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Articles by Sam Sacks

OLM Favorites: Seer Blest

December 1st, 2017

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.

The Tools We Need

March 1st, 2017
The Tools We Need

In times of crisis, what good are books, exactly? Two explorations of the virtues of reading and writing make the hard sell for literature’s continued relevance.

From the Archives: Marilynne Robinson’s Psalms and Prophecy

March 1st, 2017

This month our regular feature is devoted to a study of the small but potent canon of Marilynne Robinson. Sam Sacks dives back into her famous fiction and formidable essays.

Both Sides, Now

March 1st, 2016
Both Sides, Now

If everybody’s a critic, as New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott claims in his new book, then where does that leave criticism? Sam Sacks reviews.

Fabergé Monsters

April 1st, 2015
Fabergé Monsters

These fairies of the air are among the most beautiful sights of summer. They’re also 300 million years old and honed killing machines. A new book of photography shows us dragonflies as we’ve never seen them.

James Wood and the Fall of Man

December 1st, 2014
James Wood and the Fall of Man

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.

Absent Friends: Lean Years of Plenty

June 1st, 2014
Absent Friends: Lean Years of Plenty

For a little over two years, shortly before she died, short story master Katherine Mansfield wrote a weekly book review column. Those pieces not only shed light on Mansfield’s particular slant of genius, but have much to say about the embattled art of reviewing.

Title Menu: Books and Birth

January 1st, 2014
Title Menu: Books and Birth

Sam Sacks midwifes a new feature into existence with a list of books containing memorable scenes about childbirth.

Eternal Blazon

November 1st, 2013
Eternal Blazon

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?

Joseph and his Brothers

September 1st, 2013
Joseph and his Brothers

To many the scriptural story of Joseph is ancient and arcane. But its exploration into divine and authorial omniscience make it seem powerfully contemporary.

Real Full Rich Rank

December 1st, 2012
Real Full Rich Rank

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.

Other Than Faith

September 1st, 2012

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.

Love at First Glans

September 1st, 2011

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?

Astonish Us

May 1st, 2011
Astonish Us

Pauline Kael is out of print today and perhaps known best for the enemies she made. But any immersion into her passionate, intelligent writing shows her to have been one of the best movie critics–or critic of any kind–of the past century.

Young Jew Telling Jokes

January 1st, 2011

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.

#7 Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang

October 1st, 2010

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang
By Chelsea Handler
Grand Central Publishing, 2010
It’s hard not to like Chelsea Handler, only you keep wishing she were funny. Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang is her third book to reach the bestseller list, …

A Certain Perturbation

July 1st, 2010

In Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson explores both the dynamics of faith and the complacency of recent anti-faith screeds. But is her own book something of a fall from grace?

Counterfeit Wit

May 1st, 2010

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.

Fools in Love

March 1st, 2010
Fools in Love

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.

All the Sad Young Bankers

February 1st, 2010

Two new novels by Adam Haslett and Jonathan Dee attempt to show us the way we live now by exposing the quality of the characters who handle (or, as the case may be, mishandle) our money.

Uncertainty Principles

December 1st, 2009
Uncertainty Principles

In Changing My Mind novelist Zadie Smith, long a literary essayist, gathers together her burgeoning belles-lettres. Is it just a chance collection or does a common theme run through them? Sam Sacks reviews her views.

Damage Assessment

November 1st, 2009

Perennially underrated novelist Pete Dexter’s latest, Spooner, continues his fascination with damaged characters. Sam Sacks tours a body of work composed mostly of battered bodies.


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.

New York Trilogy

September 1st, 2009

A local, a booster, and a tourist take on New York; Sam Sacks tours the city with E.L. Doctorow, Colm Tóibín, and Colum McCann.

Review of The Signal

August 8th, 2009

“You always felt time as a tangible heartbeat in the mountains. The days were short.” Dive into Ron Carlson’s novel, The Signal, by starting with this review by Sam Sacks.

Review of An Expensive Education

August 6th, 2009

In his review of An Expensive Education, Sam Sacks unearths the vast geopolitical conspiracies being hatched in Nick McDonell’s Harvard.

No Hugging, No Learning

June 1st, 2009

Colson Whitehead, one of our most intellectually satisfying writers, has written a “novel” that meanders suspiciously like a memoir. Sam Sacks reviews Sag Harbor.

The Flâneur

April 1st, 2009

Arthur Phillips’ new novel, The Song Is You, takes a sentimental bachelor’s soundtrack and sets it to adult themes of family tragedy. Sam Sacks listens to hear whether the opus reveals new growth in the novelist—and whether it will grow on the reader.

Foreign Items, Quality Various

March 1st, 2009

China’s burgeoning modern literature – by citizens and expats alike – presents challenges to Western audiences (and sometimes to Chinese censors). Sam Sacks samples 3 recent novels.

Book Review: Delicate Edible Birds

February 13th, 2009

Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Bird is a story collection packaged for women readers but of interest to any reader

The Sounds Are Not the Flowers

February 1st, 2009

In her new novel Lark and Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips grapples with the challenge of using intricate language to convey wordless innocence. Sam Sacks is sympathetic to her goal, but he can’t help thinking of William Faulkner …

Book Review: The Holy City

January 4th, 2009

Patrick McCabe’s new novel imagines the life of Irish playboy Christopher McCool. Sam Sacks reviews The Holy City.

Microreview: Tierra del Fuego

December 22nd, 2008

Francisco Coloane’s collection of short stories takes readers into little-visited corners of southern Chile. Sam Sacks reviews Tierra del Fuego.

The Evidence of Absence

December 1st, 2008

Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives took the literary world by storm, and his latest posthumous release, 2666, is five times as long and ten times as ambitious. Find out what tales dead men tell as Sam Sacks tackles this immense and problematic monster.

Laughter in the Darkness

November 1st, 2008

What is it about Booker and Nobel judges that make one reach for Chambers Biographical Dictionary only to hurl it across the room in despair? Sam Sacks seeks the source of prize-winner Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.

Book Review: The Dart League King

October 26th, 2008

In Keith Lee Morris’ novel, a rogues gallery of characters come together at a league dart tournament. Sam Sacks reviews.


September 1st, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

Disaster Prep

September 1st, 2008

It was only a matter of time before Hurricane Katrina and the havoc it wrought on New Orleans filtered into the fiction we read, and Tom Piazza’s latest novel City of Refuge is set squarely in and around the disaster and its victims. Sam Sacks tours the result.

Familiar Wishes

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.

Peer Review: Rushdie on the Richter Scale

July 1st, 2008

Since Salman Rushdie’s published The Enchantress of Florence, plenty of critics have trotted out what Martin Amis calls “the bullshit factfile” to to make their wordcount. Sam Sacks, for one, has heard more than enough about the fatwa, thanks…

Book Review: Palace Council

June 11th, 2008

Stephen L. Carter’s Palace Council occupies the rarefied territory of the 1960s Harlem elite. Sam Sacks reviews.

Peer Review: Rumble in the Alley

June 1st, 2008

Near the punchbowl, within reach of the finger sandwiches, the early critics of James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning had an oh-so-polite set of things to say about it. Out back in the alley, other critics were ready to pounce. In this regular feature, Sam Sacks officiates between the Sharks and the Jets.

Book Review: Peace

May 26th, 2008

Richard Bausch takes his talents to Italy in World War II. Sam Sacks reviews Peace.

Shining Wild Things

May 1st, 2008
Shining Wild Things

Shadow Country was the culmination of a thirty-year obsession with the notorious Everglades pioneer Edgar J. Watson. Sam Sacks treks into the beautiful and blood-soaked territory of Peter Matthiessen’s magnum opus.

Book Review: God’s Middle Finger

April 5th, 2008

Richard Grant take a trip to the hellhole of the Sierra Madre a (barely) lives to tell about it

Writing and Nothingness

April 1st, 2008

In My Revolutions, Hari Kunzru attempts to show the moral emptiness of antigovernment violence. The problem is, Sam Sacks thinks, Kunzru sees emptiness in everything he writes about.

Book Review: The Blue Star

March 13th, 2008

Tony Earley’s sequel to Jim the Boy is as rich and powerful as its predecessor. Sam Sacks reviews The Blue Star.


March 1st, 2008

Two new novelists, Charles Bock and Andrew Foster Altschul, have paraded into the public eye with the help of ticker tape and noisemakers from their publishers. Sam Sacks takes the bait and looks to see if their novels merit the hubbub.

Book Review: The Reserve

February 27th, 2008

Russell Banks pens a Lost Generation fairy tale. Sam Sacks reviews The Reserve

Everyday Jacket

February 1st, 2008

Richard Price has called The Wire “as close to a novel as anything on TV.” Sam Sacks examines whether Price’s new book Lush Life is as close to TV as anything in a novel.

Catalog Reading

January 1st, 2008

Sam Sacks reviews Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure, an old-fashioned reading guide that wants desperately to believe it hasn’t been made altogether anachronistic by the Internet, that elephant in the corner of the library.

Memento Mori

November 1st, 2007
Memento Mori

Sam Sacks contrasts the Nazis’ murderous theft of Irène Némirovsky’s life with the bright, redeeming light of her newly translated novel Fire in the Blood.

Peer Review: Enter Sophist

November 1st, 2007

James Wood, Christopher Hitchens, Michiko Kakutani, and many others have competed to put forth the definitive word on Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost. Sam Sacks is off to the races with them in this regular feature.

Richard Russo’s Mirror on America

October 1st, 2007

Thomaston, the setting of his new novel Bridge of Sighs, is the most diverse and complicated town Richard Russo has yet created. Sam Sacks navigates its vivid highways and byways.

The Long Puzzling Absence of Junot Díaz

September 1st, 2007

Juno Díaz’ Drown was as impressive a debut as any in the 90s. Eleven years later, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is finally on the shelves. Sam Sacks reviews what the burden of expectation on the author’s shoulders has produced.

To the Outback and Back

August 1st, 2007

David Malouf may have written more thoroughly about Australia than any writer in history. Now that his Complete Stories is out, Sam Sacks assesses the fruit of his thirty-year career.

Peer Review: Sex on the Beach

July 1st, 2007

In our monthly feature, Sam Sacks clambers over the mountain of
reviews of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, spotting perspicacity,
purple prose, and possible pickpocketing along the way.

Useful Disasters

July 1st, 2007

Like The Kite Runner before it, A Thousand Splendid Suns owns
real estate on the top of the bestseller list. Sam Sacks dares to
unlock the secret of Khaled Hosseini.

The Evasionist

June 1st, 2007

Sam Sacks reviews the fun and flawed new novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and tries to answer the question on everybody’s lips: what exactly is Michael Chabon doing?


May 1st, 2007

Sam Sacks laments the great divorce of Christianity from literature

Twain in Vain

April 1st, 2007

Sam Sacks reviews Jon Clinch’s Finn, a novel about Huck Finn’s father, and decides that it owes a heavy debt to a literary figure apart from Mark Twain.

Peer Review: Paul Auster Perplexes

April 1st, 2007

In this monthly feature, Sam Sacks surveys the reviews of Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium, which caused some confused tail-chasing amongst its critics.

Childe Harold’s Children

March 1st, 2007

Sam Sacks looks into the breakout debuts of young novelists to determine how youth, ambition, and general cluelessness affect the writing of these early works.

The Poison Tree

March 1st, 2007

Sam Sacks reviews The Castle in the Forest, Norman Mailer’s new novel about evil and Hitler and, amazingly, not about Norman Mailer.