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Articles by John Cotter

OLM Favorites: Losing Music

December 1st, 2017
OLM Favorites: Losing Music

“We can pour anything into it – any fear or catastrophe or yearning, any warning” – music both fills our lives and helps to shape them. But what happens if music starts, slowly, haltingly, to go away? A harrowing personal essay.

From the Archives: The Atrium Effect: Museums Under Glass

November 1st, 2017
From the Archives: The Atrium Effect: Museums Under Glass

Big slabs of glass may look impressive, but they have a serious effect on our interaction with art. Museums are changing, and it isn’t always a good thing.

Mirror Writing

March 1st, 2016

There are two kinds of essayists: explainers and explorers. Which populate the new series from Restless Books about the human face? John Cotter investigates.

David Bowie

January 11th, 2016

David Bowie

Friends on the Patio

November 1st, 2015
Friends on the Patio

Essayist, critic, novelist, and public gadfly: Gore Vidal’s long career took many forms and sprang from a life as dramatic as his work. Has that life finally found a biography to do it justice?

Book Review: Sympathy for the Devil

January 12th, 2015
Book Review: Sympathy for the Devil

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.

Noble Rot

January 1st, 2015
Noble Rot

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 …

Grosz Anatomy

October 1st, 2014
Grosz Anatomy

In his latest collection of essays, Theater of Cruelty, Ian Buruma launches a series of expert investigations into the springs of cruelty and the perils of victomhood.

The Sun Was Bad

June 1st, 2014
The Sun Was Bad

Rusty Barnes’ debut novel Reckoning is both a hardbitten Appalachia noir and tender coming of age tale, both real art and real fun.

The Selves in Ourself

May 1st, 2014
The Selves in Ourself

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.

The Ogre’s Guests

April 1st, 2014
The Ogre’s Guests

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.

From the Archives: Two From Saturnalia Books

March 1st, 2014

John Cotter looks into new mixed-media books of poetry by Bill Knott and John Yau to discover shades of meaning in the interplay of artwork and verse.

October 2013 Issue

October 1st, 2013
October 2013 Issue


September 2013 Issue

September 1st, 2013
September 2013 Issue


Missed Connections

August 1st, 2013
Missed Connections

Is David Rakoff’s novel-in-verse either worthy verse or a worthy novel? Does he pull off a high-wire act, as so many critics have concluded, or is it all a grand illusion?

Book Review: Lexicon

June 20th, 2013

Mere words have the power to kill, literally, in Max Barry’s new thriller. Who welds them? And how worthy are Barry’s own words?

Ink a Dinka Don’t

June 1st, 2013
Ink a Dinka Don’t

Is close reading disappearing? And is that the most pressing problem facing universities? Terry Eagleton’s latest, How to Read Literature is a plea for a return to what made the humanities worth knowing.

Second Glance: Another City

May 1st, 2013
Second Glance: Another City

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.

Book Review: Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles

April 17th, 2013
Book Review: Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles

Ron Currie Jr. is not only the author of the new novel Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, he is also its protagonist.

The Prince of the Powers of the Air

December 1st, 2012
The Prince of the Powers of the Air

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.

Traveler at his Desk

December 1st, 2012
Traveler at his Desk

Burgess gave himself room to stretch his arms (and facts) in the two volumes of his Confessions. That space to digress, opine, sing songs, is what makes both books so memorable — even indispensable.

First Person Singular

October 1st, 2012
First Person Singular

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?

Wagner’s Inferno

September 1st, 2012
0406minos (2)

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?

Century 16, Aurora

July 20th, 2012
pic 2

In the wake of today’s news from Connecticut, we are reposting a note written by our Executive Editor following the shootings in Aurora earlier this year.

Peer Review: Home

June 1st, 2012
Peer Review: <i>Home</i>

Book reviewers are split on whether Toni Morrison’s novel is a further triumph or a falling off. Or did these critics only find what they anticipated? We reviewed the reviews, then we reviewed the book.

Cato of the Antipodes

March 1st, 2012
Cato of the Antipodes

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.

Trompe L’oeil

February 1st, 2012

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?


January 1st, 2012
Whitman of Tikrit

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.

Real Illusions

November 1st, 2011
John Cotter and John Bonath, October 2011

“You’ve got to learn the language of art to be able to appreciate it. And then, where you go with it, what you see with it, is only limited to your own imagination.”– A conversation with cover artist John Bonath

One Encounter: El Jaleo

October 1st, 2011
One Encounter: <i>El Jaleo</i>

What good are reproductions and what do we lose in keeping them? Our writer returns to a famous painting after a dozen years and finds more than he’d imagined

The Bad Man Comes to Stay

August 1st, 2011

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

The Greenhouse in the Anvil

July 1st, 2011
Tool Studies

A conversation with cover artist Elizabeth Alexander

Michigan Falls

June 1st, 2011
train ferry

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?

Bohemia Rundown

May 1st, 2011

Semiotext(e) is famous for theory and provocation. So what happens when its co-founder takes on the art world in the latest installment of their manifesto series? To begin with, she doesn’t write a manifesto…

I Is Someone Else

April 1st, 2011

Death-in-a-Box meditates on sameness, doubling, and identity’s dissolve. So who is this Alta Ifland? And what sets her apart?

Fallout, Carry On

January 1st, 2011

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.

#3 The Big Short

October 1st, 2010

The Big Short
By Michael Lewis
W.W. Norton, 2010
I used to know a pair of aspiring plutocrats who’d occasionally trade books about rich investors managing, through their cunning, to get even richer. “He’s a very interesting guy,” …

Allen Ginsberg

November 26th, 2009

The Poetry and Life
of Allen Ginsberg:
a narrative poem
by Edward Sanders
Overlook, 2000, 2009
Ed Sanders was a follower of Allen Ginsberg, and later a close friend, and he’s in a nice position to sketch what amounts to …

Ain’t That America

November 1st, 2009

Foreclosure isn’t the homeowner’s only enemy. No one’s safe in their home when big money sniffs around; so the Supreme Court famously ruled in Kelo v. New London: John Cotter reviews muckraker Jeff Benedict’s Little Pink House.

Speaking In Code

October 2nd, 2009

Speaking In Code
a film by Amy Grill
sQuare Productions, 2009
What drives, obsesses, and eventually breaks impresario David Day in the new documentary Speaking In Code is that most elusive of quarries: getting something started in Boston.
The something …

Survey Says!

October 1st, 2009

Survey Says!
Nathan Austin
Black Maze Books, 2009
Survey Says is a short book of white margins and large type, considering solely of answers provided on The Family Feud (in 2005 and 2008):
I soak my dishes. Bambi. Hamburger. …


October 1st, 2009

In our second annual Fiction Bestseller List feature, our writers temporarily put aside their dogeared copies of Hume and Mann, roll up their sleeves, and dig into the ten bestselling novels in the land as of September 6, 2009 – in the tranquil days before a certain Dan Brown novel began tromping all over that list like Godzilla in downtown Tokyo. Before you spend your hard-earned money at the bookstore, join us in a tour of the way we read now.

Stem and Root

September 1st, 2009

From the forbidding North to the torrid South, the poetry debuts of Joshua Harmon and Farrah Field explore the geography of words. John Cotter gives centrality to locality.

Postal Worker? Poodle?

May 1st, 2009

Poet’s poet Lyn Hejinian has turned poet’s novelist in Lola, half of her new collection Saga/Circus. John Cotter circles its sagacity.

Review of Last Days

April 6th, 2009

In John Cotter’s review of Brian Evenson’s Last Days, he states, “I came to it looking for a quick and disturbing shocker. And it satisfied. That’s something real.”

It Is What It Is

March 2nd, 2009

Coming out of Bowery rain into downtown New York’s New Museum last Friday, I didn’t expect more than to spend an an hour or so with some installations and some video art, — I’d just …

The Damage Collector

January 1st, 2009

Open Letters mourns the passing of C.D. Wright, a poet who made her revolutionary books out of scraps of overheard conversation, wandering memories, newspaper headlines.


September 1st, 2008

It’s been over 30 years since Gore Vidal wrote his penetrating and acerbic essay on the bestseller list, and we thought it was time to give that infamous mainstay of the literary world another look. Open Letters has cracked into the bestseller list and invites you to join us in discovering what’s really there…

Backyard Arcana

August 1st, 2008

For sixty years, the great and shapeshifting American author Evan S. Connell has woven strands of short stories through the fabric of his ongoing larger works. These beguiling stories have changed (and often deepened) with time while many of their ardors and tensions have remained the same, creating an irresistible dialectic. The three founding editors of Open Letters, united in their appreciation for this living legend of the American literary scene, pay tribute by writing a piece apiece on Connell’s life, career, and latest short story collection, Lost in Uttar Pradesh.

Dharma Bums: 50th Anniversary Edition

June 26th, 2008

Dharma Bums: 50th Anniversary Edition
by Jack Kerouac
Viking, 2008
Louis Menand wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker last year about On the Road, reminding us of the huge loneliness and nostalgia in and around the …


June 1st, 2008

There can be no more obvious target in the literary landscape than a popularly selling book-length poem. With Sharp Teeth, Toby Barlow has dared to write such a thing, and John Cotter has responded accordingly.

Analfabeto / An Alphabet

May 5th, 2008

Analfabeto / An Alphabet
Ellen Baxt
Shearsman, 2007
Dictionary lists intersperse the fragmentary text of Analfabeto / An Alphabet, but they are always incomplete. We have the English, but we don’t have all the Portuguese. So, for the …


May 1st, 2008

August Kleinzahler is not an old man, yet Sleeping It Off in Rapid City is his fourth Selected Poems. John Cotter explores why you’ll need the old ones too and why you may find yourself with a use for the word “Kleinzahleresque.”

The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE

April 6th, 2008

The New Oxford World History:
The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE
Ian Tattersall
Oxford, 2008
Focusing on early humans to the exclusion of non-human biology or world geology, this lean book may have been more accurately titled …

The Waitress Was New

March 9th, 2008

The Waitress Was New
By Dominique Fabre, translated by Jordan Stump
Archipelago Books, 2008
Pierre, a bartender, is a gentle man—tactful, considerate. He may not always have been so, but life has worn him smooth. Even in the …

Violent Art: On Learning to Shudder

February 1st, 2008

In this regular feature, John Cotter examines two brutal, disturbing pieces of 20th-Century German art—and they come disturbingly close to examining him in return.

Voices in the Woods

November 1st, 2007

John Cotter champions one of the most promising debuts in years, Joshua Harmon’s bold, symphonic novel Quinnehtukqut.

Two From FSG

August 1st, 2007

John Cotter leads us to the interior of two extremely different books of poetry, Charles Wright’s reflective and naturalist Littlefoot and Frederick Seidel’s garish and weird Ooga-Booga.

Death by Landscape

July 1st, 2007
Death by Landscape

Annie Dillard’s distilled, introspective voice described marvels in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but can it power a novel? John Cotter tacks down The Maytrees.

One Man’s César Vallejo

June 1st, 2007

John Cotter guides us through Clayton Eshleman’s translations of the startling, invigorating poetry of César Vallejo, one of the earliest and most underrepresented of the modernists.

Peer Review: Running Toward the Truck

June 1st, 2007

Newspaper book pages are under threat. In our monthly feature, John Cotter assesses the reviews of Jonathan Lethem’s novel You Don’t Love Me Yet to learn what (if anything) in our print reviews is worth saving.

Friends on the Street

April 1st, 2007

Can a writer be objective about poverty? John Cotter thinks William T. Vollmann’s striking approach in Poor People is both beautiful and frustratingly distant.

Peer Review: Martin Amis’s Nasty Glitter

March 1st, 2007

In this monthly feature, John Cotter reviews the reviewers of Martin Amis’s House of Meetings, from the gossip-slingers to the fellow fiction writers.