism is reactive, but in his essay “The Poet,” Ralph Waldo Emerson proved prophetic. He set a challenge and Walt Whitman took him up on it.
Richard Poirier was one of the great bridge-builders–his sorely neglected classic A World Elsewhere drew upon the writing of Emerson but presciently anticipated the postmodernist ideas that would soon enter the mainstream.
Is there more to romance fiction than perfect people meeting cute and living happily ever after? Sarah Wendell thinks so, but her arguments in defense of this most reviled of genres may themselves sell it short.
Eli Gottlieb’s novels are built on dissimulation: lies to be cruel, lies to be kind … how does this formula hold in The Face Thief, and what is Gottlieb getting at?
This new novel has all the grit, violence, and hopelessness we expect of the noir sub-genre, but here it’s infused with an almost philosophical edge.
Tom McCarthy’s Derrida-inspired linguistic and narrative fixations are once again on full display in Men in Space, his first novel now reissued after the popularity of Remainder and C
The Silent Oligarch is a smashing debut thriller that has Chris Morgan Jones assuming the le Carré mantle in his own very original way
Ayad Akhtar’s debut novel American Dervish describes joins a Pakistani-American boy’s coming-of-age story with the exploration of a Muslim family’s assimilation into picket-fenced suburbs. What traditions will be kept or compromised? And more importantly, how well does the author present his vision?
If anything’s taboo in our society it’s a thoughtful, humanistic portrait of a terrorist, which is why more established writers failed where Jarett Kobek delivers something new.
Is Don DeLillo’s short game as good as his long? Is it better? His first collection of short fiction — or is it his first? — offers occasion to take the much-lauded writer’s measure.
P.D. James takes on Jane Austen: a match made in elite whodunit heaven.
Prince of the Bengali renaissance, internationally feted poet, composer, painter, educator — why don’t we know Rabindranath Tagore today? And will a new book open our eyes?
Carte Blanche is bestselling author Jeffrey Deaver’s new take on James Bond—bringing Agent 007 into the post-9/11 age.
Does marriage mean much anymore? Does the novel? Jeffrey Eugenides sets out to reinvent the classic literary story—but can he combine the style and the substance of the greats he hopes to update to our times?
A meticulously-researched rendition of the horrifying massacres that comprised the “Rape of Nanjing” is the backdrop for Ha Jin’s latest telegraphic and affecting novel.
Robert Musil’s magnum opus The Man Without Qualities was groundbreaking not because it’s unfinished but because it’s unfinishable. A new study attempts to take scope of its deep and mesmerizing pointlessness.
A gripping thriller, the debut collaborative work from a duo of Danish writers, is the first in a trilogy you won’t soon forget.
Umberto Eco’s potboiling new novel The Prague Cemetery was denounced in Europe for anti-Semitism, and then went on to become a best-seller. Is the controversy valid? What strange creation has Eco brought forth?
Provocative public intellectual/muckraker Christopher Hitchens offers an enormous volume of collected essays and articles, probably his last.
In Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel The Stranger’s Child the renown of a minor English poet balloons and distorts in each succeeding decade after his death
Novelist António Lobo Antunes’ books are searing and wildly original indictments of Portugal’s needlessly protracted and bloody colonization of Angola.
Ben Lerner’s arresting first novel sets a funhouse mirror before the author’s own formative years as a poet, poseur, and pill-popper in Madrid.
Eleven years after her breakout novel The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt returns to satirize the chattering nonsense of the corporate world.
Colonialism, feminism, witchcraft, the Lord of Darkness — themes such as these once made Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novels bestsellers. Now her charmingly subversive fiction is back in print.
Nicholson Baker’s provocative new book is an attempt at mainstream literary pornography, but does it suffer from the same performance anxiety as other novelistic efforts to depict sex?
Newly released in paperback are three Young Adult novels aimed at that sometimes-elusive reading demographic: teen boys.
The larger-than-life exploits of Lord Byron drew an erratic and daunting trajectory through the lives of those nearest him. A trilogy of novels attempts to go where so many biographies have gone before.
Irmgard Keun depicted exceptionally naive women and seemed even to play the the role herself, even suing The Gestapo for banning her books. But was there a strategy behind playing dumb?
A witty young woman meets a devastating man — literally, he devastates her. From the wreck of her life she tells her tale, and it is a tale well told. Sex meets death in Deborah Kay Davies’ brilliant True Things About Me
Vladimir Sorokin’s gruesome (and frequently censored) satires puncture Russia’s surprising nostalgia for the glory days of Stalin and Khrushchev; Amelia Glaser reviews two newly released works.
The self is strange and divided in Jenny Boully’s new book of poetry; Karen Hannah tries to piece it together.
Visionary novelist J.G. Ballard’s penultimate book “Millennium People,” about an outbreak of middle-class revolution and terrorism, has finally been published in the U.S.
Good writers borrow, great writers steal. Sure, but should they steal whole characters? plots? authors? Robert Coover and the writers of Re: Telling steal it all and let their readers sort it out.
Scott Sparling’s first novel Wire to Wire has rushed up at the reading world full of glue-sniffers, freight-hoppers, wedgeheads, and knives midair — so what’s it really about?
French trailblazer Raymond Roussel created teeming and fertile worlds from a secret process of wordplay. Two of his most spectacular works are coming back into print after a long, undeserved absence.
Widowhood is lonely, darkly comic, defiant, and emotionally vital in Michelle Latiolais’s new story collection. Jeff Bursey reviews.
How to write a great novel of the financial crisis? One contender has published his attempt, and it features an updated version of that bugbear figure from Shakespeare and Trollope: the Jewish banker.
Walking talking cats? mysterious birthmarks? ancient secrets? Bogdan Suceava takes us to a strange place (Romania, present day) in his newly translated novel.
The omissions in Javier Marías’s beguiling, enigmatic novels are just as important as what appear on the page, and two newly translated books are marked by this juggling of the known and the unknown.
Francis Spufford’s new story collection blends fact and fiction to explore the truths and towering delusions of the Soviet economic system–and its production model, the American fast food chain.
Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” is one of the most heralded fiction debuts of the season. Kevin Frazier weighs the switch-ups of its tone against the beauties of its prose.
The protagonist of Teju Cole’s “Open City” roams New York, gathering and subtly processing observations; Andrew Martin trails this enigmatic walker in the city.
Death-in-a-Box meditates on sameness, doubling, and identity’s dissolve. So who is this Alta Ifland? And what sets her apart?
She was an orange-seller, an actress, a whore, and the most popular of Charles II’s many mistresses: Nell Gwynn stars in two new novels.
Teenage Catherine Howard weds the older and ailing Henry VIII to serve her family’s ambition, and uses her status to take lovers of her own – risking everything. Novelist Suzannah Dunn spins a fine tale out of the girl’s brief rise and fall.
Tarzan is one of the most popular fictional creations in modern times. Does the Ape Man define something essential in the human experience – or do we keep redefining Tarzan to suit our ever-changing needs?
Matt Taibbi is the foremost political-writing muckraker of his generation, matching an acerbic wit with a pressure-cooked prose style. But is there substance behind the bluster?
For nearly three decades, Sara Paretsky has used the familiar form of the private eye novel to turn a critical eye on contemporary America. Rohan Maitzen reviews the latest in her V.I. Warshawski series.
You think you want to look beauty in the eye? Get ready to tremble… Alice Brittan reviews Michael Cunningham’s paradoxical novel “By Nightfall”.
Molly Allgood was only a young, up-and-coming actress when her fiance J.M. Synge died of cancer. Joseph O’Connor’s novel “The Ghost Light” imagines how the rest of her life played out in the shadow of that loss.
Lance Olsen’s page-turning experimental novel-in-stories mugs, flirts, ends the world, and dares the reader to make a rondel of intuitive leaps.
Assimilation is the nightmare of Joshua Cohen’s daring novel “Witz,” and the book is therefore designed to be strange and prickly to the gentiles who try to read it.
Tom McCarthy’s new palimpsest of microscripts, C, attempts a new technocratic and poetical re-imagining of its protagonist’s life story. What’s at stake, and what’s won?
Ever since Cain and Abel, literature has reserved a prominent place for sterling heroes — and the flawed, grasping, and entirely more interesting brothers who live in their shadow.
John le Carré not only has a new novel — all his old ones are being inducted into the pantheon of UK Penguin Classics. Has this indefatigable crafter of spy novels transformed into the litterateur in our lifetime?
Charles Portis’s “True Grit” features a young girl who’s all business and a grizzled gunslinger who’s all heart — but there’s far more complexity and humor to the story than the Hollywood pairing implies. Ingrid Norton looks at a great American novella.
In Yoko Ogawa’s beautiful, violent take on the Bluebeard legend, a stern old man and a biddable girl meet in a hotel and embark on a sexual journey of surprising poignancy.
In his latest book, Stephen King works in extremely familiar territory — ordinary people presented with extraordinary moral choices, with a dash of the eerie thrown in. Do an old hand’s usual tricks still entertain?
For more than fifty years and more than fifty novels, Louis Auchincloss chronicled the lives of New York’s upper class. His last book is a memoir of his life among that upper class — but is truth stranger than fiction?
A teacher seduced by the fame of his star pupil? Or two great minds meeting despite differences in age and station? Annabel Lyon’s celebrated new novel “The Golden Mean” dramatizes the relationship between Aristotle and the boy who would go on to become Alexander the Great.
Emma Donoghue’s story of a boy raised in perfect (if penitential) solitude with his mother and then thrust into the wide world is parable about the isolation of affection–or is it a commentary on how alien our society has become?
A new book argues that Theodore Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst stampeded the United States into the Spanish-American War to feed imperial ambition and sell some newspapers. Are the roots of modern America rotten?
A catch-all collection of James Baldwin’s essays, letters, and speeches reveals a social commenter whose observations retain their relevance and universality to this day
It’s one of the iconic bestsellers of the 20th century, an epic of love and war — but how well does “Gone With The Wind” hold up, as a book? A personal journey through a problematic classic.
“Pride and Prejudice” has been so thoroughly revised, modernized, and sequelized that its subtleties risk being overlooked. A new annotated edition seeks to yield up its many secrets.
He toadied to a succession of emperors and trembled at the mere thought of being mugged — on the surface, it looks odd to cast Pliny the Younger as a detective. A new mystery novel takes that chance.
Donald Sturrock’s hefty new biography of Roald Dahl shows both the troubled, temperamental family man and the conjurer of wicked, entrancing stories
The twisty boundaries of narrative reliability are at the heart of Ingrid Norton’s discussion the neglected classic “The Pilgrim Hawk” as “A Year with Short Novels” continues.
“Art is dying,” Milan Kundera writes in his essay collection “Encounter,” “because the need for art is dying”; John G. Rodwan, Jr. assesses his attempt to re-stoke that need
Alice Perrers is reviled by history for insinuating her way into Edward III’s bed and Queen Phillipa’s jewels. Now Emma Campion’s new novel aims to rescue her tattered reputation.
This installment of the Year with Short Novels immerses itself in Margaret Atwood’s haunting second novel, Surfacing.
As our freelancer Khalid Ponte validly points out, the problem with werewolves is literature, not lycanthropy: they lack a foundational text! Although an excellent recent anthology offers some likely candidates.
Thackeray’s seminal big baggy monster of a novel is a satiric romp across all levels of English society – and every bit as enjoyable now as it was when it was the talk of London in 1847
Readers have adored Truman Capote’s iconic Holly Golightly; they might be amazed, then, by how much Capote borrowed from Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles
In Craig Dilouie’s new thriller Tooth and Nail, American troops are called home to New York from war-torn Iraq, only to find there are some horrors far worse than those of war
Steven Moore’s big new book seeks to give an ‘alternative history’ to that most familiar of literary forms, the novel. But at what point does history become wishful thinking?
Her stature has only grown over time, dominating bookstores, television, movie theaters, and now the Internet. She’s Jane Austen, the world’s least likely pop star.
Ingrid Norton’s Year with Short Novels continues in this installment about William Maxwell’s problematically nostalgic novella So Long, See You Tomorrow
Liars and impostors have been Peter Carey’s bread and butter for 30 years–so he’s up to mischief when he takes on the beloved and upright Alexis de Tocqueville in a new novel.
It was only a matter of time before our Year with Short Novels got around to the most famous one of them all and traveled deep into The Heart of Darkness.
Hermes, god of thieves and liars, is the narrator of John Banville’s new novel The Infinities. Janet Potter looks into the story he’s got to tell.
She’s been praised by Oprah and cut by Joyce Carol Oates; the nature of Carson McCullers’ prose has always confounded some readers and pleased others. We read her again.